John FitzGibbon, Earl of Clare

FitzGibbon, John, Earl of Clare, was born near Donnybrook, in 1749. His father, a lawyer, originally was a Catholic, who had risen from obscurity to eminence, and amassed a large fortune.

Young FitzGibbon, of a haughty and imperious temperament, received his early education under Mr. Ball in Ship-street. He was distinguished as an apt scholar, totally devoid of fancy or taste. Among his school-fellows were Foster, Boyd, and Grattan.

FitzGibbon obtained his degree of B.A. from the University of Dublin in 1762, and that of LL.D. in 1765.

He also took a degree at Oxford, and then entered as a student at the Temple.

He was called to the Irish Bar, 19th June 1772, in his twenty-third year, and being a well-read and accomplished lawyer, his progress was rapid.

The first year his fees were £343. By 1788 they had risen to £7,980 per annum. Altogether, between June 1772, and June 1798, he received £45,912.

He joined the Munster circuit, where his father's reputation as a careful and painstaking lawyer, and his owning large estates near Limerick, gave him a status.

Amongst those who rode circuit with him were Barry Yelverton and Curran.

“Of slender figure, not very robust health, and rather delicate features, he had the haughty air, the imperious glance, the despotic will of a Roman emperor. He was an able and ready advocate, exceedingly painstaking, always master of his case, and these qualifications ensured him abundance of briefs.”

His personal appearance is also described by Barrington:

“He was about the middle size; slight, and not graceful; his eyes—large, dark, and penetrating—betrayed some of the boldest traits of his uncommon character; his countenance, though expressive and manly, yet discovered nothing which could deceive the physiognomist into an opinion of his magnanimity, or call forth an eulogium on his virtues.”

Ambitious and desirous of distinction, a large allowance from his father did not lessen his eagerness for practice.

The success of his advocacy on the University election petition of 1778, led to his election for the University of Dublin in 1780, his coadjutor being Hussey Burgh.

When requested by the electors to support Grattan's Petition of Rights, he wrote:

“I have always been of opinion that the claim of the British Parliament to make laws for this country is a daring usurpation on the rights of a free people, and have uniformly asserted the opinion in public and in private.”

We are told that “FitzGibbon's oratory, though inferior to that of many of his great cotemporaries—Grattan, Hussey Burgh, Yelverton, or Flood—was of no mean order. … It was bold, rapid, and forcible—ministering always to his wants, and rescuing him from difficulties by its quick and apposite application. He had the power of awakening attention and infusing animation into the dull and flagging debate. When carelessness or absence of interest rendered the proceedings of the House stupid, he rushed forward, and by a sharp stroke of personal invective, or a vigorous attack upon the opposition generally, elicited the applause of his own party, or provoked the indignation of his adversaries, so that the strife was again renewed, and sparks of a divine eloquence were generated in the collision.”

In 1783 he succeeded Yelverton as Attorney-General.

Grattan approved of this appointment, although many of his colleagues feared FitzGibbon—amongst the rest, Mr. Daly, who declared:

“You are quite mistaken; that little fellow will deceive you all.”

Before long he joined the Government side—in March 1784, opposing Flood's Reform Bill in a speech of singular power and acuteness, in which he bitterly denounced the action of the Volunteers.

He was now found upon all occasions—especially upon the questions of Reform and Emancipation—in opposition to the popular party.

Writers are much divided as to whether his course was prompted by ambition or by sincere conviction.

From whatever motives, however, he bent his great powers and stern will implacably against Irish self-government, and supported English supremacy in all matters.

Unlike many politicians, he is said to have carried his public resentments into private intercourse, and is often represented as a man rather to be feared than loved.

The influence he before long exercised was enormous; his will became the pivot upon which the movements of the Government party turned, and he ruled in every department of Irish affairs with irresistible sway.

He recommended himself to the King and Government by preventing the holding of a national conference in Dublin—threatening to attach the Sheriff, who had agreed to preside. His action was brought before Parliament, and in the course of the ensuing debate he styled Curran “a puny babbler.” Curran retorted:

“I am not a man who denied the necessity of parliamentary reform at a time when I proved the expediency of it by reviling my own constituents—the parish clerk, the sexton, and the grave-digger.”

