We confine our remarks today to Medieval Tralee, but we begin our walk at the County Library in Moyderwell which houses a contemporary copy of the Charter of 1612. There are very interesting Medieval resonances to be found in the Charter, especially the use of Christian feast days to frame the official year of the new Corporation provided for under the Charter. Thus, the Provost is to be elected on the Nativity of St John (24 June) and installed at Michaelmas (Feast of St Michael the Archangel, 29 September). The annual Fair is to be held on the feast of St James the Apostle, July 25: therefore, Tralee like Dingle can lay claim to St James, the inspiration for the Camino to Santiago in Galicia.
Tralee has been justly described as a western Outpost of the Angevin Empire, the empire of Henry II, the invader of Ireland, and his successors, comprising Normandy, Anjou (hence Angevin) and Aquitaine. From the invasion era itself the founders of Tralee, the southern Geraldines, were cousins of royalty. Nesta, the Welsh princess is the link, wife of Gerald of Wales, mistress of King Henry I. Connections by marriage are made again by later Geraldines with Plantagenet successors of Henry: thus, the grandson of the founder marries “the king’s cousin”, according to state papers of the time. The founder of Tralee was John of Shanid, Shanid being the caput, or principal centre of command, of the Geraldines in west Limerick, the nucleus of the Geraldine settlement in southern Ireland and the point from which the invasion of Kerry was launched. We are in the years immediately after 1200; and 1215 is the date usually given for the founding of Tralee.
We can be more confident about the date of the town’s Dominican foundation. John of Shanid established the Friars Preacher in Tralee in 1243: Holy Cross. At least this is the date that appears in the consulted sources, and though the great Castlegregory antiquarian William Maunsell Hennessy posited a much later date – offering 1291 – Hennessy must be in error, for in 1253 the Pope sanctioned the election of Christianus, described as “a friar Preacher from the convent of Tralee” as the next bishop of Ardfert (Kerry) in succession to Bishop Brendan (this Brendan not to be confused with the patron saint of the diocese). Of the town’s appearance we can get a considerable impression from the Desmond Survey, conducted when the Geraldine earls of Desmond were suppressed in the 1580s. One of the features described, and a characteristic of Norman towns, is the long main street: “Several other Burgages and gardens there, being in the streets and broadways called the Burgess Street and Great Castle Street, and others within and without the said town … which were worth per annum in rents from ancient times in the money called half-face, to be paid at the aforesaid feasts of Easter and Michaelmas in equal portions fifteen marks, making of English money per annum £13 6s. 8d.”
John of Shanid (he and his father are also known as the lords of Connello, which is one of the big territorial divisions of west Limerick) guarded, therefore, the western outpost of the Angevin (Anjou, France) empire for his king, Henry III. It was a reduced empire since Henry’s father lost Normandy in 1204, but Henry hoped to regain Normandy. In the circumstances, Henry was content to – in our contemporary jargon – “outreach” the governance of Ireland to his Irish vassals, including Kerry (yes, the county of Kerry appears from this time) to John of Shanid. Henry III’s brother-in-law was King (Saint) Louis of France, the great Crusader king. These later Crusades tried to protect the Christian kingdoms in Syria and Palestine against the Muslims, who had been driven from those areas when the first Crusades (launched before the invasion of Ireland) took place. The new mendicant orders of Franciscans and Dominicans can be linked to the Crusade phenomenon (St Anthony, of Lisbon and later Padua, went to the Holy Land, for example; the early Dominicans are linked with the persecution of the Cathar Christian sect around Carcassone in southern France). The mendicants’ more authentic mission was to evangelise the new towns now appearing throughout Europe.
