The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

From Galway to Ballinahinch.

The Clifden car, which carries the Dublin letters into the heart of Connemara, conducts the passenger over one of the most wild and beautiful districts that it is ever the fortune of a traveller to examine; and I could not help thinking, as we passed through it, at how much pains and expense honest English cockneys are to go and look after natural beauties far inferior, in countries which, though more distant, are not a whit more strange than this one. No doubt, ere long, when people know how easy the task is, the rush of London tourism will come this way: and I shall be very happy if these pages shall be able to awaken in one bosom beating in Tooley Street or the Temple the desire to travel towards Ireland next year.

After leaving the quaint old town behind us, and ascending one or two small eminences to the north-westward, the traveller, from the car, gets a view of the wide sheet of Lough Corrib shining in the sun, as we saw it, with its low dark banks stretching round it. If the view is gloomy, at least it is characteristic: nor are we delayed by it very long; for though the lake stretches northwards into the very midst of the Joyce country, (and is there in the close neighbourhood of another huge lake, Lough Mask, which again is near to another sheet of water,) yet from this road henceforth, after keeping company with it for some five miles, we only get occasional views of it, passing over hills and through trees, by many rivers and smaller lakes, which are dependent upon that of Corrib. Gentlemen’s seats, on the road from Galway to Moycullen, are scattered in great profusion. Perhaps there is grass growing on the gravel-walk, and the iron gates of the tumble-down old lodges are rather rickety, but, for all that, the places look comfortable, hospitable, and spacious. As for the shabbiness and want of finish here and there, the English eye grows quite accustomed to it in a month; and I find the bad condition of the Galway houses by no means so painful as that of the places near Dublin. At some of the lodges, as we pass, the mail-carman, with a warning shout, flings a bag of letters. I saw a little party looking at one which lay there in the road crying, “Come take me!” but nobody cares to steal a bag of letters in this country, I suppose, and the car-man drove on without any alarm. Two days afterwards a gentleman with whom I was in company left on a rock his book of fishing-flies; and I can assure you there was a very different feeling expressed about he safety of that.

In the first part of the journey, the neighbourhood of the road seemed to be as populous as in other parts of the country: troops of red-petticoated peasantry peering from their stone-cabins; yelling children following the car, and crying, “Lash, lash!” It was Sunday, and you would see many a white chapel among the green bare plains to the right of the road, the courtyard blackened with a swarm of cloaks. The service seems to continue (on the part of the people) all day. Troops of people issuing from the chapel met us at Moycullen; and ten miles further on, at Oughterard, their devotions did not yet seem to be concluded.

A more beautiful village can scarcely be seen than this. It stands upon Lough Corrib, the banks of which are here, for once-at least, picturesque and romantic and a pretty river, the Feogh, comes rushing over rocks and by woods until it passes the town and meets the lake. Some pretty buildings in the village stand on each bank of this stream: a Roman Catholic chapel with a curate’s neat lodge; a little church on one side of it, a fine court-house of gray stone on the other. And here it is that we get into the famous district of Connemara so celebrated in Irish stories, so mysterious to the London tourist “It presents itself,” says the Guide book “under every possible combination of heathy moor, bog, lake, and mountain, extensive mossy plains and wild pastoral valleys lie embosomed among the mountains, and support numerous herds of cattle and horses, for which the district has been long celebrated. Those wild solitudes, which occupy by far the greater part of the centre of the country, are held by a hardy and ancient race of grazing farmers, who live in a very primitive state, and, generally speaking, till little beyond what supplies their immediate wants. For the first ten miles the country is comparatively open, and the mountains on the left, which are not of great elevation, can be distinctly traced as they rise along the edge of the heathy plain.

“Our road continues along the Feogh river, which expands itself into several considerable lakes, and at five miles from Oughterard we reach Lough Bofin, which the road also skirts. Passing in succession Lough-a-Preaghan, the lakes of Anderran and Shindella, at ten miles from Oughterard we reach Slyme and Lynn’s Inn, or Half-way House, which is near the shore of Loughonard. Now, as we advance towards the group of Bina-bola, or the Twelve Pins, the most gigantic scenery is displayed.”

