GERALD FITZGERALD, known as Gerrold Mor or Gerald the Great, the eighth earl of Kildare (1456-1513), was the most powerful man in Ireland for over thirty years. A descendant of one of the original twelfth-century Norman invaders, he called himself an Englishman, married the cousin of an English king, and was rewarded for his services to the crown with that most English of orders, Knight of the Garter. Although he spent part of the year 1495 imprisoned in the Tower of London as a traitor, this had more to do with his support of the House of York during the War of the Roses than with anything Irish. A year later he was reinstated as the king’s deputy (governor) of Ireland. It was a post he would hold until his death in 1513 from a gunshot wound, making him one of the first—if not the first—major Irish political figure to end a career that way.

The earl was first appointed deputy in 1478 by Richard III. It was a sign of his importance—and usefulness—that he was reappointed by Henry VII, the first Tudor king, who had killed Richard at Bosworth Field to win the crown. Henry is quoted in the sixteenth-century Book of Howth as saying of Gerald, “He is meet to rule all Ireland, seeing all Ireland cannot rule him.”

A dramatic example of Kildare’s power at work was the Battle of Knockdoe (Axe Hill) in 1504, when Gerald mobilized half of Ireland to defeat his son-in-law, Ulrick de Burgh (or Burke). A domestic reason given for the confrontation was that Ulrick had been abusing Gerald’s daughter, but it is more likely that the king’s deputy’s call to battle was triggered by Ulrick’s seizure of the city of Galway and some of its surrounding castles. At first glance, it looks as though it was a fight between the east and the west: Kildare’s forces from what was called the English Pale versus Connacht. But it was also a north-south clash, with the earl of Kildare’s support coming from the northern families and Burke’s from the southern.

The gathering was huge for an Irish battle, with probably more than ten thousand men involved. Both sides used Scottish mercenaries called gallowglass. On August 19, they met at Knockdoe, a low hill just northeast of Galway. This is the first Irish battle in which firearms are mentioned, although there is no mention of a gun being fired. (Spears and darts were the Irish weapons of choice, the Scots favored battle-axes, while the English preferred arrows and swords.) A soldier from Dublin is simply described as using two hands to bash an enemy over the head with one.

A mural in Abbey Knock Moy, located on the edge of the Knockdoe battlefield.

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