Lord Walter Fitzgerald, of Kilkea Castle, was the driving force in the first decades of the 20th Century in the Kildare Archaeological Society. He was an extraordinarily diligent researcher into local history and archaeology and a prolific writer on these subjects.
The journal of the Kildare Archaelogical Society, for a period of 30 years up to his death in 1923, is replete with his learned writings on a variety of subjects to do with the county’s history. As well as being in an assiduous enquirer into local history, Lord Walter spent much of his time scouring the countryside in South Kildare for the physical remains of the areas history. Frequently on his forays into the countryside he would come across an artefact or monument long forgotten about.
In a time when archaeology was yet to achieve the significance it now has enshrined under our National Monuments Acts he carefully assembled those forgotten aspects of the county’s history. In early 1894 he was pursing his researches into the history of Narraghbeg, which is approximately a mile and a half to the North-East of Castledermot. Like much of the land in the area Narraghbeg and the surrounding townlands had formed a portion of the manor of Kilkea belonging to the Earls of Kildare, the Fitzgerald family.
Lord Walter came across the remains of a memorial cross in Castledermot which had been erected to the memory of a John Fitzgerald of Narraghbeg. The centrepiece of the cross was found in the garden of a Mr. Patrick Farnan at Bolton Castle, 3 miles from Castledermot, where it appears to have been used for a flower stand. A further piece was actually found in the grounds of Kilkea Castle, a third piece was discovered lying inside the round tower of Castledermot, the fourth piece was being used as a headstone at the west end of Castledermot Churchyard while the final piece was discovered when the wall of a haggard was being repaired in Castledermot. Lord Walter had the fragments brought together and deposited safely at Kilkea Castle in 1894 for the purpose of their protection and their future study.
What is extraordinary, apart from the distribution of the parts of the cross about Castledermot is the very fact that so many of them survived in such close proximity to each other.
As is traditional in funerary sculpture of this era the cross exhibits a number of the traditional symbols that you would find in such sculptures. There are a number of saints represented on the cross including Saint James, Saint Andrew and Saint Thomas but the principle scene on the shaft of the memorial cross is the crucifixion. This shows Christ on the cross with the traditional symbols of the crucifixion being the lance, ladder and the sponge, all elements in the final hours in the life of Christ. Just below the scene of the crucifixion on the cross is the Virgin Mary. What is striking about the cross is the quality of the sculpture at a time when only the very wealthy would have been in a position to afford commemoration in this form in a graveyard.
It is just about possible to decipher from the remaining portions of the cross that survive the inscription that runs as follows “this cross is erected by Ellen Tallon for herself and for her husband John Fitzgerald of Narraghbeg gentleman, may God have mercy on his soul who died the 11th of April 1620 desiring you all to pray for them”. A slightly ironic touch at the rear of the inscription on the far side of the shaft of the cross is the quote “this world is vanity”, a self deprecating remark by those whom the cross commemorates.
We know very little about John Fitzgerald and his immediate family saving that he was a lesser member of the Earls of Kildare’s family and he died on the 11th April 1620. He lived at Narraghbeg house which by Lord Walter’s time was a ruin.
He had made a will on the 22nd of February 1619 setting out how he wished his estate to be disposed of. He appointed his wife, Ellen Fitzgerald as his executrix of his will and directed that his body was to be buried in the Parish Church of Kilcake. Lord Walter surmised from the fact that two parts of the cross were present in Castledermot Cemetery that his wife, Ellen, had not followed his wish that he be buried at Kilcake, which was probably Kilcock in the parish of Kilrush.
Ellen was given the task of ensuring that Fitzgerald’s estate was distributed according to his wishes under his will. Fitzgerald was careful in ensuring that his wife was adequately looked after and with this in mind he gave to his wife his farms in Narraghbeg, Hobbartstown, Ballyvas and Roscolvin on the understanding that she would ensure that his daughters Ellen and Elizabeth were adequately looked after. He also left to his wife his cattle, his corn and all his household items.
An important consideration for a father in the 1600’s, of John Fitzgerald’s social standing, was that his daughters would be left with an adequate dowry and in his will he left them properties in both Kildare and Carlow presumably to ensure that any suitor that came knocking on the Fitzgerald household would be suitably encouraged by the dowry available.
There is nothing extraordinary in John Fitzgerald’s will but the normal concerns of a father, of any era, to ensure that those he leaves behind are adequately provided and cared for, but what is remarkable is the memorial cross erected by this grieving wife to mark his passing, a rare survival from the seventeenth century.
Of the five pieces of the cross recovered by Lord Walter Fitzgerald two have gone missing in the intervening 100 years. The three surviving fragments of the cross are kept in Athy’s Heritage Centre and is just one of the many remarkable elements of this area’s history which on display there.
Lord Walter is commemorated by the Lord Walter Fitzgerald prize which is awarded biannually by the Kildare Archaeological Society for an essay of original research on some aspect of the county’s history. The closing date for the 2005 prize is the 30th of September 2004 and entries should be submitted to the Honourary Editor, Dr. Raymond Gillespie, Department of Local History, NUI Maynooth, Co Kildare.