New Light on Lord Edward Fitzgerald

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 1999), The United Irishmen, Volume 7

It has long been known that a valuable collection of untraced Fitzgerald material existed. Thomas Moore had access to it for his 1831 biography of Lord Edward and it was also drawn on by Gerald Campbell for his biography of Edward and Pamela in 1904. It had been assumed that these papers had been destroyed, perhaps because of their political sensitivity. This mystery has now been resolved with the recent acquisition by the National Library of an extensive collection of Fitzgerald papers, which includes the Moore material as well as many documents never before cited. The correspondence runs to c. 800 items from the 1770s to the 1830s, but peaking in the late 1790s; there are 150 items from 1798 alone, a period under-represented in other collections. The documents focus on the extensive family circle of Emily, Duchess of Leinster, one of the most prolific letter writers of the eighteenth-century world. The quality and range of this correspondence has been brilliantly demonstrated in Stella Tillyard’s Aristocrats—also made into a BBC costume drama filmed in Ireland—which covers the intertwined lives of the four Lennox sisters—Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah. Three of them ended up living in close proximity in Kildare at Carton (Emily), Castletown (Louisa) and Celbridge (Sarah). The NLI accession contains a further seventy letters from Emily, twenty from Louisa and eighteen from Sarah. There is also a vast array of other letters from within this extended family, which offer an unrivalled perspective on family life in a gentry circle in late eighteenth century Ireland. Even more important, the accession also contains seventy-seven letters from Lord Edward himself, as well as twenty letters to him.
Family favourite

Lord Edward was a famously charismatic figure. Thomas Moore in breathless prose recalled the effect of seeing him once striding down Grafton Street:

Though I saw him but this once, his peculiar dress, the elastic lightness of his step, his fresh, healthful complexion and the soft expression given to his face by their long dark eyelashes are as present and familiar to my memory as if I had intimately known him.

His family circle simply adored him. The word ‘angel’ is repeated again and again to describe him: ‘His life was that of an angel for if perfection ever came from the hand of the Almighty, he was perfect’ (his sister Sophia). ‘I did love that angel brother most tenderly’ (his sister Emily). ‘So heavenly and beautiful a mind’ (Lady Frances Coutts). ‘A man possessed of the tenderness of a woman to all he loved’ (his brother Henry). ‘Of such rare stuff as nature seldom favours us with’ (Arthur O’Connor). ‘Our beloved angel’ (his aunt Louisa). ‘The angel, the joy and delight of our hearts’ (his sister Lucy).
His heart-broken sister Sophia observed at his death:

You know how truly he was loved by everyone of his family. He was the acknowledged favourite of our hearts. Whenever he came among us, it was universal delight.

If this suggests a cardboard saint, Edward was far from it. He had a terrific sense of humour—‘that comedy, that buffoon, that dear ridiculous Eddy’ as his sister Lucy described him delightedly in 1793. He was chatty, witty, charming, a chess player, a fine dancer, handsome, sensual, endlessly fond of women and relaxed in their company at balls and operas. He was also active and energetic—hunting, fishing, fond of the outdoor life. He took to the Canadian winter—skating, snow-shoeing, tobaggoning, canoeing.
He was also an accomplished linguist—adding Spanish in the 1780s to his fluent French from family holidays at Aubigny, their French chateau, as well as picking up Irish in the 1790s. Lord Edward was also easily bored, restive, prone to ennui, and homesickness. He missed his family when abroad—notably his adored mother, his closest friend and confidante. In Canada, he wryly observed, ‘She has a rope around my heart that gives hard tugs’. Edward was a serial lover and his life oscillated constantly between profoundly felt attachments and bitter separations—Catherine Meade in 1786, his cousin Georgiana in 1788, Elizabeth Linley, wife of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, in 1791, with whom he had a love-child, and eventually his future wife Pamela in 1792—married after a whirlwind romance. The recoil from these entanglements often sent him on distant adventures—to Canada  after Georgiana, to Paris after Elizabeth. And Edward also maintained a long running and affectionate relationship with his French mistress Madame de Levis—an adventuresome grass widow.

