BROWNE, Hon. Denis (?1760-1828), of Claremorris, co. Mayo
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Family and Educationb. ?1760, 2nd s. of Peter, 2nd earl of Altamont [I] (d. 1780), and Elizabeth, da. and h. of Denis Kelly, c.j. Jamaica, of Lisduffe, co. Galway. m. 1790, his cos. Anne, da. of Ross Mahon of Castlegar, co. Galway, 5s. 4da. (1 d.v.p.). d. 14 Aug. 1828.
Cornet 5 R. Irish Drag. 1779-84; capt. Murrisk cav. 1796-9, Claremorris inf. 1822.
MP [I] 1782-1800; PC [I] 20 Jan. 1794.
Sheriff, co. Mayo 1786-7.
Commr. consolidated fund [I] 1817-23, fisheries [I] 1824.
‘Fat Denis’ held ‘paramount sway’ over the internal politics of county Mayo, where he had sat since the Union on the family interest, headed since 1809 by his nephew the 2nd marquess of Sligo.1 At the 1818 dissolution he had made way for his eldest son James on account of declining health. Shortly before the 1820 dissolution the Liverpool ministry noted that he was ‘very valiantly defending’ the county from the threat of ribbon men.2 At the general election he stood on the close corporation interest for Kilkenny, jointly controlled by the 1st marquess of Ormonde and his nephew the 2nd earl of Desart, whose turn it was to nominate. The Catholic press was ‘much surprised’ but welcomed his candidature, noting his steady support for emancipation. After a ‘trifling’ contest he was returned in first place.3 A frequent attender, he voted generally with government, but was staunchly protectionist and demanded more attention to his patronage requests from ministers, who listed him as seeking church preferment for his third son Denis.4 He spoke in support of the grant towards the king’s legal expenses, 16 June, but endorsed calls for inquiry into Irish disturbances, 28 June, and complained that the sale of spirits bill ‘violated’ the Union and ‘amounted to a breach of national faith’, 12 July 1820.5 He voted in defence of ministers’ conduct towards Queen Caroline, 6 Feb., and argued against inquiry into the conduct of the sheriff of Dublin, 22 Feb. 1821.6 He insisted that agricultural distress was ‘infinitely worse’ in Ireland than England, 9 Feb., and condemned the ‘want of protection’ resulting from ‘mischievous’ and ‘abstract philosophical notions’ of political economy, 7 Mar. 1821. He was appointed to the select committee on agricultural distress that day and 18 Feb. 1822. He seconded and voted for Plunket’s motion for Catholic relief, warning that if the House ‘shut the door against inquiry’ they ‘would scatter the seeds of future woes’, 28 Feb. 1821. On 7 Mar. he applied to Lord Liverpool for a living for Denis, citing his support for Pitt’s successors ‘ever since the Union’, his ‘extraordinary exertion’ in returning James and his brother Peter Browne, Member for Rye, who had ‘attended every night without fail of any one occasion supporting the government’, and his ‘character, family pretensions, power, property, and services past present and future’. Liverpool instructed the Irish viceroy Lord Talbot to consider the request, as Browne ‘certainly has strong claims ... from his family being constantly residents in Ireland, possessing considerable property and influence in the country, and both the father and sons being ... steady friends’, but nothing was forthcoming.7 He was granted three weeks’ leave on urgent private business, 14 Mar. He voted against repeal of the additional malt duty, 3 Apr. On 7 Apr. Sligo sought to clarify the circumstances of his family’s omission from the signatories of a loyal address from Mayo, explaining to George IV that Browne had asked the Irish government if it ‘was their wish that any addresses should be put forward’ and had been advised ‘not yet, but will let you know when we wish for them’.8 He divided against military reductions, 11 Apr., 29 May, and spoke inaudibly in support of the army estimates, 13 Apr.9 On 18 Apr. he said he could not support parliamentary reform without ‘stronger grounds for doing so than had yet been advanced’, but that he ‘would be willing to give up the present system for any better one’. (In his only known vote on the issue he divided against reform of the Scottish representation, 2 June 1823.) He warned that unless something was done about the system of Irish poor relief ‘the entire property of the country would ultimately be taken out of the hands of the ancient proprietors’, 24 May 1821. He divided against reducing the duke of Clarence’s grant, 18 June. He contended that repeal of the linen duties would bring ‘total ruin to Ireland’, 25 June 1821, was appointed to the select committee on the trade, 18 May 1822, and spoke in similar terms, 20 May 1822, 22 May, 23 June 1823.10 (He later took a stake in an Irish linen business.)11 He voted against an opposition motion for economy and retrenchment, 27 June 1821.
