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Betrayed in Life and Death
Lord Edward Fitzgerald, his life and his legacy

Colm Walsh

He was the descended from King Charles II and his cousin was the Leader of the Westminster Opposition. He was wounded in the American Revolutionary War, his closest friend was Afro-American, he was an explorer of the Canadian Interior, he was a chieftain of the Iroquois Nation, he was a leading Foxite, a dedicated Paineite, a committed Jacobin ironically offered the Jacobite dream of Irish monarchy, he spoke several languages, introduced the concept of the terrorist cell, designed weapons and engineered a Franco-Hibernian invasion of Ireland, yet at 34 he was dead.

The memory of Lord Edward Fitzgerald as a romantic dreamer popularised in Moore’s biography sought to sanitise the revolutionary beliefs that would still make him a radical at Westminster today, two centuries later. A fact that has undermined the importance of Fitzgerald in both the history of Irish nationalism and indeed British republicanism. His concept of nationalism, particularly civil nationalism originated with Rousseau’s Social Contract, the young Edward was immersed in the philosophies of Rousseau culminating in his mothers attempt to hire Rousseau as his tutor. The development of his belief in the equality and goodness of all men grew out of his international experiences, his ability for ethnography and his natural curiosity. Throughout his life, his political development moved from constitutional reform to direct action, moving as he did from Foxite to Painite from Grattan’s parliament to military insurgency. The personal journey from Lord Edward Fitzgerald to le Citoyen Edouard Fitzgerald mirrors Ireland’s own journey from the Home Rule campaign to the birth of the Irish Republic. Fitzgerald’s memory needs to be celebrated as the godfather of Irish Republicanism.

The publication Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile was to prove instrumental in the life of Lord Edward Fitzgerald. The book which insisted on practical lessons from outdoor and everyday world rather than strict book learning was an inspiration to his mother Emily. So impressed was she that she decided the upbringing of her children would be an Rousseauian experiment at Frescati House in Blackrock. She even attempted to hire Rousseau himself to conduct this experimental education. Failing this, William Ogilvie was hired instead. Gardening lessons were mixed with classical Latin, drama sat neatly with mathematics. At Frescati moral and theoretical principles were learned from nature rather than books. They were taught a benign form of Anglicanism that stressed God’s goodness rather than man’s sins. The purpose of a Rousseauian education was to prepare the student for citizenship. So began a lifetime relationship with the philosophies of Rousseau which Fitzgerald was to return to time and time again, particularly the notion of nationalism, civic nationalism. In this form of nationalism, the state derives political legitimacy from the active participation of its citizenry, it represents the 'will of the people'. It is often seen as originating with Rousseau’s social contract theories which take their name from his 1762 book The Social Contract. Civic nationalism lies within the traditions of rationalism and liberalism. This form of nationalism is not the same as ethnic nationalism. Membership of the civic nation is considered voluntary. Civic-national ideals influenced the development of representative democracy in countries such as the United States and France.

Not being the oldest in the family, Edward would need a career. His chosen career, the army. A commission in the British army was purchased and the young Edward eventually set sail for the American War of Independence. At the final battle of the war, the battle of Eutaw Springs, Edward was wounded and left for dead on the battlefield. After the fighting scavengers searched the fallen bodies for scraps or valuables. One such scavenger, escaped slave, Tony Small, named ironically because of his imposing height, searched the battlefield. To his shock the body in front of him was still breathing. This presented Small with a dilemma; would he ignore the living body in front of him or risk losing his own freedom by drawing attention to the wounded man. The decision to save Fitzgerald was to prove instrumental in both their lives. For Fitzgerald, the selfless act of Tony Small proved the innate goodness of mankind. Proof of the Rousseauian outlook. Small remains at Fitzgerald’s side for the rest of his life. A remarkable insight into Fitzgerald’s approach to life and his attitude to equality comes at this time from the commander of the American army taken capture after the battle, Colonel Washington:

'I never knew so lovable a person, and every man in the army, from the general to the drummer, would cheer the expression. His frank and open manner, his universal benevolence, his gaîté de Coeur, his valour almost chivalrous, and above all, his unassuming tone, made him the idol of all who served with him.'

