The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

From Westport to Ballinasloe

The mail-coach took us next day by Castlebar and Tuam to Ballinasloe, a journey of near eighty miles. The country is interspersed with innumerable seats belonging to the Blakes, the Browns, and the Lynches; and we passed many large domains belonging to bankrupt lords and fugitive squires, with fine lodges adorned with moss and battered windows, and parks where, if the grass was growing on the roads, on the other hand the trees had been weeded out of the grass. About these seats and their owners the guard — an honest, shrewd fellow — had all the gossip to tell. The jolly guard himself was a ruin, it turned out: he told me his grandfather was a man of large property; his father, he said, kept a pack of hounds, and had spent everything by the time he, the guard, was sixteen: so the lad made interest to get a mail-car to drive, whence he had been promoted to the guard’s seat, and now for forty years has occupied it, travelling eighty miles, and earning seven-and-twopence every day of his life. He had been once ill, he said, for three days; and if a man may be judged by ten hours’ talk with him, there were few more shrewd, resolute, simple-minded men to be found on the outside of any coaches or the inside of any houses in Ireland.

During the first five-and-twenty miles of the journey, — for the day was very sunny and bright, — Croaghpatrick kept us company; and, seated with your back to the horses, you could see, “on the left, that vast aggregation of mountains which stretches southwards to the Bay of Galway; on the right, that gigantic assemblage which sweeps in circular outline northward to Killule.” Somewhere amongst those hills the great John Tuam was born, whose mansion and cathedral are to be seen in Tuam town, but whose fame is spread everywhere. To arrive at Castlebar, we go over the undulating valley which lies between the mountains of Joyce country and Erris; and the first object which you see on entering the town is a stately Gothic castle that stands at a short distance from it.

On the gate of the stately Gothic castle was written an inscription not very hospitable: “Without Beware, Within Amend;" — just beneath which is an iron crane of neat construction. The castle is the county jail, and the iron crane is the gallows of the district. The town seems neat and lively: there is a fine church, a grand barracks (celebrated as the residence of the young fellow with the bird’s eye neckcloth), a club, and a Whig and Tory newspaper. The road hence to Tuam is very pretty and lively, from the number of country seats along the way giving comfortable shelter to more Blakes, Browns, and Lynches.

In the cottages, the inhabitants looked healthy and rosy in their rags, and the cots themselves in the sunshine almost comfortable. After a couple of months in the country, the stranger’s eye grows somewhat accustomed to the rags: they do not frighten him as at first; the people who wear them look for the most part healthy enough: especially the small children — those who can scarcely totter, and are sitting shading their eyes at the door, and leaving the unfinished dirt-pie to shout as the coach passes by — are as healthy a looking race as one will often see. Nor can any one pass through the land without being touched by the extreme love of children among the people: they swarm everywhere, and the whole country rings with cries of affection towards the children, with the songs of young ragged nurses dandling babies on their knees, and warnings of mothers to Patsey to come out of the mud, or Norey to get off the pig’s back.

At Tuam the coach stopped exactly for fourteen minutes and a half, during which time those who wished might dine: but instead, I had the pleasure of inspecting a very mouldy, dirty town, and made my way to the Catholic cathedral — a very handsome edifice indeed; handsome without and within, and of the Gothic sort. Over the door is a huge coat of arms surmounted by a cardinal’s hat-the arms of the see, no doubt, quartered with John Tuam’s own patrimonial coat; and that was a frieze coat, from all accounts, passably ragged at the elbows. Well; he must be a poor wag who could sneer at an old coat, because it was old and poor; but if a man changes it for a tawdy gimcrack suit bedizened with twopenny tinsel, and struts about calling himself his grace and my lord, when may we laugh if not then? There is something simple in the way in which these good people belord their clergymen, and respect titles real or sham. Take any Dublin paper, — a couple of columns of it are sure to be filled with movements of the small great men of the world. Accounts from Derrynane state that the “Right Honorable the Lord Mayor is in good health — his lordship went out with his beagles yesterday;” or “his Grace the Most Reverend the Lord Archbishop of Ballywhack, assisted by the Light Reverend the Lord Bishops of Trimcomalee and Hippopotamus, assisted,” &c.; or “Colonel Tims, of Castle Tims, and lady, have quitted the ‘Shelburne Hotel,’ with a party for Kilballybathershins, where the august [This epithet is applied to the party of a Colonel somebody, in a Dublin paper.] party propose to enjoy a few days’ shrimp~fishing," — and so on. Our people are not witty and keen of perceiving the ridiculous, like the Irish; but the bluntness and honesty of the English have wellnigh kicked the fashionable humbug down; and except perhaps among footmen and about Baker Street, his curiosity about the aristocracy is wearing fast away. Have the Irish so much reason to respect their lords that they should so chronicle all their movements; and not only admire real lords, but make sham ones of their own to admire them?

