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Boyles, Earls of Shannon


The family descend from Richard Boyle, the ‘Great Earl’ of Cork, an entrepreneur from Canterbury who became one of the most powerful figures in Western Europe during the early 17th century. The story of Boyle’s meteoric rags to riches rise has been told many times – click here for my own account. As early as 1616, when he was still very much in his prime, the legend was circulated that when ‘not above 16 years afore, being a poore fellowe and in prison at Munster in Ireland, [Boyle] borrowed sixpence and now hath a great estate £12,000 yearly of Irish land’. His moment came when Sir Walter Raleigh declared himself bankrupt and put his Irish estates up for sale. By the 1620s, the master of Lismore Castle was one of the wealthiest men in the British Isles. He had also been elevated to the peerage as the 1st Earl of Cork, 1st Viscount Dungarvan and 1st Baron Boyle of Youghal. He became Lord High Treasurer of the Kingdom of Ireland and a Privy Councilor.

Richard Boyle established himself as effective King of Munster, successfully colonizing his vast lands with hard working English Protestants. But it was his overriding passion to be remembered as the founding father of a mighty tribe. And he was ruthless in his determination to ensure that dynastic touch. He had understood the social and economic implications of marriage ever since he secured a wealthy heiress for his first wife. As the father of fifteen children, he ensured each child was carefully groomed and educated as befitting the sons and daughters of an aristocrat. In time, five of his eight daughters married earls and five of his sons became peers in their own right. (A sixth son was Robert Boyle, the celebrated scientist and formulator of Boyle’s Law). Boyle’s obsession with his bloodline is perhaps best symbolized by the five elaborate funerary monuments he built to his ever-lasting memory while he was still very much alive. By the 1750s, the Great Earl’s progeny were the leading lights of the Georgian Age, including the 3rd Earl of Burlington (‘The Apollo of the Arts’), the 5th Earl of Cork (a friend of Pope and Swift) and the 1st Earl of Shannon.

Despite the Great Earl’s dreams, only one branch of his descendents had any major impact on the running of Ireland after his death. That was the line of his grandson, Colonel Henry Boyle, who was killed in action in 1693 while serving with Marlborough in Flanders.[i] Following the Colonel’s death, his 11-year-old son Henry became head of this branch. This boy went on to become the 1st Earl of Shannon and, as a highly accomplished politician, established the Castlemartyr Boyles as arguably the most powerful family in Munster during the 18th century.

Henry was 23 when he first entered the Irish Parliament as MP for Middleton, Co Cork (1707-11). He was subsequently MP for Kilmallock, Co Limerick (1713-1715) and for Co Cork from 1715 until elevation to peerage as Earl of Shannon in 1756. In 1726, he married a sister of his distant kinsman, the fantastically wealthy Earl of Burlington. As Lord Burlington had no male heirs, Henry must have had a reasonable expectation that his wife would inherit a substantial portion of the Burlington fortunes. But it was not to be.

By the time Parliament House opened on Dublin’s College Green in the 1730s, Henry Boyle was one of the most powerful politicians in Ireland. He was the unopposed Speaker (aka Ceann Comhairle) of the Irish House of Commons for nearly quarter of a century (1733-56). As such, it was his job to ensure any government-sponsored legislation secured a safe and speedy passage through the Commons. However, in 1753, he spear-headed opposition to the government-backed Money Bill which proposed the appropriation of a rare surplus in the Irish Treasury by Westminster. He was also three times Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer, an influential Commissioner of the Revenue and a Lord Justice of Ireland for nineteen years.[ii]

His political power-base was much boosted by the support of his absentee cousin and brother-in-law, Lord Burlington, who assured him he could ‘look upon as your own’ the electoral interest of Burlington’s vast estates in Cork and Waterford, including the boroughs of Bandon, Clonakilty, Youghal, Dungarvan, Lismore and Tallow. However, by 1738, Burlington had run up debts of some £280,000 on his architectural and artistic pursuits. In order to pay off these debts, he began to sell off some of these safe seats (or rotten boroughs). Speaker Boyle rather reluctantly purchased the Clonakilty borough (and Clonakilty estate) which henceforth made him the most powerful man in Munster. And as the Munster Interest in the House of Commons grew, he became one of the most powerful men in Ireland.

