The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Roundstone Petty Sessions.

“The temple of august Themis,” as a Frenchman would call the sessions-room at Roundstone, is an apartment of some twelve feet square, with a deal table and a couple of chairs for the accommodation of the magistrates, and a Testament with a paper cross pasted on it to be kissed by the witnesses and complainants who frequent the court. The law-papers, warrants, &c., are kept on the sessions-clerk’s bed in an adjoining apartment, which commands a fine view of the court-yard-where there is a stack of turf, a pig, and a shed beneath which the magistrates’ horses were sheltered during the sitting. The sessions-clerk is a gentleman “having,” as the phrase is here, both the English and Irish languages, and interpreting for the benefit of the worshipful bench.

And if the cockney reader supposes that in this remote country spot, so wild, so beautiful, so distant from the hum and vice of cities, quarrelling is not, and litigation never shows her snaky head, he is very much mistaken. From what I saw, I would recommend any ingenious young attorney whose merits are not appreciated in the metropolis, to make an attempt upon the village of Roundstone; where as yet, I believe, there is no solicitor, and where an immense and increasing practice might speedily be secured. Mr. O’Connell, who is always crying out “Justice for Ireland,” finds strong supporters among the Roundstonians, whose love of justice for themselves is inordinate. I took down the plots of the first five little litigious dramas which were played before Mr. Martin and the stipendiary magistrate.

Case 1.-A boy summoned a young man for beating him so severely that he kept his bed for a week, thereby breaking an engagement with his master, and losing a quarter’s wages.

The defendant stated, in reply, that the plaintiff was engaged — in a field through which defendant passed with another person — setting two little boys to fight; on which defendant took plaintiff by the collar and turned him out of the field. A witness who was present swore that defendant never struck plaintiff at all, nor kicked him, nor ill-used him, further than by pushing him out of the field.

As to the loss of his quarter’s wages, the plaintiff ingeniously proved that he had afterwards returned to his master, that he had worked out his time, and that he had in fact received already the greater part of his hire. Upon which the case was dismissed, the defendant quitting court without a stain upon his honour.

Case 2 was a most piteous and lamentable case of killing a cow. The plaintiff stepped forward with many tears and much gesticulation to state the fact, and also to declare that she was in danger of her life from the defendant’s family.

It appeared on the evidence that a portion of the defendant’s respectable family are at present undergoing the rewards which the law assigns to those who make mistakes in fields with regard to the ownership of sheep which sometimes graze there. The defendant’s father, O’Damon, for having appropriated one of the fleecy bleaters of O’Meliboeus, was at present passed beyond sea to a country where wool, and consequently mutton, is so plentiful, that he will have the less temptation. Defendant’s brothers tread the Ixionic wheel for the same offence. Plaintiff’s son had been the informer in the case: hence the feud between the families, the threats on the part of the defendant, the murder of the innocent cow.

But upon investigation of the business, it was discovered, and on the plaintiff’s own testimony, that the cow had not been killed, nor even been injured; but that the defendant had flung two stones at it, which might have inflicted great injury had they hit the animal with greater force in the eye or in any delicate place.

Defendant admitted flinging the stones, but alleged as a reason that the cow was trespassing on his grounds; which plaintiff did not seem inclined to deny. Case dismissed. — Defendant retires with unblemished honour; on which his mother steps forward, and lifting up her hands with tears and shrieks, calls upon God to witness that the defendant’s own brother-in-law had sold to her husband the very sheep on account of which he had been transported.

Not wishing probably to doubt the justice of the verdict of an Irish jury, the magistrate abruptly put an end to the lamentation and oaths of the injured woman by causing her to be sent out of court, and called the third case on.

This was a case of thrilling interest and a complicated nature, involving two actions, which ought each perhaps to have been gone into separately, but were taken together. In the first place Timothy Horgan brought an action against Patrick Dolan for breach of contract in not remaining with him for the whole of six months during which Dolan had agreed to serve Horgan. Then Dolan brought an action against Horgan for not paying him his wages for six months’ labour done — the wages being two guineas.

