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Great Earl of Kildare 'extended English rule over Ireland'

Published: September 12, 2013 at 1:14 pm
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The Great Earl of Kildare, governor of Ireland from 1479 to 1492, extended English rule over Ireland and was not, as previously believed, instrumental in building a ‘blended race’ of Irish and English.


That is according to professor Steven Ellis, head of humanities at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

In a conference later this week Ellis will outline his argument that, rather than working to promote Irish customs and harmonise the peoples of medieval Ireland, the 8th Earl of Kildare extended English rule.

Ellis explained: “In the early years of the Irish Free State (the state established in 1922 in the 26 counties of Ireland following Partition in 1920, now known as the Republic of Ireland) the ‘Great Earl’ of Kildare was considered as a champion of Home Rule and an 'uncrowned king' of Ireland, whose dispassionate handling of native and foreigner did much to remove inherited differences between the peoples of medieval Ireland and to build a 'blended race'.

“In fact, I argue that his legacy was to build up 'the English Pale' (the part of Ireland that was directly under the control of the English government) as an international frontier, recovering much land from 'the wild Irish', and extending English rule over a wider area of Ireland.”

The 8th Earl of Kildare was a member of the Anglo-Norman Fitzgerald, or Geraldine family.

Perhaps the most important Anglo-Norman dynasty established in Ireland in the late 1160s, by the end of the Middle Ages Geraldine earls of Kildare dominated much of the southern half of Ireland.


The 8th Earl of Kildare was governor of Ireland from October 1479 to May 1492. From September 1496 until his death in September 1513 he was deputy-lieutenant, or justiciar.

Ellis maintains the earl exploited his authority as governor to build up the Pale – for example, he promoted legislation which required those with land “within the precinct of the English Pale” to ride in a saddle in the English manner, and not to use Irish weapons.

He also strengthened his defence system of castles, and used what Ellis describes as “rhetoric of difference” – vocabulary of English civility versus Irish savagery.

“This divided Ireland schematically into a ‘land of peace’ – exemplified by the English Pale, where the king’s loyal English lieges lived in civilised towns and villages – and a ‘land of war’ which lay beyond the Pale (so the origin of the term) where lurked the wild Irish,” he said.

“The earl was certainly very happy to deal with the Irish – he had Irish servants – but he ensured that many of them were ‘sworn English’; that is, they took the oath of allegiance to the English crown. They came in on his terms.”


The conference, entitled The Geraldines and Medieval Ireland – The Making of a Myth, will take place at Trinity College Dublin on 13 and 14 September. To find out more about the conference, which is free to attend, click here.


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