Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fitzgibbon, John
FITZGIBBON, JOHN, Earl of Clare (1749–1802), lord chancellor of Ireland, the second son of John Fitzgibbon of Mount Shannon, co. Limerick, a successful Irish barrister, was born near Donnybrook in 1749. At school and at the university of Dublin he gained great distinction. Grattan was his great rival at Dublin, and had the superiority in the early, while Fitzgibbon succeeded best in the later years of the course. In 1765 Fitzgibbon obtained an optime for a translation of the 'Georgics,' 'the very rarest honour in our academic course' (Dublin University Mag. xxx. 672). He graduated B.A. of Trinity College, Dublin, in 1767, and afterwards entered Christ Church, Oxford, where he graduated M.A. in 1770. In 1772 he was called to the Irish bar, and stepped at once into a large and growing practice. He received in his first year 3437l. 7s., between 1772 and 1783 (when he became attorney-general) 8,973l. 6s. 3d., and between 1783 and 1789 (when he became lord chancellor) 36,939l. 3s. 11d. (ib. xxx. 675). His father is said to have allowed him 600l. a year in addition. He conducted a successful election petition in 1778 against the return of Hely Hutchinson for the university, succeeded to the seat, and, along with Hussey Burgh, represented the university till 1783. In his early parliamentary days he gave a moderate support to the national claims. In 1780 he opposed Grattan's declaration of the legislative rights of Ireland; but, in consequence of an appeal from his constituents, promised to support it on the next occasion. 'I have always been of opinion,' he said, 'that the claim of the British parliament to make laws for the country is a daring usurpation of the rights of a free people, and have uniformly asserted the opinion in public and in private.' The total repeal of Poynings's law, however, seemed to him undesirable. On the necessity of repealing the Perpetual Mutiny Bill and of making the judges independent, he entirely agreed with his constituents (see his letter in O'Flanagan, Lord Chancellors of Ireland, ii. 160).
He succeeded in keeping on good terms both with the government and with the nationalists. On several important questions he supported the latter, and had his reward in 1783, when Grattan, to his own subsequent regret, pressed for his appointment as attorney-general (Grattan, Memoirs, iii. 202). Fitzgibbon was never fortunate enough to find a suitable occasion for expressing the national feelings with which Grattan credited him. Until the union he remained practically the directing head of the Irish government, and consistently used his great influence to resist every proposal of reform and concession. His first conflict was over the question of parliamentary reform in the House of Commons, where he now represented Kilmallock. He opposed Flood's bill of 1784 as the mandate of a turbulent military congress; and, when the sheriffs of Dublin convened a meeting for the purpose of electing delegates to a national congress to consider the question, he wrote a letter threatening them with prosecution if they proceeded. He had the courage to appear at the meeting and repeat his threat. Reilly, the sheriff who was present, yielded, but was nevertheless fined for contempt of the court of king's bench in calling an illegal meeting. In the House of Commons Fitzgibbon defended both the legality and the expediency of this proceeding, and stated that it had been taken by his advice. In 1785 he supported the government's commercial policy with such power as to produce a special message of thanks from the king. In a speech on the treaty (15 Aug.) he referred to Curran as 'the politically insane gentleman,' whose declamation was better calculated for Sadler's Wells than the House of Commons. Curran retorted by saying that if he acted like Fitzgibbon he should be glad of the excuse of insanity. A duel followed, 'but,' says Lord Plunket in narrating the incident, 'unluckily they missed each other.' Curran is reported to have accused Fitzgibbon of determined malignity, shown by taking aim for nearly half a minute after his antagonist had fired (Phillips, Curran and his Contemporaries, p. 145). Mr. Froude ingeniously suggests that Fitzgibbon's deliberate aim was 'perhaps to make sure of doing him no serious harm' (English in Ireland, ii. 484). The enmity lasted through life; and Curran freely accused Fitzgibbon of purposely seeking opportunities to injure him.
