Henry Flood

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Flood, Henry, a distinguished orator and statesman, was born on the family estate near Kilkenny, in 1732; his father was Chief-Justice of the King's Bench; his grandfather came over to Ireland as an officer, during the War of 1641-'52. After the death of a brother and sister, he remained an only child, and his studies were attended to with the care proportioned to his expectations as the inheritor of extensive property. He entered Trinity College as a fellow-commoner when but in his sixteenth year, and completed his education at Oxford, where he studied under Dr. Markham, afterwards Archbishop of York. He devoted himself especially to the classics, and wrote some poetry.

Having left Oxford, he entered at the Temple, and altogether he spent about seven years of study in England. He was passionately fond of private theatricals, and he is said to have occasionally acted with Grattan, although the latter was fully eighteen years younger. In youth he was a singularly attractive companion — "genial,frank, and open; endowed with the most brilliant conversational powers, and the happiest manner -'the most easy and best tempered man in the world, as well as the most sensible,' according to Grattan. His figure was exceedingly graceful, and his countenance was in youth of corresponding beauty. He was of a remarkably social disposition, delighting in witty society and in field sports, and readily conciliating the affection of all classes." He entered Parliament in 1759 as member for Kilkenny, being the sixth of the name and family who sat in Parliament during the 18th century. Two years later, his marriage with Lady Frances Maria Beresf ord added to his position and prestige in the country. Endowed with remarkable eloquence, indomitable courage, and singularly acute judgment, he possessed almost every requisite for a leader of public opinion.

The Irish Parliament was at this time corrupt to the last degree: of the 300 members, 200 were elected by 100 individuals, and nearly 50 by 10. Lord Shannon returned 16; the Ponsonbys, 14; Lord Hillsborough, 9; and the Duke of Leinster, 7. An enormous pension list and the entire Government patronage were systematically and steadily employed incorruption. Amongst the nobility absenteeism was the rule. The House was almost independent of popular control, lasting during the reign of each sovereign; while, under Poyning's law, the British Government had the power either of altering or rejecting all Bills. Flood's eloquence soon made him the leader of the growing party determined to abridge the corrupt influence of Government, and establish a modified independence. "His eloquence," says Mr. Lecky, "as far as we can judge from the description of contemporaries and from the fragments that remain, was not quite equal to that of some later Irish orators. He was too sententious and too laboured. He had, at least in his later years, but little fire and imagination; his taste was by no means pure; and his language, though full of force and meaning, was often tinged with pedantry. He appears, however, to have been one of the very greatest of parliamentary reasoners." "In comparison with Grattan," continues Mr. Lecky, "Flood was invariably considered the more convincing reasoner of the two. He was a great master of grave sarcasm, of invective, of weighty, judicial statement, and of reply; and he brought to every question a wide range of constitutional knowledge, and a keen and prescient, though somewhat sceptical judgment."

Through his exertions a healthy public opinion soon began to spring up outside the walls of the House, and a powerful opposition was organized within. For about ten years a desultory warfare was carried on between the two parties — the Government, while growing weaker, still able to command working majorities — Flood becoming more and more the idol of the country. In 1767, however, a great and unforeseen change came to favour the popular party, after the appointment of Lord Townshend as Lord-Lieutenant. A measure for making the judges irremoveable was recommended from the throne and passed, but was considerably altered by the English Ministry. On the other hand, the Octennial Bill, urged on by Mr. Flood, and passed by the Irish Parliament in 1768, perhaps only to gain popularity, and in the hope of its being vetoed in England, was, much to the dismay of the majority, allowed to become law, and Parliament became in some real sense an organ of popular sentiment, as far at least as the Protestant portion of the nation was concerned.

In the course of the election that took place after the passing of this Bill in September 1769, Flood had an unhappy quarrel with Mr. Agar, his colleague in the representation of Callan, who forced on two duels, and in the second was shot through the heart by Flood. As a matter of form Flood stood trial for the offence; but, in accordance with the feelings of the time, was triumphantly acquitted. The same year a money bill, originated by Government, was rejected by the House of Commons, whereupon the Lord-Lieutenant delivered an angry protest (inserted by his directions in the Journals of the House of Lords), and prorogued Parliament, though pressing business was on hand. It was not summoned again for more than a year. Government improving the opportunity by a wholesale system of bribery — not less than £500,000 being spent in seeking to obtain a majority. Nevertheless the Parliament of 1771 rejected another money bill without a division. Lord Townshend now resolved upon increasing the number of the Commissioners of Revenue from seven to twelve, and thereby increasing the Government influence in the House. Flood denounced the proposed measure. By the casting vote of the Speaker a vote of censure upon Government was carried, and Lord Townshend was immediately recalled. In the course of these contests the famous Baratariana paper appeared, supposed by many to be the joint production of Flood, Grattan, and Langrishe.

