An Encyclopedia Of The Irish Folk Tradition


By Dr. Daith O Hogain




FITZGERALD,GEAROID  IARLA (1338-1398) 3rd Earl of Desmond, leader of the Munster branch of the Geraldines, the most powerful Norman family in late mediaeval Ireland.  The surname was gaelicised as Mac Gearailt.  He succeeded to the Earldom in 1358, and served two periods as Chief Justiciar for Ireland.  Popularly known as Gearoid larla ('Gerald the Earl'), he was a leading example of the gaelicisation of the Norman lords, and was a noted composer of love poetry in the Irish language.  The annals state that 'Ireland was full of the fame of his wisdom'.

Lough Gur in Co.  Limerick. where he had a castle, was at the centre of the earldom of Desmond (from Deasmhumhain i.e. 'south Munster'), and nearby is Knockainey (in Irish the 'Cnoc', or hill, of Aine).  This Aine was in Gaelic tradition the goddess of Munster sovereignty, and as such was described in an early text as the mate of Ailill Olom, mythical king of the royal Eoghanacht sept.  The Geraldines, as the new Norman overlords of Munster, were not slow to expropriate such symbolism to themselves.  Thus we find the professional poet Gofraidh Fionn O Dalaigh, who was in the employ of the Geraldines in the 14th century, referring to Gerald's father, Maurice the Ist Earl, as 'Aine's king' and to Gerald himself as 'the son of Aine's knight'.  It is striking to find this idea embedded in a story  which was current in the recent folklore of the Knockainey area.  According to this, Maurice was walking one day by the shore of Lough Gur when he saw the beautiful otherworld woman Aine bathing.  He seized her cloak, which act magically put her into his power, and then lay with her.  In this way Gearoid laria was conceived, and when he was bom Aine appeared at the castle of the Earl to present the child to him.


This story is in reality a conflation of two distinct traditions - the Gaelic one whereby the Munster king lies with Aine, and a Continental  legend  which tells of how certain great families had a swan-maiden ancestress.  The conflation must reflect actual policy of the Geraldines themselves, who wished to place their Norman heritage within a Gaelic framework.


Another Continental legend which became applied to Gearoid larla was that which told of  a  >swan-knight' and was quite popular in French, German, and English literature of the late Middle Ages.  This tells of a knight who appears in a boat accompanied by a swan, marries a lady, but goes away with the swan again when she breaks a taboo by asking about his identity.  In the folklore of Gearoid Iarla, it takes the form of a taboo which Aine puts on Maurice not to show surprise at anything his son does.  When Gearoid grows up, he shows his magical agility by leaping into a bot­tle and out of it again, and the father shows astonishment.  At that Gearoid leaves the castle, enters the water of the nearby Camogue river, and swims away in the form of a goose.  An old saying in Irish refers to how island-geese never return to the same habitat, and since an island on Lough Gur was known as Gearoid's Island, the proverb was claimed to r-efer to this episode.  The story, however, contradicts the mass of the folklore con­ceming Gearoid larla, which accords with history in having him succeed to the earldom and gain fame in that position.  It must have been attracted to him because of its similarity to the kine-story, not earlier than the 16th century, for it was at that time that the most celebrated motif concerning Gearoid gained ' currency.  This was that he had not really died, but had disappeared from this world in a mysterious manner.


This motif is closely connected with the politi­cal fortunes of the great Desmond family in the generations after the death of Gearoid, their most famous and popular earl.  During the 15th century, the rulers of England grew increasingly nervous of the growing power of the Desmond earls, who ruled Munster like kings.  The Geraldines, however, were astute, and despite continued provocation and even judicial assassination, they managed to maintain their position.  Their prestige was high throughout Europe, and a leading family of Florentine magnates, the Gherardini, claimed relationship with them and kept in close contact with them.  Tension mounted in the early decades of the 16th century, with anti-Geraldine rumours being circulated in England to the effect that they were plotting to invade that country and seize power there.  The other major branch of the Ger­aldine family, that of Kildare, were much to the fore at this time but they were decimated by the English after a failed rebellion in 1534.  In the year 1558 the 14th Earl of Desmond succeeded to the title.  His name was Gerald, the first of the name in his line since the celebrated Gearoid larla.  He was, however, deprived by the English of his vast family estates and himself kept in captivity in London for long periods.  He was allowed to return home to Lough Gur in 1573, but immediately began to take a defiant pro-Irish stance and within a few years had joined his cousin in rebellion.


Hopes ran high, and messianic prophecies were circulated to bolster the Geraldine campaign.  Remnants of these prophecies in later folklore show that the new Gearoid larla was being por­trayed as embodying the great Geraldine spirit of his ancestral namesake.  From their contacts in Florence, they would have heard the lore of the messianic Emperor Frederick 11, who had died in 1250 but who was claimed to be alive and waiting to return, and there are several indications that legends of that Emperor became embroiled in the minds of the Geraldine supporters with the hoped­ for return of their fortunes through the agency of a Gearoid larla.  Thus popular fancy began to claim that the Gearoid larla of olden times had not died at all, but had disappeared mysteriously from one of his castles and was waiting to return at the hour of the family's greatest need.  In line with the image of Frederick also, Gearoid was said to have been a great scholar who dabbled in magic, and so one particular legend grew up to explain how he had disappeared.  It was said that, in his castle at Lough Gur, he had a secret room in which he used to perform magic spells.  His wife grew curious, and asked to be allowed to witness a per­formance.  He warned her not to utter a sound while the magic was in progress, no matter what she saw.  Then he began to assume different shapes, one of them so frightful that she screamed.  The taboo was broken, and the whole castle sank to the bottom of the lake, bringing with it Gearoid and all his household.  He therefore was said to dwell underneath the water, enchanted until the opportune time for him to return and restore all as before.


The central messianic legend was of greater import.  Versions of this are found throughout Europe concerning different great figures of his­tory, but in Gearoid's case it seems to have been a direct borrowing from Frederick.  It is said that a man was passing by Lough Gur one night, when he saw a light in the side of a hill there.  He went to investigate, and found the entrance to a cavern, in which he saw an army of knights and horses all asleep.  There was a beautiful sword on the floor, and as the man began to draw it from its scabbard the army began to awaken.  Finally its leader, Gearoid larla, asked in a loud voice had the time come yet, but the man took fright and ran away.  The army fell to slumbering again, and the entrance to the cavern could not be found later.


The second Earl Gerald of Desmond, in his­tory. was not a very competent military man, and by 1583 his cause was completely lost and he him­self treacherously slain.  The sequel to this disas­trous rebellion was the devastation of Munster by the Elizabethan armies, so that an annalist felt obliged to state that 'the lowing of a cow or the voice of a ploughman could scarcely be heard from Dunquin to Cashel'.  The great affection for the Geraldine family, however, lived on, as did the hope that one of them- would free the country.  There are repeated references to this mystical belief in literature and social documents from the 17th to the 19th centuries. and the legends of Gearoid's enchantment and of his sleeping army are still told.  An alternative telling claims that the enchanted earl rides around Lough Gur on mid-summer night once every seven years.  He is moun­ted on a fine white stallion shod with silver shoes. and when these shoes wear down he will return.  Variants of this corpus of lore have been told for several centuries also concerning the Earls of Kildare (q.v.) and concerning the ONeills and O'Donnells in Ulster and a chieftain called Donall O Donnchu at the Lakes of Killarney.  It is clear that in these cases the corpus has been borrowed from the lore of the Desmond Earl.


Munster folklore has assimilated other legends of magic and the otherworld to the context of Gearoid larla also.  Two such legends of Continen­tal origin concern his magical practices.  According to one, he, with his kinsman Black David FitzGerald and Donall O Donnchu, learned magic from the devil at a secret school.  The devil deman­ded as payment that one of them should stay with him, but they each told him to 'take the man behind me and he ended up with nothing but the shadow of Donall.  The other legend tells of how Gearoid was riding from his residence at Castle­island in Co Kerry one day, and as he passed through the town a magician looked through a window and put a spell on him.  As a result, the Earl and his horse were sinking into the ground, but Gearoid quickly used his own magic to put a pair of homs growing on the head of his assailant.  The latter could not withdraw his head through the window because of the homs, and Gearoid would not remove the homs until the other spell was also withdrawn.  Several stories tell of Gearoid's appearances, such as visiting a black­smith late at night to have his horse shod (see Donn), or meeting a benighted horse-dealer and inviting him into his castle under the lake to dis­cuss a sale with him.  Gearoid is also reputed to protect the environment at Lough Gur, and other stories tell of how he caused the horse of some local tyrant to bolt, with serious or even fatal injury to its rider, after the latter had planned to drain the lake or forbid access to it by local people.,


Gearoid Mac Niocaill in Studia Hibernica 3, 7-59; Laimhbheartach Mac Cionnaith (1938), 201-6; David Fitzgerald in Revue Celtique 4, 186-99; PAd­raig 0 Siochfhradha (1932), 42-4, 53-4; Daithi 0 hOgain (1985), 78-86, 141-57, 329-30, 335-7 and Bealoideus 42 -44, 213-308 and in Sciobh 4, 234-59.

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