1902 Encyclopedia > Baron Plunket

Baron Plunket (William Conyngtiam Plunket)
Irish lawyer, orator and statesman

PLUNKET, WILLIAM CONYNGTIAM PLUNKET, BARON (1765-1851), an eminent lawyer, orator, and statesman, was born in the county of Fermanagh in July 1765. He educated in boyhood by his father, a man of considerable ability and reputation ; and in 1779 he became a student of Trinity College, Dublin. Though well versed in regular academic studies, he was most conspicuous in his university career as the acknowledged lea,der of the Historical Society, the debating club of Trinity College, then full of young men of remarkable promise.

Having entered Lincoln's Inn in 1781, Plunket was called to the Irish bar in 1787. His intellect was exactly that of a jurist or a great master of equity - not too refin-ing or overprone to speculation, and yet capable of the highest legal generalizations, and of applying them to masses of fa,ct, however tedious and complicated. His power of close and rapid argument was very remarkable, his. memory equally capacious and exact, and he had enriched an ample store of professional learning with the fruits of assiduous general study. Although at first his progress at the bar was not rapid, he gradually obtained a considerable practice in equity; and, after an apprentice-ship of eleven years as a junior, he was raised to the rank of king's counsel in 1798.

In 1798 he entered the Irish parliament as member for Charlemont. His political faith was already settled, and was only slightly modified in after life, at least as regards its cardinal tenets. He was an anti-Jacobin 'Whig of the school of Burke, not ungracefully filled with a fervent Irish patriotism. lie disliked the principles of the French Revolution, and its excesses made such an impression upon him that he always showed the greatest antipathy to merely democratic- movements. But he was a sincere admirer of the constitutional government of England as established in 1688 ; be even justified the ascendency it bad given to the Established Church, although he thought that the time bad arrived for extending toleration to Roman Catholics and dissenters. To transfer it to Ireland as thus modified, and under an independent legislature, was even in his youth the only reform lie sought for his country; and, although he opposed the Union with all his power, this was only because he thought it incompatible with this object.

When Plunket became a member of parliament, the Irish Whig party was almost extinct, and Pitt was feeling his way to accomplish the Union. In this he was seconded ably by Lord Castlereagh, by the panic caused by a wild insurrection, and by the secession of Grattan from politics. When, however, the measure was actually brought forward, it encountered a vehement opposition ; and among the ablest and fiercest of its adversaries was Plunket, whose powers as a great orator were now universally recognized. His speeches in these debates show all the force of reason-ing, the admirable arrangement, and the grasp of facts which characterize his later efforts ; but they are some-what disfigured by personal invective, and here and there betray an indecent acrimony. They raised him, however, immediately to the front rank of his party ; and, when Grattan re-entered the moribund senate, he took his seat next to Plunket, thus significantly recognizing the place the latter had attained.

After the union of Great Britain and Ireland Plunket returned to the practice of his profession, and became at once a leader of the equity bar. In 1803, after the out-break of Emmet's rebellion, he was selected as one of the crown lawyers to prosecute the unfortunate enthusiast, and at the trial, in summing up the evidence, delivered a speech of remarkable power, which shows his characteristic dislike of revolutionary outbursts. For this speech he was exposed to much unmerited obloquy, and more espe-cially to the abuse of Cobbett, against whom he brought a successful action for damages. In 1804, in Pitt's second administration, lie became solicitor-general and then attor-ney-general for Ireland; and he continued in office when Lord Grenville came into power at the head of the ministry of All the Talents. Plunket held a seat in the imperial parliament during this period, and there made several able speeches in favour of Catholic emancipation, and of continuing the war with France; but, when the Grenville cabinet was dissolved, he returned once more to professional life, and for some years devoted himself exclusively to it.

In 1812, having amassed a considerable fortune, he re-entered parliament as member for Trinity College, and identified himself thoroughly with the Grenville or anti-Galilean Whigs. He was now in the full maturity of his powers, and very soon was acknowledged one of the first orators, if not the first, of the House of Commons. His reverence for the English constitution in church and state, his strong dislike of French principles, his steady- advocacy of the war with Napoleon, and his antipathy to anything like democracy- made him popular with the Tory party-. On the other hand, he was the zealous and most able supporter of Catholic emancipation ; he was not averse to some measure of parliamentary reform ; and, as generally lie was on the side of constitutional progress, he was reckoned a principal ornament of one of the sections of the Whigs.

In 1822 Plunket was once more attorney-general for Ireland, with Lord Wellesley as lord-lieutenant. One of his first official acts was to prosecute for the " bottle riot," an attempt on his part to put down the Orange faction in Ireland. But, though always the advocate of the Catholic claims, he strenuously opposed the Catholic Association, which about this time, under the guidance of- O'Connell, began its extraordinary and successful agitation. -He struggled vehemently to extinguish it, and in 1825 made a powerful speech against it; and thus the curious spectacle was seen of the ablest champion of an oppressed sect doing all in his power to check its efforts to emancipate itself.

In 1827 Plunket was made master of the rolls in Eng-land ; but, owing to the professional jealousy of the bar, who not unnaturally thought hint an intruder, he was obliged to abandon this office. Soon afterwards he became chief justice of the common pleas in Ireland, and was then created a peer of the United Kingdom. In 1830 Ite was appointed lord chancellor of Ireland, and held the office, with an interval of a few- months only, until 1811, when he finally retired from public life. During this period he made some able speeches in favour of parliamentary reform; but they were scarcely equal to his earlier efforts; and his reputation as a judge, though far from low, was not so eminent as might have been expected. He died in 1854, in his ninetieth year. (w. o. m.)

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