View our
special offers

Discover the medieval legacy of the mighty Fitzgerald dynasty at the historic Kilkea Castle.

timeline icon

Kilkea Castle, a member of Historic Hotels Worldwide since 2020, dates back to 1180.


Kilkea Castle has long been a cherished landmark in Ireland’s Ancient East, having stood for close to a millennium. Now a fascinating holiday destination, this spectacular historic venue originally functioned as an imposing fortress that guarded the local approaches throughout the southern reaches of County Kildare. It had been constructed by Hugh de Lacy for a hedge knight named Sir Walter de Riddlesford in 1180. The 1st Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, de Lacy had specifically built the citadel to reward Riddlesford for his services in the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland some two decades prior. Sir Walter de Riddlesford himself was a French hedge knight from the coastal region of Normandy, who had been served as a mercenary in the various Anglo-Norman armies active in eastern Ireland throughout the late-12th century. Once he received the castle, Riddlesford named it “Kilkea” after the churchyard that resided within the grounds. (“Kilkea” itself was an anglicized spelling of the Irish name “Cill Caoide,” which actually meant “St. Caoide.”) The English Crown subsequently elevated the status of Riddlesford’s landholdings to that of a barony, making him the Baron of Kilkea and Moore. Riddlesford then lived at Kilkea Castle with his immediate family for the next six decades before finally passing away in 1244. His eldest daughter, Emelina, inherited the sprawling estate upon his death. But when Emelina died some years later, her own daughter—also named Emelina—became the sole benefactor of the estate. As Emelina had married Maurice FitzGerald, the 3rd Baron of Offaly, Kilkea Castle thus became the property of the mighty FitzGerald dynasty. Kilkea Castle would remain within the family for the next seven centuries!

The FitzGeralds were one of the most prominent Irish clans in Ireland’s long history. Like the Riddlesfords, the FitzGeralds were French in descent, with their earliest ancestors fighting alongside Richard “Strongbow” de Clare. The clan quickly grew in size and split into two branches known as the “House of Desmond” and the “House of Kildare.” The House of Kildare quickly moved into Kilkea Castle, making it their family’s seat. Soon enough, the FitzGeralds were major political players within “The Pale,” which was the main base of power for the English in Ireland during the Middle Ages. They were even elevated to the Dukes of Leinster in the early 14th century, and earned additional titles like the Marquess of Kildare, Baron of Kildare, Earl of Offaly, Baron of Offaly, and Viscount of Lenister. The FitzGeralds had become so influential that various medieval records indicate that they were: “By far the most powerful and illustrious Anglo-Norman [family] in Ireland.” The FitzGeralds acquired many prestigious royal titles as such, including the Earls of Kildare and the Dukes of Leinster. All the while, they protected the interests of the English Royal Family in the area, often using Kilkea Castle to put down various insurrections. Perhaps the greatest of those battles occurred in 1414, when soldiers affiliated with the O’Mores and the O’Dempsies attempted to attack The Pale in large numbers. The Archbishop of Dublin, Thomas Crawley, set out from Dublin to confront the threat. When Crawley reached the outskirts of the nearby Town of Castledermot, he turned control of his forces over to the FitzGerald family. A massive fight ensued, in which the FitzGeralds routed the enemy. In response, John Fitzgerald, the 6th Earl of Kildare, strengthened the castle with so many new fortifications that some mused he had built an entirely new building.

Subsequent generations of FitzGeralds adopted the Gaelic customs of their neighbors over time, becoming “more Irish than the Irish themselves.” This newfound cultural appropriation eventually brought the clan into conflict with their English overlords, which in some cases erupted into open violence. In 1534, the 10th Earl of Kildare, “Silken” Thomas FitzGerald, rebelled against King Henry VIII. He had been led to believe that his father, the 9th Earl of Kildare, had been unjustly executed in the King’s presence. In reality, Thomas FitzGerald had been manipulated by his family’s rivals into starting a war that would potentially lead to his clan’s demise. As the ruling Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, “Silken” Thomas FitzGerald wielded significant power. As such, FitzGerald managed to raise thousands of soldiers whose disdain for England he mutually shared. At first, Thomas FitzGerald’s men won several battles against King Henry VIII, but his campaign faltered upon his failure to capture Dublin. And after he murdered the reigning Archbishop of Dublin—long an enemy to the FitzGeralds—his allies began to melt away. Thomas FitzGerald and his relatives eventually surrendered to King Henry VIII’s new Lord Lieutenant, Sir Leonard Grey, who ironically was one of Thomas’s step-uncles. “Silken” Thomas FitzGerald and his conspirators were then summarily executed at Tyburn in 1537. The earldom was then demolished and its property confiscated. Kilkea Castle, too, remained in the hands of the Crown for some time, until King Henry VIII’s son, King Edward VI, restored it to Gerald FitzGerald. (See the “Ghost Stories” tab in the History dropdown menu for more information about Gerald FitzGerald, the “Wizard Earl.”)

