and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Ireland
biographies of eigtheenth-century Irish politicians are notoriously
sparse on the historiographical landscape. Until this biography of Henry
Flood by James Kelly, one can only point perhaps threew works that incorporate
modern approaches: A.P. W. Malcomson’s John Foster: The politics
of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy (1978); Ann C. Kavanaugh’s John
Fitzgibbon, Earl of Clare: Protestant Reaction and English Authority
in Late Eighteenth Century Ireland (1998) and Kelly’s earlier but
slimmer biography of Flood’s rival, Henry Grattan (1993).
is a potentially difficult choice for a political biography, given
the paucity of personal papers that survive for him and his idiosyncratic
personality. Both factors would make his actions appear disconnected,
even inexplicable and enigmatic. In the past, such factors have inhibited
biographers from tackling Flood as a subject. Kelly, however, displays
great energy and indistry in successfully overcoming the obstacles
(his rooting out of primary material is particualrly impressive) and
he has produced a truly engaging work.
was a politician possessed of great oratorical ability and brought
his legal training to the constitutional and political issues of the
day. The overriding feature of Flood’s career was his failure to achieve
some key political objectives: loss of the borough of Callan to rivals;
failure to achieve parliamentary reform; inability to obtain a prestigious
seat for County Kilkenny (despite government commitment of support
there, which it reneged on); failure to exploit his connection through
marriage with the powerful Beresford family; failure to impress on
the English political scene; failure to recognize the drift toward
concessions to Catholics; and lack of political acumen and decisiveness
on occasion, such as his misreading of public opinion. Against these,
however, must be balanced some of his key achievements: the Octennial
Act (1768), which shortened the duration of parliaments; maintenance
of the subsidies on htheinland carriage of corn to Dublin (important
to his native Kilkenny, a chief corn-growing region); and the Renunciation
Act (1783), by which Britain renounced its role in legislating for
gives due allowance to Flood’s political miscalculations, essentiall
deriving from his rampant individualism (notably his naívité
in accepting office and his procrastination. Kelly emphasizes that
office-holding and patriotism were not regarded by Flood as incompatible.
Not only in this insightful for an understanding of eighteenth-century
Irish political culture, but it is key to appreciating Flood’s career.
In accepting the office of vice treasurer in 1775, he believed it
would be an opportunity to advance legislation favourable to Ireland.
When this did not happen, holding office proved to be a frustrating
and unfulfilling experience; indeed, in retrospect, it was his worst
of the key aspects of Flood’s career was his rivalry with Grattan,
especially over the renunciation issue. Traditionally historians have
viewed this rivalry as based on jealousy and frustrated career ambitions
on Flood’s part. In contrast, Kelly argues for Flood’s superior constitutional
knowledge and his elevation of principle above party as the basis
of the conflict. Also, Kelly offers a corrective to the view that
it was Flood’s support of the absentee tax (1773) that predisposed
him to the support of administration; rather the two had not yet come
close to such and understanding.
of the perennial questions faced by biographers is whether their subject
was shaped by events or helped to shape them. Such a consideration
is important in assessing Flood’s career and contribution. Certainly
Flood entered the political arena at a time of great ferment in Anglo-Irish
politics. Kelly emphasizes his high reputation and legacy, as opposed
to the political impact he had in the short term.
a number of levels, this is a highly successful work, combining as
it does elements of family, locality, national, and British contexts
to depict the different influences and phases of Flood’s career. Flood
has been rescued from relative obscurity, and many of the anomolies
of his political career and legacy have been resolved. This work sets
a high standard for other biographers of eighteenth-century political
figures to follow.
P. Power, American Historical Review.
Flood has long been regarded as something of an enigma by historians
of eighteenth-century Irish politics. The gifted parliamentary orator
who assumed leadership of the ‘patriot’ cause in the 1760s appeared
suddenly to abandon his principles in the 1770s in pursuit of office
and its financial rewards. Flood has normally been regarded as
a political failure in that his acceptance of office coincided with
the start of the most productive phase of the patriot movement.
Flood’s dismissal from office shortly before the achievement of legislative
independence and his subsequent attempt to take the gloss off Henry
Grattan’s triumph by demanding that the British parliament renounce
any claim to legislate for Ireland has usually been seen as the attempt
of a bitterly envious man to resurrect his patriot credentials.
The major strength of James Kelly’s deeply researched biography is that
it avoids such simplistic judgements, presenting a much more sophisticated
interpretation of Flood’s complex career. Kelly shows that from
Flood’s perspective his political life possessed an inner consistency
which is not immediately apparent from a superficial examination of
decision to produce a biography of Flood can only inspire admiration.
As a result of the destruction of the bulk of Flood’s private papers
shortly after his death, Kelly has had meticulously to reconstruct
Flood’s life from an impressive range of sources. The nature
of his source material does present problems for the author in that
much of his evidence for Flood comes from hostile sources. As
a result, the portrayal of Flood is often less than positive.
More importantly, as Kelly acknowledges, scarcity of evidence precludes
detailed analysis of important aspects of Flood’s life. We obtain
little impression of his private life, for example, and Flood’s perspective
on critical episodes in his political career can often only be surmised.
