What Is Irish Bull?

"Half the lies our opponents tell about us are untrue," said Sir Boyle Roche, who never opened his mouth except to change feet.

An “Irish Bull” means a confused figure of speech. The term derives from Dr. John Mahaffy, a 19th Century scholar at Trinity College, Dublin, who once observed that “An Irish bull is always pregnant.” 

Mahaffy was an eminent scholar and wit who made a rare slip of the tongue. But there was another Irishman who, in his day, unleashed a veritable stampede of Irish Bulls: Sir Boyle Roche (1736-1807).

It was said of Roche that he never opened his mouth except to change feet. Elected to the Irish Parliament in 1775, he soon became notorious for his tortured logic and tangled sentences. In fact, he may have been the model for Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comedy, The Rivals.

Mrs. Malaprop, you may remember, thought that young ladies should have some “supercilious knowledge.” For example, they should be instructed in geometry so that they “might know something of the contagious countries.” 

But if Sir Boyle Roche did inspire Sheridan to create Mrs. Malaprop, her most outrageous sayings on stage never equaled the howlers that Roche uttered in real life. Here, in honor or St. Patrick’s Day, is a collection of some of Roche’s more delectable gaffes:

“The cup of Ireland’s misery has been overflowing for a century and is not yet half full.”

“Why should we do anything for posterity?  What has posterity ever done for us?”

“Half the lies our opponents tell about us are untrue.”

“The only thing to prevent what’s past is to put a stop to it before it happens.”

“While I write this letter, I have a pistol in one hand and a sword in the other.”

And, finally, my favorite: “I answer boldly in the affirmative: No!”

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.

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