Robert Crowe MP and the Act of Union

Robert Crowe of Nutfield, Co Clare wrote to the Earl of Belvedere on 4th October 1799.  To view the original letter click here and the transcription click here.

The matters in this letter concern the highly contentious Act of Union which was debated in the Irish parliament in 1799 and 1800.  The Act proposed the dissolution of the Irish legislature in favour of Irish representation at Westminster.  There was already a ‘personal union‘ between Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Ireland in that both countries were subject to the British monarchy.  The Acts of Union passed by the two parliaments made the relationship absolute by creating a single political entity — the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

I find it interesting to see documents written by distant members of the family tree, even if they are not direct ancestors.  (Robert Crowe was the brother of my 3 times great grandfather.)  A connection with a famous or infamous person or event also adds interest.  The passing of the Act of Union in Ireland is a turning point in modern Irish history with ramifications down to the present day.

Robert Crowe (1745-1817) and Francis Knox (1754-1821) were ‘elected’ (probably more accurate to say appointed) as Members of Parliament in the Irish House of Commons for the borough constituency of Philipstown (now Daingean) in Kings County (now County Offaly) in 1798.  It may seem strange to us that Robert Crowe should be representing an area far removed from his residence in County Clare.  His selection may have come about through Knox family connections in County Clare.  John Busteed Knox (d.1802) of Ennis was the proprietor of the Clare Journal and Ennis Advertiser from 1781 to 1802.

The seat of Philipstown had previously been represented by the 2nd Lord Belvedere (otherwise Belvidere) (1738-1814), the person to whom Robert Crowe’s letter was addressed.  George Augustus Rochfort, 2nd Earl of Belvedere belonged to an influential protestant Anglo-Irish family with roots in Ireland going back to the 13th century.  It seems that parliamentary representation of Philipstown was effectively under his control.  In any case, he was instrumental in Francis Knox and Robert Crowe becoming MPs for the borough in 1798.

Belvedere, Knox and Crowe were ‘of the same mind’ politically.  All three opposed the Act of Union when it was first came before the Irish parliament in January 1799 and was narrowly defeated.  However, Lord Belvedere’s position shifted as a result of political pressure.  It is clear from Robert Crowe’s letter that he and Knox were persuaded, if not to oppose the Act directly, to at least facilitate the passage of the Bill by resigning their seats in favour of others who would support it.  In the case of Knox and Crowe, a monetary inducement (a ‘bribe’ we might say) was the determining factor.  According to Sir Johan Barrington (the author of the book containing the facsimile of Robert Crowe’s letter) the British government expended over £1 million in bribes to achieve their objective.  MPs of higher status were offered titles and peerages.

The Lord Cornwallis to whom Robert Crowe refers was 1st Marquis, Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805), Lord Lieutenant and Viceroy of Ireland from 1798-1801.  He was the British government’s representative in Ireland (Vice roy – one who acts in the place of the King) which was then effectively a British colony.  The Lord Lieutenant administered the affairs of the country on behalf of the British Crown.  The Irish Protestant Ascendancy had considerable influence, directly through the Irish houses of parliament as well as informally through networks of social and political ‘connections’.  Cornwallis is well known in American history as the British General who surrendered at Yorktown in 1781 to forces under the command of General George Washington thus bringing the American War of Independence to a successful end.   Comments he made after the passing of the Act of Union show he was uncomfortable about the ethics and morality of having to make deals with parliamentarians using inducements.

Lord Castlereagh (Robert Stewart, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry, 1769-1822) was Lord Cornwallis’s subordinate.  He was Chief Secretary for Ireland and in this capacity he wielded the real power in the administration. He played a key role in the suppression of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 (the 1798 Rising).  Unsuccessful attempts by the French revolutionary government to provide substantial military support for the Irish rebels had heightened British fears of a hostile independent Ireland on their back doorstep.

I might mention in passing that another person on the Crowe side of the family tree, James Byrne (1769-1849), was a United Irishman and participated in the 1798 Rising.  For his trouble, he was transported to the penal colony of NSW in 1801.

