Considered one of the great heroines of Ireland and the saviour of the ancient house of Kildare, Lady Eleanor FitzGerald was, by Alison Eustace, the eldest daughter of Gerald “the Great” 8th Earl of Kildare.
Eleanor’s father, given the essential rulership of Ireland by King Henry VII, created a fitting match for his family with his daughter’s marriage to Donough MacCarthy Reagh, the head of a powerful MacCarthy sept situated in Carbery. Both the influence of the house of Kildare and Eleanor herself is reflected in the fact that the marriage arrangement insured co-rule for Lady Eleanor over the MacCarthy Reagh, a native Irish house whose origins stemmed back to the Eoghanacht Kings of Ireland (Nicholls, 190). In fact, the desire to please Eleanor was so great that the question of whether or not the traditional bodyguard of the MacCarthy Reagh, the famed MacSweeney gallowglass, would continue in their ancient service was entirely left to her approval (Nicholls, 101). To the great relief of the MacSweeney warriors and their clan, she did approve and they stayed. Along with co-ruling her husband’s house through one of the most turbulent periods in Irish history, she mothered at least four sons, one daughter and was grandmother to the famed Florence MacCarthy the last MacCarthy Mor. However, her prominent place in Irish history occurs in the aftermath of her nephew Silken Thomas’ rebellion against the English crown, when the very existence of her late father’s great house stood on the verge of extinction.
After hearing of the erroneous news of his father’s execution, Gerald “Oge” the 9th Earl of Kildare, in the Tower of London, Silken Thomas laid siege to Dublin, repudiated his allegiance to England and began open communications with the Pope and Emperor Charles V. Terrified by the revolt, the English crown sued for peace and upon hearing that his father had not been killed, Thomas surrendered on the condition that his life would be spared and he would continue his career as vice-deputy unmolested. These terms were violated and both he and his five uncles were arrested then hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in February, 1537. In the meantime, Thomas’ father, the 9th Earl, died of natural causes while still held captive in the Tower of London and suddenly one of the greatest houses of Ireland had no chieftain other than Thomas’ eldest son and 12 year old heir, Gerald. All those who opposed English rule in Ireland now rallied behind the boy earl and after being protected by the O’Brien’s of Thomond for a brief time, young Gerald was conveyed to the protection of his great aunt, the Lady Eleanor.
Now a widow, Lady Eleanor’s son was MacCarthy Reagh and the English were tentative about pursuing the boy Earl into the country of a man who was still considered a royal Prince to the Irish people. Consequently, they put pressure on the earl of Desmond to help, peaceably, procure young Gerald. Buying time for his kinsmen, the earl of Desmond began negotiations with no intention of trusting royal promises and, in conference with Lady Eleanor and her advisors, it was decided by all that the young earl should make his way to the security of the North. The task of this difficult and dangerous journey fell to Lady Eleanor, who had now become a surrogate mother to her great nephew.
The first step in the planned journey became a political marriage with Manus O’Donnell, Lord of Tirconnell, who had long desired the widow’s hand in marriage. Providing he would insure the protection of her great nephew within his powerful northern borders as well as commit to future support of the young earl when he was of an age to fight for the restoration of his ancestral rights, Lady Eleanor agreed to the marriage. With a small guard of honour, she then set out on horseback to traverse the entire length of the island from south to north, while the English deputy in Ireland, Lord Leonard Grey, used all means at his disposal to pursue them.
It is said, that everywhere they went they were met “with the utmost courtesy and hospitality,” the Lords of each territory meeting them at their borders and escorting them to their ancestral castles (Moore,439). The fact that not a word of their journey was ever given to English officials attested to the loyalty the Irish felt to the house of Kildare and when the marriage of Eleanor to O’Donnell was accomplished, there was also a hope that an Ireland united in the cause of young Gerald, might also prove a united front against an increasingly hostile England.
By 1540, however, the anticipated help from the Continent did not arrive and Eleanor had learned that her 2nd husband was planning to betray her great nephew. So Lady Eleanor determined that the boy earl should flee Ireland for the safety of the continent and with “whatever money [she] had at her disposal, Gerald [was] disguised as a peasant of the countryside” then conveyed to the safest port and placed in a small trading vessel that set sail for St. Malo (Moore, 442).
As soon as Lady Eleanor received word that Gerald was safely out of the power of her husband, she confronted O’Donnell. With all her belongings packed, she told him that only the safety of her great nephew had made her agree to marry such a clownish curmudgeon and that since he had proved to be not only a fool but also a butcherly cut-throat the current safety of her great nephew seemed grounds enough for ending such a marriage (Moore, 442). She then turned her back on the “great prince” of the North and returned to her own southern territories.
Lady Eleanor was described by a contemporary historian as “always known and accounted of every man that was acquainted with her conversation of life for a paragon of liberality and kindness, in all her actions virtuous and godly, and also in a good quarrel rather stout than stiff” (Moore, 436). Her efforts to save both her great nephew and the earldom were rewarded fourteen years later when the earldom of Kildare was restored to Gerald as its 11th earl in 1554.
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Moore, T. “The Romantic Wanderings of Gerald, 11th Earl of Kildare.” The Irish Monthly, Vol. 46, No. 542 (Aug., 1918), pp. 433-448. JSTOR. Web. 1 May
Nicholls, K. W. Gaelic and Gaelicized Ireland in the Middle Ages. 2nd ed. Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2003.