The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Killarney — Stag-hunting on the Lake.

Mrs. Macgillicuddy’s house is at the corner of the two principal streets of Killarney town, and the drawing-room windows command each a street. Before one window is a dismal, rickety building, with a slate face, that looks like an ex-town hall. There is a row of arches to the ground floor, the angles at the base of which seem to have mouldered or to have been kicked away. Over the centre arch is a picture with a flourishing yellow inscription above, importing that it is the meeting-place of the Total Abstinence Society. Total abstinence is represented by the figure of a gentleman in a blue coat and drab tights, with gilt garters, who is giving his hand to a lady; between them is an escutcheon surmounted with a cross and charged with religious emblems. Cupids float above the heads and between the legs of this happy pair, while an exceedingly small tea-table with the requisite crockery reposes against the lady’s knee; a still, with death’s-head, and bloody-bones, filling up the naked corner near the gentleman. A sort of market is held here, and the place is swarming with blue cloaks and groups of men talking; here and there is a stall with coarse linens, crockery, and cheese; and crowds of egg and milk-women are squatted on the pavement, with their ragged customers or gossips; and the yellow-haired girl on the next page, with a barrel containing nothing at all, has been sitting, as if for her portrait, this hour past.

Carts, cars, jinglees, barouches, horses and vehicles of all descriptions rattle presently through the streets: for the town is crowded with company for the races and other sports, and all the world is bent to see the stag-hunt on the lake. Where the ladies of the Macgillicuddy family have slept, heaven knows, for their house is full of lodgers. What voices you hear! “Bring me some hot watah,” says a genteel, high-piped English voice. “Hwhere’s me hot wather?” roars a deep-toned Hibernian. See, over the way, three ladies in ringlets and green tabinet taking their “tay” preparatory to setting out. I wonder whether they heard the sentimental songs of the law-marines last night? They must have been edified if they did.

My companions came, true to their appointment, and we walked down to the boats, lying at a couple of miles from the town, near the “Victoria Inn,” a handsome mansion, in pretty grounds, close to the lake, and owned by the patriotic Mr. Finn. A nobleman offered Finn eight hundred pounds for the use of his house during the races, and, to Finn’s eternal honour be it said, he refused the money, and said he would keep his house for his friends and patrons, the public. Let the Cork Steam-Packet Company think of this generosity on the part of Mr. Finn, and blush for shame; at the Cork Agricultural Show they raised their fares, and were disappointed in their speculation, as they deserved to be, by indignant Englishmen refusing to go at all.

The morning had been bright enough; but for fear of accidents we took our mackintoshes, and at about a mile from the town found it necessary to assume those garments and wear them for the greater part of the day. Passing by the “Victoria,” with its beautiful walks, park, and lodge, we came to a little creek where the boats were moored; and there was the wonderful lake before us, with its mountains, and islands, and trees. Unluckily, however, the mountains happened to be invisible; the islands looked like grey masses in the fog, and all that we could see for some time was the grey silhouette of the boat ahead of us, in which a passenger was engaged in a witty conversation with some boat still further in the mist.

Drumming and trumpeting was heard at a little distance, and presently we found ourselves in the midst of a fleet of boats upon the rocky shores of the beautiful little Innisfallen.

Here we landed for a while, and the weather clearing up allowed us to see this charming spot: rocks, shrubs, and little abrupt rises and falls of ground, covered with the brightest emerald grass; a beautiful little ruin of a Saxon chapel, lying gentle, delicate, and plaintive on the shore; some noble trees round about it, and beyond, presently, the tower of Ross Castle: island after island appearing in the clearing sunshine, and the huge hills throwing their misty veils off, and wearing their noble robes of purple. The boats’ crews were grouped about the place, and one large barge especially had landed some sixty people, being the Temperance band, with its drums, trumpets, and wives. They were marshalled by a grave old gentleman with a white waistcoat and queue, a silver medal decorating one side of his coat, and a brass heart reposing on the other flap. The horns performed some Irish airs prettily; and at length, at the instigation of a fellow who went swaggering about with a pair of whirling drumsticks, all formed together and played Garryowen — the active drum of course most dreadfully out of time.

