Philips, William (d. 1734?), playwright and member of the Irish parliament, the son of George Philips (qv) of Limavady, Co. Londonderry, was the last representative of a prominent plantation family. The immense volume of debt incurred by his father blighted Philips's prospects and forced him to work for his living. Little is known of his early life, except that he may have been educated at Kilkenny. A pupil of that name was recorded as entering the school in 1692, aged ten, and a paternal connection with the Ormonds would make the identification plausible. Immediately after George Philips's death the Limavady estate was sold to William Conolly (qv), to pay off creditors.
Thrown back on his own resources, Philips experimented with writing for the stage. His first play, ‘The revengeful queen: a tragedy’, was produced in London in 1698 and subsequently published there, with an extravagant dedication to the second duke of Ormond (qv). It was an entirely conventional production, closely reminiscent of Sir William Davenant's ‘Albovine’, of which Philips claimed to have been ignorant. He followed this in December 1699 with a light comedy, ‘St Stephen's Green’, a competent but lifeless effort of which the only unusual feature was its Dublin setting. The first performance in Dublin angered some ‘collegians’ in the audience who, provoked by what they saw as ‘reflections’ on Trinity College, hissed the play and physically attacked its author (BL, Add. MS 9710, f. 28). Casting his net a little wider in the search for possible patrons, Philips dedicated the published version to another Irish peer, Lord Inchiquin.
Philips's prospects took a turn for the better with Ormond's appointment as lord lieutenant in 1703. That year he secured election to the Irish parliament, for the borough of Doneraile, on Lord Doneraile's interest, and in 1704, presumably through Ormond's influence, was given an army commission, as a captain in Lord Ikerrin's regiment of foot. Within two years he was driven to try to sell his commission, ‘being extremely involved in debts’ (NLI, MS 992, f. 341). This proved unexpectedly difficult, because of Ormond's unwillingness to sanction the sale, as a breach of etiquette, but eventually Philips got his way. Evidence of his attendance to parliamentary duties is complicated by the presence in the Commons of a namesake, Chichester Philips. However, William was certainly in Dublin in May 1705, when he was arrested (in error) by the sub-sheriff of the city and complained of breach of privilege; during the sessions of 1707 and 1709, when he spoke in debate, and was listed as voting on the tory side; and again in 1710, when he gave one of only three votes against the election of the whig John Forster (qv) as speaker.
After 1710 Philips abandoned Ireland for London, where he found a new patron, the prominent English tory MP and literary amateur Sir Thomas Hanmer. Through Hanmer's strong recommendations, supported by the duke of Ormond (now restored to the Irish viceroyalty), he received several small grants of money from the treasury, and then in 1712 a pension of £200 a year on the Irish establishment. The pension was given under a false name, and it says much for the regard in which Philips was held by Hanmer that it was paid to Sir Thomas in trust, for Hanmer's considerable political reputation was built on a record of unimpeachable integrity and independence of government, and had his receipt of a secret pension, however small, become public knowledge, his parliamentary career would have been ruined. The exact nature of the relationship between the two men is unclear: Hanmer's wife, the dowager duchess of Grafton, may have taken a dim view of it, since her private accounts record one payment to ‘the mad captain’. The nineteenth-century editor of Hanmer's correspondence, with access to papers that have not survived, wrote that Philips undertook various commissions for his patron, sometimes in a very lowly capacity, and borrowed money from him. Hanmer himself was an extraordinarily fastidious person, who had married a woman much older than himself and was popularly supposed to have had no carnal relations with her. The friendship was sufficiently close for Philips to have accompanied Hanmer to Paris in 1712, on an unofficial mission in connection with the Harley ministry's peace policy. During their stay Philips made contact with Jacobite agents, and gave the impression, without saying so explicitly, that he could bring Hanmer, his ‘intimate friend’, into an understanding with the Pretender. What is known of Philips's political background and connections would certainly suggest tory sympathies high enough to stretch to a little Jacobitism, though in this case, for tactical purposes, he may have been doing his master's bidding.
