The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Newry, Armagh, Belfast — from Dundalk to Newry.

My kind host gave orders to the small ragged boy that drove the car to take “particular care of the little gentleman,” and the car-boy, grinning in appreciation of the joke, drove off at his best pace, and landed his cargo at Newry after a pleasant two hours’ drive. The country for the most part is wild, but not gloomy; the mountains round about are adorned with woods and gentlemen’s seats; and the car-boy pointed out one hill-that of Slievegullion, which kept us company all the way — as the highest hill in Ireland. Ignorant or deceiving car-boy! I have seen a dozen hills, each the highest in Ireland, in my way through the country, of which the inexorable Guide-book gives the measurement and destroys the claim. Well, it was the tallest hill, in the estimation of the car-boy; and in this respect the world is full of car-boys. Has not every mother of a family a Slievegullion of a son, who, according to her measurement, towers above all other sons? Is not the patriot, who believes himself equal to three Frenchmen, a car-boy in heart? There was a kind young creature, with a child in her lap, that evidently held this notion. She paid the child a series of compliments, which would have led one to fancy he was an angel from heaven at the least; and her husband sat gravely by, very silent, with his arms round a barometer.

Beyond these there were no incidents or characters of note, except an old ostler that they said was 90 years old, and watered the horse at a lone inn on the road. “Stop!” cries this wonder of years and rags, as the car, after considerable parley, got under weigh. The car-boy pulled up, thinking a fresh passenger was coming out of the inn.

Stop, till one of the gentlemin gives me something,” says the old man, coming slowly up with us: which speech created a laugh, and got him a penny: he received it without the least thankfulness, and went away grumbling to his pail.

Newry is remarkable as being the only town I have seen which had no cabin suburb: strange to say, the houses begin all at once, handsomely coated and hatted with stone and slate; and if Dundalk was prosperous, Newry is better still. Such a sight of neatness and comfort is exceedingly welcome to an English traveller, who, moreover, finds himself, after driving through a plain bustling clean street, landed at a large plain comfortable inn, where business seems to be done, where there are smart waiters to receive him, and a comfortable warm coffee’ room that bears no traces of dilapidation.

What the merits of the cuisine may be I can’t say for the information of travellers; a gentleman to whom I had brought a letter from Dundalk taking care to provide me at his own table, accompanying me previously to visit the lions of the town. A river divides it, and the counties of Armagh and Down: the river runs into the sea at Carlingford Bay, and is connected by a canal with Lough Neagh, and thus with the North of Ireland. Steamers to Liverpool and Glasgow sail continually. There are mills, foundries, and manufactories, of which the Guide-book will give particulars; and the town of 13,000 inhabitants is the busiest and most thriving that I have yet seen in Ireland.

Our first walk was to the church: a large and handsome building, although built in the unlucky period when the Gothic style was coming into vogue. Hence one must question the propriety of many of the ornaments, though the whole is massive, well-finished, and stately. Near the church stands the Roman Catholic chapel, a very fine building, the work of the same architect, Mr. Duff, who erected the chapel at Dundalk; but, like almost all other edifices of the kind in Ireland that I have seen, the interior is quite unfinished, and already so dirty and ruinous, that one would think a sort of genius for dilapidation must have been exercised in order to bring it to its present condition. There are tattered green-baize doors to enter at, a dirty clay floor, and cracked plaster walls, with an injunction to the public not to spit on the floor. Maynooth itself is scarcely more dreary. The architect’s work, however, does him the highest credit. The interior of the church is noble and simple in style; and one can’t but grieve to see a fine work of art, that might have done good to the country, so defaced and ruined as this is.

The Newry poor-house is as neatly ordered and comfortable as any house, public or private, in Ireland; the same look of health which was so pleasant to see among the Naas children of the union-house was to be remarked here: the same care and comfort for the old people. Of able-bodied there were but few in the house; it is in winter that there are most applicants for this kind of relief; the sunshine attracts the women out of the place, and the harvest relieves it of the men. Cleanliness, the matron said, is more intolerable to most of the inmates than any other regulation of the house; and instantly on quitting the house they relapse into their darling dirt, and of course at their periodical return are subject to the unavoidable initiatory lustration.

