FITZGERALD, James (?1742-1835), of Inchicronan, co. Clare.
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Family and Education
b. ?1742, 1st s. of William Fitzgerald, attorney, of Inchicronan by Elizabeth, da. and coh. of Pierce Lynch of Rathfiladown, co. Galway. educ. Rev. Benson’s sch. Dublin; Trinity, Dublin 1759; M. Temple 1764, called [I] 1769. m. 1782, Catherine (cr. Baroness Fitzgerald and Vesey [I] 31 July 1826), da. of Rev. Henry Vesey, warden of Galway, 3s. 4da.
MP [I] 1776-1800.
KC [I] 1776; bencher, King’s Inn 1777; third serjeant [I] 1779-82, second serjeant 1784-7, prime serjeant 1787-Jan. 1799; PC [I] 26 Dec. 1789.
Trustee, linen board [I] 1801.
Fitzgerald rose from relatively modest circumstances to a position of considerable eminence in Irish political and legal circles. When first appointed to legal office he had gained a reputation as a first-rate lawyer and a ‘bold and confident’ debater, a reputation that survived his dismissal by the Duke of Portland in 1782 and lasted until the Union. His politics were for moderate reform and Catholic relief within the framework of an independent Irish legislature. He therefore fiercely opposed the Union and thereby forfeited office.1
Having thus demonstrated that he would not ‘bend’ his conscience ‘to personal views’, he was prepared, as Member for Ennis on his own interest in the Imperial Parliament, to accept the Union and support Addington’s government: though in explaining his absence from Parliament, 10 Feb. 1803, by reference to chancery and assize business, he assured the chief secretary that the premier knew of his inclination ‘by accident and not by any design on my part’. Confident that his having differed once from ministers on principle need not tell against him, he applied to government to satisfy his ambition to be a judge. On 28 May 1803 he asked if he might succeed Lord Avonmore as master of the rolls and on 25 July he suggested that he should succeed Lord Kilwarden as chief justice of the King’s bench, having acted with him ‘for fifteen years in every legal and parliamentary difficulty in which the government of this country was engaged’. He assured Hardwicke:
I availed myself of the first opportunity to show that displaced, I was as ready to support the King’s government, as when I held that which in my hands was the most lucrative office in my profession. Mr Wickham knows that I did not stand aloof, or wait for events; that in the untried state of the administration I avowed myself an unequivocal friend; that whenever occasion offered, I gave my humble aid to those measures which are immediately dependent on your excellency.2
He had in fact first spoken at Westminster in favour of the extension to Ireland of the lunatic property bill, 21 Apr. 1803, instancing it as a case for the assimilation of English and Irish law. On 4 and 11 May he also defended the Irish law courts bill, provided it compensated those who lost office, and moved the extension to Ireland of the bill for preventing improper arrests.
Fitzgerald was unable to reconcile his willingness to support Irish administration with adherence to Pitt’s second ministry in 1804, although ministers thought they could manage him by reference to his role as ‘prime minister’ to Chief Secretary Nepean and his ambitions for himself and his son William. As early as February 1804 he was in a list of Irish Members set in motion by the Prince of Wales, and on 10 June the lord lieutenant was informed that Fitzgerald had thrown in his lot with the Prince. In January 1805 he was promising the Prince a statement of the different interests in Ireland.3 At any rate, he opposed government on all major issues and they in turn could find no time for his proposals to improve the Irish election bill, to enact an Irish census, equalize the interest on money and assimilate the laws of the two countries, 29 June 1804. Lord Redesdale named him as one of four troublesome ‘great manufacturers of Irish legislature’.4 On 8 Feb. 1805 he moved for an account of Irish political prisoners and on 13 and 15 Mar. criticized the Irish budget. He was named to the Irish finance committee in that, as well as the next, session. On 28 May he unsuccessfully opposed the Irish customs regulation bill. He was in the majorities against Melville, 8 Apr., 12 June 1805. Although he voted for the Catholic petition, 14 May, he was quoted as saying privately that he opposed the repeal of anti-Catholic statutes: ‘He said the Roman Catholics or Protestants must have positively the ruling power, and that the plan of reconciling the two descriptions by repealing those laws which would put them upon an equal footing was impracticable’. Farington the diarist, reporting this, found Fitzgerald a rather lonely man, impressed with some aspects of Westminster and unimpressed with others; distressed by the poverty of Ireland and conscious of the impossibility of a compromise solution of her religious problem.5
By 1806 Fitzgerald’s political energies were probably spent. He supported the Grenville ministry, which enabled him to move for an Irish census. They realized that he still wanted a place for himself or his son. At the outset of their ministry, he had got the Prince to apply to Fox for him to succeed Sir Michael Smith as master of the rolls in Ireland. Curran was in fact appointed, and nothing came of the lord lieutenant’s suggestion that Fitzgerald should be attorney-general. He himself refused to countenance the revival of the prime serjeant’s office in his favour and thought it infra dig. to succeed the disgraced judge Robert Johnston at the common pleas.6 On 1 July 1806 he quibbled over a minor Irish bill, and assize duties were his excuse for absence from the divisions of April 1807 on the dismissal of the ministry, but his old friend the Marquess of Buckingham informed Fremantle, 16 June, that Fitzgerald should be removed from a list of ‘doubtfuls’ and classed as one of opposition’s Irish friends. Yet Fitzgerald was inactive and on 12 Dec. 1807 applied to vacate his seat, which he bestowed on his son William.7
In 1812, when William contested county Clare, Fitzgerald was again returned for Ennis, but surrendered the seat to his son on his failure to capture the county seat. In 1815 William applied for a peerage for his father, but as his own political services were the basis for the claim and as the viceroy had reservations about ‘the old gentleman’s private character’, it was rejected.8 In 1826 Fitzgerald declined the offer when it was made, but it was bestowed on his wife. He died after ‘a long consistent life’, 20/22 Jan. 1835, aged 93.9
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: P. J. Jupp
- 1. [Rev. J. R. Scott], A Review of the Principal Characters of the Irish House of Commons (1789), 33; Cornwallis Corresp. ii. 373.
- 2. Wickham mss 5/39, Fitzgerald to Wickham, 10 Feb., 14, 28 May, 25 July, 4 Aug. 1803; Add. 35741, f. 10.
- 3. Add. 35715, f. 76; Prince of Wales Corresp. iv. 1822; v. 2003; PRO 30/9/15, Marsden to Abbot, 16 Feb. 1805.
- 4. Add. 49188, f. 200.
- 5. Farington, ii. 255-7.
- 6. Prince of Wales Corresp. v. 2156, 2162.
- 7. Dublin Evening Post, 23 Apr.; Morning Chron. 22 June 1807; Fremantle mss, box 46; Dublin SPO 534/242/18.
- 8. Add. 40190, f. 232.
- 9. Gent. Mag. (1835), i. 318.