Henry Grattan

The Irish statesman and orator Henry Grattan (1746-1820) led the nationalist fight for Ireland's legislative independence from England, for parliamentary reform, and for Catholic emancipation.

Henry Grattan distinguished himself at Trinity College, Dublin, where he acquired his passion for the classics and for eloquent oratory. He left the university in 1767 and was called to the Irish bar in 1772. With another Irish patriot, Henry Flood, Grattan contributed articles to the nationalist Freeman's Journal. They were at first great friends and united in the Irish cause. Grattan entered Parliament in 1775, the same year in which Flood lost his position as parliamentary leader by accepting the office of vice-treasurer of Ireland. Grattan's eloquence quickly allowed him to move into the leadership that Flood had vacated.

The American Revolution helped bring Irish matters to a head, and in 1778-1779 Britain finally granted some of the concessions to Irish trade for which Grattan and Flood had worked. Grattan's greatest efforts then went toward securing Ireland's legislative independence. He made speech after speech in Parliament, declaring that Ireland had as much right to its freedom as the English king had to his crown. Hard-pressed by defeat in America and alarmed by the convention of the Volunteers, an Irish nationalist organization at Dungannon, in 1782 England granted legislative independence and ended penal laws against Catholics. The Irish Parliament recognized Grattan's primary role in securing its liberty and granted him £50,000, a sum which made him financially independent. The free Irish legislature, which lasted only 18 years, was called Grattan's Parliament.

With their chief object thus achieved, the Irish patriots fell into disagreement over some of their other goals. Grattan and Flood were themselves both Protestants, but they differed on Catholic emancipation. Grattan believed in the future of a unified nationalist Ireland and wished to grant Catholics full civil liberties; Flood, however, wanted to guarantee Protestant ascendancy by withholding from Catholics the rights to vote and hold office. Both wanted to reform the corrupt Irish legislature, but they differed on methods. They also disagreed over disbanding the Volunteers, which Grattan desired and Flood opposed.

In Parliament, Grattan at first generally supported the administration but moved into opposition as he saw governmental intransigence against the reforms he wanted, especially tithe commutation. He steadily refused office, lest it appear that he had sold out to government. He continued to attack parliamentary corruption and to support Catholic emancipation. The latter was moving closer under the guidance of William Pitt the Younger, but the rashness of Lord Fitzwilliam in 1795 made it impossible. In the face of growing disorders, Grattan made a final appeal for reforms and emancipation. His efforts failing, he seceded from the legislature (1797) but returned to Parliament to speak against the Union (1800).

For the last 15 years of his life Grattan sat in the Union House of Commons, frequently urging Catholic emancipation and once (1813) coming near success. He died in 1820 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.


Further Reading on Henry Grattan

Roger J. McHugh, Henry Grattan (1936), and Stephen Gwynn, Henry Grattan and His Times (1939), are the best modern biographies. William Edward Hartpole Lecky's biographical essay on Grattan occupies more than 200 pages of his Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland, vol. 1 (3d ed. 1903). General histories for background include Edmund Curtis, A History of Ireland (6th ed. rev. 1950), and J. C. Beckett, A Short History of Ireland (1952; rev. ed. 1958).