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Kilkea Castle, Chapter 4 – The Geraldine Age, Part I – Rise and Fall (1273-1537)

‘This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air nimbly and sweetly recommends itself unto our gentle senses.’
William Shakespeare, Macbeth. Photo: Elaine Barker.

In the 1420s, Kilkea Castle in County Kildare was considerably extended and improved by the Earls of Kildare who would become the most influential dynasty in Ireland by the end of the century.

With the rise of the Tudors came a sensational but disastrous rebellion that would bring the FitzGerald elite to the brink of extinction.


Maurice Máel Fitzgerald (1238-1286), 3rd Baron Offaly


In 1273, Emmeline Longespée, the de Ridelesford heiress, married Maurice FitzMaurice FitzGerald, nicknamed Maurice Máel, ‘máel’ being an old Irish word for ‘bald’ or ‘devotee’. (See Chapter 2 for more on Emmeline)

The marriage ultimately brought Kilkea Castle, as well as Emmeline’s Plantagenet blood, into the FitzGerald family. Maurice was the second son of Maurice FitzGerald, 2nd Baron Offaly, who served as Henry III’s Justiciar of Ireland from 1232 to 1245. The 2nd Baron was, in turn, a grandson of the first Maurice FitzGerald to come to Ireland and a son of Gerald FitzMaurice, jure uxoris 1st Baron Offaly (c. 1150– 1204), who is credited with building the original earthen structure of Lea Castle on the banks of the River Barrow near Portarlington, County Laois. (See here for more on Lea Castle).

Maurice FitzGerald, forefather of the House of FitzGerald. His cousin Giraldus Cambrensis wrote in ‘Expugnatio Hibernica, or, The Conquest of Ireland’ (1189): ‘Who are the men who penetrate the enemy’s innermost strongholds?
The FitzGeralds.
Who are the men who protect their native land?
The FitzGeralds.
Who are the men the enemy fear?
The FitzGeralds.’

In 1257, the 2nd Baron died in Youghal, dressed in the habit of a Franciscan monk. He had been fatally wounded during a single combat fight with Gofraid O’Donnell, King of Tyrconnell. Maurice Máel duly succeeded to the substantial lands in Leinster, Munster and Connacht, including the Desmond Castle by Adare Manor. A warrior magnate, he spent much of his life campaigning in Ireland, not least against the de Burghs, a rival Anglo-Norman dynasty, who emerged as the FitzGeralds’ principal enemy during this period. In 1264, tensions between the two families exploded into all-out war after Maurice and his nephew John FitzThomas (later the Earl of Kildare) captured several de Burgh allies at Castledermot. [1]

Maurice Máel’s marriage to Emmeline Longespée gave him a useful royal link. Not only was her father a cousin of Henry III, but her aunt Ela (née Longespée) was married to James, Lord Audley, one of the king’s most loyal advisors.

In 1270, Audley was appointed Lord Justice of Ireland, in which capacity he confronted both the O’Byrne and O’Toole families in the Wicklow mountains, ruthlessly extracting hostages. Two years later, Audley tumbled from his horse near Limerick and fatally broke his neck. Maurice Máel succeeded him as Lord Justice, retaining the office for almost a year. He continued to campaign against the Irish for the next decade, dying at New Ross, County Wexford, in 1286.

His nephew, Gerald, 4th Baron Offaly, apparently died of wounds received in battle that same year at his castle in Rathmore, County Kildare. Maurice and Emmeline’s only daughter Juliana was married in 1276 to another notorious warlord, Thomas de Clare.


The Franciscans in Castledermot


Maurice FitzGerald, 2nd Baron Offaly, father of Maurice Máel, is credited with introducing the Franciscan Order to Ireland. [2]  Maurice Máel’s younger brother Thomas FitzGerald followed suit and founded the Franciscan monastery at Castledermot, as well as the Trinitarian Abbey in Adare.  Thomas and his wife Rose were the parents of John FitzThomas FitzGerald, 1st Earl of Kildare. [3]

In 1247, John FitzGeoffrey, Justiciar of Ireland, awarded the Castledermot friars 15 marks of royal alms as ‘the King’s gift’, presumably in connection to the concurrent marriages of the de Ridelesford heiresses that year. [4] The nave and chancel, the remains of which still stand, were built at this time. It may have diplomatically served for both the Irish and Anglo-Norman communities. [5]

The Franciscan friary in Castledermot was under the patronage of the FitzGeralds of County Kildare. They added the 15th-century window in the Lady Chapel, in front of which the woman and child pose in a painting attributed to Gabriel Beranger (ca. 1729-1817), after an original by Jonathan Fisher (fl. 1763-1809).

A magnificent window, now a gaping hole above the street-level entrance, was installed in the early 14th century with a grant from Thomas FitzGerald, 2nd Earl of Kildare. He also paid for the transept, later known as the Lady Chapel. A walled beehive inside the town wall may have been connected to the friars.

Attacked and rebuilt many times over the years, the friary was eventually destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in the 17th century. By the 1700s, its surviving walls were being used as a handball court. Part of a carved capital belonging to a pillar from its original cloistral range was found during road improvement works near the site in 1942. No trace survives of the garden, orchard or mill mentioned in a survey of 1540.


John FitzThomas FitzGerald (c. 1250-1316), 1st Earl of Kildare

Maurice Máel died in 1286 and was succeeded by his nephew John FitzThomas FitzGerald.

Family lore holds that when John was a baby, he was saved from certain death by his father’s pet ape, or perhaps it was a baboon, or a monkey … read on! A fire had broken out at Woodstock Castle, Athy, which was home to his mother’s family, the de St Michaels. The room where he slept was destroyed but, to everyone’s immense relief, the simian broke free of its chains and carried the child to safety. The boy would go on to be created Earl of Kildare by Edward II.

As the 4th Duke of Leinster observed, the head of the family adopted a monkey for his crest ‘in gratitude’ to the St Michel’s baboon for the preservation of the baby’s life. [6] So was it a monkey or an ape? Apes don’t have tails and, as the ‘creatures’ on the family crest do, so what happens there? On the other hand, it has also been described as a baboon, which does fit the image better … and yet baboons are known to be fairly cantankerous creatures and I’m not convinced that they’d have been easy pets.  This explains the carving above the entrance to the FitzGerald’s castle at Maynooth that so clearly features a monkey. The monkey also appears at other FitzGerald properties like Kilkea Castle and Carton House. The old Kildare Street Club on Kildare Street – the building now split between Alliance Francaise and the Heraldry museum – includes a Simian motif. The monkey is likewise the symbol of Kilkea Castle today.

While reading the incredible ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel, I noted a throwaway remark about Katherine of Aragon having apes. I looked it up and, sure enough, here she is with her “ape”!

The 4th Duke of Leinster maintained that it was a fall-out with his ancestor, the 19th Earl of Kildare, that led Jonathan Swift to seize upon this story in Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726. Swift’s eponymous hero is seized by the monkey of Brobdingnag who stuffs so much food into his mouth that Gulliver is nearly killed.

There is no record of John living at Kilkea Castle. Having succeeded a cousin to become 6th Baron Offaly, he was wealthy from a young age, and he bought up much of the FitzGerald inheritance, including lands belonging to Emmeline FitzGerald (née Longespée). When Edward the Bruce invaded Ireland in 1315, John was among the first to profess his loyalty to Edward II. He received his reward on 14 May 1316 when granted the earldom of Kildare ‘for his good service’, but he died just four months later. The following year, his son Thomas, 2nd Earl of Kildare, was granted the liberty and sheriffdom of Kildare, both of which had been previously reserved to the crown.


Thomas FitzGerald, 2nd Earl of Kildare and the Bruce Invasion


Thomas FitzGerald, 2nd Earl of Kildare, had been intended for the church before the death of his older brother, Gerald, in 1303 made him his father’s heir. Three years later, Robert the Bruce became King of the Scots. In 1314, following a famous victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn, Bruce dispatched his younger brother Edward to Ireland with a force of 6,000 men.

The Bruce’s aim was to form a Scots-Irish alliance that would oust the Anglo-Norman barons from Ireland and establish a ‘Pan-Gaelic Greater Scotia’ in which the Bruce family would rule over Scotland, Ireland and, in due course, Wales. The reality was infinitely more complex, not least because so many Irish clans were already locked into a bitter internecine war. As such, the younger Bruce became just another player in this game of thrones, albeit one of the strongest.

The Bruce invasion coincided with a series of severe winters and bad harvests, caused by heavy rainfall, which led to a famine of such intensity that, according to the annals, ‘people undoubtedly used to eat each other throughout Ireland’. There were also instances of plague. By the close of 1315, the Scots were as despised as the English.

Nonetheless, Edward the Bruce’s army powered south, causing havoc across County Kildare and attacking places such as Athy and Rheban Castle. In January 1316, the Scots confronted an army commanded by Sir Edmund Butler, the Justiciar, with John and Thomas FitzGerald, later the 1st and 2nd Earls of Kildare, to the fore. The Scots reigned supreme, while the O’Byrne, O’Toole and O’More clans seized the opportunity to rise up and attack English settlements across the region. The settlement at Mullaghmast may have been destroyed at this time.

Bruce and his allies also ransacked the Franciscan friary at Castledermot. Indeed, they were in the act of ‘taking away the books, vestments and church ornaments’ when ‘overtaken near the town by the Lord Justice [i.e. Butler] and completely routed’. According to one account, Butler ‘made a great slaughter of them [at Castledermot], killing about 400 of the Irish of Imayle’.

