Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Irish Fitzgeralds (The Geraldines)

by Arthur Russell

Few Irish families match the Fitzgeralds' contribution to the history of Ireland and the nation’s development from being a loose collection of warring and competing kingdoms and clans in Medieval Ireland, through subsequent conquest and occupation, until Ireland’s eventual emergence as a modern Republic (well, for three quarters of the island) in the aftermath of the War of Independence which was ended by a hard-won Treaty with the United Kingdom in December 1921.

The poem of the Irish Patriot, Thomas Davis, written during some of Ireland’s darkest days in the 1840’s tracks the story of the fabled “Geraldines” and their exploits since the beginning of the last millennium.

The Geraldines! the Geraldines!--'tis full a thousand years

Since, 'mid the Tuscan vineyards, bright flashed their battle-spears
When Capet seized the crown of France, their iron shields were known,
And their sabre-dint struck terror on the banks of the Garonne
Across the downs of Hastings they spurred hard by William's side,

And the grey sands of Palestine with Moslem blood they dyed;

But never then, nor thence, till now, has falsehood or disgrace

Been seen to soil Fitzgerald's plume, or mantle in his face.

The Geraldines! the Geraldines!--'tis true, in Strongbow's van,

By lawless force, as conquerors, their Irish reign began;

And, oh! through many a dark campaign they proved their prowess stern,

In Leinster's plains and Munster's vales on king and chief and kerne;

But noble was the cheer within the halls so rudely won,

And generous was the steel-gloved hand that had such slaughter done;

How gay their laugh, how proud their mien, you'd ask no herald's sign--

Among a thousand you had known the princely Geraldine.

The Geraldine forebear “who fought at William’s side” was Otho Geraldino who was a commander in William the Conquerer’s invading army from Normandy at the fateful Battle of Hastings in 1066. Otho’s father, Raoul Fitzgerald le Chambellan, is credited with being young William’s educator, so it is entirely possible that Otho and William learned and played together as boys. Another narrative tells that the original Geraldine came from Tuscany to William’s court.

(Note - The prefix ‘Fitz’, like the Gaelic ‘Mac’, means ‘son of’.)

After Hastings, a man called Walter FitzOtho (son of Otho), the constable of Windsor castle was part of the conquering army of occupation that subjugated England to Norman rule. Walter’s youngest son, Gerald FitzWalter of Windsor, took part in the invasion of South Wales in 1093 and was rewarded with a grant of lands in the notorious Welsh marchlands.

Raymond LeGros Fitzgerald
Gerald married the notable Welsh beauty, Princess Nesta ferch Rhys ap Tewdwr of Deheubarth, daughter of the last King of Wales, Rhys ap Tewdwr (Tudor). [Which means their descendants had Tudor genes!]

Gerald and Nesta’s son, William FitzGerald, (later Lord of Carew and Emlyn in South Wales) was father of Raymond Fitzgerald, nicknamed LeGros (= the Fat) who played a prominent part with the first invading force (“Strongbow’s van”) which landed at Baginbun in Ireland in August 1169 with the objective of helping the deposed Gaelic King of Leinster, Dermot MacMurrough win back his lost kingdom. At Raymond’s side were two other grandsons of Gerald and Nesta - Maurice FitzGerald, Lord of Lanstephan and Philip de Barry.

These were joined in a later incursion by another grandson, Robert Fitzstephen, while yet another grandson, Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), accompanied King Henry II when he came to Ireland to consolidate the Norman conquests during the winter of 1171-72.
Giraldus became a Chronicler of the Invasion as well as author of books describing this hitherto unknown land as well as the campaign to conquer it (Expugnatio Hibernica and Topographia Hibernica). As if that were not enough, a great grandson William deHay, was also among the adventurer soldiers who came to Ireland in 1169. No wonder the lady Nesta has been called “Mother of the Invasion of Ireland” as her descendants went on to become significant players in the history of the land they entered as invaders, as told in the Davis poem.

Raymond LeGros’ son Gerald was made 1st Lord of Offaly by King John. During the late 13th century, Gerald’s grandson, John was created 1st Earl of Kildare by Edward I (Longshanks) as a reward for his services in the Scottish Wars against Robert deBruce.

The Munster Fitzgeralds (Desmonds)

Another Fitzgerald scion, John Fitzthomas Fitzgerald, was created 1st Baron of Desmond (Munster) in 1259; from then on there were two branches of the family which, between them, controlled a sizable part of Ireland. The Desmond Baronetcy was raised to an Earldom in 1329, when Maurice Fitzgerald was created 1st Earl of Desmond. In all there were 15 Desmond Earls, the last being Gerald the 15th Earl, who was outlawed and executed in 1583 after a disastrous rebellion against Queen Elizabeth Tudor and her Reformed Church. This not only destroyed the title, but left the entire territory of Munster ruined, due to the Royal army’s burnt earth policy.

