The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Dublin At Last

A wedding-party that went across Derry Bridge to the sound of bell and cannon, had to flounder through a thick coat of frozen snow, that covered the slippery planks, and the hills round about were whitened over by the same inclement material. Nor was the weather, implacable towards young lovers and unhappy buckskin postilions shivering in white favours, at all more polite towards the passengers of her Majesty’s mail that runs from Derry to Ballyshannon.

Hence the aspect of the country between those two places can only be described at the rate of nine miles an hour, and from such points of observation as may be had through a coach window, starred with ice and mud. While horses were changed we saw a very dirty town, called Strabane; and had to visit the old house of the O’Donnels in Donegal during a quarter of an hour’s pause that the coach made there — and with an umbrella overhead. The pursuit of the picturesque under umbrellas let us leave to more venturesome souls: the fine weather of the finest season known for many long years in Ireland was over, and I thought with a great deal of yearning of Pat the waiter, at the “ Shelburne Hotel,” Stephen’s Green, Dublin, and the gas lamps, and the covered cars, and the good dinners to which they take you.

Farewell, then, O wild Donegal! and ye stern passes through which the astonished traveller windeth! Farewell Ballyshannon, and thy salmon-leap, and thy bar of sand, over which the white head of the troubled Atlantic was peeping! Likewise, adieu to Lough Erne, and its numberless green islands, and winding river-lake, and wavy fir-clad hills! Goodby, moreover, neat Enniskillen, over the bridge and churches whereof the sun peepeth as the coach starteth from the inn. See, how’ he shines now on Lord Belmore’s stately palace and park, with gleaming porticoes and brilliant grassy chases: now, behold he is yet higher in the heavens, as the twanging horn proclaims the approach to beggarly Cavan, where a beggarly breakfast awaits the hungry voyager.

Snatching up a roll wherewith to satisfy the pangs of hunger, sharpened by the mockery of breakfast, the tourist now hastens in his arduous course, though Virginia, Kells, Navan, by Tara’s threadbare mountain, and Skreen’s green hill; day darkens, and a hundred thousand lamps twinkle in the gray horizon — see about the darkling trees a stumpy column rise, see on its base the name of Wellington (though this, because ’tis night, thou canst not see), and cry, “It is the Phaynix!" — On and on, across the iron bridge, and through the streets, (dear streets, though dirty, to the citizen’s heart how dear you be!) and lo, now, with a bump, the dirty coach stops at the seedy inn, six ragged porters battle for the bags, six wheedling carmen recommend their cars, and (giving first the coachman eighteenpence) the Cockney says, “drive, car-boy, to the ‘Shelburne.’”

And so having reached Dublin, it becomes necessary to curtail the observations which were to be made upon that city; which surely ought to have a volume to itself: the humours of Dublin at least require so much space, For instance, there was the dinner at the Kildare Street Club, or the Hotel opposite, — the dinner in Trinity College Hall, — that at Mr. — the publisher’s, where a dozen of the literary men of Ireland were assembled, — and those (say 50) with Harry Lorrequer himself, at his mansion of Templeogue. What a favourable opportunity to discourse — upon the peculiarities of Irish character! to describe men of letters, of fashion, and university dons?

Sketches of these personages may be prepared, and sent over, perhaps in confidence to Mrs. Sigourney in America — who will of course not print them) — but the English habit does not allow of these happy communications between writers and the public; and the author who wishes to dine again at his friend’s cost, must needs have a care how he puts him in print.

Suffice it to say, that at Kildare Street we had white neck-cloths, black waiters, wax-candles, and some of the best wine in Europe; at Mr. — the publisher’s, wax-candles, and some of the best wine in Europe; at Mr. Lever’s, wax-candles, and some of the best wine in Europe; at Trinity College-but there is no need to mention what took place at Trinity College; for on returning to London, and recounting the circumstances of the repast, my friend B — a Master of Arts of that university, solemnly declared the thing was impossible:— no stranger could dine at Trinity College; it was too great a privilege-in a word, he would not believe the story, nor will he to this day; and why, therefore, tell it in vain?

