Fitzgerald Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Fitzgerald Surname Meaning
The surname Fitzgerald is a translation of the Norman “fils de Gerald” or “son of Gerald,” where Gerald is a Norman first name meaning “rule of the spear.”  These names were brought to England at the time of the Norman Conquest. However, the Fitz prefix never really stuck in England.
It is ironic that the most common Fitz, Fitzgerald, is an Irish not an English surname. Walter Fitzother was a keeper of Windsor forest, his son Gerald was the constable of Pembroke castle, and it was the latter’s son, Maurice FitzGerald, who went to Ireland and established the Irish family. The Gaelic form Mac Gearailt can be found in the Gaelic-speaking areas of west Kerry.

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Fitzgerald Surname Ancestry

Ireland. Maurice FitzGerald “the Invader” came to Ireland with Strongbow in 1170 and was granted the manor of Maynooth in Kildare. Though the Kildare branch was the first to be founded, it was the FitzGerald house of Desmond, established by the direct descendants of Maurice the Invader, that first rose to national prominence.

By the 14th century, the Desmonds had established its authority over the Gaelic lordships of Munster and occupied some of the richest lands in the province. There were also three cadet Desmond branches, the White Knight (in Limerick), the Knight of Glin (along the Shannon), and the Knight of Kerry. They had then, through Gearoid Iarla FitzGerald, become more Irish and less Norman in their style.

But a century later the family went into decline and in 1583 they lost everything in the failed insurrection of Garret Fitzgerald, the 15th and last Earl of Desmond, against the English crown. A Fitzgerald line did continue at Dromana in Waterford until 1676 (when its heiress Katherine ran off with Edward Villiers). There were also Fitzgerald gentry families that stayed in place in the line between Youghal and Midleton in southeast Cork.

The eclipse of the Desmond Geraldines was followed by the rapid rise of their cousins in Kildare. Kildare power emerged in the 15th century, but fell back in the 16th and 17th centuries. Thomas, the 10th Earl of Kildare and known as “Silken Thomas,” renounced his allegiance to the English crown but was captured and executed in London.

The family fortunes re-emerged with James, the 20th Earl. His service to the English was rewarded in 1766 with the hereditary dukedom of Leinster. Lord Edward FitzGerald, born into this privilege, became ironically an icon of Irish nationalism through his failed leadership of the 1798 revolt.

The Fitzgerald surname is common in Ireland today, but remains concentrated in the ancient homelands of the earls of Desmond – Cork, Limerick, and Kerry.

England. Fitzgeralds in England generally had an Irish connection, whether they came from well-connected Anglo-Irish families or poor immigrants seeking work.

The Fitzgeralds of Boulge Hall in Suffolk would definitely have been placed in the first category. Their money had came from the Kildare Fitzgeralds and Mary Fitzgerald spent it lavishly in the early 19th century to establish herself in London society. Her son Edward Fitzgerald was somewhat reclusive, but is remembered today for his translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

On the other side of the tracks would have been Patrick Fitzgerald, a laborer from Tipperary who had come to London in the 1870’s in search of work. But his son Desmond returned to Ireland as an Irish nationalist and later became a minister in the new Irish republic. And his son Gerret was twice Taoiseach of Ireland in the 1980’s.


America.
Fitzgeralds first appeared in Virginia and the South and later in New England.

Virginia and the South.  The Fitzgerald name appeared in Virginia records in the 1680’s. But the first real sighting appears to be an Edmond Fitzgerald who was born on a ship while enroute from Ireland to America in 1745. His descendants became tobacco farmers in Pittsylvania county, Virginia.

Another early Fitzgerald family moved from Maryland to Dover, Tennessee in 1806. One son William became a local politician there, another son John moved south to New Orleans where he edited the local Picayune newspaper. Meanwhile, Ambrose Fitzgerald left Tennessee with his family by covered wagon for Texas in 1846. Ambrose got religion and became a Baptist minister in Texas. He fathered 18 children through three wives over his lifetime, seven of whom survived to carry on his name.

Mary Fitzgerald had arrived from Ireland in 1842 and settled initially in Memphis, Tennessee where she started and ran a hotel. Later she operated hotels and saloons in the Chicago area. Although she had two husbands over this time, she was really the driving force behind their businesses. Rowdy Civil War soldiers in her saloon would be met by Mary with a firearm and a stern face.

Massachusetts.  Most Fitzgeralds in America were and are still to be found in the state of Massachusetts.

