Parnell, Sir John (1744–1801), 2nd baronet and politician, was born 25 December 1744, the only surviving son of Sir John Parnell (1717–82), 1st baronet, landowner, and MP for Maryborough, Queen's Co. (1761–82), and his wife Anne, daughter of Michael Ward (1683–1759) of Castleward, Co. Down, MP for Co. Down (1713–27) and justice of the king's bench (1727–56). Educated at Harrow (c.1758) and Eton (1759–60), he entered TCD (1762), graduating BA (1766) and LLB (1770). He was admitted to Lincoln's Inn (1766), called to the Irish bar (1774), and was a bencher of King's Inns (1786). Elected MP for Bangor, Co. Down (1767–8), a borough to which the Wards of Castleward returned one member, he was nominated to a commons committee to distribute £17,000 for the encouragement of manufactures. In 1768 he did not seek re-election. It is likely that after 1768 he spent time on the Continent, with the object of preparing for the diplomatic service, but did not follow this career. He was elected colonel of the Maryborough Volunteers (1776). He purchased a parliamentary seat for Innistiogue, Co. Kilkenny, in 1777, and held it until 1783; he then sat for Queen's Co. (1783–1801). In general his political position was that of a conservative independent and from his abilities and his background he was a natural recruit to the ‘men of affairs’ whose support was essential for the day-to-day operation of government. He was generally considered to be a good parliamentary speaker; in 1789 an opposition contemporary commented that ‘his language seems suited to the conversation style of a man of business . . . plain, simple, tolerably pure and not incorrect . . . devoid of ornament to captivate the imagination . . . His manner is warm, bold and intrepid, fearless of opposition and in a high degree daring, which, though it may not secure regard, undoubtedly forces attention’ (HIP, vi, 19).
Parnell gave government a firm support, but opposed catholic relief in the late 1770s and 1780s; he fell into line with the 1792 and 1793 relief bills, but, even then, managed to convey his disapprobation. For many years he was a leading government spokesman on economic affairs: he wrote to the chief secretary, Thomas Pelham (qv), on 31 December 1783 that: ‘the imposition of duties on English goods is very popular as it is seen as a remedy for every distress; and Ireland with constitutional independence, is jealous of duties which derogate it from equality of commerce and consider it nefarious that no advantage in commerce has arisen from independence’ (Kelly, 79).
Appointed chancellor of the exchequer in 1785 in succession to John Foster (qv), he was also commissioner of the revenue (1784–5), commissioner of the treasury accounts (1784–99) and treasury commissioner (1793–9). He was appointed to the privy council of Ireland (24 January 1786), and Britain (27 October 1786). A man of modest ability, he struggled to control the increasing chaos of Ireland's finances, which was aggravated by war and internal unrest in the 1790s, and his performance as chancellor was often criticised by opposition MPs. Interested in encouraging economic development, he was anxious to improve the port of Dublin and the amenities of the capital, and to this end served on commissions for paving and lighting the streets of Dublin. He also worked for the development of agriculture and manufacturing in Queen's Co. and, reputed to be ‘plain, frank, cheerful and convivial’, was a popular figure with the county's freeholders. Comfortably off, he had a Dublin residence in Dawson St and a large estate at Rathleague, Queen's Co., which comprised 3,683 (st.) acres. He also owned several houses in Maryborough, and leased lands in Co. Armagh from Trinity College which in 1780 produced a rental of £1,597. In 1774 he married Letitia Charlotte (d. 1783), daughter and coheir of Sir Arthur Brooke (qv), 1st baronet. The marriage settlement brought him £5,000, the income of the manor of Brookeborough, several farms in Fermanagh, and an annuity of £300 paid to his father. In 1795 he inherited a life interest in Avondale, Co. Wicklow, from the childless Samuel Hayes, who left it after Sir John's death, to his third son, William Parnell (qv), grandfather of Charles Stewart Parnell (qv).
Sir John was above all an Irish nationalist in the Anglo-Irish sense of that word and, as such, was a strong supporter of the protestant interest and voted against catholic emancipation in 1795. Although he was a member of the Dublin Castle ‘inner cabinet’ and was prepared to countenance firm measures to crush internal disaffection, he appears to have become uneasy with the coercive policies of the government, and supported the motion of Sir Lawrence Parsons (qv) in March 1798 for an investigation into the causes of popular grievances. He strongly opposed union with Great Britain and, after informing Lord Cornwallis (qv) of his views, was dismissed as chancellor of the exchequer. There is some evidence that Parnell may have misunderstood the determination of the government over the union. His advance in power and influence had hitherto been steady and there is some evidence that he was shocked by his dismissal, although it made him a hero with the opposition and their popular supporters.
Fighting a rearguard action against the union, Parnell supported Sir Lawrence Parsons's amendment to the address on 15 January 1800 expressing satisfaction with the constitution of 1782, and its finality. On the decisive debate of 5 February he declared that the great majority of the Irish people were opposed to union, and on the 15 March he moved that the king should be addressed to dissolve parliament and hold an election on the issue, but was defeated by 150 to 104 votes. Sir Jonah Barrington (qv) declared that: ‘though many years in possession of high office and extensive patronage, he showed a disinterestedness almost unparalleled; and the name of a relative or of a dependant of his own, scarcely in a single instance, increased the place or the pension lists of Ireland. His conduct at the union did him honour, and proved how warmly he was attached to the interests of his country’ (Barrington, 30). He received £7,500 for his half of the disfranchised borough of Maryborough.
Representing Queen's Co. at Westminster from January to December 1801, he was prominent in Irish financial debates and also advocated the short duration of the Irish martial law bill. He successfully had John Beresford (qv) exempted from the Irish members disqualification bill and on 15 June acted as spokesman for the Irish distillers against their English competitors. During the October session he again spoke on Irish topics relating to finance and trade. After an apoplectic attack he died 5 December 1801 in London, and was buried in the burial ground of St. George's, Hanover Square.
He and his wife had five sons and a daughter. The eldest son, Sir John Augustus (1771–1812), 3rd baronet, was physically and mentally disabled from birth and two private members bills were passed to entail the estate on his other brothers and their heirs successively. The second son, Sir Henry Brooke Parnell (qv) succeeded as 4th baronet (1812).