The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Westport.

Nature has done much for this pretty town of Westport; and after Nature, the traveller ought to be thankful to Lord Sligo, who has done a great deal too. In the first place, he has established one of the prettiest, comfortablest inns in Ireland, in the best part of his little town, stocking the cellars with good wines, filling the house with neat furniture, and lending, it is said, the whole to a landlord gratis, on condition that he should keep the house warm, and furnish the larder, and entertain the traveller. Secondly, Lord Sligo has given up, for the use of the townspeople, a beautiful little pleasure-ground about his house. “You may depand upon it,” said a Scotchman at the inn, “that they’ve right of pathway through the groonds, and that the marquess couldn’t shut them oot.” Which is a pretty fair specimen of charity in this world — this kind world, that is always ready to encourage and applaud good actions, and find good motives for the same. I wonder how much would induce that Scotchman to allow poor people to walk in his park, if he had one

In the midst of this pleasure-ground, and surrounded by a thousand fine trees, dressed up in all sorts of verdure, stands a pretty little church; paths through the wood lead pleasantly down to the bay; and, as we walked down to it on the day after our arrival, one of the green fields was suddenly black with rooks, making a huge cawing and clanging as they settled down to feed. The house, a handsome massive structure, must command noble views of the bay, over which all the colours of Titian were spread as the sun set behind its purple islands.

Printer’s ink will not give these wonderful hues; and the reader will make his picture at his leisure. That conical mountain to the left is Croaghpatrick: it is clothed in the most magnificent violet-color, tud a couple of round clouds were exploding as it were from the summit, that part of them towards the sea lighted up with the most delicate gold and rose colour. In the centre is the Clare Island, of which the edges were bright cobalt, whilst the middle was lighted up with a brilliant scarlet tinge, such as 1 would have laughed at in a picture, never having seen in nature before, but looked at now with wonder and pleasure until the hue disappeared as the sun went away. The islands in the bay (which was of a gold colour) looked like so many dolphins and whales basking there. The rich park-woods stretched down to the shore; and the immediate foreground consisted of a yellow corn-field, whereon stood innumerable shocks of corn, casting immense long purple shadows over the stubble. The farmer, with some little ones about him, was superintending his reapers; and I heard him say to a little girl, “Norey, I love you the best of all my children!” Presently, one of the reapers coming up, says, “It’s always the custom in these parts to ask strange gentlemen to give something to drink the first day of reaping; and we’d like to drink your honour’s health in a bowl of coffee.” O fortunatos nimium! The cockney takes out sixpence, and thinks that he never passed such a pleasant half-hour in all his life as in that corn-field, looking at that wonderful bay.

A car which I had ordered presently joined me from the town, and going down a green lane very like England, and across a causeway near a building where the carman proposed to show me “me lard’s caffin that he brought from Rome, and a mighty big caffin entirely,” we came close upon the water and the port. There was a long handsome pier (which, no doubt, remains at this present minute), and one solitary cutter lying alongside it; which may or may not be there now. There were about three boats lying near the cutter, and six sailors, with long shadows, lolling about the pier. As for the warehouses, they are enormous; and might accommodate, I should think, not only the trade of Westport, but of Manchester too. There are huge streets of these houses, ten storeys high, with cranes, owners’ names, &c., marked Wine Stores, Flour Stores, Bonded Tobacco Warehouses, and so forth. The six sailors that were singing on the pier no doubt are each admirals of as many fleets of a hundred sail that bring wines and tobacco from all quarters of the world to fill these enormous warehouses. These dismal mausoleums, as vast as pyramids, are the places where the dead trade of Westport lies buried — a trade that, in its lifetime, probably was about as big as a mouse. Nor is this the first nor the hundredth place to be seen in this country, which sanguine builders have erected to accommodate an imaginary commerce. Mill-owners over-mill themselves, merchants over-warehouse themselves, squires over-castle themselves, little tradesmen about Dublin and the cities over-villa and over-gig themselves, and we hear sad tales about hereditary bondage and the accursed tyranny of England.

Passing out of this dreary, pseudo-commercial port, the road lay along the beautiful shores of Clew Bay, adorned with many a rickety villa and pleasure-house, from the cracked windows of which may be seen one of the noblest views in the world. One of the villas the guide pointed out with peculiar exultation: it is called by a grand name — Waterloo Park, and has a lodge, and a gate, and a field of a couple of acres, and belongs to a young gentleman who, being able to write Waterloo Park on his card, succeeded in carrying off a young London heiress with a hundred thousand pounds. The young couple had just arrived, and one of them must have been rather astonished, no doubt, at the “park.” But what will not love do? With love and a hundred thousand pounds, a cottage may be made to look like a castle, and a park of two acres may be brought to extend for a mile. The night began now to fail, wrapping up in a sober grey livery the bay and mountains, which had just been so gorgeous in sunset; and we turned our backs presently upon the bay, and the villas with the cracked windows, and scaling a road of perpetual ups and downs, went back to Westport. On the way was a pretty cemetery, lying on each side of the road, with a ruined chapel for the ornament of one division, a holy well for the other. In the holy well lives a sacred trout, whom sick people come to consult, and who operates great cures in the neighbourhood. If the patient sees the trout floating on his back, he dies; if on his belly, he lives; or vice versa. The little spot is old, ivy-grown, and picturesque, and I can’t fancy a better place for a pilgrim to kneel and say his beads at.

