Sir Richard Musgrave, 1746–1818: ultra-Protestant ideologue

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

Sir Richard Musgrave, 1746–1818: ultra-Protestant ideologue
James Kelly
(Four Courts Press, €55)
ISBN 9781846821486

The subject of this biography was also the subject of one of Irish history’s more memorable pen-portraits:

‘Sir Richard Musgrave, who (except on the abstract topics of politics, religion, martial law, his wife, the Pope, the Pretender, the Jesuits, Napper Tandy, and the whipping-post) was generally in his senses.’

Such was the view of Jonah Barrington. And, according to Deborah Musgrave, her husband was ‘the most unfeeling and abominable of fanatics’. It is tempting to think that such charged observations suggest a larger-than-life, if highly unpleasant, individual, were it not for the fact that for much of his life and career Sir Richard Musgrave remained wholly unexceptional.
This may explain why he has never been the subject of a biography before this. Born into an upwardly mobile, Protestant gentry family in Waterford, Musgrave’s political career consisted of sitting as MP for Lismore on behalf of the Ponsonby interest, and little else. But, as this biography illustrates, his ideological trajectory was of far greater import. Musgrave came from a region that had witnessed considerable agrarian unrest in the form of the Whiteboys in the 1760s, and later, as high sheriff of Waterford in 1786–7, he proved ruthless in prosecuting those accused of Rightboy activity, even flogging one unfortunate prisoner personally. But the activities of organisations like the Whiteboys and the Rightboys were usually interpreted by many of his class in terms of Catholic conspiracies. Musgrave was no exception, and, according to James Kelly, he was one of many Protestant MPs ‘whose liberalism on constitutional issues in the 1770s and 1780s faltered when faced with the prospect of admitting catholics to the political process’. He was slightly distracted from such domestic concerns by the onset of the French Revolution, which he vehemently opposed (surprisingly, in the light of their diametrically opposing views on the Catholic Question, Musgrave warmly endorsed Edmund Burke’s response to the Revolution). In the 1790s he wrote a number of tracts attacking the Revolution, which had the significant consequence of bringing him into the orbit of an increasingly militant English loyalism. And towards the end of the decade came the event that ensured his true significance to posterity, not as a participant but as its erstwhile chronicler: the Rebellion of 1798.
In the years before 1798 Musgrave had interpreted unrest in Waterford as the prelude to both a French invasion and a massacre of Protestants. This was a fairly standard belief for Irish Protestants to hold at times of tension or crisis. But the actual outbreak of rebellion in 1798 confirmed Musgrave in this belief, which he soon gave monumental expression to in his encyclopaediac (if notorious) Memoirs of the different rebellions in Ireland (1801). Explicitly modelled on Sir John Temple’s equally notorious account of 1641, The Irish Rebellion (1646), Musgrave’s book collated a huge number of Protestant testimonies from the rebellion, largely relating to the atrocities visited upon Protestants by Catholic insurgents, and cast them within the interpretive framework of anti-Catholicism. The 1798 Rebellion was thereby defined as merely the latest instalment in the eternal efforts of Roman Catholicism to extirpate Protestant ‘heresy’ in Ireland. Sir John Temple had previously made this argument regarding the 1641 rebellion; as Kelly points out, Musgrave simply used 1798 to update it. By implicaton, the events he depicted were precisely what any Protestant should expect at Catholic hands. And, given its publication in a new United Kingdom in which the prospect of Catholic Emancipation seemed very real, Musgrave’s work had an inevitable resonance.
The key point of Kelly’s meticulous study is that Musgrave had an intellectual significance above and beyond his life and career, in the development and articulation of a common loyalist ‘ultra-Protestantism’ in both Britain and Ireland that was vehemently opposed to both the extension of political rights to Catholics and any attempt to alter the ‘Protestant constitution in church and state’. Memoirs of the different rebellions was a key text in the development of this ideology, providing ample ammunition for the opponents of Catholic Emancipation in the form of its litany of Catholic atrocities. It was inevitably contentious (Musgrave was challenged to a duel by one MP slandered by his invective), which allows for one of the particular strengths of this study: a dense and forensic examination of the atavistic polemical world of the early years of the nineteenth century, in which Musgrave remained an admired fixture until his death. Loyalism in Britain and Ireland found a hitherto unprecedented common ground in the years after the Act of Union, and Musgrave’s work helped to facilitate the convergence. The potential implications, in terms of the subsequent political history of British and Irish Protestantism, should be obvious.
There is much to commend in Kelly’s book, which is perhaps more of a biographical study than a straightforward biography, as Musgrave becomes a means of casting light on the ferocious sectarianism of (some) Irish Protestants at a key juncture in their history. Despite being let down by poor copy-editing, in doing so this study makes a powerful—and, as Barrington might have it, a sensible—contribution to Irish intellectual history.

John Gibney is an IRCHSS Government of Ireland fellow at the Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities and Social Studies, NUI Galway.

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