Fitzgerald Family Crest, Coat of Arms and Name History

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The Fitzgeralds of Ireland, who are now very numerous, are said to be all descended from the famous Maurice, son of Gerald, who accompanied Strongbow in the Anglo-Norman invasion.  Gerald was constable of Pembroke in Wales and was married to Nesta, Princess of Wales.  Fitzgerald simply means son of Gerald – Fitz (French fils) becoming Mac in Irish, hence the use of Mac Gearailt as the Gaelic form of the name.  There are some thirteen thousand Fitzgeralds in Ireland, principally in Munster, in all classes of life.  Two of the most influential noble families in Ireland are Fitzgeralds.  The dukes of Leinster of Maynooth, Co. Kildare, known in history by their earlier titles of Earls of Kildare, are still extant.  The Munster branch, headed by the Earls of Desmond, were destroyed as a great family by devastating wars of the sixteenth century in which they played a conspicuous and leading part.  Nevertheless, two branches of it have remained without intermission members of the Irish aristocracy, and are known respectively as the Knights of Glin and the Knights of Kerry.  These titles are unique.  Three brothers, sons of John Fitzgerlad, were in the year 1333 created hereditary Knights of Desmond, by virtue of his royal seigniory as a Count Palatine, and their direct descendants still bear these designations; those of the third brother became Fitzgibbons and the head of that family was the White Knight.

So many Fitzgeralds have filled the pages of Irish history that it is impossible here to do more than refer briefly to the most distinguished of them.  Every one of the sixteen Earls of Desmond who held that title between 1329 and 1601 finds a place in Webb’s Compendium of Irish Biography, and similarly, all the twenty Earls of Kildare from 1316 to 1766 (when they became Dukes of Leinster) are mentioned in that work.  They and their families were known historically as the Geraldines.  It is believed that they are of the same stock as the noble Italian family called the Gherardini.  While there are few of these thirty-six men of whom it cannot be said that they made history, two are especially memorable:  Garrett Fitzgerald, the eighth Earl of Kildare (d. 1513), called the Great Earl, had a remarkable life in Ireland as a soldier, Lord Deputy, a supporter of Lambert Simnel, political prisoner, etc.  His adroitness in dealing with successive English sovereigns, with whom he was often in conflict, is typified by one incident. When called upon by Henry VII to account for his action in burning the Catherdral at Cashel he frankly replied that he would not have done so had he not been told that the Archbishop was inside.  It was on this occasion that Henry, on being told that all Ireland could not govern this man, replied “then let this man govern all Ireland.” Garrett’s grandson, Thomas Fitzgerald (1513-1537), tenth Earl, known as “Silken Thomas” on account of the uniform of his gallowglasses, renounced his allegiance to the King of England but, after the resultant campaign, was captured and, to the amazement and consternation of the people of Ireland, was, together with his five uncles, executed by Tyburn, London.  The wife of the twelfth Earl, herself a Fitzgerald by birth, called “the Old Countess,” is the subject of much popular tradition: the romantic stories about her and the belief that she lived to the age of 139 years have been discounted by historical research -she was 100 years old when she died in 1604. Lord Edward Fitzgerald (1763-1798), the famous rebel, was the son of the first Duke of Leinster (i.e. twentieth Earl of Kildare). Another Edward Fitzgerlad was prominent in Wexford in the ’98 Rising.

Since 1411, when the fifth Earl of Desmond settled at Rouen, having abandoned his Irish territory on account of the unpopularity occasioned by his marriage to a beautiful peasant girl, the Fitzgeralds of Ireland have had connexions with France.  In the eighteenth century, they were particularly prominent in the Irish Brigade and the Regiment of Fitzgerald won special renown in the War of Spanish Succession.  The well-known French family of Giraldin is descended from an Irish emigrant called Fitzgerald.

In literature, the best known of the name is Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883), author of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, but his connexion with Ireland is somewhat remote.  Pierce Fitzgerald (1700-1791), the Gaelic poet, however, never forsook his ancient home at Ballymacoda which he retained for his family, as his poems poignantly tell us, by forsaking the religion of his forefathers.

In addition to the spheres of politics and war, Fitzgeralds have distinguished themselves as scientists, surgeons, lawyers, colonial statesmen, and even as duellists.

The ape in the crest and supporters of the Kildare arms is commemorative an incident that occurred in the thirteenth century.  Thomas, the infant son of Maurice Fitzgerald, is said to have been snatched from his cradle by a tame ape which, having carried the child to the verge of the battlements at the top of the castle and terrified the family by the danger involved, safely returned him to his cradle. This traditional story is also related in a slightly different form of the first Earl of Kildare, but as the said Thomas was nicknamed Tomas an Apa, or Thomas Simiacus, it may be ascribed to the Desmonds, if not also to their kinsmen the Kildares.  The war cry of the Kildares was “Crom abu”, and of the Desmonds “Shanid abu”.

Finally, two other branches of the Fitzgeralds should be briefly mentioned.  Those settled in the present parish of Mayo (co. Mayo) were called collectively the Clanmorris and so described in the Annals as late as 1446.  In 1450 their chief is called MacMorris of the Bryes.  Some of the Fitzgeralds in co. Waterford, whose ancestor was baron of Burnchurch, co. Kilkenny assumed the surname Barron.  That name is well known today in that part of Ireland.

-source:  Edward MacLysaght Irish Families Their Names, Arms and Origins

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