Having strolled about the island for a quarter of an hour, it became time to take to the boats again, and we were rowed over to the wood opposite Sullivan’s cascade, where the hounds had been laid in in the morning, and the stag was expected to take water. Fifty or sixty men are employed on the mountain to drive the stag lakewards, should he be inclined to break away: and the sport generally ends by the stag — a wild one-making for the water with the pack swimming afterwards; and here he is taken and disposed of: how I know not. It is rather a parade than a stag-hunt; but, with all the boats around and the noble view, must be a fine thing to see.

Presently, steering his barge, the “Erin,” with twelve oars and a green flag sweeping the water, came by the president of the sports, Mr. John O’Connell, a gentleman who appears to be liked by rich and poor here, and by the latter especially is adored. “Sure we’d dhrown ourselves for him,” one man told me: and proceeded to speak eagerly in his praise, and to tell numberless acts of his generosity and justice. The justice is rather rude in this wild country sometimes, and occasionally the judges not only deliver the sentence but execute it; nor does any one think of appealing to any more regular jurisdiction. The likeness of Mr. O’Connell to his brother is very striking; one might have declared it was the Liberator sitting at the stern of the boat.

Some scores more boats were there, darting up and down in the pretty, busy waters. Here came a Cambridge boat; and where, indeed, will not the gentlemen of that renowned university be found? Yonder were the dandy dragoons, stiff, silent, slim, faultlessly appointed, solemnly puffing cigars. Every now and then a hound would be heard in the wood, whereon numbers of voices, right and left, would begin to yell in chorus — “Hurroo! Hoop! Yow-yow-yow!” in accents the most shrill or the most melancholious. Meanwhile the sun had had enough of the sport, the mountains put on their veils again, the islands retreated into the mist, the word went through the fleet to spread all umbrellas, and ladies took shares of mackintoshes and disappeared under the flaps of silk cloaks.

The wood comes down to the very edge of the water, and many of the crews thought fit to land and seek this green shelter. There you might see how the dandium summa genus haesit ulmo, clambering up thither to hide from the rain, and many “membra” in dabbled russia-ducks cowering viridi sub arbuto ad aguae lene cafut. To behold these moist dandies the nativees of the country came eagerly. Strange, savage faces might be seen peering from out of the trees: long-haired, barelegged girls came down the hill, some with green apples and very sickly-looking plums; some with whiskey and goat’s milk: a ragged boy had a pair of stag’s horns to sell: the place swarmed with people. We went up the hill to see the noble cascade, and when you say that it comes rushing down over rock and through tangled woods, alas! one has said all the dictionary can help you to, and not enough to distinguish this particular cataract from any other. This seen and admired, we came back to the harbour where the boats lay, and from which spot the reader might have seen the lake — that is, you would see the lake, if the mist would only clear away.

But this for hours it did not seem inclined to do. We rowed up and down industriously for a period of time which seemed to me atrociously long, The bugles of the “Erin” had long since sounded “Home, sweet home! “and the greater part of the fleet had dispersed. As for the stag-hunt, all I saw of it was four dogs that appeared on the shore at different intervals, and a huntsman in a scarlet coat, who similarly came and went: once or twice we were gratified by hearing the hounds; but at last it was agreed that there was no chance for the day, and we rowed off to Kenmare Cottage-where, on the lovely lawn, or in a cottage adjoining, the gentry picnic, and where, with a handkerchief of potatoes, we made as pleasant a meal as ever I recollect. Here a good number of the boats were assembled; here you might see cloths spread and dinner going on here were those wonderful officers, looking as if they had just stepped from bandboxes, with — by heavens! — not a shirt-collar disarranged nor a boot dimmed by the wet. An old piper was making a very feeble music, with a handkerchief spread over his face; and, farther on, a little smiling German boy was playing an accordion, arid singing a ballad of Hauff’s. I had a silver medal in my pocket, with Victoria on one side and Britannia on the other, and gave it him, for the sake of old times and his round friendly face. Oh, little German boy, many a night as you trudge lonely through this wild land, must you yearn after Bruderlein and Schwesterlein at home — yonder in stately Frankfurt city that lies by silver Mayn. I thought of vineyards and sunshine, and the greasy clock in the theatre, and the railroad all the way to Wiesbaden, and the handsome, Jew country-houses by the Bockenheimer-Thor. * * * * “Come along,” says the boatman. “All the gintlemin are waiting for your honour.” And I found them finishing the potatoes, and we’all had a draught of water from the lake, and so pulled to the middle of Turk Lake through the picturesque green rapid that floats under Brickeen Bridge.

