Henry Grattan

Contributors: JK.


Henry Grattan (1746-1820), patriot and politician. As the only Irish politician to have a phase of parliamentary history named after him, Henry Grattan is unique in Irish history. Grattan was, as this indicates, one of the pre-eminent politicians of his age. But it is highly significant that the employment of the term ‘Grattan’s parliament’, on which he reputation primarily rests, to define the eighteen years between the granting of ‘legislative independence’ to the Irish parliament in 1782 and that parliament’s abolition by the Act of Union in 1800 postdates Grattan’s death. The term was coined in the nineteenth century when the priority of Irish nationalists was to secure the repeal of the Act of Union in order to restore domestic government (‘Home Rule’), and it was resorted to in a conscious act of historical reification in order to promote the cause of repeal. This was possible because Grattan enjoyed a hugely positive reputation during the nineteenth century. This was a product in the first instance of the overwhelming positive memory of Grattan the man. But still more important was the impact on the public mind of the publication in the decades following his death of a revised text of his major speeches in four volumes, of a volume of miscellaneous works and, most influentially, of a five volume history of his ‘life and times’ by his son that aspired successfully ‘to raise in public estimation the character and the services of virtuous and independent men to show their attachment to their county and to liberty’.

Grattan reputation underwent a reassessment in the late twentieth century as, instead of focussing on his achievements and inspirational example, attention was drawn to his limitations. Notice was drawn in particular to his lack of real influence in the corridors of power after 1782, his inability to master administrative detail, his unwillingness to accept the responsibilities of power, and his inability both to resist the Act of Union and to advance the cause of Catholic Emancipation in the early nineteenth century. No attempt was made to deny the importance of his contribution to the achievement of free trade in 1780 and legislative independence in 1782, or to minimise the nobility of his effort in the 1790s to steer a middle way between the revolutionary aspirations of the United Irishmen and the reactionary convictions of the proponents of continued ‘Protestant ascendancy’. However, it has brought a measure of balance to the assessments of the man and the politician.

Grattan was born in 1746 in Dublin, where his father James was a prominent municipal official and, between 1761 and 1766, MP for the city. Henry’s dislike of his father’s essentially conservative opinions and his reluctance to accede to his father’s wishes and pursue the law as a career made for a difficult entry into adulthood. However, he was enabled with the support of patrons such as Henry Flood and Lord Charlemont to secure admission to the inner ranks of the patriots, who professed their commitment to uphold the constitution and to enhance the commercial and constitutional rights of the kingdom of Ireland. Provided with an opportunity to express his opinions in parliament by Lord Charlemont, who returned him for the borough of Charlemont in 1775, Grattan quickly demonstrated that he was an exceptional parliamentary orator. Encouraged by the example of the American colonists, who were currently engaged with Britain in a military struggle for independence, Grattan called on MPs to press for reforms that would liberate Ireland from commercial and constitutional restriction. He was backed in this stand by the Volunteers, a voluntary Protestant militia established to compensate for the depletion of the military establishment by the demands of the American war, and provided with an opportunity to advance his aims by the weakness of the Irish administration and the British government. Grattan certainly demonstrated his effectiveness in the winter of 1779-80 when his powerful advocacy of the case in support of removing the restrictions on Ireland’s right to trade within the empire obliged the government to yield. Two years later, he was to the fore once more in encouraging the Volunteers to generate an irresistible demand for the removal of the restrictions on the right of the Irish parliament to make law. The major restrictions were Poynings’ Law (1494), which meant that all Irish laws had to receive the prior approval of the British Privy Council, and the Declaratory Act (1720), which empowered the British parliament to make law for Ireland. Crucially, Grattan’s rejection of a personal overture from ministers to agree a compromise and his superb advocacy of Irish rights in the House of Commons on 16 April 1782 was crucial in securing legislative independence.

Rewarded for his efforts by a grant of £50,000, which gave him financial independence, the triumph of the moment was quickly tarnished in the public mind by an unedifying difference with Henry Flood. Grattan’s conduct on this occasion was occasionally petty and spiteful, and it signalled the commencement of a phase, spanning most of the rest of the 1780s, during which Grattan’s shone only occasionally. One of those occasions was his successful opposition in 1785 to William Pitt’s attempt to bind Ireland and Britain a commercial union. This brought him into close contact with the British Whigs, and this relationship was cemented in the winter of 1788-9 when he strongly supported their efforts to make George, Prince of Wales regent in place of the ailing King George III. This did not succeed, but the foundation in its aftermath of an Irish Whig Club, combined with the radicalising impact of the outbreak of the French Revolution, encouraged Grattan to pursue a more coherent reformist agenda in the early 1790s. His most important step was to support the calls for Catholic enfranchisement in 1793, and he sought two years later, when a liberal lord lieutenant was briefly in charge of the Irish executive, to forward legislation that would have admitted Catholics to parliament. This was denied in dramatic circumstances, following which the reformist cause Grattan advocated was squeezed politically between radical and conservative. Despairing of progress, Grattan did not stand for election in 1797.

