Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Shaw, William (1823-1895)

SHAW, WILLIAM (1823–1895), Irish politician, was born in Moy, co. Tyrone, on 4 May 1823. His father, Samuel Shaw, was a congregational minister. He received his education privately, and spent some time at Trinity College, Dublin, but never proceeded to a degree. Being intended for the congregational ministry, he studied at a theological seminary at Highbury, and in 1846 was inducted into the independent church in George's Street, Cork. Shaw remained for four years in this position; but in 1850 definitely abandoned the clerical profession for a mercantile career on his marriage to Charlotte Clear, daughter of a wealthy corn merchant in Cork.

Shaw made his first attempt to enter political life in 1859. At the general election of that year he stood as a liberal for the old borough of Bandon, but was defeated by a small majority. He suffered a second defeat in the same constituency in 1865, but in 1868 he was successful by three votes, and sat through the whole of the 1868–74 parliament, strenuously supporting the church and land legislation of Mr. Gladstone. When Isaac Butt [q. v.] formulated his home-rule proposals in 1871, Shaw, who in his youth had had some connection with the young Ireland movement, accepted the new policy, and his position in the movement was so conspicuous that he was called on to preside at a home-rule convention held at the Rotunda in November 1873. At the general election of 1874 Shaw was returned for the county of Cork without opposition as an avowed home-ruler. In 1877 he was selected as the spokesman of his party on a motion for a select committee of the House of Commons to inquire into the demand for an Irish parliament. Until the death of Butt in May 1879 he was a steadfast supporter of that politician. By that time, in virtue of the moderation of his views and the prudence and sagacity of his political conduct, he had earned a considerable position in the House of Commons, and his extensive business connections gave him a certain weight with the English liberal party beyond that possessed by most of his colleagues. Shaw was accordingly selected to succeed Butt as chairman of the Irish party, and held the post until the dissolution of parliament in 1880. Perhaps the most important part of Shaw's political career was his appointment in 1880 to a seat on the Bessborough commission, which was appointed to inquire into the tenure of Irish land [see Ponsonby, Frederick George, fourth Earl of Bessborough]. It was upon the report of this commission that Mr. Gladstone mainly based the provisions of the Land Act of 1881. On the passing of that measure Shaw is understood to have declined an offer of the post of land commissioner.

Meanwhile his relations with his own party had grown unsatisfactory. An active section of the party, led by Charles Stewart Parnell [q. v.], disapproved his moderation. After the general election of 1880, when he was again returned for co. Cork by a very large majority, Parnell and his followers disowned his leadership, and when he was proposed for re-election as chairman (17 May), Parnell was chosen by twenty votes to eighteen. Thenceforward, though he made some attempt in one or two rather violent speeches to recover his position, Shaw and his friends, who had little sympathy with the land league movement and were opposed to the creation of a peasant proprietary in Ireland, ceased to act with the advanced section, and on 12 Jan. 1881 they finally and formally seceded from the Irish party. From that time Shaw gave a general support to Mr. Gladstone, and the votes of himself and those with whom he acted saved the liberal government from defeat on at least one occasion.

Though possessing a reputation for prudence and judgment which in the political world earned him the sobriquet of ‘Sensible Shaw,’ Shaw was unfortunate in later life in his commercial undertakings. In 1885 the Munster Bank, which he had practically founded and of which he was chairman, was obliged to close its doors. Shaw, being unable to meet his personal liabilities, was in 1886 declared a bankrupt. He had previously, on the dissolution of parliament in 1885, retired from public life. Shaw's last years were spent in seclusion and in the shadow of commercial and domestic misfortune. He died on 19 Sept. 1895.

[Lucy's Diary of Two Parliaments; McCarthy's Ireland since the Union; private information.]

C. L. F.