Available from Cambridge University Press
Number of registered freeholders:
8,163 in 1829; 629 in 1830
Number of voters:
821 in 1831
|22 Mar. 1820||ARTHUR FRENCH I|
|HON. STEPHEN MAHON|
|16 Jan. 1821||ARTHUR FRENCH II vice French, deceased|
|19 June 1826||ARTHUR FRENCH II|
|HON. ROBERT KING|
|9 Aug. 1830||ARTHUR FRENCH II|
|19 May 1831||ARTHUR FRENCH II||514|
|William Lloyd 1||346|
|25 July 1831||DENIS O'CONOR vice O’Conor, deceased|
Although livestock farming and transport communications improved during this period, agricultural distress was endemic in Roscommon, and in 1829 Skeffington Gibbon wrote that in ‘Roscommon, of which I have a local knowledge, there is not in Europe a more poor and wretched peasantry’. The county was mostly populated by Catholics, who exercised a strong, if usually unspectacular, influence on the county’s representation; their cause was supported by the liberal Roscommon Journal, while its rival, the Roscommon and Leitrim Gazette, was a moderate Protestant newspaper.2 After the disfranchisement in 1801 of the boroughs of Boyle, the leading town, Roscommon, where county elections were held, and Tulsk, one of several smaller settlements, there were fewer seats to satisfy the aspirations of the leading families. Yet the extinction or eclipse of certain interests, notably those of the Irish peers the 1st and 2nd Barons Crofton of Mote Park and the 1st and 2nd Barons Mount Sandford of Castlerea (while the 12th and 13th Viscounts Dillon of Loughlin House, and Ditchley Hall, Oxfordshire, were largely absentees) meant that county elections continued to be uncontested after the Union.3 In 1825 the electorate was reckoned to be as high as 9,325, of which 8,685 (or 93 per cent) were 40s. freeholders, most of whom held immediately under the owners of the fee.4
By 1820, when 493 electors were added to the registers, the well-established sitting Members were Arthur French of French Park, who had sat for 37 years, and Lieutenant-General Stephen Mahon, who was first elected in 1806.5 According to Thomas Oldfield, French, whose ‘immense property’ effectively gave him control over one of the seats, gained his influence more from the ‘liberality of his conduct in his intercourse with society than from the number of freeholders created on his estates’. Like French, Mahon, whose elder brother the 2nd Baron Hartland of Strokestown was a governor of the county, supported Catholic relief, but now, unlike his colleague, opposed Lord Liverpool’s administration.6 They were returned without opposition at the general election of 1820, when, against a background of violent disturbances, the county agreed a loyal address to the new king, but French died before the end of the year. His heir and namesake, who also succeeded his father as joint-governor, offered in his place, on the basis of his family’s reputation and known principles, and was elected as a ministerialist in January 1821.7 Like his father before him, French presumably had the tacit support of the leading resident magnate, the 1st Viscount Lorton of Rockingham, who controlled the King family’s interests in Roscommon (while his elder brother, the 3rd earl of Kingston, had estates and interests in counties Cork and Sligo). Lorton, who was governor, custos and colonel of the county militia, became a Tory and anti-Catholic representative peer in 1822 and sought to promote his proprietorial influence in the county, although he as yet had no relative to bring forward. As committed pro-Catholics, the Members were also backed by the county’s Catholic gentry, as evidenced at the dinner in March 1821 for the retiring sheriff Daniel Kelly of Cargins, French’s brother-in-law.8 On that and many other occasions the lead was taken by the veteran Catholic campaigner Owen O’Conor, the O’Conor Don, of Belanagare and Clonalis, whose papers attest to his constant involvement in the cause at the county level.9 Among his local supporters were his brother Matthew O’Conor of Mount Druid, his daughter’s father-in-law Edward Mapother of Kilteeven and his friend Oliver Dowell John Grace† of Mantua House.
