The Irish Lord Lieutenancy, c1541-1922,edited by Peter Gray and Olwen Purdue

The proceedings of a conference on 400 years of the lord lieutenancy make for a surprisingly engaging study of an ill-defined role

Thu, Oct 17, 2013, 11:56


Book Title:
The Irish Lord Lieutenancy, c1541-1922


Edited by Peter Gray and Olwen Purdue

University College Dublin Press

Guideline Price:

This volume is the edited proceedings of a 2009 conference on the Irish lord lieutenancy that assembled, appropriately, at Dublin Castle. It surpasses what one expects of published conference proceedings in that it is elegant, coherent, intelligent and timely.

Its elegance derives not only from a dazzling dust jacket and a portfolio of portraits but also from the crisp prose sustained by the authors of each chapter. I refer to the contributions as chapters, as do the editors, because the original conference papers, which varied in length, style and quality, have all been honed to equality in length and a common smoothness in style.

Some of the authors prove themselves witty and playful, especially when dwelling on the foibles of individual lords lieutenant, and the book gains further coherence from an appendix that lists all who served as chief governors of Ireland from 1541 to 1922. Each author poses challenging questions and pursues them intelligently, and the editors have devised a coherent structure for a volume dedicated to reaching an understanding of how those most immediately responsible for the governance of Ireland performed their duties and influenced policy over the course of 400 years.

The book opens with a short introduction by Peter Gray and Olwen Purdue in which they identify the gaps in our knowledge they are hoping to redress, and introduce readers to the authors and the subjects they address. A chronology of how the position of lord lieutenant of Ireland developed over time is provided in a sequence of chapters by Ciaran Brady, Ivar McGrath, Jimmy Kelly and Theo Hoppen. Each discusses the character and capabilities of a sequence of lords lieutenant and the policies they pursued over the course of about 100 years. These narrative chapters are mingled with analytic studies, either of how governors responded to external or internal challenges at moments of uncertainty, or of how political trends in Britain manifested themselves in an Irish context.

The two chapters that deal with crises are one by Gillian O’Brien, who assesses the performance of those who headed the government in Dublin during the revolutionary decade 1789-99, and another by Keith Jeffrey, who studies how the last two lords lieutenant functioned during Ireland’s War of Independence, 1918-22.

The purely topical chapters include one by Toby Barnard seeking to measure how lords lieutenant influenced cultural and literary affairs in Ireland (and, more particularly, Dublin) from 1660 to 1780; one by Peter Gray on how the “people’s monarchy” of the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign made it necessary for the queen’s representatives in Ireland in 1835-47 to reach out to a wider population than usual; a chapter by James Loughlin, who considers the extent to which the British effort to signify the might of monarchy through the development of royal palaces and parks was extended to Ireland in 1870-1914; and one by Patrick Maume, who explains how the role assumed by the monarchy of the mid and late 19th century, encouraging social welfare, was imitated in Ireland by Lord Aberdeen and his wife, Ishbel. The pair dedicated themselves to encouraging home industries, sobriety and hygiene and to discouraging idleness, vice and TB.

The author of each narrative chapter strives to reach some general conclusion on how the role and function of the office of lord lieutenant changed over the time that each deals with. However, the generalisations they propose seldom hold up to scrutiny because performance in office was related very much to the influence and capability of the post holder, to the attitude of monarchs, or senior British officials, towards Ireland and the problems it presented at particular junctures, and to events beyond the control of the British government or its agents in Ireland.

The principal obstacle to the pursuit of any consistent policy was that nobody at any level or at any time was certain, as Theo Hoppen puts it, what purpose the office of lord lieutenant served or what were the powers and limitations of the post. Some occupants of the lord lieutenancy, in the 20th as in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, devoted themselves primarily to military matters; all, some more effectively than others, attached importance to the ceremonial roles of the position; and many thought themselves to be in charge of administering and making policy for Ireland until they were disabused of this fancy by their experience of dealing both with the permanent administration in Dublin and with senior figures in Britain.

