Although a glance at the names of those returned for Co. Armagh - who represented the major secular interests in the county thoroughout the century - gives an impression of stability, in fact this was not the case, either politically or socially. As the county contained the episcopal capital of Ireland, the Primate enjoyed considerable interest in both Armagh county and borough and until the death of Primate Stone in December 1764 successive Primates played an active part in politics.
In the early part of the century the relative equality of the competing political interests provided their own tensions. These culminated in the famous by-election of 1753, fought between the young William Brownlow and Lord Charlemont's brother,Francis Caulfeild (0366). This was probably the most spectacular by-election of the eighteenth century. It was caused by the death of Robert Cope in 1753. There had not been an election in the county for 14 years, and this alone would have been sufficient to give the occasion considerable interest, but it took place at the height of the Money Bill crisis. Inevitably, this by-election and another in Co. Galway became part of the general political confrontation. On 10 October 1753 Primate Stone, who played a considerable part in the election, supporting William Brownlow, wrote to the Duke of Newcastle that 'The mail to Armagh was robbed last night by two men dressed like gentlemen, and the writ to the sheriff taken out, in order to delay the election. This or any other violence is always to be apprehended.'43 Rather to Stone's surprise, William Brownlow was returned but, when Stone wrote to the Duke of Newcastle on 6 December about the animosity confronting the administration resulting in the expulsion of Arthur Jones-Nevill (1125), he added that:
The same case exists with regard to elections. Mr Brownlow is chosen and returned from the county Armagh. He is supposed to be a friend to government. Two other gentlemen in the same dispositions are returned from another county. Their elections are good. But as soon as they had taken their seats, they received messages in the house that if they voted with the Castle, petitions should be lodged against them. They did vote; the petitions are lodged; and there may possibly within this week be three more expulsions.44
In the event, this did not happen as on 29 December 1753 Thomas Adderley (0009) wrote to his step-son, Lord Charlemont, that:
The merits of Mr Caulfeild's petition came before a committee of the whole house the 6th inst and the hearing ended the 8th, and though it evidently appeared from the construction of the act of parliament relating to the registering of freeholds, that Mr Caulfeild had an undoubted fair majority of 352 uninfluenced voices, yet, the Castle party turned it into a minority and upon a division we lost the question by four votes being 122 to 118; whereof the sheriff's return, in the committee, was declared legal ... yet it was not a final determination [but when it came to the final vote the Chief Secretary tempted one of Caulfeild's supporters] ... by whose single vote the day was lost, for otherwise the numbers on each side were equal viz.: 119, and had that happened the Speaker would have had the casting vote, and how well pleased he would have been to compliment your brother with it cannot be doubted.45
The second county by-election at this time was occasioned by the death of George Warburton (2170), the MP for Co. Galway. In view of the Armagh decision the Co. Galway challenge similarly failed and the sitting member, Robert French (0834), was confirmed. Francis Caulfeild was later returned for Co. Armagh in the 1758 by-election following the death of William Richardson. This was certainly a quieter election, and may not have been contested; the writ was issued on 7 March and Caulfeild took his seat on 10 April 1758.46 Thereafter, honour having been satisfied, he sat for the family borough of Charlemont until 1775, when he drowned with his family on the sea passage from England to Ireland. County elections, particularly hard-fought ones, were exceedingly expensive and the 1753 one more than most, for it was said to have cost the Caulfeilds £10,000 and Brownlow £14,000.
Before the Co. Armagh election of 1761 the principal freeholders met at the Armagh assizes to agree the candidates for the county and Brownlow and Acheson were agreed. A few were inclined for Brownlow and Cope but these were persuaded as there was a great anxiety to avoid riot and excess, which apparently were occurring in the adjoining county of Tyrone. Caulfeild did not stand, and Brownlow wrote to Acheson suggesting that they hold the poll at McKinstry's - presumably a public house - since a Lurgan man had been shot at Stringer's at the end of the last poll.47 This election appears to have been uneventful, and from the evidence available uncontested, indicating agreement among the leading families. This was complicated by the fact that from 1763 there was sporadic unrest in Co. Armagh, which some commentators dated back to the passions aroused by the 1753 election.
