Above: Anna Dorothea Foster, daughter of John Foster, the last Speaker of the Irish House of
Commons, is pictured embroidering with a circular tambour frame. Her cousin Charlotte Anna
Dick holds up a paper pattern that serves as a model. This double portrait by Gilbert Stuart was
painted at the same time as Stuart's portrait of John Foster. (Charlotte Hanes).
Amongst the family portraits hung on the walls of Lisnavagh is one of a young man who appears to have forgotten to shave. The portrait depicts John Foster, last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. In ‘Gilbert Stuart: A Biography’ (1964, W.W. Norton, p. 359) Charles Merrill Mount described the portrait of John Foster in three-quarter face at Lisnavagh as ‘a poor copy. John Foster was a first cousin of Patience Foster who married 'Bumper Jack' McClintock of Drumcar and was mother to the John McClintock who married Jane Bunbury. As such, the Speaker's grandfather, John Foster, was my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather! Here follows a potted history of the Foster family. As always, every fact should be double-checked before quoting onwards.
The Foster family probably descend from Samuel Foster, whose name appeared in the Hearth Money return for Dunleer parish, Co Louth, in 1666. His son Anthony Foster (d. 1722) was named in 1683 by the charter of Dunleer borough as one of the thirteen original burgesses.[i] He seems to have been a small farmer, with a customary tenancy of a 270-acre farm at Dunleer.
With relatively obscure beginnings, the Foster fortune was neither inherited nor granted, but slowly pieced together through legal and commercial initiatives. Anthony Foster’s son John Foster, a country attorney and sometime mayor of Dunleer Corporation, played the speculation game and managed to acquire an estate which, by the time of his death on 16 May 1747, amounted to over 6,000 acres.[ii] Amongst these were the lease and rectorial tithes for Drumcar where the McClintock would later live. [ii.a] Much of the land they acquired belonged to the Moore family of Ardee, a heavily indebted cadet branch of the Moores, Earls of Drogheda.[iii] The lands were ‘all held on such favourable leasehold terms as to be virtually fee simple’. (Malcomson). That included the village and estate of Collon, where they established their seat in the early 1740s. The Dunleer estate extended to nearly 1,500 Irish acres in that vicinity.
The family also secured control of Dunleer and a good deal of Co Louth.[iv] The parliamentary borough of Dunleer had long been run by the Tenison family (since 1683) but they had lost interest in the seat so that the Fosters, ‘gained control, by sharp practice if not by actual treachery, of the return for the two seats for the borough’. (Malcomson) In 1735 the Fosters ‘voluntarily surrendered’ one seat to the Tenisons. John scripted a carefully worded partition agreement which guaranteed the Fosters possession of half a borough. This, to again quote Malcolmson, made the Fosters "inevitable" House of Commons men’ and they effectively retained the seat from 1737 until the borough was disfranchised by the Act of Union in 1801. (And they continued to dominate Louth politics until 1826).
In 1704, John Foster, MP, married Elizabeth Fortescue (d. 29 Oct 1762, aged 77), youngest daughter of William Fortescue of Neuragh, Co Louth. She was a first cousin of Henry-William Fortescue, created 1st Earl of Clermont in 1778. John died on 16 May 1747, leaving three sons - Anthony Foster (Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer), the Rev. Thomas Foster (Rector of Dunleer) and William Foster of Rosy Park. [v]
In 1737, John’s 32-year-old eldest son Anthony Foster, a barrister, became the first of the family elected to the Irish House of Commons when returned for Dunleer. He had graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a bachelor of arts in 1726. When in Dublin, he resided successively in King Street and at Kerry house on Molesworth Street. He also had a house at Merville on the Stillorgan Road, as well as Collon House itself.
In about 1751, Anthony acquired a chunk of untenanted wilderness at Collon which he set about reclaiming, referring to the landscape as ‘a waste sheep walk, covered chiefly with heath, with some dwarf furze and fern’. He quickly set to work improving the land and secured a patent to hold a weekly market there, as well as two annual fairs.[vi] Anthony invested considerable money in agricultural improvements on his estate, improving the drainage, fertility and general quality of the land. As early as 1746, he was awarded a premium for making cider. Arthur Young declared the improvements ‘... were of a magnitude I have never heard of before’. Collon House, the Foster place, was famous for its great variety of trees and shrubs. The collection was started by Antony and the Speaker was equally enthusiastic about planting.
Malcolmson holds that Anthony was ‘the outstanding figure on the Irish bench of his day because of the range of his extra-professional activities, including politics ... an able man whose misfortune it has been to be overshadowed by an even abler son’. Anthony represented Dunleer in the Irish House of Commons from 1738 to 1761 (when succeeded by his son, John ‘Speaker’ Foster) and subsequently Co Louth from 1761 to 1767 (when succeeded by his brother-in-law, Stephen Sibthorpe). From 1760 to 1766 he also held the office of First Counsel to the Commissioners of the Revenue. In the latter year he retired from the House when appointed to succeed Sir John Willes as Lord Chief Baron of the Court of Exchequer. In 1765, he was presented with a gold box from the linen drapers of Ulster in recognition of his great service to the linen manufacturers of Ireland. He also received the Freedom of Drogheda and plate valued at £400 from the linen board. He retired from the judicial bench in 1777 and died on 3 April 1778. At the time of his death, the Foster estate amounted to some 6,500 acres.
On 25 Feb 1736, Anthony married his first wife, Elizabeth Burgh, for whom Burgh Quay on Dublin’s River Liffey was named. Her father, William Burgh of Bert, Co Kildare, was a friend of Jonathan Swift and brother of Thomas Burgh of Oldtown, the engineering genius who became Surveyor-General of Ireland at the age of thirty. William Burgh became Comptroller and Accountant General of the British Army in Ireland. (William was married to Margaret, a daughter of Thomas Parnell, the first of that family to settle in Ireland). By this marriage Anthony had two sons, John ‘Speaker’ Foster and Rev William Foster, Bishop of Clogher, and a daughter, Margaretta.[vii] Elizabeth Foster died on 30 July 1744 and Anthony was married secondly on 29 July 1749 to her first cousin, Dorothea Burgh, daughter of Surveyor-General Thomas Burgh of Oldtown. He died on 3rd April 1778.
Anthony Foster’s younger brother Dr Thomas Foster, Rector of Dunleer, married Dorothy Burgh in 1743. Her portion was £3,000 and her jointure was to be £300 a year.[viii] Their son John Thomas Foster (1747–1796) was MP for Dunleer from 1776-1783 and later represented Ennis until 1790. In 1776, John Thomas married Lady Elizabeth Hervey daughter of the 4th Earl of Bristol. They separated in 1781, leaving two surviving sons, including the diplomat Sir Augustus John Foster, father of the philanthropist and educationalist, Vere Foster (1819-1900). [ix] Elizabeth was the sexually charged ‘Lady Bess’ who subsequently entered the ménage-a-trois with the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, as lately played on screen by Ralph Fiennes and Keira Knightly in ‘The Duchess’. Lady Bess also happens to be a great-great-great grandmother of Vogue editor Anna Wintour.
Anthony Foster’s youngest brother William Foster lived at Rosy Park, now the ruined Glyde Court, where the motto was ‘Divini Gloria Ruris’ (Glory of the Divine Country, Virgil, Georics, i. 169). William married Patience Fowke, daughter of John Fowke of Dublin and sister to Lord Chief Justice Henry Singleton. They had a son, John William Foster (1745-1809), and two daughters, Elizabeth and Patience (McClintock). With the Speaker’s reluctant blessing, JW Foster, a prominent Volunteer, stood as MP for Dunleer from 1783-1790. JW Foster was married in 1788 to Rebecca McClure. She was the only child of Hamilton McClure of Dublin, by his wife, Elizabeth Weld, who he married in 1762. William died aged 64 in January 1809. He was ancestor of the Foster family of Ballymascanlon. See also: Abandoned Ireland.