Even though they were not major players, Knox and Crowe were significant for the campaign:

The Earl of Belvidere and his two friends [Crowe and Knox] had expressed themselves too strongly against the Union, and were of too much importance to be left untempted.  The Marquess [Cornwallis], therefore, undertook to manage the peer [Belvidere], while Lord Castlereagh engaged to seduce the commoners [Knox and Crowe].[1]

As time passed following the negotiations, Robert Crowe had become more and more anxious.  He wrote that had been sitting around in Ennis for three months waiting for word from Lord Belvedere.  As soon as he received the letter Robert Crowe put pen to paper.  I note that Belvedere’s letter arrived just one day after it was written, a lot faster than Australia Post could manage these days!  Robert Crowe writes that the initial negotiations between Lord Belvedere and the Viceroy, Lord Cornwallis had been very promising.  However, the terms offered at the second meeting were ‘not so flattering as the first’.  Crowe seems to suggest – somewhat cynically I think – that the only reason for holding a second meeting was to renege on previous commitments.  What then, Crowe asks Belvedere, was agreed between the Viceroy’s subordinate (Lord Castlereagh) and my parliamentary colleague Francis Knox?  It had already been agreed that he and Knox would vacate their seats; the only other matter was the remuneration the two MPs would receive which Crowe thought had also been finalised.

In the second paragraph, Crowe seems to be responding to a suggestion that, should the Act of Union not be passed, Lord Belvedere would then have the right to remove the two new members and nominate his own candidates – possibly a return of Knox and Crowe?  No, Robert Crowe seems to go on to say, this was never an issue and it is just a ‘red herring’.  On the contrary, there was ‘full and perfect agreement’ and the witness Mr Usher can attest to the fact.  In addition, the terms of the agreement seen and supported by Lord Belvedere’s constituents in Philipstown were those agreed in the initial negotiations.  Despite all of this, Belvedere had ‘signed off’ on a deal which was different and very unsatisfactory.

It seems the political capital of the two Philipstown MPs had become less valuable since the initial agreement was made.  The first attempt to pass an Act of Union in January 1799 was a close run thing.  Even by July the level of support remained uncertain.  However, circumstances had changed in the following 3 months while Robert Crowe was cooling his heels in Ennis.  The supporters of the Act of Union had been counting heads and were now much more confident of success.  And so it came to be that the legislation was passed comfortably in the Irish House of Commons in July 1800.

Despite Robert Crowe’s disappointment with the outcome, his reward appears to have been sufficient to finally resolve his financial woes of the previous 20 years.  For more about that story, see the page on the ‘forgotten branch’ of the Crowe gentry of County Clare elsewhere on this website.

[1] Sir John Barrington, Historic Memoirs of Ireland, Vol.2, London: Henry Colburn, 1833, p.362.

Names and identities

One challenge many of us encounter in researching our family history is to clarify the identities of individuals who have the same name.  Certainly it has been an issue for me.

The use of the given name of Thomas for the inheriting sons over seven generations descending from Robert Crowe of Ennis (born about 1710) is a case in point.

The same given names across family lines has also been been confusing. James Crowe, brother of the above mentioned Robert Crowe, named his first son Robert; and the aforesaid Robert Crowe named his second son James. This son James qualified as an attorney and joined the legal practice of his uncle James.  So there was James the elder and James the younger in the firm, but they weren’t father and son!

Sometimes the duplication of names occurs with unrelated people whose paths happen to come together by sheer coincidence.  Let me give you an example which concerns my great grandfather John Carroll.

The murderous Clarke brothers, Thomas and John, are said to have been Australia’s worst bushrangers – worse even than Ned Kelly, Ben Hall, Captain Lightning and Frank Gardiner.  The Clarkes were descendants of former convicts who settled in mountainous country in the southern highlands of NSW, east of what today is Canberra.  During the 1860s, the gang was responsible for multiple murders and robberies.

The authorities were alarmed and frustrated that this gang could not be brought to justice.  It seems many people in the area were sympathetic to these outlaws and provided them with material support and intelligence.  Even the local police seemed uninterested in bringing them to justice.

Late in 1866, the premier of NSW, Sir Henry Parkes, ordered that undercover investigators be appointed to track down the gang and bring them in, dead or alive.  A party of four ‘special constables’ was recruited.  It was led by John Carroll, a Senior Warder at Darlinghurst Gaol.  They pretended to be a party of surveyors, but their main ‘tool’ was cash to encourage locals to inform on the Clarkes.

