The corporation of Dundalk was said to have existed 'from the time whereof the memory of man is not to the contrary'. It had a charter dating from the reign of Richard II. Dundalk was under the influence of the Hamiltons, Earls of Clanbrassill, but its composition of burgesses and unlimited freemen made it vulnerable to attack, as happened in the late 1770s when Clanbrassill's agent endeavoured to manipulate its composition.286 In 1783 its electorate comprised 16 burgesses and 700 freemen. Its patron was the Earl of Clanbrassill (0936) and the town had '5,000 inhabitants. Electors, 16 Burgesses and 700 Freemen, 100 where of are disputed with Earl Clanbrassill who claims the patronage of the remaining 606 electors, who are struggling for their with-held franchises.'287 In 1790 it was reported that:
A short time previous to the last general election , Mr Read, his Lordship's agent and then Chief Magistrate of the town, admitted in right of his office a large body of Freemen, without the noble Lord's knowledge and all of them inimical to his interest. Their right to the freedom of Dundalk has been strongly litigated and more than one decision has been given in the law courts on that subject but as it yet remains to be finally determined, we shall avoid expressing any opinion about it, merely stating the matter of fact, that should these Freemen be established in their franchise and their suffrages be allowed, the Borough is lost to Lord Clanbrassill.288
After great expense and much litigation - the case eventually went to the House of Lords - Lord Clanbrassill regained his control but both he and his heirs, the Earls of Roden, were very cautious thereafter. Lord Clanbrassill returned his nephews,Lord Jocelyn (1100) and the Hon. George Jocelyn (1096), in 1783. The unsuccessful candidates, John William Foster (0808) and Richard Dawson (0593), petitioned289 against the return claiming that 18 freemen, admitted on 29 June 1782, who wished to vote for them had been rejected by the deputy bailiff. The corporation books from 1760 were produced and earlier books were requested. Various freemen were called to give evidence, and a picture emerges of general neglect which left the borough wide open to manipulation.
Apparently Read had held an illegal meeting on 29 June 1782: the meeting had been held at 9 a.m., when the corporation had never previously met before noon, and the bell calling the corporation had not been rung. It was thought that Read had held a private meeting in the Presbyterian meeting-house where everything had been arranged. There appeared then to have been an 'illegal' meeting at 9 a.m. which had rubber-stamped these decisions, followed by an official meeting called by the bell at noon, which was presented with a fait accompli. Apparently Read had been appointed bailiff (sovereign) with his father as deputy. But Read was removed from the office of bailiff on 1 August 1782. Furthermore, William Green, a witness, declared that he never knew the corporation to meet except on 29 June (to choose the magistrates for the ensuing year etc.) or to return members to serve in parliament. This was the first petition to be held under the 'very great amendment of the law', 21 & 22 Geo. III, introduced by John Fitzgibbon (0749) to tighten up committees appointed to try election petitions.
Lord Clanbrassill was childless, and his estate and claim on the borough passed to the children of his sister Anne, Countess of Roden. For the remaining decade of the Irish parliament the borough was represented by two of Lord Clanbrassill's nephews (1096,1097, 1100). Dundalk retained one seat after the Union, and Lord Roden remained anxious 'not to endanger the borough which was once so nearly lost to my family'.290 Even in 1799 it was described as 'frequently contested'.291