The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Ballinasloe to Dublin.

During the cattle-fair the celebrated town of Ballinasloe is thronged with farmers from all parts of the kingdom — the cattle being picturesquely exhibited in the park of the noble proprietor of the town, Lord Clancarty. As it was not fair-time the town did not seem particularly busy, nor was there much to remark in it, except a church, and a magnificent lunatic asylum, that lies outside the town on the Dublin road, and is as handsome and stately as a palace. I think the beggars were more plenteous and more loathsome here than almost anywhere. To one hideous wretch I was obliged to give money to go away, which he did for a moment, only to obtrude his horrible face directly afterwards half eaten away with disease. “A penny for the sake of poor little Mery,” said another woman, who had a baby sleeping on her withered breast; and how can any one who has a little Mery at home resist such an appeal? “Pity the poor blind man!” roared a respectably dressed grenadier of a fellow. I told him to go to the gentleman with a red neck-cloth and fur cap (a young buck from Trinity College) — to whom the blind man with much simplicity immediately stepped over; and as for the rest of the beggars, what pen or pencil could describe their hideous leering flattery, their cringing, swindling humour!

The inn, like the town, being made to accommodate the periodical crowds of visitors who attended the fair, presented in their absence rather a faded and desolate look; and in spite of the live stock for which the place is famous, the only portion of their produce which I could get to my share, after twelve hours’ fasting and an hour’s bell-ringing and scolding, was one very lean mutton-chop and one very small damp kidney, brought in by an old tottering waiter to a table spread in a huge black coffee-room, dimly lighted by one little jet of gas.

As this only served very faintly to light up the above banquet, the waiter, upon remonstrance, proceeded to light the other bec; but the lamp was sulky, and upon this attempt to force it, as it were, refused to act altogether, and went out. The big room was then accommodated with a couple of yellow mutton-candles. There was a neat, handsome, correct young English officer warming his slippers at the fire, and opposite him sat a worthy gentleman, with a glass of “mingled materials,” discoursing to him in a very friendly and confidential way.

As I don’t know the gentleman’s name, and as it is not at all improbable, from the situation in which he was, that he has quite forgotten the night’s conversation, I hope there will be no breach of confidence in recalling some part of it. The speaker s was dressed in deep black-worn, however, with that dégagé air (peculiar to the votaries of Bacchus, or that nameless god, off-spring of Bacchus and Ceres, who may have invented the noble liquor called whiskey. It was fine to see the easy folds in which his neck-cloth confined a shirt-collar moist with the generous drops that trickled from the chin above, — its little percentage upon the punch. There was a fine dashing black-satin waistcoat that called for its share, and generously disdained to be buttoned. I think this is the only specimen I have seen yet of the personage still so frequently described in the Irish novels — the careless drinking squire — the Irish Will Whimble.

“Sir,” says he, “as I was telling you before this gentleman came in (from Wesport, I preshume, sir, by the mail? and my service to you!), the butchers in Tchume (Tuam) — where I live, and shall be happy to see you and give you a shakedown, a cut a of mutton, and the use of as good a brace of pointers as ever you shot over — the butchers say to me, whenever I look in at their shops and ask for a joint of meat — they say: ‘Take down that quarther o’ mutton, boy; IT’S NO USE WEIGHING it for Mr. Bodkin. He can tell with an eye what’s the weight of it to an ounce!’ And so, sir, I can; and I’d make a bet to go into any market in Dublin, Tchume, Ballinasloe, where you please, and just by looking at the meat decide its weight.”

At the pause, during which the gentleman here designated Bodkin drank off his “Materials,” the young officer said gravely that this was a very rare and valuable accomplishment, and thanked him for the invitation to Tchume.

The honest gentleman proceeded with his personal memoirs; and (with a charming modesty that authenticated his tale, while it interested his hearers for the teller) he called for a fresh tumbler, and began discoursing about horses. “Them I don’t know,” says he, confessing the fact at once; “or, if I do, I’ve been always so unlucky with them that it’s as good as if I didn’t.

“To give you an idea of my ill-fortune: Me brother-‘n-law Burke once sent me three colts of his to sell at this very fair Ballinasloe, and for all I could do I could only get a bid for one of ’em, and sold her for sixteen pounds. And d’ye know what that mare was, sir?” says Mr. Bodkin, giving a thump hat made the spoon jump out of the punch-glass for fright. D’ye know who she was? she was Water-Wagtail, sir, — Water Wagtail! She won fourteen cups and plates in Ireland before she went to Liverpool; and you know what she did there?“ (We said, “Oh! of course.") “Well, sir, the man who bought her from me sold her for four hunder’ guineas; and in England she fetched eight hunder’ pounds. Another of them very horses, gentlemen (Tim, some hot wather — screeching hot, you divil — and a sthroke of the limin) another of them horses that I was refused fifteen pound for, me brother-in-law sould to Sir Rufford Bufford for a hunder’ and-fifty guineas. Wasn’t that luck?