In January 1867, the party was ambushed and killed near Jinden Station.  All four had been tied to trees and then shot.  A blood-soaked one-pound note was pinned to John Carroll’s clothing, clearly a warning to any who might consider cooperating with the authorities.

Hang on!  Didn’t my ancestor John Carroll become Deputy Governor of Darlinghurst Gaol, retire on a pension in 1892, and die peacefully in his bed at the age of 73 years?  Yes he did.  It turns out that there were two warders at Darlinghurst Gaol named John Carroll, at the same time, about the same age and both were warders.

Identity can be a slippery beast.

The Clarke brothers were tried on 28 May 1867 for a long list of crimes.  The jury took just 67 minutes to find them both ‘guilty’.  The sentencing judge, Sir Alfred Stephen, stated that they would be executed, not as retribution, but to promote the peace, good order, safety and welfare of society. It seems to have worked because the execution of the Clarkes marked the end of the bushranger era in NSW.

Thomas and John Clarke were hanged from twin gallows at Darlinghurst Gaol on 25 June 1867.  My ancestor John Carroll appears in the records as an official witness at four executions during his years at Darlinghurst Gaol, but apparently he was not present when the killers of his namesake met their fate.

The Ireland’s Eye Murder Case

The death of Sarah Maria Kirwan (née Crowe, 1819-1852) of Dublin is a tragic story. She was my 1st cousin 3 times removed — that is, we shared a grandfather going back three generations.  The sad irony is that the ancestor we have in common, George Crowe, apparently killed his wife too – that being Sarah O’Brien.

Sarah Kirwan is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.  The cemetery records show her aged 28, although she was actually 33 when she died.  Nonetheless, she is definitely our Crowe relative.  In the space provided in the cemetery record for the ages of children is written ‘Murdered by her husband at Ireland’s Eye’.

If any Crowe relatives visit Ireland and can locate her grave, I’m sure a photo of her gravestone would be of interest to many Crowe relatives. Incidentally, grand memorials of two famous Irishmen — Daniel O’Connell and Tom Steele – are also located in Glasnevin Cemetery.  These memorials are well worth seeing and they have connections with the Crowe family story.

One of the most sensational trials in Ireland in the 19th century concerned the death on 6 September 1852 of Sarah Maria Crowe, wife of Irish artist and illustrator William Bourke Kirwan.  She was the eldest of four children born to Lieutenant James Crowe and Maria Conan of Dublin.  Lieutenant Crowe was the James Crowe who unsuccessfully claimed inheritance of the estates in County Clare of his grandfather, also named James Crowe.  Initially the inheritance case in question was held in Ennis in 1819 and then again three years later in Dublin.  There is more about those events in the page on the ‘forgotten branch’ of the Crowe gentry of county Clare.

Maria, the name by which she was usually known, and her husband rented accommodation in Howth near Dublin for their summer holidays in June of that year.  He was interested in sketching seascapes and she enjoyed the newly-fashionable recreation of sea bathing.

Howth is located on the northern side of the approaches to Dublin harbour. In 1852 it was a small fishing village, separated by a small body of water from the mainland.  Today that separation has been filled so Howth is now a peninsula.  A short distance north of Howth is a small island, mostly rocky, which has been uninhabited during most of recorded history and has the unusual name of Ireland’s Eye.

The name is so unusual I think it needs to be explained.  In Celtic times it was known as Eria’s Island, Eria being a woman’s name. Over time Eria became confused with Erin, an Anglicisation of the Irish name for Ireland.  So Eria became Erin which became Ireland.  Now for the second part of the name.  When the Vikings occupied Dublin, they used the Norse word for an island, ey.  Island became ey which became eye.  So, that rocky place eventually became Ireland’s Eye.  Well, so the story goes.

It was Monday morning and the Kirwans engaged a boatman named Patrick Nagle to row them to Ireland’s Eye with provisions for the day – his sketching materials, her bathing clothes, two bottles of water, and a basket of food.  The boatman left with instructions to return at 8 o’clock that evening.

