FitzGibbon, John (1748–1802), 1st earl of Clare , lawyer and politician, was born in Donnybrook, Co. Dublin, one of seven children of John Fitzgibbon (qv), a barrister and MP who had converted from catholicism, and his wife Elinor, daughter of John Grove of Ballyhemock, Co. Cork. His three elder brothers died young, but his three sisters survived: Arabella (qv) married John Jeffereyes of Blarney Castle, Co. Cork; Elizabeth married William Beresford (qv), bishop of Ossory (1782–94); and Elinor married Dominick Trant (qv), a barrister and MP from Co. Kerry. After attending Thomas Ball's school in Dublin, FitzGibbon entered TCD on 6 June 1763, graduating BA (1767). He then attended the Middle Temple and two years later entered Christ Church, Oxford. In 1772 he was called to the bar at the King's Inns, Dublin, and quickly built up a successful practice and a reputation as a skilled and forceful lawyer.
Early career, 1778–83 FitzGibbon was elected MP for TCD (1778–83) and came to prominence in parliament as an effective if rather abrasive speaker. Initially he was identified with the Patriot opposition, and opposed the first major catholic relief bill of 1778, but was persuaded by his influential in-law John Beresford (qv) to support the government. From late 1779 he opposed most Patriot initiatives, including Henry Grattan's declaration of the legislative autonomy of the Irish parliament. He distinguished himself with his opposition to the tenantry bill (1780), which was aimed at rescuing holders of perpetual leases who had failed to renew their contracts. FitzGibbon – for whom the sanctity of property was an article of faith – strongly maintained that the bill violated property rights and the integrity of contracts. Because of his father's tuition he had an almost unrivalled knowledge of the law, especially of property law, and boasted that he had never read anything other than law books since being called to the bar. Although he was said to have inherited ‘near £5,000 pa.’ from his father, he continued his extensive legal practice during the 1780s.
FitzGibbon formed a close friendship and a good working relationship with William Eden (qv), chief secretary (1780–82), who became one of his most regular correspondents. Like Eden he regarded himself as a ‘man of business’, whose allegiance was to the crown and through it to the king's representative of the day. His dominant principle was the security of the British connection and with ruthless logic he measured every major political event against this yardstick. He supported the government-sponsored catholic relief bill of 1782 which allowed catholics to buy land, but even then expressed some reservations about the possibility of catholic gentry acquiring political influence. With the fall of Lord North's ministry in March 1782 and the dismissal of Eden, FitzGibbon went into opposition and supported the granting of legislative independence in May–June 1782 primarily to embarrass the new Portland (qv) administration.
Attorney general, 1783–9 In 1783 he lost his seat at TCD and failed to be elected for Co. Limerick. He settled for a seat in the pocket borough of Kilmallock, Co. Limerick, owned by a client. After the accession of the Fox–North coalition in June 1783, the new lord lieutenant Lord Northington (qv) turned to the promising and well-connected FitzGibbon and designated him to succeed Barry Yelverton (qv) as attorney-general, which he did in December 1783. His accession to senior office reinforced FitzGibbon's conservative instincts, and he came to regard the legislative independence of the Irish parliament as an unstable and anomalous settlement that required careful handling. He was willing to concede the ‘internal reforms’ demanded by the opposition by granting place, pension, and responsibility bills, but was resolutely opposed to broadening the parliamentary franchise or granting political rights to catholics. FitzGibbon believed that politics was the exclusive business of the propertied and protestant elite; he had a markedly pessimistic view of the mass of humanity and was convinced that the only alternative to rule by a superior governing caste was anarchy. Viewing with particular concern the campaign for a reform of parliament pursued by radical Volunteers disappointed by the scope of the 1782 settlement, he vigorously opposed the Volunteer convention's reform bill of March 1784 as an attempt by an armed assembly to dictate to parliament, and initiated legal proceedings in an attempt to prevent the meeting of a reform congress in Dublin the following September. His unremitting opposition to the reform movement contributed to its speedy collapse.