“Well, sir, Sir Rufford gives Burke his bill at six months,a nd don’t pay it when it come jue. A pretty pickle Tom Burke was in, as I leave ye to fancy, for he’d paid away the bill, which he thought as good as goold; and sure it ought to be, or Sir Rufford had come of age since the bill was drawn, and before it was due, and, as I needn’t tell you, had slipped into very handsome property.

“On the protest of the bill, Burke goes in a fury to Gresham’s in Sackville Street, where the baronet was living, and (would ye believe it?) the latter says he doesn’t intend to meet the bill, on the score that he was a minor when he gave it. On which Burke was in such a rage that he took a horsewhip and vowed he’d beat the baronet to a jelly, and post him in every club in Dublin, and publish every circumstance of the transaction.”

“It does seem rather a queer one,” says one of Mr. Bodkin’s hearers.

“Queer indeed: but that’s not it, you see; for Sir Rufford is as honourable a man as ever lived; and after this quarrel he paid Burke his money, and they’ve been warm friends ever since. But what I want to show ye is our infernal luck. Three months before, Sir Rufford had sold that very horse for three hunder’ guineas.”

The worthy gentleman had just ordered in a fresh tumbler of his favourite liquor, when he wished him good-night, and slept by no means the worse, because the bedroom candle was carried by one of the prettiest young chambermaids possible. Next morning, surrounded by a crowd of beggars more filthy, hideous, and importunate than any I think in the most favoured towns of the south, we set off, a coach-load, for Dublin. A clergyman, a guard, a Scotch farmer, a butcher, a bookseller’s back, a lad bound for Maynooth and another for Trinity, made a varied, pleasant party enough, where each, according to his lights, had something to say.

I have seldom seen a more dismal and uninteresting road than that which we now took, and which brought us through the “old, inconvenient, ill-built, and ugly town of Athlone.” The painter would find here, however, some good subjects for his sketch-book, in spite of the commination of the Guide book. Here, too, great improvements are taking place for the Shannon navigation, which will render the town not so inconvenient as at present it is stated to be; and hard by lies a little village that is known and loved by all the world where English is spoken. It is called Lishoy, but its real name is Auburn, and it gave birth to one Noll Goldsmith, whom Mr. Boswell was in the habit of despising very heartily. At the Quaker town of Moate, the butcher and the farmer dropped off, the clergyman went inside, and their places were filled by four Maynoothians, whose vacation was just at an end. One of them, a freshman, was inside the coach with the clergyman, and told him, with rather a long face, of the dismal discipline of his college. They are not allowed to quit the gates (except on general walks); they are expelled if they read a newspaper; and they begin term with “a retreat” of a week, which time they are made to devote to silence, and, as it is supposed, to devotion and meditation.

I must say the young fellows drank plenty of whiskey on the road, to prepare them for their year’s abstinence; and when at length arrived in the miserable village of Maynooth, determined not to go into college that night, but to devote the evening to “a lark.” They were simple, kind-hearted young men, sons of farmers or tradesmen seemingly; and, as is always the case here, except among some of the gentry, very gentlemanlike and pleasing in manners. Their talk was of this companion and that; how one was in rhetoric, and another in logic, and a third had got his curacy. Wait for a while and with the happy system pursued within the walls of their college, those smiling, good-humoured faces will come out with a scowl, and downcast eyes that seem afraid to look the world in the face. When the time comes for them to take leave of yonder dismal-looking barracks, they will be men no longer, but bound over to the church, body and soul; their free thoughts chained down and kept in darkness, their honest affections mutilated. Well, I hope they will be happy to-night at any rate, and talk and laugh to their hearts’ content. The poor freshman, whose big chest is carried off by the porter yonder to the inn, has but twelve hours more of hearty, natural, human life. To-morrow, they will begin their work upon him; cramping his mind, and biting his tongue, and firing and cutting at his heart, — breaking him to pull the church chariot. Ah! why didn’t he stop at home, and dig potatoes and get children?

Part of the drive from Maynooth to Dublin is exceedingly pretty: you are carried through Leixlip, Lucan, Chapelizod, and by scores of parks and villas, until the gas-lamps come in sight; Was there ever a cockney that was not glad to see them; and did not prefer the sight of them, in his heart, to the best lake or mountain ever invented? Pat the waiter comes jumping down to the car and says, “Welcome back, sir!” and bustles the trunk into the queer little bedroom, with all the cordial hospitality imaginable.

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