Hay, Edward (1761?–1826), catholic activist and historian, was born in Ballinkeele, Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, eldest of four sons of Harvey Hay (d. 1796), a wealthy member of the catholic gentry, and Catherine Hay (née Fergus). Educated in France and Germany, he returned to Wexford in the 1780s. His career in the 1790s pinpoints the entry of middle- and upper-class catholics into Irish public life. Harvey and Edward Hay were delegates for Co. Wexford at the Catholic Convention of 1792. As deputy governor of Wexford, Edward Hay was active in quelling violent protests against the 1793 militia act. In 1795 he organised a census of Ballinkeele that included denominational data, in order to provide demographic arguments for catholic emancipation, and was made an MRIA for these efforts. That year he was one of the delegates who presented petitions on behalf of Irish catholics to the popular pro-catholic lord lieutenant, Earl Fitzwilliam (qv), and to George III in London. After Fitzwilliam's recall Hay collected 22,251 signatures in one week to encourage the government to reverse its decision. In 1795 he was disinherited by his father (who had been made a JP in Wexford in 1793 and disagreed with his radical activities), and for the rest of his life he was beset by financial difficulties.
Though described as a ‘captain’ in the 1798 rebellion, and (by one contemporary) as being in charge of munitions on Vinegar Hill, Hay consistently denied partisan involvement. In his History he maintained that his social prominence forced him to act as a negotiator. Though acquitted of treason after the rebellion, he was imprisoned for several months until freed through the intervention of Lord Cornwallis (qv). To vindicate himself against charges by Sir Richard Musgrave (qv) he collected documentation, published in his History of the insurrection of the County of Wexford A.D. 1798 (1803); this was clearly sympathetic towards the ‘intrepid’ rebels, but critical of sectarian violence. He claimed that 3,000 copies were sold.
Hay was secretary (1807–19) to the Catholic Committee, and lived at 4 Capel St., Dublin, the committee's headquarters. His tasks included routine paperwork, calling and publicising meetings, keeping the public informed about catholic activities, and circulating policy documents. His voluminous official correspondence (over a thousand letters survive) suggests that he was relentless in canvassing support for the Catholic Committee. Letters between Hay and English catholics demonstrate his desire for a pan-catholic league, strengthened by concerted action. He visited England regularly in the 1810s when catholic emancipation petitions were being presented in parliament. However, the proposed veto on episcopal appointments split the catholics, and the 1810s witnessed the fragmentation of the committee. The 1812 petition containing insulting references to the prince regent (the future George IV) created difficulties for Hay, who felt that these resolutions antagonised many of the movement's parliamentary friends. In 1819 he was replaced as secretary for having exceeded his authority by opening communication with the government without the committee's approval. His financial difficulties continued: disagreements with his younger brother Philip, who had inherited the family estate, had not been resolved; moreover, Daniel O'Connell (qv) left Hay responsible for the debts of the Catholic Board after subscriptions dried up as aristocrats deserted the board in the 1810s, and he spent two months in Kilmainham debtors' gaol (1822). In 1825 a deed declared that over £2,000 was ‘decreed due unto Edward Hay charged and chargeable upon the lands of Ballinkeele’ but in that year the Hay estate was sold to the Maher family. By 1826 Hay and his family (he had four daughters and three sons) were living in penury. He died 13 October 1826 in Dublin from blood poisoning. His career spanned the era from Tone (qv) to O'Connell, from political exclusion to mass mobilisation. According to Henry Grattan (qv) he was a ‘well meaning person; very busy, always in a bustle, and extremely loquacious active, honest, and ardent’, while O'Connell described him as ‘the servant of eight million people’.