James Caulfeild, Earl of Charlemont

Caulfeild, James, Earl of Charlemont, great-grandson of the 1st Viscount, was born in Dublin, 18th August 1728.

Delicate health obliged his being educated at home, where he early exhibited those strong literary and artistic tastes that clung to him through life.

From 1746 to 1754 he spent in continental travel—visiting places of historic interest, cultivating his taste for art, and becoming acquainted with eminent men.

Passing through Holland, he went on to Turin, where he formed a life-long intimacy with David Hume.

After a winter at Rome (where he conceived an almost filial respect for Benedict XIV.), in company with a party of friends he visited the Greek islands, Constantinople, the Levant, and Egypt.

Returning home through Spain and France, he visited the philosopher Montesquieu.

In June 1754 he returned to Ireland, in his twenty-sixth year—in the full maturity of his powers, endowed with the most refined intellectual tastes.

Foreign travel had not dimmed his love for his native land.

He was now created LL.D., appointed Governor of Armagh, and was given a seat at the Privy Council.

Ireland was at this time in a most wretched condition.

She had lost most of the ground gained by Swift and Molyneux; as Mr. Wills says, “The Irish administration had by art, influence, and the subordinate methods of intrigue, by the management of the public purse, and by the dexterous adjustment and counterpoise of factious interests, gained and preserved an uncontested ascendancy in every department.”

The mass of the people, ground to the earth by the Penal Laws, passed their lives in a condition of abject misery.

Charlemont joined the liberal party, and the first public business in which he concerned himself was an effort to effect a reconciliation between Primate Stone, the virtual governor of Ireland, and Mr. Boyle, Speaker of the House of Commons.

The quarrel was concerning the apportionment of £200,000 Irish surplus.

Charlemont apparently succeeded in his good offices, unaware that his relative, Mr. Boyle, had in truth been induced to accede to the Primate by the promise of an Earldom, and £3,000 per annum for thirty-one years.

In February 1760 Thurot occupied Carrickfergus and threatened Ulster.

Lord Charlemont hastened at once to the north, to command a contingent of the raw levies that poured in for the protection of Belfast.

We find the following in his memoirs:

“The appearance of these men, many of whom were my own tenants, was singular and formidable. They were drawn up in regular bodies, … some few with old firelocks, but the greater number armed with what is called in Scotland the Loughaber axe, a scythe fixed longitudinally to the end of a long pole, … the town was perfectly undisturbed by tumult, by riot, or even by drunkenness.”

Before long Thurot was obliged to evacuate Carrickfergus, leaving behind General Flobert and some other wounded officers and men.

Flobert, as a prisoner, was received with distinction in Dublin, and Lord Charlemont accompanied him to London.

Fellowship with the great minds in the metropolis was his highest pleasure. He was on terms of intimacy with Burke, Johnson, Hume, Goldsmith, Beauclerc, Reynolds, Hogarth, Baretti, and indeed all the members of the great Club.

At the coronation of George III. we find him vindicating the right of the Irish Peeresses to walk in the procession—a question which created no little commotion.

The liberal tendency of his mind was evinced by his seconding the proposal to permit six Catholic regiments to be raised for the service of Portugal. Government was, however, too suspicious of the Catholics to endorse such a proposition.

In the course of 1762 the tithe exactions, landlord oppression, and heavy taxes laid on the cottiers for the making and repairing of roads, culminated in serious disturbances amongst the Protestant population in the north, and led to an emigration to the American colonies, which afterwards perceptibly helped to fan the flame of American discontent.

Lord Charlemont immediately repaired to the north, and by firmness and tact materially contributed towards bringing about a more settled state of affairs.

All the force Government was then able to supply was 400 foot from Galway, and two troops of horse from Clonmel.

For his services on this occasion he was created an Earl: but Government approval did not lessen his independent attitude in Parliament.

In 1768 Lord Charlemont’s marriage to Miss Hickman, of a Clare family, added greatly to his future happiness.

