Ourselves alone? The General Convention of Ireland of 1660

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Today’s Irish themed blog from Dr Patrick Little of our House of Commons 1640-60 project considers the difficulties of governing Ireland during the restoration of the Monarchy and the General Convention of Ireland …

Sir Charles Coote

The restoration of the Rump Parliament in May 1659 had thrown Ireland into disarray. The long-established settlers, known as the ‘Old Protestants’, had generally been supporters of the defunct protectorate and had engaged with enthusiasm with the Union Parliaments. Now their position was in considerable doubt, as their enemies in the army gained control, and the Cromwellian Union unravelled. Strictly speaking, the Rump had little constitutional right to rule Ireland except by conquest, but this did not stop the republicans from establishing a government, taking control of the army and exacting taxes from its neighbour. Small wonder that Monck’s decision to march south to London in December triggered a coup in Dublin and the seizure of garrisons across Ireland by the Old Protestant interest led by Sir Charles Coote and Lord Broghill (Roger Boyle). The second restoration of the Rump in December 1659 and the readmittance of the secluded Members in February 1660 did not settle the political and constitutional problem in Ireland, and on 27 February a new body, christened the ‘General Convention’ met at Dublin, adjourned, and met again on 2 March with a full complement of representatives from across Ireland.

Sir John Clotworthy

The General Convention was not a Parliament as such, and did its best to avoid comparisons. It was unicameral, had a chairman rather than a Speaker, and met in the Four Courts, not the great hall of Dublin Castle, the usual home of the Irish Parliament. But comparisons were hard to avoid. The session opened with a sermon, a clerk was chosen, standing committees appointed. In particular, its Members were elected for the traditional constituencies, although most seats returned one rather than the customary two representatives, resulting in a relatively small assembly. There were 158 Members in all. Many of these had served in former Irish Parliaments or in the protectorate Parliaments, and quite a few in both. Notable among the Members were Sir John Clotworthy (for an Ulster seat), Sir Theophilus Jones (for Leinster), Lord Broghill (for Munster), and Sir Charles Coote (for Connaught). Although the Old Protestants dominated – providing two thirds of the Members – there was also a significant number of new arrivals, mostly soldiers who had settled in Ireland after serving in the recent wars and shared many of the concerns of the longer established settlers.

In political terms, the General Convention should be seen an alliance between existing blocs, centred around Lord Broghill and Sir Charles Coote, whose primary intention was to influence events in England. Recent events at Westminster had made the restoration of the monarchy much more likely, and politicians over the Irish Sea were anxious to make sure they were not ignored in any deal struck with Charles II. The initial business of the Convention was to prepare a declaration, published on 8 March, asserting Ireland’s right to self-determination. They insisted on having their own Parliament, which would decide the nation’s taxes, and a national Protestant church (although the nature of that church remained undecided). This was more home rule than independence. Indeed, the Convention acknowledged that ‘the welfare and interest of England and Ireland are so inseparably interwoven as the good or evil of either must necessarily become common to both’ (A New Declaration of the General Convention of Ireland, quoted in Clarke, Prelude to Restoration, 250). While the Convention debated the details, there was an urgent need for agents to attend Westminster with Irish demands. This was, however, pre-empted by the council of state at Whitehall, suspicious of developments in Dublin, which appointed its own commissioners, and made moves to re-establish control over Irish affairs. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, Broghill and Coote began making private approaches to the exiled Charles II.

The meeting of the Convention Parliament in England on 25 April sounded the death knell for the General Convention of Ireland. It was clear that the new assembly at Westminster was packed with supporters of the king, who soon voted for his unconditional return. Bowing to the inevitable, on 1 May the General Convention decided to disband, issuing a parting declaration denouncing the regicide and begging God to ‘restore them [both nations] to peace upon the sure foundations of truth and righteousness’ (A Declaration of the General Convention of Ireland, quoted in Clarke, 290). The time for Irish intervention in ‘British’ politics may have passed, but as usual the leading Old Protestants proved adept at exploiting opportunities. Having persuaded Charles II that their loyalty to the Cromwells had been but a passing phase, in September 1660 Broghill was created earl of Orrery and Coote earl of Mountrath. They were made lords justices of Ireland in October, and it was under their authority that a new Irish Parliament convened in May 1661.

P.L.

Further reading:

  • Aidan Clarke, Prelude to Restoration in Ireland: the end of the Commonwealth, 1659-1660 (Cambridge, 1999).

Biographies for the above mentioned will appear in the House of Commons 1640-60 volumes. You can find further information about the project at www.historyofparliamentonline.org

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