The Castledermot friary was founded by the Earl of Kildare’s grandfather and the FitzGeralds had only recently added its mighty east window and Lady Chapel. [7] When Bruce attacked it, he must have known its connections to John Wogan and the FitzGerald family, who had been such ardent opponents of the Scots over the previous 20 years. (See Chapter 3.)  The FitzGeralds had also long been at odds with Richard de Burgh, the Red Earl of Ulster, whose daughter Elizabeth was Robert the Bruce’s queen.

There is no record of an attack on Kilkea itself, which begs the question of whether there was anything there worth attacking. John Wogan himself had retired to Picton Castle, his home in Pembrokeshire, Wales, some years earlier. However, not long after Bruce had himself crowned High King of Ireland, Wogan came out of retirement and sailed for Ireland to help defeat the Scots. Meanwhile, Lord Kildare was given command of an army said to comprise 30,000 of the king’s men.

The Scottish army was finally overwhelmed at the Hill of Faughart near Dundalk in 1318. Edward the Bruce was among those who perished. The Annals of Ulster lambasted him as ‘the destroyer of Ireland’ and applauded his death as the best ‘deed’ for Ireland since ‘the beginning of the world.’ Bruce’s head was sent to Edward II, while his body was divided into four quarters. Part of his remains are said to lie beneath a large flat stone at Faughart that can still be seen today.

Following Bruce’s defeat, the Earl of Kildare served as Lord Justice of Ireland until 1321. Despite his close links to the disgraced Mortimer dynasty, he was reappointed on the accession of Edward III in 1326, holding the office until his death two years later. [8] As for Wogan, he seems to have remained in Ireland after Bruce’s defeat until his death in 1321, serving alongside Kildare on a commission assigned to investigate the levels of collaboration between Bruce and the nobility in Ireland.


Maurice FitzThomas FitzGerald (1318-1390), 4th Earl of Kildare


In 1361, Lionel of Antwerp, Governor of Ireland (and son of King Edward III of England), ordered the Exchequer to be relocated from Dublin Castle to Carlow Castle. When he moved the Court of Common Pleas to Carlow the following year, the castle became home to a sheriff, a constable, a man-at-arms, two lawyers and a chief serjeant, as well as numerous money-collectors, clerks and eight archers.
Both the Exchequer and the Court returned to Dublin after Lionel left Ireland in 1367. He died soon afterwards, aged 29, having allegedly been poisoned by his Italian father-in-law.

With the premature death of the 3rd Earl of Kildare in 1329, his 11-year-old brother Maurice succeeded. During his minority, his lands were administered by his stepfather, Sir John Darcy. Maurice significantly increased Geraldine power over the course of his 61-year reign as head of the family, despite frequent run-ins with the authorities in Dublin Castle. A warrior by nature, he received a knighthood from Edward III for his valour during the siege of Calais in 1347 and was married to Elizabeth de Burghersh, daughter of the king’s chamberlain. Maurice served six terms as Justiciar or Deputy Justiciar of Ireland between 1355 and 1376.

In 1346, Castledermot, or Desertum, was named by Father Clynn as one of Ireland’s seven strongholds. The ravages of the Black Death in the late 1340s must have brought intense hardship to the lands around Kilkea. During the 1350s, Sir Thomas Rokeby, the then Justiciar, was also contending with fresh outbreaks of revolt in Leinster by the O’Byrnes and the MacMurrough Kavanaghs. [9] Rokeby had won Edward IIIs trust early in his career, being one of the commanders at Neville’s Cross in 1346. He is believed to have built Mortham Tower, which still stands by the Palladian house of Rokeby Park near Barnard Castle.

In 1356, the nobles of County Kildare were ordered to strengthen their wards. The 4th Earl of Kildare, who questioned the rationale, was specifically commanded to reinforce and maintain Kilkea, as well as his possessions at Rathmore and Ballymore, under penalty of forfeiting all the estates that had been granted to his grandfather, the 1st Earl. [10] Kilkea Castle was subsequently garrisoned by three or four men-at-arms, with horses fully equipped, as well as perhaps 20 hobellers (lightly armed horsemen) and archers.

Kilkea Castle, County Kildare.

In the spring of 1357, Rokeby chose Kilkea Castle as his base when he launched a campaign against the O’Toole, O’Byrne and O’Nolan clans. For reasons unknown, the wily veteran died at the castle on 23 April, St George’s Day. [11] Approximately 666 years later, I circumnavigated Ireland with his descendant Rupert Rokeby-Johnson on the Island Sky. By chance, Rupert studied history at Durham under Robin Frame, who penned an essay entitled ‘Thomas Rokeby, sheriff of Yorkshire, the custodian of David II’, that was published in 1998 in David Rollason and Michael Prestwich’s book The Battle of Neville’s Cross, 1346–1996, (Stamford: Shaun Tyas).

With Rokeby dead, Lord Kildare was swiftly appointed as a caretaker Justiciar but, with the Irish ‘colony’ still in disarray, King Edward III sent his own son, Lionel of Antwerp, to take charge.

In 1366, Prince Lionel summoned a meeting of the Irish Parliament at which the Statutes of Kilkenny were passed. This was a series of 35 acts designed to curb the settler’s enthusiasm for ‘going native’: prohibiting the use of Irish language and dress; Irish names within the colony; the playing of hurling; the employment of Irish minstrels, harpers or bards; and such like. Most of this was simply reiterating existing laws, excluding the ‘new’ bans on language and minstrels, but the statutes were largely ignored as unenforceable claptrap. For instance, the demand that ‘every Englishman use the English language’ was widely ridiculed because the statutes themselves were written in French. The law banning intermarriage with the native Irish would prompt Art Mór’s rebellion in the 1390s.

Maurice served as Justiciar again during the 1370s, during which time he warred with the O’Briens of Thomond. Following his death in 1390, he was laid to rest in what is now Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. His son Gerald, who became the 5th Earl of Kildare, also served as Justiciar during the course of his long life, helping Sir Stephen Scrope defeat Art Mór in 1407. [12]


A New Castle at Kilkea, 1420s


The inverted, keyhole-shaped gunports (with a cross shape on the vertical slit for the use of a crossbow) in the south and east walls may be from the late 15th century. The crossbow loops in the south wall are thought to be from the 1420s.

The Wogan tenure of Kilkea Castle had come to an end by the time of Henry V’s premature death in 1422. His successor was another minor, Henry VI, on whose watch both England and Ireland were plunged into a vicious civil war known as the Wars of the Roses.

In County Kildare, the House of FitzGerald also entered a somewhat dark period with the death in 1427 of John Cam ‘Crouchback’ FitzGerald, 6th Earl of Kildare. That same year, an alliance of the MacMurrough, O’Byrne, and O’Toole clans saw 3,000 Irishmen on the rampage through County Kildare. Castledermot was ransacked, again, and it seems likely Kilkea Castle was also targeted. [13]

It is not clear whether the FitzGeralds had already reclaimed the castle by this time. [14] In any event, they began enlarging and fortifying the castle in about 1427. [15] The principal change was the construction of a new two-storey range linking the White Tower and the original keep to the gatehouse, thereby creating the contours of the castle as it stands today. The central chamber opened into the gatehouse through the northwest wall. The original loops and wicker-centred vaulting can be found today on both floors of the central range. [16] Its walls are approximately 1.75 metres thick. [17]

The ground floor of the new range was divided into three chambers, now comprising the lobby and lounge areas.  Double barrel vaults ran along the two larger chambers, while there was a single barrel vault in the smaller one.[18] The fireplace is thought to be an original 15th-century feature.[19] The ground-floor alcove was originally a long rectangular passage. [20]

Above this, the first floor, which measures approximately 30 metres x 9.5 metres externally, comprised a new Great Hall set above the vaulted ground floor. This incorporated the original hall (now the 1180 Restaurant), as well as the Drawing Room and the kitchen in between. Higher again, the second floor comprised a new bedroom wing. [21] These seven rooms have been named by the present owners after notable people associated with the castle – Silken Thomas, Lady Emmaline, Sir Walter de Ridelesford, Earl of Kildare, Countess of Kildare, Ernest Shackleton and Lady Elizabeth Grey. The bedrooms on the third floor are today named The FitzGerald Suite, the Wizard Earl, Sir Thomas de Rokeby and the Duke of Leinster. The stairwell running from beside the lift on the third floor to the roof is medieval, but most other aspects of the third-floor date to the 1849 restoration, including many of the windows and doors in the keep, as well as the extant towers and new central range.

In line with the new range, the original two-storey keep was given an additional floor – the brick line is visible today – while new projecting towers were constructed in its eastern and western corners. Among these was a three-quarter round tower to the east, with a base batter, divided into floors that are accessible by the corresponding floor of the central range.[22] (Its spiral staircase was installed in 1849, linking all the castle floors together.) A large, rectangular, four-storey turret was also built, with an external base batter, overlooking what is now the enclosed formal garden. [23]


The 7th Earl and the Wars of the Roses


A note in the FitzGerald archives states: ‘It is probable that the FitzGerald monument in the outside of the wall of St Werburgh’s church [near Dublin Castle] may have been the monument of John 6th or of Thomas 7th Earl of Kildare who were buried in the monastery of all Hallows, and that at the desecration of the Priory chapel it may have been removed to that church by the piety of his representatives.’ [25]

In the late 15th century, the landscape around Kilkea Castle was dragged into the Wars of the Roses, a 30-year-long civil war that raged between supporters of rival claimants to the English throne. The FitzGeralds, led by the Earls of Kildare and Desmond, were staunch allies of the House of York, represented by the white rose, while the Butler family, their bitter foe, lined out for the House of Lancaster, represented by the red rose.

