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For Ireland and the Crown

Charles Lysaght

William Monsell of Tervoe 1812-1894: Catholic Unionist, Anglo-Irishman, by Matthew Potter, Irish Academic Press, 256 pp, €35, ISBN: 978-0716529897

Irish historical writing has so long been concentrated on the demand for national independence that the politics of other issues has been neglected and important figures who were not in one or other part of the nationalist movement relegated to relative obscurity. A version of history has emerged that is strangely blind to many issues that were central to political debate at the time of which an account is being given and to people who were then regarded as the most important.

One aspect of this is that the period between the death of O’Connell and the rise of Parnell has been rather neglected. In these years of rising prosperity even the rhetoric about national independence disappeared from constitutional politics, and political debate was focused on measures that eliminated the remaining disadvantages under which the Catholic (and other non-Anglican) population laboured and on socially progressive measures. These were championed among Irish members of parliament by those who labelled themselves Whigs (or Liberals) and a small number who called themselves independents and who were pledged not to accept government office. The issue between these two groups was whether it was better to work within the system of government for the redress of grievances or to remain outside it.

William Monsell was one of the most prominent of the Irish Whigs. He was born in 1812 into a |Protestant family who were originally Devon merchants and who had established themselves as landowners in Limerick on the back of the confiscations of the seventeenth century. They had advanced themselves socially by intermarriage in the eighteenth century with the powerful Perys (later earls of Limerick) and in the 1770s built a fine Georgian house at Tervoe, west of the city of Limerick, overlooking the Shannon. Reflecting a new trend among the Irish upper classes in the wake of the abolition of the independent Irish parliament twelve years earlier, William Monsell was sent from Limerick to be educated in England, first at Winchester and then at Oriel College Oxford. The High Church Oxford movement was in full sail in Oriel, which was the college of Keble, Pusey and Newman; Monsell was attracted by their teaching.

As an evangelical who yearned for the conversion of the Irish Catholics, he was involved in 1843 in the foundation of St Columba’s College in Dublin, the original object of which was to produce Irish-speaking clergy to convert the Catholic Irish and minister to them. Meanwhile, in 1837, the year after his marriage to the daughter of another Limerick landowner, the Earl of Dunraven, he had stood as a Tory in Limerick city but was trounced by the repealers; placards were posted all over the city intimating that Monsell was an Orangeman and fanatically anti-Catholic.

The conversion of Newman to Rome in 1845 and the subsequent ineptitude of the government in the face of the Great Famine in the succeeding years made Monsell reassess his position. He joined the exodus from the Tory party after it repudiated its leader, Robert Peel’s, removal of tariffs on food imports in 1846. His work for famine relief and his criticism of the government won him the respect of many of the Catholic clergy and in 1847 he was returned as a Liberal conservative for Co Limerick, defeating the sitting MP, a Protestant repealer called Caleb Powell. In 1850 Monsell conformed to Rome; for the next quarter of a century he sat as a Whig dedicated to the redress of Catholic grievances and other mildly progressive measures.

He served as a junior minister in the Ordnance at the time of the Crimean War in the 1850s and did well organising the better supply of arms by state-run factories such as the Woolwich arsenal. He was a pioneer in introducing recruitment of personnel through competitive examination rather than by patronage. Undistracted by the national question, Monsell’s aim as a politician was, in his own subsequent words, “to raise up my fellow countrymen that were then downtrodden and to give them every advantage and every privilege that citizens of the rest of the United Kingdom enjoy”. He was especially interested in better education, which he saw as the key to advancement. He contrasted Ireland with Scotland, whose better economic performance he attributed to superior education, remarking approvingly that one found Scotsmen of humble extraction thriving and prosperous all over the world. By contrast, he remarked, the Irish were socially hampered and hindered.

Monsell joined forces with the Catholic bishops in insisting that the religious character of education must be maintained. So it was that he played a background role in the establishment in the 1850s of the Catholic University in Dublin. He suggested to Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin, the appointment of John Henry Newman as rector – Newman wrote part of The Idea of a University at Tervoe and dedicated the second volume of the published version to Monsell. When Newman complained of the Archbishop’s “rudeness” in not replying to letters he had sent, Monsell assured him that no disrespect was intended:

I cannot account for Dr Cullen’s conduct except in one way – In Ireland one often meets with people of his class, kind and considerate after their fashion, but moving in a sphere completely different from ours and therefore acting in a manner in which if we acted, we should shew a want of consideration and respect for others …

Finally, in 1858, despite Monsell’s entreaties, Newman resigned and pursued his plans for a cosmopolitan Catholic university in England, where he made a vain attempt to found a Catholic college within the University of Oxford. Monsell continued to lend his support to the Catholic University of Ireland in its efforts to attain official recognition, although he confessed to Newman that “nothing could induce me to send my son there because of the Ultramontanism of some of the professors, the class of the students and the nationalist spirit exhibited”. He was thwarted for many years by the reluctance of government to endow denominational education and the ultramontane Cullen’s insistence that the laity should be excluded from the governance of any Catholic university college.