In the Whiteboy Act of 1787 Fitzgibbon may be said to have begun his consistent policy of repression. He was presumably responsible for a clause, which had to be abandoned, giving power to destroy any popish chapel in or near which an illegal oath had been tendered. In later years he recurred repeatedly to the evil influence of the priests. At the same time he saw clearly the causes of outrage which repressive measures could not remove. In an often-quoted passage he gave his experience of Munster: 'If landlords would take the trouble to know their tenants,' he said, 'and not leave them in the hands of rapacious agents and middlemen, we should hear no more of discontents. The great source of all these miseries arises from the neglect of those whose duty and interest it is to protect them.' On the other hand, he steadily opposed a reform of the tithe system such as Pitt advised in 1785 and as Grattan urged in the Irish parliament in 1787, 1788, and 1789 (Lecky, Hist. of England, vi. 401).
In the debates on the regency in 1789 the duty of advocating the case of the government rested mainly on Fitzgibbon. In his speeches, which Mr. Lecky has justly described as 'of admirable subtlety and power,' may be found probably the best defence which was made of Pitt's proposal. They show, however, that the idea of a union with England was already in his mind, though he spoke of it as only the least of two evils. Since the 'only security of your liberty,' he said, 'is your connection with Great Britain, he would prefer a union, however much to be deprecated, to separation.' During the debate on the lord-lieutenant's refusal to transmit to the Prince of Wales the address of the Irish parliament Fitzgibbon unguardedly said he recollected how a vote of censure on Lord Townshend had been followed by a vote of thanks which cost the nation half a million, and that therefore he would oppose the present censure, which might lead to an address which would cost half a million more (Plowden, Hist. of Ireland, ii. 286; Grattan, Memoirs, iii. 377. See Fitzgibbon's subsequent explanation in a speech of 19 Feb. 1798, reprinted after his reply to Lord Moira on the same day).
In 1789 Fitzgibbon succeeded Lord Lifford as lord chancellor of Ireland, with the title of Baron Fitzgibbon of Lower Connello. Thurlow for a long time opposed his appointment, partly on the ground that the office should not be held by an Irishman, and partly owing to reports of Fitzgibbon's unpopularity, but yielded at last to the pressure of Fitzgibbon himself, the Marquis of Buckingham, and others (Buckingham, Courts and Cabinets of George III, ii. 157; O'Flanagan, Lord Chancellors of Ireland, ii. 200). In 1793 he received the title of Viscount Fitzgibbon and in 1795 that of Earl of Clare, and in 1799 he was made a peer of Great Britain as Lord Fitzgibbon of Sidbury, Devonshire.
In his judicial capacity he displayed great rapidity of decision, which, though called precipitancy and attributed to his despotic habits, was rather the simple result of his extraordinary power of work and of concentration. An anonymous biographer says that he had heard Peter Burrowes [q. v.], an eminent counsel and strong political opponent, testify to the extraordinary correctness of Clare's judgments (Dublin University Mag. xxx. 682). With equal energy he devoted himself to the task of law reform, and down to the day of his death he sought every opportunity to remove legal abuses.