The catalyst for the 1763 Oakboy terrorism was taxes or cesses imposed to build roads, and law and order had to be restored by the army: civil policing was still in the future. The 1771 Hearts of Steel outbreak, which was mainly about lease renewals and centred in Co. Antrim, was also felt in the adjoining counties. The large Catholic population which shared in the economic success brought by the linen industry was another element, as was the erosion of the family structure consequent upon economic success. This social and economic mix ensured that from about 1786 there was serious endemic social unrest. In 1768 three candidates - William Brownlow, Archibald Acheson and Arthur Cope - advertised their intention of standing for the county, but shortly before the poll was opened the following letter appeared in the Belfast News Letter:
Mr Cope returns his sincere thanks to the Gentlemen, Clergy and Freeholders who intended honouring him with their voices on the poll for this county; but finding the major part of the Freeholders unable to oppose the authority of landlords, has forced him this day to submit [to] the necessity of the times and decline polling.48
Thomas Dawson and William Brownlow were returned in 1776, but the election had been a bitter one and the county interests were even more divided by it. Meanwhile the doctrines of the American Revolution gained strength. Francis Hutcheson, who has some claim to being the philosopher of the American Revolution, spent part of his childhood in Co. Armagh, as his father was the minister of the Presbyterian Church in Armagh city. At the same time the Volunteer movement gave military experience, especially in the use of firearms - and self-confidence. It also gave a taste for marches and displays of various kinds.
Brownlow continued to represent the county until his death in 1794. He was an independent and highly respected MP, who only narrowly lost being elected Speaker in 1771. After 1783 the remaining elections represented a juggling of interests between the parties. Tensions heightened as, from the middle of the decade, law and order deteriorated. At first the magistrates were sympathetic to the Catholics, whom they considered to be the victims of their protestant neighbours. Determined landlords managed to control their protestant tenants only to discover that both sides reacted similarly. Both sides had various holidays and traditional celebrations, which carried implications of dominance. Hence the perceived protection of one group or the other was held to indicate the supremacy of that tradition. A supine magistracy was considered to be at least partly responsible for the breakdown of law and order and its virtual collapse in the 1790s, but Co. Armagh was the scene of mass factional confrontations and it is difficult to see what a magistrate could do when confronted with several hundreds, even thousands, of men bent on defying his authority.
A Parliamentary List of 1790 described the county as follows:
The electors are very numerous, far exceeding what might be expected from its limited extent; from three-fourths of the inhabitants being Protestants, and from the great subdivision of property and from the powerful operation of the linen manufacture, which is here carried on to an amazing extent and with uncommon success. Though inferior to many in natural fertility of soil it yields to none in height of cultivation.49
It is very doubtful whether three-fourths of its population were protestant, but it was certainly correct that in the course of the century the linen industry transformed the county from a mixed rural society with ecclesiastical overtones into a densely populated area where, by 1790, subdivision had reduced landholding to a point where it was no longer the weavers' main, or even substantially supporting, source of livelihood, and the political control of the landlords had diminished as, unlike in the adjoining Co. Down, the weavers had lost their independence and become increasingly dependent on the bleachers. This dependence tended to break down the hierarchical family structure under which the linen industry had traditionally operated: by opening a direct relationship with a bleacher, a son could attain economic independence, and in good times even affluence, at a much earlier age. Consequently, 'Many young men ... get the handling of cash before they know its value, [which] prompts them to intoxication and riot.'50 These social changes were complicated by traditional frictions, for south Armagh was a frontier area where Catholics and protestants met. By the 1790s the Catholics had acquired a sizeable share of the linen industry and the standard of living of the two religious groups was being equalised, thus upsetting traditional economic relatives.
From the mid-1780s there had been economically motivated factional clashes between the protestant Peep o' Day Boys and the Catholic Defenders, who, apart from individual intimidation, attacked each other in gangs often numbering several hundreds. Furthermore, it had proved impossible to get a jury to convict protestant terrorists and rioters. In the early stages of the outrages, the magistrates tried to keep the peace by supporting and even lending arms to the Catholics to enable them to protect themselves,51thus acknowledging the inability of both their own authority and the legal system to cope with this type of terrorism. The uncertainties of the 1790s and the breaking down of social structures had created insecurity and instability in an at best barely literate population. The economic recession in the early 1790s intensified the problem, and in 1795 a skirmish between the two groups occurred at a crossroads.52 This event, which marked the foundation of the Orange Society, later the Orange Order, was afterwards elevated to the 'Battle of the Diamond'. The protestants now turned back to the landlords for protection against the Catholics and their eroded standard of living. They were probably looking for assistance against the drapers. The drapers had largely usurped landlords' economic place in south Armagh53 and, affected by the downturn in the economy, they were cutting back on the financial opportunities of the weavers.