There is a certain amount of murkiness as to who the legitimate Earl of Kildare was during this period. Thomas FitzGerald, only son of John Cam, was an infant when his father died and would not successfully claim the earldom until the 1450s. His youth perhaps explains some shenanigans in the Kilkea vicinity in 1434 when Thomas Power, Vicar of Kilkea, and two other ‘priests’ were pardoned by King Henry VI, after paying a fine, for acquiring ‘two parts of the manor of Kilkea’, with other lands, without his permission. [24]

In about 1454, the king officially recognised Thomas as the 7th Earl of Kildare. That same year, Thomas was appointed Lord Deputy to Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, one of the leading players in the upcoming Wars of the Roses and father of the future king, Edward IV. He would remain in high office through until 1475, despite the death of the Duke of York at the battle of Wakefield.

The twin branches of the FitzGerald line became ever more entwined when the 7th Earl married Lady Joan FitzGerald, a daughter of the 7th Earl of Desmond. The couple are said to have been genuinely in love. Joan was his second wife; his first was Dorothy O’More of County Laois, an example of inter-marriage with the native Irish, but she died without leaving any known children. In 1464, the 7th Earl and Countess Joan endowed the Franciscan abbey at Adare. As chance would have it, this was the abbey where where Christy Scott and Jay Cashman, the present-day owners of Kilkea Castle, tied the knot in 1999.

By the time of his death in 1478, the 7th Earl had re-established the Kildare branch of the FitzGeralds as one of Ireland’s preeminent families. He also served as justiciar and deputy lieutenant under two of the opposing ‘Roses’ kings, Henry VI and Edward IV. He was buried alongside his father at All-Hallows, now Trinity College, Dublin. The 7th Earl was succeeded by his son Gerald (Gearóid Mór), the Great Earl of Kildare.


Gearóid Mór, 8th Earl of Kildare (1456-1513) and the Tudors


The tomb of Gearóid Mór, the Great Earl of Kildare, was erected near the high altar of St Mary’s Chapel, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, which he himself built in 1512. The church was destroyed in the late 17th century.

The shrewd but mercurial Gearóid Mór (‘Gerald the Great’) FitzGerald, 8th Earl of Kildare, became head of his family in 1477 and would remain so through into the reign of Henry VIII. The chronicler Holinshed observed that ‘being soone hotte, and soone cold’, Gearóid Mór was ‘hardly able to rule himself when he was moved’. Nonetheless, he held the office of Lord Deputy of Ireland for 33 years and ‘his name bred a greater terror to the Irish than other mens armyes’. [26] He was also credited with bringing a new warfare to Ireland when, in 1488, he received six German ‘handguns’, an early form of matchlock musket.

The Wars of the Roses arguably concluded when Henry Tudor defeated the Yorkist King Richard III at Bosworth in 1485 and was crowned Henry VII. In that same year, a Parliament held in Dublin authorized the 8th Earl to rebuild ‘the Castle of Tristledermot’ in order to defend his manor lands and ‘aid in the recovery’ of wastelands in north Carlow that the native Irish has seized back. [27] The earl had formally laid claim to Kilkea Castle just two years earlier.[28]

In 1487, Gearóid Mór nearly lost it all when he personally crowned Lambert Simnel, an ill-fated Yorkist pretender, as Edward VI in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. The earl’s brother Thomas FitzGerald was among numerous Simnel supporters killed when Henry VII reigned supreme at the battle of Stoke. [29]

In 1493, the earl was implicated in another coup. Perkin Warbeck, a Flemish peasant, claimed to be one of the Princes in the Tower who had supposedly been murdered by Richard III. Warbeck’s rebellion fell apart when he failed to capture Waterford, for which the city was given its motto, ‘Urbs Intacta Manet Waterfordia’, meaning ‘Waterford remains the untaken city’.

Having come to power at the end of a long civil war, Henry VII did not look kindly on those who sought to depose him. After Warbeck’s coup, he dismissed Kildare from his post as Lord Deputy and dispatched him to the Tower of London. The FitzGeralds were also prohibited from using the motto, ‘Crom a Boo’, although that didn’t stop another of Gearóid Mór’s younger brothers from seizing Carlow Castle – a Crown property – and mounting the FitzGeralds’ banner from its battlements. James Dubh Butler (aka Black James), an illegitimate son of the 6th Earl of Ormonde, duly besieged and recaptured the castle, triggering fresh rivalry between the Butlers and FitzGeralds. Peace between the houses was memorably restored when Gearóid Mór and James Dubh shook hands through a hole cut in the chapter house door of St Patrick’s Cathedral, thus giving rise to the expression ‘to chance one’s arm’. [30]

And yet, the king enjoyed the earl’s sense of humour. When Gearóid Mór was berated by the king’s councillors for having burned the cathedral in Cashel, the earl exclaimed: “By my troth, I would never have done it, but I thought the Bishop was in it.” Henry VII roared with laughter and, during this same session, allowed himself to believe that the Great Earl was an innocent man, stitched up by ‘false knaves’. In 1496, the Tudor monarch reinstated him as Lord Deputy. When the Bishop of Meath protested that “all Ireland cannot rule this man”, the king replied: “Then he shall rule all Ireland”.  [31]

The Great Earl was fatally wounded while giving his horse a drink by the River Griese.

When Warbeck attempted another coup in 1497, Gearóid Mór was wise enough to oppose him this time. Warbeck was subsequently executed while Cork City, which had backed Warbeck, had its charter temporarily forfeited as a reprimand; Cork became known as the Rebel City ever after. [32]

On 16 August 1499, Gearóid Mór was to the fore when he hosted a parliament in Castledermot. [33] The members of this parliament passed a series of laws to keep Ireland’s nobility in line with the Crown, as well as some excise laws and an act to root out fraudsters and toll cheats. [34] Many of the grants, title-deeds and other documents relating to the earl were recorded on vellum in The Earl of Kildare’s Red Book (Liber Rubeus Comitis Kiladrensis), compiled in 1503 by Philip Flattisbury, of Johnstown, near Naas. Flattisbury went on to write a chronicle of Ireland for the 9th Earl in 1517. [35]

As Lord Deputy, the 8th Earl spent much of this period campaigning against enemies – sometimes the king’s, sometimes his own – all over Ireland. In 1504, he was made a Knight of the Garter after a massive battle in which his forces recovered Galway City from an alliance of the Burkes and O’Briens. [36]He also constructed new castles in Athy (White’s Castle), Castledermot, Rathvilly and Lincarrig [Ballinacarrig, County Carlow?]. No trace of the castles at Rathvilly and Castledermot survive today.

However, the old warrior would meet his maker in the autumn of 1513 while campaigning against the O’Carroll clan. One of the O’Mores of Leix fatally shot him as he watered his horse in the River Greese right beside Kilkea Castle. [37] He made it back to his castle in Kildare where he died of his wounds on 3 September, aged 57. [38] It may have been a tragic finale for Gearóid Mór, but it was nothing like as bad as the one that awaited his sons and grandson three decades later.


The Geraldine Rent Table


Beneath the Rent Table, 27 slabs surround the four inner base slabs. The tabletop weighs approximately 450 kilos and each leg about 80 kilos. The place where the table stood at Kilkea is still visible by the outline of the original plinth. The three cannonballs below the table were found in the Maynooth vicinity and were probably fired at the castle when Silken Thomas was besieged in 1535. Where are they now!? [39]

One of the most precious items to have stood at Kilkea Castle was an elaborate stone table that is believed to have served as a Council Table for Gearóid Óg, 9th Earl of Kildare, when he was based in Maynooth. [40] This may also be the table on which the Kildare’s solicitor received rent money from tenants. [41] The table is inscribed:


(Gerald Earl of Kildare, son of Gerald 1533. If it please God)

The chamfered square columnar table, with its twisted central column, is made of a local Irish stone but the work is tantalisingly reminiscent of the Italian style and technique.

Given that Gerald’s young son, the Wizard Earl, would find refuge in Florence before the 1530s was out, this lends a degree of credence to a claim by the 3rd Duke of Leinster that the table was a gift from the Gherardini of Tuscany, their purported Italian kinsmen. [42]

It later went to Carton where it was pictured with three cannonballs below it. Found in the vicinity, these were probably fired at the castle when Silken Thomas was besieged in 1535. [43]

In 1950, the table was brought to Kilkea Castle where it stood in the Rose Garden until 1987. The table then spent a stint in Carlow Garda station before being moved to the National Museum of Ireland. Sir Adrian FitzGerald, the 24th Knight of Kerry, commissioned its restoration by a team of stone specialists at Conservation Letterfrack. The table and its original plinth are due to go on show at the newly refurbished Shackleton Museum in Athy, County Kildare, in late 2023.


Gearóid Óg FitzGerald (1487-1534), 9th Earl of Kildare


Gearóid Óg FitzGerald, 9th Earl of Kildare, 1530. After his death, Holinshed reported, his widow would behold this picture just before she went to bed ‘and with a solemn congee (curtsey), she would bid her lord good night’. (Courtesy of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth).

