Co. Cork


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

Background Information

Number of voters:

aboout 7,000 in 1815 rising to 20,500 in 1818


1801HENRY BOYLE, Visct. Boyle 
15 July 1802HENRY BOYLE, Visct. Boyle 
17 Nov. 1806HENRY BOYLE, Visct. Boyle 
16 May 1807JAMES BERNARD, Visct. Bernard 
23 Oct. 1812JAMES BERNARD, Visct. Bernard2195
 Hon. George Ponsonby1031
 Nicholas Philpot Leader171
29 June 1818HON. RICHARD HARE 
 EDWARD KING, Visct. Kingsborough 

Main Article

As Ireland’s largest county, Cork had an unusually high number of wealthy landlords—at least 20 with more than £8,000 p.a., and several in excess of £20,000 according to one estimate.1 In electoral terms the most important were the earls of Shannon (Boyle) whose influence had traditionally had a national as well as a local dimension; the earls of Bandon (Bernard) and Kingston (King); and, though dormant in the earlier part of this period, the dukes of Devonshire.2 In addition there were less notable proprietors who could in theory unite to assert their independence from the magnates. The county was largely Catholic, but the extraordinarily high ratio of voters to population at the beginning of this period suggests that the protestant landlords had taken pains for both economic and political reasons to offset the number of Catholic freeholders. However, as the electorate expanded after 1812, a Catholic vote emerged to support candidates sympathetic to a measure of emancipation. On the other hand the Irish executive regarded Cork as a prestigious constituency in which it should play as active a role as its extensive patronage and influence allowed.

Until 1812 the Shannon interest carried every election without a contest. In 1802 the sitting Members (Boyle was Shannon’s heir and Fitzgerald his friend) were returned as ministerialists with the important support of Lady Kingston, who regarded them as ‘good Protestants’.3 In 1806 Shannon was able to ‘persuade’ Fitzgerald to stand down ‘on the morning of the election’ in favour of his nephew George Ponsonby, an arrangement no doubt inspired by the Whig section of Lord Grenville’s government, to which Ponsonby was attached by family and tradition. Not surprisingly, some sections of county opinion were angered by this arbitrary action and in 1807 attempted in conjunction with the new Irish executive to persuade Fitzgerald to stand against Ponsonby and Lord Bernard, who stood in the place of his uncle on the Shannon interest. The prospects for the government of wresting a seat from the Whig Ponsonby were certainly favourable. Lord Boyle offered to sit on the fence; Lady Kingston’s interest was said to be reduced to four qualified electors as a result of the complexities of the registration system, and her son’s interest was promised to Fitzgerald. Nothing came of them, however, for Fitzgerald declined to stand. ‘There never was so fine an opportunity thrown away as Bob Fitzgerald has on this occasion’, wrote one observer.4

By 1812 significant changes had taken place in the disposition of two key interests. Shannon died four days after the 1807 election and within a year his successor became firmly attached to government: it was therefore inevitable that he would oppose Ponsonby at the next election. On 29 July 1811 the 5th Duke of Devonshire died and his son, urged on by his agent, Thomas Knowlton, decided to challenge the Shannon interest more forcibly in Cork and therefore to champion Ponsonby’s cause.5

It was at this point that Richard Hare, Lord Ennismore’s son, decided to start and he and the sitting Members proceeded to a poll, Hare and Bernard as ministerialists supported by Shannon and government, and Ponsonby, in opposition, by the Devonshire interest. Ponsonby fared badly: Knowlton, on arrival at Cork, found his candidate’s arrangements unsatisfactory, Ponsonby having spent only a fortnight on a personal canvass. So he attempted a hasty reorganization. When it became clear that Bernard and Hare had united, Ponsonby had to be provided with a colleague or ‘starting horse’. Nicholas Philpot Leader was chosen and it was hoped that the combination would force Shannon to seek a compromise. This did not materialize, Shannon continuing, as one of his adversaries put it, ‘to bully and overawe ... by a great parade of strength’. By 12 Nov., Ponsonby’s cause was hopeless and he began to look for a pretext for honourable retreat. This was found when the sheriff fell ill and was replaced by the tally assessor. Ponsonby refused to poll another vote on the grounds that this was illegal, hoping that the stratagem would save the faces of the Whigs and provide him with a plausible excuse for defeat.6 Hare’s success, on the other hand, was greeted with elation in government circles, the viceroy claiming a victory over opposition which proved ‘that the Protestants are not to be beat anywhere’.

The election of 1818 was conducted against the background of an increased electorate in which the Catholic vote had become a significant element; the growing weight of the Devonshire interest, likely to be placed at the disposal of opposition and pro-Catholic candidates; Hare’s popularity with the Irish administration and his increasing identification with the anti-Catholic and independent section of the Cork gentry; and, conversely, Shannon’s irritation at not commanding both seats. The first shot in the campaign was fired in the spring of 1817 when Shannon, ‘without consulting his usual advisers’, and to their dismay, announced that he would support a coalition of Bernard (pro-government and anti-Catholic) and Lord Kingston’s heir, Lord Kingsborough (regarded as an opponent of government and a fence-sitter on the Catholic question). Shannon was seeking to recapture both seats by appealing to a wider spectrum of opinion. The chief secretary reacted by placing government influence firmly behind Hare as a reliable supporter of the establishment in church and state, and uncommitted landlords were wooed from Dublin on these lines.7 The response was mixed: Lords Bantry and Doneraile, the former controlling about 400 votes, declared for Hare,8 while Lord Arden professed neutrality, Lady Kingston being his ‘near relation’. This, and Lord Midleton’s refusal to give up Hare, ‘mortified Lord Shannon’.9