In 1783 it was said that 'The leading interests in this County are those of the Primate, Lord Gosford (0001), Lord Charlemont, Mr Cope, Mr Richardson and Mr Brownlow.' A calculation of the various interests in the county in 1789 ascribed the following numbers of freeholders to them: Cope 450, Brownlow 300, Charlemont and Richardson 250 each, Gosford 200, Tipping 160, the Bernard estate at Tandragee 130, Molyneux and Moore 100 each; about 730 freeholders were ascribed to a number of landlords, and the Primate's interest, which is not stated, depended on both the freeholders on the episcopal estates and the enfranchised clergy. These smaller interests in combinations could mount a challenge, and all had to be courted by a prospective candidate. The weighting of these interests probably changed little through the century, and this fairly widespread division of influence tended to make the outcome of elections unpredictable. Before the 1790 election, for which these calculations were made, the tensions among the county interests were such that the Rev. Edward Hudson wrote to Lord Charlemont: 'I wish to God your Lordship and Mr Cope would order (for you may order) some one of the candidates to drop his pretensions, and not pour oyl into a flame already blazing too fiercely.'54 An attempt appears to have been made to do this but, as reported in the Belfast News Letter, 11-13 May 1790, it was overturned by Sir Capel Molyneux. The reporter gives an extract of a letter from Armagh dated 6 May, writing that:
Yesterday the election for this county commenced. Our late members, the Right Hon. Wm Brownlow and Wm Richardson, Esq.; were proposed and seconded, when Sir Capel Molyneux proposed John Moore (1464) of Drumbanagher, Esq; and Captain Macullagh as fit and proper persons to represent the county of Armagh in Parliament. A poll was demanded when, the Rt Hon. Sir Capel Molyneux of Castledillon, Bart gave a single vote for Mr Moore, in opposition to the virtuous and revered Brownlow. 5 were polled by each Candidate, and the Court adjourned to this day. After a few were polled this morning, Geo. Molyneux, Esq.; produced a test, which he declared his friend Mr Moore ready to sign, and which at his request (tho' no freeholder) Mr Moore signed accordingly. Mr Brownlow and Mr Richardson then arose, and pledged themselves to abide not only by Mr Moore's test, (attendance and obedience to his constituents) but a much fuller and more explicit one. On expressing their wish to sign the test the independent Freeholders, with one voice, declared that they were perfectly satisfied with their past, and fully confident of their future conduct. Mr Molyneux, who is one of Mr Moore's council, having reflected on some part of Mr Brownlow's parliamentary conduct - that Gentleman arose, and after refuting the attack, he, in a speech of considerable length, which was heard with great applause, gave a clear and able history of the parliamentary conduct of Mr Moore and Mr Molyneux. He concluded with saying, that as those Gentlemen's conduct in Parliament had always been in direct opposition to Mr Richardson's and his, they could not expect support from them on the present occasion.
