Co. Kilkenny


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:

3,261 in 1829; 1,078 in 1830


11 Sept. 1820HON. CHARLES HARWARD BUTLER vice Butler, become a peer of Ireland  
 JOHN WILLIAM PONSONBY , Visct. Duncannon568
 Hon. Pierce Butler324
12 Aug. 1830JOHN WILLIAM PONSONBY , Visct. Duncannon 
 JOHN BUTLER , earl of Ossory 
28 Feb. 1831DUNCANNON re-elected after appointment to office 336
 Hon. Pierce Butler269
9 May 1831JOHN WILLIAM PONSONBY , Visct. Duncannon 
 JOHN BUTLER , earl of Ossory 

Main Article

Kilkenny, a predominantly Catholic county, produced mainly wheat, oats and potatoes and had a declining wool and blanket industry. There were several market towns, including the disfranchised boroughs of Callan, Gowran, Innistiogue, Knocktopher and Thomastown, the parliamentary borough of Kilkenny city, the venue for county elections, and Castlecomer, Durrow, and Graig.1 The representation continued to be monopolized by the 18th earl of Ormonde of Kilkenny Castle, whose brother James Wandesford Butler had sat since the Union, and the Whig 3rd earl of Bessborough of Bessborough House, whose son Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby had sat since 1806. (His brother Lord Duncannon, a rising star of the Westminster opposition, had declined the seat.) The 2nd Viscount Clifden, who owned 40,000 acres, also possessed influence, but persistent rumours that his son George Agar Ellis* would mount a challenge to Ormonde, a supporter of the Liverpool ministry, came to nothing. Echoing the comments of the Morning Herald in 1818 that the representation was almost the ‘property’ of Ormonde and Bessborough, in 1824 the Catholic Patriot likened the county to ‘a close borough’.2

At the 1820 general election Butler offered again. Proposals for Ponsonby to make way for his younger brother William Ponsonby* proved unpopular, Lord Clare commenting that it was ‘strange’ that the county ‘won’t hear of accepting him ... even though he has a Roman Catholic for a wife’, as Agar Ellis was ‘quite right in asserting that ... [Frederick] Ponsonby is the worst of all representatives, never going near his constituents or the House of Commons’. Agar Ellis was himself spoken of, but had already ‘rejected propositions from the county’. Rumours that Sir John Newport* had arrived for the purpose of proposing and supporting his nephew William Newport also proved unfounded. Butler was nominated by his distant kinsman Pierce Butler of Ballyconra, brother of the 1st earl of Kilkenny, and Ponsonby by John Flood of Floodhall. They were returned unopposed. Afterwards Butler was chaired to Kilkenny Castle ‘accompanied by the most paltry and motley groups’ ever witnessed, and following rough treatment Ponsonby abandoned his chairing.3 Later that year Butler succeeded his brother as earl of Ormonde (and to the county governorship), creating a vacancy for which his younger brother Charles Butler Clarke came forward. He was returned unopposed in absentia, leaving his proposer Pierce Butler to be chaired to the castle, from where beer was dispensed.4 Both Members supported Catholic relief, for which petitions were presented to the Commons, 16 Apr. 1823, 10 Mar. 1825, and the Lords, 17 Apr. 1823.5 Petitions for the commutation of Irish tithes were presented to the Commons, 14 Apr. 1823, 17 May 1824, and the Lords, 10 Apr. 1823, 14 May 1824.6 One against withdrawal of the protection for blanket manufacturers afforded by the Union duties reached the Commons, 11 Apr. 1823.7 On 30 Apr. 1824 Agar Ellis, who had brought up the petitions of 14 and 16 Apr. 1823, consulted his father about a letter from the county ‘inviting me to stand for the next general election’, in reply to which they ‘agreed to send a civil negative on the plea of the time likely to elapse before a general election will probably take place’. That summer he discussed plans for a county meeting against Irish tithes with one Colles, ‘a sensible country gentleman of the neighbourhood’. On 7 Aug. he reported that Colles

had written a letter some days ago to Lord Clifden advising a county meeting to announce my standing for the county at the next election. I explained to him that we still retained our determination, announced in our answers to a requisition ... sent us about two months ago, of not pledging ourselves as yet to any particular line of conduct.

