MACNAMARA, William Nugent (?1776-1856), of Doolin, co. Clare

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1830 - 1852

Family and Education

b. ?1776, 1st s. of Francis Macnamara, MP [I], of Doolin and Moyriesk and Jane, da. of George Stamer of Carnelly. m. 1798, Susannah, da. and coh. of Mathias Finucane, j.c.p. [I], of Lifford, 1s. 4da. (1 d.v.p.). suc. fa. 1815. d. 11 Nov. 1856.

Offices Held

Sheriff, co. Clare 1798-9.

Maj. Clare militia.


Macnamara, a descendant of an ancient Milesian family, was the eldest son of Francis Macnamara of Moyriesk, who inherited Doolin through his mother Catherine Sarsfield. Francis, a barrister who had extensive though ‘involved’ estates, sat as an independent for Ardee, 1776-83, and was sheriff of his county, 1789-90. As Member for Clare in the 1790 Parliament, he supported government and was rewarded with the comptrollership of customs at Dingle, county Kerry, in 1795. He represented Killybegs, 1798-1800, and, by then a colonel in the British army, supposedly received a pension in lieu of the compensation of £400 he might have expected at the Union, for which he had twice voted.1 William was educated at a Dublin seminary and entered the local militia as a captain of grenadiers, later gaining promotion to major. He may have differed politically with his father since, during his spell as sheriff of Clare, 1798-9, he convened a meeting to petition against the Union. He preserved good order in the county during the Rebellion by the force of his kindly and gentle personality and, having been appointed to the commission of the peace in 1803, he earned a reputation for humanity and impartiality as ‘the people’s magistrate’.2

Macnamara stood for Clare at the general election of 1807 with the support of local Catholics, but, lacking government endorsement, withdrew, apparently under the pretence of not being able to sit because of the place he was reported (perhaps in confusion with his father) to hold.3 He undertook various travels on the continent between 1814 and 1816, but was in Dublin in early 1815, when he served as second to Daniel O’Connell* in his fatal duel with D’Esterre. Known as ‘Fireball’ Macnamara for his own duelling expertise, the firmness with which he made the arrangements and the precautions in which he coached his charge, were credited with having saved the life of the future Liberator and consequently raised his own standing.4 He proposed William Vesey Fitzgerald*, the former chancellor of the Irish exchequer, for Clare at the general election of 1818, and, having declined invitations to come forward himself, did so again two years later.5 In January 1821 he intervened at a county meeting to force an amendment criticizing the Liverpool ministry over the Queen Caroline affair, but he acquiesced in the approval of a loyal address to the king on his visit to Ireland that summer. He signed the requisition for, and presumably attended, the county meeting on agricultural distress in January 1823 and, as a supporter of their claims, he was thanked by the Catholics of Clare at their gathering in July 1825.6 Yet he did not attend the O’Connellite dinner to the friends of civil and religious liberty in Dublin, 2 Feb. 1826.7

He was reported to be a candidate on the independent interest at the general election that year, when the other Clare Member, the Tory Sir Edward O’Brien, commented that he did not ‘think he will persevere, although I am fully aware he would be desirous of giving as much opposition as he could and endeavour to raise himself in to importance by making a noise in the county’.8 Despite refusing to offer, he was put up by the O’Gorman Mahon* for Ennis, 16 June, and for the county, 23 June 1826, when he again nominated Vesey Fitzgerald. He subsequently explained that he had withdrawn in order to preserve the cause of independence, but promised to stand again, and he was present at the county’s Catholics’ meeting the following month.9 Having declared himself a friend and supporter of O’Connell at the Clare Liberal Club meeting in April 1828, he was the first choice of the Catholic Association to oppose Vesey Fitzgerald, the new president of the board of trade, on his standing for re-election that summer. But he hesitated and then, in the face of gentry opposition, excused himself as being under personal obligations to Vesey Fitzgerald and also, as he later wrote, to please his only son Francis Macnamara†, an officer in the 8th Hussars, who was concerned about the expense that would be incurred.10 He was praised for his refusal, which, like that of other liberal Protestants, opened the way for O’Connell’s triumphant candidacy at the by-election, from which he absented himself (though at one point it was thought that he would be put up as a security for him).11 From London that autumn he sympathized with the efforts of the O’Gorman Mahon to counter the activities of the local Brunswick clubs, agreeing to sign a Protestant petition for Catholic relief and promising that ‘when I arrive in Clare I will attack the Brunswickers from the bench’; he regretted his young friend’s removal from the magistracy in December 1828.12

