GRATTAN, Henry (1746-1820), of Tinnehinch, co. Wicklow.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



23 Apr. 1805 - 1806
1806 - 4 June 1820

Family and Education

bap. 3 July 1746, 1746, 1st s. of James Grattan of Dublin, KC, MP [I], by Mary, da. of Thomas Marlay, MP [I], of Marlay Abbey, co. Dublin, c.j. KB [I]. educ. Young’s sch., Abbey Street, Dublin; Trinity, Dublin 1763; M. Temple 1767, called [I] 1772. m. Dec. 1782, Henrietta, da. of Nicholas Fitzgerald of Greensborough, co. Kilkenny, 2s. 2da. suc. fa. 1766.

Offices Held

MP [I] 1775-97, 1800.

PC [I] 19 Sept. 1783-6 Oct. 1798, 9 Aug. 1806-d.


Grattan’s path to becoming the acknowledged champion of enlightened Ireland was far from easy.1 His family was distinguished in the legal profession on both sides, but he was a reluctant barrister, with a speculative turn of mind and the additional handicap of bouts of melancholia and longing for retreat. These, together with political differences, alienated his father to the point of curtailing his inheritance. His early friendship with Lord Charlemont secured him a borough seat in the Irish parliament as a member of a squad that advocated Irish independence and a liberal policy towards the Irish Catholics. In 1777 he formed a lifelong friendship with Fox, which survived the crisis of 1782, when, although Grattan was an intransigent volunteer, he was not so extreme as his patron in pressing for the entire emancipation of Ireland from English control. By 1783 his moderate views had alienated Charlemont and, with £50,000 voted to him by the Irish parliament, Grattan was the less disposed to cavil. He gave a general support to administration until the commercial treaty of 1785 roused him to opposition. On the eve of the Regency crisis he formed a friendship with the Prince of Wales, who on the pledge of giving Grattan a free hand to reform the Irish government secured his leadership of the Irish parliamentary application to the Prince to assume the Regency. The collapse of this scheme did not drive Grattan into the exclusive opposition advocated by his fellow members of the Irish Whig Club formed in 1789; and on a visit to England in November 1792 he proved the advantage of achieving a balance between opposing forces by playing a prominent part in the acceptance by the English government of the bill enfranchising Irish Catholics. This policy did not work in 1795 when, having refused to become chancellor of the Exchequer in Earl Fitzwilliam’s Irish administration, Grattan believed himself to be encouraged by Pitt’s government to sponsor independently a Catholic relief bill, 12 Feb. 1795, which was a week later disowned by the English cabinet and was followed by Fitzwilliam’s recall.

Disillusioned, Grattan seceded from parliament, like Fox, in 1797 on the failure to obtain parliamentary reform, and having been labelled a United Irishman and dishonoured in 1798, re-entered parliament for Wicklow borough in January 1800, when his health was at a low ebb, in a bid to rally opposition to the Union. Failing in this, he saw dubious prospects for Irish representatives at Westminster: they would ‘in general settle in England, or cease to attend, or get public plunder for their votes in Parliament’. ‘Buried in the mountains of Wicklow’, he turned a deaf and despairing ear to proposals to bring him into Parliament on Fitzwilliam’s offer for Peterborough in June 1801, or for Dublin, where his success was thought certain, or county Wicklow in 1802. He wished in any case to restore his health and by December 1803 was sufficiently recovered to raise Fox’s hopes that he might be a spearhead of Whig pressure for a new deal for Ireland, to be clinched by Catholic relief; but he demurred.2 At length, in April 1805 he consented to be brought in for Fitzwilliam’s borough of Malton, where Charles Lawrence Dundas made way for him specifically to promote the Whig bid on the Catholic question and for no other purpose. He had no notion of a ‘permanent’ seat when he appeared at Westminster, 2 May 1805.3