At the junction of Castle Street and Denny Street we find ourselves on the site of great Castle of Tralee, the heart beat of the Liberty jurisdiction of Kerry granted to the Geraldines when they were elevated to the earldom of Desmond. More of that anon. The Castle is already there when John of Shanid’s death is announced, a memorable day for that and another reason. John and his son were killed in battle with the MacCarthys of the south at a place called Callan (near Kilgarvan). Hence John is more commonly known as John of Callan. The year was 1261 and the Geraldine heir was a babe in arms, Thomas by name – Thomas an Appa by tradition from the following tale. It seems that when news of Callan reached Tralee the community there became distracted and agitated, and a pet ape stole the infant Geraldine from his cradle and took him to the top of the Castle. With difficulty, the ape was persuaded to come down and return the child to safety. The legend of An Appa was born. But he is a well attested historical figure as well. He it is who received a murage grant to wall the town in 1286, the grant consisting of the collection of certain customs for a period of seven years. (Antiquarians doubted if the construction ever commenced, and modern archaeology has left us no wiser.) Thomas An Appa married Margaret Berkeley, described in the state papers as “the king’s cousin”; and Thomas spent a good deal of his adult life in London trying to secure the transfer of his inheritance. His inheritance included the territory of Decies (modern CountyWaterford) which had come to his grandfather, John of Shanid/Callan, by marriage to Margaret FitzAnthony. He eventually succeeded before he died in 1298, and he served a late term as the King’s Irish governor, or justiciar as they called him in that period. The acquisition of Decies and other territories to the east is going to provide a considerable distraction from Kerry for the descendants of the founder of Tralee. Their future reach would cover all of north Munster.
The jewel in the crown of medieval Tralee is surely the former church of the Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem, now the parish church of the Church of Ireland, on Ashe Street. In the time of John of Shanid and Callan the Crusade to the Holy Land benefited from the support services provided by certain orders of military monks. The best known of these were the Templars and the Hospitallers. A flame was said to light the way for travellers to the Hospitaller house in Tralee, and from this it got its name: Teampall an tSoluis (Solus, Ir. light). It was a daughter house of the great Hospitaller foundation at Any in County Limerick. Sir Richard Boyle, the outstanding personality (some would say land grabber) of the second Munster Plantation, which happened after the suppression of the Geraldine earls of Desmond in the sixteenth century, married Joan Apsley, whose father – another Munster Planter – had been granted (we might say grabbed) Any and the land around. So Boyle became the owner of Any, and claimed the Hospitaller house in Tralee. (The village of Hospital lies near Any, now Knockainy).
We will have more to say about the Crusades and the Hospital. Thomas An Appa’s son Maurice became the first Earl of Desmond. The title was created during an interregnum in consequence of the coup d’etat against King Edward II led by his wife, Queen Isabella, and her lover Sir Roger Mortimer. The grant of the earldom is dated the 27 August 1329. When the interregnum ended and the young Edward III ascended the throne (Mortimer suffering a gruesome execution), the new king promptly rescinded the earldom of Desmond. But as soon as he got used to the crown he restored the earldom. Earl Maurice would take full advantage of Edward’s absence in France, for the Hundred Years War was about to begin and Edward was a claimant not just to Normandy and Aquitaine but – in right of his mother Queen Isabella, who was a princess of France – to the throne of France itself.
We are now in the world of Froissart’s Chronicles, the outstanding narrative of the early phase of the Hundred Years War. Gascony was the southern division of Aquitaine and the struggle over Gascony a century earlier, in the time of John of Shanid (Callan), yielded a royal marriage between Eleanor of Castile (Spain) and (the future) King Edward I of England, whose blood would now flow in the Geraldine earls of Desmond from the marriage of Earl Thomas’s son Gerald. Gerald, better known as Gearóid Iarla, married Eleanor Butler who was a descendant of that Spanish marriage to an English king.
Gearóid Iarla is said to have lost his life near Castleisland when he departed the Geraldine castle there one night never to return. He is a mythological figure and the most beloved of all the Geraldine earls. Some of the legend of the famous German emperor Frederick II, from the time of John of Callan, is merged with that of Gearóid, the wide erudition of both in mathematics and linguistics included. The news of Frederick’s exotic court at Palermo (Sicily) may have been transmitted to the Geraldines by their cousins of Florence, the Gherardini. The families corresponded, and some of the correspondence survives, including the parts in which they ponder the possibility of their shared Florentine ancestry. But they may have corresponded about Emperor Frederick as well. Frederick (d. 1250) went on Crusade but he earned the hostility of the Guelph faction in Florence and other cities in northern Italy, as well as the hostility of the Pope and the poet Dante. A nineteenth-century essayist compared the Geraldine earls of Desmond to the Guelphs because Gearóid Iarla’s successors became more and more estranged from the crown of England.