In politics he maintained an uncompromising resistance to all popular movements, and especially to all attempts to improve the position of the Roman catholics. A detailed record of his chancellorship would be a history of Ireland during the same period. His position and opinions can be most conveniently indicated by a reference to four speeches in the Irish House of Lords, published by himself or his friends, which are of great historical importance: 1. A speech on the prorogation of parliament in 1790, in which he angrily attacked the Whig Club for interfering in a question which had been raised concerning the election of the lord mayor (see pamphlet entitled Observations on the Vindication of the Whig Club; to which are subjoined the speech of the Lord Chancellor as it appeared in the newspapers, the Vindication of the Whig Club, &c., and see also Grattan, Miscellaneous Works, pp. 266, 270). 2. A speech on the second reading of a bill for the relief of his majesty's Roman catholic subjects in Ireland, 13 March 1793 (1798; reprinted in 1813). Reviewing at great length the history of the Roman catholic church in Ireland, and the claims of the catholic church in general, he urged vehemently the impolicy and danger of entrusting catholics with power in the state, but agreed that after the promises which had been made it might be essential to the momentary peace of the country that the bill should pass. His peculiar bitterness on this occasion was partly due to the fact that only a few months before he had vainly sought to dissuade the viceroy and the English government from any conciliatory language towards the catholics (Lecky, Hist. of England, vi. 528), and that as a member of the government he was speaking against a government measure. Comparing the speech with that of the Bishop of Killala, who preceded him, Grattan wrote to Richard Burke: 'The bishop who had no law was the statesman; the lawyer who had no religion was the bigot' (Memoirs, v. 557). The attempt at conciliation which Lord Fitzwilliam was allowed to make for a few months in 1794 and 1795 must have been intensely repugnant to him. Fitzwilliam had marked out the lord chancellor as one of the men who had to be got rid of (Buckingham, Courts and Cabinets, p. 312), and the influence of the chancellor had doubtless a good deal to do with the viceroy's recall. On the day of Lord Camden's arrival the Dublin mob attacked Clare's house, and he was saved only by the skill with which his sister led off the crowd to seek him elsewhere. 3. Speech in the House of Lords, 19 Feb. 1798, on Lord Moira's motion (printed 1798). Lord Moira attacked the government for its coercive policy. Clare justified that policy in a long reply, containing an elaborate account of the progress of disaffection, and of the failure of conciliation during a period, as he considered it, of rapid advance. He excused a case of picketing, on the ground that it led to the discovery of two hundred pikes within two days, and has been therefore denounced as the defender of torture. Clare himself, however, was inclined to temper a rigorous policy by moderation to individuals. Both he and Castlereagh supported Cornwallis's proposal of a general amnesty after Vinegar Hill, and in the case of Lord Edward Fitzgerald he went so far as to warn his friends that his doings were fully known to the government, and to promise that if he would leave the country every port should be open to him. This did not affect his determination to crush out disaffection at any cost. (The share of Clare in the government policy cannot be profitably separated from the general history, as to which see the Cornwallis and Castlereagh Correspondence, the Lords' Report of the Committee of Secrecy, which is understood to have been carefully edited by Clare, and Macneven's Pieces of Irish History.) 4. Speech in the House of Lords, 10 Feb. 1800, on a motion made by him in favour of a union (printed 1800). Clare narrated the history of the English connection, of the religious divisions, and of the land confiscations, recalled the circumstances in which the 'final adjustment of 1782' was made, the designs of the revolutionists, and the disorganised state of Irish finances, and insisted that union was the only alternative to separation and bankruptcy. Grattan replied in an indignant pamphlet, vindicating the action of himself and his friends, and rebuking Clare for the insulting language in which he spoke of his country. The speech is certainly that of an advocate, not of an historian ; but it is impossible not to admire its skilful marshalling of facts and the vigour of its language. There is little doubt that the passing of the Act of Union was due to Clare more than to any other man. For the last seven years, he said, he had urged its necessity on the king's ministers, and this statement is borne out by an unpublished letter which he wrote to Lord Auckland in 1798. 'As to the subject of the union with the British parliament,' he said, 'I have long been of opinion that nothing short of it can save this country. I stated this opinion very strongly to Mr. Pitt in the year 1793, immediately after that fatal mistake into which he was betrayed by Mr. Burke and Mr. Dundas, in receiving an appeal from the Irish parliament by a popish democracy.' He states his continued adherence to this view, and concludes : 'It makes me almost mad when I look back at the madness, folly, and corruption in both countries which has brought us to the verge of destruction' (British Museum Additional MS. 29475, f. 43). Yet in 1793 he told the House of Lords that a separation and a union were 'each to be equally dreaded.' On 16 Oct. 1798 he wrote to Castlereagh : 'I have seen Mr. Pitt, the chancellor, and the Duke of Portland, who seem to feel very sensibly the critical situation of our damnable country (highly complimentary, but it was between themselves), and that the union alone can save it' (Castlereagh Correspondence, i. 393).
