“Black magic operates most effectively in preconscious, marginal areas. Casual curses are the most effective” – William S. BurroughsYou probably woke up this morning thinking, “It would be great to be a 16th Century Irish Earl.” No? Just me, I guess. Turns out it might not have been such a good gig after all. Sure, it beat being a peasant what with the starvation, poverty, and general lack of hygiene, but it had its share of headaches. Well, beheadings actually, but I figure that’s on the far end of the range of possible headaches. Starting in the 9th Century, you had those pesky Viking raids on the coast of Ireland. From about the 11-14th Century, Norman invasions from England were fairly regular, but declined due to the arrival of the Black Death. Not exactly a good bargain, but it did have the unexpected consequence of ending centralized English authority in Ireland outside Dublin and The Pale, until England’s King Henry VIII decided to declare himself King of Ireland in 1542 and initiated the mid-16th Century Tudor conquest. Rather presumptuous, but what good is it being king if you don’ take a few liberties? That didn’t work out so well for the Fitzgeralds of Kildare. One might say it inclined them to look for supernatural solutions to their problems, culminating with the exploits of Gerald Fitzgerald, 11th Earl of Kildare (1525–1585), also known as “The Wizard Earl”.
Now, it ain’t easy being a Fitzgerald, despite being Welsh cousins to England’s Tudor dynasty. Maurice Fitzgerald, Lord of Lanstephan arrived in Ireland during 12th Century Norman invasions and ultimately opted to go native. Lots of unpleasant Fitzgerald deaths ensued for the next few hundred years. Gerald’s father, the 9th Earl of Kildare died in the Tower of London where he had been imprisoned, to be succeeded by Gerald’s brother, known as “Silken Thomas”, the 10th Earl of Kildare who led an insurrection against the English, only to be hung at Tyburn in 1537 (along with five uncles). At the tender age of twelve, Gerald became the 11th Earl of Kildare. This was not a particularly auspicious turn of events as he immediately had to go into hiding to avoid a fate similar to most of his close relatives. Basically, assuming the title of Earl of Kildare significantly shortened your life expectancy. Luckily, the Fitzgeralds were tough guys, and popular among the locals, so despite being on the run, Gerald was able to form “The Geraldine League” with the powerful O’Neill, O’Donnell, and O’Brien clans and raise a ruckus. The English nonetheless stomped on the Geraldine League at Monaghan in 1539, and Gerald fled for his life to the Continent where he was offered protection from Henry VIII by Frances I of France and Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire.
Now an earl without and earldom, Gerald nonetheless used his time productively, intensively studying under the tutelage of the Bishop of Verona, the Cardinal of Mantua, the Duke of Mantua, and Cardinal Reginald Pole, soaking in the knowledge and flavor of the Italian Renaissance, as well as fighting alongside the Knights of Rhodes against the Turks in Tripoli. Hearing that Henry VIII was dead, in 1547 he returned to England and the new king Edward VI restored his Kildare properties to him, followed by Mary I regranting him the official title of Earl of Kildare, after which he returned to Ireland. Unfortunately, England was firmly in control and their local representatives in Ireland had no love for the Fitzgeralds, rather routinely accusing Gerald of treason (he was thrown in the Tower of London twice). The only thing that saved his life is that Queen Elizabeth thought he was cool and on both occasions summarily dismissed the treason charges.
While in Europe, Gerald had developed a keen interest in alchemy and sorcery, presumably because when most folks would like to see your head on a pike, you are wise to cast about for some strategic advantages. Mastering strange occult disciplines must have seemed like a prudent move at the time, which ultimately made his detractors think twice about starting trouble. “He was known as ‘the Wizard Earl’ on account of his practicing the black art, whereby he was enabled to transform himself into other shapes, either bird or beast according to his choice; so notorious was his supernatural power that he became the terror of the countryside” (Seymour, 1914, p224). It also didn’t hurt Gerald’s sorcerous credentials that he was rumored to have been nursed by a fairy as a baby.
Gerald’s wife, commonly identified as Mabel Browne, daughter of Sir Anthony Browne, Master of the Horse in the Court of Edward VI, was well aware of her husband’s preternatural proclivities. Don’t let anybody tell you different. Chicks dig magic. And if you dabble in the dark arts, you can double down on that “bad boy” appeal. And after all, if you’re going to marry a wizard, it’s reasonable to expect the occasional magical amusement as a side benefit. Mabel asked Gerald to amaze her with some supernatural shapeshifting.
