Dobbs, Francis (1750–1811), Volunteer, author, and MP, was born 27 April 1750, second son among four sons and a daughter of the Rev. Richard Dobbs (c.1694–1775), rector (1743–75) of Lisburn cathedral, Co. Antrim, and his wife Mary (d. 1796), widow of Cornet McMannus, and daughter of James Young of Lisnane, Co. Tyrone. Richard Dobbs was the younger brother of Arthur Dobbs (qv), governor of North Carolina. Francis was educated at a public school, and in 1768 purchased an ensigncy in the 63rd Regiment, becoming lieutenant and adjutant. While soldiering he studied law and in 1773 he quit the army, entered the Middle Temple, and was called to the bar (1775), acquiring a reputation as an able constitutional lawyer. On 17 July 1773 he married Jane, daughter of Alexander Stewart, of Ballintoy, Co. Antrim, and Acton, Co. Armagh, and settled on the Acton property as agent. He had some literary talent and published the long poems ‘Modern matrimony’ and ‘The disappointment’ (1773) and Poems (1788). His verse tragedy The patriot king, or Irish chief (1773) enjoyed some short-lived popularity, premiering at Smock Alley, Dublin (26 April 1773), and in Lisburn (27 October 1775) and Belfast (15 December 1777). It told of the Celtic chieftain Ceallachan's victory over the Danes, contrasted the simple virtue of the native Irish with the corruption of the Viking court, and implied that the Irish might yet again free themselves from foreign conquerors.
Dobbs was prominent in the volunteering movement and in 1778 was elected lieutenant of the second Belfast company and later captain of the Tyrone Ditches and Acton company, Co. Armagh. His zeal, integrity and ability as a public speaker attracted the notice of the earl of Charlemont (qv), the Volunteer commander-in-chief, and Dobbs became one of his main assistants. In January 1780 he was elected major of the southern battalion of Armagh Volunteers, and was appointed exercising officer to the three great reviews held at Belfast (1780–82). He played a central role at the first Dungannon convention (15 February 1782): in consultation with Charlemont, Flood (qv), and Grattan (qv) he drafted the resolutions that contributed to the granting of legislative independence for Ireland, and he moved these resolutions at the convention. He also corresponded with leading English reformers, moved on 17 June 1782 the address for reform to George III, and was one of the delegation appointed to present it to him in London. A leading Volunteer pamphleteer, he published A letter to Lord North (1780), advising him to grant Ireland economic and legislative freedom before the Volunteers took it by force; Thoughts on Volunteers (1781); and A history of Irish affairs (1782). In another pamphlet, The true principles of government applied to the Irish constitution (1783), he argued for far-reaching reforms, including the codification and simplification of the law, a broadening of the parliamentary franchise, a national militia and a state religion, based on the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Sermon on the Mount; he also advocated the payment of all clergy and MPs, free trade, and the abolition of all indirect taxes. In summer 1782 he clashed with the Belfast Volunteers over his support for Grattan's ‘simple repeal’ as against Flood's demands for Westminster to renounce explicitly all control over Irish legislation. In October 1782 he accepted a lieutenant-colonelcy in a government fencible regiment (the Royal Ulster Provincial Regiment), a decision that was very unpopular with his colleagues and led to his expulsion from the Volunteers.
Like his father, author of A remarkable accomplishment of a noted prophecy as applied to the history of England (1762), Dobbs had a strong interest in prophetical scripture, and published his Universal history (4 vols, 1787–8), a work which claimed to show that history had evolved in line with scriptural prophecies. After his expulsion from the Volunteers he had little involvement in politics until in 1793 he joined the Association of the Friends of the People, a moderate reform society founded by the duke of Leinster (qv). He deplored the extremism of politics in the later 1790s and the government's repressive measures, and was elected MP for Charlemont, Co. Armagh (January 1798–1800). When United Irish prisoners approached Lord Charlemont to act on their behalf in negotiations with the government after the 1798 rebellion, Charlemont appointed Dobbs as intermediary. He played a central role in encouraging the prisoners to sign up to the ‘Kilmainham treaty’ of July 1798, by which executions were ended in return for information and the prisoners' banishment. In the autumn of 1798 he helped persuade rebels in Co. Wicklow to surrender their arms and take advantage of a government amnesty. On 5 March 1799, in a parliamentary speech that was later published, he advocated conciliatory measures to restore the country to tranquillity, such as catholic emancipation, parliamentary reform, and commutation of tithes.
He was fervently opposed to the union between Britain and Ireland, and on 5 February and 7 June 1800 he spoke against it in parliament, citing extracts from the books of Daniel and Revelations to prove that Ireland, which he believed was to host the second coming of Christ, was divinely decreed to remain an independent state. He claimed that Armagh was the Armageddon foretold in Revelations, and since there were no snakes in Ireland ‘Satan, the great serpent, is here to receive his first deadly blow’ (Dobbs, 46). He stressed that Christ's coming must be imminent since the Messiah would surely prevent any attempt to destroy Ireland's independence. Dobbs delivered these speeches with deadly seriousness, despite the levity with which they were received in the house. They were published with a brief memoir and his poem ‘Millennium’, selling about 30,000 copies, and he became known as ‘Millennium Dobbs’. He took advantage of this publicity to publish A concise view from history and prophecy of the great predictions in the sacred writings that have been fulfilled . . . (1800) and an expanded version of his Universal history (9 vols, 1800), which concluded that the momentous events of recent years heralded the second coming of Christ and the establishment of universal peace and happiness. Jonah Barrington (qv), noting how Dobbs's language and demeanour changed when he spoke of apocalyptic prophecies, believed that he ‘seemed to possess two distinct minds – the one adapted to the duties of his profession, and the usual offices of society' and another which ‘entangled him in a maze of contemplative deduction from revelation to futurity and frequently decoyed his judgement beyond the frontiers of reason’ (Barrington, 229). Although considered eccentric, Dobbs was respected and admired for his honesty and good nature. In his final years he sank into obscurity and poverty, and died 11 April 1811.
From his first marriage he had six sons (most of whom had military careers) and a daughter; he later married Charity, daughter of Robert Burrowes of Kildare. His brother Lt William Dobbs, RN, died on board HMS Drake 26 April 1778 of wounds received in Paul Jones's raid on Carrickfergus bay; another brother, Richard (c.1741–1802), was assistant curate to his father at Lisburn (1764–9), rector of Carrickfergus, and dean of Connor (1775–1802).