PLUNKET, William Conyngham (1764-1854), of Old Connaught, Bray, co. Wicklow.
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Family and Education
b. 1 July 1764, 4th s. of Rev. Thomas Plunket, presbyterian minister of Enniskillen, co. Fermanagh by Mary, da. of David Conyngham of Letterkenny, co. Donegal. educ. Trinity, Dublin 1779, scholar 1782, BA 1784, LLB 1787, LLD 1799; L. Inn 1784, called [I] 1787. m. 20 Oct. 1790, Katherine, da. of John McCausland of Strabane, co. Tyrone, MP [I], 6s. 2da. cr. Baron Plunket 1 May 1827.
MP [I] 1798-1800.
KC [I] 1795; solicitor-gen. [I] Nov. 1803-5; bencher, King’s Inn 1804; attorney-gen. [I] Oct. 1805-7, Jan. 1822-7; c.j.c.p. [I] 1827-30; ld. chancellor [I] 1830-Nov. 1834, Apr. 1835-June 1841.
PC [I] 6 Dec. 1805, [GB] 10 May 1827.
Plunket’s father was a public spirited presbyterian minister, first at Enniskillen, then at the Strand Street Chapel in Dublin, and died leaving his wife and children virtually penniless. Only the generosity of friends enabled Plunket to attend university and, subsequently, an inn of court. Once he had been called to the Irish bar, success came swiftly. His first brief in the court of Exchequer evidently earned him ‘a good deal of credit’; he was a KC at an early age and subsequently practised with distinction in the equity court. It was undoubtedly his growing reputation as an advocate that led Lord Charlemont, an elderly Irish Whig, to offer to seat him for his close borough in 1797. He had already declined a similar offer from Lord Abercorn. After some discussion from which it emerged that ‘on all leading points, there was an entire and cordial union of opinions’ (including condemnation of the Whigs’ secession from Parliament), Plunket was returned. He then opposed the Castle, the ‘98 insurrection and the Union, firmly establishing his reputation as a parliamentary speaker.’
The passage of the Union and the disfranchisement of Charlemont borough left Plunket temporarily stranded. He made an unsuccessful attempt to be returned for Trinity College in 1802, but a year later accepted the post of solicitor-general from Addington’s government. It was a decision which some felt ran counter to his politics, particularly as it involved taking the lead for the crown against Emmet and other conspirators in 1803, but Plunket himself regarded it as entirely unpolitical in character. In this viewpoint he was supported by the Castle and by the Irish lord chancellor, who were anxious to break ‘the anti-Union knot’ at the Irish bar.1 Yet such a reform could only succeed if the senior law officers were not in Parliament and when, in 1806, the Castle urged that Plunket, who had become attorney-general, should enter Parliament to assist in the conduct of Irish business, a delicate problem arose. The Foxite Whig section of Grenville’s government had already demonstrated that it held no brief for Plunket or his opinions by attempting to replace him with a strong supporter of theirs, John Philpot Curran, and by appointing as Irish lord chancellor George Ponsonby, who wished to remain at his post in Ireland.2 The proposition no doubt also involved Plunket, who had a large family, in a personal decision over his future as a lawyer or a politician. In December 1806, however, his colleague the solicitor-general Bushe having refused, he reluctantly agreed to Lord Grenville’s plea and, returned for Midhurst ‘on the recommendation of Lord Carrington, and at the instance of Lord Grenville’, expressed his hope that his office could remain ‘unpolitical’.
Within a few months Plunket had lost both his seat and his office. The story is well told in his own words.
In March 1807 I went to Parliament ... on the breaking up of that administration I went for [sic] Ireland, and returned in consequence of a letter from Mr Wickham expressing Lord Grenville’s wish that I should be present at the discussion which was to take place, after the recess, on the dismissal of ministers [Brand’s motion]. I attended and spoke, stating strongly my opinion of the unconstitutional nature of the pledge which was supposed to have been required from ministers, as the condition of their continuance in office, and my apprehensions of its effect in Ireland with reference to the Roman Catholics—I returned to Ireland, where I was applied to by the new ministry, [the Duke of Portland’s] requesting my continuance in the office of attorney-general, in terms too flattering to me to be repeated, and with a positive written assurance that no political conditions of any kind were imposed—but that the office was to be considered as a strictly legal appointment. Parliament being at this time dissolved, and I being no longer a Member of it, I desired time to consult Lord Grenville on the subject; he desired Mr Wickham [29 Apr. 1807] to inform me that he was of opinion, in which Lord Howick concurred, that the office could not, from its nature, be considered as unconnected with political questions, and that they thought I could not hold it consistently with the opinions which I declared in Parliament with reference to the Roman Catholics. On this opinion I had no hesitation in acting and I resigned my office.
In his maiden speech, as Lord Holland recalled, Plunket,
the greatest accession to parliamentary debate that many years had produced, exerted a species of commanding eloquence and close reasoning in favour of concession to Roman Catholics, which the House, already enriched with much genius and talent from Ireland, had never yet witnessed from that country ...
