The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

The Giant’s Causeway — Coleraine — Portrush.

The traveller no sooner issues from the inn by a back door, which he is informed will lead him straight to the Causeway than the guides pounces upon him, with a dozen rough boatmen who are likewise lying in wait; and a crew of shrill beggar-boys with boxes of spars, ready to tear him and each other to pieces seemingly, and bawl incessantly round him. “I’m the guide Miss Henry recommends,” shouts one. “I’m Mr Macdonald’s guide,” pushes in another. “This way” roars a third, and drags his prey down a precipice; the rest of them clambering and quarrelling after. I had no friends, I was perfectly helpless. I wanted to walk down to the shore by myself, but they would not let me, and I had nothing for it but to yield myself into the hands of the guide who had seized me, who hurried me down the steep to a little wild bay flanked on each side by rugged cliffs and rocks, against which the waters came tumbling, frothing, and roaring furiously. Upon some of these black rocks two or three boats were lying: four men seized a boat, pushed it shouting into the water, and ravished me into it. We had slid between two rocks, where the channel came gurgling in: we were up one swelling wave that came in a huge advancing body 10 feet above us and were plunging madly down another, (the descent causes a sensation in the lower regions of the stomach which it is not necessary here to describe,) before I had leisure to ask myself why the deuce I was in that boat, with four rowers hurrooing and bounding madly from one huge liquid mountain to another — four rowers whom I was bound to pay. I say, the query came qualmishly across me why the devil I was there, and why not walking calmly on the shore.

The guide began pouring his professional jargon into my ears. “Every one of them bays,” says he, “has a name (take my place and the spray won’t come over you): that is Port Noffer, and the next Port na Gauge; them rocks is the Stookawns (for every rock has its name as well as every bay); and yonder — give way, my boys, — hurray, we’re over it now: has it wet you much, sir? — that’s the little cave: it goes five hundred feet under ground, and the boats goes into it easy of a calm day.”

“Is it a fine day or a rough one now?” said I; the internal disturbance going on with more severity than ever.

“It’s betwixt and between; or, I may say, neither one nor the other. Sit up, sir. Look at the entrance of the cave. Don’t be afraid, sir: never has an accident happened in any one of these boats, and the most delicate ladies has rode in them on rougher days than this. Now, boys, pull to the big cave. That, sir, is 660 yards in length, though some says it goes for miles inland, where the people sleeping in their houses hear the waters roaring under them.”

The water was tossing and tumbling into the mouth of the little cave. I looked, — for the guide would not let me alone till I did, — and saw what might he expected: a black hole of some 40 feet high, into which it was no more possible to see than into a mill-stone. “For heaven’s sake, sir,” says I, “ if you’ve no particular wish to see the mouth of the big cave, put about and let us see the Causeway and get ashore.” This was done, the guide meanwhile telling some story of a ship of the Spanish Armada having fired her guns at two peaks of rock, then visible, which the crew mistook for chimney-pots — what benighted fools these Spanish Armadilloes must have been: it is easier to see a rock than a chimney-pot; it is easy to know that chimney-pots do not grow on rocks. — “But where, if you please, is the Causeway?”

“That’s the Causeway before you,” says the guide.

“Which?

“That pier which you see jutting out into the bay, right a-head.”

“Mon Dieu! and have I travelled a hundred and fifty miles to see that!”

I declare upon my conscience, the barge moored at Hungerfood market is a more majestic object, and seems to occupy as much space. As for telling a man that the Causeway is merely a part of the sight; that he is there for the purpose of examining the surrounding scenery; that if he looks to the westward he will see Portrush and Donegal Head before him; that the cliffs immediately in his front are green in some places, black in others, interspersed with blotches of brown and streaks of verdure; — what is all this to a lonely individual lying sick in a boat, between two immense waves that only give him momentary glimpses of the land in question, to show that it is frightfully near, and yet you are an hour from it? They won’t let you go away — that cursed guide will tell out his stock of legends and stories. The boatmen insist upon your looking at boxes of “specimens”; even the dirty lad who pulls number three, and is not allowed by his comrades to speak, put in his oar, and hands you over a piece of Irish diamond (it looks like half-sucked alicompayne), and scorns you. “Hurray, lads, now for it, give way!” how the oars do hurtle in the rowlocks as the boat goes up an aqueous mountain, and then down into one of those cursed maritime valleys where there is no rest as on shore!

