The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Dundalk.

The stranger can’t fail to be struck with the look of Dundalk, as he has been with the villages and country leading to it, when contrasted with places in the South and West of Ireland. The coach stopped at a cheerful looking Place, of which almost the only dilapidated mansion was the old inn at which it discharged us, and which did not hold out much prospect of comfort. But in justice to the “King’s Arms” it must be said that good beds and dinners are to be obtained there by voyagers; and if they choose to arrive on days when his Grace the Most Reverend the Lord Archbishop of Armagh and of Ireland is dining with his clergy, the house of course is crowded, and the waiters, and the boy who carries in the potatoes, a little hurried and flustered. When their reverences were gone, the laity were served; and I have no doubt, from the leg of a duck which I got that the breast and wings must have been very tender.

Meanwhile the walk was pleasant enough through the bustling little town. A grave old church with a tall copper spire defends one end of the Main Street; and a little way from the inn is the superb new chapel, which the architect, Mr. Duff, has copied from King’s College C Lapel in Cambridge. The ornamental part of the interior is not yet completed; but the area of the chapel is spacious and noble, and three handsome altars of scagliola (or some composition resembling marble) have been erected, of handsome and suitable form. When by the aid of further subscriptions the church shall be completed, it will be one of the handsomest places of worship the Roman Catholics possess in this country. Opposite the chapel stands a neat low black building, — the jail: and over the doorway, is an ominous balcony and window, with an iron beam overhead. Each end of the beam is ornamented with a grinning iron skull! Is this the hanging-place? and do these grinning cast-iron skulls facetiously explain the business for which the beam is there? For shame! for shame! Such disgusting emblems ought no longer to disgrace a Christian land. If kill we must, let us do so with as much despatch and decency as possible, — not brazen out our misdeeds and perpetrate them in this frightful satiric way.

A far better cast-iron emblem stands over a handsome shop in the “Place “hard by — a plough namely, which figures over the factory of Mr. Shekelton, whose industry and skill seem to have brought the greatest benefit to his fellow-townsmen — of whom lie employs numbers in his foundries and workshops. This gentleman was kind enough to show me through his manufactories, where all sorts of iron works are made, from a steam-engine to a door-key; and I saw everything to admire, and a vast deal more than I could understand, in the busy, cheerful orderly, bustling clanging place. Steam-boilers were hammered here, and pins made by a hundred busy hands in a manufactory above. There was the engine-room, where the monster was whirring his ceaseless wheels and directing the whole operations of the factory, fanning the forges, turning the drills, blasting into the pipes of the smelting houses: he had a house to himself, from which his orders issued to the different establishments round about. One machine was quite awful to me, a gentle cockney, not used to such things: it was an iron-devourer, a wretch with huge jaws and a narrow mouth, ever opening and shutting-opening and shutting. You put a half-inch iron plate between his jaws, and they shut not a whit slower or quicker than before, and bit through the iron as if it were a sheet of paper. Below the monster’s mouth was a punch that performed its duties with similar dreadful calmness, going on its rising and falling.

I was so lucky as to have an introduction to the Vicar of Dundalk, which that gentleman’s kind and generous nature interpreted into a claim for unlimited hospitality and he was good enough to consider himself bound not only to receive me, but to give up previous engagements abroad in order to do so. I need not say that it afforded me sincere pleasure to witness, for a couple of days his labours among his people; and indeed it was a delightful occupation to watch both flock and pastor. The world is a wicked, selfish, abominable place, as the parson tells us: but his reverence comes out of his pulpit and gives the flattest contradiction to his doctrine busying himself with kind actions from morning till night, denying to himself, generous to others, preaching the truth to young and old, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, consoling the wretched, and giving hope to the sick; — and I do not mean to say that this sort of life is led by the Vicar of Dundalk merely but do firmly believe that it is the life of the great majority of the Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy of the country. There will be no breach of confidence, I hope, in publishing here the journal of a couple of days spent with one of these reverend gentlemen, and telling some readers, as idle and profitless as the writer, what the clergyman’s peaceful labours are.

