Hercules Langrishe: Irish Catholic emancipationist or self-serving politician?


Thomas Gregory Fewer

Hercules Langrishe (c. 1729-1811) sat as MP for Knocktopher, County Kilkenny, for six consecutive terms totalling almost forty years from 1761 until the abolition of the seat with the Act of Union in 1800. The length of his tenure as MP has received much comment as also his advocacy for repealing the penal laws against Catholics, especially his introduction of the Catholic Relief Bill of 1792. This article attempts to examine the reasons for the apparent sympathy that Langrishe, a Protestant landowner and politician, seemed to have for Catholics during the Penal Era.

Langrishe graduated with a BA at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1753 (Burtchaell and Sadleir, 1935, p. 482) and was made a freeman of Kilkenny on 3 November 1750 (Kilkenny Corporation archives, CR/D6, p. 409). Since his birth or baptismal record does not appear to survive (Langrishe [1897, p. 434]; cf. list of surviving Church of Ireland parish records for Co. Kilkenny in Grenham [1992, pp. 262-3]), his year of birth is estimated on the basis that he was at least twenty-one years old at the time he became a freeman in 1750.

In the early part of his political career, between 1762 and 1778, Hercules supported a number of unsuccessful bills that would have allowed Catholics to take out mortgages on land and to obtain both building leases and leases for more than thirty-one years (Wall [1984, p. 231]; DNB [1892, p. 116]; Johnston [1974, p. 146]). Langrishe fully endorsed the Catholic Relief Bill of 1782, stating that he would not hesitate to repeal any law 'which wore the face of impotent malice' (quoted in McDowell [1979, p. 191]). The government supported Catholic relief in an effort to curb the power of the Irish Protestants who were beginning to demand legislative independence. It may not be surprising that Langrishe offered the government his support on such matters as it would have been rather lucrative for him to do so. Indeed, Hercules held a succession of government offices from the 1760s to 1801 - first as a commissioner of barracks (1766-1774) and as a supervisor of accounts (1767-1775), then as a commissioner of revenue (1774-1802) and of excise (1780-1802) (Lascelles [1824, part iii, pp. 84, 88, 92; part ii, p. 115]; Langrishe Papers, Rothe House, letter from Col. John Stevenson to Hercules Langrishe, 16 January 1775; DNB [1892]). His son Robert, himself an MP for Knocktopher (1783-1796), also became a revenue commissioner in 1796 (Power, 1990). In addition to holding various offices, Hercules was created a baronet in 1777 (though the date is variably put at 24 January, 28 January and 19 February [Gentleman's Magazine (1811, p. 289), Burtchaell (1888, p. 159), DNB (1892); Genealogical Office, Dublin, MS 112 (Brooke), p. 23; Burke's Peerage (1970); respectively] and a privy councillor in 1786 (Burtchaell, 1888, p. 159). In 1775, his annual income was put at 1500 (Sadleir, 1943, p. 145), which presumably includes both his official earnings (e.g., he earned 400 a year as a commissioner of barracks [Lascelles, 1824, part iii, p. 92]) and the rents from his estate. Since his rental in 1800 was worth only 525, 18 shillings and threepence, the government offices must have been a welcome additional source of income (indeed, he received 1,000 per annum as a revenue commissioner and a further yearly sum of 1,000 as an excise commissioner, according to Lascelles [1824, part iii, pp. 84, 88]). He also raised extra cash by mortgaging his Knocktopher property in, for example, 1782 (for 1200), in 1785 (for 1000) and in 1794 (for 1700).

While his support for the government may have been financially motivated, it seems that his support for Catholic relief had similar fiscal motives. Political historian Thomas Power (1990, p. 318) points out that since Knocktopher was a borough in which (unusually) all the Protestant resident householders could vote, Langrishe acquired all the property in the town and leased it only to Catholics. As Power puts it, leasing to Protestants 'would make voting rights axiomatic and hence would serve to undermine his [Langrishe's] absolute control'. By 1783, Knocktopher (with a population of about two hundred) had only one qualified Protestant voter, 'who very likely was the portrieve whose only function was to make the return of MPs' (Power [1990, p. 318]; cf. McCracken [1986, p. 74]). Power's evidence for this comprises two early nineteenth-century accounts of late eighteenth-century politics. My search for registered deeds relating to landholding in Knocktopher offers more specific evidence of Langrishe's piecemeal process of gaining control of the borough's electorate and supports Power's assertion. In 1770, Hercules obtained the lease for a house and garden in Knocktopher to hold 'for ever' and held another small tenement and garden in the village for three lives renewable from 1773 (Registry of Deeds, 282.358.183632 and 304.20.199908, respectively). Since Langrishe already owned over 1,300 statute acres of land, these two tenements were financially insignificant and so their interest to him could only have been political. Furthermore, I was able to locate only one deed of lease granted by Hercules between the 1778 act and the Union in 1801 dealing with property in the borough. This was a lease dated 6 November 1780 and it granted Langrishe's lands in White's Castle townland to Richard Cooban Carr of Dublin city, gent, for the duration of the tenant's life (Registry of Deeds, 335.370.225901). I suspect that Carr may have been the single Protestant voter of 1783 referred to above.

