When logic goes brogue
Or, the genius of the Irish Bull
If Sir Boyle Roche did not exist, we would have to invent him. But if in fact we did invent him, did he not exist?
The exceedingly minor Irish statesman (1736-1807) was a soldier, member of parliament, and alleged originator of many humorously illogical statements. Did he really say all the things credited to him? In his words, we can answer boldly in the affirmative with an emphatic “No!”
Roche is the spiritual godfather of Yogi Berra, Samuel Goldwyn, and anyone who has ever uttered something profound by accident. He holds a special place in his country’s lore as the father of the Irish Bull, a paradoxical statement that passes muster at first glance.
Why Irish? Probably because in England, the adjective Irish “is often used to connote the sort of amusing illogicality deemed characteristic of Irish people,” as per Brewster’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.
And why a bull? “An Irish bull is always pregnant,” goes the amusingly illogical answer.
Why should we do anything for posterity, when posterity never does anything for us? That’s one of Roche’s most quoted lines, though Quote Investigator traces it much further back to Joseph Addison. Could it be both of them? “It is impossible that I could be in two places at once, unless I were a bird,” is a line from a play that Roche quoted but somehow gets credit for.
“Ireland and England are like two sisters; I would have them embrace like one brother,” he further argued, and indeed it was English who most celebrated and distorted Roche with jokebook examples like
We are in a pretty mess—can get nothing to eat, nor any wine to drink, except whiskey; and when we sit down to dinner, we are obliged to keep both hands armed; whilst I write this letter, I hold a sword in one hand, and a pistol in the other. I concluded from the beginning that this would be the end of it; and I see I was right, for it is not half over yet.
All of which makes Sir Boyle Roche about as verifiable an Irish wit as Patty O’Furniture. But that’s part of the charm.
The real question is, are his wrong turns of phrase better or worse if the paradox is on purpose? If a slip of the tongue turns into a perfect backflip, the obvious recovery is to say it was on purpose. And The Dictionary of Irish Biography suggests that “his bulls were a deliberate device to undermine the effect of forceful speeches by opposition spokesmen: after a string of absurdities by Roche the indignation or hostility of the house would often dissolve in laughter.”
So whether you laugh with him or at him, you’re not listening to the other guy.
Nowadays, the Irish Bull is chiefly deployed by sentimentalists who proclaim that “an Irishman would rather die than be buried outside of Ireland.” If it’s true that if everyone’s a little bit Irish on March 17 and that Sir Boyle Roche wasn’t half the wit he’s reputed to be, then it follows that everyone may be amusingly illogical on this day and all the others.
Quick quips; lightning
“The moment the very name of Ireland is mentioned, the English seem to bid adieu to common feeling, common prudence, and common sense, and to act with the barbarity of tyrants and the fatuity of idiots.”
— Sydney Smith
“The Irish are a fair people; they never speak well of one another.”
— Samuel Johnson
“There is an Irish way of paying compliments as though they were irresistible truths which makes what would otherwise be an impertinence delightful.”
— Katharine Tynan Hinkson
Princes of paradox
GWQ No. 141 is not to be confused. Also, an Irish Bull is not the same as an Escher sentence, the classic example being the statement that “More people have been to Ireland than I have.” A Boyle Roche advisory remains in effect. Those who have been eagerly awaiting the Irish translation of Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting may continue to do so. In absence of a Blarney Stone to kiss, give the ❤️ a tap.