The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Clifden to Westport.

On leaving Ballinahinch (with sincere regret, as any lonely tourist may imagine, who is called upon to quit the hospitable friendliness of such a place and society), my way lay back to Clifden again, and thence through the Joyce country, by the Killery mountains, to Westport in Mayo. The road, amounting in all to four-and-forty Irish miles, is performed in cars, in different periods of time, according to your horse and your luck. Sometimes, both being bad, the traveller is two days on the road; sometimes a dozen hours will suffice for the journey — which was the case with me, though I confess to having found the twelve hours long enough. After leaving Clifden, the friendly look of the country seemed to vanish; and though picturesque enough, was a thought too wild and. dismal for eyes accustomed to admire a hop-garden in Kent, or a view of rich meadows in Surrey, with a clump of trees and a comfortable village spire. “Inglis“the Guide-book says, “compares the scenes to the Norwegian Fiords.” Well, the Norwegian Fiords must, in this case, be very dismal sights! and I own that the wilderness of Hampstead Heath (with the imposing walls of “Jack Straw’s Castle” rising stern in the midst of the green wilderness) is more to my taste than the general views of yesterday.

We skirted by lake after lake, lying lonely in the midst of lonely boglands, or bathing the sides of mountains robed in sombre rifle green. Two or three men, and as many huts, you see in the course of each mile perhaps, as toiling up the bleak hills, or jingling more rapidly down them, you pass through this sad region. In the midst of the wilderness a chapel stands here and there, solitary, on the hill-side; or a ruinous, useless school-house, its pale walls contrasting with the general surrounding hue of sombre purple and green. But though the country looks more dismal than Connemara, it is clearly more fertile: we passed miles of ground that evidently wanted but little cultivation to make them profitable; and along the mountain-sides, in many places, and over a great extent of Mr. Blake’s country especially, the hills were covered with a thick natural plantation, that may yield a little brushwood now, but might in fifty year’s time bring thousands of pounds of revenue to the descendants of the Blakes. This spectacle of a country going to waste is enough to make the cheerfullest landscape look dismal: it gives this wild district a woeful look indeed. The names of the lakes by which we came I noted down in a pocket-book as we passed along; but the names were Irish, the car was rattling, and the only name readable in the catalogue is Letterfrack.

The little hamlet of Leenane is at twenty miles’ distance from Clifden; and to arrive at it, you skirt the mountain along one side of a vast pass, through which the ocean runs from Killery Bay, separating the mountains of Mayo from the mountains of Galway. Nothing can be more grand and gloomy than this pass; and as for the character of the scenery, it must, as the Guide-book says, “be seen to be understood.” Meanwhile, let the reader imagine huge dark mountains in their accustomed livery of purple and green, a dull grey sky above them, an estuary silver-bright below: in the water lies a fisherman’s boat or two; a pair of seagulls undulating with the little waves of the water; a pair of curlews wheeling overhead and piping on the wing; and on the hill-side a jingling car, with a cockney in it, oppressed by and yet admiring all these things. Many a sketcher and tourist, as I found, has visited this picturesque spot: for the hostess of the inn had stories of English and American painters, and of illustrious book-writers too, travelling in the service of our Lords of Paternoster Row.

The landlord’s son of Clifden, a very intelligent young fellow, was here exchanged for a new carman in theperson of a raw Irisher of twenty years of age, “having” little English, and dressed in that very pair of pantaloons which Humphrey Clinker was compelled to cast off some years since on account of the offence which they gave to Mrs. Tabitha Bramble. This fellow, emerging from among the boats, went off to a field to seek for the black horse, which the landlady assured me was quite fresh and had not been out all day, and would carry me to Westport in three hours. Meanwhile I was lodged in a neat little parlour, surveying the Mayo side of the water, with some cultivated fields and a show of a village at the spot where the estuary ends, and above them lodges and fine dark plantations climbing over the dark hills that leads to Lord Sligo’s seat of Delphi. Presently, with a curtsey, came a young woman who sold worsted socks at a shilling a pain

It required no small pains to entice this rustic beauty to stand while a sketch should be made of her. Nor did any compliments or cajolements, on my part or the landlady’s, bring about the matter: it was not until money was offered that the lovely creature consented. I offered (such is the ardour of the real artist) either to give her sixpence, or to purchase two pairs of her socks, if she would stand still for five minutes. On which she said she would prefer selling the socks. Then she stood still for a moment in the corner of the room; then she turned her face towards the corner, and the other part of her person towards the artist, and exclaimed in that attitude, “I must have a shilling more.” Then I told her to go to the deuce. Then she made a proposition, involving the stockings and sixpence, which was similarly rejected; and, finally, the design was completed at the price first stated.

However, as we went off, this timid little dove barred the door for a moment, and said that “I ought to give her another shilling; that a gentleman would give her another shilling,” and so on. She might have trod the London streets for ten years and not have been more impudent and more greedy.

By this time the famous fresh horse was produced, and the driver, by means of a wraprascal, had covered a great part of the rags of his lower garment. He carried a whip and a stick, the former lying across his knees ornamentally, the latter being for service; and as his feet were directly under the horse’s tail, he had full command of the brute’s back, and belaboured it for six hours without ceasing.

What little English the fellow knew he uttered with a howl, roaring into my ear answers-which, for the most part, were wrong-to various questions put to him. The lad’s voice was so hideous, that I asked him if he could sing; on which forthwith he began yelling a most horrible Irish ditty — of which he told me the title, that I have forgotten. He sang seven stanzas, certainly keeping a kind of tune, and the latter lines of each verse were in rhyme; but when I asked him the meaning of the song, he only roared out its Irish title.

