County Antrim

CO. ANTRIM – 19%, [110,920 + Carrickfergus 3,225] c. 3,500 [c. 8,000 (1815)]







Earl of Massereene




Earl of Donegall

13 burgesses, 5 resident

(unchanged 1800–32)



Earl of Hertford

350–400 electors (1808 – c. 75)



John O'Neil

80–200 electors


County borough

Earl of Donegall (1 seat)

900 freemen and freeholders

Open (1 seat)

(1812 – c. 800)

Co. Antrim - Constituency

Twelve MPs were returned to the Irish House of Commons from Co. Antrim constituencies, which included one county borough (Carrickfergus), three potwalloping boroughs (Antrim, Lisburn and Randalstown) and one corporation borough (Belfast). Electorally, Antrim was among the largest and most independent of the Irish counties and for this reason it has been treated in some detail. It had a large Presbyterian tenantry, and those who held leases for lives were enfranchised. However, its Protestant majority had little sympathy with the Established Church and tended to be more independent in their views and more political in their outlook.

Its constituencies included a county borough, Carrickfergus – strictly speaking, a county to itself – but because of the ‘close’ nature of the growing town of Belfast it was, like Lisburn, a reflector of neighbouring political opinion. In addition, the county had three out of a national total of 12 potwalloping boroughs; although it had only one of the 91 corporation boroughs represented in the Irish parliament this was the fast-growing town of Belfast, and for this reason possibly the most notorious of its type.

Nevertheless, despite the comparatively large electorates in both the county and its boroughs, a study of its general elections has yielded only one county seat (Antrim in 1776) and one borough election (Lisburn in 1783) where the permanent interest was overturned, and then only temporarily. In Lisburn it might be said that the patron made a strategic retreat, as his candidates withdrew when only 20 out of an approximate 350 electors had cast their votes.

At the time of the 1783 election, the strong attachment between the members of the Irish parliament and the Volunteer movement prevented a conflict of interest in a number of the larger constituencies, making it possible for an elector to support both his landlord and the aims of the Volunteers, particularly as these aims were still unrejected by the House of Commons and the Volunteer movement had yet to split on the question of parliamentary reform.

The county election returns before 1776 indicate the principal interests in the county, most of whom were linked in criss-crossing relationships. These were Lords Antrim, Hertford, Massereene, Donegall, and the subsequently ennobled Uptons (created Baron Templetown in 1776) and Langford/Rowleys (created Viscount(ess) Langford in 1776). The MacDonnells (Antrim) and the Chichesters (Donegall) were seldom in a position to provide a family representative to stand for the county, and their impotence in this respect illustrates the fact that a county interest could depend on the quiescence, for whatever reason, of other interests.

At the beginning of the century the MacDonnells were under suspicion as Jacobites. The 3rd Earl had been a supporter of James II, but was included in the pardons granted under the Treaty of Limerick, while in 1715 the 4th Earl had expressed sentiments verging on treason. In 1715 Secretary of State Stanhope was told that the Earl of Antrim was:

“the most considerable papist in the nation … he is very active, and successful too, in making proselytes for the Pretender … part of the meanest sort of people who are dissenters are well affected but neither can nor dare do anything being his tenants, and he had but very lately signified his resentments particularly to those who disobliged him at the late elections.”

In any case, the Antrim family did not have a suitable candidate. The 4th Earl had married Rachel Skeffington, daughter of Clotworthy, 3rd Viscount Massereene (1929). The Earl died in 1721, aged 41. At his death his heir was only eight years old. He was left to the guardianship of the Dowager Lady Massereene, his grandmother, and his uncle the 4th Viscount Massereene, so from then until 1768 the Antrim interest was probably at the disposal of the Skeffingtons. Meanwhile, the young Earl’s mother, who died in 1739, married the Co. Down magnate, Robert (Hawkins) Magill (1327).

In any case her son, the 5th Earl, proved to be not greatly interested in politics and by granting leases in perpetuity he deprived large parts of his estate, which in 1734 comprised 148,497 acres, of their political importance. He died in October 1775 and was succeeded by his only son, the 6th Earl (1317), who had been elected for the county in 1768 although under age – he was 19 years old. This was the only time that a MacDonnell sat for the county in the eighteenth century. Both the 5th and 6th Earls were only sons, and the 6th Earl, for whom the marquessate was revived, had no son but three daughters, two of whom were successively suo iure Countess of Antrim.

