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Richard Lalor Sheil (1791-1851)

This article was written by Robert Dunlop and was published in 1897

SheilRichard Lalor Sheil, dramatist and politician, born on 17 August 1791 at Drumdowney, co. Kilkenny, was the eldest son of Edward Sheil and Catherine MacCarthy of Spring House, co. Tipperary. Shortly before he was born, his father, who had acquired a fair fortune in trade with Spain, purchased the estate of Bellevue, near Waterford. Educated at first under the superintendence of an old French abbé, Richard was, when eleven years of age, sent to a school at Kensington kept by a M. de Broglie, also a French émigré.

Stonyhurst collegeStonyhurst College

In October 1804 he was removed to Stonyhurst College, where he remained till 15 November 1807, when he entered Trinity College, Dublin. The bankruptcy of his father a year later threatened to put an end to his academic career, but by the generosity of a connection of his mother he was enabled to complete his studies there, and to prepare himself for the bar. He graduated B.A. in July 1811, and in November entered Lincoln's Inn.

During his residence in London he lived with his uncle, Richard Sheil. Ambitious, despite his defective utterance, of becoming a great orator, Sheil had as a graduate made a not altogether unsuccessful appearance on the platform at an aggregate meeting of catholics in Dublin, and shortly after his return to Ireland he spoke before the catholic board on 3 December 1813 in opposition to a motion reprobating securities as a condition of emancipation. His speech commanded O'Connell's praise. His call to the bar was delayed by his reluctance to draw on the attenuated resources of his family, and, in the hope of earning money for himself, he turned during the winter to the composition of a tragic drama. The subject of ‘Adelaide, or the Emigrants,’ was drawn from an incident connected with the emigration of the noblesse during the French revolution; but, with the exception of some passages of considerable poetic beauty, the play is too stilted and artificial in situation and diction to command much interest. The principal character was avowedly written to suit Miss O'Neil, and, being accepted by her, was performed with considerable success at the Crow Street Theatre on 19 February 1814. A subsequent performance at Covent Garden on 23 May 1816 fell rather flat.

Sheil was called to the bar in Hilary term 1814. But in the absence of briefs the time hung heavily on him, and he devoted himself to the production of another tragedy, ‘The Apostate.’ In the interval he married Miss O'Halloran, and, his play having been accepted for production at Covent Garden, he and his wife repaired to London to witness its representation on 3 May 1817, with Young, Kemble, Macready, and O'Neill in the principal parts. Founded on the sufferings of the Moors in Spain, the play was a complete success, and showed in every respect a marked improvement on his first effort. It ran through the season, and brought its author £400, in addition to £300 that Murray paid for the copyright. Its success tempted him to a further effort, and the tragedy of ‘Bellamira, or the Fall of Tunis,’ performed at Covent Garden with the same cast in the spring of 1818, drew from Leigh Hunt a not unfriendly notice in the ‘Examiner.’ Murray purchased the copyright for £100, and from the theatre he received £300 as his share in the profits. His next adventure, ‘Evadne,’ produced on 10 February 1819, owed its origin to an attempt to adapt Shirley's ‘Traitor’ to the requirements of the modern stage. But, though styled an adaptation, it has little except the plot in common with the older play. The play was Sheil's most successful dramatic effort. For the copyright he received from Murray a hundred guineas, and his share from the theatre amounted to £400.

In September he visited Paris, where he made the acquaintance of Talma. Of his impressions of the great actor he subsequently gave an interesting account in the ‘New Monthly Magazine’ (July 1822). His next tragedy, ‘The Huguenot,’ was advertised for production at Covent Garden in the spring of 1820; but the marriage of Miss O'Neill caused it, greatly to his disappointment, to be postponed till 1822, when it failed from inadequate preparation. His ‘serious drama’ of ‘Montoni,’ performed for the first time on 3 May 1820, proved hardly more successful, and after three or four representations was withdrawn. He was more fortunate in the assistance he rendered John Banim in ‘Damon and Pythias;’ but the £100 which he took as his share in the profits led to a disagreement and estrangement of many years between them.

