The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Killarney — The Races — Muckross.

The races were as gay as races could be, in spite of one or two untoward accidents that arrived at the close of the day’s sport. Where all the people came from that thronged out of the town was a wonder; where all the vehicles, the cars, barouches and shandrydans, the carts, the horse and donkey-men could have found stable and shelter, who can tell? Of all these equipages and donkeypages I had a fine view from Mrs. Macgillicuddy’s window, and it was pleasant to see the happy faces shining under the blue cloaks as the carts rattled by.

A very handsome young lady — I presume Miss MacG. — who gives a hand to the drawing-room and comes smiling in with the teapot — Miss MacG., I say, appeared to-day in a silk bonnet and stiff silk dress, with a brooch and a black mantle, as smart as any lady in the land, and looking as if she was accustomed to her dress too, which the housemaid on banks, of Thames does not. Indeed, I have not met a more ladylike young person in Ireland than Miss MacG.; and when I saw her in a handsome car on the course, I was quite proud of a bow.

Tramping thither, too, as hard as they could walk, and as happy and smiling as possible, were Mary the coachman’s wife of the day before, and Johanna with the child, and presently the other young lady: the man with the stick, you may be sure: he would toil a year for that day’s pleasure. They are all mad for it: people walk for miles and miles round to the race; they come without a penny in their pockets often, trusting to chance and charity, and that some worthy gentleman may fling them a sixpence. A gentleman told me that he saw on the course persons from his part of the country, who must have walked eighty miles for the sport.

For a mile and a half to the racecourse there could be no pleasanter occupation than looking at the happy multitudes who were thronging thither; and I am bound to say that on rich or poor shoulders I never saw so many handsome faces in my life. In the carriages, among the ladies of Kerry, every second woman was handsome; and there is something peculiarly tender and pleasing in the looks of the young female peasantry that is perhaps even better than beauty. Beggars had taken their stations along the road in no great numbers, for I suspect they were most of them on the ground, and those who remained were consequently of the oldest and ugliest It is a shame that such horrible figures are allowed to appear in public as some of the loathsome ones which belong to these unhappy people.

On went the crowd, however, laughing and as gay as possible; all sorts of fun passing from car to foot-passengers as the pretty girls came clattering by, and the “boys” had a word for each. One lady, with long flowing auburn hair, who was turning away her head from some “boys” very demurely, I actually saw, at a pause of the cart, kissed by one of them. She gave the fellow a huge box on the ear and he roared out, “O murther!” and she frowned for some time as hard as she could, whilst the ladies in the blue cloaks at the back of the car uttered a shrill rebuke in Irish. But in a minute the whole party was grinning, and the young fellow who had administered the salute may, for what I know, have taken another without the slap on the face by way of exchange.

And here, lest the fair public may have a bad opinion of the personage who talks of kissing with such awful levity, let it be said that with all this laughing, romping, kissing, and the like, there are no more innocent girls in the world than the Irish girls; and that the women of our squeamish country are far more liable to err. One has but to walk through an English and Irish town, and see how much superior is the morality of the latter. That great terror-striker, the Confessional, is before the Irish girl, and sooner or later her sins must be told there.

By this time we are got upon the course, which is really one of the most beautiful spots that ever was seen: the lake and mountains lying along two sides of it, and of course visible from all. They were busy putting up the hurdles when we arrived: stiff bars and poles, four feet from the ground, with furze-bushes over them. The grand stand was already full along the hedges sat thousands of the people, sitting at their ease doing nothing, and happy as kings. A daguerreotype would have been of great service to have taken their portraits and I never saw a vast multitude of heads and attitudes so picturesque and lively. The sun lighted up the whole course and the lakes with amazing brightness, though behind the former lay a huge rack of the darkest clouds against which the corn fields and meadows shone in the brightest green and gold, and a row of white tents was quite dazzling.

