Co. Donegal


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

Background Information

Number of registered freeholders:

2,381 in 1829; 667 in 1830

Number of voters:

about 600 in 1831


 HENRY JOSEPH CONYNGHAM, earl of Mount Charles 
21 Feb. 1825FRANCIS NATHANIEL CONYNGHAM, earl of Mount Charles vice Mount Charles, deceased 
17 May 1831SIR EDMUND SAMUEL HAYES, bt.416
 Sir Thomas Charles Style, bt.192
 Lord Arthur Chichester180

Main Article

Donegal was a windswept and infertile Ulster county, heavily dependent on flax production, linen manufactures and fisheries. Largely Protestant in character, it saw little unrest in this period, apart from the disturbances over the distillery laws at its beginning and during the tithe war a decade later, but the revival of Orangeism in the late 1820s created greater sectarian tension. The usually uncontested elections took place at Lifford, which, like the boroughs of Ballyshannon, Donegal, Killybegs and St. Johnstown, had been disfranchised at the Union.1 Although radical sources continued to put the size of the electorate as high as 10,000, the actual figure was probably between a half and a quarter of this, but the absence of returns to official enquiries makes verification difficult prior to 1829.2

Following their pre-Union rivalry, the Abercorns and the Conynghams, having largely seen off other competitors among the absentee proprietors for domination of the representation, disputed the electoral patronage but generally controlled one seat each. Yet their Members, who were often sterling local Protestant gentleman with significant if not commanding territorial interests, were not always pliant and sometimes proved embarrassingly difficult to dislodge. A compromise was reached at the general election of 1812, when the Scottish peer, the 1st marquess of Abercorn of Baronscourt (and Duddingston, Edinburghshire), again brought in his friend Sir James Stewart of Fort Stewart, and the Irish representative peer and Donegal governor, the 1st Earl Conyngham of Mount Charles Hall (who received a marquessate in 1816), returned Lieutenant-General George Vaughan Hart of Kilderry House. Hart had previously been put up by Abercorn and was evidently surprised to be backed by Conyngham, who, however, was intent on preserving his interest until his sons came of age. A considerable tussle took place between the patrons and their potential candidates in 1818, but the outcome was the unopposed return of Hart with Conyngham’s eldest son Lord Mount Charles, after Stewart had been forced to retire.3 Abercorn’s death later that year, leaving only a seven-year-old heir, created a void into which Hart was quick to move, and in its post-election survey the Irish government noted that he was ‘certainly entitled to be as much attended to as Lord Conyngham’ in patronage matters. The 2nd earl of Leitrim of Mulroy (and Killadoon, Kildare), who was governor, custos and colonel of the militia, possessed some interest in the county.4 The only other significant peer was the 2nd marquess of Donegall of Ormeau, near Belfast, whose main electoral interests lay in county Antrim and its boroughs, but, as Thomas Oldfield commented, he possessed ‘an estate, which, if managed, would give him an influence sufficiently powerful to enable him to succeed’ in Donegal.5

There was a rumour that Major William Henry Stewart, the former Member’s younger son, would offer at the dissolution caused by the death of George III, but the Tory and anti-Catholic sitting Members, who both boasted of royal favour from the new king in their addresses and were proposed by the leading gentlemen Robert Montgomery junior of Convoy and Thomas Brooke of Castlegrove, were returned unopposed at the general election of 1820, when the main issue aired on the hustings was the vexed one of illicit distillation.6 Mount Charles, whose brother Francis, Member for Westbury in the 1818 Parliament, was groom of the bedchamber and whose father became lord chamberlain the following year, had the better claim to the boast of Court preference as Lady Conyngham soon afterwards ousted Lady Hertford as George IV’s mistress. A loyal address to the king was agreed at a county meeting, chaired by Sir James Stewart, in Letterkenny, 1 Jan. 1821.7 A petition from the freeholders against the commutation of Irish tithes was presented to the Commons by Hart, 18 Apr. 1823, and others, from the inhabitants and the grand jury respectively, for alteration of the system of grand jury presentments, were brought up, 26 May 1826, 25 May 1827.8 After the death of Mount Charles at Nice in December 1824 Lord Francis Conyngham, who now took the same courtesy title, offered in his place and, despite being unable to attend, was elected the following February, when he was introduced by Montgomery and represented by Francis Mansfield of Castle Wray.9