But the best guide-book that ever was written cannot set the view before the mind’s eye of the reader, and I won’t at tempt to pile up big words in place of these wild mountains, over which the clouds as they passed, or the sunshine as it went and came, cast every variety of tint, light, and shadow; nor can it be expected that long, level sentences, however smooth and shining, can be made to pass as representations of those calm lakes by which we took our way. All one can do is to lay down the pen and ruminate, and cry, “Beautiful!” once more; and to the reader say, “Come and see!”

Wild and wide as the prospect around us is, it has somehow a kindly, friendly look; differing in this from the fierce loneliness of some similar scenes in Wales that I have viewed. Ragged women and children come out of rude stone-huts to see the car as it passes. But it is impossible for the pencil to give due raggedness to the rags, or to convey a certain picturesque mellowness of colour that the garments assume. The sexes, with regard to raiment, do not seem to be particular. There were many boys on the road in the national red petticoat, having no other covering for their lean brown legs. As for shoes, the women eschew them almost entirely; and I saw a peasant trudging from mass in a handsome scarlet cloak, a fine blue-cloth gown, turned up to show a new lining of the, same colour, and a petticoat quite white and neat — in a dress of which the cost must have been at least 10l.; and her husband walked in front carrying her shoes and stockings.

The road had conducted us’ for miles through the vast property of the gentleman to whose house I was bound, Mr. Martin, the Member for the county and the last and prettiest part of the journey was round the Lake of Ballinahinch, with tall mountains rising immediately above us on the right, pleasant woody hills on the opposite side of the lake, with the roof of the houses rising above the trees; and in an island in the midst of the water a ruined old castle cast a long white reflection into the blue waters where it lay. A land-pirate used to live in that castle, one of the peasants told me, in the time of “Oliver Cromwell.” And a fine fastness it was for a robber, truly; for there was no road through these wild countries in his time — nay, only thirty years since this lake was at three days’ distance of Galway. Then comes the question, What, in a country where there were no roads and no travellers, and where the inhabitants have been wretchedly poor from time immemorial, — what was there for the land-pirate to rob? But let us not be too curious about times so early as those of Oliver Cromwell. I have heard the name many times from the Irish peasant, who still has an awe of the grim resolute Protector.

The builder of Ballinahinch House has placed it to command a view of a pretty melancholy river that runs by it, through many green flats and picturesque rocky grounds; but from the lake it is scarcely visible. And so, in like manner, I fear it must remain invisible to the reader too, with all its kind inmates, and frank, cordial hospitality; unless he may take a fancy to visit Galway himself, when, as I can vouch, a very small pretext will make him enjoy both.

It will, however, be only a small breach of confidence to say that the major-domo of the establishment (who has adopted accurately the voice and manner of his master, with a severe dignity of his own which is quite original,) ordered me on going to bed “not to move in the morning till he called me,” at the same time expressing a hearty hope that I should “want nothing more that evening.” Who would dare, after such peremptory orders, not to fall asleep immediately, and in this way disturb the repose of Mr. J— n M-ll-y?

There may be many comparisons drawn between English and Irish gentlemen’s houses but perhaps the most striking point of difference between the two is the immense following of the Irish house, such as would make an English housekeeper crazy almost. Three comfortable, well-clothed, good-humoured fellows walked down with me from the car, persisting in carrying one a bag, another a sketching stool, and so on. Walking about the premises in the morning, sundry others were visible in the court-yard and near the kitchen-door. In the grounds a gentleman, by name Mr. Marcus C-rr, began discoursing to me regarding the place, the planting, the fish, the grouse, and the Master; being himself, doubtless, one of the irregulars of the house. As for maids, there were half a score of them skurrying about the house; and I am not ashamed to confess that some of them were exceedingly good-looking. And if I might venture to say a word more, it would be respecting Connemara breakfasts; but this would be an entire and flagrant breach of confidence: and, to be sure, the dinners were just as good.

One of the days of my three days’ visit was to be devoted to the lakes; and as a party had been arranged for the second day after my arrival, I was glad to take advantage of the society of a gentleman staying in the house, and ride with him to the neighbouring town of Clifden.

The ride thither from Ballinahinch is surprisingly beautiful; and as you ascend the high ground from the two or three rude stone-huts which face the entrance-gates of the house, there are views of the lakes and the surrounding country which the best parts of Killarney do not surpass, I think; although the Connemara lakes do not possess the advantage of wood which belongs to the famous Kerry landscape.