On May 11 1766, William and Patience Foster's younger daughter Patience Foster (1746-1830) married John ‘Bumper Jack’ McClintock of Drumcar, who possessed extensive property in the counties of Tyrone Fermanagh and Louth. Jack and Patience McClintock are the ancestors of this author. During the twilight of the Irish Parliament in the 1790s, Jack McClintock sat as MP for Enniskillen (1783-90) and Belturbet (1790-97) and performed the duties of Prime Serjeant. His death in February 1799 may have saved the British Government the price of a peerage. After his death, his wife Patience lived at 1 Seatown Place in Dundalk, a house closely associated with her grandson, Admiral Sir Leopold McClintock.
Jack and Patience McClintock's eldest son John McClintock was born in Dublin in 1770. At the age of 17, young John entered the University of Dublin as a fellow commoner where, after remaining for three years and a half, he took out his degree of Bachelor of Arts. ‘He had originally intended himself for the profession of the law, and had actually kept several Terms for that purpose, but his intentions in this respect were changed by a vacancy having occurred in the office of Serjeant-at-Arms to the Irish House of Commons’.[x] 21-year-old John McClintock was appointed to this post in 1791 and retained it until the Act of Union ‘when his name was put upon the pension list, and since that time he has been in receipt of his pension’. (Hamilton, FB, 1832). He was first returned for the borough of Athlone in 1823 but did not serve for more than two to three months. On 14 August 1831, after ‘a very warm contest’ which lasted four days, the 61-year-old was returned for Co Louth, with his old college friend Alexander Dawson Esq.[xi] Together they defeated Sir Patrick Bellew and Richard Sheil. (Results: Dawson (295), McClintock (256), Sheil (213), Bellew (131). He voted against Lord John Russell’s bill for reform. ‘Mr McClintock of a man of clear vigorous understanding, and of the kindliest dispositions in private life’. As Serjeant one of his roles involved looking after the Speaker’s mace. On this subject, FB Hamilton advises: ‘When the mace lies on the table, it is a house. When under the table, it is a committee. When out of the house, no business can be done When from the table and on the Serjeant's shoulders, no motion can be made'.
Sometimes known by the cognomen of ‘The Devil’ or ‘Jack Foster’, John Foster was born in 1740. The economical genius was just 21 when he succeeded to his fathers’ seat as MP for Dunleer in 1761. He retained the seat until 1769. He was MP for Co Louth from 1768 to 1821, a period of 53 years, when elevated to the peerage as Baron Oriel.[xii] He quickly made his mark in financial and commercial questions and became one of the key decision makers in that largely successful era of 1782-1800. In particular he was prominently associated with ‘regulating Ireland's external trade with Great Britain, with other parts of the Empire, with the United States, and with France’.
Jack Foster served first as Chairman of the Committee of Supply and Ways and Means, 1777-1784, before succeeding his brilliant kinsman and brother-in-law Rt Hon Walter Hussey de Burgh as Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer following the latters’ premature death in 1783. Although only Chancellor for a year, Foster had been working closely with Burgh since 1777. Economics was his undoubted forte and Malcomson suggests his priorities began with ‘the Irish linen industry, in all its bearings’, to be followed by wool, cotton, corn, agriculture generally, bog-reclamation, roads, canals, trade, post-Union budgets and government loans. William Lecky and Anthony Malcomson are in agreement that Foster’s Corn Law, which gave bounties on the exportation of corn and imposed heavy taxes on its importation, was responsible for making Ireland an arable instead of a pasture country. He was a leading light in the Dublin Society and the President of the Farming Society. Amongst other species, he introduced the copper beech to Ireland. In the 1790s he played a key role in converting poet Thomas Tickell’s house and gardens in Glasnevin into the Botanical Gardens. During the 1780s, he built a lakeside garden folly near Collon which became known as Oriel Temple, along with a grotto, a hermitage and a rustic cottage of the Swiss Cottage style. He enjoyed it to such an extent that, by 1812, he had ‘extended the building dramatically and taken up permanent residence there’. Modern additions and alterations have rather overpowered the original building, which is now hard to identify’. [xiii]
In 1785, Jack Foster became Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, retaining the post until 1800 despite an ill-advised attempt to seize the Speakership by Billy Ponsonby.[xiv] He appears to have abhorred change of any type, stopping his clock in 1782 when Grattan had his Parliament and the Ascendancy was in charge. That, in Foster’s mind, was the peak of Anglo-Ireland and its difficult to argue with him. He publicly, and perhaps privately, supported the Octennial Act of 1768 which called for new elections every eight years (rather than awaiting the accession of a new monarch). He publicly (though belatedly) supported Grattan’s Constitution of 1782. While he did come to see its potential, he was apprehensive about the somewhat aggressive manner in which the British government had been obliged to allow the constitution with Volunteer groups such as that run by his cousin, John William Foster. While he supported and contributed to the measures of 1778 and 1782 removing the disabilities of the Catholics in matters of property and religion, his most effective parliamentary speech was in opposition to their readmission to the parliamentary franchise in 1793. Thereafter, continues Malcomson, he was ‘the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy's most effective spokesman against Catholic Emancipation notably in the first post-Union debate on the subject, in 1805, until succeeded in that role by his nephew and political heir, John Leslie Foster’.