An outstanding example Gaelicisation was Gearóid’s son Earl James, the seventh earl. James signed the Treaty of Castleisland 1422 with the other great Anglo-Norman invader family of Kerry, the FitzMaurices of Lixnaw (it survives verbatim in Archdeacon Rowan’s Kerry Magazine), in which the over-lordship of the Desmonds is agreed and confirmed. The Treaty is written in English, but the trend to Gaelicisation, including the use of Irish among the Geraldines, has become irreversible. Gearóid wrote poetry in Irish. His son was fostered among the O’Briens. His son’s successors married Irish wives in clear departure from the precedent of their Geraldine ancestors.
The building on our right as we enter the Square of Tralee from Lower Castle Street used to house the old CountyJail and the Court House. An old, date 2 April 1744, contains a reference to “the old BridewellBridge”, the “old bridewell” apparently sitting on part of a bridge called “BridewellBridge”, which spanned the open river at that point. By 1744 the Denny family had long replaced the earls of Desmond as owners of Tralee and district. When some Rightboys broke out of the Jail in the summer of 1786, having killed the jailer, Patrick Hands, it was reported that “the villains completed the breach at which they were at work for some nights before, through the arch, over the river, on which the gaol is built”.
At the end of two Desmond rebellions and the Nine Years War of Hugh O’Neill the Desmond earls were finally overthrown. The Dennys replaced them as owners of Tralee, and Sir Richard Boyle came to own so much of Munster that the province became almost his personal fiefdom. For years to come Tralee was in a state of ruin. Denny became the owner of the Dominican Abbey, much of whose archives were already destroyed by what factions we will never know. The Desmonds had always protected the Dominicans, none better than the father of the unfortunate last reigning Earl, Gerald. At the official Dissolution of the Monasteries during the early 1540s, Gerald’s father, James FitzJohn, had either leased or bought the threatened abbeys, many of which his family had founded, or simply dragged his feet in the implementation of the Dissolution. But in 1600 the Castle of Tralee was in ruins, in such a state of ruin that it could not be occupied by the Denny family until 1627. It would be their residence for 200 years until it was dismantled in 1826 for the creation of Denny Street.
The 1826 press report (Limerick Chronicle) describes also the final removal of the remnants of the old Abbey. Judge Day called it a dreary castle the night he stayed there in September 1808; (his daughter is Lady Denny and he has suffered the sudden loss of his brother): “Even in the stillness of night within the walls of this dreary Castle, whose gloom my poor dear Betsy is wanting to enliven, I often play the whimpering girl in recollecting how abruptly my beloved brother was snatched from me, and therefore I confess I quit a scene without regret where every object serves but to recall the memory of my irreparable loss.” (Judge Day’s diary.)
We move to our final stop, the railings of Day Place, near the new Dominican church, build in the 1860s. Archdeacon Arthur B. Rowan is among the greatest of our antiquarians, and in his Kerry Magazine (1854-56) is to be found the recovery of research, from the British Library and other sources, relating to Medieval Tralee. He connects us with Day Place through his sister Arabella. Arabella married Charles Fairfield who lived at Day Place and they are the ancestors of the writer and journalist Rebecca West (Isabella Cicely Fairfield). Day Place, built around 1800, overlooked the (still uncovered) Big River which flowed past its gates. We see a pier bollard here: according to the Desmond Survey, vessels of up to five tons could come up to this point from the sea. So this was the pier of Tralee. The open course of the river flowing down what is now Ashe Street, past the Medieval Jail and then, what is now, Day Place was not finally covered in before the 1840s – really, about the time the railway reached Killarney before its final leg to Tralee.