In the first place, we set out to visit the church — the comfortable copper-spired old edifice that was noticed two pages back. It stands in a green churchyard of its own, very neat and trimly kept, with an old row of trees that were dropping their red leaves upon a flock of vaults and tombstones below. The building being much injured by flame and time, some hundred years back was repaired, enlarged, and ornamented — as churches in those days were ornamented — and consequently lost a good deal of its Gothic character. There is a great mixture, therefore of old style and new style and no style: but, with all this the church is one of the most commodious and best appointed I have seen in Ireland. The vicar held a council with a builder regarding some ornaments for the roof of the church, which is as it should be, a great object of his care and architectural taste, and on which he has spent a very large sum of money. To these expenses he is in a manner bound, for the living is a considerable one, its income being no less than two hundred and fifty pounds a year; out of which he has merely to maintain a couple of curates and a clerk and sexton, to contribute largely towards schools and hospitals, and relieve a few scores of pensioners of his own, who are fitting objects of private bounty.

We went from the church to a school, which has been long a favourite resort of the good vicar’s: indeed, to judge from the schoolmaster’s books, his attendance there is almost daily, and the number of the scholars some two hundred. The number was considerably greater until the schools of the Educational Board were established, when the Roman Catholic clergymen withdrew many of their young people from Mr. Thackeray’s establishment.

We found a large room with sixty or seventy boys at work; in an upper chamber were a considerable number of girls, with their teachers, two modest and pretty young women; but the favourite resort of the vicar was evidently the Infant-School, — and no wonder; it is impossible to witness a more beautiful or touching sight.

Eighty of these little people, healthy, clean, and rosy-some in smart gowns and shoes and stockings, some with patched pinafores and little bare pink feet-sat upon a half-dozen low benches, and were singing, at the top of their fourscore fresh voices, a song when we entered. All the voices were hushed as the vicar came in, and a great bobbing and curtseying took place; whilst a hundred and sixty innocent eyes turned awfully towards the clergyman, who tried to look as unconcerned as possible, and began to make his little ones a speech. “I have brought,” says he, “a gentleman from England, who has heard of my little children and their school, and hopes he will carry away a good account of it. Now, you know, we must all do our best to be kind and civil to strangers: what can we do here for this gentleman that he would like? — do you think he would like a song?”

(All the children.) — “We’ll sing to him!”

Then the schoolmistress, coming forward, sang the first words of a hymn, which at once eighty little voices took up, or near eighty — for some of the little things were too young to sing yet, and all they could do was to beat the measure with little red hands as the others sang. It was a hymn about heaven, with a chorus of “Oh that will be joyful, joyful,” and one of the verses beginning, “Little children will be there.” Some of my fair readers (if I have the honour to find such) who have been present at similar tender, charming concerts, know the hymn, no doubt. It was the first time I had ever heard it; and I do not care to own that it brought tears to my eyes, though it is ill to parade such kind of sentiment in print. But I think I will never, while I live, forget that little chorus, nor would any man who has ever loved a child or lost one. God bless you, O little happy singers! What a noble and useful life is his, who, in place of seeking wealth or honour, devotes his life to such a service as this! And all through our country, thank God! in quiet humble corners, that busy citizens and men of the world never hear of, there are thousands of such men employed in such holy pursuits, with no reward beyond that which the fulfilment of duty brings them. Most of these children were Roman Catholic. At this tender age the priests do not care to separate them from their little Protestant brethren: and no wonder. He must be a child-murdering Herod who would find the heart to do so.

After the hymn, the children went through a little Scripture catechism, answering very correctly, and all in a breath, as the mistress put the questions. Some of them were, of course, too young to understand the words they uttered; but the answers are so simple that they cannot fail to understand them before long; and they learn in spite of themselves.

The catechism being ended, another song was sung; and now the vicar (who had been humming the chorus along with his young singers, and in spite of an awful and grave countenance, could not help showing his extreme happiness) made another oration, in which he stated that the gentleman from England was perfectly satisfied; that he would have a good report of the Dundalk children to carry home with him; that the day was very fine, and the schoolmistress would probably like to take a walk; and, finally, would the young people give her a holiday? “As many,” concluded he, “as will give the school mistress a holiday, hold up their hands!” This question was carried unanimously.

