Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freemen and 40s. freeholders

Estimated number qualified to vote:

865 in 1831

Number of voters:

402 in 1830


23,230 (1821); 23,741 (1831)


27 Mar. 1820HON. DENIS BROWNE108
 William Fletcher47
22 June 1826JOHN DOHERTY204
 Pierce Somerset Butler75
18 Feb. 1828DOHERTY re-elected after appointment to office154
 Pierce Somerset Butler75
 William Morris Reade116
 William Morres Bayley67

Main Article

The city of Kilkenny, which with Irishtown was a county of itself, had a declining woollen industry and rising unemployment. For many years the representation had been dominated by the Cuffes of Desart Court, earls of Desart, and the Butlers of Kilkenny Castle, earls of Ormonde, who were joint patrons of the self-elected corporation of 18 aldermen (one of whom was annually elected mayor) and 36 common councilmen. Although there was a county franchise of mainly Catholic freeholders and the number of freemen or ‘citizens’ was in theory unlimited, the corporation’s admission of non-resident and honorary freemen and restriction of enrolments by birth, servitude and marriage gave the patrons almost complete control of the return, which since the loss of the second seat at the Union they had taken turns to decide. During this period, however, a succession of contests got up by local independents, the cost of bringing up non-residents and petitions challenging the actions of the corporation weakened their hold, and they declined to put up a candidate in 1831, when there were 284 non-resident and 248 resident freemen and 333 registered freeholders.1

At the 1820 general election the 2nd earl of Desart, whose turn it was to nominate, put up his ageing uncle Denis Browne, pro-Catholic Tory Member for Mayo, 1801-1818, much to the surprise of the Catholic press, who erroneously conjectured that ‘it must have astounded’ the 18th earl of Ormonde and might ‘be the means of opening the corporation’. Browne, however, received the united support of the patrons, against whom one William Fletcher came forward on the independent interest. A ‘comparatively trifling’ six-day contest ensued in which Browne, who led throughout, was supported by 90 (92 per cent) of the freemen and 18 (32 per cent) of the freeholders who voted, and Fletcher by eight (eight per cent) and 39 (68 per cent) respectively. Rumours of a petition against Browne’s return on the ground of the illegal polling of non-resident freemen came to nothing.2 A petition for repeal of the Tithes Composition Act reached the Lords, 6 May 1824.3 One from the Protestant inhabitants for Catholic relief was presented to the Lords, 9 Mar., and the Commons, 10 Mar. 1825.4 A petition against alteration of the banking system reached the Commons, 12 Apr. 1826.5

In 1824 The Patriot predicted that at the next election the ‘independent interest’ would ‘break through the corporate rights of the Ormonde family’, headed since August 1820 by James Wandesford Butler*, 19th earl of Ormonde (1st marquess from 1825).6 The guardian of the 3rd earl of Desart, who had succeeded in November 1820 at the age of two, was apparently content to continue the electoral agreement, and during the dissolution rumours of 1825 the Ormonde interest selected John Doherty, Member for New Ross, a prominent Irish barrister and distant kinsman of Canning, the foreign secretary.7 At the 1826 general election Doherty, a supporter of Catholic claims but outspoken critic of the Association, duly came forward. A meeting of the independents chaired by one Peter Ryan protested that he was ‘utterly disqualified’ to represent them and passed resolutions inviting Pierce Somerset Butler of Ballyconra, eldest son of Pierce Butler, a brother of the 1st earl of Kilkenny. Butler’s father, though a distant relative of the Ormondes, had placed himself at the head of the county’s independent interest, which had agreed to back his candidature there, and the city’s independents saw his son as a good prospect in terms of financing a petition. Butler duly offered as a supporter of Catholic emancipation, citing his father’s membership of the Association and warning the corporation against the ‘illegal employment of non-resident freemen’. On 16 June Peel, the home secretary, was assured by the Irish under-secretary Gregory that Doherty would ‘carry his election’. At the nomination William Francis Finn, Daniel O’Connell’s* brother-in-law, was proposed, enabling him to make a speech in support of Butler and his father, following which he withdrew. Butler was proposed by Captain Bryan, who declared that Doherty should sit for ‘Stephen’s Green, Dublin, when such a seat exists’, and Doherty by Thomas Neville, a member of the corporation. A five-day contest ensued during which Doherty, who led throughout, secured support from 181 (88 per cent) of the freemen and 23 (32 per cent) of the freeholders. Butler, whose agents ‘disputed every vote’, was supported by 25 (12 per cent) and 50 (68 per cent) respectively.8 Complaining that October of the protracted delay in his promised appointment to legal office, Doherty reminded Canning that it had been ‘abundantly provoking to engage in a contest, with a persuasion that this delay would render it fruitless, and oblige me to go to a new election’.9 On 22 Nov. 1826 a petition against the return from Ryan and others was presented, asserting that freemen had been ‘illegally and fraudulently elected’ to gratify ‘the wishes’ of Ormonde, that Doherty had received 100 votes from freemen who were non-resident and ‘not entitled to vote’, and that many of the ‘duly registered’ freehold voters for Butler had been rejected by the returning officers, who were guilty of ‘illegal and erroneous decisions’. The petition lapsed, 13 Dec., but another from Butler couched in similar terms was presented, 1 Dec. 1826, alleging that Ormonde and the family of Lord Desart had ‘obtained an undue influence over the corporation’ through the admission of non-resident freemen. A committee was appointed, 20 Feb., but it confirmed Doherty’s return, 26 Feb. 1827.10 Meetings for the establishment of a local Liberal Club, to place the independent campaign on a surer footing, were held later that year.11 Petitions for Catholic claims were presented to the Lords, 6, 12 Mar. 1827, 24 Feb., 12 Mar. 1829, and the Commons, 28 Apr. 1828, 25 Feb., 16 Mar. 1829. Hostile petitions reached the Commons, 4 Mar., and the Lords, 6 Apr. 1829.12