I am sure if the Fellows of College in Oxford and Cambridge were told that the Fellows of T. C. D. only drink beer at dinner, they would not believe that.Such, however, was the fact or may be it was a dream, which was followed by another of about four-and-twenty gentlemen seated round a common-room table after dinner; and by a subsequent vision of a tray of oysters in the apartments of a tutor of the university, sometime before midnight. Did we swallow them or not? — the oysters are an open question.

Of the Catholic College of Maynooth, I must likewise speak briefly, for the reason that an accurate description of that establishment would he of necessity so disagreeable, that it is best to pass it over in a few words. An Irish union house is palace to it. Ruin so needless, filth so disgusting, such a look of lazy squalor, no Englishman who has not seen can conceive. Lecture-room and dining-hall, kitchen and students’-room, were all the same. I shall never forget the sight of scores of shoulders of mutton lying on the filthy floor in the former, or the view of a bed and dressing-table that I saw in the other.

Let the next Maynooth grant include a few shillings’-worth of whitewash and a few hundredweights of soap; and if to this be added a half-score of drill-sergeants, to see that the students appear clean at lecture, and to teach them to keep their heads up and to look people in the face, Parliament will introduce some cheap reforms into the seminary, which were never needed more than here. Why should the place be so shamefully ruinous and foully dirty? Lime is cheap, and water plenty at the canal hard by. Why should a stranger, after a week’s stay in the country, he able to discover a priest by the scowl on his face, and his doubtful downcast manner? Is it a point of discipline that his reverence should be made to look as ill-humoured as possible? And I hope these words will not be taken hostilely. It would have been quite as easy, and more pleasant, to say the contrary, had the contrary seemed to me to have been the fact; and to have declared that the priests were remarkable for their expression of candour, and their college for its extreme neatness and cleanliness.

This complaint of neglect applies to other public institutions besides Maynooth. The Mansion-house, when I saw it, was a very dingy abode for the Right Henorable Lord Mayor, and that Lord Mayor Mr. O’Connell. I saw him in full council, in a brilliant robe of crimson velvet, ornamented with white satin bows and sable collar, in an enormous cocked-hat, like a slice of an eclipsed moon.

The Aldermen and Common Council, in a black oak parlour, and at a dingy green table, were assembled around him, and a debate of thrilling interest to the town ensued. It related, I think, to water-pipes; the great man did not speak publicly, but was occupied chiefly at the end of the table, giving audiences to at least a score of clients and petitioners.

The next day I saw him in the famous Corn Exchange. The building without has a substantial look, but the hall within is rude, dirty, and ill-kept. Hundreds of persons were assembled in the black, steaming place; no inconsiderable share of frieze-coats were among them; and many small Repealers, who could hut lately have assumed their breeches, ragged as they were. These kept up a great chorus of shouting, and “hear, hear!” at every pause in the great Repealer’s address. Mr. O’Connell was reading a report from his Repeal-wardens; which proved that when Repeal took place, commerce and prosperity would instantly flow into the country; its innumerable harbours would he filled with countless ships, its immense water-power would be directed to the turning of myriads of mills; its vast energies and resources brought into full action. At the end of the report three cheers were given for Repeal, and in the midst of a great shouting Mr. O’Connell leaves the room.

“Mr. Quiglan, Mr. Quiglan!” roars an active aide-de-camp to the door-keeper, “a covered kyar for the Lard Mayre.” The covered car came; I saw his lordship get into it. Next day he was Lord Mayor no longer; but Alderman O’Connell in his state-coach, with the handsome grays whose manes were tied up with green ribbon, following the new Lord Mayor to the right honourable inauguration. Javelin men, city marshals (looking like military undertakers), private carriages, glass coaches, cars, covered and uncovered, and thousands of yelling ragamuffins, formed the civic procession of that faded, worn-out, insolvent old Dublin Corporation.

