The Geraldines and medieval Ireland: the making of a myth

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

Four Courts Press
ISBN 97801846825712

Reviewed by: Eamon Darcy

By the nineteenth century the Geraldines, despite being among the original ‘conquistadors’ of Ireland in the twelfth century, represented ‘the essence of all things Gaelic … and the struggle for freedom from English rule’. This enduring perception is a testament to the extensive mythology surrounding the Geraldines that began almost immediately from their involvement in Ireland and was deliberately cultivated and refined in the later Middle Ages. Such stories were later ransacked for political and polemical purposes, with little consideration given to the immediate contexts that produced them. Thus this edited collection of essays aims to subject the literary and historical evidence that underpins the ‘Myth of the Geraldines’ to rigorous scholarly analysis. Considerable credit is due to the contributors and editors because the book’s fifteen chapters cover a broad chronology of Irish history with a clear and engaging focus despite describing a ‘variety of experience’.

The first six chapters investigate how the various families who descended from Gerald of Windsor established themselves as key political figures in Ireland. In the beginning, their experience of building and maintaining castles in Wales proved invaluable. Their earliest fortifications reflected a burgeoning family identity, an issue that also shaped the contemporaneous work of Giraldus Cambrensis. Interestingly, the dedication to the 1210 recension of his Expugnatio Hibernica (1189) reminded the English King John of the centrality of the Geraldines to his rule in Ireland and denigrated rival families. Giraldus’s careful crafting of his maternal family’s identity was undoubtedly selective and became a ‘source of family pride’ and a valued history of their family to later generations of Geraldines. This illustrates the creation and cultivation of one of the earlier Geraldine ‘myths’ and shared identity.

The editors note in a short preface that two key themes emerge throughout the volume: adaptability and identity. A good example of these themes can be found in the treatment of the Desmond branch by a number of the contributors. Chapters by Robin Frame and Peter Crooks illustrate how the fortunes of the Desmond earls of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were entwined with English courtly politics. By the sixteenth century, however, the Desmond earls had cultivated significant contacts on the Continent to enhance and protect their patrimony. Thus they were increasingly viewed with suspicion, particularly in light of the confessional tensions that plagued Europe after the Reformation. David Edwards’s thought-provoking reassessment of the causes of the second Desmond rebellion refocuses our attention on the tensions between the fourteenth earl of Desmond and the English Queen Elizabeth’s colonial officials in Ireland. Coveting his landholdings and resentful of his influence, they alleged that Desmond was a militant Catholic, which undermined the relationship between Elizabeth and Desmond. These allegations profoundly shaped subsequent historiography, which presented Desmond’s actions as a defence of the Catholic faith as opposed to a desire to protect his estates, as argued convincingly by Edwards. At the same time, as detailed in Katherine Simms’s superlative chapter on the Geraldines and Gaelic culture, Irish poets consequently downplayed the Anglo-Norman origin of the Desmond earls and proclaimed them as deliverers from Ireland’s newly arrived English ‘Saxon’ foes. Although the flexibility of Geraldine identities and their adaptability to new political contexts is hardly surprising or unique, a great strength of this collection is that many of the chapters offer greater clarity to these complex issues.

It is difficult to do justice to an edited collection of essays of this size and calibre in a short review. This book will undoubtedly prove invaluable to this and future generations of researchers as a useful reference for the cadet branches of the Geraldines as well as the Kildare and Desmond families. On a related note, the collection as a whole provides a wealth of information about the Geraldines and their worlds, from their establishment in Ireland to later political intrigues, the lives and libraries of the later earls of Kildare, and their relations with the Irish, and finishes with a consideration of their legacy in the nineteenth century. Most importantly, long-held historical beliefs are challenged. As a telling example, Ciaran Brady’s chapter offers a forensic examination of the creation of the myth of Silken Thomas. This story of Silken Thomas proved popular among Irish nationalists in the nineteenth century, when Thomas and his followers were depicted as valorous men, replete with embroidered silk livery, ready to face Crown forces with unflinching bravery. Contemporary evidence from the 1530s does not mention Thomas’s soldiers wearing silk, and Brady demonstrates meticulously that this part of the myth was a deliberate fabrication by Richard Stanihurst some 43 years later to discredit the Kildare family and portray Thomas as soft and unmanly. Thus we see how the circulation and interpretation of the many myths about the Geraldines could evolve and adapt over time—a recurrent feature of this volume. In short, The Geraldines and medieval Ireland is a stunning contribution to the history of the Geraldines that combines rigorous scholarship with refreshing insights that add further nuance to our understanding of broader historical and historiographical debates.

Eamon Darcy is the author of The world of Thomas Ward: sex and scandal in late seventeenth-century County Antrim and teaches in the Centre for Teaching and Learning in Maynooth University.


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