That month Pierce Butler, who was also being spoken of as a future candidate (he had been one of the first Protestants to join the Catholic Association), offered to assist Agar Ellis in convening a county meeting ‘on the subject of reform’, but they gave ‘up all thoughts of it for the present’ on finding that the ‘people’ seemed ‘not much alive to this question’.8 In September 1824 the Catholic press reported that efforts would definitely be made to ‘open’ the county at the next election, though ‘whether these will be directed against the Butler or the Ponsonby interest, we cannot say; possibly against both’.9 Early in 1825 Butler ‘gained great popularity’ among the Catholics by breaking ranks with his fellow magistrates and opposing the reintroduction of the Insurrection Act.10 During the rumours of an impending dissolution that September it was reported to Peel, the home secretary, that ‘the Romans in Kilkenny, where radical politics predominate, have attacked and may oust the Ormondes’. Ormonde ‘will be very hard pressed’ and ‘will be deserted by the Protestant gentry in consequence of having originated a Protestant petition in favour of the Roman Catholics’, commented Goulburn, the Irish secretary.11 On 10 Apr. 1826 Duncannon reported to Lady Holland that his brother Frederick had ‘decided not to come to England, so I fear I must make up my mind to go over for some time to Ireland and stand for Kilkenny, where we shall have a contest, no very pleasant prospect’. In case of failure the 2nd Earl Fitzwilliam reserved a seat for him at Higham Ferrers.12

At the 1826 dissolution Ponsonby duly retired on account of a posting to the Mediterranean, and Duncannon came forward on the family interest as ‘a friend to civil and religious liberty’. Butler Clarke offered again, citing his support for Catholic claims, but was denounced by the Catholics for having supported the bill to suppress the Association. Butler, who had the backing of a newly formed Independent Club, offered with the support of the Association and William Francis Finn, Daniel O’Connell’s* brother-in-law. It ‘will be between Lord Duncannon and Pierce Butler’, Gregory, the Irish under-secretary, informed Peel, for ‘Butler Clarke is secure’. During the ensuing five-day contest O’Connell campaigned for Butler, dismissing Butler Clarke’s support for emancipation as ‘a mere pretension’. Butler Clarke’s freeholders were ‘hooted and hissed’ at the poll but he led throughout, although at the close it was observed that Duncannon had a further 800 voters to hand ‘in town’, and ‘half the freeholders’ had gone unpolled. At the declaration Duncannon promised not to be ‘an absentee’ and to visit regularly.13 He later observed that the priests had ‘tried to throw out Charles Butler, who supports the Catholic question but opposed the Association, and failed’.14 Butler Clarke claimed in the House, 20 Mar. 1829, that the full weight of priestly influence had been brought against him.

Following Butler’s defeat the Independent Club fell into disarray, and he subsequently complained of having been ‘deserted’ by those who had called on him ‘to break up a coalition, or a supposed coalition in the county, between the Houses of Ormonde and Bessborough’.15 Both Members supported Catholic claims, in support of which petitions were presented to the Commons, 14, 27 Feb. 2 Mar. 1827, 6 Mar., 15 Apr. 1828, and the Lords, 27 Feb., 5, 6 Mar. 1827.16 One for repeal of the Irish Subletting Act reached the Commons, 25 Feb. 1828.17 On 21 Sept. 1828 a county meeting for Catholic relief was held, chaired by Finn and the Rev. Laurence Murphy. Duncannon, a signatory to resolutions for Leinster meetings in support of emancipation, chaired a Catholic meeting ‘crowded to excess’, 20 Oct., when Butler also spoke. The magistrates refused to let the Kilkenny Brunswick Club use the county court house for its meetings, and it foundered.18 Both Members of course voted for the Wellington ministry’s concession of emancipation, in support of which petitions were presented to the Commons, 23, 26 Feb., 4, 10 Mar., and the Lords, 10, 12, 19 Mar. 1829.19 By the accompanying alteration of the franchise the registered electorate was reduced from 3,261 to 1,078, of whom 118 qualified for the new minimum freehold value of £10, 234 at £20 and 726 at £50, although the returning officer noted that many £50 freeholders ‘may have long since died’, the ‘registry having commenced’ in 1785.20 In March 1830 it was reported that there was ‘great distress among the poor of Kilkenny’ and that the ‘amount of private subscriptions’ was ‘totally inadequate to afford them sufficient relief, although the contributions of benevolent residents’ were ‘always considerable’.21 A petition against Irish stamp and spirit duty increases reached the Lords, 15 June 1830.22

