The Chief Secretary’s Office (CSO) and Irish Administration in the early 19th Century

Despite the abolition of the Dublin parliament following the Act of Union in 1800, Ireland retained its own executive government, an anomaly which emphasised ‘Ireland’s incomplete integration into the enlarged United Kingdom’.1 The Irish executive was led by the Lord Lieutenant, or Viceroy, the king’s representative in Ireland. His immediate subordinate was the Chief Secretary who headed an office based in Dublin Castle, which was managed by his subordinate, the Under Secretary.

In the years after 1800, the power dynamic between Lord Lieutenant and Chief Secretary altered fundamentally. Whilst the personalities and zeal of individual lord lieutenants inevitably shaped the relationship between the two men, by 1818 it was the subordinate Chief Secretary who was the effective political head of the Irish administration.

With all Irish parliamentary business henceforth conducted in London, Dublin ceased to be the hub of the Irish political scene. The Lord Lieutenant was required to reside in Dublin and as a consequence found himself increasingly cut off from policy and decision making in Westminster.

The Chief Secretary, on the other hand, travelled regularly to London for parliamentary sessions, liaised with the British cabinet, represented Irish matters in the House of Commons, and found himself exercising the real influence in Irish affairs, as a participating member of the British government.

The nineteenth century also witnessed a growth in government intervention in areas such as policing, health, public infrastructure and education. Most of the newly established institutions and bodies were under the direct control of central government, based in the Chief Secretary’s Office.

Seen as a significant political appointment, the Chief Secretary’s position was frequently occupied by young ambitious politicians and proved to be a baptism of fire for many future Prime Ministers.

The work load of the Chief Secretary was heavy - he ‘superintended the administrative boards, was the channel for all military business, attended councils, maintained a large correspondence with the ports and the magistracy, dealt with the army of applicants for favours and patronage, regulated the revenue, and prepared legislation’.2

Much of the routine business was administered by the Under Secretary. This official was required to be resident in Ireland and therefore was the point of liaison while the Chief Secretary was in London on business. Under secretaries did not necessarily change with each new incumbent. British administration and certain officeholders, like William Gregory (1812-1830) and Thomas Drummond (1835-1840), exerted great influence in the post.

The Irish law officers, in particular the Attorney General, Solicitor General and crown solicitors, were often consulted on law and order matters and therefore contributed significantly to the policy of the administration. This can be seen in their annotations which appear on many of the documents in this collection. Other advisors to government included the Lord Chancellor, members of the judiciary, magistrates and prominent landowners, clergymen and politicians.3

The country was administered at a local level by county grand juries, made up of 23 landowners. Grand juries assembled twice yearly at spring and summer assizes to transact all fiscal business relating to the county including the levying of a county cess (tax) and also to preside over serious criminal cases. The grand jury allocated resources to local projects or bodies by approving ‘presentments’ for the works in question. Grand juries were selected by the High Sheriff of each county, who in turn was annually selected by government from a list of candidates supplied by the assize judges. Critics of the presentment system noted that it was open to corruption, jobbery and inefficiency and that the levying of county cess was based on inadequate and obsolete valuations.4 As the nineteenth century progressed central government began to supervise in more detail or take over the functions of these local bodies.5

Local justice was predominantly dispensed by unpaid county magistrates sitting in Petty Sessions Courts or Quarter Sessions. Magistrates, who were appointed by the Lord Chancellor, were generally large landowners or Church of Ireland clergymen. From 1814, central government could appoint paid and professional stipendiary magistrates and from the later 1830s, these officials were more extensively used.6

  • 1 Brian Jenkins, ‘The Chief Secretary’, in D. George Boyce and Alan O’Day (eds.), Defenders of the Union: A Survey of British and Irish unionism since 1801, p.42.
  • 2 Brian Jenkins, Era of Emancipation: British Government of Ireland 1812-30 (Montreal and Kingston, 1988), p.55-56.
  • 3 Ó Tuathaigh, Gearóid, Ireland before the Famine, 1798-1848 (Dublin, 2007), p.73.
  • 4 O’Donoghue, Brendan, The Irish County Surveyors, 1834-1944 (Dublin, 2007), p.4-5.
  • 5 McDowell, RB, The Irish Administration 1801-1914 (London, 1964), p.164-165.
  • 6 Ó Tuathaigh, Gearóid, Ireland before the Famine, 1798-1848 (Dublin, 2007), p.78.