Act of Union Supplement: The Last Defender of the Irish Parliament

The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), January 22, 2001 | Go to article overview

Act of Union Supplement: The Last Defender of the Irish Parliament


The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland is well equipped to mount an exhibition on the Irish Act of Union of 1801.

In addition to the papers of many other important protagonists on both sides of the question, it holds those of the Irishman who played the most important part in the carrying of the Union, Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh (1769 - 1822), Chief Secretary for Ireland, 1798 - 1801, and those of the Irishman to whom the opposition to the Union was 'principally, if not altogether' due, John Foster (1740-1828), the last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons (1785-1800).

Castlereagh's archive comprises c.7,500 documents and volumes, and Foster's c.25,000.

Foster came from Co Louth, which he represented in parliament, 1768-1821. In 1810, his son and heir married the heiress of the Massereene family of Antrim Castle, Co Antrim; Foster's son was Viscount Ferrard, she was Viscountess Massereene, and in this way Northern Ireland's most famous double-barrelled title came into being. Foster's archive came north when the family seat in Co Louth was sold, and along with it came the Speaker's chair and the mace of the Irish House of Commons.

Foster had taken both of them away when, as he said, the parliament which had entrusted them to him ceased to exist.

Sadly, the chair was destroyed when Antrim Castle was set on fire by terrorists in 1922. Lots of brave and willing locals joined in an extensive rescue operation, but (in the absence of Lord Massereene and the family butler), there was nobody to direct them, so they wasted precious time saving a huge and heavy Victorian billiard table!

The mace survived, and was sold to the Bank of Ireland in Dublin in the 1930s.

It will form part of the exhibition on the Act of Union.

Foster was the Irish parliament's leading expert on economic affairs. He was particularly associated with 'Foster's Corn Law', a successful protectionist measure of 1784, and with the 'fostering' (pun employed ad nauseam by contemporaries) of the Irish linen industry.

His expertise was widely acknowledged and feared, so Pitt and, to a lesser extent, the Dublin Castle administration, behaved with great arrogance and foolishness when they slighted Foster and drove him into opposition to the Union in late 1798.

It is almost certain that he would have opposed it as an individual, but he should never have been goaded into leading the opposition. …

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