On O’Connell being sent back for re-election in May 1829, Macnamara, who O’Connell considered would be a better Clare Member than his inactive colleague Lucius O’Brien, was briefly rumoured to be about to stand, perhaps in opposition to O’Connell himself.13 Francis, who avoided writing directly to his father, ‘lest he should think for a moment that I was about to interfere’, observed to his uncle John Macnamara of Moher on the 25th that ‘my opinions are now with respect to his standing the same as they always were: what business can a man without money or talents have in standing for a county’.14 Actually, Macnamara had on the 10th suggested to the O’Gorman Mahon that Vesey Fitzgerald might be welcomed back, especially as, with the passage of the Emancipation Act, ‘the occasion has been removed that induced the men of Clare to depart from the course pursued by this and every other county of returning none but gentlemen having property and connections in them’. Rebuked by his correspondent, who only wished that Macnamara was already seated, for even contemplating such an approach to the O’Briens and other Tory proprietors, he replied:

The shoneens [Clare landlords] are down and I hope for ever. When they imagined they had me, I communicated that any offer from them would be rejected with indignation, that I would support and propose Dan and that myself and the Boys, with O’Gorman Mahon and [Tom] Steele, would return him. In fact the humbugging fellows will not be able, by everything I hear, to even come to the hustings.15

He was not granted his wish to propose O’Connell on his unopposed return, 30 July 1829, but he explained his ‘most liberal principles’ that day and soon afterwards announced his intention of offering at the next election, apparently with O’Connell’s blessing. He chaired a meeting of the inhabitants of Ennis for the purpose of improving the state of the town, 29 Sept. 1829.16

He headed the list of requisitionists for a county Clare meeting, 2 June 1830, when he secured a petition against the increased Irish stamp and spirit duties, and that day he issued an address denying that he would stand aside at the expected general election.17 By this time a major misunderstanding had developed between Macnamara, who was said to be short of money and too liberal for the landlords, and O’Connell, for the latter, who still hoped for some amicable arrangement, was very reluctant to fulfil his apparent obligation to support his pretensions and had it put about that Macnamara would not enter. Despite O’Connell’s endeavours to resolve the situation, including by indicating to the Wellington administration that Vesey Fitzgerald might possibly be brought back in exchange for a baronetcy for Macnamara and an army promotion for his son, Macnamara remained obstinate; he purportedly had documentary proof that O’Connell had agreed to bring him in as the price of securing his withdrawal at a former election. At Steele’s instigation, O’Connell’s second son Morgan O’Connell† offered to fight a duel, but Macnamara rebuffed the challenge and, on O’Connell conceding that he was bound too strictly to their undertaking, he emerged as the candidate with the strongest territorial interest.18 Francis Macnamara, whose father had declared that he was ‘determined to fight it out to the last’ and was supposedly ‘making speeches every day to his horse and greyhounds, keeping in practice for Ennis’, had feared that ‘not only O’Connell but that party in Clare would send my father over board’, but was doubtless pleased that O’Connell’s withdrawal gave his father greater room for manoeuvre as an independent.19 Having stated that he was not a party to any coalition and pledged himself for lower taxes, parliamentary reform and the introduction of poor laws, he topped the poll in the ensuing week-long contest.20

Although he may only have had to pay the usual fees, Macnamara evidently had difficulty meeting his election expenses in September 1830.21 Francis, who once wrote to his uncle that, ‘God knows I ought not to be surprised at any thing my father does, knowing his intellect to be weak’, was furious at being approached for a contribution to the costs:

I allow his outgoing expenses are heavy, but still he has a good income to spend [which] is not spent on himself or family for he has not the house or establishment of a gentleman of moderate income. His income therefore goes in some private manner. If not, there is some very gross mismanagement on his part, since the money is not spent on keeping an establishment suitable to his rank or making a family place at Doolin or in any one thing that I can see ... You should not ask me to join him in money, a man that does nothing but live in cabins and prefers the society of the common people to that of gentlemen. You know this has been his mode of life for the last ten years. He must have the money somewhere, so let it come out from under some stone at Doolin. Only fancy a man of his property wanting a thousand pounds. I look on him as mean in all money matters and not over fond of paying.

