Shaw, William (1823–95), home rule MP and congregational minister, was born at Moy, Co. Tyrone, on 4 May 1823, the son of Samuel Shaw, congregational minister, of Passage Cork. Privately educated, he entered TCD, but took no degree, and then studied at a theological seminary at Highbury, north London. After returning to Ireland in the 1840s, he served as minister of an Independent church in George Street, Cork (1846–50). In 1850 he abandoned his clerical career for a mercantile one upon his marriage to Charlotte Clear, the daughter of a wealthy Cork corn merchant and banker. He became proprietor of a weekly trade newspaper connected with the iron and coal industries, and was wealthy and respected enough to become chairman and director of the Munster Bank, established in 1864.
In 1859 Shaw made his first attempt to enter politics when he stood in the general election as an independent Liberal for Bandon, Co. Cork, though he was defeated by a small majority. He tried again in 1865 for the same constituency, and was again defeated, but won the seat by three votes in 1868. As MP for Bandon (1868–74) he actively supported many of W. E. Gladstone's measures, particularly disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and land reform. A founding member in 1870 of the Home Government Association of Isaac Butt (qv), he chaired the November 1873 home rule conference at the Rotunda, which presented 18,000 signatures for the restoration of a domestic parliament and which launched the Irish Home Rule League. In 1874 he was elected for Co. Cork as a home-ruler, and was a leading home rule MP in parliament (1874–85). Well respected in the house of commons as a moderate, and as chairman of the Munster Bank (with branches throughout the south and west of Ireland), he was continually in receipt of information from branch managers on the concerns of rural Ireland. His business contacts also carried weight with English Liberals.
With Butt's death in May 1879, Shaw was selected to succeed as leader of the Irish Party. However, he was seen by C. S. Parnell (qv) and his followers as too moderate. On 17 May 1880, at the annual party meeting, he lost the party leadership to Parnell by a vote of twenty-three to eighteen, with several abstentions. It was the first occasion the position had been contested and it would be the last until 1890. Shaw received some recompense with his appointment in July 1880 to the influential Bessborough commission of inquiry into the workings of 1870 Land Act. He was one of four commissioners who produced a report recommending the extensions of the ‘3 Fs’ to Irish farmers – fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale – as well as more enticing rates for farm purchase.
The government's decision to prosecute Land League leaders on charges of conspiracy to prevent the payment of rent led indirectly to Shaw's exodus from the Irish Party. On 27 December, the day before the commencement of the trials, a meeting of the Irish Party was held in Dublin to consolidate party discipline. It was resolved that all home-rulers would thereafter sit in opposition to the government – an ultimatum to Shaw and his followers to get in line behind Parnell. Shaw's dislike of Parnell and open opposition to the Land League made his position in the party untenable, and in mid-January 1881, with twelve followers – nine of whom were landowners – he seceded from the home rule party. Thereafter, until his retirement from politics at the dissolution of parliament in 1885, Shaw gave general support to Gladstone.
Shaw's political retirement was caused by the failure of the Munster Bank in 1885. Rumours that the directors had overdrawn their accounts led to litigation on behalf of shareholders, though proceedings were eventually halted by agreement. The bank went into voluntary liquidation, but Shaw, as a director and former chairman, had claims against him of £130,000. On 12 January 1886 he was adjudicated a bankrupt on the petition of the bank liquidators. A broken man, he spent his last years in seclusion, and died 17 September 1895 at Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow.