No wonder Lord Edward never quite fitted in

John Bayley

  • Citizen Lord: Edward Fitzgerald 1763-98 by Stella Tillyard
    Chatto, 336 pp, £16.99, May 1997, ISBN 0 7011 6538 3

Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.

So wrote Yeats of Swift’s Latin epitaph for himself in Dublin Cathedral, and it had been an epitaph well earned. The fashionable aspect of social indignation was to come later. To the heroes of the Irish revolution, twenty years after the American, it was nothing of the kind. In his poem ‘September 1913’ Yeats was convinced that Ireland in his own time had ‘come to sense’, and had nothing to do now ‘but fumble in a greasy till’. Was it

For this that all the blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?

‘Delirium’ suggests Yeats’s usual equivocal insight; but more magnificently it celebrates the fever in the blood which was about to quicken the national pulses yet again. ‘Romantic Ireland’ was not ‘dead and gone’ after all.

Stella Tillyard does not mention Yeats or his poems, but at the end of her reconstruction of Edward Fitzgerald and his times she declares emphatically what has been implicit throughout her narrative: that his view of the Irish situation was far from romantic; that he was a skilful and well-trained operator in the cause of military rebellion. ‘The idea of Lord Edward as an incurable and innocent romantic – which may conceal the belief that because he was an aristocrat it was impossible for him to have been a committed revolutionary – was promulgated and advertised immediately after his death.’ The powerful, extended family of the Kildares, to which he belonged as a younger son – his father had recently been created Duke of Leinster – had no intention of allowing the misdeeds of one of the clan to blight their prospects in the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. Lord Edward paid on both counts for being an aristocrat. Later chroniclers of his socially humbler colleagues in the rebellion preferred to think him romantic and impractical compared to them; while his devoted mother and aunt gave a picture of him to his first biographer, Tom Moore, which insisted that ‘the friends he was entangled with pushed his destruction forward, screening themselves behind his valuable character.’

Stella Tillyard is the author of the excellent study Aristocrats, the first of a historical trilogy in which Citizen Lord is the second. Fitzgerald’s mother, the Duchess of Leinster, figured in the first volume, and the idea – an interesting one – is to trace the fortunes of a vastly extended grand family over several generations. The third volume will concentrate on the men of the family in war and peace, and may further develop the interesting hypothesis that aristocrats, on the whole, have more to lose than to gain from their privileges, especially in the eyes of posterity. Gilbert may have claimed in lolanthe that ‘hearts just as true and fair may beat in Belgrave Square as in the lowly air of Seven Dials,’ but the populace and the popular historian remain sceptical. Edward Fitzgerald pays the penalty for being an Irish aristocrat, at a time when Ireland was on fire with republicanism, its aristocracy already on the verge of impotence and extinction.

No wonder Yeats’s instinct was to turn him into a Bonny Prince Charlie figure, and lament romantic Ireland dead and gone. Scott did much the same, with enormous profit to his sales, by celebrating the past glories of Scotland, glories safely past thanks to the unromantic prosperity of the Union. Tom Moore was to follow suit, his romantic Irish ballads bringing tears to the eyes of ladies and gents in London drawing-rooms. His patron Lady Holland encouraged him to write a life of Fitzgerald which would safely sanitise him, for, as Stella Tillyard points out, there had been renewed demands for Catholic emancipation in 1830: it was desirable to depict Lord Edward Fitzgerald in the safe romantic hues of retrospection. Tom Moore, as Byron had noted, ‘loved a Lord’, and also loved the fleshpots of Holland House. Byron himself, shrewdly aware of any promising subject for fashionably romantic exploitation, had seen that Lord Edward’s life would ‘make a marvellous novel’.

Stella Tillyard has successfully written it, not as Scott or Byron or even Yeats might have done, but in the form of a heightened, though accurate, biography. The facts are vivid enough, and she has treated them with scholarly care, using the internet to explore the voluminous Rebellion Papers in Dublin’s National Archive. She begins with a bang at the last battle of the American War of Independence, Eutaw Springs, not far from Yorktown, where Cornwallis was to surrender to Washington six weeks later. ‘From a safe distance, thousands of miles from his African homeland, Tony Small watched a battle.’ The original readers of Scott and G.P.R. James would have responded to that opening sentence. Tony Small is a young black slave who escaped when the war compelled his owners to abandon their house and plantation near Charleston. Scavenging by night among the human wreckage of the battlefield, he comes across a young British lieutenant, wounded in the thigh, whom he rescues. When the British leave he goes with them as a free man, the servant of the officer whose life he has saved.

Tony Small was to serve Lord Edward faithfully, and almost as a friend, until the latter’s death in the ‘fatal year’ of 1798; then he left for Hamburg with Lord Edward’s wife Pamela, about whose origins and destiny a whole novel in what might be called today’s neo-romantic vein could well be written. Almost certainly the illegitimate daughter of the educationalist and bluestocking Madame de Genlis and Philippe Egalité, the revolution-minded member of the French royal family, she had been brought up in France but passed off as a little English girl. Lord Edward fell for her at once, for she was not only beautiful but held the same enlightened views as he did.

