Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 9

Napoleon — The storm — The cove — Up the country — The trembling hand — Irish — Tough battle — Tipperary hills — Elegant lodgings — A speech — Fair specimen — Orangemen.

Onward, onward! and after we had sojourned in Scotland nearly two years, the long continental war had been brought to an end, Napoleon was humbled for a time, and the Bourbons restored to a land which could well have dispensed with them; we returned to England, where the corps was disbanded, and my parents with their family retired to private life. I shall pass over in silence the events of a year, which offer little of interest as far as connected with me and mine. Suddenly, however, the sound of war was heard again, Napoleon had broken forth from Elba, and everything was in confusion. Vast military preparations were again made, our own corps was levied anew, and my brother became an officer in it; but the danger was soon over, Napoleon was once more quelled, and chained for ever, like Prometheus, to his rock. As the corps, however, though so recently levied, had already become a very fine one, thanks to my father’s energetic drilling, the Government very properly determined to turn it to some account, and, as disturbances were apprehended in Ireland about this period, it occurred to them that they could do no better than despatch it to that country.

In the autumn of the year 1815 we set sail from a port in Essex; we were some eight hundred strong, and were embarked in two ships, very large, but old and crazy; a storm overtook us when off Beachy Head, in which we had nearly foundered. I was awakened early in the morning by the howling of the wind and the uproar on deck. I kept myself close, however, as is still my constant practice on similar occasions, and waited the result with that apathy and indifference which violent sea-sickness is sure to produce. We shipped several seas, and once the vessel missing stays — which, to do it justice, it generally did at every third or fourth tack — we escaped almost by a miracle from being dashed upon the foreland. On the eighth day of our voyage we were in sight of Ireland. The weather was now calm and serene, the sun shone brightly on the sea and on certain green hills in the distance, on which I descried what at first sight I believed to be two ladies gathering flowers, which, however, on our nearer approach, proved to be two tall white towers, doubtless built for some purpose or other, though I did not learn for what.

We entered a kind of bay, or cove, by a narrow inlet; it was a beautiful and romantic place this cove, very spacious, and, being nearly land-locked, was sheltered from every wind. A small island, every inch of which was covered with fortifications, appeared to swim upon the waters, whose dark blue denoted their immense depth; tall green hills, which ascended gradually from the shore, formed the background to the west; they were carpeted to the top with turf of the most vivid green, and studded here and there with woods, seemingly of oak; there was a strange old castle half-way up the ascent, a village on a crag — but the mists of morning were half veiling the scene when I surveyed it, and the mists of time are now hanging densely between it and my no longer youthful eye; I may not describe it; — nor will I try.

Leaving the ship in the cove, we passed up a wide river in boats till we came to a city, where we disembarked. It was a large city, as large as Edinburgh to my eyes; there were plenty of fine houses, but little neatness; the streets were full of impurities; handsome equipages rolled along, but the greater part of the population were in rags; beggars abounded; there was no lack of merriment, however; boisterous shouts of laughter were heard on every side. It appeared a city of contradictions. After a few days’ rest we marched from this place in two divisions. My father commanded the second, I walked by his side.

Our route lay up the country; the country at first offered no very remarkable feature, it was pretty, but tame. On the second day, however, its appearance had altered, it had become more wild; a range of distant mountains bounded the horizon. We passed through several villages, as I suppose I may term them, of low huts, the walls formed of rough stones without mortar, the roof of flags laid over wattles and wicker-work; they seemed to be inhabited solely by women and children; the latter were naked, the former, in general, blear-eyed beldames, who sat beside the doors on low stools, spinning. We saw, however, both men and women working at a distance in the fields.

I was thirsty; and going up to an ancient crone, employed in the manner which I have described, I asked her for water; she looked me in the face, appeared to consider a moment, then tottering into her hut, presently reappeared with a small pipkin of milk, which she offered to me with a trembling hand. I drank the milk; it was sour, but I found it highly refreshing. I then took out a penny and offered it to her, whereupon she shook her head, smiled, and, patting my face with her skinny hand, murmured some words in a tongue which I had never heard before.

I walked on by my father’s side, holding the stirrup-leather of his horse; presently several low uncouth cars passed by, drawn by starved cattle: the drivers were tall fellows, with dark features and athletic frames — they wore long loose blue cloaks with sleeves, which last, however, dangled unoccupied: these cloaks appeared in tolerably good condition, not so their under garments. On their heads were broad slouching hats: the generality of them were bare-footed. As they passed, the soldiers jested with them in the patois of East Anglia, whereupon the fellows laughed, and appeared to jest with the soldiers; but what they said who knows, it being in a rough guttural language, strange and wild. The soldiers stared at each other, and were silent.

‘A strange language that!’ said a young officer to my father, ‘I don’t understand a word of it; what can it be?’

‘Irish!’ said my father, with a loud voice, ‘and a bad language it is, I have known it of old, that is, I have often heard it spoken when I was a guardsman in London. There’s one part of London where all the Irish live — at least all the worst of them — and there they hatch their villainies and speak this tongue; it is that which keeps them together and makes them dangerous: I was once sent there to seize a couple of deserters — Irish — who had taken refuge amongst their companions; we found them in what was in my time called a ken, that is a house where only thieves and desperadoes are to be found. Knowing on what kind of business I was bound, I had taken with me a sergeant’s party; it was well I did so. We found the deserters in a large room, with at least thirty ruffians, horrid-looking fellows, seated about a long table, drinking, swearing, and talking Irish. Ah! we had a tough battle, I remember; the two fellows did nothing, but sat still, thinking it best to be quiet; but the rest, with an ubbubboo like the blowing up of a powder-magazine, sprang up, brandishing their sticks; for these fellows always carry sticks with them even to bed, and not unfrequently spring up in their sleep, striking left and right.’