A key figure in the administration, FitzGibbon was closely consulted by the new chief secretary, Thomas Orde (qv), particularly over the commercial propositions of 1785, which were intended to rationalise the laws governing trade between Britain and Ireland. The propositions were strongly opposed by the Patriot opposition. In response to a brilliant speech by Henry Grattan (qv) asserting Ireland's legislative and economic independence FitzGibbon remarked (with the ruthless realism and caustic humour which was often at the root of the animosity he inspired) that this splendid oration was small consolation for poverty. FitzGibbon regarded Grattan as a windbag – a deliverer of splendid speeches lacking in practical substance – and believed his profession of high principles was a smokescreen for vanity and self-interest. After the government abandoned the propositions in the face of strong opposition, FitzGibbon lamented Orde's deficiencies in managing parliament and put the government's defeat down to his parsimonious use of patronage, maintaining that ‘there never was an opposition in this country of which so many members were anxious to be bought, and who might be bought on cheaper terms’. Contempt for jobbery and place-hunting helped mould his cynical attitude towards his fellow parliamentarians.
By the mid 1780s FitzGibbon's relations with former Patriot colleagues were deeply acrimonious. Scorning popularity himself, he accused opposition MPs of craving public approval. After a bitter exchange in the commons, in August 1785 FitzGibbon fought a duel with the Patriot John Philpot Curran (qv). After Curran had fired, FitzGibbon aimed his pistol at him for thirty seconds before firing – an act of cold-bloodedness that was widely regarded as dishonourable. Neither man was wounded but, never one to forgive and forget, FitzGibbon used his influence to pursue a vendetta against Curran, blocking his professional progress whenever possible. Vindictiveness was one of FitzGibbon's most pronounced traits and those who crossed him in law or politics earned his undying enmity.
In 1786 FitzGibbon came under sustained attack from Patriots as an agent of ministerial despotism when he successfully secured the passage of the Dublin Police Act which established the capital's first police force. He was also troubled by the growth of the Whiteboy and Rightboy agrarian disturbances in Munster in the mid 1780s, particularly by the fact that the protests received support from some protestant gentry. Among these was his sister, the unpredictable Arabella Jeffereyes, who championed the Rightboys and allowed them to meet on her estate. FitzGibbon found his sister's actions deeply embarrassing and after a squabble over family property in the 1790s denounced and disinherited her in his will. FitzGibbon himself was a good landlord and criticised those who neglected their tenants and entrusted the management of their estates to agents and middlemen. However his sympathy for the plight of the catholic peasantry took second place to his belief in the sanctity of property and the security of the state. To curb these protests, FitzGibbon sought to have the provisions of the Dublin Police Act extended throughout Ireland, but received little support from rural gentry. In February 1787 he introduced a draconian bill that made Whiteboy activity a capital offence and included a clause advocating the destruction of catholic chapels used for Whiteboy meetings; this provoked considerable outrage and FitzGibbon was forced reluctantly to agree to the clauses’ removal, but managed to have the rest of the bill passed intact.
In late 1788 the relative calm of parliamentary politics was disrupted by the illness of George III and the efforts of opposition whigs in Britain and Ireland to have the prince of Wales declared regent. While the British parliament hesitated, the Irish parliament voted in February 1789 to ask the prince to assume the regency of Ireland. Several leading figures deserted the administration in the hope of future preferment, but FitzGibbon stood firm, and led the government forces almost single-handedly. During the crisis, he warned the opposition of the serious legal and constitutional difficulties which could be caused by appointing a regent for Ireland without reference to events in Britain. In a speech to the commons he advised MPs that ‘the only security by which they hold their property, the only security they have for the present constitution in church and state, is the connexion of the Irish crown with, and its dependence upon the crown of England . . . when we speak of the people of Ireland, it is a melancholy truth that we do not speak of the great body of the people . . . the ancient nobility of this kingdom have been hardly treated. The act by which most of us hold our estates was an act of violence – an act subverting the first principles of the common law in England and Ireland. . . . So I trust gentlemen . . . will deem it worthy of consideration how far it may be prudent to pursue the successive claims of dignified and unequivocal independence made for Ireland’ (Parliamentary Register, ix, 130). The king's recovery in March 1789 defused the crisis but FitzGibbon's steadiness and loyalty had greatly enhanced his stature with the government.
