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The night of 17th May 1798 was a busy one for the city Militia and for the Army in Dublin. Martial Law had been in force since 30 March. Each night the streets were lit by the fires of burning buildings, as soldiers went from residence to residence unrestrained by any civil law, beating, killing, robbing, burning and raping as they liked, ostensibly searching for arms, or any members of the outlawed United Irishmen Society, said to be ready to rise against the Government in an armed attack. A recourse to terrorism has been England’s consistent response to Irish attempts at independence for the duration of the 500 year long war the Irish have waged against English invasion. England’s policy on Ireland, as Sir Humphrey in Yes, Minister put it, was to have no policy.
The capture of FitzGerald
The Major of the Dublin Town Militia was Henry Sirr, an energetic soldier fully alert to the danger of a rising. The Government in Dublin had been kept fully informed of all the United Irishmen’s plans of insurrection by informers, and to encourage these, early in May they offered a £1,000 reward for the apprehension of one of the movement’s leaders, Edward FitzGerald. FitzGerald, fifth son of the 1st Duke of Leinster and the Lady Emily Lennox, daughter of Charles Lennox, 2nd Duke of Richmond, had spent some time in Paris in 1792 in the company of Tom Paine, and, inspired with the Revolution then transforming French society, had publicly renounced his title, desiring to be known as citizen Edward FitzGerald. As a result FitzGerald was shunned by English society, was summarily dismissed from his position as Major in the British Army, and as military leader of the United Irishmen became a hero to the people of Ireland. His position was more that of figurehead, of rallying point of resistance, than any real leadership of an effective force. He had no resources, and all the dangers of eminence in the Irish cause.
On the evening of 17 May Major Sirr was informed that FitzGerald was in hiding at the house of a man called Murphy in Thomas Street, immediately behind Moira House. He divided his force so as to cover both entrances of Thomas Street, Watling Street and Dirty Lane. However in the confusion of a night attack FitzGerald and his men escaped. FitzGerald had been visiting Moira House at Ussher’s Island, where his wife Pamela and their three small children had taken refuge with the Countess of Moira, a powerful English peer favourable to the Irish cause.
The following night Sirr went straight to the house of Murphy in Thomas Street where he knew FitzGerald was lodged, and took him captive. Two things are remarkable about the capture. Firstly, FitzGerald had stayed put to be taken, despite the scuffle the previous night. He was indifferent to personal danger and had been a reckless officer in battle, but in this instance risking capture meant disaster to the United Irishmen’s cause and personal tragedy for his family. He was armed only with a knife, and nobody else in the house was armed. The Militia seemed not to expect resistence, as they entered the house with rifles unloaded, and carried only sabres and one pistol. But FitzGerald did resist. He stabbed the arresting officer, Major Swan, and another man called Riley. It is to be noticed that FitzGerald was a small man, slightly built and below average height, and his successful attack on two larger men showed considerable courage. Major Sirr then entered the room. He was armed with a pistol.
The second remarkable thing about the capture was Sirr’s behaviour. He didn’t put the pistol to FitzGerald’s head and demand he submit to arrest. He stood at the other side of the room and shot FitzGerald in the upper arm and disabled him. This wound proved significant. FitzGerald was captured by a group of Militia who bought him to the ground and battered him with rifle butts. He was stabbed several times. Removed to Dublin Castle, FitzGerald’s wounds were not treated (the bleeding was stopped but the pistol ball not removed from his shoulder wound). He was kept in isolation in the prison dungeons, no family visitors were allowed, he was denied adequate food and sleep, and guarded by two jailors who stood over him and physically abused him. After almost three weeks of this treatment FitzGerald developed an infection, became feverish, and died on 04 June. He was 34 years old. This looks indistinguishable from murder to me.
FitzGerald presented the English with a problem. He wasn’t just a rebel who could be tortured and killed. He was a distinguished British peer, a member of Parliament, and his family were very influential. Court martial and public execution were out of the question, and would have only made a martyr of him. The Government offered him a chance to leave the country, but FitzGerald refused it. A regrettable illness while in prison was another matter. That got him out of the way conveniently, with no blame attached. It was the Gulag approach to dissent.
The Irish question
The Government’s approach to the Irish demand for rights was peculiar. The Irish had begun their current move for independence with a constitutional appeal made in Parliament by Henry Grattan in 1782 against rule of Ireland from London, though Grattan was also opposed to Home Rule. The appeal won concessions from the British, including rights for the Catholic majority of the population, who had previously had no rights at all. Suddenly this conciliatory policy was reversed. The change of attitude was based on British fear of the union of republican Irish groups with the armies of the victorious French, which looked likely for some time in 1793 and 1796. The British had realised that with the formation of the Society of United Irishmen in 1791, mainly the work of Theobald Wolfe Tone, and which bought together Protestants, Presbyterians and Catholics devoted to the fight for liberty, the British held a very vulnerable position as a ruling group representing less than one percent of the population of Ireland. The British were in the same position as the Africaners were in South Africa in 1948. Suppress or perish, they realised. This was even more the case should the Irish republicans combine with the revolutionary French forces.
Rather than negotiate, the British resorted to terrorism. But the threat of rebellion was not a real one. It existed on paper, and had the various parties been able to combine forces, the British would have been in difficulties. Yet rebellion in Ireland was fatally divided. Too many groups with too many different agendas could combine only in opposition. In practice the groups acted independently and to divergent effect. The United Irishmen had numbers and popular appeal, yet could not settle on a concerted action. The British knew all this. They were kept informed by a constant stream of Irish traitors for whom a present payment in cash was worth more than all the inspiring rhetoric under heaven.
The republican cause was served by a Parliamentary party under Grattan, who attempted to have unjust legislation repealed. The United Irishmen Society supported this movement, as did a sector of businessmen from the northern cities such as Belfast. These wanted recognition in Parliament and more just taxation. They were a very prosperous group of tradesmen and retailers yet their taxes were spent by Government in England. They were predominantly Presbyterian, and wanted toleration for their religion. The United Irishmen, who included members of both these groups, were only reluctantly a lobbying group. Most of them thought a military demonstration against England would prove necessary. This was the attitude of Wolfe Tone himself, probably the most politically gifted of all the republican leaders. The Catholics were divided. Some, the more prosperous city dwellers, joined the United Irishmen for constitutional reform, and moved reluctantly with them towards a more militant stand. Others, the rural Catholic poor, were convinced the English would only give concessions if defeated in battle. The rural Catholics began a practice of guerrilla terrorism in reprisal for the atrocities the Government armed forces had been inflicting on them. This group was known as the Defenders, and was active in eastern Ireland. This group formed the nucleus of the army that eventually gathered around Joseph Holt and Michael Dwyer in Wexford and which was to be defeated in the Battle of Vinegar Hill on 21 June 1798 at Enniscorthy.
With an impotent representation in Parliament, the United Irishmen suppressed, imprisoned, executed or refugees from 1793, and unplanned violence from the Defenders, the militant republicans under Holt and Dwyer were bereft of much of their effectiveness. To make matters worse, the French who had pledged to support the republican cause were kept offshore by contrary winds in 1793 and 1796, and for the same reason were unable to land armaments in 1798, leaving Holt to go into battle with pikes, against the English cannon. Another rising, under the gifted and charismatic Robert Emmet, was made in 1802. All attempts, legal and military, failed to do anything except make the situation worse for the Irish.
It is easy to see with hindsight just what the English were doing. By making it plain that reform would only come after a successful military action by the Irish, they divided the military wing of protest from the Parliamentary one. By stepping up what became an English Reign of Terror in Ireland, they divided those who wanted to consolidate forces and plan a strategic military demonstration from those who thought it necesssary to act immediately. The result was a fractured, unco-ordinated Irish protest that was destroyed piecemeal. There never was any real threat to the British, and nothing was gained by them in the bloody suppression of the republicans. Just a few short term gains by British politicians. That’s what happens when you haven’t a policy. Perhaps the English leaders had been reading Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, in which he detailed how a system of genocide against Gallic communities forced the tribes into unco-ordinated resistance and minimised the strategy of gifted leaders like the chief Vercingetorix. The cost to the Irish: more than 10,000 dead, most murdered in cold blood, men, women and children, after surrender; and over 1,000 transported to Australia, as England swept its social problems under the carpet.
This fatal division in the command was the reason that FitzGerald, whose social position gave him military leadership of the republican forces, was forced to spend so much time in the dangerous environs of Dublin, where he was looked for by Government forces. It was necessary to convince first one group to take action, then another group, then to co-ordinate the actions of both groups, then convince a third. And all along, the British were kept informed of what was going on by what became an army of informers and traitors. It was no wonder FitzGerald was taken and killed, forced to throw his life away. The wonder is more that it took so long to happen.
One thing that distinguished FitzGerald from other Irish leaders was that he was not a political thinker at all, nor even a politician. As a soldier he had little strategic ability. He worked for the republican cause, and died for it, because of three distinguishing character traits not at all common in the political arena.
Firstly, he was uncomplicatedly just. If he saw something unjust, he spoke out against it. His Parliamentary career was full of denunciatory speeches against English legislation. It was the only way he knew how to respond. Secondly, he was outstandingly courageous, risking his life in battle and military skirmish, and, in the end, in a futile effort to unite his fellow rebels to effective action. He seemed not to feel fear. Perhaps he could not therefore be said to have been brave, which is a quality which overcomes fear. Thirdly, he was enormously affectionate and loyal to his friends and family. Once having taken on, almost by accident, the role of republican military leader, FitzGerald would not abandon those he felt depended on him, no matter what the risk.These are the ones that die in political conflicts: the schemers survive.
Here are comments on him made by some people who met him, quoted from Moore’s Memoirs (see citation below).
“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 gaity of heart, his valour almost chivalrous, and, above all, his unassuming tone, made him the idol of all who served with him. He had great animal spirits, which bore him up against all fatigue ; but his courage was entirely independent of those spirits.” Major Doyle 1781, later General Doyle, who commanded FitzGerald for a time in the American War.
“Lord Edward was a most humane and excellent man, and the only really honest officer [I] ever knew in the army.” William Cobbett 1800, who also knew FitzGerald in America, speaking to Prime Minister William Pitt (the Younger) whose machinations destroyed the Irish cause.
“I would rather be Fitzgerald, as he is now, wounded in his dungeon, than Pitt at the head of the British Empire. What a noble fellow…whatever be the event, his memory will live forever in the heart of every honest Irishman.” Diary of Theobald Wolfe Tone.
Impulsive, generous, unthinkingly brave, how did this career soldier become embroiled in republican Irish politics? It all started in America.
From army to politics
FitzGerald was destined for the army as a child and was only 16 when he joined the British Army in 1779, serving with distinction in the American War till 1783. He was made aide de camp to Lord Rawdon who commanded the British forces, and made a reputation for himself by independent actions in attacking small forces of the Americans single handedly. Although they served no military purpose and sometimes amounted to insubordination, their success was a badly needed morale booster for the British, who were not fighting too successfully, with a seriously extended supply line. In an engagement in Carolina FitzGerald sustained a leg wound which incapacitated him, and was taken from the battleground by an escaped slave, Tony Small, who became his inseparable companion, and a close friend, with him till his death in Dublin.
He returned to America in 1787 after a short period in Dublin as a MP. During the next two years FitzGerald surveyed territory in Canada for the army, travelling from Fredrickstown New Brunswick to Quebec, then to New Orleans. It was a pioneering journey made with the aid only of a compass, and yet FitzGerald’s account reads like that of a picnic. He was profoundly impressed by the life of the woodsmen and earlier settlers, and also with that of the Indians he met. He was made an honorary member of the Huron Bear Clan when in Detroit. FitzGerald acquired a lifelong regard for the practice of self sufficiency, and for a more just social system which allowed settlers and native to acquire the means of subsistence without exploiting them. A long series of his letters to his mother have survived in which he expresses his views, and are a fascinating work of literary as well as biographical value.
In 1790 FitzGerald returned to Ireland where he again served as a MP, keeping to an independent line and speaking out against the Government on several occasions. This was a period when the island of Britain was ruled effectively by the great aristocratic families that made up the Whig and Tory parties, nominally in opposition but really co-rulers. The kings of the Hanover line contented themselves with acquiring many mistresses and indulging in good food and wine. Influential politicians had seats within their gift (“rotten boroughs”) and when they bestowed them expected the MP to vote with them. FitzGerald would not do so. He was adamant in person and correspondence that his vote was not to be compromised by any favour he received. This was the first sign the Government had there was a goat among the sheep in the pen. Surprising also because his family were all supporters of Government
This refusal to co-operate with a corrupt political system was reinforced when FitzGerald travelled to France in 1792. He lodged in Paris with Tom Paine, the great revolutionary thinker whose book Common Sense of 1776 gave the theoretical framework for the American War of Independence, and whose two books The Rights of Man (1791) and The Age of Reason (1793) did the same for the French Revolution. Paine challenged existing thought and institutions in a powerful and structured way, and provided alternative models for society to follow. Most of the political innovation of the end of the 18th century came from Paine, and little wonder FitzGerald was swayed by his opinions. FitzGerald became a Revolutionary, abjured his title, and swore to work for a more just society in Ireland.
In Paris in 1792 FitzGerald met his wife, then Stéphanie Caroline Anne Syms, illegitimate daughter of Comtesse de Genlis and Louis Philip II. This was his third love affair, he having been rejected as a spouse by two other women on earlier occasions. Stéphanie was known as Pamela (was she fond of Richardson’s best seller of 1740?) and was a famous beauty. The dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan was a friend of FitzGerald and the two were rivals in love, but FitzGerald was the one Pamela married, at Tournai 27 December. FitzGerald was devoted to her till his dying day, and she to him till hers, 09 November 1831. The couple had three surviving children. In their cottage at Kildare in 1794 prior to his involvement with the Society of United Irishmen FitzgGerald revelled in his domestic life, and developed a great passion for gardening, descriptions of which can be found in his letters to his mother Lady Emily in Moore’s Memoirs. These letters are enjoyable to read because FitzGerald is so aware of his feelings and so direct in his expression of them, he seems a contemporary, not a man of the 18th century. In reading them I was reminded of Beverley Nichols delightful 1932 book Down the Garden Path and its sequel.
In 1793 France declared war on England, and associations such as the Society of United Irishmen with bases in Bellfast and Dublin were made illegal. England adopted a tougher line on Irish politics, offering Irishmen a virtual choice between slavery or treason. In retrospect it can be seen they wanted a rising they could easily crush. After speaking out heatedly against this policy in Parliament, FitzGerald joined the Society of United Irishmen in 1796. It was then an outlawed organisation, declared treasonable by the Government.
For FitzGerald it was a simple matter. The oppression of Ireland was wrong. It had to be opposed by all just men. The wrong was the same one the American colonies had suffered from and successfully rebelled against. But a succession of traitors and informers was to ensure the Irish would fail where the Americans had succeeded. And yet: it was an age of revolutions. America 1765-83; France 1789-1799; Ireland 1782-1798. It seemed that by the end of the century the forces of reaction had regrouped.
The hero in the dungeon
There is a saying that you can tell a man by the company he keeps. Who were FitzGerald’s friends? Charles James Fox, who fought against slavery and for religious toleration; Richard Brinsley Sheridan, defender of the American colonists and author of A School for Scandal; Elizabeth Hastings Countess of Moira, supporter of Mary Wollstonecraft and patron of Henry Flood and Thomas Moore; Thomas Moore, writer of The Last Rose of Summer and friend of Robert Emmet. All these and many more are detailed in Moore’s Memoirs. The Countess of Moira herself played a significant role in rousing Irish national feeling, and prompted many thousands to join with the United Irishmen. She was friends with Bishop Thomas Percy, whose collections of ancient ballads so inspired Sir Walter Scott. She had links with Joseph Walker, whose Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards (I786) and Historical Essay on the Dress of the Ancient and Modern Irish (1788) added resonance to the turbulence in Irish politics that eventually erupted in the rebellion of 1798. Another friend of the Countess was Charlotte Brook, one of the most important woman authors of the period, whose Reliques of Irish Poetry was published in 1789. The Irish were newly aware they were the inheritors of an ancient Keltic culture, not the primitive bog dwellers the English thought of them as.
Moore’s book is very readable, and is available at archive.org: Memoirs of Lord Edward Fitzgerald by Thomas Moore, with a Preface and many supplementary particulars by Martin MacDermott London : Downey and Co. Limd., 12 York Street, Covent Garden: 1897. Choose the option HTTPS Torrent to the left while on the site and a useful format such as pdf when downloading the book. The “Lord”, though disowned by Fitzgerald in his lifetime, serves to distinguish him from the translator of Omar Khayyam. Ida Taylor’s The Life of Lord Edward FitzGerald (Hutchinson 1904) is available from the same site. This is, however, written in a kind of tortured English prose that makes for hard going, and presents the English view of FitzGerald, a likeable chap, but feckless and unstable, who generally made a mess of the rebellion and whose death was no great loss. It also denigrates his wife Pamela in an unpleasant manner.
Moore’s book is notable for the collection of FitzGerald’s letters it reproduces, as well as many eye witness accounts of the events of his life. FitzGerald is revealed as an attractive and admirable man, completely unconscious of his goodness, and a great writer. He was a hero to many who knew him. He remains one to this day, someone who accepted death in a just cause with the same firmness as Sokrates. Lord Edward Fitzgerald, commander-in-chief of the United Irishmen was buried in the vaults of St Werburghs church Dublin on 5 June 1798. His troubles are over now. Aren’t they?
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.