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Chapter Three

[Ireland 1800-1850 Copyright © 2001 by Desmond Keenan. Book available from and]

          The Ministry of All the Talents

                (February 1806 to March 1807)

Summary. Lord Grenville's Whig administration, nicknamed 'The Ministry of All the Talents' or talented men, was in principle in favour of relief for the Catholics but did not see how the king could be persuaded to consent, and so it would have preferred if the Catholics would be content for the moment with administrative measures. Squabbles among the Catholics arose which were not settled for nearly two decades. Grenville proposed to the king a simple extension of Irish law regarding Catholics in the army which annoyed the king. Before matters could be explained, a party of Tories who felt that the Whigs would make an unfavourable peace with Napoleon suggested to the king that they could form an administration under the aged Duke of Portland.


Grenville’s Ministry

The Catholic Question


Grenville’s Ministry 

[February 1806] When Pitt died none of his ministers felt able to form a ministry. The king sent for Lord Grenville who insisted that Charles James Fox, a well-known supporter of the Catholic claims, be included. At an earlier period Fox had greatly annoyed the king by his support for the colonists in the American War of Independence. He had also obtained the repeal of the Act called the Sixth of George I (1719) which made English legislation applicable to Ireland. Most of the leaders in Parliament provisionally supported Grenville, and the ministry was nicknamed 'The Ministry of all the Talents' by an Irish journalist named Eaton Stannard Barrett, and by this name it was always subsequently known. Charles Grey, Lord Howick (later Earl Gray) became First Lord of the Admiralty, and on Fox’s death, Foreign Secretary. This brief ministry is chiefly remembered for abolishing the slave trade. But Lord Howick’s timely positioning the British fleet off the coast of Portugal laid the seed for the ultimate overthrow of Napoleon. 

In making his Irish appointments Grenville had a freer hand than his predecessor Earl Fitzwilliam, the Whig Lord Lieutenant in 1795, for the strongest opponents of the Catholics had been removed from office in Ireland on various grounds over the preceding decade. The Duke of Bedford, a noted agriculturalist, was appointed Lord Lieutenant, with an Englishman named William Elliot as Irish Secretary. George Ponsonby, one of the leading Irish Whigs, became Lord Chancellor, Sir John Newport a banker from Waterford Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer, and Sir Henry Parnell became a Commissioner of the Irish Treasury. Newport's chief interest in life was searching out for waste in public spending. The moderate Tories, Plunket and Bushe, retained their offices as Attorney General and Solicitor General. Henry Grattan refused office. 

Fox realized the impossibility of changing the king's mind over the admission of Catholics to Parliament or to high offices. He thought however that quite a lot could be done for the Catholics within the existing laws, for example, by removing magistrates who had been notoriously oppressive, by making their entry into the army or the corporations of towns easier, and by appointing those with qualifications to the public offices open to them. He also thought something could be done about tithes to make them less oppressive (DEP 14 Aug 1810). 

William Elliot later described the 1806 programme the Whigs envisaged as including the granting of some more civil privileges to Catholics, modifying the tithe system, ensuring value for public money spent on (Protestant) education, and enforcing the residence of the clergy of the Established Church (DEP 13 Aug 1807). The Duke of Bedford was the first Lord Lieutenant not to take part in the annual Orange parade around the statue of King William in Dublin. 

             The Suspension of Habeas Corpus Act and the other similar Acts were allowed to expire and all those detained under those Acts were released. (One of those released, a gentleman named Tandy, brought a private action for damages of £10,000 against another gentleman named Morris who had reported a private conversation of his in 1798 to the Government. This had resulted in his incarceration in 1803 to the ruin of his business. He could not prove private malice though he suspected it so the verdict went to the defendant SNL 3 July 1806).

            Sir John Newport introduced a Bill to allow the free import of Irish corn into Britain. The Corn Interchange Act (1806) proved to be of immense value to the Irish economy for in conjunction with other laws like the Corn Laws it meant that for the next forty years Ireland was the only country with free access to the British market for cereals. Newport also persuaded the Lord Lieutenant to take up the question of the expenditure of public money on education. Bedford set up a Commission, which produced several factual reports culminating with one in 1812 that contained its recommendations. On this final report all future Government policy on education in Ireland was to be based. With regard to inland navigation, Bedford shifted the emphasis from developing the port of Dublin to developing the inland canals and waterways. Newport raised the annual grant to Maynooth College for the education of Catholic priests from £8,000 a year to £13,000. He also gave a grant towards a proposed institute of further education in Cork, known as the Cork Institution. A Presbyterian clergyman named Thomas Dix Hincks was the chief promoter of this Institution. 

There was a serious outbreak of agrarian crime in the west of Ireland. Those involved in this particular conspiracy were known as the Threshers. Agrarian crime followed its usual pattern of murder, robbery and intimidation. The Ministry was considering the re-introduction of the special legislation when it collapsed. The reason for introducing special legislation to deal with agrarian terrorists was the intimidation or murder of witnesses or jurymen if brought to trial in the ordinary way. Special short-term legislation, usually lasting for the length on one parliament, had to be repeatedly brought in. After Irish independence an attempt was made to dispense with special legislation but after only a few months the new Irish Government was forced to bring in anti-terrorist legislation and make it permanent. 

