The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Limerick.

A capital steamer, which on this day was thronged with people, carried us for about four hours down the noble stream and landed us at Limerick quay. The character of the landscape on either side the stream is not particularly picturesque, but large, liberal, and prosperous. Gentle sweeps of rich meadows and corn-fields cover the banks, and some, though not too many, gentlemen’s parks and plantations rise here and there. But the landscape was somehow more pleasing than if it had been merely picturesque; and, especially after coming out of that desolate county of Kerry, it was pleasant for the eye to rest upon this peaceful, rich, and generous scene. The first aspect of Limerick is very smart and pleasing: fine neat quays with considerate liveliness and bustle, a very handsome bridge (the Wellesley Bridge) before the spectator; who, after a walk through two long and flourishing streets, stops at length at one of the best inns in Ireland — the large, neat, and prosperous one kept by Mr. Cruise. Except at Youghal, and the poor fellow whom the Englishman belaboured at Glengariff, Mr. Cruise is the only landlord of an inn I have had the honour to see in Ireland. I believe these gentlemen commonly (and very naturally) prefer riding with the hounds, or manly sports, to attendance on their guests; and the landladies, if they prefer to play the piano, or to have a game of cards in the parlour, only show a taste at which no one can wonder: for who can expect a lady to be troubling herself with vulgar chance-customers, or looking after Molly in the bedroom or waiter Tim in the cellar?

Now beyond this piece of information regarding the excellence of Mr. Cruise’s hotel, which every traveller knows, the writer of this doubts very much whether he has anything to say about Limerick that is worth the trouble of saying or reading. I can’t attempt to describe the Shannon, only to say that on board the steamboat there was a piper and a bugler, a hundred of genteel persons coming back from donkey-riding and bathing at Kilkee, a couple of heaps of raw hides that smelt very foully, a score of women nursing children, and a lobster-vendor, who vowed to me upon his honour that he gave eightpence apiece for his fish, and that he had boiled them only the day before; but when I produced the Guide-book, and solemnly told him to swear upon that to the truth of his statement, the lobster-seller turned away quite abashed, and would not be brought to support his previous assertion at all. Well, this is no description of the Shannon, as you have no need to be told, and other travelling cockneys will no doubt meet neither piper nor lobster-seller, nor raw hides; nor, if they come to the inn where this is written, is it probable that they will hear, as I do this present moment, two fellows with red whiskers, and immense pomp and noise and blustering with the waiter, conclude by ordering a pint of ale between them. All that one can hope to do is, to give a sort of notion of the movement and manners of the people; pretending by no means to offer a description of places, but simply an account of what one sees in them.

So that if any traveller after staying two days in Limerick should think fit to present the reader with forty or fifty pages of dissertation upon the antiquities and history of the place, upon the state of commerce, religion, education, the public may be pretty well sure that the traveller has been at work among the guide-books, and filching extracts from the topographical and local works.

They say there are three towns to make one Limerick: there is the Irish Town on the Clare side; the English Town with its old castle (which has sustained a deal of battering and blows from Danes, from fierce Irish Kings, from English warriors who took an interest in the place, Henry Secundians, Elizabethans, Cromwellians, and, vice versa, Jacobites, King Williamites, — and nearly escaped being in the hands of the Robert Emmettites); and finally the district called Newtown-Pery. In walking through this latter tract, you are at first led to believe that you are arrived in a second Liverpool, so tall are the warehouses and broad the quays; so neat and trim a street of near a mile which stretches before you. But even this mile-long street does not, in a few minutes, appear to be so wealthy and prosperous as it shows at first glance; for of the population that throng the streets, two-fifths are barefooted women, and two-fifths more ragged men: and the most part of the shops which have a grand show with them appear, when looked into, to be no better than they should be, being empty makeshift-looking places with their best goods outside.

Here, in this handsome street too, is a handsome club-house, with plenty of idlers, you may be sure, lolling at the portico likewise you see numerous young officers, with very tight waists and absurd brass shell-epaulettes to their little absurd frock-coats, walking the pavement-the dandies of the street. Then you behold whole troops of pear, apple, and plum-women, selling very raw, green looking fruit, which, indeed, it is a wonder that any one should eat and live. The houses are bright red — the street is full and gay, carriages and cars in plenty go jingling by — dragoons in red are every now and then clattering up the street, and as upon every car which passes with ladies in it you are sure (I don’t know how it is) to see a pretty one, the great street of Limerick is altogether a very brilliant and animated sight.