At the 1830 dissolution Butler Clarke, who had not always seen eye to eye with Ormonde, retired, ‘conscious’ of having fulfilled his duties in a ‘very imperfect manner’, not ‘from any want of inclination to serve you’, but owing to a ‘more paramount duty’. His explanation was queried by the Kilkenny Journal and may have been connected with the health of his wife, but his decision left the way open for Ormonde’s 21-year-old son Lord Ossory to come forward. Duncannon offered again, citing his conduct in the Commons. Rumours of an independent challenger and calls for the electors to remain ‘disengaged’ circulated, but at the nomination the only candidates were Duncannon and Ossory, who was proposed by Butler. (He denied that by his previous candidature as an ‘independent’ he had ‘forfeited’ the right to ‘rally round’ the ‘different branches’ of his family.) At the last minute, however, Finn was proposed and put a series of questions to the candidates. In response Ossory declared his support for all ‘moderate and reasonable reform’ of Parliament and the established church, but his opposition to the secret ballot and universal suffrage and ‘decided’ hostility to repeal of the Union. He also agreed to assist the citizens of Kilkenny city in their bid to regain their chartered rights. Duncannon rehearsed his support for emancipation, liberty of the press, tax reductions and economy. Finn declined an ‘unnecessary war’ and withdrew, leaving Duncannon and Ossory to be returned.23

Petitions for the abolition of slavery and reform of the Irish education system reached the Commons, 11 Feb. 1831.24 That month Smith Stanley, the Grey ministry’s Irish secretary, informed Lord Anglesey, again Irish viceroy, that Duncannon had ‘no apprehensions’ about standing for re-election following his appointment as commissioner of woods and forests, adding, ‘if he is right, it will be a very satisfactory proof that the repeal has no made no great way in county Kilkenny’. Lord Holland, however, apprehended that it might ‘not be convenient to vacate ... just now’.25 On 7 Feb. O’Connell informed Alexander Dawson* that although he had the ‘highest respect, esteem and regard’ for Duncannon he would oppose his re-election as ‘he is now one of my prosecutors’:

I have entered into the details of finding money and attorneys and I believe he will find it a hard task to succeed ... If the prosecutions be not forthwith withdrawn, I will be obliged to give Duncannon a violent contest and perhaps a complete defeat. He never was half so powerful in Kilkenny as [William] Vesey Fitzgerald* was in Clare.26

‘I hope and trust Duncannon’s ci devant friend O’Connell may not be able to do him any mischief’ and that ‘this great agitator is ... completely beaten’, remarked the duke of Bedford.27 On 14 Feb. Butler came forward as a ‘repealer of the Union’ with the backing of O’Connell, who called on the electors to ‘send him to aid me amongst the Saxons’. The opposition was criticized by the Dublin Evening Post, which noted that Butler, the ‘nominee’ of O’Connell, had ‘only recently declared himself the advocate of repeal’ and protested that O’Connell was ‘deluding’ the people. Duncannon, in his address, opposed repeal and promised to ‘ameliorate the condition of the Irish people’.28 ‘To think of the villain having succeeded in getting up an opposition to Duncannon’ and ‘a very formidable one too’, observed Thomas Creevey*.29 Shortly before the election Anglesey informed Holland that he was trying to help Duncannon ‘a little, by preventing those voters who would be inclined to befriend him, from being kept back by intimidation’.30 On 22 Feb. he advised Lord Melbourne, the home secretary, that ‘the agitators have plenty of money, and are using it’, but that ‘there is a great dearth of it on the part of Duncannon, who, it is feared, will be beaten. It is greatly to be deplored, on every account, that he is not upon the spot’.31 At the nomination Butler claimed that repeal had ‘become the unanimous demand of the people’ and that reform would not be ‘worth a farthing if unaccompanied by the ballot’. He was warmly supported by Finn and O’Connell’s son Maurice O’Connell*, who spoke for over two hours. Duncannon’s son John Ponsonby appeared on behalf of his father, who was proposed in absentia. A six-day contest ensued, which Duncannon led throughout, despite the ‘inflammatory efforts and threats’ of O’Connell’s ‘emissaries’.32 ‘It is most fortunate that a strong force was sent there’, Anglesey reported to Melbourne, 24 Feb., ‘for without it, Duncannon would not have polled 50 men’. Next day he added that ‘no one seems to doubt the return of Duncannon, but, really, he ought to have been on the spot ... The troops ... have been behaving beautifully’.33 ‘His voters have not been kept back by intimidation, which was what he most apprehended’, Creevey commented, hoping that his victory would be ‘a tremendous blow to the wretch O’Connell, who has made most people believe that he could return at least half the Irish county Members’.34 On 26 Feb. Edward Dwyer, who had initially been sanguine, informed O’Connell that

there is no likelihood of Colonel Butler being returned at this time ... Had a committee been formed a week earlier or had you not been prevented by other arrangements from going to Kilkenny, there can be no doubt but the colonel would be the sitting Member. The struggle will have one good effect at least, as it proves the power so long used by the aristocrats of the county to be completely trampled down by the people.35

