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Monks of the Screw [Monks of the Order of St Patrick] (act. 1779–1789) was a political and convivial club established in Dublin in 1779 dedicated to advancing the Irish patriot cause of securing concessions in order to place the Irish constitution and Irish commerce on the same legal basis as those of Great Britain. It has been claimed that the order was based on ‘an original society, formed near Newmarket’, co. Cork, Barry Yelverton's birthplace, ‘of which he drew up the rules in very quaint and comic monkish Latin verse’ (Phillips, 62). Though this cannot be substantiated, there being no other record of an earlier society, it is apparent that the idea for such a political society—if not for the specifically ‘monkish’ demeanour of their rituals, regulations, and meeting space—owed much to contemporary patterns of association and conviviality that sustained other political societies. The colloquial title by which the club is best known—the Monks of the Screw—reflects the contemporary misjudgement that its members were more interested in drinking than business.

The Monks of the Order of St Patrick, the brainchild of Yelverton, a barrister and MP for the borough of Carrickfergus, drew on three existing associations for its structure and conduct: the freemasons, who had still more elaborate forms of ritual; the Friendly Brothers of St Patrick, which had two levels of membership, the ‘regular’ and ‘perfect’ brothers; and the elusive Society of Granby Row, a gathering of patriot politicians, which met during the early 1770s to concert and co-ordinate political strategy. Significantly the membership of the latter society, which included Lord Charlemont, Sir Edward Newenham, Henry Grattan, Henry Flood, Denis Daly, and Walter Hussey Burgh, overlapped with that of the Monks of the Screw. But this probably had less of a bearing on the order's formation than the demise of the Society of Granby Row, the absence of which, in the mid- and late 1770s, once more exposed the lack of coherence and organization that had long characterized patriot politics. This was a source of critical comment in the popular press in the summer of 1779, as public disappointment with the modest nature of the commercial concessions granted to Ireland by Westminster in 1778 fuelled the non-importation and non-consumption campaigns that were directed at British goods, spearheaded by radical popular activists and the volunteer movement. It also raised expectations, and prompted calls on ‘the patriotic members of both houses of parliament’ to concert ‘their line of conduct for the ensuing session’ (Finn's Leinster Journal, 10 July 1779), which was scheduled to commence in October.

As one of the leading patriots in the Irish House of Commons Yelverton perceived the merit of such calls. From his observation of the non-importation campaign he was also acutely conscious of the volunteers' growing significance as a political force and of the usefulness of print as a medium for the dissemination of political propaganda. Yelverton concluded that Irish MPs and peers would be more likely to achieve their goals of commercial and constitutional reform if they were better organized and had the support of the public. And so in the autumn of 1779 he set in train the process that was to culminate in the formation of the Monks of the Order of St Patrick, better known as the Monks of the Screw.

The society's inaugural meeting was held on 3 September 1779. As its bursar, Edward Hudson, later recalled, it was envisaged that the body would be ‘partly political and partly convivial’ (Curran, 1.141). Consistent with this dual purpose there were two grades of membership: professed brothers, including those elected to honorary membership, who numbered fifty-six (according to a not entirely accurate list compiled in the 1810s, reprinted ibid., 142–5) and who constituted the political component of the society; and lay brothers, who enjoyed ‘no privileges, except that of commons in the refectory’ (ibid., 141). By the terms of the order's constitution, no copy of which is known to survive, ‘the professed consisted of members of either house of parliament and barristers, with an addition from the other learned professions of any number not exceeding one-third of the whole’ (ibid.). Composed at the outset of ‘twenty-five lawyers … and twenty-five lay brothers’ (National Archives of Ireland, MS 5040, fol. 81), the professed membership of the Society grew quickly to fifty-six. Qualified barristers, who numbered thirty-six, remained the largest definable category, followed at some distance by fifteen MPs, four peers, three fellows of Trinity College, two medical doctors, and three honorary members.

The predominance of barristers reflected Yelverton's long engagement in the law, but what is still more remarkable is their youthfulness, ability, and ambition. The most striking measure of the latter is provided by the fact that, of those who were not already in parliament, thirteen were subsequently elected to the House of Commons (eight in 1783 alone, including Robert Day and Sir John Doyle), raising the total number of members of the society who were or who became MPs to twenty-eight. Others concentrated on the law, and it is notable that as well as a number of leading advocates (Beresford Burston, William Caldback, Richard Frankland, all KCs) and eminent defence counsel (John Philpot Curran and George Ponsonby) they included eight future members of the judiciary: Yelverton, Walter Hussey Burgh, Robert Johnston, Robert Day, William Tankerville Chamberlayne (bap. 1752, d. 1802; MP for Clonmines), Matthias Finucane, Peter Metge (c.1741–1809; MP for Ardee and later for Ratoath), and Arthur Wolfe. Others qualified in the law included Francis Dobbs, a dramatist and pamphleteer, who enjoyed Lord Charlemont's implicit confidence; Temple Emmet, the gifted older brother of Thomas Addis and Robert Emmet; and Joseph Pollock, a forceful propagandist and organizer.

