In the 1780s and 90s, African American Tony Small was an unusual sight in Dublin. Brought to Ireland by Lord Edward Fitzgerald after Small saved his life during the American Revolution, the two shared a close friendship until Fitzgerald’s death in the 1798 rebellion for Ireland’s freedom.
In her biography of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Stella Tillyard explains Small was a slave living in South Carolina when his owners fled the state in 1781.
The American Revolution, still dragging on and moving south, had motivated them to leave and Small, who escaped slavery, stayed behind in South Carolina. He wandered onto a battlefield, where he saw Fitzgerald in British uniform, alive and unconscious. Small took him back to his small hut and dressed his wounds, saving his life. Edward offered him work as servant in return for wages.
In Dublin, Small lived with Fitzgerald in Leinster House, which today serves as the house of the Dail, the lower house of the Irish Parliament. Although slavery was common in the 18th century, few slaves traveled to Ireland. African American Small was an uncommon sight among the predominantly Irish and British people in Dublin. Often referred to as “faithful Tony,” by Fitzgerald, the two formed a close friendship.
Dublin history blog “Come here to me!” mentions a 1963 Irish Times article by John Brennan that tells of when Fitzgerald was returning home, Small warned him about British soldiers inside and saved Fitzgerald from arrest. In 1786, Fitzgerald wrote in a letter quoted in History Ireland magazine, “I was going to send Tony to London to learn how to dress hair but when he was to go, I found that I could not do without his friendly face to look at and one that I felt to love me a little.”
Small traveled with Fitzgerald to Canada, America, and much of Europe. In France, Fitzgerald met his future wife, Pamela, and was influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution, which replaced the monarchy of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette with a republic in 1792. Literature, such as Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, and his extensive travel also influenced Fitzgerald’s politics and ideology towards republicanism.
In 1796, Fitzgerald joined the United Irishmen, which had been formed in 1791. The United Irishmen was a liberal, political organization seeking Parliamentary reform to establish an independent Irish republic. Under the leadership of Theobald Wolfe Tone, the organization was open to Irishmen of all faiths and sought to separate religion and politics. There was a rebellion in the spring of 1798, but it was crushed after a couple months by the British. Fitzgerald had played a large role in planning the insurrection and he was arrested in May and died in Newgate Prison due to denied medical treatment.
Small, who was safely in England at the time of the rebellion, was devastated by the news. Not much is known about the rest of Small’s life. A recently discovered series of correspondence from the Fitzgerald family in the National Library of Ireland helps shed some light on this period. Historian Kevin Whelan, who currently teaches at Notre Dame, used some of the letters in his article on Fitzgerald in History Ireland magazine.
Small spent the rest of his life in England and used his savings to set up a small trading business in London. He fell ill and with his business also suffering, he appealed to the Fitzgerald family for assistance caring for his wife and children. Correspondence from Lucy Fitzgerald to Arthur O’Connor states that the Fitzgerald family helped Small during these hard times near the end of his life.
The unique friendship between the escaped slave and the United Irishman had ended, but it had far exceeded what even the most idealistic republicans of the period could have imagined.
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