Charles Lucas: a forgotten patriot? by Sean Murphy

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 1994), Volume 2

Charles Lucas - print from a portrait byReynolds. ( NATIONAL LIBRARY OF IRELAND)

Charles Lucas – print from a portrait by

The concentration by historians on the more exciting events of the last two decades of the eighteenth century has contributed to the neglect of Lucas, and where he has been noticed he has frequently been portrayed as an extravagantly antiCatholic bigot. Hence R.R. Madden described him as ‘a bigot of rampant, puritanical, intolerant principles’, while Lecky dismissed him as ‘virulently and aggressively anti-Catholic’. More recently, R.B. McDowell has portrayed Lucas as a ‘bustling, public- spirited tradesman’ who ‘condoned the penal code’ against Catholics. It is not surprising therefore that there has been a tendency not to examine in any great detail Lucas’s contribution to the evolution of Irish nationalism, or else to dismiss the appropriateness of viewing him at all in nationalist terms. While Lucas was not without a measure of prejudice, his anti-Catholicism has been greatly exaggerated. Furthermore, his reputation as a bigot has been due in significant degree to uncritical acceptance of a fabricated document. The nature of Lucas’s stress on Irish autonomy fully entitles him to be called a nationalist, or more exactly, a Protestant or Anglo-Irish nationalist.


Cromwellians from Clare
Lucas was born in County Clare on 16 September 1713, the son of Benjamin Lucas of Ballingaddy. His great-grandfather, Lieutenant-Colonel Benjamin Lucas, was a Cromwellian officer who had been granted lands in Clare after service in the wars of  the 1640s. While little is known about Lucas’s early years, it would not be implausible to speculate that given his background, Commonwealth republican ideals would have played a part in shaping his political awareness, and indeed there was intermarriage between the Lucases and the family of the plotter Colonel Thomas Blood. After his father’s death in 1727, Lucas was apprenticed as an apothecary in Dublin city and set up shop for himself there in the 1730s.


Charles Lucas a forgotten patriot by Sean Murphy 2Guild politician
Lucas began his political career as a representative of the Barber Surgeons’ Guild on the common council of Dublin Corporation. In alliance with James Digges La Touche, a Merchants’ Guild representative and a member of the wealthy Huguenot merchant and banking family, Lucas commenced a campaign for municipal reform in 1742. The upper house of Dublin Corporationwas composed of a lord mayor and twenty-four aldermen, and Lucas and La Touche sought to limit their oligarchic powers and increase the influence of the lower house, the sheriffs and commons. The reformers represented the Protestant freemen or enfranchised citizens of Dublin only, whose entitlement to participate in municipal and parliamentary elections depended on their membership of the city’s exclusive trade guilds. Under the penal laws, Catholics were denied participation in politics even at the municipal level. The campaign for municipal reform culminated in a law suit in the court of King’s Bench in 1744, when Lucas and La Touche unsuccessfully challenged the aldermen’s power of self-election, and shortly thereafter the two lost their seats on the city council.


‘Freeman, Barber and Citizen’
An outbreak of rioting occurred in Smock Alley Theatre in January 1747 as a result of attempts by the manager, Thomas Sheridan, to curb rowdy excesses by ‘gentlemen’ members of the audience. Lucas entered the fray as a champion of Sheridan, producing several pamphlets in February and March 1747 in which, untypically, he concealed his identity behind a pseudonym, ‘A Freeman, Barber and Citizen’. Noting that the most prominent rioter, one Kelly, was a Catholic from the province of Connacht, Lucas warned of a relapse into the slavery and barbarism that had characterised the ancient Irish. He claimed that there was more to the riots than a mere theatrical dispute, and that they were the work of a group of ‘professed Papists’ and ‘mercenary converts’ preparing for ‘a foreign invasion, a western insurrection or an universal massacre’. Taken by themselves, the Barber’s Letters are undoubtedly unpleasant and seem to confirm that Lucas was a bigot, and the memory of them would live on to become the principal basis for Lucas’s reputation as an ultra Protestant zealot, Yet the obsessive  anti-Catholicism of his Barber persona was in fact uncharacteristic of Lucas, and in later years he would become less preoccupied with the dangers of ‘Popery’ and more favourably disposed towards Catholics and ancient Ireland,