Napoleon was meanwhile occupied in central Europe. In October 1806 the Prussians were crushed at Jena, the last of Napoleon's spectacular victories. He was to continue to win victories but at enormous cost. From the Prussian capital, Berlin, he issued his 'Berlin Decrees' establishing the 'Continental System'. His aim was to strangle British trade by refusing to allow any British ships to enter any ports in Europe under French control. Next the Russians were defeated at Eylau and Friedland, and were drawn into the system. The southern states, Portugal, Sicily, and the Papal States, did not yet belong to the system and Napoleon set about remedying this. His moves were to have profound repercussions in Ireland. Lord Howick, now Foreign Secretary, sent a fleet under the command of Earl St. Vincent to cruise off the coast of Portugal, England's oldest ally. The British fleet was able to rescue the Portuguese royal family, and secure the Portuguese fleet, when Napoleon sent General Junot to occupy Portugal. The Irish peer, Lord Hutchinson, a close friend of the Prince of Wales, was sent on an embassy to Russia, and was present at the battle of Eylau. Howick, at the same time, in accordance with Whig principles began putting out feelers to the French to see what terms for peace might be offered. [Top] 

The Catholic Question 

The Irish Catholics at the beginning of 1806 were engaged in disputes among themselves. Fox, among others, advised them not to petition for Emancipation, pointing out that if the Ministry fell on this issue, as well it might, their bitter opponents would come into office. Ryan, following the custom of the time, asked Fox to keep his name in mind when a public office suitable for a Catholic became vacant in Ireland. For this he was accused by Keogh's faction of truckling with ministers. The matter was completely above board, but this did not prevent the usual cry of 'sell out'. In September 1806 Fox died within a year of Pitt his great opponent in the Commons. It should be noted about Keogh’s charge that if Catholics asked for a public office they were denounced as traitors, and if they did not, the Government could be accused of not employing Catholics. The same kind of logic was later applied to refusing to allow Catholics to take degrees in the universities, and then denouncing the Government for not employing Catholics in positions were a degree was required. 

             [1807] By the beginning of l807 the party in favour of tackling the issue head on gained the upper hand, and a petition was prepared. From a reference in the Dublin Evening Post it would appear that Ryan's and Keogh's followers had been holding separate meetings, and each had produced a petition. To avoid an appearance of division they agreed to hold a joint meeting and decide either to petition or not to petition. Keogh harked back to 1791 and 1792 when he himself had carried on organizing the petition against all advice to postpone it, and a Relief Act was passed in 1793. (A more plausible reason for the passing of that Act was that Pitt had just declared war on the French Republic and wished the Catholic question settled.) A new man at the Catholic meetings, Daniel O'Connell, said that their claim was just and that they should press ahead with petitioning no matter which party was in office. Never, in all his life did O'Connell show any understanding of the nature of parliamentary tactics. Diplomacy was not in his nature. 

            At another meeting, it was proposed to select a deputation to wait on Mr. Grattan to ask him to present their petition. Keogh objected to a deputation, as that seemed to imply that there was something to negotiate about:

            'He did not mean to enter into the subject whether the suspicions against any individual of the deputation of 1805 were justified...but he deprecated any negotiation, he would listen to no compromise - the petition was to be granted or not, there was no medium' (DEP 26 Feb 1807). 

A letter was published in the Post calling on the Earl of Fingall to exercise leadership, to express what really was his own opinion, and to put a stop to the petition. There was nothing to be gained and everything to be lost by petitioning at this present moment. In 1805 it could be argued that the House had not discussed the question recently, but this was not the case now. Their ally, Grattan, however, refused to present the petition. The Earl of Fingall assured Bedford that most Catholics would be content with minor concessions for the moment, like being allowed to be sheriffs, or to be further promoted in the army. 

Lord Grenville accordingly began by getting the king's permission to extend to the army in England (and consequently throughout the world) the right of Catholic officers, conceded to the army in Ireland in 1793, to be promoted up to the rank of colonel. This would actually have just legalized existing practice. The king stated that he would agree to this but to nothing further. But Grenville thought that he would allow a further concession, namely promotion to the rank of general, and indeed thought that he had received the king's consent to this alteration. At this point Addington, now Lord Sidmouth, said that he did not agree with the further concession. Grenville introduced his Catholic Officers Bill. When the king's opposition to any concession became apparent Grenville withdrew the Bill. 

            Not everyone in Parliament agreed that this was the time to put out feelers with regard to peace in Europe. Following the victory at Eylau despite heavy French losses, Napoleon would seek to maximize his gains. A number of the leaders of the various Parliamentary groups who were in favour of a more vigorous conduct of the War met in the house of the Duke of Portland. They agreed to form a Ministry aimed at prosecuting the War with vigour, and not introducing an Emancipation Bill while that Parliament lasted. Moderate Tories like Castlereagh and Canning found themselves able to back this programme. When the king became aware of this, though the offending Bill had already been withdrawn, he asked Lord Grenville to give an undertaking never to trouble the king's conscience with the question again. This demand was probably unconstitutional and Grenville, who could not agree to it, was forced to resign. 

A Ministry was formed under the Duke of Portland, and successive members of this ministry, Portland, Spencer Perceval, the Earl of Liverpool, George Canning, and Arthur Wellesley, followed each other in the office of Prime Minister for the next twenty three years. Replying to the demand by the king that they should not bother him with concessions to Catholics. they assured him of their loyalty but managed to avoid any commitment on the constitutional point. A Dublin journalist, Frederick Conway, remarked that the Catholics at the time were not too troubled at the development. They were in favour of prosecuting the War from which very many were benefiting financially, and the Prince of Wales was expected to come to the throne shortly. What they did not foresee was that their bitterest opponents in the ascendancy faction would be able to entrench themselves in the Irish administration in Dublin Castle and would have a virtual monopoly of making public appointments until they were rooted out of office by the Whigs in the 1830's. Sheridan's remark applied much better to the Irish Catholics than to the Whig ministry, that he had heard of madmen beating out their brains against a wall, but never of a madman constructing a wall for that very purpose.



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