In this context, his political desire for extensions to the legal length of leases that could be held by Catholics (restricted until 1778 to 31 years) may not have been due to any love of Catholics or Catholicism, but rather from a wish to prevent electorally unreliable Protestants from moving into Knocktopher. In other words, the Catholic tenants' increased security of tenure meant the complete security of Langrishe's seat in the Irish House of Commons!

Though he told Edmund Burke in 1793 that 'you cannot conceive the various shapes in which the resentment of Protestant prejudice has appeared against the government for their favourable disposition towards the Catholics' (quoted in Power [1990, p. 320]), Langrishe's politics were otherwise pro-Protestant. These were apparent in his opposition to reform the tithe system in 1786/87 because of his belief that tampering with the tithe would betray the Church of Ireland clergy and would break with 'the principles of the glorious revolution [i.e., the deposition of Catholic King James II in 1688] to which we owe our religion and liberty' (quoted in Kelly [1989, p. 122]). Langrishe had also opposed the extension of the franchise to Catholics in the parliamentary reform bill of 1785, declaring:

Personal equality of representation, the only equality I can conceive, would be a pure democracy, and in a country like ours, where the democracy does not profess the religion of the State, a democracy subversive of the laws and the constitution.

(Quoted in Froude [1906, 2, pp. 475-6])

The year before, he had signed a petition opposing a proposed convention of Irish Volunteers in Kilkenny which would call for parliamentary reform and the extension of the franchise to Catholics. In 1796, Hercules also opposed complete relaxation of the penal laws on the notion that the time was not ideal, and that 'what little of concession still remains behind (which is little more than pride and punctilio) must be the work of conciliation and not contention' (quoted in DNB [1892, p. 116]; cf. McDowell [1979, pp. 521-2]).

Nonetheless, once the French Revolution was underway in the early 1790s, Langrishe proposed the Catholic Relief Bill of 1792, claiming that he 'wished that Catholic and Protestant should become one people, which they would do in time, unless intemperance retarded their progress, and revised the prejudices which so long kept them asunder' (Grattan [1842, 4, p. 55]). This was a rather moderate measure since it failed to give the parliamentary franchise to Catholics, though it did allow them to practice in the legal profession (Johnston [1974, p. 166]; Dickson [1987, p. 176]). Langrishe seconded the Catholic Relief Bill of 1793 because he felt (as did the British government) that the Catholics of Ireland would be useful allies against the spread of 'foreign principles more dangerous than armies, more cruel than the sword' (quoted in Froude [1906, 3, p. 98]; cf. Grattan [1842, 4, p. 88]). This bill, passed as the Catholic Enfranchisement Act, gave the parliamentary vote to all Catholics holding property of at least forty shillings in value (Dickson [1987, p. 178]; Johnston [1974, p. 167]; Foster [1988, p. 261]). Indeed, Langrishe thought that 'the old dangers of Popery were extinct [and that] new dangers had arisen against which Catholics would be the truest allies' (ibid.). His fear of the Revolution set him against the parliamentary reform bill of 1794 which would have made the country much more democratic (for example, by extending the franchise to all the inhabitants with certain trades living within a borough). His view was that:

Popular domination had always been cruel and unjust, and the rapidity of its progress once it was set in motion, was shown by the short duration of democracy in France, where passing like a devastating whirlwind it had soon yielded to the tyranny of so me contemptible but dexterous leaders.

(Quoted in McDowell [1944, pp. 191-2])

With regard to the 'Irish commonalty' (who would obviously form the bulk of voters in an Irish democracy), Langrishe thought that 'individually [they] are an innocent, well-conditioned people, but when assembled under the influence of two or three designing men and heated by the influence of spiritous liquors, they are easily convertible to the extreme of outrage' (quoted in McDowell [1944, pp. 34-5]). Langrishe, then, was a politician who was willing to give concessions to Catholics to bolster his own political power, but he was firmly opposed to introducing any political reform which might weaken its basis.

