Winston Churchill is for many the epitome of English statesman, scholar and orator. With his V for Victory sign, his cigars and his bulldog frame, he stands as the Imperial Briton, the Victorian English gentleman who helped deliver the world from the Nazis.
It is ironic, therefore that this most English of leaders, famed for his speechmaking, borrowed much of his oratorical style from an Irishman.
William Bourke Cockran was born in Ballisodare in County Sligo in 1854. Educated at St. Jarlath’s College in Tuam, and then in France, he emigrated to New York at the age of eighteen. With his gift for memory and classical languages (he could recall passages from Virgil and Horace in their original), he soon found work as a schoolteacher in a private academy. He passed the Bar Exam in 1876 and for the rest of his career alternated Law and Politics.
He was a Democrat and was hailed by his colleagues for his oratorical gift. A huge man, possessed of “a thundering voice”, deep-set eyes and handsome features that were described as a mixture of “something Spanish, Celtiberian and Celtic”, he was literally a towering figure in Tammany Hall. He held thousands in thrall when he addressed the Democratic National Convention, peppering his speeches with classical and literary allusions, and with a heroic, rolling, rhythmical style, all delivered in an Irish baritone that made him perhaps the greatest public speaker in America.
Many were charmed by him. Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie, was his lover.. They had a famous fling in Paris. In 1898 when Jennie’s son, just twenty-one and seeking adventure, planned a trip to Cuba to witness the Spanish-American war first-hand, Jennie advised him to stop in Manhattan and visit Cockran.
Cockran entertained Churchill in his magnificent Park Avenue apartment. He introduced him to New York high society. He gave him his first cigar, and advised him on many things of which Churchill was ignorant. Churchill had been an appalling scholar at Harrow, and in talking with Cockran he learned how much he did not know. They sat in Cockran’s library, drinking brandy and smoking cigars, and Churchill was enthralled by the man.
If Churchill was in need of a father-figure (and he probably was; his own father openly despised him), he found it in the Irishman. Cockran told him about another great Irish orator, Edmund Burke, telling him that “Burke mastered the English language as a man masters his horse.” He advised the young Englishman to adopt an intimate, conversational style, to “speak the simple truth” and to use body language and gestures. “Speak as if you were an organ,” he said. Decades later, Churchill fondly remembered his mentor: “I have never seen his like or, in some respects, his equal. His conversation, in point, in pith, in rotundity, in antithesis and in comprehension, exceeded anything I have ever heard.”
Cockran, “an orator who towered over others in the golden age of oratory”, as one of Churchill’s biographers put it, died in 1923. Less than twenty years later, his style could be heard in his protege’s most famous speech: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”