The Catholics joined Hartland, Lorton and John Leslie, bishop of Elphin, as well as the Members, to promote order and relieve distress at county meetings in September 1821 and June 1822. Having held their own meeting to congratulate Lord Wellesley on his appointment as lord lieutenant of Ireland, 19 Jan. 1822, they also supported the county gathering got up by Lorton and others to address him after the Dublin Orange riots, 7 Jan. 1823.10 Following another Roscommon meeting, 5 Apr., the county’s petition for promotion of Irish linen manufactures was presented to both Houses, 13 Apr. 1824.11 At a meeting of magistrates in Roscommon, 6 May, Lorton secured, by 27 votes to seven, a resolution praising the conduct of Major John Wills of Rockly Park as head of the county’s police, but French and the O’Conor Don were among 16 magistrates who issued a declaration dissenting from this decision, the ensuing furore being prolonged by correspondence printed in the press.12 In September 1824 Mahon was forced to issue an address to contradict persistent rumours that he would relinquish his seat at the next election, and by July 1825 it was expected that Lorton would sponsor his elder son Robert King, who came of age that month, in a contest against the sitting Members.13 At a meeting of Roscommon Catholics under the chairmanship of the O’Conor Don, 10 Oct. 1825, when a petition in favour of their claims was approved, Gonville and Nicholas Ffrench (brothers of the 3rd Baron Ffrench of Castle Ffrench, county Galway), successfully moved an amendment supporting French (their distant kinsman) and Mahon against Lorton’s feared electoral strike.14 The Catholic petition was presented to the Commons by French, 1 May, and to the Lords by Lord Dudley, 8 May 1826.15
King duly offered at the general election of 1826, when George Dawson, Member for county Londonderry, commented that ‘he will walk in for Roscommon without a struggle - he is a staunch Protestant’; although one newspaper reported him to be a liberal, his father refused to allow him to declare his views on the Catholic issue. French and Mahon, who again had to rebut the Kings’ claim that he would retire on account of ill health, were thought to have popular backing, but at least one ‘Catholic freeholder’ argued in an address that most of his co-religionists would vote for King as the candidate most likely to serve the county. Dreading that Lorton would gain an electoral hegemony, Grace and Matthew O’Conor, who was himself spoken of as a contender, summoned the leading Catholics to a pre-election meeting in order to stiffen Mahon’s resolve.16 However, just before they met on 18 June it became known that Mahon had withdrawn, and resolutions were moved by Grace, Mapother and Denis O’Conor, the O’Conor Don’s elder son, expressing their ‘deepest regret and dissatisfaction’ at his fatally late and wholly unnecessary capitulation. The next day, in the absence of any last minute challenger, French, proposed by Kelly and the O’Conor Don, and King, introduced by his great-uncle Colonel Thomas Tenison of Castle Tenison, former Member for Boyle, and Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Lloyd of Rockville, were returned unopposed; there were reported to be 8,886 registered electors. King, who was the first member of his family to sit for Roscommon since his uncle Edward had left the Commons 20 years earlier, reciprocated the toast to civil and religious liberty communicated to his celebratory dinner by French’s friends, which raised hopes that he was sympathetic to relief. But, unlike French, he declined to state whether he would endorse the Catholics’ petition got up by the O’Conor Don on 9 July 1826, and voted against Catholic claims early in the following session.17
The petitions from the Catholics of the county and of Boyle, who had met on 9 Jan., were brought up in the Commons, 15 Feb., 5 Mar., and the Lords, 8, 16 Mar. 1827. Lorton, who in the Lords on 8 Mar. denied that he had instructed his Boyle tenants not to sign their petition, issued an address to them in April 1827 insisting that he did favour their interests, if not to the extent of emancipation.18 Similar pro-Catholic petitions from the county and Boyle were presented to the Commons by French, 11, 28 Feb., and to the Lords by Lord Lansdowne and Lord King, 2 Apr., 9 May 1828.19 At another Catholic gathering chaired by the O’Conor Don, 4 Aug., when there were calls for future candidates to pledge for relief, the decision was taken to form an Independent Club, which