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William Conyngham Plunket, first Baron Plunket (1764-1854)

This article was written by John Andrew Hamilton and was published in 1895

William Conyngham Plunket, lord chancellor of Ireland, born at Enniskillen, co. Monaghan, on 1 July 1764, was the fourth and youngest son of Thomas Plunket, a presbyterian minister of Enniskillen, whose father also was a zealous minister of the same denomination. His mother, Mary, was daughter of Redmond Conyngham of the same town. The father, educated at Glasgow, was transferred from Enniskillen to Dublin, where he was, in 1768, appointed the colleague of the Rev. Dr. Moody in the ministry of the Strand Street Chapel. He proved an active liberal politician at Dublin, possessed of great political knowledge and conversational powers; he was a constant attendant in the gallery of the House of Commons, and a frequent adviser of the patriot members. In 1778 he died, leaving his widow ill provided for; and it was only by the support of the Strand Street congregation that she was able to bring up her children.

William Plunket attended the school of the Rev. Lewis Kerr, and became familiar with Barry Yelverton (afterwards Lord Avonmore) through a schoolboy intimacy with his son. In 1779 he matriculated in the university of Dublin, twice took the class prize, obtained a scholarship in his third year, and joined the college historical society, where, with his friends young Yelverton and Thomas Addis Emmet, he was a frequent speaker. Fired by the example of its members, Bushe, Magee, Parsons, and Wolfe Tone — inspired, too, by the enthusiasm of the patriotic successes of 1782 — he became a leading debater, was vice-president in 1783, took the medals for oratory, history, and for composition in turn, and produced an essay in defence of the Age, which the society decided to print and rewarded with a special prize. In 1784 he graduated B.A., and having kept his terms at the king's inns while at the university, he entered Lincoln's Inn, London, and began, in lodgings at Lambeth, the diligent study of law, depending on his mother's narrow means and on the help of friends. He returned to Dublin in May 1786, was called to the bar in Hilary term 1787, and acquired a modest practice before the year was out. His rise was rapid, and gave proofs of steady industry, conspicuous logical power, and temperate habits, the last then an uncommon distinction. He practised indiscriminately in common law, equity, and criminal courts, and went the north-western circuit, which included Enniskillen. He was soon one of the leading advocates of his day, and his fame ultimately exceeded that of any Irish counsel before or since.

In 1797 Lord Clare made him a king's counsel; but until 1798 he kept aloof from politics. Nor was he professionally brought into political prominence except once, when, on 4 July 1798, he appeared with Curran to defend Henry Sheares on his trial for high treason. Early in 1798 James Caulfeild, first earl of Charlemont, offered to Plunket the seat for his family borough of Charlemont, once held by Grattan. At first the offer was refused, Plunket being for, and Charlemont against, the Roman catholic claims; but it was renewed without any pledge being attached to it, and on these terms was accepted. Plunket was elected, and devoted himself to an uncompromising and disinterested opposition to the projected Act of Union. He took his seat on 6 February 1798, and during the remainder of the existence of the Irish parliament frequently spoke in debate; nor did his parliamentary fall short of his forensic reputation. He was also a contributor of witty articles to the ‘Anti-Union’ newspaper, begun on 27 December 1798 and abandoned in March 1799.

The extinction of the Irish parliament in 1800 for a time put an end to Plunket's political ambitions, and he devoted himself to his practice and to the accumulation of a fortune. He appeared for the prosecution on the trial of Robert Emmet in September 1803 for his rebellion, and is charged, unjustly, with having pressed with undue severity the charges and evidence against his former friend, in order to win the favour of the government. In fact, however, he had only known the prisoner's brother Thomas. By the attorney-general's special request Plunket made the speech in reply. Shortly afterwards, at the end of 1803, he became solicitor-general, and was at once denounced as a renegade by the writer called ‘Juverna’ in Cobbett's ‘Weekly Register’ in terms for which, in 1804, he recovered at Westminster £500 damages against Cobbett in an action for libel. Some years afterwards he was obliged to commence proceedings against the publishers of ‘Sketches of History, Politics, and Manners in Dublin in 1810,’ for a gross repetition of the charge.

