In Co. Wicklow the largest landowners were successively the great Whig grandees, the Marquesses of Rockingham and the nephew and heir of the 2nd Marquess, who died in 1782, Earl Fitzwilliam. The Wentworth estates amounted to about a sixth of the county and in 1795 Lord Lieutenant Fitzwilliam was landlord to about a third of the electorate, rising to a half by 1815. Both Lord Rockingham and Lord Fitzwilliam had Irish peerages and both were absentees. On the eve of the 1761 election the Marquess of Rockingham, who was also Earl Malton in the peerage of Ireland, wrote the following letter to Lord Charlemont illustrating the influence of the absentee proprietors on the returns for the county:
I shall beg leave to trouble your lordship, as an old friend and acquaintance, with my particular situation in regard to the county of Wicklow and shall also beg for your assistance in the plan I would propose. Mr Wentworth, who is both my friend and relation, has long had a great desire to offer himself candidate for the county of Wicklow the situation one is in is very delicate the reason which makes me disinclined to follow Mr Wentworth's inclinations arises from a consideration which I know your Lordship will approve of. For though I think the Qualification Bill as it stands in England is a very absurd one, yet I must think that a member for a county ought to be a gentleman of that county and possessed of an estate within that county. Mr Stratford (2025) in his letter to me informs me that he can be chosen for a borough of his own, but prefers representing the county of Wicklow. I have, therefore, wrote to Mr Wentworth and have also wrote to Mr Stratford in order to try whether Mr Stratford will answer Mr Wentworth's inclinations of being in parliament by bringing him in for his borough and to offer Mr Stratford my interest for the county. I have heard an excellent character of Mr Howard and if Mr Stratford assists Mr Wentworth in the borough, Lord Carysfort has authorised me to say that his interest in Wicklow shall be for Mr Stratford and Mr Howard, which I do not doubt with the addition of their respective interests and mine will make their election very safe and easy for the county.
Mr Wentworth was to be disappointed, and in a subsequent letter Lord Rockingham continued to outline his election plans, remarking that:
Upon the death of the late king, I mentioned to Lord Bessborough (1707) that I imagined that Mr Brabazon did not intend standing again for Wicklow, and that Mr Whately [sic - Whaley] was not likely to be re-elected, and wished him to give me some insight into the personal character and inclinations of those who might offer for the county; as in truth, not having been able to take a trip to my estate in Ireland, I had not the advantage of being personally acquainted with any gentleman in the county. His lordship was so obliging to write at my request to Mr Ponsonby (1702); but as yet I have not heard from Lord Bessborough only that he believed Mr Ponsonby wished well to Mr Whately, and I had before declared that Mr Whately should not have any assistance from me. If I am at liberty, Lord Carysfort and I shall unite in supporting Mr Wingfield and Mr Howard's interest. I shall be very anxious to hear what has been done.442
This correspondence reflects the 'real' interest of the great absentee landlords at elections, which was to be not only represented but vocal in the Irish parliament, while its possessor was frequently to be found in one or other House of the concurrent British parliament. By requiring MPs to be re-elected every eight years, the Octennial Act tightened and strengthened this type of permanent authority, which undoubtedly contributed to the British administration's acquiescence in that ostensibly popular measure. Their powerful interest, led by Rockingham, was behind the lobby against the 1773 Absentee Tax443 and subsequent attempts to introduce a similar tax.
Lord Fitzwilliam could control both seats for Co. Wicklow, but he allowed his tenants to use their second vote as they chose, asking only for their first vote.444 Apart from the dominant Rockingham-Fitzwilliam interest there were the resident interests of Lord Aldborough (Stratford) (2024), Lord Meath (Brabazon) (0221), Edward Tighe (2064), Samuel Hayes (0995) (whose interest passed to the Parnells (1633) in 1795), and Nicholas Westby (2217). The Allen family died out and their interest passed through an heiress, Elizabeth, daughter of Joshua, 2nd Viscount Allen (0036), to John Proby, Lord Carysfort. In fact Lord Carysfort wrote to Lord Lieutenant Bedford that:
The past parliamentary interest of my wife's family is the power of choosing two members for the borough of Carysfort, and the interest in the county is such as to give a turn to that side which the family espouses. Mr Whalley, one of the present representatives of the county, was chosed entirely by my Lady's Allen interest.445
The Whitshed interest, which was mainly in Wicklow town, also died out with the death, in 1771, of William Whitshed (2234), who lived in England. Little is known about the Hoeys although they appear from time to time until the 1780s, and in 1778 were said to have 'a good interest' in the county.
The Wicklow interests remained fairly stable throughout the century. Lord Fitzwilliam had a connection with the Ponsonbys (1699,1709), which had considerable political ramifications during his brief viceroyalty. His first wife was Lady Charlotte Ponsonby, a daughter of William, 2nd Earl of Bessborough (1707) and Lady Caroline Cavendish; his second wife was Louisa Molesworth,the widow of W. B. Ponsonby (1709). In 1783 it was said that 'Earl FitzWilliam has so considerable [an] interest in this County, he can bring in one member and generally decide the election of the other. He did so in the last election at the desire of Mr Ponsonby (1702).'446 Following the death in November 1800 of Nicholas Westby, who had been returned with Fitzwilliam's support, Fitzwilliam returned George Ponsonby (1699), who had been sitting for Galway town, which lost an MP at the Union.
The electorate was small, probably under 1,000. In the by-election of October 1745 the voting was as follows:447 Anthony Brabazon 172, Richard Chapel Whaley 165. At the close of the poll Whaley voted for Brabazon, whose supporters included Sir Richard Wolseley (2247), James Tynte (2118) and Sir William Fownes (0812). Whaley's included Edward Hayes and John Stratford (2025).Brabazon appears to have had the Rockingham interest.
In 1746 Dean Francis Corbet and Lord Chief Justice Singleton both advised Ralph Howard not to stand for the county, on account of:
Your minority, the uncertainty if not the improbability of your success at this time, when you have not as yet had it in your power to make any great personal interest in the county, the shame of defeat and the prejudice it might do you as to future elections, the many obligations you must lay yourself under to persons whom you do not care for and to whom you must always be a kind of slave, the great fatigue you must necessarily undergo, the bad company you must submit to or else lose your interest with great numbers of the freeholders, also there was the consideration of expense.448
At the election of 1761 about 1,150 votes were cast: Ralph Howard received 48[?], Richard Wingfield 355, Richard Chapel Whaley 314. At the general election in 1776, 1,645 votes were cast: William Brabazon 726, John Stratford 497, Robert Hoey 422. In 1790 the gross poll was 1,157, and on this occasion the voting was: John Stratford 499, Nicholas Westby 628, William Hume 582. Westby and Hume were returned. John Stratford had been the sitting member, and before the election Lord Aldborough (Stratford) had issued 400 tickets worth 2s to his freeholders to be spent in three pubs in Baltinglass (each pub to be supervised by one of his brothers or Morley Saunders, a nephew), and 400 for them, their wives and children for a ball. Aldborough's expenses were estimated to be at least £522.449 Lords Fitzwilliam's and Wicklow's tenants voted for Westby and Hume; Carysfort's, Powerscourt's and Tynte's all voted for Stratford. But expenditure was no guarantee of a favourable outcome. The number of voters was thought to be about 3,000 in 1803; it fell to 1,676 in 1815.450
Wicklow had four parliamentary boroughs - Baltinglass, Blessington, Carysfort and Wicklow town - all of which were disfranchised by the Act of Union.