On This Day – Drivetime – 30.10.1751 – Birth of playwright and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan


He was one of the outstanding English playwrights and politicians of the 18th century. Except like many other exceptional exponents of the benign art of theatre and the dark arts of politics he wasn’t English – he was Irish.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan was born in Dorset Street in Dublin in 1751. His surroundings were slightly more fashionable then than they are now. He was probably born to write for the theatre. His mother, Frances was a playwright and novelist, his father Thomas was, for a long time, an actor-manager.

His budding theatrical and political careers almost failed to get off the ground, however. Sheridan, to defend the honour of his future wife, Elizabeth Linley, was obliged to fight a duel against one Thomas Matthews, a rival for Elizabeth’s affections, who also happened to be married. Matthews had churlishly defamed her in a newspaper article when she rejected his advances.

The two men met twice in 1772. Swords were the weapons of choice on both occasions. At the first encounter, in London, Matthews posed few difficulties for the Irishman. He was quickly disarmed, begged for his life and was forced to retract the defamatory article. However, Matthews insisted on a rematch and Sheridan decided to oblige him. The second meeting, in Bath, was a much bloodier affair that Sheridan barely survived. According to contemporary accounts he was borne from the field with his opponents broken sword sticking from his ear and his whole body covered in wounds.

Sheridan survived and three years later produced his first play The Rivals a sparkling comedy that included the character of a hot-blooded and mean-spirited Irish duelist Sir Lucius O’Trigger. The comedy, coincidentally, is set in Bath. There is more than one way of gaining revenge on a loathsome adversary.

However, the most memorable character in the play was the sublime Mrs. Malaprop, a lady much given to hilarious verbal solecisms. Hence such infamous howlers as her reference to ‘an allegory on the banks of the Nile’ and ‘he can tell you the perpendiculars’. She also refers to another character as ‘the very pineapple of politeness.’

His greatest work, which appeared two years later, in 1777, was The School for Scandal – still performed today it matches and surpasses most of Oscar Wilde’s comedies of manners with it’s acid observations on contemporary social mores and the endless capacity for evil gossip in 18th century London society.

In 1780 Sheridan essentially bribed his way into the House of Commons, as you often did in those days. The franchise in his constituency was fortunately small as each vote cost him a reported five guineas. In parliament he allied himself to the Whig faction led by Charles James Fox and sided with the American Colonials in their disputes with England. In one celebrated and highly theatrical aside in 1793 his fellow Irishman Edmund Burke was ranting about French revolutionary spies and saboteurs. After a rhetorical flourish to emphasise the dangers of allowing Johnny Foreigner access to England Burke threw a knife onto the floor of the Commons. This drew the retort from Sheridan ‘where’s the fork?’

Although he was an accomplished parliamentary orator and briefly held political office one of Sheridan’s reasons for retaining his seat in the Commons was probably to evade his creditors. When he lost his seat in 1812 they pounced. He died in poverty three years later but is buried in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Sheridan is responsible for many memorable, pithy and witty phrases. He once said of a political opponent that ‘the right honourable gentleman is indebted to his memory for his jests and to his imagination for his facts.’ In his 1779 play The Critic he has one of his characters make the very politically apposite observation that ‘the number of those who undergo the fatigue of judging for themselves is very small indeed.’

Richard Brinsley Sheridan, playwright, politician and sometime duelist, was born 264 years ago, on this day.

Affairs of honour – the Irish ‘code duello’


As #anniversaries has featured some interesting duels and duellists of late – some random thoughts on the practice of ‘gentlemen’ attempting to kill each other in ‘affairs of honour’.

Before pistols became widely available in the 17th century ‘affairs of honour’ between gentlemen were usually settled with the sword as the weapon of choice. But Irish playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan was clearly on to something in 1775 when he created the bellicose Irish squire, Sir Lucius O’Trigger, in his celebrated play The Rivals. (Although, in the play itself, despite his name, Sir Lucius fights a duel with swords.)

In 1777, with pistols now far more frequently used than swords, a new ‘code duello’ was adopted at the summer assizes in Clonmel ’by the gentlemen of County Tipperary, County Galway, County Mayo, County Sligo and County Roscommon and prescribed for general adoption throughout Ireland.’ The Irish code soon gained wide acceptance in Britain and North America. Under the new code fatalities tended to increase as the use of pistols was more dangerous than the more benign regime of sword-play to ‘first blood’. Also, under the Irish code the practice of firing into the air or the ground to avoid wounding an opponent was discouraged.

Duelling, which was a 17th century import from Britain,  was endemic in Ireland in the 18th century. Such was its popularity that nineteen companies in Dublin alone made or sold dueling pistols. The death rate in such encounters in Ireland was 1:4 whereas in England it was 1:14.  The spread of the practice was assisted by supportive attitudes even within the judiciary and the legal establishment. John Scott, (aka Copper-faced Jack), Ist Earl of Clonmel, was an Irish Attorney General, Solicitor General and Lord Chief Justice between 1777-98. But he himself fought four duels and defended the practice, observing that …

‘There are cases where it may be, and when it is prudent for a man to fight a duel – cases in which the law does not afford him redress – cases of preserving malignity, cases of injured honour, cases of a wounded spirit; and a wounded spirit who can bear? In cases of this complexion the courts will never interfere with its discretionary authority against a man.’

The duel became increasingly socially unacceptable as the nineteenth century progressed, but in Ireland at least it remained an appropriate response to an insult until well into the 1820s. Prominent Irish politicians and aristocrats fought or threatened duels. In 1807, for example, William Congreve Alcock shot and killed John Alcock in a duel in Wexford. Both were contenders for the Wexford parliamentary seat. Alcock accused Colclough of attempting to steal voters to which he felt he was entitled. (www.soundcloud.com/irishhistory)

The duel was used by far more prominent politicians than Alcock and Colclough as a potential means of ridding oneself of inconvenient opponents. Before the passage of the Act of Union in 1800 a pugnacious supporter of the Irish Parliament pledged to challenge sufficient supporters of the Union to swing the vote against the template of Pitt and Castlereagh.   In 1815 then Irish chief secretary Robert Peel challenged the leader of the Roman Catholic Irish opposition, Daniel O’Connell, to a dawn meeting (with pistols) in Ostend. The future Prime Minister made it to Belgium but O’Connell was arrested en route. Peel, naturally, accused O’Connell of having engineered his own arrest in order to avoid the confrontation. O’Connell, just as naturally, accused the chief secretary of having arranged his arrest for the same reason.

In February 1815 Daniel O’Connell fought a duel with a unionist member of Dublin Corporation, John d’Esterre in which d’Esterre died. Thereafter, so mythology has it, when he attended religious services, O’Connell always wore a white glove over his hand as a sign of penitence. O’Connell’s second on that occasion and subsequently on of his most prominent supporters in the 1828 Clare election, the O’Gorman Mahon, was an inveterate duelist. He is rumoured to have fought dozens and to have adopted the duel as ‘his favoured method of conflict resolution.’ Thackeray based his truculent character ‘The O’Mulligan’ (Mrs. Perkins’ Ball) on Mahon.

In the 1840s James Shields, an Irish born Illinois politician, who went on to represent three states in the U.S. Senate, challenged Abraham Lincoln to one-to-one combat over an alleged slight. The two actually faced each other (Lincoln, who towered over Shields, wisely chose swords rather than pistols) but the matter was resolved by the seconds before any blood was drawn.  (www.soundcloud.com/irishhistory)

Even in the 1880s (1881 to be precise) – a time when duelling was supposed to have died out completely – when former Hussar William O’Shea first became aware that Charles Stewart Parnell was involved in an affair with his estranged wife he issued a challenge. However, when Parnell accepted O’Shea backed down. The duel was eventually fought out in the London divorce courts in November 1890, to Parnell’s detriment.

By the early 19th century it appears that duelling in Ireland had become a form of adventure sport for a bored aristocracy and an infinite resource for the ‘gentleman’ who doubled as an aristocratic bully. For example an Irish landlord who delighted in the name of Hyacinth O’Rorke, ‘was accustomed to take his walks abroad with a pistol in one hand and a horsewhip in the other’. After numerous duels and horse-whippings he met his match at the hands of a courageous magistrate, Phillip ‘Caoch’ Perceval, who had the good fortune to shoot him in the head in an encounter. The fact that ‘caoch’ is the Irish for ‘blind’ suggests that Perceval was exceptionally fortunate in killing the inveterate duellist with the florid name.



James Kelly, ‘That Damn’d thing called honour’: duelling in Ireland 1570-1860 (Cork University Press, 1995)