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Parliament

The Parliament House

The great monument of the Irish parliament was the magnificent Parliament House in College Green. The act 3 Geo. II, c. 8, legislated for the extension and consolidation of the site of the new Parliament House which was to be built on the site of Chichester House, where parliament met previously. Chichester House, named for the famous Lord Deputy, who used it as an office, was not well built, and by the 1720s it was falling down and beyond repair. It was demolished in December 1728; on 3 February 1728/9 the foundation stone of the new building was laid by the Lords Justices with great ceremony and festivity. The first session in the still incomplete Parliament House was opened on 5 October 1731 by the Lord Lieutenant, the Duke of Dorset. The new Parliament House was architecturally of European repute. The architect was Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (1646) and the guiding force may have been Speaker Conolly (0460), as he was known to favour Pearce, who had worked on his great house at Castletown, Co. Kildare.

It was certainly an expression of confidence in the parliament's and parliamentarians' future. Interestingly, it was not a copy of the English parliament's chamber - the medieval St Stephen's Chapel where the MPs faced each other in a fairly confined space. The Irish Commons' chamber was octogonal, a perfect setting for great oratorical displays, which St Stephen's Chapel was definitely not; this may in part have accounted for the lack of success of Irish parliamentarians such as Flood (0762) who attempted to transplant themselves, and even Grattan was not overwhelmingly successful. Speeches were often of a very high standard - Barry Yelverton (2268) remarked in a speech on 17 November 1777 that 'if, Sir, the most graceful gesture, the most brilliant imagination could enrich the funds of a Country, Ireland would be the most opulent one under the sun.'

The Commons chamber was an octagon enclosed in a square, wainscotted in Irish oak. The seats rose 15 feet in circular tiers to the gallery, where the gowned students of nearby Trinity College could, along with the MPs' guests, listen to the speeches. Many MPs were educated at Trinity, and the proximity of parliament provided them with a concurrent political education long before they entered it. The ceiling of the chamber formed a dome that, from its shape, was nicknamed 'the goose pie'; inevitably, the inmates were colloquially known as 'the geese'. In the House of Lords, the Lord Lieutenant's throne outshone that of the king at Westminster, and the Speaker's chair was more magnificent than either.

Unfortunately the chamber was cold, and attempts to heat it resulted in a fire that, in 1792, largely destroyed it. Although the rebuilding was similar, it lacked some of the original magnificence; perhaps it was warmer, as 'the dome was replaced with a roof in the shape of a wagon-head, surmounting a high brick wall with chimneys.'

One curious custom may have been a legacy of the banqueting hall, which had been part, albeit an early casualty, of Chichester House. The new Parliament House was equipped with excellent kitchens, and when parliament was sitting tables were laid with refreshments between four and five in the afternoon. Visiting parliament was a popular social activity and Mrs Delany mentions going with her women friends to various debates, including one on a disputed election petition and another on the deficiencies of bankers, and receiving excellent refreshments. On the eve of the budget the Speaker entertained members of the House of Commons and selected lords.

Murder Trials

In the course of the century the Parliament House saw three murder trials: the 1720 act did not, of course, affect an Irish peer's right to be tried by his peers. The trials were those of Lord Barry of Santry in 1739, Lord Netterville in 1744 and Lord Kingston in 1798. They were spectacular occasions. To accommodate all who had the right and the inclination to attend, the trials were held in the House of Commons. The Lord Chancellor of Ireland, acting as Lord High Steward, presided. The accused came before the court dressed in deep mourning. He was immediately preceded by the brilliantly attired King-at-Arms carrying a shield with his arms. Near by stood the executioner with the blade of his axe turned from the prisoner. If the verdict was 'guilty', the blade was immediately reversed.

In August 1738 Lord Barry of Santry, aged 28 and probably of unstable mind, murdered his former servant Laughlin Murphy in a violent and unpleasant manner. Subsequently, he, or his friends, attempted to obscure the evidence, thereby compounding the crime by perverting the course of justice. Lord Santry (as he was usually known) was duly tried by his peers, who, on 27 April 1739, unanimously found him guilty, but recommended him to the royal mercy. The Lord Lieutenant endorsed this plea, and Lord Santry was pardoned under the great seal on 17 June 1739. His estates, which had been forfeited for life, were restored in 1741. This case has similarities to that of the English peer, Earl Ferrers, who following the judgment of his peers in Great Britain was hanged at Tyburn in 1760.

Lord Netterville, indicted in August 1743 for the murder of Michael Walsh, was similarly tried on 3 February 1744, but honourably acquitted. The third peer accused of murder was the Earl of Kingston. The Kingston trial, on 18 May 1798, was one of the last great occasions of the Irish parliament. Lord Kingston, not a particularly salubrious character himself, was accused of having murdered Colonel Henry Gerald FitzGerald, a married man, who had eloped with and seduced his daughter. Public sympathy was on the side of the accused, and the case had inevitably received widespread publicity. Tension mounted as the witnesses for the prosecution were called. These included the dead man's wife and children. However, after the third summons no one had come forward and the peers, not having received any evidence, returned to their own House. Here the Lords Spiritual claimed their ancient right of not voting on a question of life and death. The temporal peers then processed back to the House of Commons to declare the accused not guilty. Pronouncing this verdict, the Lord Chancellor dismissed the prisoner, broke his wand, and dissolved the assembly.