Newry has many comfortable and handsome public buildings: the streets have a business-like look, the shops and people are not too poor, and the southern grandiloquence is not shown here in the shape of fine words for small wares. Even the beggars are not so numerous, I fancy, or so coaxing and wheedling in their talk. Perhaps, too, among the gentry, the same moral change may be remarked, and they seem more downright and plain in their manner; but one must not pretend to speak of national characteristics from such a small experience as a couple of evenings’ intercourse may give.

Although not equal in natural beauty to a hundred other routes which the traveller takes in the South, the ride from Newry to Armagh is an extremely pleasant one, on account of the undeniable increase of prosperity which is visible through the country. Well-tilled fields, neat farm-houses, well-dressed people, meet one everywhere, and people and landscape alike have a plain, hearty, flourishing lock.

The greater part of Armagh has the aspect of a good stout old English town, although round about the steep on which the cathedral stands (the Roman Catholics have taken possession of another hill, and are building an opposition cathedral on this eminence) there are some decidedly Irish streets, and that dismal combination of house and pigsty which is so common in Munster and Connaught.

But the main streets, though not fine, are bustling, substantial, and prosperous; and a fine green has some old trees and some good houses, and even handsome stately public buildings, round about it, that remind one of a comfortable cathedral city across the water.

The cathedral service is more completely performed here than in any English town, I think. The church is small, but extremely neat, fresh and handsome-almost too handsome; covered with spick-and-span gilding and carved-work in the style of the thirteenth century; every pew as smart and well-cushioned as my lord’s own seat in the country church; and for the clergy and their chief, stalls and thrones quite curious for their ornament and splendour. The Primate with his blue ribbon and badge (to whom the two clergymen bow reverently as, passing between them, he enters at the gate of the altar rail) looks like a noble Prince of the Church; and I had heard enough of his magnificent charity and kindness to look with reverence at his lofty handsome features.

Will it be believed that the sermon lasted only for 20 minutes? Can this be Ireland? I think this wonderful circumstance impressed me more than any other with the difference between North and South, and, having the Primate’s own countenance for the opinion, may confess a great admiration for orthodoxy in this particular.

A beautiful monument to Archbishop Stuart, by Chantrey; a magnificent stained window, containing the arms of the clergy of the diocese (in the very midst of which I was glad to recognise the sober old family coat of the kind and venerable rector of Louth); and numberless carvings and decorations, will please the lover of church architecture here. I must confess, however, that in my idea the cathedral is quite too complete. It is of the 12th century, but not the least venerable. It is as neat and trim as a lady’s drawing-room. It wants a hundred years at least to cool the raw colours of the stones, and to dull the brightness of the gilding: all which benefits, no doubt, time will bring to pass, and future Cockneys setting off from London Bridge after breakfast in an aerial machine may come to hear the morning service here, and not remark the faults which have struck a too susceptible tourist of the 19th century.

Strolling round the town after service, I saw more decided signs that Protestantism was there in the ascendant. I saw no less than three different ladies on the prowl, dropping religious tracts at various doors; and felt not a little ashamed to be seen by one of them getting into a car with bag and baggage, being bound for Belfast.

* * * *

The ride of ten miles from Armagh to Portadown was not the prettiest, but one of the pleasantest drives I have had in Ireland, for the country is well cultivated along the whole of the road, the trees in plenty, and villages and neat houses always in sight. The little farms, with their orchards and comfortable buildings, were as clear and trim as could be wished: they are mostly of one storey, with long thatched roofs and shining windows, such as those that may be seen in Normandy and Picardy. As it was Sunday evening, all the people seemed to be abroad, some sauntering quietly down the roads, a pair of girls here and there pacing leisurely in a field, a little group seated under the trees of an orchard, which pretty adjunct to the farm is very common in this district; and the crop of apples seemed this year to be extremely plenty. The physiognomy of the people too has quite changed; the girls have their hair neatly braided up, not loose over their faces as in the south; and not only are bare feet very rare, and stockings extremely neat and white, but I am sure I saw at least a dozen good silk gowns upon the women along the road, and scarcely one which was not clean and in good order. The men for the most part figured in jackets, caps, and trousers, eschewing the old well of a hat which covers the popular head at the other end of the island, the breeches, and the long ill-made tail-coat The people’s faces are sharp and neat, not broad, lazy, knowing-looking, like that of many a shambling Diogenes who may be seen lounging before his cabin in Cork or Kerry. As for the cabins, they h ave disappeared; and the houses of the people may rank decidedly as cottages. The accent, too, is quite different; but this is hard to describe in print. The people speak with a Scotch twang, and, as I fancied, much more simply and to the point. A man gives you a downright answer, without any grin or joke, or attempt at flattery. To be sure, these are rather early days to begin to judge of national characteristics; and very likely the above distinctions have been drawn after profoundly studying a Northern and a Southern waiter at the inn at Armagh.

