- The culture, history and people of Ireland and the Irish

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


The accession of the Rockingham administration to power, in 1782, was followed by the recall of Lord Carlisle, and the substitution, as Viceroy, of one of the leading Lords of the Whig party. The nobleman selected to this office was William Henry, third Duke of Portland, afterwards twice prime minister; then in the prime of life, possessed of a very ample fortune, and uniting in his own person the two great Whig families of Bentinck and Cavendish. The policy he was sent to represent at Dublin was undoubtedly an imperial policy; a policy which looked as anxiously to the integrity of the empire as any Tory cabinet could have desired; but it was, in most other respects, a policy of conciliation and concession, dictated by the enlarged wisdom of Burke, and adopted by the magnanimous candour of Fox. Yet by a generous people, who always find it more difficult to resist a liberal than an illiberal administration, it was, in reality, a policy more to be feared than welcomed; for its almost certain effects were to divide their ranks into two sections--a moderate and an extreme party--between whom the national cause, only half established, might run great danger of being lost, almost as soon as it was won.

With the Duke of Portland was associated, as Chief Secretary, Colonel Fitzpatrick, of the old Ossory family, one of those Irish wits and men of fashion, who form so striking a group in the middle and later years of King George III. As the personal and political friend of Flood, Charlemont, and Grattan, and the first Irish secretary for several administrations, he shared the brilliant ovation with which the Duke of Portland was received, on his arrival at Dublin; but for the reason already mentioned, the imperial, in so far as opposed to the national policy, found an additional advantage in the social successes and great personal popularity of the new secretary.

The critical months which decided the contest for independence--April and May--passed over fortunately for Ireland. The firmness of the leaders in both Houses, the energy especially of Grattan, whose cry was "No time, no time!" and the imposing attitude of the volunteers, carried the question. Lord Rockingham and Mr. Fox by letter, the new Viceroy and Secretary in person, had urged every argument for adjournment and delay, but Grattan's ultimatum was sent over to England, and finally and formally accepted. The demands were five.

  1. The repeal of the 6th of George I. II. The repeal of the Perpetual Mutiny Act. III. An Act to abolish the alteration or suppression of Bills. IV. An Act to establish the final jurisdiction of the Irish Courts and the Irish House of Lords. V. The repeal of Poyning's Law. This was the constitutional charter of 1782, which restored Ireland, for the first time in that century, to the rank and dignity of a free nation.

Concession once determined on, the necessary bills were introduced in both Parliaments simultaneously, and carried promptly into law. On the 27th of May, the Irish Houses were enabled to congratulate the Viceroy that "no constitutional question any longer existed between the two countries." In England it was proclaimed no less explicitly by Fox and his friends, that the independency of the two legislatures "was fixed and ascertained for ever." But there was, unfortunately, one ground for dispute still left, and on that ground Henry Flood and Henry Grattan parted, never to be reconciled.

The elder Patriot, whose conduct from the moment of his retirement from office, in consequence of his Free Trade vote and speech in '79, had been, with occasional exceptions, arising mostly from bodily infirmity, as energetic and consistent as that of Grattan himself, saw no sufficient constitutional guarantee in mere acts of Parliament repealing other acts. He demanded "express renunciation" of legislative supremacy on the part of England; while Grattan maintained the sufficiency of "simple repeal." It is possible even in such noble natures as these men had--so strangely are we constituted--that there was a latent sense of personal rivalry, which prompted them to grasp, each, at the larger share of patriotic honour. It is possible that there were other, and inferior men, who exasperated this latent personal rivalry. Flood had once reigned supreme, until Grattan eclipsed him in the sudden splendour of his career. In scholarship and in genius the elder Patriot was, taken all in all, the full peer of his successor; but Grattan had the national temperament, and he found his way more readily into the core of the national heart; he was the man of the later, the bolder, and the more liberal school; and such was the rapidity of his movements, that even Flood, from '79 to '82, seemed to be his follower, rather than his coadjutor. In the hopeful crisis of the struggle, the slower and more experienced statesman was for the moment lost sight of. The leading motions were all placed or left in the hands of Grattan by the consent of their leading friends; the bills repealing the Mutiny Act, the 6th George I., and Poyning's law, were entrusted to Burgh, Yelverton, and Forbes; the thanks of the House were voted to Grattan alone after the victory, with the substantial addition of 50,000 pounds to purchase for him an estate, which should become an enduring monument of the national gratitude.

