Lord Edward Fitzgerald
Lord Edward Fitzgerald; drawing by David Levine


Insurrectionary spirits looked back with some nostalgia to the fiery clarities of the French Revolution and to the Irish rebellion of 1798 with which it was so tragically intertwined. Lord Byron, for example, was enchanted by “anecdotes of those times when I, alas! was an infant.” He added, “If I had been a man, I would have made an English Lord Edward Fitzgerald.”

Fitzgerald, fifth son of Ireland’s premier peer, died in the attempt to free his country from the rule of the British monarchy, and he is the subject of Stella Tillyard’s masterly and moving new biography. The parallels between the young Irish aristocrat and the English poet peer and (some would argue) peerless poet are greater than Byron himself could have foreseen. Both underwent a transformation from disaffected socialite to committed revolutionary leader. Both died young, not in action but in less heroic settings on warfare’s outer edges. Lord Edward was thirty-four when he died slowly from festering wounds in Dublin Castle prison. Byron finally gave in to debilitating malarial fever in a small house in Missolonghi at the age of thirty-six.

Their early deaths created a glamour in the afterlife. Both Byron and Fitzgerald quickly acquired a mythic quality, and indeed these new nationalist heroes had a first biographer in common, the Irish poet and musician Thomas Moore, whose two-volume life of Byron, published in 1830, was followed a year later by a Life and Death of Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Byron, with his demonic sharpness, had noted, “Tom Moore loves a Lord.”

Moore’s biography has the sweet immediacy of a writer who was himself a Romantic nationalist as much as a Romantic poet. He brought out the charm and insouciance of Fitzgerald as he had once spotted him, early in 1797, walking down Grafton Street in Dublin. Moore had then been fascinated to observe the young revolutionary lord’s “peculiar dress, the elastic lightness of his step…and the soft expression given to his eyes by their long dark lashes.”

Moore’s book is not hagiography, but it plays up Fitzgerald’s chivalry at the expense of Lord Edward’s serious military importance and the icy ambitiousness of his militant aims to sever the British connection with Ireland and establish a new republic of hopefulness for men of all conditions and religions. Stella Tillyard makes the interesting point that Moore, in 1831, was writing cautiously, acceding to Whig governmental pressure, especially that of his patron Lord Holland. It was an edgy period. Only in 1830 had the Whigs finally come into office, bringing with them what Tillyard describes as “a noisy band of Irish MPs.”

Her own biography of Fitzgerald brings us a less innocent, less malleable character shown in a wider setting of family history and eighteenth-century politics of power. Her book on Lord Edward is part two of a planned trilogy about the high-born and influential Lennox family. He originally made his appearance in Aristocrats, the first of these volumes, as the doted-upon infant of Emily, née Lennox, who married the twentieth Earl of Kildare, later first Duke of Leinster. Already, in Aristocrats, Fitzgerald’s republican enthusiasms could be seen to be developing. “One must not say the mob before him, but the people,” his family noted with a touch of sarcasm when he returned from Revolutionary Paris in 1792.

In choosing now to focus on the wayward younger son Tillyard has been able to subtly change the bias of her story from the women to the men of this self-confident, profuse, and affectionate family. Lord Edward, who starts life as “a robust, bustling little child,” ends it, to the alarm and disapproval of his relatives, as a driven, decisive man beyond the law. In her narrative of the education of a terrorist, gradually distancing himself from his own family for the sake of what he sees as human liberation, Tillyard takes up the conflict between natural and unnatural that was so profound a part of eighteenth-century sensibility. Her skill as a historian lies not only in evoking the opulent and brittle appearance of the period but in charting its volatile emotional territory. It looks probable that her trilogy, when completed, will alter the way we view the eighteenth century.

Tillyard gives us a new picture of Emily, daughter of the Duke of Richmond, as Edward’s Rousseauesque mother, demonstrative, demanding, flirting with her “almost perfect little Being.” Believing that her children should not be sent away to school, and inspired by the educationally progressive ideals she read about in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, she set up a school for her own extensive family at Black Rock, a fishing village five miles south of Dublin, imperiously summoning Rousseau himself to run it. Failing that, she appointed William Ogilvie, a Scot, with whom she first deceived her husband and then, on the Duke of Leinster’s death, married him. Although now the lawful wife of an ex-schoolmaster of questionable origins, Emily continued to use the title Duchess. The upbringing of Lord Edward combined Enlightenment values and unthinking privilege.


