The Morpeth Roll: Ireland Identified in 1841

by admin on 03/07/2013

It has been variously described as ‘one of Ireland’s most extraordinary historic documents’; ‘a remarkable parting gift for an Englishman’ upon leaving Ireland; ‘possibly the largest farewell card in existence’ and for many years in its home at Castle Howard in Yorkshire, it was simply referred to as ‘the lavatory roll’.

It is, in fact, a testimonial, now better known as ‘The Morpeth Roll’, organised by Daniel O’Connell and Augustus Frederick FitzGerald (1791-1874) the 3rd Duke of Leinster, to mark the departure of George Howard (1802-64) as Chief Secretary of Ireland in 1841. It was signed by 160,000 Irish people as a mark of respect to Morpeth’s popularity and in acknowledgement of his role in social and political reform in Ireland between 1836 and 1841.

It is fitting that this document, which originally involved the gathering of so many signatures, went on tour in Ireland in 2013 to mark the year of The Gathering.

For 170 years it had not been seen in public. For most of that period, it had been hidden away in the archives of Castle Howard in Yorkshire, one of the grandest privately-owned country houses in Britain, renowned as the setting for both the television series and the more recent film version of Evelyn Waugh’s famous novel Brideshead Revisited.

Its rediscovery followed a serendipitous meeting between myself and Professor Christopher Ridgway, the curator of Castle Howard, at a conference in London in 2004. The following year, Professor Ridgway came to the National University of Ireland Maynooth to address the Annual Historic Houses of Ireland Conference. He was introduced to Carton House, one of Ireland’s finest surviving eighteenth-century Palladian mansions, and the story of the dukes of Leinster. The names began to resonate with him and on his return to Castle Howard, he went into the bowels of the archive to look again at a solid wooden trunk which he had been passing for years and re-read the inscription:

The Address of the Reformers of Ireland
To Lord Viscount Morpeth
Presented by His Grace the Duke of Leinster
At the Royal Exchange in the City of Dublin
On Tuesday the 14th September 1841.

It was then that the process of re-discovery began. Inside the trunk was a massive roll, 420 metres in length, comprised of 652 individual sheets of paper which had been stuck to a linen backdrop and wrapped around a bobbin, before being carefully inserted in the trunk. The testimonial – three times the length of Croke Park if rolled out and almost the height of the Empire State Building – had been signed the length and breadth of Ireland to proclaim the ‘outpourings of affection and support’ which the 160,000 signatories had for Lord Morpeth who had to resign his position as chief secretary for Ireland following the loss of his parliamentary seat in Yorkshire in the general election of 1841.

The individual sheets of papers had been transported to Dublin, a journey greatly facilitated by the expanding coach network developed by Charles Bianconi (1786-1875) whose signature is one of the first to be found on the roll. On 14 September 1841, the testimonial was presented to Morpeth at a function at the Royal Exchange followed by an extravagant banquet at the Theatre Royal. Morpeth declared that the roll would be ‘the richest heirloom’ he could bequeath to his family; it was a significant statement given that his family mansion was a treasure trove of decorative art and fine collections.

When the roll was re-discovered, the historical research into this very valuable Irish political document of the pre-Famine era took place at the National University of Ireland Maynooth (NUIM) on the very campus originally donated by the second duke of Leinster for the establishment of St Patrick’s College in 1795.

In 2010 the owner of Castle Howard, Hon. Simon Howard, agreed to loan the roll to NUIM for research and conservation. The latter has been carried out to the highest standards by Paul Hoary of the Russell Library while Dr Patrick Cosgrove, a research officer appointed by the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates, rigorously investigated the provenance of the roll and the ceremonial proceedings around its presentation. In 2012, digitised and indexed the roll making it fully searchable for the first time ever.

One of the first signatories to be identified was Henry White from Booterstown in Dublin, a direct ancestor of the late Princess Diana. On hearing of this discovery, her son, the Duke of Cambridge, wrote to the president of NUI Maynooth on 4 April 2013, expressing his gratefulness that this family connection had been brought to his attention. He found it extraordinary that ‘such a physically huge document should have remained unremarked and undiscovered for almost 150 years’ and delighted of the fact that ‘the opportunities it now provides for research must be inestimable.’

The latter comment is, of course, very true and not just in terms of identifying individual signatories and compiling their biographies (no matter how brief) but perhaps more importantly in terms of how historians can now examine Irish society and reform politics in the pre-Famine period in a new way.  When, for example, Dr Ciaran Reilly, looked at the signatories from his home town of Edenderry in County Offaly (in 1841, King’s County), he found that the signing of the testimonial had been organised by the parish priest, Fr James Colgan. He also discovered that Joseph Rothery owned the quarry from which the stone was used to build the Edenderry Workhouse in 1841 and that Arthur Keating was a gunsmith on the Main Street who emigrated to Minnesota during the Famine.

These examples from Edenderry are local and specific, the important point is that the same and, indeed, many other questions can be asked of any one signatory, any cluster of signatures or any locality which appears on the roll. In a more general sense, we can enquire whether by 1851, after the greatest social calamity in modern Irish history, were the people who signed the roll alive or dead, were they prospering or failing, or had they emigrated in search of a better life? And finally, as Christopher Ridgway has remarked: ‘Quite simply, anyone is entitled to ask, ‘Is my ancestor on this list?’

Starting in March 2013, the roll and accompanying exhibition embarked on an eighteen-month nationwide tour of Ireland, which will take in Westport (Mayo), Derrynane (Kerry), Clonmel (Tipperary), Kilkenny, Belfast and Dublin, enabling the public to see it for the first time in 170 years. It is also the subject of a collection of essays edited by Christopher Ridgway and published by Four Courts Press entitled The Morpeth Roll, Ireland Identified in 1841.


The exhibition will be hosted in the following venues:

20 Apr. – 12 May 2013 …… Westport House, Co. Mayo
21 May – 30 June 2013 …… Derrynane, Co. Kerry (OPW)

8 July – 11 Aug. 2013 …… The Main Guard, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary
16 Aug. – 26 Oct. 2013 …… Kilkenny Castle, Co. Kilkenny

1 – 29 Nov. 2013  …… NUI, Maynooth, Co. Kildare

5 Dec. 2013 – 26 Jan. 2014  …… Naughton Gallery, Queen’s U, Belfast

3 Feb. – 4 Apr. 2014  …… Dublin Castle


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 M Saul May 14, 2018 at 5:53 pm

I believe the Samuel Appleton of the Parish of Pomeroy, Ulster was my great-great-great grandfather. I know the Appletons came from County Tyrone. Samuel Appleton arrived in America in June 1841. He was married to Mary Gunn of County Tyrone.


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