Snoblesse oblige

Citizen Lord: Edward Fitzgerald, 1763-1798 by Stella Tillyard, Chatto, pounds 16.99; Owen Dudley Edwards scorns the Irish chieftain who succumbed to radical chic
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Attila', she said at length. `That's the name. Attila the Hun.' `Eh?'

`I was trying to think who you reminded me of. Somebody who went about strewing ruin and desolation and breaking up homes which, until he came along, had been happy and peaceful. Attila is the man. It's amazing,' she said, drinking me in once more. `To look at you, one would think you were just an ordinary sort of amiable idiot - certifiable, perhaps, but quite harmless. Yet, in reality, you are a worse scourge than the Black Death'". (P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves)

"Bertie Wooster, if he ever existed, was killed round about 1915," asserted Orwell bleakly. Stella Tillyard's new biography of Lord Edward Fitzgerald acquaints us with a Bertie Wooster killed in 1798. Orwell would probably have contemplated him with a sour gratification. Fitzgerald, son of the Duke of Leinster, descendant of greedy aristocrats enriched by the labour of their dependents for 600 years, threw in his fortunes with a new order intended to bloom from blood shed by underlings.

Orwell would have been reminded of the snoblesse oblige public-school Stalinists of his own day. The ruling class intends to rule, whatever their label. Fitzgerald married the putative daughter of Philippe, Duke of Orleans, regicide cousin of Louis XVI, father of Louis Philippe. She was charming; so was her husband. Charm, and what Jane Austen would call the condescension of his support for the French Revolution and its satellite, the United Irishmen, won him a place in the romantic nationalist pantheon.

"Was it ... for this Edward Fitzgerald died" sneered W B Yeats about Irish-Catholic bourgeois philistinism in his poem "September 1913". It was not, but however greedy and heartless "this" could be, it was better than the French-puppet regime for which Fitzgerald actually died (and killed). Ireland was a late interest in his turbulent 34-year life. He toyed with a little Gaelic and ploughmanship after returning to Ireland in 1793. It gave his revolutionary support-group a local habitation.

And birth had given him a local name. Stella Tillyard's vigorous and absorbing text is richly documented, but makes little more of the lineage than the Wooster ancestors recalled by Bertie as doing dashed well at Crecy. Neither did Edward Fitzgerald: the French Revolution abolished the past. But his claim on the Irish imagination of his own time and since was ancestral.

Tillyard vaguely pictures the medieval Fitzgeralds oscillating between "pragmatic gestures of loyalty to the English Crown and spectacular acts of defiance that allowed them to claim a distinct Irish identity". These were frequently the same thing, depending on which English Crown the Fitzgeralds might loyally gesture towards.

In the late 15th century, their Great Earl, Garret Mor, trapezed from the Yorkists to Henry VII via the pretender Lambert Simnel. They were neither English nor Irish in loyalty: they were Fitzgerald. They made alliances, marital or otherwise, with Gael and Norman, French or English, as seemed best to their interests.

The trouble was that their interests were all too readily identified with Irish malice by their opponents. The Irish Parliament of Tudor times was brought under English control chiefly to limit Fitzgerald power. They made the best of new times, having to be bought off with a dukedom in the end; but as Tillyard shows, they could not be bought on a long lease.

Lord Edward's immediate relatives moved over to oppositions; and his own choice of an opposition regime, as well as party, showed more ancestral fidelity than his trendy Francophilia implied.

His mother had shaped him for such receptivity. She educated her child according to the theoretical principles of Rousseau (as opposed to the practical ones, whereby Rousseau sent his own offspring to the foundling hospital).

Edward grew up the friend of mankind. He was even more a friend than a slavemaster to his own Jeeves, a South Carolina black named Tony, who saved him from the battlefield where Lord Edward had been wounded serving against the American rebels.

Stella Tillyard sensibly seeks to write Tony into her narrative, but his philanthropic master grew sparser in reference to him as the great French revolutionary cause took over. By the end, her dutiful Tonyisms begin to sound like the more mechanical passages of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Fitzgerald's own children were packed off to his mother.

A few years of exotic conspiracy, and Fitzgerald had his insurrection in 1798. It was aborted in Dublin by his own incompetence and in the country by the massacre of the peasantry enlisted in the French cause. He was arrested, practically cutting two of his captors to pieces and dying some days later of his own wounds - to the great relief of a government on such civil social terms with his family.

Tillyard is too kindly to give her Wooster the full Wodehouse treatment, but the mingling of Bertie and Eddy is as horrifying in history as it is hilarious in fiction. Tillyard's vast knowledge of Fitzgerald's mother and aunts, displayed in her previous book Aristocrats, enlarges the Wodehouse analogy. Like Bertie's Aunt Dahlia, they must well have found their amiable idiot as pernicious as Attila. Indeed, we may be unfair to Attila: at least he did not claim to liberate mankind by his massacres, or to have history canonise him as Attila the amiable.

But Stella Tillyard concludes her many services by showing the ferocity of Fitzgerald's blue-bloodthirst. As Synge's Pegeen Mike learnt about her own playboy of the Western world, there's a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed. Citizen Lord bridges it elegantly.