At any rate, it is clear that the towns are vastly improved, the cottages and villages no less so; the people look active and well-dressed; a sort of weight seems all at once to be taken from the Englishman’s mind on entering the province, when he finds himself once more looking upon comfort and activity, and resolution. What is the cause of this improvement? Protestantism is, more than one Church-of-England man said to me; but, for Protestantism, would it not be as well to read Scotchism? — meaning thrift, prudence, perseverance, boldness, and common sense: with which qualities any body of men, of any Christian denomination, would no doubt prosper.

The little brisk town of Portadown, with its comfortable unpretending houses, its squares and market-place, its pretty quay, with craft along the river, — a steamer building on the dock, close to mills and warehouses that look in a full state of prosperity, — was a pleasant conclusion to this ten miles’ drive, that ended at the newly opened railway-station. The distance hence to Belfast is 25 miles; Lough Neagh may be seen at one point of the line, and the Guide-book says that the station-towns of Lurgan and Lisburn are extremely picturesque; but it was night when I passed by them, and after a journey of an hour and a quarter reached Belfast.

That city has been discovered by another eminent Cockney traveller (for though born in America, the dear old Bow-bell blood must run in the veins of Mr. N. P. Willis), and I have met, in the periodical works of the country, with repeated angry allusions to his description of Belfast, the pink heels of the chamber-maid who conducted him to bed (what business had he to be looking at the young woman’s legs at all?) and his wrath at the beggary of the town and the laziness of the inhabitants, as marked by a line of dirt running along the walls, and showing where they were in the habit of lolling.

These observations struck me as rather hard when applied to Belfast, through possibly pink heels and beggary might be remarked in other cities of the kingdom; but the town of Belfast seemed to me really to be as neat, prosperous, and hand Some a city as need be seen; and, with respect to the inn, that in which I stayed, “ Kearn’s,” was as comfortable and well-ordered an establishment as the most fastidious Cockney can desire, and with an advantage which some people perhaps do not care for, that the dinners which cost seven shillings at London taverns are here served for half a crown; but, I must repeat here, in justice to the public, what I stated to Mr. William the waiter, viz.: that half a pint of port-wine does contain more than two glasses — at least it does in happy, happy England. * * Only, to be sure, here the wine is good, whereas the port-wine in England is not port, but for the most part an abominable drink of which it would be a mercy only to give us two glasses: which, however, is clearly wandering from the subject in hand.

They call Belfast the Irish Liverpool. If people are for calling names, it would be better to call it the Irish London at once — the chief city of the kingdom at any rate. It looks hearty, thriving, and prosperous, as if it had money in its pockets and roast-beef for dinner: it has no pretensions to fashion, but looks mayhap better in its honest broadcloth than some people in their shabby brocade. The houses are as handsome as at Dublin, with this advantage, that the people seem to live in them. They have no attempt at ornament for the most part, but are grave, stout, red-brick edifices, laid out at four angles in orderly streets and squares.

The stranger can not fail to be struck (and haply a little frightened) by the great number of meeting-houses that decorate the town, and give evidence of great sermonising on Sundays. These buildings do not affect the Gothic, like many of the meagre edifices of the Established and the Roman Catholic churches, but have a physiognomy of their own — a thickset citizen look. Porticoes have they, to be sure, and ornaments Doric, Ionic, and what not? but the meeting-house peeps through all these classical friezes and entablatures; and though one reads of “Imitations of the Ionic Temple of Ilissus, near Athens,” the classic temple is made to assume a bluff, downright, Presbyterian air, which would astonish the original builder, doubtless. The churches of the Establishment are handsome and stately. The Catholics are building a brick cathedral, no doubt of the Tudor style — the present chapel, flanked by the national-schools, is an exceedingly unprepossessing building of the Strawberry Hill or Castle of Otranto Gothic: the keys and mitre figuring in the centre — “The cross-keys and night-cap,” as a hardhearted Presbyterian called them to me, with his blunt humour.

