Lord Edward Fitzgerald

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


WHILE the government, by such frightful agencies, was trying to force an insurrection, the United Irish leaders were straining every energy to keep the people in restraint until such time as they could strike and not strike in vain. But in this dreadful game the government was sure to win eventually. By a decisive blow at the Society, on March 12, 1798, it compelled the United Irishmen to take the field forthwith or perish. This was the seizure, on that day, in one swoop, of the Supreme Council or Directory, with all its returns, lists, and muster-rolls, while sitting in deliberation at the house of Mr. Oliver Bond (one of the council) in Bridge Street, Dublin.

Portrait of Lord Edward Fitzgerald

This terrible stroke was almost irreparable. One man, however, escaped by the accident of not having attended, as he intended, that day's council meeting; and him of all others the government desired to capture. This was Lord Edward Fitzgerald, son of the Duke of Leinster, commander-in-chief of the United Irish military organization.

Of all the men who have given their lives in the fatal struggle against the English yoke, not one is more endeared to Irish popular affection than "Lord Edward." While he lived he was idolized; and with truth it may be said his memory is embalmed in a nation's tears. He had every quality calculated to win the hearts of a people like the Irish. His birth, his rank, his noble lineage, his princely bearing, his handsome person, his frank and chivalrous manner, his generous, warm hearted nature, his undaunted courage, and, above all, his ardent patriotism, combined to render Lord Edward the beau ideal of a popular leader. "He was," says a writer whose labors to assure the fame and vindicate in history the gallant band of whom the youthful Geraldine was among the foremost should never be forgotten by Irishmen—"as playful and humble as a child, as mild and timid as a lady, and, when necessary, as brave as a lion."[1]

Such was the man on whose head a price of one thousand pounds was now set by the government. On the arrest of the directory at Bond's, three men of position and ability stepped forward into the vacant council-seats; the brothers John and Henry Sheares, and Dr. Lawless; and upon these and Lord Edward now devolved the responsibility of controlling the organization. Lord Edward insisted on an immediate rising. He saw that by the aid of spies and informers the government was in possession of their inmost secrets, and that every day would be ruining their organization. To wait further for aid from France would be utter destruction to all their plans. Accordingly, it was decided that on the 23d of May next following, the standard of insurrection should be unfurled, and Ireland appeal to the ultima ratio of oppressed nations.

The government heard this, through their spies, with a sense of relief and of diabolical satisfaction. Efforts to secure Lord Edward were now pursued with desperate activity; yet he remained in Dublin eluding his enemies for eight weeks after the arrests at Bond's, guarded, convoyed, sheltered by the people with a devotion for which history has scarcely a parallel. The 23d of May was approaching fast, and still Lord Edward was at large. The castle conspirators began to fear that after all their machinations they might find themselves face to face with an Irish Washington. Within a few days, however, of the ominous 23d, treason gave them the victory, and placed the noble Geraldine within their grasp.

On the night of the 18th of May he was brought to the house of a Mr. Nicholas Murphy, a feather merchant, of 153 Thomas Street. He had been secreted in this same house before, but had been removed, as it was deemed essential to change his place of concealment very frequently. After spending some short time at each of several other places in the interval, he was, on the night already mentioned, a second time brought to Mr. Murphy's house. On the evening of the next day, Lord Edward, after dining with his host, retired to his chamber, intending to lie down for awhile, being ill with a cold. Mr. Murphy followed him upstairs to speak to him about something, when the noise of feet softly but quickly springing up the stair caught his ear, and instantly the door was thrown open and a police magistrate named Swan, accompanied by a soldier, rushed into the room. Lord Edward was lying on the bed with his coat and vest off. He sprang from the bed, snatching from under the pillow a dagger. Swan thrust his right hand into an inside breast pocket where his pistols were; but Lord Edward, divining the object, struct at that spot, and sent his dagger through Swan's hand, penetrating his body.

Swan shouted that he was "murdered;" nevertheless, with his wounded hand he managed to draw his pistol and fire at Lord Edward. The shot missed; but at this moment another of the police party, named Ryan (a yeomanry captain), rushed in, armed with a drawn cane-sword, and Major Sirr, with half a dozen soldiers, hurried upstairs. Ryan flung himself on Lord Edward, and tried to hold him down on the bed, but he could not, and the pair, locked in deadly combat, rolled upon the floor. Lord Edward received some deadly thrusts from Ryan's sword, but he succeeded in freeing his right hand, and quick as he could draw his arm, plunged the dagger again and again into Ryan's body.

The yeomanry captain, though wounded mortally all over, was still struggling with Lord Edward on the floor when Sirr and the soldiers arrived. Sirr, pistol in hand, feared to grapple with the enraged Geraldine; but, watching his opportunity, took deliberate aim at him and fired. The ball struck Lord Edward in the right shoulder; the dagger fell from his grasp, and Sirr and the soldiers flung themselves upon him in a body. Still it required their utmost efforts to hold him down, some of them stabbing and hacking at him with shortened swords and clubbed pistols, while others held him fast. At length, weakened from wounds and loss of blood, he fainted. They took a sheet off the bed and rolled the almost inanimate body in it, and dragged their victim down the narrow stair. The floor of the room, all over blood, an eyewitness says, resembled a slaughter-house, and even the walls were dashed with gore.

Meantime a crowd had assembled in the street, attracted by the presence of the soldiers around the house. The instant it became known that it was Lord Edward that had been captured, the people flung themselves on the military, and after a desperate struggle had overpowered them but for the arrival of a large body of cavalry, who eventually succeeded in bringing off Lord Edward to the castle.

Here his wounds were dressed. On being told by the doctor that they were not likely to prove fatal, he exclaimed: "I am sorry to hear it."

He was removed to Newgate, none of his friends being allowed access to him until the 3d of June, when they were told that he was dying. His aunt, Lady Louisa Connolly, and his brother, Lord Henry Fitzgerald, were then permitted to see him. They found him delirious. As he lay on his fever pallet in the dark and narrow cell of that accursed bastile, his ears were dinned with horrid noises that his brutal jailers took care to tell him were caused by the workmen erecting barriers around the gallows fixed for a forthcoming execution.

Next day, June 4, 1798, he expired. As he died unconvicted, his body was given up to his friends, but only on condition that no funeral would be attempted. In the dead of night they conveyed the last remains of the noble Lord Edward from Newgate to the Kildare vault beneath St. Werburgh's Protestant Church, Dublin, where they now repose.

A few days after Lord Edward's capture—on Monday, 21st of May—the brothers Sheares were arrested, one at his residence in Lower Baggot Street, the other at a friend's house in French Street, having been betrayed by a government agent named Armstrong, who had wormed himself into their friendship and confidence for the purpose of effecting their ruin. On the evening previous to their capture he was. a guest in the bosom of their family, sitting at their fireside, fondling on his knee the infant child of one of the victims, whose blood was to drip from the scaffold in Green Street, a few weeks later, through his unequalled infamy!

On the 12th of July, John and Henry Sheares were brought to trial, and the fiend Armstrong appeared on the witness table and swore away their lives. Two days afterward the martyr-brothers were executed, side by side. Indeed they fell through the drop hand clasped in hand, having, as they stood blindfolded on the trap, in the brief moment before the bolt was drawn, by an instinct of holy affection strong in death, each one reached out as best he could his pinioned hand, and grasped that of his brother!


[1] Dr. R. R. Madden, "Lives and Times of the United Irishmen."