GRATTAN, Henry I (1746-1820), of Tinnehinch, co. Wicklow and Moyanna, Stradbally, Queen's Co.

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



23 Apr. 1805 - 1806
1806 - 4 June 1820

Family and Education

bap. 3 July 1746, o. s. of James Grattan of Dublin, KC, MP [I], and Mary, da. of Thomas Marlay, MP [I], of Marlay Abbey, co. Dublin, c.j.k.b. [I]. educ. Ball’s sch., Ship Street and Young’s sch., Abbey Street, Dublin; Trinity, Dublin 1763; M. Temple 1767, called [I] 1772. m. Dec. 1782, Henrietta, da. of Nicholas Fitzgerald of Greensborough, co. Kilkenny, 2s. 2da. suc. fa. 1766. d. 4 June 1820.

Offices Held

MP [I] 1775-97, 1800.

PC [I] 19 Sept. 1783-6 Oct. 1798, 9 Aug. 1806-d.


Grattan, ‘a small bent figure, meagre, yellow and ordinary’, with a large head, jutting chin and shrill voice,1 was one of the parliamentary giants of his day; but when, at the age of 73, he was again returned unopposed for Dublin at the general election of 1820, his life was near its end. He had fallen seriously ill with a chest complaint the previous autumn on a family excursion to the Wicklow mountains and was unable to go to London for the emergency session of 1819. He wrote to Justice Day, 19 Nov.:

I have been attacked by an occasional difficulty of breathing, which is teasing though not painful, and presents to the mind the idea of stifling; however, I am better. The radicals I do not think will destroy liberty; but it is only because they will not succeed, for their proposition would put an end to freedom; first by anarchy, and then by a military government, the necessary result of anarchy.2

He went to Dublin for his election in March 1820, but was too weak to attend the hustings, where his second son and namesake stood in for him.3 Improving spring weather somewhat revived him, and in April he became increasingly anxious to make an early appearance in the new Parliament, as he told his son:

I wish to take my seat and speak on two subjects, reform and the Catholics. I fear that the radicals will put down the principles of liberty. The government and the House of Lords on the one side, the radicals on the other, would put down all freedom. The Lords have no right to interfere with the Commons in their efforts to amend their representation; the boroughs should be reduced ... On the other question, I would strive to do something for the country; it is a monstrous thing that one sect should proscribe another.

In the middle of the month his son recorded that

he grew very restless and impatient; his appetite was nearly gone, but his strength revived occasionally and surprised everyone. He said he would go to ... [Dublin] and see some of the leading friends of the Catholics, and then to London by slow journeys - ‘for though I cannot speak I can make the motion. I owe it to the public good, to the interests of the body that has trusted me, and to my own memory. I have the motion in my mind - two resolutions, one declaring the determination to uphold the Protestant religion, the other to grant their liberties to the Catholics. I will do it. I am not without hope. It may lay the ground for some future measure’.4

Against the advice of his Dublin doctors, he insisted on going to Westminster, and through his son got his friend Sir Henry Parnell to give notice on his behalf, 28 Apr., that he would submit a motion on Catholic relief on 11 May. His health took a turn for the worse, and on 30 Apr. he received the sacrament. He survived, but in early May was in such a bad way that he had to give up his London plan for the time being. Under instruction, Parnell postponed his motion to the 25th, holding out a hope that Grattan would be able to attend by the end of the month.5 He rallied slightly, and on 12 May went to Dublin, determined to receive a deputation of Catholics, who had implored him not to go to London, and then to do precisely that. In his formal written response to the Catholics (he was too ill to speak), 13 May, he advised them to maintain the connection with Britain to ‘keep clear of every association with projectors for universal suffrage and annual parliaments’, and to accept emancipation on ‘terms that are substantial and honourable’. He concluded:

I shall go to England for your question, and should the attempt prove less fortunate to my health, I shall be more than repaid by the reflection that I make my last effort for the liberty of my country.6