As well as Yelverton, who was first elected in 1774, the fifteen members of parliament who were professed brothers in 1779–80 included Henry Grattan, whose combative oratorical skills had precipitated him to the forefront of the patriot movement; John Forbes, the talented MP for Drogheda; Walter Hussey Burgh, who was widely acknowledged as the most brilliant of all the patriot orators; Denis Daly, another exceptionally capable orator; George Ogle, the outspoken MP for co. Wexford; Sir Edward Newenham, a prolific propagandist and radical-minded MP for co. Dublin; Isaac Corry, MP for Newry; and Charles Francis Sheridan, the author of the well-received History of the Late Revolution in Sweden (1778). Only five, Burgh, Daly, Newenham, Ogle, and Robert Ross (bap. 1729, d. 1799; MP for Newry), had sat in the Commons for ten years or more. The remainder, Yelverton excepted, were first-time MPs elected in 1776 or, in the case of George Ponsonby, in 1778. The youthful profile these gave the society's membership was leavened by the presence in its ranks of four peers—Arthur Saunders Gore, fourth earl of Arran, who had brought Yelverton into parliament; the colourful and controversial Simon Luttrell, first Viscount Carhampton (1713–1787); Garrett Wesley, first earl of Mornington; and James Caulfeild, first earl of Charlemont, the revered éminence grise of the patriot movement.

The order was guided in its activities by six office-holders headed by Barry Yelverton, who was denominated founder and who, one insider observed, shared the direction of the society with Henry Grattan. He was supported by William Doyle, a master in chancery who, as abbot, was the official deputy, and John Philpot Curran, the prior, who shared Yelverton's Cork background. It was they who organized the meetings (chapters) of the order, held every Saturday during term time, in a large house on Kevin Street, the property of James Dennis, who was raised to the peerage as Lord Tracton in 1781. Chapter meetings, which were attended only by professed members dressed in the habit of the order (a black tabinet domino), were chaired by the abbot, or in his absence by the prior, and were given over to business. This point needs making, since the society has gained a reputation for bibulous excess that is undeserved.

Soon after its formation the order offered honorary membership to the once controversial lord lieutenant, George Townshend, first Marquess Townshend, the renowned Irish history painter James Barry, and the remarkable friar Arthur O'Leary, whose recent calls on Roman Catholics to behave loyally in the face of an apprehended French invasion had a profoundly ameliorative impact on protestant perceptions of Catholics. These appointments set the tone and indicated that the order had a clear political agenda, which Francis Hardy, who was also a member, later summarized as ‘to maintain the rights and constitution of their country’ (Hardy, 310). This was in keeping with members' political ambitions as well as of the mood of the moment, since among the small handful of medical members of the society, the outspoken pamphleteer Frederick Jebb stood pre-eminent. As master of the Rotunda Lying-In Hospital, Jebb was an unlikely radical. However, the publication in the Freeman's Journal in the late spring and summer of 1779 of a series of public letters signed Guatimozin, in which Jebb vigorously asserted the entitlement of the kingdom of Ireland to self-government, dismissed the claim of the British parliament, affirmed in the controversial Declaratory Act of 1719, to make law for Ireland, and indicated that Britain was in no position to resist Irish demands, not only ensured his admission to membership of the monks, but also had a profound influence on the society's direction. Prompted by the wish ‘to prepare the public mind, by means of the press, for a constitutional resistance to the usurpation of the English parliament’ (Curran, 1.150n), it was in the order's interest to involve Jebb and to encourage others of similar views with the required literary gifts to express similarly radical opinions. This explains the presence of William Preston, the poet, whose parodies published in response to the controversial commentaries of the English traveller Richard Twiss were publicly applauded; Robert Johnson (Causidicus), whose political commentaries were published with those of Jebb; Joseph Pollock, whose controversial utterances as Owen Roe O'Niall encouraged the population not to limit their horizon to commercial reforms but to press onwards for constitutional change, in alliance with France if required; and Charles Francis Sheridan, whose Observations on the Doctrine laid down by Sir William Blackstone, Respecting the Extent of the Power of the British Parliament, particularly with relation to Ireland (1779) was ‘the most influential pamphlet contribution so far as the future direction of opposition was concerned’ (Mansergh, 42).

