Co. Meath


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

Background Information

Number of registered freeholders:

1,671 in 1829; 977 in 1830

Number of voters:

459 in Aug. 1831


20 Mar. 1820THOMAS TAYLOUR, earl of Bective 
22 June 1826THOMAS TAYLOUR, earl of Bective 
22 Feb. 1830ARTHUR JAMES PLUNKETT, Lord Killeen vice Bective, become a peer of Ireland 
14 May 1831ARTHUR JAMES PLUNKETT, Lord Killeen417
 Henry Grattan II198
 James Lenox William Naper10
 Hon. Richard Thomas Rowley8
11 Aug. 1831HENRY GRATTAN II vice Somerville,deceased309
 Hon. John Duncan Bligh150

Main Article

Meath ‘exhibited a more marked disparity than could be found in any other part of Ireland’ between the ‘houses of its proprietors’ and ‘the cultivators of the soil’, whose tenements, although improving, ‘presented an appearance of great wretchedness’. There were several market towns, including the disfranchised boroughs of Athboy, Duleek, Kells, Navan and Trim, the venue for county elections, which a visitor described in 1827 as a ‘wretched capital’ with a ‘towering monument’ to the duke of Wellington, ‘in true Hibernian contrast with the filth and misery which surround it’.1 The representation continued to be dominated by a group of substantial landowners. The most important were the 1st marquess of Headfort of Headfort House and his heir Lord Bective, Member since 1812; Headfort’s brother Baron Langford of Summerhill House, near Enfield and his heir Hercules Langford Rowley, who succeeded to the barony in 1825; the 4th earl of Darnley of Clifton Lodge, near Athboy, and his heir Edward Bligh, Lord Clifton, Whig Member for Canterbury; the 1st marquess Conyngham of Slane Castle, an Irish representative peer, and his eventual heir Lord Francis Conyngham (Lord Mount Charles from 1824), Member for county Donegal; James Lenox William Naper† of Loughcrew and Sir Marcus Somerville of Somerville, Member since the Union. The old independent Catholic interest, on which Somerville had originally been returned, was headed by the resident Catholic families of the 12th Viscount Gormanston of Gormanston Castle and the 8th earl of Fingall of Killeen Castle, near Dunsay, whose heir Lord Killeen was its most prominent spokesman during this period.

At the 1820 general election Bective, whose election had been deemed ‘certain’ by Headfort, and Somerville were returned unopposed amidst local complaints about the new Irish election arrangements. Neither attended the ensuing county meeting for repeal of the provisions that ‘impose on the landowners of Ireland the expense of conducting elections’, 11 Apr. 1820.2 Both continued their support for the Liverpool ministry and Catholic claims and voted against suppression of the Catholic Association, in condemnation of which petitions reached the Commons, 21, 25 Feb. 1825.3 In 1823 Bective succeeded his father as colonel of the militia, despite the objections of Goulburn, the Irish secretary, who feared his appointment would create ‘a monopoly ... in favour of one family’ to the ‘future prejudice’ of Somerville, whose earlier ‘application to be made a governor’ had been unsuccessful owing to the viceroy’s determination not to increase their number.4 On 24 Apr. 1825 a county meeting attended by Bective, Killeen and Naper was held to petition against alteration of the corn laws.5 Both Members spoke at a county meeting of the ‘principal Catholic nobles and gentry and many Protestants’ to promote Catholic claims, which was chaired by Killeen, 30 Aug. 1825, and attended the Association dinner for the ‘friends of civil and religious liberty’, 2 Feb. 1826.6