‘And did you take the deserters?’ said the officer.

‘Yes,’ said my father; ‘for we formed at the end of the room, and charged with fixed bayonets, which compelled the others to yield notwithstanding their numbers; but the worst was when we got out into the street; the whole district had become alarmed, and hundreds came pouring down upon us — men, women, and children. Women, did I say! — they looked fiends, half naked, with their hair hanging down over their bosoms; they tore up the very pavement to hurl at us, sticks rang about our ears, stones, and Irish — I liked the Irish worst of all, it sounded so horrid, especially as I did not understand it. It’s a bad language.’

‘A queer tongue,’ said I; ‘I wonder if I could learn it.’

‘Learn it!’ said my father; ‘what should you learn it for? — however, I am not afraid of that. It is not like Scotch, no person can learn it, save those who are born to it, and even in Ireland the respectable people do not speak it, only the wilder sort, like those we have passed.’

Within a day or two we had reached a tall range of mountains running north and south, which I was told were those of Tipperary; along the skirts of these we proceeded till we came to a town, the principal one of these regions. It was on the bank of a beautiful river, which separated it from the mountains. It was rather an ancient place, and might contain some ten thousand inhabitants — I found that it was our destination; there were extensive barracks at the farther end, in which the corps took up its quarters; with respect to ourselves, we took lodgings in a house which stood in the principal street.

‘You never saw more elegant lodgings than these, captain,’ said the master of the house, a tall, handsome, and athletic man, who came up whilst our little family were seated at dinner late in the afternoon of the day of our arrival; ‘they beat anything in this town of Clonmel. I do not let them for the sake of interest, and to none but gentlemen in the army, in order that myself and my wife, who is from Londonderry, may have the advantage of pleasant company, genteel company; ay, and Protestant company, captain. It did my heart good when I saw your honour ride in at the head of all those fine fellows, real Protestants, I’ll engage, not a Papist among them, they are too good-looking and honest-looking for that. So I no sooner saw your honour at the head of your army, with that handsome young gentleman holding by your stirrup, than I said to my wife, Mistress Hyne, who is from Londonderry, “God bless me,” said I, “what a truly Protestant countenance, what a noble bearing, and what a sweet young gentleman. By the silver hairs of his honour” — and sure enough I never saw hairs more regally silver than those of your honour — “by his honour’s gray silver hairs, and by my own soul, which is not worthy to be mentioned in the same day with one of them — it would be no more than decent and civil to run out and welcome such a father and son coming in at the head of such a Protestant military.” And then my wife, who is from Londonderry, Mistress Hyne, looking me in the face like a fairy as she is, “You may say that,” says she. “It would be but decent and civil, honey.” And your honour knows how I ran out of my own door and welcomed your honour riding in company with your son, who was walking; how I welcomed ye both at the head of your royal regiment, and how I shook your honour by the hand, saying, I am glad to see your honour, and your honour’s son, and your honour’s royal military Protestant regiment. And now I have you in the house, and right proud I am to have ye one and all; one, two, three, four, true Protestants every one, no Papists here; and I have made bold to bring up a bottle of claret which is now waiting behind the door; and, when your honour and your family have dined, I will make bold too to bring up Mistress Hyne, from Londonderry, to introduce to your honour’s lady, and then we’ll drink to the health of King George, God bless him; to the “glorious and immortal” — to Boyne water — to your honour’s speedy promotion to be Lord Lieutenant, and to the speedy downfall of the Pope and Saint Anthony of Padua.’

Such was the speech of the Irish Protestant addressed to my father in the long lofty dining-room with three windows, looking upon the high street of the good town of Clonmel, as he sat at meat with his family, after saying grace like a true-hearted respectable soldier as he was.

‘A bigot and an Orangeman!’ Oh yes! It is easier to apply epithets of opprobrium to people than to make yourself acquainted with their history and position. He was a specimen, and a fair specimen, of a most remarkable body of men, who during two centuries have fought a good fight in Ireland in the cause of civilisation and religious truth; they were sent as colonists, few in number, into a barbarous and unhappy country, where ever since, though surrounded with difficulties of every kind, they have maintained their ground; theirs has been no easy life, nor have their lines fallen upon very pleasant places; amidst darkness they have held up a lamp, and it would be well for Ireland were all her children like these her adopted ones. ‘But they are fierce and sanguinary,’ it is said. Ay, ay! they have not unfrequently opposed the keen sword to the savage pike. ‘But they are bigoted and narrow-minded.’ Ay, ay! they do not like idolatry, and will not bow the knee before a stone! ‘But their language is frequently indecorous.’ Go to, my dainty one, did ye ever listen to the voice of Papist cursing?

The Irish Protestants have faults, numerous ones; but the greater number of these may be traced to the peculiar circumstances of their position: but they have virtues, numerous ones; and their virtues are their own, their industry, their energy, and their undaunted resolution are their own. They have been vilified and traduced — but what would Ireland be without them? I repeat, that it would be well for her were all her sons no worse than these much-calumniated children of her adoption.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32