If the ladies of the place are pretty, indeed the vulgar are scarcely less so. I never saw a greater number of kind, pleasing, clever-looking faces among any set of people. There seem, however, to be two sorts of physiognomies which are common: the pleasing and somewhat melancholy one before mentioned, and a square, high-cheeked, flat-nosed physiognomy, not uncommonly accompanied by a hideous staring head of dry red hair. Except, however, in the latter case, the hair flowing loose and long is a pretty characteristic of the women of the country: many a fair one do you see at the door of the cabin, or the poor shop in the town, combing complacently that “greatest ornament of female beauty,” as Mr. Rowland justly calls it.

The generality of the women here seem also much better clothed than in Kerry; and I saw many a one going barefoot, whose gown was nevertheless a good one, and whose cloak was of fine cloth. Likewise it must be remarked, that the beggars in Limerick were by no means so numerous as those in Cork, or in many small places through which I have passed. There were but five, strange to say, round the mail-coach as we went away; and, indeed, not a great number in the streets.

The belles lettres seem to be by no means so well cultivated here as in Cork. I looked in vain for a Limerick guide-book: I saw but one good shop of books, and a little trumpery circulating library, which seemed to be provided with those immortal works of a year old — which, having been sold for half a guinea the volume at first, are suddenly found to be worth only a shilling. Among these, let me mention, with perfect resignation to the decrees of fate, the works of one Titmarsh: they were rather smartly bound by an enterprising publisher, and I looked at them in Bishop Murphy’s Library at Cork, in a book-shop in the remote little town of Ennis, and elsewhere, with a melancholy tenderness. Poor flowerets of a season! (and a very short season too), let me be allowed to salute your scattered leaves with a passing sigh! * * * Besides the book-shops, I observed in the long, best street of Limerick a half-dozen of what are called French shops, with knicknacks, German-silver chimney-ornaments, and paltry finery. In the windows of these you saw a card with “Cigars;” in the book-shop, “Cigars;” at the grocer’s, the whiskey-shop, “Cigars everybody sells the noxious weed, or makes believe to sell it, and I know no surer indication of a struggling, uncertain trade than that same placard of “Cigars.” I went to buy some of the pretty Limerick gloves (they are chiefly made, as I have since discovered, at Cork). I think the man who sold them had a patent from the Queen, or his Excellency, or both, in his window: but, seeing a friend pass just as I entered the shop, he brushed past, and held his friend in conversation for some minutes in the street, — about the Killarney races no doubt, or the fun going on at Kilkee. I might have swept away a bagful of walnut-shells containing the flimsy gloves; but instead walked out, making him a low bow, and saying I would call the next week. He said “wouldn’t I wait?” and resumed his conversation; and, no doubt, by this way of doing business, is making a handsome independence. I asked one of the ten thousand fruit-women the price of her green pears. “Twopence apiece,” she said; and there were two little ragged beggars standing by, who were munching the fruit. A book-shopwoman made me pay threepence for a bottle of ink which usually costs a penny; a potato-woman told me that her potatoes cost fourteenpence a stone: and all these ladies treated the stranger with a leering, wheedling servility which made me long to box their ears, were it not that the man who lays his hand upon a woman is an, &c., whom ’twere gross flattery to call a what-d’yecall-’im? By the way, the man who played Duke Aranza at Cork delivered the celebrated claptrap above alluded to as follows:—

“The man who lays his  hand upon a woman,

Save in the way of kindness, is a villain,

whom ’twere a cross piece of flattery to call a coward;”

and looked round calmly for the applause, which deservedly followed his new reading of the passage.

