This is an extract from an article I once wrote on the Irish parliament (1692-1800).
Reported witticisms were many. The Duke of Rutland, making conversation with Sir John Stewart Hamilton (MP for Strabane) at a levee, once remarked on the prospect of an excellent harvest, saying that the timely rain would bring everything above ground. Sir John replied: ‘God forbid! For I have three wives under it.’ When Cornelius O’Callaghan (a lawyer and future MP for Fethard (Tipperary)) was making suit for his wife, her mother asked where his estates lay. O’Callaghan is alleged to have stuck out his tongue and pointed at it.
Montagu Mathew (MP for Ballynakill) was sometimes confused with his fellow Harrovian, Mathew Montagu, causing him to remark on one occasion that ‘I wish it to be understood that there is no more likeness between Montagu Mathew and Mathew Montagu than between a chestnut horse and a horse chestnut.’
John Bagwell, MP for Co. Tipperary, was a miller and a duellist. His commercial background disadvantaged him in a rank-based society, and he was given nicknames such as ‘Old Bags’ and – in his capacity as colonel of the militia – ‘Marshall Sacks’. John Philpot Curran described him as ‘Marshall Saxe with the flour of Tipperary at his back’. (Curran was greatly admired as a satirist – Lord Byron described him as having ‘fifty faces and twice as many voices when he mimics’.) In somewhat similar vein, Swift called Richard Tighe (MP for Belturbet, Newtown and Augher) ‘FitzBaker’ in reference to his grandfather, who supplied wheat to Cromwell’s army. This man was small in stature and devoted to fashion, which earned him the further nicknames ‘Little Dick Tighe’ and ‘Beau Tighe’.
Humour could also be unintentional. Sir Boyle Roche (MP for Tralee, Gowran, Portarlington and Old Leighlin) owes his renown to his wildly illogical statements (both real and attributed). On the occasion of one of Roche’s votes for the Union, Sir Jonah Barrington reported him as saying that he would ‘have the two sisters embrace like one brother’. Other examples were: ‘Mr Speaker, it is the duty of every true lover of his country to give his last guinea to save the remainder of his fortunes’; and ‘Sir – Single misfortunes never come alone, and the greatest of all national calamities is generally followed by one much greater.’ Possibly his most famous utterance was ‘I smell a rat – I see it floating in the air before me, and hear it brewing a storm – but I’ll nip it in the bud.’
In fairness to Sir Boyle, he may at time have deployed his ‘bulls’ deliberately to defuse tensions in the House. At the time of the War of American Independence he was an enthusiastic persuader of men to enlist, using a mixture of bribery and beer.