The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

A Country-house in Kildare — sketches of an Irish family and farm.

It had been settled among my friends, I don’t know for what particular reason, that the Agricultural Show at Cork was an exhibition I was specially bound to see. When, therefore, a gentleman to whom I had brought a letter of introduction kindly offered me a seat in his carriage, which was to travel by short days’ journeys to that city, I took an abrupt farewell of Pat the waiter, and some other friends in Dublin: proposing to renew our acquaintance, however, upon some future day.

We started then one fine afternoon on the road from Dublin to Naas, which is the main southern road from the capital to Munster, and met, in the course of the ride of a score of miles, a dozen of coaches very heavily loaded, and bringing passengers to the city. The exit from Dublin this way is not much more elegant than the outlet by way of Kingstown for though the great branches of the city appear flourishing enough as yet, the smaller outer ones are in a sad state of decay. Houses drop off here and there and dwindle woefully in size; we are got into the back-premises of the seemingly prosperous place, and it looks miserable, careless and deserted. We passed through a street which was thriving once, but has fallen since into a sort of decay, to judge outwardly, — St Thomas’ Street. Emmett was hanged in the midst of it. And on pursuing the line of street, and crossing the Great Canal, you come presently to a fine tall square building in the outskirts of the town which is no more nor less than Kilmainham Jail, or Castle. Poor Emmett is the Irish darling still — his history is on every book stall in the city, and yonder trim-looking brick jail a spot where Irishmen may go and pray. Many a martyr of theirs has appeared and died in front of it, found guilty of “wearing of the green.”

There must be a fine view from the jail windows, for we presently come to a great stretch of brilliant green country leaving the Dublin hills lying to the left, picturesque in their outline, and of wonderful colour. It seems to me to be quite a different colour to that in England — different-shaped clouds — different shadows and lights. The country is well tilled, well peopled; the hay-harvest on the ground, and the people taking advantage of the sunshine to gather in it; but in spite of everything, — green meadows, white villages and sunshine, — the place has a sort of sadness in the look of it.

The first town we passed, as appears by reference to the Guide-book, is the little town of Rathcoole; but in the space of three days Rathcoole has disappeared from my memory, with the exception of a little low building which the village contains, and where are the quarters of the Irish constabulary. Nothing can be finer than the trim, orderly, and soldierlike appearance of this splendid corps of men.

One has glimpses all along the road of numerous gentlemen’s places, looking extensive and prosperous, of a few mills by streams here and there; but though the streams run still, the mill-wheels are idle for the chief part, and the road passes more than one long low village, looking bare and poor, but neat and whitewashed: it seems as if the inhabitants were determined to put a decent look upon their poverty. One or two villages there were evidently appertaining to gentlemen’s seats; these are smart enough, especially that of Johnstown, near Lord’s Mayo’s fine domain, where the houses are of the Gothic sort, with pretty porches, creepers, and railings. Noble purple hills to the left and right keep up, as it were, an accompaniment to the road.

As for the town of Naas, the first after Dublin that I have seen, what can be said of it but that it looks poor, mean, and yet somehow cheerful? There was a little hustle in the small shops, a few cars were jingling along the broadest street of the town-some sort of dandies and military individuals were lolling about right and left; and I saw a fine court-house, where the assizes of Kildare county are held.

But by far the finest, and I think the most extensive edifice in Naas, was a haystack in the inn-yard, the proprietor of which did not fail to make me remark its size and splendour. It was of such dimensions as to strike a cockney with respect and pleasure; and here standing just as the new crops were coming in, told a tale of opulent thrift and good husbandry. Are there many more such haystacks, I wonder, in Ireland? The crops along the road seemed healthy, though rather light: wheat and oats plenty, and especially flourishing; hay and clover not so good; and turnips (let the important remark be taken at its full value) almost entirely wanting.