On 7 Feb. 1822 he defended the necessity of the Irish insurrection bill, but hoped that ministers would take the ‘grievances’ of Ireland into serious consideration; he spoke in the same vein, 15 July.12 He divided against more extensive tax reductions, 11, 21 Feb. He evidently voted for Canning’s bill to relieve Catholic peers of their disabilities, 30 Apr., for next day he reported to Sligo that ‘we carried Catholic peers last night by five majority’.13 He was in the minority of 24 for Lethbridge’s resolutions blaming distress on the resumption of cash payments and lack of protection, 8 May, called for a ‘prohibition of the importation of foreign corn’ and reliance on the home market, 9 May, and denounced tariff repeals, 13 May. In a letter recommending labour schemes as a means of relief, 9 May, he urged Peel, the home secretary, to support a bill to widen the canal from Shannon harbour, which Lord Sidmouth, his predecessor, had thwarted. Peel referred him to Goulburn, the Irish secretary.14 That month Browne repeatedly pressed Goulburn for a living for Denis.15 On 14 May he reported to Sligo that ‘three bishops in Ireland’ had died and hoped that Denis would now be ‘highly promoted’, adding:
The state of Ireland is beyond description, the whole of the population now supported by charity. We shall none of us, I fear, get any rents, or at best very little ... I have lived all my life in hot water of some kind or another and thanks to God my six children are now doing well. Thanks to God and next to you, for it [is you] who have been the cause of all their good fortune ... The Catholic bill will go through the Commons ... the Lords is another thing. It may fail there now, but the principle being acknowledged by ... the Commons that Catholics could safely be admitted as Members of the legislature, sooner or later, and not at very distant time, that will be law.16
He called for a reform of Irish potato tithes, saying that if nothing was done he would act himself, 15 May.17 Condemning the ‘disgraceful’ conduct of Irish absentee landowners next day, he announced that he was ‘disposed to apply himself to this practical evil, and not to draw sunbeams out of cucumbers’. That month, ‘almost at the close of my natural as well as political life’, he published a letter on the state of Ireland to Lord Wellesley, the new Irish viceroy, demanding the removal of all religious distinctions, a system of colonization, schemes to cultivate waste land, currency reform, the replacement of tithes with a property tax and measures to combat landlord absenteeism.18 On 3 June, after declaring that he was disposed to support the corn importation bill but would like to discuss the rates of duty, he moved an amendment for a committee on the laws governing the import of foreign corn, explaining when questioned that he wished to augment both duties and import prices. It was negatived without a division.19 On the 10th he protested that the bill would ‘have the effect of encouraging the speculator in foreign corn and of depreciating the price of our home produce’.20 He spoke against the Irish constables bill that day, warned that peace in Ireland would ‘never could be secure’ under the existing system of tithes collection, 13 June, and on the 19th was in the minority for Newport’s amendment to the tithes bill, which he steadily opposed thereafter. Goulburn reminded Wellesley of Browne’s ‘anxiety for his son’s promotion in the church’, 19 June, and on 2 July observed that ‘what your Excellency applies to Denis Browne, I am disposed to apply to all the Irish Members here; it is impossible to satisfy their appetite’.21 Browne presented and endorsed a Kilkenny petition against repeal of the salt tax, 27 June, and voted accordingly the following day.22 He contended that repeal of the house and window taxes would ‘shake the public credit’, 2 July. He voted for the Canada bill, 18 July, next day telling Sligo that he had ‘supported Goulburn well last night’.23 He divided for the aliens bill, 19 July. That month he asked ministers to ‘restore’ Sligo to the admiralty of Connaught, which had been ‘given by mistake to Lord Clancarty’ on the recommendation of Talbot; but privately he complained to Sligo, ‘You have brought such overlooking upon yourself ... If you had acted in any way as your father had done, you would now be in quest for a duke’s patent ... but the smallest exertion ... you refused ... to persons in power’. On 19 July he pressed Liverpool on the matter, but got no satisfaction, and Sligo evidently took exception to Browne’s assertion that ‘nothing short’ of the ‘infamous character’ of his friends ‘could justify that vile Lord Talbot in what he did in this case’. On 26 Aug., however, he denied having ‘ever made use of such words’ and declared:
Our plan will be to show ourselves deserving of proper treatment. I will work my part of this game in the evening of my life. I will show the English Parliament by fair statements and arguments that they cannot rob this country of its establishments on false pretences as they evidently intend to do.