At the schoolhouse, romantically called Frescati, by the sea and in the hayfields, the young lord was encouraged to be a child of nature. He became a knowledgeable, practical gardener, urged on in his revolutionary tendencies by a literal love of Irish soil shared with his social inferiors. As Tillyard notes, his gardens are personal and joyous spaces to be tended, rough places to be smoothed, and emblems of the revolution to be flaunted. One of the most touching moments in the book comes almost at the end when Lord Edward, by then being hunted throughout Dublin by the British military, begins contentedly digging in a large bed of lilies in the gardens of the house where he is hiding. He sees the orange and green flowers flourishing like patriotic flags.

Fitzgerald, again like Byron, was a natural exile. With an Irish ducal father, English mother, and Scottish stepfather, he had his sense of identity confused further when the Duchess, Ogilvie, and their ever-increasing family set off to live in France, sprawling into the medieval château at Aubigny belonging to the Duchess’s brother, the Duke of Richmond. At the age of fourteen Lord Edward was sent to a military academy in Paris. He enjoyed speaking French and admired what he saw as “the true French character.” He exuded Gallic charm, and became the living exemplar of “the man of feeling” in the popular novels and dramas of the period. This immersion in French life would shape his later view of politics. His empathy with Europe, and later with America, gave an extra dimension to Fitzgerald’s Irishness.

He was still the handsome drifter, pleasure-loving and politically immature, when in 1779 he returned to England, joining his uncle the Duke of Richmond’s regiment, the Sussex Militia. With the thoughtless young man’s ardor to see action he bought his way into the 19th Regiment of Foot, which was just about to sail out of Cork to America. The British force he joined on his arrival had just captured Charleston, the principal port in South Carolina, in what Tillyard describes as “the dog days” of the War of Independence. Fitzgerald was later to say ruefully that he had fought in America “against the cause of Liberty.”

Wounded at Eutaw Springs in the final superfluous engagement of the war, Lord Edward was discovered on the battlefield and tended to by a black soldier in the American forces. In gratitude Lord Edward took the young man, once a slave, into his employment and brought him back to Ireland. In her handling of the story of the servant, Tony Small, who was actually a tall man, as depicted in the portrait commissioned by Lord Edward, Tillyard shows one of her great strengths as a biographer. This is her recognition, and restoration to their due prominence, of people of relatively lowly social status who were dismissed as minor figures by earlier biographers but were actually ever-present on the scene.

Tony Small became the alter ego of Lord Edward. Tillyard shows how the lithe, exotic figure, possibly a mulatto, worked on Lord Edward’s imagination as the ideal of the noble savage, the black Samaritan, proof of the essential goodness of mankind. She also indicates how Small himself reveled in his new position as a personal servant, subsuming his own personality and his desires in the hero worship of his master. Here Tillyard raises the interesting question of whether the role of servant to a late-eighteenth-century Irish aristocrat was slavery in a more sophisticated form. In the tense months leading up to the attempted Irish coup d’état there was a tragic ending when the devoted servant became a source of danger to his master. In the Dublin of that period negroes were conspicuous. To prevent him from revealing his master’s conspiratorial movements in the city, Tony had to remain housebound, in a prison of his own.

When he returned from fighting in America, a career in London politics was within Lord Edward’s reach. The new administration was headed jointly by Lord North and by Lord Edward’s cousin, Charles James Fox, the reformer and antimonarchist. Fitzgerald’s brother Lord Henry was already an enthusiastic “Foxite,” in the inner circles of governmental power. But Lord Edward was not subtle enough for English politics. He was disconcerted by what Tillyard describes as the “louche and drunken modishness” of Fox’s entourage. He still saw himself as primarily a soldier: “My profession is that of a military man.”

At this stage Fitzgerald’s progress had not been so very different from that of other amiable, impoverished, and well-bred younger sons. On reaching his majority he inherited the Kilrush estate in County Kildare and in 1783 he was elected to the Irish parliament. He allowed himself to be bullied by his loving mother, who traveled between London and Frescati according to her whims. He suffered delicious miseries from temporary love affairs. He caught, and was treated for, venereal disease. When he fell in love seriously it was with a near relation, Georgiana Lennox, the twenty-one-year-old daughter of his uncle Lord George Lennox. He proposed. She refused him, and her refusal was followed by a curt letter from her father. The family had evidently planned a more resplendent alliance with a richer man. The rejection resulted in his lifelong animosity toward his uncle, and Tillyard sees it as a decisive factor in his growing disenchantment with the entire aristocratic way of life.