The little town, as they call it, of Kilcullen, tumbles down a hill and struggles up another; the two being here picturesquely divided by the Liffey over which goes an antique bridge. It boasts, moreover, of a portion of an abbey wall and a piece of round tower, both on the hill summit, and to be seen (says the Guide-book) for many miles round. Here we saw the first public evidences of the distress of the country. There was no trade in the little place, and but few people to be seen, except a crowd round a meal-shop; Here meal is distributed once a week by the neighbouring gentry. There must have been some hundreds of persons waiting about the doors, women for the most part: some of their children were to be found loitering about the bridge much farther up the street: but it was curious to note, amongst these undeniably starving people, how healthy their looks were.

Going a little further we saw women pulling weeds and nettles in the hedges, on which dismal sustenance the poor creatures live, having no bread, no potatoes, no work. Well! these women did not look thinner or more unhealthy than many a well-fed person. A company of English lawyers, now, look more cadaverous than these starving creatures.

Stretching away from Kilcullen bridge, for couple of miles or more, near the fine house and plantations of the Latouche family, is to be seen a much prettier sight, I think, than the finest park and mansion in the world. This is a tract of excessively green and land, dotted over with brilliant white cottages, each with its couple of trim acres of garden, where you see thick potato-ridges covered with blossoms, great blue plots of comfortable cabbages and such pleasant plants of the poor man’s garden. Two or three years since, the land was a marshy common, which had never since the days of the Deluge fed any being larger than a snipe, and into which the poor people descended, draining and cultivating and rescuing the marsh from the water, and raising their cabins and setting up their little inclosures of two or three acres upon the land which they had thus created. “Many of ’em has passed months in jail for that,” said my informant (a groom on the back seat of my host’s phaeton); for it appears that certain gentlemen in the neighbourhood looked upon the titles of these new colonists with some jealousy, and would have been glad to depose them: but there were some better philosophers among the surrounding gentry, who advised that instead of discouraging the settlers it would be best to help them; and the consequence has been, that there are now 200 flourishing little homesteads upon this rescued land, and as many families in comfort and plenty.

Just at the confines of this pretty rustic republic, our pleasant afternoon’s drive ended; and I must begin this tour with a monstrous breach of confidence, by first describing what I saw.

Well, then, we drove through a neat lodge-gate, with no stone lions or supporters, but riding well on its hinges, and looking fresh and white; and passed by a lodge, not Gothic, but decorated with flowers and evergreens, with clean windows, and a sound slate roof; and then went over a trim road, through a few acres of grass, adorned with plenty of young firs and other healthy trees, under which were feeding a dozen of fine cows or more. The road led up to a house, or rather a congregation of rooms, built seemingly to suit the owner’s convenience, and increasing with his increasing wealth, or whim, or family. This latter is as plentiful as everything else about the place; and as the arrows increased, the good-natured, lucky father has been forced to multiply the quivers.

First came out a young gentleman, the heir of the house, who, after greeting his papa, began examining the horses with much interest; whilst three or four servants, quite neat and well dressed, and, wonderful to say, without any talking, began to occupy themselves with the carriage, the passengers, and the trunks. Meanwhile, the owner of the house had gone into the hall, which is snugly furnished as a morning-room, and where one, two, three young ladies came in to greet him. The young ladies having concluded their embraces, performed (as I am bound to say from experience, both in London and Paris,) some very appropriate and well-finished curtseys to the strangers arriving. And these three young persons were presently succeeded by some still younger, who came without any curtseys at all; but, bounding and jumping, and shouting out “Papa” at the top of their voices, they fell forthwith upon that worthy gentleman’s person, taking possession this of his knees, that of his arms, that of his whiskers, as fancy or taste might dictate.

“Are there any more of you?” says he, with perfect good-humour; and, in fact, it appeared that the nursery, as we subsequently had occasion to see.

