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Parties, Patriots and Undertakers:
Parliamentary Politics in Early Hanoverian Ireland
Patrick McNally

 Eighteenth-Century Ireland (Volume 13 1998)
'Patrick McNally offers an analysis of parliamentary politics in the twenty years following the Hanoverian accession. Two decades ago the choice of such an unexplored period would alone have been sufficient to ensure that his book received a ready welcome. Since then the volume of work on the early eighteenth century has expanded, steadily if unspectacularly, to the point where a new book needs something more to justify its existence. Dr McNally’s solution is to offer a thematic study concentrating on the themes of patronage and parliamentary management. The result is a mixed but undoubtedly valuable study.

Dr McNally begins with a discussion of the character of early eighteenth century Irish society. This takes as its starting point the alarming claim that ‘it is impossible for an Irish historian to treat any period of his/her country’s past with objectivity’ (p.17). One braces oneself for a Bradshawesque exercise in pseudo ancestral prejudice masquerading as empathetic involvement with the historic past. In fact the discussion that follows is a low key and unexceptionable review of recent academic debate. Dr McNally rejects as misleading the notion of Irish Protestants as a colonial elite. He acknowledges the case for seeing inequality as a privilege as characteristics of all ancien régime societies, but reassesses the exceptional nature of Ireland’s religious and political divisions. A short closing paragraph introduces the term ‘confessional state’, but this, with no attempt either to define the term or to probe its possible significance, is a rather arbitrary final flourish.

A second chapter, on the Irish dimensions of the Glorious Revolution and its aftermath, likewise recycles some fairly familiar material on the politics of the 1690s. However it also offers a useful preliminary survey of the role within the Irish political system of viceroy, lords justice, privy council and both houses of parliament. From here the analysis rapidly gains in both originality and depth. The discussion of the Hanoverian accession draws on Dr McNally’s detailed research on patronage to analyse the scale and nature of the purges that followed the Whig triumph. A further chapter discusses patronage after 1714. Dr McNally recognises a point long ago emphasised by A.P.W. Malcomson, that the distribution of pensions, titles and sinecures could never in its guarantee government majorities: the supply was too limited, the gratitude of  recipient too short lived, and the other claims on political consciences, on occasion at least, too strong. At the same time he effectively restates the central role of patronage as a limited but nevertheless vital tool of parliamentary management. A chapter on extent of government dependence on these local parliamentary managers, but also the ultimate supremacy of the lord lieutenant and British cabinet. the issues involved are teased out with the help of a valuable new examination of the Wood’s Halfpence crises, as well as through the most complete and convincing account so far available of the halting process by which Henry Boyle came to be recognised as chief undertaker.

Two final chapters consider the issue of Anglo-Irish relations. A discussion of the Irish and English interests shows how the selection of John Evans as bishop of Meath in 1716 initiated a series of biter contests over appointments within the Church of Ireland. The notion of an all-embracing conflict between rival national groups, however, was primarily articulated by Evans and other English ecclesiastics. Neither their Irish-born fellow churchmen nor other sections of Irish society appear too have perceived matters in the same stark terms. A related chapter on patriotism distances itself from attempts to present the militant minority within Protestant Ireland. At the same time it demonstrates that Irish constitutional ambitions were more limited, and more realistic than an exclusive concentration on these two leading figures might suggest. Despite the dual monarchy rhetoric of The Drapier’s Letters, most spokesmen for the Irish Protestant nation were willing to concede, to the English parliament some measure of supremacy in imperial matters.

Dr McNally has sought to make his detailed research on patronage and parliamentary management the basis for a reworking of the main themes of early eighteenth-century Irish history. The attempt is not wholly successful. At times, most notably in the chapters on patriotism and on the general character of the society, there is a sense of already rather well-handled cards being shuffled one more time to no great effect. Meanwhile important  aspects of the original theme of patronage remain unexplored. In particular Dr McNally shows curiously little interest in the recipients, as opposed to the dispensers of patronage. There is no attempt to examine the potential of official employment as a means towards the acquisition of wealth and status, along the lines pioneered in Clarkson and Crawford’s case study of the Custs of Armagh. Having said this the overall result is nevertheless a wide ranging, thoroughly researched and well written book. It offers substantial new evidence, particularly on the issues of patronage and parliamentary management, as well as important insights into both the mechanics of political life and the attitudes that informed them. It is this a work that every serious researcher on eighteenth-century Ireland will have to read carefully. It is also a book that most of us are likely to recommend to our students as the most accessible, comprehensive and reliable treatment now available of the politics of the period 1714-c.1735' SJ Connolly, Eighteenth-Century Ireland.

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