Saturday, June 8, 2019

At war with every difficulty

‘I am, I believe, thirty-five years old this month, just nine years at the bar, near five years in Parliament, about four years King’s Counsel. To-morrow, being Friday, Trinity Term sits. I therefore resolve to enter upon my profession, as upon a five years’ campaign, at war with every difficulty, and determined to conquer them.’ This is John Scott, soon to be 1st Earl of Clonmell, a successful Irish politician born 280 years ago today. He was a man whose success seemed to be fed by ambition, arrogance and avarice. He kept a diary, a few extracts of which were published in a history of Ireland before its union with Great Britain.

Scott was born on 8 June 1739 in Scottsborough, County Tipperary. He studied at Kilkenny College where, it is said, he protected Hugh Carleton, later Lord Viscount Carleton, from bullies. Subsequently, Carleton’s father financed Scott’s education along with his own son’s, first at Trinity College, Dublin, and then at the Middle Temple. (Later, when his friend went bankrupt, Scott settled £300 a year on him.). He was called to the Irish bar in 1765, and his legal skills soon attracted the attention of the lord chancellor, Lord Lifford, who recommended him for office. In 1768, he married the widow Mrs Catherine Anna Maria Roe, and they had one son. He got wed again, in 1779, to Margaret Lawless, eventual heiress of Patrick Lawless, a Dublin banker, and they had one daughter.

In 1769, Scott became MP for Mullingar (until 1783). He rose rapidly in the Irish administration: in 1772 he was Counsel to the Board of Revenue, in 1774 he was appointed Solicitor-General for Ireland; and from 1774 to 1782 he was Attorney-General as well as a Privy Councillor. Not a great speaker, he was consider arrogant, and aggressive in argument. His character and his bronzed skin tone earned him the nicknamed ‘Copper-faced Jack’. Although dismissed as Attorney-General in 1782, he was soon back in favour being appointed Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. He was elected Member of Parliament for Portarlington in 1783. He was created 1st Baron Earlsfort of Lisson-Earl, then, in 1789, 1st Viscount Clonmell, and in 1793 1st Earl of Clonmell. By the 1790s, Scott was a very wealthy man, but he was also drinking and eating so heavily that he became grossly overweight.

Rosemary Richey, in History Ireland, provides this cautionary tale of Scott’s last years. ‘It is said that the root of his demise originated in 1789, when John Magee, proprietor of the Dublin Evening Post, was accused of libelling Scott’s friend Francis Higgins. In revenge, Scott attempted to ruin Magee by fining him £7,800. Unable to pay, Magee was sent to prison. In March 1790 the case was brought before parliament, which found in Magee’s favour, and an act was passed to prevent such large fines in the future. Scott became a figure of public ridicule, and Magee rented a field opposite his demesne and advertised each month that he was going to hold a pig hunt. Hundreds and thousands of people assembled and ruined Scott’s property. The distress of this ordeal appears to have broken his health.’ He died in May 1798.

Sir Jonah Barrington, most notable for his amusing and popular memoirs of life in late 18th-century Ireland, and who lived next door to Scott in Dublin, described him as follows: ‘Courageous, vulgar, humorous, artificial, he knew the world well, and he profited by that knowledge: he cultivated the powerful, he bullied the timid, he fought the brave, he flattered the vain, he duped the credulous, and he amused the convivial. Half-liked, half-reprobated, he was too high to be despised, and too low to be respected. His language was coarse, and his principles arbitrary; but his passions were his slaves, and his cunning was his instrument. He recollected favours received in his obscurity and had gratitude to requite the obligation; but his avarice and his ostentation contended for the ascendancy; the strife was perpetual; and their victories alternate.’ Further information is available online at Wikipedia, Myles Dungan’s blog, Ireland in History, and Library Ireland.

Scott left behind a diary, parts of which found their way into William John Fitzpatrick’s 1867 book Ireland Before the Union with revelations from the unpublished diary of Lord Clonmell (freely available online at Internet Archive). In his first chapter, Fitzpatrick gives some information about the diary:

‘We now approach a most important historic document, the private diary of Lord Clonmell. That this singular record should have been spared from the flames seems strange, when we know the fate of the bulk of his papers. Mr. Henry Grattan, in the Life of his father, describes, on the authority of Lord Clonmell’s nephew, Dean Scott, a curious scene in the old Chief’s bedchamber, on the first alarm of death’s warning knock at his door.

Lord Clonmell had, as the excerpts we are about to give from his Diary prove, a contempt for ecclesiastics, and especially for bishops, whom he tells us were all hypocrites; his first desire, therefore, on the approach of death, was not spiritual aid, but the destruction of all inconvenient papers. These, no doubt, included the correspondence which marked the successive gradations of his uprise, and which, if published, would have compromised many persons, himself, no doubt, not excepted. How the diary should have been spared is not the least curious feature of the transaction. It is no credit to his memory, on the whole; but in the following passages we have selected those most indicative of his shrewdness, and of those good resolutions with which, as Guevara tells us, a certain region is paved. [. . .]

Lord Clonmell survived but a few weeks after the last entry in his Diary. He died as he lived - unreformed. It was lucky that he did not live to witness the Rebellion, as his death occurred on the eve of its outburst - namely, May the 23rd, 1798.’

And here are several extracts from Scott’s diary as found in Fitzpatrick’s book.

2 June 1774
‘I am, I believe, thirty-five years old this month, just nine years at the bar, near five years in Parliament, about four years King’s Counsel. To-morrow, being Friday, Trinity Term sits. I therefore resolve to enter upon my profession, as upon a five years’ campaign, at war with every difficulty, and determined to conquer them. I have given up wine. I will strive to contract my sleep to four, or, at most, six hours in twenty-four; give up every pursuit but Parliamentary and legal ones. If I continue a bachelor until I am forty years old, and can realize two thousand pounds per annum, I will give up business as a lawyer, or confine it merely to the duty of any office which I may fill. I will exert my industry to the utmost in law and constitutional learning for these five years, so far as temperance, diligence, perseverance, and watchfulness can operate, and then hey for a holyday.’

23 June 1784
‘Five years married this day - forty-five years old. Five years reading, at twelve hours a day, would establish my reputation on the Bench, and make the rest of my life easy. Cromwell would have done it, and did a thousand times more.’

25 October 1789
‘The king; accession to the thirtieth year of his reign.

If I live for ten years, and continue in the King’s Bench, I may become very considerable in property and public esteem by an uniform rigid discipline and prudent exertion. I must become a man of superlative diligence, of abstemious temperance, a more dignified and guarded actor, of avaricious economy in my time, of perpetual application to the law, to the business of the King’s Bench, and to Parliament.’

14 September 1790
‘I have had a picture painted by Stewart, and lost a fourth front tooth - it is time I should learn to keep my mouth shut, and learn gravity and discretion of speech, which I hitherto never yet practised; temperance, and eyes ever watchful, would be of use.’

4 November 1790
‘King William’s birth-day. Saturday is the first sitting of term. This day Lord Fitzgibbon exhibited the most superb carriage that ever appeared in Ireland; he seems to have got the summit of his vanity, chancellor, minister, and mummer.’

16 July 1793
‘Died Lord Mountgarrett, as wicked a malignant selfish monster, as I ever knew; a victim to his brutal appetites and thirst for blood; a lesson to vice and a caution to be civil to all, obliging to many, to serve few, and offend none, as the safest, wisest, pleasantest mode of going through life.’

Extracts of Scott’s diary have also been published in Diaries of Ireland edited by Melosina Lenox-Conyngham (Lilliput Press, 1998)

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