Whiteside, James (1804–76), lawyer and politician, was born 12 August 1804 at Delgany, Co. Wicklow, the second son of William Whiteside, minister of the Church of Ireland, and his wife, Anne (née Robinson). After William Whiteside's death in 1806 his family lived in reduced circumstances; Whiteside received some of his early education from his mother. He entered TCD in 1822 and graduated BA in 1832. At this time he made the acquaintance of Peter Burrowes (qv), listening reverently to the old man's recollections of his friendship with Henry Flood (qv) and of the folly and heroism of Robert Emmet (qv). Whiteside won premiums in the first law course offered by London University. He entered the Inner Temple in 1829 and was called to the Irish bar in 1830. Before starting legal practice in 1831 on the north-east circuit he spent a year studying law in the chambers of Joseph Chitty, while also writing journalistic profiles of prominent contemporary legal-political figures, later collected as Early sketches of eminent persons (1870). These show a brash confidence in his own talents, a desire to position himself as heir to the tradition of legal-political eloquence exemplified by John Philpot Curran (qv) and Charles Kendal Bushe (qv), and an outspoken conservatism. He admired George Canning and appeared to endorse catholic emancipation, but declared that the fundamental basis of representation must always be property. The total abolition of rotten boroughs would make it impossible, he believed, for young men of genius to enter parliament, which would then be monopolised by demagogues and wealthy boobies.
Whiteside rapidly built up a successful practice at the bar, assisted by his forensic eloquence and tall, impressive figure; he became a QC in 1842. In July 1833 he married Rosetta Napier, sister of his friend and associate Joseph Napier (qv); the two men lectured in the nascent Law Institute of Ireland in Dublin. Whiteside defended Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) at the state trials of Daniel O'Connell (qv) and his associates in 1844, after which he was recognised as the leading figure of the Irish bar. He was also defence counsel for William Smith O'Brien (qv) after the 1848 rising; he argued that O'Brien had simply wished to evade arrest rather than lead a rebellion, that his mild manners and respect for private property were extraordinary in a rebel leader, that his supposedly treasonable speeches merely echoed O'Connell and Lord John Russell, and that it was unfair to prosecute a ‘protestant agitator’ while militant priests such as Father John Kenyon (qv) went free.
A period of ill health was followed by convalescence in Italy, which led Whiteside to write Italy in the nineteenth century (1848) and translate a guidebook by Luigi Canina as Vicissitudes of the eternal city (1849). Both works praise the administrative reforms of Leopold II in Tuscany, but are generally hostile to Austrian and papal rule; his indulgent view of Italian revolutionaries as potential anglicans and English-style radicals was attacked by the ultra-Tory Quarterly Review. Whiteside tactlessly contrasted Italian disaster relief with the response of the authorities to the Irish famine, the shortcomings of which he attributed to religious and political divisions.
In April 1851, with the assistance of W. W. Cole (qv), 3rd earl of Enniskillen, Whiteside was elected conservative MP for Enniskillen. He served as solicitor general for Ireland in Lord Derby's (qv) first government (March–December 1852); when seeking re-election on taking office (as all Irish MPs taking up government office were obliged to do) he placarded Enniskillen with the names of six local men for whom he had obtained appointments, declaring ‘This is a good beginning’. Whiteside's eloquence made him influential in the conservative parliamentary party; initially regarded with suspicion because of his narrow protestant views (he regularly called for periodic examinations of convents to make sure that all the inmates were there voluntarily), his five-hour speech blaming the Palmerston government for the Turkish defeat at Kars (1855) established his reputation. He was attorney general for Ireland in Derby's second government (March 1858 to June 1859); in February 1859 he became MP for Dublin University, which he represented for the remainder of his life.
In the early 1860s Whiteside published several lectures that he had delivered to the Dublin Young Men's Christian Association. The most notable of these was The life and death of the Irish parliament (1862), often cited by later unionists. Whiteside argued that the Dublin parliament had done very little, and done it badly; that there were precedents for a parliamentary union in the early medieval period as well as under Cromwell (qv); and that Ireland would have benefited from a union in the early eighteenth century. Whiteside complacently contrasted the British constitution and its effects with continental wars and despotisms and with civil war America in a manner foreign to the more anxious unionists of the home rule era, and argued at length that Grattan's parliament, for all its glories, proved dangerous and unworkable; yet he wistfully allowed that had he lived at that time he would have been seduced by anti-union sentiment.
Whiteside was a devout anglican, who believed that the Saxon race had a divine mission to Christianise the world. He was an outspoken opponent of democracy, which he believed to be fatal to religion and civilisation. He attacked in Burkean terms proposals to disestablish and disendow the Church of Ireland, claiming that the church as a corporate body pre-dated the conquest; by confiscating church property the state not only infringed its corporate rights but tacitly accepted the Roman catholic view that it was a mere creature of the state. His Essays and lectures: historical and literary, in which his views were expounded, was published in 1868.
Whiteside was again made attorney general when Derby returned to office in 1866, and in July of that year was appointed chief justice of the Irish queen's bench, after a scramble in which he tried unsuccessfully to secure the lord chancellorship. His intrigues to gain office led to a bitter and permanent breach with Sir Joseph Napier, who had also hoped to be appointed lord chancellor. Whiteside was a dignified judge and hoped to be a great one, but it was generally felt that his judgments were not outstanding, and he was better suited to the bar. His last years on the bench were affected by ill health. He died 25 November 1876 at Brighton, and was buried at Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin. Whiteside represents some of the more reactionary strands of the Burkean and patriot inheritance of Victorian Ireland. His explicitly anti-democratic and anglican confessionalist views ensured his historical neglect; yet his contemporaries recognised him as a great legal performer and he provides a window into the mindset of mid-Victorian Irish conservatism.