The publication of a volume on this understudied subject is timely because it offers a fresh explanation of why Hiberno-British relations have proven intractable over the centuries. This explanation is that at no point, over the course of 400 years (with the possible exception of the Cromwellian era, which is not pertinent to this book), did senior political figures in Britain pause to consider how Ireland would best be governed and what the place of Ireland was within a composite polity.

This did not happen in 1541, when Ireland was declared a kingdom tied to the crown of England; it did not occur in 1603, when the crown of England (including the kingdom of Ireland) was being united with the kingdom of Scotland under a single Scottish monarch; it was not contemplated in 1660, when King Charles II recovered the British monarchy from the hands of those who had executed his father; it was given scant attention in 1691 and 1692 after King William and his wife, Mary, had ousted James II; it was disregarded in 1767, when Lord George Townshend broke with immediate precedent by deciding to reside in Ireland for the duration of his years in office; and it did not become part of the discussion in 1800, when the terms of the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland were being negotiated.

Instead, the government invariably opted for short-term solutions to pressing problems, with the result that the position of governor of Ireland continued to be so ill defined that there was disagreement even on what title should be accorded to the post: chief governor, lord deputy, lord justice, lord lieutenant and viceroy were all used at various times, sometimes interchangeably.

Most of our authors use the word viceroy or viceroyalty in their chapter titles, but this locution was not strictly applicable to Ireland until after 1858, when the British government, having created an Indian viceroyalty, could hardly permit the seemingly analogous post in Ireland to seem less elevated.

It was clear to many commentators, however, that a viceroyalty for Ireland was now more anomalous than ever before, because whatever justification had previously existed for considering Ireland a province, or even a colony, of Britain was no longer valid in constitutional terms after the Act of Union of 1801, when it had been incorporated into the unitary Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

The anomaly persisted, as succeeding chapters show, partly because there were always some lobbyists in Ireland (O’Connell included) who believed that Dublin and Ireland would be diminished by the loss of the lord lieutenancy and the patronage and entertainment associated with it. Far more crucial, however, was that Ireland remained a place apart for most political figures in Britain, few of whom conceived of it as an equal partner with England and Scotland within the union they had promoted.

While this point is not stated baldly by the contributors to this book, their collective studies of the lords lieutenant in various centuries make it clear that even the governors (including the few who were of Irish birth) retained a supercilious attitude towards Ireland and to the various elements of its population. Furthermore, few of them remained in office for long; relatively few governors in any century brought their families to Ireland, while, for much of the 18th century, governors tended to regard the position as part time, with an obligation to be in residence only when parliament was in session.

It also becomes clear from these chapters that few governors in any century solicited this particular appointment, and most accepted it either out of a sense of duty or in the vain hope that service in Ireland would lead to something better. The office always carried a generous stipend, which exposed holders to the criticisms of the envious but not to any enrichment, because any governor who was anxious to cut a dash in Ireland and to avoid the reputation for being mean had to meet much of the cost of expected entertainment from private resources. Also, while Dublin Castle in its heyday had some excellent reception rooms, it was no palace and was located close to a slum, and the new 19th-century residence for the lord lieutenant was rightly termed a lodge.

The shortcomings associated with the position and with those who occupied it are in themselves proof that the British authorities were as uncertain about their role and responsibility in Ireland in the centuries covered by this volume as they were about how the country should be governed.

However, before rushing to condemn these actors and their representatives – and none of the authors rushes to judgment – we need to compare the administrative procedures adopted for Ireland with those applied in other parts of Britain’s expanding empire. Even better would be a comparison between how Britain managed the many entities over which it ruled and how authority was delegated in Europe’s multiplicity of composite monarchies and global empires.

The fact that this book points to the need for such broader studies is the principal proof that it has broken new ground in an interesting way.

Nicholas Canny is a member of the scientific council of the European Research Council. His most recent publication is A Protestant or A Catholic Atlantic World? Confessional Divisions and the Writing of Natural History , published by the British Academy as the 2011 Raleigh Lecture on History.