Notwithstanding his reputation as a dramatic writer and his assiduous attendance at the Four Courts, Sheil's progress at the bar was slow. For this his adoption of the unpopular side on the veto question was undoubtedly largely responsible, and his irritation at the delay in conceding emancipation, owing, as he regarded it, to O'Connell's fatuous refusal to conciliate protestant opinion in the matter of securities, was intensified when the latter, in his annual address to the catholics of Ireland on 1 January 1821, advised a suspension of the emancipation agitation in favour of parliamentary reform. Sheil, who saw his own prospects of advancement receding indefinitely, rushed into the fray with an angry counterblast, wherein, as he said, he trusted to ‘be able to supply any absence of comparative personal importance upon my part by the weight of argument and of fact.’

O'Connell replied to his ‘iambic rhapsodist’ in a strain of mingled banter and wrath. In the end Sheil returned to the completion of his new tragedy, an adaptation of Massinger's ‘Fatal Dowry.’ The play was subsequently performed at Drury Lane in the winter of 1824 and met with a cordial reception, but its withdrawal after the first night in consequence of Macready's illness damped the interest felt in its reproduction three months later. The visit of George IV to Ireland in the summer of 1821, followed by the appointment of Lord Wellesley as viceroy, helped, if it did nothing more, to effect a reconciliation among the catholics themselves, and at a meeting on 7 January 1822 Sheil seconded an address moved by O'Connell congratulating the new viceroy and the country on his appointment. But the hopes they had both formed of a more liberal administration under Wellesley's auspices were disappointed; and a year later, on 12 May 1823, the Catholic Association came into existence. In the meanwhile there appeared the first of those well-known ‘Sketches of the Irish Bar’ which Sheil, in conjunction with his friend W. H. Curran, contributed to the ‘New Monthly Magazine.’ The series extended over several years, and, the articles being unsigned, the credit of their authorship was at the time generally but incorrectly ascribed to Sheil alone. Those which properly belonged to him, with others of a more general or political character, were after his death republished under the title ‘Sketches Legal and Political,’ and afford in a pleasant way considerable information regarding the chief actors and events of his time.

Convinced at last that nothing but extreme pressure would extort emancipation from parliament, Sheil joined heartily in O'Connell's agitation, and was one of the first to whom the latter expounded his scheme of a catholic rent. A petition to both houses of parliament drawn up by him, setting forth the manifold abuses in the administration of justice in Ireland, and adopted at a meeting of the association on 14 June 1823, was presented by Brougham, and in the course of the discussion that ensued Peel sarcastically described the language of it ‘as being more in the declamatory style of a condemned tragedy than of a grave representation to the Legislature.’ Sheil retorted with a reference to Peel's ‘plebeian arrogance.’

Early in 1825 O'Connell, Sheil, O'Gorman, and others, proceeded to London to protest against a bill that had been introduced for the suppression of the Catholic Association. Their efforts were unavailing, but their visit was not without a beneficial influence in promoting the progress of a catholic relief bill, which passed its third reading in the commons on 10 May, but was lost in the lords owing to the opposition of the Duke of York. Of their journey to London and their reception by the chiefs of the whig party Sheil, after his return to Ireland, published a graphic account in the ‘New Monthly Magazine.’ But his own examination before the committees of both houses contrasted unfavourably with O'Connell's; for in his desire to strengthen his case against the exclusive principles that governed the conduct of the Irish administration, he resorted to what he called a ‘rhetorical artifice,’ which, being proved to be without justification, drew great odium on him and on the cause.

The suppression of the Catholic Association, so far from putting an end to the agitation, only changed its modus operandi, and under O'Connell's direction the system of simultaneous meetings throughout the country proved far more effective in stimulating the demand for emancipation than the old weekly meetings at Dublin. In preparing the ground for the new system no one worked harder than Sheil. He was present and spoke at nearly all the principal gatherings during the summer — at the aggregate meeting at Dublin on 13 July, when the new association for purposes of public and private charity was started; on the 20th at Wexford, on the 26th at Waterford, on 4 August at Kilkenny, on the 26th at the new association, when a suggestion of his was adopted for the formation of a register of the names and addresses of all the parish priests in Ireland. The amount of labour which these meetings implied for him can only be properly estimated when one remembers that he never trusted himself to speak extempore, and that the repugnance he felt to repeat himself rendered the preparation of each speech a matter of long and careful consideration.