Both the Skeffingtons, who represented the county for 52 years, and the Uptons, who sat for 56 years, were descendants of the early seventeenth-century Sir Hugh Clotworthy, who had a son, John, and a daughter, Mary. John was created 1st Viscount Massereene in 1660 with remainder to Sir John Skeffington, the husband of his only child and heiress, Mary Clotworthy Skeffington. Sir Hugh Clotworthy’s daughter Mary married Henry Upton and was the mother of Arthur Upton.

Arthur Upton married Dorothy, daughter of Michael Beresford; their children, all MPs, were Clotworthy, John and Thomas. Clotworthy left an only child, Elizabeth, who married Hercules Langford Rowley and, in 1776, was created Baroness Langford. The mother of Sir Arthur Langford, who successfully challenged John Skeffington in 1715, was Mary Upton, probably a daughter of Arthur Upton – he had at least eight daughters. Sir Arthur Langford and his brother Sir Henry died childless, and in 1725 their estate passed to their sister Mary Langford and her descendants. She had married Sir John Rowley and was the grandmother of Sir Hercules Langford Rowley.

Thus the Uptons, the Langfords and the Rowleys were related, although there was obviously some disagreement about the 1715 return. Presbyterians were not disqualified from the franchise, and the Langfords, and particularly the Uptons, were Presbyterians and could expect to carry the Presbyterian vote – which was substantial in Co. Antrim.

The other Co. Antrim interests were the Chichesters, who were related to the Skeffingtons, but during the eighteenth century family problems prevented them from exercising their county influence to the full. The 3rd Earl of Donegall, a professional soldier and a major-general in the Spanish Army, was killed at Fort Monjuich in 1706. He had six daughters and two sons. The eldest, Catherine, married Clotworthy Skeffington, 4th Viscount Massereene; Anne, the youngest, married James, 4th Earl of Barrymore (their son was MP for Belfast 1757–60). Three daughters died in a fire at the family house in Belfast. The house was not rebuilt, and the family then lived in England for many years.

Arthur, 4th Earl of Donegall, if not actually mentally deficient had mental blind-spots: for example, he could learn languages but could not comprehend figures. He died childless aged 62 in 1757. His estates were managed by his brother John Chichester (0396), MP for Belfast, until the latter’s death in 1746. John Chichester left two sons aged six and seven respectively. In 1757, Arthur, the elder son, inherited his uncle’s estates and honours to which, in 1790, was added the marquessate of Donegall.

His son and heir, the 2nd Marquess (0394), was notoriously extravagant and reckless. Heavily in debt by his majority in 1790, he spent his early manhood in and out of the Fleet prison pursued by his hungry creditors. In 1795 Edward May, a rather shady attorney and moneylender, although from a respectable Co. Waterford family, arranged his release in return for his clandestine marriage to May’s illegitimate daughter Anna. Lord Belfast’s furious father did everything in his power to disinherit him in favour of his younger brother, Spencer Chichester. Nevertheless, the bulk of the Donegall estates were entailed and passed to the 2nd Marquess.

Thus intermarriage and family circumstances inclined the Donegall, like the Antrim interest, towards the Skeffingtons, and do much to explain their long representation of the county. The last Skeffington to represent the county was Hugh Skeffington, whose mother was Lady Katherine Chichester. He was returned at the 1761 general election along with Henry (Seymour-) Conway. This return was the subject of a written agreement between Lords Antrim and Hertford and the Dowager Countess, who agreed to share the county representation and to apportion the election expenses among themselves; one half was paid by Lord Hertford and the other divided between the Dowager Countess and Lord Antrim.

At this time neither Lord Antrim nor Lord Massereene was of age, but it was agreed that Hertford and Antrim candidates would be returned at the next general election, potentially some years away, especially if George III had followed his grandfather’s policy and called only one election for the duration of his reign. However, the Octennial Act was passed in 1767 and a general election followed; at this election the heirs to both the Hertford and Antrim families were returned unopposed in accordance with the agreement.