On the Regency question in 1788 FitzGibbon sided unreservedly with Pitt, proving the sincerity of his convictions by voting with the party that desired to limit the prerogatives of a probable king de facto.

In the course of the debate FitzGibbon declared that it was Ireland's duty on all such questions implicitly to follow the leadings of the Parliament of Great Britain, and that a contrary course would inevitably lead to a union.

The King's recovery the following spring put an end to the discussion of the question, and Government dismissed from place all the members who had voted on the popular side.

Grattan and his party protested against this course in a famous document, signed by fifty-six noblemen and members of the House of Commons, binding themselves not to accept the place of any person so dismissed, and FitzGibbon violently declared that those who signed were worthy of “being whipped at a cart's tail,” and that it was a combination beneath that of journeymen pin-makers.

During a debate in August 1789, on a question at issue between Great Britain and Ireland, he said:

“If Ireland seeks to quarrel with Great Britain, she is a besotted nation. Great Britain is not easily aroused, nor easily appeased. Ireland is easily roused, and easily put down.”

For this he was called to order by Flood, who said “he never heard more mischievous or more inflammatory language, nor more saucy folly.”

Curran followed with a violent diatribe against FitzGibbon, and a duel ensued between them at Ball's Bridge.

While the sheriff's officer was held down in a ditch, they fought, and after harmless shots on both sides FitzGibbon declared himself satisfied; according to Lord Plunket, “Curran and FitzGibbon fought, but unluckily they missed each other.”

After FitzGibbon became Chancellor, he is said to have carried his animosity against Curran to the extent of making it all but impossible for him to hold a brief in Chancery.

Curran was wont to declare that the Chancellor's hatred had been a loss of fully £30,000 in his practice.

It was mainly through his influence that an efficient Police Bill was passed for Ireland, establishing a force of 3,000 sub-constables and 520 chief-constables.

The system of county chairmen was also inaugurated by him.

In 1789, on the death of Lord Lifford, FitzGibbon was created Lord-Chancellor of Ireland, Baron FitzGibbon of Lower Connello.

It had not theretofore been customary to give the office to an Irishman; and it is said that Pitt could not have overcome Lord Thurlow's objection to the appointment, but for the influence of the beautiful Dowager Duchess of Rutland, of whom FitzGibbon had at one time been an ardent admirer.

His advancement in the peerage was rapid.

In 1793 he was created a viscount; in 1795, Earl of Clare; and in 1799 a British peer.

He opposed the Catholic Relief Bill of 1793 and other kindred measures.

Dreading the march of “French principles,” he held that the only hope of maintaining the integrity of the British Empire lay in the union of Great Britain and Ireland, and therefore bitterly opposed all projects for reform in any way likely to interfere with the carrying of that measure.

Mr. Lecky writes:

“There appears indeed to be little question that during the later years of the ministry of Pitt, it was the firm resolution of the Government not only to resist the attempts to purify the Parliament, but also steadily and deliberately to increase its corruption. FitzGibbon, afterwards Lord Clare, was the chief agent in attaining this end. His avowed political maxim was that ‘the only security for national concurrence is a permanent and commanding influence of the English executive, or rather English cabinet, in the councils of Ireland,’ and for many years before the Union, the Government was continually multiplying places, in order to increase that influence.”

He opposed Lord Fitzwilliam's policy in 1795, and advised his recall; and on the entry of Lord Camden, his house would have been broken into, and he would have been sacrificed to the fury of the mob, but for the fortitude of his sister, Lady Jeffries, of Blarney Castle, who mixed with the crowd and led them to seek him elsewhere.

His conduct during the Insurrection of 1798 has been thus eulogized:

“Nor was it long before he had reason to perceive that his measures produced the desired effect. The disaffected were everywhere panic-stricken; the invading force became prisoners of war.”

As Chancellor of the University of Dublin, he effectually prevented the spread of revolutionary sentiments amongst the students; and caused the expulsion of Robert Emmet and others known to be disloyal.

Moore gives a vivid account of the visitation that was held, of the “awfulness” of the Chancellor's presence, and the difficulty with which he himself pulled through without implicating his friends.

FitzGibbon's personal character should be relieved of much of the odium attaching to it by his considerate conduct towards Lord Edward FitzGerald.