Clare was equally eager that no attempt should be made to change, as a part of the union, the existing catholic laws. 'Even the chancellor,' wrote Cornwallis to Pitt, 25 Sept. 1798, 'who is the most right-minded politician in this country, will not hear of the Roman catholics sitting in the united parliament' (Cornwallis Correspondence, ii. 416 ; and see letter of Lord Grenville, 5 Nov. 1798, in Buckingham, Courts and Cabinets, ii. 411; and Cornewall Lewis, Administrations of Great Britain, p. 185).
Clare even ventured to try humour in his anxious desire for a union. In 1799 appeared a tract entitled 'No Union! But Unite and Fall! By Paddy Whack, in a loving letter to his dear mother, Sheelah, of Dame Street, Dublin,' of which he is said to have been the author, and in which Paddy Whack advises Sheelah to marry 'the rich, and generous, and industrious, and kind, and liberal, and powerful, and free, honest John Bull.' Its humour is somewhat coarse and clumsy.
After the union Clare appeared several times in the House of Lords, but he did not increase his reputation. His sharp temper brought him into frequent conflict, while the studied disrespect with which he referred to his countrymen, and his passionate insistence on the madness of conceding anything to the Roman catholics, excited a feeling of repugnance. 'Good God!' Pitt is reported to have said when listening to him on one occasion, did you ever hear in all your life such a rascal as that ?' (Grattan, Memoirs, iii. 403). He died on 28 Jan. 1802. His funeral was followed by a Dublin mob, whose curses vioently expressed the hate with which a great part of his fellow-countrymen regarded him (account by an eye-witness in Dublin Univ. Mag. xxvii. 559 ; Cloncurry, Personal Recollections, p. 146).
On his deathbed he is said to have sent for his wife, and requested her to burn all his papers —'should they remain after me, hundreds may be compromised'— and his wishes were observed (Curran and his Contemporaries, p. 154). A report that he repented of his action with regard to the union (Plowden, Hist. of Ireland, ii. 558) is based on a sentence in an abusive statement of his nephew Jeffreys, who had quarrelled with his uncle over private matters : 'I afterwards saw Lord Clare die, repenting of his conduct on that very question' (Grattan, Memoirs, iii. 403).
Clare married in 1786 Anne, eldest daughter of R. C. Whaley of Whaley Abbey, co. Wicklow, who died in 1844. He left two sons, both of whom succeeded to the earldom. John, the elder (1792-1851), second earl, educated at Christ Church, Oxford, was governor of Bombay, 1830-4. Richard Hobart, the younger son (1793-1864), third and last earl, had an only son, John Charles Henry, viscount Fitzgibbon (1829-1854), who fell in the charge of the light brigade at Balaklava.
Clare has been described as the basest of men, without one redeeming virtue (see the account of him by Grattan's son in Grattan's Memoirs, iii. 393), and he has been represented as an unsullied patriot, thinking only of his country's good (Froude, English in Ireland, ii. 526). The one picture is as false as the other. In Clare's cold and unemotional manner there was a good deal of affectation, and his friends claimed for him that in private life he was kindly and true. There is evidence that he was an indulgent landlord — 'the very best of landlords,' Plowden calls him. It is unreasonable, moreover, to question the general sincerity of his political opinions. He had a fixed purpose clearly before his mind, and he held firmly to it, undeterred by the abuse and the hate which he excited. He was ambitious, not very scrupulous, vain, and intolerably insolent ; but whether he used his power for good or evil he acted with uniform courage, and in point of ability stood head and shoulders above all the other Irishmen of his time who sided with the government (Curran and his Contemporaries, p. 139 ; Magee's funeral sermon in Annual Register, 1802, p. 705 ; Barrington, Rise and Fall of the Irish Nation).[O'Flanagan's Lives of the Lord Chancellors of Ireland ; Grattan's Memoirs; Phillips's Curran and his Contemporaries ; Dublin Univ. Mag. xxx. 671 ; Metropolitan Mag. xxiv. 337, xxv. 113; Gent. Mag. lxxii. 185; Irish Parliamentary Debates ; Cornwallis and Castlereagh Correspondence.]