The open rupture between the two great orators followed fast on the triumph of their common efforts. It was still the first month--the very honeymoon of independence. On the 13th of June, Mr. Grattan took occasion to notice in his place, that a late British act relating to the importation of sugars, was so generally worded as apparently to include Ireland; but this was explained to be a mere error of the clerk, the result of haste, and one which would be promptly corrected. Upon this Mr. Flood first took occasion to moot the insufficiency of "simple repeal," and the necessity of "express renunciation," on the part of England. On the 19th, he moved a formal resolution on the subject, which was superseded by the order of the day; but on the 19th of July, he again moved, at great length, and with great power of logical and historical argument, for leave to bring in an Irish Bill of Rights, declaring "the sole and exclusive right of the Irish Parliament to make laws in all cases whatsoever, external and internal." He was supported by Sir Simon Bradstreet, Mr. English, and Mr. Walshe, and opposed by Grattan, who, in one of his finest efforts, proposed a counter resolution, "that the legislature of Ireland is independent; and that any person who shall, by writing or otherwise, maintain that a right in any other country, to make laws for Ireland, internally or externally, exists or can be revived, is inimical to the peace of both kingdoms." This extreme proposition--pointing out all who differed from himself as public enemies--the mover, however, withdrew, and substituted in its stead the milder formula, that leave was refused to bring in the bill, because the sole and exclusive right of legislation in the Irish Parliament in all cases, whether externally or internally, hath been already asserted by Ireland, and fully, finally, and irrevocably acknowledged by the British Parliament. Upon this motion Flood did not think it advisable to divide the House, so it passed without a division.

But the moot point thus voted down in Parliament disquieted and alarmed the minds of many out of doors. The volunteers as generally sided with Flood as the Parliament had sided with Grattan. The lawyer corps of the city of Dublin, containing all the great names of the legal profession, endorsed the constitutional law of the member for Kilkenny; the Belfast volunteers did likewise; and Grattan's own corps, in a respectful address, urged him to give his adherence to the views of "the best informed body of men in the kingdom,"--the lawyers' corps. Just at that moment Lord Abingdon, in the English House of Lords, gave notice of a mischievous motion to assert the external supremacy of the English Parliament; and Lord Mansfield, in the King's Bench, decided an Irish appeal case, notwithstanding the recent statute establishing the judicial independence of the Irish courts. It is true the case had been appealed before the statute was passed; and that Lord Abingdon withdrew his motion for want of a seconder; but the alarm was given, and the popular mind in Ireland, jealously watchful of its new-born liberties, saw in these attempts renewed cause for apprehension. In opposition to all this suddenly awakened suspicion and jealousy, Grattan, who naturally enough assumed his own interest in preserving the new constitution to be quite equal to those who cast doubts on its security, invariably held one language. The settlement already made, according to his view, was final; it was an international treaty; its maintenance must depend on the ability and disposition of the parties to uphold it, rather than on the multiplication of declaratory acts. Ireland had gone to England with a charter, not for a charter, and the nation which would insist upon the humiliation of another, was a foolish nation. This was the lofty light in which he viewed the whole transaction, and in this light, it must be added, he continued to view it till the last. Many of the chief English and Irish jurists of his time, Lord Camden, Lord Kenyon, Lord Erskine, Lord Kilwarden, Judges Chamberlain, Smith, and Kelly, Sir Samuel Rommilly, Sir Arthur Pigott, and several others, agreed fully in Grattan's doctrine, that the settlement of '82 was final and absolute, and "terminated all British jurisdiction over Ireland." But although these are all great names, the instinct of national self-preservation may be considered in such critical moments more than a counterpoise to the most matured opinions of the oracles of the law. Such must have been the conviction also of the English Parliament, for, immediately on their meeting in January, 1783, they passed the Act of Renunciation (23rd George III.), expressly declaring their admission of the "exclusive rights of the Parliament and Courts of Ireland in matters of legislature and judicature." This was Flood's greatest triumph. Six months before his doctrine obtained but three supporters in the Irish Commons; now, at his suggestion, and on his grounds, he saw it unanimously affirmed by the British Parliament.