In 1805 Pitt made him attorney-general, and he retained that office in the following whig administration. Hitherto he had treated the post as professional and non-political. Now it became a party and parliamentary one. He was invited by Lord Grenville to enter the English House of Commons, and was accordingly, though with reluctance, elected for Midhurst early in 1807. He then became an adherent of Lord Grenville, and, though he sat only for two months before the dissolution, made his mark in debate; but having identified himself with the whigs he declined the request of the new tory administration, that he should retain the attorney-generalship.

Upon the dissolution he was not re-elected to parliament, and for the next five years remained in Ireland, earning both reputation and an income probably unequalled at the Irish bar. In cross-examination he excelled; he addressed juries with marked success; but it was to chancery cases that he devoted most of his time, and in them he felt most at home. Of his methods of argument the case of Rex v. O'Grady is said to be the best example. Despite the Duke of Bedford's offer of two successive seats in the interval, it was not until 1812 that he re-entered parliament, as member for Dublin University. The government favoured a tory candidate, but his friends Burrowes and Magee secured his return. He held the seat till he retired from parliament.

He was now rich, partly from his own exertions, partly from his brother Dr. Plunket's bequest to him of £60,000. In parliament he generally supported Lord Grenville, but chiefly directed his parliamentary efforts to furthering the cause of catholic emancipation. It was on 25 February 1813 that, on Grattan's motion for a committee on the laws affecting Roman catholics, he made a great speech, of which even Castlereagh declared that ‘it would never be forgotten’. The motion was carried, and a bill was introduced. His next great effort was, on 22 April 1814, in favour of Lord Morpeth's motion for a vote of censure on the speaker for expressions hostile to the Roman catholic claims, which he had used in the remarks he addressed to the regent at the bar of the House of Lords at the close of the previous session. The cause of emancipation, however, which had seemed hopeful in 1813, grew more and more hopeless till 1821, and Plunket, though he spoke not unfrequently, won no more oratorical victories.

Following the lead of Lord Grenville, he supported the tory government both on the question of renewing the war in 1815, after Napoleon's escape from Elba, and on the course they took in 1819 with reference to the conduct of the magistrates in dealing with the meeting at St. Peter's Fields, Manchester. On the latter occasion, on the introduction of the Seditious Meetings Prevention Bill, he delivered a speech which satisfied his opponents and offended his friends. Brougham upbraided him for his vote, and Lord Grey was reported to have called him an ‘apostate.’ Time, however, healed this breach. When Grattan died in 1820, Plunket, who had always felt and shown admiration and respect for him, succeeded to his position as foremost champion of the Roman catholic claims. It is, however, to be observed that the leaders of the Roman catholic party, while recognising that he was incomparably their best advocate, dissented from his view, which he embodied in his bill, that securities in the shape of a royal ‘veto’ on the appointment of catholic bishops were required.

On 28 February 1821 he reintroduced the question in a speech of which Peel said, twenty years later, ‘It stands nearly the highest in point of ability of any ever heard in this house.’ It is one of the very few speeches he revised, often as he was urged to collect them; and it appeared in Butler's ‘Historical Memoirs of the English, Irish, and Scotch Catholics’ in 1822. He saw his emancipation bill safe through its second reading on 16 March by 254 to 243 votes, and then left its conduct to Sir John Newport; it failed to become law. His wife's death recalled him to Ireland, and so paralysed his energies that he withdrew for some time from public and professional life. He returned to it when, early in January 1822, he was appointed by Lord Liverpool attorney-general for Ireland under the new lord lieutenant, the Marquis Wellesley, and was sworn of the privy council.

Hopes were held out to him and to the other Grenville whigs that something would now be done for the Roman catholics. He believed that their cause would progress more surely with friends in the administration than if its supporters remained permanently in opposition. His situation was difficult. The Irish part of the administration had been expressly constructed on the principle of a combination of opposites; for Goulburn, the chief secretary, was anti-catholic, O'Connell and his party were pressing for what was impracticable, and the protestant party endeavoured to thwart such efforts as could be made. On the whole, Plunket discharged his duties with courage and fairness. When the grand jury of Dublin threw out the bills against the ringleaders of the ‘Bottle Riot,’ he exhibited ex officio informations against them, but failed to obtain convictions. Saurin then accused him of having resorted to an unconstitutional procedure, and instigated Brownlow, member for Armagh, to move a vote of censure upon him in the House of Commons. He rose in a house predisposed against him, and in a powerful speech refuted the charge. But his difficulties in Ireland were incessant. He failed in his prosecution of O'Connell in 1824 for his ‘Bolivar’ speech. The rise of the Catholic Association compelled the introduction of a bill for its suppression in February 1825, which he supported; and though his speech in support of Burdett's Catholic Relief Bill on 28 February was one of his finest, still the bill seemed as far as ever from passing into law.

