Fitzgerald, James (1742–1835), lawyer and politician, was born at Inchicronan, Co. Clare, eldest son of William Fitzgerald, attorney, from Ennis, Co. Clare, and his wife, Elizabeth, daughter and co-heir of Pierce Lynch, of Co. Clare. Educated at the Rev. Thomas Benson's school in Dublin, he entered TCD (1759), became a scholar (1762) and graduated BA (1764). He entered the Middle Temple and in 1769 was called to the Irish bar, soon establishing a large practice. A confident and able lawyer, he impressed with his dedication to a case and his persistence was often rewarded. Deciding to enter parliament, he was first MP for Fore, Co. Westmeath (1776–83), and later Tulsk, Co. Roscommon (1783–97). In 1783 he was also returned for Killybegs, Co. Donegal, but chose to represent Tulsk. He was returned for Kildare borough in the final parliament before the union (1797–1800). Until the union issue arose he supported the government without question and was a friend of John FitzGibbon (qv), later earl of Clare. However, he was somewhat unimpressive in parliament, where his legalistic speaking style sometimes impeded his oratory.
He did not seek political advancement, but did accept professional offices. Thus in 1779 he became third serjeant, but was dismissed by the duke of Portland (qv) in 1782, possibly because of his infrequent attendance. In 1784 the duke of Rutland (qv) appointed him second serjeant, and then prime serjeant in 1787. Dubbed ‘the silver-tongued prime serjeant’, his most famous speeches were in 1782, when he proposed the successful catholic relief bill, and in 1799, when he opposed the legislative union.
Because of his opposition to union, in January 1799 he was dismissed from the post of prime serjeant, and replaced by St George Daly. Nevertheless the Irish bar continued to show him precedence in court, infuriating Clare, the lord chancellor. In April 1799 he proposed a bill to regulate any future regencies in Ireland, an occasion that saw John Foster (qv) make his famous speech on the union.
After the passing of the union he became an MP at Westminster, sitting for Ennis (1802–8). In 1808 he resigned his seat to his son, William Fitzgerald (later Vesey Fitzgerald (qv)). He was reelected for the constituency in October 1812 but almost immediately again vacated the seat in favour of his son. He retired from politics in January 1813.
With his son, he was implicated in the Mary Anne Clarke scandal of 1809, when it was revealed that both had had a relationship with the woman, who was also the duke of York's mistress. In 1813 she wrote a public letter to the younger Fitzgerald in which she alleged that the former prime serjeant had been relieved from his office in 1799, not because of his principles, but because he could not agree terms with government. She further claimed that ‘[James] owed his advancement in life, not to merit, but to the dirty arts of political intrigue; whose aunt is a common street-walker, and whose cousin was hanged for horse-stealing’. She alleged that he had bought military patronage from her, to use in Clare to advance his son's career, and had even offered to be her agent in Ireland. The scandal did not have any perceptible influence on his reputation, however.
He married (1782) Catherine, second daughter of the Rev. Henry Vesey; they had three sons and four daughters. In 1826 Fitzgerald refused a peerage, and his wife was created a peeress of Ireland with the title Baroness Vesey and Fitzgerald. He died 20 January 1835 at his home at Herbert House, Booterstown, Co. Dublin, his wife having predeceased him.