Henry Grattan looms large over modern Ireland

His legacy is that the Irish nationalist movement retained a liberal protestant element

On this day 200 years ago Henry Grattan died in London, aged 74. He was taken ill on his way to the Westminster parliament to present one of his many petitions to admit Catholics to its membership.

For his role securing legislative independence for the pre-union Kingdom of Ireland in 1782 and his opposition to that Kingdom’s abolition by the Act of Union 1800 he entered the pantheon of nationalist heroes, ranked by Daniel O’Connell next to himself as the greatest of Irishmen. Buried in Westminster Abbey, Grattan is commemorated in Dublin by a statue in College Green opposite the seat of the Kingdom’s parliament.

It was the dream of nationalist leaders from O’Connell to Redmond and Dillon to restore what they called Grattan’s parliament at what in reverent tones they referred to as “the old house at College Green”. Many great nationalist rallies took place outside it

It was paradoxical that a movement that was representative of the Catholic majority should have revered an institution from which Catholics were excluded and which had enacted laws imposing disabilities on them well described by Edmund Burke as ‘a machine as well fitted for the oppression and degradation of a people as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.’


Inspired by the example of the English colonists in America who had declared independence in 1775 and angered by restrictions imposed on Irish trade by the British government, the Irish parliament had secured the sole right to make laws for the Kingdom of Ireland. But most of its members had as little interest in allowing Catholics to participate in their polity as the American colonists had of giving native Americans daylight in their new republic.

Henry Grattan, a celebrated orator, was to the fore promoting legislative independence. In appreciation, he was in 1782 voted a gratuity of £50,000 with which he bought his Tinnehinch estate in Wicklow.

Unlike most of his colleagues he also championed repeal of the penal laws so that Catholics could participate in the Kingdom’s parliament. “The question now,” he asked, “is whether we shall be a protestant settlement or an Irish nation. The penal code is the shell in which Protestant power has been hatched; now that it has become a bird it must burst the shell or perish in it.” Among the few who backed him were Laurence Parsons of Birr, George Ponsonby and George Knox.

In the wake of the failed insurrection of 1798 William Pitt’s British government moved to incorporate Ireland into a United Kingdom with Britain. Disregarding the eloquent pleas of Grattan, what Thomas Babington Macauley called “the most corrupt parliament that ever sat in Europe” voted itself out of existence.

By promising full Catholic emancipation Pitt’s acolyte Castlereagh secured the support of the leaders of Catholic Ireland, lay and ecclesiastical, for the measure.

But not the young Catholic barrister Daniel O’Connell who proclaimed that “he would rather confide in the justice of the Protestants of Ireland than lay his country at the feet of foreigners.”

It was that sentiment, born of admiration for men like Grattan and proved prescient when British ministers went back on their promises, that built an improbable bridge between the colonial nationalism of Grattan’s parliament and the largely nativist constitutional nationalism of pre-independence Ireland.

After the Union most of its opponents in the Irish parliament and their descendants became committed unionists seeing it as a protection against populist nationalism. Not so Grattan’s son Henry who was one of several liberal Protestants MPs in O’Connell’s party. Not so Charles Stewart Parnell, whose great-grandfather Sir John Parnell who opposed the Union.

From 1885 until 1918 Parnell’s Irish Party included Grattan’s great grandson Sir Thomas Grattan Esmonde. Later he was a senator in Saorstat Eireann - provoking republicans to burn down his house destroying priceless records of a Catholic Ireland that had survived the penal laws.

Feeling it was too identified with the Irish Party, the first government of independent Ireland had rejected the Old House in College Green in favour of Leinster House for its parliament.

An element of continuity with Grattan was, however, maintained by two descendants sitting in the Dail. Osmund Grattan Esmonde represented his ancestral county of Wexford there from 1923 until 1936. His nephew John Grattan Esmonde SC sat for the same constituency in the 1970s

Recent historians have tended to discount Grattan somewhat. But it is his legacy that the Irish nationalist movement retained a liberal protestant element inherited from the best elements in Grattan’s Parliament and never identified totally with Catholicism. This, as much as the memory of Wolfe Tone and other Protestant revolutionaries, was an inspiration for the leaders of independent Ireland to resist pressure for a Catholic Ascendancy as pernicious as the Protestant Ascendancy of the eighteenth century Kingdom of Ireland.

Charles Lysaght is a lawyer and biographer