Why Is Cork Called the Rebel County?

Blarney Castle, built by a branch of the MacCarthy dynasty
Blarney Castle, built by a branch of the MacCarthy dynasty | © Donncha O Caoimh / Flickr
Kate Phelan

Ireland’s largest and second most populous county, Cork is also known for its recalcitrance. While many assume its nickname of ‘the rebel county’ refers to its role in Ireland’s 20th-century War of Independence, Cork actually has a much longer history of challenging claims to authority.

Cork’s history of rebellion can be traced back at least as far as the 9th-century arrival of the Vikings; the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland documented that people from what are now the counties of Waterford and Cork destroyed a Viking castle and killed the Norse leader known as Gnimbeolu.

Cork Viking Tour

Later, during the 12th century, Cork’s ambitious MacCarthy clan managed to briefly wrestle control over the southern part of the then-Kingdom of Munster from the O’Brien family, turning Cork and Kerry into a separate kingdom, the Kingdom of Desmond.
After the Norman invasion, the MacCarthys were superseded by the FitzGerald dynasty – a Hiberno-Norman family famously referred to as being ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’, for their readiness to embrace Gaelic culture.

Blarney Castle, built by a branch of the MacCarthy dynasty

It was a descendent of this family, Gerald FitzGerald, 8th Earl of Kildare – known as the unofficial King of Ireland – who set events in motion during the 15th century that would ultimately earn Cork the nickname ‘the rebel county’.
After Henry VII won the Wars of the Roses and seized the English crown in 1485, FitzGerald openly supported the claim of the supposed young Earl of Warwick – later found to be a Yorkist imposter named Lambert Simnel – to the throne and the Lordship of Ireland.

Copy of Holbein’s destroyed Whitehall mural of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth of York, and Queen Jane Seymour

A rebellion against Henry VII was launched from Ireland and ultimately quashed, but in 1491, yet another pretender to the English throne – a man named Perkin Warbeck, claiming to be the Duke of York – arrived in Cork City. Though the Earl of Kildare stayed out of this second attempt to steal the crown, the majority of the people of Cork – including the Lord Mayor – stood behind Warbeck. It is because of this apparent support of Warbeck that Cork became known to the English monarchy as ‘the rebel county’.
Though the name originated during these specific early Tudor uprisings, Cork was to be the site of plenty more revolts throughout the centuries to come. The FitzGeralds went on to launch the Desmond Rebellions – two unsuccessful periods of intense struggle that took place throughout the late 1500s, against increasing assertions of control over Ireland by England.

Plaque to Don Juan De Aquila

In 1601, England’s victory at the Battle of Kinsale in County Cork put an end to this period of Irish insurrection, nearly annihilating Gaelic Ireland. But Cork’s part in the rebellion still wasn’t over. During in the 20th century, the county became a focal point of Irish nationalism once again, playing a significant role in the Irish War of Independence.

Cork City Gaol housed Republican women prisoners during Ireland’s War of Independence

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