FitzGerald, (Thomas Joseph) Desmond (1888–1947), politician and intellectual, was born 13 February 1888 at 62 Arthingworth Street, West Ham, London, youngest among four sons and two daughters of Patrick Fitzgerald (d. 1908), stonemason from Co. Cork, and Mary Ann (‘Babe’) Fitzgerald (née Scollard; d. 1927), from Castleisland, Co. Kerry. He was educated at West Ham Grammar School, where he developed an interest in poetry – that of W. B. Yeats (qv) in particular – and began to harbour literary ambitions. His movements on leaving school are unclear. He became a clerk, most likely in the civil service, but also spent time in France. He started to write poetry and some journalism. His older brother William was already a novelist (under the pseudonym ‘Ignatius Phayre’) and journalist. It was during this phase that he began to use the name ‘Desmond’, a romantic allusion to a Geraldine heritage, although his mother called him ‘Tommy’ throughout her life. He may also have begun to capitalise the ‘G’ in his surname. He became friendly with the group of poets now known as the Imagists, including F. S. Flint, T. E. Hulme, Edward Storer, and Richard Aldington. He introduced Ezra Pound to the group in April 1909. Pound admired FitzGerald's poetry above that of either Storer or Flint, but did not regard any of their work as ‘bullet proof’ (Carpenter, 116). For many years Pound corresponded with FitzGerald, who appears frequently in Pound's great collection, The cantos; FitzGerald is ‘the live man, out of lands and prisons’ of Canto VII. Pound lionised men who combined intellect with action and, he felt, FitzGerald's career manifested these traits, although he criticised FitzGerald (mockingly referring to him as ‘FitzGuggles’) when Cumann na nGaedheal introduced censorship of publications in 1927.
In 1910 Desmond met his future wife, Mabel Washington McConnell (1884–1958), who was born 4 July 1884 at College Green House, Belfast, daughter of John McConnell, managing director of the Royal Irish Distillery and a presbyterian unionist, and Margaret McConnell (née Neill) from Aldergrove, Co. Antrim. Mabel had attended Victoria College, Belfast (1894–1902), and QCB (1902–6), obtaining a BA. While in college she became an Irish-language enthusiast and convinced nationalist; she called herself ‘Meadhbh ní Chonaill’ for many years. She spent 1907 as a secretary and governess and then moved to London, where she attended St Mary's Training College, Paddington, receiving a teaching qualification (1908). In the early months of 1909 she was secretary to George Bernard Shaw (qv) and then embarked on a world tour from March to August 1909. At the time of meeting Desmond, she was employed as a teacher in Ilford, Essex. They may have been introduced by his sister, Kate, who was also a teacher, or met at the Gaelic League. The couple regularly attended Gaelic League meetings and a lecture series on Irish history offered by Kuno Meyer (qv); FitzGerald spent some time on the Great Blasket in the summer of 1910 (probably his first visit to Ireland). Mabel's parents objected to Desmond, but an unexpected pregnancy led to the couple's sudden elopement in May 1911. They were married in London and then moved to Saint-Jean-du-Doigt, Brittany, France. While in France, FitzGerald continued to write, but with little success, and their eldest son, Desmond (qv), was born. They had four sons in all; the set completed by Pierce (b. 1914), Fergus (b. 1920), and the youngest, Garret (qv), who became taoiseach (1981–2, 1982–7).
In March 1913 they moved to west Kerry, first to Dingle and then to Ventry. Desmond later explained the change as inspired, in part, by a sense ‘that there was going to be a great movement in Ireland’ which would ‘require the active work of everybody that was willing to assist’ (Memoirs, 8–9). There, they met Ernest Blythe (qv) and The O'Rahilly (qv), and in December 1913 they visited Dublin and Belfast, meeting many of the leading figures in the new Irish Volunteer movement. In 1914 he began to organise the Volunteers in west Kerry and became a member of the IRB, remaining in the Irish Volunteers following the split with John Redmond (qv). It seems clear that much of this political activity was encouraged, if not instigated, by Mabel, who often held stronger political opinions.
In January 1915 they moved to Bray, Co. Wicklow, when an order issued under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) banned him from Kerry. He resumed his Irish Volunteer activity there, while Mabel was vigorous in canvassing her former acquaintances in London's liberal circles for support for Francis Sheehy Skeffington (qv) during his hunger strike (June 1915). Desmond became a national figure in October 1915 when convicted under DORA for making a seditious speech – or ‘declaring his devotion to Ireland’, as The O'Rahilly put it (Hibernian, 20 November 1915); he was imprisoned for six months. During December their eldest son fell seriously ill (his death was feared) and FitzGerald was allowed to visit the boy; however, he refused an offer of release which was conditional on his giving an undertaking not to breach DORA again. During this and later imprisonments, Mabel acted as her husband's literary agent, attempting to place his journalism and fiction with various magazines.
