BROWNE, Hon. Denis (1760-1828), of Claremorris, co. Mayo.
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Family and Education
b. c.1760, 2nd s. of Peter, 2nd Earl of Altamont [I], by 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, by Lady Anne Browne, da. of John, 1st Earl of Altamont [I], 5s. 4da.
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.
Browne, ‘the great Leviathan of Mayo’, entered the Irish parliament for that county in 1782 on the interest of his elder brother, Lord Altamont. He prided himself on his support of Pitt’s administration, and during the struggle for the Union, which he strongly favoured, asked Pitt for an Irish marquessate for his brother, who duly became Marquess of Sligo on the eve of the Union.1 At Westminster he defended the continuance of martial law in Ireland, 12, 18 Mar. 1801, as the only remedy against the ‘hydra’ of rebellion, warning against the deceptive tranquillity of the country. In August 1801, disclaiming place or pension for himself, he asked the Castle merely for government support in the county, but his brother wished for promotion to a British peerage. The chief secretary regarded him as an old and steady friend of government. Offering to attend if really wanted in October 1801, Browne described the peace preliminaries as very necessary for Ireland and hoped that when the ferment which made him loath to leave home had subsided, ‘Ireland [might] assist the foreign policy of the Empire instead of destroying it by rising on [sic] the back of England in every war she is engaged in’.2
Browne evidently attended, and having eliminated one of his opponents in a duel was returned unopposed at the general election of 1802, but emerged disgruntled at his new colleague Dillon’s being ‘friendly to opposition’, while his brother was disappointed at not obtaining a British peerage.3 On 19 Jan. 1803 Browne informed the Castle that he would attend Parliament if really necessary, but that until Ireland settled down, ‘an Irish gentleman can best support government in Ireland where he resides and has influence’.4 He was absent in March 1803 but present in June, and in the following spring his nephew reported that he would come over to support Addington’s crumbling administration.
Browne went on to support Pitt’s second ministry, replying in debate to opposition allegations of military rule in Ireland, 15 June 1804. On 7 June he had described himself as a friend to the abolition of the slave trade, but asked for more information before voting for it. On 8 Feb. 1805 he justified the suspension of civil liberty in Ireland by reference to French provocation there. In April, assizes and recruiting duties detained him in Mayo and, although he came over in time for the debate on the Catholic petition, a judicious illness kept him away from the division.5 On 21 May he reappeared as spokesman and teller for government (and member of the Irish finance committee) against the investigation of Irish secret service accounts since 1791, and a week later was named to the committee to investigate the 11th naval report. He voted, 30 Apr. 1806, and spoke, 6 May, against the repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act (which he said had worked well in Ireland) by the Grenville ministry who, though they had made his brother a British peer, found Browne ‘not at present decided to support all the measures of government’. They tried to fix his allegiance in exchange for patronage, but not a monopoly of it. He was still classed ‘doubtful’ at the election of 1806, but by December the viceroy reported Lord Sligo’s family ‘warmly in support of government’, and on 2 Jan. 1807 wrote that Browne stated himself to be a supporter of government and had shown it in Ireland (doubtless in the disturbances in Mayo). Soon afterwards the viceroy could add that Browne had handsomely if reluctantly waived a piece of excise patronage to oblige them.6
Browne could be counted on to support the Portland ministry after his return to England in mid-April 1807, leaving Mayo restored to ‘quiet’.7 On 26 June he defended their constitutional propriety against ‘faction’. On 30 June he was placed on the finance committee. On 6 July in the debate on Whitbread’s state of the nation motion when the latter referred to ‘the fallen fortunes of this country’ and annoyed Browne by his remarks about Ireland, he felt impelled to move the exclusion of strangers, a step he afterwards regretted and for which he was castigated next day by Sheridan. Leaving for his Irish assizes, 16 July, he assured the chief secretary: ‘I am attached to your party on every possible principle and I am personally obliged to you’. In December Wellesley requested him to stand by in Connaught, until further notice and in February 1808 his brother informed Wellesley that Browne ‘I think can now attend you whenever called upon, as everything goes on quietly in Connaught’.8
Wellesley, who regarded Browne as the more ‘reasonable’ of the two brothers, noted of him that year: ‘supports government, is a cordial friend and attends constantly. Has no particular object, but his brother Lord Sligo urges requests occasionally.’ Browne had a difficulty about the Catholic question, as he informed Wellesley, for his family had been supported for 50 years by the Catholic interest in Mayo and he had since the 1790s felt obliged to favour their claims. While he had been able to prevent a Catholic petition from Mayo, he wished to vote for them on 25 May 1808, as even an abstention ‘will ruin my influence which you may want on critical occasions’. With the chief secretary’s leave, he duly voted pro-Catholic.9 Browne was an assiduous member of the finance committee that session and very critical of Bankes and the reformers’ projects, of which he complained to Perceval. By February 1809 he was being regarded as a prominent ministerialist.10 He assisted the cause of the Duke of York in March. On 19 May he declared that he would support Irish tithe reform next session, and on 15 and 24 May defended the regulation of illicit distillation in Ireland. He was a critic of Curwen’s reform bill, 18 May 1809.