was set up under the O’Conor Don’s presidency, 8 Sept.20 Their antagonists established a Brunswick Club in Boyle, 20 Oct., and one for Roscommon at a county meeting, 21 Nov., when Lorton, in the chair, refused to give Kelly a hearing and Owen Lloyd’s son William, making his first public utterance, was among the many strongly anti-Catholic speakers.21 The Catholics retaliated by holding another meeting to petition Parliament, 4 Dec., when Lorton was roundly condemned, and a dinner in honour of Kelly, 29 Dec. 1828, when it was announced that King had written to the O’Conor Don stating that he would now vote for emancipation. After some hesitation, French and the O’Conor Don defied the sheriff to organize their own gathering in order to address Lord Anglesey on his recall as lord lieutenant, 31 Jan. 1829.22 The county’s petition for Catholic emancipation was brought up in the Lords, 19 Feb., and in the Commons (by French), 24 Feb., while the hostile one was presented to the Lords by Lorton, 3 Mar., and to the Commons by his brother Henry King, Member for county Sligo, 4 Mar.23 French remained a steady supporter of emancipation, but it is doubtful if Robert King, a very inactive Member, voted for it that session. The effect of the related Franchise Act was to reduce the electorate from 8,163, including as many as 7,777 40s. freeholders, on 1 Jan. 1829 to 629, including only 164 £10 voters, a year later. According to one analysis, a quarter of the newly registered electors held from the largest landowner, while three-fifths held from the top ten, so demonstrating the renewed strength of the electoral interest of the leading Protestant landlords.24
The Friends of Civil and Religious Liberty met to thank George IV, the duke of Wellington’s administration and Daniel O’Connell* for the passage of emancipation, 8 June 1829, and later that year it was suggested that King be displaced as Member, although Grace denied that he would bring forward the Dublin wine merchant Thomas Johnston Barton, partner of the former Cavan Member Nathaniel Sneyd*.25 Tensions became polarized at a meeting of magistrates in Elphin, 19 Nov., when Lorton secured a majority of 29 (including himself, his son Robert, Tenison and other militia officers) against ten, for invoking the Insurrection Act to deal with the prevailing unrest. In high dudgeon, French and the O’Conor Don, who with their relations comprised most of the minority, arranged a county meeting on 15 Dec. 1829 to countermand this decision, after which the Tory press ridiculed their assertion that they had triumphantly answered Lorton. In January 1830 Lorton received an address from the Catholic tenants on his Boyle and Rockingham estates assuring him of their confidence in him and deploring the recent differences.26 Early that year it was suggested that Grace, then sheriff, or, failing him, the O’Conor Don, would be requested to stand against King at the next opportunity. Members of the French and O’Conor families dominated the proceedings at county meetings against the introduction of poor laws to Ireland, 30 Mar., when French moved the first resolution, and the increase in Irish stamp and spirit duties, 12 June, when the O’Conor Don stated that he could no longer give the government his support.27 The ensuing petitions were presented to the Lords by Wellington, 14 May, and Lord Grey, 29 June, and to the Commons by French, 17 May, 29 June 1830.28
King cited lack of time for his parliamentary duties as the reason for his retirement at the dissolution in July 1830, when there were 1,105 registered electors, but it seems likely that he bowed out from a keen sense of his own inadequacy: if his sympathies lay with the Catholics, he had been unable to confirm this by his conduct in the House; and if his motivation had been a wish to emulate the constant local activity of his father, he had shown no aptitude for such a commitment. Lorton’s first cousin Edward King Tenison† was brought forward, but on his refusal to pledge for economies and various reforms before an assembly of freeholders, 21 July, when French’s candidacy was enthusiastically endorsed, George Browne of Coolemain and John Henry Plunkett of Mount Plunkett successfully moved for the adoption of the O’Conor Don (Grace having ruled himself out) as their second candidate. Tenison soon withdrew, leaving William Lloyd with insufficient time to make any headway, though both the latter and his supporters claimed to have the real independence of the county at heart. The O’Conor Don, who was