Contribution of Fitzgerald Dynasty Examined at Conference

The mythology of the Fitzgerald dynasty was examined at a two-day conference marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Gerald Fitzgerald (Gearóid Mór), the ‘Great Earl’ of Kildare, in Trinity College Dublin recently.

Entitled The Geraldines and Medieval Ireland-The Making of a Myth the inaugural Medieval Ireland Symposium, organised by Trinity’s Medieval History Research Centre at the School of Histories and Humanities, examined the mythology surrounding the Fitzgerald, or Geraldine family, from the Middle Ages up to the present day.

Perhaps the most important Anglo-Norman dynasties established in Ireland in the late 1160s, the family gave Ireland two of its most famous noble houses, the earls of Desmond and Kildare, as well as a host of later historical personalities including Lord Edward Fitzgerald and the late Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald.  The Geraldines are also key players in the Irish diaspora, putting the ‘F’ in John F Kennedy and giving the world of music and literature Ella and F. Scott Fitzgerald respectively. In 2005, the identity of the sitter for Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, “Mona Lisa”, was established as Lisa Gherardini, whose family, the Gherardini, claimed to be related to the Geraldines of Ireland.

Pictured at The Geraldines and Medieval Ireland-The Making of a Myth symposium were The Provost of Trinity College Dublin, Dr Patrick Prendergast; conference organisers Professor Seán Duffy, Professor of Medieval Irish History, and Dr Peter Crooks, Assistant Professor of Medieval History; key note speaker Professor Steven Ellis, Head of History, NUI, Galway and other invited speakers. 

From their arrival in Ireland the Geraldines became shrouded in myths which were consciously cultivated by the family to enhance its prestige and power. This fund of mythology was later appropriated for political and polemical uses by writers from the Elizabethan age to the early decades of the Irish Free State.

Professor Seán Duffy, Professor of Medieval Irish History, who gave a presentation on “The origins of the Geraldines’, commented: “To a truly remarkable extent the Geraldines continue to pervade Irish life right up to the present day. Davy Fitzgerald, the great Clare hurling manager, is a Geraldine. The ‘Barry’ in Jimmy Barry-Murphy makes him a Geraldine. The Kerry football boss, Éamonn Fitzmaurice, is a Geraldine. Niall Carew, manager of the Waterford footballers, descends from a branch of the Geraldines.”

Dr Peter Crooks, Assistant Professor of Medieval History, added: “The arrival of the Geraldines on this island was part of a twelfth-century aristocratic diaspora which saw the Geraldines conquer lands on this island at the point of a sword. How these relative newcomers to Ireland embedded themselves in Irish history and culture is the story we are telling at this symposium.”

A highlight of the conference was the keynote public lecture entitled “The ‘Great Earl’ of Kildare” by Professor Steven Ellis, Head of History, NUI, Galway who examined the mythology surrounding the career of the ‘Great Earl’ of Kildare with focus on the conflict between his posthumous reputation in the early years of the Irish Free State and his unacknowledged legacy of expanding English rule.

Professor Ellis commented: “In the early years of the Irish Free State, the ‘Great Earl’ of Kildare was considered as a champion of Home Rule and an ‘uncrowned king’ of Ireland, whose dispassionate handling of native and foreigner did much to remove inherited differences between the peoples of medieval Ireland and to build a ‘blended race’.  In fact, I argue that his legacy was to build up ‘the English Pale’ as an international frontier, recovering much land from ‘the wild Irish’, and extending English rule over a wider area of Ireland.”

The Medieval Ireland Symposium is a new series that seeks to make cutting-edge historical scholarship accessible to all people interested in researching, teaching or learning about the history of Ireland in the Middle Ages, with the aim of promoting a wider public understanding and enjoyment of medieval Irish history.

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