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21 May 1998 Edition

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The revolutionary Lord

Edward Fitzgerald (1763-1798)



By Aengus O Snodaigh


Alone of his class, this cosmopolitan aristocrat made the journey from idealist reformer to violent republican revolutionary. That in itself made him stand out. When to this uniqueness is added unselfishness of motive, reckless courage and singular charm, it is little wonder that Lord Edward Fitzgerald emerged as a leading figure in the pantheon of heroes of 1798.

Lord Edward Fitzgerald was born in London on 15 October 1763, the twelfth of the 18 children of the first Duke of Leinster and his wife Emily Lennox, sister of the third Duke of Richmond. After the birth the family returned to Kildare, but their main residence was their summerhouse, Frescati in Blackrock, County Dublin. The family were Ireland's largest landholder, and it was the Duke who had Leinster House built as his Dublin residence when parliament was sitting.

Emily Lennox sought out Rousseau in 1767 as a tutor for her children, but he was not available. She instead settled on William Ogilvie, but instructed him to teach the children according to Rousseau's teachings.

In the autumn of 1773 the Duke died and six weeks later the Duchess scandalised her family by marrying her children's tutor. She later bore him two children. The whole family set off to France in August 1774.

Lord Edward's upbringing made him a cosmopolitan figure, at ease with French as much as English and imbued with enlightened ideas. At 16 he began studying at a military academy before a lieutenant's commission in the British army's 96th Regiment of Foot was bought for him.

Young Edward, 18 years old, was eager for adventure and he transferred into the 19th Regiment of Foot which was embarking for the American war early in 1781. Edward saw action against the colonists in South Carolina before being badly wounded on the battlefield of Eutaw Springs. A poor black slave named Tony Small saved his life. In gratitude he took Tony into his service as personal assistant.

Upon his return to Ireland in 1783 Edward Fitzgerald became MP in the Irish House of Commons for the borough of Athy. For three years the recuperating Edward enjoyed life to the full, drinking, gambling and cavorting while on leave from the army. But, disappointed in love (his prospective fiancée's parents turned him down), he entered the Royal Military College, Woolwich and in 1788 joined his regiment, the 54th, in Nova Scotia and was stationed in New Brunswick, Halifax, Quebec, and Montreal.

In Nova Scotia he saw a society that was self-sufficient, self-governing and uncorrupted by wealth and social stratification. In a letter he says: ``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''.

When in 1789 he travelled from Frederickstown to Quebec, with Tony and another officer, camping with the Iroquois, he was attracted to the Native American way of life, seeing it as more natural and egalitarian than that of the `civilised' world he came from. He saw that theirs was a system of interdependence rather than hierarchy. Their life was to Edward an idyllic way of life, a utopian dream, which would be worth pursuing for Ireland. While living with them he was made a chieftain of the Seneca nation, one of the six Iroquois nation.

The publication of the Rights of Man in 1791 made a great impression on him, transforming him from a follower of Rousseau to a disciple of Paine and from a radical to a republican. In October 1792 he visited Paris, where he not only met Paine but lodged with him. In Paris he joined the Jacobin Club, of which the Sheares brothers were also members.

In November 1792, at a republican banquet in White's Hotel in Paris for British and Irish residents, also attended by Thomas Paine, he joined in toasting the progress of liberty and the Revolution and drinking to ``the people of Ireland, and may Government profit by the example of France, and reform prevent revolution'' and along with other young noblemen present, he renounced his title. As a result he was cashiered from the British army.

Shortly before leaving for Dublin in November 1792 Edward discussed with Thomas Paine the possibility of French support for 40,000 Volunteers to be financed and kept in the field for three months, believing that that was enough to liberate Ireland. To confirm this the French sent Lieutenant Colonel Eleazer Oswald on a fact-finding mission before the end of 1793.

In February 1793 the English government declared war on the revolutionary regime in France. From then on, seeking or calling for support from the French regime for revolutionary activity in Ireland was treasonous activity. The government moved against groups suspected of sympathising with the French, among them the Society of the United Irishmen, which was banned.

