ULTIMATE GAA trivia quiz question: apart from being in charge of Cork and Clare’s titanic struggle for the Liam McCarthy Cup, what do Jimmy Barry-Murphy and Davy Fitzgerald have in common?
Clue: look at their surnames. It’s the same thing that the Kerry senior football manager, Éamonn Fitzmaurice, has in common with his Waterford counterpart, Niall Carew. Answer: they’re all kinsmen.
Undoubtedly, it’s a distant and an ancient link. But if you trace each man’s ancestors – the Fitzgeralds, Barrys, Fitzmaurices, and Carews – back through time, you find that all are descended from a Norman called Gerald, whose sons and grandsons came from Wales to Ireland at the invitation of Diarmait MacMurrough in 1169. They are the men known to history as the Geraldines.
Regarded as Ireland’s greatest Norman dynasty, the Geraldines are the subject of a conference taking place in Trinity College Dublin today and tomorrow to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Gerald Fitzgerald (Gearóid Mór), the ‘Great Earl’ of Kildare.
In Ireland, the Geraldines prospered. Brilliant self-publicists, the family’s exploits were trumpeted by one of their own. Arguably the greatest political propagandist of the Middle Ages, Giraldus Cambrensis was actually a Barry whose name comes from Barry Island in Glamorgan. And Giraldus’s brothers were among the first Welsh Normans to conquer lands in Ireland, becoming major landholders in East Cork.
Giraldus was also the first foreigner to write a book about Ireland, infamously describing the native Irish as a ‘filthy people wallowing in vice’. That’s because his book sought to justify the violent dispossession of Gaelic lords by the Geraldines. Yet, we regard later members of his family – men like Tom Barry or Kevin Barry – as among our greatest patriots.
And so the story of the Geraldines is the story of how newcomers to this island are ultimately embraced into the Irish nation. It is the story of who the Irish are and how they came to be.
This blending of peoples is encapsulated in the person of JFK. The Kennedys descend from a kinsman of Brian Boru. But we consider him no less Irish on the side of his mother Rose, even though the ‘F’ in JFK is of course for Fitzgerald, meaning that Rose’s family (from Bruff, Co. Limerick) were descended from the one of the six sons of Maurice fitz Gerald, the first of this Welsh-Norman dynasty in Ireland.
JFK’s ancestor was Thomas, founder of the Geraldines of Desmond. Another, Gerald, gave us perhaps the most prestigious line, the Geraldines of Kildare. Another, the Kerry FitzMaurices, while other southern Geraldines produced the FitzGibbons of Cork and Limerick, and the ancestors of the Knights of Glin, Co. Limerick, a line that only became extinct following the sad death of Desmond FitzGerald, the 29th Knight, in 2011.
The most famous of the Geraldines was Gearóid Mór, also known as the Great Earl of Kildare, who died 500 years ago this month after a forty-year career during which he expanded Geraldine influence across Ireland and challenged the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty. In 1487 the Great Earl had Lambert Simnel, a pretender to the English throne, crowned in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin – the only coronation of a king of England ever to take place in Ireland.
The Great Earl, his son Gearóid Óg and grandson Silken Thomas – who led a disastrous rebellion against the policies of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell in 1534 – have become heroes to generations of Irish people. In the 1920s, after Ireland had gained her independence, one nationalist historian described the Gearóid Mór as the ‘all-but king of Ireland’ who helped build a ‘blended race’ of natives and newcomers. Another historian likened him to Michael Collins.
But is this reputation justified? It is a view challenged by the leading expert on the Great Earl, Professor Steven Ellis of NUI Galway. In a lecture to be delivered this evening in Trinity College, Ellis will argue that the real legacy of the Great Earl was, on the contrary, to extend the reach of the English crown across Ireland far beyond the borders of the Pale.
So were the Geraldines the English king’s men-on-the-spot? Or were they ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’? You can join the debate on Today (Friday) and tomorrow, the 13th and 14th of September, in the Thomas Davis Theatre, Trinity College Dublin (www.tcd.ie/history/geraldines) at the inaugural Medieval Ireland Symposium, a new series making cutting-edge historical scholarship accessible to everyone interested in researching, teaching or learning about the history of Ireland in the Middle Ages.
* Professor Seán Duffy is Professor of Medieval Irish History, Trinity College Dublin