On two other questions of the utmost importance these leading spirits also widely differed. Grattan was in favour of, and Flood opposed to, Catholic emancipation; while Flood was In favour of, and Grattan, at that moment, opposed to, a complete reform of parliamentary representation. The Catholic question had its next great triumph after Flood's death, as will be mentioned further on; but the history of the Irish reform movement of 1783, '84, and '85, may best be disposed of here.

The Reformers were a new party rising naturally out of the popular success of 1782. They were composed of all but a few of the more aristocratic corps of the volunteers, of the townsmen, especially in the seaports and manufacturing towns, of the admirers of American example, of the Catholics who had lately acquired property and recognition, but not the elective franchise, of the gentry of the second and third degree of wealth, overruled and overshadowed by the greater lords of the soil. The substantial grievance of which they complained was, that of the 300 members of the House of Commons, only 72 were returned by the people; 53 Peers having the power to nominate 123 and secure the election of 10 others; while 52 Commoners nominated 91 and controlled the choice of 4 others. The constitution of what ought to have been the people's house was, therefore, substantially in the hands of an oligarchy of about a hundred great proprietors, bound together by the spirit of their class, by intermarriage, and by the hereditary possession of power. To reduce this exorbitant influence within reasonable bounds, was the just and wise design to which Flood dedicated all his energies, after the passage of the Act of Renunciation, and the success of which would certainly have restored him to complete equality with Grattan.

In the beginning of 1783, the famous coalition ministry of Lord North and Mr. Pox was formed in England. They were at first represented at Dublin Castle, for a few months, by Lord Temple, who succeeded the Duke of Portland, and established the order of Knights of Saint Patrick; then by Lord Northington, who dissolved Parliament early in July. A general election followed, and the reform party made their influence felt in all directions. County meetings were held; conventions by districts and by provinces were called by the reforming Volunteers, in July, August, and September. The new Parliament was to be opened on the 14th of October, and the Volunteers resolved to call a convention of their whole body at Dublin, for the 10th of November.

The Parliament met according to summons, but though searching retrenchment was spoken of, no promise was held out of a constitutional reform; the limitation of the regular troops to a fixed number was declared advisable, and a vote of thanks to the Volunteers was passed without demur. But the proceedings of the Houses were soon eclipsed by the portentous presence of the Volunteer Convention. One hundred and sixty delegates of corps attended on the appointed day. The Royal Exchange was too small to accommodate them, so they adjourned to the Rotunda, accompanied by mounted guards of honour. The splendid and eccentric Bishop of Derry (Earl of Bristol), had his dragoon guards; the courtly but anxious Charlemont had his troop of horse; Flood, tall, emaciated, and solemn to sadness, was hailed with popular acclamations; there also marched the popular Mr. Day, afterwards Judge; Robert Stewart, father of Lord Castlereagh; Sir Richard Musgrave, a reformer also, in his youth, who lived to confound reform with rebellion in his old age. The Earl of Charlemont was elected president of this imposing body, and for an entire month Dublin was divided between the extraordinary spectacle of two legislatures--one sitting at the Rotunda, and the other at College Green, many members of each being members of the other; the uniform of the volunteer sparkling in the Houses, and the familiar voices of both Houses being heard deliberating and debating among the Volunteers.