Following his appointment as Irish solicitor-general in July 1827, Doherty stood for re-election early in 1828, when Butler again offered as an ‘independent’ with the support of the Association and a newly formed Liberal Club. At the nomination Doherty defended his decision to join the Wellington ministry and place himself ‘under the control’ of the anti-Catholic Peel, citing his support for relief and attachment to the principles of Canning. In the ensuing contest Doherty, who led throughout, was supported by 132 (85 per cent) of the freemen and 22 (30 per cent) of the freeholders. Butler secured support from 24 (15 per cent) and 51 (70 per cent) respectively. Rumours of another petition came to nothing.13 Later that year attempts to get up a local Brunswick Club foundered.14 During this period a ‘considerable increase’ of both freemen and freeholders occurred, the corporation admitting ‘citizens at large’ in right of birth, servitude and marriage, which it had ‘previously not allowed’.15 At the 1830 general election Doherty retired, ‘the terms of his contract’ with Ormonde ‘having expired’, and three ‘liberals’ entered the field. William Morris Reade of Rossenarra offered as the corporation candidate, professing ‘independence’ from party, support for ‘strict economy’ and concern for the commercial interests of the city. Another local resident, William Morres Bayley of Sidmouth, an ‘amiable young man’, also declared, promising to oppose ‘all unjust or unequal taxation’ and ‘infringements of the liberty of the press’. They were joined by Nicholas Philpot Leader of Dromagh Castle, county Cork, a wealthy industrial landowner, who came forward on the independent interest with the backing of O’Connell, attacking the ‘unjust usurpation’ of the corporation, a body ‘composed of six or seven doctors and a shovel-headed parson’, whose ‘hour of retribution was at hand’. ‘Should the old corporate system be persevered in, and non-resident partisans and dependants be again dragged forward’, he declared, ‘no exertions ... shall be wanting to ensure the restoration of your chartered rights and liberties’. At the nomination Leader attacked the ‘base corporation’s’ attempt to ‘make 116 freemen on the eve of a contested election’. Finn was proposed and again withdrew after backing Leader and warning the corporation to ‘take a lesson from the explosion which has occurred in France’. Thomas Wyse*, candidate for county Tipperary, was nominated and spoke in similar terms before standing down. A four-day contest ensued, during which 402 (251 freemen and 151 freeholders) polled, the greatest number ‘within the last 50 years’, and 43 of Reade’s freemen were successfully objected to. Leader led throughout, but his return stood ‘on a most precarious footing’, the ‘whole enmity of the mob’ having been ‘directed against Reade’s supporters’. At the declaration Leader congratulated the city on throwing off ‘the galling and ignominious yoke of corporate bondage’ and electing an ‘independent representative instead of a borough slave’.16 The Kilkenny Journal welcomed the return of one so ‘well acquainted’ with bringing the resources of ‘this fertile, but much neglected country’ into ‘active operation’, and O’Connell attended his ‘splendid’ election dinner, at which toasts were drunk to repeal of the Union, 11 Oct. 1830.17

On 14 Dec. 1830 Leader, who had convened a meeting for the ‘recovery’ of ‘corporate privileges’, 19 Oct., presented a petition for inquiry into the ‘total subversion’ of the city’s royal charter, by which its ‘rights and privileges’ had been ‘invaded and monopolized by an oppressive oligarchy’, its ‘elective franchise seized upon’ and its ‘revenues misapplied and dissipated’.18 To the surprise of O’Connell, it received lukewarm support from Ormonde’s son Lord Ossory*, who had pledged himself to assist Leader during his election campaign for county Kilkenny.19 Petitions reached the Commons for reform of Irish education grants, 14 Dec., and the Lords for maintenance of Irish poor schools, 21 Dec. 1830.20 That month it was reported that Leader’s constituents favoured O’Connell’s campaign for repeal of the Union, which Leader did not support, and for which petitions reached the Lords, 11 Mar., and the Commons, 30 Mar. 1831.21 Anti-slavery petitions were presented to the Lords, 26 Nov. 1830, 15 Apr. 1831, and the Commons, 10 Dec. 1830, 28 Mar. 1831.22 Leader supported the Grey ministry’s reform bill, for which a petition reached the Commons, 30 Mar.23 At the 1831 general election he offered again as a reformer, promising to oppose the ‘monstrous tyranny’ of Irish tithes and the Irish Subletting Act. A meeting of the independents endorsed his candidacy, but regretted his opposition to repeal, 25 Apr. The corporation declined to put up a candidate and he was returned unopposed.24 An election for a recorder later that month, however, was bitterly contested and resulted in the return of the corporation candidate, after the rejection of 70 votes for his rival.25 Petitions for a railway to be built at public expense from Kilkenny to the sea reached the Lords, 19 Aug., and the Commons, 28 Sept. 1831.26 Leader continued to support the reform bills, but campaigned for more Members to be given to Ireland. On 23 May 1832 he presented a petition for a second representative for Kilkenny on account of its population, which came to nothing. Petitions for reform were also presented that day.27

The boundary commissioners did not propose any alteration to the limits of the constituency. By the Irish Reform Act, they estimated that about 407 men in the city and 200 in Irishtown would qualify as £10 householders and that 284 non-resident freemen would be disfranchised, so that with the remaining 333 freeholders (66 qualified at £50, 53 at £20 and 214 at 40s.) and 248 resident freemen there would be a reformed constituency of ‘about 1,188’. In the event, however, the registered electorate in 1832 numbered only 562, of whom 241 were £10 householders, 186 freeholders (38 qualified at £50, 20 at £20, five at £5 and 123 at 40s.), 125 freemen and ten leaseholders and occupiers. With the exclusion of the non-resident freemen and enfranchisement of the £10 householders any remaining influence possessed by the corporation over the parliamentary return came to an end, though corporate abuses continued locally.28 At the 1832 general election Leader retired after refusing to take O’Connell’s pledge in support of repeal, and a Repealer came in unopposed. O’Connell found a temporary berth here in 1836, after being unseated for Dublin, but at the 1837 general election he narrowly lost the seat to the Scottish radical Joseph Hume*.29

Author: Philip Salmon


  • 1. S. Lewis, Top. Dict. of Ireland (1837), ii. 109; PP (1831-2), xliii. 81-83; (1835), xxviii. 89-106; G.D. Burtchaell, MPs for Kilkenny, 203-10.
  • 2. Dublin Evening Post, 9, 16, 28, 30 Mar., 4 Apr., The Times, 1 Apr. 1820; PP (1829), xxii. 14.
  • 3. LJ, lvi. 200.
  • 4. Ibid. lvii. 113; CJ, lxxx. 183.
  • 5. CJ, lxxxi. 231.
  • 6. TCD, Courtown mss P/33/14/11.
  • 7. PRO NI, Hill mss D642/A/18/9.
  • 8. Dublin Evening Post, 1, 17, 23, 27 June; Add. 40334, f. 171; Burtchaell, 205; Harewood mss, Doherty to Stapleton, 22 June 1826.
  • 9. Harewood mss, Doherty to Canning, 29 Oct. 1826.
  • 10. CJ, lxxxii. 19, 20, 50, 118, 198, 227.
  • 11. F. O’Ferrall, Catholic Emancipation, 172.
  • 12. LJ, lix. 135, 153; lxi. 77, 180, 353; CJ, lxxxiv. 85, 103, 141.
  • 13. Dublin Evening Post, 18, 22 Feb.; Kilkenny Moderator, 20, 23 Feb., 5 Mar. 1828; PP (1829), xxii. 14.
  • 14. Dublin Evening Post, 15 Nov. 1828.
  • 15. PP (1831-2), xliii. 81-83; (1835), xxviii. 98; Burtchaell, 209-10.
  • 16. Kilkenny Moderator, 31 July, 11, 14, 18, 21 Aug. 1830; O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1700.
  • 17. O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1716; PRO NI, Leader mss D3653/16/3/42; NLI, Wyse mss 15024 (3).
  • 18. Kilkenny Moderator, 20 Oct., 18 Dec. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 172.
  • 19. Dublin Evening Post, 14 Aug. 1830.
  • 20. CJ, lxxxvi. 172; LJ, lxiii. 190.
  • 21. Wyse mss 15024 (3), Dwyer to Wyse, 5 Dec. 1830; LJ, lxiii. 315; CJ, lxxxvi. 465.
  • 22. LJ, lxiii. 130, 430; CJ, lxxxvi. 163, 445.
  • 23. CJ, lxxxvi. 465.
  • 24. Kilkenny Moderator, 27, 30 Apr., 7 May; Dublin Evening Post, 28, 30 Apr., 12 May 1831.
  • 25. PP (1835), xxviii. 99.
  • 26. LJ, lxiii. 929; CJ, lxxxvi. 873.
  • 27. CJ, lxxxvi. 465.
  • 28. PP (1831-2), xliii. 81-83; (1833), xxvii. 301; (1835), xxviii. 99-106.
  • 29. Burtchaell, 210; O’Connell Corresp. v. 2019.