Peer pressure: the Irish House of Lords, 1780–1801

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2010), The Act of Union, Volume 18

Trinity College, Dublin, seen through the Portico of the Parliament House, 1790 by James Malton. After the partial repeal of Poynings’ Law in 1782, the House of Lords became a much more important body than it had been. (National Gallery of Ireland)

Trinity College, Dublin, seen through the Portico of the Parliament House, 1790 by James Malton. After the partial repeal of Poynings’ Law in 1782, the House of Lords became a much more important body than it had been. (National Gallery of Ireland)

After the partial repeal of Poynings’ Law in 1782, the Irish House of Lords became a much more important body than before. The Lords represented the great landowners and the Anglican Church; therefore, from 1782 to 1800, it required the best efforts of government in its management, thus demonstrating its true political significance.

Support of Lords more important for government after 1782

Between 1703 and 1767, the lord lieutenant resided in Ireland only while parliament was sitting, favouring a system whereby he contracted with some of the principal Irish magnates to ensure the necessary parliamentary majorities in return for government patronage. This method of controlling parliament, known as the ‘undertaker’ system, was replaced by Lord Townshend, who dealt directly with those who controlled boroughs and factions in parliament. While this system continued in Ireland until the Union in 1801, the change brought about in the country’s constitutional position in 1782, which gave the Irish parliament a more autonomous role, ensured that Dublin Castle had to manage the peers in particular with great care.
In this new constitutional context, King George III reportedly made a comment to Lord Sydney, the home secretary, which demonstrated the increased importance of the House of Lords: ‘. . . from that House [the Lords] a great part of the support of government must hereafter be derived’. It was therefore essential that elevation to and promotions within the peerage were given to those who were firm friends of the king and his government. For example, in a letter to his successor, the duke of Rutland, the outgoing lord lieutenant, Lord Northington, apologised for neglecting to inform him that he had promised Baron Gosford elevation to the title of viscount. The reason for such attention was the fact that Gosford’s brother-in-law, the bishop of Ferns, was in Northington’s words ‘the only bishop, out of four, who holds boroughs, that gave his two seats to the nomination of His Majesty’s Government, a conduct which certainly deserves to be noticed’. In return Gosford was duly elevated to the title he coveted in 1785.
William Pitt, first lord of the treasury, was very conscious of the necessity of binding supporters to the Crown and he endorsed the policy of showing considerable attention to the government’s steadfast supporters in Ireland. Pitt was prepared to once more create the title of marquis, in order to reward magnates of considerable wealth and importance such as Lord Hillsborough, Lord Shannon and Lord Tyrone. In the mid-1780s only the family of the duke of Leinster held the title.

Order of St Patrick

 

Banners and pews of the Order of St Patrick in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. The Order was instituted in 1783 as another means of managing members of the peerage. In order to emphasise the dignity of the Order and thus increase its significance in relation to the management of the peers of Ireland, the lord lieutenant, Earl Temple, decided to confine the award to earls resident in Ireland. Lord Bellamont had supported Henry Flood, who was in the ranks of the opposition, during the 1782 session of parliament. As a result Bellamont, though a resident earl, was not offered the Order.

Banners and pews of the Order of St Patrick in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. The Order was instituted in 1783 as another means of managing members of the peerage. In order to emphasise the dignity of the Order and thus increase its significance in relation to the management of the peers of Ireland, the lord lieutenant, Earl Temple, decided to confine the award to earls resident in Ireland. Lord Bellamont had supported Henry Flood, who was in the ranks of the opposition, during the 1782 session of parliament. As a result Bellamont, though a resident earl, was not offered the Order.

The Order of St Patrick was instituted in 1783 as another means of managing members of the peerage. In order to emphasise the dignity of the order and thus increase its significance in relation to the management of the peers of Ireland, the lord lieutenant, Earl Temple, decided to confine the award to earls resident in Ireland. Lord Bellamont had supported Henry Flood, who was in the ranks of the opposition, during the 1782 session of parliament. As a result Bellamont, though a resident earl, was not offered the order.


