Kinsale was a medieval borough. The earliest charter extant is that of 1589, 31 Eliz. I, which refers to a 1334 charter of 7 Edw. III. At the beginning of the century it was probably in the hands of the Southwell family, who had founded a charity called the Gift House, said to be a handsome neat building erected for eight poor men who have each 2s per week and their clothing, and three generations of the family endowed and supported various charities in Kinsale. But the corporation,122 which included freemen, appears to have got out of hand early in the eighteenth century, when General Parker, the Governor of the fort, which also had an interest in the town, was threatening to make as many freemen as he pleased.
In February 1735/6 Southwell was anxious to sell his nearby estate and the borough with it, as he was tired of 'a mixed interest' and anxious to 'slip my neck out of this noose'. He wondered whether Sir Richard Meade (1389), a local landowner, would be interested, but Southwell had to tread warily as Meade also had interests in the borough. In June 1729 the Dublin Gazette reported that Sir Richard Meade had been elected sovereign of Kinsale for the coming year by a majority of 95 to 52 over the present sovereign, William Bowler, and 'There was a greater appearance of people than ever was seen here upon such occasions.' In 1733 Southwell was warned that Meade was buying houses in the town, obviously with a view to increasing his interest. It was important to have an agent resident in the town, and in 1735 Southwell wrote to Coghill that 'Mr Swift, Sir Richard Meade's great agent in Kinsale is dead, which is thought will hurt his interest mightily'; in 1735-6 Southwell felt that his choice of a steward from among the residents of the town had given general satisfaction. He was not on good terms with Henry Boyle - whom he had not supported for the Speakership - and it was thought that Boyle was supporting Meade, who successfully challenged the return in a 1725 by-election and sat for Kinsale until his death in 1744. His heir Sir John (1388), later 1st Earl of Clanwilliam, was only a few days old at the time of his death. In his maturity Sir John was a spendthrift who ran though a great estate, and the family was saved only by his heiress wife.
Kinsale had a comparatively large electorate for a borough, and the Southwells' control was usually consolidated by the return of a local man: for instance, the two Jonas Stawells, father and son (1991, 1992), who sat for Kinsale in 1692 and 1745-60. Anthony Stawell (5025) was returned at the 1725 by-election but successfully petitioned against by Sir Richard Meade. Agmondisham Vesey (2145) sat from 1765 to 1783: at his original election in 1765, William Dennis, Vintner, received £80 for Mr Vesey's entertainment and three other innkeepers received a total of £760 3s 6d for providing 'drink for Mr Vesey's health' and further £14 9s for beer to the populace. His election agent, James Dennis, spent £46 12s 2d to send a coach and post-chaise to Dublin to collect voters. He spent a further £12 7s 10d on 'a notice to disqualify John O'Grady as a Papist from voting'. Ben Hayes, fiddler, was paid £5 13s 9d. His election breakages bill amounted to £7 8s, exclusive of fines for 'a crowd of broke heads and crakt limbs'. James Kearney (1129) spent a further £16 4s 3d to bring voters to Kinsale on Vesey's behalf. This included a post-chaise and hospitality on the four-day journey. He defeated the young Sir Richard Meade by 64 votes to 48. Vesey, who was Accountant General for Ireland, was mindful of the need to look after his constituency and in 1766, after he had 'represented to the Lord Lieutenant the great scarcity of provisions in the town, in consequence whereof his Excellency had been pleased to advance £500 to purchase provisions', the corporation passed a vote of thanks to their MP 'for his services to the town'.123
From 1768 until 1797 James Kearney of Garrettstown, a popular member of a family that had settled in the area in Elizabethan times, represented the borough. In 1785 it was said that 'The representation of this town, is supposed to belong to the family of Southwell, Lord De Clifford, but Mr Kearney represents it, through popular opinion and good liking and the Clifford family are too wise, to disapprove of the choice.' In 1791, it was reported that 'This is called Lord De Clifford's Borough but Mr Kearney is supposed to have a much better interest in it. Mr Kearney is a very independent man, did not attend last session, rather inclining when he does vote to opposition.'124 Kearney never married, and died in 1812.
In 1776 the ancient barony of de Clifford was called out of abeyance in favour of Edward Southwell, 20th Baron de Clifford, who also controlled the borough of Downpatrick in Co. Down from which it was said that he drew many of his electors, although distance would seem to have made this rather expensive. Lord de Clifford appears to have established his influence after the Union, when Kinsale returned one MP to the Westminster parliament.