Lord Edward Fitzgerald is one of the most romantic figures in Irish history, a rebel aristocrat associated with the failed revolution of 1798, known as the ‘Citizen Lord’. He is today buried in Saint Werburgh’s Church near to Dublin Castle, an institution he hoped to overthrow by force. A small plaque on the front of the church marks this fact, and it’s one of the great ironies of the city that Major Henry C. Sirr who captured him is buried in the graveyard at the back of the church.
One figure associated with Edward Fitzgerald I’ve been fascinated by for a while now is Tony Small, an escaped slave Fitzgerald encountered in the United States who he later employed as a personal assistant. Small became a frequent sight around Dublin in the 1780s and 1790s, in a city where coloured men were few and far between. Fitzgerald commissioned a portrait of Small in 1786 by the artist Thomas Roberts:
In her brilliant biography of Fitzgerald, Stella Tillyard noted that “If Lord Edward’s mother was his great love, his constant companion was Tony Small, the runaway slave who saved his life in North America in 1781”, and she went on to note that “Tony embodied and brought to life his master’s commitment to freedom and equality for all men.”
Small had witnessed the British and Americans at war firsthand in 1781, as when his owners had fled South Carolina with their possessions and slaves, Tony had escaped and stayed on. On the 8th September 1781, Tony wandered onto a battlefield, and as Tillyard has noted he stumbled across “the blood-soaked uniform of a British officer of the 19th Regiment of Foot. The man was alive but unconscious, overlooked by the search parties of both sides.” The man was Edward Fitzgerald, and when he next awoke he was in the small hut Tony Small knew as his home. Fitzgerald offered Small liberty, and a new life working as his servant, in return for wages. An incredible and unlikely friendship had been born.
Kevin Whelan discusses the friendship between the two in his entry on Lord Edward Fitzgerald for the Dictionary of Irish Biography, noting that “The best-documented Irish example of imaginative sympathy between a white and a black man is the subsequent relationship between Fitzgerald and Small. Until his death in 1798, in a sprawling career that took him across much of Europe, America, and Canada, Fitzgerald never subsequently parted from his ‘faithful Tony’.”
In time, this one-time British soldier and darling of the Ascendancy class was converted towards the ideas of republicanism, the influence of writers such as Thomas Paine and personal observation on the streets of France inspiring this total shift in identity and politics. It was not until 1796 that Fitzgerald joined the United Irishmen, but the seeds had long been planted.
Small followed Fitzgerald wherever he went, and on moving to Dublin with Fitzgerald, Small lived within the family home of Leinster House for a period. By this point Fitzgerald was married to a young French woman by the name of Pamela, and as Tillyard has noted “to Ascendancy society Pamela seemed to be every bit as much a symbol of the revolution as she was to Lord Edward himself.” Her poor English, and her Catholic faith, instantly distanced her from the Dublin ruling class of the day. Yet imagine how ‘different’ Tony Small must have appeared in the Dublin of the late eighteenth century.
One story relating to Small and Leinster House was told by John Brennan in a feature on Fitzgerald for The Irish Times in 1963, in which he noted that on one occasion when Fitzgerald was returning to his family home, Small alerted him to the presence of soldiers inside the house, thus saving Fitzgerald from arrest.
When Fitzgerald moved to Kildare in 1795, Tony moved with him, returning to Leinster House before the birth of the son of Fitzgerald and Pamela. The time in Kildare is remembered in Tillyard’s biography as a very happy one, with Tony said to come up from the servants’ rooms to dance jigs and enjoy Irish music and culture. He would travel also to Germany in May 1796 when Fitzgerald departed for there, to engage in discussions with the French Directory.
Tony Small had not alone an employer within the small travelling party in which he frequently accompanied the Fitzgerald’s, but also a partner. From the time he had lived in Kildare he had been very much in love with Julie, another servant who was the nursemaid of Pamela. Together they would have children.
Fitzgerald played a leading role in the planning of the insurrection for 1798, and his arrest and capture in May of that year on Thomas Street was a major blow to the republican movement. A reward for £1,000 was on the head of Fitzgerald, and he was considered among the most influential and indeed dangerous United Irish leaders still at large. He was taken to Newgate Prison, where he died having been denied proper medical treatment. This prison holds an infamous place in Dublin’s history, and it was there that the Sheares Brothers were hung, drawn and quartered for their role in the republican movement.
At the time of the passing of Edward, Tony was staying with Pamela in England. Both were naturally devastated, and the passing of the aristocrat-turned-revolutionary brought an unexpected twist in Tony’s life, as Pamela would in-time remarry and Tony and Julie felt it time to move on. Setting themselves up in London off the back of their savings, Tony died there following a period of illness. Not much was known of this period in Tony’s life, but recently released letters from the Fitzgerald family have shined a light on the period. Kevin Whelan has noted in a feature for History Ireland magazine that:
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.
Beyond Tillyard’s excellent biography of Fitzgerald, little has been written on Tony Small. Did he appear in any of the Dublin newspapers of the day I wonder, as he would have been an unusual sight on the streets of the capital with his close relationship to Fitzgerald. The escaped slave who made it to Leinster House is as good a Dublin story as any, and Tony should not be forgotten.