The Speaker’s comment was:
Grave, impressive, and argumentative, delivered with great apparent sincerity and earnestness, and an imposing but unaffected solemnity. A few Irish idioms, but nothing of Irish accent, or Irish logic.3
Outgoing ministers were, not surprisingly, jealous guardians of his ‘honour and consistency’ and the Portland ministry impressed by his civility and his declaration that, in or out of office, ‘he should not be found engaged in any factious hostility against the government’. Plunket believed he had sacrificed his office not ‘to principle, but to character’ and, as he was convinced that the office did not require politics to support it, was reported ‘much distressed upon the occasion’. When in May 1807 he was awarded a patent of precedence after the law officers at the Irish bar, the Castle thought he should prove ‘serviceable’ to administration.4
Although Plunket practised successfully at the court of Chancery for the next five years, the loss of office was undoubtedly a financial blow. His dependence upon his profession was eased somewhat by a legacy of £60,000 from his elder brother in 1809 and there was at once some talk in Lord Grenville’s circle of luring him back into Parliament. He had already declined an opening at Newry offered by Lady Downshire through George Ponsonby in March 1808. In November 1809 the Duke of Bedford, urged on by Lord Grenville and William Adam, felt morally obliged to offer him a seat for Camelford. Plunket declined it, however, pleading the pressure of professional engagements.5 Considering the quarter from which the offer came his decision might seem incompatible with the fact that he began to canvass Trinity College in the winter of 1810. A possible explanation is that after the experience of 1807 he had no wish to be dependent upon others for a seat. On the other hand, his change of heart may have been due to the support he was offered from a section of his college that admired his abilities and moderate pro-Catholic views, though his chief promoter William Magee, a childhood friend, did not share his views.
Whatever his motive, Plunket was returned unopposed for Trinity in 1812 and was associated with, but not committed to, the opposition. His position was thus very similar to that of Henry Grattan, whom he greatly admired. Both were primarily interested in the case for moderate Catholic relief and both were connected by friendship with leading figures in the Whig party, but at the same time were essentially non-party men. Plunket’s first speeches in the 1812 Parliament were in support of Grattan’s Catholic motion, 25 Feb. 1813, and the subsequent relief bill, 20 May, which incorporated restrictions upon appointments to the Catholic hierarchy. In both debates he made a considerable impression as one of the leading speakers in the House. Of his speech on 25 Feb. William Henry Fremantle wrote:
his style was manly to a degree, unlike a lawyer, and he spoke with the greatest effect—during the whole time the House was completely filled, and the attention was so great you might have heard a pin drop; he was up for about an hour and a quarter and when he sat down there was a general applause.
Peel was deeply impressed with this performance and so was Charles Yorke who, speaking after Plunket, referred to a ‘brilliant display of eloquence’. Mackintosh thought it the most impressive speech since Sheridan’s in 1787 and claimed that it swayed several votes.6 So, in English eyes, Plunket, for all his Ulster presbyterian origins, quickly supplanted Grattan as the leading advocate of the Catholic cause. John William Ward, who thought Plunket ‘a most formidable fellow indeed’, comparable to ‘the giants of olden times ... in argumentative dexterity and promptitude, in force, in dignity, and in ... rapidity’, believed that his great advantage over Grattan was that he was ‘all English and parliamentary’ and thought it unfortunate that ‘he has too much to do in his court to stay among us’. Canning voted him ‘far the most moderate and the most practical of all his tribe’. These qualities were not calculated to endear him to the Irish Catholic leaders when he went over to Ireland to justify the Catholic relief bill to them in May 1813.7
On other matters Plunket was for the moment in general opposition and Morpeth’s critical motion on the Speaker, 22 Apr. 1814, was delayed so as to secure his voice for it, although by July the government had noticed that he was to be found mainly in the company of the Grenvillites and that he was acting ‘very fairly’. Thus ministers at least were not greatly surprised when, in company with Grattan and the main body of the Grenvillites, he broke with opposition by supporting the renewal of the war against France in April and May 1815. Peel thought his few words against Whitbread’s amendment of 7 Apr. ‘very favourable in their tone towards the government, and very much to the point. He might if he chose be the first man as a speaker in the House of Commons.’8
From April 1815 Plunket’s path, which was ultimately to lead him to the bosom of Grenville’s party, seems at first to have been directed by his admiration for Grattan. He was an opposition spokesman for retrenchment in March and April 1816 and on 26 Apr. supported Newport’s motion on the state of Ireland with a powerful critique of ‘the narrow, odious principle of Protestant exclusion, which kept alive the spirit of dissension’. On 28 Mar. 1817 he spoke in support of the seditious meetings bill, though he objected to the Lords’ amendments. He opposed Burdett’s motion for parliamentary reform, 20 May 1817, though willing to consider more particular proposals for it. On the death of the Whig leader Ponsonby in July 1817, the Marquess of Buckingham hatched a scheme to enlist Plunket’s services as leader of the Grenvillite squad in the House, but nothing came of it. On 13 Apr. 1818 he acted with the Grenvillites in disapproving Brougham’s amendment on the question of the ducal marriage grants, but appeared in the hostile majority of 15 Apr. against the Duke of Clarence’s grant and next day stated that he could not support the grant to the Duke of Cambridge in the present state of the country. On 21 Apr. he denounced the Irish window tax.9
Declining the offer of a seat from the Marquess of Buckingham, Plunket survived a contest against the ministerialist Croker for the University in 1818. He had at first had the good wishes of a ministry that was already angling for Grenvillite support. In the flush of victory, 27 June 1818, he informed Lord Grenville:
one of the principal causes of my satisfaction at the victory which I have obtained, is the opportunity which it affords me of continuing to mark the respect and attachment which I feel for your lordship’s principles and opinions, and how entirely I am convinced that in following the political course which your advice and example had pointed out, I have not only gratified my own feelings, but most effectually promoted my own reputation and character with all those whose good opinion should be an object.