Though suspected of involvement with the United Irishmen in the late 1790s, Grattan was temperamentally as well as politically disinclined to support revolutionary activity. His priority was parliamentary government, as he demonstrated in 1800 when he returned to the House of Commons in a belated and vain attempt to resist the Act of Union. He spent the next few years out of the political limelight, but persuaded to advocate the cause of Catholic Emancipation at Westminster, he was elected as MP for Dublin city in 1805. Grattan revelled in the respect he was afforded at Westminster and he was a figure of some influence in the Whig party. Politically, he devoted his energies from this point onward to the cause of Catholic Emancipation, but the force of conservative Protestantism was unaccommodating. Grattan was willing to agree a compromise to ease Protestant fears that the admission of Catholics to parliament would undermine the constitution. The most widely canvassed option was the grant to the state of a power of ‘veto’ on appointments to the Catholic episcopacy, but this was resisted by Catholics led by Daniel O’Connell. As a result, Grattan died before Emancipation was achieved.

Grattan’s interment at Westminster Abbey constituted a symbolic affirmation of the esteem with which he was held at the time of his death. This was due in part to his acceptance of the Union, but it also reflected the fact that during his lifetime he pursued the causes to which he devoted his life with conviction, integrity and, through the use of his exceptional oratorical powers, with not a little skill.

Writings, Biography & Studies. Henry Grattan, Memoirs of the life and times of the Rt Hon. Henry Grattan, 5 vols. (London 1839–46); Henry Grattan, The speeches of the Right Honourable Henry Grattan, ed. H. Grattan, 4 vols. (London 1822); J. Porter, P. Byrne, and W. Porter (eds.), The parliamentary register, or, History of the proceedings and debates of the House of Commons of Ireland, 1781–1797, 17 vols. (London 1784–1801); H. Grattan et al., Baratariana: a select collection of fugitive political pieces, ed. [Rev. Simpson] (London 1772); An edition of the Cavendish Irish parliamentary diary, 1776–1778, ed. A. R. Black, 3 vols. (Delavan, WI, 1984–5); J. Almon, Narrative of proceedings in the parliament of Ireland (London 1777); G. O’Brien, ‘The Grattan mystique’ in Eighteenth-Century Ireland, 1 (1986), 177–84; James Kelly, Prelude to Union: Anglo-Irish politics in the 1780s (Cork 1992); James Kelly, That damn'’ thing called honour: duelling in Ireland, 1570–1860 (Cork 1995); James Kelly, Henry Grattan (Dublin 1994); James Kelly, Henry Flood: patriots and politics in eighteenth-century Ireland (Dublin 1998); M. R. O’Connell, Irish politics and social conflict in the age of the American revolution (1965); Public Record Office, Northern Ireland, Fitzwilliam (Grattan) MSS, T3649/8; Dublin Public Library, Gilbert MS 93; Fitzwilliam papers, Sheff. Arch., Wentworth Woodhouse muniments, F. 30;British Library, London, Pelham papers, Add. MS 33100; National Library of Scotland., Minto MS 12927; Charles, Lord Colchester (ed.), The diary and correspondence of Charles Abbot, Lord Colchester, 3 vols. (London 1861); T. M. O’Connor, ‘The conflict between Flood and Grattan, 1782–3’ in Essays in British and Irish history, ed. H. A. Cronne and others (1949); A. B. Tyrell, ‘Homage to Grattan’ in Dublin Historical Record, 37/1 (1983–4), 31–43; R. Koebner, ‘The early speeches of Henry Grattan’ in Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 30 (1957), 102–14; Annual Register (1820), 1174–86; J. Burke, A genealogical and heraldic history of the landed gentry of Ireland (1899); 5th edn as Burke’s Irish family records (London 1976); R. Mahony, ‘The pamphlet campaign against Henry Grattan in 1797–99’, Eighteenth-Century Ireland, 2 (1987), 149–66 ; P. J. Jupp, ‘Grattan, Henry’ in R. G. Thorne (ed.), The history of parliament: the House of Commons, 1790–1820, 5 vols. (London 1986); A. J. Webb, A compendium of Irish biography (Dublin 1878); R. V. Callen, ‘Cavendish’s diary of the Irish parliament, October 12, 1779 to September 2, 1780’, PhD diss., Notre Dame University, 1973.

Dr James Kelly