According to Mr. Lecky, Flood's portions "are powerful and well reasoned, but, like his speeches, too laboured in style, and they certainly give no countenance to the notion started at one time that he was the author of the Letters of Junius." The same author goes on to say: "Flood had now attained to a position that had as yet been unparalleled in Ireland. He had shown that pure patriotism and great abilities could find scope in the Irish Parliament. He had proved himself beyond all comparison the greatest orator that this country had as yet produced, and also a consummate master of parliamentary tactics. In the midst of a corruption, venality, and subserviency which could scarcely be exaggerated, he had created a party before which ministers had begun to quail — a party which had wrung from England a concession of inestimable value, which had inoculated the people with the spirit of liberty and of self-reliance, and which promised to expand with the development of public opinion, till it had broken every fetter and had recovered every right."

Flood now appeared to believe that all concessions possible had been gained for Ireland, and that it was the duty of Irishmen to accept the situation and work with the Government. Whatever may have been his inspiring motive, it is certain that on the accession of Lord Harcourt as Lord-Lieutenant, Flood, hitherto in bitter opposition and possessed of an ample fortune, solicited place. Lord Harcourt, writing 19th June 1774, says: "Among the many embarrassments of my situation, I have found none more difficult than to make a proper provision for Mr. Flood." Again: "It may be better to secure Mr. Flood almost at any expense, than risk an opposition which may be most dangerous and mischievous." Eventually he was appointed Vice-Treasurer, a post hitherto reserved for Englishmen, and one that added £3,500 per annum to his income.

The confidence of the Irish people now passed from him, and during the seven years that he remained in office he was necessarily obliged to keep silence on those great questions which before he so ceaselessly expounded. He formed part of a government that upheld the commercial restraints on Ireland, that imposed a two years' embargo in consequence of the American war, that sent 4,000 Irish troops to fight against American independence — troops that Flood designated "armed negotiators." Grattan afterwards, in his famous invective, referring to this expression, spoke of him as standing "with a metaphor in his mouth and a bribe in his pocket, a champion against the rights of America — the only hope of Ireland, and the only refuge of the liberties of mankind." When these troops were sent abroad, Ireland was defenceless; and on the first hint of a French invasion Government had to admit that it was powerless to defend the country. The Volunteers sprang into being, with the series of important events whose recital more properly belongs to the lives of Grattan and Charlemont. "Conspicuous amongst their colonels was Flood, not uninjured in his reputation by his ministerial career; yet still reverent from the memory of his past achievements and the splendour of his yet unfading intellect." In the torrent of patriotic enthusiasm that then swept over Ireland, Flood found his position as a minister intolerable.

He threw up his £3,500 a year, returned to his old friends, and the King himself erased his name from the list of Privy-Councillors. However great his mistake may have been in taking office, he amply atoned by thus renouncing it. Nevertheless it was too late for him to resume his old place in the affections of his country. Mr. Lecky says: "In 1779 Yelverton brought forward a Bill for the repeal of Poyning's law; and Flood, while supporting the measure, complained bitterly that after a service of twenty years in the study of this particular question he had been superseded. He added: 'The honourable gentleman is erecting a temple of liberty. I hope that at least I shall be allowed a niche in the fane.' Yelverton retorted by reminding him that, by the civil law, 'if a man should separate from his wife, desert and abandon her for seven years, another might then take her and give her his protection.'" The next occasion upon which Flood prominently came before the public was on the question of "simple repeal." He asserted that the simple repeal of the Acts that had fettered Ireland was not enough — that there should be a formal renunciation of them by the British Parliament. Grattan was willing to confide in the honour of the British Government; Flood declared that Great Britain would upon the first opportunity endeavour to reassert her lost supremacy. The conflict that ensued between Flood and Grattan was most unfortunate.

Having gained so much, mainly by the influence of the Volunteers, it was desirable that the country should settle down into the old paths of constitutional action. But Flood's declamations threw Ireland into a state of fresh unsettlement. In October 1783 occurred a deplorable altercation between Flood and Grattan in Parliament. An uncalled-for allusion to Flood's illness escaped from Grattan in the heat of a debate. "Flood rose indignantly, and after a few words of preface, launched into a fierce diatribe against his opponent. His task was a difficult one, for few men presented a more unassailable character. Invective, however, of the most outrageous description, was the custom of the time, and invective between good and great men is necessarily unjust. He dwelt with bitter emphasis on the grant the Parliament had made to Grattan. He described him as 'that mendicant patriot who was bought by his country, and sold that country for prompt payment;' and he dilated with the keenest sarcasm upon the decline of his popularity. He concluded in a somewhat exultant tone: 'Permit me to say that if the honourable gentleman often provokes such contests as this, he will have but little to boast of at the end of the session.' Grattan, however, was not unprepared. He had long foreseen the collision, and had embodied all his angry feeling in one elaborate speech. Employing the common artifice of an imaginary character, he painted the whole career of his opponent in the blackest colours, condensed in a few masterly sentences all the charges that had ever been brought against him, and sat down, having delivered an invective, which for concentrated and crushing power is almost or altogether unrivalled in modern oratory. Thus terminated the friendship between two men who had done more than any who were then living for their country, who had known each other for twenty years, and whose lives are imperishably associated in history. Flood afterwards presided at a meeting of the Volunteers where a resolution complimentary to Grattan was passed; Grattan, in his pamphlet on the Union, and more than once in private conversation, gave noble testimony to the greatness of Flood; but they were never reconciled again, and their cordial co-operation, which was of such inestimable importance to the country, was henceforth almost an impossibility."