What is to be said about Turk Lake? When there, we agreed that it was more beautiful than the large lake, of which it is not one-fourth the size; then, when we came back, we said, “No, the large lake is the most beautiful.” And so, at every point we stopped at, we determined that that particular spot was the prettiest in the whole lake. The fact is — and I don’t care to own it — they are too handsome. As for a man coining from his desk in London or Dublin and seeing “the whole lakes in a day,” he is an ass for his pains; a child doing sums in addition might as well read the whole multiplication-table, and fancy he had it by heart. We should look at these wonderful things leisurely and thoughtfully; and even then, blessed is he who understands them. I wonder what impression the sight made upon the three tipsy Englishmen at Glengariff? What idea of natural beauty belongs to an old fellow who says he is “a gentleman, and pays his way?” What to a jolly fox-hunter, who had rather see a good “screeching” run with the hounds than the best landscape ever painted? And yet they all come hither, and go through the business regularly, and would not miss seeing every one of the lakes and going up every one of the hills. By which circumlocution the writer wishes ingenuously to announce that he will not see any more lakes, ascend any mountains or towers, visit any gaps of Dunloe, or any prospects whatever, except such as nature shall fling in his way in the course of a quiet reasonable walk.

In the Middle Lake we were carried to an island where a ceremony of goat’s -milk and whiskey is performed by some travellers, and where you are carefully conducted to a spot that “Sir Walter Scott admired more than all.” Whether he did or not, we can only say on the authority of the boatman; but the place itself was a quiet nook, where three waters meet, and indeed of no great picturesqueness when compared with the beauties around. But it is of a gentle, homely beauty-not like the lake, which is as a princess dressed cut in diamonds and velvet for a drawing-room, and knowing herself to be faultless too. As for Innisfallen, it was just as if she gave one smiling peep into the nursery before she went away, so quiet, innocent, and tender is that lovely spot; but, depend on it, if there is a lake fairy or princess, as Crofton Croker and other historians assert, she is of her nature a vain creature, proud of her person, and fond of the finest dresses to adorn it. May I confess that I would rather, for a continuance, have a house facing a paddock, with a cow in it, than be always looking at this immense, overpowering splendour. You would not, my dear brother cockney from Tooley Street? No, those brilliant eyes of thine were never meant to gaze at anything less bright than the sun. Your mighty spirit finds nothing too vast for its comprehension, spurns what is humble as unworthy, and only, like Foote’s bear, dances to “the genteelest of tunes.”

The long and short of the matter is, that on getting off the lake, after seven hours’ rowing, I felt as much relieved as if I had been dining for the same length of time with her Majesty the Queen, and went jumping home as gayly as possible; but those marine lawyers insisted so piteously upon seeing Ross Castle, close to which we were at length landed, that I was obliged (in spite of repeated oaths to the contrary) to ascend that tower and take a bird’s eye view of the scene. Thank heaven, I have neither tail nor wings, and have not the slightest wish to be a bird: that continual immensity of prospect which stretches beneath those little wings of theirs must deaden their intellects, depend on it. Tomkins and I are not made for the immense: we can enjoy a little at a time, and enjoy that little very much; or if like birds, we are like the ostrich-not that we have fine feathers to our hacks, but because we cannot fly. Press us too much, and we become flurried, and run off and bury our heads in the quiet bosom of dear mother earth, and so get rid of the din, and the dazzle, and the shouting.

Because we dined upon potatoes, that was no reason we should sup on buttermilk. Well, well! salmon is good, and whiskey is good too.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07