To return to the apple-women; legions of ladies were employed through the town upon that traffic, there were really thousands of them, clustering upon the bridges, squatting down in doorways and vacant sheds for temporary markets, marching and crying their sour goods in all the crowded lanes of the city. After you get out of the Main Street the handsome part of the town is at an end, and you suddenly find yourself in such a labyrinth of busy swarming poverty and squalid commerce as never was seen — no, not in Saint Giles’s, where Jew and Irishman side by side exhibit their genius for dirt. Here every house almost was a half ruin, and swarming with people: in the cellars you looked down and saw a barrel of herrings, which a merchant was dispensing; or a sack of meal, which a poor dirty woman sold to people poorer and dirtier than herself: above was a tinman, or a shoemaker, or other craftsman, his battered ensign at the door, and his small wares peering through the cracked panes of his shop. As for the ensign, as a matter of course the name is never written in letters of the same size.  You read:

High and low, in this country, they begin things on too large a scale. They begin churches too big and can’t finish them; malls and houses too big, and are ruined before they are done; letters on sideboards too big, and are up in a corner before the inscription is finished. There is something quite strange, really, in this general consistency.

Well, over James Hurley, or Pat Hanlahan, you will most likely see another board of another tradesman, with a window to the full as curious. Above Tim Carthy evidently lives another family. There are long-haired girls of fourteen at every one of the windows, and dirty children everywhere. In the cellars, look at them in dingy white nightcaps over a bowl of stirabout; in the shop, paddling up and down the ruined steps, or issuing from beneath the black counter; up above, see the girl of fourteen is tossing and dandling one of them: and a pretty tender sight it is, in the midst of this filth and wretchedness, to see the women and children together. It makes a sunshine in the dark place, and somehow half reconciles one to it. Children are everywhere. Look out of the nasty streets into the still more nasty back lanes: there they are, sprawling at every door and court, paddling in every puddle; and in about a fair proportion to every six children an old woman — a very old, blear-eyed, ragged woman — who makes believe to sell something out of a basket, and is perpetually calling upon the name of the Lord. For every three ragged old women you will see two ragged old men, praying and moaning like the females. And there is no lack of young men, either, though I never could make out what they were about: they loll about the street, chiefly conversing in knots; and in every street you will be pretty sure to see a recruiting-sergeant, with gay ribbons in his cap, loitering about with an eye upon the other loiterers there. The buzz and hum and chattering of this crowd is quite inconceivable to us in England, where a crowd is generally silent. As a person with a decent coat passes, they stop in their talk and say, “God bless you for a fine gentleman!” In these crowded streets, where all are beggars, the beggary is but small: only the very old and hideous venture to ask for a penny, otherwise the competition would be too great.

As for the buildings that one lights upon every now and then in the midst of such scenes as this, they are scarce worth the trouble to examine: occasionally you come on a chapel with sham Gothic windows and a little belfry, one of the Catholic places of worship; then, placed in some quiet street, a neat-looking Dissenting meeting-house. Across the river yonder, as you issue out from the street where the preceding sketch was taken, is a handsome hospital; near it the old cathedral, a barbarous old turreted edifice-of the fourteenth century it is said: how different to the sumptuous elegance which characterises the English and continental churches of the same period! Passing by it, and walking down other streets, — black, ruinous, swarming, dark, hideous, — you come upon the barracks and the walks of the old castle, and from it on to an old bridge, from which the view is a fine one. On one side are the grey bastions of the castle; beyond them, in the midst of the broad stream, stands a huge mill that looks like another castle; further yet is the handsome new Wellesley Bridge, with some little craft upon the river, and the red warehouses of the New Town looking prosperous enough. The Irish Town stretches away to the right; there are pretty villas beyond it; and on the bridge are walking twenty-four young girls, in parties of four and five, with their arms round each other’s waists, Swaying to and fro, and singing or chattering, as happy as if they had shoes to their feet. Yonder you see a dozen pair of red legs glittering in the water, their owners being employed in washing their own or other people’s rags.

The Guide-book mentions that one of the aboriginal forests of the country is to be seen at a few miles from Limerick, and thinking that an aboriginal forest would be a huge discovery, and form an instructive and delightful feature of the present work, I hired a car in order to visit the same, and pleased myself with visions of gigantic oaks, Druids, Norma, wildernesses and awful gloom, which would fill the soul with horror. The romance of the place was heightened by a fact stated by the carman, viz.: that until late years robberies were very frequent about the wood; the inhabitants of the district being a wild, lawless race. Moreover, there are numerous castles round about, — and for what can a man wish more than robbers, castles, and an aboriginal wood?

