Richard Lalor Sheil

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Sheil, Richard Lalor, author, politician, and orator, was born at Drumdowney, near Waterford, 17th August, 1791. His father had amassed a considerable fortune in the Spanish trade, and occupied a fine mansion on the Suir. The lad's early recollections were all connected with the neighbourhood of Waterford. At eleven years of age he was placed in a Catholic school at Kensington, kept by a French emigrant nobleman. There he almost forgot his own language. Thence he passed to Stonyhurst, and in November 1807 he entered Trinity College, Dublin. During his college course his father lost all his property through neglect of technicalities in connexion with a limited- liability company, in which he had invested a portion of his fortune, and young Sheil was indebted to the generosity of a friend for means to finish his terms, and to his uncle Richard for enabling him to complete his studies for the Bar, to which he was called in 1814. He made his first appearance in public in 1810, when he spoke with effect at a meeting in favour of Emancipation, assembled at Kilmainham.

The years between 1814 and 1823 were largely devoted to dramatic authorship. His plays of Adelaide, The Apostate, Bellamira, and Evadne, were remarkably successful, more from the acting of his countrywoman, Miss O'Neill, than from their intrinsic merit. Montoni was withdrawn after a few representations; The Fatal Dowry somewhat retrieved his reputation; whilst the failure of The Huguenot, which he considered his best play, contributed in no slight degree to divert him from a path he had found beset with disappointment, though not unrewarded by success. At this time he had married, and become a widower. In 1822 the first of his admirable Sketches of the Irish Bar appeared in the New Monthly Magazine. They were afterwards published in a collected form, and still afford the best sources for information concerning the leading Bar celebrities of the time in Ireland. They were written in conjunction with William H. Curran, who was the author of some of the most important of them.

Whilst not neglecting his profession, Sheil's life for many years was devoted to the struggle for Catholic Emancipation. His position as a public man daily became more recognized and denned, and his earliest dreams of oratoric fame gradually came to be realized. "At this time, and up to the termination of the great struggle in 1829," wrote one who had himself shared in many of the hazards of the period, "Sheil was in the most exposed position of any man in Ireland, for he went further than all others to provoke the attacks of the Crown." In 1827 a prosecution was instituted against him for remarks publicly made upon Theobald Wolfe Tone's career. The grand jury brought in a true bill against him, but further proceedings were abandoned in consequence of ministerial changes. He showed no little moral courage in 1828, when, hearing of a proposed meeting of freeholders and inhabitants of Kent to oppose any concessions to the Catholics, he purchased a small holding in the county, attended the great meeting on Pennington Heath, and raised his voice in protest against the resolutions.

After the passing of the Emancipation Act he was called to the inner Bar. In July 1830 he married Mrs. Power, a widowed lady of considerable means, with whom he lived in uninterrupted happiness the rest of his life. This marriage made him independent of his profession, and enabled him to carry into effect a long-cherished desire of entering Parliament. Defeated in a contest for Louth, he was brought in by Lord Anglesea for Milborne Port, in Dorsetshire, in 1831, and occupied a seat in the House of Commons for the next eighteen years, most of the time for Tipperary, and latterly for Dungarvan. In 1832 he was enthusiastically welcomed on the platform of the Repeal Society, by those who had been for so many years accustomed to hear his spirit-stirring harangues in favour of Emancipation. He took part in the Repeal debate of April 1834, when the motion was defeated by 523 to 38, and as a parliamentary question set at rest for many years.

After the general election consequent on the death of William IV., and the friendly expressions of the Government towards Ireland, he accepted office as Commissioner of Greenwich Hospital. In 1839 he was appointed Vice-President of the Board of Trade. Although ho was able to retain his seat, his acceptance of office was generally resented by his old friends in Ireland. That it had a considerable influence on his opinions cannot be doubted. He opposed the revival of the Repeal agitation; and some years later he had the courage to declare upon the hustings at Dungarvan that he considered Repeal to be a "splendid but unattainable fancy" — justifying his change of opinion by reference to the altered attitude of the government of Great Britain towards Ireland. Yet he acted as one of John O'Connell's counsel at the State trials in 1844. In 1845 he accompanied his wife and invalid son to Madeira, in the vain hope of benefiting the health of the latter, who died and was buried on the island. Mr. Sheil was Master of the Mint from 1846 to 1850. During that period the new silver florin was put into circulation, those first coined being conspicuous by the omission of the initials of the legend: "Defensatrix Fidei: Dei gratia." The design was made by Mr. Wyon, chief engraver of the Mint, and approved by the Privy Council; but a considerable turmoil was raised, the change being attributed to Mr. Sheil being a Catholic.

In reply to questions in the House, he accepted the responsibility of the omission of the words, avowed he had seen no objection to following the precedent which was found in a portion of the silver coinage struck in her Majesty's name at Calcutta, and briefly and emphatically repudiated the imputation of sectarian motives. With the session of 1850 his parliamentary career closed. Mr. McCullagh says: "For twenty years he had occupied a prominent place in the varied controversies of the senate. He had seen most of the great principles for which he had contended finally adopted and engrafted into the policy of the state; and the suffrages of the many and the few had concurred in ascribing to his advocacy no humble share in the accomplishment of these results. As an orator his success had equalled, if not exceeded, his most sanguine expectations; and even the judgment of friendship will hardly be deemed erroneous in awarding him as many and as varied triumphs in debate as any of his most gifted contemporaries."

In December 1850 he was appointed Minister at the court of Tuscany, and accordingly removed with his wife to Florence. His enjoyment of life in that beautiful city, and of the treasures of art opened to him, was intense. His knowledge of French, which he had kept up through life, was a source of great pleasure, and he at once set about the acquisition of Italian. The British residents were delighted with his genial manners and his talents. His successful efforts on behalf of Count Guicciardini, imprisoned for reading the Bible to a circle of friends in his own house, proved the freedom of his mind from sectarian intolerance. The Count afterwards wrote of him as "a gentleman and a man of talent; but, what was still better, a Christian, who adored God in spirit and in truth... He seemed to me to be deeply impressed with sentiments of piety, devotion, and love of God." Mr. Sheil did not long live to enjoy what his friend Charles Lever styled his first holiday in a long life of labour."

He died of a sudden access of an old complaint, gout, 28th May 1851, aged 59. His remains were conveyed home in a British ship-of-war, and interred at Long-orchard, in the County of Tipperary. Mr. Sheil's manner was peculiar; his figure was by no means striking; but his face was intellectual and massive, somewhat resembling O'Connell's. The Memoirs of Richard Lalor Sheil by W. T. McCullagh, London, 1855, give an admirable history of the agitation that preceded Catholic Emancipation. [Dr. Reeves says "Saidhail" (pronounced Sheil) is the Irish form of the name, which is of great antiquity, and was Latinized at a very early date in the form "Sedulius".]

Sources

233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.

303. Sheil, Richard Lalor, Memoirs: W. Torrens M'Cullagh. 2 vols. London, 1855.

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