Elevations, promotions and demotions

A study of the Irish peerage between 1780 and 1790 demonstrates that the elevation to the peerage and promotions within it reflected the enhanced status and political importance of its post-1782 position. In 1781 there were three creations: barons Muskerry, Welles and Belmore. There were also elevations within the peerage. The title of viscount was given to Lifford, the lord chancellor, Clifden, Mayo, Erne and Desart, while Mountcashel became an earl. All were rewards for constant support and loyalty to the government in its attempts to hold back the movement for constitutional change. The years 1782 and 1783 were very quiet in relation to the peerage; in 1782 Viscount Hood was the only creation and in 1783 three barons were created: Harberton, Leitrim and Riverdale. Constitutional change had come in 1782 and therefore there was no need for creations and elevations to reward firm loyalty. By 1785, in its attempt to introduce unpopular commercial regulations, Pitt’s ministry needed the bulwark of strong support in the House of Lords. Consequently there were seven elevations, including the first marquisate since the constitutional changes of 1782, that of Clanricarde, and three other creations. The elevation of further peers to the title of marquis did not take place until 1789. Those who had stood by the Crown during the Regency Crisis had to be suitably rewarded. Lord Tyrone became marquis of Waterford; Lord Hillsborough, marquis of Downshire; and Randal McDonnell, marquis of Antrim. There were other elevations during this period: Ely became a viscount, as did Clonmell, while Enniskillen, Erne and Carysfort became earls. There were also new creations: Baron Castlereagh, Baron Kilmaine and Baron Cloncurry.
Management, however, did not always consist in the act of giving; there were instances when the government could take away what it had bestowed. It could not, of course, reverse its decision once a man was elevated to the peerage, but it could take pensions or positions within the administration of the country from men who were not supporting the Crown. A case in point is Viscount Strangford. He had been awarded a pension of £400 per annum by the king, but it was withdrawn shortly afterwards. According to Lord Farnham, speaking in the House of Lords, Strangford lost his pension because he had not voted with the government. This raised constitutional issues, he argued, and could destroy the influence of both houses of parliament. If peers had to vote as the government required, then parliament could only speak for the government. This, according to Farnham, should ‘create alarm throughout the whole kingdom’. Yet this dilemma was at the heart of the relationship between the Irish parliament and Dublin Castle.

 

Consultation (or not)

 

William Pitt, first lord of the treasury and prime minister of Great Britain from December 1793. By 1785, in its attempt to introduce unpopular commercial regulations, Pitt’s ministry needed the bulwark of strong support in the Irish House of Lords. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

William Pitt, first lord of the treasury and prime minister of Great Britain from December 1793. By 1785, in its attempt to introduce unpopular commercial regulations, Pitt’s ministry needed the bulwark of strong support in the Irish House of Lords. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

The lord lieutenants sometimes engaged in lengthy and serious discussions with members of the House of Lords in relation to questions that were due to come before parliament. This was done in order to win as much support as possible. Lord Shannon described how he waited upon Lord Camden, who had succeeded Lord Fitzwilliam as lord lieutenant in April 1795, to discuss the Catholic Emancipation bill, which had been proposed by Henry Grattan. Camden believed that the bill should be resisted and, as Shannon wrote, ‘. . . it is decidedly the opinion of the cabinet that the representative franchise should be resisted, and Mr G[rattan]’s bill thrown out’. Malcomson has proposed the following definition of the cabinet, which is referred to in Shannon’s letter: ‘Every lord lieutenant had an intimate body of advisers, much smaller than the whole privy council, but membership of this body was not necessarily connected with the holding of particular office’.
There were also occasions when the desired results were obtained by keeping information from parliament, a point made by the lord lieutenant, the earl of Westmorland, writing to Lord Grenville, the home secretary, in 1791. London was looking for money from Ireland in order to pursue her war with Russia, but Ireland would not receive any benefits from this conflict. Westmorland anticipated that he would run into severe opposition on the matter from the Irish parliament, and his management technique was very basic and practical. He decided that ‘the less communication of general politics to the Irish parliament I should think, the better’.
Dublin Castle was, at times, extremely well informed about the plans of those who intended to sponsor measures to which the government were opposed. According to Castle sources, a meeting was held on 7 March 1784 at Lord Charlemont’s house in Dublin in order to give careful consideration to the matter of parliamentary reform. Forty people attended and it was decided that William Brownlow, MP for County Armagh, would move the motion to introduce a bill, which was to be seconded by Sir Edward Newenham. The lord lieutenant, the duke of Rutland, decided to give leave to admit the bill, with the aim of having it rejected with what he called ‘great and solid argument’.
That the Castle spied on both members of the Commons and peers who seemed to be out of step with its policies would appear to be incontrovertible and logical. The volatile Anglican bishop of Derry, Frederick Hervey, who was also the 5th earl of Bristol, had to be watched very carefully, so that any political trouble that he might cause could be dealt with. As Rutland wrote to Lord Sydney, the home secretary, at the time:

