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James Fitzgerald

James Fitzgerald, barrister and Irish member of Parliament, was born in Ennis in the year 1742, son of William Fitzgerald, attorney of the same town. He claimed descent from that branch of the Fitzgeralds known as the White Knights.

Fitzgerald had a brilliant career at Trinity College, where he graduated in the year 1764. He was called to the Bar in 1769 and soon established a reputation as an eloquent and hard-working barrister. His practice became enormous and, in 1787, he was rewarded by the Government with the office of Prime Serjeant.

Like most of the barristers of his time, Fitzgerald found the additional profession of politics useful towards his advancement. He was M.P. for Ennis in 1772, and for Fore, County Westmeath, from 1776 to 1783. In the latter year he was elected for both Tulsk and Killybegs in Roscommon and accepted the former seat for which he was re-elected in 1790. In 1797 he was elected for the Borough of Kildare, and, as a member of Grattan’s patriotic parliament, was one of its fiercest opponents of the Union of Great Britain and Ireland.

Fitzgerald’s experience at the Bar and his forensic eloquence earned him the reputation of being one of the greatest orators in Ireland—and this reputation in the days of great speakers like Grattan and Flood, was no mean one. His most famous speech was made in the year 1782 when he proposed, in those unenlightened days, a measure of relief for his disenfranchised Catholic fellow-citizens. In spite of his eloquence, the measure was of course rejected.

He was no great statesman but his eloquence made him particularly sought after, and though he never sought political office, his career in the House of Commons gained him many professional appointments. He was especially brilliant in his many speeches against the Union and earned for his honesty the bitter enmity of Castlereagh and his corrupt associates. Just as those who voted for the Union gained titles, money and political office, Fitzgerald was deprived of the prime-serjeantcy for his opposition and refusal to accept bribes. In spite of this, however, the Irish Bar showed its respect to him by continuing to give him precedence over the newly-appointed attorney and solicitor-generals.

Once the Union was law, Fitzgerald accepted the position and sat for Ennis in the Imperial Parliament until 1808, when he resigned in favour of his son, William Vesey Fitzgerald. In 1782 he married Catherine, the daughter of the Rev. Henry Vesey, a grandson of the Archbishop of Tuam and cousin to Lord Glentworth of Limerick. In 1826 he refused an English peerage and his wife was created Baroness Fitzgerald and Vesey. He was then 84. Having remained faithful to his ideals to the end, and having served Ireland in an upright and honest fashion, according to his own lights, this grand old man died at Booterstown, about four miles outside Dublin, on the 20th January, 1835, at the ripe old age of 93.

Source: Robert Herbert, ‘The Worthies of Thomond, II’, Limerick, 1944.

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