For him the English House of Commons was prepared to suspend its scepticism about Irish political reputations: the reaction to his 100-minute speech for the Catholic petition on 13 May 1805 was a mixture of admiration and disappointment. Lord Malmesbury reported Pitt’s reaction to this exotic performance of Grattan’s

whose action was of so grotesque a character as a speaker, (that of a mower), and his pronunciation so singular, (that of an Italian), that his fate hung on a straw. Five minutes later, and the House would have been in a roar of laughter, when he burst forth into one of his flowery, but at the same time strikingly eloquent periods, and retrieved the day, leaving himself, however, with fewer admirers than he had possessed in the legislative assembly of his native country. Pitt was very much struck with him, saw the danger he had incurred of failure, with his usual kind-heartedness expressed pleasure at his narrow escape, for such he deemed it, and admiration of Grattan’s great, but singular, display of talent in that peculiar style of oratory (which, however, Pitt did not approve of).4

Grattan remained in Parliament to encourage his friends in power in 1806 and secured a political and personal triumph in exchanging his English borough seat for the representation, at his own expense, of the city of Dublin, which made him ‘the real minister of Ireland’. He had no thought of office—he was worth £9,000 p.a. and believed placemen died beggars—but belonged to the finance committee (from 1807 until 1809) and lent moral support to ministers in debate, particularly on Irish questions. His chief concern remained the Catholic question. He was prominent in defence of the maintenance of Maynooth College, 20 Feb., 4 Mar. 1807, wishing the House ‘to look more largely at the institution’, as ‘any one sect of religion was better than no religion at all’. He spurred ministers on to the measure of Catholic relief that proved their downfall, approving their eventual capitulation on the subject and on their behalf throwing cold water over the Irish Catholic petition then being promoted. His speech on Brand’s motion, 9 Apr. was reported ‘much fallen off, and not well heard’, but on the address, 26 June 1807, he summed up his approbation of the conduct of the Grenville ministry, by noting that they did not ‘push even a good principle too far’.5

In opposition after 1807, Grattan found himself in disagreement with Sheridan when the latter attempted to take the lead on Irish questions. Although he disliked some of its details and its duration, Grattan could not but approve the Irish insurrection bill in July 1807. He detested the ‘French party’ in Ireland, ‘banditti’ as he termed them, and admitted as much in stating his reservations about Sheridan’s motion on the state of Ireland, 13 Aug. His opposition to the orders in council, 11 Mar. 1808, was based on dislike of acting on ‘French’ principles, as well as alarm for Irish flax seed importation from the United States. His defence of the Maynooth seminary, 29 Apr., 5 May 1808, hinged on the danger of driving Irish seminarists to France for their education. Of his much admired speech on 25 May 1808 for the committal of the Irish Catholic petition he had presented, Tierney alleged that ‘a better speech for its object never was delivered, and its effect was accordingly generally felt and acknowledged’. Although it introduced by way of security the chimerical prospect of acceptance by the Irish Catholic hierarchy of a crown veto on episcopal appointments, it did not succeed then, or on Grattan’s reintroduction of it, 18 May-1 June 1810, 31 May 1811 and 23 Apr. 1812, even when he had gone out of his way not to alienate the Irish administration. When Canning carried the motion in his own way, 22 June 1812, Grattan promised to bring in a bill next session if government failed to do so; he secured Lord Grenville’s advice on it and on 2 Mar. 1813 carried his motion for a committee to do so by 264 to 224. A relief bill was authorized by the committee on 9 Mar. by 186 votes to 119, introduced by Grattan on 30 Apr. and successfully defended by him against Hippisley’s motion on 11 May, when it passed by 235 votes to 187. It secured a second reading on 13 May by 245 to 202, but after concessions by Grattan to accommodate the views of his allies Canning and Castlereagh, it was lost by 251 to 247 on 24 May.6

Although Grattan at once pledged himself to renew the question, the effective leadership passed gradually out of his hands. In May 1814 he presented Catholic petitions without acting on them. In May 1815 the motion was Parnell’s, whose efforts for Irish tithe reform Grattan had endorsed: this time he had reservations. In May 1816 he resumed the lead, framing a motion very similar to Canning’s successful one of June 1812, but it was defeated, as was its successor, the ‘last exhibition of his setting genius’, 9 May 1817. A week before he had even felt obliged to present an anti-Catholic petition from his constituency.7