At last, after they had pulled me enough about, and sold me all the boxes of specimens, I was permitted to land at the spot whence we set out, and whence, though we had been rowing for an hour, we had never been above 500 yards distant. Let all Cockneys take warning from this; let the solitary one caught issuing from the back door of the hotel, shout at once to the boatmen to be gone-that he will have none of them. Let him, at any rate, go first down to the water to determine whether it be smooth enough to allow him to take any decent pleasure by riding on its surface. For after all it must be remembered that it is pleasure we come for — that we are not obliged to take those boats. — well well! I paid ten shillings for mine, and ten minutes before before would cheerfully have paid five pounds to be allowed to quit it: it was no hard bargain after all. As for the boxes of spar and specimens, I at once, being on terra firma, broke my promise, and said I would see them all — first. It is wrong to swear, I know; but sometimes it relieves one so much.

The first act on shore was to make a sacrifice to Sanctissima Tellus; offering up to her a neat and becoming Taglioni coat bought for a guinea in Covent Garden only three months back. I sprawled on my back on the smoothest of rocks that is, and tore the elbows to pieces: the guide picked me up; the boatmen did not stir, for they had had their will of me; the guide alone picked me up; I say, and bade me follow him. We went across a boggy ground in one of the little bays, round which rise the green walls of the cliff, terminated on either side by a black crag, and the line of the shore washed by the polupthloisboiotic, nay, the poluphloisboiotatotic sea. Two beggars stepped over the bog after us howling for money, and each holding up a cursed box of specimens. No oaths, threats, entreaties, would drive these vermin away; for some time the whole scene had been spoilt by the incessant and abominable jargon of them, the boatmen, and the guides. I was obliged to give them money to be left in quiet, and if, as no doubt will be the case, the Giant’s Causeway shall be a still greater resort of travellers than ever, the country must put policemen on the rocks to keep the beggars away, or fling them in the water when they appear.

And now, by force of money, having got rid of the sea and land beggars, you are at liberty to examine at your leisure the wonders of the place. There is not the least need for a guide to attend the stranger, unless the latter have a mind to listen to a parcel of legends, which may be well from the mouth of a wild simple peasant who believes in his tales, but are odious from a dullard who narrates them at the rate of sixpence a lie. Fee him and the other beggars, and at last you are left tranquil to look at the strange scene with your own eyes, and enjoy your own thoughts at leisure.

That is, if the thoughts awakened by such a scene may be called enjoyment; but for me, I confess, they are too near akin to fear to be pleasant; and I don’t know that I would desire to change that sensation of awe and terror which the hour’s walk occasioned, for a greater familiarity with this wild, sad, lonely place. The solitude is awful. I can’t understand how those chattering guides dare to lift up their voices here, and cry for money.

It looks like the beginning of the world, somehow: the sea looks older than in other places, the hills and rocks strange, and formed differently from other rocks and hills-as those vast dubious monsters were formed who possessed the earth before man. The hill-tops are shattered into a thousand cragged fantastical shapes; the water comes swelling into scores of little strange creeks, or goes off with a leap, roaring into those mysterious caves yonder, which penetrate who knows how far into our common world?

The savage rock-sides are painted of a hundred colours. Does the sun ever shine here? Was the world was moulded and fashioned out of formless chaos this must have been the bit over — a remnant of chaos? Think of that! — it is a tailor’s simile. Well, I am a Cockney: I wish I were in Pall Mall! Yonder is a kelp-burner: a lurid smoke from his burning kelp rises up to the leaden sky, and he looks as naked and fierce as Cain. Bubbling up out of the rocks at the very brim of the sea rises a little crystal spring: how comes it there? and there is an old grey hag beside, who has been there for hundreds and hundreds of years and there sits and sells whiskey at the extremity of creation! How do you dare to sell whiskey there, old woman? Did you serve old Saturn with a glass when he lay along the Causeway here? In reply she says, she has no change for a shilling: she never has; but her whiskey is good.

