Flood, Henry (1732–91), politician, was born outside marriage at Donnybrook, Co. Dublin, eldest of two sons and one daughter of Warden Flood (qv), later solicitor general, attorney general, and chief justice of the Irish court of king's bench, and Isabella Whiteside. His parents marrying some years afterwards, Flood's immediate family chose to conceal the circumstances of his birth, and though his legal illegitimacy did little to inhibit him politically, it did limit his rights of inheritance and resulted, ultimately, in the overturning of his last will and testament.
Education and early career, 1747–62
After instruction by private tutors, Flood was admitted as a fellow commoner to TCD in 1747. He was an able and attentive student – the recipient in his first year of a premium as a result of his performance in the college examinations – but after a decline in his academic performance he departed Trinity without a degree and entered Christ Church, Oxford (1750). His tutor there was William Markham, later archbishop of York (1777–1807), with whom he maintained a close relationship after his graduation (MA 1752), and under whose direction and guidance he embraced habits of study that remained with him throughout his life. Contemplating a career in the law, Flood entered the Middle Temple in 1751, but he did not seek entrance to the King's Inns in Ireland and he never practised law.
Though his membership of the Hibernian Academy, an ambitious educational institution established by Thomas Sheridan (qv) in the late 1750s, indicated that he was already a figure of some consequence, Flood's election to the Irish parliament to represent Co. Kilkenny in a by-election in 1759 signalled his political emergence. His return for that prestigious county constituency was a product both of good fortune (in that none of the major county interests in Kilkenny presented a strong alternative candidate) and good management by his father, but there was to be no opportunity for a repeat performance. Flood lost the seat in the 1761 general election, and while he had the compensation of taking a seat for the borough of Callan, in which the Flood family had been the dominant force for several decades, their authority in the constituency was under serious threat. The most sustained challenge was offered by James Agar (qv) of Ringwood, a member of a powerful Kilkenny family that already controlled Thomastown and Gowran, and the prolongation by the Floods of their ascendant position in the borough obliged Henry to have recourse to a variety of strategies, legal and illegal, to frustrate their opponents. The fate of Callan was not finally to be determined till the early 1770s. In the meantime, Flood schooled himself in the art of politics primarily by observation. He was content to be guided by his father initially and to sit on the government benches, but after his elopement with and marriage (1762) to Lady Frances Maria Beresford, 6th daughter of Marcus Beresford, 1st earl of Tyrone (1694–1763), and his rejection of a subsequent suggestion by the Beresfords that he should join forces with them, he stood forth as an independent Patriot.
Leading Patriot, 1763–75
The 1763–4 session was the first in which he made his presence felt; it was clear both from his set-piece orations and ex tempore interventions that his was an exceptional debating talent, and he quickly established himself as the leading Patriot voice in the house of commons. To many of a similar political outlook, Flood was the essence of what a Patriot MP was supposed to be – principled, outspoken, and in opposition. He was not content with this, however. Like William Pitt, earl of Chatham, his political hero, he aspired to political power in order to effect change; so when Pitt became prime minister in 1766 and appointed the earl of Bristol (1721–75) as lord lieutenant, Flood responded eagerly to the indications that this would be a reforming administration. Like most Patriots, Flood had little time for the undertaker system, so Bristol's hint that he intended to constitute an Irish administration on less factional grounds, and suggestion that Flood might wish to join with him, aroused his interest. He arranged to meet with Chatham at Bath on 7 January 1767 to inform the prime minister that his price for supporting the administration included a septennial act, a habeas corpus act, and patronage reform. Chatham was evasive, and any prospect of such reforms seemed to evaporate with the collapse of his ministry shortly afterwards. Despite this, Flood did not abandon the idea of working with Dublin Castle. Indeed, his success during the 1767–8 session in advancing a measure to limit the duration of parliaments, resulting in the ratification of an octennial act, encouraged him to persist though, like many in Ireland, he perceived that the approach of the lord lieutenant, Lord Townshend (qv), was alarmingly like the aristocratic reaction that whigs accused George III of promoting in Britain. Arising out of this, Flood penned a number of popular satirical essays in 1768 under the pseudonym of ‘Philadelphus’ on Townshend's leadership and the state of Irish politics, that reflected his concern without closing the door entirely on his prospects of working with the administration.
