A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THE history of the Geraldine family is a perfect romance, and in many respects outrivals the creations of fiction. From the earliest period of their settlement in Ireland they attained to a position of almost kingly power, and for full five hundred years were the foremost figures in Anglo-Irish history. Yet with what changing fortunes! Now vice-kings reigning in Dublin, their vast estates stretching from Maynooth to Lixnaw, their strong castles sentineling the land from sea to sea! Anon captive victims of attainder, stripped of every earthly honor and possession; to-day in the dungeon, to-morrow led to the scaffold! Now a numerous and powerful family—a fruitful, strong, and wide-spreading tree.

Anon hewn down to earth, or plucked up seemingly root and branch, beyond the possibility of further existence; yet mysteriously preserved and budding forth from some single seedling to new and greater power! Often the Geraldine stock seemed extinct; frequently its jealous enemies—the English king or his favorites—made safe and sure (as they thought) that the dangerous line was extirpated. Yet as frequently did they find it miraculously resurgent, grasping all its ancient power and renewing all its ancient glory.

At a very early period the Geraldine line was very nearly cut off forever, but was preserved in the person of one infant child, under circumstances worthy of narration. In the year 1261 a pitched battle was fought between the justiciary, Lord Thomas Fitzgerald, and the MacCarthy More, at a glen a few miles east of Kenmare in Kerry. It was a formidable engagement, in which each side put forth all its resources of military generalship and strength of levies. The Irish commander completely outgeneraled the Normans. At the close of a protracted and sanguinary battle they were routed with fearful slaughter, Lord Thomas being mortally wounded, and his son, beside numerous barons and knights, left dead upon the field. "Alas!" continues the narrative of O'Daly (who wrote in the year 1655), "the whole family of the Geraldines had well-nigh perished; at one blow they were cut off—father and son; and now there remained but an infant one year old, to wit, the son of John Fitz-Thomas, recently slain. The nurse, who had heard the dismal tidings at Tralee, ran about here and there distraught with grief, and left the cradle of the young Geraldine without a watcher; thereupon an ape which was kept for amusement's sake came and raised the infant out of the cradle and carried him to the top of the castle. There, to the astonishment of those who passed by, the ape took off the babe's swaddling clothes, licked him all over, clothed him again, and brought him back to his cradle safe and sound. Then coming to the nurse, as it were in reproof for her neglect, he dealt her a blow. Ever after was that babe called Thomas a n' Appa; that is, 'of the Ape;' and when he grew to man's estate he was ennobled by many virtues. Bravely did he avenge his father's and grandfather's murder, and re-erect the fortunes of his house.[1] He left a son, Maurice Fitz-Thomas, who was the first earl of Desmond."

Of Lord Thomas, the sixth earl, is related a romantic, yet authentic story, known to many Irish readers. While on a hunting expedition in some of the lonely and picturesque glens in North Kerry, he was benighted on his homeward way. Weary and thirsting, he urged his steed forward through the tangled wood. At length, through the gloom he discerned close by an humble cottage, which proved to be the dwelling -of one of his own retainers or clansmen, named MacCormick. Lord Thomas rode to the door, halted, and asked for a drink. His summons was attended to and his request supplied by Catherine, the daughter of the cottager, a young girl whose simple grace and exquisite beauty struck the young earl with astonishment—and with warmer feelings too. He dismounted and rested awhile in the cottage, and became quite charmed with the daughter of its humble host. He bade her farewell, resolving to seek that cottage soon again. Often subsequently his horse bore him thither; for Lord Thomas loved Catherine MacCormick, and loved her purely and honorably. Not perhaps without certain misgivings as to the results did he resolve to make her his wife; yet never did he waver in that resolve. In due time he led the beautiful cottage girl to the altar, and brought her home his wife. His worst fears were quickly realized. His kindred and clansmen all rose against him for this mesalliance, which, according to their code, forfeited for him lands and title. In vain he pleaded. An ambitious uncle, James, eventually seventh earl, led the movement against him, and claiming for himself the title and estates thus "forfeited," was clamorous and uncompassionate. Lord Thomas at the last nobly declared that even on the penalty thus inexorably decreed against him, he in nowise repented him of his marriage, and that he would give up lands and titles rather than part with his peasant wife. Relinquishing everything, he bade an eternal adieu to Ireland, and sailed with his young wife for France, where he died at Rouen in 1420. This romantic episode of authentic history furnished our national melodist with the subject of. the following verses:

"By the Feal's wave benighted,
No star in the skies,
To thy door by love lighted,
I first saw those eyes.
Some voice whispered o'er me,
As the threshold I cross'd,
There was ruin before me;
If I lov'd, I was lost.

"Love came, and brought sorrow
Too soon in his train;
Yet so sweet, that to-morrow
'Twere welcome again
Though misery's full measure
My portion should be,
I would drain it with pleasure
If poured out by thee!

"You, who call it dishonor
To bow to love's flame,
If you've eyes look but on her,
And blush while you blame.
Hath the pearl less whiteness
Because of its birth?
Hath the violet less brightness
For growing near earth?

"No: man for his glory
To ancestry flies;
But woman's bright story
Is told in her eyes.
While the monarch but traces
Through mortals his line,
Beauty, born of the graces,
Banks next to divine!"