At the 1826 general election the Members offered again, citing their ‘unalterable opinions upon the great question of Catholic freedom’, to the approval of Killeen, who proposed Somerville. Rumours circulating the previous year that a ‘near relative’ of Darnley would mount a challenge came to nothing.7 Petitions for Catholic relief, for which they again voted, reached the Commons, 2, 5, 6 Mar. 1827, 20 May 1828, and the Lords, 16 Mar., 9 Apr. 1827.8 A hostile petition from the bishop and clergy was presented to the Lords, 20 Mar. 1827.9 Petitions reached the Commons against alteration of the corn laws, 8 Mar. 1827, and for repeal of the Subletting Act, 1 May 1828.10 On 14 Sept. 1828 the Meath Independent Club held its first meeting, chaired by Henry Chester, at which the guest speaker was ‘Honest Jack’ Lawless of Dublin, a leading member of the Catholic Association who had gained notoriety for denouncing Daniel O’Connell’s* support of the ‘wings’ of the relief bill in 1825.11 Both Members attended a county meeting to promote Catholic claims chaired by Gormanston, 30 Sept., following which a separate Meath Liberal Club was established under the presidency of Killeen with William Ford as secretary, 1 Oct. A registry of freeholds was held under its auspices at Navan, 30 Dec.12 Attempts to establish a Brunswick Club in November 1828 came to nothing.13 Both Members attended county meetings chaired by Killeen in support of Lord Anglesey, the recalled Irish viceroy, 19, 26 Jan. 1829.14 They of course voted for the Wellington ministry’s concession of emancipation, in support of which petitions reached the Commons, 12, 23 Feb., 2, 10 Mar., and the Lords, 13 Feb., 3 Mar. A hostile petition was presented to the Commons, 10 Feb., and the Lords received one for suppression of the Association, 7 Apr.15 On 12 Mar. Henry Pakenham, archdeacon of Emly, reported to Wellington that in Meath

the Catholics are satisfied with the bills; the priests have praised them and ... many Protestant gentry are in favour ... Some oppose the measures, but concede that changes in the franchise will be an improvement. The lower order of Protestants in these parts are so few they wish anything for a quiet life.16

By the accompanying alteration of the franchise the registered electorate was reduced from 1,671 to 977, of whom 78 qualified at the new minimum freehold value of £10, 77 at £20 and 822 at £50.17 Writing to Wellington in support of his own claim to an Irish representative peerage, Langford conjectured that his ‘elective power’ would now be ‘great’ as his estates contained not one 40s. freehold and hoped to be able to ‘restore the political influence in Meath which his family once had’.18 Petitions against the Subletting Act reached the Commons, 16, 19 Feb., 27 Mar. One from the militia for compensation under the Militia Suspension Act was presented there, 19 Mar. 1829.19

In October 1829 Bective succeeded to his father’s peerage, creating a vacancy for which he tried unsuccessfully to get an ‘immediate’ writ from the Speaker, with the ‘assistance of Spring Rice and Maurice Fitzgerald’.20 Naper, who had shunned the Brunswickers and joined the ‘friends of civil and religious freedom’, urging other Protestants to support ‘those Catholics who might oppose’ the ‘violent’ members of the Association, was mentioned, along with Killeen.21 On 3 Nov. Wellington informed the home secretary Peel that if Naper ‘should not be a Whig we might support him ... Killeen will certainly stand upon the radical interest’. Peel hoped that Naper, ‘a popular man at Christ Church’ who had ‘rather lukewarmly’ supported the Liverpool administration, would beat Killeen, adding that ‘if he is friendly to the present government, he will probably apply for its support’, in which case ‘it would be well to give it to him’, but ‘if he does not apply, they may as well fight out the battle without our interference’.22 On 5 Nov. Wellington advised the duke of Northumberland, the viceroy, that if Naper applied for government support he should be given it, as

I don’t feel much inclination to support Lord Killeen ... It appears to me that all the Roman Catholics of the higher classes, by not protesting against the conduct of Mr. O’Connell and of other agitators, and by keeping aloof, do all the mischief to the government that they are capable of doing ... No good subject will believe that ... as they do not contradict his language and dissent from his declared intentions, they are not as they have been hitherto participators in his declared designs. This state of things renders it difficult to do anything for them.23

