The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Tralee — Listowel — Tarbert.

I made the journey to Tralee next day, upon one of the famous Bianconi cars — very comfortable conveyances too, if the booking-officers would only receive as many persons as the car would hold, and not have too many on the seats. For half an hour before the car left Killarney, I observed people had taken their seats: and, let all travellers be cautious to do likewise, lest, although they have booked their places, they be requested to mount on the roof and accommodate themselves on a bandbox, or a pleasant deal trunk with a knotted rope, to prevent it from being slippery, while the corner of another box jolts against your ribs for the journey. I had put my coat on a place, and was stepping to it when a lovely lady with great activity jumped up and pushed the coat on the roof, and not only occupied my seat but insisted that her husband should have the next one to her. So there was nothing for it but to make a huge shouting with the book-keeper and call instantly for the taking down of my luggage, and vow my great gods that I would take a post-chaise and make the office pay: on which, I am ashamed to say, some other person was made to give up a decently comfortable seat on the roof, which I occupied, the former occupant hanging on — heaven knows where or how.

A company of young squires were on the coach, and they talked of horse-racing and bunting punctually for three hours, during which time I do believe they did not utter one single word upon any other subject. What a wonderful faculty it is! The writers of Natural Histories, in describing the noble horse, should say be is made not only to run, to carry burdens, &c., but to be talked about. What would hundreds of thousands of dashing young fellows do with their tongues, if they had not this blessed subject to discourse on?

As far as the country went, there was here, to be sure, not much to be said. You pass through a sad-looking, bare, undulating country, with few trees, and poor stone-hedges, and poorer crops; nor have I yet taken in Ireland so dull a ride. About half way between Tralee and Killarney is a wretched town, where horses are changed, and where I saw more hideous beggary than anywhere else, I think. And I was glad to get over this gloomy tract of country, and enter the capital of Kerry.

It has a handsome description in the guide-books; but, if I mistake not, the English traveller will find a stay of a couple of hours in the town quite sufficient to gratify his curiosity with respect to the place. There seems to be a great deal of poor business going on; the town thronged with people as usual; the shops large and not too splendid. There are two or three rows of respectable houses, and a mall, and the townspeople have the further privilege of walking in the neighbouring grounds of a handsome park, which the proprietor has liberally given to their use. Tralee has a newspaper, and boasts of a couple of clubs: the one I saw was a big white house, no windows broken, and looking comfortable. But the most curious sight of the town was the chapel, with the festival held there. It was the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, (let those who are acquainted with the calendar and the facts it commemorates say what the feast was, and when it falls,) and all the country seemed to be present on the occasion: the chapel and the large court leading to it were thronged with worshippers, such as one never sees in our country, where devotion is by no means so crowded as here. Here, in the court-yard, there were thousands of them on their knees, rosary in hand, for the most part praying, and mumbling, and casting a wistful look round as the strangers passed. In a corner was an old man groaning in the agonies of death or colic, and a woman got off her knees to ask us for charity for the unhappy old fellow. In the chapel the crowd was enormous: the priest and his people were kneeling, and bowing, and humming, and chanting, and censor-rattling; the ghostly crew being attended by a fellow that I don’t remember to have seen in continental churches, a sort of Catholic clerk, a black shadow to the parson, bowing his head when his reverence bowed, kneeling when he knelt, only three steps lower.

But we who wonder at copes and candlesticks, see nothing strange in surplices and beadles. A Turk, doubtless, would sneer equally at each, and have you to understand that the only reasonable ceremonial was that which took place at his mosque.

Whether right or wrong in point of ceremony, it was evident the heart of devotion was there: the immense dense crowd moaned and swayed, and you heard a hum of all sorts of wild ejaculations, each man praying seemingly for himself, while the service went on at the altar. The altar candles flickered red in the dark, steaming place, and every now and then from the choir you heard a sweet female voice chanting Mozart’s music, which swept over the heads of the people a great deal more pure and delicious than the best incense that ever smoked out of pot.

On the chapel floor, just at the entry, lay several people moaning, and tossing, and telling their beads. Behind the old woman was a font of holy water, up to which little children were clambering; and in the chapel-yard were several old women, with tin cans full of the same sacred fluid, with which the people, as they entered, aspersed themselves with all their might, flicking a great quantity into their faces, and making a curtsey and a prayer at the same time. “A pretty prayer, truly!” says the parson’s wife. “What sad, sad, benighted superstition!” says the Independent minister’s lady. Ah! ladies, great as your intelligence is, yet think, when compared with the Supreme One, what a little difference there is after all between your husbands’ very best extempore oration and the poor Popish creatures’! One is just as far off Infinite Wisdom as the other: and so let us read the story of the woman and her pot of ointment, that most noble and charming of histories; which equalises the great and the small, the wise and the poor in spirit, and shows that their merit before heaven lies in doing their best

When I came out of the chapel, the old fellow on the point of death was still howling and groaning in so vehement a manner, that I heartily trust be was an impostor, and that on receiving a sixpence he went home tolerably comfortable, having secured a maintenance for that day. But it will be long before I can forget the strange, wild scene, so entirely different was it from the decent and comfortable observances of our own church.