But considering the whole country goes to mass, and that the priests can govern it as they will, teaching what shall be believed and what shall be not credited, would it not be well for their reverences, in the year eighteen hundred and forty-two, to discourage these absurd lies and superstitions, and teach some simple truths to their flock? Leave such figments to magazine-writers and ballad-makers; but, corbleu! it makes one indignant to think that people in the United Kingdom, where a press is at work and good sense is abroad, and clergymen are eager to educate the people, should countenance such savage superstitions and silly, grovelling heathenisms.

The chapel is before the inn where I resided, and on Sunday, from a very early hour, the side of the street was thronged with worshippers, who came to attend the various services. Nor are the Catholics the only devout people of this remote district. There is a large Presbyterian church very well attended, as was the Established Church service in the pretty church in the park. There was no organ, but the clerk and a choir of children sang hymns sweetly and truly; and a charity sermon being preached for the benefit of the diocesan schools, I saw many pound-notes in the plate, showing that the Protestants here were as ardent as their Roman Catholic brethren. The sermon was extempore, as usual, according to the prevailing taste here. The preacher by putting aside his sermon-book may gain in warmth, which we don’t want, but lose in reason, which we do. If I were Defender of the Faith, I would issue an order to all priests and deacons to take to the book again; weighing well, before they uttered it, every word they proposed to say upon so great a subject as that of religion; and mistrusting that dangerous facility given by active jaws and a hot imagination. Reverend divines have adopted this habit, and keep us for an hour listening to what might well be told in ten minutes. They are wondrously fluent, considering all things; and though I have heard many a sentence begun whereof the speaker did not evidently know the conclusion, yet, somehow or other, he has always managed to get through the paragraph without any hiatus, except perhaps in the sense. And as far as I can remark, it is not cairn, plain, downright preachers who preserve the extemporaneous system for the most part, but pompous orators, indulging in all the cheap graces of rhetoric-exaggerating words and feelings to make effect, and dealing in pious caricature. Churchgoers become excited by this loud talk and captivating manner, and can’t go back afterwards to a sober discourse read out of a grave old sermon-book, appealing to the reason and the gentle feelings, instead of to the passions and the imagination. Beware of too much talk, O parsons! If a man is to give an account of every idle word he utters, for what a number of such loud nothings, windy emphatic tropes and metaphors, spoken, not for God’s glory, but the preacher’s, will many a cushion-thumper have to answer! And this rebuke may properly find a place here, because the clergyman by whose discourse it was elicited is not of the eloquent dramatic sort, but a gentleman, it is said, remarkable for old-fashioned learning and quiet habits, that do not seem to be to the taste of the many boisterous young clergy of the present day.

The Catholic chapel was built before their graces the most reverend lord archbishops came into fashion. It is large and gloomy, with one or two attempts at ornament by way of pictures at the altars, and a good inscription warning the in-corner, in a few bold words, of the sacredness of the place he stands in. Bare feet bore away thousands of people who came to pray there: there were numbers of smart equipages for the richer Protestant congregation. Strolling about the town in the balmy summer evening, I heard the sweet tones of a hymn from the people in the Presbyterian praying-house. Indeed, the country is full of piety, and a warm, sincere, undoubting devotion.

On week-days the street before the chapel is scarcely less crowded than on the Sabbath: but it is with women and children merely; for a stream bordered with lime-trees runs pleasantly down the street, and hither come innumerable girls to wash, while the children make dirt-pies and look on. Wilkie was here some years since, and the place affords a great deal of amusement to the painter of character. Sketching, tant bien que mal, the bridge and the trees, and some of the nymphs engaged in the stream, the writer became an object of no small attention; and at least a score of dirty brats left their dirt-pies to look on, the bare-legged washing-girls grinning from the water.

One, a regular rustic beauty, whose face and figure would have made the fortune of a frontispiece, seemed particularly amused and agacante; and I walked round to get a drawing of her fresh jolly face: but directly I came near she pulled her gown over her head, and resolutely turned round her back; and, as that part of her person did not seem to differ in character from the backs of the rest of Europe, there is no need of taking its likeness.

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