The walls of this city had been placarded with huge notices to the public, that O’Connell’s rent-day was at hand; and I went round to all the chapels in town on that Sunday (not a little to the scandal of some Protestant friends), to see the popular behaviour. Every door was barred, of course, with platetolders; and heaps of pence at the humble entrances, and bank-notes at the front gates, told the willingness of the people to reward their champion. The car-boy who drove me had paid his little tribute of fourpence at morning mass; the waiter who brought my breakfast had added to the national subscription with his humble shilling; and the Catholic gentle-man with whom I dined, and between whom and Mr. O’Connell there is no great love lost, pays his annual donation, out of gratitude for old services, and to the man who won Catholic Emancipation for Ireland. The piety of the people at the chapels is a sight, too, always well worthy to behold. Nor indeed is this religious fervour less in the Protestant places of worship: the warmth and attention of the congregation, the enthusiasm with which hymns are sung and responses uttered, contrasts curiously with the cool formality of worshippers at home.

The service at St Patrick’s is finely sung; and the shameless English custom of retreating after the anthem, is properly prevented by locking the gates, and having the music after the sermon. The interior of the cathedral itself, however, to an Englishman who has seen the neat and beautiful edifices of his own country, will be anything but an object of admiration.

The greater part of the huge old building is suffered to remain in gaunt decay, and with its stalls of sham Gothic, and the tawdry old rags and gimcracks of the “most illustrious order of Saint Patrick,” (whose pasteboard helmets, and calico banners, and lath swords, well characterise the humbug of chivalry which they are made to represent,) looks like a theatre behind the scenes. “Paddy’s Opera,” however, is a noble performance; and the Englishman may here listen to a half-hour sermon, and in the anthem to a bass singer whose voice is one of the finest ever heard.

The Drama does not flourish much more in Dublin than in any other part of the country. Operatic stars make their appearance occasionally, and managers lose money. I was at a fine concert, at which Lablache and others performed, where there were not a hundred people in the pit of the pretty theatre, and where the only encore given was to a young woman in ringlets and yellow satin, who stepped forward and sang “Coming through the rye,” or some other scientific composition, in an exceedingly small voice. On the nights when the regular drama was enacted, the audience was still smaller. The theatre of Fishamble Street was given up to the performances of the Rev. Mr. Gregg and his Protestant company, whose soirées I did not attend; and, at the Abbey Street Theatre, whither I went in order to see, if possible, some specimens of the national humour, I found a company of English people ranting through a melodrama, the tragedy whereof was the only laughable thing to be witnessed.

Humbler popular recreations may be seen by the curious. One night I paid twopence to see a puppet-show — such an entertainment as may have been popular a hundred and thirty years ago, and is described in the Spectator. But the company here assembled were not, it scarcely need be said, of the genteel sort. There were a score of boys, however, and a dozen of labouring men, who were quite happy and contented with the piece performed, and loudly applauded. Then in passing homewards of a night, you hear, at the humble public-houses, the sound of many a fiddle, and the stamp of feet dancing the good old jig, which is still maintaining a struggle with teetotalism, and, though vanquished now, may rally some day and overcome the enemy. At Kingstown, especially, the old “fire-worshippers” yet seem to muster pretty strongly; loud is the music to be heard in the taverns there, and the cries of encouragement to the dancers.

Of the numberless amusements that take place in the Phaynix, it is not very necessary to speak. Here you may behold garrison races, and reviews; lord-lieutenants in brown great-coats; aides-de-camp scampering about like mad in blue; fat colonels roaring “charge” to immense heavy dragoons; dark riflemen lining woods and firing; galloping cannoneers banging and blazing right and left. Here comes his Excellency the Commander-in-Chief, with his huge feathers, and white hair, and hooked nose; and yonder sits his Excellency the Ambassador from the republic of Topinambo in a glass coach, smoking a cigar. The honest Dublinites make a great deal of such small dignitaries as his Excellency of the glass coach; you hear everybody talking of him, and asking which is he; and when presently one of Sir Robert Peel’s sons makes his appearance on the course, the public rush delighted to look at him.

