Earl of Desmond Gerald

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[Ir., OGer. Gearovald, from ger, spear; vald, rule]. Historical (1338–98) Hiberno-Norman nobleman, composer of love poetry, who became 3rd Earl of Desmond (i.e. south Munster) in 1358, and around whom fabulous legends have accrued.

Gerald's conception was magical. His father, Earl Maurice, saw the beautiful other-worldly woman Áine on the shores of Lough Gur, Co. Limerick, which was family property. By seizing her cloak he gained power over her and then lay with her; in nine months Áine presented the son Gerald at the castle door. In maturity Gerald frequently showed his magical ability, but in many stories this power precipitates a mysterious departure. After astonishing his father by leaping in and out of a bottle, he took the form of a goose, waded into the nearby Camogue River, and swam away. More commonly, he grows to maturity and marries, but his wife is curious that he practises magic spells in a private room and asks to see them. In a twinkling he turns himself into a goldfinch who plays at his wife's bosom, until he is pursued by a predatory hawk, which she dashes against a wall, killing it. But the lady cannot find the goldfinch, and Earl Gerald is never seen again. He is thought to live in his castle at the bottom of Lough Gur, it and the entire household having sunk there.

As his family, the Geraldines, Fitzgeralds, or Mac Gearailts, were both highly Gaelicized and powerful, Earl Gerald's interactions with the Otherworld are rife with political implications and have numerous parallels in English, French, and German traditions. Gerald's persona unquestionably grew more prominent in Irish tradition with the Geraldine (Kildare branch) rebellion of 1534 and the failed military career of the 2nd Earl Gerald of Desmond (d. 1583). The story of Gerald's conception has parallels in the affair between Ailill Aulomm and Áine, and Cnoc Áine [Knockainy], seat of Áine, is near Lough Gur. Gerald's story should be distinguished from that of Gearóid [ang. Garret] Óg, the 11th Earl of Kildare, who lies under the rath at Mullaghmast, rising up every seven years to ride round the Curragh of Kildare on a horse shod with silver. International tale type: 766; folk motifs: A560; A571; D150.

See Patrick Kennedy, ‘The Enchantment of Gearoid Iarla’, in Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts (London, 1866).Adapted retelling: R. D. Joyce, ‘Earl Gerald and His Bride’, in Ballads of Irish Chivalry (Boston, 1872).For poems attributed to Gerald, see Gearóid Mac Niocaill (ed.), ‘Duanaire Ghearóid Iarla’, Studia Hibernica, 3 (1963), 7–53.Commentary: Dáithi Ó hÓgáin, The Hero in Irish Folk History (Dublin, 1985), 78–86, 141–57, etc.

Subjects: Religion.

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