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Chapter Four

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

The Portland Ministry 

(April 1807 to October 1809)

Summary. The Tories returned to power, and Tory administrations followed one another until 1832. The ministry put together under the Duke of Portland contained some anti-Catholic member, but others like George Canning were pro-Catholic, while others like Arthur Wellesley were satisfied with anything the king agreed to. Not until 1827, when Canning became prime minister, was it possible for a ministry to put forward a pro-Catholic measure without splitting. The chief aim of successive Tory administrations was to win the war against Napoleon, and after 1815 to obtain a secure peace. In Ireland, however, it was unfortunate that several anti-Catholic politicians accepted office and preserved a strong 'ascendancy' bias in the Irish Government until 1822. They were not anti-Catholic except in so far as they were determined to prevent the concession of further reliefs to Catholics.The Catholics themselves put forward a proposal that in the case of Emancipation being conceded, the king would be allowed to veto the appointment of disloyal bishops. This proposal increased the divisions among the Catholics.


Portland’s Ministry

The question of the Veto

The War in the Peninsula          


Portland’s Ministry     

[April 1807] Despite what was often alleged, the ministry that the Duke of Portland, leader of the Portland Whigs, who had joined Pitt’s war cabinet in 1794, put together was not a particularly anti-Catholic one. Some members of the Government however were noted for their anti-Catholic feelings, like Spencer Perceval in Britain and William Saurin in Ireland. During the General Election of 1807 in England, Perceval, and some who felt like him, did raise the popular cry of 'No Popery'. But all that was required of the individual members participating in the Government was that they would agree to the postponement, at least, of the question of Emancipation. The Duke of Richmond was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He was a man of moderate views and was generally popular during his stay in Ireland. The instructions given to him were the same as those given to Hardwicke. Sir Arthur Wellesley was appointed Irish Secretary, and was in general in favour of some accommodation with the Catholics. An English lawyer, Lord Manners, was appointed Lord Chancellor. He adopted a conservative policy, just interpreting the law as it stood, and never interfering in the internal affairs of counties. This meant that if some counties had particularly anti-Catholic sheriffs or magistrates he did nothing. Foster returned as Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer. Plunket was invited to remain as Attorney General but declined because of his friendship with Lord Grenville. Kendal Bushe remained as Solicitor General. Plunket's place as Attorney General was taken by one of the most bitterly anti-Catholic politicians William Saurin. Saurin's character was that of an able but scrupulous lawyer who opposed Emancipation to the best of his ability. His influence should not be exaggerated. He used no unfair or illegal methods, and his office had no direct control over in public appointments. We can probably safely assume that he did what he could to ensure that 'ascendancy' rather than moderate Protestants were appointed to public office but we have no idea how successful he was in this. (The fact that O’Connell detested him should not be held against him; it was a common fate in Ireland.) 

            Lord Castlereagh became Secretary for War, and George Canning Foreign Secretary. After the battle of Friedland, Russia was forced to join the 'Continental System'. Sir Arthur Wellesley led an expedition from Cork to destroy the Danish fleet before Napoleon captured it. Napoleon tried to persuade the southern European states to join the System. When the Pope refused his territory was invaded, Rome occupied on 2 February 1808, and finally the Pope was arrested and sent under guard to Savona. Napoleon then secured the concurrence of the Spanish Government in an invasion of Portugal. On the 19 November 1807 the French under Junot entered Portugal, and the Portuguese court sailed to Brazil, Portugal’s largest colony. But he went too far when he deposed the king of Spain and placed his own brother on the Spanish throne. On the 2nd of May 1808, the Dos de Majo, the people of Madrid revolted and drove out the new king, and the rising spread to the rest of the country. In various parts of Spain the Spaniards formed local juntas. The junta in Seville declared war on France, and Canning made peace with Spain. Castlereagh had been fitting out another expedition in Cork and it was decided to send it to the Peninsula. Sir Arthur Wellesley took charge of the first troops sent out and won a victory over the French before a more senior general superceded him. After the signing of the Convention of Cintra with the French on 31 August 1808 he returned to the United Kingdom. Though there was an outcry at the over-generous terms given to the French he retained the confidence of Lord Castlereagh. 