In 1756, Boyle stepped down as Speaker and was rewarded with the Earldom of Shannon and an unprecedentedly generous 31-year pension of £2,000 a year in recognition of his long service. [For the reason why he stepped down, section on the Ponsonbys, Earls of Bessborough]. By then, none of the Cork seats were as secure as they had been in the 1730s and 1740s as more and more influential local gentlemen came in to vie for power. But the Boyle family continued to dominate local politics. Lord Shannon’s son Captain Boyle Walsingham was elected MP for Dungarvan in 1758 while a cousin, Bellingham Boyle, who served as MP for Bandon for 29 years, became MP for Youghal in 1761. But relatives could also be embarrassing; both these men ran up colossal debts which Lord Shannon was obliged to pay off. [iii] Lord Shannon continued to be vital and politically active in the Lords until death in 1764.

When the 1st Earl of Shannon died in 1764, he was succeeded by his eldest son, Richard Boyle, nicknamed ‘the Colossus of Castlemartyr’ and one of Ireland’s foremost Hanoverian supporters. Educated at Trinity College, Richard stood for election the moment he came of age, winning a seat as MP for Dungarvan in 1749. The death of George II in 1760 prompted a general election in which Richard was elected MP for Co Cork. Three years later he married Speaker Ponsonby’s daughter and the following years he succeeded as 2nd Earl.
The long political apprenticeship under his father stood the 2nd Earl in good stead. He was not so prominent a politician as his father but his formidable influence at constituency level made him a force that every administration had to keep onside. He was also financially solvent as he inherited his father’s annual pension of £2,000 (which lasted until 1787).
Always adaptable, the 2nd Earl was at the centre of Irish politics, serving as a privy councilor of Ireland for close on 40 years, and became one of the financial gurus of Grattan’s Parliament. He was First Lord of the Treasury from 1793-1804.[iv] He also led the opposition to the Dublin Castle administration from 1790-1794.
The 2nd Earl was a borough-monger, meaning he owned a number of safe seats. In fact, he was probably the largest-scale borough-monger of his time. Huge amounts of money could be made selling boroughs but the 2nd Earl preferred to use these seats as a means to force the government’s hand.[v]
He threw his whole-hearted support behind the Act of Union, knowing it would reduce his own power base significantly. (Six of his ‘safe seats’ were eliminated). As the Act did not unite the British and Irish Treasuries, he remained First Lord until the spring of 1804 when he threw his lot in with the in-coming Pitt ministry and resigned. His reward was an annual pension of £3,000 a year.

In 1763, the 2nd Earl of Shannon married Catherine, daughter of John Ponsonby, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. This was one of the most remarkable weddings of the age for it united two powerful dynasties who had been bitter rivals for several decades.

Upon his death in 1807, the 2nd Earl was succeeded by his son Henry who had been MP for Cork County for the previous decade, during which time the Parliament had moved from Dublin to Westminster. His sister Catherine was married to the Earl of Bandon (MP for some 12 years). In the election of 1806, the 3rd Earl was elected alongside George Ponsonby for the Whig faction headed up by future prime minister, Charles Grey. From 1806-1822 he held the valuable sinecure office of Clerk of the Pells. The sign of the times came in 1832 when Richard Boyle, the 3rd Earl’s son and heir, lost the Cork seat to a leader of the Chartist movement, and Garrett Standish Barry, the first Roman Catholic elected to Parliament following the Catholic Relief Act 1829.

[i] Colonel Boyle was a son of the Great Earl’s third son, Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery.
[ii] He was Speaker from 1733-1756. He was Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer (albeit a mere sinecure at the time) from 1733-5, 1739-54 and 1755-57. He was Commissioner of the Revenue from 1735-39. And he was a Lord Justice of Ireland 19 times between 1734 and 1764.

[iii] Captain Robert Boyle Walsingham, RN, MP for Dungarvan (1758-60) ran into debts bailing out his son Richard, a chronic gambler who drowned in 1779 when the Thunderer, man-of-war, of which he was commander, was caught in a hurricane in the West Indies. Dungarvan was one of their safe seats.
Bellingham Boyle of Rathfarnham, MP for Bandon (1731-60) and Youghal (1761-8) also ran up dreadful debts.
[iv] The First Lord has been described as a high-sounding but really not very important role. The 2nd Earl supported the idea of a tax on the rental incomes of absentee landlords.
[v] See George Bunbury, MP for Gowran.

See: Lord Shannon’s letters to his son: A calendar of the letters written by the 2nd Earl of Shannon to his son, Viscount Boyle, 1790-1802 (PRONI, 1982).