Kilkea Castle remained in the FitzGerald family for many centuries thereafter, even as it gradually used the estate less frequently. In the early 18th century, Robert FitzGerald, the 19th Earl of Kildare, ultimately decided to make the Canton House the seat for his branch of the Fitzgerald clan. He subsequently leased the castle grounds to a variety of tenants. That practice continued under his son, James Fitzgerald, as well as his grandson, William Robert FitzGerald. Among the tenants to whom the FitzGeralds leased the castle was Thomas Reynolds, a Dublin silk merchant who was an active member of the “United Irishman” organization. Formed in the wake of the French Revolution, members of the United Irishmen yearned to establish Ireland as a sectarian republic free from English (and British) control. British authorities had forced the movement underground shortly after its founding, but its ideals continued to spread covertly with such individuals like Thomas Reynolds. During his time at Kilkea Castle, Reynolds formed a close friendship with William Robert FitzGerald’s youngest brother, Edward, turning him into a devout follower of the United Irishmen. When the United Irishmen eventually led Ireland into open rebellion in 1798, Lord Edward FitzGerald was at the center of the activity. But Edward was soon betrayed by his friend Thomas, who had turned on the movement when it became violent. Reynolds informed the British of FitzGerald’s activities, prompting Edward to stay in a series of hideouts. The authorities eventually found him in a house in Dublin, where he was arrested after Irish-British Army Officer, Major Henry Sirr, shot him in the shoulder. Edward FitzGerald then expired in Newgate Prison from an infection that took hold over his wound.

Kilkea Castle briefly resumed acting as the family seat for the FitzGerald family, when Gerald FitzGerald, the 8th Duke of Leinster, sold the Canton House in 1949. But the castle and the surrounding estate was then sold permanently by the family to private hoteliers nearly a decade later. A fluid period of ownership then befell Kilkea Castle, where many different proprietors operated the grounds as a magnificent vacation retreat. Despite its immense popularity, the estate fell into receivership in 2009. Fortunately, salvation arrived a year later, when the Cashmans purchased Kilkea Castle. A prosperous Boston-based construction mogul, Jay Cashman had long entertained the idea of running a historic castle as a brilliant resort. Investing some €30 million alongside his wife, Christy, they refurbished the entire facility back to its former glory. Not only did they install some of the most cutting-edge amenities into the castle, the Cashmans also painstakingly restored every aspect of the its original Gothic architecture. The two even took great care to preserve its historical character by placing medieval-inspired décor throughout the grounds. Visitors today can still feel the rich heritage of the FitzGerald clan inside, which provides for a rare, guest experience. Truly, there are few places in Ireland better for a historically-inspired vacation than Kilkea Castle.

  • About the Location +

    Located in the heart of Ireland’s Ancient East, County Kildare’s history is both long and venerable. Archeologists today believe that the first people to inhabit the region go as far back as the Neolithic period. Among the most obvious examples of prehistoric settlement in the county include the Broadleas stone circle and a hill fort known as “Dún Ailinne.” Yet, the first written historical records date to the time of the Roman Empire, when the Greek mathematician Ptolemy recorded the presence of a coastal town near the mouth of the River Barrow. Christianity had ingrained itself throughout the area by the 5th century, with churches appearing at places like Naas, Moone, and Kilcullen. One of County Kildare’s greatest landmarks, the Cathedral of St. Brigid, emerged a century later at the western edge of Curragh Plain. Wealth quickly followed into the monasteries, making it an attractive target of Viking raiders at the height of the Dark Ages. Danish raiders and other warriors of Scandinavian origin descended upon the local network of monastic settlements, with most arriving by way of Dublin. Some even decided to create their own towns, establishing such communities like Leixlip and Salmon Leap.