But the cultivation of the country is only in its infancy as yet, and it is easy to see how vast its resources are, and what capital and cultivation may do for it. In the green patches among the rocks, and on the mountain-sides, wherever crops were grown, they flourished; plenty of natural wood is springing up in various places; and there is no end to what the planter may do, and to what time and care may effect. The carriage-road to Clifden is but ten years old as it has brought the means of communication into the country, the commerce will doubtless follow it; and in fact, in going through the whole kingdom, one can’t but be struck with the idea that not one hundredth part of its capabilities are yet brought into action, or even known perhaps, and that, by the easy and certain progress of time, Ireland will be poor Ireland no longer.

For instance, we rode by a vast green plain, skirting a lake and river, which is now useless almost for pasture, and which a little draining will convert into thousands of acres of rich productive land. Streams and falls of water dash by everywhere-they have only to utilise this water-power for mills and factories-and hard by are some of the finest bays in the world, where ships can deliver and receive foreign and home produce. At Roundstone especially, where a little town has been erected, the bay is said to be unexampled for size, depth, and shelter; and the Government is now, through the rocks and hills on their wild shore, cutting a coast-road to Bunown, the most westerly part of Connemara, whence fliere is another good road to Clifden. Among the charges which the “Repealers” bring against the Union, they should include at least this; they would never have had these roads but for the Union: roads which are as much at the charge of the London tax-payer as of the most ill-used Milesian in Connaught.

A string of small lakes follow the road to Clifden, with mountains on the right of the traveller for the chief part of the way. A few figures at work in the bog-lands, and a red petticoat passing here and there, a goat or two browsing among the stones, or a troop of ragged whitey-brown children who came to gaze at the car, form the chief society on the road. The first house at the entrance to Clifden is a gigantic poor-house — tall, large, ugly, comfortable; it commands the town, and looks almost as big as every one of the houses therein. The town itself is but of a few years’ date, and seems to thrive in its small way. Clifden Castle is a fine chateau in the neighbourhood, and belongs to another owner of immense lands in Galway — Mr. D’Arcy.

Here a drive was proposed along the coast to Bunown, and I was glad to see some more of the country, and its character. Nothing can be wilder. We passed little fake after lake, lying a few furlongs inwards from the shore, There were rocks everywhere, some patches of cultivated land here and there, nor was there any want of inhabitants along this savage coast. There were numerous cottages, if cottages they may be called, and women, and above all, children in plenty. One of the former is drawn below — her attitude as she stood gazing at the car. To depict the multiplicity of her rags would rquire a month’s study.

At length we came in sight of a half-built edifice which is approached by a rocky, dismal, grey road, guarded by two or three broken gates, against which rocks and stones were piled, which had to be removed to give an entrance to our car. The gates were closed so laboriously, I presume, to prevent the egress of a single black consumptive pig, far gone in the family-way — a teeming skeleton — that was cropping the thin dry grass that grew upon a round hill which rises behind this most dismal castle of Bunown.

If the traveller only seeks for strange sights, this place will repay his curiosity. Such a dismal house is not to be seen in all England: or, perhaps, such a dismal situation. The sea lies before and behind; and on each side, likewise, are rocks and copper-coloured meadows, by which a few trees have made an attempt to grow. The owner of the house had, however, begun to add to it; and there, unfinished, is a whole apparatus of turrets, and staring raw stone and mortar, and fresh ruinous carpenters’ work. And then the court-yard! -tumbled-down out-houses, staring empty pointed windows, and new-smeared plaster cracking from the walls-a black heap of turf, a mouldy pump, a wretched old coal-skuttle, emptily sunning itself in the midst of this cheerful scene! There was an old Gorgon who kept the place, and who was in perfect unison with it: Venus herself would become bearded, blear-eyed, and haggard, if left to be the housekeeper of this dreary place.

In the house was a comfortable parlour, inhabited by the priest who has the painful charge of the district. Here were his books and his breviaries, his reading-desk with the cross engraved upon it, and his portrait of Daniel O’Connell the Liberator to grace the walls of his lonely cell. There was a dead crane hanging at the door on a gaff: his red fish-like eyes were staring open, and his eager grinning bill. A rifle-ball had passed through his body. And this was doubtless the only game about the place; for we saw the sportsman who had killed the bird hunting vainly up the round hill for other food for powder. This gentleman had had good sport, he said, shooting seals upon a neighbouring island, four of which animals he had slain,

Mounting up the round hill, we had a view of the Sline Lights — the most westerly point in Ireland.