The Whigs now definitely regarded Plunket as a Grenvillite, rather than as one of them and thus lost the services of a ‘sober, thoughtful, eloquent man’.10
Plunket missed his opportunity of speaking for the Catholic claims on 3 May 1819, allegedly because neither he nor Peel wished to speak first. Thus frustrated, he denounced state lotteries next day and the Irish window tax the day after. On 6 May he voted for the reform of the royal burghs. He evaded Tierney’s censure motion of 18 May by going to Ireland. He stung his former associates in opposition with a powerful speech (afterwards published) on the address, 23 Nov. 1819, in which he denounced radical revolutionaries and characterized any inquiry into the Peterloo disaster as intended ‘for the degradation of the public functionaries’. He followed this up with a vehement defence against Mackintosh of the seditious meetings bill, 13 Dec., approving its extension to Ireland. After a parting swipe at Brougham, 22 Dec., in defence of the newspaper stamp duties bill, he went off to Ireland, assured by Lord Grenville that he had performed ‘a most important, and most useful service’. His chief easily accounted for Whig animosity against Plunket (Lord Grey was alleged to have accused him of apostasy): ‘his speech was too good to be answered’.11 His immediate reward was security in his university seat and in 1822 he was restored to his law office as part of the Grenville merger with government. Subsequently he made his peace with the Whigs, who realized that no party could ignore such a brilliant advocate. He died 5 Jan. 1854.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: P. J. Jupp
Based on D. Plunket, Life, Letters and Speeches of Lord Plunket (2 vols. 1867).
- 1. Sidmouth mss, Wickham to Addington, 29 Aug. 1803; Colchester, i. 455.
- 2. HMC Fortescue, viii. 399-400, 404, 405, 409, 470, 471, 481, 484.
- 3. Mems. Whig Party, ii. 221-2; Colchester, ii. 119.
- 4. Grey mss, Ponsonby to Howick, 18 Apr., reply 24 Apr., Bedford to Howick, 28 Apr. 1807; Wellington Supp. Despatches, v. 8, 27, 37, 38, 54; Wellington mss, Plunket to Wellesley, 29 May 1807.
- 5. Fortescue mss, Newport to Grenville, 7 Aug., Fitzwilliam to same, 26 Aug., Bedford to same, 10 Oct., 19 Nov., 10 Dec., Grenville to Plunket, 21 Nov., Adam to Grenville, 26 Nov.; Add. 51661, Bedford to Holland, 19 Nov.; Grey mss, Bedford to Grey, 3 Dec. 1809.
- 6. Fortescue mss, Fremantle to Grenville, 26 Feb. 1813; Mackintosh Mems. ii. 263.
- 7. Add. 40195, f. 220; Ward, Letters to ‘Ivy’, 191-2; Colchester, ii. 439-40, 447, 449.
- 8. Colchester, ii. 469, 537, 545; Merthyr Mawr mss L/195/13, Abbot to Nichol, 8 Apr. 1814; Add. 40287, f. 61; 40288, f. 158.
- 9. NLW, Coedymaen mss 20, Buckingham to Williams Wynn, 2 July; Fremantle mss, same to Fremantle, Wed. [3 July]; Huntington Lib. Stowe mss STG(78)(29), Grenville to Temple, 4 July; STG(89)(10), Williams Wynn to Buckingham, 12 July 1817; Add. 51549, Lady Holland to Grey, Tues. [14 Apr. 1818].
- 10. Buckingham Regency, ii. 261; Fortescue mss, Plunket to Grenville, 27 June; Add. 51585, Tierney to Lady Holland, 26 Aug.; 51829, Sefton to Holland, Fri. [July 1818]; Mackintosh Mems. ii. 356.
- 11. Staffs. RO, Hatherton diary, 3 May; Tierney mss 58; Fortescue mss, Grenville to Plunket, 23 Dec. 1819; NLW, Coedymaen mss 5, f. 331.