History of Parliament latest—the Irish bits

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Catholic Emancipation, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2010), News, Volume 18

The chairing of Thomas Spring Rice in Limerick in 1820, possibly by William Turner of Oxford—an indication of the vibrancy of popular electoral politics in the early nineteenth century. (Limerick Chamber of Commerce)

The chairing of Thomas Spring Rice in Limerick in 1820, possibly by William Turner of Oxford—an indication of the vibrancy of popular electoral politics in the early nineteenth century. (Limerick Chamber of Commerce)

The success of Thomas Spring Rice in the Limerick election of 1820 was due to the old style of electioneering, as well as to significant developments in the nature of Irish politics. On one level, constituencies continued to be fought over by wealthy, landed patrons, who deployed their money and influence to secure votes for their favoured candidates: in this case, it was Rice’s father-in-law, Lord Limerick, who saw off the borough’s previous Tory patron, Lord Gort, after an election that was so corrupt that a Commons committee unseated Gort’s son in Rice’s favour.
Yet what was new in Limerick was the increased assertiveness of the independent interest, which was opposed to Gort’s stranglehold over the corporation (or city council), and the growing voting strength of the Catholic freeholders, who outnumbered the Protestant freemen among the 1,356 electors who voted that year. These trends would become much more evident as the 1820s continued. Rice soon made a name for himself not only as an opposition Whig but also as a vocal supporter of Catholic emancipation. His chairing, vividly depicted in this contemporary painting, indicates the vibrancy of popular electoral politics in the early nineteenth century.
Limerick was one of 66 Irish constituencies that, after the abolition of the Irish Parliament in 1801, returned a total of 100 MPs to the United Kingdom Commons at Westminster. The electoral history of the first two decades of the Union was covered in The history of Parliament: the House of Commons, 1790–1820 (1986), where the Irish sections were the responsibility of the late Peter Jupp. These new volumes, based on widespread research in Irish archives, local newspapers and printed sources, cover the period from the general election of 1820 to the dissolution of the unreformed parliament in 1832. They build on Professor Jupp’s work by providing extensive coverage on Ireland, including a lengthy chapter in the introductory survey (volume 1).
Ireland accounted for about a sixth of the 380 constituencies represented in the Commons. Many of these were, of course, rotten boroughs, some with no more than thirteen electors, whose patrons sold their seats on the open market. But the more populous boroughs with wider franchises, such as Limerick’s, exhibited a much higher rate of contested elections; this was particularly the case in Cork and Dublin, each of which had two members. Although the counties were largely in the grip of aristocratic families, their two-member seats were often fought over, not only during the actual polling but also in the long preceding registration process, which was a procedure unique to Ireland at this time. Detailed accounts of all the Irish constituencies, including Trinity College, are given on a county-by-county basis (in volume 3).
The issue that came to dominate Irish election campaigns was, of course, that of Catholic emancipation, with counties Dublin (in 1823) and Waterford (in 1826) leading the way by choosing pro-Catholic liberal MPs. Daniel O’Connell’s audacious candidacy for Clare in 1828 and the staggering implications of his triumphant election triggered the removal of almost all the remaining civil disabilities suffered by Catholics the following year. While this itself produced a huge impetus towards greater political participation, the accompanying electoral changes, which raised the property qualification for county freeholders to £10 (from 40 shillings), meant that the county electorate in fact fell to only a fifth of its former size.
O’Connell was one of sixteen Catholics to sit for Irish constituencies up to 1832. In total, 245 men represented Irish seats between 1820 and 1832, of whom 33 were English, Scottish or Welsh, while roughly 40 other Irishmen were MPs for English constituencies during this period, including such leading figures as George Canning, who became prime minister in 1827. The biographical dictionary part of this work (volumes 4–7) contains career outlines for all these MPs, setting out, in addition to their family backgrounds and political interests, their specific votes and speeches in parliament, with Irish affairs and legislation receiving thorough treatment. As well as the active and famous MPs, coverage includes those who were relatively obscure, like the anti-Catholic Dublin barrister George Moore, or who concentrated on specific issues, like the animal welfare campaigner Richard (‘Humanity Dick’) Martin.
The Irish members had much to concern themselves with at Westminster, where matters such as agricultural distress, tithes, sectarianism and the general state of the country were often debated. By the end of this period, it was the O’Connellite campaign for repeal of the Union that came to the fore, though the 1831 general election was dominated by the question of parliamentary reform. The Irish Reform Act of 1832 left the county representation unaltered, but a uniform borough franchise was introduced in the form of the resident £10 householder qualification. Extra parliamentary seats were given to Dublin University, Belfast, Galway, Waterford and Limerick. It was a sign of how much had changed over the previous dozen years that in the last of these, from which Rice withdrew in order to pursue political ambitions in England, the cousins David and William Roche were elected as Repealers.  HI

Stephen Farrell is the Editorial Controller for the History of Parliament Online: www.histparl.ac.uk

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