Lord chancellor, 1789–95 Lord Chancellor Lifford (James Hewitt (qv)), who had been ailing for some years, died on 28 April 1789. Despite the British government's traditional reluctance to appoint an Irishman, FitzGibbon was appointed on 20 June 1789 with the title of Baron FitzGibbon of Lower Connello. It was an appointment that reflected both his abilities and his steadfast support of the administration during the regency crisis. As the first Irishman to be appointed since 1725, he was a popular choice, and afterwards he and his wife, the celebrated beauty, Anne Whaley (d. 1844; daughter of Richard ‘Burn-Chapel’ Whaley (qv), a notoriously anti-catholic Wicklow gentleman) whom he married in 1786, embarked upon a regal lifestyle of dinners, balls, and progressions. His principal residence was Mount Shannon, Co. Limerick; he rented the Mount Merrion estate, Dublin (1786–93) and afterwards lived at 6 Ely Place, Dublin, and Blackrock House, Co. Dublin. A man of prodigious energy, FitzGibbon managed to carry a vast workload, while living a dissolute private life. His fondness for the bottle and casual sexual affairs were well known, and he was often portrayed by detractors as a callous, drunken libertine whose personal vices mirrored his political corruption. His wife, too, was said to have had many lovers, but this appears not to have greatly troubled him.
Under Lifford, abuses and delays had multiplied in the Irish courts, and FitzGibbon set about reforming the system. He did much to speed up procedures in the chancery courts where, under his predecessor, many an estate had been wiped out by protracted proceedings and spiraling legal fees. He had a comprehensive grasp of the complexities of chancery law, and brought his keen mind and unflagging energy to bear on introducing a series of administrative reforms that played an important role in professionalising the administration of justice in Ireland. Even those who were strongly critical of his politics were prepared to pay tribute to his abilities as a lawyer and judge. His judgments often showed considerable passion for the poor and the underdog, and the utmost fairness towards catholics. FitzGibbon prided himself on his judicial integrity and when in a pamphlet written in 1797 Edward Stratford (qv), the 2nd earl of Aldborough, accused him of corruption, FitzGibbon responded sharply and pursued a prosecution at the court of king's bench, where Aldborough was convicted of libel and sentenced to a year in prison.
Becoming lord chancellor greatly increased his political responsibilities and influence and for most of the next decade FitzGibbon, John Beresford, chief revenue commissioner, and John Foster (qv), speaker of the house of commons, formed an unofficial cabinet that dominated the Irish government and overawed a series of inexperienced lords lieutenant. FitzGibbon regarded the defence of the protestant ascendancy as his priority and vigorously opposed all attempts by catholics or radicals to tamper with the status quo. The spread of French revolutionary ideals to Ireland in the early 1790s heightened his fears and reinforced his reactionary tendencies. He was particularly appalled by the combination of assertiveness and democracy displayed by the Catholic Convention of December 1792, and played a leading part in orchestrating resolutions from grand juries and meetings of protestant freeholders which attacked the proposed assembly. Sometimes taunted by opponents because of his catholic origins, he never missed an opportunity to display his ultra-protestant credentials, and established himself as the administration's staunchest opponent of catholic claims. His actions in these years did much to undermine the conciliatory effect of relief legislation. Believing that Irish catholics were incorrigibly hostile to the state and their professions of loyalty a facade, he gave a detailed history of catholic treachery during debates on the catholic relief bill of 1793 and regularly invoked the spectre of 1641; he recalled that his father had repeatedly told him that catholics awaited the opportunity to overturn the established government and church and seize protestant estates. During these years he often found himself at loggerheads with his British masters, who were anxious to conciliate catholics and thereby enlist them as allies against the French republic. Although he dutifully acquiesced in the passage of the relief acts of 1792 and 1793, FitzGibbon resented such concessions as naive and ill-judged, believing that they weakened the legal foundations of protestant power and undermined the security of the Irish state. From this time he was convinced that only a legislative union could secure the position of the protestant ascendancy.
During the early 1790s FitzGibbon looked upon the Society of United Irishmen with deep concern, seeing it as a fifth column of the disaffected and the irresponsible, intent on nothing less than the destruction of the state and the creation of a French-style republic. He regarded members of his profession who joined such as Simon Butler (qv), Thomas Addis Emmet (qv), and especially Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv) as traitors and dangerous incendiaries. In April 1793 he was the dominant figure on a secret committee of peers established to enquire into the origins of the Defender disturbances in north Leinster and south Ulster and was the architect of legislation in 1793 designed to curb the growth of radicalism, most notably a proclamation against volunteering, a militia act, and a convention act to prevent the meeting of extra-parliamentary assemblies. He also initiated prosecutions against several United Irishmen for seditious publications, and did much to drive radical agitation underground. His vigour was rewarded by his elevation in the peerage to viscount in December 1793.