On 20 Nov. Killeen solicited Anglesey’s support, saying that if he was returned it would be ‘the first legitimate practical effect of the late relief bill, enabling a gentleman to assume the situation to which his rank and property entitle him, without regard for his religious opinion’, and asking for help in securing the interest of Mount Charles. That day Lord Forbes told Anglesey that he would support Killeen and agreed ‘that such men should be in Parliament to keep out such unprincipled men as O’Connell’.24 On 28 Dec. 1829 O’Connell, who evidently regarded Meath as a possible future seat, was advised by Pierce Mahony†, a former parliamentary agent of the Association, that ‘the report as circulated in Ireland of the junction between the English and Irish Catholics against the present administration had materially injured Lord Killeen’s election’ prospects.25 No writ had been moved by February 1830, when Lawless issued an address to the Meath Independent Club denouncing the ‘robbery of the vestry bill’ and calling for the ‘restoration of the rights of the immortal 40s. freeholders’ and the ‘protection of our peasantry against the visitation of a famine’ and the ‘exactions of a church establishment’. Although this was billed as an ‘exhortation’ to ‘the future candidates’ to ‘watch the men and the proceedings’ of the Club, for a while it appeared that he might start, but in the event neither he nor Naper did so. Killeen offered on the old Catholic interest, claiming that he was ‘unpledged to any party’ and would not ‘support ministers unless convinced that their measures are calculated to benefit Ireland’. He was proposed by Clifton and returned unopposed.26

By Headfort’s death a vacancy had been created in the governorship of the county, which Darnley asked Wellington to offer to Clifton. Reviewing the candidates, 16 Nov. 1829, Wellington advised Northumberland that

non-residence is a reason against Lord Darnley. If Lord Clifton does reside in the county then he is a suitable person. The important families in Meath are Lord Headfort, Lord Langford, Lord Darnley and Mr. Naper. Lord Headfort is the most important, but by English rules cannot be appointed to succeed his father to the governorship. Langford is not very respectable. Clifton is acceptable if he resides in the county. Otherwise Naper should be appointed.

Northumberland agreed that Clifton should only be appointed ‘on the understanding that he resides there’, adding that Naper ‘has built a large mansion in the county, has ingratiated himself with the local gentry of both parties, and, by giving employment to the labourers, has established an influence over them’. On discovering that he could increase the number of governors, however, Northumberland decided to appoint both men, explaining to Wellington that ‘Meath is a large county and a second governor would be advisable’ in order to ensure that there was a resident one.27 Petitions against the increased Irish spirit and stamp duties reached the Commons, 13 May, 21 June, and from the magistrates against the Irish constabulary bill, 25 May 1830.28 In July Somerville renewed his claim to a governorship, prompting Lord Francis Leveson Gower, the Irish secretary, to comment that ‘I really think the appointment of Lord Clifton, a political opponent, gives him some claim, particularly at the present moment, if it can serve him however slightly in his election interests’. Peel agreed that ‘it would be but fair to indulge’ him ‘after so many years of support’, and he was in place by the following year.29

At the 1830 general election Somerville and Killeen stood again with the support of ministers, Wellington having advised Conyngham that Naper would be a ‘suitable candidate, but there is no reason to disturb the existing Members’.30 O’Connell was expected to start, but was pre-empted by Lawless, who came forward with the support of the Independent Club, which raised a subscription of almost £700 towards his free return. Denouncing this ‘improper agitation of the county’, Clifton, who had abandoned Canterbury, ‘came over from England to oppose the intrusion of a stranger’, promising to be put in nomination and go to a poll if necessary. A ‘warm contest’ was expected, but a few days before the poll it was reported that the ‘Liberals, with their usual fidelity’ had ‘tired of Jack’ and unsuccessfully approached Henry Grattan, Member for Dublin. The arrival of Richard Sheil* from Louth prompted speculation that he would stand instead of Lawless, who was said to be ‘unwilling to keep up a vexatious contest’. At the nomination Somerville, who claimed support from ‘nearly 400 of the most respectable electors out of a constituency of little more than 600’, denounced attempts to disturb the county and misrepresent his views and, in response to questions from Robert Mullen, secretary of the Independent Club, pledged his support for economy and retrenchment, repeal of the Irish Vestry Act, cessation of the Kildare Place Society grant and ‘a rational reform in the state of the representation’. Lawless now formally declined, whereupon ‘neither Clifton nor Sheil thought proper to have themselves put in’, the former clashing with Lawless after congratulating the freeholders for not ‘inflicting indelible disgrace’ on the county. Somerville, who implored the freeholders to register their votes, as the electorate ‘should not be confined to 600 voters, nor to four times that number’, and Killeen were returned unopposed.31 On learning that Lawless had declined a ‘large party of freeholders’ who had arrived to vote for him raised a ‘cry of treason’ and almost entirely destroyed his committee rooms; he was ‘obliged to be guarded by a large military force’. The Dublin press and O’Connell subsequently accused ‘Mad Lawless’ of having accepted ‘a bribe’ to retire, which his brother Barry vigorously denied on his behalf, blaming the ‘distressing results’ of the election on Charles Farrell of Navan, a member of his committee, who had argued against ‘the propriety of his withdrawing’ before Somerville had ‘agreed to all their pledges’, and insisted that Lawless should ‘do so publicly’.32 ‘Much to my surprise’, a correspondent informed Thomas Wyse, Member for Tipperary, ‘poor Lawless proves not to have sold the people of Meath, of which ... perfidy, knowing his mendicant condition and having no confidence in the integrity of a man with God knows how many starving children, I had prejudged him guilty’.33

