PARNELL, Henry Brooke (1776-1842), of Rathleague, Queen's Co.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



5 Apr. 1802 - 1802
1802 - 18 Nov. 1802
17 Feb. 1806 - 1832
17 Apr. 1833 - 1841

Family and Education

b. 3 July 1776, 2nd s. of Sir John Parnell, 2nd Bt.*, by Letitia Charlotte, da. and coh. of Sir Arthur Brooke, 1st Bt., MP [I], of Colebrook, co. Fermanagh; bro. of William Parnell Hayes*. educ. Eton 1791-3; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1794; L. Inn 1797. m. 15 Mar. 1801, Lady Caroline Elizabeth Dawson, da. of John, 1st Earl of Portarlington [I], 3s. 3da. suc. fa. to estates 1801, bro. as 4th Bt. 30 July 1812; cr. Baron Congleton [UK] 18 Aug. 1841.

Offices Held

MP [I] 1797-1800.

Commr. of treasury [I] Apr. 1806-1807; sec. at war Apr. 1831-Mar. 1832; PC 27 Apr. 1831; treasurer of navy Apr. 1835-1836; paymaster-gen. May 1835-1841.

Capt. Maryborough inf. 1802.


Parnell, like his father, was a dedicated politician. Returned on the family interest for Maryborough in 1797, he opposed the Union and was left unprovided for on his father’s dismissal from office for a like opposition, except that, his elder brother being severely handicapped, he had become statutory heir to the family estate in 1789. He saw no prospect of succeeding his father to the county seat on the latter’s death in December 1801, but contrived to come in without a contest on a vacancy in the following April. At the ensuing general election, he found Sir Eyre Coote, his potential opponent, too strong for him and gave up without a contest, the more readily as his marriage the year before had paved the way for his falling back on his brother-in-law’s borough of Portarlington. He visited France that year.

Parnell, whose father was highly regarded by both Pitt and Addington, seems to have given the latter, if anything, an independent but silent support before vacating his seat, which was sold to a friend of the Prince of Wales in November 1802. He was of a theoretical turn of mind and out of Parliament had devoted himself to mastering financial questions, under the aegis of his father and subsequently of his kinsman John Foster*. On 17 Mar. 1803, hearing that Corry the Irish chancellor of the exchequer was to retire, Parnell had the audacity to apply to the Castle to succeed him

... upon two considerations; the first arising from my situation in this country in respect to my family and my connections and the opportunity I have had of being acquainted with the duties of the office; and the second from the circumstances attending the political conduct of my father during a long series of years and difficulties in this country.

He hinted that want of resources, after his father had died unrewarded, had made it prudent for him to give up his county seat the year before.1 When John Foster became Irish chancellor of the exchequer on Pitt’s return to power in 1804, he was ‘extremely disappointed’ at not being named first commissioner of inquiry into the Irish revenue departments, as Foster had recommended he should be, and the chief secretary reported that he still expected some provision from government for his father’s services.2 That year he published his Observations upon the state of currency in Ireland and upon the course of exchange between Dublin and London, which went through three editions. His opinions were soon endorsed by a select committee of the House.

Parnell aspired to the Queen’s County seat again in 1805 when it was vacated by Sir Eyre Coote, and by then he was evidently veering to opposition, for his younger brother William advised him that ‘general abuse’ of ministers would not go down well and added:

Depend upon it ... that the opposition will set a higher value on you if you hold back a little and do not throw yourself entirely in their power, which the public sentiments you are inclined to express certainly would do. You can even be of most use to Ireland and the opposition if you give the government some hopes that you are not lost to them past recovery. Be an opposition man but be an aristocratical oppositionist and avoid the error, the greediness of vulgar popularity which has ruined Grattan and the Ponsonbys. Talk of liberty etc., judiciously but let property and tranquillity be ever the aim and the notorious aim of your political life, so shall you prosper.3