A fortnight later he repeated his refusal to assist his father, declaring that ‘I am decided on never joining him in anything. I shall have nothing to say to him in money matters, politics, domestic concerns or any thing else. This is the only course I have of keeping on terms with him’.22

Having taken lodgings at 108 Jermyn Street, Macnamara, who was concerned about the possibility of a petition, reported to his brother John that on 2 Nov. 1830 ‘O’Connell and I met in the House of Commons. The passages going to the benches are so narrow that two cannot pass almost. He bowed to me which I returned. Without any explanation further or interference we shook hands’. He gave his brother permission to state publicly that he and O’Connell were reconciled, but added that ‘I need not tell you it is time for me now not to place much or any confidence in him’; a week later he claimed to be thriving on the late sittings.23 He voted in O’Connell’s minority for repeal of the Irish Subletting Act, 11 Nov., and in Parnell’s for reducing the duties on wheat imported into the West Indies, 12 Nov. He had been listed among the ‘neutrals’ in Pierce Mahony’s† analysis of the Irish elections, but ministers counted him with their ‘foes’ and he divided in the majority against them on the civil list, 15 Nov. He presented the Ennis petition against the Union, 25 Nov., but his colleague, the O’Gorman Mahon, warned that he would lose his seat if he were not more supportive of repeal, 23 Dec. In a manner typical of the infrequent and short interventions to which he confined himself in the House, he supported the alteration of the Galway franchise and the extension of religious liberty to Jews and Quakers, 2, 15 Dec. He voted for Hume’s amendment to refer the truck bill to a select committee, 14 Dec. 1830.24

Following the O’Gorman Mahon’s Commons quarrel with Sir James Graham in late February 1831, Macnamara was prepared to act as his second, but no duel transpired.25 Early the following month he reported to his brother that this had brought on an attack of bile and remarked that ‘if vexation and repentance is of any use I have had enough of it’. He several times vowed to take no part in the by-election, caused by the unseating of the O’Gorman Mahon, that took place that month in Clare, and denied that he had promised O’Connell that he would support his son Maurice in his successful campaign. He privately brought the disturbed state of his county to the attention of the Irish secretary Smith Stanley, and adverted to this in the House, 14 Mar.26 He brought up the county’s reform petitions, 21 Mar., and voted for the second reading of the Grey ministry’s reform bill, 22 Mar. He boasted to John on the 23rd that ‘since my return to Parliament I have not been absent from a single division and every vote I gave was for the benefit of my country’, though he admitted that he had little money to spare for a contest in case of a dissolution. On the 26th he noted that after reform was passed, he would apply for a month’s leave so as to avoid attending the rest of the session. His opposition to the application of the Insurrection Act on Smith O’Brien’s motion on the unrest in Clare, 13 Apr., was an observation made at ‘the wish of government’, as he put it in an undated letter to his brother.27 He backed O’Connell in a dispute with Henry Hunt over whether the former had promised to introduce a bill to re-enfranchise the Irish 40s. freeholders, 14 Apr., and divided against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment to the reform bill, which precipitated a dissolution, 19 Apr. 1831.

He complained to his brother, 13 Apr. 1831, about the ‘lowness and despondency of spirits’ brought on by the O’Gorman Mahon affair and other grievances, including the fact that his son (evidently nicknamed Pedro) was pressurizing him to relinquish his seat to him. On the 23rd he lamented that

truly, if I would not go to great expense in a contest, how could Francis do it? As to my involving myself in joining him, unless he is much changed he would not like to spend money on an election. I am aware of his many honourable and good qualities, but that of his being a kind and affectionate son is not one of them. When I am in error, no person acknowledges it sooner than I do, but when my own family express it in a taunting, insulting way, as I conceive, though it may not be intended, I feel it exceedingly. You know every human being scarcely without any exception have their faults, and God knows I have more than once thought to get rid of all my anxiety in this world by committing suicide, particularly after my daughter Jane’s death, and since I came here I never was in such a state of mind.

He concluded that if he was not re-elected, he would resign as a magistrate and grand juror and go to live in a quiet frame of mind at Doolin: ‘then there will be an end to all jealousies about votes and presentments and reproaches and finding fault for not doing such and such things’.28 He cold shouldered O’Connell on his attempting to sound him about the election and asked his brother to prepare an address that stressed his constant attendance and voting record, for which he received praise from radical quarters. He had no time to undertake a personal canvass, but found his freeholders ready to back him against the O’Gorman Mahon and was considered certain to retain his seat.29 Having pledged to oppose the turnpike bill and declared himself a reformer, he was returned ahead of Maurice O’Connell after a contest with the O’Gorman Mahon, who made an abusive (but ineffectual) verbal attack on him in an Ennis street.30

