Tuesday, July 7, 2020

George Wyndham and the Fitzgerald Connection

The extraordinary connections in Irish history were brought home to me as I read the ‘Life and Letters of George Wyndham’ who served as Chief Secretary of Ireland for five years from 1900. Wyndham, described in the Oxford ‘Companion to Irish History’ as ‘a colourful liberal Tory’ and ‘an ambitious reformer’ was responsible for the Land Act of 1903. That Act, generally called Wyndham’s Land Act was the fifth piece of legislation passed by the English House of Commons in 33 years in an attempt to resolve the vexed question of land ownership in 19th century Ireland. The Act of 1870 passed by Gladstone’s government was an attempt to give legal status to the ‘Ulster custom’ by providing compensation for evicted tenants other than those owing rent and compensation for improvements by tenants relinquishing their tenancies. Gladstone’s second Land Act eleven years later was more successful in accepting Irish tenants demands for fair rents, fixity of tenure and freedom of sale while at the same time establishing the Irish Land Commission. In 1885 the Purchase of Land Act increased the loans available through the Land Commission for land purchases. Six years later another Purchase of Land Act established the Congested District Boards and land bonds were introduced as an alternative form of payment for landlords selling lands to their tenants. It was George Wyndham’s Land Act of 1903 which more than any other piece of English legislation broke the Irish landlord’s hold on power which had existed for centuries. The Act was the product of a compromise between Irish landlords and their tenants even though it was opposed by the founder of the Land League, Michael Davitt and to a lesser extent by John Dillon, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Wilfred Scawen Blunt, an Englishman, acting as an intermediary between John Dillon and his cousin George Wyndham helped bring about the 1903 Land Act. Wyndham’s father was a first cousin of Blunt who supported the Plan of Campaign for which he, Blunt, was imprisoned in 1887. Wilfred Scawen Blunt, the one time lover of Lady Gregory, supported the evicted tenants of Luggacurran and was on the platform with William O’Brien, prior to the laying of the ‘foundation stone’ of the first huts built in Campaign Square Luggacurran for the evicted tenants. The passing of Wyndham’s Land Act of 1903 led within ten years to almost 75% of former Irish tenant farmers owning their own land. The shift in power from the absentee landlords to the former tenant farmers was promoted by George Wyndham, an Englishman whose mother was a granddaughter of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and his young wife Pamela. Wyndham’s father Percy first met Madeline Campbell, a granddaughter of Lord Edward at Palmerstown House, Naas where his sister Lady Mayo resided. The young couple married soon afterwards. But George Wyndham was not the only English establishment figure connected by marriage to a member of Lord Edward Fitzgerald’s family. Lord Edward’s eldest daughter Pamela married Sir Guy Campbell, whose father had played a prominent part in suppressing the United Irishmen rising and defeating the French. Colonel Colm Campbell was the Officer commanding at Athy during the early part of the 1798 Rebellion. He was the man who raided the home of Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine, Athy and claimed to have found ‘suspicious papers’ showing Fitzgerald’s involvement with the United Irishmen. Campbell’s troops lived at free quarters in Fitzgerald’s house for some time thereafter and the calvary corps which Fitzgerald captained were publicly disarmed in the Market Square, Athy in April 1798. Fitzgerald, who was a Catholic member of the extended Duke of Leinster’s family, was imprisoned for some time as a result of Campbell’s suspicions and unfounded claims. How strange to find that Lord Edward Fitzgerald’s eldest daughter should marry the son of the man responsible for the pacification of south Kildare during the ’98 rebellion and the imprisonment and execution of so many of Lord Edward’s followers. Equally surprising is to find the great grandson of the United Irishman leader Lord Edward Fitzgerald presiding over English administration in Ireland at the start of the 20th century. George Wyndham, the so called ‘liberal tory’, the son of a granddaughter of Lord Edward, , was very aware of his great grandfather’s place in the annals of Irish history. Writing to his mother on 29th April 1902 he noted, ‘some days ago I was given a beautiful green enamel and rose diamond pin of Lord Edwards. Yesterday an unknown - letter enclosed and please keep it - sent me a beautiful seal that belonged to him.’ The family link between the British diplomatic servant and the Irish rebel of a previous generation was obviously cherished by the Irish Chief Secretary based in Dublin Castle.

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