by ehistoryadmin on May 13, 2017

Brexit 1916.

Jack Fitzgerald: English emigrant, Irish patriot

Emigration was perhaps the most notable feature of Irish social history during the nineteenth century. The first great wave of Irish emigrants to Britain was during the Great Famine, or An Gorta Mor, when 1½ million people left the country; a further four million left Ireland between 1851 and 1914, many of them got no further than their nearest neighbours, England, Scotland and Wales.

There was a long-standing tradition of seasonal migration from Ireland to Britain whereby smallholders sought casual employment on British farms during the harvest season in order to supplement the family income and support their domestic holdings in Ireland. The scale of Irish seasonal migration increased substantially during the early nineteenth century reaching a peak of almost 100,000 by the 1860s. Seasonal employment also encompassed casual work in mines, docks and construction industries. Some seasonal migration led ultimately to permanent residence in Britain.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Irish communities were well established throughout urban Britain. They were, however, by no means a homogeneous group for their ranks contained both rich and poor, middle class and working class, urban and rural, skilled and unskilled, Nationalist and Loyalists, Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters.

Nevertheless, in their search for better economic opportunities, most of these men and women shared a common bond with their compatriots in the wider Irish diaspora: they accepted that to leave Ireland was a necessary fact of life.

John J. ‘Jack’ Fitzgerald, was born in Newbridge, on 27 December 1875 to John Fitzgerald, from Newbridge and Maryanne Walsh, born in Tipperary. His father was a shoemaker and he died at the rather young age of fifty, on 31 July 1895.

Newbridge was a relatively new town having sprung up around the British army cavalry barracks built between 1813 and 1819. The whole economy of Newbridge at the time depended on the British military presence. In 1900 the population of Newbridge was around 2,900 and most inhabitants lived in privately owned, poorly built cottages, with no running water or toilets. Work was precarious and the choices were few for those with no work: enlist in the army, or emigrate.

In the 1901 Census Jack Fitzgerald was a boarder in the house of Irish emigrant Joseph O’Neill, on Heathland Street, in Aldershot, Surrey. He was a foreman shoemaker employed in making boots for the British army, which had a huge base at Aldershot. In 1901 there were 426,000 Irish-born (1.3 per cent of the population) living in England and Wales, while a further 205,000 (4.6 per cent) were domiciled in Scotland. In the domain of the supposed enemy the Irish had become a settled community with their own internal structure of community support, based mainly on the publican and the priest. They had built their own enormous Catholic churches, published their own newspapers and were moving out of the worst ghettoes. They worked as labourers, costermongers, street vendors, engine drivers, shoemakers, miners, publicans and navvies, while thousands sated their fighting lusts in the British army and navy.

At the same time the Fitzgerald family were living at Eyre Street, in Newbridge: his widowed mother, Maryanne; brothers Edward (20) and Michael (16), both bootmakers; sisters Sarah (14) and Joanna (18). Eyre Street ran parallel to the town’s Main Street and was named after Eyre Powell the landlord who had sold much of the land needed to build the cavalry barracks.

The young Jack Fitzgerald was keenly interested in sport and the Gaelic Revival. He played as goalkeeper for Roseberry (now Sarsfields) and the Kildare County senior team and appears in all the major games in 1905 and in 1907 for both his club, Roseberry, and the County senior team. A proud Kildareman Jack said of the 1906 County Championship: ‘I’d rather win the championship of Kildare this year than the championship of the world.’

He was on the team which won the first All-Ireland for Kildare when they beat Kerry, in 1905. His brother Mick, or Gundy, also played. Jack was hailed at the time as the best goalkeeper in Ireland. Fr. Edward Ramsbottom writing under the name of ‘Thigeen Roe’ for the Leinster Leader commented on Jack’s footballing saving skills at a match in 1907: ‘I know that Jack had donned an overcoat and when the ball happened to come his way he had first to take off his overcoat before saving the ball.’

In July 1907 Jack spoke at a presentation to Dick Radley, the man who revived the GAA in Kildare. He said:

‘When you started the GAA in Kildare, military airs, military manners, military customs and military pastimes were the airs, manners, customs and pastimes of both the aristocracy and people.

