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Fitzgibbon, MacGibbon, Gibbons

Arms of Fitzgibbon of Limerick

Arms of MacGibbon, Gibbons, Fitzgibbon of Mayo

In studying the history of these names it must be remembered that the form Gibbons is a not uncommon indigenous surname in England and as a result of several plantations of English settlers in Ireland from 1600 on and also as a result of business infiltration, doubtless a small proportion of Irish families of the name will be of that relatively recent English origin. Apart from these few cases however, the vast majority of Irish people of the names Gibbon and Gibbons stem from one of the two great families that were originally and are still called Fitzgibbon. These two families are not Gaelic Irish either, both being of Norman origin.

Between 1169 and 1171 a group of Norman knights based in Wales, at the behest of Dermot Mac Murrough, King of Leinster and with the backing of Henry II of England, subjugated most of Ireland. In October 1171, Henry II came personally to Ireland and as a reward to his knights granted each of them territories that had formerly been in the possession of the native Irish septs or clans. From these original knights came the great Hiberno-Norman families, which in due course adopted Irish customs and, as the saying goes, became "more Irish than the Irish themselves". These families intermarried with the noble native Irish and as they grew and prospered, they formed clans and sub clans in the traditional Irish way.

Among these Hiberno-Norman families, that of Burke and Fitzgerald are particularly well known. The personal name Gibbon, or Gilbert, was much favoured by both of them and each, independently, spawned a branch which became known as Fitzgibbon, or "son of Gibbon", which in turn evolved into Gibbon and Gibbons.

The form Gibbons is most commonly found in Mayo, in western Ireland. Here, the family is derived from the great sept of Burke and were first known as MacGibbon-Burke. In Irish they are know as MacGiobáin, just as if they were of Gaelic origin. Being originally French-speaking, they were also known as Fitzgibbon.

The tradition in this branch of the family is, that one of their ancestors, a Knight Crusader, accompanied Richard Coeur de Lion to Palestine, in his expedition against the Saracens, and was placed in command of a small outpost of the Christian army. Whilst occupying this position, the said Knight was closely invested by the Saracens, and, after many days hard fighting, he was on the point of being obliged to surrender, when the timely arrival of King Richard by water, saved the small Christian garrison. In remembrance of this even the Knight Crusader obtained permission to take for his Crest the royal lion of Coeur de Lion, rampant, holding in his paws a scallop shell, indicating a Crusader; and adopted for his Motto - Auxilium ex oceano (or aid from the deep): signifying the means (across or out of the water) by which he was delivered from the Saracens.

Traditional history is not always very precise, and in this instance the name of the town or outpost occupied by our Knight Crusader is not mentioned; but an historical confirmation of this tradition is given in Lingard's History of England, under A.D. 1192, where it is said that the outpost occupied by a portion of the Christian army was the town of Jaffa, which was taken by the Saracens, and the defenders were driven to the citadel. At the first intelligence of this event, King Richard ordered a portion of his army to move by land, while he hastened by sea, in galleys. On his arrival before the town of Jaffa, King Richard, in his anxiety to relieve the besieged garrison, plunged into the water, followed by his companions. The Saracens retired at the approach of his army, and the besieged Christians were thus saved.

The second family in question is found mostly in Limerick, also in the west of Ireland, but further to the south. Known as MacGiobúin in Irish, they are invariably Fitzgibbon in English. This is a branch of the Fitzgeralds and its head was known as The White Knight, being one of the three hereditary knights of Desmond, unique among British and Irish titles, the other two being the Knight of Kerry and the Knight of Glyn, both being Fitzgeralds. Gerald, the first White Knight, was fostered by Gibbon O'Cunine, of Thomond, and was therefore sometimes called Gibbon, whence the name Fitzgibbon and Clan-Gibbon. The first White Knight was descended from Gerald, son of John, the eldest son of John, son of Thomas Fitzgerald, lord of Decies and Desmond, by his second wife, Honora, daughter of The O'Conor Don. His father, by virtue of his royal seignory as a Count Palatine, created him a Knight, as well as his brothers, the Knight of Glyn, and the Knight of Kerry. Maurice Fitzgibbon, the fourteenth and last known White Knight died without an heir in the reign of Charles I of England.

Their territory was the south-eastern corner of county Limerick close to county Cork and there they ruled until they were disposed under English rule in the seventeenth century.

Both families have produced individuals of note. John Gibbons (died 1808), a Mayo landowner, took part in the rising of 1798. He was captured, outlawed and escaped to France. His son, John, was hanged at Westport in 1798 and another son, Edmund (died 1809), was a member of the Irish Legion and died of wounds received in battle. In 1691, Thomas Gibbons of Mayo was an outlaw and highwayman of some repute. From the same Mayo stock came Cardinal James Gibbons (1834 - 1921), Archbishop of Baltimore whose life's work was in America.

Of the Limerick family, John Fitzgibbon (1749 - 1802) was perhaps the best known in recent centuries. He was Lord Chancellor of Ireland and his pro-English activity at the time of the Union made him hated in his own day and his memory reviled among the Irish ever since. Two men named Gerald Fitzgibbon, father and son (1793 - 1882 and 1837 - 1909) were outstanding lawyers and members of the Irish Bar. Edward Fitzgibbon (1803 - 1857) was a fisherman supreme and wrote many books of the subject, which have become standard works.


Fitzgibbon, The White Knight. Arms: Ermine a saltire Gules on a chief Argent three annulets of the second. Crest: A boar passant Gules charged on the body with three annulets fessways Argent.

Fitzgibbon, MacGibbon or Gibbons, Mayo. Arms: Gules a lion rampant Or. Crest: A lion rampant holding a scallop shell in his paws. Motto: Auxilium ex oceano (aid from the deep).