The trial took place shortly before the outbreak of the 1798 rebellion and the occasion might have had a more dramatic end. There is evidence that Lord Edward FitzGerald (0730), influenced by the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, endeavoured to persuade his fellow conspirators in the Society of United Irishmen to use this occasion to create 'a shocking scene of blood and havoc in the city' by attacking the peers assembled for the trial, and in particular the Lord Chancellor, Lord Clare (0749) An informer stated that only two votes or possibly a single vote prevented Lord Edward and his associates from attempting this dramatic opening to the 1798 rebellion. Thus the scene might have concluded, and the Irish parliament been destroyed, in a spectacular finale.

Ceremonial Events

A recurring ceremonial was held in the House of Lords when the Lord Lieutenant opened, prorogued or dissolved parliament and in the name of the sovereign gave the Royal Assent to such bills as had been passed during the session. This was an occasion of unparalleled parade and splendour. The Lord Lieutenant drove from the Castle accompanied by the Chancellor, the archbishops, bishops, judges, Privy Counsellors, most of the Lords Temporal and many of the House of Commons. The street from the Castle to Parliament House was lined with foot-soldiers. Before the Lord Lieutenant's coach went the trumpets and kettle-drums and the members of his household; after his coach went the horse-guards, and then came the nobility in their ceremonial coaches. On arrival at the Parliament House the Lord Lieutenant donned the royal robes conveniently left by James II. By 1777 these were worn out and George III renewed them. Preceded by Black Rod and other officials and with two senior peers carrying the cap of maintenance and the sword of state, the Lord Lieutenant entered the House of Lords with his train borne by three peers' sons. Once he was seated on the throne, the Lord Chancellor directed Black Rod to summons the Commons to hear the Speech from the Throne and, in 1692 and 1769, to receive the royal rebuke.

The only eighteenth-century Lord Lieutenant to die in office was Charles, Duke of Rutland. Lord Lieutenant Rutland died suddenly on 24 October 1787, aged 33. He was accorded a royal lying-in-state. The House of Lords was draped and carpeted in black and the catafalque, with its crimson velvet ornamented coffin, was placed under a canopy adorned with black plumes and escutcheons. On each side stood six mutes, dressed in long black gowns and caps, holding tapers. At the head of the coffin was the Viceroy's ducal coronet supported by two of his Grace's aides-de-camp. At the conclusion of the lying-in-state the cortege, with the choirs of both cathedrals singing a dirge, left the Parliament House for the voyage to England where the final interment took place.

When the Lords met they sat under huge tapestries commemorating the Battle of the Boyne and Siege of Londonderry. All of this served to remind them of, and reinforce, their fears. In addition, two annual state celebrations, thanksgiving for the protestant preservation in 1641 and the celebration of King William III's birthday, underlined the stultifying fear and enduring distrust that were to destroy the promise of eighteenth-century Ireland. Each 23 October the Lord Lieutenant (or, in his absence, the Lords Justices), his household, the state officials and the members of the two Houses of Parliament went in solemn procession to Christ Church Cathedral for a service of thanksgiving. On the anniversary of King William's birthday, his statue in College Green was decorated, a reception was held at the Castle and the Lord Lieutenant, the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs of Dublin with their entourages paraded to the statue to the accompaniment of church bells and cannons.

The Duration of Parliament and the Place Act

The constitutional statutes are considered in this Introduction, the electoral statutes in Volume II and the question of privilege in the Introduction to the Biographies (Volume III). This leaves the question of the duration of parliaments. The theory was that parliament belonged to the monarch, who called it to consult with him on the business of the kingdom. He could dissolve it during his reign, and it was automatically dissolved by his death. The 1694 English Triennial Act, 6 Will. III & Mary II, c. 2, which declared that parliament was to be held at least every three years, did not apply to Ireland, although it had a de facto application during the reign of William III. Anne had two parliaments, one 1702-13 and the other 1713-14, the second being dissolved by her death. After the accession of George I the British Septennial Act gave parliaments in Great Britain a seven-year duration within the lifetime of the sovereign. Neither the Triennial nor the Septennial Act applied to Ireland, where parliaments could last for the lifetime of the sovereign and only be dissolved by his death.

The reigns of George I and George II were marked by lifelong parliaments. This probably helped to ossify the parliamentary system, which might have developed more flexibly with more frequent general elections. In Ireland there were only two general elections in 1715-60, and each parliament was dissolved only by the death of the sovereign who had called it. Agitation for an Irish Septennial Act was encouraged by the long reign of George II, but it was rejected. Neither the king nor the British cabinet looked favourably on the upset that a general election would cause; moreover, in neither Great Britain nor Ireland did a general election greatly affect the structure of the eighteenth-century House of Commons: political parties in the modern sense did not exist. The Irish Privy Council forwarded Septennial Bills convinced of their rejection at Westminster. However, in 1767, as part of the reorganisation of Irish administration, the Septennial Bill was returned in the shape of an Octennial Bill, 7 Geo. III, c. 3, to prevent the general elections in the two countries from clashing. The Irish politicians, confronted with the expense and turmoil of a general election every eight years, were not particularly pleased.

The other problem was that before the 1793 Place Act, 33 Geo. III, c. 41, an MP once elected could not, for any reason whatsoever, resign. For instance, in 1743 the Provost and burgesses of Sligo asked that Francis Ormsby (1599) with his consent be allowed to resign, as ill health had prevented him from attending parliament since 1731. This was refused, although he was given leave to absent himself. The 1793 Act allowed MPs to vacate their seats by applying for one of the escheatorships for each of the four provinces. This act had the unintended consequence of allowing the reorganisation of the House on the eve of the Union.

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