The Speaker was also the most virulent, outspoken and influential opponent of the Act of Union. Although he had been a patriot in 1793, he voted against Catholic emancipation and he probably opposed the union because he feared a Westminster parliament would be more likely to grant it than a Dublin one. It is thought McClintock would have been similarily inclined. Foster famously refused to hand over the Speaker’s Mace when the Irish Parliament was formally abolished.[xv]
In the ensuing elections, he was again returned for Co Louth and took his seat in the now United Parliament. ‘For all his political importance’, says Malcomson, Foster was always on the defensive ‘except in his cherished sphere of economic affairs’. ‘His characteristic political posture was making the best of what he considered a bad job - even as bad a job as the Union’. From 1804-06 he was Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer at Westminster under Pitt (a post he was reappointed to from 1807-1811) and ended his career as Father of the House of Commons. He developed the linen industry in the area, building mills and encouraging Protestant weavers to settle in Collon. However, the costs of this were enormous and the family were still paying heavy interest on the loans they took out to purchase their estate in the first place. By 1810, Speaker Foster's debts were estimated at £72,000. In 1821 he was created a peer of the United Kingdom as Baron Oriel, of Ferrard, in the County of Louth. He died in his 89th year in 1828 and is buried in Dunleer.
Speaker Foster was married on 14 December 1764 (possibly 1766) to his first cousin (and possibly his childhood sweetheart), Margaretta Burgh, eldest daughter of his mothers’ only brother, Thomas Burgh of Bert, Co. Kildare, MP for Lanesborough. (On 11 May 1766, his first cousin Patience Foster married John McClintock). Margaretta was created Baroness Oriel in 1790 and Viscountess Ferrard in 1797, both in the peerage of Ireland, died in 1824. It seems she and the Speaker were utterly in love; she had no fortune. Angelica Kauffman’s 1771 portrait depicts her as a serene beauty. ‘Nothing can be more moving’, says Malcomson, ‘than the memorial urn which Foster, then in his eighties, erected to his wife's memory, and which now stands in the family burial ground in the Antrim Castle gardens’.[xvi]
In 1791, Speaker Foster sat for a full-length portrait by Gilbert Stuart, which is now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas, Missouri. Stuart also painted the portrait of the Speaker's daughter Anna Dorothea Foster that features on this page. Anna was his only surviving daughter and went on to marry Sir James Stevenson Blackwood of Clandeboye, Co. Down, later 2nd Baron Dufferin, in 1799. She died at a very advanced age in 1865.
