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Wellington on Irish Catholics

Speech to the House of Lords, 1828

This document was included in the belief that it was genuine, since it came from a reliable source. It now seems that the "speech" probably was never made by Wellington at all. From some very fine detective work, I have been sent this comment :

The attribution of these words to the Duke of Wellington cannot be accepted. Sir William Butler made his extracts from a speech as printed at pp. 615-016 n. of J. C. O'Callaghan's History of the Irish Brigades (Glasgow, 1870), where it is given as spoken by the Duke " in 1829 when addressing the House of Lords in favour of Catholic emancipation." But O'Callaghan (who does not give his authority) was mistaken. No such words occur in any of the numerous reports of the 'Duke's speeches on Catholic emancipation, and the rhetoric would have been uncongenial to him. In the House of Commons on February 22, 1837 (on an Irish Municipal Reform Bill), Richard Lalor Sheil, referring to Lord Lyndhurst's description of the Irish as "aliens," exclaimed that the Duke ought to have risen from his seat at the word and said that he "had seen the aliens do their duty." Sheil then followed with a celebrated passage describing the speech which the Duke might have made. Shell's oration may be found in the volume of his speeches edited by Thomas Macnevin (Dublin, 1845), and the passage in question is included in Bell's Standard Elocutionist. It is precisely similar in sentiment to the apocryphal speech attributed by O'Callaghan, Butler, and Ruskin to the Duke, but the rhetoric is finer and more impassioned. O'Callaghan's quotation may have come from some other rhetorical exercise of the kind, but search both at Dublin and in the British Museum has failed to discover its source.

The inclusion of the document is a lesson in "checking sources", if nothing else.

My lords, if on the eve of any of those hard-fought days on which I have had the honour to command them, I had thus addressed my Roman Catholic troops: “You well know that your country either so suspects your loyalty, or so dislikes your religion, that she has not yet thought proper to admit you amongst the ranks of her free citizens ; if, on that account, you deem it an act of injustice on her part to require you to shed your blood in her defence, you are at liberty to withdraw:” I am, quite sure, my lords, that, however bitter the recollections which it awakened, they would have spurned the alternative with indignation; for the hour of danger and of glory, is the hour in which the gallant, the generous-hearted Irishman, best knows his duty, and is most determined to perform it. But if, my lords, it had been otherwise : if they had chosen to desert the cause in which they were embarked; though the remainder of the troops would undoubtedly have maintained the honour of the British arms; yet, as I have just said, no efforts of theirs could ever have crowned us with victory.

Yes, my lords, it is mainly to the Irish Catholic that we all owe our proud pre-eminence in our military career; and that I, personally, am indebted for the laurels with which you have been pleased to decorate my brow,—for the honours which you have so bountifully lavished on me,—and for the fair fame (I prize it above all other rewards) which my country, in its generous kindness, has bestowed upon me. I cannot but feel, my lords, that you yourselves have been chiefly instrumental in placing this heavy debt of gratitude upon me, greater, perhaps, than has ever fallen to the lot of any individual ; and however flattering the circumstance, it often places me in a very painful situation.

Whenever I meet (and it is almost an every-day occurrence,) with any of those brave men who, in common with others, are the object of this Bill, and who have so often borne me on the tide of victory; when I see them still branded with the imputation of a divided allegiance, still degraded beneath the lowest menial, and still proclaimed unfit to enter within the pale of the constitution, I feel almost ashamed of the honours which have been lavished upon me: I feel that though the merit was theirs, what was so freely given to me, was unjustly denied to them ; that I had reaped, though they had sown; that they had borne the heat and burden of the day, but that the wages and repose were mine alone. My lords, it is indeed to me a subject of deep regret, that of the many brave officers of the Roman Catholic persuasion, some of whom I have had occasion to bring to the notice of the country, in relating the honourable services they have performed, not one has risen to any eminence in his profession.

It is not to be supposed, that either talent or merit is the exclusive privilege of Protestantism: attached as I am to the Reformed Church, I cannot give her that monopoly. No man, my lords, has had more experience to the contrary than myself. Entrusted with the command of two Catholic armies, I soon found that, with similar advantages, they were quite equal to our own. The same hatred of tyranny, the same love of liberty, the same unconquerable spirit, pervaded both the soldier and the peasant of those two Catholic states. I even found amongst them Irishmen, whom the intolerance of our laws had driven to shed the lustre of their talents over a foreign clime.

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