This is not a description of the Giant’s Causeway (as some clever critic will remark), but of a Londoner there who is by no means so interesting an object as the natural curiosity in question. That single hint is sufficient; I have not a word more to say. “If,” says he, “you cannot describe the scene lying before us — if you cannot state from your personal observation that the number of basaltic pillars composing the Causeway has been computed at about forty thousand which vary in diameter, their surface presenting the appearance of a tesselated pavement of polygonal stones — that each pillar is formed of several distinct joints, the convex end of the one being accurately fitted in the concave of the next, and the length of the joints varying from five feet to four inches — that although the pillars are polygonal, there is but one of three sides in the whole forty thousand (thiink of that!), but three of nine sides and that it may be safely computed that ninety nine out of one hundred pillars have either five, six, or seven sides if you cannot state something useful, you had much better, sir, retire and get your dinner

Never was summons more gladly obeyed The dinner must be ready by this time, so, remain you, and look on at the awful scene, and copy it down in words if you can. If at the end of the trial you are dissatisfied with your skill as a painter and find that the biggest of your words cannot render the hues and vastness of that tremendous swelling sea — of those lean solitary crags standing rigid along the shore, where they have been watching the ocean ever since it was made — of those grey towers of Dunluce standing upon a leaden rock and looking as if some old, old princess, of old, old fairy times, were dragon-guarded within — of yon flat stretches of sand where the Scotch and Irish mermaids hold conference — come away too, and prate no more afloat the scene! There is that in nature, dear Jenkins, which passes even our powers. We can feel the beauty of a magnificent landscape, perhaps: but we can describe a leg of mutton and turnips better. Come, then, this scene is for our betters to depict. If Mr. Tennyson were to come hither for a month, and brood over the place, he might in some of those lofty heroic lines which the author of the “Morte d’Arthur” knows how to pile up, convey to the reader a sense of this gigantic desolate scene. What! you, too, are a poet? Well, then, Jenkins, stay! but believe me, you had best take my advice, and come off.

* * * *

The worthy landlady made her appearance with the politest of bows and an apology, — for what does the reader think a lady should apologise in the most lonely rude spot in the world? — because a plain servant-woman was about to bring in the dinner, the waiter being absent on leave at Coleraine! O heaven and earth! where will the genteel end? I replied philosophically that I did not care twopence for the plainness or beauty of the waiter, but that it was the dinner I looked to, the frying whereof made a great noise in the huge lonely house; and it must be said, that though the lady was plain, the repast was exceedingly good. “I have expended my little all,” says the landlady, stepping in with a speech after dinner, “in the building of this establishment and though to a man its profits may appear small, to such a being as I am it will bring, I trust, a sufficient return “ and on my asking her why she took the place, she replied that she had always, from her earliest youth, a fancy to dwell in that spot, and had accordingly realised her wish by building this hotel — this mausoleum. In spite of the bright fire, and the good dinner, and the good wine, it was impossible to feel comfortable in the place; and when the car wheels were heard, I jumped up with joy to take my departure and forget the awful lonely shore, and that wild, dismal, genteel inn. A ride over a wide gusty country, in a grey, misty, half-moonlight, the loss of a wheel at Bushmills, and the escape from a tumble, were the delightful varieties after the late awful occurrences. “Such a being” as I am, would die of loneliness in that hotel; and so let all brother Cockneys be warned.

Some time before we came to it, we saw the long line of mist that lay above the Bann, and coming through a dirty suburb of low cottages, passed down a broad street with gas and lamps in it (thank heaven, there are people once more!), and at length drove up in state, across a gas pipe in a marketplace, before an hotel in the town of Coleraine famous for linen and for Beautiful Kitty who must be old and ugly now, for it’s a good five and thirty years since she broke her pitcher according to Mr Moore’s account of her. The scene as entered the Diamond was rather a lively one — a score of little stalls were brilliant with lights; the people were thronging in the place making their Saturday bargains; the town clock began to toll nine; and hark! faithful to a minute, the horn of the Derry mail was heard tootooing, and four commercial gentlemen, with Scotch accents, rushed into the hotel at the same time with myself.

Among the beauties of Coleraine may he mentioned the price of beef, which a gentleman told me may be had for fourpence a pound; and I saw him purchase an excellent codfish for a shilling. I am bound, too, to state for the benefit of aspiring Radicals, what two Conservative citizens of the place stated to me viz.; — that though there were two Conservative candidates then canvassing the town, on account of a vacancy in the representation, the voters were so truly liberal that they would elect any person of any other political creed, who would simply bring money enough to purchase their votes There are 220 voters it appears; of whom it is not, however, necessary to “argue” with more than fifty, who alone are open to conviction, but as parties are pretty equally balanced, the votes of the quinquagint, of course, carry an immense weight with them. Well this is all discussed calmly standing on an inn steps with a jolly landlord and a professional man of the town to give the information. So, heaven bless us, the ways of London are beginning to be known even here. Gentility has already taken up her seat in the Giant’s Causeway, where she apologises for the plainness of her look: and, lo! here is bribery, as bold as in the most civilised places — hundreds and hundreds of miles away from St. Stephen’s and Pall Mall. I wonder in that little island of Raghery, so wild and lonely, whether civilisation is beginning to dawn upon them? — whether they bribe and are genteel? But for the rough sea of yesterday, I think I would have fled thither to make the trial.

The town of Coleraine, with a number of cabin suburbs belonging to it, lies picturesquely grouped on the Bann river: and the whole of the little city was echoing with psalms as I walked through it on the Sunday morning. The piety of the people seems remarkable; some of the inns even will not receive travellers on Sunday; and this is written in an hotel of which every room is provided with a Testament, containing an injunction on the part of the landlord to considerthis world itself as only a passing abode. Is it well that Boniface should furnish his guest with Bibles as well as bills, and sometimes shut his door on a traveller, who has no other choice but to read it on a Sunday? I heard of a gentleman arriving from shipboard at Kilrush on a Sunday, when the pious hotel-keeper refused him admittance; and some more tales, which to go into would require the introduction of private names and circumstances, but would tend to show that the Protestant of the North is as much priest-ridden as the Catholic of the South — priest and old woman-ridden, for there are certain expounders of doctrine in our church, who are not, I believe, to be found in the church of Rome; and woe betide the stranger who comes to settle in these parts, if his “seriousness” be not satisfactory to the heads (with false fronts to most of them, of the congregations).

Look at that little snug harbour of Portrush! a hideous new castle standing on a rock protects it on one side, a snug row of gentlemen’s cottages curves round the shore facing northward, a bath-house, an hotel, more smart houses, face the beach west-ward, defended by another mound of rocks. In the centre of the little town stands a new-built church; and the whole place has an air of comfort and neatness which is seldom seen in Ireland. One would fancy that all the tenants of these pretty snug habitations, sheltered in this nook far away from the world, have nothing to do but to be happy, and spend their little comfortable means in snug hospitalities among one another, and kind little charities among the poor. What does a man in active life ask for more than to retire to such a competence, to such a snug nook of the world; and there repose with a stock of healthy children round the fireside, a friend within call, and the means of decent hospitality wherewith to treat him?

Let any one meditating this pleasant sort of retreat, and charmed with the look of this or that place as peculiarly suited to his purpose, take a special care to understand his neighbourhood first, before he commit himself, by lease-signing or house-buying. It is not sufficient that you should he honest, kind-hearted, hospitable, of good family — what are your opinions upon religious subjects? Are they such as agree with the notions of old Lady This, or Mrs. That, who are the patronesses of the village? If not, woe betide you! you will be shunned by the rest of the society, thwarted in your attempts to do good, whispered against over evangelical bohea and serious muffins. Lady This will inform every new arrival that you are a repro bate, and lost and Mrs That will consign you and your daughters, and your wife (a worthy woman but alas! united to that sad worldly man!) to damnation. The clergyman who partakes of the muffins and bohea before mentioned will very possibly preach sermons against you from the pulpit: this was not done at Portstewart to my knowledge, but I have had the pleasure of sitting under a minister in Ireland who insulted the very patron who gave him his living, discoursing upon the sinfulness of partridge-shooting, and threatening hell-fire as the last “meet” for fox-hunters; until the- squire, one of the best and most charitable resident landlords in Ireland, was absolutely driven out of the church where his fathers had worshipped for hundreds of years, by the insults of this howling evangelical inquisitor.

So much as this I did not hear at Portstewart; but I was told that at yonder neat-looking bath-house a dying woman was denied a bath on a Sunday. By a clause of the lease by which the bath-owner rents his establishment, he is forbidden to give baths to any one on the Sunday. The landlord of the inn, forsooth, shuts his gates on the same day, and his conscience on week days will not allow him to supply his guests with whiskey or ardent spirits. I was told by my friend, that because he refused to subscribe for some fancy charity, he received a letter to state that “he spent more in one dinner than in charity in the course of the year.” My worthy friend did not care to contradict the statement, as why should a man deign to meddle with such a lie? But think how all the fishes, and all the pieces of meat, and all the people who went in and out of his snug cottage by the sea-side must have been watched by the serious round about! The sea is not more constant roaring there, than scandal is whispering. How happy I felt, while hearing these histories (demure heads in crimped caps peeping over the blinds at us as we walked on the beach), to think I am a Cockney, and don’t know the name of the man who lives next door to me!

I have heard various stories, of course from persons of various ways of thinking, charging their opponents with hypocrisy, and proving the charge by statements clearly showing that the priests, the preachers, or the professing religionists in question, belied their professions woefully by their practice. But in matters of religion, hypocrisy is so awful a charge to make against a man, that I think it is almost unfair to mention even the cases in which it is proven, and which, — as, pray they are but exceptional, — a person should be very careful of mentioning, lest they be considered to apply generally. Tartuffe has been always a disgusting play to me to see, in spite of its sense and its wit: and so, instead of printing, here or else-where, a few stories of the Tartuffe kind which I have heard in Ireland, the best way will be to try and forget them. It is an awful thing to say of any man walking under God’s sun by the side of us, “You are a hypocrite, lying as you use the Most Sacred Name, knowing that you lie while you use it.” Let it be the privilege of any sect that is so minded, to imagine that there is perdition in store for all the rest of God’s creatures who do not think with them: but the easy countercharge of hypocrisy, which the world has been in the habit of making in its turn, is surely just as fatal and bigoted an accusations as any that the sects make against the world.

What has this disquisition to do apropos of a walk on toe beach at Portstewart? Why, it may be made here as well as in other parts of Ireland, or elsewhere as well, perhaps, as here. It is the most priest-ridden of countries; Catholic clergymen lord it over their ragged flocks, as Protestant preachers, lay and clerical, over their more genteel co-religionist. Bound to inculcate peace and good-will, their whole life is one of enmity and distrust.

Walking away from the little bay and the disquisition which has somehow been raging there, we went across some wild dreary highlands to the neighbouring little town of Portrush, where is a neat town and houses, and a harbour, and a new church too, so like the last-named place that I thought for a moment we had only made a round, and were back again at Portstewart. Some gentlemen of the place, and my guide, who had a neighbourly liking for it, showed me the new church, and seemed to be well pleased with the edifice; which is, indeed, a neat and convenient one, of a rather irregular Gothic. The best thing about the church, I think, was the history of it. The old church had lain some miles off, in the most inconvenient part of the parish, whereupon the clergyman and some of the gentry had raised a subscription in order to build the present church. The expenses had exceeded the estimates, or the subscriptions had fallen short of the sums necessary; and the church, in consequence, was opened with a debt on it, which the rector and two more of the gentry had taken on their shoulders. The living is a small one, the other two gentlemen going bail for the edifice not so rich as to think light of the payment of a couple of hundred pounds beyond their previous subscriptions — the lists are therefore still open; and the clergyman expressed himself perfectly satisfied either that he would be reimbursed one day or other, or that he would be able to make out the payment of the money for which he stood engaged. Most of the Roman Catholic churches that I have seen through the country have been built in this way, — begun when money enough was levied for constructing the foundation, elevated by degrees as fresh subscriptions came in, and finished — by the way, I don’t think I have seen one finished; but there is something noble in the spirit (however certain economists may cavil at it) that leads people to commence these pious undertakings with the firm trust that “ Heaven will provide.”

Eastward from Portrush, we came upon a beautiful level sand which leads to the White Rocks, a famous place of resort for the frequenters of the neighbouring watering-places. Here are caves, and for a considerable distance a view of the wild and gloomy Antrim coast as far as Bengore. Midway, jutting into the sea (and I was glad it was so far off), was the Causeway; and nearer, the grey towers of Dunluce.

Looking north, were the blue Scotch hills and the neighbouring Raghery Island. Nearer Portrush there were two rocky islands, called the Skerries, of which a sportsman of our party vaunted the capabilities, regretting that my stay was not longer, so that I might land and shoot a few ducks there. This unlucky lateness of the season struck me also as a most afflicting circumstance. He said also that fish were caught off the island — not fish good to eat, but very strong at pulling, eager of biting, and affording a great deal of sport. And so we turned our backs once more upon the Giant’s Causeway, and the grim coast on which it lies; and as my taste in life leads me to prefer looking at the smiling fresh face of a young cheerful beauty, rather than at the fierce countenance and high features of a dishevelled Meg Merrilies, I must say agaip that I was glad to turn my back on thls severe part of the Antrim coast, and my steps towards Derry.

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