In December 1792, he married Pamela Sims who shared her husband's radical views and took an active part in revolutionary work. Returning to Dublin with his bride, Edward denounced the government for prohibiting a meeting of radical volunteers and spoke and voted against both the Arms Bill and the Insurrection Bill. He became friendly with Arthur O'Connor, and joined the United Irishmen, recruiting for the cause in Kildare around 1795. His background, his ideological position and military experience made him a vital asset and he became Commander in Chief of the United Irish army soon afterwards.

By breaking many of the conventions associated with the Ascendancy he drew attention to himself and to the revolutionary ideas he espoused. He adopted the French republican style of dressing and of cropped hair long before it became the vogue among the radicals of Ireland.

Lord Edward moved to a house in Kildare town, which was to become a focus for much United Irish activity. He quickly made his radicalism known locally, rejecting coal in favour of turf and beginning to learn the Irish language, Irish jigs and the more formal dances when there were enough couples.

In May 1796 he travelled to Hamburg. There O'Connor joined him before secretly meeting General Hoche to make plans for an invasion of Ireland. Full preparations for an expedition were made though the date was to be confirmed.

Back in Ireland, Fitzgerald and O'Connor prepared for the expected French expedition. When it finally arrived, in Bantry Bay at the end of December 1796, both the time and the place of its arrival caught the United Irishmen (and Dublin Castle) entirely by surprise. Storms prevented the expedition from landing, but all over the country there were reports from United Irish representatives of floods of recruits and a fever of expectation.

The arrest and imprisonment of his friend O'Connor early in 1797 pushed Fitzgerald to the forefront of the planning for an armed insurrection. At the 1797 election he gave up his Parliamentary seat for County Kildare. Edward explained to his constituents that a seat in such a tool of biased authority was inconsistent with his principles.

Through informers such as MacNally and Samuel Turner, and by observation of his movements, the Castle soon had plenty of evidence of Fitzgerald's militant republicanism. In fact, Lord Edward himself in early 1797 recruited to the cause Thomas Reynolds. At 26 Reynolds became a colonel of the United Irish forces in Kildare, but the lure of money led him to turn informer.

Through informers the British were beginning to gather an in-depth knowledge of the movement. The United Irishmen remained undecided, waiting in hope, though some including Fitzgerald wished for an immediate rising. They agreed to wait on the French and O'Connor left Ireland for London, en route for France but he was arrested on 28 February and held in Margate Jail. O'Connor's arrest was a disaster for Lord Edward but he persevered.

He drew up detailed plans based on the figures provided from the various areas to the National Executive meeting of 28 February 1798 - 110,000 in Ulster, 100,000 in Munster, 45,000 in the Dublin area. Foolishly, he entrusted a copy of this paper to Reynolds, who made immediate contact with his Dublin Castle handlers.

Reynolds found out that the next meeting of the Leinster provincial committee was to be at Oliver Bond's house in Dublin on 12 March. In the ensuing British army raid there and elsewhere 16 leading members were captured. Fitzgerald remained at liberty. Warrants for his arrest were issued, and Frescati was raided and searched, as was Leinster House, whence Fitzgerald, alerted by the faithful Tony, escaped across the stable yard.

As the raiding party led by Sherriff Oliver Carleton went to search the pregnant Pamela's bedroom, where she was convalescing from an illness, they spotted her desperately feeding sheets of paper from a drawer into the fire. Among the papers was a plan for the capture of Dublin.

Despite being Ireland's most wanted man with a price on his head, Lord Edward was not duanted and continued his work, though not as openly as before. A public proclamation offered a reward of £1,000. Edward Cooke was sent to fully recruit Reynolds as an informant. ``You must get him to come forward; stop at nothing - £100,000 - anything.'' This colossal figure, then as now, was later negoitiated down to £5,000 and another £1,000 a year for life.

Edward's daring life on the run during this period made him a legend, the charismatic chief who alone could unite the demoralised movement and yet lead it to victory. Rumours of his appearences throughout the country were rife, though in the main he remained in Dublin. He travelled in many guises and his biographer Thomas Moore described many of his escapades while on the run.

As time passed he became bolder. Dressed as a woman he visited Pamela at her lodging in Denzille Street: ``the surprise ... brought on a premature confinement, and her second daughter, Lucy, was born.''