At the declaration Butler announced that he was ‘not vanquished’ and that as ‘an old dragoons officer’ he would ‘come to the charge again and again’. It later emerged that during the contest an army officer, who had been ‘struck most violently with a stone’, prevented a private who had ‘observed the offender’ from thrusting his ‘lance into the heart of the wretch’, thus saving his life.36 ‘Kilkenny is a great triumph’, Smith Stanley wrote to Anglesey, 28 Feb., adding, ‘O’Connell will complain of the interference of the military’, but ‘we have a card to play off against that in the hurlers, etc.’. It has ‘ended without much mischief’, but ‘I shall keep the troops there a little longer, until the ferment subsides’, Anglesey reported to Grey, the premier, that day.37 Writing to his wife O’Connell declared, ‘We have made a great and glorious fight and have given the aristocracy a shake’.38 Petitions for repeal were presented to the Commons, 16, 19 Mar. 1831.39 One for the abolition of Irish tithes reached the Commons, 30 Mar. Petitions for the better regulation of Irish education grants were presented to the Commons that day, and the Lords, 15 Apr.40 Ossory had initially been listed among the ‘friends’ of the Wellington ministry, but he joined Duncannon in voting for the new government’s reform bill, for which a petition reached the Commons, 30 Mar., and the Lords, 12 Apr. 1831.41 At the ensuing general election Duncannon offered again, insisting that the election was only about reform, on which he rested his claims. He was joined by Ossory, who came forward ‘pledged’ to the bill. On hearing that another contest might take place, 27 Apr., Duncannon wrote to O’Connell:

It is very desirable to support the supporters of reform. This, I am sure, is your opinion and ... I hope that your friends will not assist an opposition on this occasion. Colonel Butler, I am told, considers himself pledged to stand.

O’Connell assured him that ‘there will not be a contest’, adding, ‘Butler put the compliment on me of having declined in consequence of my letter to him, but I am too candid to do so by you’. The Catholic press welcomed Butler’s ‘gallant’ withdrawal ‘on the present occasion’. At the nomination Duncannon, pressed on Irish reform, declared that he saw ‘no objection’ to an increase of Irish Members, but that ‘they should also recall that 19 close Irish boroughs were to be opened, which would virtually increase the representation of the people’. He and Ossory were returned unopposed.42 Reform was supported by both Members and by Bessborough and Ormonde in the Lords. A petition from Castlecomer in support of the grant to the Kildare Place Society reached the Commons, 30 July.43 On 27 Nov. 1831 O’Connell expressed his regret to Duncannon that ‘any circumstances should occur to prevent your standing for Kilkenny county’ at the next election, but warned, ‘I cannot venture to dispute the decisions you have come to, connected as you are with government’.44 That year Ormonde was appointed the first lord lieutenant of the county. Petitions for the abolition of Irish tithes were presented to the Lords, 23 June 1831, 5 Mar. 1832, and the Commons, 1 Mar., 2 Aug. 1832.45 County petitions for an extra representative for the city of Kilkenny reached the Commons, 23 May.46 In June a ‘great’ county meeting was held against tithes and to demand a ‘full and fair parliamentary reform’ for Ireland.47 On 17 July 1832 a petition from the freeholders of the barony of Iverk was presented to the Commons, complaining of the difficulties they had encountered in ‘attempting to register’ their votes and calling for the assimilation of the English and Irish registration systems.48

By the Irish Reform Act 121 leaseholders (91 registered at £10, ten at £20 and 20 at £50) and four rent-chargers (one at £20 and three at £50) were added to the freeholders, who had increased in number to 1,121 (827 registered at £10, 95 at £20 and 199 at £50), giving a reformed constituency of 1,246.49 At the 1832 dissolution both Duncannon, who had earlier informed Holland of the prevailing ‘extraordinary state of excitement’ on the tithes question, which made his return highly doubtful, and Ossory retired.50 Butler and Finn stood as Repealers and were returned unopposed. Ossory canvassed as a Conservative in 1837, when Finn was replaced by the Liberal Major George Bryan, but retired before the poll. Butler sat undisturbed until his death in 1846, his son joining him as the second Member in 1843.51