By the time he had secured his unopposed return, the advice was somewhat superfluous, as Lord Grenville was in power and at once made Parnell a lord of the Irish treasury. On 7 May 1806 he made his first speech at Westminster, an analysis of the Irish finances, in which he claimed that there was no point in raising fresh taxes in Ireland until the deficiencies in the present revenue collection were remedied. His chief thought it an ambivalent speech from the compliments it paid to his predecessor Foster. On 26 June he defended the necessity for the Irish poor relief bill. In Sir John Newport’s absence, 29 Jan. 1807, he defended the Irish finance plan.4

Parnell went into opposition with his dismissed colleagues in March 1807 and at once spoke and voted against offices in reversion, 24 Mar., and, after helping to secure Irish attendance, voted for Brand’s motion on 9 Apr. His election address was outspoken in criticism of the new ministry and on 20 Apr. he joined Maurice Fitzgerald in the House in questioning the sincerity of the Act of Union. On 15 July he read from the Catholic prayer book to prove the constitutional loyalty of that creed.5 He was a constant voter with opposition, a silent supporter of moderate parliamentary reform, but a frequent speaker on Irish questions throughout that Parliament. Although the first subject he broached in debate that caused any embarrassment to government was Castle expenditure on influencing the Irish press without parliamentary authority, March 1808, he soon graduated confidently to advocacy of Catholic relief and tithe reform.

To the Catholic cause he contributed an exposure of the prejudices imbibed by protestant charity scholars in Ireland, 11, 13 Apr. 1808, defence of Catholic petitions, 12 Apr. 1808 and 1 June 1810, and Catholic education at Maynooth, 29 Apr. 1808, as well as a pamphlet outlining penal legislation against the Catholics. He castigated ministers for omitting Ireland’s problems from their programme, 12 Feb. 1811, and defended the legality of the Catholic convention, 22 Feb., though he reserved judgment on the official measures against it and discouraged a county meeting on it. On 7 Mar. he advocated conciliation of the Irish Catholics at some length, and on 11 Mar. unsuccessfully sought legislative sanction for Catholics in the army to be exempt from attendance at Anglican services. He made similar attempts on 30 May and 5 June. On 4 Feb., 20 Apr. and 22 June 1812 he was a prominent speaker for Catholic relief.6

On the question of tithe reform he took the initiative, raising the issue on 27 Apr. 1808, and, after securing petitions to support the case, moved the demise of tithes for 21 years, 19 May 1809: he denied that outright abolition was his objective. The motion, opposed by Perceval, was defeated by 137 votes to 62, as was (by 146 to 75) his motion of 30 May to secure the commutation of tithes. On 13 Apr. 1810, in a speech he went on to publish, he moved for a select committee to inquire into tithe reform, but was thwarted by 69 votes to 48, and in further bids of 11 June 1811 and 23 June 1812 was defeated 54 to 29 and 39 to 36. On 24 June 1812 he reproached ministers with their indifference to a subject which Pitt himself had advocated and on 7 July suggested a plan of operation to achieve tithe commutation.

Financial questions were his other chief interest and he repeatedly objected to the Irish budgetary device of relying on public loans, which as he explained on 8 June 1808 was accompanied with an excessive issue of paper currency and prejudiced financial stability. His erstwhile mentor Foster now found Parnell his chief critic. With a view to obviating the vagaries of Irish currency, he moved the ‘assimilation of the coin’ in the two countries, 18 Apr. 1809, but was not attended to. His solution for the avoidance of public loans was reform of Irish revenue collection and retrenchment in general, 17, 19 Apr., 24 May, 19 June 1809, and, to illustrate the latter, he submitted the army estimates to some detailed scrutiny, 26 Feb., 1 Mar. 1810.