His family were also depicted in happy bliss on the steps of Oriel temple by John James Barralet in a watercolour of 1786. But many of the Speaker and Margaretta’s sons and daughters died young.[xvii] The Speaker’s only surviving son, Thomas Henry Foster of Oriel Temple was educated at Eton and Cambridge. He was MP for Dunleer from 1792 to 1800. ‘He was Colonel of the Louth Militia, 1793-1816, and took this responsibility with painstaking seriousness; so much so that Lord Cornwallis, the Lord Lieutenant and no friend of Foster's father, declared in 1799 that the Louth Militia was the 'best disciplined' of all.' After the Union, Thomas Henry Foster was a Governor of Co. Louth, 1803-1843, sat for the adjoining county borough of Drogheda, 1807-1812, and later sat for Co. Louth itself, 1821-1824. He was not really a politician, but by virtue of the family's political importance, held office as a Commissioner of the Irish Revenue, 1798-1799, and a Supernumerary Lord of the Irish Treasury, 1807-1813. In 1810, he married Harriet Skeffington, daughter and heiress presumptive of the 4th Earl Massereene. The death of the 4th Earl in 1816 without male issue allowed Harriet to succeed in her own right as Viscountess Massereene, and the Viscountcy, along with the substantial estate, descended through her.
The Massarene marriage, coupled with the mounting debts on the Collon estate, caused the focus of the Fosters to move away from their estates in Meath and Louth to new life at Antrim Castle. The family was somewhat torn asunder when Thomas Henry Foster (now 2nd Viscount Ferrard) was obliged to sue his son and heir, the 10th Viscount Massereene, in the 1830s, about which Malcomson has more but it had something to do with the young Viscount’s ‘wretched match', to quote the Earl of Leitrim, with Miss Olivia Deane Grady, ten years his senior 'and with a very low, vulgar and unprincipled family'. He was killed in a fall from a horse in 1863. His grandson, the 12th Viscount Masserene, was Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and a member of the Northern Ireland Senate from 1921 to 1929. Lord Massereene, his family and a house party were present in Antrim Castle when it was burnt by the IRA in 1922. The estate was eventually broken up and sold off by the Land Commission.
Advancement in politics could also help the clerically minded members of the family. Speaker Foster’s younger brother William Foster (1744-1797) was chaplain to the Irish House of Commons (1780-89) before he successively mounted the hierarchy as Bishop of Cork and Ross (1789–1790), Bishop of Kilmore (1790) and Bishop of Clogher (January 21st 1796). However, he died soon after the Clogher consecration in 1797. [Fasti Ecclesiae Hibernicae: The succession of the Prelates, Volume 3’ by Henry Cotton (Hodges & South, 1849)] . He married Catherine Letitia Leslie whose father, the Rev Henry (or Thomas?) Leslie, of Ballybay co Monaghan, was prebendary of Tandragee in the cathedral of Armagh. The Rev. Leslie died in 1803, leaving Ballybay to her brother Charles. Her oldest brother Peter Henry Leslie was killed in action in America, presumably during the War of Independence. The Bishop became the talk of the Royal Irish Academy half a century later when his Episcopal seal was found in a field adjoining the Archdeaconry of Connor. [Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Volume 5, Royal Irish Academy, 1852, p. 241] He had the following children:
1. The Hon. John Leslie Foster (c. 1781 –1842), one of the barons of the court of Exchequer in Ireland, who married Letitia, daughter of the Right Hon James Fitzgerald. He represented the Tory party in Parliament for Dublin University (1807-12), the rotten borough of Yarmouth (1816-18), Armagh City (1818-20) and Co Louth (1824-30). J.L. Foster succeeded his uncle Speaker Foster as the chief spokesman against Catholic Emancipation.
2. William-Henry Foster, RN.
3. Catherine Foster married William Drummond Delap of Monasterboin, co. Louth.
4. Anna Foster married Jonas Stowell Esq, barrister, of Oldcourt, Mallow, Co. Cork. They had ten children, of whom the third was Sir William Stawell, Chief Justice of Victoria from 1857-1886.
5. Henrietta Foster married (as his 3rd wife) Jerome, Count de Salis, whose father had been Governor of the small Alpine country of Valteline until ousted by the Italians under Bonaparte. The Count’s mother had the Fane estates in Ireland. The Count was High Sheriff for Armagh in 1810 and died in 1837 aged 65.
6. Elizabeth Foster
7. Letitia Foster
The Speaker and the Bishop also had a sister Margaretta Foster who married the Right Rev Henry Maxwell, Lord Bishop of Meath. She died in 1792. Their first and third son became 5th and 6th Lord Farnham respectively.
