Co. Cork was the largest county in Ireland and had by far the largest representation in the Irish parliament; it returned 26 MPs, and even after the Union it returned 12. Throughout the eighteenth century the long political shadow of the seventeenth-century leviathan, Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork, who died at Youghal on 15 September 1743, lay over the county as a whole. His great-grandson, Charles 3rd Earl of Cork and 2nd Earl of Burlington, died on 9 February 1703 and was succeeded by his eight-year-old son, Richard, 4th Earl of Cork and 3rd Earl of Burlington, possibly the most famous eighteenth-century British patron of the arts, whose expensive tastes led to large sales of his Irish estates. Much, however, remained to be inherited at his death in 1753 by his only surviving child, Charlotte, who in 1748 had married the Marquess of Hartington. She died in December 1754, leaving a family of small children. In 1755 the Burlington agent Sir Anthony Abdy wrote to the Dowager Lady Burlington (who may have had a life interest in the Irish estates) detailing a 'strict enquiry after the Parliamentary interest'107 that he had made, and the result of which was: 'Co. of Waterford - was totally my lord's - believes is so now; Dungarvan - the same; Lismore - the same; Tallow - the same; Youghal - was totally my lord's now doubtful; Clanihilty [Clonakilty] - was my lord's now totally the Speaker's [Boyle, 0210]; Bandon - the same in the family still; County of Cork - was my lord's, but now many people of fortune have got into the country, so it is more precarious but the family must still have a very great interest.'
At the beginning of the century not only was the head of the Cork and Burlington branch of the family a minor, but so was the junior branch of the Orrery family. Henry Boyle (0207), who was returned in 1692 was killed in Flanders in 1693, so that from the Revolution to the Hanoverian succession the dominant interest was that of the Brodricks and Sir John Perceval. In 1715 Alan Brodrick became Lord Chancellor, and at the general election of 1715 his son St John Brodrick was returned along with Henry Boyle. By the reign of George II both the Brodricks and Percevals were mainly absentees living in England. Henry Boyle became Speaker of the Irish House of Commons in 1733 and the dominant interest in Co. Cork for the rest of his life. He was a grandson of the 1st Earl of Orrery, and in 1726 he married Lord Burlington's sister, Henrietta. Boyle was Speaker of the House of Commons till 1756, when he was created Earl of Shannon. His influence largely depended both on the trust placed in him by the absentee Earl of Cork and Burlington, and also in his own family connection, his residence, his office and his personality. In 1812 Thomas Knowlton, the Duke of Devonshire's Irish agent, said that Boyle had conducted Lord Burlington's business both before and during his absence in Italy and that he had a power of attorney to do all his business, adding 'How long he held that office I cannot at present make out but I have an old lease in my possession dated 1731 and signed by him in that capacity.' Knowlton added that Boyle managed all Lord Burlington's power in Ireland, which comprised at least ten members in the House of Commons.
Boyle's authority might have been diminished by the marriages between the sons of Lord Bessborough and the daughters of the 3rd Duke of Devonshire, but by that time he was too senior and too established and in 1763 his son and heir, Richard, married Catherine, the eldest daughter of John Ponsonby (1702) and Lady Elizabeth Cavendish. The 4th Duke, by the 1750s the source of the major part of the Boyle patronage in Co. Cork, possibly had some reservations about Ponsonby, his brother-in-law, whom he may have thought power-hungry and in any case not particularly able; certainly he found him irritating in the late 1750s, which was when Ponsonby was trying to consolidate his interest following the death of the Dowager Lady Burlington in 1758.