Horgan at once, and with much candour, withdrew his charge against Dolan, that the latter had not remained with bun for six months: nor can I understand to this day why in the first place he swore to the charge; and why afterwards he withdrew it. But immediately advancing another charge against his late servant, he pleaded that he had given him a suit of clothes, which should be considered as a set-off against part of the money claimed.

Now such a suit of clothes as poor Dolan had was never seen — I will not say merely on an English scarecrow, but on an Irish beggar. Strips of rags fell over the honest fellow’s great brawny chest, and the covering on his big brown legs hung on by a wonder. He held out his arms with a grim smile, and told his worship to look at the clothes! The argument was irresistible: Horgan was ordered to pay forthwith. He ought to have been made to pay another guinea for clothing a fellow-creature in rags so abominable.

And now came a case of trespass, in which there was nothing interesting but the attitude of the poor woman who trespassed, and who meekly acknowledged the fact. She stated, however, that she only got over the wall as a short cut home; but the wall was eight feet high, with a ditch too; and I fear there were cabbages or potatoes in the inclosure. They fined her a sixpence, and she could not pay it, and went to jail for three days — where she and her baby at any rate will get a meal.

Last on the list which I took down came a man who will make the fortune of the London attorney that I hope is on his way hither: a rather old, curly-headed man, with a sly smile perpetually ling on his face (the reader may give whatever interpretation he please to the “lying”). He comes before the court almost every fortnight, they say, with a complaint of one kind or other. His present charge was against a man for breaking into his court-yard, and wishing to take possession of the same. It appeared that he, the defendant, and another lived in a row of houses: the plaintiff’s house was, however, first built; and as his agreement specified that the plot of ground behind his house should be his likewise, he chose to imagine that the plot of ground behind all the three houses was his, and built his turf-stack against his neighbour’s window. The magistrates of course pronounced against this ingenious discoverer of wrongs, and he left the court still smiling and twisting round his little wicked eyes, and declaring solemnly that he would put in an appale. If one could have purchased a kicking at a moderate price off that fellow’s back, it would have been a pleasant little piece of self-indulgence, and I confess I longed to ask him the price of the article.

And so, after a few more such great cases, the court rose, and I had leisure to make moral reflections, if so minded: sighing to think that cruelty and falsehood, selfishness and rapacity, dwells not in crowds alone, but flourish all the world over — sweet flowers of human nature, they bloom in all climates and seasons, and are just as much at home in a hot house in Thavies’ Inn as on a lone mountain or a rocky sea-coast in Ireland, where never a tree will grow!

We walked along this coast, after the judicial proceedings were over, to see the country, and the new road that the Board of Works is forming. Such a wilderness of rocks I never saw! The district for miles is covered with huge stones, shining white in patches of green, with the Binabola on one side of the spectator, and the Atlantic running in and out of a thousand little bays on the other. The country is very hilly, or wavy rather, being a sort of ocean petrified; and the engineers have hard work with these numerous abrupt little ascents and descents, which they equalise as best they may-by blasting, cutting, filling cavities, and levelling eminences. Some hundreds of men were employed at this work, busy with their handbarrows, their picking and boring. Their pay is eighteen-pence a day.

There is little to see in the town of Roundstone, except a Presbyterian chapel in process of erection — that seems big enough to accommodate the Presbyterians of the country — and a sort of lay convent, being a community of brothers of the third order of Saint Francis. They are all artisans and workmen, taking no vows, but living together in common, and undergoing a certain religious regimen. Their work is said to be very good, and all are employed upon some labour or other. On the front of this unpretending little dwelling is an inscription with a great deal of pretence, stating that the establishment was founded with the approbation of “His Grace the Most Reverend the Lord Archbishop of Tuam.”

The Most Reverend Dr. MacHale is a clergyman of great learning, talents, and honesty, but his Grace the Lord Archbishop of Tuam strikes me as being no better than a mountebank; and some day I hope even his own party will laugh this humbug down. It is bad enough to be awed by big titles at all; but to respect sham ones! — O stars and garters! We shall have his Grace the Lord Chief Rabbi next, or his Lordship the Arch-Imaum!

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