Burgh, Walter Hussey (1742–83), politician and lawyer, was born 23 August 1742, the only son of Ignatius Hussey (d. 1743), barrister, of Donore, Co. Kildare, and his second wife, Elizabeth (1705–57), daughter of Thomas Burgh (1670–1730) of Oldtown, Co. Kildare, surveyor general of Ireland and MP for Naas, Co. Kildare (1713–30). After attending the Rev. Lewis Young's school in Abbey Street, Dublin, he entered TCD (1758) and graduated BA (1762). At university he excelled in the classics and wrote some poetry; several of his poems later appeared in Hercules Ellis's Songs of Ireland (1849). On inheriting part of the estate of Dromkeen, Co. Limerick, from his maternal cousin Richard Burgh in 1762, he adopted the additional name of Burgh. He was called to the bar (1769), and soon enjoyed considerable success. In November he became MP for the duke of Leinster's (qv) borough of Athy, Co. Kildare (1769–76), having married a distant relation of the duke. From the beginning he was a fierce critic of the corruption of the Irish parliament and dubbed its pro-government majority ‘the janissaries of despotism’ (O'Flanagan, 39). He voted in favour of catholic relief, supported the struggle of the American colonists, and was an active member of the Society of Granby Row and of the Monks of the Screw, debating societies known for their reform sympathies and generous conviviality. One government observer thought him ‘a very able ingenious speaker in parliament’ (Hunt, 28); another, however, considered him ‘dazzled with the lustre of his own excellencies . . . a fine talking lawyer, but very superficial and of no judgement’ (Bodkin, 195).
In 1776 he became MP for the prestigious open constituency of Dublin University (1776–82); before his election he refused to promise that he would never take office, but promised that he would never be corrupted in office. On 24 July 1777 he was appointed prime serjeant. True to his pledge, his appointment did not greatly affect his political independence: at times he supported the government but he continued to be closely identified with the Patriot party and to agitate for catholic relief and the removal of restrictions on Irish commerce. Called ‘the Cicero of the senate’ (Grattan, i, 404), he was one of the finest parliamentary orators of his day and had the gift of accurately gauging the mood of the house and framing questions or motions that encapsulated its opinion. William Conyngham Plunket (qv) claimed that ‘no modern speaker approached him in power of stirring the passions’ (O'Flanagan, 39). Strongly resenting the inadequacy of the government's commercial bill of 1778 to ease restrictions on Irish trade, Burgh deserted the government in 1779 and with Grattan moved the resolution for the immediate granting of ‘free trade’ to Ireland. When the government showed no signs of making concessions, he made some thinly veiled threats that the recently formed Volunteers might intervene. In a memorable speech (25 November 1779) he claimed that Ireland was in a state of ‘smothered war. England has sown her laws like dragons’ teeth, and they have sprung up in armed men’ (Grattan, i, 405) – an image that electrified the house of commons and reverberated around Dublin. Some months later he resigned as prime serjeant (July 1780). Active in the campaign for legislative independence, he assisted the Portland administration (April–September 1782) in its efforts to establish an Irish whig party based around the Ponsonby interest. In May 1782 he was reappointed prime serjeant and resisted Flood's efforts to extend the scope of legislative independence. Never really at ease as a government spokesman, on 1 June 1782 he again resigned as prime serjeant and was appointed chief baron of the exchequer on 11 July. The failure of the government to grant him a peerage largely accounts for his half-hearted support of the administration thereafter.
He was a popular figure at the bar, in parliament, and among the people at large. Edmund Burke (qv) described him as ‘one of the most ingenious and one of the most amiable men that ever graced yours or any house of parliament’ (Burke corr., 220n). A member of the Dublin Society from 1769, he had a strong interest in Irish antiquarianism and subscribed to the belief, popular among Patriots, of a pre-Norman golden age in Irish history. He resided in Dublin at Kildare St. and Dominic St., and at Donore, Co. Kildare. Renowned for his extravagance, he undertook extensive rebuilding at Donore and often drove to court with six horses and three outriders. Although possessed of a good professional income and a large estate, he found himself in financial difficulties towards the end of his life. He died 29 September 1783 in Armagh from a severe cold caught while on circuit, and was buried alongside his wife in the cemetery of St Peter's church, Dublin. On his death Henry Flood (qv) declared that ‘he did not live to be ennobled by patent; he was ennobled by nature’ (Grattan, i, 407). His portrait, by Hugh Douglas Hamilton (qv) is held in the NGI.
He married (4 July 1767) Anne Burgh (d. 1782), daughter of Thomas Burgh (1696–1758) of Bert, Co. Kildare; they had one son and four daughters; the United Irishman William Dowdall (qv) was his natural son. After Burgh's death, Grattan and Yelverton successfully proposed that parliament should vote £2,000 a year for the support of his family.