But I am bound to say, when the little people were told that as many as wouldn’t like a holiday were to hold up their hands, all the little hands went up again exactly as before: by which it may be concluded either that the infants did not understand his reverence’s speech, or that they were just as happy to stay at school as to go and play; and the reader may adopt which ever of the reasons he inclines to. It is probable that both are correct.

The little things are so fond of the school, the vicar told me as we walked away from it, that on returning home they like nothing better than to get a number of their companions who don’t go to school, and to play at infant-school. They may be heard singing their hymns in the narrow alleys and humble houses in which they dwell: and I was told of one dying who sang his song of “Oh that will be joyful, joyful,” to his poor mother weeping at his bedside, and promising her that they should meet where no parting should be.

“There was a child in the school,” said the vicar, “whose father, a Roman Catholic, was a carpenter by trade, a good workman, and earning a considerable weekly sum, but neglecting his wife and children and spending his earnings in drink. We have a song against drunkenness that the infants sing; and one evening, going home, the child found her father excited with liquor and ill-treating his wife. The little thing forthwith interposed between them, told her father what she had heard at school regarding the criminality of drunkenness and quarrelling, and finished her little sermon with the hymn. The father was first amused, then touched; and the end of it was that he kissed his wife and asked her to forgive him, hugged his child, and from that day would always have her in his bed, made her sing to him morning and night, and forsook his old haunts for the sake of his little companion.”

He was quite sober and prosperous for eight months, but the vicar at the end of that time began to remark that the child looked ragged at school, and passing by her mother’s house, saw the poor woman with a black eye. “If it was any one but your husband, Mrs. C — who gave you that black eye,” says the vicar, “tell me, but if he did it, don’t say a word.” The woman was silent, and soon after, meeting her husband, the vicar took him to task. “You were sober for eight months. Now tell me fairly, C — ” says he, “were you happier when you lived at home with your wife and child, or are you more happy now?” The man owned that he was much happier formerly, and the end of the conversation was that he promised to go home once more and try the sober life again, and he went home and succeeded.

The vicar continued to hear good accounts of him; but passing one day by his house he saw the wife there looking very sad. “Had her husband relapsed?" — “No, he was dead,” she said -“dead of the cholera; but he had been sober ever since his last conversation with the clergyman, and had done his duty to his family up to the time of his death.” “I said to the woman,” said the good old clergyman, in a grave low voice, “‘Your husband is gone now to the place where, according to his conduct here, his eternal reward will be assigned him; and let us be thankful to think what a different position he occupies now to that which he must have held had not his little girl been the means under God of converting him."’

Our next walk was to the County Hospital, the handsome edifice which ornaments the Drogheda entrance of the town, and which I had remarked on my arrival. Concerning this hospital, the governors were, when I passed through Dundalk, in a state of no small agitation: for a gentleman by the name of who — — from being an apothecary’s assistant in the place, had gone forth as a sort of amateur inspector of hospitals throughout Ireland, had thought fit to censure their extravagance in erecting the new building, stating that the old one was fully sufficient to hold fifty patients, and that the public money might consequently have been spared. Mr. ——’s plan for the better maintenance of them in general is, that commissioners should be appointed to direct them, and not county gentlemen as heretofore; the discussion of which question does not need to be carried on in this humble work.

My guide, who is one of the governors of the new hospital, conducted me in the first place to the old one — a small dirty house in a damp and low situation, with but three rooms to accommodate patients, and these evidently not fit to hold fifty, or even fifteen patients. The new hospital is one of the handsomest buildings of the size and kind in Ireland — an ornament to the town, as the angry commissioner stated, but not after all a building of undue cost, for the expense of its erection was but 3,000l.; and the sick of the county are far better accommodated in it than in the damp and unwholesome tenement regretted by the eccentric commissioner.

