The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

From Carlow to Waterford

The next morning being fixed for the commencement of our journey towards Waterford, a carriage made its appearance in due time before the hall-door: an amateur stage-coach, with four fine horses, that were to carry us to Cork. The crew of the “drag,” for the present, consisted of two young ladies, and two who will not be old, please heaven! for these 30 years; three gentlemen whose collected weights might amount to 54 stone; and one of smaller proportions, being as yet only 12 years old; to these were added a couple of grooms and a lady’s -maid. Subsequently we took in a dozen or so more passengers, who did not seem in the slightest degree to inconvenience the coach or the horses; and thus was formed a tolerably numerous and merry party. The governor took the reins, with his geranium in his button-hole, and the place on the box was quarrelled for without ceasing, and taken by turns.

Our day’s journey lay through a country more picturesque, though by no means so prosperous and well cultivated as the district through which we had passed on our drive from Dublin. This trip carried us through the county of Carlow and the town of that name: a wretched place enough, with a fine court house, and a couple of fine churches: the Protestant church a noble structure, and the Catholic cathedral said to be built after some continental model. The Catholics point to the structure with considerable pride: it was the first, I believe, of the many handsome cathedrals for their worship which have been built of late years in this country by the noble contributions of the poor man’s penny and by the untiring energy and sacrifices of the clergy. Bishop Doyle, the founder of the church, has the place of honour within it; nor, perhaps, did any Christian pastor ever merit the affection of his flock more than that great and high-minded man. He was the best champion the Catholic Church and cause ever had in Ireland: in learning, and admirable kindness and virtue, the best example to the clergy of his religion: and if the country is now filled with schools, where the humblest peasant in it can have the benefit of a liberal and wholesome education, it owes this great boon mainly to his noble exertions, and: to the spirit which they awakened.

As for the architecture of the cathedral, I do not fancy a professional man would find much to praise in it; it seems to me overloaded with ornaments, nor were its innumerable spires and pinnacles the more pleasing to the eye because some of them were out of the perpendicular. The interior is quite plain, not to say bare and unfinished. Many of the chapels in the country that I have since seen are in a similar condition for when the walls are once raised, the enthusiasm of the subscribers to the building seems somewhat characteristically to grow cool, and you enter at a porch that would suit a palace with an interior scarcely more decorated than a barn. A wide large floor, some confession-boxes against the blank walls here and there, with some humble pictures at the “stations,” and the statue, under a mean canopy of red woollen stuff, were the chief furniture of the cathedral.

The severe homely features of the good bishop were not very favourable subjects for Mr. Hogan’s chisel; but a figure of prostrate, weeping Ireland, kneeling by the prelate’s side, and for whom he is imploring protection, has much beauty. In the chapels of Dublin and Cork some of this artist’s works may be seen, and his countrymen are exceedingly proud of him.

Connected with the Catholic cathedral is a large tumbledown looking divinity college: there are upwards of a hundred students here, and the college is licensed to give degrees in arts as well as divinity; at least so the officer of the church said, as he showed us the place through the bars of the sacristy-windows, in which apartment may be seen sundry crosses, a pastoral letter of Dr. Doyle, and a number of ecclesiastical vestments formed of laces, poplins, and velvets, handsomely laced with gold. There is a convent by the side of the cathedral, and, of course, a parcel of beggars all about, and indeed all over the town, profuse in their prayers and invocations of the Lord, and whining flatteries of the persons whom they address. One wretched old tottering hag began whining the Lord’s Prayer as a proof of her sincerity, and blundered in the very midst of it, and left us thoroughly disgusted after the very first sentence.

It was market-day in the town, which is tolerably full of poor-looking shops, the streets being thronged with donkey-carts, and people eager to barter their small wares. Here and there were picture-stalls, with huge hideous-coloured engravings of the Saints: and indeed the objects of barter upon the banks of the clear bright river Barrow seemed scarcely to he of more value than the articles which change hands, as one reads of, in a town of African huts and traders on the banks of the Quorra. Perhaps the very bustle and cheerfulness of the people served only, to a Londoner’s eyes, to make it look the more miserable. It seems as if they had no right to be eager about such a parcel of wretched rags and trifles as were exposed to sale.

There are some old towers of a castle here, looking finely from the river; and near the town in a grand modern residence belonging to Colonel Bruen, with an oak-park on one side of the road, and a deer-park on the other. These retainers of the Colonel’s lay in their rushy-green inclosures, in great numbers and seemingly in flourishing condition.