The three churches are here pretty equally balanced, Presbyterians 25,000, Catholics 20,000, Episcopalians 17,000. Each party has two or more newspaper organs; and the wars between them are dire and unceasing, as the reader may imagine. For whereas in other parts of Ireland where Catholics and Episcopalians prevail, and the Presbyterian body is too small, each party has but one opponent to belabour: here the Ulster politician, whatever may be his way of thinking, has the great advantage of possessing two enemies on whom he may exercise his eloquence; and in this triangular duel all do their duty nobly. Then there are subdivisions of hostility. For the Church there is a High Church and a Low Church journal; for the Liberals there is a “ Repeal “ journal and a “ No-repeal” journal; for the Presbyterians there are yet more varieties of journalistic opinion, on which it does not become a stranger to pass a judgment. If the Northern Whig says that the Banner of Ulster “is a polluted rag, which has hoisted the red Banner of falsehood” (which elegant words may be found in the first-named journal of the 13th October), let us be sure the Banner has a compliment for the Northern Whig in return; if the “Repeal” Vindicator and the priests attack the Presbyterian journals and the “home missions,” the reverend gentlemen of Geneva are quite as ready with the pen as their brethren of Rome, and not much more scrupulous in their language than the laity. When I was in Belfast, violent disputes were raging between Presbyterian and Episcopalian Conservatives with regard to the Marriage Bill; between Presbyterians and Catholics on the subject of the “home missions; between the Liberals and Conservatives, of course. “Thank God,” for instance, writes a “Repeal” journal, “that the honour and power of Ireland are not involved in the disgraceful Afghan war!" — a sentiment insinuating Repeal and something more; disowning, not merely this or that Ministry, but the sovereign and her jurisdiction altogether. But details of these quarrels, religious or political, can tend to edify but few readers out of the country. Even in it, as there are some nine shades of politico-religious differences, an observer pretending to impartiality must necessarily displease eight parties, and almost certainly the whole nine; and the reader who desires to judge the politics of Belfast must study for himself. Nine journals, publishing 400 numbers in a year, each number containing about as much as an octavo volume: these, and the back numbers of former years, sedulously read, will give the student a notion of the subject in question. And then, after having read the statements on either side, he must ascertain the truth of them, by which time more labour of the same kind will have grown upon him, and he will have attained a good old age.

Amongst the poor, the Catholics and Presbyterians are said to go in a pretty friendly manner to the national-schools; but among the Presbyterians themselves it appears there are great differences and quarrels, by which a fine institution, the Belfast Academy, seems to have suffered considerably. It is almost the only building in this large and substantial place that bears, to the stranger’s eye, an unprosperous air. A vast building, standing fairly in the midst of a handsome green and place, and with snug, comfortable red-brick streets stretching away at neat right angles all around, the Presbyterian College looks handsome enough at a short distance, but on a nearer view is found in a woeful state of dilapidation. It does not possess the supreme dirth and filth of Maynooth — that can but belong to one place, even in Ireland; but the building is in a dismal state of unrepair, steps and windows broken, doors and stairs battered. Of scholars I saw but a few, and these were in the drawing academy. The fine arts do not appear as yet to flourish in Belfast. The models from which the lads were copying were not good: one was copying a bad copy of a drawing by Prout; one was colouring a print. The ragged children in a German national-school have better models before them, and are made acquainted with truer principles of art and beauty.

Hard by is the Belfast Museum, where an exhibition of pictures was in preparation, under the patronage of the Belfast Art Union, Artists in all parts of the kingdom had been invited to send their works, of which the Union pays the carriage; and the porters and secretary were busy unpacking cases, in which I recognized some of the works which had before figured on the walls of the London Exhibition rooms.

The book-shops which I saw in this thriving town said much for the religious disposition of the Belfast public: there were numerous portraits of reverend gentlemen, and their works of every variety:— ” The Sinner’s Friend,” “The Watchman on the Tower,” “The Peep of Day,” “Sermons delivered at Bethesda Chapel,” by so-and-so; with hundreds of the neat little gilt books with bad prints, scriptural titles, and gilt edges, that come from one or two serious publishing houses in London, and in considerable numbers from the neighbouring Scotch shores. As for the theatre, with such a public the drama can be expected to find but little favour; and the gentleman who accompanied me in my walk, and to whom I am indebted for many kindnesses during my stay; said not only that he had never been in the playhouse, but that he never heard of any one going thither. I found out the place where the poor neglected Dramatic Muse of Ulster hid herself; and was of a party of six in the boxes, the benches of the pit being dotted over with about a score more. Well, it was a comfort to see that the gallery was quite full, and exceedingly happy and noisy: they stamped, and stormed, and shouted, and clapped in a way that was pleasant to hear. One young god, between the acts, favoured the public with a song-extremely ill sung certainly, but the intention was everything; and his brethren above stamped in chorus with roars of delight.