During September 1830 it was reported that Meath was in a ‘very alarming and disturbed state’ and that the peasantry were ‘armed with either firearms or pikes’, but this was contradicted by Sir John Byng*, the Irish commander-in-chief, who told Wellington that the magistrates had ‘been alarmed by misinformation’.34 A petition for repeal of the Vestry Acts reached the Commons, 6 Dec. 1830.35 Rumours of an ‘open rebellion’ during February 1831 also turned out to be false; and meetings at Drumcondra and Nobber, where 10,000 people allegedly assembled, were dispersed peacefully, with only two men wounded.36 That month Lord Holland sought the ‘disinterested opinion’ of Darnley regarding the Grey ministry’s proposal to appoint a lord lieutenant to the Irish counties. Darnley replied that he and Clifton would not accept it ‘unless it shall be clearly understood that ... the government consider it most advantageous to the public service’, and recommended that if they ‘must have’ a Catholic

Gormanston is the man they ought to appoint, and by no means Lord Killeen. In justification of my opinion, let me contrast them a little: Lord Gormanston, premier Irish viscount, with a larger estate (I believe) than Lord Fingall (perhaps the largest in the county except Naper’s and mine) on which he always resides; one of the first ... to sign the declaration against the repeal of the Union (which neither Fingall nor his son have signed to this day) ... [and] therefore no Jesuit, or indirect abettor of O’Connell, which is more than I would venture to assert of others. In a word, I think the appointment of Lord Killeen would only add to the blunders already made by government in that land of blunders.37

Darnley’s views were apparently not shared by ministers, for on learning of his death the following month the Irish secretary Smith Stanley informed Anglesey, the viceroy, that it ‘will make a difference, and I hope remove a difficulty in our lieutenancy arrangements’, for as ‘the present Lord [Clifton, now 5th earl] will probably no longer reside in Ireland ... we shall therefore be able to give the lieutenancy to Killeen, who is the right man’.38 Darnley subsequently objected to being considered ‘quite out of the question, as not being likely to reside in the county’, advised Holland that ‘it is my intention to reside in Ireland, having just finished a house there, which I hope to occupy as soon as the business of the session will allow me to go over’ and asked him to make this known ‘in the proper quarter’.39 He was appointed the first lord lieutenant of Meath in the autumn of 1831. The Commons received parish petitions for repeal of the Union, 16 Feb., 28 Mar., one from the Protestants for a general fast, 16 Feb., and others complaining of distress, 23 Mar., and for the abolition of slavery and repeal of the Subletting Act, 28 Mar. 1831.40

At the 1831 general election Somerville and Killeen offered again as supporters of the ministry’s reform scheme. To widespread consternation, however, Naper and Grattan also came forward as reformers, the latter to ‘prevent the county from becoming a borough’ controlled by ‘an oligarchy that would usurp your rights’, with the support of O’Connell, who had ‘promised’ to bring him in. The Dublin Evening Post warned that they ‘run the risk of returning an anti-reformer’. One appeared in the person of Langford’s brother Richard Thomas Rowley, a ‘notorious Brunswicker’, who wanted the freeholders to ‘have an opportunity of fully and fairly recording their opinions’ on the ‘wholesale destruction of the constitution’.41 ‘It is provoking that in Meath there should be five candidates’, Anglesey informed Grey, as ‘I fear the four reformers, acting hostilely, may let in Mr. Rowley’, and ‘if Naper could be prevailed upon to withdraw, Grattan, it is said, would withdraw, but he is obstinate’.42 In the event both Naper and Rowley, who it was predicted would ‘be foisted upon the county’, retired during the first day, and on the next Grattan conceded defeat, complaining that he had been asked to stand by a ‘numerous meeting of the Meath Club, the members of which had promised to support him’, but that ‘when the moment came, they turned round and voted for his opponents’. The return of Killeen and Somerville was deemed ‘very satisfactory’ by Grey.43 Both continued to support reform and the Irish bill, for which favourable petitions were presented to the Commons, 27 June, and the Lords, 13 July 1831.44