Three members of the Conway (later Seymour-Conway) family represented the county over a period of 42 years, 1741–83. After that time the family interest appears to be mainly in England and in the British parliament. At the beginning of the period the Colvill family represented the county for over a decade, 1692–1703, but by the middle of the century they had died out. Allegedly influenced by his mistress, in 1744 Robert Colvill, Hugh Colvill’s only surviving son, Robert, sold his large Co. Down estate to Alexander Stewart, but the Co. Antrim estate near Kells was inherited by Hugh’s daughter, Alicia, who married Stephen Moore, 1st Viscount Mountcashell (1476), and the Colvill Co. Antrim interest passed to the Mountcashells, whose main estates and interest lay in Counties Cork and Tipperary.

In 1757, Clotworthy Skeffington, 1st Earl of Massereene, died intestate. He had six sons, of whom at least four survived him, and two daughters. His heir, another Clotworthy, was a minor aged 15 years. The management of the family’s affairs and the guardianship of the children fell to the Dowager Countess. The 2nd Earl was hurt in a riding accident as a child, and his subsequent curious behaviour was attributed to this injury which reputedly damaged his brain. He was noted for the ‘peculiarities’ of his manner and appearance, which increased with the years.

At the conclusion of his Grand Tour in 1763 he came of age and settled in Paris beyond his mother’s restraining influence. By 1770 he had debts of £30,000, largely incurred in a scheme to supply salt to the Swiss cantons. Claiming that he had been tricked by the unscrupulous, he resolutely refused to make these debts a charge on his estate; consequently he was thrown into a Paris jail where he remained for some 18 years, 1771–89, ‘the greatest part of the time without fire, candle, knife, fork, spoon, shoes, stockings or shirt, perfectly solus, save the quantity of fleas, bugs, lice and some vermin’.

Finally, he married the prison governor’s daughter, to the horror of his mother. In 1789 he was released through either the influence of his father-in-law or the activities of the Paris mob. Obviously he was incapable of engaging in any election politics during that period, and the Massereene interest in both the county and borough of Antrim suffered accordingly. After his release it soon became clear that he had no interest in maintaining the family’s political interest. He refused to make any contribution to the necessary election expenses, although he may have contributed £1,200, probably during his minority when his mother controlled the estate. In fact his presence provided his family with more problems than his absence.

In 1791 he was in London, where he engaged in another shady financial scheme, and in 1793 and 1796 he was again jailed for debt. By 1797 he was living permanently at Antrim Castle, where his ‘peculiarities’ developed into serious mental disturbances. His wife died in 1800 and, despite his poor mental health, he married again. There was no issue of either marriage and he died in 1805.

While each general election had special and distinctive local features, this was particularly true of the elections of George III’s reign. The 1768 election was the first of the Octennial elections. In returning the Octennial Bill, the English government and the Irish administration had been partially motivated by a desire to reduce the power of the greater borough owners by increasing the frequency of elections. The measure also had had the enthusiastic support of the Irish radicals, who expected it to increase the power of the constituents. In the event, the fears and ambitions of both parties were realised within the fairly narrow limitations imposed by the nature of the representative system.

Instead of one election every reign, there was now an election every eight years, creating considerable expense in constituencies with large electorates and a considerable profit for some who controlled smaller boroughs. In 1768 the elections for Co. Antrim were quiet. There was no contest in the county, where the major interests of the Earls of Antrim and Hertford prevailed. The three potwalloping boroughs returned the nominees of their respective landlords, while the members returned for Belfast were the cousin and the law agent of Lord Donegall, the patron.

Shortly after, a concentrated and violent tenant revolt broke out. The years 1769–73 strained landlord-tenant relations and resulted in the outbreak of agrarian terrorism known as the Hearts of Steel. In 1757 Arthur Chichester, 5th Earl of Donegall, had inherited from his uncle the vast estates of James I’s Lord Deputy, Sir Arthur Chichester. The incapacity of the 4th Earl had led to legal restrictions being placed on the granting of leases by his trustees. The 5th Earl was a minor at the time of his uncle’s death, and did not gain control of his estates until he came of age in 1761.