The earl for a long time resisted her solicitations; but no refusal could overcome the lady’s persevering petitions. At last, he warned her not to persist in her request, because if he should comply with it, and change his shape, she must be greatly terrified. Then he would be obliged to leave her forever. His wife declared she had nerve and affection sufficient, not to feel afraid in his presence; under whatever form this transmigration might take place. His remonstrances proving vain, the earl finally yielded, and prepared to exhibit his skill in necromancy. He then changed his human form into the shape of an enormous eel, or serpent, which wound itself round the castle, and in and out through its windows. Next, its head issued through the window of the enchanted chamber, but protruding therefrom, his features appeared so monstrously deformed and hideous, that his wife completely lost her presence of mind, raised a loud scream, and instantly fainted. Away flew the earl, and never more was he seen by the countess or his retainers, within the Castle of Kilkea (O’Hanlon, 1870, pIX).
Traditionally, when sorcery backfires, it does so spectacularly. This was no exception as whatever governing committee is responsible for the regulation seemingly decided to put a kibosh on this sort of wizardly nonsense and make an example of poor Gerald Fitzgerald, placing him under an enchantment.
It is said that he and his knights lie in an enchanted sleep in a cave under the Rath of Mullaghmast, and that once in seven years, for a short time, the enchanted sleep is lifted, and they have then to issue forth, gallop round the Curragh, visit Kilkea Castle, and then return to Mullaghmast. On one occasion, in the heel of the evening, shortly before 1898, a blacksmith named Martin Murphy was driving an ass-cart from Athgarvan to Kildare. On the way across the Curragh he overtook a travelling tinker, and gave him a lift. As they jogged along, collogueing together, their conversation was interrupted by the sound of horses galloping behind them; they both looked round, and were terrified at seeing approaching them a troop of men clothed from head to foot in armour, led by a knight on a white charger. The leader then halted his troop, and rode forward to where the two terrified men had pulled up by the side of the road. On reaching them, he asked the blacksmith to inspect the state of his charger’s shoes. Martin Murphy, plucking up courage, dismounted from the cart and examined each shoe, which, he was astonished to notice, were of silver, and as thin as a cat’s ear; however, the nails were sound, and so he informed the knight, who, after thanking him, rejoined his men and galloped on. When they were alone again, Martin Murphy did not let the grass grow under his ass’s hoofs, and soon reached Kildare, where he related his recent adventure, and was corroborated by the tinker. An old man, who was listening in the wonder-struck crowd, suddenly exclaimed: “Be the hokey farmer, boys, it was Gerod-Eerla himself was in it” and he spoke the truth (Fitzgerald, 1899, p12-13).
The popular understanding of this encounter is that Gerald Fitzgerald, 11th Earl of Kildare is doomed to wander the Earth every seven years until such time as the silver shoes on his horse are worn away, at which point he can sally forth into the great beyond. This punishment seems a tad severe for trying to please one’s wife, but as sorcerers tend to be a surly lot, it’s not really a surprise. It’s unclear what the moral of the story is here. Maybe, “Shapeshifting is all fun and games, until someone loses an eye?” At any rate, it does suggest there is a preternatural regulatory body out there that looks askance at the use of terrible magical forces for the entertainment of one’s spouse. Perhaps the Earl’s dabbling in the Dark Arts was inadvisable, and he would have succumbed to some monstrous preternatural fate either way, but as Red Skelton observed, “All men make mistakes, but married men find out about them sooner”.
Fitzgerald, Walter. “The Curragh and It’s History and Traditions”. County Kildare Archaeological Society. Journal of the Co. Kildare Archaeological Society And Surrounding Districts v.3. Dublin, E. Ponsonby, 1899.
O’Hanlon, John, 1821-1905. Irish Folk Lore: Traditions And Superstitions of the Country, With Humorous Tales. Glasgow: Cameron & Ferguson, 1870.
Seymour, St. John D. True Irish Ghost Stories. Dublin: Hodges, Figgis & Co., Ltd, 1914.