Deluge of pamphlets
Lucas’s next opportunity for political involvement came during the Dublin by-election of 1748-9, when  city’s two parliamentary seats had fallen vacant. Lucas declared himself a candidate, and in uneasy alliance with La Touche, sought to end the monopoly of Dublin city’s parliamentary representation by aldermen of Dublin Corporation. As well as making fiery speeches in the guild halls, Lucas deluged the voters with pamphlet addresses and letters designed as much to educate them in political principles as to advance his own candidacy. A collection of them was republished by Lucas in 1751, The political constitutions of Great Britain and Ireland. Though Lucas was a somewhat quixotic personality, and his style not infrequently emotive and pedantic, the Political constitutions is actually quite readable, as well as being systematically laid out and containing much matter of interest.
It was composed of lengthy prefatory material, twenty election addresses and six letters to the citizens of Dublin, all written by Lucas, together with selected reprints from his election newspaper, the Censor, some written by other authors. Lucas’s election campaign was not confined merely to municipal matters, as has sometimes been implied, but encompassed much larger political issues. In an attempt to demonstrate that the British constitution was also the birthright of the Irish, Lucas was at his most controversial, and indeed original, and made a distinct but still not adequately recognised contribution to the development of Irish nationalist thought. In his tenth address of 13 January 1749 Lucas paraphrased Molyneux’s case that Ireland was not a conquered colony dependent on Great Britain, going on to make a radical statement which eventually landed him in serious trouble with the authorities:


.. .it must now be confessed that there was no general rebellion in Ireland, since the first British invasion, that was not raised or fomented by the oppression, instigation, evil influence or connivance of the English,


‘Destructive excrescence of English power’
In his eleventh address of 31 January 1749 Lucas went even further in his critique of the misconduct of England, claiming that though the native Irish in medieval times had shown their willingness to submit to English law, they had been treated as badly ‘as the Spaniards used the Mexicans, or as inhumanly as the English now treat their slaves in America’. He concluded with an attack on the Declaratory Act of 1720, which he saw as evidence of the increase of the ‘destructive excrescence of English power’, signalling clearly that his words had a contemporary as well as a historical import. Lucas did not press his ideas concerning the treatment of the native Irish further, and indeed it is remarkable that he advanced them at all given his Protestant prejudices. Yet he was more than hinting at the existence of an inclusive Irish nation transcending the Anglican and Dissenter sections of the population, and having a common interest in resisting English domination, even if he was not prepared to concede that all sections should possess a complete equality of civil rights. One perceptive contemporary specifically mentioned that ‘national rights’ had been added to the political agenda as a result of the events of 1749. Lucas also wrote that the British system ‘has more of the true republic in its composition than any of those that now bear the name of republic’. It seems clear therefore that Lucas represented an important pivotal stage in the transition from Anglo-Irish or Protestant constitutional nationalism to the more radical and inclusive republican separatism of the United Irishmen, a point reinforced by his evolving views on the Catholic question. In a tract dated 18 August 1749, which took the form of a letter to the citizens of Dublin, Lucas moved from municipal matters to discuss specifically the position of Catholics, but in terms more tolerant than those he had employed in the Barber’s Letters of 1747. He claimed that he pitied rather than condemned the religious errors of the ‘Papists or Romanists’, and had the popes not claimed temporal power, he would ‘know no difference between the civil rights of a Papist and a Protestant’. Hence he believed that Catholics should be free to worship according to their consciences, and should be compelled  only to pay ‘due allegiance to the civil constitution’. Lucas concluded his religious reflections by stating that all subjects, ‘whether Papist or Protestant, Jew or Gentile’, should have ‘the full protection of the law’ and the liberty to dispose of their persons and property as they chose, subject to the just laws of God and man. Lucas had undoubtedly modified his position since 1747, and while not committing himself to a call for their repeal, he displayed none of the enthusiastic support for the penal laws which might be expected from a bigot.


