Saurin, William (1757/8–1839), barrister and attorney general for Ireland, was born probably in the parish of Shankill, outside Belfast, second son of the Rev. James Saurin (d. 1772), vicar of Belfast 1747–72, and his wife Jane (d. 1760), daughter of William Johnston (qv) and widow of James Duff. The family retained a strong sense of its huguenot heritage: his grandfather, Louis Saurin (d. 1749), archdeacon of Derry 1736–49, fled France in 1685. William's brother James Saurin (1760?–1842) was bishop of Dromore (1819–42). Schooled first at the academy of Saumarez Dubourdieu in Lisburn, Co. Antrim, William matriculated into TCD (1775) and graduated BA (July 1778). After two years’ study at Lincoln's Inn, London, he was called to the Irish bar in June 1780. Practising on the Leinster circuit, he made little headway in his first decade in the profession, but picked up some work as an agent in Ulster elections and built up a good reputation among Ulster attorneys. His work as agent for Edward Ward (1753–1812) at the Co. Down election of 1790 greatly enhanced his reputation. In December 1793 he was one of three top-flight barristers acting for the defence in a major Dublin bankruptcy case, and in 1795 he was made KC.
In 1796 he was elected captain commandant of the lawyers’ corps of yeomanry. Though his politics were unmistakably loyalist, he was not involved in action against the rebels in 1798. Having received a patent of precedence from government on 6 July 1796 placing him as barrister next in rank to the prime serjeant, in 1798 he acted as crown prosecutor in several of the trials at a special commission ensuing from the rebellion, including those of John (qv) and Henry Sheares (qv), William Michael Byrne (qv), and Oliver Bond (qv). That summer he turned down the government offer of the post of solicitor general, scrupulously aware that he could not support the proposed act of union. At a meeting of the Irish bar on 9 September 1798 he argued that the measure was ‘dangerous and improper at the present juncture’ (Geoghegan, 51), and would result in a demotion of Irish interests in a united parliament. Claiming that the yeoman oath to uphold the constitution was called into play by the proposed act, he ordered the corps to assemble ‘to take into their consideration a question of the greatest national importance’ (Blackstock, 181). But this both overreached his authority and misjudged the mood of his fellows. The order was cancelled; his colleagues felt it more appropriate to discuss the measure as civilians.
For a month or two he was among those in the yeomanry making noises about mass disbandment. But the futility of such a gesture, together with hints from the executive that he risked being deprived of position within the bar, seems to have settled such unrest. However, Saurin continued to protest against the forthcoming act and in 1799, through the influence of Lord Downshire, was elected MP for Blessington and delivered three more resounding anti-union speeches. In January and March 1800 he roundly asserted that the rights of a nation could not be usurped; that a union imposed on the country, against the will of its people, would have no force; and that popular resistance would be justified. This last claim led the chief secretary, Robert Stewart (qv), Lord Castlereagh, to scold him for ‘jacobinism’. The March debate ended in government victory and Saurin's last speech in the Irish commons, on 26 June 1800, was more resigned. He again refused the post of solicitor general in 1803.
Offered the post of attorney general in the viceregal administration of Charles Lennox (qv), duke of Richmond, in April 1807, he accepted (perhaps finding the high protestant tone of the new administration to his taste) and took up office on 21 May 1807. As a prominent member of the Orange order, he was well placed to use his powers to appoint ultra-loyalists to the bench and to many lesser places within the legal system. His prejudices also showed in certain indulgences towards protestants: allegations to his office that Lord Norbury (qv), chief justice of the common pleas, trampled the rights in court of a catholic sentenced to death at the Kilkenny summer assizes of 1810 were set aside without inquiry. However, it was the series of clashes between the attorney general and the Catholic Board from 1811 to 1813 that established his ill-repute in catholic opinion. Whether he set in motion the prosecutions of his own accord, or at the behest of the administration, his passionate conviction that Ireland ‘must be either a protestant or a catholic state’ and that ‘he is a utopian who believes he has discovered a nostrum by which it can be both or neither’ (Bartlett, 305), endowed his administration of the laws with a tone of non-negotiable bias. He baldly rejected the catholic aspiration to share in government and sought to use the law to paralyse catholic political organisation. Ordering the arrest of members of the Catholic Board in Dublin in August 1811, he prosecuted the chairman, Edward Sheridan, and Thomas Kirwan (qv) for breach of the convention act of 1793. In November 1811 Sheridan was acquitted and Kirwan fined a small sum after conviction, but Saurin warned that ignorance of the scope of the act would no longer excuse such offences. This was followed up by the arrest and prosecution of Lord Fingall (qv), Lord Netterville, and others for complicity in arranging an illegal meeting in Navan in late August 1811. It became evident in the course of the trial that Saurin was using a spy in the Catholic Board.