In September he visited Paris, and having made the acquaintance of the proprietor of ‘L'étoile,’ he endeavoured, not unsuccessfully, to promote the cause of his co-religionists by contributing to it a number of articles on the situation in Ireland. Extracts from these articles appeared in the London papers, and, coming from abroad, they obtained a greater degree of consideration than they would have done had their authorship been known. Owing to the widespread commercial depression in England in 1825 there was a practical cessation of agitation that year in Ireland. But at the general election in the summer of 1826 the defeat of Lord George Beresford at Waterford by the popular candidate, Villiers Stuart, exerted a profound influence on the situation, which was intensified when a similar result occurred in Louth, where Sheil acted as counsel for the popular candidate.

The victory of the hitherto despised forty-shilling freeholders was in many cases dearly bought, and Sheil was indefatigable in trying to promote the new order of liberators founded by O'Connell in their behalf. A speech which he delivered at the association on 19 January 1827 on the recently published ‘Memoirs of Wolfe Tone’ was made a pretext by the government to punish him for an insulting reference in a previous speech to the Duke of York. On 19 February he and Michael Staunton, the proprietor of the ‘Morning Register,’ were indicted, the one for having uttered, the other for having published, a seditious libel. Before the case was tried the death of Lord Liverpool placed Canning in office, and on his refusal to prosecute, a nolle prosequi was entered by the crown. After Canning's death (8 August 1828) Sheil advocated a policy of confidence in Lord Anglesey's government, and even after the formation of the new administration under the Duke of Wellington he was averse to O'Connell's proposal to pledge the Catholic association to oppose the return of every supporter of the new cabinet.

But this motion being carried, he resisted an attempt to rescind it in gratitude for Wellington's assent to the repeal of the Test Act; and later in 1828, when Vesey Fitzgerald, the newly appointed president of the board of trade, who had voted against the repeal of the Test Act at every stage, sought re-election for co. Clare, he vehemently urged the association to oppose his return. His advice was productive of consequences not foreseen by him, and with the election of O'Connell the question of emancipation entered on its final stage. A counter agitation sprang up among protestants in both Ireland and England. With a view to stemming it, Sheil, by purchasing a small freehold in the county, qualified himself to speak at a meeting of the gentry and freeholders of Kent at Pennenden Heath on 24 October convened to petition against further relaxation of the laws against the catholics. The tone of his speech and the courage with which he faced a hostile crowd were warmly commended, and before he left England a public dinner was given in his honour at the London Tavern on 3 November But the controversy, which had raged for more than a quarter of a century, drew at last to a close. On 5 February 1829 the speech from the throne held out a prospect of immediate relief, and a week later Sheil moved the dissolution of the Catholic association.

To him it was a grateful termination of a disagreeable business, for he had none of O'Connell's disinterested devotion to the cause. His position as a barrister was now assured, and visions of a silk gown and a seat in parliament hovered alternately before his vision. In February 1830 he accepted a retainer to act as counsel for Lord George Beresford in his effort to recover the representation of county Waterford, but his opponents, who drew no distinction between his professional and political interests, stigmatised him as ‘a decoy duck’ for the catholic voters. Six months later he was admitted to the inner bar, being one of the first catholics to obtain that coveted distinction.

His first wife died in 1822, and on 20 July 1830 he married Mrs. Anastasia Power, the daughter and coheiress of John Lalor, esq., of Crenagh, co. Tipperary. His wife's fortune rendered him independent of his profession, and he accepted an invitation to stand for county Louth at the general election of that year; but he was ignominiously beaten. Early, however, in the following year he was, through the influence of the Marquis of Anglesey, returned M.P. for the borough of Milborne Port in Dorset. He took his seat on 8 March, and on the 21st delivered his maiden speech on the second reading of the Reform Bill. It hardly realised the expectations of his friends. Thenceforth he sedulously sought to win the ear of the house. As a rule he continued to refrain from extempore speaking, and for this reason his speeches read well; but they are artificial in the last degree

. The art of saying a simple thing in a natural way he never acquired. At the general election in 1831 he was returned for Milborne Port and county Louth, but elected to sit for the latter. During the session he advocated the application of a poor-law system to Ireland, and supported O'Connell's endeavours to procure the assimilation of the Irish Reform Bill to that of England.