One cause of dissatisfaction for Flood at this time was the provision introduced into the octennial act at the British privy council that the first general election held under its terms should take place in 1768. This was unwelcome news for Flood because it meant another electoral contest in Callan borough. Since the last general election, the political temperature in the constituency had risen appreciably, but Flood had managed through a combination of strategies to keep one step ahead of his rivals. This had necessitated in 1765 that he meet James Agar at Holyhead in a duel, in which no serious injury resulted. To Flood's relief he managed to prevail electorally in 1768, but the outcome (which saw both his cousin John Flood and himself returned) gave a false impression of the true distribution of influence in the borough. Flood's continuing command of Callan depended on his ability to frustrate his rival as well as to maintain an independent corporation of dubious legality. This so angered James Agar that he manipulated matters to provoke Flood to another duel. This took place at Dunmore in south Kilkenny in 1769, and Agar died in the resulting exchange of shots. As his conduct during the affair was unimpeachable, Flood had little to fear legally. However, the timing of the episode was unfortunate: it obliged the lord lieutenant to postpone inviting Flood to join his administration as he embarked on an ambitious plan to create a Castle interest that would liberate him from the need to rely on undertakers. It is not improbable that Flood would have declined the invitation had he received it, because of his dislike of Townshend and his policies, but this cannot be assumed. In any event, he could not countenance Townshend's decision to prorogue the Irish parliament after the house of commons refused to approve a privy council money bill, as a result of which he resumed his place at the head of the opposition to the administration in the commons. In the interval between the prorogation and the reconvening of the Irish parliament (February 1771), Flood added to the famous ‘Baratariana’ propaganda series he had initiated as ‘Philadephus’ in 1768, with a number of more forceful contributions offered to the public under the pen-name of ‘Sindercombe’. He also penned a forceful introduction to a new edition of William Molyneux's (qv) Case of Ireland and, when normal politics resumed in 1771–2, consolidated his reputation as perhaps the ablest parliamentary performer of his generation by spearheading the opposition's attempt to frustrate Townshend's plans to vest the political initiative firmly in the Dublin Castle executive.
In office, 1775–81
Despite his commanding performances on the opposition benches in the house of commons, Flood continued to believe it was possible to establish a constructive relationship with Dublin Castle; so when Townshend's successor, Lord Harcourt (qv), suggested that he might enter into an agreement with his administration, Flood did not turn him down. This prompted a prolonged negotiation, as both sides contrived to identify an appropriate office and to establish acceptable terms. Flood's insistence on an office that was commensurate with an individual of his abilities and reputation, and that did not burden the Irish exchequer, proved extremely difficult to meet. But the identification of the office of vice-treasurer and Harcourt's willingness to offer further promises (particularly with respect to Flood's fast-diminishing prospects in Callan) ensured that agreement was reached in 1775. The six years that followed were the most disappointing in Flood's political career. In the estimation of most, this derived from the facts that he badly misjudged the public mood and that he found office uncongenial. There is more than a germ of truth in this, but the main reason for Flood's failure to work closely and harmoniously with the Harcourt, Buckinghamshire (qv), and Carlisle (qv) administrations between 1775 and 1781 arose out of their failure to honour precisely the terms of the agreement he had negotiated with the Irish administration. Difficulties began early when there were problems in fulfilling the promise that he should be raised to the British privy council. This did not deflect him from supporting the crown's request that soldiers on the Irish establishment should be made available for service in America; but the failure of the administration to support him electorally in 1776, and the refusal of the earl of Buckinghamshire to favour his patronage requests, set the pattern for what was to follow. Buckinghamshire mistakenly believed that the way to bring Flood to heel was to make it clear that he would receive no unearned favours, whereas Flood's highly developed sense of honour simply did not respond to such crude tactics. He spent most of the late 1770s and early 1780s politically isolated, working neither with the administration nor with the opposition. During this time, he supported free trade and other popular measures, but though Buckinghamshire saw fit to recommend that he should be dismissed early in 1780, it was not till the beginning of the 1781–2 session, when the earl of Carlisle was in charge, that Flood was dismissed from the vice-treasurership and – in what he regarded as a vengeful action – from the British privy council for failing to be guided in his conduct by the interests of Dublin Castle.
Independent radical, 1781–83
With his freedom to manoeuvre restored to him, Flood reverted to the stand of independent Patriot he had last taken in the early 1770s. His radical patriotism discommoded those who had taken his place as the leaders of the Patriot interest in the house of commons; but Flood contrived to ignore their reserve and suspicion, as he busied himself offering motions and pressing for concessions on such key constitutional issues as Poynings' law, the declaratory act, and the mutiny act in the winter of 1781–2. In most respects the analyses he offered and the remedies he advanced were more radical than those favoured intuitively by more conciliatory Patriot voices, but Flood's arguments, which were invariably founded on close analysis, won him the applause of the public. Arising out of this, Lord Charlemont (qv) contrived to reintroduce Flood into the Patriot mainstream and, though a patina of suspicion persisted, he did manage to persuade Grattan and Flood to join him in preparing the key resolutions supportive of legislative independence approved by the Ulster Volunteers in convention at Dungannon in February 1782. This rapprochement proved short-lived, for after the accession to power of the Rockingham whigs, the moderate definition of what constituted legislative independence (favoured by Grattan, Charlemont, and Barry Yelverton (qv)) was pursued, and Flood's more principled and politically contentious agenda pushed to one side. Flood was temperamentally unprepared to accede to such treatment and, perceiving that the ‘simple repeal’ of the declaratory act did not amount to a renunciation by Britain of its long contentious claim that it had the right to legislate for Ireland, he persisted in voicing his reservations. His persistence paid off as the politicised public and the more outspoken Volunteer corps were persuaded by his arguments to support the demand that Westminster should formally renounce its claim to make law for Ireland. As a consequence, Flood displaced Grattan as the most popular politician of the moment before the end of 1782, and the Westminster parliament bowed to public pressure in Ireland and approved a statute recognising the legislative autonomy of the Irish legislature. Grattan found this reversal of fortune difficult to bear. Obliged to wait till the opening of a new parliament in October 1783 to give voice to his resentment, he took the first opportunity that came his way, after Flood took his seat for the borough of Kilbeggan, to embark on a premeditated exercise in character assassination. Flood responded in kind, and the two men were only prevented from settling the matter in time-honoured fashion, with pistols, by the intervention of the sheriff of Dublin.