Indeed, as an independent MP, he could (and did) change his allegiance from one party to another. Langrishe did not always support the government. He opposed the viceregal administration of George, fourth Viscount Townshend (1767-1772), complaining at this time that the heads of the Church of Ireland, the government, the army, and the legal profession were dominated by Englishmen (MacNeill, 1917, pp. 108-9). When Townshend prorogued the Irish parliament between December 1769 and February 1771 for, as he put it, infringing Poyning's Law, he received considerable criticism from many Irish MPs, including Langrishe who wrote a satire of the viceroy's administration called 'The History of Barataria Continued' (published anonymously in the April-May 1771 editions of the Freeman's Journal) (MacNeill [1917, pp. 118-19]; Boylan [1988, p. 192]; DNB [1892]; Burtchaell [1888, p. 159]). In 1775, he advocated a conciliatory policy towards the American colonists when they began their revolt, and in 1782, he supported, albeit passively, the legislative independence of the Irish parliament (DNB [1892]; McDowell [1986a, p. 230]).

At other times, he committed himself to supporting the government. In the general election of 1776, he stood with Henry Flood for the Callan constituency. Flood was officially pro-government at this time as he held the office of vice-treasurer of Ireland (and in this capacity, had voted in favour of sending troops to America and imposing an embargo on Irish exports to the colonies in February 1776). Though both were returned to the constituency, their opponents successfully petitioned parliament in 1777 with the claim that Flood and Langrishe had interfered with the votes, resulting in their unseating (Burtchaell [1888, p. 159]; Power [1990, pp. 327, 330]). This would appear to be another attempt at electoral manipulation on the part of Langrishe, though in this case it was unsuccessful. In the debate over the government's expenditure during the parliamentary session of 1777-78, Langrishe defended the Irish revenue commissioners for permitting the duty-free export of provisions for the use of the British forces in America, revealing that the commissioners had acted under the orders of the British treasury (McDowell, 1986a, p. 219). Between 1786 and 1788, Langrishe also supported the government by opposing the reduction of pensions, and by favouring the Police Bill and 'the bill to suppress tumultuous risings' (DNB [1892]; McDowell [1979, p. 345]; McDowell [1986b, pp. 286-7]). He and his son Robert even officially informed the government of the situation in Kilkenny during the tensions leading up to the Insurrection of 1798 (Cullen, 1990, p. 285). Finally, a supporter from 1791 of the notion of legislative union between Britain and Ireland, Langrishe was compensated (as were other MPs regardless of whether they supported the Act or not) for the loss of his parliamentary seat on the passing of the Act of Union in 1800 with a pay off of 13,862 10s. - a not unreasonable retirement pension (Burtchaell [1888, p. 159]; DNB [1892]; Langrishe [1897, p. 435]; Boylan [1988, p. 192]; Brennan [1990, p. 185]; Power [1990, p. 320])!

I would like to thank the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, particularly its officers Mr Michael O'Dwyer and Ms Mary Flood, for giving me access to the Langrishe Papers in Rothe House, Kilkenny. I would also like to thank Kilkenny Corporation for allowing me to examine its archives.


Primary sources

Rothe House, Kilkenny
Langrishe Papers: estate rentals of 1797 and 1800; correspondence.

Registry of Deeds, Dublin
173.594.117563, 282.358.183632, 304.20.199908, 335.365.225872, 335.370.225901, 338.28.225900, 403.454.26007, 408.94.268806, 408.95.268808, 489.263.309143, 551.25.361980, 553.252.367739, and 783.244.529979.

Kilkenny Corporation archives
CR/D6, Corporation Minutes (5 December 1730-25 September 1760), p. 409.

CR/H3, 'Grand roll of freemen of the City of Kilkenny from the 1st January 1760' (1760-1987).

Genealogical Office, Dublin
MS 112 Brooke (Baronets' Pedigrees), p. 23.

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Obituary in The Gentleman's Magazine: and Historical Chronicle, 81(1) (January-June, 1811), pp. 194, 289.

SADLEIR, Thomas U. (1943) 'Manuscripts at Kilboy', in Analecta Hibernica, 12, pp. 144-7.

VICARS, Sir A. (1897) Index to the prerogative wills of Ireland, 1536-1810 (Dublin: Edward Ponsonby).

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