    The Viking raids eventually petered out, only to give rise to another foreign threat—the Anglo-Normans. Led by Richard “Strongbow” de Clare, the Anglo-Normans were a group of French knights who constituted the ruling class of England following William the Conqueror’s successful conquest of the kingdom. At first, the Anglo-Normans—at the behest of King Henry II—arrived to aid the deposed Irish King of Leinster. But soon enough, independent armies under the loose command of de Clare invaded Dublin and began annexing large swathes of territory across the eastern half of the island. The ruling Irish clans were pushed south into the swamps and mountains, where they waged a prolonged guerilla war that lasted for generations. Nevertheless, the area that now constitutes County Kildare was mainly settled by the descendants of those first Anglo-Norman knights. Peace came to the region gradually, though, as the Anglo-Norman nobles increasingly adopted Irish customs and married into native Gaelic families. Still, English influence permeated everywhere, especially after the region was formally created as a county in 1297. Along with the counties of Dublin, Meath, and Louth, County Kildare formed the basis of “The Pale”—an area of eastern Ireland under the direct rule of the English Crown.

    English—and later British—power over the county grew over time, with the Tudors assuming a more direct role in its governance during the 16th century. Then, in the mid-17th century, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell seized countless landholdings after his New Model Army invaded the southwestern part of Ireland amid the Eleven Years’ War. Such political activities fomented great resentment among the Irish in County Kildare, including those who hailed from the Anglo-Norman dynasties of old. In fact, Lord Edward FitzGerald—a direct descendant to the Earls of Kildare and the Dukes of Leinster—was a major organizer in articulating that anger. Fitzgerald was part of a movement called the “United Irishmen,” which had originally been formed by Theobald Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell, and James Napper Tandy in 1791. Inspired by the American and French Revolutions, the United Irishmen ultimately wanted to transform Ireland into a sectarian republic free from British control. After nearly a decade of covert political activities, an open rebellion against British rule finally erupted in May of 1798. While the most fervent support for the uprising occurred in County Wexford and the region of Ulster, it gathered some backing in in County Kildare. But the rebellion soon lost steam, as the British and their allied arrested or killed the rebellion’s ringleaders over the next five months.

    Most of Ireland—including County Kildare—finally became independent with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, ending years of political strife. Around the same time, County Kildare had emerged as one of the nation’s most prosperous areas a century prior. Agriculture proliferated throughout the county as a result of the fertile soil found at Curragh Plain, while new railroads introduced an unprecedented number of goods across the land. Its relative financial security subsequently spared County Kildare from the effects from various economic calamities, the most notable of which was the Great Famine of the 1840s. The creation of several military barracks along the major thoroughfares leading into Dublin, Cork, and Limerick developed an especially important economic demographic in the 19th century, as many local businesses thrived on serving their soldiers. When the barracks were vacated in the early 20th century, newer industries—such as Irish Ropes and Newbridge Cutlery—appeared to fill the vacuum. Soon enough, they were joined by the likes of international manufacturing giants Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Pfizer. Today, County Kildare is one of the richest outside Dublin and it among Ireland’s most exciting. Equine sports now define the local economy, yet farming is still paramount throughout the region.

    Kilkea is famous for more than just its history, though—it has also been the home to many numerous historical figures over the years. One of the greatest to ever live in the community was the great Sir Ernest Shackleton. Born just moments away from Kilkea Castle, Sir Ernest Shackleton eventually became one of the most successful explorers during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Rejecting his father’s wishes that he pursue a career in medicine, Shackleton joined the Merchant Navy as a teenager in 1890. He then used his maritime experience to obtain a role onboard Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ship, the RSS Discovery, serving as its third officer amid its famous voyage toward Antarctica. But Shackleton made an even greater name for himself when in 1907, he led his own scientific expedition to the frigid continent. Captaining a ship called the Nimrod, he explored such regions as Victorian Land and Mount Erebus. Upon his return to Great Britain some two years later, King Edward VII knighted Shackleton and made him a commander of the Royal Victorian Order. But Shackleton would return to Antarctica two other times throughout the remainder of his life. In August of 1914, he led the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which attempted to cross the entirety of the continent. Yet, both Shackleton and his team were marooned on the South Shetland Islands due to bad weather, and had to subsist on seal meat for several months. Surprisingly, none of the crew died, thanks in large part of Shackleton’s leadership. Undeterred, he sailed once again to Antarctica in 1921, with the hopes of circumnavigating the location. Unfortunately, the renowned explorer died while en route to the continent, passing away on the island of South Georgia. Shackleton today is remembered as one of the pioneers who introduced the mysteries of Antarctica to the world for the first time.

