MacDonnell, Antony Patrick (1844–1925), Baron MacDonnell of Swinford , civil servant, was born 7 March 1844 at Carracastle, near Swinford, Co. Mayo, eldest son of Mark Garvey MacDonnell, catholic landowner, and his wife, Bedelia (née O'Hara). He was educated at Summerhill College, Athlone, and Queen's College, Galway, where he excelled. In 1865 MacDonnell joined the Indian civil service, initially serving in Bengal, where he acquired a reputation as an expert on the Indian land question and famine relief. He oversaw highly effective famine operations in 1873–4; his report on the situation and the measures taken came to be regarded as a classic. In 1901 he presided over the famine commission, which produced what came to be the standard measures for dealing with Indian famine. It is widely believed that MacDonnell's interest in famine was spurred by memories of the aftermath of the great Irish famine, though this appears to rest on supposition rather than direct evidence. While holding various offices under the Bengal government in the 1880s he favoured land reform, and was instrumental in passing the 1885 Bengal Tenancy Act, giving fixity of tenure to the peasantry (reversing the tendency of earlier British policy to favour landowners).
MacDonnell's hard work and conspicuous abilities were admired by successive viceroys; he was acting chief commissioner of Burma (1889–90), chief commissioner of the Central Provinces (1891–3), acting lieutenant governor of Bengal (1893), and member of the viceroy's council (1893–5). In 1893 he received a knighthood (order of the Star of India). His sharp temper and unwillingness to tolerate inefficient subordinates earned him the nickname ‘the Bengal Tiger’. As lieutenant governor of the North-Western Provinces and chief commissioner of Oudh (1895–1901) he combined famine relief and land reform with rigorous law enforcement in a manner which Andrew Gailey sees as foreshadowing his approach to administration in Ireland.
MacDonnell's political views may be described as ‘liberal imperialist’; though generally sympathetic to the Liberal Party and extremely conscious of his own Irishness, he had doubts about Irish fitness for home rule and refused offers of a nationalist seat in parliament. (His brother, Dr Mark Antony MacDonnell, was a home rule MP.) He took an administrator's view of imperial politics, believing that in Ireland and India the imperial state was best placed to serve the common good by pushing through necessary reforms, and overriding entrenched vested interests and irresponsible and divisive populist politicians; he favoured the establishment of consultative elected councils in Ireland and India to keep the administration in touch with public opinion, but saw the purpose of these bodies as being to advise and not to govern. MacDonnell admired Sir Horace Plunkett (qv), seeing his work in the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction in Ireland as resembling his own in India (he advocated the establishment of a department of agriculture in Bengal).
During his time in India MacDonnell married, in November 1878, Henrietta MacDonell, from a Scottish gentry family. In 1901 the MacDonnells returned from India because he was suffering from exhaustion and his wife from a heart condition. He accepted a seat on the India council, which was based in London. In October 1902 he was recruited as under-secretary for Ireland by George Wyndham (qv). He was reluctant to take the position and accepted it only on two conditions: that, while nominally a civil servant, he would play an active role in policy formation aimed at producing a grand solution to Ireland's problems, and that he could return to the Indian service (he remained a member, albeit on secondment to Ireland) whenever he saw fit. MacDonnell helped to pass the Wyndham Land Act (1903) by operating as a channel for unofficial communications between Wyndham and the Irish Parliamentary Party, though some of his more radical proposals (such as giving county councils a formal role in land purchase) were not taken up.
MacDonnell went on to carry out negotiations with the catholic bishops on a scheme which aimed to provide greater access to university for Catholics (as a meritocrat he believed that educational reform was vital for Ireland's future), but these were frustrated by opposition from unionist politicians and Trinity College, Dublin. He also attempted to bring the notoriously ramshackle and uncoordinated boards that made up the Dublin civil service under his own direction (attempts to bring about longer-lasting structural reforms were blocked by treasury resistance to extending the financial discretion of the Irish office). These activities aroused suspicion from the associates of John Dillon (qv) within the Irish parliamentary party – perennially suspicious of possible attempts to kill home rule with kindness – and from sections of grassroots unionism – perennially suspicious of the growth of catholic administrative and professional influence through official appeasement.
Wyndham (suffering from health-related stress problems) was accused of delegating too much authority to MacDonnell, who was blamed by unionist hardliners for such incidents as clerically directed mob attacks on Jews and protestant proselytisers in Limerick and the dismissal of a protestant police officer after a priest accused him of sexual misbehaviour with his catholic fiancée (the dismissal was later reversed). One unionist MP described MacDonnell as a ‘disloyal papist, demoralising the Irish constabulary and hunting the Protestants out of the force’ (Gailey, 263 n.). Although such accusations were unjust, his downgrading of police intelligence-gathering capabilities (facing pressure to economise, he argued that the mollifying effects of the Wyndham Act made it possible to cut back on policing) unintentionally helped to make the 1916 rising possible. These unionist attacks made MacDonnell increasingly sensitive about his position and unwilling to accept even the appearance of official disfavour.
In mid-1904 MacDonnell advised Lord Dunraven (qv), head of a group of moderate landlords associated with the land conference negotiations, on a scheme of administrative reform involving the devolution of some administrative functions to semi-elected bodies. MacDonnell believed that such activity was covered by his terms of employment. The publication of the scheme in September 1904, and the subsequent revelation of MacDonnell's role, provoked outrage among unionist backbenchers. Wyndham repudiated MacDonnell and claimed that his actions were unauthorised (though the lord lieutenant, Viscount Dudley (qv), confirmed that MacDonnell had kept him informed). Faced with the prospect of becoming a scapegoat, MacDonnell refused to return to the India office; he let it be known that he had informed Wyndham about his activities, and had even briefed opposition MPs. The resulting furore led to Wyndham's downfall. Later apologists for Wyndham suggested that the chief secretary had paid insufficient attention to MacDonnell's letters and had not realised the extent of his collaboration with Dunraven, but the dominant view among scholars is that Wyndham was aware in general terms of what MacDonnell was doing.
MacDonnell remained in office on the appointment in March 1905 of the hard-line unionist chief secretary, Walter Long (qv). When the Liberal government took office in December 1905 MacDonnell revived the devolution scheme in concert with the new chief secretary, James Bryce (qv) (1905–7). In 1906 they proposed that the management of some areas of Irish administration be devolved to a partly elected council. When Augustine Birrell (qv) succeeded Bryce discussions about this proposal continued and were ongoing when Birrell introduced the Irish Council Bill in parliament in May 1907. It quickly emerged that the Bill would not receive sufficient support from either unionists (for whom it reeked of home rule) or nationalists (for whom it did not go far enough) and it was withdrawn. Thereafter MacDonnell was a lame duck, though his decisive role in producing the official response to the theft of the Irish crown jewels in 1907 suggests his continuing ability to take up the slack from the indolent and indecisive Birrell.
MacDonnell retired in July 1908 and was created Baron MacDonnell of Swinford. He supported the third Home Rule Bill but urged that its financial provisions be revised in order to encourage fiscal responsibility in Ireland through greater autonomy, and advocated proportional representation. In 1917–18 he was a member of the Irish convention, and was involved in subsequent peace talks. He died in London on 9 June 1925, survived by a daughter. MacDonnell is one of the great Irish products of nineteenth-century meritocracy; his Irish career displays the attractions and limitations of centre politics in the home rule era; his distrust of populist politicians might not have been out of place among Irish civil servants of a later era. His papers are in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.