Lord Edward Fitzgerald was born 250 years ago, on the 15th October 1763, in Carton House, Co. Kildare, the fifth son of the Duke of Leinster. From his earliest days, Edward Fitzgerald was a child of the Enlightenment, and educated according to Enlightenment ideals.
One of the most influential thinkers on education in 18th century Ireland was John Locke. The earliest edition of his “Thoughts on Education” (1683) described itself as “Published at the request of several of the nobility of this kingdom”, and was reprinted three times from 1728-1738, and twice in the late 1770s. It provided a model for a gentleman’s education, and helped popularize the ideal of a paternalistic and educated gentry taking responsibility for improving their local area.
For Locke the goal of education was to instil “the Principle of Virtue”, that is the ability to subvert one’s immediate appetites and desires to the dictates of reason. The aim was to create people who obeyed reason over passion.
That might sound austere, yet Locke also recommended that learning should be enjoyable. Locke argues that the forcing of children to learn is what makes them dislike it. Locke rejects speaking harshly to or beating children, lecturing them, or forcing them to learn. He favours engaging them, with lessons taking the form of a conversation and their ideas taken seriously. He also speaks in favour of taking account of a child’s age. Misbehaviour due to the young age of the child should not be punished, and the natural playful and unruly spirit of the child should not be suppressed. This educational style is more egalitarian and cooperative than a lecturing style.
A child’s temperament should also be taken in account, tailoring education to what is right for the child and to dispel any vices the child is predisposed to. Locke recommends that habit and example (rather than rules which the child will inevitably forget) should be the primary teaching method. He therefore recommends a child spends his or her time with parents or tutor as opposed to a school setting.
John Locke’s argument that private education was superior to schools for educating boys would have appealed to Lady Emily, Edward Fitzgerald’s mother. She had already lost her eldest son to illness aged 18 and wanted to keep her children close to her. She found further justifications for her desire to avoid schools for his sons in the work of Rousseau.
Locke’s position, that “of all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten are what they are, good or evil, useful or not, by their education” was endorsed and extended by Rousseau, in his book on educating children, “Emile”. The core of Rousseau’s system was that children should “learn nothing from books that experience cannot teach them.” For Rousseau, books should be discouraged until the lessons experience could provide were exhausted. Rousseau, even more strongly than Locke, discouraged sending children away to school.
Lady Emily selected what she wanted from the two philosophers and disregarded the rest. In 1768 she established a school in Blackrock, in a house the Leinsters owned called Frescati. She had tried to engage Rousseau himself in 1766 as tutor, during his brief time in England. Eventually a Scot, William Ogilvie, was hired.
Following both Locke and Rousseau, the first pupil Charles Fitzgerald was engaged in physical work such as gardening, cleaning the stables and sewing. He also studied Latin grammar and other school subjects despite Rousseau’s condemnation of such schooling. By 1770 Edward had joined his older brother, along with four of his brothers and sisters. (Rousseau would have disapproved of similar education for both sexes.) In 1771, Ogilvie describes his pupils days as made up of sea-swimming, outdoor play and lessons, following the modern ideas of healthy exercise to maintain health.
The Duke of Leinster died in 1773. Edward and his younger siblings remained at Frescati until 1774 when the household, with the addition of Lady Emily, moved to France where the educational regime continued. (A new tutor was hired after Lady Emily and William Ogilvie officially announced their marriage.)
Having spent his childhood between seven and eleven at Frescati, it remained Edward Fitzgerald’s favorite place of residence as an adult. Frescati House housed some of the key United Irishmen meetings. It was also where Thomas Paine, the author of The Rights of Man, visited Lord Edward.
The Fitzgerald family were politically liberal but Edward Fitzgerald became much more radical. By 1792, he was an enthusiast of Thomas Paine’s ideas. He publicly revoked his title in Paris, instead calling himself “Citizen Fitzgerald”. He joined the United Irishmen in 1796, visiting Hamburg and Switzerland to push for a French invasion of Ireland to encourage revolution. In his letters to his mother he invoked Rousseau, hinting at his political activities, though being careful not to be explicit. The French were unenthusiastic, and by 1797 Fitzgerald was among those advocating popular revolt in Ireland without waiting for French aid.
Despite the authorities letting it be known that a blind eye would be turned to his escape, Fitzgerald refused to leave. He was finally captured, and died of septicemia in prison on 4 June 1798, in the midst of the 1798 Rising.
Stella Tillyard, Aristocrats
John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile