More eighteenth-century insults and invective

Some more material supplied by the eighteenth-century Irish parliamentarians and their contemporaries …

There are some good quotes about the prominent politician Patrick Duigenan (MP for Old Leighlin and Armagh City): Sir Jonah Barrington said that he was ‘always at open war with some person, during the whole course of his public life … he considered invective as the first, detail as the second, and decorum as the last quality of a public orator and he never failed to exemplify these principles’. Henry Grattan considered that Duigenan’s speeches inflicted a double injury, ‘the Catholics suffering from his attack and the Protestants from his defence’. John Philpot Curran said that Duigenan’s speeches were ‘like the unrolling of a mummy – nothing but old bones and rotten rags’.

Descriptions in the parliamentary lists (accounts of members’ tendencies and interests, usually prepared for the government by an anonymous Castle official) were often amusingly trenchant. For example, the 1773 parliamentary list describes Sir Lucius O’Brien (MP for Co. Clare) as ‘a man who disagrees with the rest of mankind by thinking well of himself’, Joseph Preston (MP for Navan) as ‘the merest fribble of a man that ever existed’, and William Tighe (MP for Athboy and a friend of John Wesley) as ‘half crack-brained’.

The following year’s list had this to say about Jocelyn Deane (MP for Baltimore): ‘His entrance is announced before he appears, by the smell of lavender water, with which his handkerchief is wetted, and then the Lilliputian hero, with Patagonian breeches, and nosegay in his breast, becomes visible.’ Elsewhere, John Loftus (2nd Marquess of Ely and MP for Co. Wexford) was dismissed as ‘a little squat ugly man, who fancies himself like the Prince of Wales, and dresses at [like] him. He really accomplishes making himself a frightful caricature of his Royal Highness.’

Observations were often both elegant and shrewd. In 1789 a contemporary wrote of George Molyneux (MP for Granard) that ‘In his parliamentary voyage, he set out with a violence of opposition, that surprised even the violent but extremes are seldom lasting and long since, the strong gale of Court influence has filled the sails of his little barque, before which it speeds rapidly away into the gulf of oblivion.’ Molyneux was not returned at the 1790 general election.

Parliamentarians were often straight talkers, and did not necessarily show the exaggerated respect for their constituents that radiates from their modern-day counterparts. Henry Dean Grady (MP for Limerick City 1797–1800) declared that ‘I get nothing good from them. Begad, if I only shake hands with them they give me the itch.’ (When Grady, a supporter of the Union, was asked whether he meant to sell his country, he replied ‘Thank God that I have a country to sell.’)

Charles Coote (an MP for Co. Cavan, wounded in the groin in a duel) described Cavan as ‘all acclivity and declivity, without the intervention of an horizontal plane; the hills are all rocks, the valleys are all bogs, and the people all savages.’ Coote himself was variously described as a man of ‘gallantry and high spirits, of the highest refinements and dazzling polish’ and as ‘a tyrant, a madman, a person of disgusting pomposity whose actions were a singular mixture of diseased feeling and erroneous reasoning.’

Horace Walpole described James Hamilton (MP for Dundalk 1715–19) as ‘a pale ill-looking fellow with a bent brow, a whoreson voice and a dead eye of saffron hue’.



Filed under History, Ireland

5 responses to “More eighteenth-century insults and invective

  1. madeoforléans

    Insults have not disappeared. Yesterday, Martine Aubry, leader of our principle opposition party accused sarko of ‘vulgarity’, because he criticised Mitterand’s heritage, and compared the President to Madoff. Holland, a previous leader of the same party, said that he didn’t think that Aubry should have sunk to the depths of sarko, nice double insult there.

  2. Yes, Cymbeline … trying to undermine people through reference to their putative sexuality is a common recourse of the feebleminded.

  3. Hello, moo. Certainly in the anglophone sphere I think the quality of insults has declined. An accusation of vulgarity isn’t really at the races either.

  4. madeoforléans

    Brendano You are right they don’t come up to your 18th century stuff but they are making waves. The comparison to Madoff is pretty stong, Sarko is afterall our head of state.I hope the lady is harmed by her lose tongue, she is the one that introduced the 35 hour week hoax.

  5. Interesting comments re the Spanish and creole, Cymbeline. In Gaelic Ireland poets were feared for their capacity to satirize and insult, and this continued into the eighteenth century.

    In parallel with the English system of government and language represented by the Irish parliament, there were people like Sean O Tuama, about whom I have just been reading … a Gaelic satirist and Jacobite who upheld the old traditions and called courts of local poets, with much badinage and contests in extemporised, often insulting, verse.

    He ran an inn in Croom, Michael Hartnett’s home town (where, as I have mentioned, I was born).

    Another interesting individual in this tradition is Brian Merriman.

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