Today, seven years after, people ignore the presence of England’s garrisons within the county and, irony of irony, Kildare within the Pale is one of Ireland’s most Irish counties.’

Jack Fitzgerald also spoke at the presentation of All-Ireland medals to the Kildare team on St. Patrick’s Day 1908. Some months later, in October, in compensation for the loss of the Olympic Games to London an International Papal Sports was held in Rome in conjunction with the Sacerdotal Golden Jubilee of Pope Pius X. This is variously referred to as the Papal Games, the Vatican Games and Vatican Sports.

Sean T. O’Kelly was nominated as one of a delegation of members of the Dublin Corporation to go to Rome to present an Address to Pope Pius. The Dublin Corporation decided that the Address to the Pope should be in Irish, and O’Kelly was put on the delegation as he was the only speaker of Irish amongst the members of the Corporation. An athletic team, selected by the Catholic Young Man’s Society of Ireland and the GAA to represent Ireland, accompanied 500 Irish pilgrims to Rome. The Pope presided over a series of gymnastic and athletic contests which were held in the Belvedere Courtyard and the Vatican Gardens. Teams of gymnasts and athletes came from many countries in Europe. The Irish contingent was under the direction of two members of the Executive Committee of the GAA, Jack Fitzgerald and Dubliner Dan McCarthy. Although the Irish team was small they held their own against the best European champions at the time. The Irish pilgrims were welcomed by the Right Rev. Monsignor Hagan, at the Irish College. Éamon Ceannt, who was executed for his part in 1916 Rising, also travelled and had the privilege of playing his Irish bagpipes before the Pope and the assembled pilgrimage in the large Hall of Audience at the Vatican.

Jack must have returned to England because he was recorded in the 1911 census working as a bootmaker and living at Risboro Lane, in Cheriton, Kent. His boarding place was near Risborough Barracks and Shorncliffe Army Camp, where no doubt there was great demand for boots.

In 1911 there were 375,000 Irish-born living in England and Wales (1.0 per cent of the population) down nearly 50,000 in ten years. However, this would increase in the coming year with the outbreak of war in Europe.

Jack Fitzgerald might have returned to Newbridge on and off, but he is not recorded until 1913 when he appeared on the playing field for Roseberry in the county championship. His return was heralded as a revival of the team. This led to his return as County Kildare goalkeeper. Jack the Kildare Observer said, ‘was always generalissimo in the history making epoch of Kildare football, and played a very big part in bringing the “Short Grass” county to the highest pinnacle of Gaelic fame.’

At the Annual Convention of Kildare GAA in 1913, held in Newbridge Town Hall, Jack Fitzgerald was elected County Chairman. In his acceptance speech Fitzgerald said that he would do his part in restoring Kildare to its proper position as one of the leading Gaelic counties in Ireland. He had every hope for the future of Kildare and it lay with themselves to accomplish the task. In the next few months Jack continued his work as chairman, and as he had retired from playing, also as a referee. He appears up to January 1914 in his dual role, but at one meeting he is absent due to a business engagement, while in February his place as chairman is taken by Mr. M. Murphy. He is back towards the end of the month, but is also absent in early March, though he is able to participate in the St. Conleth’s Dramatic Club concert on St. Patrick’s Day where Jack played a trying role as a sorely-tried lover.

Michael O’Leary had come to Co. Kildare from Liverpool, in 1912, to recruit for the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). He had formed a Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) Club in Athgarvan, but success in creating republican activity eluded him until the formation of the Irish Volunteers. He said:

‘Prior to the founding of the Volunteers, the Irish Ireland movement was at a very low ebb and, as a proof of this, the Wolfe Tone Anniversary was unknown, and only a few I.R.B. men kept his memory alive. Tom Clarke, P.T. Ryan, Mrs. McCarthy, the Dolphin Alarmers under Dan McCarthy and a few scattered I.R.B. men from Newbridge and Naas were the only people then who paid tribute and laid a wreath on the grave of the immortal Tone. The late Jack Fitzgerald and I were the only two who went from Newbridge and Mick Kelly, editor of the ‘Leinster Leader’ and the Patterson family, the Naas representatives.’

