Eighteenth-century insults and invective

Some years ago I wrote a long article based on material I was working on at the time, concerning the eighteenth-century Irish parliament. I posted various extracts from it on MyT; here is one. There will be others.

The standard of wit and invective was often very high among members of the eighteenth-century Irish parliament and their contemporaries, even though a careless insult might result in a duel – perhaps the members avoided insulting the best shots. The language used, whether to praise or to deplore, was far more expressive than any politician could manage today.

Jonathan Swift was wont to comment harshly on the MPs and their foibles. On the subject of Joshua Allen (2nd Viscount Allen and MP for Co. Kildare), he wrote:

Let me now the vices trace,
From the father’s scoundrel race …
In him tell me which prevail,
Female vices most, or male?
What produced him, can you tell?
Human race, or imps of hell? …
Positive and overbearing,
Changing still and still adhering,
Spiteful, peevish, rude, untoward,
Fierce in tongue, in heart a coward,
Reputation ever tearing,
Ever dearest friendship swearing,
Judgement weak and passion stony,
Always various, always wrong.

In 1730 Swift wrote bitterly about John Allen (who later killed a dragoon in a brawl) and his uncle, Robert Allen (MP for Carysfort and Co. Wicklow):

–––– Allens Jack and Bob,
First in every wicked job,
Son and brother to a queer,
Brain-Sick brute, they call a peer,
We must give them better quarter,
For their ancestor trod mortar,
And at Howth, to boast his fame,
On a chimney cut his name.

Swift described Sir Alexander Cairnes (MP for Monaghan Borough and Co. Monaghan) as ‘a scrupulous puppy’ and a ‘shuffling scoundrel’, adding ‘What can one expect from a Scot and a fanatic?’ (Cairnes may even have agreed – he described himself as ‘the child of hell by my wicked practices’.)

John Waller (a low-profile but litigious MP for Doneraile, 1727–42) gave rise to the following unattributed couplets:

Who is this hell-featured brawler?
Is it Satan? No! ‘tis Waller.
In what figure can a bard dress
Jack, the grandson of Sir Hardress?
Honest keeper drive him further,
In his looks are hell and murther.

(Sir Hardress Waller had been one of the judges at the trial of Charles I.)



Filed under History, Ireland

9 responses to “Eighteenth-century insults and invective

  1. Wow, these are *terrific*!! I don’t remember seeing them on MyT.

    Got to love that name: Sir Hardress Waller.

    Had a surprise visit yesterday from a former work colleague – a health visitor who is the most wonderful warm, funny, wicked, twinkly, kind, sensible person I have probably ever met – and half Irish. She was telling me about going on holiday in Wicklow and listening to the local radio. She was snorting with laughter as the radio presenters were discussing the forthcoming local country fair and what the weather might be like – using the word “fecking” liberally – not something that would be allowed on the BBC! She did a brilliant impersonation but I can’t even begin to emulate in text.

  2. Glad you like them, Jan … will post more in due course. They had some great names in those days … Faithful Tadpole – a chorister in Swift’s cathedral, I think – is a favourite of mine.

    The radio chat sounds pretty damn amusing … I can imagine it quite well. I hardly ever listen to the radio but my wife often does at work, and she recounts some of the more amusing bits. Life is quite funny here despite all the gloom and doom.

  3. I recall a TD or some such being asked about something that happened, maybe 1930s. “He was either a ruffian, a rogue or a romancer”.

  4. Hello, RB … nice bit of alliteration there. I like my Uncle Charlie’s description of Sean McEntee … ‘a scurrilous demagogue and a Belfast bowsie’.

    Charlie also gave a great description of some political meeting in O’Connell Street in the 1940s, with Maud Gonne holding forth from the platform and the guards ‘opening heads’ with their batons.

  5. madeoforléans

    So often the bad habits of life are hidden behind euphemisms. One thinks of ‘tired and emotional’, ‘gamesmanship’, ‘economical with the truth’, ‘nationalism and patriotism’, ‘recomposition of the family’, ‘equity withdrawal’. Why is civilisation so often synonymous with deceit. I saw the other day that young kids that lie effectivly are likely to go far in their careers versus those that can’t fib.

  6. madeoforléans

    And the fibbers will tell them there is one.

  7. ‘If you know what life is worth, you will look for yours on earth.’ (Bob Marley on heaven)

  8. “Faithful tadpole” Funny. I used to call no 2 son Tadpole because he was such a good and fearless swimmer when he was a nipper.

    Good quote from Bob Marley too! 😀

  9. Hi Jan … just dashing out.

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