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Memoir of F.W.Conway

Frederick William Conway (1777-1853)

Journalist, bibliophile, political campaigner, and supporter of the theatre.


[The Grail of Catholic EmancipationCopyright © 2002 by Desmond Keenan. Book available from and]


            Frederick Conway was one of the greatest Irish journalists and devoted an enormous amount of his time and energy assisting Catholics to get their full civil rights. Apart from obituaries written at the time of his death little has been written about him. This Memoir which I have compiled about him seems to be the only one in existence.


            He was born in 1777 or 1782, in Loughrea in county Galway. He considered himself descended from Clan Conamee, rather than the English Conways. Whatever its origin his family at that time were Protestants. He received the usual classical education for gentlemen at the time in Latin and Greek. According to R.R.Madden he was 'the ablest man ever connected with the Press in Ireland'. He was connected with the Freeman's Journal about 1803 and was the editor of that paper under the great Philip Whitfield Harvey from 1806 to 1812. This was the heyday of the Freeman's Journal.

In politics he was what his obituarist described as 'Whig of the old school', who sought above all civil and religious liberty. Though a Whig by conviction all his life, he was not opposed to the Government during the Wars, and he had no objection to taking the sums of money the Irish Government offered to editors to that they would pass on information about any insurrectionary plots that came to their notice. This practice was perfectly normal and accepted at the time. Nor had he any objection to asking the Government for an official post, though his request in 1812 was turned down. But all his life he was totally opposed to the principles of the 'Ascendancy faction', especially as entrenched in the corporations of cities and towns. He noted with satisfaction how Peel had come round to his point of view. Until the end of his life he gave his full support to the Catholic Church, and Catholic clergy of Dublin who attended his funeral testify to this fact.

 About 1810 he became involved in the short-lived campaign for the repeal of the Act of Union. A committee was appointed of which he was made Secretary, and he continued in that position for the six months that the committee lasted. It meetings were held in his house in Pitt Street. He wrote the resolutions, declaration and petitions and placed advertisements in the newspapers. A piece of plate was voted for and given to Sir James Riddell for presiding at an Aggregate Meeting, and some remuneration was voted for Daniel O'Connell who had made a speech. Conway was left to pay the bills out of his own pocket. Later in life, when he had changed his opinion on the matter, he was subjected to the coarsest and most violent and lying abuse by the Repealers, but he never retaliated in kind. On his change of opinion he could have said of himself 'Sapientis est aliquando mutare consilium, stulti nunquam (It is the mark of wise man occasionally to change his opinion, but of a fool one who never does.) His arguments regarding the folly of Repeal are very convincing, while no solid rational case for Repeal was ever made at the time. On the subject of coarse abuse by O'Connell here marked that that was a fate few men escaped.

He was sacked from the Freeman's Journal in 1812 following attacks on Wellesley-Pole in that newspaper. He tried to get the editorship of the Government paper established by Wellesley-Pole, the Patriot. He commenced a weekly periodical on his own account called the Dublin Political Review similar to Cobbett's Political Register. It failed after ten issues because of a total ignorance on his part of business management. Money was not a thing he ever understood in his life, and he never kept a receipt. Though he could have had his publication printed cheaply by a city printer he built instead a printing house behind his residence in Dawson Street, Dublin, and imported founts of beautiful English and Greek types.

About 1812 he was doing some writing for the Dublin Evening Post. Resolutions passed at a meeting in Kilkenny with Major Bryan in the Chair were printed as a paid advertisement in the Post. The Government wished to prosecute the author of the Kilkenny Resolutions, but those responsible decided to shield the author, and to sacrifice the publisher, namely the owner of the Dublin Evening Post, Mr John Magee. The attorney general only undertook the action against Magee to flush out the authors. But these had no intention of coming to the rescue of the unfortunate publisher in prison. About this time (1814) Conway was in London trying to get some theatrical pieces of his published, and he intended staying there. He was however very loyal to his friends and determined to go to Kilkenny where a county meeting was being held, to do battle for the Press. When this ordeal was over he was recognised as one of the foremost writers on public affairs in Ireland, a reputation he kept until his death nearly forty years later. He was invited to become the editor of the Post, and later he became its owner. He never forgot the manner in which John Magee was treated, and later the jobbing printer, Harding Tracy, who was imprisoned on a similar charge. He took care too to remind people how closely O'Connell was connected with these shameful incidents. James Magee, the brother of John took over the Post at this time and engaged Conway as his editor.

He always retained an interest in the theatre. This was a time when the theatre was one of the few public entertainments there were. In 1818 an attempt was made to establish an association called the 'Friends of the Irish Stage'. Conway acted as secretary. Sheil and Woulfe were also members. In 1820 he deplored the practice of the then patentee of the Theatre Royal of importing 'stars' of the London stage to Dublin, for Dublin has been a recognised school of acting and this might be spoiled. He produced The Stage, a short-lived weekly in 1821.

In 1823, when the Catholic Association was formed he joined and took a very active part. He was one of the first consulted on its formation. He allowed his name to be put forward for the Accounts Committee, though conscious of his deficiencies in that respect he never took part in its meetings. Nor did he ever allow the Association to pay any expenses he incurred on its behalf. He was always careful to keep William Gregory, the Under-secretary informed about the activities of the Association, for these were completely above board. He was extremely active in the Association and on its sub-committees, and he claimed to have drafted more resolutions, letters and reports than O'Connell himself. The Association was suppressed twice, but this was not because the Government lacked a detailed knowledge of its inner councils.