The way to these wonderful sights lies through the undulating grounds which border the Shannon; and though the view is by no means a fine one, I know few that are pleasanter than the sight of these rich, golden, peaceful plains, with the full harvest waving on them and just ready for the sickle. The hay harvest was likewise just being concluded, and the air loaded with the rich odour of the hay. Above the trees, to your left, you saw the mast of a ship, perhaps moving along, and every now and then caught a glimpse of the Shannon, and the low grounds and plantations of the opposite county of Limerick. Not an unpleasant addition to the landscape, too, was a sight which I do not remember to have witnessed often in this country — that of several small and decent farm-houses, with their stacks and sheds and stables, giving an air of neatness and plenty that the poor cabin with its potato-patch does not present. Is it on account of the small farms that the land seems richer and better cultivated here than in most other parts of the country? Some of the houses in the midst of the warm summer landscape had a strange appearance, for it is often the fashion to whitewash the roofs of the houses, leaving the slates of the walls of their natural colour: hence, and in the evening especially, contrasting with the purple sky, the house-tops often looked as if they were covered with snow.

According to the Guide-book’s promise, the castles began soon to appear: at one point we could see three of these ancient mansions in a line, each seemingly with its little grove of old trees, in the midst of the bare but fertile country. By this time, too, we had got into a road so abominably bad and rocky, that I began to believe more and more with regard to the splendour of the aboriginal forest, which must be most aboriginal and ferocious indeed when approached by such a savage path. After travelling through a couple of lines of wall with plantations on either side, I at length became impatient as to the forest, and, much to my disappointment, was told this was it. For the fact is, that though the forest has always been there, the trees have not, the proprietors cutting them regularly when grown to no great height, and the monarchs of the woods which I saw round about would scarcely have afforded timber for a bed-post. Nor did any robbers make their appearance in this wilderness: with which disappointment, however, I was more willing to put up than with the former one.

But if the wood and the robbers did not come up to my romantic notions, the old Castle of Bunratty fully answered them, and indeed should be made the scene of a romance, in three volumes at least.

“It is a huge, square tower, with four smaller ones at each angle; and you mount to the entrance by a steep flight of steps, being commanded all the way by the cross-bows of two of the Lord De Clare’s retainers, the points of whose weapons may be seen lying upon the ledge of the little narrow meurtriére on each side of the gate. A venerable seneschal, with the keys of office, presently opens the little back postern, and you are admitted to the great hall-a noble chamLer, pardi! some seventy feet in length and thirty high. ’Tis hung round with a thousand trophies of war and chase, — the golden helmet and spear of the Irish king, the long yellow mantle he wore, and the huge brooch that bound it. Hugo De Clare slew him before the castle in 1305, when he and his kernes attacked it. Less successful in 1314, the gallant Hugo saw his village of Bunratty burned round his tower by the son of the slaughtered O’Neil; and, sallying out to avenge the insult, was brought back — a corpse! Ah! what was the pang that shot through the fair bosom of the Lady Adela when she knew that ’twas the hand of Redmond O’Neil sped the shaft which slew her sire

“You listen to this sad story, reposing on an oaken settle (covered with deer’s -skin taken in the aboriginal forest of Carclow hard by) placed at the enormous hall-fire. Here sits Thonom an Diaoul, ‘Dark Thomas,’ the blind harper of the race of De Clare, who loves to tell the deeds of the lordly family. ‘Penetrating in disguise,’ he continues, ‘into the castle, Redmond of the golden locks sought an interview with the Lily of Bunratty; but she screamed when she saw him under the disguise of the gleeman, and said, “My father’s blood is in the hall!” At this, up started fierce Sir Ranulph. “Ho, Bludyer l” he cried to his squire, “call me the hangman and Father John; seize me, vassals, yon villain in gleeman’s guise, and hang him on the gallows on the tower!’”