Somerville’s death that month created a vacancy for which his heir William was rumoured, but he did not stand. Naper again came forward and was again joined by Grattan, who was supposed to have ‘secured the interests of the priests’. Darnley’s brother John Duncan Bligh also offered as the ‘son of the emancipating earl’, appealing to the ‘connection of my family’ and his ‘hereditary anxiety for the welfare of Ireland’, but he was accused of having ‘never spent 20 days in Ireland’ and playing into the hands of the ‘Orange or aristocratic interest’, who, it was alleged, wished to ‘punish the zeal’ of Naper, the ‘resident liberal’.45 Grey considered both Naper and Bligh as ‘friends’ of government, but while he conceded that the former had ‘the strongest claims’, until he heard from Anglesey he did ‘not know how to decide between them’.46 Smith Stanley informed Anglesey that he ‘wished Bligh had not stood, but left it to Naper’ and that ‘Grattan must be beat if possible’.47 An appeal to Grattan and Bligh to step down having failed, Naper resolved to retire, whereupon The Times predicted that Bligh’s success was now ‘so indisputable’ that Grattan would immediately abandon ‘his desperate attempt’.48 O’Connell also doubted Grattan’s chances, informing Edward Dwyer, 10 Aug.:

How I long for Grattan’s success and how I regret not having had the opportunity of giving a blowing up to the paltry and indeed insulting pretensions of that Anglo Saxon Bligh. I fear that he will succeed as the Club is divided. What a miserable set we are to be always quarrelling amongst ourselves.49

Local reports spoke of unprecedented ‘intimidation’ and warned that the ‘whole machinery of the Catholic Association would be employed in thrusting Grattan upon them’. On the first day of polling Bligh conceded defeat and Grattan’s return was hailed by the Catholic press as ‘a lesson to the gentry and to the empire’.50 Anglesey later informed Lord Holland that Bligh ‘never had the least chance in Meath’, as ‘the O’Connell faction are in complete possession of the soil ... and the time ... is gone by, when it might have been preserved to its owners’.51 Petitions reached the Commons for cessation of the Kildare Place Society grant, 12 Aug., legalization of Catholic marriages, 2 Sept., and abolition of the Irish yeomanry, 7 Sept 1831.52 Others were presented for an increase in the number of Irish representatives, 31 Jan., and in favour of the Irish reform bill, 15 Mar., 8 June 1832.53 Petitions for the abolition of tithes were brought up, 13, 15 Mar., 5, 8, 20, 29 June, 9, 20 July 1832.54

By the Irish Reform Act 185 leaseholders (161 registered at £10 and 24 at £20) were added to the freeholders, who had increased in number to 1,335 (683 registered at £10, 204 at £20, and 448 at £50), giving a constituency of 1,520.55 There was no contest at the 1832 general election, when Grattan and Morgan O’Connell, Daniel’s son, were returned as Repealers.56 They defeated two Conservatives in 1835 and were unopposed in 1837. Daniel O’Connell was returned with Grattan in 1841, but opted to sit elsewhere, and Grattan retained his seat until 1852.

