John Blackwood

In Brief

Once more Deasy's facts are garbled. Magnanimously proposing that "We are all Irish," he claims that he has "rebel blood in me too," but manages to emphasize the virtue of his ancestor "sir John Blackwood who voted for the union." In fact Sir John (1721-99), a member of the Irish House of Commons, was hurrying to vote against this parliamentary act to unite Ireland with Great Britain.

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This information comes from a letter that Henry Blackwood Price wrote to Joyce in 1912, telling him about his ancestor. Gifford notes that although Sir John "was offered a peerage to bribe him to vote for Union" and refused, there is evidence that his son, Sir James Blackwood, voted for the Union and was made Baron Dufferin in recompense. But Deasy still could not be more wrong (at least according to the information that Joyce was given) that the father "voted for it and put on his top boots to ride to Dublin from the Ards of Down to do so." Blackwood Price's letter to Joyce says precisely the opposite: "Remember that Sir John Blackwood died in the act of putting on his topboots in order to go to Dublin to vote against the Union" (Ellmann 326-27).

The Ards of Down is a peninsula in County Down, jutting into the Irish Sea east of Belfast and wrapping around the Strangford Lough. Bangor, the large town that Sir John represented in the Parliament at the time of the Union votes, lies on Belfast Lough at the base of the peninsula, 10-12 miles (16-20 km) northeast of Belfast. It is nearly 100 miles from Dublin—an extremely long ride.

Considering the trouble that the infirm old man (78 years old) was preparing to take to reach the Parliament and resist imperial skullduggery, his motto, "Per vias rectas" (Latin for "By straight roads" or "By proper means"), seems well justified. It does not apply so well to his son the Baron, who may be said to have acted per vias pravas or crooked ways. Deasy's proud quotation of his ancestor's motto ironically undermines him as he speaks.

Catholics lacked the vote in the 1790s, and the Irish Parliament was stuffed with aristocrats and large landholders from the Protestant Ascendancy. Nevertheless, the ideal of an independent and inclusive Ireland appealed to many Protestants of the time—even in Ulster, as is demonstrated very clearly by the ecumenical orientation of the United Irishmen, and its eventual commitment to revolution. Additionally, the Grattan Constitution of 1872 had given the Irish Parliament a large measure of independence, and many of its members were reluctant to vote their body out of existence and cede power to Westminster. But the British government was determined to consolidate control of the island after the 1798 rebellion, and it resorted to bribery on a massive scale, including many promises of peerages to members who would consent to switch their votes. The first vote in 1799 (the one that Sir John could not participate in) failed. The second one, in 1800, succeeded.

A similar disgraceful history attends the earlier Acts of Union that produced Great Britain in 1707. Scottish legislators were bribed so massively that Robert Burns could write,

The English steel we could disdain,
Secure in valour's station.
But English gold has been our bane.
Sac a parcel of rogues in a nation.
JH 2012
The Ards peninsula in County Down. Source:
The Irish House of Commons in 1780, painted by Francis Wheatley. The figure addressing the body, in a red coat in the right foreground, is Henry Grattan. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The old Irish Parliament building, now a branch of the Bank of Ireland. Source: