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Henry Grattan’s Failure

Henry Grattan

A review of Danny Mansergh’s book, “Grattan’s Failure: Parliamentary Opposition and the People in Ireland, 1779-1800” (2005, Irish Academic Press), published by Magill in August 2005.


Grattan’s Failure” was Danny Mansergh’s provocative 2005 challenge to the accepted view of the great Irish Whig as the kindly Garret FitzGerald of Georgian Ireland. His intricately argued thesis concentrates on the period from 1782 to 1800, known to 19th century constitutional nationalists as “Grattan’s Parliament”. Mansergh launched a direct offensive that illuminates the darker side of Henry Grattan. Over the course of eight chapters, he depicts a sly opportunist whose radical ideology, virulent rhetoric and invisible wire-pulling propelled Ireland into the bloody chaos of 1798.

No government ever dismayed him. The world could not bribe him. He thought only of Ireland; lived for no other object; dedicated to her his beautiful fancy, his elegant wit, his manly courage, and all the splendour of his astonishing eloquence.”

So gushed Sidney Smith shortly after Grattan’s demise in 1820.

Mansergh believes previous biographers have given Grattan a “boringly milk-white posthumous reputation” because they have been too willing to follow the sanitised versions as written by Smith and other Grattanite disciples. Such chroniclers fail to see that Grattan’s perpetual calls for “the People of Ireland” to take control of their Destiny was every bit as revolutionary as anything the French ever said. On 12th October 1779 Grattan stood before his fellow MPs at College Green and effectively invited the common people of Ireland to become actively involved in a campaign to force Westminster to grant Ireland the long sought Free Trade. His political colleagues were horrified by the suggestion. “The people of Ireland? Why bring them into it?”

Grattan’s appeal coincided with an economic recession and the mobilisation of the Irish Volunteers under the militant Napper Tandy and the Duke of Leinster. As mob violence turned into a threat of total anarchy, Westminster climbed down and Free Trade was granted, albeit with certain limitations. Grattan – or his biographers – took pains to make sure he was subsequently regarded as the progenitor of Victory. With the blood up, Grattan again appealed to the “Energies of the People” to force the Government’s hand to repeal Poyning’s Law in 1782. “If Ireland puts forth her voice and insists upon Liberty, she will have Liberty”, he counselled. As the Volunteers mobilised once again – over 100,00 of them – Westminster again kow-towed to popular pressure. And Grattan was again swift to wax the ears of his admirers to ensure his name be enshrined as the Father of the 1782 Constitution. However, Mansergh suggests that legislative independence was in fact inevitable, irrespective of Grattan’s involvement.

A description of Henry Grattan’s statue on College Green, Dublin, from 1898.

In public, Grattan cast himself as an opponent of war and rebellion; to play any other card during the era of the French Revolution would have been treasonable. However, Mansergh’s thesis heats up considerably when he identifies Grattan as one of the major players operating behind the scenes of the United Irishmen, at least in the early years of that ill-fated band of brothers. In one particularly memorable passage, he tells of how the young Wolfe Tone visited Grattan with the “flourishing manifesto” he had penned for the Catholic Convention. The veteran statesman “tore up three quarters of it and dictated several new passages to the frantically scribbling United Irishman”.

As Ireland lumbered towards the inevitable bloodbath of 1798, so we are reminded of Grattan’s appeals to “the People” to exert an influence on parliamentary politics. Perhaps he was genuinely guided by compassion but Mansergh prefers a more sinister motive in Grattan’s obsession to preserve “his” Constitution at whatever cost. Old allies are routinely cast aside when their purpose is served – Frances Dobbs (the true architect of 1782) for espousing his embarrassing messianic convictions, Napper Tandy for appearing cowardly in the face of a duel. But ultimately it was Grattan himself who sowed the seeds of his Constitutions demise. For when “the People” finally rose to exert themselves in 1798, Grattan’s Parliament’s self-combusted with the 1800 Act of Union and total control passed to Westminster.

This is an intriguing, often convincing reappraisal of a profoundly ambitious man whose role in Irish affairs has been underestimated for too long. This is by no means a biography but rather a comprehensive academic thesis on Grattan’s ideology and political practice. His long-suffering wife Henrietta is mentioned just twice in the whole book. Grattan’s age is never stated; he was 36 when he “sired” the 1782 Constitution. There is a like absence of background to any of the players involved – the Viceroys, the Politicians, the Rebels. But there can be little doubt that Mansergh’s book will pave the way for an all-new debate about the greatest Patriot of the 18th century.