Charting the emergence of the landscape around Kilkea Castle from the end of the last Ice Age through the establishment of the ringforts at Mullaghreelan and Mullaghmast, as well as St Caoide’s church, to the eve of the Cambro-Norman conquest.
Following the Cambro-Norman conquest of Leinster in the late 12th century, the lands around Kilkea and Castledermot in County Kildare were granted to Walter de Ridelesford, a man with strong links to the Knights Templar. The original stone castle – once among the most formidable in Ireland – was built by Hugh de Lacy in about 1180. Within a hundred years, the manor had been divided between Walter’s female heiresses, Christiana De Marisco and Emmeline Longespée, which would bring the House of FitzGerald into the mix.
Arising from nowhere, Sir John Wogan became the most influential man in Plantagenet Ireland, for which King Edward II of England gifted him Kilkea Castle and its manor lands. The castle would also be of much interest to the FitzGerald family, now Earls of Kildare, not least with the Pale itself becoming one of the bloodiest battlegrounds on the island of Ireland.
In the 1420s, Kilkea Castle 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 Tudors came a sensational but disastrous rebellion that would bring the FitzGerald elite to the brink of extinction.
5 – The Geraldine Age, Part II (1537-1773) – Resurrection
The FitzGeralds rose from the ashes with the remarkable return of the Wizard Earl of Kildare in the 1550s. Despite a litany of premature deaths, his successors managed to ride out the turmoil of the 17th century intact, extending Kilkea Castle along the way. The castle also served as a Jesuit novitiate for 12 years before being extended in the 1660s. In the 18th century, the great-great-grandson of the Fairy Earl would become the first Duke of Leinster.
During the late 17th century, Kilkea Castle was occupied by a series of well-to-do families before the FitzGeralds’ move to Carton. In the century thereafter, the dissolute Henry Dixon and the duplicitous Tom Reynolds did not bode well, and Kilkea would be the scene of high drama during the 1798 Rebellion, with Lord Edward FitzGerald centre-stage. Ultimately, it would find calm under the Caulfields before the FitzGeralds resumed control of Kilkea once more.
In the 1830s, the 3rd Duke of Leinster began a lengthy restoration of his family’s ancient castle at Kilkea, giving it the shape that it has today. For the rest of the century, Kilkea would be home to the Marquess of Kildare. This era, which coincided with the Great Hunger, the Land Wars and the ever-louder call for Home Rule in Ireland, would end with the calamitous – and premature – deaths of the 5th Duke of Leinster and his beautiful wife, Hermione.
The FitzGeralds would face no end of challenges during the opening decades of the 20th century with two tragic deaths and the loss of a huge portion of their ancestral wealth. However, with the birth of the Irish Free State, Kilkea Castle remained home for many FitzGerald sons and daughters through both wars until 1961 when sold by the 8th Duke of Leinster.
In 1961, the Marquess of Kildare – later the 8th Duke of Leinster – sold Kilkea Castle to the Land Commission. There then followed a succession of fascinating owners including an engineer who built most of Northern Ireland’s aeroplane runways, a veteran of the French resistance and the wife of Agent Zigzag, an extraordinary British double agent – as the castle evolved into a health farm and hotel. The castle hotel is now owned and run by Jay Cashman.