In the absence of minutes it is difficult to establish if the order's role in the generation of these texts was other than facilitative. Edward Hudson's recollection that ‘few productions (either in pamphlets or periodical productions) of any celebrity … did not proceed from the pen of one of the brethren’ (Curran, 1.122) is suggestive, and it acquires further authority from John Forbes's comment to the earl of Shelburne on 4 February 1780 ‘that all … the able and effectual publications in print originate in this Society’ (BL, Bowood papers). It is also noteworthy that Sheridan's pamphlet and Francis Dobbs's influential History of Irish Affairs from … 1779 to … 1782 (1782) were published by Michael Mills, who was also responsible for the influential Hibernian Journal, and that Isaac Colles, who owned the Freeman's Journal, was the primary retailer of Jebb's influential Letters. Based on this, there are grounds for accepting Forbes's claim not only that the Monks of the Screw exerted a decisive influence on the course of public debate in the winter of 1779–80, but also performed a still more important function—acting as ‘the link of communication between the independent part of the House of Commons and the people’ (ibid.).

This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that members of the order did not confine themselves to the production and dissemination of political propaganda, but sought actively to promote volunteering. Claims that ‘the plan of the volunteer associations emanated from the Monks’ (Curran, 1.150) can safely be dismissed, but there is reliable evidence that the most radical among their members sought to encourage the spirit of volunteering both by their writings and by their deeds. Significantly Pollock, Sheridan, Forbes, and Dobbs visited Ulster in the winter of 1779–80 to elicit resolutions supporting the patriots' constitutional as well as commercial agenda. Frederick Jebb may have entertained the still more radical idea of arming the volunteers, but his plans were never pursued, with the result that members of the order, and few were as active as Francis Dobbs, confined their efforts to organizational matters.

This was prudent, because not all members were equally at ease with the agitation of delicate constitutional issues or the implications of popular politicization. This mattered little in the spring of 1780 as membership of the monks was briefly ‘the ambition of every man of rank, spirit and ability in the nation’ (BL, Bowood papers). It was not to endure. Efforts to animate a campaign to secure legislative independence, which came in the immediate aftermath of the unanimous welcome afforded the ratification at Westminster of legislation conceding ‘free trade’, caused some to distance themselves from the order. Others, including Daly, Sheridan, and Jebb were won over by offers of advancement from the Irish administration. Daly became muster-master general in 1781, Sheridan under-secretary for war in 1782, while a tempting pension of £300 held out to Jebb to secure his literary skills for the Irish administration achieved a similar purpose. Still more seriously Barry Yelverton gravitated in the early 1780s towards Dublin Castle and high office. This did not signal the immediate end of the Monks of the Screw, but their profile subsequently declined, attendances diminished, and members in the Commons voted increasingly according to their individual inclinations. The order may have continued to meet, but the incapacity of members to recall for how long after 1782 is indicative of its diminished status. Edward Hudson later recalled that the society survived into the 1790s, and only ‘dwindled away towards the end of 1795’ (Curran, 1.125), but if this is true it was already a spent political force by the mid-1780s. Indeed, the Monks of the Screw might have been lost forever but for the inquiries of a number of biographers in the early nineteenth century on whom we are reliant for so much of what is known of the singular contribution of the order to patriot politics during the late 1770s and early 1780s.

James Kelly

Sources  

W. H. Curran, The life of the right honourable John Philpot Curran, 2 vols. (1822) · C. Phillips, Curran and his contemporaries, 5th edn (1857) · F. Hardy, Memoirs of the political and private life of James Caulfeild, earl of Charlemont (1810) · Townshend letterbook, NA Ire., MS 5040 · Forbes to Shelburne, 4 Feb 1780, BL, Bowood papers · Finn's Leinster Journal (1779) · G. O'Brien, Anglo-Irish politics in the age of Grattan and Pitt (1987) · J. Kelly, Henry Flood: patriots and politics in eighteenth-century Ireland (1998) · R. Ryan, Biographia Hibernica: a biographical dictionary of the worthies of Ireland, 2 vols. (1821) · DNB · The letters of Guatimozin, on the affairs of Ireland, as first published in the Freeman's journal ... to which are added, the letters of Causidicus (1779) · [C. F. Sheridan], Observations on the doctrine laid down by Sir William Blackstone, respecting the extent of the power of the British Parliament, particularly with relation to Ireland (1779) · F. Dobbs, A history of Irish affairs, from the 12th of October, 1779, to the 15th September, 1782 (1782) · H. Grattan, Memoirs of the life and times of the Rt Hon. Henry Grattan, 5 vols. (1839–46) · D. Mansergh, Grattan's failure: parliamentary opposition and the people in Ireland, 1779–1800 (2005) · M. Pollard, A dictionary of members of the Dublin book trade 1550–1800 (2000) · E. M. Johnston-Liik, History of the Irish parliament, 1692–1800, 6 vols. (2002)