On release, he was almost immediately embroiled in the Easter rising. He and The O'Rahilly initially supported the efforts of Eoin MacNeill (qv) to call off the rebellion, but when it became clear that it was going ahead they, along with Mabel, joined the garrison in the GPO. FitzGerald was not of a soldierly disposition and was placed in charge of the garrison's food supply. His conservative rationing of the food made him the butt of criticism from hungry rebels and caused conflict with Michael Collins (qv), who threatened violence if his men's ration was not increased. FitzGerald's English accent and literary pose did nothing for his popularity among men who immediately associated such traits with pretension, foppishness, and snobbery, and he could be pedantic and supercilious. On the other hand, he was more than willing to make a joke at his own expense; he demonstrated this frequently in his lively memoir of the period between 1913 and the rising, which was published posthumously in 1968.
In the immediate aftermath of the rising, FitzGerald escaped capture, but within days was arrested, tried by court martial, and sentenced to twenty years’ penal servitude, of which ten were remitted. He was transferred with the other convicts to England and at first was held at Dartmoor. There he attracted the attention of the authorities as a possible leader among the prisoners and in October was transferred to Maidstone, chained to Éamon de Valera (qv) and Richard Hayes (qv). In December he joined all the rebel convicts at Lewes, where he took part in a prison rebellion in late May and early June. As a result he was transferred to Portland prison, but was freed shortly afterward in the general release. Back in Ireland the family lived in Rathmines, Dublin, and he resumed nationalist activity, participating in several by-election campaigns. He was in Cootehill, Co. Cavan, canvassing for Arthur Griffith (qv) in a by-election, when he was arrested in connection with the ‘German plot’ in May 1918. While interned at Gloucester prison he became very close to Griffith and worked on the final drafts of a play, ‘The saint’, which was staged at the Abbey Theatre in 1919. He was elected MP for Pembroke, Dublin, at the general election of December 1918, defeating the unionist candidate John Good (1866–1941). In his absence Mabel managed the election campaign and was given much of the credit for what was a surprise result. In addition to caring for the family, she was active in Cumann na mBan, playing a leading role in various of its prisoner support committees, and was elected to the executive in September 1918. She remained an active member of the executive until 1922, and according to one observer during this period ‘she never walked, she went always at a trot. She seemed always behind time, always at the end of her tether, always ready for any new work that might have to be done. If all she did in a day were well done, she must have been one of the most useful members of the Cumann na mBan’ (Nankivell & Loch, 173).
The British government's release of the ‘German plot’ prisoners coincided with an outbreak of influenza at Gloucester prison in March 1919. Desmond fell dangerously ill, but survived, unlike his colleague Pierce McCann (1882–1919). Soon after release, he replaced Laurence Ginnell (qv) as director of publicity for Dáil Éireann: first as a substitute (April 1919) and then on a full-time basis in June. To ensure that Dáil Éireann's case was effectively represented abroad, he constantly lobbied international journalists based in London and Dublin. FitzGerald was ideally suited to the role of liaising between the wider world and a sometimes nasty revolution; he was handsome and well read, and could be entertaining company. Liam de Róiste (qv) described him as ‘flippant in many respects . . . even-tempered, good-humoured, genial, pleasant’ (Regan, 90). In November 1919 the department began to produce the Irish Bulletin, again, with a foreign audience in mind and with the primary aim of influencing press coverage of Ireland. The Bulletin was brilliant propaganda to which major contributions were made by Frank Gallagher (qv) and Erskine Childers (qv). It was described by Todd Andrews (qv) as ‘worth several flying columns’ (Andrews, 188). Produced on the run, the Bulletin moved premises around Dublin on numerous occasions while FitzGerald spent his days ‘pedalling, pedalling his ubiquitous bicycle, interviewed foreign journalists, got together his facts for the day's issue of the Irish Bulletin, all the while thanking the dark for its cloak’ (Nankivell & Loch, 147). He was not, however, as security-conscious as he might have been, and had critics on this and other scores in Art O'Brien (qv) and, on occasion, Michael Collins.
His activity was interrupted when he was arrested, 11 February 1921. Mabel rushed to inform the press, fearing that he might be assassinated. He was held in Dublin castle and Arbour Hill barracks, and then interned at Rath camp, the Curragh, where he became camp librarian. He was released on 15 July, in the immediate aftermath of the truce, so that he could join the first Dáil Éireann delegation to London. He resumed his post as director of publicity, relieving Childers, who had temporarily replaced him. He accompanied the plenipotentiaries to London, leaving the Dublin operation in the hands of Gallagher and Mabel; Gallagher resented Mabel's presence and this caused considerable friction. FitzGerald and Eamon Duggan (qv) delivered the text of the treaty to de Valera; despite Mabel's strongly expressed opposition, Desmond supported the agreement during the subsequent split. Mabel did leave Cumann na mBan, but was a notable absentee from the membership of Cumann na Saoirse, which was established to act as a pro-treaty equivalent. She retreated from active public life and the couple were so divided that their marriage seemed in danger. Certainly influenced by his mother, their nine-year-old son, Pierce, took to addressing Desmond as ‘you bloody traitor’ (Cruise O'Brien, 74). The relationship survived, however, as did their friendships with some anti-treaty families, particularly Seán MacEntee (qv) and his wife Margaret.