Catholic fear and anger was widespread. Saurin initiated (July 1812) the prosecution of Hugh Fitzpatrick (qv) for publishing a pamphlet by Denys Scully (qv) criticising penal legislation. Quickly on good terms with the new chief secretary, Robert Peel (qv)), on whom he urged resistance to catholic claims, it is likely his sense of public authority was at its peak. In November 1812 he spoke against bringing in a coercive insurrection act to deal with disturbances in the midlands. His confrontation with Daniel O'Connell (qv) during the Fitzpatrick trial in February 1813 led to a moral triumph for the catholic cause. Responding to Saurin's recitation of the charge of libel, in which passages in Scully's pamphlet were characterised as ‘a calumniation of justice under every lord lieutenant . . . full of jesuitical art’ (O'Faolain, 151–2) and an incitement to open warfare, O'Connell set out to prove the Scully case against the administration and its personnel under the protection of the court, taking the ‘libel’ and expanding with stunning rhetorical force upon it. His hits against the impartiality of the law may have wounded Saurin, although Fitzpatrick was convicted.
Saurin next prosecuted John Magee (qv), proprietor of the Dublin Post, for publication of extracts from the Scully pamphlet during the Fitzpatrick trial. In July 1813 he was again scourged for illogic, bigotry, and ‘congenital vulgarity’ (ibid., 158) in a speech by O'Connell, nominally for the defence. Unable to match O'Connnell, Saurin sat white-faced and numb through the trial. At sentencing (November 1813) Saurin was made to back down before a challenge to a duel issued in court by O'Connell. Though he succeeded in obtaining convictions in these cases, they resulted in moral defeat. It may be significant that it was at Peel's insistence in February 1814 that Magee was again prosecuted for a second libel allegedly committed in August 1813.
In February 1814 Saurin gave useful advice to Peel on the peace preservation bill, and in April that year drafted a bill on the reform of the insolvency laws, at the request of William Gregory (qv), under-secretary. Though in June 1813 Saurin had argued in Dublin castle that the Catholic Board should be left to break down of its own accord, he advocated on 10 May 1814 that it be suppressed forthwith. Its proscription was announced in early June 1814. At the same time he resisted calls for the imposition of the insurrection act in Ireland, preferring a more rigorous enforcement of law with the aid of the proposed police bill. In May 1815 he upbraided local gentry for the niggardly spirit in which they objected to the new police. Though he never again undertook a high-profile assault on catholic political activity, Saurin attempted to influence Irish MPs whenever moves were made to introduce a relief bill. O'Connell made it an integral part of any proposed package of reforms that he had to be removed from office. In May 1816 Saurin successfully prosecuted the printer of the Cork Mercantile Chronicle for publishing a speech by O'Connell criticising the administration of Irish law. Commenting on a memorandum of the chief secretary Charles Grant (qv) in May 1820, in which Grant reasoned that agrarian unrest arose from agrarian causes, Saurin solemnly stated that the primary cause was always religious hostility.
Change of administration in December 1821 suddenly ended his reign as attorney general. The pro-catholic viceroy, Richard Colley Wellesley (qv), Marquess Wellesley, despite the entreaties of Peel, made it a condition of his taking office that Saurin be moved to the bench. The greatest humiliation for Saurin was the realisation that all his colleagues knew of the deal months before he was told. In disgust he refused the offer of chief justice of king's bench and returned to the courts as a common barrister, making him perhaps the only (and the longest-serving) attorney general in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries not to have risen to the bench. In a slightly cruel witticism, Wellesley pointed out to critics that if Saurin was not satisfied with judicial office he could only make him lord lieutenant, to which there were two objections: ‘first, he had already held the office for fifteen years, next, I was viceroy’ (Brynn, 67).
The myth that Saurin manipulated the levers of Irish power in sinister eminence for the previous fifteen years was strangely potent, despite all signs to the contrary. When the end came he had no defences and was not even aware that his demise was being planned. He lacked, in fact, the elementary political instinct of self-aggrandisement. In personality he was unassuming and modest and lacked the grim mask of power suggested by O'Connell's demonising. Though he continued to be involved in Orange politics and attended the first meetings of the Brunswick Clubs in August 1828, he did little more than perform the role of loyalist figurehead, with the exception of a major speech against the catholic relief act at the Rotunda in February 1829. He retired in 1831, and died 11 January 1839 at his residence, 33 St Stephen's Green, Dublin.
He married (21 January 1786) Mary (d. 1840), widow of Sir Richard Cox and daughter of Edward O'Brien. They had a large family. Their eldest son, Edward Saurin (1791–1878) became an admiral in the Royal Navy.