Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Age of Chivalry

"But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever."
No, not our Taoiseach speaking in Brussels last week, rather another Irish politician - perhaps the greatest ever - Edmund Burke. Brian Doyle has written a delightful, babbling brook of an essay about Burke (pictured). Here's a flavour:

It was 1780. The Irish question had arisen yet again, this time in economic form, because the Americans had essentially won their war for independence, and the British government, drained by war with France and wishing to be sure Ireland did not also rise in rebellion, contemplated relaxing some of the many harsh sanctions and suppressions on the Irish economy. Burke approved of this, for several reasons... he and his Whig party were vilified by increasingly large and violent Protestant mobs all over England. In June a week of riots burst out in London—the Gordon Riots, named for the virulently anti-Catholic Lord George Gordon, who led a mob 50,000 strong to the Houses of Parliament to oppose any measure that would bring relief to Catholic Ireland. The rioters broke into the House of Commons, smashed Catholic churches and chapels, looted Catholic homes, set fire to one prison and opened others to set prisoners free, and attacked the Bank of England. 
Some 12,000 British Army soldiers were called in, perhaps 500 people died, and the houses of leading Whig politicians were threatened; Jane spent the week with a friend, while Ned spent several nights standing guard at his friends’ houses, and then, after having their books and possessions moved from their own house, set forth “in the street amidst this wild assembly, into whose hands I deliverd myself, informing them who I was. Some of them were malignant and fanatical, but I think the far greater part … were rather dissolute and unruly than very illdisposd. I even found friends and well wishers amongst [them]. … [F]or one, I was neither to be forced nor intimidated from the strait line of what was right; and I returned, on foot, quite through the multitude to the House [where] I spoke my sentiments in such a way that I do not think I have ever on any occasion seemd to affect the house more forcibly.” 
This was no mere chaotic street protest—people were roasted to death, beaten to death, shot to death, for being Catholic, or sympathetic to Catholics—and no more identifiable pro-Catholic figure existed in the epicenter of the riot than Mr. Edmund Burke. He was 51 years old that year, portly, bespectacled, unarmed, and infamous, the very man the mob wanted to injure or worse, the very man you would think would convey himself and his gentle bride to a town far away and there await the return of law, or hide somewhere safe, or don disguise, or at least sensibly take refuge in a carriage escorted by His Majesty’s soldiers to Parliament, if he was so intent on executing his sworn duty as a minister. But no—he waded grimly into the murderous crowd, incredibly identifying himself to all he encountered, and made his way, on foot, quite through the multitude, to the very building first attacked by a mob responsible for hundreds of deaths. The brass of the man, the confidence that his voice and his courage, his belief in the strait line of what was right, would see him through!

A truly extraordinary man. Doyle's essay would form the basis of a magnificent one-man play about Ireland's greatest politician. Any takers?

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