In the same year he married and purchased Fisherwick Park in Staffordshire, which he decided to make his principal residence – the Earls of Donegall had not lived in Belfast since the Castle had been burnt down in 1708 and some of the family had died in the fire. To purchase Fisherwick Lord Donegall had borrowed heavily - it had a mortgage of £40,000 in 1766. He then employed Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to redesign the house and park, and in 1768 Brown advised rebuilding the house. At this point Lord Donegall took out a mortgage of £20,900 on his Co. Wexford estate, Dunbrody. Under these circumstances he was anxious both to increase his revenue and to raise as much immediate cash as possible.

Lord Donegall’s northern estates included approximately 160,000 acres on the Inishowen Peninsula in Co. Donegal and nearly 90,000 acres in Co. Antrim. His uncle’s incapacity followed by his own minority had resulted in most of the estate being out of lease and the rental being far below its real value. In view of his immediate financial necessity, he decided that he preferred to raise a large capital sum by ‘fining down’ rather than increasing his income by sharply raising the rents. His timing inadvertently created further complications, as it was followed by a major economic slump that severely affected the linen manufacture on which many of his tenants depended to pay their rents, and it coincided with the egalitarian claims of the Americans in the years immediately preceding the American Revolution. Emigration throughout the century had made connections between the Presbyterians and the Americans close.

In 1775 Lord Lieutenant Harcourt reported that the ‘Presbyterians in the North … in their hearts are American’, a view repeated by Lord Westmorland in the early 1790s and expressed by many other politicians. Against this background, the timing and scale of these renewals raised communal social tension to an explosive level, which was further heightened by the fact that much of the estate had been let to middlemen who held large acreages on long leases. All leases dependent on the primary lease automatically fell in with it, and the new leases not only increased the rent but forced the holder to find money for the ‘fine’. In many cases there was a ‘cascade’ of dependent leases so that although the original lease might be not unreasonable, the bottom lease could amount to rack-renting.

In addition, the proximity of the Co. Antrim estate to the rapidly growing commercial centre of Belfast both produced a more sophisticated tenantry and made the land particularly attractive to the rising Belfast merchants, some of whom regarded it as an investment, for a lease was a transferable and therefore saleable commodity, while others viewed it as an adjunct to the developing beef trade, thereby raising another agrarian grievance by threatening to turn arable farms into grazing for their cattle. At the core of the trouble was the uncontrolled subdivision of the land by the middlemen.

In the latter half of the century many landlords, such as R. L. Edgeworth (0688) in Co. Longford, included a clause forbidding unauthorised subdivision in their leases in an attempt to stop this practice. Lord Donegall’s leases did not have this clause, and this had resulted in ‘cascades’ of leases in many areas, particularly where the development of the linen manufacture offered a further incentive to subdivision. A lease for lives, if held by a protestant, was a political commodity as it carried with it the franchise.

A three-cornered struggle emerged between the landlord’s need for immediate money, the entrepreneurial ambitions of certain Belfast businessmen, and the views of the occupying tenants. Some, perhaps most, occupiers wished to hold directly from Lord Donegall and circumvent the middlemen whose presence increased their rent and whose intermediate leases reduced their security. Moreover, the land had been improved through their labour and that of their forefathers. Not all tenants were poor, and the renewal of leases affected a cross-section of society: two tenants of William Johnston, a middleman holding a Donegall lease, illustrate the class of some of the tenants involved.

St John Stewart and William Magee petitioned to be allowed to hold directly, claiming that Johnston gave very short leases. Stewart also claimed that he had greatly improved the farm and that his ancestors had farmed it for upwards of 100 years, while Magee, a linen draper, had a bleach yard, made by his father 40 years before, as well as a thread manufactory. Their joint petition stated that if Johnston’s lease was renewed under the same conditions, ‘your memorialists have the melancholy prospect of being turn’d out of their possessions and obliged to remove their numerous families to America or elsewhere’. In fact many of Lord Donegall’s tenants did emigrate, and a few years later were among the staunchest supporters of American independence.

