Gerald Fitzgerald 11th Earl of Kildare was born in 1525. A time of great upheaval and volatility for an Anglo-Irish Aristocrat and especially, for a Roman Catholic. He was the son of Gerald Fitzgerald 9th Earl of Kildare and Elizabeth Grey Countess of Kildare. Gerald was born at a very auspicious time in European history. The light of intellectual liberalism had signaled the end of the dark ages for medieval Europe heralding a time of Scientific and artistic enlightenment and age of discovery - The Renaissance. Gerald would become the ultimate Renaissance man embracing the arts gaining a reputation as an Astrologist, Scientist and Alchemist and It was because of this interest in the emerging sciences that Gerald also gained a reputation as a Sorcerer, practitioner of the black arts and the soubriquet “The Wizard Earl”
Sixteenth century Ireland was a perilous place and like most Irish noble families, the Fitzgerald’s were continuously involved in deadly power games where internecine warfare was rife and political alliances were mercurial. The specter of death would always loom large for the Fitzgeralds; Gerald’s father Gearoid Og had died in the Tower of London in 1534 and three years later Gerald’s brother the 10th Earl known as the Silken Thomas would face a traitors death at Tyburn in London where along with five of his Uncles he was hung, drawn and quartered, leaving Gerald as the sole male Geraldene heir and consequently, a child of 12 with a price on his head “ whose life was sought with avidity equal to Herods”
The Flight of "The Wizard Earl”
The Young Gerald sought refuge with his Aunt, Eleanor McCarthy in Cork before being despatched to Donegal where under the protection of Lady Eleanor o’ Donnell he became a figurehead for an unsuccessful rebellion mounted by a federation of Irish Chiefs. The English Crown offered a “most gracious pardon” which unsurprisingly he chose to ignore.
Fleeing the clutches of the Protestant Monarch Henry VIII and seeking the protection of King Francis of France and Charles V, The Holy Roman Emperor. Gerald decided to leave Ireland with a small retinue of loyal servants and a most generous gift of 140 gold coins supplied by Lady o’ Donnell.
Gerald was intelligent, hardworking and above all very curious and in France, under the patronage of his cousin Cardinal Pole, the last English Roman Catholic Arch Bishop of Canterbury, he received an excellent education. Moving then to Rome and mixing with the religious and intellectual elite. He would inevitably be pulled into the orbit of the powerful Medici family, where he served as Master of the Horse to Cosmo Medici Duke of Florence receiving a yearly salary of 300 ducats.
Love and Marriage
Following the death of Henry VIII in 1547 he visited London in the company of some foreign ambassadors where he attended a masqued ball given by Edward VI and met and fell in love with Mabel Browne an English Roman Catholic who was his brother’s stepdaughter. They later married and returned to Ireland eventually to live at Kilkea castle.
Kilkea Castle - photo credit Marnie Farrell
Death and “The Tower”
In 1552 Edward VI “The Boy-King” restored most of the Fitzgerald lands including the old Norman castle of Kilkea where it was believed that Gerald “The Wizard Earl” practiced magic in a special ‘workroom’ located in the highest tower of the castle. The Roman Catholic Queen Mary would restore the titles of Earl of Kildare and Baron of Offaly to him in recognition for his help in the subjugation of the Protestant rebel Thomas Wyatt. Gerald ever the pragmatist would later at the insistence of Elizabeth l eventually renounce his Roman Catholic Faith probably to defer a charge of treason. This, however, would not save him from a place only too familiar to the Fitzgeralds. He died in 1585 after a period of internment in The Tower of London. But he would at least, escape the executioner’s gruesome talents.
Legend has it that “The Wizard Earl” actually disappeared after demonstrating his magic powers to his wife. On the condition that she showed no fear lest he is dammed for eternity. he first made the waters of the river rise up to her mouth, then caused a Deadman to walk and shake her hand before conjuring up a large hissing snake which coiled its body around her. The Countess remained impassive throughout the ordeal, until finally “The Wizard Earl” turned himself into a bird which flew up and landed on her shoulder and started to sing a most beautiful song……A black cat then pounced and the Countess fainted in shock. “The Wizard Earl” disappeared! Never to return in mortal form. His Ghost, however, returns to Kilkea Castle every seven years mounted on a fearsome white steed shod with silver shoes! The same ghostly specter has also been seen galloping across the Curragh leading a band of phantom horsemen!
The Wizard Earl's Workshop at Kilkea Castle