Co. Clare


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Number of voters:

about 6,000 in 1801 rising to 10,000 in 1818


 Charles MacDonnell479
9 Aug. 1808 AUGUSTINE FITZGERALD vice Burton, vacated his seat1342
 James O'Bryen1034
3 Nov. 1812SIR EDWARD O'BRIEN, Bt.3349
 William Fitzgerald1658
2 July 1818SIR EDWARD O'BRIEN, Bt. 

Main Article

Clare had a tradition of turbulent electioneering. One reason was the existence of an unusually large number of territorial interests. The most ancient belonged to various branches of the O’Brien family: the Marquess of Thomond at Inchiquin, Sir Edward of Dromoland and O’Brien of Ballynalacker. Another interest, based upon 35,000 acres of former O’Brien territory, had devolved by inheritance to an Englishman, Lord Egremont. Others with interests were the Marquess of Conyngham (Henry Burton), the Fitzgeralds of Inchicronan and Carrigoran, and the Vandeleurs and Dillons, besides several other families with an income of £4,000-5,000.1 But the most important reason for a notable acerbity in Clare elections was that absentee versus resident and Castle versus Catholic antagonisms were often superimposed upon traditional territorial rivalry. Thomond, Egremont and Conyngham were absentees. Furthermore, the county was predominantly Catholic, and as the electorate expanded a significant Catholic interest emerged. In other words, all the ingredients that stirred emotions on both sides of the Irish sea in 1828 when O’Connell won his famous by-election were already present in this period.

At the Union, Burton and Massey represented Clare at Westminster, having been elected respectively in 1797 on the strength of the Conyngham interest and, probably, that of Sir Edward O’Brien. When O’Brien lost his seat for Ennis by disfranchisement in 1801 and decided to contest Clare in 1802, Massey did not seek re-election. The Conyngham and O’Brien interests did not go unchallenged, however, for a third candidate appeared in the shape of a local country gentleman, Col. Charles MacDonnell. MacDonnell, who happened to be O’Brien’s cousin, had £3,000 p.a. in the county and canvassed with hopes of the support of the Egremont interest (for which he had been angling since 1798) and that of the government, as a result of his being the viceroy’s a.d.c. With Egremont he was probably unsuccessful, even though Egremont’s agent was one of his tenants and they had a mutual friend in the Prince of Wales. With the government he was certainly unsuccessful, as the prime minister, to whom Lord Hardwicke referred the matter, felt that O’Brien was invincible and preferred in any case not to involve the ministry in the intricacies of county elections. Despite these disappointments, MacDonnell chose to proceed to a poll. Burton quickly took the lead, largely, it was alleged, because O’Brien and MacDonnell gave him their second votes in order to keep him neutral between themselves. On the fourth day of the poll Burton was secure, leaving O’Brien and MacDonnell contemplating heavy expense in the contest for second place. O’Brien therefore offered to return his cousin for a close borough if he stood down: as MacDonnell had already spent more than a year’s income on the contest, he accepted.2

The sitting Members were returned unopposed and with government approval in 1806,3 but after the change of ministers in 1807 Burton informed the chief secretary, Wellesley, of an attempt to obstruct him at the forthcoming general election. He claimed that the sheriff, John O’Callaghan, was encouraging an opposition to the ‘protestant’ interest in general and to himself in particular by attempting to secure the return of O’Brien and a local country gentleman, William MacNamara, with predominantly Catholic support. He therefore requested the Castle to dismiss O’Callaghan and prevent ‘a vexatious, odious and expensive opposition’. Wellesley found this difficult to execute but was saved embarrassment by an alliance between Burton and O’Brien which forced MacNamara to decline a poll.4

The intervention of Catholic opinion in 1807, together with the increasingly tighter rein that the Castle was exercising over the disposal of patronage, undoubtedly served to bring into question the relative strengths of the Burton and O’Brien interests and, in addition, to increase the likelihood of competition between them. The Castle took the view that Burton’s was the more powerful of the two, and when advising the lord lieutenant to appoint Conyngham to a Clare dignity, Wellesley commented: ‘he brings in one Member for that county who supports government decidedly, and had a considerable share in bringing in the other’. Furthermore, when Burton resigned his seat at the prospect of office, Wellesley was sure that Conyngham could secure the return of his chosen candidate (Augustine Fitzgerald of Carrigoran) at the subsequent by-election.5 Eyebrows were therefore raised in the Castle when Fitzgerald was opposed by a member of the O’Brien clan, the 2nd Marquess of Thomond’s brother and heir, James O’Bryen, who spent £7,000. In the event Fitzgerald won the seat, but fears of an O’Brien stranglehold on the constituency grew. On 3 Mar. 1810 the new chief secretary reported to the lord lieutenant that he found ‘a great jealousy in Fitzgerald’s mind at both the O’Brien interests in the county of Clare being pushed forward. Lord Thomond’s and Sir Edward O’Brien’s are considered as distinct, and Fitzgerald is apprehensive of an attempt being made on the part of the O’Briens to bring in both Members for the county’. Wakefield predicted that a contest could arise for similar reasons.6

