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

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the corporation

Number qualified to vote:



6,701 (1821); 7,711 (1831)


18 Mar. 1820SIR ROSS MAHON, bt.
29 June 1820RICHARD WELLESLEY vice Mahon, vacated his seat
11 Feb. 1828LEWIS re-elected after appointment to office
23 Apr. 1828WILLIAM SMITH O'BRIEN vice Lewis, vacated his seat
28 Feb. 1832SIR AUGUSTINE FITZGERALD, bt. vice Vesey Fitzgerald, become a peer of Ireland

Main Article

Ironically, since it was to be the scene of his triumph in the famous Clare by-election, Daniel O’Connell* found Ennis, which lay in the parish of Drumcliff, unwelcoming and depressing on his visits as a barrister at the assizes.1 Reckoned to be one of the most dismal county towns in Ireland, it was reported by the Scot Robert Graham of Redgorton in 1835 to consist mainly ‘of a string of wretched looking cabins on both sides of the entries to the town’. Yet, celebrated for its onions and boasting of rising corn and butter sales, it was also considered capable of improvement, especially if the River Fergus were made navigable as far as the poverty stricken village of Clare, which otherwise served as its port.2 The principal proprietor was the 3rd earl of Egremont of Petworth, Sussex, most of whose land was held in fee by Francis Gore of Derrymore and sublet by him to the leading inhabitants and local gentry.3 The tolls, shared between Egremont’s representatives and the provost, were the sole source of revenue for the almost entirely defective corporation, which had been established in 1612. This comprised, in addition to the provost, only 12 free burgesses; the commonalty had fallen into desuetude, with the last two freemen having been elected in 1810. By 1820 the county Clare Members William Vesey Fitzgerald, presumably acting on behalf of his ageing father James Fitzgerald† of Inchicronan, and Sir Edward O’Brien of nearby Dromoland, both burgesses, controlled the corporation, which they packed with their (mostly non-resident) relations and connections.4

They equally enjoyed an unrestricted exercise of the electoral patronage. According to various radical sources, they nominated the Member alternately, but Vesey Fitzgerald, who was closely connected with Lord Liverpool’s government, seems to have handled the necessary transactions on most occasions.5 Perhaps O’Brien, another pro-Catholic Tory, was willing to acquiesce in the return of ministerialist paying guests so long as he remained securely in possession of his county seat; he would have fallen back on Ennis had he lost Clare in 1812, when in fact it was Vesey Fitzgerald, beaten into third place in the county contest, who needed it for that purpose.6 At the general election of 1818, Vesey Fitzgerald, who no longer required the seat, offered it to Thomas Browne of Newgrove, a burgess, and then sold it to Spencer Perceval*, the son and namesake of the murdered prime minister.7 His vote against Catholic claims, 3 May 1819, which was resented in the constituency, perhaps led to his being dropped at the next dissolution.8 O’Brien reported to his wife, 21 Feb. 1820, that ‘all arrangements respecting the b[orough] are deferred till Mr. F. and I meet in Clare’,­­ and it was possibly because of this delay that Vesey Fitzgerald’s brother-in-law Sir Ross Mahon of Castlegar, county Galway, was returned at the general election the following month, when nothing came of rumours that O’Brien might be forced to retreat to the borough or that a petition critical of the corporation would be forthcoming.9 In June 1820 Mahon, who was perhaps only ever intended as a stopgap, resigned the borough in favour of the seatless Richard Wellesley, the illegitimate son of the Catholic sympathizer Lord Wellesley, who was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland in 1821.10 The householders’ petition for repeal of the window tax was presented by O’Brien, 1 May 1822.11

In January 1826 a petition, which aroused Vesey Fitzgerald’s anxieties, was organized to complain about the corporation’s rights, but it does not appear to have been brought up in Parliament.12 At the general election later that year O’Brien, whose eldest son Lucius replaced him as Member for Clare, perhaps still envisaged (as he had the previous autumn) bringing in his second son. This was William Smith O’Brien, who, having joined the Mechanics’ Institute and made a good impression, was requisitioned to stand with a guarantee of success.13 Yet, having been detained in London by negotiations over it, O’Brien sold the seat to the Welsh Canningite Thomas Frankland Lewis, whose tenure at Beaumaris was no longer secure.14 In his absence, Lewis was proposed by O’Brien and returned by him, Lucius O’Brien (the provost) and five other burgesses, despite a spirited attempt to put up Major William Nugent Macnamara* of Doolin by the headstrong young agitator the O’Gorman Mahon* of Mahonburgh, who threatened a petition and was chaired by the unfranchised inhabitants. Thomas Spring Rice, Whig Member for Limerick, was feted at a dinner in Ennis, 12 Oct. 1826.15 Nothing came of attempts to enrol more freemen that year, partly because the £2 admission fee was considered exorbitant.16