The road from Carlow to Leighlin Bridge is exceedingly beautiful: noble purple hills rising on either side, and the broad silver Barrow flowing through rich meadows of that astonishing verdure which is only to be seen in this country. Here and there was a country-house, or a tall mill by a stream-side: but the latter buildings were for the most part empty, the gaunt windows gaping without glass, and their great wheels idle. Leighlin Bridge, lying up and down a hill by the river, contains a considerable number of pompous-looking warehouses, that looked for the most part to be doing no more business than the mills on the Carlow road, but stood by the roadside staring at the coach as it were, and basking in the sun, swaggering, idle, insolvent, and out-at-elbows. There are one or two very pretty, modest, comfortable-looking country-places about Leighlin Bridge, and on the road thence to a miserable village called the Royal Oak, a beggarly sort of bustling place.

Here stands a dilapidated hotel and posting-house: and indeed on every road, as yet, I have been astonished at the great movement and stir;-the old coaches being invariably crammed, cars jingling about equally full, and no want of gentle-men’s carriages to exercise the horses of the “Royal Oak” and similar establishments. In the time of the rebellion, the landlord of this “Royal Oak,” a great character in those parts, was a fierce United Irishman. One day it happened that Sir John Anderson came to the inn, and was eager for horses on. The landlord, who knew Sir John to be a Tory, vowed and swore he had no horses; that the judges had the last going to Kilkenny; that the yeomanry had carried off the best of them; that he could not give a horse for love or money. “Poor Lord Edward!” said Sir John, sinking down in a chair, and clasping his hands, “my poor dear misguided friend, and must you die for the loss of a few hours and the want of a pair of horses?

“Lord What?” says the landlord.

“Lord Edward Fitzgerald,” replied Sir John. “The Government has seized his papers, and got scent of his hiding-place. If I can’t get to him before two hours, Sirr will have him.”

“My dear Sir John,” cried the landlord, “it’s not two horses but it’s eight I’ll give you, and may the judges go hang for me! Here, Larry! Tim! First and second pair for Sir John Anderson; and long life to you, Sir John, and the Lord reward you for your good deed this day!”

Sir John, my informant told me, had invented this predicament of Lord Edward’s in order to get the horses; and by way of corroborating the whole story, pointed out an old chaise which stood at the inn-door with its window broken, a great crevice in the panel, some little wretches crawling underneath the wheels, and two huge blackguards lolling against the pole. “And that,” says he, “is no doubt the very post-chaise Sir John Anderson had.” It certainly looked ancient enough.

Of course, as we stopped for a moment in the place, troops of slatternly, ruffianly-looking fellows assembled round the carriage, dirty heads peeped out of all the dirty windows, beggars came forward with a joke and a prayer, and troops of children raised their shouts and halloos. I confess, with regard to the beggars, that I have never yet had the slightest sentiment of compassion for the very oldest or dirtiest of them, or been inclined to give them a penny: they come crawling round you with lying prayers and loathsome compliments, that make the stomach turn; they do not even disguise that they are lies; for, refuse them, and the wretches turn off with a laugh and a joke, a miserable grinning cynicism that creates distrust and indifference, and must be, one would think, the very best way to close the purse, not to open it, for objects so unworthy.

How do all these people live? one can’t help wondering; — these multifarious vagabonds, without work or workhouse, or means of subsistence? The Irish Poor Law Report says that there are twelve hundred thousand people in Ireland — a sixth of the population — who have no means of livelihood but charity, and whom the State, or individual members of it, must maintain. How can the State support such an enormous burden; or the twelve hundred thousand be supported? What a strange history it would be, could one but get it true, — that of the manner in which a score of these beggars have maintained themselves for a fortnight past!

Soon after quitting the “Royal Oak,” our road branches off to the hospitable house where our party, consisting of a dozen persons, was to be housed and fed for the night. Fancy the look which an English gentleman of moderate means would assume, at being called on to receive such a company! A pretty road of a couple of miles, thickly grown with ash and oak trees, under which the hats of coach-passengers suffered some danger, leads to the house of D—. A young son of the house, on a white pony, was on the look-out, and great cheering and shouting took place among the young people as we came in sight.

Trotting away by the carriage-side, he brought us through a gate with a pretty avenue of trees leading to the pleasure-grounds of the house — a handsome building commanding noble views of river, mountains, and plantations. Our entertainer only rents the place; so I may say, without any imputation against him, that the house was by no means so handsome within as without, — not that the want of finish in the interior made our party the less merry, or the host’s entertainment less heart and cordial.

The gentleman who built and owns the house, like many other proprietors in Ireland, found his mansion too expensive for his means, and has relinquished it. I asked what his income might be, and no wonder that he was compelled to resign his house; which a man with four times the income in England would scarcely venture to inhabit. There were numerous sitting-rooms below; a large suite of rooms above, in which our large party, with their servants, disappeared without any seeming inconvenience, and which already accommodated a family of at least a dozen persons, and a numerous train of domestics. There was a great court-yard surrounded by capital offices, with stabling and coach-houses sufficient for a half-dozen of country gentlemen. An English squire of ten thousand a year might live in such a place — the original owner, I am told, had not many more hundreds.