He declined to have anything further to do with agitation after Emancipation was achieved. Many considered that much more could be achieved by keeping up the agitation on the old lines, but he and others considered that a period of tranquillity was essential, and that continuous feverish agitation could have great adverse effects on the development of Irish society, that some of the objects were unobtainable, and others of little practical value, while at the same time diverting attention from the real needs like providing proper education, real employment for workers, and provision for the poorest. 'He had too long and intimate acquaintance with agitation and its moral effects on the masses not to dread its continuance—he loved true liberty and dreaded such a state of things the more. To the discontinuation of agitation then, to the opposition to it in every shape it assumed Mr Conway devoted all the energies of his nature. This period of his labours was the most arduous in his public life . . . Hitherto he had seldom to do battle but for public cause—now however he found himself alone among the furious conflicts of three or four antagonistic factions, each regarding him in the light of an enemy, and agreeing in nothing but assailing him. The weapons used against him were poisoned to the hilt, his long and invaluable services to his country, the heavy debt of gratitude due to him by some of the very men that struck at him, the spotless purity of his private life, were forgotten in the barbarous attempts to ruin him in character and purse—the latter they had gone far to accomplish' (Obituary in Dublin Evening Post). Any man who was assailed equally by Catholic Repealers and Orange Protestants may console himself with the view that he must be doing right. It was no wonder that he and the equally embattled Archbishop Murray clung to each other for support.

From 1830 to 1853 the Post was regarded as supporting Whig administrations, and Conway claimed that his was the only Dublin newspaper supporting the Whigs. He later acquired The Dublin Mercantile Advertizer, a mercantile paper. Though he had been on friendly terms with O'Connell up to 1829, after that time there was a deadly feud between them. In 1839 mutual friends brought them together and they were briefly reconciled. But when the Repeal Movement gathered force in 1843, Conway was its strongest opponent. Still, he visited him when he was imprisoned in 1844. He was not blind to O'Connell's good qualities however much he deplored his bad qualities. In 1835 the MPs of the Orange faction wished to have him summoned to the bar of the House because of what he wrote about Orangemen. The motion was defeated, but Conway refers to the desire to summon 'our portly little person' before the Commons. He supported Archbishop Murray during the various disputes regarding education. Conway always published Murray's letters and supported his side of the controversies between the Catholic bishops. He was very disappointed at the decision of a majority of the Catholic bishops at the Synod of Thurles to condemn the Queen's Colleges. Like all the other editors he covered the Famine from start to finish, and was critical at the lack of local efforts in various places. Theories of race and racial superiority were beginning to be developed and he condemned them, particularly the attempt to assert that the 'Anglo-Saxon' race was superior to the 'Celtic'. He kept an eye on the Tractarian Movement in England, and came early to the conclusion that it would fall between the two stools of Protestantism and Catholicism. Nor did he think much of the rational approach of German theologians to Christianity regarding it as composed of myths. He advised Irish Protestants to steer clear of it. He also deplored the anti-Popery fanatics connected with Exeter Hall.

He was a lover of tranquillity, repose and study, but found himself drawn into committees and associations. In private life he was temperate and self-denying, his manners refined and simple. He was a bibliophile from childhood, and his information was spread over a wide range of subjects. Had he devoted himself to poetry in his younger days he could have emerged as a poet of the first rank. With a certain amount of judicious editing his plays could have been of equally high quality. By his death he had gathered one of the finest private collections of books in Ireland. He had more than twenty seven thousand volumes, most of them superbly bound. They included editions of classic authors, theology, the Fathers, drama, history, politics, criticism, poetry, and archaeology. Many of the works of the classical authors were in the prized Delphine editions (Obituary). Among his books he spent most of his spare time. The auction of his own library lasted four days, many of the volumes going to the libraries of Trinity College, Dublin, and other Dublin libraries. He was a friend of the poet Thomas Moore who was warmly attached to him.

He was not a great traveller, but he spent some months in France in 1841. He also went to see the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. He died on 24 May 1853 at his residence, St Kevin's, Upper Rathmines, Dublin, after a brief illness from the effects of a stroke of apoplexy. He was buried in Glasnevin cemetery. The chief mourners at his funeral were his two sons, and two sons-in-law. His funeral procession was such as was seldom seen in the city. Among those attending were several of the senior Catholic priests of Dublin.

Frederick Conway was one of the most attractive people in Ireland in the first half of the nineteenth century. He was learned, cultivated, tolerant, and well-mannered. He carried over into the second half of the century many of the characteristics of an eighteenth century gentleman. He did not believe that strength of belief excused ill-manners, or coarseness of abuse. He believed in his own Church but was aware of its defects, particularly its intolerance towards Catholics. But he respected the differing beliefs of Catholics and Presbyterians. He was a Whig of the old school.

(Obituaries in Dublin Evening Post 31 May 1853; London Times 26 May 1853; scattered bits of information in the Post from 1814 until his death.)



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.