Fabricated letter
It is also significant that Charles O’Conor of Belanagare, the leading Catholic spokesman and writer against the penal laws, was sufficiently interested in the Dublin election controversy to issue a pamphlet in Lucas’s defence in 1749. Unfortunately, the fact of this support has been overshadowed by a letter fabricated by O’Conor’s grandson and biographer, Revd. Charles O’Conor, which has the elder O’Conor state that he was ‘by no means interested, nor is any of our unfortunate people, in this affair of Lucas’, for whom he allegedly felt ‘some disgust’. This blatant forgery coloured the hostile attitude towards Lucas of nineteenthcentury historians such as Plowden and Lecky, and remains to influence the unwary today due to its inclusion in the most recent (1988) edition of O’Conor’s correspondence. A further indication that those with pro-Catholic sympathies were inclined to support Lucas in 1749 were five articles in the Censor, which are almost certainly the work of the young Edmund Burke. The articles, some of which were signed with the letter ‘8.’, a signature used by Burke in his own journal, the Reformer, exhibit a lofty tone and support Lucas in a relatively cautious and moderate way. ‘8.’ counselled that if ‘penal laws’ had been made for ‘turbulent and seditious times’, the wise judge would suffer them ‘to be forgot in happier days and under a prudent administration’. These Censor articles were first identified as Burke’s in 1923 by the Samuelses, but in 1953 an article by Vincitorio blasted Lucas as a bigoted demagogue whom Burke could never have supported. This article has tended to discourage closer examination of the attribution, and indeed Conor Cruise O’Brien’s recent biography of Burke, The Great Melody, makes no mention at all of Lucas. Nevertheless the evidence for Burke’s authorship of the Censor articles is compelling. As the election paper war raged in the summer and autumn of 1749, the controversy surrounding Lucas’s candidacy was coming to a head. Following pointed comments by the lord lieutenant, the Earl of Harrington, in his opening speech to parliament on 10 October 1749, the house of commons mounted an investigation into Lucas’s election writings and summoned him for questioning. Even as the house deliberated on his case, in the Censor of 14 October a defiant Lucas courageously but unwisely quoted from a work by James Anderson DD, which claimed that Ireland was a distinct kingdom, that Catholics had believed they were taking arms in their own defence in the rebellion of 1641, and that both sides had been guilty of atrocities in the ensuing war. Belief in Catholic guilt in the 1641 rebellion was an article of faith among moderate as well as extreme Protestants, and Lucas’s stance on 1641 and Irish rebellions alone must surely acquit him of the charge of consistent antiCatholic bigotry.