As for the piece performed, it was a good old melodrama of the British sort, inculcating a thorough detestation of vice and a warm sympathy with suffering virtue. The serious are surely too hard upon poor play-goers. We never for a moment allow rascality to triumph beyond a certain part of the third act we sympathise with the woes of young lovers — her in ringlets and a Polish cap, him in tights and a Vandyke collar; we abhor avarice or tyranny in the person of “the first old man” with the white wig and red stockings, or of the villain with the roaring voice and black whiskers; we applaud the honest wag (he is a good fellow in spite of his cowardice) in his hearty jests at the tyrant before mentioned; and feel a kindly sympathy with all mankind as the curtain falls over all the characters in the group, of which successful love is the happy centre. Reverend gentlemen in meeting-house and church, shout against the immoralities of this poor stage, and threaten all playgoers with the fate which is awarded to unsuccessful plays, should try and bear less hardly upon us.

An artist — who, in spite of the Art Union, can scarcely, I should think, flourish in a place that seems devoted to preaching, politics, and trade — has somehow found his way to this humble little theatre, and decorated it with some exceedingly pretty scenery — almost the only indication of a taste for the fine arts which I have found as yet in the country.

A fine night-exhibition in the town is that of the huge spinning-mills which surround it, and of which the thousand windows are lighted up at nightfall, and may be seen from almost all quarters of the city.

A gentleman to whom I had brought an introduction good-naturedly left his work to walk with me to one of these mills, and stated by whom he had been introduced to me to the mill-proprietor, Mr. Mulholland.” That recommendation,” said Mr. Mulholland gallantly, “is welcome anywhere.” It was from my kind friend Mr. Lever. What a privilege some men have, who can sit quietly in their studies and make friends all the world over!

There are nearly five hundred girls employed in it. They work in huge long chambers, lighted by numbers of windows, hot with steam, buzzing and humming with hundreds of thousands of whirling wheels, that all take their motion from a steam-engine which lives apart in a hot cast-iron temple of its own, from which it communicates with the innumerable machines that the five hundred girls preside over. They have seemingly but to take away the work when done — the enormous monster in the cast-iron room does it all. He cards the flax, and combs it, and spins it, and beats it, and twists it: the five hundred girls stand by to feed him, or take the material from him, when he has had his will of it. There is something frightful in the vastness as in the minuteness of this power. Every thread writhes and twirls as the steam-fate orders it, — every thread, of which it would take a hundred to make the thickness of a hair.

I have seldom, I think, seen more good looks than amongst the young women employed in this place. They work for twelve hours daily, in rooms of which the heat is intolerable to a stranger; but in spite of it they looked gay, stout, and healthy; nor were their forms much concealed by the very simple clothes they wear while in the mill. The stranger will be struck by the good looks not only of these spinsters, but of almost all the young women in the streets. I never saw a town where so many women are to be met — so many and so pretty-with and without bonnets, with good figures, in neat homely shawls and dresses. The grisettes of Belfast are among the handsomest ornaments of it; and as good, no doubt, and irreproachable in morals as their sisters in the rest of Ireland. Many of the merchants’ counting-houses are crowded in little old-fashioned “entries,” or courts, such as one sees about the Bank in London. In and about these, and in the principal streets in the daytime, is a great activity, and homely unpretending bustle. The men have a business look, too; and one sees very few flaunting dandies, as in Dublin. The shopkeepers do not brag upon their signboards, or keep “emporiums,” as elsewhere, — their places of business being for the most part homely; though one may see some splendid shops, which are not to be surpassed by London. The docks and quays are busy with their craft and shipping, upon the beautiful borders of the Lough; — the large red warehouses stretching along the shores, with ships loading, or unloading, or building, hammers clanging, pitch pots flaming and boiling, seamen cheering in the ships, or lolling lazily on the shore. The life and movement of a port here give the stranger plenty to admire and observe. And nature has likewise done everything for the place — surrounding it with picturesque hills and water; for which latter I must confess I was not very sorry to leave the town behind me, and its mills, and its meeting-houses, and its commerce, and its theologians, and its politicians.

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