During the next ten years the Burton influence did indeed decline, but ironically this was due more to accidents of time, Conyngham’s indecision and the growing pretensions of the Fitzgeralds of Inchicronan than to O’Brien ambition or neglect of any particular opinion in the county. The election of 1812, for example, took the form of musical chairs in which Conyngham only narrowly missed being counted out. Initially Augustine Fitzgerald decided against re-election, with the result that Conyngham hastened to Dublin to discover whom the government wished him to support. William Fitzgerald of Inchicronan, a member of the Irish treasury board, and Lord James O’Bryen were mentioned as possible contestants with Sir Edward. Finally it was decided that the Burton interest should go to any Fitzgerald who happened to stand and, failing that, to Lord James O’Bryen. The next development was that Lord James stood down and both Fitzgeralds decided to stand. Conyngham, believing he was adhering to instructions, decided to support his old friend Augustine Fitzgerald who, in turn, was also the choice of a special meeting of Catholic voters convened on 10 Oct. The election was therefore fought between O’Brien, who topped the poll from the start; Augustine Fitzgerald, who was supported by Conyngham as a result of government initiative, and by the Catholic interest on the rather negative ground that William Fitzgerald was a member of that government; and William Fitzgerald who, as an Irish minister, naturally expected government influence (and Conyngham’s interest) to be with him. The whole situation proved a serious embarrassment to the government. Official efforts were made to persuade Conyngham to support William Fitzgerald but achieved nothing more than weak professions of Burton neutrality. William Fitzgerald naturally complained of a lack of effort from the Castle, especially as he was positive that Conyngham’s interest would secure his return, but correspondence between Clare and Dublin achieved nothing, and the Catholic voters probably proved an influential factor in William Fitzgerald’s defeat.7

At the level of territorial dispute O’Brien’s personal triumph in 1812 suggested that the next election would largely involve a contest between a Burton and a Fitzgerald for the second seat. William Fitzgerald certainly felt that his political reputation (involving as it did a personal friendship with Peel) had been tarnished in 1812 and, despite a dislike of what he called ‘petty’ and ‘parish politics’, determined to stand at the next election. The Burtons soon perceived the threat to their position and determined to exploit what they regarded as the powerful issues in the constituency: the Catholic question; the disposal of county patronage and, not least, the prospect of cash being generously distributed at elections. In the summer of 1815 they put it about that Fitzgerald was an ‘Orangeman’ who, through his influence in Dublin, was preventing Catholics from being appointed to county dignities. In 1817 they alleged he was bankrupt and unlikely to be able to return to Ireland. Fitzgerald, however, was undeterred by these accusations and by November 1817, having heard that Augustine Fitzgerald was withdrawing, had embarked on a canvass for the general election he expected in the following spring. Within a few weeks he was confident of success, even though Peel secretly forewarned him that the election would be delayed until the summer and that this would give the Burtons time ‘to practise in the venality of the county’. Yet by April 1818 he felt secure, claiming that he had 7,000 of the 10,000 voters with him and that his and O’Brien’s interests were invincible. In July he was proved correct and for the first time in this period a Burton candidate was not returned for the constituency, Lord Conyngham withdrawing his second son Lord Francis, who was supposed to be standing: but Fitzgerald was warned that ‘the flame is only smothered’.8

Author: P. J. Jupp


  • 1. H. A. Wyndham, A Fam. Hist. 1688-1837, p. 255; Wakefield, Account of Ireland, i. 249.
  • 2. New Cork Evening Post, 26 July 1802; Egremont mss, Moira to Egremont, 14 Dec. 1798; Dublin SPO 620/62/10, 57; Add. 35713, f. 122; 35735, f. 181; 35772, f. 7.
  • 3. Spencer mss, Irish list, May 1806.
  • 4. Wellington mss, F. N. Burton to Wellesley, 12, 17, 20 May 1807.
  • 5. Wellington Supp. Despatches, v. 350, 473.
  • 6. Perceval (Holland) mss D23; NLI, Richmond mss 743/1711; Wakefield, ii. 302.
  • 7. Add. 40185, ff. 51, 66; 40207, ff. 48, 58, 63; 40280, ff. 46, 62, 68, 75; Richmond mss 62/484, 489; 66/921, 923; 69/1230a; 72/1586; Dublin Corresp. 16, 21 Oct. 1812.
  • 8. Add. 40205, f. 190; 40209, f. 214; 40210, ff. 172a, 193a, 210, 213, 299, 312; 40275, f. 313; 40293, f. 86; NLI mss 7854, pp. 126, 138, Stamer to Vesey Fitzgerald, 11 May, Conyngham to same, 25 May 1818.