Irwin, John (DNB00)

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IRWIN, Sir JOHN (1728–1788), general, born in Dublin in 1728, was son of General Alexander Irwin, who entered the army in 1689, and was colonel of the 5th foot from 1737 until his death in 1752, holding important commands on the Irish establishment. While still very young John attracted the notice of Lionel, duke of Dorset, lord-lieutenant of Ireland, who appointed him page of honour about 1735 or 1736. Owing to his patron's interest and his father's rank in the army, he was given a company in his father's regiment (the 5th foot) while still a schoolboy. His commission as ensign bears the date 8 July 1736, and on 14 Jan. 1737 he became a lieutenant. At the close of 1748 his father granted him a year's furlough so that he might travel on the conti- nent. Lord Chesterfield, who, while lord-lieutenant of Ireland in 1745–6, seems to have taken a fancy to him and regularly corresponded with him for the succeeding twenty years, gave him a letter of introduction to Solomon Dayrolles at the Hague (cf. Chesterfield, Letters, iii. 307). Chesterfield describes him as ‘a good pretty young fellow; and, considering that he has never been yet out of his native country, much more presentable than one could expect.’ From the Hague Irwin went to Paris, and in April 1749 Chesterfield advised him (ib. iii. 337) by letter to visit Rome to see the papal jubilee. On his return to Dublin at the close of the year, Chesterfield (ib. iii. 363) wrote to him: ‘You have travelled a little with great profit; travel again, and it will be with still greater.’ But his marriage in December 1749 with Elizabeth, youngest daughter of Hugh Henry of Straffan, Kildare, kept him at home. His wife died in the following April, and he was still in Dublin in 1751, when he had attained the rank of major. In the following year (1752) he was gazetted lieutenant-colonel of the 5th foot, his father's old regiment, and in 1753 he married Anne, daughter of Sir Edward Barry [q. v.] In 1755 he visited Chesterfield at Bath, and it was currently reported that Irwin at this time suggested to Chesterfield his paper on ‘Good-Breeding’ which appeared in the ‘World’ (No. 148) of 30 Oct. 1755. Irwin and his wife were very frequently in London after 1757, when his regiment left Ireland for Chatham. In 1760 he served with distinction in Germany through the campaign under Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick. He became a full colonel on 1 March 1761, and was appointed to command the 74th foot. On 10 July 1762 he attained the rank of major-general, and on 30 Nov. entered the House of Commons, in accordance with a desire he had expressed to Chesterfield eight years earlier (cf. ib. iv. 105), as member for East Grinstead, a borough in the hands of the Duke of Dorset, his first patron. He was re-elected in 1768, 1774, and 1780, and retired in 1783, but his attendance in the house was always irregular. On becoming a member of parliament he took a prominent place in London society, and fixed his town residence in Queen Anne Street, Cavendish Square.

From 1766 to 1768 he held the post of governor of Gibraltar, where his second wife died in 1767. While abroad he was gazetted colonel of the 57th regiment of foot on the Irish establishment (17 Nov. 1767). He was in Paris on 26 June 1768, when Madame du Deffand wrote to Horace Walpole of the favourable impression she had formed of him. Chesterfield introduced him at the same time to Madame de Monconseil, writing of him, ‘pour un Anglais, il a des manières’ (ib. iv. 473). Chesterfield afterwards told him that he believed him to be the first English traveller that could bring testimonials from Paris of having kept good company there.

In May 1775 he was appointed commander-in-chief in Ireland and a privy councillor there. He was active in repressing Whiteboy outrages, but lived chiefly in Dublin, where he maintained a lavish establishment and was popular with all classes. In 1779 he was installed a knight of the Bath, and joined the other new knights in giving a ball at the Opera House in the Haymarket to all the nobility and distinguished persons in London. In 1780 he became colonel of the 3rd regiment of horse or carabineers in Ireland (afterwards the 6th dragoon guards). At a banquet which he gave at Dublin to the lord-lieutenant (the Earl of Carlisle) in 1781 he spent nearly 1,500l. on a centre-piece for the dinner-table, consisting of a model in barley-sugar of the siege of Gibraltar. He retired from the post of commander-in-chief in Ireland on the downfall of Lord North's administration in 1782; took up his residence in his house in Piccadilly, overlooking the Green Park; resumed his place in parliament; and became full general on 19 Feb. 1783.

Irwin delighted in the pleasures of society, and his charm of manner rendered him a general favourite. With George III he was on especially good terms. Wraxall tells the story that the king once said to him: ‘They tell me, Sir John, that you love a glass of wine,’ to which Irwin replied: ‘Those, Sir, who have so reported of me to your Majesty have done me great injustice; they should have said a bottle’ (Wraxall, Memoirs, ed. 1884, iii. 93). Wraxall relates that his tall, graceful figure, set off by all the ornaments of dress and by the insignia of the order of the Bath, which he constantly wore, even in undress, always made him conspicuous when he attended the House of Commons. But his reckless extravagance both at home and abroad dissipated his resources. At Paris Madame du Deffand noted his ‘folles dépenses.’ Owing to pecuniary difficulties he resigned his seat in parliament on 3 May 1783 and retired to France, where he rented a château in Normandy. Thence he removed into Italy, and took up his permanent abode at Parma, where he enjoyed the friendship of the duke and his consort, the Archduchess Amelia, and kept open house for all English visitors with characteristic hospitality. He died at Parma towards the close of May 1788, aged 60. Wraxall relates that, notwithstanding the intervention of the duke, his remains were denied by the priesthood the rites of Christian burial, and the funeral service was read by an English gentleman. Sir John was survived by a third wife, who died on 27 Aug. 1805. Her maiden name and the date of the marriage are not known.

Portraits of Sir John and his second wife were painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in March 1761; Mrs. Irwin's portrait was engraved in mezzotint by Watson.

[Gent. Mag. 1788, p. 562; Morning Post and Morning Chronicle, 20 June 1788; Memoirs of Sir James Campbell of Ardkinglass, 1832, i. 279; Earl of Chesterfield's Letters, 1845–53, iii. 307, 310, 337, 363, 433, iv. 17, 95, 105, 209, 348, 473, 477, 479, 485, v. 346; Wraxall's Memoirs, ed. 1884, iii. 91–5; Corresp. de Madame du Deffand, Paris, 1865, i. 483, 490, 544; Grenville Corresp.]

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