hailed alongside French as the saviour of the popular cause, received widespread backing and able assistance in his canvass from his sons Denis and Edward. On the hustings, Lloyd declined to press his claims for the present, so French (proposed by Kelly) and the O’Conor Don (by Thomas Mahon Naghten of Thomastown Park) were returned unopposed.29 In August the independent electors met to form a new Election Club, intended especially to guard against Lloyd’s future challenge, and the following month a dinner was held for Plunkett in recognition of his contribution to the defeat of Lorton’s nominee.30 Despite King’s usual non-attendance, his displacement was considered as a vote lost by the Wellington ministry, whom the O’Conor Don divided against in the crucial division on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830.31
The ‘revolutionists’, as the Roscommon and Leitrim Gazette called them, were out in force at county meetings for repeal of the Union, which was subsequently attacked in a Tory counter-declaration, 14 Jan., and for parliamentary reform, which William Lloyd was known to oppose, 16 Apr. 1831.32 Lloyd, who was heavily criticized by Plunkett for his hostile stance, duly stood against the sitting Members, who had voted for the Grey ministry’s reform bill, at the 1831 general election, which took place during a period of extensive local disturbances. French and the O’Conor Don, who were proposed by Grace and Naghten respectively, led Lloyd, who was introduced by St. George Caulfeild of Donamon Castle, throughout the five-day poll, although he closed the gap considerably on the second and third days when Lorton’s Boyle tenants were dragooned into the booths. Of the 1,295 registered electors, 821 actually voted, with French gaining 63, the O’Conor Don 58 and Lloyd 42 per cent of the total; Lloyd received 321 (or 93 per cent) of his votes in plumpers, while French and the O’Conor Don shared the vast majority of theirs as splits.33 Lloyd indicated that he would try again, and the opportunity arose on the death of the O’Conor Don within a month of the contest. However, after Grace again declined the honour, Denis O’Conor, who succeeded to the fund of goodwill which his father had earned in the county and was aided by the efforts of his brother and agent Edward, was hurriedly brought forward as an advanced reformer and Lloyd offered no opposition to him at the by-election in July 1831.34
A disappointingly small group of reformers met under Kelly’s chairmanship, 3 Oct. 1831, when Pat Taaffe of Foxborough attacked ministers for appointing Lorton, whom O’Connell called the ‘bitterest and most rancorous of their enemies’, to the lord lieutenancy of the county.35 Lorton received a congratulatory address from the leading Tory peers, gentry, clergy and magistrates that winter, but criticisms of him were again raised at a well-attended county meeting, 2 Jan. 1832, when several pro-reform resolutions were agreed. The ensuing petitions, amended to include a request for additional Irish seats, was presented to both Houses, 3 Feb., while later that month an address was forwarded to the king from the county’s Protestants in defence of their interests.36 Nothing came of a threatened Conservative opposition at the general election of 1832, when there were 1,776 registered electors, so Fitzstephen French, the brother of Arthur, who retired in protest at being overlooked for the lord lieutenancy, and the new O’Conor Don, who was praised for his active conduct and advanced politics, were returned unopposed as Liberals.37 French and his nephew Charles French occupied one Roscommon seat until 1880, and the O’Conor Don, his son Charles Owen O’Conor and Grace held the other between them for almost all the same period.
Author: Stephen Farrell
- 1. Another William Lloyd (of Aston Hall, Salop) was the defeated candidate for Shropshire at the 1831 general election.
- 2. S. Gibbon, Recollections (1829), 165-6; S. Lewis, Top. Dict. of Ireland (1837), ii. 519-25.
- 3. Hist. Irish Parl. ii. 318-19.
- 4. PP (1825), xxii. 101.
- 5. Ibid. (1824), xxxi. 694.
- 6. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), vi. 250; Oldfield, Key (1820), 327; Add. 40298, ff. 36-37; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 683.
- 7. Dublin Evening Post, 9, 28 Mar., 2 Dec. 1820, 23 Jan. 1821; G. Broeker, Rural Disorder and Police Reform in Ireland, 112, 123-4.
- 8. Dublin Evening Post, 15 Mar. 1821.
- 9. O’Conor Pprs. ed. G.W. and J.E. Dunleavy, 83, 90, 129, 153, 166, 179-80, 187, 191.