An English architect, Mr. Smith of Hertford, designed and completed the edifice; strange to say, only exceeding his estimates by the sum of three-and-sixpence, as the worthy governor of the hospital with great triumph told me. The building is certainly a wonder of cheapness, and, what is more, so complete for the purpose for which it was intended, and so hand some in appearance, that the architect’s name deserves to be published by all who hear it; and if any country newspaper editors should notice this volume, they are requested to make the fact known. The house is provided with every convenience for men and women, with all the appurtenances of baths, water, gas; airy wards, and a garden for convalescents; and, below, a dispensary, a handsome board-room, kitchen, and matron’s apartments, &c. Indeed, a noble requiring a house for a large establishment need not desire a handsomer one than this, at its moderate price of 3,000l. The beauty of this building has, as is almost always the case, created emulation, and a terrace in the same taste has been raised in the neighbourhood of the hospital. From the hospital we bent our steps to the Institution; of which place I give below the rules, and a copy of the course of study, and the dietary: leaving English parents to consider the fact, that their children can be educated at this place for 13 pounds a year. Nor is there anything in the establishment savouring of the Dotheboys Hall.

[“Boarders are received from the age of eight to fourteen at 12l. per annum, and 1l. for washing, paid quarterly in advance.

“Day scholars are received from the age of ten to twelve at 2l., paid quarterly in advance.

“The Incorporated Society have abundant cause for believing that the introduction of Boarders into their Establishments has produced far more advantageous results to the public than they could, at so early a period, have anticipated; and that the election of boys to their Foundations only after a fair competition with others of a given district, has had the effect of stimulating masters and scholars to exertion and study, and promises to operate most beneficially for the advancement of religious and general knowledge.

“The districts for eligible Candidates are as follow:—

“Dundalk Institution embraces the counties of Louth and Down, because the properties which support it lie in this district.

“The Pococke Institution, Kilkenny, embraces the counties of Kilkenny, and Waterford, for the same cause.

“The Ranelagh Institution, the towns of Athlone and Roscommon, and three districts in the counties of Galway and Roscommon, which the Incorporated Society hold in fee, or from which they receive impropriate tithes,

(Signed) “Caesar Otway, Secretary."]

I never saw, in any public school in England, 60 cleaner, smarter, more gentle manlike boys than were here at work. The upper class had been at work on Euclid as we came in, and were set, by way of amusing the stranger, to perform a sum of compound interest of diabolical complication, which, with its algebraic and arithmetic solution, was handed up to me by three or four of the pupils, and I strove to look as wise as I possibly could. Then they went through questions of mental arithmetic with astonishing correctness and facility; and finding from the master that classics were not taught in the school, I took occasion to lament this circumstance, saying, with a knowing air, that I would like to have examined the lads in a Greek play.

Classics, then, these young fellows do not get. Meat they get but twice a week. Let English parents bear this fact in mind; but that the lads are healthy and happy, anybody who sees them can have no question; furthermore, they are well instructed in a sound practical education — history, geography, mathematics, religion. What a place to know of would this be for many a poor half-pay officer, where he may put his children in all confidence that they will be well cared for and soundly educated! Why have we not State-schools in England where, for the prime cost — for a sum which never need exceed for a young boy’s maintenance 25l. a year-our children might be brought up? We are establishing national-schools for the labourer: why not give education to the sons of the poor gentry — the clergyman whose pittance is small, and would still give his son the benefit of a public education; the artist, the officer, the merchant’s office-clerk, the literary man? What a benefit might be conferred upon all of us if honest charter-schools could be established for our children, and where it would be impossible for Squeers to make a profit!

[The Proprietory Schools of late established have gone far to protect the interests of parents and children; but the masters of these schools take boarders and of course draw from them. Why make the learned man a beef-and-mutton contractor, It would be easy to arrange the economy of a school so that there should be no possibility of a want of confidence, or of peculation, to the detriment of the pupil.]