The new Lord Mount Charles, who had served under Canning at the foreign office and found a berth at the treasury the following year, was sympathetic to the Catholic cause, as was his father. Obliged, with the Conynghams, to visit their Irish estates that summer to safeguard the family interest prior to the expected dissolution, he reported on 5 Aug. 1825 that

I have been most active in my capacity of foreman and most happy am I that it is over; what a bore it is to be obliged to be civil to every tiger [vulgar scamp] who has a few 40 shilling freeholders in the county, my patience does but hardly stand it; and right glad I am to think that I shall not see my constituents again for some time; but of all the illiberal set of people mine are the worst, just violent Orangemen and can’t imagine anyone’s differing in opinion from them ... Such an address too I got the last day of the assizes from the gentlemen of the grand jury ‘trusting that their representatives would always vote against the Catholics’.10

His pro-Catholic votes, for which he had to apologize to his constituents, were thought likely to lead to a challenge at the next election, but the county’s Catholics, who met under the chairmanship of Dr. Simon Sheil of Ballyshannon, expressed their gratitude for his support.11 In fact, no challenger came forward for the possible vacancy, perhaps for the reason stated by the 1st earl of Erne of Crum Castle in neighbouring Fermanagh, who wrote to his son John Creighton, former Member for Lifford, that ‘I have no such views for my family but would on the contrary discourage them in my family by every means in my power, having observed the bad effects proceeding from them in so very many instances’.12 At the general election of 1826 Hart, nominated by Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Michael Conolly of Cliff (and Castletown, county Kildare), and Mount Charles, proposed by Sir (Thomas) Charles Style† of Glenmore, were applauded for their local activities and returned unopposed.13

It was noted that Donegal was one of the Ulster counties in which the Catholics intended to make their presence felt, and they agreed petitions to both Houses in favour of their claims, 30 Sept. 1826, when they held a dinner in honour of James Sinclair of Holy Hill; these were entrusted to Mount Charles and Conyngham and presented by them, 21 Feb., 9 Apr. 1827.14 The Protestants mustered for a county meeting, 18 Jan., when Sir Samuel Hayes of Drumboe Castle, another governor of the county, and Conolly sponsored hostile petitions to the Commons and the Lords, which were brought up, 2 Mar. (by Hart), 15 Mar. 1827.15 Under Sheil’s chairmanship, the Catholics met again at Stranorlar, 23 Jan., and the ensuing petitions were presented to the Commons, 6 May, and the Lords, 9 June 1828.16 In retaliation, the Protestants were out in force in Lifford for the meeting to establish the Donegal Brunswick Club, 25 Sept., when Stewart’s heir Sir James Annesley Stewart and Hayes’s heir Sir Edmund Hayes were among the principal speakers, and again, 11 Oct., for the formation of a branch in Letterkenny. Such was the rage stirred up by the Brunswickers that the moderate John Hamilton of St. Ernans, who insisted that the club’s objects were ‘peace, good will and defence of the established constitution and king’, admitted in his memoirs that the ‘Orangemen are, I fear, very unchristian and hate Popery less than they hate Papists’.17 The sheriff, Hart’s son John Hart of Ballynagard, county Londonderry, presided at another Protestant meeting, 5 Jan., when it was agreed to forward the hostile petitions to the unswerving Hart and Donegall, who presumably presented them, 11 Mar., 2 Apr. 1829. Following the Catholics’ meeting on 27 Jan., when Style was thanked for his endeavours on their behalf, petitions for emancipation were brought up, probably by its supporters Mount Charles and Conyngham, 9, 10 Mar.18 In June 1829 the registry that followed the passage of the related franchise measure amounted to only 667 electors, of whom 632 were £10 freeholders.19

Hayes chaired the county meeting against the introduction of poor laws to Ireland, 23 Apr., and the petition in his name on this subject, with one from the landed proprietors against the increased Irish spirit duties, was presented to the Commons by Mount Charles, 14 June 1830.20 Had he not also been sheriff, he may have stood at the general election that summer, when nothing came of the rumoured candidacies of such staunch Protestants as Stewart, Conolly and Donegall’s younger son Lord Arthur Chichester†,21 probably because neither the largely incapacitated Hart nor the unpopular Mount Charles was willing to make way. On the hustings, Brooke and John Boyd of Ballymacool excused the former on the basis of his past service and recent independence from ministers, and Stewart and Montgomery, despite being Ultras, praised the latter for having stood by his own principles and relinquished his household and government offices. But Style, announcing his future candidacy as a means of securing the county’s independence, and the Catholic John O’Dougherty of Killygordon attacked the Members for their inadequacy, and even Hayes joined in the general call for them to reside in the county. Hart and Mount Charles, who spoke briefly in their own defence and were returned unopposed, were listed as ‘pro-government’ in Pierce Mahony’s† analysis of the Irish elections.22