Until 1768, members of the Irish House of Commons held their seats during the life of the Sovereign; and this contributed in no small degree to the corruption of Parliament.

Lord Charlemont ably seconded the introduction and passage of a Bill for octennial parliaments. The discussion thereon created excitement throughout the country, and it was thought that the Commons passed it with the lingering hope that it would be vetoed by the Privy Council in London.

Upon the success of this Bill he remarks:

“Every measure intrinsically just and good will finally be carried by virtuous and steady perseverance. In the pursuit of that which is salutary and right, let no patriot be discouraged by defeat, since, though repeated efforts may prove ineffectual, the time will come when the labours of the virtuous few will finally succeed against all the efforts of interested majorities, when a coincidence of favourable circumstances will conspire with the justice and utility of the measure, and, beyond the reach of human foresight, carry into execution even that which, by the weak and timid, was deemed most impossible.”

In 1773 his mansion in Rutland-square was finished, and thenceforward he resided in Ireland even more constantly than before.

Beauclerc, writing to him from London about this time, urging him to attend oftener the meetings of the Club, says:

“If you do not come here, I will bring all the Club over to Ireland to live with you, and that will drive you here in your own defence. Johnson shall spoil your books. Goldsmith pull your flowers, and Boswell talk to you; stay then if you can.”

Although many minor measures of parliamentary reform had been carried, it was not until the American war broke out that Ireland was enabled to assert her legislative independence.

Great Britain had then to withdraw almost all her army; and when the Mayor of Belfast solicited troops for protection against the French, he was informed that Government could do nothing, and that Ireland must rely on herself.

“Then arose,” says Mr. Lecky, “one of those movements of enthusiasm that occur two or three times in the history of a nation. The cry to arms passed through the land, and was speedily responded to by all parties and by all creeds. Beginning among the Protestants of the north, the movement soon spread, though in a less degree, to other parts of the island, and the war of religions and of castes that had so long divided the people vanished like a dream. … Though the population of Ireland was little more than half of what it is at present, 60,000 men soon assembled, disciplined and appointed as a regular army—fired by the strongest enthusiasm, and moving as a single man. They rose to defend their country alike from the invasion of a foreign army and from the encroachments of an alien legislature. Faithful to the connection between the two islands, they determined that that connection should rest upon mutual respect and upon essential equality. In the words of one of their own resolutions, ‘they knew their duty to their sovereign, and they were loyal; they knew their duty to themselves, and they were resolved to be free.’ They were guided by the chastened wisdom, the unquestioned patriotism, the ready tact of Charlemont.”[212]

In July 1780 Lord Charlemont was chosen Commander-in-chief of the Volunteers—a position he occupied during the whole period of their embodiment.

The organization and reviewing of the force occupied much of his attention.

The famous resolutions passed at the Dungannon meeting, of 15th February 1782, are said to have been drawn up at his house, and with his approval.

It scarcely belongs to this biography to relate how events now followed each other in rapid succession.

Free Trade was secured; and then, mainly by the genius of Grattan, supported by Charlemont and the Volunteers, the edifice of Ireland’s liberty was apparently crowned in 1782.

Passing over the contest between Flood and Grattan as to the necessary guarantees for Irish liberty, we come to the great event with which Charlemont was connected—the Volunteer Rotunda Convention of 10th November 1783, from which may be dated the gradual decline of the power and influence of the Volunteers.

This convention, inspired by Flood, insisted upon a reform of Parliament, by opening the close boroughs, giving votes to all Protestant forty-shilling freeholders, and to lease-holders of thirty-one years of which fifteen were unexpired, by amending rotten boroughs, excluding placemen from Parliament, ensuring purity of election, and limiting the duration of Parliament to three years.

Lord Charlemont did not enter fully into the spirit of these resolutions; he rather took the position of chairman, hoping to modify the proceedings of the Convention, and prevent the evils that might flow from the alternative of the presidency of the Bishop of Bristol.

One hundred and sixty-eight delegates from the Volunteers attended. Several days of debate ensued, and upon a night of momentous importance Flood brought forward in Parliament the Volunteer Reform Bill. Through the influence of Government it was defeated by 158 to 49—more than half the majority being placemen.