Another subject which interested him was the Irish liquor trade. He frequently spoke up for the Irish distillers when their interests were threatened by duties or prohibition between 1808 and 1812, offering his own proposals for the regulation of distillation, 1 Mar. 1810. That he was not however a ‘protectionist’ pure and simple was indicated by his opposition to bounties for flax seed growers, 22 Mar. 1809. He was a champion of the extension of inland navigation, 28 Mar. 1809, 24 June 1812, and of the reduction of Irish newspaper duties, 16, 24 May 1811. On 19 Mar. 1811 he summed up his criticism of the Union arrangements for Ireland: ‘if Ireland was to pay on the same principle as England, she ought to be governed on the same principle’.

As a result of his membership of the bullion committee the previous year, Parnell’s contribution to parliamentary debate assumed national importance in the session of 1811. On 8 May he made a formidable defence of the findings of the committee against its ministerial critics, insisting that the rise in prices was due not to the rise in the price of gold but to the opening of a new mine, ‘a paper mine’. Dismissing the evidence of businessmen who were ‘commonly most ignorant of the science of the particular business which constitutes their profession’, he not only advocated control of the issue of paper currency, but went further than Francis Horner* in questioning the ability of the Bank of England (run by ‘24 merchants’) to achieve it effectively. On 10 Apr. 1812 he was defeated by 87 votes to 27 on his motion to hold up the banknote bill pending an inquiry into the Irish currency. He had already indicated in a speech of 24 June 1811 in criticism of Wellesley Pole’s assumption, even if only pro tem, of the posts of chief secretary and chancellor of the exchequer in Ireland, that the consolidation of the Treasuries of the two countries was the only way to assure joint development and the only check on the encroachments of the Irish executive, which readily placed Irish public finance at the mercy of patronage requirements in its partisan choice of Irish revenue board officials and collectors. As long as this was the case he saw no chance of retrenchment in Ireland, and in a speech on the budget, 17 June 1812, added that he doubted whether government in general was capable of effecting economies in public expenditure.

Although Parnell continued to lend his voice to Catholic relief in the session of 1813, hailing on 2 Mar. the conversion to the cause of his colleague in the county representation, Wellesley Pole, and to repeat his strictures on Irish government, he was most conspicuous as chairman of the corn trade committee, the committal of whose report he carried, 15 June 1813. Government persuaded him to waive the ensuing bill, 29 June, on the understanding that he would have their support for it next session. They would not support Parnell’s exposé of the depreciation of paper currency, 14 July 1813, but that did not generate much heat. His role in the promotion of agricultural protection, on which he had written a treatise in 1809, did so. On the one hand, he was vexed to find himself obstructed in ‘an alteration in the laws of public utility’ by the party tactics of opposition of which he had not been ‘a very inactive member’, as he reminded Lord Holland.7 On the other hand, when he introduced the new Corn Laws in April 1814, he found ministers less co-operative than he had expected, particularly as he had swallowed alterations in the proposals of the bill to cover price changes. On 5 May he met with an attack from a veteran ministerialist George Rose and had to submit to a different schedule proposed by William Huskisson in amendment of the one he had presented. The reluctance of Vansittart, chancellor of the Exchequer, to stand by him stung him into a protest to the prime minister of ‘breach of faith’, 20 May 1814, when he felt inadequately supported in his resistance to the proposal of a fresh committee. Government also encouraged his critic Rose to introduce an amendment on the third reading of the corn exportation bill, 23 May, which Parnell opposed.8 His speeches on the Corn Laws were soon afterwards published.

