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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.
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?
"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?"
That you may live to see it, Antony, is my hope and prayer.
Your loving old