At length, on the 29th of November, after three weeks' laborious gestation, Flood brought before Parliament the plan of reform agreed to by the Convention. It proposed to extend the franchise to every Protestant freeholder possessed of a lease worth forty shillings yearly; to extend restricted borough constituencies by annexing to them neighbouring populous parishes; that the voting should be held on one and the same day; that pensioners of the crown should be incapable of election; that members accepting office should be subject to re-election; that a stringent bribery oath should be administered to candidates returned; and, finally, that the duration of Parliament should be limited to three years. It was, indeed, an excellent Protestant Reform Bill, for though the Convention had received Father Arthur O'Leary with military honours, and contained many warm friends of Catholic rights, the majority were still intolerant of religious freedom. In this majority it is painful to have to record the names of Flood and Charlemont.

The debate which followed the introduction of this proposed change in the constitution was stormy beyond all precedent. Grattan, who just one month before (Oct. 28th) had that fierce vituperative contest with Flood familiar to every school-boy, in its worst and most exaggerated form, supported the proposal. The law officers of the crown, Fitzgibbon, Yelverton, Scott, denounced it as an audacious attempt of armed men to dictate to the House its own constitution. The cry of privilege and prerogative was raised, and the measure was rejected by 157 to 77. Flood, weary in mind and body, retired to his home; the Convention, which outsat the House, adjourned, amid the bitter indignation of some, and the scarcely concealed relief of others. Two days later they met and adopted a striking address to the throne, and adjourned sine die. This was, in fact, the last important day of the Volunteers as a political institution. An attempt a month later to re-assemble the Convention was dexterously defeated by the President, Lord Charlemont. The regular army was next session increased to 15,000 men; 20,000 pounds were voted to clothe and equip a rival force--"the Militia"--and the Parliament, which had three times voted them its thanks, now began to look with satisfaction on their rapid disorganization and disbandment.

This, perhaps, is the fittest place to notice the few remaining years of the public life of Henry Flood. After the session of 1785, in which he had been outvoted on every motion he proposed, he retired from the Irish Parliament, and allowed himself to be persuaded, at the age of fifty-three, to enter the English. He was elected for Winchester, and made his first essay on the new scene, on his favourite subject of representative reform. But his health was undermined; he failed, except on one or two occasions, to catch the ear of that fastidious assembly, and the figure he made there somewhat disappointed his friends. He returned to Kilkenny to die in 1791, bequeathing a large portion of his fortune to Trinity College, to enrich its MS. library, and to found a permanent professorship of the Irish language. "He was an oak of the forest," said Grattan, "too old to be transplanted at fifty." "He was a man," said one who also knew him well, Sir Jonah Barrington, "of profound abilities, high manners, and great experience in the affairs of Ireland. He had deep information, an extensive capacity, and a solid judgment." In his own magnificent "Ode to Fame," he has pictured his ideal of the Patriot-orator, who finds some consolation amid the unequal struggle with the enemies of his country, foreign and domestic, in a prophetic vision of his own renown. Unhappily, the works of this great man come down to us in as fragmentary a state as those of Chatham; but enough remains to enable us to class him amongst the greatest masters of our speech, and, as far as the drawbacks allowed, among the foremost statesmen of his country.

It is painful to be left in doubt, as we are, whether he was ever reconciled to Grattan. The presumption, from the silence of their cotemporaries, is, that they never met again as friends. But it is consoling to remember that in his grave, the survivor rendered him that tribute of justice which almost takes the undying sting out of the philippic of 1783; it is well to know, also, that one of Grattan's latest wishes, thirty years after the death of Flood, when he felt his own last hours approaching, was, that it should be known that he "did not speak the vile abuse reported in the Debates" in relation to his illustrious rival. The best proof that what he did say was undeserved, is that that rival's reputation for integrity and public spirit has survived even his terrible onslaught.

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


This is a website about Irish history and culture.