FitzGibbon faced one of his most difficult periods in office during the viceroyalty of the pro-catholic Lord Fitzwilliam (qv) (January to March 1795). Fitzwilliam began by dismissing Beresford, FitzGibbon's main ally at Dublin Castle, and many expected that the chancellor would also be turned out; Pitt, however, insisted that he be retained. FitzGibbon vigorously opposed Grattan's catholic emancipation bill (February 1795) and generally held the anti-catholic line until Fitzwilliam over-reached himself and was recalled. The outcome left FitzGibbon even more solidly entrenched than before and he was created earl of Clare in June 1795. He was, however, popularly regarded as one of those who had engineered Fitzwilliam's downfall and was struck on the head by a stone when his house in Ely Place was attacked by an angry Dublin crowd.
Lord chancellor, 1795–1802 Clare's notoriety grew as he advocated ever more severe measures to deal with the growth of the United Irishmen into a mass revolutionary organisation in the mid 1790s. He encouraged the passing of a draconian insurrection act in March 1796 and the suspension of habeas corpus the following September and, after the attempted French invasion of December 1796, became even more intent on crushing domestic disaffection. Convinced that the lives and property of his caste were at stake, he believed that exceptional and extralegal measures were fully justified and he encouraged crown forces to be ruthless in stamping out subversion. Ulster felt the brunt of the military's activities in 1797, and by spring 1798 even more severe measures were being employed to break the United movement in Leinster. Clare had no qualms about the use of state terror and was contemptuous of those such as the liberal general, Sir Ralph Abercromby (qv), who condemned the violent excesses of his own troops. When Lord Moira (qv) attacked the government's coercive policy in the lords in February 1798 Clare replied to him at length, defending military severity and justifying the use of torture to elicit the whereabouts of concealed arms.
Determined to root out subversion wherever it lay, he led a visitation of TCD (19–21 April 1798) to question fellows and students about their political sympathies, and expelled nineteen students whom he suspected of being United men. Seen as the architect of the government's campaign of repression, he became a hate figure for radicals; an article addressed ‘To the author of coercion’ in the United Irish newspaper, the Press, made a thinly-veiled call for his assassination (6 Mar. 1798). (Clare prided himself on the fact that his name was usually the first on assassination lists discovered on captured United men.) Once the rebellion broke out he insisted it should be crushed immediately and was scathingly critical of generals who were prepared to negotiate with or give quarter to insurgents. Dismissing the rebels as an undisciplined rabble, he was surprised by their successes in Co. Wexford, and attributed their courage and enthusiasm to the malign influence of catholic priests.
In certain instances, however, Clare showed compassion to well-connected United Irishmen and their families. He sent word to the United commander Lord Edward FitzGerald (qv) to flee before the insurrection and brought his brother and aunt to visit him on his death-bed in Newgate prison, even apparently shedding tears when he saw Lord Edward dying. He also assisted the wife of the exiled United Irishman Hamilton Rowan (qv) in her efforts to prevent the confiscation of the family property. When in July 1798 the government reached an agreement with the United leaders that they would be spared execution and instead be exiled in return for giving general information about their conspiracy, many hardline loyalists were outraged. Clare, however, strongly supported the agreement, believing that it would rid the country of traitors and prevent the government from becoming entangled in legal difficulties. The new lord lieutenant, Lord Cornwallis (qv), was pleasantly surprised by his dealings with Clare, and wrote to Portland that ‘the chancellor, notwithstanding all that is said of him, is by far the most moderate and rightheaded man amongst us’ (26 July 1798, Cornwallis corr., ii, 372).
