Politician, and the leading orator in the late-eighteenth-century Irish parliament, Henry Grattan (1746–1820) was brought into the House of Commons in 1775 by Lord Charlemont to reinforce the then somewhat depleted ranks of opposition MPs known as Patriots. Choosing at the outset to focus on financial issues, Grattan quickly demonstrated that he was possessed of exceptional oratorical skills. His penchant for "violent" language elicited disapproving comments from those who were the target of his criticism, but it earned him bouquets from his parliamentary colleagues and an increasingly politicized public. Grattan was a leading member of the Patriot interest that obliged the British government to remove long-standing mercantilist restrictions on Irish trade in the winter of 1779 to 1780. In April 1780, Grattan called on the Irish Commons to approve "a declaration of the rights of Ireland," but two years elapsed before he was able to gain approval for such a declaration by taking advantage of a change in government at Westminster and the strong support of the Volunteers, a paramilitary body of Protestant citizens formed to aid in the defence of the kingdom. It was the greatest moment in Grattan's career and ensured that the ensuing constitutional changes securing to the Irish legislature the right to make law for the kingdom of Ireland ("legislative independence") would long be identified with him ("Grattan's parliament").
Unfortunately from Grattan's perspective, a disagreement with Henry Flood as to whether the British parliament had renounced the right to make law for Ireland soured the public mood and generated a measure of bitterness between the two men that nearly culminated in a duel in 1783. Having lost the esteem of the public, Grattan sought to forge a working relationship with Dublin Castle, but he did not possess an eye for legal or administrative detail and soon gravitated toward opposition in the House of Commons. The Regency Crisis of 1788 through 1789, which provided the stimulus for the foundation of the Whig Club, more organized opposition, and the general invigoration of political discourse following the outbreak of revolution in France, created the environment in which Grattan could flourish once more. Now MP for Dublin city, his embrace of the cause of Catholic enfranchisement ensured him a leading place among the country's moderate reformers. His advocacy of Catholic emancipation at the time of Earl Fitzwilliam's controversial viceroyalty between 1794 and 1795 reinforced this image, but his inability to overcome the conservative vested interests, who were committed to upholding the values of "Protestant Ascendancy," caused him to withdraw from Parliament in 1797. Wrongly suspected of complicity with the United Irishmen in the late 1790s, he was persuaded to make a political comeback in 1800 only by the threat of an Anglo-Irish union. His fruitless opposition to the Act of Union helped greatly to reinforce his identification with legislative independence among later generations, though he served in the united Parliament from 1805 until his death in 1820. A sincere and influential presence in the Whig Party, he worked unsuccessfully to promote Catholic emancipation conditional on the Crown retaining the power to veto appointments to the Catholic hierarchy. The emergence of a demand for the repeal of the Act of Union following his death ensured that it was as the progenitor of "Grattan's parliament" that he achieved a measure of popular immortality.
SEE ALSO Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1714 to 1778—Interest Politics; 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; Military Forces from 1690 to 1800
Grattan, Henry, Jr. Memoirs of the Life and Times of the Rt. Hon. Henry Grattan. 5 vols. 1839–1846.
Kelly, James. Henry Grattan. 1993.
Kelly, James. Henry Flood: Patriots and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Ireland. 1998.
McDowell, Robert B. Henry Grattan. 2001.
The Irish statesman and orator Henry Grattan (1746-1820) led the nationalist fight for Ireland's legislative independence from England, for parliamentary reform, and for Catholic emancipation.
Henry Grattan distinguished himself at Trinity College, Dublin, where he acquired his passion for the classics and for eloquent oratory. He left the university in 1767 and was called to the Irish bar in 1772. With another Irish patriot, Henry Flood, Grattan contributed articles to the nationalist Freeman's Journal. They were at first great friends and united in the Irish cause. Grattan entered Parliament in 1775, the same year in which Flood lost his position as parliamentary leader by accepting the office of vice-treasurer of Ireland. Grattan's eloquence quickly allowed him to move into the leadership that Flood had vacated.
The American Revolution helped bring Irish matters to a head, and in 1778-1779 Britain finally granted some of the concessions to Irish trade for which Grattan and Flood had worked. Grattan's greatest efforts then went toward securing Ireland's legislative independence. He made speech after speech in Parliament, declaring that Ireland had as much right to its freedom as the English king had to his crown. Hard-pressed by defeat in America and alarmed by the convention of the Volunteers, an Irish nationalist organization at Dungannon, in 1782 England granted legislative independence and ended penal laws against Catholics. The Irish Parliament recognized Grattan's primary role in securing its liberty and granted him £50,000, a sum which made him financially independent. The free Irish legislature, which lasted only 18 years, was called Grattan's Parliament.
With their chief object thus achieved, the Irish patriots fell into disagreement over some of their other goals. Grattan and Flood were themselves both Protestants, but they differed on Catholic emancipation. Grattan believed in the future of a unified nationalist Ireland and wished to grant Catholics full civil liberties; Flood, however, wanted to guarantee Protestant ascendancy by withholding from Catholics the rights to vote and hold office. Both wanted to reform the corrupt Irish legislature, but they differed on methods. They also disagreed over disbanding the Volunteers, which Grattan desired and Flood opposed.
In Parliament, Grattan at first generally supported the administration but moved into opposition as he saw governmental intransigence against the reforms he wanted, especially tithe commutation. He steadily refused office, lest it appear that he had sold out to government. He continued to attack parliamentary corruption and to support Catholic emancipation. The latter was moving closer under the guidance of William Pitt the Younger, but the rashness of Lord Fitzwilliam in 1795 made it impossible. In the face of growing disorders, Grattan made a final appeal for reforms and emancipation. His efforts failing, he seceded from the legislature (1797) but returned to Parliament to speak against the Union (1800).
For the last 15 years of his life Grattan sat in the Union House of Commons, frequently urging Catholic emancipation and once (1813) coming near success. He died in 1820 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Roger J. McHugh, Henry Grattan (1936), and Stephen Gwynn, Henry Grattan and His Times (1939), are the best modern biographies. William Edward Hartpole Lecky's biographical essay on Grattan occupies more than 200 pages of his Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland, vol. 1 (3d ed. 1903). General histories for background include Edmund Curtis, A History of Ireland (6th ed. rev. 1950), and J. C. Beckett, A Short History of Ireland (1952; rev. ed. 1958). □
Richard A. Smith