(The Genealogy of the Existing British Peerage and Baronetage, Edmund Lodge Peerage & baronetage of Great Britain & Ireland, Henry Colburn, 1839 -
Ball, F.E., The Judges in Ireland, 1221-1921.
Brewer, JN, The Beauties of Ireland (Leinster, 1826).
Howley, James, The Follies & Garden Buildings of Ireland (Yale)
Malcomson, A. P. W., The Foster family and the parliamentary Borough of Dunleer, 1683-1800 (W. Tempest, Dundalk, 1990).
Malcomson, A. P. W., John Foster and the Speakership of the Irish House of Commons (Royal Irish Academy, 1972)
[i] Burke’s say Anthony was a Colonel but there seems to be no further evidence of this.
[ii] Burke’s erroneously claims he was MP for Dunleer.
[ii.a] On 11th August 1711, Archbishop Narcissus Marsh, the Primate of Ireland, had purchased a lease of the Rectory and rectorial tithes of Drumcar for 999 years from John Foster of Dunleer for £1800. Foster held the same by lease, dated Dec. 11, 1703, from Stephen Ludlow. Two days later, the Primate demised the same to Foster for 21 years at £100 rent. His Grace simultaneously settled the said rectory and tithes on Dr. Wye and his successors, the Rectors of Drumcar for ever, on condition that they paid £40 annually to the P.C. Moylary. In 1764 there were 12 Protestants and 363 Roman Catholics in the Drumcar parish but no church and no chapel. On August 15th 1840, the parishes of Drumcar and Dunleer, united since 1682, were once again constituted as separate parishes. The first Vicar appointed was Cecil Smyly, who arrived in December 1840 and was granted a licence to preach in the Schoolhouse in April 1841. [James B Leslie, 'Armagh clergy and parishes : being an account of the clergy of the Church of Ireland in the Diocese of Armagh, from the earilest period, with historical notices of the several parishes, churches, &c].
[iii] It is estimated that well over half of the Foster estate in Louth and Meath, which stood at 6,500 acres in 1778 and yielded a gross rental of £4,854, came from the Moore family as a whole.
[iv] The Judges in Ireland, 1221-1921, F. Elrington Ball, p. 221
[v] A fourth son Samuel died young. John and Elizabeth Foster also had three daughters - Margaret who married Stephen Sibthorpe of Brownston, Co Louth, Charlotte who married Sir Nicholas Forster and Alice who married Thomas Bolton (d. 1740). Debretts’s lists another daughter, Susanna, who died unmarried in 1805 and have no record of Alice. And there seems to have been another daughter Mary who was married in 1740 to Thomas Bomford of Oldtown, Co Meath and died in 1779. (http://www.bomford.net/IrishBomfords/Chapters/Chapter6/Chapter6.htm).
[vi] A fine description of Collon in his day is to be found on page 311 of The Beauties of Ireland by James Norris Brewer, Henry Sargant (1826, Leinster)
[vii] Anthony’s daughter Margaret Foster married Henry Maxwell, Bishop of Meath, a son of Lord Farnham. Her sons went on to become the 5th and 6th Lord Farnham.
[viii] The pursuit of the heiress, A. P. W. Malcomson, p. 28 (Ulster Historical Foundation)
[ix] Ending his service as British minister plenipotentiary to Turin, Kingdom of Sardinia, and his career in the British diplomatic service in 1840, Foster began drafting his Notes on the United States of America. He died in 1848 after cutting his throat at Branksea Castle; he had suffered from delirium because of poor health, and his death was ruled as the result of temporary insanity. His Notes on the United States of America would be rediscovered in a cupboard of his family's home in Northern Ireland the 1930s, and published posthumously.
His elder brother was Frederick Thomas Foster (1777–1853), MP for Bury St Edmunds. In about 1814, his ward, Frances Foster married John Parkinson, British Consul to Prussia, Brazil and finally Mexico. Frances died in October 1814 a few months after giving birth to a son, Frederick Claudius John Parkinson. (Thanks to Nicholas Wilson).
Their sister Elizabeth was born on 17 November 1778 but died one week later on 25 November 1778.
