Chichester, George Augustus (1769–1844), 2nd marquess of Donegall, major Irish landowner , and noted spendthrift, was born 13 August 1769, eldest of three sons of Arthur Chichester (qv), 5th earl and 1st marquess, and his first wife Anne, daughter of James, duke of Hamilton. There were also four daughters of the marriage. The Donegall estates – in Counties Antrim (including the entire town of Belfast), Donegal, and Wexford – were the largest in Ireland, totalling a quarter of a million acres, but their owner was an absentee. Young Lord Belfast (as he was called from 1791) was born and brought up entirely in England. He commenced his career as a prodigal son as soon as he came of age and could borrow money on his expectations to fund his gaming and horse-racing debts. His increasingly exasperated father rescued him from his shady creditors several times, then let his heir go to the debtors’ prison – a course of action he was to regret, for in the Fleet young Belfast met a sharp Irish lawyer and moneylender named May who, in return for arranging the prisoner's release, in 1795 persuaded him to marry (8 August 1795) his own illegitimate daughter Anna, a minor. Lord Donegall was horrified when he heard of this unsuitable union, the more so as his son then proceeded to raise money by the potentially ruinous means of post-obit bonds. The whole May family fastened itself on the 2nd marquess as soon as he inherited in 1799, and accompanied him when he fled to Belfast in 1802 in order to escape his English creditors. The Chichesters had not lived in Ireland for the past hundred years, and Donegall intended to remain only a short time. Instead, he was obliged to stay for the rest of his life in Belfast, where sympathetic local officials helped him to stave off his pursuers remarkably well.
Donegall's new career as a prodigal father enabled many of his tenants to purchase, for ready cash, renewals of their existing leases at moderate rents. A more comprehensive arrangement to raise money from the estate had to await the coming of age of the eldest of his seven sons in 1819. This Lord Belfast was engaged to marry a daughter of the earl of Shaftesbury. Both the marriage and the settlement were aborted, however, when an anonymous correspondent informed Shaftesbury – correctly, as it turned out – that the marriage of the Donegalls in 1795 had been performed illegally and that all their children were therefore illegitimate; the legitimate heir was a nephew of Donegall. After three anxious years, when every possible expedient to validate the marriage was tried without success, parliament in 1822 not only amended the law covering such cases but also (most unusually) made the change retrospective, in order to accommodate Donegall.
As soon as the way was clear, Donegall and his heir (who had another bride in view by then) agreed to raise a sum that in modern values would be millions of pounds to wipe out the father's debts and to provide his son with a suitable income. Perpetuities (leases renewable for ever at fixed rents) of most of Belfast, 70,000 acres of Co. Antrim, and 77,000 acres of Co. Donegal were sold during the next ten years. Only in 1844, when he died, did it become apparent that most of Donegall's debts were still owing. In the end, the 3rd marquess's creditors forced him to sell a large part of the estate outright in the encumbered estates court in the 1850s.
The 2nd marquess's extravagance greatly weakened his family's control over the Donegall estates. At the same time, his political power was undermined by parliamentary and municipal reform. Until 1832 Belfast's two MPs were virtually appointed by Donegall. The corporation, consisting of a sovereign (mayor) and twelve burgesses – the only voters in parliamentary elections, and themselves all nominated by the lord of the castle – was replaced in 1840 by an elected town council. Well liked for his affable manners, if not greatly respected by the hard-headed citizens of the rapidly growing town, Donegall was an outstanding example of the stereotypical Irish aristocrat of fiction, always in debt, an overdrawn character in every sense of the term. He died 5 October 1844 and was buried in the family vault in Carrickfergus.