In 1764 Lord Shannon died and was succeeded by his son Richard, 2nd Earl of Shannon (0213), who continued to look after the Boyle interest in Counties Cork and Waterford. Abuse of power entrusted by absentees was common, but neither the 1st nor the 2nd Earl of Shannon appears to have behaved other than honourably, although they were far from rich and the retirement pension of the 1st Earl of Shannon - £2,000 granted for 31 years in 1756, which ceased in 1787 - was an important part of their income. Furthermore, in 1764, the 4th Duke of Devonshire died leaving a 16-year-old son as his successor. The 5th Duke was a lethargic young man even after he reached his majority, and appears to have been quite happy to leave his Irish political interests in the hands of his relations, his uncle Speaker Ponsonby and particularly his cousin Lord Shannon. However, the Act of Union appears to have developed his interest, as in September 1801 Thomas Knowlton, the Duke's principal Irish agent and Thomas Garde, his assistant, reported to the Duke that 'Respecting the county of Cork, they agree in thinking that the Duke of Devonshire at present is far from having it in his power to nominate a member. His power is so low as not to be courted by the leading interest, as his has not been for a long time attended to'; if, however, he followed the plan of making freeholders followed by the other great proprietors he might by uniting his interest hope for some success.108
In the latter part of the century, Co. Cork, the richest and most prosperous county in Ireland, was an electoral microcosm of Ireland as a whole. It had its absentee grandees in the old interests represented by the Devonshire (Cavendish), Cork (Boyle) and Midleton (Brodrick) families, and its newer political interests in families such as the Earls of Kingston (King) and the Earls of Bandon (Bernard), the St Legers, Viscounts Doneraile, the Townsends of Castle Townsend, the Hydes of Castle Hyde, the Longfields of Castle Mary, the Frekes of Castle Freke, the St Jeffereyes of Blarney and the Colthursts of Ardrum; and there were others, particularly the various interests in Cork city, such as the Hely-Hutchinsons, Earls of Donoughmore and the Hares (1800 Lords Ennismore, 1816 Earls of Listowel). The 2nd Earl of Shannon had considerable diplomatic gifts and, although his interest was challenged successfully in the later part of the century, he remained the dominant force in Cork politics during his lifetime. Furthermore, he continued his family's matrimonial alliances by marrying his daughter in 1784 to Francis Bernard, 1st Earl of Bandon, and his son and heir to Sarah Hyde.
Although the 2nd Earl of Shannon's son, born in 1771, was a minor until the 1790s, the Boyle interest remained more or less unchallenged until the tumultuous general election of 1783. Then the fears expressed by Sir Anthony Abdy in 1755 were realised, namely that the county 'was my lord's [Burlington/Devonshire], but now many people of fortune have got into the country, so it is more precarious but the family must still have a very great interest' - but no longer an unchallenged interest. The 1783 election lasted 36 days and the anti-establishment Belfast News Letter reported that 'The great contest was between Lord Kingsborough and Mr Townshend; or in fact between the independent and the Shannon parties, the latter was rendered as contemptible on this occasion as it was ever before conspicious during the contest there were 22 duels fought.' The Bishop of Cloyne told the Earl of Buckinghamshire in 1763 that 'The dignity of the Shannon family is shorn of its beams by the loss of a general influence over so great a county.'109
Thereafter the representation was split between the Kings (Earls of Kingston) and Lord Shannon. By 1790 the Regency Crisis had forced Lord Shannon, somewhat reluctantly, into opposition and when, after being re-elected in 1790, James Bernard died, Lord Shannon - Lord Boyle was still not of age - successfully supported Abraham Morris. In 1797, Lord Boyle and Lord Kingsborough were unanimously returned. Shortly after, in November 1797, Lord Kingsborough succeeded his father as 2nd Earl of Kingston, and at the ensuing by-election Robert Uniacke-Fitzgerald, who also had connections with Lord Shannon, was returned in the Kingston interest.110 As county members they both sat in the united parliament, and they were both returned at the general election in 1802.
Co. Cork had 11 boroughs - Baltimore, Bandon-Bridge, Castlemartyr, Charleville, Clonakilty, Doneraile, Kinsale, Mallow, Midleton, Rathcormack and Youghal - besides the county borough of Cork city.