William Saurin

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Saurin, William, an eminent lawyer, was born in the north of Ireland in 1757. His father, a Presbyterian minister, was the son of a Huguenot refugee, said to have been a relative of the celebrated French preacher of the same name. William was educated at the University of Dublin, and was called to the Bar in 1780. His progress was slow; for thirteen years he remained almost unknown; but at length, more by plodding industry and high principle than brilliant talents, he achieved success, and in 1798 was at the head of his profession in Ireland. With indignant ardour he threw himself into the agitation against the proposal for the Union. He called the Bar together, and upon his motion a resolution was passed by a large majority, protesting against the merging of the country in the imperial amalgamation. He was elected a member of the House of Commons for Blessington, and spoke twice in opposition to the measure he so deprecated — in the debate of the 5th February 1800, and more at length and effectively on the 21st of the same month.

Mr. Sheil says: "His more splendid allies rushed among the ranks of their adversaries, and dealt their sweeping invective about them; while Saurin, in an iron and somewhat rusty armour, and wielding more massive and ponderous weapons, stood like a sturdy sentinel before the gates of the constitution. Simple and elementary positions were enforced by him with a strenuous conviction of their truth. He denied the right of the legislature to alienate its sacred trust. He insisted that it would amount to a forfeiture of that estate which was derived from, and held under, the people, in whom the reversion must perpetually remain; that they were bound to consult the will of the majority of the nation, and that the will of that majority was the foundation of all law." For at least twenty-three years after the passing of the Act of Union he never set foot upon English soil. In 1807 he was appointed Attorney-General, and he may be said to have governed Ireland for fifteen years.

In the Castle cabinet he was almost supreme; his authority being the more readily submitted to, as it was exercised without being openly displayed. He instituted prosecutions against the Catholic Board; popular excitement was the result; and "reciprocal animosity was engendered out of mutual recrimination." From being one of the most popular men in Ireland, he grew to be an object of national aversion; and this was not without exercising a deteriorating influence upon his character. In 1822, on some official changes, he was offered, and in a fit of vexation refused, the place of Chief Justice of the King's Bench, whereupon he returned to his old position at the Bar. His contemporary, Sheil, already quoted, thus describes him: "His eye is black and wily, and glitters under the mass of a rugged and shaggy eyebrow. There is a certain sweetness in its glance... His forehead is thoughtful; but it is neither bold nor lofty: it is furrowed by long study and recent care... His features are broad and deeply founded:.. they are not finished with delicacy and point. .. A lover of usage, and an enemy of innovation; one who can bear adversity well, and prosperity still better: something of a republican by nature, but fashioned by circumstances into a Tory; honourable, but not chivalrous; affectionate, but not tender." Mr. Saurin married a sister of the Marquis of Thomond. He died at his residence in Stephen's-green, Dublin, 11th February 1839, aged 82.

Sources

6. Annual Biography. London, 1817-'27.

304. Sheil's, Richard Lalor, Sketches Legal and Political: Edited with Notes by M. W. Savage. 2 vols. London, 1855.

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