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.

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.