“‘Will it please ye walk to the roof of the old castle and see the beam on which the lords of the place execute the refractory?’ ‘Nay, marry,’ say you, ‘by my spurs of knighthood, I have seen hanging enough in merry England, and care not to see the gibbets of Irish kernes.’ The harper would have taken fire at this speech reflecting on his country; but luckily here Gulph, your English squire entered from the pantler (with whom he had been holding a parley), and brought a manchet of bread, and bade ye, in the Lord de Clare’s name, crush a cup of Ypocras, well spiced, pardi and by the fair hands of the Lady Adela.

“‘The Lady Adela!” say you, starting up in amaze. ‘Is not this the year of grace 1600, and lived she not three hundred years syne?’

“‘Yes, Sir Knight, but Bunratty tower hath another Lily: will it please you see your chamber?’

“So saying, the seneschal leads you lip a winding stair in one of the turrets, past one little dark chamber and another, without a fire-place, without rushes (how different from the stately houses of Nonsuch or Audley End!), and, leading you through another vast chamber above the baronial hall, similar in size, but decorated with tapestries and rude carvings, you pass the little chapel (‘Marry,’ says the steward, ‘many would it not hold, and many do not come!’) until at last you are located in the little cell appropriated to you. Some rude attempts have been made to render it fitting for the stranger; but, though more neatly arranged than the hundred other little chambers which the castle contains, in sooth ’tis scarce fitted for the serving-man, much more for Sir Reginald, the English knight.

“While you are looking at a bouquet of flowers, which lies on the settle — magnolias, geraniums, the blue flowers of the cactus, and in the “midst of the bouquet, one lily; whilst you wonder whose fair hands could have culled the flowers — hark! the horns are blowing at the drawbridge and the warder lets the portcullis down. You rush to your window, a stalwart knight rides over the gate, the hoofs of his black courser clanging upon the planks. A host of wild retainers wait round about him: see, four of them carry a stag, that hath been slain no doubt in the aboriginal forest of Carclow. ‘By my fay!’ say you, “tis a stag of ten.’

“But who is that yonder on the grey palfrey, conversing so prettily, and holding the sportive animal with so light a rein? — a light green riding-habit and ruff, a little hat with a green plume — sure it must be a lady, and a fair one. She looks up. O blessed Mother of Heaven, that look! those eyes that smile, those sunny golden ringlets! It is — it is the Lady Adela: the Lily of Bunrat * * *”

If the reader cannot finish the other two volumes for him or herself, he or she never deserves to have a novel from a circulating library again; for my part, I will take my affidavit the English knight will marry the Lily at the end of the third volume, having previously slain the other suitor at one of the multifarious sieges of Limerick. And I beg to say that the historical part of this romance has been extracted carefully from the Guide-book: the topographical and descriptive portion being studied on the spot. A policeman shows you over it, halls, chapels, galleries, gibbets and all. The huge old tower was, until late years, inhabited by the family of the proprietor, who built himself a house in the midst of it: but he has since built another in the park opposite, and half-a-dozen “Peelers,” with a commodity of wives and children, now inhabit Bunratty. On the gate where we entered were numerous placards offering rewards for the apprehension of various country offenders; and a turnpike, a bridge, and a quay have sprung up from the place which Red Redmond (or anybody else) burned.

*

On our road to Galway the next day, we were carried once more by the old tower, and for a considerable distance along the fertile banks of the Fergus lake, and a river which pours itself into the Shannon. The first town we come to is Castle Clare, which lies conveniently on the river, with a castle, a good bridge, and many quays and warehouses, near which a small ship or two were lying. The place was once the chief town of the county, but is wretched and ruinous now, being made up for the most part of miserable thatched cots, round which you see the usual dusky population. The drive hence to Ennis lies through a country which is by no means so pleasant as that rich one we have passed through, being succeeded “by that craggy, bleak, pastoral district which occupies so large a portion of the limestone district of Clare.” Ennis, likewise, stands upon the Fergus — a busy little narrow-streeted, foreign-looking town, approached by half a mile of thatched cots, in which I am not ashamed to confess that I saw some as pretty faces as over any half-mile of country I ever travelled in my life.

