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
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
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,
- Conduct and their doom.
This was previously published
in the Carloviana 1994/1995