Rebellion convinced Clare more than ever of the necessity of a legislative union. He worked hard to secure its passing and marshalled the legislation through the house of lords, making a celebrated speech on 10 February 1800 in which he claimed that union was the only alternative to separation and bankruptcy. Despite the entreaties of Pitt and Cornwallis, he refused to countenance coupling union with catholic emancipation, and with his ally Archbishop Charles Agar (qv) helped to sabotage the prospects for emancipation by planting in the king's mind the notion that giving the royal assent to emancipation would contradict his coronation oath. In 1799 he was made an English peer as Baron FitzGibbon of Sidbury, Devonshire. After the passing of the union, he found himself kept at arm's length by the government, and Henry Addington, Pitt's anti-emancipation successor, excluded him from the cabinet in February 1801 to avoid causing additional offence to catholics. Having been at the centre of power for so long, Clare was deeply aggrieved by his loss of influence; his poor relations with the government were aggravated by his obvious contempt for Addington's lord lieutenant, the earl of Hardwicke (qv), and his chief secretary, Charles Abbott (qv). In one of his last speeches in the imperial house of lords, he spoke strongly in favour of the continuation of martial law in Ireland, questioned the loyalty of Irish catholics, and again defended the use of torture during the 1798 rebellion.
Death and descendants A riding accident early in January 1802 seems to have hastened and may have caused FitzGibbon's death. He died 28 January 1802 at home at Ely Place and was buried in St Peter's churchyard, Dublin, on 30 January. An angry crowd jeered and disrupted the funeral procession and threw rubbish at the coffin. The claim that this included dead cats seems to be apocryphal (FitzGibbon had allegedly once claimed he would make the catholics as tame as neutered cats).
His will instructed his wife to move to England and educate their three surviving children there. His two sons were successively the 2nd and 3rd earls of Clare: John Fitzgibbon (1792–1851), was a friend of Byron and governor of Bombay (1830–34); Richard Hobart Fitzgibbon (1793–1864), was MP for Co. Limerick (1818–41); both supported catholic emancipation. His daughter Isabella (1795–1873) never married. The male line came to an end when the 3rd earl's only son John Charles Henry Fitzgibbon (qv) fell in the charge of the light brigade at Balaclava (25 October 1854).
Assessment Few mourned Clare's passing and most political opponents were only too glad to speak ill of the dead. In the subsequent memoirs of whigs and radicals he features prominently as the arch villain of the 1790s. His portrayal as a reactionary bigot in the Memoirs of the life and times of the Rt Hon. Henry Grattan (1839–46) so offended his son John that he fought a duel with Henry Grattan jnr (qv) who had compiled the work. For nineteenth-century nationalists, Clare was ‘Black Jack’ FitzGibbon – Pitt's evil henchman who had goaded the people to rebellion and then used the opportunity to destroy the Irish parliament and ensure Ireland's subservience to his British masters. To counter such accusations J. A. Froude (qv) in his The English in Ireland in the eighteenth century (1872–4) portrayed FitzGibbon as a pragmatic and level-headed statesman who stood firmly against the forces of anarchy, but being championed by Froude did little to rehabilitate his reputation with nationalists, and even a liberal unionist like W. E. H. Lecky (qv) found his outlook and actions deeply distasteful. Work by Ann C. Kavanaugh and A. P. W. Malcomson has led to a more measured assessment, with due weight being given to FitzGibbon's talents; in particular, his abilities as a lawyer, administrative competence, and political consistency have been acknowledged.
Not an original or deep political thinker, FitzGibbon worked on the basis of a set of simple ideas, the first of which was the importance of the constitutional connection with Britain. What he lacked in eloquence and classical erudition, he made up for in the logic and lucidity of his arguments, and no other eighteenth-century politician expressed the rationale of Anglo-Irish loyalism with such force. Although respected for his abilities and valued by fellow loyalists as a stalwart defender of the protestant ascendancy, he was never much liked. He lacked the easy charm that facilitates political and social life, and failed to establish close personal or political ties with colleagues; relations were poor even with like-minded figures such as Foster and Agar. His asperity of tone often alienated potential allies, and his failure to cultivate important English politicians told against him in the end. What some saw as consistency, others condemned as unimaginative rigidity, and during the 1790s he became ever more reactionary, rejecting any compromise or concession as a sign of weakness. His refusal to countenance parliamentary reform, his resistance to granting political rights to catholics, and his harsh anti-catholic rhetoric did much to polarise and poison the political atmosphere of the decade.
Papers and portraits FitzGibbon's papers have not survived, although they appear to have been extant in the 1850s, which would suggest that the story of him insisting on their destruction after his death is untrue. Much of his correspondence survives in the papers of others, most notably William Eden (British Library and Keele University Library).
The best known portrait of FitzGibbon (1789) is that by Gilbert Stuart (qv) held in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio. Others portraits by Stuart and Hugh Douglas Hamilton (qv) are held in TCD and the NGI respectively.