This was perhaps one of the most serious consequences of the whole affair. Lord Donegall’s policies, justified or not, were exercised with such a lack of comprehension for the social environ­ment that they ‘upset the people’ to the point of revolt. This was a cardinal sin for an eighteenth-century landlord: ‘I am clear with you,’ wrote Sir Joseph Yorke to Lord Hardwicke, ‘that Lord Donegal should be obliged to go and do justice to his tenants, or be expelled from his seat in Parliament.’

Finally, resentment was further heightened by the methods used in the subsequent reorganisation of parts of the estate; for example, Clotworthy Upton, who held an estate of 6,860 statute acres from Lord Donegall, had his lease, originally granted in 1618, renewed for an unknown, but certainly large, fine in addition to a rent increased from £60 to £500 p.a. Upton, who was one of the clerks to the Dowager Princess of Wales, lived in England and had only recently inherited the estate from his brother Arthur (2125), the MP for Carrickfergus who had died in 1768.

Furthermore, Clotworthy Upton, who was created Lord Templetown in 1776, married in 1769, which probably added to his desire to maximise his resources, for in 1769 he advertised the renewal of all the leases of his under-tenants. When a lease fell in there were three possibilities: a landlord could agree a new rent with the tenant, both could accept the decision of a valuator, or a lease could be canted. Auctioning, or ‘canting’, leases to the highest bidder when they fell in was not uncommon, but it was naturally resented, particularly when it resulted in the removal of the sitting tenant.

Upton attempted to maximise his rents by insisting on once-only bids in writing and refusing to allow the sitting tenant to make a second offer. Severe trouble broke out on the Upton estate, and Lord Donegall’s Belfast agent wrote in a private letter that both Upton and his agent, a Mr Burley, ‘have behaved with a degree of duplicity which is abominable’. Proximity to Belfast was part of Upton’s problem, although it was greatly compounded by his methods.

In contrast, Lord Dungannon, another great Donegall middleman, had renewed his estate on Islandmagee for a 99-year lease and a fine of £18,000. His rent remained at £200 p.a. – the sum for which the estate had been originally let in 1618. Dungannon also advertised his farms, a year after Upton, but did not experience the same trouble as other Donegall middlemen: possibly he was more tactful, and perhaps his tenants were less sophisticated as he was further from Belfast.

A major part of the storm that the leasing of the Donegall estate created was due to a combination of its size and the lack of connection between the occupying tenantry, who held their lands through middlemen, and the head landlord. Since 1708 the Donegall family had lived in England, where estate management was very different. Nevertheless, the underlying grievances that fuelled the revolt and carried it beyond the boundaries of the Donegall estates had nothing to do with Lord Donegall as an individual, although his advisers may have been tactless and his decision to raise an immediate capital sum ill-timed. It was the tenants of his under-tenants who constituted the Steelboys, and the bulk of the emigrants, rather than his tenants-in-chief. Nor can he be fairly blamed for the economic slump of the early 1770s. Nevertheless, the revolt was serious, and its legacy of bitterness further divided an already divided society.

At the election in 1776 the Earl of Antrim did not exert his very powerful interest in support of any candidate for the county, and tactfully permitted his largely Presbyterian tenantry to vote as they felt inclined. They selected James Willson to represent their interests, and he was supported by the authority and discipline of their church. During the election campaign Willson’s supporters published the following letter:

We are the freeholders, many of whose ancestors have fought for their country under the glorious William. Firmly attached to the cause of Liberty, we are zealous to adopt every measure that may have a tendency to preserve it inviolate. The greater number of us rejoice in living under a landlord, who from principles truly constitutional, leaves us to the free exercise of our indubitable Rights in choosing a representative; we entertain the highest opinion of your inclinations and ability to serve us in Parliament, and are therefore happy in declaring you the object of our voluntary and unanimous choice. We have adverted to your Parliamentary conduct, the Test you have proposed, and esteem them highly disinterested and laudable. Reposing the strongest confidence that you will be a faithful guardian of our liberties, we beg leave to give you the most positive assurance that we shall vigorously, unanimously, and to the utmost of our abilities support you at the ensuing election with our suffrages.