The Irish Volunteers were formed in Dublin, in November 1913, and a company was organised in Newbridge in June of the following year. Jack Fitzgerald was one of the first to enrol. When a GAA match clashed with a Volunteer parade a confrontation was avoided by the intervention of Kildare’s chairman, who said:

‘I believe the most staunch and stalwart supporters of the Volunteer movement are members of the GAA and that both movements may continue to work unitedly and successfully is my earnest wish.’

Jack Fitzgerald worked in England as a bootmaker for many years, but according to family lore he returned to Newbridge during WWI to avoid being conscripted and said that he would rather die for Ireland in Ireland than in Europe for England. He is mentioned in the newspapers in April 1914, but is not mentioned again until May 1915. This could be the period he is thought to be in England, as his brother was employed in the boot making business in Aldershot.

Jack was involved in the reorganisation of the Volunteers after the split in September 1914 and Tom Harris recalls meeting him at a conference in Dawson Street, Dublin, in November 1915. At the annual Kildare GAA Convention in March 1916 Jack Fitzgerald was again elected as Chairman of the County Board by a majority of 23 votes to 19.

The Easter Rising began on 24 April 1916, amid great confusion in Kildare and around the country due to Eoin McNeill’s countermanding order. Tom Harris met Jack Fitzgerald in Newbridge and asked him to assemble at Bodenstown, but Jack said he would not turn out until the bungle of the countermanding order was set right.

The countermanding order created confusion in Kildare. Local Volunteers failed to mobilise in great numbers and did not blow up the Sallins Railway Bridge as planned, which would have prevented or delayed the sending of reinforcements to Dublin. The British mobilised at the Curragh and Newbridge and headed for the capital – 1600 men arrived in one day.

Tom Harris continued on his way to Maynooth, where he linked up with the local company, who fought in Dublin throughout Easter Week. A meeting was held in Co. Kildare during the week where Celbridge OC Art O’Connor, a member of the Volunteer Executive, said the Rising was a foolish step and he was not taking part. Many in the county shared his sentiments.

On 29 April 1916, towards the end of Easter Week, Jack Fitzgerald was arrested, along with fellow Newbridge man John ‘Dixie’ Wallace, by the local Royal Irish Constabulary. Ed Cosgrove, of Kildare Town, was also arrested in Newbridge where he worked. All three were brought to the town’s police barracks and then to the military prison at the Curragh, known as ‘the Glasshouse.’ At the time Jack Fitzgerald was still Chairman of the Kildare County Board.

Later the Kildare prisoners, totalling twenty-three, were kept in Hare Park Camp, an overflow camp housing soldiers for war service. According to Michael O’Kelly, Leinster Leader editor, Jack Fitzgerald became ill at exercise and remained unwell for two days and then recovered.

Shortly after the prisoners were moved to Richmond Barracks, in Dublin. They were placed in the centre of a strong armed escort and marched across the Curragh to Kildare Town. As they left the camp a large number of off-duty soldiers assembled and shouted derogatory remarks to the prisoners, singling out Jack Fitzgerald for special attention, as he was known to them as a supplier of shoes and boots. The prisoners were put on a train and on arrival at Kingsbridge Station were marched to Richmond Barracks,

They were housed in a top-storey of one of the barrack buildings. The room was devoid of furniture and the men had to slit and sleep on the floor dressed as they were. Food was tea, bully beef and hard biscuits. Jack Fitzgerald had some money which he was able to hide when arrested and bribed some of the military guards to supply them with loaves of bread.

Jack Fitzgerald was deported, on 4 May, to Wakefield Jail, in England. He was assigned a single cell. Prison discipline was harsh, with no communication and only one hours exercise, but after a week or so it became a bit more relaxed.

The national and local GAA both distanced themselves from the rebellion at first and complied with Martial Law regulations without protest. When the next County Board convened its chairman, Jack Fitzgerald, was absent, being held in Wakefield Jail. Father P. Hipwell, C.C., Naas, took the chair.

