« PreviousContinue »
The series of manoeuvres by which this undeniable job was carried might not have been attempted, or might have been met and counteracted, if Lord Plunket's judicial career had been as successful as his forensic and political. The contrary is confessedly the fact. His admirers are compelled to admit that he discharged the duties of his high office in a hasty and unsatisfactory manner. He would not stoop to the mechanical drudgery of writing out his judgments whenever he could possibly avoid it; and he was indifferent as to their revision and correction; nor, so far as appears from his own judgments, did he take much trouble to acquaint himself with the decisions of contemporary judges.' This negligence has been injurious to his reputation; and little or nothing beyond fragments and scattered sayings-disjecta membrahas been preserved of what fell from him on the bench.
A ruffian, wrought up to the verge of madness by drink and temper, was brought before the Court. of Chancery for insulting and threatening the officers. The Lord Chancellor addressed him in these words:
'You offer, sir, in your own person, an apt illustration of the legal term furiosus, which defines the condition of mind that a man attains by the long and uncontrollable indulgence of a brutal and savage temper, till at length he stands on the narrow isthmus-the thin line of demarcation—which separates the end of ruffianism from the beginning of insanity.'
The most celebrated of his images is that of Time with the hour-glass and the scythe, which he employed to illustrate the effect of the Statute of Limitations. We give what strikes us to be the best among several versions :
If Time destroys the evidence of title, the laws have wisely and humanely made length of possession a substitute for that which has been destroyed. He comes with his
scythe in one hand to mow down the immunity of our rights; but, in his other hand, the lawgiver has placed an hour-glass, by which he metes out incessantly those portions of duration which render needless the evidence he has swept away.'
When Plunket, having become a reformer in 1831, was twitted with having been an anti-reformer at an antecedent period, he replied:
'Circumstances are wholly changed. Formerly Reform came to our door like a felon-a robber to be resisted. He. now approaches like a creditor: you admit the justice of his demand, and only dispute the time and instalments by which he shall be paid.'
There is no satisfactory definition of wit. We cannot accept Sydney Smith's, which makes it consist in surprise or unexpectedness, and Barrow's description is too full and discursive to be precise. But Plunket had wit in every sense of the term, from the flash which lights up an argument or intensifies a thought, to the fanciful conceit or comic suggestion which plays round the heartstrings-circum præcordia ludit and aims at nothing higher than to raise a goodhumoured laugh.
A very ugly old barrister arguing a point of practice before him, claimed to be received as an authority. I am a pretty old practitioner, my lord.' 'An old practitioner, Mr. S.'
The treasurer of a party returning from a dinner at the Pigeon House on the Liffey, found he had got a bad shilling, and said he would throw it as far as possible into the water to put it beyond the possibility of circulation. 'Stop,' cried Plunket, 'give it to Toler,'— Lord Norbury was remarkable for penuriousness,' he can make a shilling go farther than any one.'
On Lord Essex saying that he had seen a brother of Sir John Leech, whom he almost mistook for Sir John himself, so much did the manner1 run in the family,1 Leech's manner was affected and very peculiar.
Plunket remarked: I should as soon have thought of a wooden leg running in the family.'
All the great Irish orators of the last generation were devoted to the Greek and Roman classics. Grattan said of Plunket that the fire of his magnificent mind was lighted from ancient altars.' After his retirement from office he visited Rome. On his return, when a new work of merit was recommended as a companion of his journey from London to Ireland, he said he had promised Horace a place in his carriage. 'Surely you have had enough of his company at Rome, where he was your constant companion.' 'Oh, no. I never am tired of him. But then, if he don't go, I have promised the place to Gil Blas.' Curran read Homer once a year, and has been seen rapt up in Horace in the cabin of a Holyhead packet with everybody else sick around him. Lockhart records that, amongst the things to which Sir Walter Scott reverted with the highest admiration after his visit to Ireland in 1825, were the acute logic and brilliant eloquence of Plunket's conversation.
The luminous career of this boast and ornament of his country was destined to close in darkness and gloom. He shared the fate of Marlborough and Swift his fine intellect became overclouded; and his fame exclusively belonged to history, being, so to speak, a thing of the past, before his death. He died in his ninetieth year, January 5, 1854.
Of the seven eminent men1 who have held the Great Seal of Ireland since Lord Plunket's compelled retirement, four are still living. Mr. O'Flanagan has consequently thought right to conclude his series with Lord Plunket and nothing remained for him but to take a pathetic leave of his book, bid it good speed,
Lord Campbell, Lord St. Leonards, the Right Hon. Maziere Brady, the Right Hon. Joseph Napier, the Right Hon. Francis Blackburn, the Right Hon. Abraham Brewster, and Lord O'Hagan.
and commend it to the charitable construction of his readers. This he does much in the manner of Gibbon, who says in his Memoirs that, after writing the last sentence of the Decline and Fall' on his terrace at Lausanne, 'a sober melancholy spread over my mind by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that, whatever might be the fate of my History, the life of the historian must be short and precarious.' Mr. O'Flanagan's hopes and fears, pleasures and affections, have been similarly bound up in his 'Lives;' which he almost endows with fresh vitality as he parts from them :
I cannot part with those who have been my companions for nearly half a lifetime, without deep anxiety as to how they shall be received by the extensive acquaintances to whom I now entrust them, happily under the best possible auspices. . . . . These lives have formed my most agreeable occupation, morning and evening, for a great many years, while my days were passed in the monotony of official routine, in nearly the same labours for twenty years, uncheered by the prospect of promotion; or, if a hope still clung to Pandora's box, it was hitherto doomed to speedy and certain disappointment. As my official duties have been to the best of my ability most honestly and punctually discharged, so, I hope, my literary labours partake of the same character; and, however modified by the creed I profess, and the love of country which has grown with my life, I trust a favourable opinion may be entertained of the way in which I have written the "Lives of the Lord Chancellors of Ireland."'
Of the spirit certainly, although doubts may be entertained of the way. Good intentions do not make good writing; and Mr. O'Flanagan is only a fresh instance of the best-natured man with the worstnatured Muse. The Muse of History (her province includes biography) has been decidedly cold to his advances; and, as might have been expected from her
sex, she was not to be won by mere honesty and punctuality; excellent titles (as we hope they will yet practically prove) to official promotion: none whatever to literary fame. An Irishman and a Roman Catholic, he has been constantly treading on dangerous ground; yet his candour and impartiality, his sense of justice and soundness of principle, are without a flaw: we rise from the book with the most favourable impression of the author as an enlightened patriot; and we cordially congratulate him on having done good service to his beloved country by compelling attention to the best specimens of her virtue and genius, her gallantry, eloquence, and wit.