Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

Random Quote
Random Date


Published Works


curiosities: CRESTED APES

As featured in The Irish Times Magazine, Saturday August 30th 2008.

In 1983, 20 male baboons died after contracting tuberculosis from meat they'd eaten at a garbage dump in the Kenyan savannah. Turns out these baboons were the big, nasty bully boys of their tribe. In death, they left behind all their females and young, and about 20 of the wimpier males who'd been unable to fight their way through to the poisonous garbage meat.

Two decades on, that baboon tribe has developed an utterly unique ideology in which, instead of punching one another violently in the ribs all day, the males now sit about grooming each other's hair, tickling their toes and playing tig with the ladies. That's evolution for you.

Baboons have always been unpredictable. Quite where 13th-century warrior John Fitzthomas FitzGerald acquired his baboon is unclear. Perhaps it was a gift from a crusading acquaintance. Or maybe, like the ancient pharaohs, he simply wanted a guard dog. As the founding father of Tralee, FitzGerald would surely have needed a guard dog. Ever since his arrival in the Kingdom of Kerry, he'd been at war with the MacCarthys.

In 1261, FitzGerald set off with a small troop of knights to destroy the troublesome MacCarthys. They were ambushed near Kenmare and entirely wiped out. A breathless messenger arrived at Tralee Castle with the shocking news, adding that the MacCarthys were hot on his heels. In the midst of the ensuing chaos, the surviving heir of the FitzGeralds was forgotten; a nine-month-old baby called Thomas. This bairn was bawling in his cradle when the African baboon shook off its collar, rushed to his bedroom, grabbed the baby and clambered to the top of the castle. For several hours, the kindly simian amused himself playing nurse to the little orphan while the household staff trembled in fear and astonishment below. When all was calm, the baboon carried the boy downstairs and returned him to his cradle.

The boy grew up to be Thomas Nappagh or Thomas the Ape. In later life he gained so much possession and power that he became known as the Prince of Munster. His son Maurice was created the 1st Earl of Desmond. The Earls of Kildare and Dukes of Leinster can also claim him as a forebear although they prefer a version of the story that stars the first Earl of Kildare as the baby, with the castle as either Woodstock or Kilkea in Co Kildare. A carving at Kilkea clearly depicts a monkey clinging to the wall. At any rate, this should explain why the coat of arms of the Dukes of Leinster features two monkeys clad in chain and collar. Jonathan Swift, no fan of the FitzGeralds, later parodied the story by having Gulliver carried off and force-fed by a maternal ape in Brobdingnag.

© 2008 The Irish Times