In the post-war period his brother, the second Duke of Leinster secured him the position of MP for Athy, a seat he held until 1790, when he was replaced by his brother Henry. Henry Fitzgerald sat in the British House of Commons after the Act of Union. From 1790 to 1798 Edward was the member for Kildare County. During the 1780s, Edward’s interest in politics developed, however the constant disappointments in the reform of the British constitution shaped his political outlook. The failure of his cousin Charles James Fox to secure significant change at Westminster further developed Fitzgerald’s belief in action over politics. Fox like many other liberal Whigs were supporters of change, allies of Wilberforce’s Anti-slavery movement, proponents of Catholic Emancipation and admirers of the new American Republic. Indeed Fox himself was to be seen dressed in buff and blue of the rebel American army. Following an intensive education in munitions at Woolwich, site of the Royal Armoury, Fitzgerald returned to the American continent. His correspondence home from Nova Scotia show a breath-taking ability for ethnography. His descriptions of early settler life show him as an Empath. There he thought he saw a society that was self-sufficient, self-governing in day to day matters and uncorrupted by wealth and social stratification.

'The equality of everybody and of their manner of life I like very much. There are no gentlemen, everybody is on a footing, provided he works, and wants nothing. Every man is exactly what he can make himself, or has made himself by industry.'

He contrasts this with the plight of the poor tenants back in Kilrush outside Athy. In February 1789, guided by compass, he traversed the country, practically unknown to white men, from Fredericton, New Brunswick to Quebec. Fitzgerald becomes an admirer of the Iraquois native American. Again his correspondence proves to be fascinatingly ethnographic and begins to build his worldview. He describes the power and influence of the Iraquois women, he presents a brilliant analysis of the political significance of the Long Hut and an amazing description of the Iraquois understanding of crop rotation. He is very interested in the Iraquois view of property, stressing as it did common good rather than private property. There is most certainly an argument for future studies of these documents to treat them as early anthropology. They predate by 50 years the work of E. B. Tyler and James George Frazer commonly regarded as the first British anthropologists.

His travels throughout the Canadian interior brought him into contact Joseph Brant. Joseph Brant, or Thayendanegea, was a Mohawk military and political leader. He was closely associated with Britain during and after the American Revolution. He was perhaps the most well known North American Indian of his generation. He met many of the most significant people of the age, including George Washington and King George III. During the American Revolutionary War, Brant led Mohawk and Colonial Loyalists against American revolutionaries in a bitter partisan war on the New York frontier. During the war, he was accused by the Americans of committing atrocities, charges that were later shown to be false. After the war, he relocated to Canada, where he remained a prominent leader. It was as leader of the Six Nations that he most remembered. Brant had sided with the British as they had no interest in the interior, whereas the Americans wished to settle the Indian lands. Brant and Fitzgerald became firm friends travelling by canoe across the Great Lakes to Detroit. Brant explained to Edward about his amazement at the European view of property and in particular how he had witnessed men in England incarcerated for debt. To view property or ownership above liberty was abhorrent to him. Fitzgerald talked of his own disquiet with hereditary titles and privilege. Sensing Fitzgerald’s concerns, Brant arranged David Hill (another Anglicized Iraquois Leader)  to induct Fitzgerald as an Iraquois Chieftain. The Fitzgerald family papers includes the following document.

Washgongh Sen non Pryer
Ne nen Seghyrage ni i
Ye Sayats Eghnidal
David Hill
Igogh Sahnontyon
21 June 1789

I, David Hill, Chief of the Six Nations, give the name of
Eghnidal to my friend Lord Edward Fitzgerald, for which I
Hope he will remember me as long as he lives.
The Name belongs to the Bear Tribe

On his return to Europe, Fitzgerald became a great reader of and indeed friend of Thomas Paine. The publication of the Rights of Man articulated philosophies that Fitzgerald had been developing all his life. With the publication of the second part of the Rights of Man, Paine was openly challenging the status quo and celebrating republican sentiments. On May 21st 1792 Thomas Paine was summoned for sedition. He escaped to Paris where he had been elected to the Convention  in absentia. Lord Edward and Tony Small followed shortly afterwards and stayed with Paine. Interesting other Paineites like Mary Wollstonecraft were horrified by the post-revolution terror yet there is no such hesitation with Fitzgerald. The colourful historian Taaffe points out Fitzgerald was the lone voice of support for France in the Irish Parliament. But Fitzgerald was more than just a supporter of the French cause. He was immersed in the fervour of revolution. On the 18th of November, at a dinner in White’s Hotel where he was staying with Paine, Fitzgerald announced:

'The armies of France: may the example of its citizen soldiers be followed by all enslaved countries, till tyrants and tyranny be extinct.'
Then Lord Edward and Sir Robert Smith renounced their titles, finishing with, 'the speedy abolition of all hereditary titles and feudal distinctions.'