            In Ireland the general election of 1807 seems to have been a very low-key affair with little general interest. The first domestic task of Sir Arthur Wellesley and the incoming Irish Government was to continue with the passage of the Whig Insurrection Act (1807) through Parliament. It was more or less the same as the Act passed in 1796, and was to last two years. Henry Grattan supported the measure because of evidence of a French plot that had been shown to him by Mr. Elliot the previous Secretary. There were sporadic outbreaks of agrarian crime in parts of Munster. Others were frankly sceptical about the existence of such a plot. Castlereagh reorganized the militia, and it was used until the end of the War as a recruiting ground for trained militiamen who volunteered to transfer into regular regiments. As the prestige of the Irish generals in the Peninsula was high there was always a regular supply of volunteers. (The militia then had to recruit to fill up its own ranks, but at least the militia and the army were no longer competing with each other for the same volunteers.) In his budgets, John Foster cut the Maynooth grant back to what it had been before.

[1808] Sir Arthur Wellesley finally got the Dublin Police Act through Parliament in l808 and the new Dublin Metropolitan Police was to have a great influence on the development of other police forces in Ireland, and eventually throughout the Empire.

             A Commission was set up to examine the possibilities for the commercial development of Irish bogs. The Bog Commissioners appointed surveyors to examine the extent and positions of the bogs. A base benchmark for surveying was established at the foot of Nelson's Pillar. The foundation stone for the memorial column to Admiral Lord Nelson who was killed at Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, had been laid in February 1808.The surveyors were also given rainguages to measure rainfall, anticipating the wider researches of the Ordnance Survey two decades later. The half million pounds voted by the Irish Parliament for the development of inland navigation in Ireland was now all spent, but Richmond kept the Board of Inland Navigation in existence to adjudicate on new proposals. Further monies would be voted by Parliament for particular schemes it recommended.  An Irish Road Act (1809) was passed. Among other things it enacted that in future all traffic going in one direction would keep to the left, while facing traffic would keep to the opposite side. (The regulation apparently was first made with regard to the crossing of narrow bridges.) Work commenced on the new packet harbour at Howth. 

            With regard to the Catholics, Richmond followed the policy of Hardwicke. Two appointments he made however caused great offence to many Catholics. One was the appointment of Jack Giffard to a public office, but those who defended the appointment maintained the Hardwicke never intended that Giffard's exclusion should be permanent. The other was the appointment of the outspoken anti-Catholic Dr Patrick Duigenan as a Privy Councillor. It is likely the appointment was made purely for technical reasons, for Duigenan was one of Ireland's few doctors of Canon and Civil Law and so was a key figure in the ecclesiastical courts. (These courts had considerable civil jurisdiction especially with regard to wills and matrimonial cases.) In l809 the High Sheriffs of Dublin summoned several leading Catholic freeholders to service on the City Grand Jury. This had not been done in Dublin for centuries, though it had been done in other parts of Ireland. It was symptomatic of the growing feelings of liberality among Protestant gentlemen. [Top] 

The question of the Veto       

The Catholics had to decide what to do about their petition that had caused the downfall of the Talents ministry. The infighting among them continued and Daniel O'Connell emerged as the leader of the intransigents. It was decided to continue petitioning Parliament, and petitions were drawn up for presentation to the two Houses of Parliament in 1808. The Earl of Fingall informed George Ponsonby of the discussions with regard to a veto which had been going on for some years, and introduced him to Dr Milner who would state the Catholic position with authority. 

            When Grattan and Ponsonby, in May 1808, introduced the petition they gave as new grounds for considering the claims the undertaking of the Catholics to seek a powers of veto from the Pope over the appointment of bishops. The motion was in fact lost but a storm of protest arose in Ireland in which Milner's effigy was burned. Archbishop Troy of Dublin confirmed that the Irish bishops would not oppose a political settlement. In September 1808, however, the Irish bishops met and issued a statement that it was 'inexpedient' to change the existing mode of appointing Irish bishops. Replying to a query from Lord Southwell and Sir Edward Bellew, Troy stated that the resolution referred only to present circumstances with an anti-Catholic ministry in office, and was not intended to be permanent. Others were inclined to dispute Troy's view. Troy then informed Dr. Concanen in Rome of the views of the bishops. A deep division grew in the ranks of the Catholics between the 'Vetoists' and 'Anti-vetoists' which was not patched over until l823, and then only temporarily. Edward Hay replaced James Ryan as Secretary to the Irish Catholics. 

