Plunket, William Conyngham (1764–1854), 1st Baron Plunket , politician and lord chancellor of Ireland, was born 1 July 1764 at Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, the fourth and youngest son of Thomas Plunket, a presbyterian minister, and his wife, Mary Plunket (née Conyngham). In 1768 the Plunket family moved to Dublin when Thomas Plunket was appointed the colleague of the Rev. Dr Moody in the ministry of the Strand Street Chapel. Thomas, who had a deep knowledge of politics, was active in the liberal cause and became an adviser to patriot members of parliament. A man of little personal fortune, he died in 1778 leaving his widow financially reliant on the support of the Strand Street congregation.
Education and early career William Plunket was educated in Dublin, where he attended the school of the Rev. Lewis Kerr and formed a friendship with the son of Barry Yelverton (qv), later Lord Avonmore. On 5 July 1779 he entered TCD. Twice holder of the class prize, he obtained a scholarship in his third year, and was a frequent speaker at the College Historical Society, where his friends and fellow members included Thomas Addis Emmet (qv) and Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv). Fired with enthusiasm by the patriotic successes of 1782, Plunket became a prominent debater and was vice-president of the society in 1783; he was awarded a prize for an essay that he wrote in defence of the age, and also won the society's medals for oratory, history, and composition. In 1784 he graduated BA and entered Lincoln's Inn in London; he remained financially dependent upon his mother and friends for the duration of his studies.
Plunket returned to Dublin in May 1786 and was called to the bar in 1787; he soon established a legal practice and went on the north-western circuit. He became one of the leading advocates of his day. He was sworn in by Lord Clare (qv) as king's counsel in May 1797. Except for his appearance on 4 July 1798 assisting in the defence of Henry Sheares (qv) on trial for treason, Plunket managed to keep professionally disentangled from the affairs of the day, though, with the increasingly radical polarisation of Irish politics in the years preceding the 1798 rebellion, he noted regretfully the waning of his former friendships with Thomas Addis Emmet, Wolfe Tone, and other intimates of his college years. It was only with the rapidly deteriorating state of the country in 1798 that he committed to entering politics, in which he pursued two fixed purposes: the defence of the patriot constitution and the promotion of catholic rights. In January 1798 he was offered, by James Caulfeild (qv), 1st earl of Charlemont, the seat for the borough of Charlemont, formerly held by Henry Grattan (qv); unable to accept the nomination from a sponsor of such strong anti-catholic sentiments, Plunket rejected the offer, but Charlemont persisted, explicitly releasing Plunket from commitment to any position on the catholic question; on this understanding Plunket agreed to take up the seat, which he did on 6 February.
Anti-union politician, 1798–1801 Plunket was soon established as a leading anti-union speaker, both at the bar and in the house of commons, where the eloquence, passion, and fury of his defence of the constitution added fire to the debates. Vehemently hostile to the principle of the measure and to the ‘system of black corruption’ with which Dublin Castle secured support for the union (Speeches, 45), Plunket was by January 1800 the acknowledged leader of the anti-union cause, and it was beside him that the returning Grattan then sat in the house of commons. Plunket was central to the establishment of a dedicated anti-union fund, an ‘engagement’ conceived for the purchase of borough seats through which to build opposition support, to which William Saurin (qv), Charles Bushe (qv), Arthur Moore, Thomas Goold (qv), and Lord Downshire (qv), (d. 1801), among others, contributed. (NLI, MacDonnell MS PC 922). The existence of such a fund was long considered mere speculation and, though Plunket's manuscript correspondence clearly proves this undertaking, it was evidently nowhere near as effective as the Castle's rival slush fund. Plunket also contributed biting satire to the short-lived Anti-Union newspaper, which first appeared on 27 December 1798 and was abandoned in March 1799. His final speech against the union, and the violent exchange that resulted, led to the clearing of the public galleries in the Irish house of commons and the secession of some two-thirds of opposition members before the measure eventually passed.
