Wicklow People

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Grattan's parliament is revisited online

Reporter David Medcalf visited the History Ireland website to enjoy a review of the achievements of Henry Grattan (1742-1820) who had strong associations with County Wicklow as a resident of Enniskerry


A painting of Henry Grattan

A painting of Henry Grattan

A photograph of the original house at Tinnehinch, Enniskerry

A photograph of the original house at Tinnehinch, Enniskerry


A painting of Henry Grattan

Who is Wicklow's most distinguished ever politician. Simon Harris? The jury is still out on that one. Or how about Joe Jacob or Dick Roche? One other person with a strong claim is Henry Grattan, long-time resident of Enniskerry, whose career spanned more than four decades.

Though he was a native Dubliner, he had good local credentials south of the county border, not only as a householder but also briefly as MP for Wicklow Borough.

First chosen as public representative in 1775, he remained active in public affairs up to his death in 1820. He was a memorably effective orator and his speeches (often edited and embellished to make the best impression) were widely circulated in print. He is remembered in place names and to this day there are boys christened Grattan, presumably in his honour. Above all, his place in history is cemented by fact that the institution which sat in College Green up to 1800 is forever known as 'Grattan's Parliament'.

The bi-centenary of his death has now been marked by the posting of a podcast on the History Ireland website. History Ireland is best known as a magazine, published regularly to a high standard since the early 1990s. In more recent times, they have also promoted 'hedge school' podcasts, allowing experts on various topics air their views.

Under the chairmanship of magazine editor Tommy Graham, a panel of academics was assembled for the latest in the series to discuss Henry Grattan's life and legacy. Previous hedge schools have been staged in front of live audiences, as happened four years ago when the 1916 Proclamation provided the topic for analysis at the parish centre in Roundwood. The latest venture broke with tradition in order to comply with Covid19 protocol.

So there was no one to provide the applause while David Dickson, Patrick Geoghegan, Sylvie Kleinman and Tim Murtagh made their contributions via a Zoom call. The production had the backing of Wicklow County Council's archive service and of the Bray Cualann historical society.

Listeners are reminded how Grattan was born in 1746 at Fishamble Street in Dublin - famed as the venue for the first performance of Handel's 'Messiah'. The 72 minute podcast tells how he came from a Church of Ireland family of some standing but no great wealth. Henry's grandfather had been a judge, serving as Lord Chief Justice, and his father held a position as law officer with Dublin Corporation.

It appeared that young Henry was also destined to have a career in the law, though he was more inclined to dabble in poetry and drama while a student at Trinity College. He fell out with his father, who partly disinherited him, and he came under the influence of Lord Charlemont, opening up an alternative calling as a politician.

The all Protestant Irish parliament of the 1770s was very different to modern day representative institution. Most of the 150 constituencies either had very small electorates or were completely under the thumb of rich private interests. Though largely composed of gentry who were conservative by nature, there was a patriotic element prepared to rock the boat.

Charlemont was the leading figure among these patriots, keen for Ireland to have a greater degree of independence from London. The young lawyer from Fishamble Street was nominated in 1775 to sit in the House of Commons for the constituency which bore his lordship's name. Grattan represented Charlemont in County Armagh - the man and the place - for 15 years.

National politics at the time when he first took his seat were coloured by the breakaway of what became the United States from the British Crown. British fears that the Irish would welcome a French invasion also rumbled in the background as the patriots lobbied for reforms. They succeeded in earning greater autonomy for the island in the guise of the 1782 constitution which established Grattan's Parliament.

The MP for Charlemont was given widespread credit for swinging the vote in Dublin in favour of the move to legislative independence. Thanks in large part to his speech invoking the spirit of Dean Swift, he became famous, pictured in the topical magazines and feted in the streets of his home city. His barrister colleagues voted to erect a statue of Grattan as saviour of the country, an honour which he declined.

However, he was happy to accept an award of £50,000 from his fellow politicians, a life-changing amount of money. It enabled him and his wife Henrietta to acquire a modest estate at Tinnehinch in Enniskerry which became the family home in 1784 During the podcast, Professor Dickson noted that visitors found the household 'amiable' in the reception they were given there. The great orator loved to sit alone in church ruins and clearly appreciated the privacy which his County Wicklow home offered away from the hurly-burly of the capital.

Henry Grattan, who became MP for Dublin City in 1790, remained influential after 1782, particularly in championing greater rights for Roman Catholics. But he was never appointed to government office and his parliament was swept away by the Act of Union which made Britain and Ireland one country in 1801. He shaped to retire from public life but was persuaded to take up a career in Westminster and he was MP for the city of Dublin at the time of his death. His descendants remained in Enniskerry up to the 1940s and the house later fell into disuse, with the roof taken off in 1953…

The 72 minute hedge school podcast is readily available via the History Ireland website which also offers access to back numbers of the magazine. More than 250 'Wicklow' results show up using the search engine on the site. While many of these are fleeting references, some substantial nuggets are thrown up, as reminders of the county's past. Here are five examples:

1. Revolutionary republican and novelist Erskine Childers may have been born in London but he was raised in his mother's home place at Glendalough House, along with his cousin Robert Childers Barton. Childers was executed in 1922 and so did not live to see his son - also Erskine - elected in 1973 president of the state he had helped to establish.

2. Though the republic remained neutral during World War Two, the Defence Forces did sustain some casualties. In September of 1941, young officers training in the Glen of Imaal were being instructed in the use of an anti-tank mine which contained 25 pounds of gelignite. As they were being shown how to insert a detonator, the device exploded, killing 15 men, while ten more sustained serious injuries.

3. There were Irish casualties in Wales in 1868 when a train bound for the mail boat in Holyhead came to grief in North Wales. It collided with goods wagons carrying 50 barrels of paraffin, igniting an inferno which left 33 dead. A memorial to the 33 who died may be seen at St Michael's churchyard in Abergele and the youngest of the victims was Louisa Symes from Rathdrum.

4. In August of 1821, King George the Fourth landed in Howth, paying the first peace time visit to Ireland by a British monarch. The occasion generated merchandise which was snapped up by loyalist enthusiasts. Among the more tasteful items offered for purchase was a medallion showing the king arriving, with Saint Patrick's cathedral and the Four Courts in the background. One strong selling point was that the medallion had been made from copper mined in County Wicklow.

5. Irish parliamentary leader Charles Stewart Parnell from Rathdrum is still remembered for his love affair with Kitty O'Shea. However, as a younger man he came close to marrying American heiress Abigail Woods from Rhode Island. The pair met in 1870, four years before Parnell was elected MP, and they were soon being congratulated on their engagement. However, the Wicklow man found that she was not so keen when he followed her across the Atlantic a year later to New England. Possibly under pressure from her family, she informed Parnell baldly that she did not intend to marry him, so he returned to Ireland a single man.

Wicklow People