Wolfe is the eighth of nine sons born to John Wolfe (1700–60) and his wife Mary (d. 1763), the only child and heiress of William Philpot, a successful merchant at Dublin. One of his brothers, Peter, is the High Sheriff of Kildare, and his first cousin Theobald is the father of the poet Charles Wolfe.
After the Irish Rebellion of 1798, Wolfe becomes notable for twice issuing writs of habeas corpus on behalf of Wolfe Tone, then held in military custody, but these are ignored by the army and forestalled by Tone’s suicide in prison. In 1795 he had also warned Tone and some of his associates to leave Ireland to avoid prosecution. Tone’s godfather, Theobald Wolfe of Blackhall (the father of Charles Wolfe), is Wolfe’s first cousin, and Tone may have been Theobald’s natural son. These attempts to help a political opponent are unique at the time.
In 1802 Wolfe presides over the case against Town Major Henry Charles Sirr in which the habitual abuses of power used to suppress rebellion are exposed in court.
In the same year Wolfe orders that the well-known Catholic priest Father William Gahan be imprisoned for contempt of court. In a case over the disputed will of Gahan’s friend John Butler, 12th Baron Dunboyne, the priest refuses to answer certain questions on the ground that to do so would violate the seal of the confessional, despite a ruling that the common law does not recognize the seal of the confessional as a ground for refusing to give evidence. The judge apparently feels some sympathy for Gahan’s predicament, as he is released from prison after only a few days.
During the Irish rebellion of 1803, Wolfe, who had never been forgiven by the United Irishmen for the execution of William Orr, is clearly in great danger. On the night of July 23, 1803, the approach of the Kildare rebels induces him to leave his residence, Newlands House, in the suburbs of Dublin, with his daughter Elizabeth and his nephew, Rev. Richard Wolfe. Believing that he will be safer among the crowd, he orders his driver to proceed by way of Thomas Street in the city centre. However, the street is occupied by Robert Emmet‘s rebels. Unwisely, when challenged, he gives his name and office, and he is rapidly dragged from his carriage and stabbed repeatedly with pikes. His nephew is murdered in a similar fashion, while Elizabeth is allowed to escape to Dublin Castle, where she raises the alarm. When the rebels are suppressed, Wolfe is found to be still alive and is carried to a watch-house, where he dies shortly thereafter. His last words, spoken in reply to a soldier who called for the death of his murderers, are “Murder must be punished; but let no man suffer for my death, but on a fair trial, and by the laws of his country.”
Wolfe is succeeded by his eldest son John Wolfe, 2nd Viscount Kilwarden. Neither John nor his younger brother Arthur, who dies in 1805, have male issue, and on John’s death in 1830 the title becomes extinct.
(Pictured: Portrait of Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, Arthur Wolfe (later Viscount Kilwarden) by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, between 1797 and 1800, Gallery of the Masters)
In 1783 FitzGerald visits the West Indies before returning to Ireland, where his brother, William FitzGerald, 2nd Duke of Leinster, has procured Edward’s election to the Irish Parliament as an MP for Athy, a seat he holds until 1790. In Parliament he acts with the small Opposition Irish Patriot Party group led by Henry Grattan, but takes no prominent part in debate. In the spring of 1786 he takes the then unusual step for a young nobleman of entering the Military College, Woolwich, after which he makes a tour through Spain in 1787. Dejected by unrequited love for his cousin Georgina Lennox, he sails for New Brunswick to join the 54th Regiment with the rank of Major.
In April 1789, guided by compass, FitzGerald traverses the country with a brother officer from Fredericton, New Brunswick to Quebec, falling in with Indians by the way, with whom he fraternizes. He accomplishes the journey in twenty-six days, and establishes a shorter practicable route than that hitherto followed. The route crosses the extremely rugged and heavily forested northern part of the present state of Maine. In a subsequent expedition he is formally adopted at Detroit by the Bear clan of the Mohawk with the name “Eghnidal,” and makes his way down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, whence he returns to England.
Finding that his brother has procured his election for Kildare County, a seat he holds from 1790 to 1798, and desiring to maintain political independence, FitzGerald refuses the command of an expedition against Cádiz offered him by William Pitt the Younger, and devotes himself for the next few years to the pleasures of society and to his parliamentary duties. He is on terms of intimacy with his first cousin Charles Fox, with Richard Sheridan and other leading Whigs. According to Thomas Moore, FitzGerald is only one of numerous suitors of Sheridan’s first wife, Elizabeth, whose attentions are received with favour. She conceives a child by him, a baby girl who is born on March 30, 1792.