Here too was a ruined sort of summer-house, dedicated “Deo Hiberniae Liberatori.” When these lights were put up, I am told the proprietor of Bunown was recommended to apply for compensation to Parliament, inasmuch as there would be no more wrecks on the coast: from which branch of commerce the inhabitants of the district used formerly to derive a considerable profit. Between these Sline Lights and America nothing lies but the Atlantic. It was beautifully blue and bright on this day, and the sky almost cloudless; but I think the brightness only made the scene more dismal, it being of that order of beauties which cannot bear the full light, but require a cloud or a curtain to set them off to advantage. A pretty story was told me by the gentleman who had killed the seals. The place where he had been staying for sport was almost as lonely as this Bunown, and inhabited by a priest too — a young, lively well-educated man. “When I came here first,” the pnest said, ”I cried for two days;” but afterwards he grew to like the place exceedingly, his whole heart being directed towards it, his chapel and his cure. Who would not honour such missionaries — the virtues they silently practise, and the doctrines they preach? After hearing that story, I think Bunown looked not quite so dismal, as it is inhabited, they say, by such another character. What a pity it is that John Tuam, in the next county of Mayo could not find such another hermitage to learn modesty in, and forget his Graceship, his Lordship, and the sham titles by which he sets such store.

A moon as round and bright as any moon that ever shone, and riding in a sky perfectly cloudless, gave us a good promise of a fine day for the morrow which was to be devoted to the lakes in the neighbourhood of Ballinahinch: one of which, Lough Ina, is said to be of exceeding beauty. But no man can speculate upon Irish weather. I have seen a day beginning with torrents of rain that looked as if a deluge was at hand, clear up in a few minutes, without any reason, and against the prognostications of the glass and all other weather-prophets. So in like manner, after the astonishingly fine night, there came a villainous dark day: which however did not set in fairly for rain, until we were an hour on our journey, with a couple of stout boatmen rowing us over Ballinahinch Lake. Being, however, thus fairly started, the water began to come down, not in torrents certainly, but in that steady, creeping, insinuating mist, of which we scarce know the luxury in England; and which, I am bound to say, will wet a man’s jacket as satisfactorily as a cataract would do.

It was just such another day as that of the famous stag-hunt at Killarney, in a word and as in the first instance, we went to see the deer killed and saw nothing thereof, so in the second case, we went to see the landscape with precisely the same good-fortune. The mountains covered their modest beauties in impenetrable veils of clouds; and the only consolation to the boat’s crew was that it was a remarkably good day for trout-fishing — which amusement some people are said to prefer to the examination of landscapes, however beautiful.

O you who laboriously throw flies in English rivers, and catch at the expiration of a hard day’s walking, casting, and wading, two or three feeble little brown trouts of two or three ounces in weight, how would you rejoice to have but an hour’s sport in Derryclear or Ballinahinch; where you have but to cast, and lo! a big trout springs at your fly, and, after making a vain struggling, splashing, and plunging for a while, is infallibly landed in the net and thence into the boat. The single rod in the boat caught enough fish in an hour to feast the crew, consisting of five persons, and the family of a herd of Mr. Martin’s, who has a pretty cottage on Derryclear Lake, inhabited by a cow and its calf, a score of fowls, and I don’t know how many sons and daughters.

Having caught enough trout to satisfy any moderate appetite, like true sportsmen the gentlemen on board our boat became eager to hook a salmon. Had they hooked a fewsal mon, no doubt they would have trolled for whales, or for a mermaid; one of which finny beauties the waterman swore he had seen on the shore of Derryclear — he with Jim Mullen being above on a rock, the mermaid on the shore directly beneath them, visible to the middle, and as usual “racking her hair.” It was fair hair, the boatman said; and he appeared as convinced of the existence of the mermaid as he was of the trout just landed in the boat.

In regard of mermaids, there is a gentleman living near Killala Bay, whose name was mentioned to me, and who declares solemnly that one day, shooting on the sands there, he saw a mermaid, and determined to try her with a shot. So he drew the small charge from his gun and loaded it with ball-that he always had by him for seal-shooting — fired, and hit the mermaid through the breast. The screams and moans of the creature-whose person he describes most accurately — were the most horrible, heart-rending noises that he ever, he said, heard; and not only were they heard by him, but by the fishermen along the coast, who were furiously angry against Mr. A— n, because, they said, the injury done to the mermaid would cause her to drive all the fish away from the bay for years to come.

