John FitzGibbon, 1st Earl of Clare - Summary


FitzGibbon appears to have made little mark in British political history, as compared to Irish parliamentary history. His adversary Henry Grattan and the aristocratic rebel Lord Edward FitzGerald (with the other rebels of 1798) are better remembered. FitzGibbon was apparently a hardline Protestant, a landlord and a member of the Protestant Ascendancy, who naturally supported those political measures that would preserve Protestant domination of Ireland and the continued suppression of the numerically dominant Catholics in Ireland. He won his point in 1801 and its immediate aftermath, when the Irish Parliament was dissolved and Union with Great Britain was achieved - without any concessions to Catholics. In the long run, his views lost out, as subsequent British Cabinets were forced to concede full rights to Catholics in 1829 (while imposing new voting restrictions in Ireland and thus disenfranchising poorer Catholics). The Union with Great Britain, so bitterly opposed by Henry Grattan, was eventually dissolved partially more than a century later.

FitzGibbon's most significant achievement (historically speaking) was probably his convincing King George III that any concessions to Roman Catholics, whether in Great Britain or in Ireland, would mean that the King was violating his Coronation Oath. Thus, the King and his second son became staunch opponents of pro-Emanicipation measures, which had to wait until both had died. In thus convincing the King (probably between 1793 and 1801), FitzGibbon's policy of repression towards Irish Catholics achieved its finest hour; in doing so, he also defeated all that Grattan and his party had worked to obtain. Furthermore, he also brought about Pitt's downfall, because Pitt had staked his own reputation on obtaining Catholic emancipation concurrently with the Act of Union. No other British Prime Minister would make such efforts for a long time. FitzGibbon thus had a negative role not only in Irish parliamentary and political history, but also in British political history.

By negating all of Grattan's efforts 1787-1789 and those of Pitt in the late 1790s to 1801, FitzGibbon allowed conditions to develop that would benefit sectarian leaders and political philosophies from both religious communities. It is unclear if FitzGibbon's support of Grattan, or support for Pitt's proposals would have made much difference, given that many hardline Protestants probably felt the same way as FitzGibbon. Furthermore, the British Cabinet (not to mention the Royal Family, then far more influential politically) was itself divided on the issue for most of the period. But just as Catholic Emancipation was brought about by a Tory Prime Minister in 1829, or substantial voting reforms brought about by Disraeli and the Conservatives, thus winning support from a crucial minority of those originally opposed to either, the support of a prominent hardline Protestant leader for Catholic Emancipation might have made all the difference to Irish history.

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