Lewis, who was re-elected on transferring from the joint-secretaryship of the treasury to the vice-presidency of the board of trade in February 1828, resigned from the representation of Ennis two months later in order to come in for his native Radnorshire. He failed in his bid to nominate a successor, but O’Brien surrendered to him at least £700, being part of what he had paid.17 Sir George Shee of Dunmore House, county Galway, who was willing to spend £1,200-£1,500 a year for a seat, apparently turned down the offer of the borough under the mistaken impression that he would have to relinquish the shrievalty of Galway.18 Instead the new member of the Catholic Association, Smith O’Brien, whose later recollections attest to the alternating arrangement between the electoral patrons, was introduced by Sir Edward, who may have had a compensatory payment to Vesey Fitzgerald in mind when he grumbled to his son about having made ‘a considerable sacrifice (which I can ill afford at the present moment) to bring you forward in public life’.19 There was some concern that the Catholic Henry Blake Foster of Rosepark would force a contest, but no manifestation of support for another outsider, despite a call for the opening of the borough, took place and Smith O’Brien, who was absent at his father’s request, was returned unopposed.20

The Catholic inhabitants’ petitions for Catholic relief, repeal of the Irish Subletting and Vestry Acts, and parliamentary reform were presented by Smith O’Brien, 7, 14, 22 May, and Hume, 23 May 1828.21 Smith O’Brien declined a request to vacate Ennis in order to oppose Vesey Fitzgerald at the Clare by-election that summer, when he followed the family line in opposing O’Connell’s candidacy; O’Connell was magnanimous at the time, but a year later, on being re-elected for the county, he threatened a challenge to his father’s interest in the borough at the next election.22 In November 1828 the town agreed a memorial, which was entrusted to Smith O’Brien, complaining about the military procession which had accompanied the establishment of the county Brunswick Club the previous month; it was ignored by the Irish administration.23 A meeting to consider the neglected state of the town was held under Macnamara’s chairmanship, 29 Sept. 1829, when the O’Gorman Mahon moved a resolution for altering its representation, and legal advice was subsequently sought about the validity of the tolls. Other gatherings, chaired by the provost Andrew Stacpoole, for the purpose of lighting the streets were held, 6 Nov., 14 Dec. 1829, in the presence of Lucius and Sir Edward O’Brien, who, in placatory fashion, proffered his and Vesey Fitzgerald’s assistance.24

At the general election of 1830 the nomination was understood to be back in the hands of the Fitzgerald family and O’Connell enquired about the possibility of it being sold to an (unnamed) ‘English gentleman of large fortune who would I think outbid anybody else’.25 However, Vesey Fitzgerald presumably had no objection to the continuance of Smith O’Brien, who supported the duke of Wellington’s administration, so he (proposed by Stacpoole) was returned unopposed in the face of vehement objections from the O’Gorman Mahon, which Sir Edward, as provost, eventually silenced. It was said that there were only four burgesses present, including Lucius O’Brien, and that as in 1826 (when the proceedings allegedly took place in a cellar beneath the causeway), the election would have been conducted in semi-secrecy (this time, in one Mrs. Pinchin’s front parlour) had not the O’Gorman Mahon intervened to have it transferred to the suffocatingly crowded court house.26 Building on the popular pressure for opening the borough, the Catholic liberals mustered in force, under the chairmanship of Hewitt Bridgeman† of Rockforest, 11 Oct., to form a committee of independence, which immediately began to prepare a legal case against the electoral monopoly of the corporation.27 A petition from the inhabitants for repeal of the Union was presented to the Commons by Macnamara, 25 Nov. 1830, and to the Lords by Lord Shrewsbury, 15 Feb. 1831.28 A reform meeting, advertised for 21 Jan. 1831, did not in the end materialize.29

