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Shaw, Williamlocked

  • C. L. Falkiner
  • , revised by Alan O'Day

Shaw, William (1823–1895), politician and businessman, was born on 4 May 1823 in Moy, co. Tyrone. His father, Samuel Shaw, was a Congregational minister. He was educated privately and then spent some time at Trinity College, Dublin, but did not take a degree. Being intended for the Congregational ministry, he studied at Highbury College, Middlesex, a theological seminary, and then served as the minister for an independent church in George's Street, Cork, between 1846 and 1850. Following his marriage in 1850 to Charlotte Clear, daughter of a wealthy corn merchant in Cork, he abandoned the clerical profession for a mercantile career.

Shaw initially attempted to enter parliament at the Bandon by-election on 14 February 1865, when he stood as a Liberal candidate but was defeated by 101 votes to 67. He next contested a parliamentary seat as a Liberal at Bandon at the general election in July 1865, which he narrowly lost. He then had his first success at Bandon, which he won by four votes at the general election of November 1868, when he campaigned as an independent Liberal. He represented this constituency until the dissolution in 1874, during which time he supported Gladstone's church and land bills.

Shaw had had a connection with the Young Ireland movement as a young man and, with the founding of the Home Government Association to advocate Isaac Butt's federalist ideas in 1870, he aligned himself with the new organization. His involvement was so conspicuous that he was selected to preside at the national conference called to found the Home Rule League held at the Rotunda in November 1873. At the general election of 1874 he was returned unopposed as a home-ruler for co. Cork. He then joined the new Home Rule Party formed after the election. Along with Mitchell Henry, he often deputized for the Home Rule Party chairman, replacing Isaac Butt during his frequent absences from Westminster and acting, in 1877, as the spokesman on a motion for a select committee of the House of Commons to inquire into the demand for an Irish parliament. Shaw remained steadfast in his loyalty to Butt during the increasingly bitter disputes that erupted from 1877 over ‘obstruction’ and, after Butt's death in May 1879, was chosen party chairman.

Shaw's determined support of Butt made him suspect to the growing body of MPs who gathered around Charles Stewart Parnell. Although Shaw was once again successful for co. Cork in the general election of 1880, when he came top of the poll, Parnell decided to challenge him for the sessional chairmanship—the first and only occasion upon which the office was contested until December 1890. At the party meeting held in Dublin on 17 May, Parnell won by twenty-three votes to eighteen. Thereafter Shaw increasingly became alienated from Parnellite militancy. He declined to follow the Irish party across the floor of the House of Commons and sat on the Liberal benches throughout the 1880–85 parliament.

In 1880 the Liberal government nominated Shaw to sit on the Bessborough commission, which was appointed to examine Irish land tenure. He refused to be identified with the Land League agitation and, along with fellow dissidents, formally ceased to act with the Irish party from 12 January 1881. During the debates on the Land Bill of 1881 he supported the government and voted for the measure on the second reading, when the majority of Parnellites abstained. Thereafter he and his friends gave general support to the Liberal administration, earning Gladstone's unguarded characterization of them as 'nominal home rulers', a label eagerly seized upon by militants anxious to discredit the moderates. Shaw resigned from the moribund Home Rule League in December 1881 and, after 1882, like most of the 'nominal home rulers', was often missing from the parliamentary forum. He did not again seek election and retired from active politics in 1885.

Although Shaw had a reputation for prudence and judgement that in political life earned him the sobriquet Sensible Shaw, his later commercial dealings proved disastrous. In 1885 the Munster Bank, of which he was the principal founder and chairman, folded. Unable to meet his personal liabilities he was declared a bankrupt on 12 January 1886. Subsequently, he lived mainly in London and was connected with several industrial and financial newspapers. He died on 19 September 1895 at his sister's home, Lislee, Enniskerry, co. Wicklow.


  • The Constitution [Cork] (21 Sept 1895)
  • Freeman's Journal [Dublin] (21 Sept 1895)
  • The Times (24 Sept 1895)
  • D. Thornley, Isaac Butt and home rule (1964)
  • C. C. O'Brien, Parnell and his party, 1880–90 (1957)
  • H. W. Lucy, A diary of two parliaments, 2 vols. (1885–6)
  • Dod's Parliamentary Companion
  • J. L. Hammond, Gladstone and the Irish nation (1938)
  • A. M. Sullivan, New Ireland [new edn] (1882)
  • M. MacDonagh, The home rule movement (1920)
  • A. O'Day, The English face of Irish nationalism (1977)


  • NL Ire., Isaac Butt MSS
M. Stenton & S. Lees, eds., , 4 vols. (1976–81)