Intense male friendships

He was equally quick to form intense male friendships. The African-American Tony Small rescued him from the muddy battle site at Eutaw Springs in 1782. Edward never parted from him for the rest of his life. He struck up intense friendships with the celebrated Indian leader Joseph Brant when he met him in 1789, the equally famous Thomas Paine in Paris in 1792, and his ‘twin-soul’, Arthur O’Connor in Dublin in 1796.
Lord Edward’s life was lived on a vast canvas; he travelled in Canada, America, the West Indies, England, Germany, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain and France. His travels convinced him of that most eighteenth century of concepts—the brotherhood of man: ‘I have seen human nature under all its forms—everywhere it is the same’. As an Indian fellow traveller told him in 1789, ‘All are brother, all are Indian’. The world was his oyster; after his epic trek from Canada to the head waters of the Mississippi and down to New Orleans, he boasted, ‘Ireland and England will be too little for me when I go home’. His travels deepened his evolving radicalism and in 1792 in Paris, he became a fully fledged republican—Le Citoyen Edouard Fitzgerald—who ostentatiously renounced his aristocratic title—‘I do not like to be Lord Edward’. He subsequently enthusiastically embraced the ‘democratic turf and milk’ of his rural Kildare retreat.

Lord Edward’s children

These letters shed new light on the single most tragic episode in Lord Edward’s life. By 1796, he knew that he was facing  death on the scaffold or the battlefield and he took a momentous decision to secure the future of his much-loved children. He relinquished his children into the hands of trusted relatives living safely in England, having persuaded Pamela that this was the proper course of action. His little daughter was given to his maiden aunt Sophia:

As for the dear child’s sake, the thing must not be done by halves, so that I consider the little thing as dead for me and shall act as if there was no such being in the world and I can not be too strict in this conduct and hope I shall act up to it with all the firmness that is necessary—it is painful.

His daughters Louisa and Pamela were to be lovingly reared by Sophia. His adored son Edward was left with his mother Emily in London in October 1796.
Emily immediately realised the sacrifice that the parents were making: ‘They adore it and delight in all its pretty ways and yet to leave it behind out of downright good nature and affection to me was a sacrifice indeed’. But she also had a guilty awareness that it was ‘cruel’ of her to accept the child:

The only drawback to my pleasure is the feel of having been selfish which I hate but have moments of weakness and self-indulgence and having suffered a great deal of disappointment and anxiety before, I gave way to this temptation which was thrown in my way with so good a grace that I could not resist it for they have persuaded me that it gives them pleasure.

The emotionally astute Edward had anticipated that the young boy—another Eddy—would solace his grieving mother should anything befall him. The little child completely absorbed Emily’s insatiable mothering instincts. Emily, one of the great mothers of the eighteenth century, soon loved the infant to distraction—he was ‘my little heart’s delight’ who proved ‘a constant source of delight and enjoyment’. After Edward’s death, he proved to be an effective therapeutic—‘he chases away misery, occupies and delights me’. Her daughter Sophia believed that the child was ‘a sweet little emblem of the dear beloved departed father. He is the balm of her afflicted heart.’
Emily was worried that the remarrying Pamela might take her children back to Hamburgh but reasoned: ‘No woman  marrying again would wish to burthen a husband with children unprovided for’ and she assured Sophia that ‘your fortune will secure you the possession of the little angel’. These arrangements for the future of his children in 1796 prove the seriousness of Lord Edward’s revolutionary commitment, as does his later refusal in the spring of 1798 to take advantage of a government offer to permit him to leave the country—despite the urgings of his family.

Death and funeral

There were two versions of his death. One was the sentimental, sanitised one prepared for his mother to lessen her grief. It emphasised her son’s calm resignation, his piety (having the death of Christ read to him), and his solicitude for his family. The harsher version surfaces more obliquely—the terrible suffering, the rage, the ultimate ravings and cursings
The letters show that his funeral was controlled by Castlereagh (an ‘upstart boy’ according to the Napiers), through his influence on Louisa and Tom Conolly. Louisa ‘submitted to what I thought prudent’. Keen to avoid any display of the enormous popular feeling towards Lord Edward, Castlereagh ensured that the funeral took place in secret at 2am and that the body was not allowed to return to Kildare. On its way to St Werburgh’s in the shadow of the Castle, the funeral was frequently stopped and searched by parties of soldiers. Even after the lead coffin was laid in the vault at dead of night, the mourners were ‘obliged to stay in the church until passes could be procured to enlarge them’. The letters overflow in a wail of grief at his death ‘which tears one’s heartstrings asunder’ (Louisa).
There is fresh evidence here on the attainder on his property which followed swiftly. Immediately after the Battle of Waterloo, William Ogilvie (Edmund’s step-father) moved to have it quashed, on the grounds that ‘the late Lord Clare having assured me that the measure had been judged necessary at the time for the purposes of intimidation but that it would be repealed as soon as public tranquillity was restored’. The always pragmatic Ogilvie had bided his time, ensuring that the young Eddy was given the most conventional of English educations at Eton before joining the  army. The attainder was overturned.

Thomas Moore

Some of Lord Edward’s letters are reproduced in Thomas Moore’s 1831 biography. The resurfacing of the originals allows us to examine Moore’s editing. As we might have expected, he cleaned up Lord Edward for edifying whig consumption. He corrects his style, removes any hint of ‘low’ vulgarity, and elevates Edward into the whig canon. In the process, he excises his sense of humour, and his good-natured interaction with his family. Moore turns him into a more formal, colder and less engaging  character than these letters show.
A few passages which Moore passed over indicate a different Edward. Here he is in 1788, bantering his sisters in the humorous style which so amused them:
I am sure Charlotte got Mr Strutt by the swing of her bum but don’t abandon your favourites, never spare them, work them well—the Lennox handkerchief and a Castletown nosegay and the little cockers [breasts] must get something.

And he adds a reference to his brother who was considered stiff and cold even by his own family: ‘Pray show this letter to Leinster, I know it will shock him’. This is the gay, funny Edward who was always the life and soul of the party.
A year later, he writes a worldly-wise letter to William Ogilvie about his visits to Canadian prostitutes and comparing them to  Parisian ones:

There is a certain commodity here very cheap indeed which helps me on—not quite so good as chez la Comtesse de Milford but very tolerable. What a set of hungry dogs there will be at this shop this winter. I certainly do envy  some of them.

Again, there is a characteristic coda—’pray don’t let my mother hear this, she would be quite shocked’.
In 1791, he records this view of Dublin women after he had accused one of them of being cold: ‘I find it is the worst thing one can say of a Dublin woman. You cannot conceive what an affront it is reckoned to be counted a damned cold bitch without passions, [it] is the worst of characters.’

Tony Small

Tony Small looms large in Lord Edward’s life. The ‘faithful Tony’ was his constant companion as well as his symbolic touchstone for the universal brotherhood of man. By 1786, the bond between the two men was tight indeed: ‘I was going to send Tony to London to learn to dress hair but when he was to go, I found that I could not do without his friendly face to look at and one that I felt to love me a little’. In 1788, a lonely Edward in Canada observes that ‘His black face is the thing that I feel attached to’.
After 1798, Tony drops out of view but these new letters pick him up again. He had moved to London, and set up in trade in Piccadilly. Falling ill in 1803, he appealed to the Fitzgerald family for assistance which was quickly forthcoming (according to Lucy). The letter demonstrates  Tony Small’s accomplished literacy. He talks of having spent money on doctors and asks ‘the family to make up a sum of money for me so that I might be able to keep on business for my wife and children which is my greatest trouble’. Small was obviously in contact with Arthur O’Connor’s peripatetic servant, Jerry O’Leary, because O’Connor wrote from Fort George that he had heard that Tony had fallen on hard times and was not being helped. Lucy Fitzgerald adds an indignant annotation that the family were indeed assisting him.

Arthur O’Connor

The collection also includes correspondence from O’Connor to Lucy Fitzgerald from his ‘Siberian exile’ in Scotland. This ‘vain and arrogant’ man (Colonel Napier) kept himself aloof—‘a perfect hermit’—from the other United Irish prisoners in Fort George although ‘to avoid frivolity and intrusion is no easy task’. His sole companion was his faithful dog: ‘It watches every  step I take and seems to sympathise with its master’. O’Connor muses on potential prison pets like spiders but goes on to say: ‘A man of my mind turns spider and weaves a web from his own brains’. The letters to Lucy suggest that there was no romantic or sexual involvement between them, simply an intellectual friendship of two isolated individuals. After her brother’s death, Lucy admits to ‘a premature old age of the heart’ while O’Connor dwindled under the ‘slow poison of solitude’.
Wolfe Tone

There are many comments in the letters on the death of Tone—mostly admiring. Frances Coutts confided to Lucy: ‘I can not cease to think of poor Tone. How dignified and noble was his conduct but I grieve that he should have tarnished it by attempting to destroy himself…I may be prepared to die with dignity today tho’ I should look on existence tomorrow as pain beyond sufferance. So alas have perished the several great and good men’.

Irish politics

Political commentary is rife in these letters, especially after the death of Edward. They reveal an extensive middle ground in Irish politics even in gentry circles, which refused to side with either rebels or government. There is a striking degree of contempt here for the men and the policies of hard-line loyalism. Lady Sarah Napier castigated them as

being the very worst of tyrants over their own countrymen. Clare, Foster, Toler, Wolfe, Castlereagh, Carhampton, Beresford. I am not sorry for the Union with England which will certainly take place and all these reptiles will fall back into their own nothingness.

