Lord Lieutenant

In the 18th century, Ireland was a kingdom with its own parliament, courts and government.  The King of Great Britain was also King of Ireland.  The country was ruled by a chief governor appointed by the crown.

The chief governor was an appointed British nobleman titled the Lord Lieutenant. The Lord Lieutenant was a member of the British Cabinet.  In the later 18th century, he ceased to attend Cabinet meetings and by 1780, no longer sat in cabinet.

The Lord Lieutenant was at the head of the Irish administration.  He was appointed by patent from the Crown which gave him powers to do all acts which the King might or could do himself if present there.  From the mid-18th century the Lord Lieutenant resided in Ireland and exerted influence on Irish politics

The Lord Lieutenant was in direct contact with the Prime Minister and British Cabinet in relation to Irish issues.  The Lord Lieutenant managed the Irish Parliament. He played a ceremonial but also a real political role.

The Lord Lieutenant was at the centre of social, quasi-political function and maintained high standards of hospitality. He was surrounded by a court and played a number of formal and chivalrous roles.


Theoretically, the Lord Lieutenant/Viceroy had considerable power.  He had significant powers of appointment. In the early part of the 18th century, Lords Lieutenant based themselves in England and attended Ireland during sessions of Parliament for about six months every two years.

The Lord Lieutenant was  responsible directly to the British Cabinet and not the Irish Parliament. His principal objective was to ensure that revenue bills were passed by the Irish Parliament and that bills unacceptable to the government were quashed.

During the year and a half interval between vice regal visits, the executive authority of Ireland rested with the Lord Justices. The policy adopted still appointed Lord Chancellor primate of the Speaker of the House of Commons as Lord Justice.  The Lord Justice appointed sheriffs and lieutenants of counties.

They dealt with a wide range of business, including  regulation of coinage, the enforcement of criminal law and the  supervision of corporations.  They advised and guided the Lord Lieutenant.

In 1767, a change  of  policy on the part of the British government required that the Lord Lieutenant sees to reside rather than conduct his business to undertakers or delegates.  Until the end of the century, Lords Lieutenant assisted by their chief secretary conducted the business office directly.  This was not changed by the grant of independence to the Irish Parliament in 1782.

Privy Council

The Lord Lieutenant (and prior to permanent residence, the  Lord Justices) were assisted by a Privy Council. The Lord Lieutenant remained responsible directly to the British Cabinet and not the Irish Parliament.

The Privy Council prepared government bills and approved types of bills coming from Parliament.  They had to be transmitted to the British Privy Council for approval under Ponying’s law prior to procedure through the Irish Parliament.

The Privy Council also dealt with a range of matters including, the maintenance of public order.  It theoretically could exercise control over the Lord Lieutenant  because his acts were not valid unless confirmed by a majority of the council.  However, in practice, no significant control was exercised.

In the early 18th century, the Viceroys were absent, for  between half and three quarters of their term of office. The Viceroy, Chief Secretary and several leading politicians were English in this era.  The senior judges were often English.

Chief Secretary

The Chief Secretary assisted the Lord Lieutenant in administrative functions.  The Chief Secretary’s functions and status increased during the 18th century.  Prior to 1750 only one sat in cabinet.  Prior to the middle of the 18th century the Lord Lieutenant tended to come to Ireland only for Parliamentary sessions but thereafter became permanently resident.

After 1750, almost half of the Chief Secretaries sat in the cabinet. The Irish Chief Secretary-role was often a role for politicians early in their career who would later achieve more significant office.

The Chief Secretary’s department comprised Under-Secretaries and layers of officials.  There were two principal Under Secretaries at the end of the 18th century, one responsible for military affairs and other for civil affairs.


There was no Irish army as such, but regiments of the British Army were stationed and supported by the Irish Parliament. In 1769 the force was fixed at 15,000 but this rose to 76,000 by the end of a century due to the Napoleonic wars with France.

A number of British regiments were financed by the Irish Parliament.  The number had been fixed at 1,500 in 1770, but by 1800, had increased to 76,000 on account of wars with France. There was also a yeomanry of approximately 37,000 part time soldiers in the local divisions, whose officers were generally country gentlemen appointed by the Lord  Lieutenant.

The forces were under the command of the commander-in-chief in Ireland.  The commander-in-chief was assisted by Adjutant General, Quartermaster General, Judge Advocate General, Provost Marshal and an Army Medical Board.  The Lord Lieutenant was nominally in charge of the Army.

The Barracks Board and Board of Works were responsible for military barracks and buildings housing the administration.

In addition to the army, there was about 30,000 yeomanry, who were part-time soldiers in local corps.  Their officers were usually country gentleman commissioned by the Lord Lieutenant.