Soon before the boatman and his cousin Michael Nagle left from Howth to collect the Kirwans, three local residents separately hear loud cries come across the water from the island. When the boatmen arrived one of them caught a glimpse in the gathering gloom of something white on the rocks.   It was the body of Mrs Kirwan.  Immediately William Kirwan arrived on the scene and threw himself on his wife’s body crying ’Maria! Maria!’  He turned to one of the boatmen and told him to find his wife’s clothes.  After some time, the boatman returned empty handed.  William Kirwan said the clothes were on a rock close at hand and he would get them himself.  And so he did.  The boatman exclaimed he had looked there but no clothes were to be seen.

In due course, the body of Sarah Maria Kirwan (née Crowe) was rowed back to Howth where a medical student was on hand who pronounced that Mrs Kirwan had died by drowning.  Wasn’t it fortunate that such great medical expertise was so close at hand?  I wonder how far along he was in his medical studies.  And so her cause of death was determined and her body was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.


Burial record extract for Sarah Maria Kirwan (née Crowe).  Image from Glasnevin Trust, Dublin

However, rumours spread in Dublin that Mrs Kirwan had been murdered by her husband.  It turns out that Mr Kirwan had a second family with a Miss Kenny by whom he had seven children.  The Kirwan residence was at 11 Merrion Street, Dublin – a most respectable part of town; the Kenny residence was about one mile distant.

This new information came to the ears of the authorities who arrived at the not unreasonable assumption that William Kirwan had a motive to kill his wife.  He was arrested and put on trial.   It was a sensation.  A newspaper reported that ‘Long before the arrival of the judges, the avenues leading to the court were thronged by a vast number of gentry seeking admission’.

After arguments had been put by the prosecution and the defence, the jury retired to consider the evidence.  At 20 minutes to eight, the jury returned and told the judge there was not the remotest possibility of them agreeing on a verdict.  The judge ordered them to continue their deliberations until 11 o’clock, but alas they still could not agree.  The judge ordered the jury be locked up for the night without food.  A juror asked that he wait a little longer, and in about half an hour they returned with a verdict of ‘Guilty’.

William Kirwan was sentenced to death by hanging, later commuted to life imprisonment.  He spent 27 years in the notorious Spike Island prison in the harbour of Cobh in Cork before being released on condition he settle nowhere in the British Empire.  It is believed he went to America, but this cannot as yet be confirmed.

Welcome to the Crowe Family History website

The search for my distant Crowe ancestors has been an interesting and at times exciting journey.  I started with minimal knowledge.  There was some oral history and unreliable published evidence that the family originated in County Clare, as well as a suggestion that my male Crowe ancestor who arrived in Australia in 1813 was Irish.

We did have a few clues to get us started. An entry in the Australian publication Campbelltown Pioneer Register 1800 – 1900 stated that our ancestor William Crowe who arrived in New South Wales on the Earl Spencer in 1813 was born in Kilrush, County Clare. In the book Ripe for Harvest by family historian Angela Young, Captain John Crowe of Ennis, County Clare is said to have left a legacy in his will to James Crowe of Gobarralong, NSW – the progenitor of many Crowe descendants in Australia.

In a subsequent discussion with me, Angela mentioned other events — an incident of domestic violence, a financial scandal and the execution of a criminal associated with the Crowe family. All of these turned out to be useful clues, though not for our visit to Clare.

We searched baptism and marriage registers of St Senan’s Catholic Church in Kilrush but without success.  For one thing the registers do not commence until 1827.  We were fortunate to meet a number of Crowe families who live in and around the parish of Kilrush.  They were most welcoming but had no knowledge of Crowe forebears emigrating to New South Wales.  We visited the Local Studies section of the Clare County Library in Ennis and located in their files a handwritten family tree by the above-mentioned Angela Young and a few other items which also proved to be helpful. Finally, we spent an enjoyable few hours at Crotty’s Bar in Kilrush chatting with members of the newly-formed Kilrush and District Historical Society.

Since a lot is known, and has been published, about the history and genealogy of the extended Crowe family in Australia little of that is mentioned here.  However, much of that genealogy is available on my open Ancestry tree named Crowe & Sullivan.

Philip Crowe

Updated March, 2020