Thomas Westropp Bennett

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Thomas Westropp Bennett and George C. Bennett, circa 1928

Thomas William Westropp Bennett (30 January 1867 – 1 February 1962)[1] was an Irish politician, magistrate and public figure in Irish agriculture.

Born on his father's estate in Ballymurphy, County Limerick he was the eldest son (and second of five children) of Captain Thomas Westropp Bennett, a gentleman-farmer, Crimean War veteran and retired Captain in the 39th (Dorsetshire) regiment of the British Army. One of his younger brothers, George C. Bennett was Cumann na Gaedhael/Fine Gael TD for Limerick County. The Bennetts were an old Limerick family of Protestant gentry (a class known in history as "Anglo-Irish") who had been resident in Limerick since the 1670s. His father was a Church of Ireland member, but the children followed the Catholic faith of their mother.

Westropp Bennett's ancestors followed the usual occupations of their class: Protestant clergymen, Justice of the Peace (magistrates), landowners or military officers; several cousins (Ensign Thomas Bennett and Lt Joseph Bennett) had fought in the Peninsular War and another, Lt Francis W Bennett, died of wounds after fighting in the Battle of Waterloo. An ancestor, Hugh Massy, 2nd Lord Massy of Duntrileague, had sat in Henry Grattan's Irish Parliament in the 1780s in both the Irish House of Commons and, later, the House of Lords. The family had been politically active at a county level, including a Lord Mayor of Limerick, several Freemen of Limerick and numerous JPs.

Westropp Bennett was educated at Kilkenny College and the Queen's Service Academy in Dublin but, unusually, did not attend Trinity College, Dublin where many of his ancestors had studied. On completion of his education, he returned to the Bennett family's extensive landholdings in Limerick and both farmed and took a prominent role in County Limerick life.

Career[edit]

As a magistrate he was active in local government as a district and county councillor and stood for the Westminster Parliament at the January 1910 general election as an Independent Nationalist in West Limerick, with the support of the All-for Ireland League, a non-sectarian alliance of nationalists and unionists, where he came within 70 votes of winning the seat in a close fought contest.[2] His standing in this election reflected a proud family tradition of Irish independence, following on from his ancestor George Bennett, a landed proprietor of Castle Creagh (Gleneffy) House in Limerick, who had signed a petition to Lord Castlereagh in 1799 as a prominent Limerick opponent of the Act of Union.

As Chairman of Limerick County Council, where he was a member for the Bruree Division from 1908–1920, he rose to national prominence in a variety of organisations including the Gaelic Language Association, was founder of the Kilmallock show, the Kilmallock Agricultural and Industrial Society and Chairman of the Influential Ratepayers Protection Association (1907–11). He was also a member of the District Council for Kilmallock.

A noted agricultural expert, he was on the board of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS) from 1912 where he remained until 1927 with the noted reformer Sir Horace Plunkett. He was elected to the Irish Free State Seanad in 1922 for Cumann na nGaedheal,[3] where he was part of a parliamentary Commission to broker peace in the Irish Civil War.

He was elected as Leas-Chathaoirleach to Lord Glenavy in 1925 and as Cathaoirleach (Chairman) of the Senate in 1928, he was vigorous in defending constitutionalism in Irish life during a turbulent time and was engaged in a very high-profile contest with the President of the Executive Council Éamon de Valera in 1935 during the campaign to abolish the Seanad, in which he was assisted by his brother George C. Bennett, a Teachta Dála (TD) in Fine Gael and later Senator. He also played a significant role internationally, leading trade delegations to Berlin, Prague, Istanbul and London resulting in much economic benefit.

Committed to the link between the United Kingdom and Ireland as equal members of the Commonwealth, he led an Irish delegation to the Empire Parliamentary Conference in 1935 where he dined with British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, attended receptions with the King George V and the Duke and the Duchess of York (the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) and negotiated with leaders of delegations from South Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Indian Raj and many others as well as attending a Fleet Review and visiting many cities in the United Kingdom to promote the Irish Free State. De Valera shunned the British link, so Westropp Bennett's role was very important in promoting Ireland as the sole holder of high office in Ireland to appear at these events.

Always active in Cumann na nGaedheal/Fine Gael, he was instrumental in chairing talks between Eoin O'Duffy and W. T. Cosgrave in the summer of 1933 in Dublin which led to the founding of Fine Gael.

He became Chairman of the Irish Agricultural Wholesale Society in 1945 remaining at its helm until his death in February 1962, after a lifetime of public service. He was prominent in many areas of Irish life; he was a member of the Council of University College Cork, Vice-President of the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) (1955–1962), President of the Hibernian United Services Club and President of the Irish Association of Accountants, among many other roles. A keen huntsman, he remained active in the Country Limerick Foxhounds all his life, and enjoyed shooting, the cinema, horse racing and the Irish language.

He married twice; his first wife, Esther Macdonald-Moreton, was a Scottish aristocrat. She was the great-granddaughter of Thomas Reynolds-Moreton, 4th Baron and first 1st Earl of Ducie and the granddaughter of Augustus Macdonald, a Scottish Member of Parliament and in the government led by reforming Prime Minister Lord John Russell. Her family home was in the baronial Largie Castle in Argyll where her father (and later brother) were the local lairds. She was a debutante in 1892 when she was presented at the Royal Court to Queen Victoria. They married in 1898 when her dowry was £1200 a year, which helped finance his campaigns. She died childless in 1920.

In April 1923, he married Miss Lila Hapell (died July 1976), daughter of William Alexander Happell, who had been in the Indian Civil Service. She had been governess to his niece. Initially he lived in an estate called Ballyteigue in Bruree and then another called Ardvullen in Killmallock before inheriting a small estate called Summerville from a cousin in County Limerick which the Irish Republican Army tried to burn down in 1922; he persuaded it to go away, though he himself was unarmed. His son, Liam Westropp Bennett, stood as a Fine Gael candidate in 1954.

His obituary in The Irish Times said that he was from a "prominent and popular family" in the south of Ireland who had rendered much service during the "turbulent early years" of the Irish State. In an interview in 2008 Liam Cosgrave, the former Taoiseach of Ireland, who knew Westropp Bennett and his brother George, well said that Westropp Bennett "a man of principle....who was held in universally high regard".

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Thomas William Bennett". FamilySearch.org. Retrieved 16 August 2014. 
  2. ^ Brian M. Walker, ed. (1978). Parliamentary election results in Ireland 1801–1922. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy. p. 174. ISBN 0-901714-12-7. 
  3. ^ "Mr. Thomas Westropp Bennett". Oireachtas Members Database. Retrieved 16 August 2014. 

Sources[edit]

Oireachtas
Preceded by
Lord Glenavy
Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann
1928–1936
Succeeded by
Seán Gibbons