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Henry Flood
Patriots and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Ireland
James Kelly



 
American Historical Review
Competent 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).

Flood 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.

Flood 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 Ireland.

Kelly 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 political decision.

One 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.

One 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.

At 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.

Thomas P. Power, American Historical Review.


 Irish Studies Review
‘Henry 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 his actions.

Kelly’s 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 participants.

Irish 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. 449).

A 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.

Two 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 government:

I 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. (p. 211)
For 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.

Flood 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 years.

This 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 Studies Review.

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