Out of politics, 1801–12 With the implementation of the Act of Union in 1801, the Charlemont borough was disenfranchised and, unsuccessful in securing the Trinity College seat in 1802, Plunket was temporarily out of politics and focused instead primarily on his professional duties. His appearance for the prosecution in the September 1803 treason trial of Robert Emmet (qv) provoked the disapproval of contemporaries and accusations that he was betraying both the radical idealism of his anti-union days and a personal debt of friendship owed to the Emmet family. Plunket, who had harboured a deeply felt hostility to republican separatists since the French revolution, had had no relationship with the Emmet family for some years, particularly since he had supported Edmund Macnaghten (1762–1832), MP for Co. Antrim, in denouncing Thomas Addis Emmet in the Irish house of commons in early 1798. The accusations against Plunket have been found to have originated most probably with Robert Emmet himself on the morning of his execution. In 1804 Plunket successfully took action for libel against the publisher William Cobbett in response to derogatory remarks made in Cobbett's Weekly Register; he was awarded damages of £500. Some years later he took proceedings against a publisher who repeated the charge. Although he was thus vindicated, contemporaries and later commentators have been heavily critical of Plunket's presumed inconsistency of principle, particularly as the government reacted to his apparent about-turn with glee, Chief Secretary William Wickham (qv) remarking that his effective declaration in favour of the government would be the death blow to the remaining fragments of the anti-union party at the bar (Wickham to Pole-Carew, 19 Sept. 1803, PRO HO 100/113, f. 167).
Apparently as a reward for his supposed volte-face, Plunket was appointed solicitor general in November 1803, and in October 1805 Irish attorney general, an office he retained under the ‘ministry of all the talents’. Finally induced in 1807 to enter parliament, Plunket was duly returned for Midhurst in Sussex and aligned himself with the Grenville section of the whig party. When that ministry fell a mere two months later and was replaced by a government he opposed, Plunket found it impossible to remain in the office of Irish attorney general. He resigned, despite requests from the new ministry to stay, and for the most part devoted the next five years to an enormously successful, and probably unrivalled, private legal practice; he mainly focused on chancery cases, though he was noted for excellence in cross-examination and skill in addressing juries.
The catholic question During these years Plunket refused two separate offers of patronage – presumably out of a desire to remain untethered to the personal politics of any one figure, although his specific motives are unclear. In 1812 he was finally elected in his own right and returned unopposed for Dublin University. By this stage he had accumulated a great deal of wealth, partly through his professional work and partly because his brother, Patrick Plunket, bequeathed him £60,000 in his will. For the most part he allied himself loosely with the whigs, and particularly with Grenville, though he was avowedly unconnected to any one party. An ‘anti-Jacobin whig,’ Plunket ‘hated despotism much, but hated anarchy more’ and did not hesitate to support a tory position when a specific issue indicated a choice between the former and the latter, as in 1815 on the question of the war with France and in 1819 on the question of the Peterloo massacre (Speeches, pp. vi, xix).
His maiden speech in the British parliament in 1807 had established Plunket as an able and impressive speaker, yet it was in support of Grattan's motion on 25 February 1813 that he established himself as a formidable orator: to a great extent he was personally responsible for the carrying of this pro-catholic motion and the preparation of the 1813 emancipation bill. The focus of these early speeches was indicative of his primary, perhaps only, agenda for the greater part of his career in the British parliament: the promotion of catholic emancipation. Plunket prioritised his professional work in Dublin over attendance at Westminster and generally only appeared to speak on catholic or Irish matters. Yet his conservative approach and desire to compromise on questions of religion created tension with the more vocal members of the Irish catholic body, which was increasingly coming under the control of Daniel O'Connell (qv). A convinced imperialist, Plunket was, like Grattan, fiercely loyal to the British constitutional connection (although both had vehemently opposed incorporating the English and Irish legislatures, both had subsequently become reconciled to the reality of the union) and had a distaste of all forms of unconstitutional agitation. From the split over the royal veto on the appointment of bishops right through to the granting of emancipation in 1829, Plunket was always careful to distance himself from radical activism, stating categorically that, though firmly in favour of justice and equality, ‘I am not the advocate of their intemperance’ (Hist. parl., 25 February 1813).
On two occasions, in concert with the Grenvillites and Grattan, he opposed the whig party line, supporting a renewal of the war with France in 1815 and rejecting calls for an investigation of the Peterloo incident in 1819. When the Grenville group split from the main body of the whigs in 1819, Plunket followed. Grattan, on his deathbed that year, appointed Plunket his successor, entrusting him with maintaining the struggle for catholic emancipation along lines of conciliation and compromise. Plunket continued to seek concessions by persuading the Westminster assembly of the loyal moderation of Irish catholics. On 28 February 1821, proposing a motion in favour of catholic claims, he delivered perhaps the most powerful speech of his career; it was praised in debate by Robert Peel (qv) twenty-three years later as ‘stand[ing] nearly the highest in point of ability of any ever heard in this house; combining the rarest powers of eloquence with the strongest powers of reasoning’ (Hist. parl., 13 June 1844). Plunket guided the bill through its second reading on 16 March, but returned to Ireland suddenly upon the unexpected death of his wife on 14 March. Grief-stricken, he withdrew from public life for a time, and, though left in the charge of Sir John Newport (qv), the bill did not survive the loss of its architect and most ardent proponent.