Our next day’s journey led us, by half-past ten o’clock to the ancient town of Louth, a little poor village now, but a great seat of learning and piety, it is said, formerly, where there stood a university and abbeys, and where Saint Patrick worked wonders. Here my kind friend the rector was called upon to marry a, smart sergeant of police to a pretty lass, one of the few Protestants who attend his church; and, the ceremony over, we were invited to the house of the bride’s father hard by, where the clergyman was bound to cut the cake and drink a glass of wine to the health of the new-married couple. There was evidently to be a dance and some merriment in the course of the evening; for the good mother of the bride (oh, blessed is he who has a good mother-in-law!) was busy at a huge fire in the little kitchen, and along the road we met various parties of neatly-dressed people, and several of the sergeant’s comrades, who were hastening to the wedding. The mistress of the rector’s darling Infant-School was one of the bridesmaids: consequently the little ones had a holiday.

But he was not to be disappointed of his Infant-School in this manner so, mounting the car again, with a fresh horse, we went a very pretty drive of three miles to the snug lone school-house of Glyde Farm — near a handsome park, I believe of the same name, where the proprietor is building a mansion of the Tudor order.

The pretty scene of Dundalk was here played over again: the children sang their little hymns, the good old clergyman joined delighted in the chorus, the holiday was given, and the little hands held up, and I looked at more clean bright faces and little rosy feet. The scene need not be repeated in print but I can understand what pleasure a man must take in the daily witnessing of it, and in the growth of these little plants, which are set and tended by his care. As we returned to Louth, a woman met us with a curtsey and expressed her sorrow that she had been obliged to withdraw her daughter from one of the rector’s schools, which the child was vexed at leaving too. But the orders of the priest were peremptory; and who can say they were unjust? The priest, on his side, was only enforcing the rule which the parson maintains as his:— the latter will not permit his young flock to be educated except upon certain principles and by certain teachers; the former has his own scruples unfortunately also — and so that noble and brotherly scheme of National Education falls to the ground. In Louth, the national-school was standing by the side of the priest’s chapel: it is so almost everywhere throughout Ireland: the Protestants have rejected, on very good motives doubtless, the chance of union which the Educational Board gave them. Be it so! if the children of either sect be educated apart, so that they be educated, the education scheme will have produced its good, and the union will come afterwards.

The church at Louth stands boldly upon a hill looking down on the village, and has nothing remarkable in it but neatness, except the monument of a former rector, Dr. Little, which attracts the spectator’s attention from the extreme inappropriateness of the motto on the coat-of-arms of the reverend defunct It looks rather unorthodox to read in a Christian temple, where a man’s bones have the honour to lie — and where, if anywhere, humility is requisite — that there is multum in Parvo:— “a great deal in Little.” O Little, in life you were not much, and lo ! you are less now; why should filial piety engrave that pert pun upon your monument, to cause people to laugh in a place where they ought to be grave? The defunct doctor built a very handsome rectory-house, with a set of stables that would be useful to a nobleman, but are rather too commodious for a peaceful rector who does not ride to hounds; and it was in Little’s time, I believe, that the church was removed from the old abbey, where it formerly stood, to its present proud position on the hill.

The abbey is a fine ruin, the windows of a good style, the tracings or carvings on many of them; but a great number of stones and ornaments were removed formerly to built farm-buildings withal, and the place is now as rank and ruinous as the generality of Irish burying-places seem to be. Skulls lie in clusters amongst nettle-beds by the abbey-walls; graves are only partially covered with rude stones; a fresh coffin was lying broken in pieces within the abbey; and the surgeon of the dispensary hard by might procure subjects here almost without grave-breaking. Hard by the abbey is an interesting building of which I beg leave to offer the following sketh -

The legend in the country goes that the place was built for the accommodation of “Saint Murtogh,” who lying down to sleep here in the open fields, not having any place to house under, found to his surprise, on waking in the morning, an edifice, which the angels had built. The angelic architecture, is of rather a rude kind; and the village antiquary, who takes a pride in showing the place, says that the building was erected 2,000 years ago. In the handsome grounds of the rectory is another spot visited by popular tradition — a fairy’s ring: a regular mound of some 30 feet in height, flat and even on the top, and provided with a winding path for the foot-passengers to ascend. Some trees grew on the mound, one of which was removed in order to make the walk. But the country-people cried out loudly at this desecration, and vowed that the “little people” had quitted the country-side forever in consequence.