Nevertheless, Kelly should be congratulated for producing a detailed,
insightful and clearly written analysis of a critical period in Irish
parliamentary politics from the perspective of one of its leading
political culture underwent a complete transformation in the period
between Flood’s entry into parliament in November 1759 and his death
in December 1791. He entered the Irish House of Commons just
before the dissolution of the parliament which had been elected following
the accession of George II in 1727. Although not apparent at
the time, the years of relative political calm which had characterised
Irish politics under the first two Hanoverian monarchs were about
to end forever. The first decade of the reign of George III
witnessed the emergence of a significant Patriot party in parliament
which would achieve many of its objectives, beginning with the passage
of an Irish Octennial Act (a measure for which Flood claimed significant
credit) and culminating in the achievement of legislative independence.
More importantly emergence in the 1780s of the twin demands for parliamentary
reform (which Flood supported and Catholic relief (which he opposed)
meant that by the time of his death ‘Flood, like political patriotism
he espoused, had become something of a political anachronism’ (p.
number of themes recur throughout Flood’s career. His ability
to accumulate enemies and to alienate friends was remarkable.
As a result Flood often found himself isolated and vulnerable.
A readiness to quarrel, a refusal to compromise, ‘his personal aloofness
and carelessness in sustaining relationships’ (p. 285) ensured Flood’s
political potential remained unfulfilled. The ambition to cut a figure
in the British parliament is another recurring feature. Although
eventually elected as member for Winchester in 1783, Flood failed
to make a significant impact at Westminster.
episodes in Flood’s career stand out. His decision to accept government
office in 1775 and his demand for a Renunciation Act to secure
the constitution of 1782’. Flood’s acceptance of the post of
vice-treasurer has normally been portrayed (as it was at the time)
as a betrayal of his patriot philosophy. However, Kelly makes
clear Flood believed that a position in government was perfectly compatible
with his patriotism. Given that Flood had always hoped to work
with a reforming administration to achieve his objectives, his decision
in the early 1770s that he could do more good within government than
in opposition is understandable. Moreover, the tortuous nature
of Flood’s negotiations with the administration prior to accepting
office indicated his determination to enter government on his own
terms. Flood’s experience of office, however, was far from happy.
Kelly notes that his inability to compromise rendered Flood
temperamentally unsuitable for government. More importantly,
Flood misunderstood the nature of his relationship the administration.
Kelly concludes that ‘he appears not to have appreciated that the
primary object of the Castle was to bring him into office to neutralise
the potential threat he posed rather than to allow him to advance
reformist and patriot policies’ (pp. 441-442). Flood’s naiveté
in this respect was remarkable, especially since he had been warned
in the clearest terms by Lord Charlemont of the consequences of entering
must suppose, that in taking office ... your first and principal aim
and object would be to do your country service. ... I declare it as
my firm and fixed opinion, that, whatever may be the case in England,
it is utterly impossible that office in Ireland can confer the power
of doing good; no office with us being in any degree ministerial.
the bulk of his time in office Flood was an isolated figure, ‘aligned
neither with the Castle nor with the patriots’ (p. 259). While
his dismissal at the end of 1781 enabled Flood to resume his role as
a leading patriot, by now his credibility among patriots had been severely
damaged and Henry Grattan had established his position as leader of
the patriot cause in parliament. Although Grattan’s status was
confirmed by his role in securing legislative independence in 1782,
the ambiguous nature of the constitutional settlement of that year gave
Flood an opportunity to reestablish his reputation in patriot circles.
With an unrivalled understanding of the finer details of the Anglo-Irish
constitutional relationship, Flood pointed out the limitations of the
settlement of 1782 and the potential for a future British government
to reverse it. Although Flood’s demand that the Westminster parliament
formally renounce any right to legislate for Ireland was initially regarded
as an attempt to belittle Grattan’s achievement, support for a Renunciation
Act gradually increased. Kelly argues convincingly that while
‘Flood may well have resented Grattan’s popularity’, in demanding renunciation
‘he was activated first and foremostly by conviction’ (p. 326).
Certainly the logic of Flood’s argument is indisputable, and events
appeared to justify his stance when the British parliament passed an
Act recognising Irish legislative independence in the spring of 1783.
next turned his attention to an attempt to achieve Irish parliamentary
reform in alliance with the Volunteers. However, when it became
clear that neither the British government nor the Irish parliament
would countenance such a measure Flood, unwilling to participate in
an extraparliamentary campaign, accepted defeat and focused his attention
on Westminster. For the remainder of his career he maintained
his ‘independent’ stance and consequently remained isolated.
He managed to regain some degree of credibility at Westminster by
promoting a plan for parliamentary reform in 1790 in the belief that
the revolution in France demonstrated the necessity of reforming the
British electoral system. Although his proposal made no progress,
his speech in favour of reform won widespread acclaim. Failure
to be elected either in Ireland or in Britain in the general elections
of 1790 brought Flood’s career to a premature end. His inability
to secure a seat in either parliament by this time is graphic testimony
to his failure to secure a political power-base in the previous thirty
is an important book for anyone interested in the politics of eighteenth
century Ireland, because Flood’s ‘career as well as his personality
epitomises the weaknesses and strengths of eighteenth-century Irish
patriotism’ (p. 448). Kelly is justified in his comment that
Flood’s death in 1791 was ‘timely’ in that he was thus spared the
dilemma of choosing between the politics of reaction and revolution
which were to dominate the 1790s. It is illustrative of the
contradictions inherent in Irish patriotism that we can only speculate
as to what Flood’s choice would have been’ Paddy McNally, Irish
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