Our host has wisely turned the chief part of the pleasure-ground round the house into a farm; nor did the land look a bit the worse, as I thought, for having rich crops of potatoes growing in place of grass, and fine plots of waving wheat and barley. The care, skill, and neatness everywhere exhibited, and the immense luxuriance of the crops, could not fail to strike even a cockney; and one of our party, a very well-known, practical farmer, told me that there was at least £500 worth of produce upon the little estate of some 60 acres, of which only five-and-twenty were under the plough.

As at H— town, on the previous day, several men and women appeared sauntering in the grounds, and as the master came up, asked for work, or sixpence, or told a story of want. There are lodge-gates at both ends of the demesne; but it appears the good-natured practice of the country admits a beggar as well as any other visitor. To a couple our landlord gave money, to another a little job of work; another he sent roughly out of the premises: and I could judge thus what a continual tax upon the Irish gentleman these travelling paupers must be, of whom his ground is never free.

There, loitering about the stables and out-houses, were several people who seemed to have acquired a sort of right to be there: women and children who had a claim upon the buttermilk; men who did an odd job now and then; loose hangers-on of the family: and in the lodging-houses and Inns I have entered, the same sort of ragged vassals are to be found; in a house however poor, you are sure to see some poorer dependant who is a stranger, taking a meal of potatoes in the kitchen; a Tim or Mike loitering hard by, ready to run on a message, or carry a bag This is written, for instance, at a lodging over a shop at Cork. There sits in the shop a poor old fellow quite past work, but who totters up and down stairs to the lodgers, and does what little he can for his easily-won bread. There is another fellow outside who is sure to make his bow to anybody issuing from the lodging, and ask if his honour wants an errand done? Neither class of such dependants exist with us. What housekeeper in London is there will feed an old man of 70 that’s good for nothing, or encourage such a disreputable hanger-on as yonder shuffling, smiling cad? Nor did Mr. M—’s “irregulars” disappear with the day; for when, after a great deal of merriment, and kind, happy dancing and romping of young people, the fineness of the night suggested the propriety of smoking a certain cigar (it is never more acceptable than at that season), the young squire voted that we should adjourn to the stables for the purpose, where accordingly the cigars were discussed. There were still the inevitable half-dozen hangers-on: one came grinning with a lantern, all nature being in universal blackness except his grinning face; another ran obsequiously to the stables to show a favourite mare — I think it was a mare — though it may have been a mule, and your humble servant not much the wiser. The cloths were taken off; the fellows with the candles crowded about; and the young squire bade me admire the beauty of her fore-leg, which I did with the greatest possible gravity. “Did you ever see such a fore-leg as that in your life?” says the young squire, and further discoursed upon the horse’s points, the amateur grooms joining in chorus. There was another young squire of our party, a pleasant gentlemanlike young fellow, who danced as prettily as any Frenchman, and who had ridden over from a neighbouring house: as I went to bed, the two lads were arguing whether young Squire B— should go home or stay at D— that night. There was a bed for him — there was a bed for everybody, it seemed, and a kind welcome too. How different was all this to the ways of a severe English house!

Next morning the whole of our merry party assembled round a long, jovial breakfast-table, stored with all sorts of good things; and the biggest and jovialest man of all, who had just come in fresh from a walk in the fields, and vowed that he was as hungry as a hunter, and weas cutting some slices out of an inviting ham on the side-table, suddenly let fall his knife and fork with dismay. “Sure, John, don’t you know it’s Friday?” cried a lady from the table; and back John came with a most lugubrious queer look on his jolly face, and fell to work upon bread-and-butter, as resigned as possible, amidst no small laughter, as may be well imagined. On this I was bound, as a Protestant, to eat a large slice of pork, and discharged that duty nobly, and with much self-sacrifice.