Author: Philip Salmon


  • 1. S. Lewis, Top. Dict. of Ireland (1837), i. 359-63; Mems. Joseph Gurney ed. J. Braithwaite, i. 329.
  • 2. TNA T64/260, Headfort to Bloomfield, 19 Feb.; Dublin Evening Post, 11, 18, 25, 30 Mar., 1 Apr. 1820.
  • 3. CJ, lxxx. 102, 128.
  • 4. Add. 37300, f. 259.
  • 5. Dublin Evening Post, 21 Apr. 1825.
  • 6. Ibid. 25 Aug., 1 Sept.; The Times, 5 Sept. 1825; O’Connell Corresp. iii. 1278.
  • 7. Dublin Evening Post, 8 Aug. 1825, 8, 27, 29 June 1826.
  • 8. CJ, lxxxii. 265, 275, 288; lxxxiii. 185; LJ, lix. 166, 242.
  • 9. LJ, lix. 178.
  • 10. CJ, lxxxii. 293; lxxxiii. 294.
  • 11. Dublin Evening Post, 18 Sept. 1828.
  • 12. Ibid. 4 Oct. 1828, 1, 13 Jan. 1829.
  • 13. Ibid. 18 Nov. 1828.
  • 14. Ibid. 24, 31 Jan. 1829.
  • 15. CJ, lxxxiv. 20, 24, 25, 76, 94, 121; LJ, lxi. 32-34, 109, 363.
  • 16. Wellington mss WP1/1002/27.
  • 17. PP (1830), xxix. 471.
  • 18. Wellington mss WP1/1026/17.
  • 19. CJ, lxxxiv. 34, 60, 152, 177.
  • 20. Add. 40399, f. 397.
  • 21. PRO NI, Downshire mss D671/C/12/379, Naper to Downshire, 5 Feb. 1829; Carlow Morning Post, 18 Feb. 1830.
  • 22. Wellington mss WP1/1059/3; Add. 40308, f. 262.
  • 23. Wellington mss WP1/1059/17, 32.
  • 24. PRO NI, Anglesey mss D619/32A/3/1/231, 239.
  • 25. O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1626.
  • 26. Carlow Morning Post, 22 Feb., 1 Mar.; Kilkennny Moderator, 27 Feb.; Westmeath Jnl. 4 Mar. 1830.
  • 27. Wellington mss WP1/1059/39, 52; 1057/2; 1058/2.
  • 28. CJ, lxxxv. 415, 472, 570.
  • 29. NAI, Leveson Gower letterbks. 7.B.3.33, Leveson Gower to Singleton, 6 July, 6 Aug. 1830.
  • 30. Wellington mss WP1/1130/22.
  • 31. Dublin Evening Post, 3, 7, 17, 19, 21 Aug.; Drogheda Jnl. 17, 21 Aug.; Westmeath Jnl. 19 Aug. 1830.
  • 32. Dublin Evening Post, 17, 24, 31 Aug.; Westmeath Jnl. 26 Aug. 1830; O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1716; Gent. Mag. (1837), ii. 318.
  • 33. NLI, Wyse mss 15034 (7), O’Hanlon to Wyse, 2 Sept. 1830.
  • 34. The Times, 4 Oct. 1830; Wellington mss WP1/1139/28.
  • 35. CJ, lxxxvi. 148.
  • 36. The Times, 4 Mar. 1831.
  • 37. Add. 51572, f. 224, Darnley to Holland, 8 Feb. 1831.
  • 38. Anglesey mss 31D/37.
  • 39. Add. 51836, Darnley to Holland, 27 June 1831.
  • 40. CJ, lxxxvi. 255, 256, 424, 444, 451.
  • 41. Dublin Evening Post, 3 May 1831.
  • 42. Anglesey mss 28C/113, 114.
  • 43. Dublin Evening Post, 12, 14, 17 May 1831; Add. 37311, f. 20.
  • 44. CJ, lxxxvi. 572; LJ, lxiii. 814.
  • 45. Dublin Evening Post, 14, 16 July, 6 Aug. 1831.
  • 46. Add. 37311, f. 30.
  • 47. Anglesey mss 31D/52.
  • 48. Westmeath Jnl. 28 July; Dublin Evening Post, 11, 13 Aug.; The Times, 9 Aug. 1831.
  • 49. O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1834.
  • 50. Dublin Evening Post, 11, 13 Aug.; Westmeath Jnl. 18 Aug. 1831.
  • 51. Anglesey mss 27B/36-41.
  • 52. CJ, lxxxvi. 748, 812, 830.
  • 53. Ibid. lxxxvii. 60, 196, 388
  • 54. Ibid. 184, 196, 375, 388, 420, 443, 471, 505.
  • 55. PP (1833), xxvii. 304.
  • 56. O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1943.