Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

Gerald, Earl of Kildare

Of an ancient and noble race, warriors and scholars too, that family of the Geraldines, who had first come to Ireland as invaders, became in course of time more Irish in its ways and customs than the native chiefs themselves. They had intermarried and "gossiped" with the leading Irish families, they had given up their own language and engaged in warfare with the boldest. Perhaps it was their natural love of fighting that made them so beloved by the ancient Irish race!

Gerald, Earl of Kildare, was Lord-Deputy in the time of King Henry VII., who was a usurper and had constant trouble with pretenders to the throne of England. Lambert Simnel gave out that he was a Yorkist prince and gained many friends in Ireland, because there had once been a very popular Deputy from that house. Kildare chose to support Simnel instead of being loyal to the reigning monarch, and in 1487 the pretender was actually crowned as Edward VI. in Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin. Kildare was present at the coronation, a strange ceremony, since the crown was a diadem borrowed from a statue of the Virgin, and the new king was shown to the people on the shoulders of Darcy Platten, the tallest man in Ireland.

Kildare ordered the citizens of Waterford to join Simnel's party, but the mayor was a member of the family of Butler and the Butlers were sworn foes and rivals of the Geraldines. He sent a messenger to Kildare, declaring that anyone who had taken part in the mock coronation was a traitor. Kildare had the messenger hanged, and then gave orders through a herald bearing the arms of Geraldine, that the citizens should proclaim Edward VI. on pain of being hanged at their own doors. The only reply to this threat was to the effect that Waterford would send out men to meet the Deputy's army and save him the trouble of coming to hang them.

Simnel did not gain much ground in Ireland and crossed to England, taking Irish soldiers, who fought valiantly in his cause at Stoke, and met a cruel fate in battle through their scanty clothes and useless weapons. Henry VII. took Simnel prisoner, thanked the men of Waterford for their loyalty, and encouraged them to harass the Earl of Kildare and the men of Dublin by sea and land. Later on, he pardoned the rebels, allowing Kildare to continue Deputy. He called the Irish nobles to his court that they might swear allegiance to him. "My masters of Ireland" was his greeting, "you will crown apes at length." At dinner Lambert Simnel, now the king's servant, had to offer wine to the guests, who were very unwilling to take the cup from him, since they remembered the days when it had been their duty to serve him. At last the Earl of Howth, a follower of Henry VII., asked for the cup, saying, "I shall drink it off for the wine's sake and mine own sake also and for thee; as thou art so I leave thee, a poor innocent."

Henry made the Irish nobles linger at his court till they were nearly ruined by the expense, then dismissed them with a gift to the only loyal man of three hundred pounds in gold, and the robe he had worn when he received them.

As soon as Kildare returned to Ireland, he quarrelled with his old enemy Sir James Butler. Various friends tried to patch up this quarrel by arranging a meeting in St. Patrick's Cathedral. Sir James came with peaceful intentions but was seized with panic and barred himself in the Chapter House out of reach of the enemy. Kildare promised not to injure him, and thrust his hand through a hole in the door, cut for the purpose. When they had shaken hands and Butler opened the door, the two chiefs embraced, declaring friendship. To make amends for the rioting in the church, the Pope ordered the mayor to go barefoot through the town on the day of Corpus Christi, a custom faithfully observed till the time of the Reformation.

In 1492, Kildare lost his position as Deputy and was succeeded two years later by Sir Edward Poynings, an Englishman, sent out to diminish the power of the Irish nobles. At the Parliament of Drogheda, 1494, the famous Act was passed, afterwards known as Poynings' Law, and declaring that no Act in the future was to be passed by the Irish Parliament, unless it had been approved by the English king and his Privy Council. Another provision aimed at Kildare by forbidding the use of war-cries such as "Crom aboo," "Butler aboo," which had been the usual taunts in the quarrels of Geraldines and Butlers. The Parliament accused Kildare of making war on the king and plotting to kill the new Deputy. At his trial in England, Kildare proved more than a match for Henry VII. and was released. One of his accusers exclaiming, "All Ireland cannot rule this man!" the king replied grimly, "Then if all Ireland cannot rule him, he shall rule all Ireland."

Kildare was reinstalled as Deputy and showed some gratitude to Henry VII. His loyalty was so little suspected afterwards that he was allowed in 1503 to take back his son Gerald, who had been left as a hostage at the English Court.

But a Kildare must needs be fighting, and, in 1504, a fierce battle took place at Knocktow between Kildare's followers and William Burke, who had married the Deputy's daughter, "which was not so used as the Earl could be pleased with." A council of war was summoned, including bishops and men of law. O'Neill objected to the presence of bishops at this meeting, "for their profession is to pray and preach, to make fair weather and not to be privy to manslaughter or bloodshed." O'Conor was contemptuous about the men of law, saying that it was a time to discuss with bow, spear, and sword rather than with pen and ink. In spite of disputes, all things were put in order before night came when men lay in camp, "watching, drinking, and playing at cards, who should have this prisoner and that prisoner." The earl's speech to his army was broken by three great cries. "What meaneth this cry?" said he, "do they think we are crows that we will fly with crying?"Then he took a great oath that men indeed should the enemy find when they took to battle, and inspired with fierce anger he gained the victory of Knocktow, over his fellow-countrymen. The English king was so glad to be rid at a blow of 9000 Irishmen, that he rewarded Kildare by making him a Knight of the Garter.

In 1512, the Deputy invaded Ulster, took the castle of Belfast, and spoiled the land far and wide. The following summer he marched against his last enemy and was shot while he watered his horse in a stream.