The most illustrious of these was John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, one of only three surviving of the twelve children born to Thomas and Rosanna Fitzgerald, immigrants from Limerick in the 1850’s. He rose to be a prominent figure in Boston politics and a mayor of the city. His eldest daughter Rose married into the Kennedy family and became its matriarch in the second half of the 20th century.

Out West.  Fitzgeralds did move West. Tommy Fitzgerald was part of that early fraternity of mountain men, fur trappers and traders who would rendezvous each year in Bear Lake valley. He crossed into California in the 1830’s and was the first settler in what is now Bakersfield. Another Thomas Fitzgerald came to Utah in the 1890’s and married a Mormon. Son JD Fitzgerald wrote Papa Married a Mormon in 1955, a somewhat fictionalized account of his upbringing.

Canada. Michael Fitzgerald came from Ireland with his wife and twelve children and settled in Portuguese Cove, Nova Scotia in 1810. And Halifax was the arrival point for Garrett Fitzgerald and his family from Kerry in the 1820’s. The name has continued in Halifax and Walter Fitzgerald was the mayor of the town in the 1970’s and again in the 1990’s.

A John Fitzgerald was a telegraph company employee in Halifax in the 1860’s. His son, Francis, was born there in 1869. Francis enlisted with the NW Mounted Police and spent much of his life on the northern frontier. Though highly experienced in northern patrols, he would travel light and refuse to hire a native guide. Unfortunately on one trip late in February 1911 his patrol became lost and he and his companions eventually died, three from starvation and one from suicide.

There is, however, a Fort Fitzgerald in northern Alberta named after him and a bronze plaque dedicated to his memory in the public gardens back in Halifax.

Australia and New Zealand.  The first to arrive was Richard Fitzgerald, transported to Australia in 1791 as a convict. However, he got on well with his captors and was given responsibilities for the public farms. Later, he had his own land granted to him in the Hawkesbury valley in 1811. There he built an inn which, as The Macquarie Arms, still operates today.

Fitzgerald’s name, family tradition, and personal appearance all attested to a connection with the Dukes of Leinster. But this was not proven. Susan Perrett’s book From Convict to Millionaire: The Story of Richard Fitzgerald and Family was written in 2003.

Fitzgeralds later came as settlers. Two Fitzgeralds really established themselves in their new environment:

  • one was James Fitzgerald who arrived in Christchurch, South Island from England in 1850. He soon became active in New Zealand politics and was one of its leading figures in the late 1850’s.
  • the other was Thomas Fitzgerald who came to Queensland from New Zealand in 1862. He was a pioneer in sugar cane farming and in politics in the early days of the colony. His descendants went on to become notable names in Queensland politics, business, and law.

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Fitzgerald Surname Miscellany

The Ape in the Kildare Arms.  The ape in the crest and supporters of the Kildare arms is commemorative of an incident which occurred in the thirteenth century.  Thomas, infant son of Maurice  FitzGerald, is said to have been snatched from his cradle by a tame ape which, having carried the child to the verge of the battlements at the top of the castle and terrified the family by the danger involved, safely returned him to his cradle.

This traditional story is also related in a slightly different form for the first Earl of Kildare.  But as the said Thomas was nicknamed Thomas an Apa or Thomas Simiacus, it may be ascribed to the Desmonds if not also to their kinsmen the Kildares.  The war cry of the Kildares was crom abu, of the Desmonds shanid abu. 

A Hero of Irish Nationalism.  Lord Edward FitzGerald was born into privilege.  His father, James FitzGerald the first duke of Leinster, was Ireland’s most important aristocrat; and his mother, Emily Lennox, was the sister of one of England’s most powerful lords, the duke of Richmond.   In spite of these origins, Edward is known to Irish history as a republican and a revolutionary who became one of the most influential members of the Society of United Irishmen.

He expected to be the commander-in-chief of the revolutionary army which that organization brought into the field in May 1798 with the intention of overthrowing the British-controlled Irish government and founding an independent republic in its place.  The date of the rising was planned and he lay in hiding in Dublin for the day to arrive.

However, his hiding place was revealed and police agents captured him on May 19, four days before the anticipated revolution was due to break out. He died in prison on June 4, succumbing to the wounds he received while being beaten unconscious by the rifle butts of his assailants.  The next day, the rebels he had hoped to lead suffered a decisive defeat at the battle of New Ross in county Wexford.

In spite of this inglorious end, he has become a toweringly romantic figure in Irish history and takes his place indisputably in the hagiography of Irish nationalism and republicanism.

