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 Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

W. E. H. Lecky

Historian & Politician 1838-1903

Source: Carloviana 1994/1995

William Edward Hartpoole Lecky, Carlow landlord, historian and author was one of the nineteenth century’s most influential writers. In this magnificent intellectual biography fellow Carlow man Professor Donal McCartney, Professor of Modem Irish History in University College Dublin, brings us a tour de force through the man’s writings and the development of his political ideas from liberal to conservative.

For Lecky the eighteenth century was Ireland’s golden age and Henry Grattan his particular hero. As a writer, he exposed the Act of Union for the corrupt bargain it was and did more than most to influence English politicians to rectify the legitimate grievances of Ireland. However, he was appalled by the actual course of events which unfolded in the political arena and by the policies pursued by Gladstone and Parnell in the 1870s and 1880s.

The comparison with Parnell is fascinating. They were contemporaries, Lecky (1838.1891), Parnell (1846.1891), both born into Anglo Irish Protestant landlord families and both spent their lives immersed in the political battles of their day — Parnell centrestage in the political arena ruthlessly pursuing power and Lecky the intellectual analysing and writing from the political sidelines.

Each had their own concept of Irish nationalism. Yet the nationalism to which each appealed, Lecky to the patriotism of Grattan and Parnell to the patriotism of the men of the hills, was being replaced in their lifetimes by a nationalism which was both newer and older than either. This was the nationalism of the new literary and cultural revolution, of the foundation of the G.A.A. in 1884 and of the Gaelic League in 1893, and which was to

replace both their ideas in the first decades of the new century.

Lecky opposed all the reforming legislation of the Gladstone era — home rule, land reform, electoral reform — until at the latter stage of his life he sat with Edward Carson as a member of Parliament for the ultra conservative unionist constituency of Trinity College Dublin.

By the end of his life all the measures that he had fought against — with the exception of home rule — were in place — the Reform Act of 1884, the Local Government Act of 1898 and the final Windham Land Purchase Act of 1903.

However, it is as a writer and historian that his reputation rests and his publications display the breadth and depth of his ideas. The Religious Tendencies of the Age, Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland, History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, History of England in the Eighteenth Century, England, Ireland, Poems, Democracy and Liberty, Map of Life, Historical and Political Essays.

Early in life he had displayed a certain interest in pursuing a political career but did not actually enter Parliament until his later years when any political ambition he may have had had evaporated.

However, in one piece of poetry written when he was twenty-one Lecky perhaps unwittingly came nearest to understanding the Irish political psyche both nationalist and unionist when he wrote:

The dead are still our masters
And a power from the tomb
Can shape the characters of men, their
Conduct and their doom.

Source: This was previously published in the Carloviana 1994/1995

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