The Leinster clan had no objection – they were accustomed to well-born bastards – and the Duchess gracefully surrendered the younger son on whom she doted to his new wife, not grasping, as Stella Tillyard puts it, that this was ‘a political love affair and a political marriage’. Lord Edward had been seeing much of Tom Paine, and when he left revolutionary Paris ‘he brought Paine out in Pamela’ (she had been named after Richardson’s heroine), who became ‘a living symbol of the Revolution he had espoused’.

After Lord Edward’s death in a Dublin prison, Pamela, fleeing to Hamburg with the faithful Tony Small (‘she is far from the land where her young hero sleeps’), married the American consul there. The marriage did not last and Pamela disappears from the story, while Tony Small returned to London with his family: his wife, a seamstress, kept the wolf from the door until Tony’s death from, it was said, a broken heart. His life had been wholly bound up with that of his master. At this point, Stella Tillyard claims the novelist’s privilege: ‘He left his children, and his children’s children, to walk unknown through the streets of London, part of the crowd, lost to history, but brushing shoulders perhaps with the descendants of the man to whom he gave his life.’

Fitzgerald’s life and ideas present a perfect example of Rousseau’s honest man in action, and Dr Tillyard seizes the opportunity they offer to expand and give detail to her general thesis on the extended families of the aristocracy, among whom the Social Contract had not much chance of operating. To be an honest citizen was one thing: to secure one’s position, and one’s privileges, among the ancient and tenacious ramifications of the family system was quite another. No wonder Lord Edward never quite fitted in. He was, however, a great success with his common soldiers in the Colonial Army, which, after American Independence, was chiefly based at Halifax in Nova Scotia, where he also got to know and be accepted by the Iroquois Indians. Their social customs he found to be not only noble – in the fashion preconceived by the 18th-century idealist – but also matriarchal, an interesting discovery on the part of a man who had always adored and been adored by a powerful though not conspicuously enlightened mother.

It was his presence in Paris during the Revolution that determined him to direct action. He knew that the fall of the Bastille had been uproariously celebrated in radical Belfast, where huge portraits of Washington and Franklin vied on the streets with those of the new French heroes Mirabeau and Dumouriez. He had met his fellow Irish republicans, Henry Sheares and Wolfe Tone, and gained Girondin support for a French expeditionary force to land in Ireland. A more attractive personality than Shelley, he had the same high-born energy and idealism. And he had them a generation earlier, when history seemed at last prepared to give idealism its chance.

Back in Ireland, he was received in Parliament with a mixture of generosity and suspicion. The bad old forces thought they could handle him, as they had handled many firebrands in the past. But, as Tillyard emphasises, they were up against a man who, however oblique, even frivolous he seemed, possessed a trained military mind, and a shrewd insight into what tactics could achieve in alliance with democratic enthusiasms. Everything depended on timing: on the French playing their part, and the Volunteers waiting and organising until they did. But the waiting was fatal. Informers were everywhere, and Lord Edward’s most trusted ally, a fellow landowner named Reynolds, proved in the end more loyal to his Castle and Ascendancy position than to the radical cause. The French did their best; and it was due more to bad luck than to the British Navy that the Bantry Bay expedition ended in fiasco, with poor Wolfe Tone fuming and still on board.

On the run, Lord Edward placed his hopes in the United Irishmen, though cracks were appearing between French Revolutionary-style Protestants and Catholics of the more traditionally rebellious persuasion. When Lord Edward was finally taken in Dublin he nearly escaped, knifing the officer who hung onto him. The unfortunate Captain Ryan died; and Lord Edward, himself injured, would have faced a murder charge as well as the more general one of conspiracy, which his family connections might quite possibly have succeeded in playing down. The authorities saw that he might die from his wound (if the doctors saw fit not to operate), and thus save them a good deal of embarrassment and trouble. Septicaemia and gangrene came to the rescue of the establishment, and Lord Edward duly died.

All that delirium of the brave was over. In the way these things happen, much of the drama of the day had been pre-empted by a sensational case in the Irish House of Lords, where the Earl of Kingston was accused of the murder of his pregnant daughter’s seducer. Dublin was agog. In great secrecy the United Irish leaders planned to attack the courtrooms and wipe out the Lord Chancellor and the assembled Irish peerage in one spectacular coup. But the place was so heavily guarded that it was thought wiser to adopt Lord Edward’s more militarily practical scheme for a converging attack on the Castle itself. That it came to nothing was not the fault of the man who, as Stella Tillyard says, ‘had always attempted to lead his more moderate colleagues on, and not the other way round’. If things had gone differently he might have become a Carlyle-type hero, indignation and idealism united in the triumph of power, and with nothing ineffectual about him. What the short-term consequences would have been for Ireland is another matter.