Philips did not attempt to return to Ireland to stand at the general election of 1713, preferring to take his chances in England, where Hanmer was chosen speaker of the house of commons. He may have been the author of the anonymous panegyric A short character of the honourable Sir Thomas Hanmer, published in London in 1714 and reprinted in Dublin by the tory printer Edward Waters (d. 1751). Because of Sir Thomas's pro-Hanoverian stance in Queen Anne's last parliament, Philips's pension was secure after George I's accession, at least as long as the whig ministry needed to keep Hanmer's goodwill. As a result it seems to have been paid until the end of 1716. But by this time the Hanoverian tories had fallen out of favour and consigned themselves to opposition. Hanmer briefly took up with the ‘Leicester Fields’ faction surrounding the Hanoverian prince of Wales, but retired from active politics after the reconciliation between George I and his son in 1720 had closed this avenue of loyal opposition. At this point Philips surfaced again in the guise of playwright. He published two further plays, Hibernia free'd (1722) and Belisarius (1724), both of which had been staged in London. That he still had some connection with Hanmer is suggested by the fact that the printed version of Belisarius included an advertisement for the same publisher's version of Sir Thomas's insipid rendition of ‘The romance of the rose’, but the political implications of both these later plays are very different to anything Hanmer would have countenanced.
Hibernia free'd was for its time an extraordinary piece, set during the ninth-century Viking invasion of Ireland and taking as its heroes the Gaelic Irish lords who had led the national resistance to the ‘Danish’ king Turgesius. Philips seems to have taken some of his characters, and some elements of his plot, from the historical narrative given (from Geoffrey Keating (qv)) in the then recently published A brief discourse in vindication of the antiquity of Ireland (1717), by Aodh ‘Buí’ Mac Cruitín (qv) (Hugh MacCurtain) (which like St Stephen's Green had been dedicated to Lord Inchiquin), although he blended characters from different epochs, telescoped some events, and inserted other episodes that were wholly fictional. The ennobling ideal of love for country, and more specifically for Ireland, formed the explicit theme; and although the conclusion of the play accepted that there would be a future conquest of the country, by the English, which would bring progress and thus be both just and even necessary, the immediate impact must have been to arouse patriotic, and even in the contemporary context, anti-English, passions. The recent controversy over the passage of the declaratory act (1720) guaranteed that Philips's rhetoric would have an inflammatory potential, and there were reports that the ‘wild Irish’ (Freeholder's Journal, quoted in Wheatley, 49) who flocked to the performances in London had responded enthusiastically to its patriotic sentiments. But the work had a deeper purpose. Although it was dedicated to the solidly whiggish earl of Thomond, there were plenty of clues to its real political message. The principal Irish lord was the high-king O'Brien (a further nod in Thomond's direction as well as Inchiquin's), but his chief supporter was given the name Herimon (MacCurtin's anglicised version of Eremon, the Milesian progenitor of the Irish royal race), a name possibly chosen because it was so close to that of Ormond, Philips's former political leader, who was now in Jacobite exile at the Pretender's court. The ideas contained in the play were also typical of contemporary Jacobite literature, with repeated references to the ‘usurpation’ by Turgesius of a crown that truly belonged to another, and a sub-plot involving the rape of an Irish maiden by the Dane ‘Erric’, which, as an allegory to political violence against wronged innocence, was another familiar Jacobite device. In case anyone missed the point, the prologue hammered it home: ‘Let not one foundling all your wealth inherit / The fav'rite child not always has most merit.’
After this heady mixture of patriotism and Jacobitism, Belisarius, the story of the Emperor Justinian's loyal general, judicially blinded after a false accusation of conspiracy, might not seem at first glance to have been so topical, but again there were powerful political implications. Philips dedicated the published play to the old general John Richmond Webb, who according to tory martyrology had been robbed of the glory of his triumph at Wynendael in 1709 by a jealous duke of Marlborough (qv). There was another, unspoken parallel, however, with Bishop Francis Atterbury, while the themes of the play – suffering loyalty set against political corruption and injustice – would have resonated with contemporary anti-ministerial, and indeed anti-Hanoverian, polemic.
The Jacobite climax of Philips's otherwise rather undistinguished literary career affords his biography its chief interest. His personal journey from Williamite planter to Jacobite author and spokesman for an Irish patriotism that could praise Gaelic Irish resistance to foreign invasion represented in an extreme form two important shifts in political attitudes that were occurring among the protestant propertied elite in Ireland at this time: the emergence on the one hand of a form of Irish ‘patriotism’ and on the other an Irish high church or tory political interest. Given the peculiar circumstances of Philips's own career, however, it is not entirely clear how far he was an exemplar of these changes and how far an opportunist.
Nothing more is heard of Philips after the publication of Belisarius. The death of a Mr Philips, ‘author of several dramatic pieces’, was reported in the Gentleman's Magazine to have occurred on 12 December 1734. Despite the suggestions of some scholars who have written about him, there is no proof that he ever married.