On questioning the driver further”, it turned out that the horse, warranted fresh, had already performed a journey of eighteen miles that morning, and the consequence was that I had full leisure to survey the country through which we passed. There were more lakes, more mountains, more bogs, and an excellent road through this district, though few only of the human race enlivened it. At ten miles from Leenane, we stopped at a road-side hut, where the driver pulled out a bag of oats, and borrowing an iron pot from the good people, half filled it with corn, which the poor tired, galled, bewhipped black horse began eagerly to devour. The young charioteer himself hinted very broadly his desire for a glass of whiskey, which was the only’ kind of refreshment that this remote house of entertainment supplied.

In the various cabins I have entered, I have found talking a vain matter: the people are suspicious of the stranger within their wretched gates, and are shy, sly, and silent. I have, commonly, only been able to get half-answers in reply to my questions, given in a manner that seemed plainly to intimate that the visit was unwelcome. In this rude hostel, however, the landlord was a little less reserved, offered a seat at the turf-fire, where a painter might have had a good subject for his skill. There was no chimney, but a hole in the root up which a small portion of the smoke ascended (the rest prefer-ring an egress by the door, or else to remain in the apartment altogether); and this light from above lighted up as rude a set of figures as ever were seen. There were two brown women with black eyes and locks, the one knitting stockings on the floor, the other “racking” (with that natural comb which five horny fingers supply) the elf-locks of a dirty urchin between her knees. An idle fellow was smoking his pipe by the fire; and beside him sat a stranger, who had been made welcome to the shelter of the place — a sickly, well-looking man, whom I mistook for a deserter at first, for he had evidently been a soldier.

But there was nothing so romantic as desertion in his history. He had been in the Dragoons, but his mother had purchased his discharge he was married, and had lived comfortably in Cork for some time, in the glass-blowing business. Trade failing at Cork, he had gone to Belfast to seek for work. There was no work at Belfast; and he was so far on his road home again sick, without a penny in the world, a hundred and fifty miles to travel, and a starving wife and children to receive him at his journey’s end. He had been thrown off a caravan that day, and had almost broken his back in the fall. Here was a cheering story! I wonder where he is now: how far has the poor starving lonely man advanced over that weary desolate road, that in good health, and with a horse to carry me, I thought it a penalty to cross? What would one do under such circumstances, with solitude and hunger for present company, despair and starvation at the end of the vista? There are a score of lonely lakes along the road which he has to pass: would it be well to stop at one of them, and fling into it the wretched load of cares which that poor broken back has to carry? Would the world he would light on then be worse for him than that he is pining in now? Heaven help us! and on this very day, through the three kingdoms, there is a million such stories to be told! Who dare doubt of heaven after that? of a place where there is at last a welcome to the heart-stricken prodigal and a happy home to the wretched?

The crumbs of oats which fell from the mouth of the feasting Dives of a horse were battled for outside the door by a dozen Lazaruses in the shape of fowls; and a lanky young pig, who had been grunting in an old chest in the cabin, or in a miserable recess of huddled rags and straw which formed the couch of the family, presently came out, and drove the poultry away, picking up, with great accuracy, the solitary grains lying about, and more than once trying to shove his snout into the corn-pot, and share with the wretched old galled horse. Whether it was that he was refreshed by his meal, or that the car-boy was invigorated by his glass of whiskey, or inflamed by the sight of eighteenpence — which munificent sum was tendered to the soldier — I don’t know; but the remaining eight miles of the journey were got over in much quicker time, although the road was exceedingly bad and hilly for the greatest part of the way to Westport. However, by running up the hills at the pony’s side, the animal, fired with emulation, trotted up them too — descending them with the proverbial surefootedness of his race, the car and he bouncing over the rocks and stones at the rate of at least four Irish miles an hour.

At about five miles from Westport the cultivation became much more frequent. There were plantations upon the hills, yellow corn and potatoes in plenty in the fields, and houses thickly scattered. We had the satisfaction, too, of knowing that future tourists will have an excellent road to travel over in this district for by the side of the old road, which runs up and down a hundred little rocky steeps, according to the ancient plan, you see a new one running for several miles, — the latter way being conducted, not over the hills, but around them, and, considering the circumstances of the country, extremely broad and even. The canboy presently yelled out “Reek, Reek!” with a shriek perfectly appalling. This howl was to signify that we were in sight of that famous conical mountain so named, and from which St. Patrick, after inveigling thither all the venomous reptiles in Ireland, precipitated the whole noisome race into Clew Bay. The road also for several miles was covered with people, who were flocking in hundreds from Westport market, in cars and carts, on horseback single and double, and on foot.

And presently from an eminence, I caught sight not only of a fine view, hut of the most beautiful view I ever saw in the world, I think and to enjoy the splendour of which I would travel a hundred miles in that car with that very horse and driver. The sun was just about to set, and the country round about and to the east was almost in twilight. The mountains were tumbled about in a thousand fantastic ways, and swarming with people. Trees, cornfields, cottages, made the scene indescribably cheerful; noble woods stretched towards the sea, and abutting on them, between two highlands, lay the smoking town. Hard by was a large Gothic building — it is but a poor-house; but it looked like a grand castle in the grey evening. But the Bay-and the Reek which sweeps down to the sea-and a hundred islands in it, were dressed up in gold and purple and crimson, with the whole cloudy west in a flame. Wonderful, wonderful! * * * The valleys in the road to Leenane have lost all glimpses of the sun ere this; and I suppose there is not a soul to be seen in the black landscape, or by the shores of the ghastly lakes, where the poor glass-blower from the whiskey-shop is faintly travelling now.

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