It is axiomatic that revolutions and revolts are always led by men from the educated classes: think of Karl Marx, Lenin, Fidel Castro, or in the case of Ireland Eamonn de Valera and Padraig Pearse. This is certainly true of the United Irishmen at the end of the 18th century. Wolfe Tone and Arthur O’Connor were lawyers, and others of their fraternity were small businessmen. But the most glamorous figure of the great Irish revolt was not even middle-class. Lord Edward Fitzgerald came from the highest social class of all: a son of the Duke of Leinster, Ireland’s premier nobleman, whose ancestors had been a dominant force in Ireland for centuries; and through his mother a grandson of the Duke of Richmond, and thus a descendant of a bastard son of King Charles II, and a cousin of Charles James Fox, the leader of the Whig opposition to William Pitt’s government. His comrades nicknamed him "Citizen Lord".
Lord Edward Fitzgerald’s career began in 1781 when he joined the army and crossed the Atlantic to fight in the last stages of the war against the American rebels. He also took the opportunity to explore many of the wilderness areas of North America. Returning home, he was elected a member of the Irish House of Commons in 1783. He was just twenty years old. It this time there was little to set him apart from a great many young Irish aristocrats of his time. It is fascinating to compare and contrast his life with that of another scion of the Irish nobility, born in Dublin just six years after Fitzgerald, and later to achieve fame as Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. What divided them was the most world-shattering events for centuries: the outbreak of the French Revolution.
Ireland in the 18th century presented an extraordinary picture of a veneer of irresponsible wealth atop a society of grinding poverty and discrimination. All power was reserved for the tiny Anglican minority, whilst the Catholics, who constituted the vast majority, were deprived of any political or economic rights and left in a position comparable to the serfs of Russia or the black slaves of America. There was a Parliament in Dublin, for which only Anglicans could vote or sit, but it was entirely under the control of the government in London. Furthermore, for the purposes of English trading policy, Ireland counted as a foreign country and its exports were deliberately restricted.
The American war had caused great excitement in Ireland: if the Americans could demand better treatment, how much more should the Irish do the same! Even forward-looking Protestant landowners joined in the demonstrations. The surrender in America after 1782 was matched by at least a partial surrender in Ireland: the Irish Parliament was given legislative independence and a few tentative civil rights were granted to Catholics. But Ireland was still under English dominance, and to many Irish people the reforms were no more than an unsatisfactory halfway house.
The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 was hailed by the Whig leader Charles James Fox as the dawning of a new age. Fitzgerald was swept up in the initial excitement. He praised the French revolution in the Irish Parliament; he visited England in 1792 and together with his cousin Fox joined an aristocratic society with the alarming title of “The Friends of the People”. William Pitt’s government reacted cautiously at the start, but became increasingly fearful of the rise of radical democratic movements in Britain, which were made to look more sinister by increasing violence in Paris after 1792 and by the coming of war on the continent. In early 1793 King Louis was executed, French revolutionary armies invaded Belgium and Britain was at war with France. To demand radical reform now became analogous to treason. Fox’s name was struck from the list of Privy Councillors and Fitzgerald was dismissed from the army.
The Society of United Irishmen was founded in Belfast and Dublin in the autumn of 1791. As the name implies, its intention was to bring together all Irish, Protestants and Catholics, to demand better treatment from the British government. But, as mentioned above, the leaders were inevitably drawn mostly from the better-off classes; they were Protestants or freethinkers of the Enlightenment; they spoke English and French but not Gaelic; and were thus inevitably cut off from the Gaelic-speaking and fiercely Catholic Irish peasantry whom they hoped to lead. It was to prove a grave weakness of the movement. At first they contented themselves with putting out reasoned propaganda for their cause, but increasingly realised they would not win any meaningful concessions from the British government by such methods. The last straw came over the winter if 1794-95 when a liberal nobleman, Earl Fitzwilliam, was appointed Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, rashly promised full emancipation for Catholics, and was promptly sacked. The United Irishmen went underground after the arrest of some of their leaders and began to turn to an armed uprising. Tone, O’Connor and Fitzgerald went to Paris to plan for landing in Ireland of troops from revolutionary France.
In December 1796 a French fleet of 43 ships with 14,000 soldiers under the command of the revolutionary general Hoche approached Bantry Bay in the south-west of Ireland. This was undoubtedly the greatest threat to Britain at any time between the Spanish Armada and the Second World War: no troops defended the area, Ireland was seething with discontent, and the British fleet was on the verge of mutiny. But, not for the first time, Britain was saved by the weather: a vast storm descended, and after spending eight hours in a vain attempt to sail up the bay, the French fleet was swept out into the Atlantic. No further attempt on this scale was ever repeated.
Ireland now descended into civil war and anarchy. Habeas Corpus was suspended, and an Insurrection Act gave the army extraordinary powers. General Lake’s soldiers swept through Ulster and then progressed to the midland counties, torturing, flogging and killing in their search for rebels and stockpiled arms. It was quickly apparent that the idealism of the United Irishmen had failed: in this crisis, Protestant landowners enthusiastically supported the government and any revolt would be only a Catholic peasant rising. The Orange Order was founded in Ulster as an anti-Catholic mass movement, and the Yeomanry, a militia led by Protestant farmers on horseback, enthusiastically joined in the mayhem. The hierarchy of the Catholic church, frightened by the militant atheism of the French Revolution, proved itself to be a strongly conservative force. Furthermore, the rebel leadership had been penetrated by government spies. A rising was planned for May 1798, but on March 12th most of the leaders were arrested in a dawn swoop in Dublin.
Lord Edward Fitzgerald was not caught on this occasion, but was finally run to earth a week later. There was a struggle, Fitzgerald fatally stabbed Captain Ryan, one of the arresting officers, and was himself shot in the shoulder. He was held in prison, but no attempt was made to remove the bullet, and he died of the infected wound on June 4th. His death must have come as a relief to the government, since putting on trial someone of his social standing would have been a grave embarrassment. But in a move of extraordinary posthumous vindictiveness, an Act of Attainder was passed, declaring him guilty of high treason, so his property was all confiscated and his wife and three small children cast out to be supported by relatives.
The rising which broke out in May led to much pointless killing by both sides, culminating in the battle of Vinegar Hill, near Wexford, in June. 2,000 soldiers and loyalists and an unknown number of Catholic peasant rebels were killed. The French only arrived in August; too late, too few and in the wrong part of Ireland, and were easily defeated. Of the other leaders, Arthur O’Connor was, rather surprisingly, acquitted of treason and went to live abroad, and Wolfe Tone was captured in a French ship off Donegal and cut his throat whilst awaiting trial. The total casualties of the great revolt are estimated at around 30,000. In 1800 William Pitt’s government pushed through an Act of Union, integrating Ireland into the United Kingdom, with 100 Irish M.P.s at Westminster - but Catholics, although they could vote, could not be elected. Thus was more trouble stored up for the future.
Fitzgerald and his friends thus take their places in the long tradition of gallant but entirely unsuccessful rebels against British rule in Ireland. Like many such heroes, Fitzgerald is commemorated with a street named after him in Dublin: Lord Edward Street, south of the Liffey near City Hall.
This is the well-known "artist's impression" of the arrest of Lord Edward Fitzgerald on May 19th 1798.