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Secret meeting marks Kildare sequel to Flight of the Earls
Each year seems to have its big anniversary theme which sets the scene for a programme of recreations, seminars, and commemorations. Just nine years ago Ireland marked the bicentenary of the 1798 Rising with much pageant and re-enactment. Last year it was the 90th anniversary of the 1916 rising which formed the backdrop to a year of recollection and revisiting of a formative event in the story of modern Ireland. For 2007 the anniversary theme was grounded a little further back in time, centring around the episode eulogised in song and in story as the ‘flight of the earls.’   This departure of the leading lights of the Irish elite in September 1607 prompted a rich programme of events, festivals and commemorations. Unusually for a major historic event the details of where and when it happened are specific and well recorded. On 16 September 1604 a vessel left the coast near Rathmullen on the shores of Lough Swilly in county Donegal: on board were the elite of indigenous Irish society such as Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell; Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, the Maguire of Fermanagh, and their retinues of advisors, military chiefs and scholars. Their hasty departure was the result of plot and counterplot in the struggle for power between the Irish chiefs on the one hand, and the British government represented by the Lord Deputy in Dublin Castle on the other.
 Many far-reaching consequences are attributed to this hasty excursion from Irish shores. It marked the end of the ancient Gaelic leadership – the O’Neill dynasty at that time claimed to be the longest surviving aristocratic dynasty in Europe. It  paved the way for the plantations, giving the British authorities scope to settle English and Scots planters in Ireland and particularly in Ulster – a population shift which was to have disturbing consequences over the following four centuries. And it was also a colourful instalment in what has become known as the Irish diaspora – the descendants of the Earls settled in continental Europe and became prominent figures in society especially on the Iberian peninsula. 
Although strongly associated with Donegal and Ulster, the flight of the earls had a little-known Kildare connection which this year has been highlighted by Rathcoffey historian Seamus Cullen who has unearthed detailed evidence of a post-flight rendezvous which occurred in the old gardens of Maynooth castle. Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell, and in the front rank of native Irish leaders, had married Bridget Fitzgerald of Maynooth Castle in 1605 when she was just sixteen. They had a son Hugh, named after his famous uncle Red Hugh O’Donnell, but before they could settle as a couple Rory had to join his compatriot earls in their daring escape from Rathmullen. However he made sure Bridget and his son were provided for and two days after the flight a secret meeting took place in the old Garden of Maynooth castle which, according to local tradition, was located on the north bank of the Lyreen river - later occupied by Kavanagh’s Mills and now by the Manor Mills shopping centre. There a priest, Fr. Eoghan Groome, acting on behalf of Rory, handed a message and eighty-one pieces of gold to Bridget who was now pregnant with a second O’Donnell child. While the gold no doubt tided Bridget over the enforced separation the couple were never to reunite. Rory and his fellow earls had a terrible voyage, their ship being blown back away from Spanish waters to the shores of France where they landed exhausted and managed to make their way to the sanctuary of the Fransiscan College at Leuven in Flanders (Belgium). They subsequently travelled overland down through Europe to Rome where, despite having survived the hardships of travel on sea and on land, Rory O’Donnell contracted fever and died in July 1608 less than a year after leaving Ireland.
Bridget was to have a much longer life but a highly eventful one eventually becoming the mother of nine further children by a second husband, Richard Barnwall of Turvey in north Co. Dublin and living to the ripe age of 93. But then any woman with a forename and a surname so grounded in Co. Kildare tradition as ‘Bridget Fitzgerald’ was bound to have an exceptional story.
* My thanks to Seamus Cullen, Rathcoffey historian, for sharing his in-depth research on the Kildare connection to the flight of the earls.
** Readers interested in the story of the Earls when they reached the European mainland will be interested in talk by Mr. Malachy Vallely, Director of the Irish College in Leuven, which takes place in Naas Library on Monday, 3 December at 7.45pm
Series no: 43

A fascinating Kildare link to the story of the Flight of the Earls recounted by Liam Kenny in 'Nothing New Under the Sun,' - Leinster Leader 29 November 2007.  


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