Your most obedient and very humble servants,

The electors of the united parishes of Broughshane and Bucknaw.

Broughshane and Buckna were in the fertile Braid valley, which divides the Antrim plateau. A similar support was promised by the congregation of Clough and the freeholders of Dunaghy. The Antrim settlers were almost entirely of Scottish extraction, and their church had accompanied them in their migration. Like their speech, their outlook remained essentially Scottish; in this letter their social and religious attitude is reflected in their insistence on ‘rights’ and ‘principles’. Their inherent theocratic tendencies had been augmented by political exclusion; the very fact that they were voting by congregations is an illustration of their political power being canalised into their church structure.

Two considerations make the reference to ‘the Test you have proposed’ of especial interest. In the first place, it was the method subsequently adopted by the Volunteers in their movement towards parliamentary reform, and secondly it raised the novel issue of whether a member of parliament should be essentially a vehicle for his constituents’ opinions or whether, once he was elected, his constituents should entrust all issues to his personal judgement.

The long and elaborate constitutional test that was demanded of both the candidates had seven distinct requirements. Firstly, the candidate was not to accept any place, pension, title or other emolument, directly or indirectly, under the Crown as long as he should sit in parliament. Secondly, he was to obey his constituents’ instructions. Thirdly, the representative was to work for parliamentary reform and free elections. Fourthly, he was to endeavour to make it compulsory for all members to subscribe to an oath that they had not used bribery or other corrupting influences at elections.

Fifthly, he was to work for the exclusion of pensioners and the reduction of placemen in parliament. Sixthly, he was to use his influence to obtain an act explaining, amending or repealing Poynings’ Law and to give Ireland her ‘rights’ as a free country; and lastly, he was to work to secure a Habeas Corpus Act. To this test the two independent candidates,James Willson and Marriot Dalway (0565), ‘most cheerfully agreed’, while the other candidates, the Hon. Henry (Seymour-)Conway and the Hon. Hugh Skeffington, refused.

The election, which lasted over a fortnight, was very closely contested. When the poll closed the numbers stood at Conway 1,246, Willson 1,234, Skeffington 1,125 and Dalway 1,082, ‘whereupon the Sheriff declared Mr Conway and Mr Wilson duly elected – on which occasions there were the greatest rejoicings; and happily terminated without any material disorder or disturbance’. The total number of voters was 2,369.

Apart from a popular victory in the return of James Willson, the result of the poll showed that the dominance of the landed interest was unbroken, as Lord Hertford’s son headed the poll while the two candidates with the greater landed backing had an overall majority of 55 over the two independents. Nevertheless, probably for a mixture of family and political reasons, this election marked the end of the dominance of the major landed interests in Co. Antrim elections.

The 1783 general election came when the Volunteer movement was at the height of its popularity and success, and at a time when the administration was extremely insecure. This insecurity was due partly to the position of the Fox-North coalition then in power in England, for, as the Irish government was an integral part of the British administration, it invariably reflected the position of the government at Westminster.

The weakness of the administration was emphasised by the presence of the Volunteers themselves – a very large body of self-armed and disciplined men completely outside the control of the government. With their support the Irish parliament had recently and successfully vindicated its claim for legislative independence. In 1783 it was the completely independent Volunteers, rather than the Dublin administration with its depleted military establishment, that was the real authority in the country.

The Co. Antrim election of 1783 was closely associated with the triumphant Volunteer movement, which was at that moment unchallenged. This movement had remedied the political starvation that the dominance of the ascendancy had produced in Presbyterian Ulster. In Co. Antrim, Volunteer feeling was so strong that neither Lord Antrim nor Lord Hertford put up candidates for the county: John O’Neill and Hercules Langford Rowley were returned uncontested.

While the members returned had strong Volunteer connections, they had in addition large estates within the county; Rowley had a Co. Antrim estate of 10,928 acres worth, in 1774, £2,513 p.a.18 and O’Neill was the head of a very ancient family which had in previous parliaments represented the county. Their uncontested election was due to the combination of their property and sympathies, for it is improbable that either qualification would have carried the county undisputed without the assistance of the other. The election ended with the members subscribing to the tests, and the drinking of Volunteer toasts.

