His grandfather was the 2nd Baron Ferrers, who was created Viscount Hereford in 1550 and by his mother was a nephew of Henry Bourchier, a former earl of Essex. Walter Devereux succeeded as 2nd Viscount Hereford in 1558, and in 1561 or 1562 married Lettice, daughter of Sir Francis Knollys. In 1569 he served as high marshal of the field under the earl of Warwick and Lord Clinton, and materially assisted them in suppressing the northern insurrection.
Eager to give proof of "his good devotion to employ himself in the service of her majesty," he offered on certain conditions to subdue or colonize, at his own expense, a portion of the Irish province of Ulster, at that time completely under the dominion of the rebel O'Neills, under Sir Brian MacPhelim and Turlough Luineach, with the Scots under their leader Sorley Boy MacDonnell. His offer, with certain modifications, was accepted, and he set sail for Ireland in July 1573, accompanied by a number of earls, knights and gentlemen, and with a force of about 1200 men.
The beginning of his enterprise was inauspicious, for on account of a storm which dispersed his fleet and drove some of his vessels as far as Cork and the Isle of Man, his forces did not all reach the place of rendezvous till late in the autumn, and he was compelled to entrench himself at Belfast for the winter. Here his troops were diminished to little more than 200 men by sickness, famine and desertions.
Intrigues of various sorts, and fighting of a guerilla type, followed with disappointing results, and Essex had difficulties both with the deputy Fitzwilliam and with the queen. Essex was in dire straits himself, and his offensive movements in Ulster took the form of raids and brutal massacres among the O'Neills; in October 1574 he treacherously captured MacPhelim at a conference in Belfast, and after slaughtering his attendants had him and his wife and brother executed at Dublin.
Elizabeth, instigated apparently by Leicester, after encouraging Essex to prepare to attack the Irish chief Tirlogh Luineach, suddenly commanded him to "break off his enterprise"; but as she left him a certain discretionary power, he took advantage of it to defeat Tirlogh Luineach, chastise Antrim, and massacre several hundreds of Sorley Boy's following, chiefly women and children, discovered hiding in the caves of Rathlin.
He returned to England in the end of 1575, resolved "to live henceforth an untroubled life"; but he was ultimately persuaded to accept the offer of the queen to make him earl marshal of Ireland. He arrived in Dublin in September 1576, and three weeks afterwards died of dysentery. There were suspicions that he had been poisoned by Leicester, who shortly after his death married his widow, but these were not confirmed by the post-mortem examination. The endeavours of Essex to better the condition of Ireland were a dismal failure; and the massacres of the O'Neills and of the Scots of Rathlin leave a dark stain on his reputation.
Essex during his time in Ireland also came to own large estates, including a residence at Durhamstown Castle, a small converted tower house outside Navan in County Meath.
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