He had become as he described it to his mother 'le Citoyen Edouard Fitzgerald.' Over the next number of years Fitzgerald becomes increasingly involved in planning revolution in Ireland, travelling many times to Paris and Hamburg. Fitzgerald’s connections, politics and perfect French gave him a unique position to negotiate with the French. And although this bore very practical fruit, it did create resentment in some sections in Ireland. In her old age, Matilda Tone, wife of Theobold Wolf Tone, commented, 'Lord Edward and the Sheares brothers were playing revolution and doing mischief.' In Spring 1793 Paine negotiated with the French Foreign Minister Lebrun 20,000 men, arms, munitions and money. An American, Eleazer Oswald acting as an Envoy for the French government travelled secretly to Ireland. The offer is judged to be premature and is subsequently rejected.

In May 1796 Theobald Wolfe Tone was in Paris endeavouring to obtain French assistance for an insurrection in Ireland. In the same month FitzGerald and his friend Arthur O'Connor journeyed to Hamburg, where they opened negotiations with the Directory through Reinhard, French minister to the Hanseatic towns. The result of the Hamburg negotiations was Hoche's abortive expedition to Bantry Bay in December 1796. In September 1797 the Government learnt from the informer MacNally that Lord Edward was among those directing the conspiracy of the United Irishmen, which was now quickly maturing. He was especially concerned with the military organisation, in which he held the post of colonel of the Kildare regiment and head of the military committee. He had papers showing that men were ready to rise. They possessed some arms, but the supply was insufficient, and the leaders were hoping for a French invasion to make good the deficiency and to give support to a popular uprising. But French help proving dilatory and uncertain, the rebel leaders in Ireland were divided in opinion as to the expediency of taking the field without waiting for foreign aid. Fitzgerald was among the advocates of the bolder course and there is some evidence that he favoured a project for the massacre of the Irish peers while in procession to the House of Lords for the trial of Lord Kingston in May 1798, despite the fact many were his own relations. This was to be a high profile act of terrorism.

Now living in Kildare, Fitzgerald became obsessed with the micro details of the revolution. Men should drill in small squads of fifteen or twenty, he said and should perfect marching by the plummet, each group walking equal distances in the same time so that when they took command the officers could move their troops with ease and confidence. He recommended light weight rifles and designed a break-handled pike which came apart and could be slung across a soldier’s back while he manoeuvred stealthy in confined spaces. He created cell structures for the rebels so if they were arrested only the cell itself was compromised. He developed plans for the nature of pike fighting in the streets and how to overcome rifle barrages. In Kildare he became fluent in Gaelic and refused to burn English coal favouring local turf. He was aware of Kildare’s strategic importance. Immediately outside lay the Curragh, an area of scrubby flatland, which could serve as an assembly point for a rebel army before a march on the capital. To the north of the town lay the vast Bog of Allen, a waterlogged lowland of waving grasses and low damp shrubs criss-crossed by secret paths and the black scars of peat diggings. The bog was inaccessible to outsiders like British troops who did not know how to find their way across the spongy land and who could be easily ambushed in the midst of it’s gloomy expanse. It was an ideal place for the rebels to congregate, train, hide and appear from.

The Dublin Castle authorities responded to increased sedition with brutal force. The new Orange Order were encouraged with their policy of ethnic cleansing, leading to Catholic Defenders responding in kind. Dublin Castle unleashed violent militias, summary executions, torture and public displays of force. However each execution produced a new martyr. The Insurrection Act and suspension of Habeas Corpus further strengthened the rule of law. A network of spies grew up on both sides. Fitzgerald and other prominent members of the United Irishmen were famously sold out by Thomas Reynolds who had recently taken up residency in Kilkea Castle. When the arresting officers came for Fitzgerald, Tony Small bundled him out the door to freedom. He remained on the run for a while until he was wounded and captured. His hidings in Dublin became the stuff of legends. He stayed around Usher’s Island, Thomas Street and Portabello. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, the young Stephen Dedalus is shown the sites of the innercity.

'Somewhere here Lord Edward Fitzgerald escaped from the Major Sirr. Stables behind Moira House.
Damn good gin that was.
Fine dashing young nobleman. Good stock of course. That ruffian, that sham squire, with his violet gloves gave him away.'
Course they were on the wrong side. They rose in dark and days.'

It was a shot from the aforementioned Major Sirr that wounded Fitzgerald. He was conveyed to Newgate Prison, Dublin, where he was denied proper medical treatment. At the age of 34 he died of his wounds as the rebellion raged outside on the 4 June 1798. Leaderless, the revolution failed to create a critical mass. Fitzgerald was secretly buried the next day in the cemetery of St Werburgh's Church, Dublin. Shortly after his death, Edward’s sister, Lucy FitzGerald, authored the following statement regarding her brother's fidelity to Ireland:

'Irishmen, Countrymen, it is Edward FitzGerald's sister who addresses you: it is a woman but that woman is his sister: she would therefore die for you as he did. I don't mean to remind you of what he did for you. 'Twas no more than his duty. Without ambition he resigned every blessing this world could afford to be of use to you, to his Countrymen whom he loved better than himself, but in this he did no more than his duty; he was a Paddy and no more; he desired no other title than this.'