While walking in the town, a woman meets the rector with a number of curtsies and compliments, and vows that “ ’tis your reverence is the friend of the poor, and may the Lord preserve you to us and lady;” and having poured out blessings innumerable, concludes by producing a paper for her son that’s in throuble in England. The paper ran to the effect that “We, the undersigned, inhabitants of the parish of Louth, have known Daniel Horgan ever since his youth, and can speak confidently as to his integrity, piety, and good conduct.” In fact, the paper stated that Daniel Horgan was an honour to his country, and consequently quite incapable of the crime of — sack-stealing I think — with which at present he was charged, and lay in prison in Durham Castle. The paper had, I should think, come down to the poor mother from Durham, with a direction ready written to despatch it back again when signed, and was evidently the work of one of those benevolent individuals in assize-towns, who, following the profession of the law, delight to extricate unhappy young men of whose innocence (from various six-and-eightpenny motives) they feel convinced. There stood the poor mother, as the rector examined the document, with a huge wafer in her hand, ready to forward it so soon as it was signed: for the truth is that “We, the undersigned,” were as yet merely imaginary.

“You don’t come to church,” says the rector. “I know nothing of you or your son: why don’t you go to the priest?”

“Oh, your reverence, my son’s to be tried next Tuesday,” whimpered the woman. She then said the priest was not in the way, but, as we had seen him a few mynutes before, recalled the assertion, and confessed that she had been to the priest and that he would not sign; and fell to prayers, tears, and unbounded supplications to induce the rector to give his signature. But that hard-hearted divine, stating that he had not known Daniel Horgan from his youth upwards, that he could not certify as to his honesty or dishonesty, enjoined the woman to make an attempt upon the R. C. curate, to whose handwriting he would certify if need were.

The upshot of the matter was that the woman returned with a certificate from the R. C. curate as to her son’s good behaviour while in the village, and the rector certified that the handwriting was that of the R. C. clergymen in question, and the woman popped her big red wafer into the letter and went her way.

Tuesday is passed long ere this: Mr. Horgan’s guilt or innocence is long since clearly proved, and he celebrates the latter in freedom, or expiates the former at the mill. Indeed, I don’t know that there was any call to introduce his adventures to the public, except perhaps it may be good to see how in this little distant Irish village the blood of life is running. Here goes a happy party to a marriage, and the parson prays a “God bless you!” upon them, and the world begins for them. Yonder lies a stall-fed rector in his tomb, flaunting over his nothingness his pompous heraldic motto: and yonder lie the fresh fragments of a nameless deal coffin, which any foot may kick over. Presently you hear the clear voices of little children praising God; and here comes a mother wringing her hands and asking for succour for her lad, who was but a child the other day. Such motus animorum atque haec certaminta tanta are going on in an hour of an October day, in a little pinch of clay in the county Louth.

Perhaps, being in the moralising strain, the honest surgeon at the dispensary might come in as an illustration. He inhabits a neat humble house a storey higher than his neighbours’ but with a thatched roof. He relieves a 1,000 patients yearly at the dispensary, he visits 700 in the parish, he supplies the medicines gratis; and receiving for these services the sum of about £100 yearly, some county economists and calculators are loud against the extravagance of his salary, and threaten his removal. All these individuals and their histories we presently turn our backs upon, for, after all, dinner is at five o’clock, and we have to see the new road to Dundalk, which the county has lately been making.

Of this undertaking, which shows some skilful engineering — some gallant cutting of rocks and hills, and filling of valleys, with a tall and handsome stone bridge thrown across the river, and connecting the high embankments on which the new road at that place is formed — I can say little, except that it is a vast convenience to the country, and a great credit to the surveyor and contractor too: for the latter, though a poor man, and losing heavily by his bargain, has yet refused to mulct his labourers of their wages; and, as cheerfully as he can still pays them their shilling a day.

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