Browne supported Perceval’s ministry throughout the Scheldt inquiry debates, January-March 1810, and was dismayed at their weakness, as well as at his own exclusion by vote of the House, 31 Jan., from the finance committee: to him it demonstrated Bankes’s mastery over government and the reduction of the influence of the crown in the face of the rage for economy and democracy, not only out of doors, but also in the House. Thereafter he seems to have lost interest. The death of his brother the previous year had deprived him of a ‘prop’ and by November he was excusing himself from leaving Ireland to show what the viceroy described to him as his ‘zeal and attachment to his Majesty and ... regard for the present administration’. He missed the Regency debates and, it would seem, much of the rest of that Parliament, though he assured Perceval, hailing him as a worthy successor to Pitt, 7 June 1811, that ‘my attachment to you will not lessen with your loss of power’. Browne managed to irritate the viceroy in March 1812 by sponsoring a pro-Catholic petition which, while intended to counter the activities of the Catholic committee, was strongly in favour of emancipation. The chief secretary, however, pointed out that, in Catholic counties, no man had ‘either nerves or sense sufficient to resist the Papists’.11
Browne was satisfied with the Castle’s recognition of his family’s exclusive right to patronage in his ‘kingdom of Mayo’ since 1783 and believed chief secretaries Wellesley and Wellesley Pole to have confirmed it and only the Grenville ministry, whom he disliked, to have resisted it. He was dismayed when he met with resistance to these pretensions from the chief secretary, Peel, whom he treated in January and February 1813 to both written and oral explanations of his expectation of a monopoly in Mayo in return for his long record of disinterested support. He did nothing to conciliate Peel when he announced on the eve of the Catholic debate, 2 Mar. 1813, ‘that he should vote and speak perhaps for the committee, but that he should be very sorry if we went into it’. Peel’s comment was: ‘By such votes is Ireland to [be] kept in a ferment’.12 Browne duly voted for Catholic claims then and on 13 and 24 May, though he palliated it by defending the Irish fire-arms bill on 25 May, as it had nothing to do with the Catholic question. In September 1813, however, he was again at loggerheads with Peel over a Mayo prebendary he desired and the chief secretary took the opportunity to lecture him on government’s refusal to recognize anybody’s exclusive rights to patronage. Browne, who was also applying for a vacancy at the linen board, complained that his requests were for government’s sake, not his own, though he had sacrificed his modest income to the public service. His failure to wean his kinsman Dominick Browne, whose return as his colleague he had engineered with the Castle’s concurrence, from opposition politics further prejudiced his position, though in May 1814 he was named for a vacancy on the linen board.13 On 6 June he spoke in favour of agricultural protection, being one of two Irish Members added to the select committee the previous year, and he gave his ‘utmost support’ to the Irish preservation of the peace bill, 8 and 13 July.