Following Gearóid Mór’s death in 1513, he was succeeded by his eldest surviving son Gearóid Óg (‘Young Gerald’), whom he had been grooming for high office for many years. The 9th Earl would likewise become the most powerful man in Ireland, until brought down by his enemies 20 years later.

In 1503, this handsome young man married Elizabeth Zouche, whose mother was a first cousin of King Henry VII. They had one son, the ill-fated Silken Thomas, and four daughters, prior to Elizabeth’s premature death in Lucan in 1517.

When Henry VIII went to meet the French king at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, Gearóid Óg travelled with him. Also present was Lady Elizabeth Grey, who would become Gearóid Óg’s new Countess two years later. Lady Elizabeth had been serving as a maid of honour to the Queen of France, alongside the Boleyn sisters. A remarkable woman, she was a cousin of the king through the Woodville family, one of the most prominent dynasties during the Wars of the Roses. Her father, the Marquess of Dorset, disapproved of the marriage to the Irish earl but her mother agreed and granted her a dowry of £1000. Gearóid Óg and his second wife had two sons, Gerald (the Wizard Earl, see Chapter 5) and Edward, and four daughters.

In 1526, Henry took a gamble and appointed Gearóid Óg as his Lord Deputy of Ireland. The Kildares then moved to Dublin, where they were head-quartered at Carbrie [Carberry] House on Skinners Row (now Christchurch Place). Maynooth was their principal stronghold, and home to an extensive library, but they also spent time at Kilkea Castle from where, for instance, Gearóid Óg wrote a letter to Cardinal Wolsey in 1525. [44]

During his first term as Lord Deputy, Gearóid Óg operated like a Mafia Don, forming systematic pacts with rival clans and receiving payments from thousands of vassals in return for his support and protection. Pursing a policy of ‘Ireland for the Irish’, he leased his lands almost exclusively to Gaelic speakers and was hailed as ‘the gretest [sic] improver in these lands’ in terms of creating tillage farms. [45] A series of marriage alliances with leading Gaelic lords strengthened his dynastic bonds with the Irish, thus stabilizing the defence of the Pale. This was the area the Crown controlled and, at this time, comprised of Counties Dublin, Meath, Kildare and Louth. At one point, 24 Irish chieftains were giving him annual tribute, including all the major players from the Pale. By such means, he became one of the ten richest nobles at Henry VIII’s court.

At the same time, he built up a private, standing army of about 300 kerne (light infantrymen), galloglass (mercenaries) and horsemen. These men were initially quartered on his own tenants, but he gradually shifted the burden of his kerne and galloglass onto neighbouring Irishmen. Kilkea was one of three manors (along with Rathangan and Kildare) where he created rent-free holdings for the maintenance of his horsemen. [46]

The 9th Earl’s legacies include St Mary’s College, near his castle in Maynooth, which was a forerunner of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. Nonetheless, his Catholicism did not stop him from joining 80 other nobles who signed a letter to Pope Clement VII in 1530, urging him to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that the king could marry Anne Boleyn. The Protestant Reformation was well underway by July 1532, when Gearóid Óg was reappointed Lord Deputy of Ireland.

At about this time, his men abducted Sir Rowland FitzGerald, a Butler supporter, in Castledermot and had him incarcerated in his castle at Bert. To ‘make fast’ the captive, Gearóid Óg had irons brought to Bert from Kilkea. Sir Rowland was later released but he was relieved of his ‘horse, money and apparel’. [47] Such actions did nothing to endear the earl to the Butlers, a dynasty that was on the rise once again, aided by their kinship to Anne Boleyn, whose grandmother was a Butler. Connections to Thomas Cromwell and the scheming lawyer, Robert Cowley, also worked in the Butlers’ favour and, in the faction-riddled Tudor court, the FitzGeralds were on the slide. [48] [For more on Cowely’s family, see here.]

In 1532, word reached London that the earl had arrived at the Castledermot fair and, ‘crying havoke upon the king’s subjects which thither was resorted, he caused them, in his own presence, to be spoiled, robbed of their goods, and divers of them murdered’. [49] A variation of this holds that he ‘destroyed many of the assembled persons and caused numerous houses to be consumed with fire’. [50] The 4th Duke of Leinster was of the view that such reports were ‘exaggerated’. [51]

Two years later, Gearóid Óg was summoned to the king’s court to explain himself. He arrived in poor health, after a musket ball pierced his ribs while he was besieging the O’Carrolls at Birr Castle. He was committed to the Tower of London where Countess Elizabeth and their youngest son, Edward, were permitted to remain with him.

Prior to his departure for London, he entrusted the governance of Ireland to his 22-year-old son, Silken Thomas, commanding him to be ‘wise and prudent’, and to keep the peace. If he behaved rashly, warned the older man, the very future of the FitzGerald dynasty might be jeopardised. Alas the young man did not heed his words. While in the Tower, Gearóid Óg learned that his son had arisen in arms against the might of the Tudors. The 9th Earl of Kildare, 47 years old, died ‘of grief’ on 2 September 1534.

‘Sonne Thomas …. Both you and I know that I am well steped in years; and as I may shortly die, for that I am mortal, so must I in haste decease, bicause I am olde. Wherefore, in so much as my wynter is well neare ended, and the spring of your age now buddeth, my will is that you behave yourselfe so wisely in these your greene years, as that to the comfort of your friends, you may enjoy the pleasure of sommer, gleane and reape the fruit of your harvest, that with honour you may growe to the catching of that hoarie winter, on which you see me, your father, fast pricking.’
Gearóid Óg to Silken Thomas, February 1534.


The Silken Thomas Revolt, 1535-1537


Silken Thomas’s attack on the Ship Street Gate at Dublin Castle from a woodcut created by John Derricke. This originally appeared in Hollinshed’s Chronicles, a collaborative history of England, Scotland, and Ireland, published in 1577. A woodcut is a relief printing technique by which the artist carves an image into the surface of a block of wood—typically with chisels—leaving the printing parts level with the surface while removing the non-printing parts. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

On 3 February 1537, six Irishmen were executed on the gallows at Tyburn Hill. Five of them were brothers of the late Gearóid Óg, 9th Earl of Kildare. According to the records of the Grey Friars of London, the brothers were ‘draune from the Tower in to Tyborne, and there alle hongyd [hanged] and hedded [beheaded] and quartered’. The sixth man to be executed that day was Gearóid Óg’s young son, ‘Silken Thomas’ FitzGerald, 10th Earl of Kildare. He was also ‘hongyd and hedded’, although his body was not quartered but buried at the nearby friary of the Crossed Friars.

All property belonging to the dead men – including Kilkea Castle – had already been seized in accordance with an attainder passed by the English Parliament in 1536. [52] The earldom of Kildare was also stripped from the family in what was, without doubt, the bleakest hour in the long and tumultuous history of the FitzGeralds.

Three years earlier, Gearóid Óg had been summoned to Henry VIII’s court in London. Prior to his departure, he entrusted the governance of Ireland to his son Thomas, commanding him to be ‘wise and prudent’, and to keep the peace. If he behaved rashly, warned the older man, the very future of the dynasty might be jeopardised. Aged just 21, Thomas was a controversial choice for ‘deputy’, but, while some deemed him a hot-head, Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador to London, hailed him as ‘a young man of much wit, brave and bold who is very popular in that country’.

Silken Thomas, illustrated by Derry Dillon, for the Athy ‘Past Tracks’ panel. In 1534, Silken Thomas launched a disastrous war against the Tudor regime. The rebellion culminated in the execution of him and six of his uncles, while Henry VIII did everything he could to eliminate the FitzGerald family forever.  

However, things began to darken when Thomas received a message from his father in London urging him to be wary of scheming members within his own Council of State. On 11 June 1534, Thomas responded by riding into Dublin City, accompanied by 140 horsemen whose helmets were ‘gorgeously embroidered with silk’, thus supplying the origin of his ‘silken’ moniker. They reined up alongside St Mary’s Abbey, wherein the council were gathered. Thomas entered the church, flung down his Sword of State in a fury and renounced his allegiance to Henry VIII. [52a] This is taken as the moment the rebellion began.

Just over two weeks later, Gearóid Óg was arrested and lodged in the Tower of London, where the 47-year-old earl took ill ‘of thought and pain,’ which sounds suspicious, and died ‘of grief’ on 2 September 1534. Meanwhile, Silken Thomas proclaimed a Catholic crusade against the English king and began courting senior Catholics across Europe as potential allies. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, offered to send 10,000 men.

A brutal war engulfed the eastern half of Ireland for the next 18 months, leaving communities and farmlands devastated. The threat became intensely real for the Crown when Silken Thomas’s army besieged Dublin Castle. Meanwhile, he strengthened and garrisoned eight of his castles in Counties Kildare and Carlow, including Kilkea, to prevent the region falling to Crown forces loyal to Piers Butler, Earl of Ossory[53] In July, he captured John Allen, the Archbishop of Dublin and a long-standing FitzGerald enemy. He handed the unfortunate prelate over to a mob who ‘brained and hacked him in gobbets’. The Pope was so livid that he excommunicated Silken Thomas, while the Crown stripped him of the liberty of Kildare, granted to his ancestor in 1317.