‘For this purpose I have despatched [sic] a gentleman of the neighbourhood who will not be suspected by the bishop, and on whom I can certainly depend to watch the effect which the news of the rejection of the [parliamentary reform] bill shall produce.’

Hospitality

 

James Gandon’s Corinthian entrance to the House of Lords (east portico), added to the original building between 1785 and 1789. (Bank of Ireland)

James Gandon’s Corinthian entrance to the House of Lords (east portico), added to the original building between 1785 and 1789. (Bank of Ireland)

Nevertheless, the management of parliament was not all concerned with spying and limiting the flow of information to members. There was also an informal, sociable aspect to this work, which was commented upon by members of the Irish aristocracy. Lady Moira, writing to Lady Granard, her daughter, discussed the character of Earl Temple when he was first appointed as lord lieutenant:

‘I hear he is warm in his temper & cold and haughty in his address: not calculated to tamely bear opposition and though given to pleasure, not popular with the young men he associates with.’

 

The importance of creating a receptive and positive atmosphere between the lord lieutenant and the peers of Ireland was recognised by Dublin Castle. Each summer the lord lieutenant went on progress to the houses of Ireland’s nobility, in order to make pleasant social contacts that would benefit the government when parliament resumed in late January or early February. Earl Cornwallis travelled through the south of the country in July 1799. Before he left, Lord Shannon went to Dublin Castle and informed Cornwallis that he would be delighted to receive him in his house at Castlemartyr, Co. Cork. According to Shannon, he was very well received by the lord lieutenant, as he wrote to his son: ‘Nothing could be more handsome or considerate than he was, and he gave me the general sketch of his route . . .’. He intended to dine and sleep at Lord Roden’s house, Brockley Park, on 22 July. On the following two days he intended to stay with the earl of Ormond and then journey to Curraghmore, the home of the marquis of Waterford. The lord lieutenant did not pass his time exclusively with peers. He included a visit to Marlfield, Clonmel, where one of the MPs for County Tipperary, John Bagwell, would receive him. On Tuesday 30 July he intended to dine with Lord Donoughmore, and the next day he hoped to visit the archbishop of Cashel. Shannon planned a house party to honour and entertain Cornwallis:
‘My luggage will arrive at Castlemartyr on Friday 26th at latest, and we have full time before us, servants and all, to have things in good order. I invited Donoughmore to meet his Excellency at Castlemartyr, and he is much pleased at the compliment.’

Shannon had asked the earl of Westmeath to join the party, but he could not do so as he had to travel north on business. These house parties were part of what James Kelly refers to as ‘the convivial niceties, which the management of the Irish parliament demanded’.
The management of the Irish parliament in the last two decades of the eighteenth century was no easy matter. With the modification of Poynings’ Law, Dublin Castle had to be more attentive to the political and personal ambitions of Ireland’s parliamentarians. The Castle had to combine rewards for the loyal with the traditional methods of those in power: spying, the control of the flow of information and the withdrawal of favours already bestowed.  HI


Charlotte Murphy has a Ph.D in history from UCC, has taught at second level and lectured at Mary Immaculate College of Education, Limerick.


Further reading:

 

F.G. James, Lords of the Ascendancy: the House of Lords and its members, 1600–1800 (Dublin, 1995).

E.M. Johnston, Great Britain and Ireland 1760–1800: a study in political administration(Edinburgh, 1963).

J.L. McCracken, The Irish parliament in the eighteenth century (Dundalk, 1971).

R.B. McDowell, Ireland in the age of imperialism and revolution, 1760–1801 (Oxford, 1979).

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