The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 78. Richard Lalor Sheil

The third name in the triad of great Irish orators who strove, though not always in concord, for the welfare of their country was that of Richard Lalor Sheil. Educated under oldfashioned legitimist and Jesuit influences, he had literary gifts, which, in his younger days, made a name for him in poetic drama. But the life’s work of this “iambic rhapsodist,” as O’Connell—not felicitously—called him, was, both at the bar (where his most brilliant, and surely longest, speech was in defence of the “liberator’s” son, 1844) and in the house of commons, devoted to the cause of Ireland, and to that of catholic emancipation in particular. His parliamentary position was never either an uncompromising or a commanding one, though his fire and fluency alike called forth admiration and made Gladstone, in his youthful days, avow himself unwilling to follow him in debate. Nor is it easy even now to resist the effect of such a speech as that in which (in October, 1828) he advocated the catholic claim before a Kentish audience on Pennenden heath and taunted England with being, in the matter of religious tolerance, “behind almost every nation in Europe.” He shone both in exordium and in peroration; but his taste was less pure than Plunket’s, and his invective less torrential than O’Connell’s.

We pass abruptly to the other side of politics, though the first name to be mentioned is still that of an Irishman. But the duke of Wellington made no pretence of figuring among the orators of his age. Insensible as he was to popular applause, he sometimes spoke well without knowing it, and, also, at times (as in the great reform debate of 1831), spoke very badly. His oratory, in every sense of the word, was unstudied, and, on constitutional questions, quite out of its element. His despatches would suffice to show that he was not without style; but he reserved it for matter of which he was master.