In his new mood Fitzgerald set out for the New World. Over the next year he and Tony Small made long and arduous expeditions through the Canadian wilds. The eager spirit of adventure beams out from the informative, detailed letters he wrote home. He found an unexpected intimacy in the open spaces, joining the dances of the Indians he encountered, skating on the frozen rivers. He took to the canoe: “A canoe here is like a post-chaise at home and the rivers and lakes your post-horses,” he told his mother.

What he experienced on his travels was important in confirming his concept of an ideal society. Living among the Iroquois Indians, Fitzgerald came as near as he would ever get to a community in which familial obligations ruled instead of wealth and power structures, and in which the ambitions and intrigues of European “devilish politics” had no place. His months with the Iroquois seriously tempted Lord Edward to “join the savages” himself, and the simple life he learned there was the basis of his planning for an Irish society reborn in innocence. Tillyard here reminds us, with one of her well-placed shafts of realism, that even as Lord Edward discovered the Iroquois they were coming under pressure from the outside world.

Besides the Iroquois the essential influence on Fitzgerald at this period was the charismatic intellectual Tom Paine. He first read Paine’s Rights of Man, which argued the case for a new social and political order, referring back to the Garden of Eden, where man was created in God’s image and the creator gave equal rights to all men. Fitzgerald responded with a special vigor to Paine’s plea for a nation of no lords, no bishops, no kings, but only men and women. Here was the rationale for his own instinctive distrust of primogeniture, and he would pursue it with all the pent-up bitterness of the younger son. The denial of primogeniture led logically to regicide. It was Paine’s Rights of Man that finally transformed Lord Edward from radical to republican.

He was soon to meet Paine himself and was drawn into the circles of London-Paris radicals that included William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. These radicals were mostly the disaffected children of aspirant artisans or merchants. Paine’s father, for instance, was an impecunious staymaker. Lord Edward was now mingling with dissenting London families who were officially excluded from the center of power in government, the universities, and the established Anglican Church. In this circle he was the sole aristocrat.

But he also resumed his intimacy with the more worldly and glamorous political adherents of Fox, beginning an affair with Elizabeth, wife of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a prominent Foxite. Pregnant with Lord Edward’s child, she was already dying slowly of consumption. Their daughter was born, and he gave the baby to Sheridan to raise, leaving himself alone again. A curious aspect of Lord Edward is the energy verging on desperation with which he darts into so many and such disparate social worlds, almost but never quite belonging. What emerges from Tillyard’s wholly convincing portrait is that his republicanism was closely aligned to his endemic rootlessness.

From Paris Lord Edward sent his mother a letter headed “1st year of the Republic, 1792.” His grief for his dead Elizabeth, his genuine anxieties about his infant daughter (“Will it find a tender father?”), receded in the dramatic atmosphere of Paris as the contraption Tillyard describes as “the swift and hissing guillotine” was erected in front of the Tuileries gardens. In August of that year the King, Louis XVI, was overthrown and imprisoned. The September massacres followed. One of Lord Edward’s many brothers, Lord Robert Fitzgerald, observed and reported the events with cool distaste from his office in the Paris embassy.

Lord Edward, on the contrary, was swept up in the egalitarianism of a Paris where in “the coffee-houses and play-houses, every man calls the other camarade, frère.” It was at this point of revolutionary fervor that he formally renounced his title. The British army cashiered him soon after the inflammatory toast he proposed at a dinner in Paris held to celebrate recent French victories: “The armies of France: may the example of its citizen soldiers be followed by all enslaved countries, till tyrants and tyranny be extinct.” As he wrote to tell his mother, the great-great-grandson of King Charles II had become “le citoyen Edouard Fitzgerald.”


In Paris he had met two extraordinary women. Madame de Genlis was the accepted mistress of Louis XVI’s cousin, Philippe Egalité, duc d’Orléans. She was also the author of scores of dramas, novels, essays, and intellectual tracts, famous as a female interpreter of Rousseau (a qualification that endeared her to Lord Edward’s mother, Emily), and an early devotee of the novelist Samuel Richardson. It was surely in homage to Richardson that de Genlis chose the name of Pamela for the protégée that most people assumed to be her daughter by the duc d’Orléans.

If there was once a prejudice against the serious study of European aristocratic women on grounds that they are innately frivolous, this has been dispelled in the past decade. Some admirable recent studies, for example Amanda Foreman’s new biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, show how eighteenth-century aristocratic lives increase our understanding of contemporary female sensibilities in general sometimes by showing possibilities that were open to, and realized by, privileged women. Tillyard’s accomplished portrait of Madame de Genlis is another case in point. She describes brilliantly the social mobility and intellectual spirit of the chatelaine of the Palais-Royal who was given an honorary degree by the University of Oxford and who, when she was exiled to England, was rumored to have traveled with a piece of polished Bastille stone between her breasts.

Just as interesting is de Genlis’s putative daughter by Philippe Egalité, who was to outrage Europe by voting in the Convention for his cousin Louis XVI’s death. Pamela had white skin, a svelte figure, long dark eyelashes. Her brown hair was worn unpowdered, following the fashion for naturalism in the new regime. Pamela was the embodiment of the Revolution at its most alluring and Citoyen Edouard fell desperately in love with her. Even her mysterious origins were satisfactorily populist since she spent her early childhood in Christchurch, in southern England, as the supposed daughter of Mary Sims, a woman described by Madame de Genlis as being “of the most inferior class.” Meanwhile Lord Edward’s mother was pacified by the near certainty that Pamela, even if illegitimate, was of royal blood.

When they married and Lord Edward brought her back to Dublin, she wore revolutionary pink ribbons in her hair when everyone connected with the government dressed somberly in black, mourning Louis XVI’s death. It was said she had described her ribbons as “la couleur du sang des aristocrates.” Had she also dipped her necktie in the blood of the King’s severed head? Rumors flourished. His intrepid wife was part of Lord Edward’s newfound blatancy.

By the early months of 1793 his mind was concentrated firmly on bringing revolution to Ireland, as decisively and if necessary as violently as he had seen it taking root in France. He took up his seat again in the Irish parliament and, such are the ironies inherent in his history, immediately found himself involved in a debate about banning assemblies of the rebel volunteers he was actively planning to recruit. At first he encountered disbelief among the people who remembered the indolent, handsome half-pay officer and scion of the dukedom. Lord Edward was still seen as “one of us.” But his vehement outbursts finally convinced the Irish chamber. He was called to the bar, and asked to explain himself. Fifty-five MPs were so suspicious of his motives that they voted against accepting his half-hearted apology.

Pamela was pregnant early the next year and Lord Edward watched the swelling of “the little young plant that is coming” with the hopefulness with which he nurtured the rebellion. He had made a close alliance with the leaders of the United Irish, the clandestine society opposing the rule of the English King George III. The new friend of his heart was Arthur O’Connor, an eloquent and fiery radical MP from County Cork with whom his sister Lady Lucy Fitzgerald, another flamboyantly unconventional aristocrat, was almost inevitably to fall in love.

Lord Edward traveled secretly with O’Connor to Hamburg, then the “spy capital” of Europe, and on to Switzerland to seek French military aid for the Irish revolution. It had by now become clear that an indigenous rebellion would not be feasible: the Irish leadership was not experienced enough and was too liable to factionalist divisions. Fitzgerald and O’Connor’s plan was for a popular uprising sparked off by the landing of substantial French forces on the Irish coast.

The lack of documentary evidence has given Tillyard problems in her account of Lord Edward’s involvement in subversive politics. His letters of the period were pruned of what might seem incriminating evidence. The evidence was doctored in later years to show that he was not so much the leader as the led. Tillyard successfully reverses this denigrating process. In her account Lord Edward grows in stature from the moment when in 1796, at the age of thirty-two, he finally ostracizes himself from law-abiding society. He and O’Connor take the United Irish oath.

How has Tillyard overcome the paucity of her material? First by her grasp of the wider setting and the skill she uses in describing it. Conspiracy spreads like wildfire: “In every militia regiment, at every country fair or rural festival, United Irishmen circulated secretly, shaking hands and spreading the word, gathering support and giving back a buzz of action and resistance, explaining where meetings were held and how members could be found.” She succeeds magnificently in conveying the particular intoxication of Lord Edward’s hidden world, and she explains lucidly how in suppressing it “the government created something much more dangerous: a secret and exciting world of rumours and revolutionary cells.” As Tillyard reminds us, conspiracy and fear, treachery and double-dealing were habits of mind that had governed Ireland for centuries.

She draws the reader into her tragic narrative by the sheer imaginative conviction of her writing. When the French invading army promised to Lord Edward and O’Connor finally arrived, with its thirty-six ships, off Bantry Bay in southwest Ireland it was Christmas Day, and there was no one to receive the forces, none of the cheering crowds of rebels they expected. “The French soldiers saw only desolation and emptiness, frosty grass and glassy rocks,” Tillyard writes. Some ships fell away or were blown away. Some sailed straight home.

Occasionally the lack of documentation has tempted Stella Tillyard into sentences that rightly belong in works of fiction. For example:

The Earl glanced out of the window with an impatient anticipation of annoyance, noticing the brambles revealed by the wintry bareness of his park and the slovenly attitude of his gatekeeper leaning on a long, gnarled stick. But he turned back to look at his wife with an expectation of pleasure, contemplating her auburn beauty with as much satisfaction as he had done on the day he had married her sixteen years before.

How can she be sure of this?

More alarming to me is her cavalier attitude toward citing manuscript sources. In a serious biography one expects an exact reference and date for a quotation from any letter, with details of writer and recipient. Tillyard, in this book, gives such general references to “bundles” of letters and collections of material that I found it impossible to cross-check the proper source for the marvelous letter on the subject of Lord Edward’s being all of a sudden “mad about the French affairs.” In Aristocrats Edward’s mother is given as the writer. In Citizen Lord, Tillyard tells us it was written by Edward’s sister Lucy. We need more specific references to find out which attribution is correct. (This would be of less importance were it not for the likelihood of Tillyard’s practice being used to justify a general reduction of source pages, as publishers cut costs.)

Tillyard’s own authority is at its most impressive in her final chapter on Dublin’s “Fatal Year,” 1798. With hopes of French intervention waning, with O’Connor arrested and then exiled in France, Lord Edward was more alone than ever. As the only charismatic figure who had joined the United Irish, and the only rebel leader with professional military experience, he was leaned upon as never before to make decisions. He was now the sole commander of the revolutionary Irish force. With the usual paraphernalia of secrecy, May 23, 1798, was the date settled on for the beginning of the Irish uprising, now seen faute de mieux as a solely internal rebellion.

Tillyard gives a brilliant account of Dublin in the months leading up to the rebellion, in which Lord Edward’s own “frantic despair” combined with the city’s atmosphere of “bizarre carnival.” She is a vivid historian of place, aware of the way that towns and buildings affect deeply the lives of those within them. In telling the story of Lord Edward she gives a clear sense of Dublin itself, contrasting Leinster House, the grim grand town house of his family, with the obscure small safe houses along canals and alleys that gave shelter to Lord Edward once the proclamation had been issued for his capture. A thousand pounds was offered for information leading to his arrest.

While Pamela was once again immobilized by pregnancy, the “still and knowing centre” of the drama raging around her, Lord Edward was whisking and skulking through the city. He appeared and then he vanished, disguised as a gypsy, as a peddler, an apothecary, a postilion, and, like Christ himself, a shepherd to his flock. When, dressed in a woman’s long dress and cloak, he suddenly arrived to see Pamela, the shock sent her into labor. With enormous flair and courage Lord Edward evaded his captors for many weeks, like Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel but on the other side.

He was reading Gil Blas, one of the loved books of his childhood, lying on a bed in a cramped and shabby Dublin attic room, when they finally caught up with him in the evening of May 19. Francis Magan, a barrister and government informer, had betrayed him. He fought off his captors ferociously, fatally wounding one of them, but himself received two bullet wounds and was taken to prison in Dublin Castle, slumped in an enclosed sedan chair.

No one operated on him to remove the bullets. This could have been the result of government instructions. Had Lord Edward recovered to stand trial for treason he was the more likely to be hallowed as a martyr. More convenient for his life to slip away, which it did, in agony and in the presence of his aunt Lady Louisa and his brother Lord Henry, on June 4, 1798. “Dear Ireland! I die for you!” he cried in his delirium. In a sense Ireland itself has been dying ever since.

This Issue

March 18, 1999