- 10. Dublin Evening Post, 1 Sept. 1821, 24 Jan., 23 Feb., 18 June, 27 Aug. 1822, 4, 23 Jan. 1823.
- 11. CJ, lxxix. 291; LJ, lvi. 170.
- 12. Roscommon and Leitrim Gazette, 15 May, 17 July; Dublin Evening Post, 3 June, 1, 10, 27 July 1824.
- 13. Dublin Evening Post, 18 Sept. 1824, 29 Mar.; Roscommon and Leitrim Gazette, 16, 23, 30 July 1825.
- 14. Dublin Evening Post, 6, 15 Oct., 3, 15 Nov. 1825.
- 15. CJ, lxxxi. 308-9; LJ, lviii. 305-6; The Times, 2, 9 May 1826.
- 16. Add. 40387, ff. 96, 212; Dublin Evening Post, 6, 25, 30 May, 8, 10, 15, 17 June 1826.
- 17. Roscommon and Leitrim Gazette, 10, 24 June, 15, 22 July, 5 Aug.; Dublin Evening Post, 20, 22, 24 June, 1, 4, 13, 15 July 1826.
- 18. CJ, lxxxii. 174, 276; LJ, lix. 144-5, 166; Roscommon and Leitrim Gazette, 6, 13 Jan., 7 Apr.; The Times, 9 Mar. 1827.
- 19. CJ, lxxxiii. 36, 113; LJ, lx. 160, 401.
- 20. Roscommon Jnl. 2, 9 Aug., 13 Sept. 1828.
- 21. Roscommon and Leitrim Gazette, 4, 25 Oct., 22, 29 Nov. 1828.
- 22. Roscommon Jnl. 6, 13 Dec. 1828, 3, 10, 31 Jan., 7 Feb. 1829; O’Conor Pprs. 166-7.
- 23. CJ, lxxxiv. 81, 103; LJ, lxi. 57, 107.
- 24. PP (1830), xxix. 472; Roscommon and Leitrim Gazette, 27 June 1829; K.T. Hoppen, Elections, Politics and Society in Ireland, 157.
- 25. Roscommon Jnl. 13 June, 19 Sept., 3 Oct. 1829.
- 26. Ibid. 21 Nov., 12, 19 Dec.; Roscommon and Leitrim Gazette, 21, 28 Nov., 19, 26 Dec. 1829, 16, 23 Jan. 1830.
- 27. Roscommon Jnl. 13, 27 Mar., 3, 10, 17 Apr., 12, 19 June; Dublin Evening Post, 10, 15 June 1830.
- 28. CJ, lxxxv. 434, 589; LJ, lxii. 398, 780; Roscommon and Leitrim Gazette, 3 July 1830.
- 29. Roscommon Jnl. 24, 31 July, 7, 14 Aug.; Roscommon and Leitrim Gazette, 24, 31 July, 7, 14 Aug. 1830; O’Conor Pprs. 152, 159-60, 180, 182, 189-90, 197.
- 30. Dublin Evening Post, 14, 19 Aug., 25 Sept. 1830.
- 31. [H. Brougham], Result of General Election (1830), 13.
- 32. Roscommon Jnl. 8, 15, 22 Jan., 9, 16, 23 Apr.; Roscommon and Leitrim Gazette, 22 Jan., 19 Feb. 1831.
- 33. Roscommon and Leitrim Gazette, 30 Apr., 7, 14, 21, 28 May; Roscommon Jnl. 7, 20 May 1831; PP (1831), xvi. 202.
- 34. Dublin Evening Post, 14, 16 June; Roscommon Jnl. 17, 24 June, 22, 29 July 1831; O’Conor Pprs. 181, 189.
- 35. Roscommon and Leitrim Gazette, 8 Oct. 1831; O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1854.
- 36. Roscommon and Leitrim Gazette, 17 Dec. 1831, 14 Jan., 4 Feb. 1832; CJ, lxxxvii. 70; LJ, lxiv. 36.
- 37. Roscommon Jnl. 31 Aug., 14 Sept., 14, 21 Dec. 1832.