A great light of the Catholic Church, who was of late a candlestick in our own communion, was on the coach with us, reading devoutly out of a breviary on many occasions along the road. A crowd of black coats and heads, with that indescribable look which belongs to the Catholic clergy, were evidently on the look-out for the coach; and as it stopped, one of them came up to me with a low bow, and asked if I was the Honorable and Reverend Mr. S—? How I wish I had answered him I was! It would have been a grand scene. The respect paid to this gentleman’s descent is quite absurd the papers bandy his title about with pleased emphasis — the Galway papers calls him the very reverend. There is something in the love for rank almost childish: witness the adoration of George IV.; the pompous joy with which John Tuam records his correspondence with a great man; the continual My Lording of the Bishops, the Right-Honorabling of Mr O’Connell — which title his party papers delight on all occasions to give him — nay, the delight of that great man himself when first he attained the dignity: he figured in his robes in the most good-humoured simple delight at having them, and went to church forthwith in them; as if such a man wanted a title before his name.

At Ennis, as well as everywhere else in Ireland, there were of course the regular number of swaggering-looking buckeens and shabby-genteel idlers to watch the arrival of the mail-coach. A poor old idiot, with his grey hair tied up in bows, and with a ribbon behind, thrust out a very fair soft hand with taper fingers, and told me, nodding his head very wistfully, that he had no father nor mother: upon which score he got a penny. Nor did the other beggars round the carriage who got none seem to grudge the poor fellow’s good fortune. I think when one poor wretch has a piece of luck, the others seem glad here and they promise to pray for you just the same if you give as if you refuse.

The town was swarming with people; the little dark streets, which twist about in all directions, being full of cheap merchandise and its vendors. Whether there are many buyers, I can’t say. This is written opposite the market-place in Galway, where I have watched a stall a hundred times in the course of the last three hours and seen no money taken: but at every place I come to, I can’t help wondering at the numbers; it seems market-day everywhere-apples, pigs, and potatoes being sold all over the kingdom. There seems to be some good shops in those narrow streets; among others, a decent little library, where I bought, for eighteenpence, six volumes of works strictly Irish, that will serve for a half-hour’s gossip on the next rainy day.

The road hence to Gort carried us at first by some dismal, lonely-looking, reedy lakes, through a melancholy country; an open village standing here and there, with a big chapel in the midst of it, almost always unfinished in some point or other. Crossing at a bridge near a place called Tubbor, the coachman told us we were in the famous county of Galway, which all readers of novels admire in the warlike works of Maxwell and Lever; and, dismal as the country had been in Clare, I think on the northern side of the bridge it was dismaller still — the stones not only appearing in the character of hedges, but strewing over the fields, in which sheep were browsing as well as they could.

We rode for miles through this stony, dismal district, seeing more lakes now and anon, with fellows spearing eels in the midst. Then we passed the plantations of Lord Gort’s Castle of Loughcooter, and presently came to the town which bears his name, or vice versa. It is a regularly-built little place, with a square and street: but it looked as if it wondered how the deuce it got into the midst of such a desolate country, and seemed to bore itself there considerably. It bad nothing to do, and no society.

A short time before arriving at Oranmore, one has glimpses of the sea, which comes opportunely to relieve the dullness of the land. Between Gort and that place we passed through little but the most woeful country, in the midst of which was a village, where a horse-fair was held, and where (upon the word of the coachman) all the bad horses of the country were to be seen. The man was commissioned, no doubt, to buy for his employers, for two or three merchants were on the look-out for him, and trotted out their cattle by the side of the coach. A very, good, neat-looking, smart-trotting chestnut horse, of seven years old, was offered by the owner for 8l.; a neat brown mare for 10l., and a better (as I presume) for 14l.; but all looked very respectable, and I have the coachman’s word for it that they were good serviceable horses. Oranmore, with an old castle in the midst of the village, woods, and park-plantations round about, and the bay beyond it, has a pretty and romantic look; and the drive, of about four miles thence to Galway, is the most picturesque part perhaps of the fifty miles’ ride from Limerick. The road is tolerably wooded. You see the town itself, with its huge old church-tower, stretching along the bay, “backed by hills linking into the long chain of mountains which stretch across Connemara and the Joyce country.” A suburb of cots that seems almost endless has, however, an end at last among the houses of the town; and a little fleet of a couple of hundred fishing-boats was manoeuvring in the bright waters of the bay.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/irish/chapter14.html

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