There was a brightness and intelligence about this immense Irish crowd, which I don’t remember to have seen in an English one. The women in their blue cloaks, with red smiling faces peering from one end, and bare feet from the other, had seated themselves in all sorts of pretty attitudes of cheerful contemplation; and the men, who are accustomed to lie about, were doing so now with all their might-sprawling on the banks, with as much ease and variety as club-room loungers on their soft cushions, — or squatted leisurely among the green potatoes. The sight of so much happy laziness did one good to look on. Nor did the honest fellows seem to weary of this amusement. Hours passed on, and the gentlefolks (judging from our party) began to grow somewhat weary; but the finest peasantry in Europe never budged from their posts, and continued to indulge in greetings, indolence, and conversation.

When we came to the row of white tents, as usual it did not look so brilliant or imposing as it appeared from a little distance, though the scene around them was animating enough. The tents were long humble booths stretched on hoops, each with its humble streamer or ensign without, and containing, of course, articles of refreshment within. But Father Mathew has been busy among the publicans, and the consequence is that the poor fellows are now condemned for the most part to sell “tay” in place of whiskey; for the concoction of which beverage huge cauldrons were smoking, in front of each hut door, in round graves dug for the purpose and piled up with black smoking sod.

Behind this camp were the carts of the poor people, which were not allowed to penetrate into the quarter where the quality cars stood. And a little way from the huts, again, you might see (for you could scarcely hear) certain pipers executing their melodies and inviting people to dance.

Anything more lugubrious than the drone of the pipe, or the jig danced to it, or the countenances of the dancers. and musicians, I never saw. Round each set of dancers the people formed a ring, in the which the figurantes and coryphées went through their operations. The toes went in and the toes went out; then there came certain mystic figures of hands across, and so forth. I never saw less grace or seemingly less enjoyment — no, not even in a quadrille. The people, however, took a great interest, and it was “Well done, Tim! “ “Step out, Miss Brady!” and so forth during the dance.

Thimble-rig too obtained somewhat, though in a humble way. A ragged scoundrel — the image of Hogarth’s Bad Apprentice — went bustling and shouting through the crowd with his dirty tray and thimble, and as soon as he had taken his post, stated that this was the “royal game of thimble” and called upon “gintlemen” to come forward. And then a ragged fellow would be seen to approach, with as innocent an air as he could assume, and the bystanders might remark that the second ragged fellow almost always won. Nay, he was so benevolent, in many instances, as to point out to various people who had a mind to bet, under which thimble the pea actually was. Meanwhile, the first fellow was sure to be looking away and talking to some one in the crowd; but somehow it generally happened-and how of course I can’t tell — that any man who listened to the advice of rascal No. 2, lost his money. I believe it is so even in England.

Then you would see gentlemen with halfpenny roulette-tables; and, again, here were a pair who came forward disinterestedly with a table and a pack of cards, and began playing against each other for ten shillings a game, betting crowns as freely as possible.

Gambling, however, must have been fatal to both of these gentlemen, else might not one have supposed that, if they were in the habit of winning much, they would have treated themselves to better clothes? This, however, is the way with all gamblers, as the reader has no doubt remarked: for, look at a game of loo or vingt-et-un played in a friendly way, and where you, and three or four others, have certainly lost three or four pounds, — well. ask at the end of the game who has won, and you invariably find that nobody has. Hopkins has only covered himself; Snooks has neither lost nor won; Smith has won four shillings; and so on. Who gets the money? The devil gets it, I dare say; and so, no doubt, he has laid hold of the money of yonder gentleman in the handsome great-coat.

But, to the shame of the stewards be it spoken, they are extremely averse to this kind of sport; and presently comes up one, a stout old gentleman on a bay horse, wielding a huge hunting-whip, at the sight of which all fly, amateurs, idlers, professional men and all. He is a rude customer to deal with, that gentleman with the whip; just now he was clearing the course, and cleared it with such a vengeance, that a whole troop on a hedge retreated backward into a ditch opposite, where was rare kicking, and sprawlina and disarrangement of petticoats, and cries of “O murther!” Mother of God!” “I’m kilt!” and so on. But as soon as the horsewhip was gone, the people clambered out of their ditch again, and were as thick as ever on the bank.

The last instance of the exercise of the whip shall be this. A groom rode insolently after a gentleman, calling him names, and inviting him to fight. This the great flagellator hearing, rode up to the groom, lifted him gracefully off his horse into the air, and on to the ground, and when there administered to him a severe and merited fustigation; after which he told the course-keepers to drive the fellow off the course, and enjoined the latter not to appear again at his peril.

