An Irishman's Diary

 

Sir Boyle Roche MP (1743 - 1807) was the Member for Tralee, Co Kerry, in the Irish House of Commons in the latter part of the 18th century. There is nothing very remarkable or memorable about that; the vast majority of such men have long since been forgotten. But not so the Honourable Member for Kerry. Why not? Because Boyle Roche has become immortalised, in the annals of Irish and British parliament-speak, as "the Father of the Irish Bull".

Roche's unintentionally funny contributions to debates in the Irish House of Commons have passed into the language and are a particular favourite of members of the Irish Dail and Seanad. It has been said of him that he only opened his mouth to change his feet. He was most likely the inspiration behind Mrs Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play The Rivals, and thus indirectly gave the English language the word "malapropism".

Overflowing

The brave Boyle Roche must have been a joy to listen to as he mixed his metaphors with gay abandon and gleefully turned logic on its head, all the while blissfully unaware that he was making anything but the utmost sense. On one occasion he told his audience that "the cup of Ireland's misery has been overflowing for centuries and is not yet half full." A truly remarkable cup, I am sure you will agree.

The Hon. Member for Kerry is also to be admired for his view on Anglo-Irish relations, although he seemed a little confused about which gender to ascribe to them. He told the Irish Commons that "Ireland and England are like two sisters; I would have them embrace like one brother." You can imagine the bewilderment of the person reprimanded thus by him: "I told you to make one longer than the other, and instead you have made one shorter than the other."

One of the finest examples of his word-mangling must be the following: "All along the untrodden paths of the future, I can see the footprints of an unseen hand."

His rhetorical question, "How can I be in two places at once unless I were a bird?", gave rise to the expression "the Boyle Roche bird", a creature that solved the age-old problem of bi-location. His words took wings to describe a really dextrous political opponent: `He is the kind of opponent who would stab you in front of your face and then stab you in the chest when you back is turned.". His own side of the House cannot have been very reassured by his view that "half the lies our opponents tell about us are untrue."

Sir Boyle Roche (the knighthood surely owning to his verbal brilliance) showed he was doubtful about freedom of expression when he declared: "We should silence anyone who opposes the right to freedom of speech." To be fair to him, he displayed a caring, if confused attitude to the less well-off sectors of society when he avowed that "many of them were destitute of even the goods they possessed."

Metaphors

Mixing his metaphors caused him little difficulty. "Mr Speaker, I smell a rat; I see him forming in the air and darkening the sky; but I will nip him in the bud," he once announced. His listeners must have been greatly relieved that he would deal so promptly with the terrifying chameleon he had created. Speaking in 1796 on the threatened French invasion, he called on an architectural metaphor, but the building he pictured was a topsy-turvy one: "If we once permitted the villainous French masons to meddle with the buttresses and walls of our ancient constitution, they would never stop nor stay, until they had brought the foundation stones tumbling down about the ears of the nation." Anyone who has played rugby against the French will identify with the terrifying scenario he then envisaged: "Then perhaps, sir, the murderous Marseillaise men would break in and cut us up to mincemeat, and next throw our bleeding heads upon the table, to stare us in face."

Nonetheless, he dismissed the idea of worrying about the future: "Why should we put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity? For what has posterity ever done for us?"

Roche did not oppose the Act of Union of 1800, which abolished the House which he had entertained for so long. Part of his comment on that Act was true to form: "It would surely be better to give up, not only a part but, if necessary, the whole of our constitution, to preserve the remainder." Because of his age, he decided not to cross the Irish Sea to sit in Westminster, and the British House of Commons was the poorer for his absence.

Counterparts

Has the admirable Boyle Roche any modern counterparts? Surely not many in the age of the sound-bite, but there were traces of the former Member of Kerry in some of the statements of a fairly recent Irish Foreign Minister, who visited Brian Kennan, then a hostage in Beirut, and returned to tell Ireland that Mr Keenan was "well and alive". The same Minister's comment, on his return from post-Communist Russia, smacked of Boyle Roche's predilection for mixed metaphors: "The rump of Communism could still rear its ugly head." Readers can probably think of a few comparable from current politicians. Thank you, Boyle Roche, for having been once among us. I will finish with one of your wishes, with which we might all agree, particularly at closing time: "Every pint bottle should contain a quart."