Boyle, Henry (1684–1764), 1st earl of Shannon and politician, was born in Castlemartyr, Co. Cork, son of Col. Henry Boyle of Castlemartyr (a son of Roger Boyle (qv), 1st earl of Orrery), and his wife Mary (daughter of Murrough O'Brien (qv), 1st earl of Inchiquin). He was the second of four sons raised by his mother after Col. Boyle was killed in Flanders in 1693 fighting in the army of the duke of Marlborough (qv). He matriculated at Oxford University (Christ Church) in 1705, and in the same year succeeded to the family estates after the death of his older brother, Roger.
Political importance Boyle became a borough MP for Midleton, Co. Cork (July 1707 to May 1713), and then represented Kilmallock, Co. Limerick in the 1713–14 parliament. He was elected for the Co. Cork seat in the October 1715 general election and held it until May 1756. He was made a privy counsellor (13 April 1733) and chancellor of the exchequer (19 November 1733). He held that post until 6 October 1735 and for two further periods (11 April 1739–26 April 1754; 3 November 1755–10 September 1757). He was elected speaker of the Irish house of commons (4 October 1733) and sat in the chair until 17 April 1756, when he went to the lords. He was appointed to the Irish revenue board (12 September 1735), which he was to dominate until resigning (5 April 1739). He was also a long-serving lord justice, holding that position fifteen times between 1734 and 1764. On 17 April 1756 he was made Baron Castle-Martyr, Viscount Boyle, and earl of Shannon, and was granted a pension of £2,000 a year for the next thirty-one years.
For a thirty-year period (1734–64) Boyle was one of the leading Irish politicians, cutting a dominant figure in the house of commons and in Dublin Castle also. Francis Plowden (qv), in 1803, painted a lasting portrait of Boyle as a ‘deep politician . . . in appearance he was most open, in reality most reserved . . . he had been raised to the chair and supported in it by the people, at least without the assistance, if not in opposition to the government . . . and had the common address of preserving his popularity even in supporting unpopular acts’.
Commentators at the time, such as fellow revenue board member Marmaduke Coghill (qv) or Horace Walpole, all underestimated Boyle. They mistook his country-gentleman manners, and preference for his residence in Castlemartyr over his house in fashionable Henrietta St. in Dublin, as a sign of diffidence or lack of ability. As he never bestrode the parliamentary stage as an orator, like Henry Grattan (qv) later in the century, or in times of great crisis, Boyle tends to be ignored. Yet he was arguably the undertaker par excellence, wielding patronage, electoral interest, and (above all) a sense of his own and other MPs' honour in a way never repeated in the College Green parliament.
Boyle owed his political power primarily to his electoral interest. Although no lists exist for numbers of MPs influenced by Boyle in his heyday, a letter, just prior to the money bill crisis of 1753, estimated that Boyle directly returned or influenced twenty-five MPs, and could count another fifteen as friends and supporters. His successor was said to return twelve MPs directly in 1769, with another six returned with the assistance of the Burlington interest. Boyle's interest was not based on his own land (although he had the boroughs of Castlemartyr and Clonakilty) but on his connections and political guile.
Early career, 1707–48 He was first returned in 1707 as an MP by his neighbour Alan Brodrick (qv), later Viscount Midleton. By the late 1720s Boyle had moved from the position of protégé to that of heir to the Brodrick interest in Cork. He also became political manager for the 3rd earl of Burlington, first through family links and then strengthened by his marriage to the earl's sister in 1726. In 1729, when the commons' speaker William Conolly (qv) died, he considered standing as his successor but chose instead to support Sir Ralph Gore (qv). Six years later Boyle had sole control of a huge electoral interest in Cork and Waterford, amounting possibly to two county seats and eighteen borough ones. Given this, it is no surprise that, as the leader of the Cork or Munster ‘squadron’, he succeeded Gore as speaker in 1733.
Boyle was wise enough to know that a powerful position in the government was due to his influence in the commons. He was made a commissioner of the revenue in July 1733, soon becoming first commissioner with allies such as John Bourke (qv) on the board. This guaranteed him control of patronage over the appointments to over a thousand smaller posts worth £20 a year or more. The other post he held, as chancellor of the exchequer, was a sinecure worth £800 a year, and was meant to announce his arrival in the centre of government. Despite the reservations of Archbishop Boulter (qv) about continuing the precedent of making the speaker the third lord justice, Boyle's influence ensured that he was also appointed to that commission for the first time (3 May 1734). By this act his position in parliament was copper-fastened by government recognition of (and reliance on) him as chief undertaker.
Boyle's early period as speaker was largely a quiet one. Between 1733 and 1753 no money bill was seriously threatened with defeat, and the undertaker system seemed to work well. The MPs, such as Sir Richard Cox (qv) and Anthony Malone (qv), who sought financial reforms sometimes discussed these beforehand with Boyle, and on most occasions they regarded themselves as friends of the speaker. All the same, successive viceroys – the duke of Dorset (qv) (1730–37), the duke of Devonshire (qv) (1737–47), and the earl of Chesterfield (qv) (1745–6) – all distrusted Boyle. This was partly because he openly opposed unpopular government measures, such as the attempted repeal of the test act in the session of 1733–4 or the unsuccessful effort to introduce regulations to stop the smuggling of wool to France in 1741–2. Loyalty was tempered by keeping an eye on the mood of the country gentlemen, to whom he felt close.