  • About the Architecture +

    Once an imposing medieval fortress, Kilkea Castle was first converted into a premier holiday destination in the 1960s. A number of owners operated the grounds as a retreat over the next several decades, until it fell into receivership in 2009. After sitting dormant for a while, Jay and Christy Cashman invested some €30 million into completely renovating the structure. Thanks to their hard work, guests today can still observe most of the compound’s unique structural components. Among the most tantalizing aspects of the building’s rich architecture are the presence of several stone carvings that depict a chained monkey. Perhaps the best example of the stonework is above a chimney located high atop the resort’s “Haunted Tower.” Facing outward with its arms and legs held aloft, the monkey features a collar around its neck with a chain passing underneath its stomach. Its paws facing inward, the carving makes it appear as if the monkey is tethered to the wall. For centuries, the animal served as the primary crest within the FitzGerald’s regal coat of arms. Legend has it that a pet monkey once saved the John FitzGerald—the 1st Lord of Kildare—when he was just an infant. A fire had broken out at another castle owned by the family in the Town of Athy, where the child was staying at the time. All of the household escaped save for John, who had been left behind in the panic.

    When his family members sojourned to his room once the inferno had abated, they found his nursery in ruins. Then, just as suddenly as they came across the space, they heard the chattering of an infant high above. They followed the disembodied noises up the side of a surviving tower, where they saw the pet monkey sitting in an untouched window sill. Safely cradled in its arms was John, who seemed undisturbed by what had transpired. In gratitude, John used the monkey as the crest for his descendants to wear. He even included it within his personal family’s moto, “non immemor beneficcii” or “not forgetful of the benefit.” Similar motifs appeared in other family stories, too, including the time when Thomas FitzMaurice FitzGerald escaped the clutches of would-be assassins in 1261. Just nine months old, the infant had lost both his father and grandfather at the hands of the MacCarthys. He was safely shepherded away to Tralee, thanks, allegedly, to a massive ape that his parents had kept on the grounds. Invoking the tale on many occasion, Thomas’ admirers took to calling him “Thomas the Ape.”

    Kilkea Castle bears many other fascinating architectural components, as well. One of those constructs is known as the “Evil Eye Stone,” which was built into the guard room above the castle’s bawn entrance. The monument is a “grotesque,”—a stone carving meant to ward off dangerous spirits. But the reason why the FitzGeralds decided to call their grotesque an “evil eye” was because they hoped it attracted the gaze demons to the building itself and not the people living inside. From there, the spirits would flee in fear from the image they had observed. The resort is also home to the “Haunted Room,” which resides in the upper stories of the round flagstaff tower. It is within here that the legendary 11th Earl of Kildare—Gerald FitzGerald—practiced his “dark magic.” Also referred to as the “Earl Wizard,” Gerald spent most of his days pursuing all of kinds of alchemic experiments within the chamber. Locating his laboratory was often difficult for it could only be accessed through a narrow winding staircase. Additional landmarks on the grounds include a wonderful historic church, as well as a graveyard featuring the tombs of many deceased FitzGeralds.

    When Hugh de Lacy first constructed Kilkea Castle for Sir Walter de Riddlesford in 1180, he used the conventional architectural design aesthetics of the day. His original designs were reinforced over the next several centuries, including the expansions installed by John FitzGerald, the 6th Earl of Kildare, in 1426. Kilkea Castle, as such, displays some of the best examples of what historians now call “Gothic” architecture. Architects during the Middle Ages gradually began using design principles barrowed from Romanesque architecture, which was largely characterized by its arches and beautiful stained glass windows. Cavernous spaces often defined the interiors of such structures, as did massive vaulted ceilings. Outside, the exterior façade displayed grand towers tied together by the flying buttress—an arch that supported the upper portions of a building. Ornate wall carvings and grotesques lined the walls, too, providing an overwhelming sense of awe onto onlookers below. Gargoyles in particular were the most common type of grotesque constructed by medieval architects. While churches often featured the most lavish forms of Gothic-style architecture, castles and municipal offices could bear similar ostentatious designs.

