John Foster, Baron Oriel

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Foster, John, Baron Oriel, last Speaker of the Irish Parliament, was born in Ireland, 28th September 1740. He was educated in Ireland, and called to the Bar, but early devoted himself to political life. Entering Parliament for Dunleer in 1768, he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1785, and in 1786 was chosen Speaker of the Commons. Liberal on many matters, he was a strong opponent of the Catholics. In 1792 he opposed the petition in favour of a relaxation of the Penal Laws, declaring his opinion that "on the provisions for securing a Protestant Parliament depended the Protestant ascendency, and with it the continuance of the many blessings they enjoyed."

Bitterly hostile to the measure of Union, he did all in his power as Speaker to thwart it, and was presented with addresses of thanks by the Lord Mayor, Aldermen, and Council of Dublin. When the House was in committee on the Bill he said: "I declare from my soul that if England were to give us all her revenues, I could not barter for them the free constitution of my country." It was supposed that as Speaker he might decline to put the final question from the chair. Barrington thus describes the scene at the last vote on the Union: "The Speaker (Foster) rose slowly from that chair which had been the proud source of his honours and of his high character; for a moment he resumed his seat, but the strength of his mind sustained him in his duty, though his struggle was apparent. With that dignity which never failed to signalize his official actions, he held up the Bill for a moment in silence; he looked steadily around him on the last agony of the expiring Parliament. He at length repeated in an emphatic tone: 'As many as are of opinion that this Bill do pass, say aye.' The affirmative was languid but indisputable. Another momentary pause ensued — again his lips seemed to decline their office. "At length with an eye averted from the object which he held, he proclaimed, with a subdued voice, 'The ayes have it.' The fatal sentence was now pronounced. For an instant he stood statue-like. Then indignantly, and with disgust, flung the Bill upon the table, and sunk into his chair with an exhausted spirit."

He declined to surrender the mace of the House of Commons, declaring that "until the body that intrusted it to his keeping demanded it, he would preserve it for them," and it is now held by his descendants, the Massareene family. After the Union he entered the Imperial Parliament for Louth, and accepted the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer for Ireland. In July 1821 he was created Baron Oriel. He died at his seat at Collon, in Louth, 23rd August 1828, aged 87. Although not eloquent, Foster had a calm, clear, and forcible delivery. He took a somewhat prominent part in the proceedings of the Imperial Parliament. Two of his speeches in the Irish Parliament — one against Catholic Emancipation, and the other against the Union were printed at the time of delivery, and enjoyed a wide circulation. His son married the Viscountess Massareene, and assumed her surname of Skeffington.

Sources

110. Dublin, History of the City: John T. Gilbert. 3 vols. Dublin, 1854-'9.

114. Dublin Penny Journal. 4 vols. Dublin, 1832-'6.

146. Gentleman's Magazine. London, 1731-1868.
Gilbert, John T., see Nos. 110, 335.

154. Grattan Henry, his Life and Times: Henry Grattan. 5 vols. London, 1839-'46.

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