Desmond continued to manage publicity for the pro-treaty party during the civil war and was appointed minister for external affairs in the provisional government in August 1922 and in the Free State government in December 1922. Despite doubters, his department performed well. FitzGerald led a successful delegation to the Vatican and negotiated Irish entry to the League of Nations in 1923. He played his part efficiently, with the strong support of Kevin O'Higgins (qv), at the imperial conferences of 1923 and 1926, making a leading contribution to the development of the commonwealth and Ireland's relationship to that body. He, O'Higgins, and Patrick J. Hogan (qv), known as the ‘Donnybrook set’, were allies in cabinet. Together, they were wary of, and resented by, treatyite republicans such as J. J. Walsh (qv). Desmond remained committed to literature: it was he who proposed Yeats's nomination to the senate; he vainly suggested that the government should nominate James Joyce (qv) for the Nobel prize; and – with Blythe – he was a leading advocate within cabinet of state subvention for the Abbey. He opposed, however, a suggestion by Yeats that an Irish Academy of Literature chartered by the state be established. A collection of his poems, La vie quotidienne, was finally published in France in 1925: most of the poems had been published in New Ireland in 1918. The family lived in a substantial rambling house called Fairyhill, Bray, and moved in establishment literary and political circles. The diaries of Signe Toksvig (qv) offer an entertaining and mixed portrait of the FitzGerald family during this period. Her first impression of Desmond was that he was ‘undeniably friendly’ but possessed of a ‘silly conservatism’ and a ‘touch of snobbery’ (Toksvig, 52).
In June 1927 he was appointed minister for defence. Around this time he fell gravely ill when he developed a septic wound following an operation for appendicitis. During the illness O'Higgins was assassinated (10 July 1927). This event deeply shocked both Desmond and Mabel, but their mutual upset and the birth of Garret combined to complete their reconciliation. Once back at work, Desmond continued the process of reducing the size of the army and ensuring that the military remained subordinate to civilian control. His personality had never appealed to soldiers and now he incurred their animosity – allegedly a senior officer struck him on one occasion. He remained a participant in external relations, supporting the new minister, Patrick McGilligan (qv), at the League of Nations and at the imperial conference of 1930. In his final months in office, he found himself managing the public safety act of 1931, under which alleged subversives were tried by court martial. The former political prisoner defended the measures, arguing that ‘government exists for the purpose of coercion. Every bill we pass is coercion’, and identified the targets as those who ‘attempt to condemn the Irish people to live without social order, to live under conditions that they are creating which are directly divergent from the Creator's intentions’ (Dáil Éireann deb., 3 Oct. 1931, 69–73).
He was elected to represent the constituency of Dublin county (1921–32), and the constituency of Carlow–Kilkenny (1932–7), but his electoral performances never matched that of 1918 when Mabel ran the campaign, and he was bored to the point of disdain by the practicalities of the electoral process. Eoin O'Duffy (qv) wrote of him that he seemed to think that ‘there was a lot of the “mob” about the people of Ireland’ (McGarry, 206). With Cumann na nGaedheal's fall from power in 1932 his interest in politics waned, although following the formation of Fine Gael (September 1933) he attempted to give some intellectual substance to the Blueshirts and wore a blue shirt into the dáil chamber. Like many others in the 1930s, he believed the choice might become fascism or communism, and he favoured fascism. He was openly supportive of Franco's nationalists during the Spanish civil war and was, for a time, enthusiastic about Hitler's Germany; Mabel did her best to discourage this tendency, which was underpinned by his interest in certain strands within European catholic thinking. In private he admitted to anti-Semitic impulses, but did not indulge in anti-Semitic rhetoric in public. He became Irish correspondent for the Tablet and the Catholic Herald and developed an interest in Thomistic philosophy. He lectured in the philosophy of politics at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA (1937–8) and these lectures became the basis for Preface to statecraft (1939). These distractions undoubtedly contributed to his losing his seat in 1937. He served as a senator (1938–43), condemning in the most excoriating terms the IRA bombing campaign in England during this period. In 1944 he stood for election for the last time in the constituency of Co. Dublin, but could only manage to come in ninth place.
He spent some of the second world war in Stratford, managing his brother France's chemical factory: France was killed in an explosion in 1941. More pleasing to him was Mabel's conversion to catholicism in 1943. He was diagnosed with angina in 1946, a condition not ameliorated by heavy smoking, and died of a heart attack, 9 April 1947, at his home in Airfield, Donnybrook, Dublin. Mabel continued to live at Airfield until she was moved to the Burlington Clinic, Dublin, in October 1957 when she suffered a stroke. She was in a coma for six months before her death on 24 April 1958 at the clinic. They were both buried in Glasnevin cemetery.