His brother, based in Aldershot, sought help for Jack’s release through the MP for South Kildare, John O’Connor. O’Connor would later exploit this in an attempt to discredit Sinn Féin as the popularity of the party grew in Co. Kildare. He publicly released correspondence that had passed between himself and Fitzgerald leading to controversy in the local press which attracted a good deal of attention at the time as a general election was looming.

On 22 May 1916 John O’Connor, MP for North Kildare, and Denis Kilbride, MP for South Kildare, visited the Kildare prisoners in Wakefield Jail. O’Connor was a Cork-born Fenian revolutionary turned Parnellite, who represented North Kildare from 1905-1918. They obtained statements from each of the prisoners to the circumstances of their arrest. The prisoners requested the representatives make public the fact that they were well-treated. Michael O’Kelly, one of the prisoners in Wakefield, recorded the visit.

‘It was about eight o’clock in the evening soon after we had been locked into our cells for the night, when a prison warder entered my cell and ordered me out. On descending a spiral stairs at the centre of the prison, to the ground floor, I found a number of my fellow prisoners from the Co. Kildare, standing in a line. Mr. John O’Connor, with a number of prison officials stood in front of them. Mr. O’Connor went down the line questioning each prisoner to the circumstances of his arrest, etc. I was standing next to J. J. Fitzgerald and after he had put some questions to us he informed us that he was making representations to the British authorities with a view to our release. I thanked him for the trouble he was taking on our behalf and added that as far as I was concerned I was indifferent to his good offices or their result.’

The following day O’Connor addressed a letter to the Provost Marshal, Richmond Barracks, saying that named prisoners should be released as they had nothing to do with the Rising. In reference to Jack Fitzgerald he said he ‘was at Newbridge Sunday, Monday and Tuesday; went to Curragh Camp Wednesday to work as bootmaker to the military; arrested. Had nothing to do with rebellion’. He continued:

‘I ask for the release for these men above mentioned, as well as of all others from the Co. Kildare. It has been highly injurious to the cause of peace, contentment, and a growing loyalty that these arrests should have been made. The county did well for the army… For the present, the amazing stupidity of the Government has made recruiting impossible in our constituency, and I assure you the continued internment of the Kildare men is making our position more difficult. I, therefore, with my colleague, appeal to you, even in the interest of the Government, to release all Kildare men without further delay.’

On 3 June 650 internees were released, among them Jack Fitzgerald and Dixie Wallace, also from Eyre Street, Newbridge. The Leinster Leader reported that the remaining prisoners from the county were expected to be released soon.

Jack Fitzgerald sought re-instatement in his employment as a bootmaker in the Curragh Camp. With the reorganisation of the republican movement in 1917 he was appointed OC Newbridge Company, Irish Volunteers.

The political wing was also reorganised and the first Sinn Féin demonstration held in the county took place on Sunday 5 August 1917, in Naas, when over 3,000 people were addressed by Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Féin. The meeting was originally arranged to be held in the Main Street, but an order was published under the defence of the Realm Act, signed by General Bryan Mahon, declaring the meeting proclaimed so the venue was changed to the GAA field.

Jack acted as secretary to the meeting and read several resolutions, including one: ‘That we demand that the remains of the Irish Republican soldiers, executed by the English Government against the laws of civilised warfare, be restored to their relatives to be accorded Christian burial.’

In June 1920 Jack was elected to Newbridge Town Commission and Kildare Co. Council. He was arrested on 25 November 1920 and brought to the Detention Barracks in the Curragh Camp and later moved to nearby Hare Park Camp. In January 1921 he was transferred to Ballykinlar Internment Camp, in Co. Down, where he was line captain for B Company football team. He joined the National Army, in Naas Barracks, on 3 July 1922, as a lieutenant and became OC of Naas Barracks in late 1922, retiring from the Army as a commandant.

Jack Fitzgerald died at his residence in Eyre Street, Newbridge, on 6 February 1950 and was interred at St. Conleth’s Cemetery, Newbridge. His obituary in the Leinster Leader said he was ‘a staunch Gael’ and one of the pioneers of the ‘Irish Ireland movement’.


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