The Commander-in-Chief in Ireland was assisted by an Adjunct General, Quartermaster General, Provost Marshal and an Army Medical Board.

The Lord Lieutenant was nominally commanderf and Captain General of the Army.  However, the day-to-day control of the army was vested in the Commander-in-Chief and the Lord Lieutenant was kept informed and consulted on significant issues.

Civil Departments Supporting Military

Five civil departments provided important functions for the military;

  • the Barrack Board,
  • Board of Works,
  • Commissariat,
  • Ordnance and
  • Muster Master General’s office

The Muster Master’s General kept records, regimental records and made returns showing the strength and capacity of the Army. The Barrack Board and Board of Works were responsible for military buildings.  It comprised over fifty Barrack Masters through the country.

Inland Navigation

The Commissioners for Improving inland navigation were established in 1752 for the purpose of promoting inland navigation in Ireland.  It was empowered to levy tolls and was given the yield from certain taxation.

It was dissolved an 1787 after an investigation which showed its accounting for public moneys to be extremely poor.  Its uncompleted projects were given to the local commissioners.  New canal legislation in 1800 allowed the Lord Lieutenant to appoint five full time directors to supervise canal companies and administer canals built at public expense.

The system of appointments and promotions gave opportunities for patronage.  Some appointments and promotions were merit based, or more commonly based on seniority. A certain number were based on influence.


Many of the great Irish offices were sinecures distributed amongst English politicians, many  carrying a significant salary. A significant number of royal favourites were granted pensions from Irish sources unconnected with any service.

In other cases, the functions were performed by a Deputy.  In extreme cases, the holders of the office drew monies and revenue while undertaking little in the way of duties.

Some senior officials were paid wholly or more commonly partly by fees which were not necessarily related to the services provided.  Some older offices were viewed as a form of property.

By the end of the 18th century the Irish Parliament was beginning to scrutinise public expenditure and efficiency.  The process of rationalisation of the administration  largely. did not occur until after then Union.

Local Government

The local governments units at the end of the 18th century comprised Grand Juries in the counties, borough corporations and parish vestries.  In 1817, the Justice of the Peace were given power to investigate and give opinions on presentments of the Grand Jury.

Some  boroughs had been granted in the 17th century under the Royal prerogative. Many boroughs had been created for parliamentary purposes to create seats which were in the hands of local land magnets.  Some boroughs were tiny villages, and some had no inhabitants whatsoever.

By the late18th century, nearly 90 boroughs had some apparatus of local government.  In almost all cases, the governing bodies were comprised of persons co-opted for life.

In Dublin, Cork and Drogheda,  the governing bodies includes representatives of guilds or were persons chosen by the freemen.

Dublin Corporation was relatively democratic albeit  with a very limited franchise and containing elements of appointments for life. In Dublin, the Lord Mayor and Aldermen and commons comprise representative of 25 guilds elected every three year.

Aldermen held office for life with vacancies being filled by the  commons choosing one from sheriffs’ peers selected by the Aldermen.  The sheriffs’ peers were freemen who had served as Sheriff.  Two Sheriffs were elected annually by the Aldermen for eight names but forward by the commons.  The Lord Mayor and Aldermen were elected by the Board and approved by the commons.

Special Commissions

Special Commissions were established for particular functions including

  • the Wide Streets Commissioners (1785),
  • the Ballast Board (1766)
  • a Commission with planning powers,
  • Paving Board (1774) and
  • Police Magistry (1785)

Commissioners were similarly established in other major urban centres.  Commissioners were established for harbours, paving, cleansing and lighting, piped water and as police Commissioners in various towns and borough.  The result was a highly complex web of bodies dealing with urban conditions.


Parish constables were appointed by the Justices of the Peace.  High constables, baronial or sub constables were appointed by the Grand Jury.  They were generally part-time and badly paid.

In 1795, provision was made for each parish to elect directors of the watch, who were to appoint and supervise two constables, two sub-constables and watchmen for the parish.  The total number of watchmen for Dublin city was to be not more than 500.

In both the north and south city, there was a divisional justice with a High Constable, Chief Peace Officer and 25 sub-constables under his control.  The Divisional Justice and the police were supervised by a Superintendent Magistrate.  Justices and Magistrates were appointed by -by the city corporation.

Legislation provided that prisoners were to be kept clean and provided with minimum standards of food and hygiene for prisoners.  There was to be a physician, a doctor and Inspector for each prison appointed by the Grand Jury.

There was an Inspector General of Prisoners appointed by the Lord Lieutenant who was to visit and report and advise on prisons.


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