At the very moment that Grattan sought to asperse him as corrupt and timeserving, Flood's political horizon was dominated by the issue of parliamentary reform. Encouraged to promote the cause by the Ulster Volunteers who took the initiative in respect to the matter, Flood's involvement was not unconditional. He was particularly uneasy at the suggestion that the franchise should be broadened to include catholics, on the grounds that their admission to political life must fatally undermine the essentially protestant character of the constitution brought into being by the Glorious Revolution which he was committed to uphold. As a result, when he was persuaded to become a member of the sub-committee established at the Grand National Convention of Volunteer delegates that assembled in Dublin in November 1783 to prepare a plan of reform, he ensured it did not recommend catholic enfranchisement. The plan that resulted was moderate in essentials, but it was unacceptable to a majority of MPs, who rejected it peremptorily as the diktat of another assembly when it was presented to them on 28 November. Unperturbed, Flood persisted with reform, but further measures presented by him were rebuffed with only slightly less decisiveness in 1784 and 1785.
Westminster MP , 1783–91
Though he was not inactive in the Irish parliament during the mid 1780s, Flood's election to the Westminster parliament to represent the constituency of Winchester in 1783 diminished the time he could devote to Irish affairs. A seat at Westminster had long been one of his dearest ambitions, and he conceived initially that he would be able to maintain as prominent a profile there as at College Green. However, his maiden speech at Westminster was a failure, and several attempts he made subsequently also redounded to his disadvantage. To compound his difficulties, the unwillingness of the duke of Chandos to renominate him to represent Winchester at the general election in 1784 precipitated an unsavoury row and obliged him to look elsewhere for a seat. He identified one in Seaford, but the task of securing his election proved tortuously complex and prolonged. While this was being sorted out, Flood was at liberty to attend the Irish house of commons, and during the 1785 session was the most consistent critic of William Pitt's plan for a commercial union between Britain and Ireland. Initially, he was but one of a handful of dissentient voices; but as public opinion on both sides of the Irish Sea became increasingly worried by the implications of what was being proposed, his contention that Ireland needed protecting duties to provide its manufacturers with the freedom to develop, and his opposition to any dilution of legislative independence, attracted wider support. Ultimately, he had to take second place in the crucial debate (12 August 1785) to Henry Grattan, and thereafter he concentrated his activities on Westminster. Despite further attempts, he never registered the impact there he had at College Green. He spoke occasionally, usually in the form of set-piece orations. His speech against the treaty of commerce with France (15 February 1787) and, in particular, his speech for leave to introduce a bill for the reform of parliament (4 March 1790) were the rhetorical highlights of his years at Westminster but, though well received, they were insufficient to rescue the reputation of a politician who was increasingly regarded as yesterday's man. Flood's unwillingness to adapt to the politics of party at Westminster, and his continuing adherence to outmoded mercantilist thinking, served merely to emphasise his marginalisation. He, for his part, remained confident in his judgement and abilities to the end. However, when a general election was called in both Britain and Ireland in 1790, he was unable to secure his return in either kingdom. He retired from politics to live at his seat at Farmley, Co. Kilkenny, where he devoted the remainder of his life to improvement till his death from pleurisy on 2 December 1791. He was survived by his wife, who lived till 1815, by which time the courts had determined that his attempt to leave the bulk of his estate to TCD, for the establishment of a professorship of Irish and other educational purposes, was illegal. As a consequence of his illegitimacy, Flood's father had given him a life interest only in the estate, and it passed to his cousin John. There is a portrait of Henry Flood by Hugh Douglas Hamilton (qv) (Birr Castle).
Reputation and assessment
Henry Flood was a man of high principle and formidable ability. As well as political propaganda, he wrote poetry and translated the classics. None of his writing was exceptional, though the humour of the ‘Baratariana’ essays is memorable in several respects. Flood was first and foremost a parliamentarian, whose natural theatre was the floor of the Irish house of commons. In that assembly he proved himself repeatedly as one of the most able orators and debaters of his generation. He was not so personable as Grattan, with whom his name is inextricably linked, and just as Grattan's reputation rose in the nineteenth century so Flood's declined. In more recent times, Flood has emerged from the shadow of his younger, more famous rival. He is now clearly established as a Patriot politician, deserving of attention in his own right, because it was he, more than any other, who shaped the politics of patriotism in the second half of the eighteenth century.