In September 1534, Lord Ossory captured both Kilkea Castle and Castledermot in the king’s name. According to Ossory, he waited three days in Kilkea for Sir William Skeffington, the elderly Lord Deputy, to meet him with ‘ordnance’ (i.e. canons) and ‘the armie lately arryved at Waterforde’. [54] Skeffington failed to show up because he was too ‘seke’ [i.e. sick].

Silken Thomas had by now succeeded as Earl of Kildare. He continued his war in the forlorn hope that the Holy Roman Emperor’s reinforcements would one day land on Irish shores. In fact, the only new soldiers to arrive into Ireland were 2,300 Englishmen who, at Skeffington’s command, laid siege to the FitzGerald castle in Maynooth in March 1535. When the constable surrendered after a 10-day artillery bombardment, he and the surviving members of the FitzGerald garrison were put to death in what became known as the ‘Pardon of Maynooth’. Just two men were spared, at the request of Chief Justice Aylmer, ‘in consequence of the beauty of their voices in singing’. [55] Skeffington himself would die at Kilmainham, Dublin on 31 December 1535;  he was buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The Skeffingtons certainly had a dark side. Sir Leonard Skevington, Sir William’s son, was a sometime Lieutenant of the Tower of London. He invented a horrific instrument of torture known as Skeffington’s Daughter. It comprised a metal rack shaped into an A-frame: “the victim’s head was strapped to the top point of the A, the hands at the midpoint, and the legs at the lower spread ends. The frame could fold, swinging the head down and forcing the knees up into a sitting position, compressing the body so as to force blood from the nose and ears.”

On 24 August 1535, Silken Thomas came in from hiding on the Bog of Allen and surrendered to his uncle, Lord Leonard Grey, who had succeeded Skeffington as Lord Deputy. He was promised a full pardon – a pledge that was predictably violated when he and his uncles were executed. Three of those uncles had actively opposed the rebellion from the outset but that would not save them. Henry VIII had been advised by his council that there would be no peace and order in Ireland ‘till the bludde of the Garroldes [i.e. FitzGeralds] were holy extinct.’ [56]

A story is told of a curse placed on the FitzGeralds that ‘five earles brethren should be caryed in a cowe’s belly to England, and from thence never to returne’. If true, Silken Thomas’s uncles must have shivered exceedingly when they learned that the vessel carrying them to England was called ‘The Cow’.

From his prison cell, Silken Thomas wrote to his ally, Connor O’Brien, King of Thomond:

“I never had any money since I came into prison, but a noble, nor I have had neither hosen, doublet, nor shoes, nor shirt but one; nor any other garment but a single frieze gown, for a velvet furred with a budge, and so I have gone wolward (shirtless) and barefoot and barelegged diverse times (when it hath not been very warm); and so I should have done still, but that poor prisoners of their gentleness hath sometimes given me old hosen and shoes and shirts.”

They may have given him shoes and clothes but, shortly before his execution, his jewellery was purloined by Lord Leonard Grey and Thomas Cromwell, the Lord Chancellor. Those two men would not hold the jewellery long, for such was the madness of life in the Tudor age that they were both themselves beheaded within four years. Grey had been an especially vicious warlord, but he did host at least one parlay when, in March 1536, he met with two local chieftains, Conall O’More, lord of Laois, and Cathaoir MacMurrough, at Kilkea Castle. [57] Grey was created Viscount Graney – a nod to the old de Ridelesford priory near Castledermot – but he was subsequently found guilty of enabling the escape of his nephew, the future Wizard Earl, and executed by command of the king in 1541. Graney duly passed to Anthony St Leger, the king’s Lord Deputy.

Cromwell’s execution was also swift. Sometime before his death, it was reported that John Allen, Master of the Rolls in Ireland, had been at ‘Kilcay’, chuckling at stories of how Cromwell had been literally ‘well pomelled … about the hedde’ (i.e. beaten up) by Henry VIII. [58] Allen’s reaction was reported to Cromwell and treated as a serious offence. He was thus fortunate that Cromwell’s fall was so quick.

Silken Thomas was married but left no children. As such, the earldom devolved upon his half-brother, a sickly boy called Gerald. Henry VIII, who was excommunicated in 1538, may have allowed himself to believe that the Geraldine flame had at last been extinguished but, in the decades to come, Gerald would defy the odds and fly the FitzGerald banner from Kilkea Castle once more.

NB: One of the most unusual treasures at Kilkea Castle was a plaster cast of the inscription cut into the stone in the Tower of London by Silken Thomas which read, ‘Thomas FitzG’. The inscription is still visible in what is now the tower’s office.


Harpers and Bards


The FitzGerald harp as depicted in Robert Bruce Armstrong’s 1904 work, ‘The Irish and The Highland Harps.’

In the 18th century, the FitzGeralds danced to reels such as ‘The Carton Gallop’ and ‘The Duke of Leinster Reel’, played on a pipe and whistle. However, music had been an important part of their story for innumerable generations before that.

Silken Thomas, for instance, was apparently prompted into his ‘mad enterprise’ of going to war against Henry VIII by a bard named Nelan, who was also one of his retainers. Nelan recited a heroic poem in Irish that praised the FitzGeralds and reminded the young man of the injustice the king had inflicted upon his father, the 9th Earl.

Among those pardoned in the wake of the rebellion was a FitzGerald harper known variously as Owen the Rhymer, Owen the Poet or Owen Caech Keenan (i.e. Dark or Blind Owen Keenan). His son Cornelius was also a harper. [59]

In ancient times, harpers were considered so important to Irish society that their nails were protected under Brehon Law. When Henry VIII declared himself King of Ireland in 1541, he introduced a new coin for Ireland that depicted a harp topped with a crown. In 1922, the harp became the insignia of the new Irish Free State and, subsequently, the Republic of Ireland. It also featured on all Ireland’s heraldry and currency, including present day ‘Irish’ Euro coins. The Guinness Brewery has been using the harp as its logo since 1862.

In 1839 an illustration was published in a Dublin journal showing Dr George Petrie beside the ‘ancient harp’ of the FitzGerald family. It is not known when he obtained it, nor when the sketch was made, but in 1849 he presented the harp to the 4th Duke of Leinster. In an accompanying letter, Dr Petrie states only that he bought it from a ‘poor old woman’. The harp is thought to have been made some time after 1661 for Robert, one of the sons of George FitzGerald, the 16th Earl of Kildare.

Upon acquiring the instrument, Dr Petrie had it refurbished into a playable state, perhaps for his own personal use, possibly by either the celebrated Dublin harpmaker John Egan or his successor Francis Hewson.

It was subsequently kept at Kilkea Castle for almost a century before its purchase by the National Museum of Ireland in 1945. Some time prior to the 1960s, minor restoration work was carried out by the Dublin musical instruments firm now known as McCullough Pigott.

The harp is currently kept in environmentally-controlled storage at the NMI’s Decorative Arts and History museum in Collins Barracks. [60]




The cadaver effigy of James Tallon and Joan Skelton at the Franciscan Friary was carved circa 1520, not long before the Catholic church became the target of the Protestant Reformation.

With the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, at least four hundred abbeys, friaries, convents and monasteries across Ireland were broken up, including the graveyards where many FitzGeralds lay.

The Tudor authorities swooped upon the old Catholic institutions in Kildare, seizing the roofless and largely ‘ruinous’ Hospital and Priory of St John in Castledermot. This was the property of the Crutched Friars, in whose London graveyard Silken Thomas had been buried. It included 70 acres within the town itself, which were given to the ancestors of the Archbold family. [61] All that remains today is the belltower of Saint John’s Tower, also called the Pigeon Tower, on the northern end of the Main Street. [For more on the forgotten cult of St John, see here.]

The rectory at Kilkea was also seized, and perhaps tumbled at this time, as were the rectory of Kylhelan and the nunnery at Graney. [62]

The magnificent Franciscan abbey and its lands were granted to Sir Henry Harrington. A jury recommended the demolition of its cloister, dormitory and other parts. The beautiful medieval tracery survived but, in 1837, the topographer Samuel Lewis stated that this had been pulled down by a farmer who was fearful it might fall and injure his sheep. [63] The abbey’s outlying possessions were also appropriated, including three acres at ‘Kilkaa’. [64]


“The Properest House”


Following the attainder placed on Silken Thomas, Kilkea Castle now belonged to the Crown. The manor, which extended as far as Narraghbeg, would not return to the FitzGerald family for 18 long years. [65] Their loss was the Butler’s gain. On 27 October 1537, Lord James Butler, later 9th Earl of Ormond, was appointed Constable of Kilkea on behalf of the Crown. Lord Ossory, his kinsman, was made constable of the castle in Castledermot.[66]

The Butlers seem to have delegated Kilkea to Sir Thomas Eustace (1480–1549), of Harristown, Co. Kildare. A kinsman of the FitzGeralds, he was nonetheless appointed constable of Kilkea Castle on 4 October 1537. [67] It is not clear how long he remained constable, but he died in 1549. In reward for his loyalty to the crown, Eustace was also created Baron Kilcullen and, later, Viscount Baltinglass, and granted extensive lands taken from the Cistercian abbey in Baltinglass.