He served as foreman of the jury at the special commission in Clare in June 1831 and in the Commons on the 21st he remarked that this process had had a salutary effect in re-establishing order in the county.31 Writing to his uncle, 2 July, Francis, who saw Macnamara’s recent quarrel with John as ‘part of his usual extraordinary conduct on every subject’, observed that ‘I never saw my father looking so well. They have had hard work at the House. Several Members are done up by it. The late hours agree with him’.32 He voted for the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, at least twice against adjourning the proceedings on it, 12 July, and steadily for its details in committee. He divided for reducing the grant for civil list services, 18 July, printing the Waterford petition for disarming the Irish yeomanry, 11 Aug., and making legal provision for the Irish poor, 29 Aug. He was listed in the minority for O’Connell’s motion for swearing the original Dublin election committee, 29 July, but sided with ministers in both divisions on motions of censure, 23 Aug.; he voted against Benett’s amendment against issuing the Liverpool writ, 5 Sept. He denied allegations made about the Clare elections in 1828, 10 Aug., and 1830, 25 Aug., and on 6 Oct. Maurice O’Connell regretted that he had not been appointed as their county’s lord lieutenant. He divided for the third reading, 19 Sept., and passage of the reform bill, 21 Sept., the second reading of the Scottish bill, 23 Sept., and Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct. 1831. He was reported to have returned to Ireland later that month in excellent health despite his arduous parliamentary duties.33

He paired for the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, but from London, 6 Jan. 1832, he issued an address excusing himself from O’Connell’s putative assembly of Irish Members on the ground that ‘my past political life will be sufficient pledge for the future’.34 He voted for the abolition of 56 boroughs in schedule A, 20 Jan., again generally for the bill’s details, and for its third reading, 22 Mar. He sided with ministers against the production of information on Portugal, 9 Feb., and an amendment to the navy civil departments bill, 6 Apr., but with the radicals for inquiry into Peterloo, 15 Mar. He voted for printing the Woollen Grange petition against Irish tithes, 16 Feb., Brownlow’s amendment to postpone the debate until the select committee had completed its enquiry, 8 Mar., and radical Irish amendments to Smith Stanley’s resolutions, 27, 30 Mar. He commented that only altering the system of tithes would tranquillize Ireland, 3 Apr., and divided against the arrears bill, 6, 9 Apr.; he spoke and voted for postponing the subject to the reformed Parliament, 13 July, and divided against the composition bill, 24 July, 1 Aug., when he stated that he would actively support resistance to the payment of tithes, even if he was threatened with dismissal as a magistrate. He voted for Ebrington’s motion for an address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry the reform bill unimpaired, 10 May, and the second reading of the Irish bill, 25 May, though he was in the O’Connellite minority for extending the Irish franchise to £5 freeholders, 18 June. He divided in minorities against Alexander Baring’s bill to exclude insolvent debtors from Parliament, 30 May, 6 June, and for Blamire’s amendment relating to the boundaries of Whitehaven, 22 June. He blamed past unrest in Clare on the proselytising activities of the Kildare Place Society, 31 May, and differed with the Evangelical James Edward Gordon about Irish education, 5 June, 23 July. Apart from the one in the majority for making coroners’ inquests public, 20 June, his only other known votes were with government for the Russian-Dutch loan, 12, 16, 20 July 1832.

Surprisingly, considering that Francis judged his father ‘to have as little mind as any man in Bedlam’ and that he was himself reluctant to risk the expense of standing for Parliament, Macnamara and his son were returned, after costly contests, as repealers for Clare and Ennis, respectively, at the general election of 1832.35 Suspected of cultivating a similarity in appearance to George IV, Richard Sheil* described him (in 1828) as having

by the turn of his coat, the dilation of his chest and an aspect of egregious dignity, succeeded in producing in his person a very fine effigy of his sovereign. With respect to his moral qualities, he belongs to the old school of Irish gentlemen; and from the facility of his manners, and his graceful mode of arbitrating a difference, has acquired a very eminent character as ‘a friend’. No man is better versed in the strategies of Irish honour ... In the county of Clare he does not merely enact the part of a sovereign. He is the chief of the clan of the Macnamaras and ... the moment he arrives on the coast of Clare ... becomes ‘every inch a king’. He possesses great influence with the people, which is founded upon far better grounds than their hereditary reverence for the Milesian nobility of Ireland. He is a most excellent magistrate. If a gentleman should endeavour to crush a poor peasant, Major Macnamara is ready to protect him, not only with the powers of his office, but at the risk of his life. This creditable solicitude for the rights and the interests of the lower orders had rendered him most deservedly popular.36

He retired in 1852 and died, aged 80, in November 1856, being succeeded by Francis (d. 1873), who had sat in Parliament until 1834.37

