In the annals of nominative determinism – a recurring theme of this column – the case of a man called Samuel Turner deserves at least passing mention.
Nominative determinism, you’ll remember, is the theory that a person’s name can influence, positively or otherwise, his or her choice of career. Study of the phenomenon invariably fails to reach definitive conclusions, but it usually has some fun in the process, thanks to such real-life examples as the famous Irish firm of solicitors, Argue & Phibbs.
Samuel Turner – who came from Turner’s Glen, near Newry – was in the legal business too. He was also, during the 1790s, a member of the United Irishmen. But how his name became ominously apt is that, at some point, he entered the pay of the British administration, passing on information about his fellow revolutionaries.
Like another infamous informer, Leonard MacNally (whose surname, by contrast, could not possibly have hinted at any defects of character), he died still considered a patriot by republicans.
It took later detective work to reveal his secret state pension – £500 a year, eventually – and an 1807 letter from Arthur Wellesley, aka the Duke of Wellington, praising his “loyalty and zeal”.
I’m reminded of Turner by the impending anniversary of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, who was born 250 years ago next month, and whose October 15th birthday will be the focus of a series of commemorative lectures and other events.
Fitzgerald’s demise – he was shot while resisting preemptive arrest in Dublin’s Thomas Street and died two weeks later in prison, even as the doomed rebellion raged outside – was at least partly precipitated by agents like Turner. But then again, the very qualities that endeared the young lord to his friends were probably not conducive to longevity.
He was romantic, impulsive, hot-headed – or, as one of his associates put it in dubious tribute, “very zealous”. He joined the British army when only 16, and his life would have been even shorter if, two years later, during the American wars, it hadn’t been saved by an escaped slave, who he subsequently employed.
Postwar, Fitzgerald spent time trekking through the wild forests of Canada, communing with nature and befriending Indian tribes. He was made an honorary chief of the Hurons, and later travelled down the Mississippi to New Orleans.
Back in Dublin, he took a seat in Grattan’s Parliament. But it was his visit to Paris in 1792 that set the course for the rest of his life. He mixed with the French revolutionaries, shared lodgings with Tom Paine, and at a banquet in November raised a toast to the abolition of “hereditary titles and distinctions”, in the process renouncing his own (and earning dismissal from the army).
After his death, one of his sisters, Lady Lucy, would take up the theme, reminding supporters that, out of love for his country, he had surrendered all the privileges to which he was born. Or as she put it: “He was a paddy and no more; he desired no other title than this.”
So there is something rather ironic about her brother’s posthumous fame. He is commemorated today by, among other things, a Lord Edward Street in Dublin; by a pub called the Lord Edward; and by the Lord Edward Restaurant, a venerable institution that was founded in 1967 and so has now lasted a lot longer than he did.
The plaque in Thomas Street likewise refers to him by his full title. And there will be yet another addition to this roll-call next month, when Carton Avenue in Maynooth – the walkway leading to Carton House, Fitzgerald’s family home – is renamed Lord Edward Fitzgerald Avenue in his honour.
Of the best-known tributes, in fact, only Yeats's September 1913 takes the reluctant aristocrat at his word, omitting the title.
Anyway, as well as renaming the avenue, Carton House will mark the sestercentennial with a winter series of lectures (see cartonhouse.com). The series begins on October 15th. Which incidentally, would be 24 Vendémiaire in the French Revolutionary calendar.
This Sunday, meanwhile, as no self-respecting radical will need to be told, is Vendémiare 1, the start of another New Year. In the calendar's utilitarian scheme, whereby each day was dedicated to a plant, animal, or implement, tomorrow's special date is set aside for celebrating the "grape". No better time, I suggest, for republicans everywhere to echo the man himself and raise a toast to Edward Fitzgerald, citizen.