Monsell, William (1812–94), 1st Baron Emly of Tervoe and politician, was born 21 September 1812 in Mount St., Dublin, only child of William Monsell (1778–1824) of Tervoe House, Clarina, Co. Limerick, and his wife Olivia (d. 1859), second daughter of Sir John Allen Johnson-Walsh of Ballykilcavan House, Stradbally, Queen’s Co. (Laois). Both of his parents were from prominent landed families; one of his grandfathers was Col. William Thomas Monsell (1754–1836), MP for Dunleer 1776–83 and for Dingle 1798–1800. He was reared in an atmosphere of devotion to the union with Britain, loyalty to the Church of Ireland, and allegiance to the tory party. He was educated at Winchester College (1826–30) and Oriel College, Oxford (1831–3), where he first came under the influence of his great friend and mentor, John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman (qv). Monsell left Oxford without taking a degree, but his English education had given him a lifelong interest in literary and intellectual matters.
He returned to Ireland to manage his grandfather's estates and properties, which he inherited on the latter's death in 1836. A man of considerable wealth and social standing, he was also serious, conscientious, and fair-minded. His long political career began at this time, when he served as high sheriff of Co. Limerick (1835) and unsuccessfully contested Limerick city in the 1837 general election. In 1850 he converted to Roman catholicism under the influence of Newman. This process of conversion occurred over a prolonged period in the late 1840s, and coincided with a change in his political allegiance from tory to whig.
In the late 1840s Monsell flirted with federalism and even repeal, but from the early 1850s his religious and political views remained fairly fixed for the rest of his life. He was a staunch unionist, a zealous catholic, and a patriotic Irishman. He gave long and valuable service to the liberal party, sitting as MP for Co. Limerick (1847–74). During this period he became one of Ireland's leading politicians. He soon emerged as unofficial leader of the catholic whigs, a section of the Irish liberal party that chiefly flourished between 1847 and 1874 and whose adherents combined unionism, catholicism, and Irish patriotism. Monsell's prominence was due to his firm power base in Co. Limerick, his role as the chief liaison between the Irish catholic bishops and successive British administrations, and his unrivalled network of prominent friends. These included Gladstone, Charles Gavan Duffy (qv), William Smith O' Brien (qv), Cardinals Cullen (qv), Wiseman, and Manning, and even Pope Pius IX. Monsell's chief interests in politics were in education, and the promotion of civil and religious equality for catholics worldwide. As such, he was a prominent supporter of the liberal catholic movement, which sought to reconcile catholicism with the liberal ideology of the period and he was a close friend of many leading liberal catholics, including Montalambert, Lacordaire, and Döllinger. He contributed a number of articles to learned journals, chiefly on religious and educational matters. In 1860 he published a defence of the pope's temporal power, entitled A lecture on the Roman question.
Monsell held many government offices. From 1853 to 1857 he served as clerk of the ordnance, one of the senior positions in the administration of the British army. He greatly assisted the British war effort in the Crimean war, when he reorganised the armaments industry by increasing the government's role in manufacturing arms. From February to September 1857 he was president of the board of health, but spent most of the next decade out of office because of a disagreement with Palmerston. He was vice-president of the Board of Trade and paymaster general March–July 1866. His political career culminated in Gladstone's first administration. Monsell served as under-secretary for the colonies 1868–71, during which time he reorganised the education system in both Trinidad and Mauritius. He was postmaster general 1871–3, and while disappointed at not being given a seat in the cabinet, had responsibility for the posts and telegraphs systems for the whole of Britain and Ireland. Unfortunately, his administration of this department was not a success and he was forced to resign after it emerged that one of his senior officials had spent £812,000 on the expansion of the telegraph service, without the authority of parliament. This scandal, plus the rise of home rule, led to Monsell's decision not to contest Co. Limerick at the next general election, and he was raised to the peerage on 12 January 1874 with the title of Baron Emly of Tervoe.
Monsell opposed both home rule and the land war, and his popularity diminished in his latter years. He broke with the liberals over Gladstone's first home rule bill (1886) and adhered to the liberal unionists for the rest of his life. However, his record as a social reformer was a proud one. He did much to advance the civil and religious equality of catholics. He played a major role in reforming the parliamentary oath in 1865–6, facilitated the registration of catholic marriages in Ireland for the first time, and reformed the law on catholic burials. His greatest achievements were in the field of education. He helped found the protestant St Columba's College, Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin (1843), and the catholic Mungret College, Co. Limerick (1882), and played a major role in Gladstone's abortive university bill of 1873, the intermediate education act (1878), and the establishment of the Royal University (1879–82). He was also president (1874–7) of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland.
Appointed to the privy council (1855), he became colonel of the Co. Limerick militia (1864), lord lieutenant and custos rotulorum of Limerick city and county (1871), and vice-chancellor of the Royal University of Ireland (1885). He declined to be made a Knight of St Patrick on a number of occasions. He resided at Tervoe House, about five miles from Limerick city, and in 1876 his estates in Co. Limerick and Co. Clare comprised 2,710 acres with a gross annual valuation of £2,638. Monsell died at Tervoe House on 2 April 1894 after a long illness, and was buried in the family vault in the nearby Kilkeedy cemetery.
He married first (11 August 1836) Lady Anna Maria Charlotte Wyndham-Quin (1814–55), only daughter of the 2nd earl of Dunraven; they had two sons, both of whom died in infancy. He married secondly (2 Feb. 1857) the French aristocrat Berthe de Montigny (1835–90), daughter of the comte de Montigny, by whom he had a son, Gaston (later the 2nd and last Lord Emly), and a daughter, Mary Olivia (later Mrs de la Poer of Gurteen le Poer House, Kilsheelan, Co. Waterford). There are a number of portraits and photographs of Monsell extant in the possession of his family and of the author of this entry. His papers can be consulted in the NLI and the National Archives, both in Dublin.