Had this Bill passed, Mr. Lecky surmises that the Catholics of Ireland would soon have been emancipated, the liberties of Ireland would have been placed on a broad basis, the blood of ’98 might never have flowed, and the Union never have been consummated.

The Volunteers had already at Dungannon shown their sentiments towards their Catholic fellow-countrymen by resolving “that as men and as Irishmen, as Christians and as Protestants, we rejoice in the relaxation of the Penal Laws.”

Upon the defeat of Flood’s Bill, Lord Charlemont adjourned the Convention, and the peaceable separation of its members furnished the most eloquent refutation of the charges of opponents.

Indeed their spirit was broken; many gatherings and reviews were held afterwards, but with gradually decreasing numbers; and Lord Charlemont adhered to the organization to the last, with the desire rather of keeping up his influence with its members than with any hope of resuscitating the movement.

Matters might have taken a widely different course had he been a less scrupulous man, of greater force of mind. Mr. Lecky remarks:

“This period was perhaps the only one in Irish history, when the connection between the two countries might have been easily dissolved, and when the dissolution would not have involved Ireland in anarchy or civil war.”

On the Regency question, in 1788, he sided with Grattan, and moved the address to the Prince of Wales requesting him to take upon himself regal power in Ireland.

He exerted himself with zeal in the formation of the Whig Club, in which Wolfe Tone at one time took part.

In 1791 he resigned the lord-lieutenancy of Armagh, in consequence of the executive having made changes in the government of the county.

Even upon a man of Lord Charlemont’s liberal principles the French Revolution began to tell, and we find him now opposing Catholic emancipation. His biographer remarks:

“His refusal of their demands was so gracious, and accompanied with such known integrity of heart, that it conciliated them more than the votes of others in their favour, preceded, as such votes were, by angry and insulting speeches.”[77]

In 1793 he had to lament the death of his second son, aged 17.

His circle now began to be sensibly narrowed, and his own health to fail.

The successes of the French arms, and the increase of the United Irishmen were causes of deep anguish.

Writing to his friend Haliday, he says:

“I need not say how ardently I have ever loved my country. In consequence of that love I have courted her; I have even married her and taken her for life; and she is now turned out a shrew-tormenting herself and all her nearest connexions.”

His popularity continued, the people feeling they might implicitly trust in his honesty and patriotism; and when ill-health obliged him and his wife to visit Bath, Dublin turned out to bid them farewell.

Literature and the arts were an unfailing source of pleasure to him in these latter years, as they had been through life.

He took much interest in the proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, which had been established in 1785. He was its first president, and its meetings were often held at his house.

At the last his mind began again to open to the justice of the Catholic claims.

If the Insurrection of 1798 caused him the bitterest mortification, the proposal for the Union may be said to have broken his heart.

Happily for his peace of mind, he passed away before the measure was accomplished, at Charlemont House, on 4th August 1799, aged almost 71.

His remains were interred in Armagh Cathedral.

He could scarcely be called a great statesman; he was not an orator, or a brilliant writer; but he was an honest man and a patriot.

He is described as having been of middle size; his figure somewhat bent. He had injured his eyes by study; his eyebrows were large and black; his features strong, and more expressive than handsome; when in conversation they lit up with great animation.

His Countess survived him about eight years. His son, the 2nd Earl, succeeded, and lived until 1863, when the honours of the family descended to his nephew, the 3rd and present Earl.


77. Charlemont, Earl of, Life: Francis Hardy. 2 vols. London, 1812.

196. Irishmen, Lives of Illustrious and Distinguished, Rev. James Wills, D.D. 6 vols. or 12 parts. Dublin, 1840–’7.

212. Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland—Swift, Flood, Grattan, and O’Connell: William E. H. Lecky. First and Second Editions. London, 1861–’71.
Lecky, William E. H., see No. 212.

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

336. Volunteers of 1782: Thomas MacNevin. Dublin, 1845.