Three cars set off together from Tralee to Tarbert: three cars full to overflowing. The vehicle before us contained nineteen persons, half a dozen being placed in the receptacle called the well, and one clinging on as if by a miracle at the bar behind. What can people want at Tarbert? I wondered; or anywhere else, indeed, that they rush about from one town to another in this inconceivable way? All the cars in all the towns seem to be thronged: people are perpetually hurrying from one dismal tumble-down town to another; and yet no business is done anywhere that I can see. The chief part of the contents of our three cars was discharged at Listowel, to which, for the greater part of the journey, the road was neither more cheerful nor picturesque than that from Killarney to Tralee. As, however, you reach Listowel, the county becomes better cultivated, the gentlemen’s seats are more frequent, and the town itself, as seen from a little distance, lies very prettily on a river, which is crossed by a hand-some bridge, which leads to a neat-looking square, which contains a smartish church, which is flanked by a big Roman Catholic chapel, &c. An old castle, grey and ivy-covered, stands bard by. It is one of the strongholds of the Lords of Kerry, whose burying-place (according to the information of the coachman) is seen at about a league from the town.

But pretty as Listowel is from a distance, it has, on a more intimate acquaintance, by no means the prosperous appearance which a first glance gives it. The place seemed like a scene at a country theatre, once smartly painted by the artist; but the paint has cracked in many places, the lines are worn away, and the whole piece only looks more shabby for the flaunting strokes of the brush which remain. And here, of course, came the usual crowd of idlers round the car: the epileptic idiot holding piteously out his empty tin snuff-box: the brutal idiot, in an old soldier’s coat, proffering his money box and grinning and clattering the single halfpenny it contained; the old man with no eyelids, calling upon you in the name of the Lord; the woman with a child at her hideous, wrinkled breast; the children without number. As for trade, there seemed to be none: a great Jeremy-Diddler kind of hotel stood hard by, swaggering and out at elbows, and six pretty girls were smiling out of a beggarly straw-bonnet shop, dressed as smartly as any gentleman’s daughters of good estate. It was good, among the crowd of bustling, shrieking fellows, who were “jawing” vastly and doing nothing, to see how an English bagman, with scarce any words, laid hold of an ostler, carried him off vi et armis in the midst of a speech, in which the latter was going to explain his immense activity and desire to serve, pushed him into a stable, from which he issued in a twinkling, leading the ostler and a horse, and had his bag on the car and his horse off in about two minutes of time, while the natives were still shouting round about other passengers’ portmanteaus.

Some time afterwards, away we rattled on our own journey to Tarbert, having a postilion on the leader, and receiving, I must say, some graceful bows from the young bonnet-makeresses. But of all the roads over which human bones were ever jolted, the first part of this from Listowel to Tarbert deserves the palm. It shook us all into headaches; it shook some nails out of the side of a box I had; it shook all the cords loose in a twinkling, and sent the baggage bumping about the passengers’ shoulders. The coachman at the call of another English bagman, who was a fellow-traveller, — the postilion at the call of the coachman, descended to re-cord the baggage. The English bagman had the whole mass of trunks and bags stoutly corded and firmly fixed in a few seconds; the coachman helped him as far as his means allowed; the postilion stood by with his hands in his pockets, smoking his pipe, and never offering to stir a finger. I said to him that I was delighted to see in a youth of sixteen that extreme activity and willingness to oblige, and that I would give him a handsome remuneration for his services at the end of the journey: the young rascal grinned with all his might, understanding the satiric nature of the address perfectly well; but he did not take his hands out of his pockets for all that, until it was time for him to get on his horse again, and then, having carried us over the most difficult part of the journey, removed his horse and pipe, and rode away with a parting grin.

The cabins along the road were not much better than those to be seen south of Tralee, but the people were far better clothed, and indulged in several places in the luxury of pig-sties. Near the prettily situated village of Ballylongford, we came in sight of the Shannon mouth; and a huge red moon, that shone behind an old convent on the banks of the bright river, with dull green meadows between it and us, and white purple flats beyond, would be a good subject for the pencil of any artist whose wrist had not been put out of joint by the previous ten miles’ journey,

The town of Tarbert, in the guide-books and topographical dictionaries, flourishes considerably. You read of its port, its corn and provision stores, &c., and of certain good hotels; for which as travellers we were looking with a laudable anxiety. The town, in fact, contains about a dozen of houses, some hundreds of cabins, and two hotels; to one of which we were driven, and a kind landlady, conducting” her half-dozen guests into a snug parlour, was for our ordering refreshment immediately, — which I certainly should have done, but for the ominous whisper of a fellow in the crowd as we descended (of course a disinterested patron of the other house), who hissed into my ears, “Ask to see the beds:” which proposal, accordingly, I made before coming to any determination regarding supper.

The worthy landlady eluded my questions several times with great skill and good-humour, but it became at length necessary to answer it; which she did by putting on as confident an air as possible, and leading the way up stairs to a bedroom, where there was a good large comfortable bed certainly.

The only objection to the bed, however, was that it contained a sick lady, whom the hostess proposed to eject without any ceremony, saying that she was a great deal better, and going to get up that very evening. However, none of us had the heart to tyrannise over lovely woman in so painful a situation, and the hostess had the grief of seeing four out of her five guests repair across the way to “Brallaghan’s “ or “Gallagher’s Hotel," — the name has fled from my memory, but it is the big hotel in the place; and unless the sick lady has quitted the other inn, which most likely she has done by this time, the English traveller will profit by this advice, and on arrival at Tarbert will have himself transported to “Gallagher’s “ at once.

The next morning a car carried us to Tarbert Point, where there is a pier not yet completed, and a Preventive station, and where the Shannon steamers touch, that ply between Kilrush and Limerick. Here lay the famous river before us, with low banks and rich pastures on either side.

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