Inevitably, those deemed responsible for the bad treatment of Edward were especially excoriated. His sister Sophia observed: ‘The  names of Camden and Castlereagh I shall ever hear with the utmost horror and detestation’. Fitzgibbon, a former family friend, was also hated, ‘paid by Irish money to destroy Irish prosperity’, Lord Edward’s niece, Mary, commented when he passed by Carton on his way to his Limerick estate guarded by soldiers: ‘What an agreeable feel—to live in dread of one’s fellow creatures’. Camden was described as ‘a most unfeeling mean tyrant’, a ‘brute’ who was treated with proper contempt by Pitt in being sacked.


The Fitzgerald circle strongly supported the Cornwallis regime, with its ‘conciliatory system’. Lady Sarah believed him to be

an honest man, an experienced military man and above all an unprejudiced man who cannot have imbibed any of our misguided passions. All the Irish necessarily must be prejudiced at this moment, suffering as we do from various sources, it becomes extremely difficult to steer the little bark of reason, justice and humanity thro’ the ocean of fear, mistrust, treachery, cruelty and revenge.

‘Honest and humane’, Cornwallis ‘stops all cruelty’. He distanced himself from the old regime; he ‘seems to act entirely from himself, lives quite retired in Ireland, sees no one and meddles with nothing’. As a result, ‘Our cabinet are all against him’. As Mary Fitzgerald reported in July 1798:

It is the bon ton to be very much out of humour with our present Lord Lieutenant who has shewed an inclination to conciliate rather than exasperate the unhappy beings. He does not consult the big wigs who for many years have been in the habit of governing the Chief Governor sent us from England. They cannot brook this yet dare not openly find fault…The ladies are vicious against him for he minds his own business and neglects going to their parties.

Gentry women and 1798

These letters also offer an intimate view of 1798 from a gentry woman’s perspective. Their big houses were turned into barracks, as Lady Louisa Pakenham described Castletown in 1798: ‘That charming house is quite turned into a barracks, the dining and drawing rooms  being given up to the soldiers who guard there, the halldoor and all the lower windows barricaded’. Lady Louisa Conolly wailed: ‘Our house is a perfect garrison, eighteen soldiers sleep in the saloon and we are all barred up and shut up, all except the halldoor and one door to the kitchen garden, and frequently ordered all into the house’. Even the toilets had sentries.
It was literally a nightmare time. Frances Coutts complained in 1798 that ‘My dreams are dreadful and my nights disturbed’. Lady Louisa—described in 1797 as ‘in tears and hysterics with fright’—wrote in July 1798 that ‘the miseries of this country pursue me day and night for I have at times the most horrible dreams’. Lady Sarah talked of the dead of 1798 as ‘wandering around my imagination like ghosts’. She captured the phantasmagoric maelstrom of emotions which violence released:

A succession of anxious doubts—fears—angers—grief—indignation—public calamities touching each person individually, private concerns awakening all one’s feelings—the call of honour, duty, mixed with pity and deep concern for the fate of thousands—all together form such a chaos.

Louisa Pakenham, married to an army officer, noted:

From the time the rebellion was open until I left Ireland, I lived in constant alarm. For all that time, I passed the night either watching at the window for his return or when he would permit me, walking about the Castleyard with him when he was watching.

Even as late as 1803, she reported similar feelings while living at Rockfield outside Dublin: ‘I never go to bed without preparing the arms and settling the guard as if we were in an enemy country’. She was eventually driven to think of the  Irish people as ‘more like a pack of savages than any civilised nation’. The more high-minded Sarah Napier simply reported the rebel argument in Kildare: ‘It’s better to die with a pike in my hand than to be shot like a dog at my work’.


The National Library is to be congratulated on acquiring such a large, rich and coherent collection, especially as it adds to their already considerable Fitzgerald collection. This family is now certainly one of the best documented in Irish history as well as one of the most dramatic. No scholar of eighteenth-century Ireland can afford to ignore these papers.

Professor Kevin Whelan is Michael Smurfit director of the Keough-Notre Dame Centre in Dublin.

Further reading:

S. Tillyard, Aristocrats. Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox 1740-1832 (New York 1994).

B. Fitzgerald (ed.), Correspondence of Emily Duchess of Leinster 1731-1814,     3 vols. (Dublin 1949-1957).

D. Keogh & N. Furlong (eds.), The women of 1798 (Dublin 1998).


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