On Lord Liverpool's resignation in March 1827 and Canning's assumption of office, Plunket expected to become Irish lord chancellor. The king's filial conscientiousness on the catholic question and dislike of advocates of catholic claims disappointed him of the office. George IV refused to accept Lord Manners's resignation of the Irish chancellorship. Canning then offered Plunket the English mastership of the rolls, just vacated by Copley, which Plunket accepted, held for a few days, and then resigned, owing to the professional feeling of the English bar against the appointment of an Irish barrister to an English judicial post. Lord Norbury was thereupon induced to resign the chief-justiceship of the Irish common pleas, and Plunket succeeded him, and was raised to the peerage of the United Kingdom as Baron Plunket of Newton, co. Cork. His first speech in the House of Lords was made on 9 June 1827, on the Catholic Relief Bill, the approaching success of which was now almost assured; and when it passed, in 1829, it was felt that no protestant had done more for it than he.

Politically his work was now almost done, though in later years he voted and not unfrequently spoke on Irish questions. On 23 December 1830 he was appointed by Lord Grey lord chancellor of Ireland. The change was not popular with the bar, as his reputation in the common pleas was that of a hasty and imprudent judge. Politically his influence was still great, and his advice was highly esteemed by successive lord lieutenants, Lords Anglesea, Wellesley, and Mulgrave; and in 1839 he made a powerful defence of Mulgrave's administration in the House of Lords. As a judge he proved himself patient, bold, and acute; and whatever may be said of his deficiency in learning — and his decisions certainly were frequently reversed on appeal — his practical efficiency is not to be gainsaid. The numerous legal appointments he from time to time bestowed on his relatives excited comment, and even scandal.

Early in 1839 a report was put about that he was to be replaced by Sir John Campbell and overtures were made to him to lend himself to the job. He refused. It is alleged in Lord Campbell's ‘Life’ that he gave a written undertaking in 1840 to resign whenever required; but of this statement there seems to be no confirmation. Lord Melbourne sounded him again in June 1841, without result. The lord lieutenant then asked for his concurrence as a personal favour to himself, and on 17 June Plunket yielded and resigned. Plunket bore this ill-treatment, which Lord Brougham has stigmatised as gross, and public opinion has ever since considered unjustifiable, with dignified and uncomplaining silence. He retired altogether from politics, travelled in Italy, and lived a peaceful country life at his seat, Old Connaught, co. Wicklow. At last his mental faculties failed, and he died on 4 January 1854, and was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin. In 1791 he married Catherine, daughter of John McCausland of Strabane, then M.P. for Donegal. He left six sons and five daughters, and was succeeded in the title by his eldest son, the Right Hon. Thomas Spen Plunket, D.D., who was in 1839 appointed bishop of Tuam, Killala, and Achonry, and who died 19 October 1866.

Plunket was in person tall and robust, with a harsh but expressive countenance; in manner cold to strangers, though he was a devoted husband and a constant friend. He was of great physical strength and a keen sportsman, but indolent — rising late, hating to put pen to paper, and leaving till the last moment the preparation of his cases. A deep-read lawyer he was not, but he had a tenacious grasp of principle, a masculine power of reasoning, a ready apprehension, and a persuasive and lofty mode of address. His reputation for bright and instant wit stood high. His parliamentary eloquence was in its kind unsurpas16 November, 2014soning rather than appeals to sentiment, a lofty range of thought and a copious and polished expression, were its leading characteristics. As Sheil said: ‘Plunket convinced, Brougham surprised, Canning charmed, Peel instructed, Russell exalted and improved.’ As a statesman his fame rests on his service to catholic emancipation.

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