Well, this large happy family are lodged in a house than which a prettier or more comfortable is not to be seen even in England; of the furniture of which it may be in confidence said, that each article is only made to answer one purpose:— thus, that chairs are never called upon to exercise the versatility of their genius by propping up windows; that chests of drawers are not obliged to move their unwieldy persons in order to act as locks to doors; that the windows are not variegated by paper, or adorned with wafers, as in other places which I have seen: in fact, that the place is just as comfortable as a place can be.

And if these comforts and reminiscences of three days’ date are enlarged upon at some length, the reason is simply this:— this is written at what is supposed to be the best inn at one of the best towns of Ireland, Waterford. Dinner is just over; it is assize-week, and the table-d’hote was surrounded for the chief part, by English attorneys — the councillors (as the bar are pertinaciously called) dining up stairs in private, Well, on going to the public room and being about to lay down my hat on the sideboard, I was obliged to pause — out of regard to a fine thick coat of dust which had been kindly left to gather for some days past I should think, and which it seemed a shame to displace. Yonder is a chair basking quietly in the sunshine; some round object has evidently reposed upon it (a hat or plate probably), for you see a clear circle of black horsehair in the middle of the chair, and dust all round it. Not one of those dirty napkins that the four waiters carry; would wipe away the grime from the chair, and take to itself a little dust more! The people in the room are shouting out for the waiters, who cry, “Yes, sir,” peevishly, and don’t come; but stand bawling and jangling, and calling each other names, at the sideboard. The dinner is plentiful and nasty — raw ducks, raw pease, on a crumpled table-cloth, over which a waiter has just spirted a pint of obstreperous cider. The windows are open, to give free view of a crowd of old beggar-women, and of a fellow playing a cursed Irish pipe. Presently this delectable apartment fills with choking peat-smoke; and on asking what is the cause of this agreeable addition to the pleasures of the place, you are told that they are lighting a fire in a back-room.

Why should lighting a fire in a back-room fill a whole enormous house with smoke? Why should four waiters stand and jaw and gesticulate among themselves, instead of waiting on the guests? Why should ducks be raw, and dust lie quiet in places where a hundred people pass daily? All these points makes one think very regretfully of neat, pleasant, comfortable, prosperous H— town, where the meat was cooked, and the rooms were clean, and the servants didn’t talk. Nor need it be said here, that it is as cheap to have a house clean as dirty, and that a raw leg of mutton costs exactly the same sum as one cuit a point. And by this moral earnestly hoping that all Ireland may profit, let as go back to H — and the sights to be seen there.

There is no need to particularise the chairs and tables any farther, nor to say what sort of conversation and claret we had; nor to set down the dishes served at dinner. If an Irish gentleman does not give you a more hearty welcome than an English-man, at least he has a more hearty manner of welcoming you and while the latter reserves his fun and humour (if he possess those qualities) for his particular friends, the former is ready to laugh and talk his best with all the world, and give way entirely to his mood. And it would be a good opportunity here for a man who is clever at philosophising to expound various theories upon the modes of hospitality practised in various parts of Europe. In a couple of hours’ talk, an Englishmen will give you his notions on trade, politics, the crops; the last run with the hounds, or the weather: it requires a long sitting, and a bottle of wine at the least, to induce him to laugh cordially, or to speak unreservedly; and if you joke with him before you know him, he will assuredly set you down as a low impertinent fellow. In two hours, and over a pipe a German will be quite ready to let loose the easy floodgates of his sentiment, and confide to you many of the secrets of his soft heart. In two hours a Frenchman will say 120 smart, witty, brilliant, false things, and will care for you as much then as he would if you saw him every day for 20 years — that is, not one single straw; and in two hours an Irishman will have allowed his jovial humour to unbutton, and gambolled and frolicked to his heart’s content. Which of these, putting Monsieur out of the question, will stand by his friend with the most constancy, and maintain his steady wish to serve him? That is a question which the Englishman (and I think with a little of his ordinary cool assumption) is disposed to decide in his own favour; but it is clear that for a stranger the Irish ways are the pleasantest, for here he is at once made happy and at home or at ease rather; for home is a strong word, and implies much more than any stranger can expect, or even desire to claim.