In 1540, Kilkea had 41 tenants farming 585 acres of wheat and oats, along with a watermill and 30 cottagers working on the demesne land. In 14 surrounding townlands, there were a further 844 acres of arable land. However, over 1600 acres of arable land spread across 18 townlands in the area had been left as wasteland after the rebellion. Few Crown supporters were willing to take on such holdings with the belligerent O’Mores and their allies so nearby. [68]

By 1545, Henry VIII was minded to give ‘the lordship called Kilkey’ [sic] to Lord Ossory in exchange for lands and castles in the heart of the Ormonde lordship in the south of County Kilkenny. However, Anthony St Leger, the Lord Deputy, refused to support the idea, referring to Kilkea as ‘the properest house and the goodliest lordship the king hath in all this realme’. [69] Instead, with the backing of the notoriously corrupt Sir William Brabazon, the manor of ‘Kylkea’ was granted to a wealthy English courtier by name of Walter Peppard, a gentleman usher of the king’s chamber. He scooped it up in 1547 for about £15 below its conservatively estimated value. [70] Peppard, who died in 1565, also had a lease on all the ore, lead and silver mines at Clomnines, Ross and ‘other pits’ in County Wexford.




[1] The captives, who included the king’s Justiciar, Richard de Capella, and Richard de Burgh, son and heir of the Earl of Ulster, were imprisoned in the FitzGerald castles at Lea (Offaly) and Dunamase (Laois).  I think I read that Maurice Máel was briefly stripped of his lands for supporting an unsuccessful rebellion against Henry III, perhaps the Second Barons’ War, but I cannot now find that record.

[2] The date for their arrival is a cause for much debate, with 1231 and 1214 being the front-runners. Maurice FitzGerald, 2nd Baron Offaly, is said to have founded the first Franciscan friary in Ireland at Youghal but Niav Gallagher disputes that and believes the first friary was in Dublin. Niav Gallagher, “The Irish Franciscan Province: From the Foundation to the Aftermath of the Bruce Invasion,” in Franciscan Organisation in the Mendicant Context: Formal and Informal Structures of the Friars’ Lives and Ministry in the Middle Ages, eds. Michael Robson and Jens Röhrkasten (Münster: 2010), p. 19–42.

[3] Thomas FitzMaurice’s wife Rohesia, or Rose, was a daughter of Richard de St Michael, Lord of Rheban. Their son John FitzThomas FitzGerald, later the 1st Earl of Kildare, was the baby saved by the monkey / ape from Woodstock Castle, the St Michael’s family home.

[4] It is sometimes said the friary was founded in 1302 or 1303, and Alice Stopford-Green (‘The Old Irish World’, p. 53) said it was founded by Thomas O’Connor Faly, but the 1247 grant undermines such theses. The De La Hoyde were apparently great benefactors – do who know any more of them?!

[5] Philippa Turner, Jane Hawkes, ‘The Rood in Medieval Britain and Ireland, C.800-c.1500’ (Boydell & Brewer, 2020), p. 126.

[6] There are serval versions of this story, including one that ascribes it to the Desmond branch and states that the fire took place in Tralee.  Charles William FitzGerald, the Duke of Leinster gave his accounted here at p. 21:

“John Fitz Thomas, afterwards Earl of Kildare, then an infant, was in the Castle of Woodstock, near Athy, when there was an alarm of fire. In the confusion that ensued the child was forgotten, and when the servants returned to search for him, the room in which he lay was found in ruins. Soon after a strange noise was heard on one of the towers, and on looking up they saw an ape, which was usually kept chained, carefully holding the child in his arms.’

James O. Wood, ‘Gulliver and the Monkey of Tralee,’ Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 9, No. 3, Restoration and Eighteenth Century (Rice University, Summer, 1969), pp. 415-426.

[7] The side-aisle and transept may have been added to the nave and choir as early as 1302. In 1942, during road improvements near the site of the friary, workmen unearthed part of a carved capital belonging to a cloister pillar of the 13th century.  The Lady Chapel was dedicated to St Mary.

[8] Thomas, 2nd Earl of Kildare, was ‘a liberal benefactor’ to the Gray Friars in Kildare Town, for whom he built the Chapel of St. Mary in the Franciscan convent. According to Luke Wadding, he and his wife Joan (née de Burgh) were interred in Castledermot. However, they were buried before the altar in the Grey Friars Abbey of Kildare. A record of ‘Burial Places of the Kildare Family’ in ‘Account of the Gherardini of Florence’ (Unpublished, 1843), p. 28, states that the 3rd and 4th Barons Kildare, and the first three Earls of Kildare, as well as the 5th Earl, were all buried in the Grey Friars, Kildare.

[9] Holinshed’s ‘History of Irelande’, p. 63, says of Rokeby: “He was a knight sincere and upright of conscience, who, being controlled for suffering himself to be served in wooden cups, answered, –Those homely cups and dishes pay truly for that they contein; I had rathir drinke out of treen cups, and pay golde and silver, than drinke out of golde and make woodden payment.”

[10] Thomas Wogan, one of the largest landowners in the county, was also hesitant about this, although he was asked to contribute a larger amount as he held his lands by Royal gift.

Maurice FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare, served as justiciar or deputy justiciar in August 1355, January–October 1356, September–November 1357, October 1360–September 1361, April–July 1372, and June–September 1376. Perhaps it was in his capacity as Justiciar of Ireland (and possibly also as half-owner of the Castle) that the Earl of Kildare was instructed to strengthen and maintain Kilkea Castle and he, in turn, may have directed Wogan to do this.

[11] Otway-Ruthven, Jocelyn. “Ireland in the 1350s: Sir Thomas de Rokeby and His Successors.” The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. 97, no. 1, 1967, pp. 47–59; Ronan Mackay, ‘Thomas Rokeby’ (Dictionary of Irish Biography). With thanks to Rupert Rokeby-Johnson, who I circumnavigated Ireland with in August 2023, and who was once taught history by Robin Frame.

[12] There is a question mark over when the 5th Earl of Kildare died. His entry in the DIB says it was 1432 but the Duke of Leinster’s family history from 1858 says he died in 1410 which is a better fit with John Cam and such like.

[13] Sir Thomas Wogan was also captured during this uprising.

[14] The exact date of the Earl of Kildare’s adoption of Kilkea as their seat is not agreed upon. Craig (1982, 113) notes that the castle was rebuilt by the 6th Earl of Kildare in 1426 but he does not specify if this refers to the castle on the site of the motte or an earlier date for the existing stone castle.’  (O’Driscoll)

[15] The work is generally attributed to the 6th Earl of Kildare, but the 4th Duke and most others say that he died on 17 October 1427 and was buried at All Hallows (now Trinity) in Dublin. The work on Kilkea is said to have started in 1426 but surely it could not have continued with the Irish rising of 1427. His son Thomas FitzGerald, who succeeded 7th Earl of Kildare, was a small boy at this time. So, if it started after that rising, who was in charge!!?

For details on the Irish rising of 1427 see here.

[16] Cóilin Ó Drisceoil, Archaeological Assessment: Kilkea Castle and Demesne, (Kilkenny Archaeology, May 2013, p. 53.

[17] Cóilin Ó Drisceoil, Archaeological Assessment: Kilkea Castle and Demesne, (Kilkenny Archaeology, May 2013, p. 53.

[18] Cóilin Ó Drisceoil, Archaeological Assessment: Kilkea Castle and Demesne, (Kilkenny Archaeology, May 2013, p. 54.

[19] The fireplace is segmentally arched with a large chimney projecting externally.

[20] It had a splayed rounded headed loop window to the north but the window is no longer extant while the southeast wall of the passage appears to have been thickened in the last 170 years.

[21] Bradley et al. 1986, Vol. 3, 277. The bedrooms has barrel vaults, wicker centering and a splayed loop in the east wall

[22] Cóilin Ó Drisceoil, Archaeological Assessment: Kilkea Castle and Demesne, (Kilkenny Archaeology, May 2013, p. 60.

[23] This outer structure of the North Tower dates to the 15th century was much altered internally during the 1849 work. Ibid, p. 60.

[24] In 1434, for a fine, King Henry VI pardoned Thomas Power, Vicar of Kilkea, Richard Avell and John Ashe, priests, for having acquired, without his licence, two parts of the manor of Kilkea, Tristeldermot Berton, Moon. &c. from Sir Thomas Wogan. p. 171-173 of Some account of the ruinous ecclesiastical edifices, forts, castles etc., with notes of modern events connected with the Queen’s County and County Kildare. (M. C. Carey, Maryborough, 1901).

[25] ‘Account of the Gherardini of Florence’ (Unpublished, 1843), p. 29

[26] An early account of him from 1472 records how he was commander of twenty-four spearmen deployed in defence of the English Pale.

[27] Gearóid Mór was also authorised ‘to impress waggons and horses from baronies in Dublin and Meath, and to oblige every person holding one ploughland in the barony of Newcastle to provide an able man gratuitously at the work for four days.-” Gilbert’s Viceroys, p. 421. The manor town of Castledermot was renamed ‘Tristledermot’ at this time.

[28] Bradley et al, 1986, Vol 3, 270.

[29] In 1487, the Earl of Kildare received a present of six handguns from Germany.

[30] During a major skirmish between the two families in Dublin, Holinshed recalled: ‘Kildare pursuing Ormond to the chapitre house dore, undertook, on his honour that he should receive no villanie. Whereupon the recluse craving his lordships hand to assure him his life, there was a clift in the chapitre house dore pierced in a trice, to the end both the Earls should have shaken hands and bee reconciled. But Ormonde surmising that this drift was intended for some further treacherie, that if he would stretche out his hand it had been per case chopt off, refused that proffer untill Kildare stretched in his hand to him, and so the dore was opened, they both embraced, the storme appeased and all their quarrells for the presente rather discontinued than ended.’ See p. 54.

