U.S. senator. Irby was born in Laurens on September 10, 1854, one of seven children born to the planter and politician James Henderson Irby and Henrietta Earle. After a year at Princeton College in New Jersey, Irby transferred to the University of Virginia, but he left in 1873 without taking a degree. He returned to Laurens to read law and was admitted to the bar in 1876. That same year, he married Nannie MacFarland of Cheraw. The couple had seven children.
Although first active in the state Democratic Party in the election of 1876, Irby did not run for legislative office until 1886, when he was elected to the state House of Representatives from Laurens County. Returned in 1888 and 1890, Irby was unanimously elected Speaker of the House in 1890. During this time, Irby and others persuaded Benjamin Tillman to come out of his self-imposed retirement and lead the reform movement initiated by the Farmers’ Alliance as a challenge to conservative control of the Democratic Party. Irby quickly established himself as one of Tillman’s most trusted lieutenants. At the Farmers’ Alliance convention in March 1890, Irby nominated Tillman for governor and used his considerable political skills to ensure Tillman’s nomination at the state Democratic convention in August. As a reward for his loyal service, Irby was elected to the U.S. Senate in December 1890, defeating the revered Wade Hampton and signaling the end of Bourbon rule in South Carolina. Serving in the Senate from 1891 to 1897, Irby failed to establish a noteworthy record. He supported removing the United States from the gold standard and favored increased regulation of banking interests. However, his attendance was sporadic due in large part to his position as chairman of the state Democratic Executive Committee, which necessitated frequent travel to South Carolina. In addition, he disappointed Tillmanites by his failure to wield influence in the distribution of federal patronage in South Carolina, with President Grover Cleveland deferring to Irby’s conservative colleague, Senator Mathew C. Butler.
In 1895 Irby led the Laurens County delegation to the state constitutional convention. There, he clashed with Tillman on several issues, most notably Tillman’s demand that literacy tests and property ownership be made requirements of voter eligibility. Irby opposed the plan, believing it would disenfranchise too many poor whites who supported the reform Democrats. The conflict left Irby and Tillman permanently estranged. In the summer of 1896, rumors circulated that Irby had accepted whiskey rebates and illegally profited from the sale of state bonds. The story likely originated with Irby’s political enemies, who were well aware of his excessive use of alcohol and frequent displays of unruly behavior. Discredited and out of Tillman’s favor, Irby did not seek reelection to the Senate in 1896. When his successor, Joseph H. Earle, died only months into his term in 1897, Irby made an unsuccessful bid for the office that summer.
After his defeat, Irby returned to Laurens to practice law. He died on December 9, 1900, and was buried in City Cemetery, Laurens.
Slaunwhite, Jerry L. “John L. M. Irby: The Creation of a Crisis.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1973.