Browne again fell foul of the chief secretary, who no longer had any patience with his long-winded complaints, on his failure to secure a barrack mastership in Mayo, March 1815. He denied Peel’s allegation that such an appointment was outside county patronage—as well as the insinuation that it was a job to please Lord Dillon, whose agent Browne had nominated. (It was about this time that Browne was reported to be coming over from Ireland in high dudgeon at George Rose’s proposal to repeal the import duty on foreign linens, threatening to impeach Rose, and adding that he would ‘give half of his estate in Mayo to see [Rose] hanged in a rope made from foreign flax seed’.)14 Although Browne alleged that nothing could make amends for the injury done him, he voted with government on the civil list, 14 Apr., 8 and 31 May 1815, and was a spokesman for the aliens bill, particularly in its application to Ireland, 17 Apr. He voted for Catholic relief, 30 May. In January 1816 he excused himself from Parliament in order to attend his rent day in Mayo to thwart a tenant conspiracy and recoup his sinking finances, informing the chief secretary that he intended to retire in favour of his son at the first opportunity.15 Nevertheless, he was in the government lobby on the civil list, 6 and 24 May 1816. After voting for Catholic relief on 21 May, he next day advocated Irish tithe reform in the Catholic interest. He again voted for Catholic claims on 9 May 1817, but took little part in that Parliament thereafter, though he criticized the Irish grand jury bill, 6 May 1818, defended the Irish hearth tax, 13 May, and was in a government majority on 21 May.
In an embittered valedictory letter to the chief secretary, 5 June 1818, Browne, while admitting his ‘inability to assist in debate’, complained of government’s neglect of his own services and of the interests of his sons, ‘better educated than was their father’. In fact, though Browne retired at the dissolution, two of his sons, James and Peter, came into Parliament, the former succeeding him as county Member, and he rejoined them as Member for Kilkenny on his kinsman Lord Desart’s interest in 1820. All three supported the government, which still found it impossible to satisfy Browne’s appetite and, on his retirement in 1826, did not grant his son’s request for a peerage for him. He died 14 Aug. 1828, ‘aged 68’.16
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: Arthur Aspinall
- 1. PRO 30/8/116, f. 273.
- 2. Add. 35781, f. 28; PRO 30/9/1, pt. 3/8, Browne to Abbot, 14 Oct.; Sidmouth mss, Abbot to Addington, 22 Oct. 1801.
- 3. Add. 35782, f. 61.
- 4. Dublin SPO 524/153/5.
- 5. Add. 31229, f. 159; Walker’s Hibernian Mag. (1805), 441.
- 6. Spencer mss, Irish list, May; Bedford to Spencer, 26 Dec. 1806, 2, 6, 18 Jan. 1807; NLS mss 12915, Bedford to Elliot, 30 Sept. 1806.
- 7. Wellington Supp. Despatches , v. 5.
- 8. Wellington mss, Browne to Wellesley, 16 July 1807, Sligo to same, 20 Feb. 1808; Wellington Supp. Despatches , v. 246, 316.
- 9. Wellington mss, Browne to Wellesley, 21 May, Wellesley to Richmond, 16 Nov. 1808; Add. 40221, ff. 13-42 (Mayo); Wellington Supp. Despatches , v. 426.
- 10. Perceval (Holland) mss C.3; Buckingham, Court and Cabinets , iv. 320.
- 11. NLI, Richmond mss 64/727a, 66/934, 939; 73/1745, 1746, 1749; Add. 40217, f. 41; Perceval (Holland) mss 26, f. 86.
- 12. Add. 40217, f. 9; 40281, ff. 50, 100.
- 13. Add. 40187, ff. 111, 114; 40188, f. 116; 40217, ff. 41, 43; 40284, ff. 180, 182; Dublin SPO 554/396/3.
- 14. Add. 40217, ff. 63, 67, 69, 71; 40288, f. 108; Croker Pprs. ed. Jennings, i. 116; Surr. RO, Goulburn mss 2/13, Peel to Goulburn, Sunday .
- 15. Add. 40217, f. 89.
- 16. Ibid. f. 187; 40390, f. 110; Gent. Mag. (1828), ii. 372.