They love great folks, those honest Emerald Islanders, more intensely than any people I ever heard of, except the Americans. They still cherish the memory of the sacred George IV. They chronicle genteel small beer with never failing assiduity. They go in long trains to a sham court — simpering in tights and bags, with swords between their legs. O heaven and earth, what joy! Why are the Irish noblemen absentees? If their lordships like respect, where would they get it so well as in their own country?

The Irish noblemen are very likely going through the same delightful routine of duty before their real sovereign-in real tights and bag-wigs, as it were, performing their graceful and lofty duties, and celebrating the august service of the throne. These, of course, the truly loyal heart can only respect: and I think a drawing-room at St. James’s the grandest spectacle that ever feasted the eye or exercised the intellect. The crown, surrounded by its knights and nobles, its priests, its sages, and their respective ladies; illustrious foreigners, men learned in the law, heroes of land and sea, beef-eaters, goldsticks, gentlemen at arms, rallying round the throne and defending it with those swords which never knew defeat (and would surely, if tried, secure victory): these are sights and characters which every man must look upon with a thrill of respectful awe, and count amongst the glories of his country. What lady that sees this will not confess that she reads everyone of the drawing-room costumes, from Majesty down to Miss Ann Maria Smith; and all the names of the presentations, from Prince Baccabocksky (by the Russian ambassador) to Ensign Stubbs on appointment.

We are bound to read these accounts. It is our pride, our duty as Britons. But though one may honour the respect of the aristocracy of the land for the sovereign, yet there is no reason why those who are not of the aristocracy should be aping their betters: and the Dublin Castle business has, I cannot but think, a very high-life-below-stairs look. There is no aristocracy in Dublin. Its magnates are tradesman — Sir Fiat Haustus, Sir Blacker Dosy, Mr. Sergeant Bluebag, or Mr. Counsellor O’Fee. Brass plates are their titles of honour and they live by their boluses or their briefs. What call have these worthy people to be dangling and grinning at lord-Lieutenants’ levees, and playing sham aristocracy before a sham sovereign? Oh, that old humbug of a Castle! It is the greatest sham of all the shams in Ireland.

Although the season may be said to have begun, for the Courts are opened, and the noblesse de la robe have assembled, I do not think the genteel quarters of the town look much more cheerful. They still, for the most part, wear their faded appearance and lean, half-pay look. There is the beggar still dawdling here and there. Sounds of carriages or footmen do not deaden the clink of the burly policeman’s boot-heels. You may see, possibly, a smutty-faced nursemaid leading out her little charges to walk; or the observer may catch a glimpse of Mick the footman lolling at the door, and grinning as he talks to some dubious tradesman. Mick and John are very different characters externally and inwardly; — profound essays (involving the histories of the two countries for a thousand years) might be written regarding Mick and John, and the moral and political influences which have developed the flunkeys of the two nations. The friend too, with whom Mick talks at the door is a puzzle to a Londoner. I have hardly ever entered a Dublin house without meeting with some such character on my way in or out. He looks too shabby for a dun, and not exactly ragged enough for a beggar — a doubtful, lazy, dirty family vassal — a guerrilla footman. I think it is he who makes a great noise, and whispering, and clattering, handing in the dishes to Mick from outside of the dining-room door. When an Irishman comes to London he brings Erin with him; and ten to one you will find one of these queer retainers about his place.

London one can only take leave of by degrees: the great town melts away into suburbs, which soften, as it were, the parting between the Cockney and his darling birthplace. But you pass from some of the stately fine Dublin streets straight into the country. After No. 46 Eccles Street, for instance, potatoes begin at once. You are on a wide green plain, diversified by occasional cabbage-plots, by drying-grounds white-with chemises, in the midst of which the chartered wind is revelling; and though in the map some fanciful engineer has laid down streets and squares, they exist hut on paper; nor, indeed, can there be any need of them at present, in a quarter where houses are not wanted so much as people to dwell in the same.

If the genteel portions of the town look to the full as melancholy as they did, the downright poverty ceases, I fear, to make so strong an impression as it made four months ago. Going over the same ground again, places appear to have quite a different aspect; and, with their strangeness, poverty and misery have lost much of their terror. The people, though dirtier and more ragged, seemed certainly happier than those in London.