Mount Charles was praised, including by Counsellor Thomas Thornton Macklin of Dublin, for voting for the Grey ministry’s reform bill during the speeches of the reformers in Muff, 18 Apr., when the chair was taken by John Hart, who unsuccessfully contested Londonderry borough twice and that county once around this time; another reform meeting, which attracted Catholic support, was held in Ballyshannon on 3 May 1831.23 It was thought that Hart would follow his son’s lead and support reform, but he missed the division on the second reading of the bill, 22 Mar., and sided with opposition for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. Although George Vaughan Hart junior had written in an undated letter to his brother John that an anti-reform vote by their father would not alienate the gentry, as ‘there are but few in the county who now have votes that would not be against reform’, he perhaps feared a backlash at the ensuing general election when he commented to him on 22 Apr. that Hart senior had voted ‘not only against yours but his own interest’.24 Macklin, who reported his attempts to rouse the reform spirit in the county to Lord Anglesey, the lord lieutenant, believed that Mount Charles, Anglesey’s son-in-law, could yet retain his seat by advocating reform wholeheartedly. Discounting the reputation of Hart, who was soon forced to retire, Alexander Robert Stewart* of Ards and even of Style, who had lost ground on the tithe issue, Macklin (who had unsuccessfully contested Dublin University in 1807) rated highly his own chances of pulling off an O’Connellite coup by winning the other seat, although nothing except energetic canvassing eventually came of this.25 In fact, Mount Charles withdrew and the absence abroad of his brother Lord Albert Denison Conyngham† meant that no Member of the family could offer, to the delight of those who considered Donegal to have become its pocket ‘borough’. The reform candidates proved to be Style and Chichester, who benefited from the pro-Catholic and reform votes of his brother Lord Belfast, now Member for Antrim, but was reckoned to have an unsatisfactory manner and be lukewarm towards the bill. Hayes declared himself a candidate on the old Protestant interest and, following a requisition, he was belatedly joined by Conolly, another stout anti-reformer.26 On the hustings, Hayes was proposed by Sir James Annesley Stewart and Conolly by Hamilton, whose own interest was in ‘Bible politics’, while Chichester was nominated by Daniel Todd of Buncrana Castle and Style by Macklin, who was answered by Theophilus Blakely, dean of Achonry, but supported by O’Dougherty. The show of hands was given in favour of Hayes and Style, but Hayes and Conolly triumphed in the ensuing five-day poll; as there were only 969 registered electors, the winning candidates, like the losing ones, presumably shared many splits between them.27

The selection of Donegall, despite his being non-resident, as lord lieutenant of the county that autumn was attacked by Conolly in the House, 6 Oct. 1831, when he voiced his constituents’ resentment at the imposition of such a ministerialist absentee.28 He and his colleague were amongst the requisitionists who attempted to hold an anti-reform county meeting in Letterkenny, 14 Jan. 1832, when the imminent arrival of about 1,000 protesters caused the sheriff, Alexander Robert Stewart, to adjourn the proceedings. This was seen as a great triumph by the reformers, who that day agreed an address to the king in favour of the bill at their own meeting, under the chairmanship of Thomas Doherty of Muff.29 On 13 Feb. Hayes presented the petition of the landholders and payers of county assessments for alteration of the grand jury laws, a topic which was discussed at a county meeting in November.30 Both sitting Members met with the approval of the freeholders that session and although no challenge came from Style or Chichester, who came in for Belfast until 1834, another of Donegall’s sons, Lord Hamilton Francis Chichester, unsuccessfully contested the county against them at the general election of 1832, when there were 1,448 registered electors.31 The dominance of the Conservative interest in Donegal meant that there was almost no disturbance of its electoral tranquillity for over 40 years: on their deaths, Conolly was replaced by his son Thomas, 1849-76, and Hayes by the 1st marquess of Abercorn’s great-grandson Lord Hamilton, 1860-80.32

