Gerald FitzGerald, 8th Earl of Kildare KG (born c. 1456 – c. 3 September 1513), known variously as "Garret the Great" (Gearóid Mór) or "The Great Earl" (An Iarla Mór), was Ireland's premier peer. He served as Lord Deputy of Ireland from 1477 to 1494, and from 1496 onwards. His power was so great that he was called "the uncrowned King of Ireland".
Gerald FitzGerald, was the son of Thomas FitzGerald, 7th Earl of Kildare and Jane FitzGerald, the daughter of "the Usurper" James FitzGerald, 6th Earl of Desmond. The Gaelicized Cambro-Norman FitzGerald dynasty had risen to become the premier Irish Gall or Old English peers in Ireland. They were descended from Gerald de Windsor and the Welsh Princess Nest ferch Rhys, the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, Prince of Deheubarth. The family's deep Gaelic roots have been down-played in recent days for contemporary political reasons. In fact, Lord Gearóid or Gerald was especially exemplifying of Ireland's political and cultural autonomy as summarized in the phrase More Irish than the Irish themselves.
Gerald married Alison FitzEustace, daughter of Rowland FitzEustace, 1st Baron Portlester, with whom he had five children:
- Gerald FitzGerald, 9th Earl of Kildare
- Lady Eleanor FitzGerald, married Donal MacCarthy Reagh, 9th Prince of Carbery
- Lady Alice FitzGerald, married Conn O'Neill, 1st Earl of Tyrone
- Lady Margaret FitzGerald, married Piers Butler, 8th Earl of Ormond
- Lady Ellis FitzGerald who married Christopher Fleming, 8th Baron Slane.
He married secondly Elizabeth St. John, daughter of Oliver St. John of Lydiard Tregoze, a cousin of Henry VII, and had a further five children:
- Sir James FitzGerald of Leixlip, father of:
- Isabel FitzGerald - married Richard de Barry of Rathbarry
- James de Barry, 4th Viscount Buttevant
- Isabel FitzGerald - married Richard de Barry of Rathbarry
- Sir Oliver FitzGerald
- Sir Richard FitzGerald of Fassaroe, who married Maud Darcy, widow of James, Baron Skryne, (whom he had murdered)
- Sir John FitzGerald
- Sir Walter FitzGerald, who married Elisabeth Plunkett, daughter of Robert Plunkett, 5th Baron of Dunsany
All his sons by his second marriage took part in the rebellion of their nephew, the 10th earl of Kildare, Silken Thomas, and were executed for treason at Tyburn on 3 February 1537.
Gerald FitzGerald was appointed Lord Deputy in 1477, but was quickly replaced by Lord Grey of Codnor on the supposition that an Englishman could do the job better. The Lords of the Pale set up a breakaway Parliament in protest, and Edward IV was forced to re-install FitzGerald. He inherited the title of Earl of Kildare in 1478.
FitzGerald managed to keep his position after the York dynasty in England was toppled and Henry VII became king, but Fitzgerald blatantly disobeyed King Henry on several occasions; he supported the pretender to the throne of England and the Lordship of Ireland, Lambert Simnel. However, Henry needed Fitzgerald to rule in Ireland, and at the same time could not control him. Simnel's attempt to seize the throne ended in disaster at the Battle of Stoke and many of his supporters, including Kildare's brother Thomas, were killed. Henry, now secure on his throne, could afford to be merciful and pardoned both Simnel and Kildare. Kildare was shrewd enough not to commit himself to the cause of the later pretender Perkin Warbeck, despite Henry's caustic comment that the Irish nobility would crown an ape to secure power for themselves.
He presided over a period of near independence from English rule between 1477 and 1494. This independence ended when his enemies in Ireland seized power and had him sent to London as a traitor. He suffered a double blow: he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and his wife Alison died soon after. He was tried in 1496, and used the trial to convince Henry VII that the ruling factions in Ireland were "false knaves." Henry immediately appointed him as Lord Deputy of Ireland, saying "All Ireland cannot govern this Earl; then let this Earl govern all Ireland"; and allowed him to marry as his second wife Elizabeth St. John, a distant cousin of the King. Gearóid returned to Ireland in triumph.
He ruled Ireland with an iron fist. He suppressed a rebellion in the city of Cork in 1500 by hanging the city's mayor. He raised up an army against rebels in Connacht in 1504, defeating them at the Battle of Knockdoe. In 1512, after entering O'Neill of Clandeboye's territory, capturing him and then taking the castle of Belfast, FitzGerald then for reasons now unknown proceeded through to utterly ravage the Bissett family's lordship of the coastal Glens of Antrim.
A year later, on an expedition against the O'Carrolls, he was mortally wounded while watering his horse in Kilkea. He was conveyed back to Kildare, where he died on or around 3 September 1513.
Gerald has been described as a man whose exceptional charisma impressed all his contemporaries, Irish and English alike. Unlike his eldest son, who favoured diplomacy, he was described as being "open and plain" in his dealings; he was hot-tempered and unpredictable when young, but more mellow in later life.
In the 1972 BBC miniseries The Shadow of the Tower, FitzGerald is played by Gawn Grainger.
The Legend of the Great Earl's Ghost
A legend, retold by Nuala O'Faoláin, says that Fitzgerald was skilled in the black arts, and could shapeshift. However, he would never let his wife see him take on other forms, much to her chagrin. After much pleading, he yielded to her, and turned himself into a goldfinch before her very eyes. A sparrowhawk flew into the room, seized the "goldfinch", and he was never seen again.
According to legend, the Great Earl and his soldiers now slumber in a cavern beneath the Curragh of Kildare, ready to awaken to defend Ireland in her hour of need. The Earl rises once every seven years on May Day, and rides around the Curragh on his steed. When his horse's shoes are worn down to the thickness of a cat's ear, he will lead his army against the English, drive them out, and reign as king of Ireland for 40 years.