French, Robert (1716–79), MP and landlord, was born 30 November 1716 in Co. Galway, eldest son of Patrick French (1681–1744) of Monivea, Galway, barrister and MP, and his wife Jane, youngest daughter of Simon Digby (qv), bishop of Elphin. The French family, a mixture of Gaelic, Old English, and more recent protestant stocks, had a long history in Galway. Patrick ‘Silvertongue’ French, a catholic whose law practice was threatened by the penal laws, conformed to the established church and married a protestant. An active, ‘improving’ landlord, he added considerably to the Monivea estate before his death (1744). Bishop Digby was himself a land speculator (often in neglect of his religious duties) and painter, whose house at Abert made him a neighbour. Patrick French, Bishop Digby, and uncle John Digby of Landestown, Co. Kildare were important spiritual and social influences on the young Robert.
After studying with a Dr M'Mullin, Robert entered TCD on 1 April 1734 (awarded BA 1737). He subsequently attended London's Middle Temple (1736–42) and became a member of the Irish bar (1743), a successful solicitor, and high constable of Tiaquin barony (1748). When his father died in 1744, he took over management and improvement of the family estate of over 6,000 acres. His first objective, conceived by his father, was to redirect a local river through what had been useless bog. For this twenty-year project, he was awarded a gold medal from the Dublin Society, of which he was also a member.
Over the next thirty-five years French built and stocked canals and ponds, reclaimed bog and moorland, and planted trees. He also promoted modern farm techniques, shifting from sheepwalks to tillage and from large to small farms. With Ulster connections, through his mother and wife, he was convinced of the viability of linen production in Connacht. The development of Monivea village, encouraged by favourable leases offered by French, was part of his efforts to promote the industry. Through his work, a sizeable village of protestant tenants had grown up by the 1750s in the middle of the largely catholic county Galway. On similar ‘improving’ and ‘civilising’ principles, he built a chapel, a nursery, and a ‘charter school’, whose mission was to teach protestantism and industry to the poor as well as to provide future linen workers. The success of his activities was such as to draw the attention of the English agriculturalist Arthur Young (qv) on his famous tour of Ireland in the late 1770s.
These improvements were also intimately linked with French's political activities. Having failed in an earlier attempt in 1745, French was elected MP for Co. Galway (1753–60) by his appeal to both protestant and improving interests. He later represented Carrick, Co. Leitrim (1761–8), and Galway town (1768–76). A Patriot, a gifted lawyer and constitutionalist, he expressed his Patriot principles in The constitution of Ireland and Poynings' law explained (1770). He was, however, deeply independent. Initially supporting the Patriot leaders, he remained in opposition when they entered government. In general, he played a key role at the parliamentary centre and supported mitigation of the penal laws. Critical of political patronage and influence, a political commonplace in eighteenth-century Patriot politics, he was not above using his position for personal gain. His support of Galway turnpike roads, for example, led to government expenditure on roads at Monivea. On the other hand, his improvements, by the creation of additional freeholder-electors, also enhanced his political security.
French also held several military and political positions, including that of lieutenant-colonel in the Clanricarde Infantry (Volunteers, 1757) and high sheriff of Roscommon (1774). He served on a bewildering number of improving societies and parliamentary committees, many of which assisted in funding his work at Monivea. Most notable were grants given by the linen board, of which he was made a trustee (1768) by the lord lieutenant, Townshend (qv). In his last years, he remained active, particularly in strong opposition to the trade embargo on Irish exports in the American crisis of 1776. Mirroring much of Irish opinion, French denounced the embargo as both unconstitutional and deeply injurious to Irish trade. This was his last major political activity and, although asked to stand for election for Dublin University (as well as for Galway), he retired from parliament in 1776. Having been chosen that year to present an address of thanks to the outgoing lord lieutenant, Simon Harcourt (qv), French was unable to attend because of the death of his son and heir, Acheson French (b. March 1751) the night before the address.
French married (4 April 1746) Nichola, daughter of Sir Arthur Acheson of Markethill, Co. Armagh. They had four sons and a daughter. As noted, his son and heir Acheson French, the only male to survive to adulthood, predeceased him. A daughter Ann married Sir Lucius O'Brien (qv), later MP and ally of French, of Dromoland, Co. Clare. After the death of his wife in 1762, French had six additional, illegitimate children with a housemaid, Winifred Higgins. While the response of his associates is unclear, French seems to have treated the children well. He built houses for them in Monivea town, gave them his name, and provided for them in his will. French died at his family estate on 30 January 1779. As with his legitimate offspring, few of the improvements to which he had dedicated so much effort survived him.