  • 1. S. Lewis, Top. Dict. of Ireland (1837), ii. 102, 103.
  • 2. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 663; TCD, Courtown mss P/33/14/11, extract from the Patriot, Sept. 1824.
  • 3. Dublin Evening Post, 7, 9, 16, 28 Mar.; Ramsey’s Waterford Chron. 28 Mar. 1820; Keele Univ. Lib., Sneyd mss, Agar Ellis to Sneyd, 8 Feb., Clare to same, 25 Mar. 1820.
  • 4. Dublin Evening Post, 9 Sept.; Ramsey’s Waterford Chron. 14 Sept. 1820.
  • 5. CJ, lxxviii. 210; lxxx. 183; LJ, lv. 624.
  • 6. CJ, lxxviii. 194; lxxix. 376; LJ, lv. 603; lvi. 228.
  • 7. CJ, lxxviii. 191.
  • 8. Northants. RO, Agar Ellis diary, 14, 16 Apr. 1823, 30 Apr., 31 July, 7, 12 Aug. 1824; G. D. Burtchaell, MPs for Kilkenny, 211.
  • 9. Courtown mss P/33/14/11.
  • 10. Burtchaell, 211; Dublin Evening Post, 1 June 1826.
  • 11. Add. 40381, f. 208; 40331, f. 147.
  • 12. Add. 51724; Castle Howard mss, Lady Carlisle to Morpeth, 1 June 1826.
  • 13. Wexford Evening Post, 2 May; Dublin Evening Post, 27 May, 6, 15, 17, 20, 23, 27 June 1826; Add. 40334, f. 171. PP (1829), xxii. 14 gives the alternative figures of 722, 575 and 328 respectively for the candidates.
  • 14. Add. 51724, Dunncannon to Holland, July 1826.
  • 15. Kilkenny Moderator, 14 Aug. 1830.
  • 16. CJ, lxxxii. 164, 239, 264; lxxxiii. 139, 238; LJ, lix. 113, 129, 136.
  • 17. CJ, lxxxiii. 101.
  • 18. Dublin Evening Post, 23 Sept., 7, 21 Oct., 15 Nov. 1828.
  • 19. CJ, lxxxiv. 76, 85, 103, 121; LJ, lxi. 157, 179 227, 229.
  • 20. PP (1830), xxix. 468.
  • 21. PRO NI, Fitzgerald mss MIC 639/9/64.
  • 22. LJ, lxii. 721.
  • 23. Carlow Morning Post, 8 July, 15 Aug.; Kilkenny Moderator, 31 July, 11, 14, 18 Aug. 1830; Burtchaell, 208, 209.
  • 24. CJ, lxxxvi. 238.
  • 25. PRO NI, Anglesey mss D619/27A/99; 31D/13.
  • 26. O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1764.
  • 27. Add. 51670, Bedford to Holland, 3 Feb. 1831.
  • 28. Dublin Evening Post, 12, 16 Feb.; Kilkenny Moderator, 16, 19 Feb. 1831.
  • 29. Creevey mss, Creevey to Miss Ord, 18 Feb. 1831.
  • 30. Add. 51568, Anglesey to Holland, 20 Feb. 1831.
  • 31. Anglesey mss 29B/61-63.
  • 32. Dublin Evening Post, 26 Feb., 1 Mar.; Kilkenny Moderator, 23, 26 Feb.; The Times, 26, 28 Feb. 1831.
  • 33. Anglesey mss 29B/66-69.
  • 34. Creevey mss, Creevey to Miss Ord, 25 Feb. 1831.
  • 35. O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1771, 1772.
  • 36. The Times, 1 Mar.; Kilkenny Moderator, 2 Mar. 1831.
  • 37. Anglesey mss 28C/77, 78; 31D/27.
  • 38. O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1775.
  • 39. CJ, lxxxvi. 390, 409.
  • 40. Ibid. 465; LJ, lxiii. 440.
  • 41. CJ, lxxxvi. 465; LJ, lxiii. 407.
  • 42. Dublin Evening Post, 28 Apr., 12 May; Kilkenny Moderator, 30 Apr., 7, 11 May 1831; O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1801, 1802.
  • 43. CJ, lxxxvi. 711.
  • 44. O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1849.
  • 45. LJ, lxiii. 734; lxiv. 81; CJ, lxxxvii. 156, 546.
  • 46. CJ, lxxxvii. 333.
  • 47. The Times, 30 June 1832.
  • 48. CJ, lxxxvii. 497.
  • 49. PP (1833), xxvii. 300.
  • 50. Add. 51724, Duncannon to Holland, 18 Aug., 7 Oct. 1832.
  • 51. Burtchaell, 208-11; The Times, 15 Dec. 1832, 2, 17, 19 July 1837; O’Connell Corresp. v. 2434.