Near to the King’s Court, for instance (a noble building, as are almost all the public edifices of the city), is a straggling green suburb, containing numberless little shabby, patched, broken-windowed huts, with rickety gardens dotted with rags that have been washed, and children that have not; and thronged with all sorts of ragged inhabitants. Near to the suburb in the town, is a dingy old mysterious district, called Stoneybatter, where some houses have been allowed to reach an old age, extraordinary in this country of premature ruin, and look as if they had been built some six score years since. In these and the neighbouring tenements, not so old but equally ruinous and mouldy, there is a sort of vermin swarm of humanity; dirty faces at all the dirty windows; children on all the broken steps; smutty slipshod women clacking and bustling about, and old men dawdling. Well, only paint and prop the tumbling gates and huts in the suburb, and fancy the Stoneybatterites clean, and you would have rather a gay and agreeable picture of human life — of workpeople and their families reposing after their labours. They are all happy, and sober, and kind-hearted, — they seem kind, and play with the children — the young women having a gay good-natured joke for the passer-by; the old seemingly contented, and buzzing to one another. It is only the costume, as it were, that has frightened the stranger, and made him fancy that people so ragged must be unhappy. Observation grows used to the rags as much as the people do, and my impression of the walk through this district on a sunshiny, clear, autumn evening, is that of a fete. I am almost ashamed it should be so.

Near to Stoneybatter lies a group of huge gloomy edifices — an hospital, a penitentiary, a mad-house, and a poor-house. I visited the latter of these, the North Dublin Union-house, an enormous establishment, which accommodates 2,000 beggars. Like all the public institutions of the country, it seems to be well conducted, and is a vast, orderly, and cleanly place, wherein the prisoners are better clothed, better fed, better housed than they can hope to be when at liberty. We were taken into all the wards in due order: the schools and nursery for the children; the dining-rooms, day-rooms, &c., of the men and. women. Each division is so accommodated, as also with a large court or ground to walk and exercise in.

Among the men, there are very few able-bodied; the most of them, the keeper said, having gone out for the harvest-time, or as soon as the potatoes came in. If they go out, they cannot return before the expiration of a month: the guardians have been obliged to establish this prohibition, lest the persons requiring relief should go in and out too frequently. The old men were assembled in considerable numbers in a long day-room that is comfortable and warm. Some of them were picking oakum by way of employment, but most of them were past work; all such inmates of the house as are able-bodied being occupied upon the premises. Their hall was airy and as clean as brush and water could make it: the men equally clean, and their gray jackets and Scotch caps stout and warm. Thence we were led, with a sort of satisfaction, by the guardian, to the kitchen — a large room, at the end of which might be seen certain coppers, emitting, it must owned, a very faint inhospitable smell. It was on Friday, and rice-milk is the food on that day, each man being served with a pint-canful, of which cans a great number stood smoking upon stretchers — the platters were laid, each with its portion of salt in the large clean dining-room hard by. “Look at that rice,” said the keeper, taking up a bit; “try it, sir, it’s delicious.” I’m sure I hope it is.

The old women’s room was crowded with, I should think, at least four hundred old ladies-neat and nice, in white clothes and caps — sitting demurely on benches, doing nothing for the most part; but some employed, like the old men, in fiddling with the oakum. “There’s tobacco here,” says the guardian, in a loud voice; “who’s smoking tobacco?” “Fait, and I wish dere was some tabaccy here,” says one old lady, “and my service to you, Mr. Leary, and I hope one of the gentlemen has a snuff-box, and a pinch for a poor old woman.” But we had no boxes; and if any person who reads this visit, goes to a poor-house or lunatic asylum, let him carry a box, if for that day only — a pinch is like Dives’s drop of water to those poor limboed souls. Some of the poor old creatures began to stand up as we came in — I can’t say how painful such an honour seemed to me.