[31] 4th Duke of Leinster, p. 57.

[32] Turtle Bunbury, ‘Ireland’s Forgotten Past’ (Thames & Hudson, 2020).

[33] Tierney says “A castle was built by Gearóid Mór, 8th Earl of Kildare in 1507, but Luckombe could find no vestige of it in 1783.”

[34] On 26 August 1499, a Parliament was held at Tristledermot, when a law was made for the punishment of frauds and cheats committed by customers and other toll-gatherers; also, another law was enacted for setting an excise on all wares, as well imported as exported, except wine and oil, with some caution notwithstanding, expressed in the same statute. Moreover, at the same time two other laws were made which contained some punishments against certain of the nobles. The first was against those who, when they rode, used not saddles, after the English fashion; the later against those who, in Parliament, wore not Parliament robes. A subsidy was likewise granted to the King, as well as by the clergy as the laity.

[35] ‘Notes on the Pictures, Plate, Antiquities, &c., at Carton, Kilkea Castle, 13, Dominick Street, Dublin, and 6, Carlton House Terrace, London (Dublin: University Press, 1885), p. 15-16.

[36] In 1504, Ulick Fionn Burke, 6th chieftain of Clanricarde (d.1509), seized Galway City, which had a Royal charter. As Lord Deputy of Ireland, Kildare went to Connacht and defeated Burke at the Battle of Knockdoe / Battle of Axe Hill in the Parish of Lackagh, County Galway, in 1504. The battle lasted all day and apparently resulted in over 2,000 fatalities; mostly heavily armed gall óglach – foreign warriors – or gallowglass. The Lord Deputy was victorious but many of his men were slain.

[37] p. 171-173 of ‘Some account of the ruinous ecclesiastical edifices, forts, castles etc., with notes of modern events connected with the Queen’s County and County Kildare’ (M. C. Carey, Maryborough, 1901). ‘In August [1513] Gerald (Garrett More) FitzGerald, Eighth Earl of Kildare, Lord Deputy, started on a hostile expedition against O’Brennan’s Leap (Leamyvannon), a castle belonging to the O Carrolls, near Roscrea, now known as Leap Castle. He was wounded by one of the Leix O’Mores; he moved by Athy to Kildare; where he died.’

[38] Kilkea Castle, Anthologia Hibernica: Or Monthly Collections of Science, Belles-lettres, and History, Volume 4 (R. E. Mercier, and Company, October 1794), p. 241-242.

[39] ‘Notes on the Pictures, Plate, Antiquities, &c., at Carton, Kilkea Castle, 13, Dominick Street, Dublin, and 6, Carlton House Terrace, London (Dublin: University Press, 1885),’ p. 11.

[40] It may have originally been kept at the Old Council House at Maynooth Castle, the ruins of which are now to be at the entrance to Maynooth College. Randal McDonnell’s book claims the Confederation treaty was signed on this table in, I think, 1646, but I don’t think this adds up. I’d love to be proved wrong.

[41] ‘Formerly [in the walled garden] was the STONE COUNCIL TABLE. This remarkable item is currently in storage. Reputedly designed as the earl’s council table at Maynooth, but also described as a ‘rent table’, it was later moved to Carton and subsequently to Kilkea. It is inscribed “GERALDUS COMES KILDARIE FILIUS GERALDI MCCCCCXXXIII. SI DIEU PLET.’ (Gerald Earl of Kildare, son of Gerald 1533. If it please God) Its authenticity has been questioned, owing to its state of preservation and the modern spelling “Geraldus’ (for ‘Giraldus’).’ [Tierney]

It remained at Carton House until 1949, when the house was sold. At that time, it was dismantled by Patrick Kane, building contractor of Castledermot, father of historian Eamon Kane from Greenbridge House, Castledermot, and in January 1950 it was re-erected on the lawn at Kilkea castle. In 1961 [1960?], the 8th Duke of Leinster, then living in England, presented the16th-Century family relic it to the Royal Dublin Society. After Kilkea Castle (where the table had remained) was sold by Shanleys, it wasn’t specified that the table was not included so, when Shanley sold it, they went in with a hack saw and tried to take it out. Fortunately, local historian Eamon Kane (a Fianna Fail councillor) got wind of this and barricaded around it and contacted Charlie Haughey on a Sunday night and got a court order to stop them. Eamon then brought it to Carlow Garda Station on a tractor and trailer himself, and it was there in the Garda Station for maybe 20 years. While a complicated legal case got underway, the Rent Table passed to Kildare County Council, but it went to the basement of Collins’ Barracks, the National Museum, awaiting repairs and conservation. It is now being mended by Sven Habermann before it goes in show in Athy.

[42] An extraordinary privately published book, written in pen in 1843 by the 3rd Duke, links the Gherardinos while Sven Habermann of Letterfrack, who restored the table, wrote to me in November 2022: “A conclusion is too strong – there is an indication that the carving might have been executed by non-Irish craft people, with similarities in style and technique from Italian stone carvers.” The 3rd Duke said it was a gift from Florence to their Irish relations.

[43] ‘Notes on the Pictures, Plate, Antiquities, &c., at Carton, Kilkea Castle, 13, Dominick Street, Dublin, and 6, Carlton House Terrace, London (Dublin: University Press, 1885), p. 11.

[44] The letter, written on 7 April 1525, concerned Thomas Dudley and Lord Slane. See p. 30. An inventory of his library from 1526 is indexed in the 4th Duke of Leinster’s history at p. 317-320.

[45] It was Lord Deputy Skeffington, the man who destroyed Silken Thomas, who told Henry VIII that the 9th Earl ‘was the greatest improver of his lands in this land’.

[46] Peter Crooks and Seán Duffy, ‘The Geraldines and Medieval Ireland – The Making of a Myth’ (Four Courts Press, 2016), p. 336-339.

[47] ‘In 1532, Piers Butler, Earl of Ossory, made a complaint that the ninth Earl of Kildare made Richard Fitz Gerald Baron of Burnt Church, a prisoner, brought him to “Beerdy’s Castle” in County Kildare (identified by Lord Walter FitzGerald as Bert Castle), and irons were brought from the manor of “Kilkea” to make fast the Baron. “Bearte” passed during the sixteenth century into the hands of H. Macworth, who had purchased it from Thomas Wolfe, these lands being held from the Earl of Kildare.’ p. 171-173 of Some account of the ruinous ecclesiastical edifices, forts, castles etc., with notes of modern events connected with the Queen’s County and County Kildare. (M. C. Carey, Maryborough, 1901).

[48] In Robert Cowley’s Discourse on the Evil State of Ireland of c. 1526, he confusingly refers to how ‘Carrelagh [Carlow?], Kylkay’ [Kilkea] and Athy taken from the Mores’. See David Heffernan, ‘Robert Cowley’s ‘A Discourse of the Cause of the Evil State of Ireland and of the Remedies thereof’, c. 1526’ (Queen’s University Belfast) (Analecta Hibernica, No. 48, Irish Manuscripts Commission, 2017), via here.

[49] JCKAS, Vol 1. (1895),  page 369.

[50] He ‘entered the place [Castledermot] while the inhabitants were holding a fair, destroyed many of the assembled persons and caused numerous houses to be consumed with fire.’ Brewer, p. 44.

[51] 4th Duke of Leinster in ‘Residences and Castles of the Duke of Leinster,’ p. 96.

[52] The attainder is detailed in a lengthy appendix to the Duke of Leinster’s history, p. 302.

[52a] Tradition holds that Silken Thomas was a hot-headed young man who, already agitated by news from England that his father, charged with treason, was being interrogated in the Tower of London, then heard a false report that his father had been beheaded. I myself thought this was the case but have since realised that is not correct. That version of events was   written by Dublin-born chronicler, Richard Stanihurst, tutor to the Wizard earl of Kildare’s children, who was seeking to make the whole rebellion a consequence of a series of unfortunate events, blaming the ‘brainless boy’ Thomas, rather than a deliberate effort to reassert Geraldine power and, simultaneously, to put some brakes on the Tudor conquest.

[53] p. 171-173 of Some account of the ruinous ecclesiastical edifices, forts, castles etc., with notes of modern events connected with the Queen’s County and County Kildare. (M. C. Carey, Maryborough, 1901).

[54] ‘State Papers: pt. III. Correspondence between the governments of England and Ireland, 1515-1546’ (G. Eyre and A. Strahan, printers to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, 1834), p. 251.

[55] 4th Duke of Leinster, p. 149.

[56] State Papers Published Under the Authority of His Majesty’s Commission: pt. II. Correspondence between the king and his ministers, 1530-1547, ‘Audley to Crumwell, 1535’ (His Majesty’s Commission for State Papers, 1830), p. 446. The full quote was that: ‘ther shold never be good peax and ordre in Irland, till the bludde of the Garroldes were holy extinct.’