As for the races themselves, I won’t pretend to say that they were better or worse than other such amusement: or to quarrel with gentlemen who choose to risk their lives in manly exercise. In the first race there was a fall: one of the gentlemen was carried off the ground, and it was said he was dead. In the second race, a horse and man went over and over each other, and the fine young man (we had seen him five minutes before, full of life and triumph, clearing the hurdles on his gray horse, at the head of the race):— in the second heat of the second race the poor fellow missed his leap, was carried away stunned and dying, and the bay horse won.

I was standing, during the first heat of this race, (this is the second man the gray has killed — they ought to call him the Pale Horse,) by half a dozen young giris from the gentleman’s village, and hundreds more of them were there, anxious for the honour of their village, the young squire, and the grey horse. Oh, how they hurrah’d as he rode ahead! I saw these girls — they might be fourteen years old — after the catastrophe. “Well,” says I, “this is a sad end to the race.” “And is it the pink jacket or the blue has won this time?” says one of the girls. It was poor Mr. C—’s only epitaph: and wasn’t it a sporting answer? That girl ought to be a hurdle-racer’s wife; and I would like, for my part, to bestow her upon the groom who won the race

I don’t care to confess that the accident to the poor young gentleman so thoroughly disgusted my feeling as a man and a cockney, that I turned off the racecourse short, and hired a horse for sixpence to carry me back to Miss Macgillicuddy. In the evening, at the inn, (let no man who values comfort go to an Irish inn in race-time,) a blind old piper, with silvery hair and of a most respectable, bard-like appearance, played a great deal too much for us after dinner. He played very well, and with very much feeling, ornamenting the airs with flourishes and variations that were very pretty indeed, and his pipe was by far the most melodious I have heard; but honest truth compels me to say, that the bad pipes are execrable, and the good inferior to a clarionet.

Next day, instead of going back to the racecourse, a car drove me out to Muckross, where, in Mr. Herbert’s beautiful grounds, lies the prettiest little bijou of a ruined abbey ever seen — a little chapel with a little chancel, a little cloister, a little dormitory, and in the midst of the cloister a wonderful huge yew — tree which darkens the whole place. The abbey is famous in book and legend; nor could two young lovers, or artists in search of the picturesque, or picnic-parties with the cold chicken and champagne in the distance, find a more charming place to while away a summer’s day than in the park of Mr. Herbert. But depend on it, for show-places and the due enjoyment of scenery, that distance of cold chickens and champagne is the most pleasing perspective one can have. I would have sacrificed a mountain or two for the above, and would have pitched Mangerton into the lake for the sake of a friend with whom to enjoy the rest of the landscape.

The walk through Mr. Herbert’s demesne carries you, through all sorts of beautiful avenues, by a fine house which be is building in the Elizabethan style, and from which, as from the whole road, you command the most wonderful rich views of the lake. The shore breaks into little bays, which the water washes; here and there are picturesque grey rocks to meet it, the bright grass as often, or the shrubs of every kind which bathe their roots in the lake. It was August, and the men before Turk Cottage were cutting a second crop of clover, as fine, seemingly, as the first drop elsewhere: a short walk from it brought us to a neat lodge, whence issued a keeper with a key, quite willing, for the consideration of sixpence, to conduct us to Turk waterfall.

Evergreens and other trees, in their brightest livery; blue sky; roaring water, here black, and yonder foaming of a dazzling white; rocks shining in the dark places, or frowning black against the light, all the leaves and branches keeping up a perpetual waving and dancing round about the cascade: what is the use of putting down all this? A man might describe the cataract of the Serpentine in exactly the same terms, and the reader be no wiser. Suffice it to say, that the Turk cascade is even handsomer than the before-mentioned waterfall of O’Sullivan, and that a man may pass half an hour there, and look, and listen, and muse, and not even feel the want of a companion, or so much as think of the iced champagne. There is just enough of savageness in the Turk cascade to make the view piquante. It is not, at this season at least, by any means fierce, only wild; nor was the scene peopled by any of the rude, red-shanked figures that clustered about the trees of O’Sullivan’s waterfall, — savages won’t pay sixpence for the prettiest waterfall ever seen — so that this only was for the best of company.

