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.