There was a separate room for the able-bodied females; and the place and courts were full of stout, red-cheeked, bouncing women. If the old ladies looked respectable, I cannot say the young ones were particularly good-looking; there were some Hogarthian faces amongst them — sly, leering, and hideous. I fancied I could see only too well what these girls had been. Is it charitable or not to hope that such bad faces could only belong to bad women?

“Here, sir, is the nursery,” said the guide, flinging open the door of a long room. There may have been 80 babies in it, with as many nurses and mothers. Close to the door sat one with as beautiful a face as I almost ever saw: she had at her breast a very sickly and puny child, and looked up, as we entered, with a pair of angelical eyes, and a face that Mr. Eastlake could paint — a face that had been angelical that is; for there was the snow still, as it were, but with the footmark on it. I asked her how old she was — she did not know. She could not have been more than 15 years, the poor child. She said she had been a servant — and there was no need of asking anything more about her story. I saw her grinning at one of her comrades as we went out of the room; her face did not look angelical then. Ah, young master or old, young or old villain, who did this! — have you not enough wickedness of your own to answer for, that you must take another’s sins upon your shoulders; and be this wretched child’s sponsor in crime?

*

But this chapter must be made as short as possible: and so I will not say how much prouder Mr. Leary, the keeper, was of his fat pigs than of his paupers — how he pointed us out the burial-ground of the family of the poor — their coffins were quite visible through the niggardly mould; and the children might peep at their fathers over the burial-ground-play-ground-wall — nor how we went to see the Linen Hall of Dublin — that huge, useless, lonely, decayed place, in the vast windy solitudes of which stands the simpering statue of George IV., pointing to some bales of shirting, over which he is supposing to extend his august protection.

The cheers of the rabble hailing the new Lord Mayor were the last sounds that I heard in Dublin: and I quitted the kind friends I had made there with the sincerest regret. As for forming “an opinion of Ireland,” such as is occasionally asked from a traveller on his return — that is as difficult an opinion to form as to express; and the puzzle which has perplexed the gravest and wisest, may be confessed by a humble writer of llight literature, whose aim it only was to look at the manners and the scenery of the country, and who does not venture to meddle with questions of more serious import.

To have “an opinion about Ireland,” one must begin by getting at the truth; and where is it to be had in the country? Or rather, there are two truths, the Catholic truth and the Protestant truth. The two parties do not see things with the same eyes. I recollect, for instance, a Catholic gentleman telling me that the Primate had £43,500 a year; a Protestant clergyman gave me, chapter and verse, the history of a shameful perjury and malversation of money on the part of a Catholic priest; nor was one tale more true than the other. But belief is made a party business; and the receiving of the archbishop’s income would probably not convince the Catholic, any more than the clearest evidence to the contrary altered the Protestant’s opinion. Ask about an estate: you may be sure almost that people will make misstatements, or volunteer them if not asked. Ask a cottager about his rent, or his landlord: you cannot trust him. I shall never forget the glee with which a gentleman in Munster told me how he had sent off MM. Tocqueville and Beaumont “with such a set of stories.” Inglis was seized, as I am told, an mystified in the same way. In the midst of all these truths attested with “I give ye my sacred honour and word,” which is the stranger to select? And how are we to trust philosophers who make theories upon such data?

Meanwhile it is satisfactory to know, upon testimony so general as to be equivalent almost to fact, that wretched as it is, the country is steadily advancing, nor nearly so wretched now as it was a score of years since; and let us hope that the middle class, which this increase of prosperity must generate (and of which our laws have hitherto forbidden the existence in Ireland, making there a population of Protestant aristocracy and Catholic peasantry), will exercise the greatest and most beneficial influence over country. Too independent to he bullied by priest or squire-having their interest in quiet, and alike indisposed to servility or to rebellion; may not as much be hoped from the gradual formation of such a class, as from any legislative meddling? It is the want of the middle class that has rendered the squire so arrogant, and the clerical or political demagogue so powerful; and I think Mr. O’Connell himself would say that the existence of such a body would do more for the steady acquirement of orderly freedom, than the occasional outbreak of any crowd, influenced by any eloquence from altar or tribune.

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/irish/chapter32.html

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