In the reign of the eighth Henry, as well as for a long time previous thereto, the Geraldine family comprised two great branches, of which the earl of Desmond and the earl of Kildare were respectively the heads; the latter being paramount. Early in Henry's reign Gerald, earl of Kildare, or "The Great Earl," as he is called in the Irish annals, died after a long life, illustrious as a soldier, statesman and ruler. He was succeeded by his son, Garret Oge, or Gerald the younger, who was soon appointed by the crown to the high office and authority of lord deputy as vested in his father. Gerald Oge found his enemies at court active and restless in plotting his overthrow. He had more than once to proceed to England to make his defence against fatal charges, but invariably succeeded in vindicating himself with the king. With Henry, indeed, he was apparently rather a favorite; while, on the other hand, Cardinal Wolsey viewed him with marked suspicion. Kildare, though at the head of the English power in Ireland was, like many of the Geraldines, nearly as much of an Irish chief as an English noble. Not only was he, to the sore uneasiness of the court at London, in friendly alliance with many of the native princes, but he was allied by the closest ties of kindred and alliance with the royal houses of Ulster. So proud was he of this relationship, that, upon one occasion, when he was being reinstated as lord deputy, to the expulsion of Ormond, his accusing enemy, we are told that at Kildare's request "his kinsman, Con O'Neill, carried the sword of state before him to St. Thomas's Abbey, where he entertained the king's commissioners and others at a sumptuous banquet."

But soon Gerald's enemies were destined to witness the accomplishment of all their designs against his house. James, earl of Desmond, "a man of lofty and ambitious views, " entered into a correspondence with Charles the Fifth, king of Spain, and Francis the First of France, for the purpose, some hold, of inducing one or other of those sovereigns to invade Ireland. What follows I quote textually from O'Daly's quaint narrative, as translated by the Rev. C. P. Meehan:

"Many messages passed between them, of all which Henry the Eighth was a long time ignorant. It is commonly thought that Charles the Fifth at this time meditated an invasion of Ireland; and when at length the intelligence of these facts reached the king of England, Cardinal Wolsey (a man of immoderate ambition, most inimical to the Geraldines, and then ruling England as it were by his nod) caused the earl to. be summoned to London; but Desmond did not choose to place himself in the hands of the cardinal, and declined the invitation. Thereupon the king dispatched a messenger to the earl of Kildare, then viceroy in Ireland, ordering him to arrest Desmond and send him to England forthwith. On receipt of the order, Kildare collected troops and marched into Munster to seize Desmond; but after some time, whether through inability or reluctance to injure his kinsman, the business failed and Kildare returned. Then did the cardinal poison the mind of the king against Kildare, asseverating that by his connivance Desmond had escaped—(this, indeed, was not the fact, for Kildare, however so anxious, could not have arrested Desmond).

Kildare was then arraigned before the privy council, as Henry gave willing ear to the cardinal's assertions; but before the viceroy sailed for England, he committed the state and adminstration of Ireland to Thomas, his son and heir, and then presented himself before the council. The cardinal accused him of high treason to his liege sovereign, and endeavored to brand him and all his family with the ignominious mark of disloyalty. Kildare, who was a man of bold spirit, and despised the base origin of Wolsey, replied in polished, yet vehement language; and though the cardinal and court were hostile to him, nevertheless he so well managed the matter that he was only committed to the Tower of London. But the cardinal, determining to carry out his designs of vengeance without knowledge of the king, sent private instructions to the constable of the tower ordering him to behead the earl without delay. When the constable received his orders, although he knew how dangerous it was to contravene the cardinal's mandate, commiserating the earl, he made him aware of his instructions. Calmly, yet firmly, did Kildare listen to the person who read his death-warrant; and then launching into a violent invective against the cardinal, he caused the constable to proceed to the king to learn if such order had emanated from him, for he suspected that it was the act of the cardinal unauthorized. The constable, regardless of the risk he ran, hastened to the king, and, about ten o'clock at night, reported to his majesty the order of the cardinal for destroying Kildare. Thereon the king was bitterly incensed against Wolsey, whom he cursed, and forbade the constable to execute any order not sanctioned by his own sign-manual; stating, at the same time, that he would cause the cardinal to repent of his usurped authority and unjust dislike to Kildare. The constable returned, and informed the earl of his message; but Kildare was nevertheless detained a prisoner in the tower to the end of his days."

"There is," says O'Daly's translator, "a chapter in Gait's 'Life of Wolsey' full of errors and gross misrepresentations of Ireland and the Irish. It is only fair, however, to give him credit for the spirited sketch he has given of the dialogue between Wolsey and Kildare. 'My Lord,' said Wolsey, 'you will remember how the Earl of Desmond, your kinsman, sent letters to Francis, the French king, what messages have been sent to you to arrest him (Desmond), and it is not yet done . . . but, in performing your duty in this affair, merciful God! how dilatory have you been! . . . what! the earl of Kildare dare not venture! nay, the King of Kildare; for you reign more than you govern the land.' 'My lord chancellor,' replied the Earl, 'if you proceed in this way, I will forget half my defense. I have no school tricks nor art of recollection; unless you hear me while I remember, your second charge will hammer the first out of my head. As to my kingdom, I know not what you mean. ... I would you and I, my lord, exchanged kingdoms for one month; I would in that time undertake to gather more crumbs than twice the revenues of my poor earldom. While you sleep in your bed of down, I lie in a poor hovel; while you are served under a canopy, I serve under the cope of heaven; while you drink wine from golden cups, I must be content with water from a shell; my charger is trained for the field, your jennet is taught to amble.' O'Daly's assertion that Wolsey issued the earl's death-warrant does not appear to rest on any solid foundation; and the contrary appears likely, when such usurpation of royalty was not objected in the impeachment of the cardinal."


[1] To this incident is attributed the circumstance that the armorial ensigns of the Geraldine family exhibit two apes as supporters.