MP of the Month: Andrew Carew O’Dwyer (1801-1877)

Many of our recent posts have focused on the way barriers to the franchise were gradually removed in the 19th century, but it is worth noting that there were also many barriers to becoming a Victorian MP. One of these was the property qualification for MPs that existed until 1858. The last MP to be unseated under this rule, Edward Glover, found himself in Newgate prison as a result of making a false declaration about his qualification.

Since 1711 membership of the Commons had been restricted to those receiving an income of £600 a year from land for county MPs, and £300 a year for borough MPs. This could prove a particular obstacle for Irish parliamentary candidates with backgrounds in trade or the professions who, although not without means, did not possess, as one Irish viceroy put it, ‘a shovelful of land’, and therefore had to make often hasty arrangements to meet the necessary property qualification.

Daniel O'Connell

Daniel O’Connell

One such MP was Andrew Carew O’Dwyer, an Irish barrister and follower of Daniel O’Connell, who sat for the Liberal borough of Drogheda from 1832 to 1835. Described as one of the ‘band of stout and brawling patriots, who had, in 1834, formed the hope of trusting Ireland’, O’Dwyer had been a late convert to O’Connell’s Repeal campaign. In January 1831 he had still been an advocate for the Union, albeit on the basis of ‘equal participation in British laws’. However, once he embraced Repeal he became one of its most determined advocates. One of the earliest and most active members of the Reform Club, he was a man of strong opinions and was not afraid to differ with O’Connell over the need for an Irish poor law. He was one of the most conspicuous of Ireland’s young ‘patriots’ and made more than one hundred contributions to debate in the 1833 session alone, speaking even more frequently than Sir Robert Peel. However, he was not well liked at Westminster. The Whigs’ election manager, Denis Le Marchant, thought there was something ‘of the ruffian’ about him, while other critics claimed that he prided himself ‘upon a total disregard for truth’.

This did little to diminish his popularity in Ireland, and he faced only token opposition at the 1835 general election. A petition was soon presented against his return, however, and an election committee decided that owing to a mistake that O’Dwyer had made in his declaration regarding his property qualification, the election was void. Since the deed for the land in question had been hastily conveyed to him, his uncertainty as to his new property’s precise location was perhaps understandable. The seat was re-contested that April, when the Conservatives, confident that they would be able to prove that O’Dwyer had no legal claim to his property, fielded an opponent. Although O’Connell assured Drogheda’s Liberal electors that O’Dwyer was ‘certainly qualified in point of property’, O’Dwyer’s victory at the poll was immediately contested. In June another committee concluded that O’Dwyer’s title to his property was not valid. He was unseated once more and his opponent was seated in his place.

The verdict proved controversial because the committee had been composed of ten Conservatives and one Liberal, and their decision had required the casting vote of the chairman, Henry Goulburn, a man O’Dwyer described as ‘a bitter political partisan, and a virulent opponent of mine’. In July O’Connell presented a petition to the Commons on behalf of O’Dwyer, which called for a more liberal regulation of the property qualification, and by 1838 the rules had been amended to include income from personal as well as landed property.

Orlagh House

Orlagh, near Dublin (via www.buildingsofireland.ie)

In the meantime, O’Dwyer was still without a seat, and as Drogheda had been earmarked by the ministry as a safe berth for Sir William Somerville, a future chief secretary of Ireland, O’Dwyer benefited from the ‘bonanza of jobbery’ which accompanied the Whigs’ administrative reforms in Ireland. In February 1837 he was appointed to the lucrative legal post of filacer of the Irish court of exchequer, and in 1841 was promoted further. When his office was abolished in 1845 he was granted a generous pension, which enabled him to purchase an estate at Orlagh, near Dublin.

Now free from office and a man of property, O’Dwyer made several unsuccessful attempts to revive his political career. At the 1852 general election he offered for the borough of Waterford, but retired in favour of the Catholic bishop’s preferred candidate, and in 1857 he came bottom of the poll. In 1859 he tried again at Drogheda, but resigned in favour of the Liberal Member. Without hope of returning to Parliament, O’Dwyer retired from politics and spent the rest of his days in London, where he died in November 1877.

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