The road hence to Killarney caries one through Muckross village, a pretty cluster of houses, where the sketcher will find abundant materials for exercising his art and puzzling his hand. There are not only noble trees, but a green common and an old water-gate to a river, lined on either side by beds of rushes and discharging itself beneath an old mill-wheel. But the old mill-wheel was perfectly idle, like most men and mill-wheels in this country: by it is a ruinous house, and a fine garden of stinging-nettles: opposite it, on the common, is another ruinous house, with another garden containing the same plant) and far away are sharp ridges of purple hills, which make as pretty a landscape as the eye can see. I don’t know how it is, but throughout the country the men and the landscapes seem to be the same, and one and the other seem ragged, ruined, and cheerful

Having been employed all day (making some abominable attempts at landscape-drawing, which shall not be exhibited here), it became requisite as the evening approached to recruit an exhausted cockney stomach which after a very moderate portion of exercise, begins to sigh for beef steaks in the most peremptory manner. Hard by is a fine hotel with a fine sign stretching along the road for the space of a dozen windows at least, and looking inviting enough All the doors were open, and I walked into a great number of rooms, but the only person I saw was a woman with trinkets of arbutus, who offered me, by way of refreshment, a walking-stick or a card-rack. I suppose everybody was at the races; and an evilly-disposed person might have laid main-basse upon the great-coats which were there, and the silver-spoons, if by any miracle such things were kept — but Britannia metal is the favourite composition in Ireland; or else iron by itself; or else iron that has been silvered over, but that takes good care to peep out at all the corners of the forks: and blessed is the traveller who has not other observations to make regarding his fork, besides the mere abrasion of the silver.

This was the last day’s race, and on the next morning (Sunday), all the thousands who had crowded to the race seemed trooping to the chapels, and the streets were blue with cloaks. Walking in to prayers, and without his board, came my young friend of the thimble-rig, and presently after sauntered in the fellow with the long coat, who had played at cards for sovereigns. I should like to hear the confession of himself and friend the next time they communicate with his reverence.

The extent of this town is very curious, and I should imagine its population to be much greater than five thousand, which was the number, according to Miss Macgillicuddy. Along the three main streets are numerous arches, down every one of which runs an alley, intersected by other alleys, and swarming with people. A stream or gutter runs commonly down these alleys, in which the pigs and children are seen paddling about. The men and women loll at their doors or windows, to enjoy the detestable prospect. I saw two pigs under a fresh-made deal staircase in one of the main streets near the Bridewell two very well-dressed girls, with their hair in ringlets, were looking out of the parlour-window: almost all the glass in the upper rooms was of course smashed, the windows patched here and there (if the people were careful), the wood-work of the door loose, the whitewash peeling off, — and the house evidently not two years old.

By the Bridewell is a busy potato-market, picturesque to the sketcher, if not very respectable to the merchant: here were the country carts and the country cloaks, and the shrill beggarly bargains going on-a world of shrieking and gesticulating, and talk, about a pennyworth of potatoes.

All round the town miserable streets of cabins are stretched, You see people lolling at each door, women staring and combing their hair, men with their little pipes, children whose rags hang on by a miracle, idling in a gutter. Are we to set all this down to absenteeism, and pity poor injured Ireland? Is the landlord’s absence the reason why the house is filthy, and biddy tolls in the porch all day? Upon my word, I have heard people talk as if, when Pat’s thatch was blown off, the landlord ought to go fetch the straw and the ladder, and mend it himself. People need not be dirty if they are ever so idle; if they are ever so poor, pigs and men need not live together. Half an hour’s work, and digging a trench, might remove that filthy dunghill from that filthy window. The smoke might as well come out of the chimney as out of the door. Why should not Tim do that, instead of walking a hundred-and-sixty miles to a race? The priests might do much more to effect these reforms than even the landlords themselves: and I hope now that the excellent Father Mathew has succeeded in arraying his clergy to work with him in the abolition of drunkenness, they will attack the monster Dirt, with the same good-will, and surely with the same success.

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