Meanwhile, Monsell had left the government in 1857, sharing the disenchantment of the Irish Whigs, most of whom were Catholics, with the anti-Catholic liberal prime minister Lord Palmerston. Adopting an independent stance, Monsell criticised Palmerston’s diplomatic support for the Italian Risorgimento against the Papal States and insisted that the independence of the papacy would be undermined if it had no territory of its own; this would not, he argued perceptively, necessarily serve British interests.

Although he was a liberal Catholic the devout Monsell (he went to Mass daily) enjoyed the friendship of Pope Pius IX, who understood that tolerance in matters of religion, which he condemned for Catholic countries in his famous Syllabus of Errors, worked well for Catholics in Protestant counties. Monsell was on friendly terms with leading liberal Catholics on the continent as well as those in England. A fluent French speaker, he was quite a cosmopolitan and married as his second wife in the 1850s a French noblewoman (the mother of his surviving children), thus acquiring an estate in the Loire Valley. Yet however much he was away on travels or official duties, Limerick remained the centre of his existence and the promotion of its improvement was his main life’s work.

As colonel of the county militia, Monsell was involved during the 1860s in arming Limerick against a possible Fenian rebellion, but he argued against executions and later advocated an amnesty. The abortive rebellion was enough to convince him that further redress of the grievances of the Catholic population was imperative if they were not to fall under the spell of the revolutionaries. He advocated the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and security of tenure for tenant farmers, both of which were effectively accomplished by the Liberal government of Gladstone, which took office in 1868.

As the foremost Irish Liberal MP, Monsell had hoped to be made Chief Secretary for Ireland and to be the first Catholic since Emancipation to enter the cabinet. Despite pressing his claims on Gladstone, whom he regarded as an old friend, he had to be content with a junior ministry as undersecretary for the colonies (shades of that other Shannonsider Phineas Finn). With the advice of Father Leman, the founder of Blackrock College, and Sir Patrick Keenan, he set up a system of secondary education in Trinidad, which secured assistance for religious schools indirectly through grants based on exam results. This was the template for the Intermediate System set up in Ireland in 1878.

Monsell did less well when he was promoted to postmaster-general (still outside the cabinet) although, patronage being what it was in those days, he was able to secure the building of a general post office in Limerick and, according to The Times, ensured that there was not a letter-carrier in the two islands who did not speak with a brogue. He lost his post in 1873, having been held responsible for an official who, without authority, overspent on the telegraph system. By now Gladstone was rather disenchanted with the Irish Whigs generally. Most of them had obeyed the dictates of the bishops and brought about the defeat of the Irish Universities Bill, which proposed an expanded University of Dublin to which the Catholic University College could be affiliated but did not provide that college with any endowment. This compromise was identified with Monsell and he counted its rejection a major disaster. He was blamed by some bishops for not pressing their views.

Gladstone’s various reforms, dismissed by the author as too little too late, were not sufficient to protect the Irish Whigs from losing out to the new Home Rule Party at the 1874 general election, the first election to be held with a secret ballot. Monsell, now 62, discredited as a minister and threatened with a contest in Limerick for the first time since 1859, did not contest the election. He accepted the peerage offered to him as an ex-minister, taking the title Lord Emly. He continued to play a constructive role in the governance of Ireland, especially on educational issues. He served for several years as president of the Social and Statistical Enquiry Society. He was on the senate of the Royal University, founded in 1880, and became its second vice-chancellor. He continued to work with the bishops to obtain official recognition of a Catholic university. He founded a college at Mungret that taught students who sat for the exams of the Royal University; this later evolved into a Jesuit boarding school. There was agricultural instruction at the local national school.

Although in the 1880s Monsell was receptive to further measures favouring tenant farmers and allowing for land purchase, he was implacably opposed to the Land League and the Home Rule party, whom he, in the manner of his class, viewed as social revolutionaries not national liberators. He himself was rich enough and virtuous enough to be a model landlord; he never raised rents nor evicted tenants and was charitable to those in need.

