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Henry Grattan – Parliamentarian & Patriot

He was born on 3rd July 1746 in Fishamble Street and was a member of the Irish House of Commons. Although a member of the Anglo-Irish elite, he was a lifelong advocate and campaigner for Irish legislative reform. Famous for his stirring speeches in parliament he was described by one contemporary as: A superb orator – nervous, high-flown, romantic. With generous enthusiasm he demanded that Ireland should be granted its rightful status, that of an independent nation, though he always insisted that Ireland would remain linked to Great Britain by a common crown and by sharing a common political tradition.

Grattan went to Drogheda Grammar school, and followed that by attending Trinity College where he developed a love of Classical literature with a strong interest in the life and work of the famous orators of antiquity. This skill was to become his trademark and bring him fame and allow him pursue his desire for legislative reform. After college he studied at King’s Inns and was called to the bar in 1772, although with his growing interest in politics he hardly ever practised law.

Grattan's Parliament

Grattan’s Parliament

He was elected to the Irish Parliament in 1775, and due to his drive and outstanding oratory, he soon became the leader of the National Party. At that time Catholics and Presbyterians were excluded from public life under the brutal Penal Laws, while power resided in the hands of a small elite of Anglo-Irish families who were members of Anglican Church, and who owned most of the land. By the early 1780s, with pressure mounting for legislative independence, concessions were finally conceded by the British Government and Grattan was hailed as a patriot. As the influence of the American Revolution and later the French Revolution were felt Grattan achieved more freedoms, and the assembly became known as ‘Grattan’s Parliament’.

However, he vehemently objected to the Act of Union 1800 with its negative economic effect and subsequent cultural decline, and spent his final years in London where he died 6th June 1820. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Grattan Bridge (prev. Essex Bridge), rebuilt in 1874, was named in his honour, and his statue (by the renowned sculptor J H Foley) in College Green (across from the old Irish Parliament) shows him in all his oratorical glory.

In full oratorical flow

In full oratorical flow

 

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The origin of The Origin

I must first admit that I have never read the book but I, like many others, are familiar with Charles Darwin’s famous work The Origin Of Species. It was a groundbreaking work that even today, over 150 years after its publication, his Theory of Evolution rouses heated debate. But what I did not know until recently was just how fortunate he was in getting the chance to do the vital research that led him to question the established theories of the day, and revolutionize  our way of thinking. He never planned for what happened, but made the most of the opportunity when it came along. How very Darwinian indeed!

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Fitzroy’s house – Upper Norwood, London

It was while staying with my cousin in London that the first piece of the story was revealed. He had been visiting a  fiend in Upper Norwood (south London) and noticed a plaque to Captain Robert Fitzroy on a house a few doors down the street. Fitzroy was a captain in the Royal Navy and had taken charge of HMS Beagle in 1828 in Rio de Janeiro after the previous captain, Pringle Stokes, had shot himself. The long period away from home,  allied to the stress and loneliness of his position with no ‘suitable company’ had brought on a deep depression, leading to his suicide. When Fitzroy returned to England in 1830 he was a skilled surveyor and commander. The following year he was asked by the Admiralty to lead HMS Beagle on another journey and he requested the ‘company of a gentleman to carry out the geological surveying’ so that he would not suffer the fate of the Captain Stokes.

After a number of men were asked, and refused the offer, the young Charles Darwin (22 years) accepted and, as we all know ‘the rest is history’. Considering that fine margins are at the heart of Darwin’s great theory, it’s nice to think that he would appreciate the irony of the situation. The famous (second) Voyage of the Beagle, although originally planned to take two years, it lasted almost five, from 27th December 1831 until 2nd October 1836. The scientific expedition was hugely successful although Fitzroy, a staunch believer in the teachings of the Bible, fell out on numerous occasions with Darwin and his radical ideas that would form the basis of his great book.

Years after the voyage Fitzroy became Governor of New Zealand,  and later helped setup what was the forerunner of the now familiar Meteorological (Met) Office. However, his work was not appreciated and his system for gale warnings was abandoned. This failure cost him not only most of his money but also brought on the depression that he had being fighting all his life. He lost that battle and cut his throat with a razor in the bathroom of his house (in Upper Norwood) on 30th April 1865.

So, on a bright afternoon in May my cousin and I walked the 400-or-so yards from Fitzroy’s home to All Saints Church to see his grave.  When I pushed the creaky gate open I wondered how often Fitzroy had done this, and we walked through the sunbeams to find him.  The grave is well maintained, and his memorial was restored by the Meteorological Office in 1981. Being a most religious man I’m sure that he would shake his head at the irony of his resting place when compared to that of the ‘non-believer’ Darwin who had expected to be buried in his small, local church (St. Mary’s Church, Downe) but who was interred in Westminster Abbey, near Sir Issac Newton. It was quite a journey!

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Fitzroy’s grave – All Saints Church

 

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