Before the Insurrection broke out he besought Lord Edward's friends to induce him to leave the country, assuring them that all his plans were known, and that he would guarantee his escape if he departed immediately.

And afterwards, when Lord Edward lay dying of his wounds in Newgate, Dublin, the Chancellor himself accompanied his brother and aunt to his death bed, and waited for three hours in an outer apartment during the interview.

Lord Clare's position upon the Bench enabled him to counteract and overcome the anti-Union sentiments of the Irish Bar.

When the measure was first discussed at a meeting of lawyers, it was opposed by 166 voices and advocated by only 32.

He managed matters so as effectually to silence the opponents of the measure, and to reward the minority with places or pensions.

In the final debate upon the Union, Lord Clare delivered an able speech, stigmatized in Grattan's Life as “distressing to hear, and delivered with discreditable purpose, full of mis-statement, misrepresentation, and calumny.”

On the other hand, Cornwallis, writing to the Duke of Portland, says:

“The Chancellor exerted his great abilities in a speech of four hours, which produced the greatest surprise and effect on the Lords, and on the audience, which was uncommonly numerous.”

Lord Clare opposed Cornwallis's desire that the Act of Union should include emancipation of the Catholics, and he was kept in ignorance of the secret negotiations between the Irish Government and the Catholics, by which Catholic neutrality upon the question was secured through hopes held out of immediate measures of relief.

This reticence on the part of his colleagues afterwards aroused his most lively indignation—none the less that the hopes held out to the Catholics were not realized.

The Union accomplished, Lord Clare set himself vigorously to work to remove many of the abuses in his court.

The sale of offices was put an end to, and the post of Master of the Rolls established on a more satisfactory footing.

Upon taking his seat in the Imperial House of Lords, we are told that his irritable and overbearing disposition, his opposition to all liberal views, his support of martial law, and his tendency upon all occasions to depreciate Ireland and Irishmen, rather disgusted his English auditors, and embarrassed a government anxious in words at least to conciliate the Catholics.

In private life his friendships were as fixed and sincere as were his public enmities; in money matters he was strict and punctual; his hospitality was liberal and splendid; his application to business was incessant.

“He did much to establish equity practice in Ireland on a solid basis; he reformed abuses with no niggardhand,and purged the court of much that called for reform. Fraud fled before him, for when grasped he punished it with relentless rigour. … His decisions display his great legal mind and, I must add, despotic disposition.”

One of the last public matters in which he interested himself, shortly before, his death, was assisting Mrs. Hamilton Rowan to save her husband's property, and to obtain leave to join him on the Continent.

Lord Clare died at his mansion in Dublin, after a brief illness, 28th January 1802, aged 53, and was buried in St. Peter's churchyard.

Eloquent encomiums upon his services to Ireland are to be found in Mr. Froude's English in Ireland. One remarkable passage must not be omitted:

“Grattan has been beatified by tradition as the saviour of his country. In his own land his memory is adored. … FitzGibbon is the object of a no less intense national execration. He was followed to his grave with curses, and dead cats were flung upon his coffin. If undaunted courage, if the power to recognize and the will to act upon unpalatable truths, if the steady preference of fact to falsehood, if a resolution to oppose at all hazards those wild illusions which have lain at all times at the root of Ireland's unhappiness, be the constituents of greatness in an Irish statesman, Grattan and FitzGibbon are likely hereafter to change places in the final estimate of history.”

Cornwallis, although often obliged to differ from Lord Clare, styles him “the most right-headed politician in this country.”

The death of Viscount FitzGibbon, Lord Clare's grandson, in the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, brought his lineage to an end.


21. Barrington, Sir Jonah, Historic Memoirs of Ireland. 2 vols. London, 1835.

22. Barrington, Sir Jonah, Personal Sketches of his own Time: Townsend Young, LL.D. 2 vols. London, 1869.

54. Burke, Sir Bernard: Peerage and Baronetage.

72. Castlereagh, Viscount: Memoirs and Correspondence, edited by the Marquis of Londonderry. 12 vols. London, 1848-'53.

76. Chancellors of Ireland, and Keepers of the Great Seal: J. Roderick O'Flaherty. 2 vols. London, 1870.

87. Cornwallis, Marquis, Correspondence: Charles Ross. 3 vols. London, 1859.
Cotton, Rev. Henry, see No. 118.