Whilst I Write This Letter, I Hold a Sword In One Hand, and a Pistol In the Other

Boyle Roche? Joe Miller? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A comically incoherent or absurd statement is sometimes called a bull or an Irish bull. Here is an example:

I am writing this letter with a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other.

If the writer is not a three-handed alien then this statement is nonsensical. The Irish politician Boyle Roche has received credit for this remark. Would you please explore its provenance.

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the 1802 joke book titled “New Joe Miller, Or, The Tickler: Containing Near Two Thousand Good Things”. The book included a clearly fictional letter supposedly sent during an Irish rebellion from an unnamed Irish Member of Parliament to a friend in London. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

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.—At present, there are such goings on, that every thing is at a stand.

I should have answered your letter a fortnight ago, but I only received it this morning. Indeed, hardly a mail arrives safe, without being robbed.

The letter continued for a few more paragraphs and ended with the following:

P.S. If you do not receive this in course, it must have miscarried; therefore, I beg you will immediately write to let me know.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1807 the letter achieved further circulation when it was reprinted in “The Sun” newspaper of London. 2

In 1812 the letter appeared in “The Spirit of Irish Wit, or Post-Chaise Companion: Being an Eccentric Miscellany of Hibernian Wit, Fun, and Humour” published in London. 3

In 1872 the journal “Notes and Queries” printed a piece about Sir Boyle Roche by the pseudonymous Chitteldroog. Roche who had died in 1807 was given credit for a miscellaneous set of remarks: 4

Speaking of the Union on one occasion, he said he “would have the two sisters embrace like one brother.”

Another time: “I smell a rat; I see it floating in the air before me; but mark me, sir, I’ll nip it in the bud.”

At the breaking out of the rebellion he wrote: “You may judge of our state when I tell you that I write this letter with a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other.”

In 1908 the trade journal “The American Gas Light Journal” printed a variant with “revolver” instead of “pistol”: 5

And again, an Irish friend of mine who was writing to a neighbor with whom he was very angry, began his letter in these words: “Dear Sir—I am writing this letter with a sword in one hand and a revolver in the other.” [Renewed laughter.]

In 1911 a columnist in Emporia, Kansas praised the unintentional humor of Roche: 6

The greatest humorist of any country or any age was Sir Boyle Roche, an Irish member of parliament of more than a century ago. He was a most serious-minded man, and he never intentionally said anything funny. That was why he was the most amusing man in the world.

The columnist presented the following remarks attributed to Roche:

Roche’s faculty for blundering in his speech remained with him in his literary work. On one occasion, during certain riots in Ireland, he wrote to a friend, saying: “I am writing this letter with a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other.”

One of the most amusing breaks was made in the course of a speech in parliament, in which he was bewailing the general immorality. “Even little children,” he said, “too young to walk or talk, may be seen swaggering through the streets cursing their maker.”

In 1921 “The British Journal of Psychology” published an article containing excerpts from an intelligence test. The test participants were shown a set of statements and were asked to determine which statements were sensible and which were foolish. These were the first three items: 7

(1) A soldier writing home to his mother said: “I am writing this letter with a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other.”

(2) It is said that a certain town in Greece contains two relics of St Paul; one his skull when he was a boy, and the other his skull when he was a man.

(3) An old gentleman complained that he could no longer walk round the park as he used to: he could now only go half way round and back again.

In conclusion, QI believes that the remark under examination was authored by a jokesmith and placed into a “Joe Miller” book. The words were initially attributed to an unnamed Irish Member of Parliament, and Boyle Roche eventually received credit.

Boyle Roche has been given credit for other absurdist jests such as the following from a book published in 1827: 8

. . . why we should put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity:—for what has posterity done for us?

Yet, the ascription above was undoubtedly flawed because Boyle Roche was born in 1736, and the joke was already circulating via “The Spectator” magazine in 1714. A Quote Investigator article on this topic is available here.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of a hand writing from the 1912 work “The Book of Knowledge”.

Notes:

  1. 1802, New Joe Miller, Or, The Tickler: Containing Near Two Thousand Good Things, Volume 2, Second Edition, (Copy of a Letter written during the late Rebellion by Sir ____ _______, an Irish Member of Parliament, to his Friend in London), Start Page 30, Quote Page 30 and 31, Printed for J. Ridgway, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1807 February 3, The Sun, Copy of a Letter Written During the Late Rebellion by Sir * * * *, an Irish Member of Parliament, To His Friend in London, Quote Page 3, Column 4, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  3. 1812, The Spirit of Irish Wit, or Post-Chaise Companion: Being an Eccentric Miscellany of Hibernian Wit, Fun, and Humour, Copy of a Letter: Written during the late rebellion, by Sir ________, an Irish Member of Parliament, to his friend in London, Quote Page 184, Printed for Thomas Tegg, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1872 April 20, Notes and Queries, Sir Boyle Roche by Chitteldroog, Start Page 324, Quote Page 325, Column 1, Published at the Office of Notes and Queries, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1908 May 11, The American Gas Light Journal, Some Aspects of the Interdependence of Industrial Progress and Higher Education, (Address at the Banquet of the Illinois Gas Association by Dr. W.A. Colledge of the Armour Institute Chicago), Start Page 799, Quote Page 800, Column 2, A. M. Callender and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1911 February 2, Emporia Weekly Gazette, Sir Boyle Roche, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Emporia, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1921 October, The British Journal of Psychology: General Section, Volume 12, The Limit of the Growth of Intelligence by P. B. Ballard, Start Page 125, Quote Page 129, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1827, Personal Sketches of His Own Times by Sir Jonah Barrington (Judge of the High Court of Admiralty in Ireland), Volume 1 of 2, Chapter: The Seven Baronets, Quote Page 213, Henry Colburn, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link