His Whig connections, together with his transatlantic experiences, predisposed FitzGerald to sympathize with the doctrines of the French Revolution, which he embraces enthusiastically when he visits Paris in October 1792. He lodges with Thomas Paine and listens to the debates in the Convention. While in Paris, he becomes enamoured of a young girl named Pamela whom he chances to see at the theatre, and who has a striking likeness to Elizabeth Sheridan. On December 27, 1792, he and Pamela are married at Tournai, one of the witnesses being Louis Philippe, afterwards King of the French. In January 1793 the couple reaches Dublin.
Ireland is by then seething with dissent which is finding a focus in the increasingly popular and revolutionary Society of the United Irishmen, which has been forced underground by the outbreak of war between France and Britain in 1793. FitzGerald, fresh from the gallery of the Convention in Paris, returns to his seat in the Irish Parliament and immediately springs to their defence. Within a week of his return he is ordered into custody and required to apologise at the bar of the House of Commons for violently denouncing in the House a Government proclamation which Grattan had approved for the suppression of the United-Irish attempt to revive the Irish Volunteer movement with a “National Guard.” However, it is not until 1796 that he joins the United Irishmen, who by now have given up as hopeless the path of constitutional reform and whose aim, after the recall of Lord FitzWilliam in 1795, is nothing less than the establishment of an independent Irish republic.
In May 1796 Theobald Wolfe Tone is in Paris endeavouring to obtain French assistance for an insurrection in Ireland. In the same month, FitzGerald and his friend Arthur O’Connor proceed to Hamburg, where they open negotiations with the Directory through Reinhard, French minister to the Hanseatic towns. The Duke of York, meeting Pamela at Devonshire House on her way through London with her husband, tells her that his plans are known and advises that he should not go abroad. The proceedings of the conspirators at Hamburg are made known to the government in London by an informer, Samuel Turner. The result of the Hamburg negotiations is Louis Lazare Hoche‘s abortive expedition to Bantry Bay in December 1796.
In September 1797 the Government learns from the informer Leonard McNally that FitzGerald is among those directing the conspiracy of the United Irishmen, which is now quickly maturing. Thomas Reynolds, converted from a conspirator to an informer, keeps the authorities posted in what is going on, though lack of evidence produced in court delays the arrest of the ringleaders. But on March 12, 1798 Reynolds’ information leads to the seizure of a number of conspirators at the house of Oliver Bond. FitzGerald, warned by Reynolds, is not among them.
As a fellow member of the Ascendancy class, the Government are anxious to make an exception for FitzGerald, avoiding the embarrassing and dangerous consequences of his subversive activities. They communicate their willingness to spare him from the normal fate meted out to traitors. FitzGerald however refuses to desert others who cannot escape, and whom he has himself led into danger. On March 30 the government proclamation of martial law authorising the military to act as they see fit to crush the United Irishmen leads to a campaign of vicious brutality in several parts of the country.
FitzGerald’s social position makes him the most important United Irish leader still at liberty. On May 9 a reward of £1,000 is offered by Dublin Castle for his apprehension. Since the arrests at Bond’s house, he has been in hiding. The date for the rising is finally fixed for May 23 and FitzGerald awaits the day hidden by Mary Moore above her family’s inn in Thomas Street, Dublin.
Tipped off that the house is going to be raided, Moore turns to Francis Magan, a Catholicbarrister and trusted sympathiser, who agrees to hide Fitzgerald. Making its way to Magan’s house on May 18, Fitzgerald’s party is challenged by Major Henry Sirr and a company of Dumbarton Fencibles. Moore escapes with Fitzgerald and takes him back to Thomas Street to the house of Nicholas Murphy.
Moore explains to Magan what had happened and, unbeknownst to her, Magan informs Dublin Castle. The Moore house is raided that day. Mary, running to warn the Leinster Directory meeting nearby in James’s Gate, receives a bayonet cut across the shoulders. That same evening Sirr storms Murphy’s house where FitzGerald is in bed suffering from a fever. Alerted by the commotion, he jumps out of bed and, ignoring the pleas of the arresting officers to surrender peacefully, he stabs one and mortally wounds the other with a dagger in a desperate attempt to escape. He is secured only after Major Sirr shoots him in the shoulder.
FitzGerald is conveyed to New Prison, Dublin where he is denied proper medical treatment. After a brief detention in Dublin Castle he is taken to Newgate Prison, Dublin where his wound, which has become infected, becomes mortally inflamed. His wife, whom the government probably has enough evidence to convict of treason, has fled the country, never to see her husband again, but FitzGerald’s brother Henry and his aunt Lady Louisa Conolly are allowed to see him in his last moments. He dies at the age of 34 on June 4, 1798, as the rebellion rages outside. He is buried the next day in the cemetery of St. Werburgh’s Church, Dublin. An Act of Attainder confiscating his property is passed as 38 Geo. 3 c. 77, but is eventually repealed in 1819.