The rebellion was unsuccessful, 30,000 died and Ireland lost it’s parliament under the Act of Union. However le Citoyen Edouard Fitzgerald was not just a rebel, he was a revolutionary. His political positions would remain revolutionary for more than a century later. His family moved the telling of the story to a tale of a mislead romantic, the national struggle became an almost wholly Catholic affair and his ascendancy background sat uneasy with the national narrative. After 1798 they turned to the confessional politics of mobilizing Catholics alone. Daniel O'Connell, the main architect of this policy, went so far in 1841 as to denounce the United Irishmen as '... wicked and villianously designing wretches who fomented the rebellion' - Freeman's Journal, 22 May, 1841. In fact the Catholic hierarchy was opposed to the radical ideas of the rebellion and, especially since the opening of the Catholic seminary at Maynooth, stood beside Britain and the Irish Protestant Ascendancy class. Three days after the rebellion had started, the following declaration came out of Maynooth:

'We, the undersigned, his Majesty's most loyal subjects, the Roman Catholics of Ireland, think it necessary at this moment publicly to declare our firm attachment to his Majesty's royal person, and to the constitution under which we have the happiness to live ... We cannot avoid expressing to Your Excellency our regret at seeing, amid the general delusion, many, particularly of the lower orders, of our own religious persuasion engaged in unlawful associations and practises.'

This was signed by the President of the Royal College of Maynooth and 2000 of the Professors and students, 4 lords and 72 baronets. One of the Wexford rebels, Myles Byrne, wrote afterwards that 'priests saved the infamous English government in Ireland from destruction'.

Edward Fitzgerald with the other United Irishmen represented a moment in Irish history where Ireland dreamed of being an independent, egalitarian republic, neither Catholic nor Protestant but united in citizenry. In Britain, they inspired Thomas Muir and the Scottish insurrection of 1797/98, they commanded the ill-fated French invasion of the British mainland in 1797, they enjoyed the support of the Whigs, both Sheridan and Fox appeared in court in solidarity with United Irishmen. Their legacy saw British republicanism in the form of the Despard Conspiracy of 1803, the Luddites in 1811/1812, The Pentrich Revolution of 1817, the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 and the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820 and indeed their influence was still present when O'Connor and the Charists took the stage in the early 1840s. Indeed, Fitzgerald would have been amused that the first republican tricolour to fly in these islands was not in Ireland but in England during the Pentrich Revolution of 1817, when a flag of Red, White and Green was flown. Fitzgerald should be remembered as Ireland’s first citizen, dreaming as he did of an Irish Republic taking it’s place among the nations of the world.
• Campbell Gerald, Edward and Pamela Fitzgerald (London, 1904).
• de Genlis Memoirs of Madame de Genlis (London, 1825).
• Dickinson Harry T. Ireland in the Age of the French Revolution.
• Ducrest Georgette Ducrest, Chroniques populaires (Paris, 1855).
• Fitzpatrick W. J., The Sham Squire, The Rebellion of Ireland and the Informers of 1798 (Dublin, 1866) and Secret Service under Pitt (London, 1892).
• Froude J. A., The English in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century (3 vols., London, 1872–74).
• Lecky W. E. H., History of England in the Eighteenth Century, vols. vii. and viii. (London, 1896).
• Madden R. R., The United Irishmen (7 vols., Dublin, 1842–46).
• Moore Thomas, Life and Death of Lord Edward Fitzgerald (2 vols., London, 1832).
• Moore Thomas, Memoirs of the Life of R. B. Sheridan (London, 1825. R. J. M.).
• Reynolds Thomas the younger, The Life of Thomas Reynolds (London, 1839).
• Stavordale (ed) The Life and Letters of Lady Sarah Lennox, (London, 1901).
• Smyth Jim (ed), Revolution, Counter-Revolution and Union. Ireland in the 1790s (Cambridge 2008).
• Taylor Ida A., The Life of Lord Edward Fitzgerald (London, 1903).
• Teelin C. H. Personal Narrative of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 (Belfast, 1832).
• Tilyard, Stella, Citizen Lord: Edward Fitzgerald. 1763–1798 (1998). 

An essay by Colm Walsh on the colourful life and legacy of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the 'godfather of republicanism.' Our thanks to Colm.

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