His relationship with them remained largely positive through the 1730s and 1740s. He was able to gain the support of government for popular anti-catholic measures (financial support for the charter schools, arms for the protestant militia in 1739, and the disarming bill of 1744). He was also a strong advocate of using revenue to aid the building of canals, the spread of tillage, and the linen board. These were expected to aid the stagnant Irish economy and to help the localities of the country gentlemen. All of this added to Boyle's reputation and his continued success, despite the ever-present underestimation of his political skills.
Political crises, 1748–56 By the end of the 1740s Boyle seemed to be at the peak of his power but also to be assailed by new enemies. The Devonshire viceroyalty produced a rival undertaker in the 1st earl of Bessborough (qv), with English political connections that Boyle never courted. That family married into the Devonshire one, and in turn threatened Boyle's control of the Burlington interest. Despite his concession of retiring from the revenue board in 1739 in favour of John Ponsonby (qv), Boyle did not gain their support. However, the earl of Harrington's (qv) viceroyalty seemed to reemphasise his power. He was the dominant lord justice, crucial in defeating a ministry proposal to augment the Irish army from 12,000 to 18,000 men in the winter of 1748. In the session of 1749–50 he fully supported efforts to emphasise the lustre of the commons. These were shown in the campaign to prosecute Charles Lucas (qv) for seditious libel, and the assertion of the power to dispose of a treasury surplus.
All Boyle's political skills were tested in the political crisis that followed the appointment of the duke of Dorset for a second term as viceroy in December 1750. In the period 1750–54 he faced the tripartite challenge of the viceroy, the primate and fellow lord justice Archbishop George Stone (qv), and the Ponsonbys. At this stage, at the age of 66 and after seventeen years as speaker and nine spells as a lord justice, the prospect of retirement must have appealed. The threat to a settlement on his retiring from the chair may have been his first motivation to resist the government. The perception of a danger to the political balance between parliament and executive turned this struggle into a crisis in 1753–4.
Boyle's concern about his position lay behind his tactics in the 1751–2 session. There, he opposed the government on the issue of barracks mismanagement but stopped short of declared opposition. He did this by agreeing to avoid the expulsion of the surveyor general, Arthur Jones Nevill (qv), from the commons and also in allowing mention in the money bill of the previous consent of the king in any disposal of a treasury surplus. Despite the chilly relations between government and speaker, Boyle was appointed a lord justice for the tenth time (24 March 1752). Stalemate reigned, as both sides prepared for the next session. Boyle was now in a close alliance with the parliamentary groupings led by the Gores and the earl of Kildare (qv), later 1st duke of Leinster, as well as numerous independent MPs who disliked the current administration. Yet he was isolated from the channels of patronage by Archbishop Stone, and the coalition compensated by whipping up popular support by endless rounds of dinners and Patriot Club and grand jury meetings.
As the 1753–4 session approached, neither side was sure of who would have a majority of MPs. The government believed that Boyle would not go beyond his limited opposition to them in the previous session, and at first they seemed correct in their assessment. He seemed to follow the methods of 1751–2, testing his strength unsuccessfully in two contested elections. However, when the issue of Nevill was raised again, this time the speaker supported the expulsion, and on 18 December 1753 the money bill was thrown out by MPs for having an assertion of previous consent in its preamble. Boyle was now in open opposition and neither side was strong enough to emerge totally victorious. The government panicked first. Boyle and some of his leading supporters were sacked from their positions, and the session was prorogued before finishing its business. This turned Boyle into a more popular figure that he had ever been before, and by April 1755 the ministry in London had realised the mistake and replaced Dorset as viceroy with the marquess of Hartington (qv).
Elder statesman, 1756–64 Boyle's concern in the negotiations that followed were to achieve a settlement for his retirement, which the rise of rival undertakers had threatened. In April 1756 he achieved this, with the exclusion of Stone from the government, a peerage, and a substantial pension, to help with debts incurred in enlarging his estate and house in Co. Cork. Despite much public odium cast at him for this settlement, the new Lord Shannon remained a powerful figure, whom the government could ill afford to ignore. He had succeeded in his aim of retiring as speaker with some profit and electoral interest, bar the Burlington boroughs, largely intact. Nor had he caused the destruction of the undertaker system, though his rivalry with Stone and the Ponsonbys had made it less reliable for the government and more open to suggestions of reform, such as a lord deputy or resident viceroy instead of lords justices.
Nor was his retirement to prove a lasting one, though this was more to do with appearance rather than reality. In 1758, when the duke of Bedford (qv) sought three undertakers to serve as lords justices and solve another political crisis, Shannon was persuaded to return for an eleventh term in the commission (29 April 1758). However, at the 1761 general election there was a truer sign of his retirement as he effectively ceded borough management to his able heir. Despite this, he served another three times after 1758–9 as a lord justice, providing a powerful prop for government and a largely reliable squadron in parliament.
Boyle added to the rebuilding work at Castlemartyr, which had been destroyed in 1689, and improved the demesne and the borough town. His other residence was at Henrietta St., Dublin, where he stayed when the parliament was in session or when on business as a lord justice. He was awarded an LLD from Dublin University in July 1735, and on being raised to the peerage he was also appointed governor of Co. Cork (3 May 1756).
Boyle married first Catherine, daughter of Chidley Coote of Killester, Co. Limerick, who died childless (5 May 1725). Then he married (September 1726) a distant cousin, Henrietta (d. 13 December 1746), sister of the 3rd earl of Burlington. They had one daughter, who married the 1st earl of Carrick, and five sons (three of whom predeceased him), the eldest of whom, Richard (qv), succeeded him as 2nd earl of Shannon. Boyle died 27 December 1764 at the age of 80, in Henrietta St., Dublin, and is buried in Castlemartyr. His papers are among the Shannon collection held in the PRONI, D2707.