‘An enemy to his country’
On 16 October 1749 the house of commons voted that certain of Lucas’s election publications were seditious and promoted insurrection, that he had justified past rebellions and reflected scandalously on the lord lieutenant and parliament, and that he was an enemy to his country and should be imprisoned in Newgate. Fearing that his angry followers would attempt a violent uprising and that his health would not withstand imprisonment, Lucas yielded to the pleas of friends and fled by boat to the Isle of Man. The removal of Lucas from the scene was probably a satisfactory outcome so far as the government and his enemies were concerned, and polling commenced in his absence on 24 October. Though Lucas’s running mate La Touche won one of the two parliamentary seats, he was later to be unseated by the house of commons on the grounds of alleged electoral ‘irregularities’ and the representation of Dublin city therefore remained safely in the hands of the aldermanic party for the time being.
Exile and return
Having made his way from the Isle of Man to England, Lucas travelled on to the continent, and following studies at the universities of Paris and Rheims, he secured a degree in medicine from the university of Leyden in 1752. Lucas returned to England in 1753, and while he maintained an interest in matters political, most of his energies in the years following were devoted to building up his medical practice and publishing the results of his research on European spas. The more relaxed political conditions immediately following the accession of George III in 1760 enabled Lucas to return to Ireland in order to contest the subsequent general election, and in May 1761 he won one of Dublin’s two parliamentary seats by a narrow margin. He threw himself with enthusiasm into his new role as a parliamentarian, his most important legislative achievements being the Octennial Act of 1768, which provided for regular general elections, and an act controlling the sale of drugs. Charles O’Conor of Belanagare and other leading Catholics became more active in the 1760s in their endeavours to secure an amelioration of the penal laws. While there is no evidence that Lucas exerted himself in support of Catholics, neither is there any evidence that he wrote systematically in a bigoted fashion against them, as Madden, for example, claimed. Lucas was closely associated with the radical newspaper, the Freeman’s Journal, which although it published letters hostile to Catholics, also gave space to some pro-Catholic correspondents, reflecting an attitude of growing tolerance if not sympathy among Protestant radicals. However, Lucas did support ‘quarterage’, an unjust exaction which Catholics had to pay to the Protestant-controlled trade guilds from which they were excluded. A pamphlet by Lucas in defence of quarterage, published in 1768, was by his standards studiously moderate, even if it did express exasperation at the refusal of ‘non-freemen’, meaning in the main Catholics, to pay quarterage. However reactionary,Lucas’s support of quarterage was not primarily sectarian, but was based on a pragmatic desire to maximise the resources of the guilds, a crucial element of his power base, as well as to satisfy his constituents, most of whom were guild members.



Lord Townshend.

Final years

Lucas’s final years were marked by even more intense conflict with the administration, continued assertion of Irish autonomy and criticism of English misgovernment, especially after Lord Lieutenant Townshend’s prorogation of parliament in December 1769 in response to its refusal to pass a money bill. The parallels between the case of Ireland and the increasingly restive American colonies were clear to patriots on both sides of the Atlantic, and following the Boston ‘massacre’ in 1770 the townsmen sent Lucas an account of the incident. So disabled by gout that he frequently had to be carried to and from the house of commons, Lucas died on 4 November 1771 and was buried in St Michan’s churchyard, where his gravestone may still be seen.
The Lucas legacy
As much as the money bill dispute of 1753-6, which concerned the right of the Irish parliament to dispose of an exchequer surplus, the Lucas affair of 1748-9 marked a watershed in Irish politics. Both episodes showed that a growing number of Irish Protestants were prepared to accept the existence of distinct Irish interests, which required that British domination should be resisted. The degree of Lucas’s emphasis on an Ireland oppressed by a foreign power and the strength of his denial of its colonial status were such that his ideology can only be termed nationalist, even if it was not totally separatist and failed to encompass Catholics fully in its vision. As the eighteenth century progressed, the formerly despised and feared Catholics would be accepted as potentially equal citizens by most Anglo-Irish nationalists, though some maintained their reserve. This process of reconciliation was facilitated by the brotherly ideals of Freemasonry, culminating, via the advanced sections of the Volunteers, in the United Irishmen of the 1790s. Notwithstanding the unpleasant Barber’s Letters of 1747 and certain ingrained Protestant prejudices, Lucas’s later writings demonstrate a definite softening of attitude towards Catholics. A recognition of his crucial contribution to the evolution of Irish nationalism and pivotal role in the transition to republican separatism is long overdue.


Sean Murphy is a genealogist and parttime history lecturer in University College Dublin.


Further reading:

S. Murphy, ‘Charles Lucas, Catholicism

and nationalism’, in EighteenthCentury

Ireland 8 (1993).

D. Dickson, ‘New Foundations: Ireland

1660-80 (Dublin 1987).

Dictionary of National Biography

(London 1900).

A.T.Q. Stewart, A Deeper Silence: the

hidden origins of the United Irishmen

(London 1993).


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