24. Garrett Byrne: West Wicklow’s Home Rule MP,

Chris Lawlor

We’re moving away from massacre and battle to a non-violent diversion today! On 22 November 1885, Dunlavin’s overtly nationalistic parish priest, Canon Frederick Donovan, chaired a ‘large and enthusiastic meeting’ on Tournant moat in support of Garrett Byrne, a nationalist candidate in the county Wicklow election of that year. Byrne won the subsequent election – but just who was the newly elected member for West Wicklow? Here is a piece about Garrett Byrne that I wrote for the Hollywood Fair brochure a few years go. It’s actually an abridged version of a much longer essay that I did on Byrne’s parliamentary contributions over his career at Westminster. The illustration shows the ‘Irish Times’ headline from Thursday 4 March 1897, announcing the death of the former MP. I hope you enjoy the read.

Garrett Byrne, West Wicklow’s Home Rule MP, 24 November 1885-4 July 1892:

The mid-1880s was a time of great political excitement in Ireland. The county Wicklow landlord and champion of Home Rule, Charles Stewart Parnell had forged the Irish Parliamentary Party into a well-oiled machine, with the focus firmly fixed on achieving Home Rule for Ireland. The Irish party was the first to adopt the party whip system, and their policy of sitting, acting and voting together en masse (although Captain William O’Shea was a sometimes singular and notable exception to this general rule) gave the party a unity and strength not seen before in Westminster. When Gladstone’s Liberal government fell in June 1885, the Irish Party voted with the Conservatives and Lord Salisbury replaced the Grand Old Man as prime minister.[1] At the time, it probably seemed to Parnell that the Tories were more open to doing a deal on Home Rule. Lord Randolph Churchill indicated that he was sympathetic and Lord Carnarvon also seemed receptive to the idea. Gladstone’s Whigs were less forthcoming on the matter and so Parnell chose to support the Conservatives. In November 1885 the general election results in Ireland saw eighty-five Home Rule MPs returned, seventeen of them in Ulster. Among them, Garrett Byrne was returned as the MP for west Wicklow. This election was to be first to operate under the newly enlarged franchise. The £12 valuation threshold had been abolished and Gladstone’s ballot act made secret voting possible. In west Wicklow Garrett Byrne defeated W. W. F. Hume Dick (Conservative) by 3,721 votes to 871. The voters of west Wicklow had spoken.[2]

Home Rule for Ireland:

The Irish Party now effectively held the balance of power in Westminster.[3] However, in December 1885 Gladstone’s son Herbert famously flew the ‘Hawarden kite’ by telling journalists that his father was now in favour of Home Rule for Ireland. When parliament met in January 1886, Salisbury decided not to introduce Home Rule for Ireland, and went a step further by deciding to re-introduce coercion. Parnell therefore withdrew the support of the Irish Party and voted with the Liberals. The Hawarden kite had galvanised Unionists into action and in January 1886 the Ulster Loyalist Anti-Repeal Union was established. Lord Randolph Churchill fuelled Unionist fears at a rally in Belfast on 22 February when he spoke at a large meeting, telling a receptive audience that ‘The loyalists of Ulster should wait and watch, organise and prepare’, and promising to support their opposition to Home Rule.[4] Gladstone, on the other hand, was busily drafting the First Home Rule Bill.

Nationally a political crisis was looming, but meanwhile the newly elected Garrett Byrne was discharging his duties in parliament. He began by contributing a question regarding the appointment of a superintendent registrar to Baltinglass Poor Law Union. On 12 March 1886 he asked the Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, ‘whether the board of guardians of the Baltinglass Union, county of Wicklow, were within their absolute legal rights in re-appointing Mr. J. R. Dagg to the office of Superintendent Registrar for the district of Baltinglass…’ The Chief Secretary, Mr John Morley of Newcastle upon Tyne replied as follows: ‘Sir, this matter is at present under the consideration of my right Hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General for Ireland…’[5]

This question was Garrett Byrne’s first contribution in the House of Commons, but over the following six and a half years or so the west Wicklow MP was to become an active and loquacious parliamentarian. He asked well over thirty questions in the House and contributed to many debates on topics as diverse as fisheries in Scotland and evictions in west Wicklow.[6] He was a constant presence in the House during this time and he ably represented the west Wicklow area while supporting the Home Rule Party through thick and thin, experiencing high points such as the introduction of the first Home Rule Bill and low points such as the split in the party caused by Parnell’s involvement in the Katherine O’Shea divorce case along the way.

Post office at Knockananna:

In May 1892 Garrett Byrne asked the final question of his tenure as MP for West Wicklow, relating to the topic of rural postal services. He asked the Postmaster General ‘whether he can state the exact financial position of the post office at Knockananna, County Wicklow; the amount of income accruing from its working; the weekly wages paid to the messenger; and if it is working at a loss, what guarantee would be required from the residents of Knockananna to save the department from loss and pay the messenger 7s a week for calling every day at 5 p.m. and carrying the mails to meet the 6 p.m. post at Hacketstown’? In reply Byrne was informed that ‘There is no post office at Knockananna, but a wall box is provided in which letters can be posted for despatch to Hacketstown in the morning. The messenger who delivers the letters receives 5s a week, or £13 a year, and the revenue falls short of this expense by £1 11s. a year. Assuming that the messenger would be willing to make a collection of letters at Knockananna at 5 p.m. for wages of 7s instead of 5s a week, which is very doubtful, the payment to be made under a guarantee would be £5 4s 3d for the first year’.[7] 