The Kildare Fitzgeralds

The Kildare Earldom proved to be more enduring. Their coat of arms portrays a monkey which drew its inspiration from a nocturnal fire in one of their castles in when the animal, a castle pet, saved the life of the infant John who grew up to be the first Earl. Thereafter the words “Non Immemor Beneficii” (We do not forget benefactors) was sometimes added to the Kildare coat of arms, while two monkeys can still be seen on their coat of arms carved on the walls of the Fitzgerald castle in Maynooth.

The most prominent Earl of Kildare was the 8th Earl, Garret Mór (The Great Earl) who served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1473 until his death in 1513. So powerful was Garret that the ever pragmatic King Henry VII (first Tudor monarch and distant relative), deemed it wise not to interfere or remove him from office, despite Garret’s support for Lambert Simnel, the pretender to his throne. 

The reason for the King’s rather forgiving attitude was simple and very obviously true: “as all Ireland cannot rule this man, this man must rule all Ireland”. 

The Fitzgeralds had many enemies and many in the King’s court were of the opinion that the Fitzgeralds, like many Anglo-Irish nobles of the day, had become too Gaelicised and much too immersed in Gaelic ways to be trusted to properly serve English interests in Ireland.

Monkeys on coat of arms (Maynooth)  

The Henry VII’s successor, Henry VIII, was determined to bind the virtually independent Irish colony much closer to the English throne and pressurized Garret Mór’s son, the 9th Earl (called Garret Óg = Young Garret) who had also inherited his father’s title of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland by summoning him to London to answer charges made by the family’s many enemies. Garret left his eldest son Thomas in charge of affairs as he travelled to defend himself. 

Thomas was a young man of fashion who had earned himself the nickname “Silken Thomas”, but unfortunately, his taste in fashion was not matched by political prudence. He was easily taken in by false rumours put about by the same enemies to the effect that his father had been executed in London. Thomas assumed the title of 10th Earl and marched with an army on Dublin where he threw down his father’s Sword of State in front of the King’s Irish Council and tried to occupy the city. 

He was expelled by Royal forces who were able to use newly acquired cannon and gunpowder in a siege of the Fitzgerald castle in Maynooth, the first reported use of artillery in Ireland. Thomas and five of his Fitzgerald uncles were taken captive to the Tower of London where they were executed on Feb 3rd 1537. Garret Óg, still alive, on learning what had happened in his absence, died shortly afterwards a broken man.

While the power of the Geraldines in Ireland was fatally broken, the title and lands were restored to a younger brother of Silken Thomas (11th Earl), the reputed “Wizard Earl” who is said to still haunt the Fitzgerald Castle of Kilkea, in South Kildare.

Dukes of Leinster

Though the Earls of Kildare never regained the same level of power and influence as the illustrious 8th and 9th Earls, the Geraldines continued to grace the pages of Irish history during the centuries.

Their title was changed in 1766 to that of Dukes of Leinster. The first Duke built Leinster House as the family’s Dublin residence. The spacious building is now the home of the Irish Parliament, Dáil Eireann.

Lord Edward Fitzgerald, who was the younger brother of the 1st Duke was a veteran of the American War of Independence. While he had served in the British army under Lord Cornwallis, the young aristocrat returned from America full of “new-fangled” ideas of liberty and the Rights of Man. This caused him to become an enthusiastic member and leader of the newly formed United Irishmen whose objective was to create an egalitarian society, which would necessitate the creation of a new Ireland which would “break the connection with England”

In spite of his high connections in Government, the close affinity of the United Irishmen with Revolutionary France, with whom England was at war eventually forced the authorities to move to arrest Lord Edward. He resisted and was fatally injured when Major Sirr attempted to take him from the house where he was hiding. He died from his wounds after a few days later, reviled by many of his aristocratic contemporaries as a traitor, but remembered by many more in the population as a true Irish patriot.

The title Duke of Leinster still exists and is currently held by the 15th of the line.

The Fitzgerald contribution to modern Ireland

Among the names of those who featured in the emergence of the new Republic of Ireland in the first half of last century was Desmond Fitzgerald who was the first Dáil’s (Ireland’s Parliament) Publicity Officer and subsequently served as the new state’s first Minister of External Affairs and subsequently of Justice. As a native of Kerry in Munster, he was likely to have been descendant of the old Munster ‘Desmond’ Fitzgeralds who had lost their titles and lands in the Elizabethan era.

His son Garret Fitzgerald, served twice as Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) during the 1980’s.

