An examination of the career of Gearóid Mór, arguably the greatest of the FitzGeralds, by Eoghan Corry in his regular feature in the Kildare Voice. Our thanks to Eoghan.
GEARÓID MÓR – THE GREAT EARL OF KILDARE
Kildare Voice 7 September 2007
Gearóid Mór, Warlord or Lord of Jaw?
If you think that modern politicians have good spin doctors you should look at what the Fitzgerald family was at 500 years ago.
They had the best spin doctors and kept them in a job over several generations shamelessly hamming up the reputation of the family. The original political spin-doctor, Geraldis Cambrensis was a fan of the first Fitzgerald to arrive in Ireland in the 1170s and the stream of propaganda never abated.
By the time Maynooth was the centre of power in Ireland 500 years ago Richard Stanihurst was writing their testimonials, and a Kildareman, Philip Flatesbury from Johnstown had become the original PR guru, a cross between a modern political handler and a court biographer.
Just to be sure, they also had a family rhymer, the MacWards from Oriel who wrote bardic eulogies in Irish praising the family.
The general population was impressed too. Tales of Gearóid Iarla, often transposed, survive in Irish folklore about both the Desmond and Kildare families.
Greatest of the Garrets was Gearóid Mór, whose eventful life came to an undignified end 494 years ago this week in Woodstock near Athy, when he became the first Irish political leader to die from gunshot wounds sustained in an engagement with O’Mores.
The manner of his death seems fitting. At school most of what we learned about Gearóid Mór was second hand Stanihurst, the story of a fiery man, victim of many plots of his enemies, the one about whom Henry VII allegedly said “if all Ireland cannot govern this Earl; then let this Earl govern all Ireland."
Like all of Stanihurst’s scribblings, it was spin.
From what we can make out from the considerable body of sources that survive (considering the destruction of the age), Gearóid Mór was more than an illiterate, rough-hewn warrior.
Of his political prowess there is no doubt. Gearóid Mór made the Fitzgeralds the pre-eminent family in Ireland., achieving a series of diplomatic victories that meant the Kildare legacy endured for another 400 years, surviving the disaster of the Silken Thomas rebellion
Gearóid Mór was governor of Ireland for over 30 years (1478, 1479-92, 1496-1513), serving under five kings and crowning a sixth, Lambert Simnel as the so-called Edward VI in 1487. With England in turmoil he ruled virtually an independent Ireland.
His Yorkist leanings were, to be fair, inherited. His father Thomas having first won the Lord Deputyship by offering Ireland as a base for Yorkist invasions of England in 1460 by Richard Duke of York, father of Edward IV and Richard III.
When Thomas died in 1478 Gearóid Mór was the natural successor to his job as justiciar and governor.
But remarkably, when the tide went out for the Yorkists, and Richard II was killed at Bosworth in 1484 (he never quite offered “his kingdom for a horse” no matter what Shakespeare might say), Gearóid Mór kept the job.
Apparently Gearóid Mór still kept his position despite offering Ireland as a base for more Yorkist invasions. In 1487 he supplied troops for Lambert Simnel .
In the 1490s he was more careful with another Yorkist pretender Perkin Warbeck who tried three times to wrest control of Ireland from Henry VII with the help of the Munster Fitzgerald cousins before the War of the Roses petered out.
After Warbeck’s invasion he was summoned to London. He could have ended up with his head on the block. Instead he came home with a new bride, having married the King of England’s cousin, Elizabeth St John, and was reappointed governor, leaving his son at court as pledge for his good conduct.
It allowed him to continue living his life, depicted by Marian Lyons as a cross between the traditional lifestyle of an Irish king, with hospitality tributes recognisable to pre-Norman predecessors, and a renaissance prince.
The assembly of the objects art and the library was started before his death. Even the college was planned by man who couldn’t write, if completed by his son.
It doesn’t sound like the rough-hewn warrior from our history books who signed his name with an X and was engaged in a military campaign almost every summer, against the O’Donnells, the MacEochagains in Wesmeath, Ulick Burke in Galway and the O’Brien’s in Munster, the O’Connor’s in Connacht, and the half of the O’Neill’s that wasn’t aligned with his brother in law Con and the half of the O’Reilly’s that were not aligned with Cathal, and repeatedly against the O’Mores of Offaly that would eventually result in his death, amid a realization that the fondness for guns having spread for the first time to his enemies.
Naturally he was interested in technology of a different kind. In 1488, he acquired the first hand guns imported to Ireland, six of them from Germany, for his personal guard.
Later in 1488 he was the first in Ireland to use gunpowder, destroying Balra castle in Moycashel with imported German cannon. His brother James used the new technology to capture Carlow Castle in 1495 and Gearóid Mór himself used them in capturing Athleague, Roscommon, Tulsk, and, Castlerea in quick succession in 1499, and Caledon on 1500.
Payback for his re-appointed as Lord deputy came with the battle of Knockdoe in 1504, a massive punitive expedition by Gearóid and the palesman, many from Kildare, against Ulick Burke and the O’Briens of Thomond in response to Burke’s seizure of Galway city.
It was the largest ever battle between Irishmen, when 10,000 men were involved on both sides and, ominously for Gearóid, a handgun was used on an Irish battlefield for the first time.
Gearóid Mór’s most enduring legacy never gets a mention when his story is being written: Poynings law.
Poynings came to Ireland to bring Gearóid to heel, and went home with a piece of legislation that was to curtail Ireland’s independence for more than 400 years to come.
Ironically, the Fitzgerald coat of arms ended up on Britain’s Union Jack when the Act of Union was passed three hundred years after his death.
The manner of that death suggested the rules of the game were already changing. His stronghold at Maynooth was to become the most famous casualty of gunpowder technology when his grandson staged a rebellion years later.
1478 Mar. 25 Thomas, 7th earl of Kildare, dies; succeeded by his son Gerald (Gearóid Mór), who is appointed jcr by council in succession to his father
1479 Gearóid Mór appointed deputy for first time
1513 Sept 3 Gearóid Mór dies in Athy from gunshot wounds received in engagement with O’Mores. Succeeded by Gearóid Óg.
1496 Gearóid Mór marries Elizabeth St John, cousin of King
Marian Lyons: Church and Society in Co Kildare 1480-1547 (Four Courts Press 1998)
Colm Lennon: The Fitzgeralds of Kildare and the Building of a Dynastic Image in Kildare History & Society (2006)
S G Ellis: Tudor Frontiers and Noble Power. The Making of the British State (1995).