Despite such pressing family matters he continued his military plans for the rising and continued reconnoitering the areas himself:

``It appears that he rode, attended by Neilson, to reconnoitre the line of advance, on the Kildare side, to Dublin, - the route marked out on one of the papers found upon him when he was arrested - and it was on this occasion that he was, for some time, stopped and questioned, by the patrol at Palmerston. Being well disguised, and representing himself to be a doctor on his way to a dying patient, his companion and he were suffered to proceed on their way.''

With the government as much as declaring war on the United Irishmen by proclaiming martial law for the whole of Ireland on 30 March a new Directory emerged with Lord Edward, the Sheares brothers and Samuel Neilson to the fore. By 23 April General Lake, now commander-in-chief, had full authority to replicate his terror in Ulster throughout Ireland.

When Lord Edward received a message from Paris on 17 May that the French would not arrive until August. An emergency meeting of the Leinster Directorate that day selected 23 May as the date of a rising.

The informer Francis Magan learned Lord Edward's whereabouts and informed the Castle authorities. Two days later, on 19 May, while preparing to go to Kildare to lead the United Irish forces, he was surprised in a house in Thomas Street by Major Swan, Captain Ryan and Major Sirr. Fitzgerald fought ferociously against capture with his special zigzag dagger, slashing Swan and disembowelling Ryan (who died later of his wounds) until shot twice in the shoulder by Sirr. He was taken under heavy escort to Dublin Castle, where the Surgeon General dressed his wound. The magistrates then removed him to Newgate Gaol.

The wound to Fitzgerald's shoulder, from which the two pistol balls had not been removed, had become infected in the unusually hot summer weather and septicaemia set in. The Surgeon General dithered about an operation until it was too late. It has been suggested that this was because the administration would rather see him dead than have a show-trial which could enflame the population.

From 2 June a young Dublin surgeon, Armstrong Garnett, recorded everything in his diary. On hearing a United Irishman Clinch being hanged by the Yeomanry beneath his window Edward is recorded as becoming agitated and saying ``God look down on those who suffer! God preserve me and have mercy on me and on those that act with me''.

Fearing that the end was near Garnett broke the government bar on passing messages to the Fitzgerald family regarding Edward's health. A fellow United Irishman and prisoner, Mathew Dowling, also sent word out to Lord Henry Fitzgerald: ``Lord Edward is most dangerously ill - in fact dying.... we'll watch over him as well as is in our power''.

3 June saw Lord Clare relent and allow his brother and aunt to visit him. Edward recognised his brother and aunt despite his condition, but he was still rambling. They left after an hour hoping to be able to return in the morning. It was not to be.

At 2am on the morning of 4 June, Garnett records: ``After a violent struggle that commenced soon after twelve o'clock, this ill-fated young man has just drawn his last breath. - 4 June 1798.'' Lord Edward Fitzgerald was 35 when he died.

Lady Louisa immediately set about arranging the burial of his body in the crypt of St Werburgh's Church not far from the jail. Lord Henry left the country in a rage, writing to Lord Camden saying that by its refusal to operate that the government had ``murdered my brother as much as if you put a pistol to his head''.

Without his leadership or that of any other senior figures (Samuel Neilson was arrested on the eve of the rising, the Sheares brothers were captured on 21May), the rising went ahead as planned on 23 May, two hundred years ago this week. Without central direction, however, the scheme for a co-ordinated national effort, beginning with the seizure of Dublin, fell apart.

Pamela was to become a pauper after the Irish parliament seized the estate and her annuity. His family gave her a meagre allowance until she settled in Hamburg and remarried. Tony Small, his black companion, died shortly afterwards in London.

Thomas Reynolds, lived on his £1,000 a year pension and he died in Paris in 1836 aged 65.

Francis Magan lived on at 20 Usher's Island in Dublin. At the time of his death in 1843 he was worth £14,000 (£12,000 of which was payment for his treachery).

The ideological leap from being a member of the Ascendancy to embracing the teachings of the American and French Revolutions and the ideals of the United Irishmen, his position as Commander-in-Chief and the circumstances of his arrest and death set Lord Edward Fitzgerald out from many of his contemporaries in the movement for praise and reverence for years after. He was truly revolutionary and died trying to better the lot of the common man and woman.

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