Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1714 to 1778—Interest Politics

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Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1714 to 1778—Interest Politics

The inauguration of the Hanoverian succession with the coming of George I to the throne in 1714 put a sudden and immediate end to the politics of party in Ireland. Deprived of their primary rationale, Tories across the kingdom either stepped hastily into the political wilderness or embarked on a campaign of political reinvention, whereas the now dominant Whigs availed of the opportunity to consolidate their command over the levers of power. Locally, this usually resulted in the exclusion of Tory activists from boroughs and corporations, as a result in some instances of specific acts of the Irish parliament. At the national level the imputation of disloyalty was sufficient to ensure that Toryism dissolved as a political force.

New and familiar cleavages based on court and country, personality, and simple ambition soon moved to take the place of party allegiances. The decline in the likelihood of a French invasion facilitated greater tolerance, though the introduction of a formal prohibition in 1727 on voting by Catholics reflected a commitment to uphold the penal laws. Meanwhile, successive lords lieutenant, unwilling to reside permanently in Ireland, were dependent on the guidance that they received from the leaders of the major (Protestant) political interests in their management of the Irish parliament. This in effect obliged them to decide during George I's reign (1714–1727) between the skillful and influential William Conolly and the ambitious and less predictable Alan Brodrick. Most opted for Conolly, though even he might dissent from such unpopular policies as the controversial attempt between 1724 and 1725 to introduce lowdenomination copper coin—Wood's halfpence. This and other constitutional and fiscal crises energized a "patriot" sensibility in the kingdom. Perceiving that British politicians regarded Ireland as a dependent kingdom—an impression underlined by the Declaratory Act (1720), by which the Westminster legislature assumed the power to make law for Ireland—Irish Protestants welcomed the vigorous restatement of their legislative rights provided by Jonathan Swift's Drapier's Letters (1725). Swift's commentaries on the famine conditions that gripped the kingdom in the late 1720s also served as an important stimulus to economic patriotism.

In the wake of the dispute about Wood's halfpence, lords lieutenant expanded the role of selected Irish politicians ("undertakers") who "undertook" to manage the government's legislative program. The undertaker system was at its most effective under the direction and guidance of Henry Boyle, who performed that role for over twenty years from 1733. By ensuring that the key financial legislation was enacted at every biennial session, and by neutralizing such threats to political stability as emerged from the Dublin radical Charles Lucas, Boyle ensured that Irish politics remained on an even keel. By the early 1750s, however, a coalition of Irish politicians eager to assume his influence and officials resentful of his power sought to diminish his authority. The resulting crisis—the Money Bill dispute (1753–1756)—did not put an end to the undertaker system, but it did serve to introduce a degree of instability into the political process and controversy into public discourse. Stimulated to promote a political program that blended traditional Whig principles with civic virtue, a loose connection of Patriot politicians had emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the House of Commons by the late 1760s. Officials and ministers in London concluded that something needed to be done to affirm the authority of the crown in Ireland. A number of options were canvassed, but the one that found most favor was that of requiring lord lieutenants to reside in Ireland for the duration of their appointment. Because they did not much like the undertaker system, the Patriots might have been expected to support George, Lord Townshend (lord lieutenant, 1767–1772), when he challenged that system by residing in Ireland. But their conviction that his real object was to promote an aristocratic reaction, such as they perceived was also being promoted in England and America, prompted them to take the opposite course. Nevertheless, Townshend put an end to undertaking, thus prompting popular hopes for a more principled era. Increasingly vigorous demonstrations of support for parliamentary reform in the early 1770s had little impact on the House of Commons until the outbreak of hostilities between the Crown and the American colonies changed the context utterly.

SEE ALSO Burke, Edmund; Catholic Committee from 1756 to 1809; Catholic Merchants and Gentry from 1690 to 1800; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1690 to 1714—Revolution Settlement; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1778 to 1795—Parliamentary and Popular Politics; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1795 to 1800—Repression, Rebellion, and Union; Flood, Henry; Government from 1690 to 1800; Grattan, Henry; Military Forces from 1690 to 1800; O'Conor, Charles, of Balenagare; Penal Laws; Politics: 1690 to 1800—A Protestant Kingdom; Protestant Ascendancy: 1690 to 1800; Trade and Trade Policy from 1691 to 1800


Bartlett, Thomas, and David W. Hayton, eds. Penal Era and Golden Age. 1979.

Burns, Robert E. Irish Parliamentary Politics in the Eighteenth Century, 1714-60. 2 vols. 1989–1990.

McNally, Patrick. Parties, Patriots, and Undertakers: Parliamentary Politics in Early Hanoverian Ireland. 1997.

Magennis, Eoin. The Irish Political System, 1740–1765: The Golden Age of the Undertakers. 2000.

James Kelly

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Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1714 to 1778—Interest Politics

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