The Lord Plunket
Lord Plunket.
Lord Chancellor of Ireland
In office
23 December 1830 – November 1834
MonarchWilliam IV
Prime MinisterThe Earl Grey
The Viscount Melbourne
Preceded bySir Anthony Hart
Succeeded bySir Edward Sugden
In office
30 April 1835 – 1841
MonarchsWilliam IV
Queen Victoria
Prime MinisterThe Viscount Melbourne
Preceded bySir Edward Sugden
Succeeded bySir John Campbell
Personal details
Born1 July 1764
Enniskillen, County Fermanagh
Died5 January 1854 (aged 89)
County Wicklow
Political partyWhig
SpouseCatherine MacCausland
Alma materTrinity College Dublin

William Conyngham Plunket, 1st Baron Plunket, PC (Ire), QC (1 July 1764 – 5 January 1854) was an Irish politician and lawyer. After gaining public notoriety as the prosecutor in the treason trial of Robert Emmet in 1803, he rose rapidly in government service. He become Lord Chancellor of Ireland in 1830 and served, with a brief interruption, in that post until his retirement in 1841.

Background and education

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Reverend Thomas Plunket of Dublin, and his wife Mary (née Conyngham),[1] Plunket was born in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, and educated at Trinity College Dublin. After graduating in 1784, he was admitted as a student at Lincoln's Inn, and was called to the Irish bar three years later.

Prosecution of Robert Emmet and political career

Plunket was made a King's Counsel in 1795, and three years later was elected to the Irish House of Commons as a Member of Parliament for Charlemont. After the Act of Union was passed, Plunket lost his seat, and failed to be elected to Westminster for Dublin University in 1802. He was restored to prominence in September 1803 as the prosecuting counsel in the treason trial of Robert Emmet.

Lord Castlereagh, as a principal architect of the Acts of Union, had been acutely embarrassed by Emmet's abortive rising in Dublin. He advised that "the best thing would be to go into no detail whatever upon the case, to keep the subject clearly standing on its own narrow base of a contemptible insurrection without means or respectable leaders".[2] It is an instruction that Plunket appears to have followed.

The prosecution itself presented no difficulty: the evidence was overwhelming and the Crown had taken the extra precaution of suborning Emmet's defence attorney, Leonard McNally, for £200 and a pension.[3] But when McNally announced that the trial was concluded because his client wished to call no witnesses nor "take up the time of the court", Plunket took to his feet to berate the prisoner. He mocked Emmet as the deluded leader of a conspiracy encompassing "the bricklayer, the old clothes man, the hodman and the hostler".[4]

Plunket was made Solicitor-General for Ireland and, in 1805, Attorney-General for Ireland. He was also raised to the Irish Privy Council. As Solicitor General, Plunket was one of the Irish officials singled out for attack in a series of scurrilous letters published by the radical journalist William Cobbett in his weekly newspaper Political Register.

Plunket was alluded to as "the viper" who "in an unheard of exercise of prerogative" had "wantonly lashed [...] the dying son of his former friend [Emmet's father at whose table it was alleged Plunket had often dined], when that dying son produced no evidence, and had made no defence; but on the contrary had acknowledged his offence and submitted to his fate". Plunket was able to bring successful libel cases both against Cobbett and against the author of the letters, "Juverna" (a variant of Hibernia, Ireland) whom he had unmasked as Robert Johnson, a judge of the Court of Common Pleas (Ireland), who was forced to resign from the Bench as a result.[5]

In January 1807, Plunket was returned to British House of Commons as a Whig member for Midhurst, representing the constituency for only three months, although he subsequently returned to the House of Commons in 1812 as the member for Dublin University, a seat which he continued to represent until May 1827.

In 1822 he was reappointed to the office of Attorney-General for Ireland, since William Saurin (Attorney General 1807–22) was implacably opposed to Catholic emancipation, which the Crown now accepted was inevitable. Plunket, unlike Saurin, supported Emancipation and was able to work in reasonable harmony with Daniel O'Connell to secure it.

In 1827, relinquishing his seat in the House of Commons, he was raised to the Peerage of the United Kingdom as Baron Plunket, of Newton in the County of Cork[6] and was appointed Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas.

He was an advocate of Catholic emancipation,[7] and served as Lord Chancellor of Ireland from 1830 to 1841, with a brief interval when the Tories were in power between 1834 and 1835. He was forced into retirement to allow Sir John Campbell to assume office.