The following month he added, ‘all I can say respecting the words that you say I wrote relative to the causes of Lord Talbot thinking it proper to put Lord Clancarty over your head is that either I hope you mistook or forgot my words, or that by bad stopping my letter appeared to be what it was not’. Reminding Sligo of the ‘many attempts that have been made since your father’s death to separate our interests and thereby to weaken and destroy us’, 12 Sept. 1822, he described a coup at the assizes by which one Thomas Lindsey had established a charity committee, ‘thus bestowing on him more patronage than we have got for five years’. ‘I state to you this plan of hostility plainly’, he wrote, ‘if you support me I will, old as I am, quash and pull it down’.24
On 31 Jan. 1823 Browne complained to Sligo that Denis had ‘absolutely refused’ a living of ‘£1,200 yearly instead of £400 clear, because he says he is doing more good here’, and that ‘we have parted in anger and [are] to meet no more’ as ‘he has thrown down the house of cards I had built for him’.25 He took a month’s leave on account of ill health, 17 Feb. He voted against repeal of the Foreign Enlistment Act, 16 Apr., and inquiry into the prosecution of the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr. On 13 May he told Huskisson, president of the board of trade, that the price at which foreign oats were admitted was ‘too low by 3s.’ and urged the ‘immediate necessity of raising this importing price by a short bill ... as there is no doubt that otherwise the ports will be open and the corn holders ruined’. Huskisson replied that the price was ‘fixed by the Act of 1815’ and had been ‘fully considered’ by the House.26 On 23 May Browne rejected calls for disclosures about Orange ceremonies, explaining that he ‘belonged to a society’ of the Freemasons and that ‘no power in the country should make him divulge its secrets’. He divided against inquiries into chancery delays, 5 June, and the currency, 12 June. He defended renewal of the Insurrection Act and characterized the struggle in the south of Ireland as ‘pauperism against property’, 24 June. He denounced a motion to abolish the Irish viceroyalty, warning that the ‘very mention of it in Dublin would raise a sort of rebellion’, 25 June 1823. That September Browne, who had served on the Irish commission for the issue of money from the consolidated fund since 1817, repeatedly pestered ministers about the appointment of a new commission, calling on Peel ‘to have justice done me’ and find a place for George Clendinning, secretary to the Mayo grand jury.27 On 20 Oct. Liverpool wrote to justify the selection of ‘younger colleagues’, who, owing to the ‘new duties’ and ‘obligations’ of the commission, ‘may be deemed better qualified without any disparagement to your position as a commissioner of the former board’. Correcting an evident misunderstanding, he added, ‘I am under the necessity of stating that according to the rule by which the treasury is invariably guided ... military service cannot be reckoned with civil service, and that three-quarters of your salary will be the utmost that can be granted to you as a retiring allowance’.28 On 17 Oct. 1823 Goulburn notified Peel that Browne had arrived in Dublin ‘armed with Lord Clanricarde’, with a view to pressing the latter’s claims to an Irish representative peerage on Wellesley.29 Browne spoke against repeal of the Irish coal and linen duties, 3 May 1824, when he professed ‘astonishment at the ignorance which prevailed ... with respect to the real condition of Ireland’, and presented and endorsed a Mayo petition against alteration of the linen bounties.30 He opposed the warehoused wheat bill, 17 May. He complained of a ‘want of Catholic chapels’ in many Irish districts, including his own, where most had been built with Protestant subscriptions, and supported a petition for greater aid, 3 June.31 He divided with ministers against condemnation of the trial in Demerara of the Methodist missionary John Smith, 11 June. On 18 Sept. 1824 he asked Peel to do his family ‘the greatest service’ and obtain six months’ leave from the war secretary Lord Palmerston* for a staff surgeon he wanted appointed to Mayo Hospital, which would ‘serve an old friend that sits behind the treasury bench, and another old friend Dominick Browne, who sits opposite you among the Whigs’, as well Sligo’s ‘interests and consequently the interests of government’.32
In February 1825 it was reported to Daniel O’Connell* that Browne and his son had absented themselves from Mayo while the Catholic Association got up a petition.33 In the House, 10 Feb., Browne lamented how, following the defeat of the Catholic peers bill in 1822, the Catholics in his neighbourhood had lost faith in Parliament and joined the Association. He spoke in the same terms as a witness before the select committee on Irish disturbances, 23 Feb., when he contended that emancipation would not have any ‘beneficial consequences’ without payment of the Irish clergy.34 He refuted his kinsman Dominick Browne’s claims that religious feelings were carried into Irish courts of justice, 11 Feb. He voted for suppression of the Association, 15, 25 Feb., following which it was reported that in Mayo this had ‘grievously offended the priesthood, although he still retains many of the laity’.35 He divided for Catholic claims, 21 Feb., 1 Mar., 10 May, but privately informed Peel that the accompanying measure to raise the Irish freeholder qualification was ‘highly irregular’, 7 May.36 On 18 Apr. he announced that he had attended a county meeting at which it was ‘expressly decided that there would not be peace or prosperity until emancipation was carried’. Recording the death of a clerk on the Connaught circuit ‘this morning’, 28 Aug. 1825, Goulburn complained to Wellesley that ‘applications are already numerous, one from the great Leviathan of Mayo, Denis Browne’.37 In his last known speech, 16 Feb. 1826, he ridiculed the proposed commission of inquiry into Irish tolls and customs, saying that he had ‘lived long enough to hear of many such commissions’ and had ‘seldom heard when they ended. They were generally very snug things. He should like to be appointed to one; and he hoped he had put in his claim in time [a laugh]’.
At the 1826 dissolution Browne retired from Kilkenny. His ‘foolish’ remarks about the Catholic clergy and the Association had made his family deeply unpopular in Mayo. ‘When he goes next before a parliamentary committee’, commented the Catholic press, ‘let him remember that he speaks in the presence of a shorthand writer’, but ‘let it not be forgotten, however, that with all his faults, and God knows there are many, he is one of the oldest and steadiest friends of emancipation’.38 On 16 Aug. 1826 Browne implored Peel to procure a cadetship in India for an influential supporter of his son in the county, citing his support for ministers and the ‘torrent of abuse’ his vote against the Association had brought him.39 On 30 Nov. 1826 his son James put forward another claim:
My father has now retired from public life; he is old, and his infirmities increasing daily forbid him ... to re-enter it. The observation has been often made in Ireland that [he] alone among his class and standing was left unfavoured ... while ... many others have been since elevated to the peerage. Through the space of nearly half a century he has laboured along with his family ... in the most eventful times of this country to support ... solid interests against powerful efforts to destroy them, and if the king would be pleased to adorn the close of my father’s life with a peerage, the favour would afford to his family ... the gratifying reflection that he is not forgotten.40
No elevation was forthcoming. On 16 Jan. 1828 Browne introduced himself to the duke of Wellington, the new premier, and recommended places for Lords Rosse and Oxmantown* in the new ministry.41 That month he congratulated Peel on his return to power:
I am indeed happy at it for the sake of the country; the Whigs are an unlucky and unfortunate party ... The report here is that Wellington and Peel are preparing a measure for the Catholics of Ireland, giving them the judgement seat and other jobs for lawyers, but this will not do. A more comprehensive measure is necessary. If you mean to quite secure and satisfy this country, give them all civil rights ... God send that you may do it. As for poor me, you can command me anything [and] it will be done with all the care and discretion in my power.42
In his last known application, 5 July, he asked Wellington to support a claim in the church for Denis which had been ‘promised’ by Wellesley, whose departure had been ‘very injurious to his interests’, explaining that he had ‘financed the return of himself and his two sons in the last Parliament’ and that Charles Arbuthnot* could ‘judge the efficiency of these three as Members’.43 Writing ‘the day before he was taken ill’, 6 Aug. 1828, Browne complained to Sligo that he had been snubbed at the local assizes by one Kirwan, who had called on Dominick Browne as foreman:
I forgive him for the fact because I could not do the business from infirmity, but I do not forgive his intention, which was to affront me. Neither can I overlook the bad taste of Mr. Browne for answering before me in defiance of my rank, in defiance of my age, old enough to be his father, and in defiance of my having, tender and sanguine, given him any place in this county at all.44
Browne died a week later at Claremorris, ‘aged 68’.45 He was succeeded by his eldest son James Browne*.
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: Philip Salmon
- 1. Harewood mss, Canning to wife, 15 Feb. 1825; Dublin Evening Post, 23 Aug. 1828.
- 2. Add. 38458, f. 298.
- 3. Dublin Evening Post, 9, 16, 30 Mar. 1820; G. Burtchaell, MPs for Kilkenny, 203.
- 4. Black Bk. (1823), 142; Session of Parl. 1825, p. 453.
- 5. The Times, 17 June 1820.
- 6. Ibid. 23 Feb. 1821.
- 7. Add. 38289, f. 98.
- 8. Geo. IV Letters, ii. 913.
- 9. The Times, 14 Apr. 1821.
- 10. Ibid. 24 June 1823.
- 11. TCD, Sligo mss 6403/86.
- 12. The Times, 16 July 1822.
- 13. Sligo mss 6403/82.
- 14. Add. 40347, ff. 62-64.
- 15. Sligo mss 6403/83.
- 16. Ibid. 84.
- 17. The Times, 16 May 1822.
- 18. Gent. Mag. (1822), i. 439-40.
- 19. The Times, 4 June 1822.
- 20. Ibid. 11 June 1822.
- 21. Add. 37299, ff. 238, 271.
- 22. The Times, 28 June 1822.
- 23. Sligo mss 6403/86.
- 24. Ibid. 85-87, 89, 91-93.
- 25. Ibid. 100.
- 26. Add. 38744, ff. 214-16.
- 27. Add. 38296, ff. 153, 260, 283; 38297, ff. 57, 73, 127; 40358, f. 169.
- 28. Add. 38297, f. 7.
- 29. Add. 40329, f. 168.
- 30. The Times, 28 May 1824.
- 31. Ibid. 4 June 1824.
- 32. Add. 40368, f. 214.
- 33. O’Connell Corresp. iii. 1162.
- 34. PP (1825), viii. 29-34.
- 35. Add. 40331, f. 147.
- 36. Add. 40377, f. 361.
- 37. Add. 37303, f. 235.
- 38. Dublin Evening Post, 25 May, 17 June 1826.
- 39. Add. 40388, f. 283.
- 40. Add. 40390, f. 110.
- 41. Wellington mss WP1/913/29.
- 42. Add. 40395, f. 134.
- 43. Wellington mss WP1/940/19.
- 44. Sligo mss 6403/135.
- 45. Gent. Mag. (1828), ii. 372-73; Dublin Evening Post, 23 Aug. 1828.