The dapper Edward Saunderson leader of Irish Unionism.

Col. Edward Saunderson: A unionist MP and his hobbies

Historian Jonathan Smyth this week looks at the Cavan unionist mp Edward Saunderson from Castle Saunderson...

The Act of Union flowed into effect on January 1, 1801, and Ireland came under direct governance from Britain, with the formation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Act of Union took from Ireland its parliament and from then, its elected MPs had to travel to the London. In time, Irish people came to realise that Ireland would be best served if Westminster handed back governance to a Dublin parliament, as it had been before the 1798 Rebellion. However, the coin has another side, there were some who believed that the Act of Union was sacrosanct and removing it might somehow create a threat to the protestant population. However, the 1798 Rebellion was strongly supported by both protestants and catholics alike.

One of the staunchest pro-union figures to emerge was Colonel Edward James Saunderson, of Castle Saunderson, Co. Cavan. The Saundersons, a family of Scottish origin, had first settled in Tyrone during the reign of James 1 before acquiring lands in Cavan and Monaghan in the Cromwellian and Williamite confiscations. Ironically, Edward’s grandfather Francis Saunderson, supported the Irish parliament in Dublin, and opposed the Act of Union in 1801, even though he was offered a nice sweetener in the form of a peerage, which he declined, rather choosing to vote against the legislation.

Edward Saunderson was born at Castle Saunderson, on October 1, 1837, the same year Queen Victoria ascended the throne. He was the fourth son of Alexander and Sarah Juliana Saunderson; and had two sisters. At nine years of age, Edward was sent to France, living in Nice for a time. He received his education in France and Italy. Having lived a decade abroad, Saundserson gained knowledge of the ‘customs of government’ associated with countries on the continent.

When the eldest Saunderson boy died the estate did not automatically go to the next in line, for their mother, a dominant woman, disliked her two older sons, preferring to hand the estate to the younger Edward. She made her favourite the principal heir. In 1865, Edward married Helena Emily De Moleyns, youngest daughter of Lord Ventry. That same year, he entered Parliament as a Liberal MP for Co. Cavan (succeeding his uncle Lord Farnham), and the new MP’s wife would prove a valuable support to him during those years as a public official. He represented the constituency of Cavan for nine years, until he was beaten by the Home Rule candidates CJ Fay and Joseph Biggar, and it took a decade before Saunderson returned to the House of Commons, this time as Conservative MP for North Armagh.

Memorably, he supported the Land Bill of 1870, and opposed the Act of Disestablishment a year earlier. Saunderson was an earnest representative attending the House of Commons with clockwork regularity. In his early career he received a compliment from Lord Beaconsfield, better known as Disraeli, who through his private secretary passed on his congratulations for a speech the Cavan man gave. Saunderson was a founding member of the Irish Unionist Alliance, a political party which hoped to galvanise unionist support across Ireland and served as the party’s first leader.

As a committed unionist, Saunderson supported the Orange Orders in Ireland and around the globe, often giving speeches and holding rallies with their supporters who opposed the growing movement for Irish Home Rule in the late nineteenth century. He became grand master of the Orange lodge in Belfast. Saunderson was a military man, enlisting with the Cavan Militia that is, the fourth battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, in the 1860s, then rising to major in 1875, colonel in 1886 and commanded the battalion in the early 1890s.


A lesser known side to the Unionist leader, was what he did during those times away from the podium. Here we have an interesting story of a man who enjoyed boating, yachting and boat building, for he was a ‘practical builder’ of boats, with the Belfast Newsletter noting that ‘he owned many handsome little crafts, constructed from his own design by his own workmen, under his personal direction’. It was stated his first boat building was done in the 'Mediterranean’. His artistic talents stretched to carving, sketching and painting and many of his art pieces all found a place in his Cavan castle.

The colonel was an evangelical Anglican and liked to preach the gospel in the little church on his estate, enlightening tenants on divine matters. On one occasion while on holiday he was said to have preached to a group of Jewish people on Mount Zion while touring the Holy Land. Saunderson was well-travelled and made many friends across the world, from whom he received gifts, for example, he being given a book of ‘Orange hymns’ from the German Emperor, who explained that they had been sung by the Dutch when they ‘fought against Alva’ in the sixteenth century. He made many more friends at the Carlton Club in London where he was a member. In personality, he was of ‘intense’ political convictions, inflexibly loyal to his beliefs and received the respect of people who ‘differed strongly’ to him but appreciated his ‘honesty of purpose’ and his ‘sincerity of character’.

Another of Edward’s interests was golf, a sport he believed was the ‘healthiest’ that any man might take up and in endorsing his love of the game, he had a nine-hole course laid-out on his estate. As may be expected of a country gentleman, the colonel was a crack-shot with a gun and of an evening enjoyed billiards with his friends.

Colonel Edward Saunderson died on October 21, 1906 at his home, Castle Saunderson. The Belfast Newsletter reported that on March 29, 1910, a statue was erected in his memory in Portadown, on the day of a ‘magnificent Unionist demonstration’. Those who spoke, remembered his courage and sense of duty as a leader to the people of the Unionist movement.


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