His tenure as Chancellor was not without controversy: opponents accused him of political partisanship, lengthy absences from work, and nepotism on a scale unusual even in an age when it was understood that officeholders took care of their relatives.


Plunket was married to Catherine McCausland, daughter of John McCausland of Strabane and Elizabeth Span, daughter of Reverend William Span of Ballmacove, County Donegal.[8] Their son Thomas became Church of Ireland Bishop of Tuam, Killala and Achonry. Thomas's eldest daughter the Honourable Katherine Plunket (1820–1932) was the longest-lived Irish person ever. Their other children included sons Patrick (died 1859), judge of the Court of Bankruptcy, and Robert (Dean of Tuam from 1850), and a daughter, Louisa.[9] In Dublin, Plunket was a member of Daly's Club.[10] He died in January 1854, aged 89, at his country house, Old Connaught, near Bray, County Wicklow, and was succeeded in the barony by his eldest son, Thomas.

He lived in considerable state: Sir Walter Scott, who visited him at Old Connaught, left a glowing tribute to Plunket's charm and hospitality, and the excellence of his food and wine.

Coat of arms of William Plunket, 1st Baron Plunket
A horse passant Argent charged on the shoulder with a portcullis.
Sable a bend a castle in chief and a portcullis in base Argent.
Dexter an antelope Proper sinister a horse Argent both charged on the shoulder with a portcullis Sable.
Festina Lente[11]


  1. ^ The Peerage Of The British Empire, 27th Edn, 1858, Edmund Lodge Esq, accessed 25 December 2008
  2. ^ Whelan, Kevin (22 February 2013). "Robert Emmet: between history and memory". History Ireland. Retrieved 13 June 2021.
  3. ^ "The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2008". Retrieved 10 February 2014.
  4. ^ Whelan, Fergus (2020). May Tyrants Tremble: The Life of William Drennan, 1754–1820. Dublin: Irish Academic Press. pp. 255–256. ISBN 9781788551212.
  5. ^ "The Late Judge Robert Johnston". The Irish Monthly Magazine of Politics and Literature. ... Office, 37, Anglesea-street, (within one door of College-green.). 1833. pp. (115–127) 120–121.
  6. ^ "No. 18356". The London Gazette. 27 April 1927. p. 937.
  7. ^ On Catholic Relief, speech delivered on 28 February 1821 by Plunket in the House of Commons, adjudged by Sir Robert Peel as "it stands nearly the highest in point of ability of any ever heard in this House", accessed 24 December 2008
  8. ^ A Genaeologyical and Heraldic History of the Commoners of Great Britain and Ireland: MacCausland of Strabane Vol II, John Burke Esq, 1836, accessed 24 December 2008
  9. ^ The Peerage, Baronetage, and Knightage, of Great Britain and Ireland, for 1860, Robert P. Dod Esq, 1860, accessed 25 December 2008
  10. ^ T. H. S. Escott, Club Makers and Club Members (1913), pp. 329–333
  11. ^ Burke's Peerage. 1850.
Parliament of Ireland Preceded byRichard Mountney Jephson Viscount Caulfeild Member of Parliament for Charlemont 1798 – 1801 With: Richard Mountney Jephson 1798Francis Dobbs 1798–1801 Succeeded byParliament of the United Kingdom Parliament of the United Kingdom Preceded byJohn Smith William Wickham Member of Parliament for Midhurst 1807 With: Henry Watkin Williams-Wynn Succeeded bySamuel SmithJames Abercromby Preceded byJohn Leslie Foster Member of Parliament for Dublin University 1812–1827 Succeeded byJohn Wilson Croker Legal offices Preceded byJames McClelland Solicitor-General for Ireland 1803–1805 Succeeded byCharles Kendal Bushe Preceded byStandish O'Grady Attorney-General for Ireland 1805–1807 Succeeded byWilliam Saurin Preceded byWilliam Saurin Attorney-General for Ireland 1822–1827 Succeeded byHenry Joy Preceded byThe Earl of Norbury Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas 1827–30 Succeeded byJohn Doherty Political offices Preceded bySir Anthony Hart Lord Chancellor of Ireland 1830–1834 Succeeded bySir Edward Sugden Preceded bySir Edward Sugden Lord Chancellor of Ireland 1835–1841 Succeeded bySir John Campbell Peerage of the United Kingdom New creation Baron Plunket 1827–1854 Succeeded byThomas Plunket