Nothing could be more delightful to witness than the evident affection which the children and parents bore to one another, and the cheerfulness and happiness of their family-parties. The father of one lad went with a party of his friends and family on a pleasure-party, in a handsome coach-and-four. The little fellow sat on the coach-box and played with the whip very wistfully for some time: the sun was shining, the horses came out in bright harness, with glistening coats; one of the girls brought a geranium to stick in papa’s button-hole, who was to drive. But although there was room in the coach, and though papa said he should go if he liked, and though the lad longed to go — as who wouldn’t? — he jumped off the box, and said he would not go: mamma would like him to stop at home and keep his sister company; and so down he went like a hero. Does this story appear trivial to any one who reads it? If so he is a pompous fellow, whose opinion is not worth the having or he has no children of his own, or he has forgotten the day when he was a child himself; or he has never repented of the surly selfishness with which he treated brothers and sisters, after the habit of young English gentlemen.

“That’s a list that uncle keeps of his children,” said the same young fellow, seeing his uncle reading a paper; and to understand this joke, it must be remembered that the children of the gentleman called uncle came into the breakfast-room by half-dozens. “That’s a rum fellow,” said the eldest of these latter to me, as his father went out of the room, evidently thinking his papa was the greatest wit and wonder in the whole world. And a great merit, as it appeared to me, on the part of these worthy parents was, that they consented not only to make, but to take jokes from their young ones: nor was the parental authority in the least weakened by this kind familiar intercourse.

A word with regard to the ladies so far. Those I have seen appear to the full as well educated and refined, and far more frank and cordial, than the generality of the fair creatures on the other side of the Channel. I have not heard anything about poetry, to be sure, and in only one house have seen an album; but I have heard some capital music, of an excellent family sort — that sort which is used, namely, to set young people dancing, which they have done merrily for some nights. In respect of drinking, among the gentry teetotalism does not, thank heaven I as yet appear to prevail; but although the claret has been invariably good, there has been no improper use of it. [The only instances of intoxication that I have heard of as yet, have been on the part of two “cyouncillors,” drunk and noisy yesterday after the bar dinner at Waterford.] Let all English be recommended to be very careful of whiskey, which experience teaches to be a very deleterious drink. Natives say that it is wholesome, and may be sometimes seen to use it with impunity; but the whiskey-fever is naturally more fatal to strangers than inhabitants of the country; and whereas an Irishman will sometimes imbibe a half-dozen tumblers of the poison, two glasses will be often found to cause headaches, heartburns, and fevers to a person newly arrived in the country. The said whiskey is always to be had for the asking, but is not produced at the bettermost sort of tables.

Before setting out on our second day’s journey, we had time to accompany the well-pleased owner of H— town over some of his fields and out-premises. Nor can there be a pleasanter sight to owner or stranger. Mr. P— farms 400 acres of land about his house; and employs on this estate no less than 110 persons. He says there is full work for every one of them; and to see the elaborate state of cultivation in which the land was, it is easy to understand how such an agricultural regiment were employed. The estate is like a well-ordered garden: we walked into a huge field of potatoes, and the landlord made us remark that there was not a single weed between the furrows; and the whole formed a vast flower-bed of a score of acres. Every bit of land up to the hedge-side was fertilised and full of produce: the space left for the plough having afterwards been gone over, and yielding its fullest proportion of “fruit.” In a turnip-field were a score or more of women and children, who were marching through the ridges, removing the young plants where two or three had grown together, and leaving only the most healthy. Every individual root in the field was thus the object of culture; and the owner said that this extreme cultivation answered his purpose, and that the employment of all these hands (the women and children earn 6d. and 8d. a day all the year round), which gained him some reputation as a philanthropist, brought him profit as a farmer too; for his crops were the best that land could produce. He has further the advantage of a large stock for manure, and does everything for the land which art can do.

