The Romantic Knights Of Kerry


It was an evening in May. The setting sun turned the grass of the fields to a rich golden colour. The sky was streaked with pink and lemon.

In the distance I could see the slender windows of the ruined Dominican friary of Kilmallock; those windows must once have been ablaze with the scarlet and green of medieval stained glass. Now only the wind filled the graceful spaces.

The scene reminded me of how much of Ireland’s history is tied to the history of the Norman families who came as conquerors all those years ago. The Norman invasion of Ireland, which began in 1169, was swift, ruthless and very successful. 

However, the native Irish princes did eventually begin to fight back, and in 1261 a major battle took place between the McCarthy’s and the Norman, sir John Fitzgerald, at Callan, which is near Kenmare in Co. Kerry.  

Sir John, and his son Maurice, were Killed and buried in the priory of the Dominicans at Tralee. This foundation was set up in 1243, by Sir John himself, who also built a strong castle in the town, as one of his principal places of residence.  

Thomas-nappagb, or Thomas of the Ape, grandson of Sir John of Callan inherited his grandfather’s lands. Thomas’s most interesting name was acquired just after the battle of Callan.

The family castle in Tralee was set on fire by the victorious McCarthy’s and a pet monkey took Thomas, then a little baby, up to the tower and out of danger. When the fire was brought under control, the monkey returned the baby to its cradle. From that day on, the monkey held a place of distinction on the armorial bearings of the family.

Thomas became very powerful in Munster. He inherited the title Baron of Offaly and was made captain-general of Desmond and lord justice of Ireland in 1295. His eldest son, Maurice, was created the first earl of Desmond by King Edward III on August 27th 1329; thus began the two hundred and fifty year domination of the south of Ireland by this most powerful branch of the Fitzgerald’s.

It ended in the year 1583, when the last real earl of Desmond was hunted down and knifed in a little hut in Glanageenty about five miles east of Tralee. He had rebelled against Queen Elizabeth, but even the wealth and power of the Desmonds could not stand against the army of the Queen and the once powerful earl was finally forced to take refuge in the little glen.

On Sunday 9th November, he sent his followers on an expedition to find food. They stole the horses and cattle of Maurice MacOwen. With the help of his brother-in-law, Owen McDonald O’Moriarty, the cattle were traced to Glanageenty.

In the skirmish that followed the Earl of Desmond begged for his life, but his attackers knew that a large reward had been offered by the English for his capture. They killed him and his head was put on display on London Bridge on the orders of Queen Elizabeth.

Three cousins of the first Earl of Desmond carried the titles of the white knight, the green knight and the black knight into Irish history The origin of these romantic titles is a matter of contention between historians.

The honour of knighthood could not be inherited in medieval times. King James I changed this by creating the grade of baronet, which could be handed on from father to son. He sold these new titles in order to finance the plantation of Ulster in the early seventeenth century.

However, these colourful Fitzgerald knighthoods seem to have originated in the fourteenth century when Kind Edward III summoned a large force from Ireland to help him fight his wars in Scotland in 1333.

Writs of summons were issued to the earl of Ormond and the earl of Desmond, to fifty-five knights, fourteen princes and chiefs and to one hundred and eleven esquires. Esquires were men of noble birth who had not received the honour of knighthood.

All were commanded to attend upon Lord Justice Darcy with horses and arms, and accompany him to Scotland. The three cousins, sons of Gibbon, Maurice and John Fitzgerald, fought at the battle of Halidon Hill, which is near Edinburgh, on 19th July, 1333.

The cousins acquitted themselves with courage and energy With their soldiers, they played their part in winning the battle for Edward and they were then presented to the King. 

One of the cousins was wounded in the shoulder and the King bound up the wound with a white bandage, which he held in place with a black ribbon. Later the King knighted him and because of his glittering armour he called him Maurice, the White Knight and for hundreds of years the White Knights used the colours of black and white on their standard. 

The remaining two cousins were also knighted and the one with dark armour was called the Black Knight, while his cousin, whose armour had a green hue was called the Green Knight.

When the wife of Maurice, the first White Knight died, Maurice entered the Dominican friary at Kilmallock but shortly afterwards he moved to the Dominican foundation in Youghal, where he died in 1357. However, his body and that of his Scottish wife were returned to Kilmallock friary for burial.

During the Nine Years War, at the end of the sixteenth century, the White Knight promised to support Hugh O’Neiell in his conflict with queen Elizabeth but he did not keep his promise. In fact, he supported the English and helped them to capture the last, or Surgan Earl of Desmond.

But, in spite of his support for the English the days of the White Knights were coming to an end. The last White Knight Maurice, died without issue in May 1611, at approximately, fourteen years of age.

The title of the green knight or knight of Kerry has survived to the present day as has the title of the black knight or knight of Glin. How long more these ancient, romantic titles will survive is a matter of conjecture but it would be a great loss to Irish history if this seven hundred year link with our medieval story was lost forever.

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