            Archbishop Carroll of Baltimore, Maryland, wrote to Archbishop Troy asking him to keep him informed about the activities of the Irish bishops. Most of the Catholic bishops in the world were now in territories directly controlled by Napoleon and the bishops of the 'free world' were concerned that they had sole responsibility for guarding orthodoxy without access to the Pope. If Napoleon were to seize Sicily and Sardinia there would be few bishops left except the English-speaking bishops and those in the Spanish colonies. In Sicily the British troops worked out a plan for rescuing the Pope and transporting him to any country he might wish to settle in, but the Pope did not believe the messenger sent to him. For the next five years all communications with the Pope were carried by smugglers. In 1809 Archbishop Troy got the consent of the Pope for the appointment of the Rev. Daniel Murray as coadjutor with right of succession to Troy, and with the personal title of archbishop. This was the last episcopal appointment to be made in Ireland for several years. It is well to remember the position the Irish bishops found themselves in when considering events over the next few years. 

            Feelings among the laity were running strongly against any concession to the crown. For the rest of 1808 there were many arguments about the advisability of continuing petitioning in the present circumstances. In March 1809 the English Catholics decided to petition. The old Irish Catholic Committee of 1793 was re-constituted. Survivors of that Committee were to be on the new Committee, and other gentlemen were to be co-opted. It was made clear that the members of this Committee were in no way the delegates of any body or group, so avoiding the Convention Act. The Catholic lords had considerable influence, and O'Connell maintained that they were (in supporting a veto) representing no interest but their own. From this followed everlasting attempts by O'Connell to get a representative body without being caught by the Convention Act. The Irish Government for the moment just ignored the Committee.

            In Ulster the Presbyterians, who lacked any institute of higher studies of their own, began to build a new college in Belfast that they called the Belfast Academical Institution. Like Maynooth, it was partly a grammar school, and partly a school for the further instruction of ordinands. Before that Presbyterian ordinands had to go to Glasgow University. [Top] 

The War in the Peninsula      

[1809] Following the Convention of Cintra, the British troops in the Peninsula were placed under Sir John Moore. Napoleon intervened personally in Spain, and half of the British Army that had advanced too far to help the Spaniards had to retreat hastily to Corunna for re-embarkation. (Moore was killed at Corunna, and his death was commemorated in a famous Irish poem, 'The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna'.) About 10,000 British troops remained in Portugal. By March 1809 the French, under Marshal Soult, had reached Oporto in northern Portugal. Arthur Wellesley convinced Castlereagh that a British Army could be maintained indefinitely in Portugal. He therefore resigned from the Irish Secretaryship (being succeeded briefly by Robert Dundas, April to October 1809) and set about organizing a further expedition to the Peninsula. The expedition sailed from Cork, beginning a close involvement of Ireland with the Peninsula which was to last for six years. Wellesley sailed from Portsmouth with the other half of the fleet, and never returned to Ireland for the rest of his life. Another Irish soldier, William Carr Beresford, was appointed commander-in-chief of the Portuguese army. The Portuguese, unlike the Spaniards, adopted the methods of drilling developed in Ireland, and their army became an effective force. Most of the Portuguese officers had gone to Brazil, so Beresford replaced them with British officers. (The Spaniards became experts at ‘little war’ guerrilla, as opposed to big war guerra, and a new words entered the English language.)  

Wellesley advanced, like Moore, into central Spain to aid the over-confident Spanish armies, but after a victory at Talavera had to retreat into Estramadura. Wellesley had no wish to be caught in an advanced position like Sir John Moore, and usually retreated in good time. Only once had he to make a precipitate retreat like Moore, and even then he had a secure base he could fall back to. Cautiously, he began the construction of fortified 'lines' at Torres Vedras, but they were not needed this year. They were across the isthmus on which Lisbon with its great port was situated, and reached from shore to shore. He was then raised to the peerage as Viscount Wellington. He assured Lord Liverpool in London that he could hold out, and for the next few years Wellington and the successive shaky Tory ministries propped each other up. On occasion Wellington fought battles with the French he would rather have avoided to provide the Government with another victory and so keep it in office. In 1809 Austria came back into the war, and so prevented Napoleon concentrating his forces against Wellington in Spain.  

There was a young Irishman belonging to the Augustinian Order studying at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. His name was James Warren Doyle. All the students, clerical as well as lay, joined the Portuguese army. The Irish students were used as English interpreters by the Portuguese army. Their superiors in Ireland hastily called them home. Lord Henry Paget, later Marquis of Anglesey, ran away with Henry Wellesley’s wife, which was to have repercussions much later between Anglesey and Wellington. 

            In London, the Duke of Portland was dying and his ministry was falling apart. Canning, who had hopes of succeeding as Prime Minister, was plotting behind Castlereagh's back. The two fought a duel, and then resigned. Several more resignations followed, but Spencer Perceval succeeded in putting another ministry together.



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