In 1841 Ireland accounted for almost one third of the population of the United Kingdom, and returned about one sixth of its Members of Parliament. The country was therefore a significant factor in the history of the House of Commons between 1832 and 1868, a period in which more than 480 different members sat for Irish constituencies, the great majority of them Irishmen.
By 1832 Ireland had already undergone two significant electoral reforms, in 1801 and 1829, and the Irish Reform Act of 1832 was quite different in scope to the English measure. Its poorly-drafted provisions would be reshaped by numerous judicial decisions which greatly influenced the subsequent development of the franchise in Ireland. The 1832 Act increased the Irish representation at Westminster from 100 to 105 seats: 32 two-member county constituencies, 27 single-member boroughs and seven two-member boroughs (including Dublin University). The Act of Union of 1801 had largely purged Ireland of its smallest boroughs. The most important aspect of the 1832 Act was to throw open those that remained, most of which had been subject to the control of corporations, to a more popular electorate of £10 householders. In the counties the main change to the electorate had taken place in 1829 when, as the price of Catholic emancipation, the 40 shilling freeholders had been disenfranchised, slashing the number of county voters from about 216,000 to about 37,000. As a result of the 1832 Reform Act the Irish electorate rose from around 75,000 to 90,000, about two thirds of whom were registered for the counties.
A critical difference between the English and Irish electoral systems lay in the procedures for the registration of voters. In Ireland a long-standing system of certificates was persisted with, which enabled voters to retain their qualification for a period of eight years before re-registering, in contrast with the annual ritual of claiming one’s place on the register in England. The abuses created by this inadequate system meant that an elector’s right to vote, and the subsequent result of an election, were frequently open to challenge. This archaic procedure also made it difficult to tell how many eligible voters there were at any one time.
It was not 1832 but 1850 which was the most significant date for parliamentary reform in Ireland. The declining population, precipitated by the Famine, meant that the Irish county electorate had dwindled to only 27,180. The 1850 Irish Franchise Act overhauled the system. By rationalising the method of registration and creating a new franchise, it produced a four-fold increase in the electorate. This renovation of the electoral system enabled Irish electoral politics to recover from the catastrophe of the Famine, and allowed all parties to seek a more popular mandate.
For Parliament, Irish issues were not only important in themselves but also resonated in British politics, the ramifications of the financial support given to the Catholic seminary at Maynooth being a prominent example. Some contemporary observers viewed the Irish contingent in the Commons as ‘a body whom no Englishman can comprehend’, and in 1848 the Liberal MP Richard Cobden, concerned that the Irish presence at Westminster might be increased, warned a colleague that he feared for ‘the successful working of our Saxon institutions, if we are to give nearly a third of our parliamentary representation to Ireland. If you had the opportunity of seeing, as I have had, the quality of the ones sent from that Country to the House of Commons, you would despair of the success of a representative form of government’ (A. Howe (ed.), The Letters of Richard Cobden (2010), ii. 38).
The activities and performance of Irish MPs at Westminster are certainly ripe for inquiry, and our 1832-1868 project aims to provide greater knowledge of their backgrounds, beliefs and parliamentary endeavours. So far, 129 draft biographies of Irish MPs, including pieces on John Blake Dillon, James Whiteside, Lord Naas and Louis Perrin, and 12 constituency histories of counties such as Waterford and Tipperary, and the boroughs of Dungarvan, Bandon and Youghal, have been completed and are available to consult on the House of Commons, 1832-1868 preview website. For details on how to access this material, see here.
- S. Farrell, ‘The Irish Reform Legislation’, in D. Fisher (ed.), The House of Commons, 1820-1832, (2009), i. 212-6 [available here]
- K.T. Hoppen, Elections, Politics, and Society in Ireland 1832-1885 (1984)
- K.T. Hoppen, ‘The Franchise and Electoral Politics in England and Ireland 1832-1885’, History, lxx (1985), 202-17
- K.T. Hoppen, ‘Politics, the law and the nature of the Irish electorate 1832-1850’, English Historical Review, xcii (1977), 746-76
- P. Jupp, The Governing of Britain, 1688-1848. The executive, Parliament and the people (2006)
- A. Macintyre, The Liberator. Daniel O’Connell and the Irish Party 1830-1847 (1965)
- J. Prest, Politics in the Age of Cobden (1977)
- A. Shields, The Irish Conservative Party, 1852-1868. Land, Politics and Religion (2007)
- J.H. Whyte, The Independent Irish Party, 1850-9 (1958)