(Motto: Spirit & Courage)
County Kildare History
The territory of Kildare, taking in strategically significant parts of the Liffey, Boyne and Barrow River valleys, was first defined as a diocese by the Synod of Raith Bressail in 1111, deriving its name from the monastic community of Cill Dara, which later became Kildare town. However, the area had been an important theatre of events for many centuries before that year. In particular, the Curragh plain had long been used as a gathering place for annual fairs and competitions.
Ptolemy’s map of Ireland of 100 AD, the only pre-Christian record of the area, includes an inland town that may be Rheban on the Barrow River. The estimated date for the abandonment of the sacred pre-Christian site of Knockaulin / Dún Áilinne is 400 AD.
Cill Dara monastery is traditionally said to have been founded in 490 AD; the death of the first abbot / bishop, Saint Conlaed ua hEimri / Conleth, is put at 520 AD, while the foundress Naomh Bríd / Saint Brigid is believed to have expired on the 1st February one to five years later. Her cult as one of three ‘national saints’ of Ireland was promoted from c.633 AD by Faolán mac Colmáin, the first of the Uí Dúnlainge kings of Laighin / Leinster, who claimed descent from Dúnlaing, son of Enna Nia.
Following the death of Aed mac Colggan at the Battle of Ballyshannon on 19 August 738 AD, the Uí Dúnlainge dynasty divided into three kindreds, amongst whom the kingship of Laighin / Leinster rotated from c.750 AD until 1050. Fourteen Uí Meiredaig kings (later to become the O’Tooles) were based at Máistín / Mullaghmast, nine Uí Faelain kings (later the O’Byrnes) were based at Nás na Ríogh / Naas, and ten Uí Dúnchada kings (later the Hiberno-Norman FitzDermots) were based at Líamhain / Lyons Hill.
The early C9th AD death of Saint Diarmait / Diarmuid, anchorite scholar and founder of Castledermot, created a second major monastic site. In addition to several smaller ecclesiastical communities, there were also about 50 local saints associated with pattern days and wells in the territory.
Vikings raided Cill Dara monastery in 833 AD for the first of sixteen times; the second and most destructive raid followed three years after, and all of the territory’s monasteries fell victim to such attacks sooner or later over the next two centuries.
The power of the Uí Dúnlainge waned after the Battle of Gleann Mama in the north of the territory in 999 AD and the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. After the death of Murchad Mac Dunlainge in 1042, the kingship of Laighin / Leinster passed to the Uí Cheinnselaig sept based in the south east.
Diarmait Mac Murchada / Dermot MacMurrough, erstwhile king of Laighin / Leinster, forced the abbess of Cill Dara to marry one of his followers in 1132 and replaced her with his niece, Sadb ingen Gluniarainn Meic Murchada, whose office was deprived of its traditional precedence over bishops by the Synod of Kells in 1152. In 1170 MacMurrough’s Norman allies under his son in law Strongbow removed the last remnant of the Uí Dúnlainge dynasty from power and divided the territory amongst themselves: Naas Offalia went to Maurice Fitzgerald, the Barony of Carbury to Meyler FitzHenry, the Norragh to Robert FitzHereford and Salt (Saltus salmonus – Salmon Leap) to Adam FitzHereford. In 1210 the “Liberty of Kildare”, including parts of what are now counties Laois and Offaly, became one of original twelve Norman counties of Ireland.
The establishment of a Cistercian Abbey at Monasterevan in 1189 and an Augustinian priory in Naas in 1200 brought new monastic traditions to Kildare. In 1202 Meyler FitzHenry founded Great Connell Augustinian priory, set to become one of the finest in medieval Ireland. In 1223 the last Gaelic bishop of Kildare, Cornelius MacFaelain, was succeeded by Ralph of Bristol, and control of the church remained thereafter in Norman or English hands.
The Norman landholders built motte & bailey castles and Tower Houses all over the county. Some of the most notable included the castles at Kildare town, Maynooth, Rheban, Rathcoffey, Kilteel, Carbery and Grange.
Hiberno-Norman literature includes the “Song of Dermot and the Earl“, written in Norman-French c.1200-25, which mentioned parts of Kildare, and the early C14th “Kildare Poems“, amongst the earliest written documents of English in Ireland, thought to have been composed by Franciscan monks from Kildare.
