Edmund Burke

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXXV

Burke is, however, unquestionably both the prominent man of his age and of his nation in that age; and happily we have abundant material for forming a correct estimate of his character and his works. Burke was born in Dublin, on the 1st of January, 1730. His father was an attorney in good business, and of course a Protestant, as at that period none, except those who professed the religion of a small minority, were permitted to govern the vast majority, or to avail themselves of any kind of temporal advancement. The mother of the future statesman was a Miss Nagle, of Mallow, a descendant of whose family became afterwards very famous as the foundress of a religious order.[2] The family estate was at Castletown-Roche, in the vicinity of Doneraile; this property descended to Garrett, Edmund's elder brother.

A famous school had been founded by a member of the Society of Friends at Ballitore, and thither young Burke and his brother were sent for their education. The boys arrived there on the 26th May, 1741. A warm friendship soon sprang up between Edmund and Richard Shackleton, the son of his master, a friendship which only terminated with death. We have happily the most ample details of Burke's school-days in the Annals of Ballitore, a work of more than ordinary interest, written by Mrs. Leadbeater, the daughter of Burke's special friend. His native talent was soon developed under the care of his excellent master, and there can be little doubt that the tolerant ideas of his after life were learned, or at least cultivated, at the Quaker school.

One instance of the early development of his talent for humour, and another of his keen sense of injustice, must find record here. The entrance of the judges to the county town of Athy was a spectacle which had naturally special attraction for the boys. All were permitted to go, but on condition that each of the senior pupils should write a description of what he had seen in Latin verse. Burke's task was soon accomplished—not so that of another hapless youth, whose ideas and Latinity were probably on a par. When he had implored the help of his more gifted companion, Edmund determined at least that he should contribute an idea for his theme, but for all reply as to what he had noticed in particular on the festal occasion, he only answered, "A fat piper in a brown coat." However Burke's ideas of "the sublime" may have predominated, his idea of the ludicrous was at this time uppermost; and in a few moments a poem was composed, the first line of which only has been preserved—

"Piper erat fattus, qui brownum tegmen habebat."

"He loved humour," writes Mrs. Leadbeater,[3] "and my father was very witty. The two friends sharpened their intellect and sported their wit till peals of laughter in the schoolroom often caused the reverend and grave master to implore them, with suppressed smiles, to desist, or he should have to turn them out, as their example might be followed, where folly and uproar would take the place of humour and wisdom."

His hatred of oppression and injustice was also manifested about this time. A poor man was compelled to pull down his cabin because the surveyor of roads considered that it stood too near the highway. The boy watched him performing his melancholy task and declared that, if he were in authority, such scenes should never be enacted. How well he kept his word, and how true he was in manhood to the good and holy impulses of his youth, his future career amply manifests.


[2] Order.—The Presentation Order was founded by Miss Nano Nagle, of Cork.

[3] Leadbeater.—Annals of Ballitore, vol. i. p. 50, second edition, 1862. I shall refer to this interesting work again.