Garrett Byrne left the House of Commons on 28 June 1892, coinciding with the general election of that year,[8] and he subsequently died in Dublin in 1897.[9] On 4 July 1892 he was succeeded as MP for west Wicklow by James O’Connor, who served until 1 October 1900, when he was re-elected, sitting for a further ten years until 12 March 1910. O’Connor was replaced by Edward O’Kelly (26 April 1910-22 July 1914)[10] and later John O’Donovan (22 August 1914-25 November 1918). The last MP to represent west Wicklow was Robert Barton (14 December1918-26 October 1922),[11] who was elected on the abstentionist Sinn Féin ticket and made no parliamentary contributions whatsoever at Westminster.[12]

The aftermath

Garrett Byrne MP was a significant figure in west Wicklow during the late nineteenth century. His parliamentary contributions, meticulously recorded in Hansard, provide an insight into the minutiae of the day-to-day activities at Westminster. However, the overarching themes of his questions go further. As MP for west Wicklow, Byrne was the voice of the people from the area, and his utterances reflect the local history of national events. The topics he touched upon covered a broad spectrum; indeed they constitute an interesting mix. Questions on Irish sovereignty, fair rents, the threat of evictions, outrages involving the Churches, delays in educational grants, inequalities in society and the care of its most vulnerable members, possible corruption in the ranks of the powers that be, inadequate rural services and communications – but no, such issues would not be relevant in today’s Ireland… would they? In any event, as is the case in the early twenty-first century, west Wicklow was also a microcosm of the nation in the late nineteenth century, and the great political issues of the day such as land reform and Home Rule were played out within this area, just as they were an integral part of the broader national tapestry.[13]

As we travel through this ‘decade of centenaries’ between 2013 and 2023, there is little doubt that the contributions of the nationalist (and later republican) Physical Force factions are being and will continue to be commemorated. However, we must also remember that throughout Irish history there have been two separate but often intertwined threads working to achieve independence from Britain. One was the Physical Force tradition, in which armed insurrection was the avowed aim of Irish rebels. The other, lesser known but perhaps more successful, was the thread of Constitutional Nationalism, in which the Irish cause was furthered by working within the existing political system. In the late nineteenth century Constitutional Nationalism was dominated by the question of Home Rule; in the early twentieth century Constitutional Nationalists were to the fore in establishing a twenty-six-county Irish Free State. The Irish Parliamentary Party made great strides in the decades before 1916 – so great that a Home Rule bill was actually passed. However, the events of Easter Week 1916 and the executions, arrests and imprisonments in its aftermath rendered Home Rule irrelevant. The Sinn Féin party reaped the rewards of the consequent shift in public opinion, and it was Robert Barton who represented this change in the west Wicklow election of 1918. The advances made by Barton and his colleagues in the march to nationhood are well documented.[14] However, in many ways, Barton and the others were standing on the shoulders of parliamentary giants – one of whom was the west Wicklow MP, Garrett Byrne.


[1] Mary Bergin, ‘The Wicklow landlord who held sway over the British empire: Parnell and his times’ in Journal of the West Wicklow Historical Society, vii (Naas, 2013), pp 112-3.

[2] Chris Lawlor, Canon Frederick Donovan’s Dunlavin 1884-1896: a west Wicklow village in the late nineteenth century (Dublin, 2000), p. 47.

[3] F. S. L. Lyons, Ireland since the Famine (revised ed, Glasgow, 1973), p. 182.

[4] W. S. Churchill, Lord Randolph Churchill, vol. 2 (London, 1906), p. 62.

[5] The parliamentary debates published under the superintendence of T. C. Hansard (Hereafter cited as Hansard), new series, HC Deb 12 March 1886, vol 303, c631.

6 Hansard, HC Deb 19 May 1892 vol 4 c1296 and (for example) Hansard, HC Deb 11 April 1889, vol 335, cc231-3.

7 Hansard, HC Deb 19 May 1892 vol 4 c1296.

8 http://www.theyworkforyou.com/mp/14787/garrett_byrne/wicklow_west visited on 12 Apr 2015.

9 The Irish Times, 4 Mar 1897.

10 O’Kelly later became the first chairman of Wicklow County Council. Brian Donnelly, For the betterment of the people: A history of Wicklow County Council (Wicklow?, 1999), p. 17.

11 http://www.theyworkforyou.com/mp/15651/james_o%27connor/wicklow_west visited on 12 Apr 2015; http://www.theyworkforyou.com/mp/15642/edward_o%27kelly/wicklow_west visited on 12 Apr 2015; http://www.theyworkforyou.com/mp/17201/john_donovan/wicklow_west visited on 12 Apr 2015; http://www.theyworkforyou.com/mp/21481/robert_barton/wicklow_west visited on 12 Apr 2015.

12 Barton did, however, contribute in the Dáil, beginning by reading the ‘Message to the Free Nations of the World’ at its first meeting in 1919. He was later one of the delegates who signed the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, a decision that he agonised over in later life. Chris Lawlor, The little book of Wicklow (Dublin, 2014), pp 105, 108 and 109.

13 Both land reform and Home Rule were burning issues in late nineteenth century Ireland. Many specialist works have been produced on both topics, but the presence of large sections within standard texts on the period amply testify to this fact. See, for example, J. C. Beckett, The making of modern Ireland 1603-1923 (5th ed, London, 1973), pp 351-434, R. F. Foster, Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (London, 1988), pp 373-430 and F. S. L. Lyons, Ireland since the Famine (revised ed, Glasgow, 1973), pp 141-223.

14 Many published works cover the transition that occurred during and immediately after the ‘Irish revolution’ of 1916-23. Possibly the most reflective treatment of the topic in a general text is found in J. J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985 (Cambridge, 1989; reprint 1990), pp 1-68. Perhaps the most detailed text devoted solely to the period remains Dorothy Macardle, The Irish Republic (London 1937; revised ed, 1968).




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