MP of the Month: Edward Lucas and the administration of Ireland, 1841-5

Edward Lucas was already an experienced parliamentarian when in September 1841 he was appointed under-secretary for Ireland, a post which for at least three-quarters of the year made the holder ‘the executive of Ireland’. In practice the political head of the civil service, the under-secretary was responsible for the routine working of the Irish administration and the supervision of almost every public department in Ireland. Indeed, Lucas acted as the Irish administration’s sheet anchor during the height of the Repeal agitation, yet he remains overlooked by both the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Lucas came from a Suffolk family that had migrated to Ireland in the mid-seventeenth century and acquired a large estate in county Monaghan. His family had frequently represented the county in the Irish Parliament and after attending the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford Lucas became involved in parliamentary politics on the independent and anti-Catholic interest from 1807. It was not until July 1834, however, that he was finally returned to the reformed Commons.

DublinCastle

Dublin Castle (image from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

A consistent supporter of Sir Robert Peel, Lucas spoke frequently against the Whig government’s Irish reforms and in 1838 led the opposition to the introduction of an Irish poor law. Although he retired at the dissolution in 1841 to manage his estate, his talents as an MP had not gone unnoticed by Peel, who regarded him one of the ablest of the Conservative Irish members. Accordingly, that September he was appointed to the demanding post of under-secretary for Ireland, which, since the Whigs had appointed Thomas Drummond to the position in 1835, had been treated as a political appointment. Lucas was therefore charged with the day-to-day supervision of the chief secretary’s office in Dublin Castle during what would be a challenging time for British authority in Ireland.

Wood, John, 1801-1870; Thomas Philip de Grey (1781-1859), 2nd Earl de Grey, KG, PC, FRS

Thomas Philip de Grey (1781-1859), 2nd Earl de Grey. Copyright Ministry of Defence Art Collection.

As Daniel O’Connell’s agitation for the repeal of the Union came to maturity in 1843, it became apparent that Lord de Grey’s administration as viceroy in Dublin was not a happy one. Lucas had the thankless task of mediating between de Grey and the chief secretary, Lord Eliot, and the lord chancellor, Edward Sugden, both of whom the hard-line viceroy had candidly described to Peel as ‘useless’. Lucas also criticised what he regarded as Eliot’s failure to act decisively against the Repealers, and in June 1843 tendered his resignation. Regarding Lucas’s behaviour as ‘very shabby’, Peel nevertheless found it impossible to find an adequate replacement, particularly as the viceroy had informed him that Lucas was the only senior official in Dublin in whom he had any confidence. Lucas again submitted his resignation rather than continue to serve under Eliot in May 1844, but was persuaded to remain and subsequently convinced the new viceroy, Lord Heytesbury, that he was an ‘indefatigable’ and highly efficient public servant, who had proved particularly useful in facilitating communication between the government and the leaders of the Orange party.

In August 1845 Lucas cited ‘a serious affection of the eyes’ as his reason for resigning as under-secretary. He became a member of the Irish privy council. That November he chaired a commission of inquiry into the failure of the Irish potato crop, although political opponents considered him ‘too Orange-tinted’ to provide sympathetic guidance to what they had dubbed the ‘Starvation Commission’. In fact, he proved highly critical of the government’s relief measures and was replaced when the commission was restructured in February 1846.

Convinced that the country’s prospects were unlikely to improve, Lucas left Ireland for the Continent in 1850. On Lord Derby coming to power in February 1852 he was reportedly ‘wandering somewhere about’ southern Europe when the government despatched a special messenger to offer him his old job. In the event the position went to another Irish landowner, Edward Wynne, the member for County Sligo, this being the last time that the Irish under-secretaryship was given to a politician. The post was again made a permanent one in 1854 during the tenure of Wynne’s successor, Sir Thomas Larcom, although later appointments would become politicised for some years after 1886 by virtue of the Home Rule question.

Lucas eventually returned to Ireland and in the 1860s supported fellow Conservative landowners at parliamentary elections for County Monaghan, acting on the principle of maintaining ‘what is old until it is proved to be bad’. Lucas’s death at Castle Shane in November 1871 went largely unremarked, and his time at the fulcrum of the Irish executive during a turbulent period in Irish politics has been largely forgotten.

Further reading:

  • K. Flanagan, ‘The Chief Secretary’s Office, 1853-1914: a bureaucratic enigma’, Irish Historical Studies, xxiv, no. 94 (Nov. 1984), 195-225
  • R. B. McDowell, The Irish Administration 1801-1914 (1964)
  • R. B. O’Brien, Dublin Castle and the Irish People (2nd edn., 1912)
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