Kildare Voice 12 October 2007
Kildare in the 18th century parliament
As parliamentary systems go, the 18th century Irish Parliament was as dysfunctional as you can get.
It was nearly twice the size of the current Dail with most of the population ineligible to sit, which meant that the talent quotient must not have been very high. Suffice to say that Boyle Roche (“a man cannot be in two places at the same time, unless he is a bird”) is recalled as its most famous speaker.
It also meant that there would be an awful lot of elections, but they had an easy solution for this. Only around d 10pc of the seats were ever contested in the history of the parliament.
There were 300 members but 234 of these sat for boroughs, where the return of members was wholly under the control of a single patron For example, the constituency of Naas was controlled by John Bourke, the Earl of Mayo.
Those of Athy, Kildare and Kildare’s very own rotten borough, Harristown, were controlled by the Fitzgeralds. Harristown, a parliamentary constituency electing two members since the start of the 17th century, was designated “uninhabited.” To add to the curiosity, Harristown was counted as a detached part of Offaly until 1837.
Seats were bought and sold on the open market. Five of the La Touche banking family purchased seats. David La Touche purchased the two seats in Newcastle, just over the Kildare-Dublin border, from the Earl of Lanesborough for £7,000 in 1779. John La Touche purchased the two Harristown seats (13 burgesses in a borough which was uninhabited) from the Duke of Leinster for £14,000 in 1793. To give an idea of the price, Lord Cloncurry bought a large town house, Mornington House on the site of the current Merrion Hotel, for £8,000 in 1791.
There was supposed to be an election to select two members for Kildare County by open vote. Eleven of these were held between 1692 and 1797, plus four by-elections in 1698, 1710, 1725 and 1745) but for most of the 18th century only about 300 people were entitled to vote for Kildare’s MP, rising to 1500 in 1790 when they elected Lord Edward FitzGerald as MP,
This was a largely a holding pen for those who had not yet managed to buy a borough seat for themselves, the chancers, carpet baggers, fortune hunters and nouveau riche who were willing to put themselves on front of the protestant property owners of the county.
The 15 non FitzGerald winners in that period included John La Touche (1690), Henry Colley (1698), Sir Kildare Burrows (1703), Joshua (1713, 1715) Francis (1725) and Richard (1727) Allen, Thomas Keightley (170-3, 1713), Brabazon Ponsonby (1715), Maurice Keating (1727), Dixon Borrowes (1745, 1761, 1768), Arthur Pomeroy (1761, 1768, 1776), Maurice Bagenal St Leger Keating, (1790, 1797), John Wolfe (1783), and John LaTouche (1797),
But although neither sat for Kildare, two Kildare based MPs held the most powerful job in the parliament.
William Conolly and John Ponsonby, both elected speakers of the house, lived in Kildare, but had distant Boroughs of their own to represent.
Their power was practically unrestricted, and although some of their names have passed into popular culture (a bar in Celbridge is still known as the Speaker’s Bar), the hegemony of the Conolly’s and Ponsonby’ largely forgotten.
They came to prominence because of the undertaker system, a peculiar by-product of the Williamite wars. Undertakers were local power brokers, those Irish protestants who offered their services to the king to sort out troublesome legislation.
In return undertakers expected to be consulted regarding policy and to receive a substantial share in the patronage the colonial administration had at its disposal. It meant big political and church jobs for sons, brothers, cousins and supporters.
War was good for parliamentary system. It meant the king had to convene parliaments to fund his army. Ireland supplied and paid for a disproportionate number of those soldiers (12,000 as against 7,000 for England) so the parliament had to sit every second year, and after 1759, annually.
London called the shots in the Irish parliament. The Lord Lieutenant, Chief secretary, Lord Justice and Protestant Archbishop of Armagh, the four most powerful positions in the country, were held by Englishmen. There was one position that the English could not appoint, the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons.
The system was dominated by three families in its heyday, and two of them were from Kildare.
General Elections to Irish parliament:1692, 1695, 1703, 1713, 1715, 1727, 1761, 1768, 1776, 1790, 1797,
By-elections in Kildare 1698, 1710, 1725 and 1745
3 Nov 1691. Act for forfeiture of 3,921 estates owned by catholics (total acreage of 1,060,792).
5 Oct 1692. Parliament meets, completely Protestant and predominantly Anglican, attempts to break terms of Treaty of Limerick.
21 Sept 1704 William Conolly’s rival Alan Brodrick elected Speaker of the House of Commons
12 Nov 1715 William Conolly from Celbridge elected Speaker of the House of Commons (until 12 Oct. 1729).
3 Feb 1729. Foundation stone laid for new parliament building in College Green
5 Oct 1731. First meeting of parliament in the new Parliament House in College Green
19 Dec.1751 Dispute over budget between British and Irish parliaments
26 Apr 1756 John Ponsonby from Bishopscourt elected Speaker of the House of Commons
17 Apr.1783 British Renunciation Act recognises Irish parliament’s legislative independence
9 Apr. 1793 Hobart’s Catholic Relief Act permits Catholics to vote as 40s freeholders
7 June 1800 The Irish parliament votes itself out of existence. Bill for Union passes Irish House of Commons by 65 votes; passes House of Lords by 69. Kildare MPs vote against.
Eoghan Corry takes a closer look at Co. Kildare representation in the 18th century parliament. Our thanks to Eoghan.