In 1247 the Liberty of Kildare was assigned to Sybilla, fourth daughter of William Marshall and Isabella, heiress to Strongbow and Aoife; Sybilla was already dead, so title passed to her daughter Agnes, who was married to William de Vesci. In 1290 their son William succeeded to the Lordship of Kildare, but was soon involved in a bitter feudal dispute with the increasingly powerful FitzGerald dynasty; he surrendered the territory to the Crown in 1297, when “County Kildare” was formally shired and defined as such by an Act of King Edward I.
Shortly afterwards De Vesci fled to France, and John FitzThomas FitzGerald, 5th Baron of Ophaly, was created Earl of Kildare in May 1316.
The Irish Parliament sat in Naas on twenty occasions between 1255 and 1484, twelve times in Castledermot between 1264 and 1509, and there were also sittings in Kildare town in 1266-67 and 1310, in Ballymore Eustace in 1390 and in Great Connell Priory in 1478. King Richard II took the submission of Irish chiefs at Great Connell Priory in 1395.
Gearóid Mór / Garrett / Gerald “the Great” FitzGerald, 8th Earl of Kildare, was made Lord Deputy in Ireland by King Edward IV, and, despite having been a Yorkist supporter during England’s War of the Roses, retained the post under the new Tudor monarch, King Henry VII. Together with Edmond Lane, Bishop of Kildare, and the Prior of Great Connell Priory, he participated in the 1487 coronation of the young pretender Lambert Simnel in Dublin, for which he was pardoned by the king, who is said to have remarked “if all Ireland cannot rule this man, let him rule all Ireland”. Gearóid was careful to build alliances with powerful Hiberno-Norman and Gaelic families across the country, and was also one of first to use modern weapons in Ireland, importing six handguns from Germany for his personal guard and deploying cannon to destroy Balrath Castle in County Westmeath. In 1504 he defeated Clanricard and O Bríain in Knockdoe, County Galway, the most important battle of his career. The Great Earl built Athy Castle to secure his southern frontier in 1506, but died there in 1513 from gunshot wounds received in an engagement with the O’Mores.
Gearóid Óg (“Young”) FitzGerald, 9th Earl of Kildare, succeeded his father as the most powerful man in the country, and also served as Lord Deputy. An erudite Renaissance Man, he established the nucleus of a university at Maynooth in 1518. However, accused by powerful rivals (principally the Butlers of Ormond) of plotting against English rule, he spent eleven years in all as King Henry VIII’s prisoner in the Tower of London.
In February 1534 Gearóid Óg was once more recalled to London, leaving his 20-year-old son “Silken” Thomas in charge. Falsely informed that his father had been executed, Thomas declared rebellion on 11th June. In 1535 the FitzGerald strongholds of Maynooth Castle and Rathangan were bombarded and taken by Crown forces, forcing young Thomas to submit in October, by which time Gearóid Óg was dead; despite a guarantee of personal safety, the 11th Earl was executed along with five uncles in London in 1537. Thomas’s 12-year-old brother Gearóid / Gerald was smuggled via Donegal and France to Italy, where he was brought up in exalted circles and kept safe from assassination.
The FitzGerald lands were confiscated and the biggest share-out of Kildare land since the Norman conquest took place, coinciding with the Dissolution of the Monasteries after King Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church.
The Diocese of Kildare saw conflict between rival bishops; the Papal appointee Thady Reynolds refused to break with Rome and continued to minister while William Miagh was named in opposition by King Henry VIII; some later documents refer to his 1550 successor Thomas Lancaster as the first Protestant bishop of Kildare, perhaps because he was the first married prelate in the post, and also more Lutheran in his convictions than his predecessor. When the Crown turned back to Roman Catholicism under Queen Mary I in 1555, Thomas Leverous became the first native Kildare bishop in 400 years, but was deprived of his see when he refused to take the Oath of Allegiance in 1588 to the new Queen Elizabeth I, who was declared an illegitimate heretic by the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis in 1570. This made it harder for Ireland’s landed families of Norman descent to be simultaneously loyal to the monarch and also to be observant Roman Catholics; those who remained faithful to Rome became known as Old English, to distinguish them from newer arrivals who conformed to the state religion.
Gerald FitzGerald, 11th Earl of Kildare, was restored to his ancestral title and possessions. Known as “the Wizard Earl”, he led a reclusive life in Kilkea Castle studying alchemy; his role in political events is still disputed.
Queen Elizabeth I granted charters to Naas in 1568 and Athy in 1613. In 1576 the earliest record of grazing rights on the Curragh named Robert Bathe as the beneficiary. In 1580, during the Second Desmond Rebellion, 200 Spaniards who had arrived in Smerwick in the Dingle Peninsula as part of the 1579 Papal invasion force and marched to Naas were massacred by the English crown forces at Fód Spáinigh. In 1581 Fr James Eustace and Fr Nicholas FitzGerald were executed in Naas , thus becoming Roman Catholic martyrs.
Kildare suffered greatly in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, which began in Ireland with the 1641 Rebellion. The early fighting in Kildare saw small bands of Irish Catholic rebels attacking English troops and Protestant settlers, followed by a punitive government expedition in early 1642 led by the Earl / Marquess of Ormonde, who burned the town of Lyons Hill, gave Naas over to his soldiers to plunder, reduced Kildare cathedral to ruins through cannon-fire and sent parties to burn Kilcullen, Castlemartin, and “all the county for 17 miles in length and 25 in breadth”. Most of the Kildare landowners participated in the Kilkenny Confederacy, but a Confederate army under Lord Mountgarret was defeated by Ormonde at the Battle of Kilrush on 15th April 1642.
English forces were weakened by the outbreak of the English Civil War, the recall of many of their troops and the split of the remaining troops between Royalists and Parliamentarians. The latter were the more hostile faction to the rebels, and the first Ormonde Peace, a ceasefire between Royalists and Confederates, was signed at Jigginstown House in Naas on 15th September 1642. The ceasefire broke down in May 1646 and Confederate forces marched through Kildare to besiege Dublin. The Royalists then handed the capital over to Parliamentarian troops in 1647 and the Confederate armies tried to eliminate this hostile force. Owen Roe O’Neill took Woodstock Castle in Athy briefly in 1647. Thomas Preston’s Confederate troops also took Maynooth Castle in that year and hanged its garrison. However, Preston’s Leinster army was destroyed, losing 3000 killed at the Battle of Dungans Hill, on the road between Maynooth and Trim in August 1647, crippling Confederate power in the area. Kildare landowner and Confederate cavalry officer Garret Cron Fitzgerald was killed early in the battle. In 1648 Owen Roe O’Neill refused to ally his army with Ormonde’s royalists and the moderate Confederates, and engaged in a brief war with them which fatally weakened the rebel cause.
Oliver Cromwell began a thorough re-conquest of Ireland in 1649. In 1650 Naas and Kildare surrendered to Cromwellian forces. Cromwell’s Dublin-based commander John Hewson took Ballisonan Castle by force. Athy and Castledermot were captured without opposition. Confiscated lands were redistributed under the Adventurers Act.
The Roman Catholic diocese of Kildare first united with Leighlin Diocese to the south in 1676. Bishop Mark Forstall was arrested in 1678 and again in 1681 for ‘having exercised papal jurisdiction.’ The last Catholic bishop to reside in Kildare was James Gallagher, who spent much of his reign in hiding near the Bog of Allen.
The Williamite War ended with the Treaty of Limerick in 1691, and further estates in Kildare forfeited included those of Talbot, Dongan, Tyrrel, Eustace, Trant and Lawless, who had supported the losing Jacobite cause.
Kildare enjoyed prosperity during the C18th, as the focus of economic life turned to the large landed estates and market towns. While much of Ireland had a problem with absentee landlords living and spending their rents in Dublin or London, most Kildare landlords lived on their land and reinvested more of their income locally.
The powerful Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, William Conolly, built what was then the largest private house in Ireland at Castletown House, Celbridge in 1722-28. Henry Boyle Carter purchased and started rebuilding Castlemartin near Kilcullen in 1730. The La Touche family erected Harristown House in 1740. The 19th Earl of Kildare began reconstruction of Carton House near Maynooth in 1739, and his son became Duke of Leinster in 1766; Newberry Hall was erected c.1760 for Arthur Pomeroy MP, later Lord Harberton; and a branch of the influential Ponsonby family built Bishopscourt House in 1790.
New industries were largely started by Quaker families, the first major project being established at Ballitore by Abraham Shackleton in 1726. John Wynn Baker opened Kildare’s earliest fully fledged factory, manufacturing agricultural instruments at Loughlinstown, Celbridge in 1764. Celbridge-born brewer Arthur Guinness leased a brewery at Leixlip in 1755 and bought a second brewery at St James’s Gate in Dublin in 1759. Robert Brooke, assisted by a £25,000 grant from the Irish Parliament, built a cotton mill and town of 200 houses at the newly named town of Prosperous in 1780. John Cassidy established a distillery in Monasterevan in 1784.
