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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Irish Statesman John Beresford

john-beresfordJohn Beresford, Irish statesman, is born in Cork on March 14, 1738. He is a younger son of Sir Marcus Beresford who, having married Catherine, sole heiress of James Power, 3rd Earl of Tyrone, is created Earl of Tyrone in 1746. After the death of the earl in 1763, Beresford’s mother successfully asserts her claim suo jure to the barony of La Poer. John Beresford thus inherits powerful family connections. He is educated at Kilkenny College and Trinity College, Dublin and is called to the Irish bar.

Beresford enters the Irish House of Commons as member for Waterford County in 1761. In 1768, 1783, 1789 and finally in 1798, he stands also for Coleraine, however choosing each time to sit for Waterford.

His industry, added to the influence of his family, procures his admission to the Privy Council of Ireland in 1768, and his appointment as one of the commissioners of revenue two years later. In 1780 he becomes first commissioner of revenue, a position which gives him powerful influence in the Irish administration. He introduces some useful reforms in the machinery of taxation and is the author of many improvements in the architecture of the public buildings and streets of Dublin. He is first brought into conflict with Henry Grattan and the popular party in 1784, by his support of the proposal that the Irish parliament in return for the removal of restrictions on Irish trade should be bound to adopt the English navigation laws.

In 1786, Beresford is sworn a member of the Privy Council of Great Britain, and the power which he wields in Ireland through his numerous dependants and connections grows to be so extensive that a few years later he is spoken of as the “King of Ireland.” He is a vehement opponent of the increasing demand for Catholic Emancipation and when it becomes known that the Earl Fitzwilliam is to succeed John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmorland, as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1795 for the purpose of carrying out a conciliatory policy, Beresford expresses strong hostility to the appointment. One of Fitzwilliam’s first acts is to dismiss Beresford from his employment for corruption, but with permission to retain his entire official salary for life, and with the assurance that no other member of his family will be removed. Fitzwilliam has been encouraged in this course of action by William Ponsonby. Beresford immediately exerts all his influence with his friends in England, to whom he describes himself as an injured and persecuted man. He appeals to William Pitt the Younger and goes to London to lay his complaint before the English ministers.

The recall of Fitzwilliam, which is followed by such momentous consequences in the history of Ireland is, as the viceroy himself believes, mainly due to Beresford’s dismissal. There has been a misunderstanding on the point between Pitt and Fitzwilliam. The latter, whose veracity is unimpeachable, asserts that previous to his coming to Ireland he had informed the prime minister of his intention to dismiss Beresford, and that Pitt had raised no objection. Pitt denies all recollection of any such communication, and on the contrary describes the dismissal as an open breach of the most solemn promise. In a letter to Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle, justifying his action, Fitzwilliam mentions that malversation had been imputed to Beresford. Beresford sends a challenge to Fitzwilliam, but the combatants are interrupted on the field and Fitzwilliam then makes an apology.

When John Pratt, 1st Marquess Camden, replaces Fitzwilliam in the viceroyalty in March 1795, Beresford resumes his former position. On the eve of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 his letters to William Eden, 1st Baron Auckland, give an alarming description of the condition of Ireland and he counsels strong measures of repression. When first consulted by Pitt on the question of the union, Beresford appears to dislike the idea but he soon becomes reconciled to the policy and warmly supports it. After the union Beresford continues to represent County Waterford in the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and he remains in office until 1802, taking an active part in settling the financial relations between Ireland and Great Britain.

In 1760, Beresford marries Constantia Ligondes, who dies in 1772. In 1774, he marries Barbara Montgomery, a celebrated beauty who figures in Sir Joshua Reynolds‘ picture of The Graces. He has large families by both marriages. His sons include Marcus Beresford, George Beresford, and John Claudius Beresford. John Beresford dies near Derry on November 5, 1805.


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The Octennial Act Receives Royal Assent

parliament-of-irelandThe Octennial Act, an act of the Parliament of Ireland which sets a maximum duration of eight years for the Irish House of Commons, receives royal assent on February 16, 1768. Before this, a dissolution of parliament is not required except on the demise of the Crown, and the previous three general elections were held in 1715, 1727, and 1761, on the respective deaths of Anne, George I, and George II. After the act, general elections are held in 1769, 1776, 1783, 1790, and 1798.

Limiting the duration of parliament is a prime objective of the Irish Patriot Party. Heads of bills are brought, by Charles Lucas in 1761 and 1763 and by Henry Flood in 1765, to limit parliament to seven years as the Septennial Act 1716 does for the Parliament of Great Britain. The heads are rejected by the Privy Council of Great Britain, which, under Poynings’ Law, has to pre-approve any bill before it is formally introduced in the Irish parliament.

Since the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, the British government has wished to increase the size of Irish regiments, the part of the British Army charged on the Irish exchequer rather than the British. In 1767, the Chatham Ministry appoints George Townshend, 4th Viscount Townshend, as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and instructs him to secure the support of the Irish parliament for an Augmentation Bill to effect this increase. The British consider several possible concessions to win over the Irish Patriot Party, and at his speech from the throne, Townshend promises judicial tenure quamdiu se bene gesserint and hints at a Septennial Act.

Lucas again introduces heads of a Septennial Bill on October 20, 1767. Barry Maxwell introduces heads of a judicial tenure bill the same day. In November, the appointment of James Hewitt, 1st Baron Lifford, as Lord Chancellor of Ireland alienates the Undertakers who had hoped for the post. In addition, the British Privy Council adds a wrecking amendment to the judicial tenure bill, which causes the Irish parliament to reject the bill once returned to Dublin. The council also makes three amendments to Lucas’ bill – to the preamble, to extend the limit from seven to eight years, thus an Octennial Bill, and to bring forward the date of the next general election from 1774 to 1768. According to Francis Plowden, the Privy Council insists on the modification to eight years as a wrecking amendment, expecting that the Irish parliament will reject the bill on principle once any amendment has been made to it, and is disappointed when its amended bill is passed. William Edward Hartpole Lecky calls this “without foundation,” stating the actual reasons for eight years are that the Irish Parliament only meets every second year, and to reduce the chance of Irish and British general elections coinciding.

The Octennial Act reinvigorates the Commons, both with newly elected reformers and with MPs made more active by the prospect of imminent re-election. Changes include more assertiveness over supply bills and Poynings’ Law, easing the penal laws, and securing the Constitution of 1782. There are unsuccessful attempts to shorten the maximum duration, in 1773 by Sir William Parsons and in 1777 by Sir Edward Newenham.

The act is rendered moot when the Parliament of Ireland is abolished by the Acts of Union 1800. It is formally repealed by the Statute Law Revision (Ireland) Act 1879.