[x] See: Hamilton, F.B., The picture of Parliament, containing a biographical dictionary of the Irish members (B. Steill, 1831). Original from the New York Public Library. Digitized Oct 30, 2007.
[xi] Alexander Dawson of Riverstown, Co Louth, was an old friend of John McClintock’s from college days. The family originally came from Yorkshire and were based in Monaghan. His father John Dawson was brought to Dublin at an early age (under the auspices of prominent banker and Alderman Richard Dawson of Dawson’s Grove, ancestor of Lord Cremorne) and started business on Castle Street in 1760. Three years later John married Miss Pepper of Cook’s Town, Co Louth, by which he secured her estate. In 1792, John purchased Riverstown from the Earl of Carrick. He died in 1801 leaving considerable estates in Co Louth to his two sons, Alexander and James. Alexander was born in Castle Street, Dublin, in 1770 and educated for some time at the school of the Rev Mr Miller. He subsequently entered the University of Dublin where, during his college course and particularly in the fourth year of it, he obtained premiums, certificates and many other academic honours. In the last year of the course, he was admitted a member of the celebrated Historical Society of Trinity College, and obtained a silver medal for superior answering in history. John McClintock was ‘his contemporary and fellow student in College, in the same class and generally in the same division’. (Hamilton).
Alexander Dawson was called to the bar at the age of 23. His first major client was the Grand Canal Company of Ireland, a body involved in numerous lawsuits. He subsequently retired ‘from the turmoil of forensic life to his paternal seat at Riverstown’ where he discharged ‘the duties of an independent country gentleman’, being ‘an upright and impartial magistrate, to the satisfaction of the country’. He also devoted himself to ‘the pursuits of literature’. At length, he felt compelled to enter upon ‘the wider field of legislation’, being first returned to Parliament at the General Election of 1826 when, with the support of the Catholic Association (the 40s freeholders who now shook off the yoke and asserted their independence) he ousted the Foster family from power in Dunleer for the first time in nearly 100 years. He made his maiden speech at the commencement of the 1826 session, seconding an amendment of his friend Henry Grattan to the address. Contemporaries considered the speech ‘a favourable specimen of Mr Dawson's powers’ - ‘the language was plain and nervous and, in some passages, eloquent and impassioned. It was chiefly distinguished, however, for a tone of moderate firmness, a depth of thought and a plain, straight-forward common-sense-like manner’. It was imbibed with ‘a vein of unpretending and sterling honesty’ and nobody could deny that Dawson spoke ‘in earnest and really felt what he said’.
F.B. Hamilton described him thus: ‘An active and efficient man, constantly upon committees in the house. His education is of the first class and his mind, together with being highly cultivated and refined, is a store of practical useful information. As a speaker, his manner is plain but cogent and earnest. There is nothing superfluous about his observations. In short, to a sound judgment, an unsullied integrity and an intrepidity which knows not how to shrink from the discharge of duty. There is united in the hon and excellent member for Louth the most obliging manners and the kindest dispositions of heart’.
[xii] In 1768, Speaker Foster was elected for Navan and in 1783 for Sligo Borough. Both times he also stood for Louth, which constituency he then chose to represent.
[xiii] See James Howley, The Follies & Garden Buildings of Ireland, p. 148. The name Oriel derives from the pre-Norman O’Carroll Kingdom of Uriel, which had its capital seat at Louth village six miles southwest of Dundalk. In 1939 the Cistercian Order settled in the Foster home and re-named it the Cistercian Abbey of New Mellifont.
[xiv] His unique collection of pamphlets survived the Antrim Castle fire in 1922 and is now preserved in the library of Queen's University, Belfast.
[xv] The mace of the Speaker of the Irish of Commons was sold in 1933, to the Bank of Ireland, where it is preserved and displayed in its College Green headquarters in Dublin, formerly the Irish Parliament House; but, as the interior of the House of Commons has not survived, it is to be seen in the Chamber of the House of Lords.
[xvi] It was removed to Antrim Castle from Collon, probably in 1920.
[xvii] His eldest son John Foster, MP for Dunleer 1790-92, died young before 18 April 1792.