News of Shannon’s initiative reached the Duke of Devonshire at Berlin. His new agent James Abercromby* informed him that the coalition ‘offended’ many of the Cork gentry and that Hare and his friends, who called themselves Independents, had applied for the duke’s second votes. ‘It will be best,’ he advised the duke, ‘to give no promise to anyone at present. It is easy to say that you are abroad and that a person at Petersburg or Moscow is not able to decide what ought to be done about a Cork election.’10 The duke concurred as far as Hare was concerned, but at the request of George Ponsonby offered his first votes to Kingsborough. Hare was undeterred and proceeded to register as many votes as he could. By July 1817 he reported his success to Peel, predicting that if all the voters polled, he would beat Kingsborough by about 800.11

All these arrangements were thrown into confusion by Lord Bernard’s unexpected decision to stand down. This decision effected ‘a complete revolution’ in Cork politics, so Mountifort Longfield* informed Peel:

Loyalty to the constitution as it now is, was the fundamental principle of the gentry of county Cork, which our friend Mr Hare will support if we can bring him in. Lord Bernard we were certain of, but his resignation will make an opening for the opposition, which may be very injurious to our protestant friend. At present the Roman Catholics do not consider Lord Kingsborough a friend; they are therefore careless about him, but should the Duke of Devonshire set up a friend for the county they will consider him a friend and of the 20,500 freeholders who are now registered the priest will command of every man’s tenants more than half, some of the whole. From experience I know it.

The same line of argument was adopted by George Ponsonby who, seeing his opportunity, solicited the duke’s second votes, stating that he had an offer of support from Lord Kingston and a fair chance of Shannon’s, which, with the duke’s and that of the Catholic voters, would enable him to reverse his setback of 1812. The duke hedged at first, but finally agreed so long as it was made known locally that Ponsonby’s candidature was not of his engineering, a decision that was doubtless inspired by his agent’s advice that the duke, as an absentee, should place his interest ‘at the head of some resident party’.12

As the election approached, the candidates were therefore Hare, an anti-Catholic ministerialist supported both by the Castle and the independent gentry; Kingsborough, a potential opponent of government, uncommitted on the Catholic question and supported by the interests of Devonshire and Lord Shannon as well as his father’s; and Ponsonby, a pro-Catholic Whig supported discreetly by the Duke of Devonshire. No contest, however, took place. By law, the voters registered by Hare in 1817 could vote only if the date of dissolution was on or after 10 June, and whether by accident or design this proved to be the case. On 18 June Hare informed Peel:

On my return here this day from a canvassing tour, I found that the sheriff had received the writ for my county election, bearing the date 13th, as we wished, which will bring in the whole work of my first registry last summer. I believe it will have the effect of inducing Ponsonby to decline.

On 22 June Peel reported to the prime minister: ‘Hare will certainly be returned for Cork. The postponement of the dissolution for two days, gave him 1,200 votes.’ On 25 June Ponsonby duly resigned.13

At their election on 29 June, Hare and Kingsborough were questioned as to their views on the window tax, Catholic relief and parliamentary reform. Kingsborough declared that he supported the reduction of any tax and that he would support Catholic relief ‘as far as was consistent with the constitution’, and made no comment on reform. Hare disclaimed any promises, stating that he always acted according to the dictates of his conscience. At this point Boyle, editor of the Freeholder, was put in nomination. The sheriff demurred, on the grounds that ‘both as a Papist and a pauper’, Boyle was ineligible. A riot immediately broke out, forcing the sheriff and his officers to withdraw. The situation was saved by a lawyer’s discovery that the Act of 1712 enabling a qualification oath to be put to a candidate on his being proposed had not been extended to Ireland. The sheriff considered this a reasonable way of preventing ‘the troublesome fellow’ from promoting a contest. Boyle’s subsequent petition, alleging among other things that the sheriff had demanded £500 for his nomination, was rejected by the House.14

Author: P. J. Jupp


  • 1. Wakefield, Account of Ireland, ii. 303.
  • 2. Chatsworth mss, Knowlton to Devonshire, 28 Sept. 1812.
  • 3. NLI, Shannon mss, Lady Shannon to Boyle, 9 Mar. [1802].
  • 4. NLS mss 12911, Elliot to Fremantle, 20 Nov. 1806; Wellington mss, Longueville to Wellesley, 12, 17 May, Longfield to Longueville, 16 May 1807.
  • 5. Chatsworth mss, loc. cit.
  • 6. Ibid. same to same, 24 Oct., Ponsonby to same, 12 Nov.; Add. 40222, ff. 296, 311; Carlisle mss, Devonshire to Lady Morpeth, 11, 27 Oct. 1812.
  • 7. PRO NI, Belmore mss H/6/4, Townshend to Belmore, 5 May 1817; Add. 40193, f. 174; 40204, ff. 15-17; 40264, f. 156; 40292, f. 212; 40293, ff. 38-39.
  • 8. Add. 40265, f. 22.
  • 9. Add. 40192, f. 261; Guildford Lib. Midleton mss 19, f. 143.
  • 10. Chatsworth mss, Abercromby to Devonshire, 18 Apr.; Carlisle mss, same to Morpeth, 15 Oct. 1817.
  • 11. Chatsworth mss, Ponsonby to Devonshire, 2 Nov. 1817; Add. 38195, ff. 84, 97; 40268, f. 38; 40269, f. 161; 40293, f. 80.
  • 12. Add. 40218, f. 282; 40271, f. 441; Carlisle mss, Abercromby to Morpeth, 26 Oct.; Chatsworth mss, Ponsonby to Devonshire, 2, 17 Nov., reply 18 Nov. 1817.
  • 13. Add. 38195, f. 86; 40278, f. 162.
  • 14. Add. 40279, f. 108; Dublin Corresp. 29 June 1818; CJ, lxxiv. 16.