Perhaps Davis words, written a century earlier, were prophetic.

These Geraldines! these Geraldines!--rain wears away the rock
And time may wear away the tribe that stood the battle's shock;
But ever, sure, while one is left of all that honoured race,

In front of Ireland's chivalry is that Fitzgerald's place
And, though the last were dead and gone, how many a field and town,

From Thomas Court to Abbeyfeale, would cherish their renown,
And men would say of valour's rise, or ancient power's decline,
'Twill never soar, it never shone, as did the Geraldine."

The Geraldines! the Geraldines!--and are there any fears
Within the sons of conquerors for full a thousand years?

Can treason spring from out a soil bedewed with martyrs' blood?

Or has that grown a purling brook, which long rushed down a flood?
By Desmond swept with sword and fire--by clan and keep laid low

By Silken Thomas and his kin,--by sainted Edward, no!

The forms of centuries rise up, and in the Irish line
Command their son to take the post that fits the Geraldine.

Other famous Fitzgeralds

The 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, derived his middle name from his mother’s family, so in every sense the Kennedy siblings and their descendants can justifiably claim to be Geraldines.

William Charles Fitzgerald of the United States Navy had the destroyer USS Fitzgerald named after him.

Other notable Fitzgeralds include the author F. Scott Fitzgerald and blues singer Ella Fitzgerald.

Finally, and as if Ireland or the World was not enough for them another Fitzgerald, physicist George Fitzgerald, has given his name to the Fitzgerald Crater on the surface of the Moon. From this it seems that Lady Nesta and her Geraldine husband were not to be content with just the invasion of Ireland all those centuries ago. They could have had far wider horizons in mind for their Geraldine progeny, not just on earth, but beyond.

Arthur Russell is the author of Morgallion. Set in early 13th century Ireland during the Bruce invasion, it tells how one small Gaelic community living in close proximity with an English garrison comes to terms with trying to survive the traumas of the times they have to live through. 
For more, visit website 


  1. This post, tracing as it does the history of an entire tribe (and the nations they affected) over the course of over a thousand years is a tour de force. Thank you Arthur for your scholarship and devotion to your subject. I've learnt so much! Next time I meet a formidable woman I just may find myself saying in admiration "She's a real Nesta!"

  2. Enjoyed your post on this family's history. Thanks!

  3. Thanks for your encouraging words, Octavia & Sophia. I just got to read them today (Wednesday). Yes Nesta was truly a formidable lady.

  4. Hi,
    I really enjoyed reading the articles in your website though the information you provide about the Fitzgerald family line belies the truth somewhat.
    All of the Fitzgerald's, the Fitzmaurices, the Keatings and a number of other family names come directly from ONE family and they were the sons and daughter of Maurice Fitzgerald, Lord Llanstephan and they were a family of Fitzmaurice's.
    Gerald Fitzmaurice, 1st Lord of Offaly was the progenitor of the Fitzmaurice and Fitzgerald Earls of Offaly, Kildare and Leinster and his brother Thomas Fitzmaurice, Lord OConnello was the progenitor of the Earls of Desmond, Lords of Lixnaw.
    For example Maynooth Castle was built by Gerald Fitzmaurice, 1st Lord of Offaly(cited fact) and his father Maurice Fitzgerald, Lord Llanstephan who was 70 years of age at the time headed off to Wicklow and built his own castle called the Black Castle which is still there today (cited fact).
    My concern with your pages is that there is absolutely no mention of the fact that they all come directly from a single family of Fitzmaurice's.
    This one Fitzmaurice family were the progenitors of the whole of the Geraldine's including the Earls of Desmond which was progenated by his brother Thomas Fitzmaurice, Lord OConnello. The Fitzgerald line, the Fitzmaurice line all come from this one family and they were Maurice Fitzgerald, Lord Llanstephans family and they were all Fitzmaurice's.
    I do feel that the Fitzmaurice family name and it's history seems to be a kind of hidden history and when it comes to history we should know the truth. All the facts of history are important and significant.
    I have done a great deal of research into this subject even so far as reading excerpts from the Doomsday Book and I know that what I am saying is 100% correct. I have also performed many edits to Wikipedia on the subject.
    So may I ask you please can you tell me why there is no mention of these facts in your website. I would be very interested in hearing your comment on this subject.

    Thank you for reading my comments,

    Kind Regards,

    Joseph Fitzmaurice.

  5. There was a Gerald born in 1136 who was decended from the Normans that invaded and conquered Wales. He was a clergyman and authored books on Welsh history. By some accounts, he fathered the first children to have the name FitzGerald. Do you have more background or knowlege of him?

    Michael L Fitzgerald
    Portage, Michigan


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