Lucius O’Brien, standing in for his father at the Clare by-election in March 1831, reluctantly announced that the family would support the Grey ministry’s reform bill and abandon its electoral interests, and Sir Edward’s defeat at the hands of Maurice O’Connell was considered by the lord lieutenant, Lord Anglesey, deservedly to spell the end of his patronage of the borough.30 Smith O’Brien, who joined the Ennis Independent Club in late March, was said by one of his local supporters in early April to have every prospect of future success, ‘not from your family connection or influence, but from your own personal merit’.31 But, perhaps because of the family’s capitulation, he was not brought forward at the ensuing general election: according to notes on his parliamentary career written by a friend, it was ‘on account of Sir Edward O’Brien’s dissatisfaction at W. O’Brien’s vote in favour of the reform bill [on 19 Apr.] and also his preposition in favour of the Catholics’.32 Anomalously, it was reported that it was again the turn of Vesey Fitzgerald to nominate and he, who had sat for Newport and Lostwithiel since his Clare defeat three years earlier, now chose to resume his personal occupation. He was proposed in his absence by Sir Edward, who was closely questioned about the supposedly pro-reform sentiments of the unopposed new Member by the local radical Basil Davoren, while Stacpoole expressed his pleasure at thereafter being able to relinquish the corporators’ exclusive right of election. At the instigation of Davoren, the same day a coffin enclosing a copy of the corporation’s charter and adorned by a dead rat was ceremoniously committed to the Fergus.33 It was reported to the Irish secretary Smith Stanley that the ‘agitators got up a procession representing the funeral of the corporation’, which ‘passed through the whole of the town and, with the inflammatory harangues of the mischievous agitators, caused considerable excitement’; a man died in the ensuing disorder.34

Smith O’Brien, who bragged that ‘such a kind feeling exists towards me in the town as has, I trust, secured, if anything of this kind can be called secure, my return after the passing of the reform bill’, informed Smith Stanley, 15 June 1831, about various abuses in the corporation of Ennis: notably, the invidious role of the non-resident provost as returning officer, the existence of the wholly informal position of vice-provost, the improper exaction of tolls and the desirability of extending the boundaries (if necessary) to more respectable habitations outside the town and even as far as the village of Clare.35 His announcement that month that he would stand as a popular candidate at the next election was met with enthusiasm, including at a gathering of the inhabitants, 2 July, when it was resolved to support their former Member as one of ‘whom we feel proud in identifying with the interests of the town’.36 That summer he took charge of the address from the local landowners to the lord lieutenant for making the Fergus navigable, an issue which, in line with his active cultivation of the borough, he pursued (in vain) well into the following year.37 On succeeding his mother as Baron Fitzgerald, 3 Jan. 1832, Vesey Fitzgerald passed on the seat not to the currently unprovided for Lord Lowther*, Lord Lonsdale’s heir (as the opposition whip William Holmes* wished), but to another Tory, his near namesake Sir Augustine Fitzgerald, former Member for Clare, who was returned unopposed the following month.38

Dominick Browne, Member for Mayo, unsuccessfully moved to exchange the borough for a third seat for county Clare, 9 July 1832, when Maurice O’Connell defended its viability as a constituency. According to the boundary commissioners, whose recommendation to extend the borough to cover the full extent of the town was implemented, the number of houses was 1,390, of which 290 were valued at £10 or over, so that, discounting vacant and female occupancy, there were expected to be about 250 electors, including the four resident corporators, at the first reformed election.39 To the regret of his friends, Smith O’Brien, who had refused to attend a dinner at which repeal of the Union was to be toasted or (at his father’s behest) to spend even on local charities, withdrew to pursue family and political ambitions in county Limerick.40 Of the large field of Repealers, as well as Gore’s Unionist son Joseph Gore, who presented themselves to the 237 registered electors at the general election of 1832, Macnamara’s son Francis Macnamara was the successful Liberal candidate.41 He called his expensive and quickly repented achievement, ‘the only false step I have ever made’, not least because he feared that ‘I shall now be considered by the Ennis party as not violent, not enough of a "Radical" for them and by the other party as a "down right one", and between the two will fall to the ground’.42 On his retirement in 1834, the now dominant Repeal interest ensured that he was followed by Bridgeman, 1835-47, and the O’Gorman Mahon, 1847-52.43