Author: Stephen Farrell


  • 1. S. Lewis, Top. Dict. of Ireland (1837), i. 471-5; D. Murphy, Derry, Donegal and Modern Ulster, 64-66; Donegal Hist. and Soc. ed. W. Nolan, 434, 435.
  • 2. Oldfield, Key (1820), 324; Key to Both Houses (1832), 318; PP (1824), xxi. 669; (1825), xxii. 91; (1829), xxii. 7; (1830), xxix. 465.
  • 3. Hist. Irish Parl. ii. 214-16; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 641, 642; Murphy, 79; A.P.W. Malcomson, John Foster, 340, 341.
  • 4. Add. 40298, ff. 11, 12.
  • 5. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), vi. 227.
  • 6. Belfast News Letter, 3 Mar.; Dublin Evening Post, 4 Mar.; Enniskillen Chron. 6 Apr. 1820.
  • 7. Belfast News Letter, 9 Jan. 1821.
  • 8. CJ, lxxviii. 228; lxxxi. 385; lxxxii. 491; The Times, 19 Apr. 1823.
  • 9. Strabane Morning Post, 8, 15, 22 Feb. 1825.
  • 10. NLW, Coedymaen mss 18, Fremantle to C. Williams Wynn, 28 Aug. 1825; PRO NI, De Ros mss MIC573/7/9/2.
  • 11. Add. 40331, f. 147; 40381, f. 208; Enniskillen Chron. 22, 29 Sept. 1825.
  • 12. PRO NI, Erne mss D1939/21/5a (NRA 28830).
  • 13. Strabane Morning Post, 13 June, 4 July 1826.
  • 14. Add. 40387, f. 300; Enniskillen Chron. 12, 19 Oct., 28 Dec. 1826; The Times, 22 Feb., 10 Apr. 1827; CJ, lxxxii. 207; LJ, lix. 242.
  • 15. Belfast News Letter, 26 Jan.; The Times, 3 Mar. 1827; CJ, lxxxii. 257; LJ, lix. 161.
  • 16. Enniskillen Chron. 31 Jan. 1828; CJ, lxxxiii. 319; LJ, lx. 521.
  • 17. Enniskillen Chron. 2, 16, 30 Oct. 1828; J. Hamilton, 60 Years’ Experience as Irish Landlord, 76, 78, 80.
  • 18. Impartial Reporter, 15 Jan.; Enniskillen Chron. 5 Feb. 1829; CJ, lxxxiv. 114, 124; LJ, lxi. 156, 334.
  • 19. Londonderry Chron. 24 June 1829.
  • 20. Belfast News Letter, 27 Apr. 1830; CJ, lxxxv. 548.
  • 21. Not to be confused with his two kinsmen of the same name who sat in this period.
  • 22. Dublin Evening Post, 19, 24 June, 6, 10, 22 July; Enniskillen Chron. 8 July, 26 Aug.; Impartial Reporter, 26 Aug., 2 Sept. 1830.
  • 23. Enniskillen Chron. 28 Apr., 5 May 1831.
  • 24. PRO NI, Hart mss D3077/H/2/5, 13.
  • 25. PRO NI, Anglesey mss D619/33B/3, 20-24, 28.
  • 26. Belfast News Letter, 26, 29 Apr., 10 May; Dublin Evening Post, 26, 30 Apr., 5, 7, 10, 12 May; Impartial Reporter, 5, 12, 19 May; Enniskillen Chron. 12 May, 9 June 1831.
  • 27. Strabane Morning Post, 24 May; Enniskillen Chron. 2 June 1831; Hamilton, 129; Murphy, 82.
  • 28. Derby mss 920 Der (14) 119/1/1, Anglesey to Smith Stanley, 15 Feb. 1831.
  • 29. Ballyshannon Herald, 13, 20 Jan.; Newry Examiner, 18, 21 Jan. 1832.
  • 30. CJ, lxxxvii. 100; Ballyshannon Herald, 16, 23, 30 Nov. 1832.
  • 31. Ballyshannon Herald, 2 Mar., 6 July, 28 Sept., 28 Dec. 1832.
  • 32. Murphy, 83; K.T. Hoppen, Elections, Politics and Society in Ireland, 160.