Flood and Grattan attempted a hostile meeting at Blackrock, but were interrupted by sheriff's officers, and were bound over to keep the peace towards each other for two years. In the Volunteer Reform Convention of 1783, Flood took a leading part, and the result of its deliberations was the preparation of a Reform Bill giving votes to all Protestant forty-shilling freeholders, and to leaseholders for thirty-one years of which fifteen were unexpired; extending the franchise in decayed boroughs to the adjoining parishes; excluding from Parliament pensioners who held pensions during pleasure, while those who accepted pension or place should vacate their seats; prescribing that each member was to take an oath that he had not been guilty of bribery; limiting the duration of Parliament to three years. The Bill was sadly one-sided, in not extending the political power to the Catholics, a point upon which Flood and Charlemont were equally firm. Flood brought this Volunteer Reform Bill before Parliament in a speech of singular vigour and brilliancy; his recovered popularity dispelled the gloom that had so long hung over his mind. It was, however, strenuously opposed by a majority of the members, declared to be insulting to the House as emanating from an armed convention, and was defeated by 150 to 77. Grattan voted in the minority. A resolution followed tantamount to a vote of censure on the Volunteers. Next year Flood made another effort for reform, and, failing in it, carried into effect his purpose of leaving Ireland, and entering the British Parliament. Although offered a seat by the Duke of Chandos, he preferred independence, and purchased one at a cost of £4,000. Grattan's surmise proved correct, that "he was an oak of the forest too great and too old to be transplanted at fifty."

He made little impression in the British Parliament. We are told that "the slow, measured, and sententious style of enunciation which characterized his eloquence — however calculated to excite admiration it might be in the sister kingdom — appeared to English ears cold, stiff, and deficient in some of the best recommendations to attention." In 1785 he took a prominent part in the opposition to Orde's commercial regulations, and in 1787 to the proposed commercial treaty with France. In 1790 he introduced a Reform Bill, providing for the addition of 100 members to the House of Commons, to be elected by household suffrage. Both Burke and Fox are said to have approved the measure; and Pitt based his opposition almost exclusively upon the disturbed state of public affairs. There is something pathetic in the speech delivered by Flood on this Bill, shortly before he retired, soured and disappointed, from public life: "I appeal to you whether my conduct has been that of an advocate or an agitator; whether I have often trespassed upon your attention; whether ever, except on a question of importance; and whether I then wearied you with ostentation or prolixity. I have no fear but that of doing wrong; nor have I a hope on the subject but that of doing some service before I die. The accident of my situation has not made me a partizan; and I never lamented that situation till now that I find myself as unprotected as I fear the people of England will be on this occasion."

He now retired to his estate at Farmley, near Kilkenny. While suffering from gout he imprudently exposed himself in helping to extinguish a fire, and took a cold, followed by pleurisy, of which he died, 2nd December 1791, aged 59. His remains were interred in the family vault at Burnchurch, close to Farmley. Of his property of £6,000 or £7,000 per annum, he willed the major portion, on the death of his wife, to Trinity College, for the purchase of Irish manuscripts, and to promote the study of the Irish language. The will was eventually set aside by the plea of the law of mortmain, which barred the claims of Trinity College, and the property went to his descendants, by whom it is now held. Mr. Lecky says: "A few pages of oratory, which probably at best only represent the substance of his speeches, a few youthful poems, a few laboured letters, and a biography so meagre and so unsatisfactory that it scarcely gives us any insight into his character, are all that remain of Henry Flood."


212. Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland—Swift, Flood, Grattan, and O'Connell: William E. H. Lecky. First and Second Editions. London, 1861-'71.
Lecky, William E. H., see No. 212.

96. Curran and his Contemporaries: Charles Phillips. Edinburgh, 1850.

133. Flood, Right Hon. Henry, Memoirs and Correspondence: Warden Flood. Dublin, 1838.

141. Froude, James A.: The English in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century. 3 vols. London, 1872-'4.

196. Irishmen, Lives of Illustrious and Distinguished, Rev. James Wills, D.D. 6 vols. or 12 parts. Dublin, 1840-'7.

233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.

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