Matthew Harris (also Mat or Matt) (1826–13 April 1890) was an Irish Fenian, Land Leaguer, nationalist politician and MP. in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and, as member of the Irish Parliamentary Party, represented Galway East from 1885 to his death in 1890.
Born in Athlone to Peter and Ann Harris, he spent most of his adult life in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, where he worked as a building contractor. His grandfather, Peter Harris, was executed in Monasterevin by British forces for his role in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
He was involved in all the major 19th-century political movements of Irish nationalism, and was in the turn a Repealer, a Young Irelander, before moving to join the Fenians, where he became the main Fenian representative in east County Galway and south County Roscommon.
From 1865 to 1880 he was an active Fenian and the representative of the West of Ireland on the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. In 1880 with Michael Davitt, he was retired from the Supreme Council, and thereafter his energies were devoted primarily to the land struggle. In the same year, he worked on the T. P. O'Connor's election campaign in the Galway Borough election.
In the 1885 general election he was elected as MP for Galway East. He made his election victory speech in Athenry and said that when he would enter the House of Commons, he would:
'go into the house the citadel of the enemy,...I go there not for the purpose of assisting that house or the members of that House, in any effort they make to oppress Ireland. If I go in there it will be alone in the interests of my country, and I shall face them in the interests of our common humanity against that monstrous government...that government of inequity that has done more evil than any government has ever done since the creation of the world'.
Harris pledged ‘not to deviate a hairs breath away from principle’, i.e. achieving peasant proprietorship for tenants and the total abolition of landlords and promised to quit the Parliamentary Party if he believed that they were not progressing in the direction that had to be followed. He reminded the people that they needed to work together for the independence of Ireland, and asked them to
'keep a strong and determined animus against England in your hearts and do not mind the English for they are your enemies. They have destroyed and every day endeavour to destroy you....keep a firm front against these men...the organisation may be objectionable in one sense, but as long as it is against England it has good in it'.
During the Parnell Commission of 1888 Sir Henry James cross-examined Harris, as treasurer of the Land League, as to whether anything had been paid to the Clan na Gael. The other treasurer, the late John Dillon, had left for Australia. Harris declared that the figure Sir Henry James mentioned did not appear in the books of the League.
He was married to Mary Martha (Molly) Bennett of Ahascragh. His granddaughter Norah Walker (1900–1985) was the wife of Irish poet Austin Clarke. Harris's great-grandson is the Irish playwright Ulick O'Connor. The former Kildare Teachtaí Dála Patrick Dooley and Thomas Harris were also related to Matt Harris.
While we were waiting for Parnell, Mat Harris afforded comic relief. On the Sunday before his arrival Mat and I walked the Boulevards in a foggy frost, cursing his neglect. Suddenly Matt asked could I get him a glass of whiskey. I steered for the Cafe de la Paix as a likely venue, but no whiskey was then stocked there. I told this to Mat, and proposed brandy. He grumbled, but ordered a "fine champagne." The waiter poured out a tot into a tiny liqueur glass, to Mat's wonderment. "What's that?" he asked. "Fine champagne, monsieur." Mat, glass in hand, surveyed him. Disdaining its insignificance, he threw off its contents, but muttered to the Frenchman, "No wonder the Prussians licked ye!
Mat was a power in Connaught, and possessed a flow of humour. We youngsters sat at his feet as a veteran to hear him discourse of old times. He once proclaimed, as we pastured on soda and milk, while he drank punch in the Imperial Hotel, Dublin: "I'd rather be at my own humble fireside in Ballinasloe after my third tumbler of punch, than drinking soda and milk in the best hotel in Europe!"
The inscription on the Matthew Harris monument reads:
This monument was erected in memory of
Matthew Harris ESQ M.P.
By his fellow countrymen as a tribute to his lofty
Patriotism his spotless integrity his unselfish devotion
Of great powers to great public ends his lifelong services to
The cause of Irish Nationality his sympathy with the
Oppressed of every race and creed like the great apostle
Preaching Christ he knew only humanity and humanity crucified
BORN 1826 ELECTED MP FOR EAST GALWAY 1885 DIED APRIL 13th 1890