The county representation changed in the final quarter of the eighteenth century and the families chose to represent their various boroughs rather than the county. A possible exception to this was the O’Neill family of Shane’s Castle near Randalstown. The O’Neills, due to the absence of direct heirs and to family splits, had probably not been in a position to embark on a battle for the county earlier in the eighteenth century. Also, their interest was not as strong as that of Lords Antrim, Hertford, Massereene and Donegall.

In his will dated 16 September 1737 and proved 1 May 1739, John O’Neill (who had inherited the Shane’s Castle estate from a distant kinsman and disinherited his eldest son, Henry (1591), who in any case left an only daughter) was succeeded by his second son, Charles (1588) and Charles’ heir was John, created Baron O’Neill in 1793 and Viscount O’Neill two years later. He was killed in the 1798 rebellion. From the time he came of age in 1761, John O’Neill endeavoured to restore the family interest in the county, but his efforts proved unsuccessful against the Skeffington-Conway-MacDonnell grouping, and in 1776 against the popular (and temporary) appeal of James Willson. However, in 1783 he was successful and he represented the county until his elevation to the peerage a decade later.

In 1790 the Donegall heir, Lord Chichester (Earl of Belfast), already heavily in debt and shortly thereafter in jail, declined to stand, and the county election was contested by John O’Neill, Hercules Rowley, J. Leslie and Edmund Alexander Macnaghten. The gross poll was 3,507 and 7,013 votes were cast, suggesting that there was little ‘plumping’ (voting for one candidate only). O’Neill headed the poll with 1,939 votes and was followed by Rowley with 1,867; Leslie had 1,708 and Macnaghten 1,499. In fact Leslie and Macnaghten declined the final poll.

Although it was thought that Rowley’s health made it unlikely that he would sit, he lived long enough to succeed his mother, Viscountess Langford, in 1791 and Edward Jones-Agnew was returned unopposed at the ensuing by-election. Jones-Agnew was a popular candidate who, along with William Todd Jones (1123, the popular independent returned in 1783), had petitioned against the return of George Hatton (0988) and John Moore (1464) on the Hertford interest for Lisburn.

Dr Halliday wrote to Lord Charlemont that ‘Agnew is a man of independent fortune and principles and an excellent character. He is a member of our Whig Club.’ This time the Hertford influence survived, as although Moore was declared not duly elected, he was re-elected at the ensuing by-election. Shortly afterwards Jones-Agnew came in for the county at the by-election following the succession of Hercules Rowley as Viscount Langford.

The 1797 election was fought under the cloud of impending rebellion and was low-key. In the county only 4,483 votes were cast, as against the 7,013 that had been polled in 1790. There was a three-cornered contest, and Staples with 1,784 and Macnaghten with 1,518 had a clear lead over the popular Jones-Agnew, who, with 981 votes, failed to hold his seat. The two remaining Co. Antrim families representing the county in the 1790s were both from north Antrim: the Boyds of Ballycastle and the Macnaghtens of Bushmills. The Boyds were anxious to develop Ballycastle, its harbour and its coalmines. Hugh Boyd represented the county for two years following the elevation to the peerage of John O’Neill.

At his death in 1795, he was succeeded by John Staples, whose principal interests lay in Counties Tyrone and Londonderry. Nevertheless, Staples was to represent the county for many years. He was well connected, being a brother-in-law – and his son the eventual heir – of Thomas Conolly (0459). Nevertheless, he probably owed his initial election to the fact that the principal families were not in a position to provide suitable candidates, or face the expense of a county election. The other member, Macnaghten, had a minor interest in the county from his estates in north Antrim, where his residence was in the vicinity of Bushmills. Macnaghten first indicated his intention of making a political stand for the county in 1790, and, like Staples, he represented the county for many years after the Union.

There were various other minor interests in the county who were usually courted by and gave their support to the major interests or their candidates; these included Viscount Dungannon (Trevor-Hill, a junior branch of the Downshire family, who held a large leasehold estate under Lord Donegall), the Dobbs of Carrickfergus and the Macartneys of Lissanoure.

Co. Antrim - Boroughs