The Earls of Desmond- The Rise and Fall of a Munster Lordship

  By Anne Keeling and Gerald O`Carroll



Gerald O`Carroll is a Tralee man based in Limerick city and is an accomplished historian and author. He has published several books, including ‘The History of Tralee, its Charter and Governance’ published in 2009.

His latest book is about a dynasty that had at one time the Castle of Tralee as a seat, that is, the Earls of Desmond. These were descendents of the Geraldine’s, who first came to Ireland as part of the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169-72.

Their territory took in most of present day Munster and they wielded a great influence on this island for almost four hundred years until their overthrow and demise early in the seventeenth century. 

The Desmonds were Fitzgerald’s and they intermarried with royalty so that it can be said that “the blood of English and Spanish kings flowed in the veins of the Earls of Desmond. They were intermarried with the English monarchy from the earliest generation of settlement. They were known for their comely, and proud, appearance. 

Though part of the Anglo-Norman invasion, it is said that the Geraldine’s, including the Desmonds, originated in Florence. There were two Irish branches of the Geraldine’s. One was the future Earls of Desmond and the other was the Earls of Kildare. 

Also related to the Earls of Desmond were the Knights of Kerry and the Limerick Knights of Glin. The last Knight of Glin was the 29th Knight, Desmond Fitzgerald, who passed away on the 14th of September 2011.

The first Earl of Desmond, Maurice Fitzgerald, was granted his title on the 27th of August 1329. Limerick was to become their command headquarters. From 1468 on, the Desmonds intermarried with the McCarthy’s and the O’Brien’s and this ‘gaelicisation’ is a strong theme of the book.

O’Carroll’s book charts the evolution of the Earls of Desmond, who started out as Anglo-Norman invaders and became as the old refrain goes “more Irish than the Irish themseIves.” 

“The Geraldine’s may be considered less as a family than a nation descended from one Patriarch: it is almost incredible that so large a tribe should, in a few centuries, have sprung from a common ancestor. The history of the Geraldine’s, the Butlers, and the Burkes, may be said to be the history of Ireland for some centuries.” 

So wrote Rev. James Graves, the Kilkenny antiquarian, in the Journal of the Royal Historical and archaeological Association of Ireland, 1876. Gerald O’Carroll in his book includes extensive genealogies to illustrate this.

The coat of arms of the Desmonds is a red saltire (diagonal cross) on a field of ermine. In both Tralee and Youghal, they founded Holy Cross Dominican Houses and it may be from the saltire that these Houses got their name. 

They are associated with the wild boar. According to legend a wild boar terrorised the area of Castlemartyr and was killed by a Fitzgerald. Their war cry is “Shanid Abu” (Shanid forever). The ruins of Shanid Castle, once a Desmond stronghold, stand just a short distance south of the village of Shanagolden in Co Limerick. 

The book presents many different and interesting people, one of whom was Thomas An Appa (the Ape). As an infant, it is said, that he was abducted by a pet ape and carried off to the top of the Abbey or the Castle for a time and then brought back to safety.

We hear about the ‘Poet’ Earl, the ‘White’ Earl and the ‘Sugãn’ Earl. Towards the end of the book there is an account of the massacre at Thin an Oir. 

Gerald O’Carroll has carried out exhaustive research to produce this work: He is particularly admiring of the writing of the nineteenth century West Kerry historian, Mary Agnes Hickson (Old Kerry Records, 1872 and 1874). He has distilled his findings to produce what is in his own words a “simple and readable account”. 

The book contains illustrations of castles, monuments, documents and artefacts associated with the Desmonds as well as relevant maps. 

Distribution of Gerald O’Carroll’s book has taken place and it can be bought at Limerick’s Hunt Museum, polymath Books in Tralee and O’Mahony’s Book Shops in Tralee and Limerick.

A famous Geraldine is the late US President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, (JFK), whose daughter, Caroline, visited Bruff, Co Limerick, in June of this year. Caroline dedicated the old courthouse in Bruff to her great, great grandfather, Thomas Fitzgerald, born in Bruff in 1883. 

Thomas Fitzgerald’s son - JFK’s maternal grandfather, John Francis, known as ‘Honey Fitz’ - was two times Lord Mayor of Boston. Today the theatre in Lough Gur, Co Limerick, is named the ‘Honey Fitz Theatre.