Edward Fitzgerald’s Upbringing.  Edward Fitzgerald was born in 1809 in Woodbridge in Suffolk, the seventh of eight children, to John Purcell and Mary Fitzgerald. When he was nine his father John assumed the name and arms of his wife’s family.  It was at that time that Mary, related to the Kildare Fitzgeralds, inherited a fortune on the death of her father.

A wealthy Mary soon found that her husband and country life in Suffolk bored her.  So she set up a splendid London house in Portland Place where she entertained painters, authors, musicians, actors, and architects. She had her box at the opera and became a generous patron of the arts.  She rarely saw her children. Benson, a contemporary, described her as “superb and majestic, with a haughty face, eagle nose, and thin mouth.”

Edward grew up under the care of nannies and tutors, as was customary in that period.  Later he refused to reside at Boulge Hall with the rest of his family and chose instead to live in a single storey thatched cottage on the family estate.  He was a friend of the poets of his time and was a prolific letter writer. However, with respect to his family, his comment was: “All of his relatives were mad; and further, that he was insane as well, but was at least aware of the fact.”

Edward Fitzgerald is remembered today for his translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

The Fitzgerald Family Bible.  On St. Patrick’s Day 2003, to mark the 40th anniversary of President Kennedy’s trip to Ireland, the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum opened for the first time to the press the Fitzgerald family Bible.  This bible contains a handwritten chronicle of generations of the Fitzgerald family from 1857, including the birth of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on May 29, 1917.

Kennedy was a descendant of the Fitzgeralds of Bruff in Limerick and the Kennedys of New Ross in Wexford. The Fitzgeralds and Kennedys worked in Boston as peddlers, coopers, and common laborers, and became clerks, tavern owners, and retailers.  By the end of the 19th century, Patrick “PJ” Kennedy and John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald had become successful Boston politicians.

Fitzgeralds in County Clare and America.  Mary Downes of Kilmaley in county Clare has a stack of American newspaper cuttings.  Her husband who refuels planes at Shannon Airport has collected the newspapers left by passengers and brought them home. Recently the front pages have been screaming headlines about Mary’s first cousin Patrick Fitzgerald, the unrelenting federal prosecutor who indicted VP Dick Cheney’s chief of staff Scooter Libby for revealing a CIA agent’s identity.

Patrick Fitzgerald has been a frequent visitor to his cousin’s home over the years.  As a child Mary’s mother Mary Fitzgerald, a sister of Patrick’s father, grabbed Petrick from the back of a pony just as he was being led into a cow shed.  Mary Fitzgerald recalled her famous nephew as being well mannered and a little mischievous as a young boy.

Patrick would often come to Kilmaley for vacations with his father Pat, his mother Tiffie, and siblings.  Pat senior had left Kilmaley to better himself in America.  Paki, as he was known in the family, had a reputation for hard work.  He got a job as a doorman on an apartment block on Manhattan’s East Side and there he and Tillie started a family together.

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Fitzgerald Names
  • Maurice FitzGerald invaded Ireland with Strongbow in 1170 and was the forebear of the Fitzgeralds in Ireland.
  • Lord Edward FitzGerald, born into privilege, was the leader of the Irish rebellion in 1798. He was, however, captured and died in prison before the revolt could start.
  • Edward Fitzgerald was an English scholar famous for his English poetic version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, born in Minnesota to a well-to-do Irish family, was the writer of novels such as The Great Gatsby which are evocative of the Jazz Age of the 1920’s.
  • Ella Fitzgerald is recognized as one of the finest and most lyrical voices in jazz.
  • Garret FitzGerald was twice the Irish Taoiseach in the 1980’s.

Fitzgerald Numbers Today
  • 21,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 33,000 in America (most numerous in Massachusetts).
  • 47,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland).
Fitzgerald and Like Surnames

The English came to Ireland as early as 1170 with Strongbow’s invasion.  The invaders – largely Anglo-Norman – stayed and many became large landowners and public officials.

Over time their Norman French names changed to fit the local landscape – le Gras to Grace, de Burgh to Burke, de Leon to Dillon, and de Lench to Lynch for instance.  They became more Irish, often Catholic.  When the English came again, in the 16th and 17th centuries, some sided with the English and were rewarded.  But others resisted and had lands confiscated.

Here are some of these Anglo-Irish surnames that you can check out.

BurkeFitzgeraldJenningsLynch
DillonGraceJoyceNugent

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