Shortalls, Graces and the Wild Geese

Eamonn Kiely

O’Callaghan’s History of the Irish Brigades deals with among others some of the famous Kilkenny families. Two of these were the Graces and Shortalls, names still synonymous with Kilkenny.

The Shortalls were a distinguished Norman family who have a townsland named after them – Shortallstown. The remains of several of their castles are still visible at Clara and Ballylarkin. The Shortalls from medieval times were allies of the Grace family. The latter are said to be descended from one of the most famous of Strongbow’s companions Raymond Le Gros. The Irish version of the name was Grasach. The heads of the house of Grace were Barons of Courtstown, where their castle stood. Their territory was known as Grace’s country and it included 80,000 acres. Their war-cry was Grasach abu or Grace forever. The military connection of the Shortalls with these powerful Barons is touched on in the old song on Courtstown, modern day Tullaroan.

O Courtstown I Thou home of the great and renowned:-

Thy bulwarks, what heroes of battle surround,-

The Shees, Rooths, and Shortalls, whose bosoms still glow

To join in the conflict with Grasach abu!

The chief of the Graces at the outbreak of the 1641 Rising and the time of the Confederation of Kilkenny was John Grace, Baron of Courtstown. He lost his lands in the Cromwellian Plantation, but they were subsequently restored to the amount of 32,870 acres in Kilkenny and Tipperary.

At the start of the Williamite Wars in 1689 the old Baron of Courtstown raised and equipped a regiment of foot – that is infantry and a troop of horse, at his own expense for the service of King James II. He also assisted the king with money and plate to the amount of £14,000 sterling. A man of high character and great local influence, he was requested early on to support King William’s side. This came through an emissary of the Duke of Schomberg. Grace’s reply was to seize the nearest thing to hand on which to pen a stinging riposte – it happened to be the 6 of hearts. He wrote ‘Go tell your master I despise his offer; tell him that honour and conscience are dearer to a man than all the wealth and titles a prince can bestow’. From this we must conclude that he had very small writing or that playing cards were of different dimensions in those days. In Kilkenny the 6 of hearts is still known as Grace’s card. This Baron Grace died in 1690 while the war raged. His son Lt Col Baron Robert succeeded him at the head of the family regiment. The Shortalls were prominent in this regiment. Alas Baron Grace was so severely wounded at the 1691 Battle of Aughrim that he died later that year. O’Callaghan waxed lyrical about their performance that day. He wrote ‘the action of this regiment on the fateful day at Aughrim evinced a patriotic devotion that might dignify a Spartan band. Of that fine body, selected from the flower of the youth of Grace’s country not 50 returned to their home’.

Yet this regiment recruited again so quickly that they were able to take part in the 2nd Siege of Limerick against Williamite forces where Thomas Shortall, a Captain, commanded a company of 100 men. Later he left Ireland with the Wild Geese and joined the French Army. He amazingly continued to serve to his 88th year. He died at the age of 104 in 1762. He had the rank of Lt Col. He was the last survivor of the original Wild Geese.