Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Biggar, Joseph Gillis

1415538Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement, Volume 1 — Biggar, Joseph Gillis1901Gerald le Grys Norgate

BIGGAR, JOSEPH GILLIS (1828–1890), Irish politician, born at Belfast in 1828, was the eldest son of Joseph Biggar, merchant and chairman of the Ulster bank, by Isabella, daughter of William Houston of Ballyearl, Antrim. He was educated at the Belfast academy, and, entering his father's business of a provision merchant, became head of the firm in 1861, and carried it on till 1880. His parents were presbyterians, but Biggar was in 1877 received into the Roman catholic church. From 1869 onwards he took an active part in local politics at Belfast. In 1871 he was elected a town councillor, and he acted for several years as chairman of the Belfast Water Commission. Adopting strong nationalist views, he fomented dissensions among the Orangemen of his native town, and joined Isaac Butt's Home Rule Association in 1870. Two years later he contested Londonderry in the nationalist interest, and was last on the poll of the three candidates. But at the general election of 1874 he was returned as one of the home-rule members for the county of Cavan; for that constituency he sat till his death. At the close of 1875 he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the Fenians), and was soon afterwards elected to the supreme council. But in August 1877, having refused to be bound by a resolution of the executive to break off all connection with the parliamentary movement, he was expelled from the body, which he declared he had only joined 'to checkmate the physical force theory.' He had no further relations with the Fenians.

Elected to parliament as a supporter of Butt, he was no more than his nominal follower from the very first. At the end of his first session (30-31 July 1874), Biggar made two motions to report progress which were disavowed by his leader. During the next year, 1875, he came into prominence by his persistent practice of a scheme of parliamentary 'obstruction,' which consisted in delaying the progress of government measures (especially those relating to Ireland) by long speeches, numerous questions, motions for adjournment or for reporting progress, and the like. On the night that Charles Stewart Parnell [q.v.], who soon gave Biggar's tactics active support, took his seat in parliament (22 April 1875), Biggar made his first great efibrt when the house was going into committee on the renewal of the Irish Peace Preservation Bill by speaking continuously for nearly four hours. Five nights later, when the prince of Wales and the German ambassador were listening to the debate, Biggar 'espied strangers,' and compelled the speaker to order the galleries to be cleared. Disraeli, severely reproving Biggar, obtained the unanimous suspension of the standing order which he had invoked. On 12 April 1877 Biggar and Parnell were openly denounced by Butt for their obstruction to the Mutiny Bill. They kept the house sitting for twenty-six hours before the Transvaal Annexation Bill could be got out of committee at 2 P.M. on 1 Aug. A meeting at the Rotunda, Dublin, afterwards approved Biggar's and Parnell's action, and Butt thereupon retired from the leadership of the home rulers.

On 21 Oct. 1879 Biggar was elected one of the treasurers of the newly founded land league. For his conduct during the land agitation he was indicted with Parnell in the autumn of 1880, when the prosecution failed owing to the disagreement of the jury. Returning to Westminster, he took a prominent part in the opposition to Gladstone's Irish policy. In the course of the all-night sitting of 25-6 Jan. 1881, after having been called to order five times, he was named by the speaker and temporarily suspended. Nothing daunted, he took an active part in the forty-one hours' sitting which was necessary before the government could obtain the first reading of the Protection of Persons and Property Bill on 2 Feb. He was one of the thirty-seven Irish members who were suspended the following day for disorderly conduct. In the same session he denounced the Irish Land Bill as 'thoroughly bad' before he even knew its provisions. After a short visit to Paris in 1881-2, caused by the suppression of the land league and the transference of its headquarters to France, Biggar resumed his parliamentary activity. At the end of 1881 warrants were issued for his apprehension, but he was one of the few Irish leaders who were never imprisoned. Early in 1883 proceedings were instituted against him in Ireland for styling Lord Spencer a 'bloodthirsty English peer,' but were suddenly dropped. Biggar's powers of parliamentary obstruction were considerably crippled by the new rules of procedure which were introduced in 1888 by W. H. Smith. Thenceforth he treated the house with greater respect, and eventually became quite a favourite with it.

Biggar was one of those Irish politicians whose conduct was investigated by the special commission of judges appointed to inquire into the accusations made by the 'Times' in 1887 against Parnell and his allies. Biggar conducted his own case. In giving his evi- dence on 29 May 1889, he was severely pressed by the 'Times' counsel as to his relations with the Fenians, and as to his connection with the land agitation. He would admit no cognisance of the management or disposal of the league accounts, though he was admittedly one of the treasurers, always taking shelter under the plea of defective memory. His advocacy of boycotting formed an important feature in the whole case. Biggar advocated the extreme doctrine that any boycotting short of physical force was justifiable, and extensive extracts from his speeches are cited in the report of the judges to support their findings on that count. His address to the court, delivered on 24 Oct., occupied only about a quarter of an hour.

Parnell considered Biggar a valuable auxiliary, and he enjoyed unbounded popularity among the Irish members; while his opponents came in time to recognise his honesty and good nature. He died of heart disease at 124 Sugden Road, Clapham Common, on 19 Feb. 1890. A requiem mass, said for him the next day at the Redemptorist Church, Clapham, was attended by the Irish members, and the body was then taken to Ireland and buried in St. Patrick's Church, Donegal Street, Belfast, on 24 Feb., the funeral being the largest ever seen in the town. He was, after his conversion, a devout Roman catholic. During the later years of his life Biggar was in very comfortable circumstances. One result of his residence in Paris in 1882 was a breach of promise suit by a lady named Fanny Hyland, who in March 1883 recovered 400l. damages. He was unmarried, and the bulk of his fortune was left to a natural son.

Probably no member with less qualifications for public speaking ever occupied so much of the time of the House of Commons. None practised parliamentary obstruction more successfully. With a shrill voice and an ugly presence, he had no pretensions to education. But he had great shrewdness, unbounded courage, and a certain rough humour.

[O'Brien's Life of Parnell, i. 81-5, 92-3, 109-111, 135-6, 195, 254-5, 301, ii. 1, 2, 122-8; Lucy's Diary of Two Parliaments (1874–85), and Diary of Salisbury Parliament, with two sketches by Harry Furniss; O'Connor's Gladstone's House of Commons, and Parnell Movement; Men of the Time, 12th edit.; Illustrated London News, 20 Nov. 1880 (with portrait); Times, 20–25 Feb. 1890; Weekly Northern Whig, 22 Feb. 1890; Report of the Special Commission, 1890; Macdonald's Diary of the Parnell Commission, 1890; McCarthy's Reminiscences, ii. 398.]

G. Le G. N.