Last years in public office, 1822–41 In January 1822 Plunket played a key role in the coalition of the Grenville group with the tories to form Lord Liverpool's administration. Until this point he had remained in opposition, and had never been drawn into the ministerial ‘open system’ on the catholic question. Now he accepted the position of attorney general under the lord lieutenant Marquess Wellesley (qv), and membership of the privy council. However, this apparent boost to the hopes and ambitions of Irish catholics was neutralised by the ministry's stated design to construct the Irish administration upon the principle of a balance of opposing forces: Plunket's appointments were matched by the appointment of the fervent anti-catholics Henry Goulburn (qv) and William Gregory (qv) as chief secretary and under secretary respectively. Plunket repeatedly shared in the Irish catholics’ frustration at the paralysis caused by this policy, which was first manifested when he failed to secure the conviction of the protestant ringleaders of the 1822 ‘bottle riot’. Accused of resorting to unconstitutional procedure, Plunket was forced to defend himself against the censure of an overwhelmingly hostile house in early 1823. Later that year his attempts to move for an emancipation bill received no government support, and foundered on divisive squabbles between pro-catholic factions. As determined to rein in catholic radicalism as he was to quell Orange disorder, Plunket attempted to prosecute O'Connell for seditious remarks in his ‘Bolívar’ speech of 16 December 1824, but failed despite being heard by an ultra-protestant grand jury. The remarkable irony was not lost on Plunket: they simply hated him more than O'Connell.
Plunket remained in the post of attorney general of Ireland until 1827, in which year he was involved in an embarrassing incident when Canning, the prime minister, attempted to reward his services to the government first with the lord chancellorship of Ireland, which was effectively blocked by the anti-catholic George IV, and then with the post of master of the rolls in England, which was bitterly opposed by the English bar. Elevated to the peerage and as Baron Plunket in 1827, he was placated with the post of Irish lord chief justice of common pleas, recently vacated by Lord Manners (qv), but was finally in 1831 appointed Irish lord chancellor, a post which he held, with a short break on a change of administration in 1838, till 1841. Though by then seventy-seven years of age, Plunket's vacation of his seat on the bench was by all accounts a matter of ministerial coercion rather than choice, and it was with some reluctance that he succumbed to entreaties made by the lord lieutenant to make way for a replacement, and exited public life in June 1841.
Death and reputation Plunket played no further part in politics. He travelled in Italy and lived in retirement at his country house, Old Connaught, Bray, Co. Wicklow, where he died 4 January 1854; he was buried at Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin. He had married, on 20 October 1790, Katharine, daughter of John McCausland of Strabane, MP for Donegal, and his wife, Elizabeth McCausland (née Span). They had six sons and five daughters. The eldest son, Bishop Thomas Span Plunket (qv) (d. 1866), succeeded him as 2nd Baron Plunket.
Plunket's later career was not marked by any oratorical triumphs or great public works of principle. Though he voted and not infrequently spoke on Irish questions, he was by then very distant from the centre of Irish politics. Professionally, the marks of his earlier greatness – his spontaneity and flair rather than careful consultation of precedent – appear to have been qualities ill suited to the studious gravity expected of a judge, and his decisions were frequently reversed upon appeal for technicalities that he had failed to consider. His perceived prioritisation of careerist self-advancement over principle in accepting office in 1822, and elevation to the peerage in 1827, did little for his reputation. His flagrant nepotism in distributing favours to members of his extended family finally destroyed any reputation for principle he had earned in his early career and further dissociated his name from the illustrious emancipation victory so closely identified with O'Connell. Located at the intersection of ‘old’ and ‘new’ style agitation – parliamentary and extra-parliamentary – Plunket's conservative hostility to radicalism was, in retrospect, unfashionable, though he held to it consistently over more than forty years of public life. His ultimately unsuccessful attempt to merge whig and tory interests into a coherent, credible, personal policy can be viewed as the personification of the struggle inherent in Anglo-Irish politics during the early years after the union.