Here we saw several experiments in manuring: an acre of turnips prepared with bone-dust; another with “Murray’s Composition,” whereof I do not pretend to know the ingredients; another with a new manure called guano. As far as turnips and a first year’s crop went, the guano carried the day. The plants on the guano acre looked to be three weeks in advance of their neighbours, and were extremely plentiful and healthy. I went to see this field two mouths after the above passage was written: the guano acre still kept the lead; the hone-dust ran guano very hard; and composition was clearly distanced.

Behind the house is a fine village of corn and hayricks, and a street of out-buildings, where all the work of the farm is prepared. Here were numerous people coming with pails for buttermilk, which the good-natured landlord made over to them. A score of men or more were busied about the place; some at a grindstone, others at a forge — other fellows busied in the cart-houses and stables, all of which were as neatly kept as in the best farm in England. A little farther on was a flower-garden, a kitchen-garden, a hot-house just building, a kennel of fine pointers and setters; — indeed a noble feature of country neatness, thrift, and plenty.

We went into the cottages and gardens of several of Mr P—’s laborers, which were all so neat that I could not help fancying they were pet cottages erected under the landlord’s own superintendence, and ornamented to his order. But he declared that it was not so; that the only benefit his labourers got from him was constant work, and a house rent-free; and that the neatness of the gardens and dwellings was of their own doing. By making them a present of the house, he said, he made them a present of the pig and live stock, with which almost every Irish cotter pays his rent, so that each workman could have a bit of meat for his support; — would that all labourers in the empire had as much!

With regard to the neatness of the houses, the best way to ensure this, he said, was for the master constantly to visit them — to awaken as much emulation as he could amongst the cottagers, so that each should make his place as good as his neighbour’s — and to take them good-humouredly to task if they failed in the requisite care.

And so this pleasant day’s visit ended. A more practical person would have seen, no doubt, and understood much more than a mere citizen could, whose pursuits have been very different from those noble and useful ones here spoken of. But a man has no call to be a judge of turnips or live stock, in order to admire such an establishment as this, and heartily to appreciate the excellence of it. There are some happy organisations in the world which possess the great virtue of prosperity. It implies cheerfulness, simplicity, shrewdness, perseverance, honesty, good health. See how, before the good-humoured resolution of such characters, ill-luck gives way, and fortune assumes their own smiling complexion! Such men grow rich without driving a single hard bargain; their condition being to make others prosper along with themselves. Thus, his very charity, another informant tells me, is one of the causes of my host’s good fortune. He might have three pounds a year from each of 40 cottages, but instead prefers 100 healthy workmen; or he might have a fourth of the number of workmen, and a farm yielding a produce proportionately less; but instead of saving the money of their wages, prefers a farm the produce of which; as I have heard from a gentleman whom I take to be good authority, is unequalled elsewhere.

Besides the cottages, we visited a pretty school, where children of an exceeding smallness were at their work, — the children of the Catholic peasantry. The few Protestants of the district do not attend the national-school, nor learn their alphabet or their multiplication-table in company with their little Roman Catholic brethren. The clergyman, who lives hard by the gate of H— town, in his communication with his parishioners cannot fail to see how much misery is relieved, and how much good is done by his neighbour; but though the two gentlemen are on good terms, the clergyman will not break bread with his Catholic fellow-Christian. There can be no harm, I hope, in mentioning this fact, as it is rather a public than a private matter; and, unfortunately, it is only a stranger that is surprised by such a circumstance, which is quite familiar to residents of the country. There are Catholic inns and Protestant inns in the towns; Catholic coaches and Protestant coaches on the roads; nay, in the North, I have since heard of a High Church coach and a Low Church coach adopted by travelling Christians of either party.

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