Monsell was one of those who left the Liberal Party when its leader, Gladstone, proposed a home rule bill in 1886. Monsell remained active as a liberal unionist until his death in 1894. In 1887 he joined with some English Catholics in persuading Pope Leo XIII to condemn boycotting by the Land League. Monsell’s local bishop and close friend, Dr O’Dwyer, was the only one of the Irish hierarchy to support the papal rescript, so creating an alienation between the Nationalist Party and himself that cast a long shadow into the second decade of the next century.

Monsell was clearly, as Potter says, a worthy figure, pious, upright, honest and diligent. He seems to have been a devoted husband, a loving father and a benevolent landlord. It is not clear from this book how able he was as a politician; Disraeli said in 1863 that “both by positions and talents he is a leading man” but his own leader, Gladstone, came to regard him less highly. It is fanciful of the author to assert that it was his Catholicism that prevented him making it into the cabinet under Gladstone.

In depicting his subject the author is handicapped by the unavailability of revealing material that might have enabled him to give a more penetrating and profound picture of his subject. The Monsell papers have not produced much; there seem to be no diaries or family letters, while the correspondence in general is also sparse. One would have expected more, especially when Newman is recorded as stating that he had written more confidentially about himself to Monsell than to any other person. A possible source not consulted would be the papers of Charles Owen O’Conor Don (1838-1906), who sat as a Whig from 1859 to 1880 and would have shared many of Monsell’s beliefs and concerns. There is almost nothing on the interplay between Monsell and other Irish MPs of the time; it would have been interesting to have a comparison between Monsell and those Whigs who were Irish Catholics by birth; the small group of Oxford converts among the Irish gentry, such as the Earl of Dunraven, the De Vere brothers and the Earl of Granard, were sui generis.

Even if most of the material in this book was already in the public domain it is scattered widely and Matthew Potter has made a valuable contribution to Irish nineteenth century history in bringing it together. He makes a brave effort to loosen himself from the restraints of the nationalist view of Irish history. Thus he concedes that Monsell was a unionist because he was an Irish patriot, not despite it. Some of the language, however, betrays some lack of understanding of Monsell’s position. So he is labelled tendentiously as Anglo-Irish, not a phrase used of Irish gentry or any other group at that time. A man like Monsell would have considered himself simply as Irish and seen no conflict between being Irish and supporting the union or being loyal to the crown. It would have been more appropriate to describe him in the title as an Irish Whig rather than an Anglo-Irishman or as a Catholic Unionist, the latter a description appropriate only for the last eight years of his long life. Equally, Monsell would not have understood being described as having a dual British and Irish identity. Apart from anything else, Britishness was a concept virtually unknown until the twentieth century. It is also somewhat tendentious of the author to say that Monsell’s liberalism succumbed to his unionism, suggesting that he ceased to pursue the aims of his earlier career.

For all his obvious admiration for his subject, the author rates Monsell as a political failure. It is true, of course, that the Irish Whigs failed to retain the allegiance of the Irish Catholic electorate after 1874 and that the Irish majority opted for independence rather than follow the majority in Scotland and Wales, who preferred to align themselves with progressive politicians in England with a view to improving their position. But the improvements achieved and planned in Ireland in spheres such as education during the years when Whigs like Monsell spoke for the Catholic majority were what created an educated Catholic middle class. This had immense long-term effects. What was achieved between 1850 and 1880 remained the basic structure of Irish education into the second half of the twentieth century. In these years of the nineteenth century a process began that left Ireland in 1914 with one of the highest per capita incomes in Europe, a relative position subsequently lost until the end of the twentieth century when the next leap forward in education helped create the knowledge economy.

Whigs like William Monsell were blackguarded by nationalists as corrupt place-seekers and toadies and Whig became a dirty word in the Irish lexicon—one thinks, not without a feeling of irony, of Francis Cruise O’Brien, father of Conor, berating Father Delaney, the Jesuit head of university college Dublin as "a decayed old Whig". This spread to a general denigration of all who accepted official posts under the union, be they policemen, civil servants, judges or politicians. Yet such preferment was necessary if one was to meet the grievance of Irish Catholics that they were denied their fair share in the governance of their country. Ireland did not have to go a different way from Scotland and Wales. A case can be made that the Whig approach, which may be traced back to Edmund Burke, would have offered a better accommodation of the social divisions of Irish life than the nationalist one, the net effect of which was to produce rather confessional states in both parts of Ireland, to produce much violence and retard the economic development of the country. At the end of the day even the hardline republicans in Northern Ireland have had to lead their communities into acceptance of governmental and official positions office within the United Kingdom and so ensure equal treatment for the Catholic population. In that sense the shade of a man like William Monsell, the subject of this sympathetic and valuable biography, lives on into our own time.


Charles Lysaght is the author of Brendan Bracken, A biography(1979) and editor of Great Irish Lives (2008).

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