[57] Emmet O’Byrne, ‘O’More (Ó Mordha), Conall,’ Dictionary of Irish Biography (2009) here. According to State Papers, ii, p. 346, 37, quoted by the 4th Duke of Leinster in ‘Residences and Castles of the Duke of Leinster,’ p. 44-45: ‘‘On the 21st March, 1536, it is mentioned: “My Lord Deputtey (Lord Leonard Grey) haythe spoken thes last wyke with O’Mor, and with Mc Morro, at a house of the Kynges, namyd Kylka, and I (F. Herbert) was on that was with his Lordsep ther, and I could not parsew by them bout that they be dessyrrous to have pes [peace]. Also ther cam and met with my Lord, at the same house, my Lord Tressurrer (Lord Butler) and my Lord his father, and they teylt my Lord Deputtey and the counsaylle, that O’Bren entendis to move ware agaynce my Lord of Osre and his contre.”

Lord Leonard Grey then went to Kilkenny, and on his return “sojourned at Leghlyn [Leighlin], from whens he sente Stephen ap Harry to Kilka, to prepare his footemen ordenaunce and victuall, and with all celeritie to repaire to the Castell of Fernes.’

[58] Quoted by the 4th Duke of Leinster in ‘Residences and Castles of the Duke of Leinster,’ p. 45-46.

[59] Lord Walter FitzGerald, ‘Miscellanea,’ Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society, 1895, Volume 1, p. 338. Lord Walter assumed Keenan to be the same man as Nelan who appears to have lived near Rathangan.

[60] National Museum of Ireland Register (NMI DF:1946-47). The accompanying text in the register mainly supplies a description, and it references the comments found in R. B. Armstrong and E. O’Curry (the letter from Petrie). However, the last sentence in the entry will probably be of interest to you as it states: “Purchased for £95. on December 19th 1945 from Greene Brothers and Duthie Large Ltd., Athy. From Kilkea Castle.” The harp was loaned for a “Special Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments” in South Kensington Museum, London (now known as the V&A), which ran from the 1st of June until the end of September 1872.  Michael Billinge adds: ‘Some time prior to the 1960s, the National Museum of Ireland asked the Dublin musical instruments firm McCullough to undertake some “restoration” work on the harp. But as far as I was able to judge, this only really constituted some internal bracing of the soundbox and adding brass strings for cosmetic purposes. Otherwise the harp is basically in the same state as when Armstrong described it.’
Michael adds: ‘There is no basis for the date which is almost invariably quoted (1672). This seems to have arisen out of a misreading of the figures themselves, combined with a general failure to realise that “fecit anno 1215” actually relates to the founding of that branch of the FitzGeralds and not to the manufacture of the harp!’

For images, Robert Bruce Armstrong’s 1904 work, “The Irish and The Highland Harps”, is available here.  Another alternative might be to use one of the drawings made for Lord Walter FitzGerald by William Wakeman, which were reproduced in FitzGerald’s 1915 article, “Descriptions of Two Fitzgerald Harps of the Seventeenth Century”, published in the Journal of the Kildare Archaeological Society.

Autograph letters of George Petrie to Charles William, Marquess of Kildare (aft. 4th Duke of Leinster) re the Fitzgerald harp at Kilkea Castle, 4 Aug., 8 Dec., 1849. Dublin: National Library of Ireland, Ms. 18,850.

See: Michael Billinge, ‘George Petrie and the Kildare harp,’ Wire-Strung, 2012, here, and  the accompanying work by Billinge and Keith Sanger at ‘The Dates on the Kildare Harp’ here.

Michael Billinge, ‘George Petrie and the Kildare harp,’ 2012, here

Keith Sanger and Michael Billinge, ‘The Dates on the Kildare Harp,’ 2012, here.

[61] I think these lands later passed to Sir Henry Harrington. By 1540 the Fratres Cruciferi church in Castledermot comprised a roofless church, dormitory, tower, two halls, three chambers, a watermill and some land. It also had its belfry (now the surviving tower), which served as “a castle for the defence of the inhabitants’.

On 18 June 1576, the Castledermot hospital, with its lands and possessions, including the 3 acres in Kilkea, was granted to Richard Keating, Gent. The hospital was still affiliated to Bray at this time, as it had been since de Riddelsford’s day, while the rectories of Monitermoho and Kylmakrian [??] in Co Galway, considered ‘parcel of the possessions of this monastery,’ were granted to the burgesses and commonnlty of Athenry on 20 Aug 1578.

On 6 May 1581, the priory and its possessions were granted to Henry Harrington, who still owned them when he died on 3 May 1612.

The only portion of this Monastery still standing is the square tower to the north of Castledermot, which later became a Pigeon House. It appears to have also served as a bell tower. However, extensive foundations have been encountered under the surface nearby, including an underground chamber which was discovered when a horse put its foot through it while ploughing the field.

[62] In April 1541, the Hospital of St. John of Tristledermot, or Castledermot, and the Friars Minors of same; the Priory of Gryne [Graney], and the Priory of Themolynbegg [?] surrendered before Walsh, Wynne, and Cavendysh. The Rectory of Fremock [Tremock?], in this county, was also appropriated to the Prior of this monastery. An inquisition from 31st Hen. VIII [1540] says the Priory comprised of a church, steeple, dormitory, ball, chamber, and a store, a cemetery and garden, with 10 cottages and at least 70 acres in the town. Its outlying possessions included ‘an ancient castle and 20 acres arable in Grangefour, alias Grangecoole’ [ie: Grangeforde], and 3 acres in ‘Kilkaa.’ [another Cistercian spot!?]

James Norris Brewer, ‘The Beauties of Ireland: Being Original Delineations, Topographical, Historical, and Biographical, of Each County,’ (Sherwood, Jones, & Company, 1826), Volume 2, p. 44-48.

A valuation of 1536 declared that the priory and hospital of St John, now ‘roofless’ and largely ‘ruinous’, ‘serveth to no purpose’ In April 1541, the Friars Minors of the Franciscan monastery surrendered (as the phrase goes) on the same occasion as did the Friars of the Hospital of St. John. A jury recommended the demolition of the church, cloister and dormitory. The jurors also recorded other parts of the friary such as a tower, two halls, a kitchen, a garden, an orchard, a cemetery, a stonewalled courtyard enclosing three messuages (dwellings with outbuildings lands for use) and fields of 10 acres and a water mill as well as customs

[63] The farmer was named as Graham or Grimes.

[64] ‘By several Inquisitions of the 5th and 10th of August and 20th September, XXX Henry VIII, finds that ye following rectories were appropriated to the Prioress in the County of Kildare : Tristledermot , Kylkakylhelan (Kylkea and Kylhelan, two distinct rectories) plus others.’ John O’Donovan, ‘Letters Containing Information Relative to the Antiquities of the Counties of Ireland: Kildare (Great Britain. Ordnance Survey, 1930).

Castledermot Abbey was full of arches and pillars, beautiful tracery and lancet windows. Considerable remains of this ‘extensive and beautiful’ monastery still exist. In 1837, Lewis described the Abbey as ‘a long building, lighted at the west end by two lofty lancet-shaped windows, and at the east end by a window which, though now greatly mutilated, appears to have been of elegant design. On the south side, and attached to the church, is a low, square tower, with a circular staircase turret; and on the north side, opening into the church by a lofty arch, was the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin, distinguished for the elegance and richness of its windows, of which the principal was a very magnificent window of four lights, with a large cinque foiled circle in the crown of the arch, having the spandrils ornamented in trefoil.’

[65]  “Previous to the sixteenth century Narraghbeg and the surrounding townlands formed a portion of the manor of Kilkea, belonging to the Earls of Kildare …  During the sixteenth century the FitzGeralds of Lackagh had possession of [Narraghbeg], and paid a head-rent to the Earls of Kildare. By an Inquisition held  at  “Lytyl  Norraghe” on the 2nd of January, 1537, it was found that Thomas fitzMorish FitzGerald, late of Balfeaghan, in  the County Meath, and of Lackagh, at the time of his death, on the 4th of August, 1533, was seised of 2 messuages and 200 acres in Lytyl  Norraghe, 4 messuages and 200 acres in Wassiston, 2 messuages and 90  acres  in  Rathscolbyn, and 1 messuage and 140  acres  in  Hoberston, all held of the King as of his manor of Kilkea. Owing to the rebellion of Silken Thomas, the Earl of Kildare’s property was at this time forfeited to the Crown.” (JKAS, 1902, p. 470)

[66] Edward O’Loyne was Constable of Castledermot in 1548.

[67] Judy Barry, ‘Sir Thomas Eustace’, Dictionary of Irish Biography (2009), here.

[68] Peter Crooks and Seán Duffy, ‘The Geraldines and Medieval Ireland – The Making of a Myth’ (Four Courts Press, 2016), p. 336-339.

[69] p. 171-173 of Some account of the ruinous ecclesiastical edifices, forts, castles etc., with notes of modern events connected with the Queen’s County and County Kildare. (M. C. Carey, Maryborough, 1901).

[70] The same man also had the farm of St Mary’s Abbey in Dublin at about half its estimated worth, and a priory in Kilkenny for £10 below its survey price. Ciaran Brady, ‘The Chief Governors – The Rise and Fall of Reform Government in Tudor Ireland 1536-1588’ (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 37.

Confusingly, the ‘Register of Admissions to the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, from the Fifteenth Century to the Year 1944’, Volume 1, p. 184, records a Patrick Peppard, second son of Walter Peppard of Kilkea, County Kildare, as being admitted to the Middle Temple on 22 June 1671, well over a century after Walter acquired the property. The Peppards later lived at Cappagh House, County Limerick. See here.