Captain Macullagh vanished from the scene fairly early in the poll, but Moore continued until the final close, when Brownlow and Richardson had 820 votes each against Moore's 619. Molyneux had chosen his candidate carefully, for Moore was an interesting choice to set up against the major interests in the county. His grandmother was Mary Caulfeild, an aunt of Lord Charlemont. Moore was an active magistrate who at the begining of the 'troubles' had, like many of the Armagh gentry, endeavoured to be impartial only to be gradually pushed into an extreme Protestant position. He was captain of the Drumbanagher Volunteers and a fairly prominent figure in the county. In 1803 he was High Sheriff of the county.55 Previously he had been MP for Ballynakill, 1783-90 - hence the reference to his parliamentary conduct - and he was subsequently returned for Lisburn, 1791-7 and for Newry, 1799-1800. In the early nineteenth century he had an interest in the Newry Bank, and was ruined by its failure in 1816. He was a conscientious magistrate and a kindly resident landlord. On 15 July 1789 he wrote to Lord Charlemont, the Governor of Co. Armagh, describing the state of affairs in his part of the county:
This whole county for Ten Mile Round is in absolute Rebellion & Confusion. Where it will end God only knows. As to what a Magistrate can do, on such occcasions is of little avail, for when a Thousand men well arm'd, will assemble if ordered to disperse by reading the Riot Act, they will retire and assemble in other places to the Number of five or six thousand in a body, to the Terror and confusion of the whole country. The papists are now beginning their Night Depradations, and Lye in Wait behind Ditches to murder and Destroy Every protestant that appears, this I know from my own certain knowledge [he had been called out a few nights ago and he and his party had been shot at, pelted with stones etc.] ... There is not the least business doing. Every protestant family is obliged to leave their Houses, and sit up on the Hills least their Habitations would be Burnt over their Heads, of course the[y] can't do anything for themselves in the Day time being so fatigued by Repeated Sittings up every night. As I have been [?rather] active in my Duty as a Magistrate I am now the person pointed at, and am concerned that the[y] will some time or other take away my Life.56
And he continued, reporting a projected attack on his house which had been foiled by his guard dogs. He then pleaded for munitions to be sent with all speed, as they had none. By 1796 large parts of the county were proclaimed under the Insurrection Act.
In 1792 Brownlow wrote to Charlemont, commenting that 'This new idea of a Roman Catholic parliament is indeed alarming I have no doubt we will be obliged to submit to a Popish Ascendency before very long and we may thank Belfast, Napper Tandy, Todd Jones and a few such worthies for the establishment.'57 After 1793 speculation increased about the impact of the Catholic vote and about the slowness of Catholic freeholders to register: one of Charlemont's correspondents wrote in 1794 that 'They always obey directions and perhaps their superiors do not wish to show their strength until they have obtained all that remains.'58 William Brownlow died in October 1794 and in February 1795 his son, also William, was returned, in an election contested with Robert Camden Cope: Brownlow received 1,356 votes and Cope 1,254.
As General of the Volunteers and long-time aristocratic leader of the opposition, Lord Charlemont was the outstanding political figure in the county, a fact that succeeding administrations acknowledged, as he was for many years the Governor of the county. However, from the death of his brother in 1775 to the majority of his son in 1796, Charlemont had no available family member to stand for the county. The young Lord Caulfeild reached the qualifying age of 21 in 1796 and was returned in the 1797 general election. Although he stood initially in 1797, Brownlow stood down in favour of Caulfeild and Richardson; Richardson, who had been MP since 1783, then similarly stood down in favour of Caulfeild and Acheson, remarking that 'In times like the present nothing short of the moral certainty of success could warrant any man in involving his county in a tedious contest: how ill then should I have requited the many favours I have received from mine, had I continued to disturb the peace of it by a perseverence in a poll the event of which was at best doubtful.'59 The young Lord Caulfeild and the Hon. Archibald Acheson, the even younger heir of Lord Gosford, were returned. Lord Charlemont died in 1799 and was succeeded by his son, Lord Caulfeild. In the ensuing election Sir Capel Molyneux challenged Robert Camden Cope; the latter was returned on 15 October 1799 by 1,810 votes to 1,282. Molyneux bore a distinguished name which he felt entitled him to an influence that he did not possess.
The uncertainties of the 1790s and the breaking down of social structures had created insecurity and instability. Many Catholics fled from south Armagh carrying genuine tales of intimidation, which became embellished with additional horrors as they were orally repeated and passed on to more remote areas. Shortly after its foundation, the Orange Order became centralised in Dublin from where it spread to Wicklow and Wexford, thus giving substance to the Orange bogey scare that erupted there on the eve of the rebellion. The Orange bogey was the most spectacular of the tales of terror that swept a nervous country prone to all sorts of rumours, prophecies and bogeymen. Such stories were propelled along the improved roads by a population whose normal mobility was increased by the military activities of the yeomanry and militia, both drawn from the poorer sections of society. The protestant alliance was symbolised in the Orange Order, and ensured that the Defenders would be equally exclusively Catholic.
Co. Armagh had two boroughs, both created in 1613 by charters of James I: Armagh in March and Charlemont in April. Although both corporations had provision for freemen, the right to return members to parliament was vested in the sovereign and 12 free burgesses.