Plunket, William Conyngham Plunket, 1st Baron
PLUNKET, WILLIAM CONYNGHAM PLUNKET, 1ST BARON (1764-1854), Irish lawyer, orator and statesman, was born in the county of Fermanagh in July I764. 1 He was educated first by his father, a Presbyterian minister of considerable ability and reputation, and in 1779 he became a student of Trinity College, Dublin. He was conspicuous as the acknowledged leader of the Historical Society, the debating club of Trinity College, then full of young men of remarkable promise. Having entered Lincoln's Inn in 1784, Plunket was called to the Irish bar in 1787. He gradually obtained a considerable practice in equity; and was made a king's counsel in 1797.
1 The Irish Plunkets are distinguished by the spelling of the name from the Plunketts of the families of the barons Dunsany (cr. 1439) and the earls of Fingall (cr. 1628), though the earlier members of these houses are often given the spelling of Plunket.
In 1798 he entered the Irish parliament as member for Charlemont. He was an anti- Jacobin Whig of the school of Burke, not ungracefully filled with a fervent Irish patriotism. But he was a sincere admirer of the constitutional government of England as established in 1688; he even justified the ascendancy it had given to the Established Church, although he thought that the time had arrived for extending toleration to Roman Catholics and dissenters. To transfer it to Ireland as thus modified, and under an independent legislature, was the only reform he sought for his country; he opposed the union because he thought it incompatible with this object.
When Plunket entered the Irish 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 brought forward, among the ablest and fiercest of its adversaries was Plunket, whose powers as a great orator were now universally recognized. His speeches raised him 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 Plunket returned to the practice of his profession, and became at once a leader of the equity bar. In 1803, after 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 especially to the abuse of Cobbett, against whom he brought a successful action for damages. In 1803, in Pitt's second administration, he became solicitor-general, and hi 1805 attorney-general for Ireland; and he continued in office when Lord Grenville came into power in 1806. 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.
In 1812, having amassed a considerable fortune, he re-entered parliament as member for Trinity College, and identified himself with the Grenville or anti-Gallican Whigs. He was soon acknowledged as 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 steady advocacy of the war with Napoleon, and his antipathy to anything like democracy made him popular with the Tory party. 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. He strenuously opposed the Catholic Association, which about this time, under the guidance of O'Connell, began its agitation. In 1825 he made a powerful speech against it; thus the curious spectacle was seen of the ablest champion of an oppressed church doing all in his power to check its efforts to emancipate itself.
In 1827 Plunket was made master of the rolls in England; but, owing to the professional jealousy of the bar, who regarded an Irishman as an intruder, he resigned in a few days. Soon afterwards he became chief justice of the common pleas in Ireland, and was then created a peer of the United Kingdom. In 1830 he was appointed lord chancellor of Ireland, and held the office, with an interval of a few months only, until 1841, when he finally retired from public life. He died on the 4th of January 1854, and was succeeded by his eldest son, the bishop of Tuam (1792-1866) as 2nd baron. The 4th baron (1828-1897) was bishop of Meath and afterwards archbishop of Dublin and primate of Ireland, and an active ecclesiastical statesman; and his younger brother David Plunket (b. 1838), solicitor-general for Ireland in 1875-1877, and first commissioner of works in the Unionist administration of 1885-1892, was in 1895 created Baron Rathmore. William Lee Plunket, sth baron (b. 1864), was governor of New Zealand from 1904 to 1910.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)