MP of the Month: Joseph Myles McDonnell, thwarted bagpiper

An impecunious Catholic squire from a remote border region between counties Mayo and Sligo, ‘Joe Mór’ McDonnell (big Joe) was one of the most colourful Irish Members of our period, who once attempted to smuggle his bagpipes into the Commons chamber. A spendthrift, gambler, sportsman, politician and bankrupt, he was of ‘colossal stature’, with ‘handsome, jovial features’, and was remembered as ‘the last of the old type of Irish county gentleman’. Although his career in the Commons was short, his engagement with Irish political life was extensive, and he was never far from controversy.

Born in the mid-1790s into the Catholic gentry of county Mayo, McDonnell became a member of the Catholic Association in 1828 and a vice-president of Mayo’s newly-established Liberal Club. A libel suit brought against him by the Earl of Kingston, whose brother had been denounced by McDonnell for betraying the electors of County Sligo, resulted in his being imprisoned for six months. McDonnell subsequently stood unsuccessfully for County Mayo at the 1830 and 1831 general elections as the ‘unbending advocate’ of popular rights.

McDonnell became embroiled in a number of disputes with his neighbouring gentry. These included a fierce quarrel over a racehorse he had sold to George Moore, a future leader of the Independent Irish party, yet although McDonnell was known as ‘the best shot in Connaught’ this ‘affair of honour’ was never satisfactorily concluded. Despite such disagreements, his home at Doo Castle was said to have been ‘a scene of open-door rollicking hospitality’, with McDonnell acting as ‘the very soul of social gatherings, brimful of humour, teeming with anecdote’. He was credited with being the ‘biggest punch-drinker of his time’, and was said to imbibe twenty-one tumblers every night after his dinner, before organising fox hunts by moonlight in order to avoid attracting the attention of local bailiffs.

He returned to politics in November 1840, but complied with Daniel O’Connell’s request to withdraw from the contest for Mayo in favour of another candidate. He did, however, support O’Connell’s revived repeal campaign, and in May 1843 was dismissed from the magistracy for presiding at a public meeting, the government concluding that McDonnell would ‘sooner fling the commission to the winds than give up the cause of repeal’.

McDonnell claimed to have used his place on the bench to protect the common people from ‘landlord tyranny’, and in 1844 he organised a campaign of passive resistance to the payment of poor rates, before characteristically providing the officers who came to seize his goods with a ‘champagne luncheon’. Dubbed ‘an agitator of the first water’, he continued to seek a place in parliament, although it was said that because he was by now pursued by creditors, it was the immunity from prosecution for debt which the position conferred that was its strongest attraction.

Irish bagpipes (Uilleann pipes)

Irish bagpipes (Uilleann pipes)

At a by-election in March 1846 McDonnell overturned the Whig interest in Mayo after a violent struggle against George Moore. He was backed by O’Connell and (rather reluctantly) by Dr. John MacHale, the archbishop of Tuam, who disliked McDonnell’s ‘vile and immoral’ anecdotes. At Westminster he joined efforts to block the progress of Peel’s Irish coercion bill, and voted for the repeal of the corn laws and in favour of factory reform. Although McDonnell was ‘adroit in the art of bamboozling a crowd’ he does not appear to have spoken in the Commons. However, his ‘convivial habits’ did promise to enliven the routine of the House. Known for his skill as a performer on the Irish bagpipes, he was said to have attempted to smuggle his favourite pipes into the chamber, only to be captured at the door by his friends. His behaviour in the division lobby was also unpredictable and in February 1847 he opposed O’Connell by voting against the Irish railways bill, and that June failed to vote for the Irish tenant-right bill.

Despite enjoying the ostensible support of the Repeal Association, McDonnell claimed to have met with ‘nought but treachery and breach of faith’ during his quest for re-election in 1847. Bereft of popular support, he was unable to overcome the landed interest and finished behind his enemy, George Moore. His failure was perhaps attributable to the ‘most outrageous demand’ for election expenses that he had submitted to the Repeal Association after his return in 1846. After agreeing to withdraw from the 1850 by-election at Mayo in favour of a more popular Liberal, McDonnell, who faced insolvency in the late 1850s, took no further part in politics. Regarded to the last as ‘generous, sincere, and amiable’, he died in Dublin in January 1872.

Further reading:

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