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Richard Lalor Sheil

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Sheil, RICHARD LALOR, dramatist, prose writer, and politician, b. at Drumdowny, County Kilkenny, Ireland, August 17, 1791; d. at Florence, Italy, May 25, 1851. His father, Edward Sheil, who had been a successful merchant at Cadiz, Spain, returned to Ireland and purchased the estate of Bellevue, near the city of Waterford. Richard received his early education at home from a French priest, an emigre. When eleven years old he was sent to a Catholic school kept by a French nobleman, at Kensington, London, and a hearing on behalf of Catholic Ireland was not granted, few years later to the Jesuit College at Stonyhurst, in Lancashire. In 1807 he entered Trinity College, Dublin, “with a competent knowledge of the classics, some acquaintance with Italian and Spanish, and the power of reading and writing French as if it were his mother tongue”. Graduating in 1811, he went to London to study law and was admitted to the Irish Bar in 1814. Meantime, pecuniary reverses had overtaken his family, and he could not look to his father for support. Having a literary bent, he turned to dramatic composition and produced a number of plays some of which were quite successful, the most popular being “Adelaide”, “The Apostate”, and “Evadne”. Financially they were very successful. His chief fame, however, as a literary man came through his “Sketches of the Irish Bar”—a series of articles contributed to the “New Monthly Magazine”, which were published in two volumes after his death. They give considerable information of the leading men and events of the times.

Early in life, even while at college, he had become interested in politics. The Catholic Board, the leaders of public opinion in Ireland, were divided as to the best policy to be pursued in the struggle for Catholic Emancipation. Sheil sided with those who were in favor of conciliating Protestant opinion, especially in granting the king a veto power over the appointment of the Catholic bishops. But O’Connell, wearied of the old method of petitioning and salaaming which had degraded Catholics in their own esteem and had procured from their rulers nothing but contempt, favored more active measures. O’Connell’s method prevailed, and Sheil would have nothing to do with it. After a few years, however, convinced that nothing short of strenuous agitation would succeed; he joined heartily with O’Connell in all his plans for Catholic Emancipation, demanding it not as a favor but as a right. In the Catholic Association, which succeeded the Catholic Board in 1823, Sheil was next to O’Connell the leading power. At the request of this organization he drew up a petition to Parliament setting forth the manifold abuses of justice in Ireland. Early in 1825 he went with several others to London to protest against the contemplated act of the English Government of suppressing the Catholic Association which had enrolled almost all Ireland in its effective plan of campaign. In 1826 he contributed to”L’Etoile”, a French periodical, a number of articles on the condition of Ireland. Written in French and unsigned, they were translated and published in leading periodicals in England and on the Continent, and accomplished their purpose—to gain a hearing for Ireland.

That Sheil was fearless and had the courage of his convictions was manifested on many occasions, especially by his scathing denunciation of the Duke of York, by his public address on the Irish patriot Theobald Wolfe Tone, and by his boldly coming before the people of Kent, England, who had assembled at Penenden Heath to protest against any relaxation of the laws against Catholics. Though his request for a hearing on behalf of Catholic Ireland was not granted, his speech, which was already in press, appeared in London newspaper as a part of the proceedings. Of this speech Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher, said: “So masterly a union of logic and of rhetoric scarcely have I ever beheld”. In the historic Clare election of 1828 Sheil took a leading part. Under his influence the Catholic Association resolved to oppose the reelection of Mr. Vesey Fitzgerald because he had taken office in the anti-Catholic Government of the Duke of Wellington. Finding no Protestant candidate to make the fight, Sheil conceived the bold project of having O’Connell, “the uncrowned king of Ireland“; enter the contest, though he knew well that no Catholic would consent to take the anti-Catholic test oath required of members of Parliament. But he knew also that an election meant the demand of 6,000,000 united Irish Catholics for justice—a demand which even an anti-Catholic Parliament and an anti-Catholic king would probably grant for fear of a general uprising. At the close of the polling when the returns showed the triumphant election of the Liberator, Sheil in a remarkable address to the landlords assembled pointed out the folly and injustice of wreaking vengeance on their tenants.

The Clare election brought on the Catholic Relief Bill of 1829 and opened to Sheil a career in Parliament where for eighteen years he served with distinction, first for Melbourne Port, then for Tipperary, and later for Dungarvan. His most important speeches in the House of Commons were on “The Church of Ireland“, “Repeal of the Union”, “Orange Lodges”, “Corn Laws”, “Votes by Ballot”, and “Income Tax”. In spite of a harsh voice and other natural defects, he became a leading orator in a Parliament noted for its eloquence. This is the testimony of two experts of such different schools as Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Disraeli. His speeches were always well prepared. He was very resourceful in the use of metaphor and antithesis and also in working out an idea to carry great weight, as in his famous reply to Lord Lyndhurst’s accusation that the Irish were “aliens in blood, and aliens in religion”. After some hesitation, he joined his old friends in demanding the restoration of the Irish Parliament, but the crushing defeat of the measure in 1834 caused him to look upon the agitation for repeal as a “splendid but unattainable fancy”. From this time on, he cast his lot with the Whig party, and accepted office under the Government. For this he has been severely condemned as a mere office seeker who thought more of his own interests than of his native land. Yet he acted as counsel for John O’Connell, son of the Liberator, in the famous state trials of 1844, and often spoke in behalf of Ireland. But evidently holding office moderated his zeal as a critic of the (Government except when the Tories were in power. In November, 1850, Sheil accepted the post of British plenipotentiary at the Court of Tuscany, Italy, where he died six months later. His body was conveyed to Ireland and buried at Long Orchard, County Tipperary.


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