The famous “drag” which had brought us so far, seemed to be as hospitable and elastic as the house which we now left, for the coach accommodated, inside and out, a considerable party from the house; and we took our road leisurely, in a cloudless, scorching day, towards Waterford. The first place we passed through was the little town of Gowran, near which is a grand, well-ordered park, belonging to Lord Clifden, and where his mother resides, with whose beautiful face, in Lawrence’s pictures, every reader must be familiar. The kind English lady has done the greatest good in the neighbourhood, it is said, and the little town bears marks of her beneficence, in its neatness, prettiness, and order. Close by the church there are the ruins of a fine old abbey here, and a still finer one a few miles on, at Thomastown, most picturesquely situated amidst trees and meadow, on the river Nore. The place within, however, is dirty and ruinous — the same wretched suburbs, the same squalid congregation of beggarly loungers, that are to be seen elsewhere. The monastic ruin is very fine, and the road hence to Thomastown rich with varied cultivation and beautiful verdure, pretty gentlemen’s mansions shining among the trees on either side, of the way. There was one place along this rich tract that looked very strange and ghastly — a huge old pair of gate pillars, flanked by a ruinous lodge, and a wide road winding for a mile up a hill. There had been a park once, but all the trees were gone; thistles were growing in the yellow sickly land, and rank thin grass on the road. Far away you saw in this desolate tract a ruin of a house: many a butt of claret has been emptied there, no doubt, and many a merry party come out with hound and horn. But what strikes the Englishman with wonder is not so much, perhaps, that an owner of the place should have been ruined and a spendthrift, as that the land should lie there useless ever since. If one is not successful with us another man will be, or another will try, at least. Here lies useless a great capital of hundreds of acres of land; barren, where the commonest effort might make it productive, and looking as if for a quarter of a century past no soul ever looked or eared for it. You might travel 500 miles through England and not see such a spectacle.

A short distance from Thomastown is another abbey; and presently, after passing” through the village of Knocktopher, we came to a posting-place called Ballyhale, of the moral aspect of which the following scrap taken in the place will give a notion.

A dirty, old, contented, decrepit idler was lolling in the sun at a shop door, and hundreds of the population of the dirty, old, decrepit, contented place were employed in the like way. A dozen of boys were playing at pitch-and-toss; other male and female beggars were sitting on a wall looking into a stream; scores of ragamuffins, of course, round the carriage; and beggars galore at the door of the little ale-house or hotel. A gentleman’s carriage changed horses as we were baiting here. It was a rich sight to see the cattle, and the way of starting them: “Halloo! Yoop — hoop!” a dozen ragged ostlers and amateurs running by the side of the miserable old horses, the postilion shrieking, yelling, and belabouring them with his whip. Down goes one horse among the new-laid stones; the postilion has him up with a cut of the whip and a curse, and takes advantage of the start caused by the stumble to get the brute into a gallop, and to go down the hill. “I know it for a fact,” a gentleman of our party says, “that no horses ever got out of Ballyhale without an accident of some kind.”

“Will your honour like to come and see a big pig?” here asked a man of the above gentleman, well known as a great farmer and breeder. We all went to see the big pig, not very fat as yet, but, upon my word, it is as big as a pony. The country round is, it appears, famous for the breeding of such, especially a district called the Welsh mountains, through which we had to pass on our road to Waterford.

This is a curious country to see, and has curious inhabitants: for 20 miles there is no gentleman’s house: gentlemen dare not live there. The place was originally tenanted by a clan of Welshes; hence its name; and they maintain themselves in their occupancy of the farms in Tipperary fashion, by simply putting a ball into the body of any man who would come to take a farm over any one of them. Some of the crops in the fields of the Welsh country seemed very good, and the fields well tilled; but it is common to see, by the side of one field that is well cultivated, another that is absolutely barren; and the whole tract is extremely wretched. Appropriate histories and reminiscences accompany the traveller: at a chapel near Mullinavat is the spot where 16 policemen were murdered in the tithe-campaign; farther on you come to a limekun, where the guard of a mail-coach was seized and roasted alive. I saw here the first hedge-school I have seen: a crowd of half-savage-looking lads and girls looked up from their studies in the ditch, their college or lecture-room being in a mud cabin hard by.

And likewise, in the midst of this wild tract, a fellow met us who was trudging the road with a fish-basket over his shoulder, and who stopped the coach, hailing two of the gentle-men in it by name, both of whom seemed to be much amused by his humour. He was a handsome rogue, a poacher, or salmon-taker, by profession, and presently poured out such a flood of oaths, and made such a monstrous display of grinning wit and blackguardism, as I have never heard equalled by the best Billingsgate practitioner, and as it would be more than useless to attempt to describe. Blessings, jokes, and curses trolled off the rascal’s lips with a volubility which caused his Irish audience to shout with laughter, but which were quite beyond a cockney. It was a humour so purely national as to be understood by none but natives, I should think. I recollect the same feeling of perplexity while sitting, the only Englishman, in a company of jocular Scotchmen. They bandied about puns, jokes, imitations, and applauded with shrieks of laughter what, I confess, appeared to me the most abominable dullness; nor was the salmon taker’s jocularity any better. I think it rather served to frighten than to amuse; and I am not sure but that I looked out for a band of jocular cutthroats of this sort to come up at a given guffaw and playfully rob us all round. However, he went away quite peaceably, calling down for the party the benediction of a great number of saints who must have been somewhat ashamed to be addressed by such a rascal.

Presently we caught sight of the valley through which the Suir flows, and descended the hill towards it, and went over the thundering old wooden bridge to Waterford.

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