He left Dublin, accompanied by his son, on 20 May, reached Liverpool the following day and, too feeble to travel by road, made his slow way to London by canal, on a specially prepared boat. He arrived, with his legs in an advanced state of mortification, on 31 May. He continued to talk of taking his seat and moving his resolutions, and even contemplated a literal swansong in the House in the style of Chatham; but his friends talked him out of the idea.7 He died at his lodgings in Baker Street in the early evening of 4 June 1820. Lord Holland later wrote that he died ‘almost at the moment when the queen’s triumphant arrival extinguished for a time all interest about ... [the Catholic] question more effectually than the death of its ablest advocate’.8 Moving the new writ for Dublin, 14 June, the Whig Sir James Mackintosh, in the absence of Sir John Newport, paid tribute to Grattan as ‘the founder of the liberties of his country’, who had ‘all the simplicity of genius’, and read his death bed declaration in favour of emancipation under the British connection. He was followed by the heavyweights Lord Castlereagh, Charles Grant, Wilberforce and Vesey Fitzgerald; while the Irish Whig backbencher Wrixon Becher communicated Grattan’s dying exhortation to the Catholics to steer clear of radical politics. Mackintosh’s nervousness was increased when he received just before he rose ‘an angry letter from Brougham complaining that I should do that for Grattan which I thought in general a bad practice and which we had agreed not to do for Romilly’. He replied that it was too late to back out and stressed, as he did in his speech, ‘the difference between a recent death where the praise might be natural and a death some time before the motion when it must seem cold and studied’. He believed that he made a ‘strong impression on the House’.9 Nine years later, however, Holland, who had ‘unfeigned respect’ and ‘the greatest admiration’ for Grattan, ‘a really great man’, reckoned that these orations ‘fell flat and unimpressive from the frequency of such exhibitions and the indifference and dislike of the House not to the object of the panegyric but to the unparliamentary practice of such funeral orations’, which neither Pitt nor Fox had received.10 At the request of a number of leading Whigs, who signed a memorial to his family drawn up by the poet Rogers, Grattan was buried in Westminster Abbey, next to Fox, on 16 June 1820.11 In one provision of his will, he directed that if all his four legitimate children died without surviving issue, the Queen’s County estate which he had bought with the sum of £50,000 voted to him by the Irish Parliament in 1782 in acknowledgement of his services to the country should revert to the public in trust to form a foundation ‘for the annual support of unprovided gentlewomen, daughters of poor and meritorious citizens of Dublin’.12 His son and biographer Henry failed to come in for Dublin in his room, but he did so in 1826 and sat for Meath, 1831-52. His elder son James represented county Wicklow, 1821-41.

Mackintosh considered Grattan, as whom there was ‘nobody so odd, so gentle, and so admirable’, to be ‘a great thinker’; but, like other contemporaries, he recognized the essential artificiality of his unique oratory, which had ‘a taint of that disposition to antithesis and point which gives such a littleness to style’; it was, as Thomas Creevey* remembered it, ‘highly ornamental’.13 A few months after Grattan’s death Tom Moore was told by Canning that

for the last two years, his public exhibitions were a complete failure, and that you saw all the mechanism of his oratory without its life. It was like lifting the flap of a barrel-organ, and seeing the wheels. That this was unlucky, as it proved what an artificial style he had used. You saw the skeleton of his sentences without the flesh on them; and were induced to think that what you had considered flashes, were merely primings, kept ready for the occasion.14

Lady Bessborough thought him ‘clever and ... affected’, and Lord Colchester wrote that ‘his conduct ... in the United Parliament had been uniformly wise and useful; his eloquence always fantastic, and often ridiculous’.15 Brougham credited him with ‘a rare union of the moderation which springs from combined wisdom and virtue, with the firmness and the zeal which are peculiar to genius’.16 Sir Jonah Barrington had ‘never met any man who possessed the genuine elements of courage in a higher degree than Mr. Grattan, in whom dwelt a spirit of mild, yet impetuous bravery, which totally banished all apprehensions of danger’.17 Sir George Philips*, who knew him well, remembered him with affection and admiration:

I do not think you could be with him for an hour or two without hearing from him some remarks so original either in thought, or expression, as no one but himself could make ... There was a strange want of correspondence between his manners and his mind. His manner was obsequious, and to strangers it would appear finical and affected; but simplicity was the real character of his mind, which was of a lofty and powerful order. He was a man of genius, incapable of doing anything mean or unworthy of himself, or of omitting to do what he conceived his duty to his country required of him, whatever risk, misrepresentation, or danger it might expose him to.18

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


See R. B. McDowell, Grattan. A Life (Dublin, 2001); Oxford DNB.

  • 1. Sir J. Barrington, Personal Sketches, i. 351; McDowell, 33.
  • 2. H. Grattan, Life and Times of Henry Grattan, v. 541.
  • 3. Ibid. v. 542; The Times, 8 Feb.; Dublin Evening Post, 8, 10 Feb., 11, 16, 18 Mar. 1820.
  • 4. Grattan, v. 544-5.
  • 5. Ibid. v. 545-8.
  • 6. Ibid. v. 548-9; McDowell, 217-18.
  • 7. Heron, Notes, 118; Add. 52444, ff. 123-4.
  • 8. Grattan, v. 550-4; The Times, 6 June 1820; Gent. Mag. (1820), i. 563; Holland, Further Mems. 282.
  • 9. Add. 52444, f. 151.
  • 10. Add. 51741, Holland to Caroline Fox [16 June 1820]; Hants RO, Tierney mss 75b.
  • 11. The Times, 17 June 1820; Von Neumann Diary, i. 25.
  • 12. The Times, 4 July 1820; Gent. Mag. (1820), i. 640. For rumours that he had fathered a dozen bastards see McDowell, 243 (n. 76).
  • 13. Mackintosh Mems. (1835), ii. 140-1, 353; Creevey Pprs. ii. 183. See also McDowell, 180-1.
  • 14. Moore Mems. ii. 160-1.
  • 15. Leveson Gower Corresp. ii. 466; Colchester Diary, iii. 141.
  • 16. Hist. Sketches (1839), i. 260.
  • 17. Barrington, i. 346.
  • 18. Warws. RO MI 247, Philips Mems. i. 282, 286.