There is no object of special mark upon the road from Tuam to Ballinasloe — the country being flat for the most part, and the noble Galway and Mayo mountains having disappeared at length — until you come to a glimpse of Old England in the pretty village of Ahascragh. An old oak-tree grows in the neat street, the houses are as trim and white as eye can desire, and about the church and the town are handsome plantations, forming on the whole such a picture of comfort and plenty as is rarely to be seen in the part of Ireland I have traversed. All these wonders have been wrought by the activity of an excellent resident agent. There was a countryman on the coach deploring that, through family circumstances, this gentleman should have been dispossessed of his agency, and declaring that the village had already begun to deteriorate in consequence. The marks of such decay were not, however, visible — at least to a new-comer; and, being reminded of it, I indulged in many patriotic longings for England: as every Englishman does when he is travelling out of the country which he is always so willing to quit.

That a place should instantly begin to deteriorate because a certain individual was removed from it — that cottagers should become thriftless, and houses dirty, and house windows cracked, — all these are points which public economists may ruminate over, and can’t fail to give the carlessest traveller much matter for painful reflection. How is it that the presence of one man more or less should affect a set of people come to years of manhood, and knowing that they have their duty to do? Why should a man at Ahascragh let his home go to ruin, and stuff his windows with ragged breeches instead of glass, because Mr. Smith is agent in place of Mr. Jones? Is he a child, that won’t work unless the schoolmaster be at Land? or are we to suppose, with the “Repealers,” that the cause of all this degradation and misery is the intolerable tyranny of the sister country, and the pain which poor Ireland has been made to endure? This is very well at the Corn Exchange, and among patriots after dinner; but, after all, granting the grievance of the franchise (though it may not be unfair to presume that a man who has not strength of mind enough to mend his own breeches or his own windows will always be the tool of one party or another), there is no Inquisition set up in the country: the law tries to defend the people as much as they will allow; the odious tithe has even been whisked off from their shoulders to the landlords’; they may live pretty much as they like. Is it not too monstrous to howl about English tyranny and suffering Ireland, and, call for a Stephen’s Green Parliament to make the country quiet and the people industrious? The people are not politically worse treated than their neighbours in England. The priests and the landlords, if they chose to co-operate, might do more for the country now than any kings or laws could. What you want here is not a Catholic or Protestant party, but an Irish party.

In the midst of these reflections, and by what the reader will doubtless think a blessed interruption, we came in sight of the town of Ballinasloe and its “gash-lamps,” which a fellow-passenger did not fail to point out with admiration. The road menders, however, did not appear to think that light was by any means necessary: for, having been occupied, in the morning, in digging a fine hole upon the highway, previous to some alterations to be effected there, they had left their work at sun down, without any lamp to warn coming travellers of the hole which we only escaped by a wonder. The papers have much such another story. In the Galway and Ballinasloe coach a horse on the road suddenly fell down and died; the coachman drove his coach unicorn-fashion into town; and, as for the dead horse, of course he left it on the road at the place where it fell, and where another coach coming up was upset over it, bones broken, passengers maimed, coach smashed. By heavens! the tyranny of England is unendurable; and I have no doubt it had a hand in upsetting that coach.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/irish/chapter22.html

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