Burgh, Walter Hussey (DNB00)

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BURGH, WALTER HUSSEY (1742–1783), Irish statesman and orator, was the son of Ignatius Hussey of Donore, co. Kildare, and Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas de Burgh of Oldtown, in the same county, and was born on 23 Aug. 1742. After attending the school of a Mr. Young in Abbey Street, Dublin, he entered the university, where he graduated B.A. in 1762. At the university he showed considerable proficiency in classics, and also distinguished himself by a poem written on the occasion of the marriage of George III. He adopted the additional name of Burgh on inheriting one half of the property of his maternal cousin, Richard Burgh of Drumkeen, who died in 1762. After entering the Temple, London, he was called to the Irish bar in 1769, and in November of that year he was elected member for Athy in the Irish parliament, through the influence of the Duke of Leinster. In 1776 he was chosen for Dublin University. His success as a barrister was almost unprecedentedly rapid, as within little more than a twelve-month he occupied a place in the very first rank. Among his more intimate friends in his early years at the bar was Henry Grattan, with whom he afterwards became closely associated as a politician. As early as 1777 he was made prime serjeant, then the most important office open to a barrister in Ireland. But though both amiable and prudent, his patriotism was much stronger than his love of peace or his love of office. A letter of his in reference to his candidature to represent Dublin University, published in ‘Anthologia Hibernica,’ vol. i., indicates the firmness and independence of his political views, and the high sense he entertained of the duties of a representative in parliament. He declined on principle to pledge himself to the particular course of action desired by some of his constituents, but his subsequent conduct in parliament did not belie the lofty principles which he enunciated. Equally with Grattan, if not even in preference to him, he shares the chief honour of effecting the removal of Ireland's commercial disabilities. In concert with him he moved in 1779 the resolution ‘that it is not by temporary expedients, but by free trade alone, that this nation is to be saved from impending ruin.’ As the government gave no sign of compliance with the national demand for unrestricted free trade, he took up an attitude antagonistic to them by supporting the resolution that the ‘appropriated duties should be granted for six months only.’ It was in this speech that he described the political situation in memorable words. ‘Talk not to me,’ he said, ‘of peace. Ireland is not at peace. It is smothered war. England has sown her laws as dragon's teeth, and they have sprung up as armed men.’ The tumultuous applause provoked by this imagery was taken up by the gallery, from which it was thundered to the crowd at the door, and as the import of the words passed from mouth to mouth, they caused a thrill of excitement through the whole city. After concluding his speech, he again rose and resigned the office he held under the crown. When shortly afterwards the restrictive acts on the Irish trade were totally repealed, Burgh advised Grattan, in view of the power of England, to adopt a more conciliatory attitude, and not to press measures insistence upon which might tend to widen the breach between the two countries. As soon, however, as the question of Ireland's independence was raised, he strenuously supported the resolutions of Grattan that ‘the king, with the consent of the parliament of Ireland, is alone competent to enact laws to bind Ireland, and that Great Britain and Ireland are inseparably united, but only under a common sovereign.’ In supporting the resolutions he believed that he was cutting off all hopes of future promotion under the government, and after recording his vote he said to a friend sitting near, ‘I have now sacrificed the greatest honour an Irishman can aim at.’ After the adoption of the declaration of rights in 1782, he again accepted his old office, and shortly afterwards was appointed chief baron of the exchequer. While on circuit at Armagh he caught a cold which developed into fever, of which he died on 29 Sept. 1783. He was buried in the cemetery of St. Peter's Church, Dublin. By his wife Anne, daughter of Thomas Burgh of Bert, co. Kildare, whom he married in 1767, and who died in 1782, he had one son and four daughters. On the motion of Grattan a grant of 2,000l. a year was voted to the children, with the benefit of survivorship.

Great as were the oratorical triumphs of Burgh, only fragmentary sentences of his speeches have been handed down to us. These, and a few instances of his witty remarks in conversation, are the only authentic remains of his rare and brilliant mental gifts. But if his fame is thus almost wholly traditional, the tradition is both considerable and unanimous. According to Lord Plunket, ‘no modern speaker approached him in power of stirring the passions,’ and at times he is said to have excelled even Grattan in the splendour and graphic power of his imagery; his eloquence was moreover only the adornment of a solid framework of argument and masterly exposition. His parliamentary tact was equal to his oratory; he possessed an extraordinary ability for gauging the feeling of the house, and framing a motion which would gather and concentrate the prevailing opinion; as he said of himself in reference to the members of the house, he ‘could suck out their brains.’ His voice was of great range and power, his chief defect in the use of it being that his tones were too uniformly loud; his action was graceful and strikingly effective, though it was said to have tended slightly towards attitudinising. But whatever minor defects belonged to his manner, his eloquence won universal recognition. Both as a man and an orator he was equally popular at the bar, in the House of Commons, and among the great mass of the people. As a politician, his noble and unselfish aims place him on a level with Grattan, and fully justify the eulogy of Flood: ‘He did not live to be ennobled by patent; he was ennobled by nature.’ His chief weaknesses were a tendency to extravagance and a love of parade. He was accustomed to drive to court with six horses and three outriders, and although he both possessed a large professional income and inherited a considerable estate, he was latterly deeply involved in money difficulties.

[Burke's Landed Gentry; Gent. Mag. liii. pt. ii. 893, 903; Life of Grattan, i. 402-7; Barrington's Historic Memoirs of Ireland, i. 36 (containing portrait); Phillips's Curran and his Contemporaries, 38–44; O'Flanagan's The Irish Bar, 30-42; Froude's English in Ireland]

T. F. H.