But we did not, to my disappointment, catch a glimpse of one of these interesting beings, nor of the great sea-horse which is said to inhabit these waters, nor of any fairies (of whom the stroke-oar, Mr. Marcus, told us not to speak, for they didn’t like bein’ spoken of); nor even of a salmon, though the fishermen produced the most tempting flies. The only animal of any size that was visible we saw while lying by a swift black river that comes jumping with innumerable little waves into Derryclear, and where the salmon are especially suffered to “stand:” this animal was an eagle — a real wild eagle, with grey wings and a white head and belly: it swept round us, within gun-shot reach, once or twice, through the leaden sky, and then settled on a gray rock and began to scream its shrill, ghastly aquiline note.

The attempts on the salmon having failed, the rain continuing to fall steadily, the herd’s cottage before named was resorted to: when Marcus, the boatman, commenced forthwith to gut the fish, and taking down some charred turf-ashes from the blazing fire, on which about a hundredweight of potatoes were boiling, he — Marcus — proceeded to grill on the floor some of the trout, which we afterwards ate with immeasurable satisfaction. They were such trouts as, when once tasted, remain forever in the recollection of a commonly grateful mind — rich, flaky, creamy, full of flavour. A Parisian gourmand would have paid ten francs for the smallest cooleen among them; and, when transported to his capital, how different in flavour would they have been — how inferior to what they were as we devoured them, fresh from the fresh waters of the lake, and jerked as it were from the water to the gridiron! The world had not had time to spoil those innocent beings before they were gobbled up with pepper and salt, and missed, no doubt, by their friends. I should like to know more of their “set.” But enough of this: my feelings overpower me — suffice it to say, they were red or salmon trouts — none of your white-fleshed brown-skinned river fellows.

When the gentlemen had finished their repast, the boatmen and the family set to work upon the ton of potatoes, a number of the remaining fish, and a store of other good things; then we all sat round the turf-fire in the dark cottage, the rain coming down steadily outside and veiling everything except the shrubs and verdure immediately about the cottage. The herd, the herd’s wife, and a nondescript female friend, two healthy young herdsmen in corduroy rags, the herdsman’s daughter paddling about with bare feet, a stout black-eyed wench with her gown over her head and a red petticoat not quite so good as new, the two boatmen, a badger just killed and turned inside out, the gentlemen, some hens cackling and flapping about among the rafters, a calf in a corner cropping green meat and occasionally visited by the cow her mamma, formed the society of the place. It was rather a strange picture; but as for about two hours we sat there, and maintained an almost unbroken silence, and as there was no other amusement but to look at the rain, I began, after the enthusiasm of the first half-hour, to think that after all London was a bearable place, and that for want of a turf-fire and a bench in Connemara, one might put up with a sofa and a newspaper in Pall Mall.

This, however, is according to tastes; and I must say that Mr. Marcus betrayed a most bitter contempt for all cockney tastes, awkwardness, and ignorance: and very right too. The night, on our return home, all of a sudden cleared; but though the fishermen, much to my disgust — at the expression of which, however, the rascals only laughed — persisted in making more casts for trout, and trying back in the dark upon the spots which we had visited in the morning, it appeared the fish had been frightened off by the rain; and the sportsmen met with such indifferent success that at about ten o’clock we found ourselves at Ballinahinch. Dinner was served at eleven; and, I believe, there was some whiskey-punch afterwards, recommended medicinally and to prevent the ill effects of the wetting: but that is neither here nor there.

The next day the petty sessions were to be held at Roundstone, a little town which has lately sprung up near the noble bay of that name. I was glad to see some specimens of Connemara litigation, as also to behold at least one thousand beautiful views that lie on the five miles of road between the town and Ballinahinch. Rivers and rocks, mountains and sea, green plains and bright skies, how (for the hundred-and-fiftieth time) can pen and ink set you down? But if Berghem could have seen those blue mountains, and Karel Dujardin could have copied some of these green, airy plains, with their brilliant little coloured groups of peasants, beggars, horsemen, many an Englishman would know Connemara upon canvas as he does Italy or Flanders now.

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