“‘Always rowdy, violent and colourful’?: Eighteenth century elections in the borough of Swords, Co. Dublin”?

In the second instalment of our local history look at electioneering in Ireland, today we welcome guest blogger Dr Suzanne Forbes, lecturer at the Open University who is currently researching the representative system in 18th century Ireland. In this blog Dr Forbes questions the dangerous reputation of the borough of Swords in Co. Dublin…

The potwalloping borough of Swords, located some fourteen kilometres north of Dublin city centre, has often been held up as an example of everything that was wrong with the representative system in eighteenth-century Ireland. In 1790, John Robert Scott, wrote that the borough of Swords was ‘of notorious fame in the annals of bribery and corruption’ and that the candidate with the ‘weightiest purse’ was commonly successful in parliamentary elections [Scott, p. 34]. An anonymous manuscript offering a survey of Irish parliamentary constituencies the following year noted that voters in Swords ‘sell themselves to the best bidder’ [Johnston, p. 28].

The borough fared no better in nineteenth century and twentieth century accounts. One 1888 publication asserted that voters in Swords ‘were of the meanest class of citizens… whose venality was as black as the pots that qualified them’ [Walsh, p. 173]. In their 1903 account of the Irish representative system, Edward and Annie Porritt noted that the borough of Swords was notorious for its ‘squalid corruption’ [Porritt & Porritt, ii, 354]. Negative assessments of Swords are to be found in more recent publications too. Notably, E. M. Johnston-Liik’s The History of the Irish Parliament (HIP) repeatedly refers to the constituency as ‘that notorious potwalloping borough’ or ‘the most corrupt and notorious constituency in Ireland’[e.g. HIP, iii, 166; iv, 380]. The publicly accessible HIP entry for the constituency, also claims that elections in the town ‘were always rowdy, violent and colourful’.

How, though, did the borough of Swords gain such a bad reputation? Part of the answer lies in the absence of a clear patron of the borough. When the Irish parliament was abolished as a consequence of the union of Ireland and Great Britain in 1801, the commissioners appointed to determine which borough patrons should receive compensation for their loss determined that none of the (many) claimants for Swords could prove their case. As a result, the sum of £15,000 was awarded to the inhabitants of the borough to be spent on the education of local children, and other good causes.

Brackenstown House near Swords, residence of the Molesworth family.
Patrick Healy Collection, South Dublin County Libraries

That said, members of the Molesworth family were able to control at least one of the two seats in the borough from 1703 until 1761. Thereafter members of the Cobbe and Beresford families controlled at least one seat in the borough, later entering into a compact with John Hatch, a property agent and developer, who was first returned as MP for Swords in 1768. Although Hatch lost his seat in 1776 and again in 1790, the return of his son-in-law, Francis Synge, as MP for Swords in 1798 is testament to his success establishing an interest in the borough. Of course, the absence of a clear patron contributed to the high number of election contests in the borough and the high number of related controverted election cases. Although evidence related to controverted election cases must be approached with caution, looking at those cases provides some explanation for certain aspects of the borough’s reputation, while raising questions about others.

Robert Molesworth, 1st Viscount Molesworth, Peter Pelham, 1721.
National Portrait Gallery.
Molesworth was MP for Swords from 1703-1713

Few details of the 1692 controverted election case are available but the next case, disputing the outcome of the 1727 general election, is exceptionally well-documented. Three petitions and a report of the committee of privileges and elections, over 10,000 words in length, are printed in the Journals of the Irish House of Commons. The petitioners raised various objections about the behaviour of the portreeve of the borough – the chief officer of the borough who acted as returning officer during elections – particularly noting that he had made a double return. The petitioners also raised concerns about non-resident and newly resident voters, and the use of bribery, threats and other corrupt practices to procure votes.

The 1727 report of the committee of privileges and elections provides a significant amount of detail about non-resident and newly resident voters in the small borough. For example, one witness described a group of twenty-four men arriving into the borough in March 1727 with their wives and children and ‘Furze on their Back to potwallop with, or Boyle their pot’ [JHCI, iii, 526]. The report also provides a great detail of information about bribery in the borough, with some witnesses claiming to have been in a position to choose between bribes from opposing candidates and others claiming to have accepted payments in exchange for their vote, yet voting as they pleased. While the report is fascinating – the Porritts suggest that ‘there is not, so far as representative and social history goes, a more informing or more quaintly interesting series of pages anywhere in the Journals of the Irish House of Commons’ [Porritt & Porritt, ii, 350] –  for all of the detail provided, there is no mention of violence or unruly behaviour during the election.

Evidence related to the next controverted election case in the borough in 1768 suggests that polling was closed prematurely on that occasion in response to claims that a riot had taken place. However, in their petitions to the House of Commons, the two losing candidates claimed that polling had been going on ‘in a perfect State of Tranquillity’ when the portreeve closed the poll on the pretext that a riot had taken place in order to deny their supporters an opportunity to vote [JHCI, viii, 292]. Those claims were vindicated when the committee of privileges and elections overturned the election result and ordered that the portreeve be taken into custody for acting ‘arbitrarily, partially, and illegally’ during the election [JHCI, viii, 329]. Allegations of non-residents voting, bribery and corruption featured again in objections raised against the outcome of the 1776 general election in the borough, although there was no mention of violent behaviour.

Similarly, a petition disputing the outcome of the 1783 general election, claimed that the portreeve was not qualified to return members to parliament on that occasion. The petition, ultimately withdrawn, briefly mentioned the use of bribery and other corrupt practices to procure votes. The final controverted election case in the borough related to the 1790 general election. Yet again, references were made to the behaviour of the portreeve, non-resident and other unqualified voters, as well as bribery and corruption. Like the 1783 case, there was no mention of unruly or violent behaviour during the election.

Overall, it seems fair to say that bribery and corruption were recurring themes in controverted election cases related to the borough of Swords in the eighteenth-century, although it is not at all clear how Swords compares to other Irish constituencies in this regard. With the exception of disputed claims that a riot had taken place in 1768, the petitions and reports relevant to controverted election cases do not support the idea that violence was a recurring problem in the borough. While the borough of Swords might have been colourful and interesting, its reputation for rowdiness and violence does not seem to be wholly deserved.


Further Reading

‘Swords’, Ulster Historical Foundation

Johnston, Edith M. “The State of the Irish House of Commons in 1791.” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature 59 (1957): 1-56.

Johnston-Liik, E. M., History of the Irish Parliament 1692-1800 (6 vols, Belfast, 2002)

Journals of the House of Commons of the Kingdom of Ireland (19 vols, Dublin, 1796-1800)

Porritt, E. and Porrit, A. G., The Unreformed House of Commons. Parliamentary Representation before 1832 (2 vols, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), ii.

Scott, John Robert. Parliamentary representation: being a political and critical review of all the counties, cities, and boroughs of the kingdom of Ireland, with regard to the state of their representation. By Falkland. Dublin, 1790.

Walsh, Robert, Fingal and its Churches: A Historical Sketch of the Foundation and Struggles of the Church of Ireland in that part of the County Dublin which lies to the North of the River Tolka (Dublin: William McGee, 1888)

Find our previous local history blogs here.

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