Kilnananima: A Grave Legend of Gerald, Earl of Desmond

Gerald, The Rebel Earl of Desmond, was beheaded in 1583 thus signalling the fall of the great Earls of Desmond in Munster.  His troubled soul in ghostly form was said to haunt his grave at Ardnagragh where once stood the principal stronghold of the Fitzgeralds.[1]


Legends of the life and times of the Earls of Desmond abound, and the version that follows, published in the 1840s, inevitably alludes to the Great Famine that then prevailed as the ghost of Gerald rises from the grave to warn people of the approaching hunger.[2]


In the dead of night, the spectre of Gerald, accompanied by ‘Aeolian minstrels piping loud,’ visits Brosnan the blacksmith to shoe his horse with the strongest steel.  When the blacksmith proceeds to measure the horse’s hoof he grasps ‘a limb of air.’


The ghostly Earl then relates his grim message to the blacksmith who, when he later tells of the ghostly occurrence, is treated with derision.  Brosnan however insists it was the wounded spirit of Gerald he encountered because ‘the scar across his throat he saw.’


The legend demonstrates how in the mid nineteenth century, almost three centuries on from the slaying of Gerald, the people still sought the leadership of Desmond, and at no time more than in the grip of famine.


A Legend of Desmond

Stormy his life, and full of ill,
Stormy and bloody was its close –
Ev’n in the grave the Desmond still
’Tis thought, knows little of repose.

For when the sky is wrapt in cloud,
And pipes the wind through chink and hole,
’Tis said, he walks forth in his shroud, 
Aeolian minstrels piping loud,
A Requiem to his troubled soul.

Of late, too, in that year of woe,
When on our land came blighting first,
Fore-runner of that heavier blow, 
That laid the bloom of Erin low,
And her famed Root of Plenty cursed –

In that same year of earlier blight,
Ere yet September’s fatal frost
Had sear’d our fields – by pale moonlight
There came a strange mysterious Knight,
All shadowy, as in a ghost.

At a lone smithy he alighted,
And in a tone, sepulchre-deep,
He call’d, as Traveller benighted,
The Man of Iron from his sleep.

Up sprung the sleeper in a thrice,
And peer’d abroad at the unknown;
Look’d at him once, but look’d not twice –
It almost turn’d his blood to ice,
To see that stranger’s eye of stone.

‘Tend my good steed,’ the stranger cried,
‘Make haste, and speed me on my way,
Let all your implements be plied,
Let the four elements provide
Well-temper’d steel, for I must ride
Full many a mile ere break of day.’

Vulcan would fain have kept aloof,
But to refuse he could not dare;
He stoop’d, and essay’d to take proof
And measure of the charger’s hoof,
When lo! he grasp’d a limb of air.

Next moment fell these words of awe
Upon his ear, like funeral dirge;
‘From o’er the hill of Ardnagragh
I come, on journey to Iveragh,
To herald an approaching scourge.

The tillage yesterday in bloom,
And ripening in the harvest sun,
Is sentenced to a withering doom;
Already has the plague begun.

On Erin’s Root this year of woe
The frost shall breathe its searing breath
Next year shall fall the fatal blow
On man himself, and lay him low –
Famine, the angel grim of death.

The curse of Cromwell shall seem light,
And light that scourge, Elizabeth,
Compared with this impending blight,
And in its train, Disease and Death.’

No more poor Brosnan heard or saw,
But lay bereft of sense or action;
Benumb’d with cold, heart-sick with awe –
Some indeed hinted, ‘Usquebagh,’
But that came from the Connor faction.

He stoutly swore, and still would swear it,
’Twas Desmond’s ghost from Ardnagragh;
None other than that wounded spirit –
The scar across his throat he saw.

I heard, and smiling, heard the while,
The story of that ghostly warning;
But now, alas! I cannot smile –
The threaten’d woe has curs’d our isle –
And turn’d my sceptic smile to mourning.

That warning voice has proved too true,
Whoe’er may treat it with derision –
And many an orphan child may rise
Many a childless parent too,
The burthen of that midnight vision.[3]


Brosnan the Blacksmith is awoken by Gerald on horseback (left) and (far right) is unable to shoe his ghostly horse.  In the centre, ‘An Appeal to the Landed Proprietors and others in the District of Castleisland’ made in Castleisland Committee Room, October 19 1846.  Signed by Chairman, William Meredith, and Secretary Rev F R Maunsell, Rector of Castleisland.