Criticizing British policy towards the United States, 6 Mar. 1809, Grattan complained of ‘a meddling spirit of envy, that should have been foreign to so great a people’. He reproved Castlereagh on the subject of his alleged corruption, 25 Apr. 1809, and supported Curwen’s reform bill, 9 June, as ‘a chance of independence’ for the people. He voted for Brand’s motion for reform, 21 May 1810, and for Burdett’s, 20 May 1817, though he could not be rallied to an extra-parliamentary meeting in favour in 1811. He thought the conduct of the Scheldt expedition ‘unwarrantable’, 29 Mar., and Burdett’s confrontation with the House a lamentable contest between a dwarf and a giant, 5 Apr. 1810. He took the opposition side in the Regency debates, 21 Dec. 1810, 2 Jan. 1811, and on the failure of the negotiation with them to form a Government, 11 June 1812. He defended the Princess of Wales, 23 June 1814, and having sat on the select committee, the Corn Laws, 27 Feb. 1815. He opposed the property tax, 20 Apr. 1815, voting consistently for retrenchment. On 25 May 1815 he defended the resumption of hostilities, marking his difference from the Whig opposition who were duly dismayed, and concurring in this with the Grenvillites. He was a stout champion of the interests and pretensions of the city of Dublin, as well as of the Irish agricultural interest.8

By 1818 Grattan had won a respect and affection in all quarters which compensated for his failing powers. At the Castle, Peel, the chief secretary, discouraged opposition to him in the Dublin election. In London he was feted: Sir James Mackintosh recorded, 1 May 1818:

There is nobody so odd, so gentle, and so admirable; his sayings are not to be separated from his manner. Plunket never addresses Grattan without ‘Sir’, with a respectful voice. This mark of respect, or reverence, is common amongst the Irish, and certainly most amply due to this amiable and venerable person.9

Grattan played a diminishing role in the Parliament of 1818, though he signed the requisition to Tierney to lead the opposition. His final defence of the Catholic claims, 3 May 1819, was spoken of as his last speech, but on 5 May, for the third time, he supported his colleague Shaw’s motion against the Irish window tax. He played no further part in that Parliament and was ailing when re-elected in 1820. He had a notion of dying in full declamation like Lord Chatham, but his friends ‘justly opposed an imitation which would not have had the effect of the original’.10 He died before taking his seat, 4 June 1820.

Grattan’s oratory, replete with artifice, was not in itself enough to make him a parliamentary legend: as Mackintosh put it, ‘Grattan is a great thinker, and abounds with those ideas which are permanently instructive, as well as effectual for his purpose’. This and ‘a spirit of mild, yet impetuous bravery’ enhanced his stature at Westminster where he exhibited a moderate statesmanship that was rare in an Irish context.11

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: P. J. Jupp


  • 1. Except where stated below, H. Grattan’s Life and Times of Henry Grattan (5 vols. 1839-46) has been used.
  • 2. Fitzwilliam mss, box 58, Grattan to Fitzwilliam, 22 June; The Times, 28 Dec. 1801; Dublin SPO 620/61/145; Wickham mss, 1/46/13, Wickham to Addington, 30 June 1802; Add. 47565, f. 234; Grey mss, Grattan to Fox, 5 Dec. 1803.
  • 3. Fitzwilliam mss, X516/31/1, Fox to Fitzwilliam, Thurs. [Mar. 1805].
  • 4. Colchester, ii. 2; Holland, Mems. Whig Party, i. 198-202; Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 347.
  • 5. Drenman Letters ed. Chart, 354, 364, 367, 369; Moore Mems. ed. Russell, iii. 220; NLS mss 12917, Newport to Elliot, 9 May 1806; Grey mss, Howick to Ponsonby, 18 Feb. 1807; NLW mss 10804, Williams Wynn to Spencer, 9 Mar. 1807; Colchester, ii. 118, 119.
  • 6. Horner Mems. i. 410; Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Jekyll to Bond, 9 Jan.; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 26 May 1808, Grenville to Grey, 8 Jan. 1813; NLI, Richmond mss 66/926, 67/985; Heron, Notes (1851), 17.
  • 7. Colchester, ii. 576; Mackintosh Mems. ii. 347.
  • 8. Heron, 53; Add. 52182, Mackintosh to Allen, 9 June; Grey mss, Grey to Holland, 26 June 1815.
  • 9. Mackintosh Mems. ii. 357.
  • 10. Colchester, iii. 74; Heron, 118.
  • 11. Mackintosh Mems. ii. 142; J. Barrington, Personal Sketches, i. 346.