1st Baron Fitzgibbon (1789-1802), 1st Earl of Clare (1795-1802)
Lord Chancellor of Ireland
Born 1749 Died 1802
John Fitzgibbon was the second son of John Fitzgibbon, who had abandoned the Roman Catholic faith in order to pursue a legal career. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he was highly distinguished as a classical scholar, and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he graduated in 1770. In 1772 he was called to the Irish bar, and quickly acquired a very lucrative practice; he also inherited his father's large fortune on the death of his elder brother.
In 1778 he entered the Irish House of Commons as member for Dublin University, and at first gave a general support to the popular party led by Henry Grattan. He was, however, from the first hostile to that part of Grattan's policy which aimed at removing the disabilities of the Roman Catholics; he endeavoured to impede the Relief Bill of 1778 by raising difficulties about its effect on the Act of Settlement. He especially distrusted the priests, and many years later explained that his life-long resistance to all concession to the Catholics was based on his unalterable opinion that a conscientious Popish ecclesiastic never will become a well attached subject to a Protestant state, and that the Popish clergy must always have a commanding influence on every member of that communion. As early as 1780 Fitzgibbon began to separate himself from the popular or national party, by opposing Grattan's declaration of the Irish parliament's right to independence. There is no reason to suppose that in this change of view he was influenced by corrupt or personal motives. His cast of mind naturally inclined to authority rather than to democratic liberty; his hostility to the Catholic claims, and his distrust of parliamentary reform as likely to endanger the connection of Ireland with Great Britain, made him a sincere opponent of the aims which Grattan had in view. In reply, however, to a remonstrance from his constituents Fitzgibbon promised to support Grattan's policy in the future, and described the claim of Great Britain to make laws for Ireland as a daring usurpation of the rights of a free people.
For some time longer there was no actual breach between him and Grattan. Grattan supported the appointment of Fitzgibbon as attorney-general in 1783, and in 1785 the latter highly eulogized Grattan's character and services to the country in a speech in which he condemned Flood's volunteer movement. He also opposed Flood's Reform Bill of 1784; and from this time forward he was in fact the leading spirit in the Irish government, and the stiffest opponent of all concession to popular demands. In 1784 the permanent committee of revolutionary reformers in Dublin, of whom Napper Tandy was the most conspicuous, invited the sheriffs of counties to call meetings for the election of delegates to attend a convention for the discussion of reform; and when the sheriff of the county of Dublin summoned a meeting for this purpose Fitzgibbon procured his imprisonment for contempt of court, and justified this procedure in parliament, though Lord Erskine declared it grossly illegal.
In the course of the debates on Pitt's commercial propositions in 1785, which Fitzgibbon supported in masterly speeches, he referred to Curran in terms which led to a duel between the two lawyers, when Fitzgibbon was accused of a deliberation in aiming at his opponent that was contrary to etiquette. His antagonism to Curran was life-long and bitter, and after he became chancellor his hostility to the famous advocate was said to have driven the latter out of practice.
In January 1787 Fitzgibbon introduced a stringent bill for repressing the Whiteboy outrages. It was supported by Grattan, who, however, procured the omission of a clause enacting that any Roman Catholic chapel near which an illegal oath had been tendered should be immediately demolished. His influence with the majority in the Irish parliament defeated Pitt's proposed reform of the tithe system in Ireland, Fitzgibbon refusing even to grant a committee to investigate the subject. On the regency question in 1789 Fitzgibbon, in opposition to Grattan, supported the doctrine of Pitt in a series of powerful speeches which proved him a great constitutional lawyer; he intimated that the choice for Ireland might in certain eventualities rest between complete separation from England and legislative union; and, while he exclaimed as to the latter alternative, "God forbid that I should ever see that day!" he admitted that separation would be the worse evil of the two.
In the same year Lord Lifford resigned the chancellorship, and Fitzgibbon was appointed in his place, being raised to the peerage as Baron Fitzgibbon. His removal to the House of Lords greatly increased his power. In the Commons, though he had exercised great influence as attorney-general, his position had been secondary; in the House of Lords and in the privy council he was little less than despotic. He was, says Lecky, by far the ablest Irishman who had adopted without restriction. the doctrine that the Irish legislature must be maintained in a condition of permanent and unvarying subjection to the English executive. But the English ministry were now embarking on a policy of conciliation in Ireland. The Catholic Relief Bill of 1793 was forced on the Irish executive by the cabinet in London, but it passed rapidly and easily through the Irish parliament. Lord Fitzgibbon, while accepting the bill as inevitable under the circumstances that had arisen, made a most violent though exceedingly able speech against the principle of concession, which did much to destroy the conciliatory effect of the measure; and as a consequence of this act he began persistently to urge the necessity for a legislative union.
From this date until the union. was carried, the career of Fitzgibbon is practically the history of Ireland. True to his inveterate hostility to the popular claims, he was opposed to the appointment of Lord Fitzwilliam as viceroy in 1795, and was probably the chief influence in procuring his recall; and it was Fitzgibbon who first put it into the head of George III that the king would violate his coronation oath if he consented to the admission of Catholics to parliament. When Lord Camden, Fitzwilliam's successor in the vice-royalty, arrived in Dublin on the 31st of March 1795, Fitzgibbon's carriage was violently assaulted by the mob, and he himself was wounded; and in the riots that ensued his house was also attacked. But as if to impress upon the Catholics the hopelessness of their case, the government who had made Fitzgibbon a viscount immediately after his attack on the Catholics in 1793 now bestowed on him a further mark of honour. In June 1795 he was created Earl of Clare.
On the eve of the rebellion. he warned the government that while emancipation. and reform might be the objects aimed at by the better classes, the mass of the disaffected had in view the separation of the country from her connection with Great Britain, and a fraternal alliance with the French Republic. Clare advocated stringent measures to prevent an outbreak; but he was neither cruel nor immoderate, and was inclined to mercy in dealing with individuals. He attempted to save Lord Edward Fitzgerald from his fate by giving a friendly warning to his friends, and promising to facilitate his escape from the country; and Lord Edward's aunt, Lady Louisa Conolly, who was conducted to his death-bed in prison by the chancellor in person, declared that nothing could exceed Lord Clare's kindness. His moderation and humanity after the rebellion was extolled by Cornwallis. He threw his great influence on the side of clemency, and it was through his intervention that Oliver Bond, when sentenced to death, was reprieved; and that an arrangement was made by which Arthur O'Connor, Thomas Emmet and other state prisoners were allowed to leave the country.
In October 1798 Lord Clare, who since 1793 had been convinced of the necessity for a legislative union if the connection between Great Britain and Ireland was to be maintained, and who was equally determined that the union must be unaccompanied by Catholic emancipation, crossed to England and successfully pressed his views on Pitt. In 1799 he induced the Irish House of Lords to throw out a bill for providing a permanent endowment of Maynooth. On the 10th of February 1800 Clare in the House of Lords moved the resolution approving the union in a long and powerful speech, in which he reviewed the history of Ireland since the Revolution, attributing the evils of recent years to the independent constitution of 1782, and speaking of Grattan in language of deep personal hatred. He was not aware of the assurance which Cornwallis had been authorized to convey to the Catholics that the union was to pave the way for emancipation, and when he heard of it after the passing of the act he bitterly complained that Pitt and Castlereagh had deceived him. After the union Clare became more violent than ever in his opposition to any policy of concession in Ireland. He died on the 28th of January 1802; his funeral in Dublin was the occasion of a riot organized by a gang of about fourteen persons under orders of a leader.
His wife, in compliance with his death-bed request, destroyed all his papers. His two sons, John (1792-1851) and Richard Hobart (1793-1864), succeeded in turn to the earldom, which became extinct on the death of the latter, whose only son, John Charles Henry, Viscount Fitzgibbon (1829-1854), was killed in the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava.
Lord Clare was in private life an estimable and even an amiable man; many acts of generosity are related of him; the determination of his character swayed other wills to his purpose, and his courage was such as no danger, no obloquy, no public hatred or violence could disturb. Though not a great orator like Flood or Grattan, he was a skilful and ready debater, and he was by far the ablest Irish supporter of the union. He was, however, arrogant, overbearing and intolerant to the last degree. He was the first Irishman since the Revolution to hold the office of Lord Chancellor of Ireland. Except where his furious personal antipathies and his ungovernable arrogance were called into action, he appears to have been, says Lecky, "an able, upright and energetic judge"; but as a politician there can be little question that Lord Clare's bitter and unceasing resistance to reasonable measures of reform did infinite mischief in the history of Ireland, by inflaming the passions of his countrymen, driving them into rebellion, and perpetuating their political and religious divisions.
See W. E. H. Lecky, History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century (5 vols., London, 1892); J. R. O'Flanagan, The Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal in Ireland (2 vols., London, 1870); Cornwallis Correspondence, ed. by C. Ross (3 vols., London, 1859); Charles Phillips, Recollections of Curran and some of his Contemporaries (London, 1822); Henry Grattan, Memoirs of the Life and Times of the Right Honble. Henry Grattan (5 vols., London, 1839-1846); Lord Auckland, Journal and Correspondence (4 vols., London, 1861); Charles Coote, History of the Union of Great Britain and Ireland (London, 1802). (R.J.M.)
Being the entry for CLARE, JOHN FITZGIBBON, 1ST EARL OF in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.