The Grave of Gerald, Earl of Desmond


Kilnanamina, the ancient burial ground at Ardnagragh, is where, according to tradition, the headless body of Gerald was interred.  The fate of his head remains the subject of scholarly debate.  The tomb of the Desmonds is marked: ‘The burial place of David Fitzgerald of Adravale.  Erected by his sons, William, David and Robert AD1818.’


In 1913, historian Jeremiah King gave the following genealogy of those named on the tomb under title ‘John David Fitzgerald of Adrivale House,’ observing that ‘Old David of Adrivale was probably the lineal descendant of the Barons of Castle Island and the tomb of the Earls in Cil do’n Anim-Ardrdragrach was renovated only in 1818’:


1818 David FitzGerald of Adravale.  David of Adravale married Kate Twiss, daughter of Big Billy Twiss of Baile Beag, Dromulton and had issue:


William, the Councillor at Law, lived at the old mill, Cnocrour [Knockrower] and at Lohercanon, Tralee.  He married Miss Minnett and had two sons, David of the Mills and Robert.  William married secondly Ann Atkins and then went to Canada with some children.  David of the Mills also went to Canada.  Robert possessed the land until recent years.  Had a family of sons and daughters who went to Canada.  His daughter Kate married Dr Gubbins of Limerick.  Robert himself died at home at the Stand House, Commeenabuho.


Robert, son of David of Adrivale, lived at Tralee and went to Australia.  He was Harbour Master at Tralee for many years.  Lived at Day Place House (now occupied by police).  He had a son Robert, who is now Surveyor-General of New South Wales; also a daughter who married a Rev Mr Fox and lived at Balmaine, Sydney.


David, son of David of Adrivale, was a famous solicitor at law, practising at Tralee, Cork and Dublin, and lived at Lodge, near Cnocreagh, where he died.  Married Arabella Collis of Lismore House, Tralee, daughter of Captain Collis and left issue.[4]


Fitzgerald genealogy further discussed in the following articles, ‘Fitzgerald of Adraval’ and ‘Fitzgerald of Adraval and Knockrower’


[1] Ardnagragh Castle is discussed in ‘Hunted: Pursuit of Gerald, ‘Rebell of Mounster,’ 1581 to 1583,’ published on the Castleisland District Heritage website and reproduced in the fundraising journal, Earls of Desmond (2022) pp73-76. 

[2] The journal Earls of Desmond (2022) produced by Castleisland District Heritage carries notes on all Earls of Desmond with accompanying illustrations by Noel Nash.  See the publication tab on this website for details.

[3] This composition, published in the Kerry Evening Post on 16 September 1848, is mentioned in ‘Apes, Geese and other Enchantments: The Earls of Desmond in Legend’ published on the Castleisland District Heritage website ( and reproduced in the fundraising journal, Earls of Desmond (2022) pp69-72. 

[4] King’s genealogy (Kerryman, 5 July 1913) gives the descendants of David Fitzgerald, son of David, as follows:

1. David who married Fanny Foster of Cuil O’Socht (no issue)
2. William of Cnocrour who married Kate Quinlan and had issue: Kate (married Tom Brosnan) issue: 1. Patrick, Cunocaubau 2. Katie, Castleisland. .Arabella (married Martin Murphy of Fussa, Killarney) issue: 1. Mary Anne 2. Kate, now of Killorglin. Cherry (married Cornelius Brosnan of Adrivale) issue: Katie, Honora (married P Flaherty of Galway); Mary, Maurice, William, Thomas, Cornelius, Patrick, Robert (went to Australia), Thomas, David, Margaret (married John Hegarty), Agnes.
3. Thomas of Dublin, Civil Engineer, did not marry. 
4. Kate married Doctor O’Brien, Limerick. 
5. Agnes married Rev O’Brien, Limerick.

Further reference, ‘Fitzgerald of Adraval’ and ‘Fitzgerald of Adraval and Knockrower’