In 1729 Ireland’s first turnpike road was created from Dublin to Kilcullen, and over the next few years others were developed, largely in line with today’s main roads. The advent of arterial drainage allowed the bogs of the northwest of the county to be reclaimed for agriculture. Work on the Grand Canal began in 1756 and reached the Kildare border in 1763, while the southern branch known as the Barrow Navigation reached Athy in 1791, and the Royal Canal was dug from Dublin along the north of the county the 1790s, but was never a commercial success. Both canals were seriously affected by the advent of railways in Kildare from the 1840s.
The 1790s saw anti-militia riots in riots in Kilcullen and Ballitore, and Lawrence O’Connor was executed in Naas for plotting against the English administration in 1795. In December 1797, 1,500 guns and 3,000 bayonets were captured on a boat on the canal at Athy.
The 1798 Rebellion received widespread support in County Kildare. The first shots were fired at mail coaches seized at Johnstown and Maynooth. Kildare rebels attacked Kilcullen and Prosperous, but were repulsed at Naas and Clane, and a force under William Aylmer was eventually defeated at the Battle of Ovidstown Hill on 18 June. 350 surrendering prisoners were slaughtered in the Gibbet Rath massacre at the Curragh despite an initially successful effort by General Dundas to defuse the rising with a policy of mass pardons. In turn, the two loyalist garrisons at Rathangan were also slaughtered after surrendering.
The fighting in Kildare did not end until mid-July, when William Aylmer surrendered in exchange for a safe conduct pass abroad; he subsequently served in the Austrian army, led a group of Irish volunteers to help Simon Bolivar’s independence struggle in Venezuela, and died in Jamaica in 1820.
Kildaremen recruited by Michael Quigly participated in Robert Emmet‘s a brief 1803 uprising; Maynooth was the only town successfully seized by the insurgents (July 23–25), while others marched under Nicholas Gray to Thomas Street in Dublin to participate in the ill-fated rebellion. Emmett’s uniform was later found at Rathcoffey. The most prominent victim of the Emmet rebellion, Arthur Wolfe, Lord Kilwarden, was buried at Oughterard in Ardclough.
One outcome of the rebellion was the establishment of a temporary military encampment at the Curragh in 1805. In 1816 a new town came into being with the building of a military barracks near a bridge over the River Liffey called Newbridge. In 1855 a permanent infantry encampment was built on the Curragh, visited on several occasions by members of the British Royal Family and scene of a famous officers’ mutiny in 1914.
Maynooth, the site of a ‘college’ in 1518, was re-established by the government as a seminary for Roman Catholic lay and ecclesiastical students in 1795, and from 1812 functioned solely as a seminary. Not uncoincidentally, 1812 was when Clongowes Wood College near Clane was founded by the Jesuit order as a prestigious secondary school for boys.
County Kildare assumed its current borders in 1836 when it was reassigned three detached sections of County Dublin (including Ballymore Eustace) and one detached district of Kings County (the western Harristown and Kilbracken), while a detached district of Kildare, around Castlerickard, was reassigned to County Meath.
Kildare did not participate in the Cabbage Patch rebellion of 1848 or the Fenian uprising of 1867, though John Devoy was born at Kill. Incidents in the Land War such as the Clongorey evictions politicised the largely agricultural county. Home Rule Members of Parliament included Charles Henry Meldon, James Leahy and James Carew, owner of the Leinster Leader and founder of the Irish Independent newspaper.
Dónal Ó Buachalla, who led a column of volunteers from Maynooth to participate in the 1916 Easter Rising, was the last (very low profile) Governor General of the Irish Free State under Eamon de Valera.
Several other Kildare politicians have held high rank, notably William Norton, leader of the Irish Labour Party 1932-60, Tánaiste (deputy Prime Minister) 1948-51 and 1954–57; Gerry Sweetman, Fine Gael Minister for Finance 1954-57; Alan Dukes, Minister for Finance in Garrett FitzGerald‘s government 1982-86 and leader of Fine Gael 1987-90; and Charlie McCreevy, Fianna Fáil Minister for Finance 1997-2004 and EU Commissioner for Internal Market and Services from 2004 to 2010.
County Kildare’s highest points are the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains bordering to the east, Cupidstown Hill on the border with Dublin, and the better known Hill of Allen in central Kildare.
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