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26 June, 2013
The Glory Of English Prose
22. Richard Sheil
by Coleridge, Stephen


My Dear Antony,

This letter, like the last one, is concerned with war. War brings to every man not incapacitated by age or physical defects the call of his country to fight, and if need be to die, for it. It also exposes to view the few pusillanimous young men who are satisfied to enjoy protection from the horrors of invasion and the priceless boon of personal freedom, secured to them by the self-sacrifice and valour of others, while they themselves remain snugly at home and talk of their consciences.

Patriotism such as that which in 1914 led the flower of our race to flock in countless thousands to the standards and be enrolled for battle in defence of "This precious stone set in the silver sea," "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England," being without doubt or cavil one of the noblest emotions of the human heart, has often been the begetter of inspired prose. Our own great war has not yet produced many fine utterances, and I go back to-day to a contemporary of Sir William Napier for one of the noblest outbursts of eloquence expressive of a burning patriotism that has ever been poured forth.

Someone in the days when Wellington was alive had alluded in the House of Lords to the Irish as "aliens," and Richard Sheil, rising in the House of Commons, lifted up his voice for his country in an impassioned flight of generous eloquence.

Sir Henry Hardinge, who had been at the battle of Waterloo, happened to be seated opposite to Sheil in the House, and to him Sheil appealed with the deepest emotion to support him in his vindication of his country's valour. None will in these days deny that our fellow-citizens of Ireland who went to the war displayed a courage as firm and invincible as our own:—
"The Duke of Wellington is not, I am inclined to believe, a man of excitable temperament. His mind is of a cast too martial to be easily moved; but, notwithstanding his habitual inflexibility, I cannot help thinking, that when he heard his countrymen (for we are his countrymen) designated by a phrase so offensive he ought to have recalled the many fields of fight in which we have been contributors to his renown. Yes, the battles, sieges, fortunes, that he has passed ought to have brought back upon him, that from the earliest achievement in which he displayed that military genius which has placed him foremost in the annals of modern warfare, down to that last and surpassing combat which has made his name imperishable, the Irish soldiers, with whom our armies are filled, were the inseparable auxiliaries to his glory.

"Whose were the athletic arms that drove their bayonets at Vimiera through those phalanxes that never reeled in the shock of war before? What desperate valour climbed the steeps and filled the moats at Badajos! All! all his victories should have rushed and crowded back upon his memory—Vimiera, Badajos, Salamanca, Albuera, Toulouse, and last of all the greatest! (and here Sheil pointed to Sir Henry Hardinge across the House). Tell me, for you were there. I appeal to the gallant soldier before me, from whose opinions I differ, but who bears, I know, a generous heart in an intrepid breast; tell me, for you must needs remember, on that day when the destinies of mankind were trembling in the balance, while death fell in showers upon them, when the artillery of France, levelled with a precision of the most deadly science, played upon them, when her legions, incited by the voice and inspired by the example of their mighty leader, rushed again and again to the onset—tell me if for one instant, when to hesitate for one instant was to be lost, the 'aliens' blenched!

"And when at length the moment for the last and decisive movement had arrived, and the valour which had so long been wisely cheeked was at length let loose, tell me if Ireland with less heroic valour than the natives of your own glorious isle, precipitated herself upon the foe?

"The blood of England, of Scotland, and of Ireland, flowed in the same stream, on the same field. When the still morning dawned, their dead lay cold and stark together; in the same deep earth their bodies were deposited; the green corn of spring is now breaking from their commingled dust; the dew falls from Heaven upon their union in the grave.

"Partners in every peril—in the glory shall we not be permitted to participate, and shall we be told as a requital that we are aliens, and estranged from the noble country for whose salvation our life-blood was poured out?"
A hundred years of strife, misunderstanding, anger, estrangement, outrages, bloodshed, and murder separate us from this appealing cry wrung from the beating heart of this inspired Irishman. Is the great tragedy of England and Ireland that has sullied their annals for seven hundred years never to be brought to an end? Is there never to be for us a Lethe through which we may pass to the farther shore of forgetfulness and forgiveness of the past and reconciliation in the future?

That you may live to see it, Antony, is my hope and prayer.

Your loving old
G.P.

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