William Conyngham Plunket

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Plunket, William Conyngham, Lord Plunket, Lord-Chancellor, was born at Enniskillen, 1st July 1764. Shortly after his birth, his father, a Presbyterian minister, was called to officiate at the Strand-street Chapel in Dublin. He died in 1778, leaving his widow and children poorly provided for. Young Plunket entered college about the same time as his friends Thomas A. Emmet and Yelverton. He became distinguished for his oratorical powers in the debates of the Historical Society, and in his third year obtained a scholarship.

At his mother's house in Jervis-street, Burrowes, Bushe, Emmet, Magee (afterwards Archbishop), Tone, and Yelverton, constantly met on terms of the closest intimacy. In 1784 he entered at Lincoln's Inn, and two years afterwards was called to the Irish Bar. His progress was rapid and steady. In his memoirs it is mentioned that in 1791 he argued a case before a Committee of the House of Commons on which Arthur Wellesley and Lord Edward FitzGerald sat together. In 1797 he was made King's Counsel. In conjunction with Curran, in 1798, he unsuccessfully defended John and Henry Sheares. He wasbrought into Parliament by Lord Charlemont in 1798, and was one of the most strenuous opponents of the Union.

In a speech made during the memorable debate of 22nd-23rd January 1799, he "in the most express terms" denied "the competency of Parliament to do this act... If, circumstanced as you are, you pass this Act, it will be a nullity, and no man in Ireland will be bound to obey it. I make the assertion deliberately — I repeat it, and I call on any man who hears me to take down my words... You are appointed to exercise the functions of legislators, and not to transfer them. And if you do so your act is a dissolution of the Government. You resolve society into its original elements, and no man in the land is bound to obey you... Yourselves you may extinguish, but Parliament you cannot extinguish... As well might the frantic suicide hope that the act which destroys his miserable body should extinguish his immortal soul."

In 1803, as counsel for the Crown, he was engaged in the prosecution of Robert Emmet, the brother of his old friend. In some editions of Emmet's speech before sentence, he is falsely represented to have made use of the words (as applying to Plunket): "That viper whom my father nourished. He it was from whose lips I first imbibed those principles and doctrines, which now, by their effects, drag me to my grave." William Cobbett was fined £500 as the publisher, and Robert Johnstone, one of the Judges of the Common Pleas in Ireland, lost his seat on the Bench, as the author of animadversions, in the Register newspaper, upon Mr. Plunket's conduct at the trial. A few months after this trial Plunket was appointed Solicitor-General; and in 1805 he was advanced to be Attorney-General.

In 1807 he entered Parliament for Midhurst. In 1812 he exchanged this seat for the University of Dublin, which he represented until his elevation to the peerage. At this period he was in the enjoyment of a lucrative practice, chiefly in the Court of Chancery, and his means were subsequently increased by a large bequest from his brother, Dr. Plunket. He took a leading part in the debates at Westminster. Bulwer thus describes his presence in Parliament:

"He rises — mark him now!
No grace in feature, no command in height,
Yet his whole presence fills and awes the sight.
Wherefore, you ask. I can but guide your guess.
Man has no majesty like earnestness.
His that rare warmth — collected central heat —
As if he strives to check the heart's loud beat,
Tame strong conviction and indignant zeal,
And leave you free to think as he must feel."

From the first he strenuously supported the claims of the Catholics, and worked with his friend Henry Grattan for their advancement. His speech in favour of Emancipation on 21st February 1821 was declared by Peel to stand "nearly the highest in point of ability of any ever heard in this House; combining the rarest powers of eloquence with the strongest powers of reasoning." During the Viceroyalty of the Marquis of Wellesley in 1821, he was again appointed Attorney-General. In. 1825 he supported the Bill for putting down the Catholic Association, and advocated the Relief Bill of Sir Francis Burdett, with its "wings." [See O'CONNELL, DANIEL.] For this he became unpopular with the Irish Catholics, as he was already with the English Liberals for his defence of the Peterloo massacre.

It is said that on Canning's advent to power in 1827 Plunket would have been appointed Lord-Chancellor but for the personal dislike of George IV. He was, however, made Master of the Rolls for England, but resigned in consequence of the objections of the English Bar. Lord Norbury was thereupon induced to retire from the Irish Bench, and Plunket was appointed Chief-Justice of the Common Pleas in his stead, and elevated to the British peerage as Baron Plunket. In 1829 he had the satisfaction, in the House of Lords, of welcoming the passage of the measure for which he had striven so many years — Catholic Emancipation. In January 1830 he became Lord-Chancellor of Ireland, and held that position, with a short interval, until 1841. Thenceforward, with the exception of supporting the Reform Bill in 1831, the Irish Tithe Bill in 1832, and the Irish Education Bill in 1833, he took little part in politics, devoting himself almost exclusively to his official duties.

In June 1841, owing to pressure brought to bear upon him by Lord Melbourne's Ministry, he reluctantly consented to resign his seals, to make way for Lord Campbell, for whom the Government could not otherwise provide — a proceeding stigmatized by Lord Brougham as "the most gross and unjustifiable act ever done by party, combining violence and ingratitude with fraud... Vile as this whole proceeding was, the course taken to defend it was worse than the act itself. It was pretended that a falling off in his powers had been observed, and that his faculties were declining; than which no assertion could be made more utterly groundless." Lord Plunket now withdrew from public life. He spent some time on the Continent, and on his return to Ireland settled at Old Connaught, near Bray, where he tranquilly passed the rest of his days in the midst of a large circle, by whom he was greatly beloved.

He died at Old Connaught, 4th January 1854, aged 89, and was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery. Few specimens of Lord Plunket's oratory have been preserved, mainly in consequence of his dislike to correcting proofs, or putting pen to paper. He often read his briefs or notes whilst driving into town on the morning of the day on which he had to argue or speak from them — seldom noting them — being able to trust entirely to his unfailing and accurate memory. There is a beautiful bust of Lord Plunket in the Library of Trinity College. Dr. Madden, whilst commenting severely upon his conduct at the trial of Robert Emmet, quotes the following concerning his character: "As time, however, wears on, the stains will vanish in the general brightness, and the student of the political history of Ireland will recognize in Lord Plunket one of those mighty minds that exalt a nation, whose renown is imperishably interwoven with the history and the fortunes of their country. Plunket's eloquence has long gained for itself the highest prize of fame. In a period eminent for intellectual distinction both in Ireland and in England, he vindicated to himself universal admiration. Owing nothing of his celebrity to birth, wealth, or official rank, he required none of these factitious supports to move freely in the loftiest regions of professional and parliamentary effect, dignity, and distinction."

Sources

237. Maxwell, William H., Rebellion of 1798. London, 1845.

331. United Irishmen, their Lives and Times: Robert R. Madden, M.D. 4 vols. London, 1858-'60.

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