Parnell’s rapprochement with government had failed and, although he went on to defend agricultural protection against its critics among the opposition and was able to approve the government proposal to consolidate the British and Irish Treasuries, 1 June 1814, other causes drew him back to opposition, notably Catholic relief and the restriction of civil liberty in Ireland. On 8 June 1814 he presented ten petitions from the north of Ireland against Orange societies, and on 14 July was provoked by their supporters into a defence of his friendly relations with the Catholic Board. On 18 May 1815 he took over from Grattan the advocacy of the cause of Catholic relief. His procedure in attempting to have eight resolutions on the subject printed ‘by common consent, but without order’ being objected to, he moved unconditionally for a committee on relief on 30 May. This was defeated by 228 votes to 147 and Parnell was not thought to have proved the best advocate for the cause, despite O’Connell’s assurance that ‘you will procure for us emancipation’, nor to have the influence he claimed with the Catholics. Although he continued to assail the Orange societies, 4 July 1815, and to present petitions for the Catholics, 26 Apr. 1816, he abdicated the lead on the question to Grattan again, 15 May 1816, seconding the latter’s relief motion of 21 May with a stern warning against any notion of containing Ireland by means of a protestant garrison. On 30 May he presented the Irish Catholic clergy’s petition for relief and on 6 June proposed resolutions to secure it, which he withdrew in the face of criticism from Castlereagh of their ‘imprudent’ and ‘piecemeal’ nature. On 25 June he was a spokesman for the concession of relief on the grounds that the Catholic clergy were in favour of domestic nomination of their prelates as a security, a basis that he defended at some length in support of Grattan’s motion of 9 May 1817. He thought Catholic relief a better method of dealing with Irish discontent than coercion, which he opposed, 23 May, 13 June 1817. On 7 July he defended the Maynooth seminary’s curriculum against its critics, on his own initiative. He complained of Ireland’s burden of taxation, 15 May, 9 July 1817, 13 May 1818, and of the ineffectiveness of the civil police there, 3 Feb., 7 May 1818.9

Parnell survived a contest in 1818, with Catholic support and in tactical coalition with his ministerialist colleague. The omission of the Catholic question from the government programme, of which he complained during the debate on the address, 21 Jan. 1819, gave him more scope to show his acumen in debates on finance and Irish local government. He approved the Irish grand jury bill brought in by Vesey Fitzgerald, whom he esteemed despite political differences, 9 Feb., but inveighed against the severity of the control of illicit distillation, 30 Apr. On 16 June he proposed the assimilation of Irish and British currency, but was pacified by reassuring noises from the chancellor. As an advocate of the resumption of cash payments by the Bank, he believed that government failure to save or economize retarded that event and, to this end, moved 47 resolutions in favour of retrenchment, 1, 12 July, but they were shelved. His sense of the inadequate deal obtained by Ireland under the Union was so inflamed that by 3 Dec. 1819 he was prepared to plead for the abolition of the lord lieutenancy as ‘that useless piece of pageantry’.

Parnell was a loner who seldom achieved a working relationship with fellow oppositionists. He had agreed to the requisition to Tierney to lead the opposition in 1818, but on 7 Dec. 1819 informed their whip that he wished to be struck off the party list. Lord Duncannon was left uncertain whether Parnell’s reason, the want of consultation and coordination in their bringing in motions and dividing the House, applied to their tactics in general or to their procedure over the seditious meetings bill in particular, and had to express his disappointment. Parnell had, however, announced his intention not ‘to discontinue voting against ministers’ and he was as good as his word. He took his own life, 8 June 1842.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: P. J. Jupp


  • 1. Wickham mss 5/31.
  • 2. Add. 35715, ff. 112, 123; Parl. Deb. xiii. 772.
  • 3. Congleton mss, W. to H. Parnell, n.d. [1805].
  • 4. NLS mss 12917, Newport to Elliot, 9 May 1806, 31 Jan. 1807.
  • 5. Grey mss, Howick to Ponsonby, 28 Mar. 1807.
  • 6. O’Connell Corresp. i. 377, 444.
  • 7. Add. 51826, Parnell to Holland, 24 June 1813.
  • 8. NLI mss 7828, p. 321, Fitzgerald to Parnell, 5 May [1814]; Add. 38257, ff. 312, 314; 38739, f. 184.
  • 9. Colchester, ii. 544; O’Connell Corresp. ii. 558A; Fortescue mss, Newport to Grenville, 6 Aug. 1815.