Meanwhile in Ireland, under the unequal administration of the law, the demand for a repeal of the union gained ground daily. With much reluctance Sheil took the pledge to support repeal, and was accordingly returned unopposed for co. Tipperary to the first reformed parliament (January 1833). But, however lax his views seem to have been on the main question of repeal, his denunciation of the Suppression of Disturbances Bill on 28 February 1833 — that first-fruits of the reformed parliament of which so much had been expected — was couched in no uncertain language. Unfortunately, so far as he was concerned, the matter did not terminate with the passing of the bill. For a statement having some time afterwards appeared in the papers that, during the progress of the bill, a certain Irish member, who voted against every clause of it, had privately urged government not to bate one jot of it, as otherwise it would be impossible for any man to live in Ireland, the matter was brought directly before the house by O'Connell, and, in answer to repeated inquiries, Lord Althorp admitted that the statement referred to Sheil. Starting to his feet, he solemnly denied the accusation, and, a committee having been appointed to investigate the matter, he was a few days afterwards honourably acquitted of the charge.

The attack strengthened his hold on the sympathies of the house, and, quitting Irish topics, he delivered an admirable speech on the eastern question on 17 March 1834. His success stimulated his interest in subjects of foreign policy, and believing that O'Connell's crushing defeat on repeal, coupled with the prospect of a more impartial administration under Thomas Drummond, had finally settled that question, he began to realise Grattan's prophecy of becoming more ‘a gentleman of the empire at large’ than the representative of an Irish constituency. He still, it is true, continued to vote and act with the national party on such subjects as tithes and the revenues of the church, and his speech on the Irish Municipal Corporations Bill on 23 February 1836, in reply to Lord Stanley, was one of the most effective he delivered. But the prospect of holding office, to which his share in bringing about the so-called Lichfield House compact lent plausibility, moderated his zeal as a critic of the government.

On 13 March 1835 he opposed the appointment of Lord Londonderry as ambassador to the court of Russia; but in 1837, during the debates to which the reverses of the British legion in Spain gave rise, he strongly supported the ministerial policy. At the general election consequent on the death of William IV, he was again returned at the head of the poll for county Tipperary, and shortly afterwards accepted the commissionership of Greenwich Hospital. On the reconstruction of the ministry a year later he exchanged the commissionership for the vice-presidency of the board of trade. His speech supporting Lord John Russell's motion of confidence in the Irish government in April 1839 was, O'Connell declared, ‘admirable, argumentative, and brilliant.’ But he had drifted out of touch with his constituents, and at the general election in 1841, following the collapse of the Melbourne administration, he refused to risk the expense of a contested election, and sought a safer seat as M.P. for the borough of Dungarvan.

During the ensuing session he spoke effectively in opposition to the Corn Bill and the income tax, and in 1843 he gained much credit with the dissenters by his scathing criticism of the sectarian spirit in which the bill for the regulation of factories was conceived, and with the radicals by the support he lent to Grote's ballot proposals. At the ‘monster trials’ in Dublin early in the following year he acted as counsel for John O'Connell, and delivered perhaps the most brilliant of his forensic speeches. To the provincial, or, as it was nicknamed, the ‘Godless’ Colleges Bill of 1845 he gave a qualified support, but expressed regret that Trinity College had not rather reaped the benefit in the foundation of new professorships and fellowships to which catholics as well as protestants might be admitted.

In the following autumn (1845) the precarious state of his son's health induced Sheil to try the effect of a winter's residence in Madeira. But the change proved unavailing, and, after his son's death, he resided there till the news of the expected collapse of Peel's administration a few months later recalled him to England in time to take part in the critical discussion on the Irish Arms Bill. On the accession of Lord John Russell to power in 1846 he was appointed master of the mint. The post hardly realised his expectations, and the consciousness of utter helplessness in face of the crisis of famine through which Ireland was passing caused him to take a less prominent part than formerly in parliamentary affairs.

In Ireland, where his silence was attributed to the indifference engendered by office, he was described in words which he himself had applied to repeal as ‘a splendid phantom.’ His re-election for Dungarvan at the general election in 1849 was opposed by tories and repealers alike, and he was returned with a greatly diminished majority. Even in his capacity as master of the mint he did not escape criticism, and the omission of the legend Defensatrix Fidei Dei Gratia on the florin issued in 1849 was sharply commented on by the press and in parliament. He accepted the responsibility for the omission, but disclaimed having been actuated by sectarian motives. Towards the close of the session, however, he accepted the post offered him of minister at the court of Tuscany, and, having paid a farewell visit to Ireland in November, he arrived at Florence about the middle of January 1851. On Sunday, 25 May, he was seized by gout in its most aggravated form, and succumbed after an hour's suffering. His body was removed to Ireland on board a British warship, and interred at Long Orchard, co. Tipperary.

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