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Stephen Farrell


  • 1. Hist. Irish Parl. v. 172; Viceroy’s Post-Bag ed. M. MacDonagh, 47, 50.
  • 2. F.B. Hamilton, Picture of Parl. (1831), 55.
  • 3. Wellington mss WP1/166/113; 168/22; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 632.
  • 4. NLI, Stacpoole Kenny mss 18889 (3); J. Kelly, ‘That Damn’d Thing Called Honour’, 263; S. O’Faolain, King of the Beggars (1970), 197-8; P. White, Hist. Clare, 333-4.
  • 5. K. Sheedy, Clare Elections, 124, 128-9; Stacpoole Kenny mss 18889 (7), W. to J. Macnamara, 7 Dec. 1819; (8), same to same, 24 Feb. 1820.
  • 6. Dublin Weekly Reg. 20 Jan, 10 Feb.; Dublin Evening Post, 16 Aug. 1821, 18, 30 Jan. 1823, 30 July, 2 Aug. 1825.
  • 7. O’Connell Corresp. iii. 1278.
  • 8. Morning Reg. 27, 31 May; NLI, Inchiquin mss T25/3627, O’Brien to wife, 30 May 1826.
  • 9. Dublin Evening Post, 22, 27, 29 June, 18 July 1826.
  • 10. Ibid. 19 Apr.; The Times, 27 June 1828; Stacpoole Kenny mss 18889 (15), W. to J. Macnamara, 4 Nov. 1830; R. L. Sheil, Sketches of Irish Bar (1854), ii. 268-70.
  • 11. Dublin Evening Post, 24, 26 June, 3, 8 July 1828; PRO NI, Anglesey mss D619/32A/2/81.
  • 12. Stacpoole Kenny mss 18889 (12), W. to J. Macnamara, 9, 11, 20 Oct., 10 Dec. 1828.
  • 13. Dublin Evening Post, 26 May, 13 June 1829; Anglesey mss 32A/3/166; O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1593.
  • 14. Stacpoole Kenny mss 18888 (4).
  • 15. D. Gwynn, O’Gorman Mahon, 83-84, 97-101.
  • 16. Clare Jnl. 16, 27, 30 July, 3 Aug., 1, 5 Oct. 1829.
  • 17. Ibid. 31 May, 3 June 1830.
  • 18. Ibid. 5, 19 July 1830; O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1668, 1670, 1678-9, 1684, 1687, 1689-90, 1692.
  • 19. Stacpoole Kenny mss 18888 (5), F. to J. Macnamara, 2, 8 [9] July; 18889 (14), W. Macnamara to same, 30 June, 11, n.d. [July] 1830.
  • 20. Clare Jnl. 12, 19 Aug. 1829.
  • 21. Stacpoole Kenny mss 18891 (10), Woulfe to J. Macnamara, 7 Sept.; 18889 (14), W. Macnamara to same, 13 Sept. 1830.
  • 22. Ibid. 18888 (2), F. to J. Macnamara, 28 Feb. [n.y.]; (5), same to same, 9, 23 Sept., 2 Oct. 1830.
  • 23. Ibid. 18889 (15), W. to J. Macnamara, 4, 11 Nov. 1830.
  • 24. Ibid. W. to J. Macnamara, 15 Dec. 1830.
  • 25. Clare Jnl. 28 Feb. 1831.
  • 26. Stacpoole Kenny mss 18889 (16), W. to J. Macnamara, 2 [11], 13, 26 Mar.; (17), same to same, n.d. [Mar.] 1831.
  • 27. Ibid. (16); (17).
  • 28. Ibid. (18).
  • 29. Ibid. W. to J. Macnamara [21 Apr.], 2 May; Clare Jnl. 28 Apr., 9 May 1831; [W. Carpenter], People’s Bk. (1831), 321.
  • 30. Clare Jnl. 16, 19, 23 May 1831; O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1811.
  • 31. Clare Jnl. 2 June 1831.
  • 32. Stacpoole Kenny mss 18888 (6).
  • 33. Clare Jnl. 31 Oct. 1831.
  • 34. Ibid. 12 Jan. 1832.
  • 35. Ibid. 22 Nov., 10, 17, 20, 24 Dec.; Stacpoole Kenny mss 18888 (7), F. to J. Macnamara, 15 Aug. [n.d.]; 18891 (12), Woulfe to same, 26 Dec. 1832.
  • 36. Sheil, ii. 266-8.
  • 37. Clare Jnl. 27 Nov. 1856; Gent. Mag. (1857), i. 118.