Author: Stephen Farrell


  • 1. O’Connell Corresp. i. 152.
  • 2. J. C. Curwen, Observations on State of Ireland (1818), i. 361, 362; H.D. Inglis, Ireland in 1834, i. 275-8; Scottish Whig in Ireland ed. H. Heaney, 219, 220; PP (1835), xxvii. 513; S. Lewis, Top. Dict. of Ireland (1837), i. 600.
  • 3. NLI, Smith O’Brien mss 426/101.
  • 4. PP (1824), xxi. 676; (1831-2), xliii. 69, 70; (1835), xxvii. 509-14.
  • 5. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816) vi. 222; Key to Both Houses (1832), 325.
  • 6. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 634.
  • 7. Add. 40296, f. 23; 40298, f. 18; K. Sheedy, Clare Elections, 124.
  • 8. Dublin Weekly Reg. 12 Feb. 1820.
  • 9. Ibid. 26 Feb., 25 Mar. 1820; NLI, Inchiquin mss T23/2972.
  • 10. Sheedy, 129.
  • 11. CJ, lxxvii. 222; The Times, 2 May 1822.
  • 12. Add. 40322, f. 143; Sheedy, 135.
  • 13. Harewood mss WYL 250/8/87, O’Brien to Canning, 28 Oct. 1825; Freeman’s Jnl. 27 May, 7 June 1826; R. Sloan, William Smith O’Brien, 16, 17.
  • 14. Inchiquin mss 3627, O’Brien to wife, 18 May 1826; Sheedy, 136.
  • 15. Dublin Evening Post, 22 June, 19 Oct.; Morning Reg. 24 June, 1 July 1826.
  • 16. PP (1831-2), xliii. 69.
  • 17. NLW, Harpton Court mss C/598, 600.
  • 18. Palmerston-Sulivan Corresp. 211.
  • 19. Smith O’Brien mss 449/3399; 10515 (4), Smith O’Brien to unknown, 25 Sept. 1844; Sloan, 17, 18; R. Davis, Revolutionary Imperialist, 24.
  • 20. Clare Jnl. 24 Apr.; Dublin Evening Post, 24 Apr. 1828.
  • 21. CJ, lxxxiii. 324, 249, 372, 378.
  • 22. Sloan, 18, 19.
  • 23. Dublin Evening Post, 13, 15 Nov., 2 Dec. 1828.
  • 24. Clare Jnl. 21 Sept., 1, 5, 12 Oct., 2, 9 Nov., 17 Dec. 1829.
  • 25. O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1686; Dublin Morning Post, 20 July 1830.
  • 26. Clare Jnl. 5 Aug.; Freeman’s Jnl. 9 Aug. 1830; Davis, 46; Sheedy, 162.
  • 27. Clare Jnl. 14 Oct. 1830.
  • 28. CJ, lxxxvi. 133; LJ, lxiii. 228.
  • 29. Clare Jnl. 17, 24 Jan. 1831.
  • 30. Ibid. 21 Mar.; Derby mss 920 Der (14) 119/2, Anglesey to Smith Stanley, 27 Mar. 1831; PRO NI, Anglesey mss D619/28C, pp. 89-91.
  • 31. Smith O’Brien mss 426/99, 100.
  • 32. Ibid. 449/3398; Sloan, 28.
  • 33. Clare Jnl. 12 May; Dublin Evening Post, 14 May 1831; Sheedy, 167, 168.
  • 34. TNA HO100/238, f. 130.
  • 35. Derby mss 122/5.
  • 36. Smith O’Brien mss 426/111, 112.
  • 37. Ibid. 427/140-74; Clare Jnl. 14 July, 3, 17, 20 Oct. 1831, 30 Jan., 2 Feb., 28 May, 23 July 1832; PP (1835), xxvii. 513, 514.
  • 38. Add. 40402, f. 183; Sheedy, 169, 170.
  • 39. PP (1831-2), xliii. 69-71; (1835), xxvii. 509.
  • 40. Clare Jnl. 13 Sept. 1832; Smith O’Brien mss 427/175, 181, 184; 449/3426, 7; Sloan, 31-33; Davis, 61, 62.
  • 41. Clare Jnl. 27 Sept., 13 Oct., 22 Nov., 20, 24 Dec. 1832; Sheedy, 170, 171, 173, 174.
  • 42. NLI, Stacpoole Kenny mss 18888 (7), F. to J. Macnamara [1832]; (9), same to same, 2, 6 Mar. 1833; 18891 (10), Woulfe to same, 26 Dec. 1832.
  • 43. Dod, Electoral Facts (1853), 110.