  • Famous Historic Events +

    Rebellion of 1798: Kilkea Castle played a minor role in the Rebellion of 1798, as Irish rebels attacked the castle in a fit of retribution. While they were ultimately unsuccessful, the soldiers had still managed to inflict serious damage upon the structure. The reason for their rage was that the castle’s tenant at the time, Thomas Reynolds, had sold out one of their leaders, Lord Edward FitzGerald, to the British. Reynolds had long been associated with their movement, having been a member of the United Irishmen for some years prior. The United Irishmen was the central organizing force behind the uprising, for it had advocated for the transformation of Ireland into a sectarian republic free from English (and British) control. It was originally organized by such activists like Theobald Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell, and James Napper Tandy in the immediate aftermath of the American and French Revolutions. At first, middle-class Catholics and Protestants constituted the organization’s membership, but it soon swelled with radicalized working-class laborers and craftsmen. Even the members to some of Ireland’s most powerful families supported the United Irishmen, including Lord Edward FitzGerald. The British quickly forced the group underground, where its membership swelled to new heights.

    Anger toward British rule fomented within the United Irishmen to the point where its members began to openly encourage hostilities toward British officials and their loyal Irish allies. Its leadership even began petitioning the revolutionary government in France to dispatch a naval force to help achieve such a goal. While the French did send a fleet to Ireland, a storm badly scattered it while en route. The threat of foreign intervention into the rising unrest prompted the British to take drastic measures to suppress the movement. Among the actions they undertook was the passage of the Insurrection Act of 1796 and the suspension of habeas corpus. Then, General Gerard Lake began confiscating private arms and forced radical Irish newspapers advocating for separation to close. The final straw for most Irish in support of the movement came when British officials began arresting their suspected leaders. The move backfired spectacularly. Armed uprisings broke out throughout Ireland in May of 1798, with some of the largest occurring in County Wexford and the region of Ulster.

    Government military formations composed of British regiments and loyal Irish units quickly descended upon the major areas where the rebellion was widespread. The British and their allies struck hard in the north where they routed the rebels at the battles of Antrim and Ballynahinch. Further south, resistance proved to be far more resolute. Most of the early fighting in that part of the country was religious in nature, as Catholics and Protestants took the opportunity to resolve longstanding grievances. But the combat gradually drifted toward the British, once their soldiers arrived in force toward the end of June. Early skirmishes between the two sides resulted in victory for the Irish, but they failed to completely destroy the British and their allies at New Ross and Arklow. Nevertheless, General Lake rose to the occasion and struck a decisive blow against the rebel cause at the Battle of Vinegar Hill. He was then almost flanked by a second force of French soldiers, but they were quickly surrounded and captured. The British then continued arresting the surviving leaders of the United Irishmen, transporting a large number to penal colonies in Australia. The British Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, then abolished the Irish Parliament, instead allowing for its representatives to serve in the national British Parliament.

  • Famous Historic Guests +

    John FitzGerald, 1st Earl of Kildare and 4th Lord of Offaly

    Thomas FitzGerald, 2nd Earl of Kildare

    Richard FitzGerald, 3rd Earl of Kildare

    Maurice FitzGerald, 4th Earl of Kildare

    Gerald FitzGerald, 5th Earl of Kildare

    John “Crouchback” FitzGerald, 6th Earl of Kildare

    Thomas FitzGerald, 7th Earl of Kildare

    Gerald FitzGerald, 8th Earl of Kildare

    Gerald FitzGerald, 9th Earl of Kildare

    “Silken” Thomas FitzGerald, 10th Earl of Kildare

    Gerald FitzGerald, 11th Earl of Kildare, known as the “Wizard Earl”

    Henry FitzGerald, 12th Earl of Kildare

    William FitzGerald, 13th Earl of Kildare

    Gerald FitzGerald, 14th Earl of Kildare

    Gerald FitzGerald, 15th Earl of Kildare

    George FitzGerald, 16th Earl of Kildare

    Wentworth FitzGerald, 17th Earl of Kildare

    John FitzGerald, 18th Earl of Kildare

    Robert FitzGerald, the 19th earl of Kildare

    Gerald FitzGerald, the 8th Duke of Leinster