The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

From Waterford to Cork

The view of the town from the bridge and the heights above is very imposing; as is the river both ways. Very large vessels sail up almost to the doors of the houses, and the quays are flanked by tall red warehouses, that look at a little distance as if a world of business might be doing within them, But as you get into the place, not a soul is there to greet you, except the usual society of beggars, and a sailor or two, or a green-coated policeman sauntering down the broad pavement. We drove up to the “Coach Inn,” a huge, handsome, dirty building, of which the discomforts have been pathetically described elsewhere. The landlord is a gentleman and considerable horse-proprietor, and though a perfectly well-bred, active, and intelligent man, far too much fo a gentleman to play the host well: at least as an Englishman understands that character.

Opposite the town is a tower of questionable antiquity and undeniable ugliness; for though the inscription says it was built in the year one thousand and something, the same document adds that it was rebuilt in 1819 — to either of which dates the traveller is thus welcomed. The quays stretch for a considerable distance along the river, poor, patched-windowed, mouldy-looking shops forming the basement storey of most of the houses. We went into one, a jeweller’s, to make a purchase — it might have been of a gold watch for anything the owner knew; but he was talking with a friend in his backparlour, gave us a look as we entered, allowed us to stand some minutes in the empty shop, and at length to walk out without being served. In another shop a boy was lolling behind a counter, but could not say whether the articles we wanted were to be had; turned out a heap of drawers, and could not find them; and finally went for the master, who could not come. True commercial independence, and an easy way enough of life.

In one of the streets leading from the quay is a large, dingy Catholic chapel, of some pretensions within; but, as usual, there had been a failure for want of money, and the front of the chapel was unfinished, presenting the butt-end of a portico, and walls on which the stone coating was to be laid. But a much finer ornament to the church than any of the questionable gewgaws which adorned the ceiling was the piety, stern, simple, and unaffected, of the people within. Their whole soul seemed to be in their prayers, as rich and poor knelt indifferently on the flags. There is of course an episcopal cathedral, well and neatly kept, and a handsome Bishop’s palace; near it was a convent of nuns, and a little chapel-bell clinking melodiously. I was prepared to fancy something romantic of the place; but as we passed the convent gate, a shoeless slattern of a maid opened the door — the most dirty and unpoetical of housemaids.

Assizes were held in the town, and we ascended to the court-house through a Steep street, a sort of rag-fair, but more villainous and miserable than any rag-fair in St. Giles’s: the houses and stock of the Seven Dials look as if they belonged to capitalists when compared with the scarecrow wretchedness of the goods here hung out for sale. Who wanted to buy such things? I wondered. One would have thought that the most part of the articles had passed the possibility of barter for money, even out of the reach of the half-farthings coined of late. All the street was lined with wretched hucksters and their merchandise of gooseberries, green apples, children’s dirty cakes, cheap crockeries, brushes, and tinware; among which objects the people were swarming about busily.

Before the court is a wide street, where a similar market was held, with a vast number of donkey-carts urged hither and thither, and great shucking, chattering, and bustle. It is 500 years ago since a poet who accompanied Richard II. in his voyage hither spoke of “Watreforde ou moult vilaine et orde y sont la gente.” They don’t seem to be much changed now, but remain faithful to their ancient habits.

About the court-house swarms of beggars of course were collected, varied by personages of a better sort grey-coated farmers, and women with their picturesque blue cloaks, who had trudged in from the country probably. The court-house is as beggarly and ruinous as the rest of the neighbourhood; smart-looking policemen kept order about it, and looked very hard at me as I ventured to take a sketch.

The figures as I saw them were accurately disposed. The man in the dock, the policeman seated easily above him, the woman looking down from a gallery. The man was accused of stealing a sack of wool, and, having no counsel, made for himself as adroit a defence as any one of the counsellors (they are without robes or wigs here, by the way,) could have made for him. He had been seen examining a certain sack of wool in a coffee-shop at Dungarvan, and next day was caught sight of in Waterford Market, standing under an archway from the rain, with the sack by his side.

“Wasn’t there twenty other people under the arch?” said he to a witness, a noble-looking beautiful girl — the girl was obliged to own there were. “Did you see me touch the wool, or stand nearer to it than a dozen of the dacent people there?” and the girl confessed she had not. “And this it is, my lord,” says he to the bench, “they attack me because I am poor and ragged, but they never think of charging the crime on a rich farmer.”

But alas for the defence! another witness saw the prisoner with his legs around the sack, and being ah out to charge him with the theft, the prisoner fled into the arms of a policeman, to whom his first words were, “I know nothing about the sack.” So, as the sack had been stolen, as he had been seen handling it four minutes before it was stolen, and holding it four minutes before it was stolen, and hoilding it for sale the day after, it was concluded that Patrick Malony had stolen the sack, and he was accommodated with 18 months accordingly.

In another case we had a woman and her child on the table; and others followed, in the judgment of which it was impossible not to admire the extreme leniency, acuteness, and sensibility of the judge presiding, Chief Justice Pennefather:— the man against whom all the Liberals in Ireland, and every one else who has read his charge too, must be angry, for the ferocity of his charge against a Belfast newspaper editor. It seems as if no parties here will be dispassionate when they get to a party question, and that natural kindness has no claim when Whig and Tory come into collision.

The witness is here placed on a table instead of a witness-box; nor was there much farther peculiarity to remark, except in the dirt of the court, the absence of the barristerial wig and gown, and the great coolness with which a fellow who seemed a sort of clerk, usher, and Irish interpreter to the court, recommended a prisoner, who was making rather a long defence, to be quiet. I asked him why the man might not have his say. “Sure,” says he, “he’s said all he has to say, and there’s no use in any more. But there was no use in attempting to convince Mr. Usher that the prisoner was best judge on this point: in fact the poor devil shut his mouth at the admonition, and was found guilty with perfect justice.

A considerable poor-house has been erected at Waterford, but the beggars of the place as yet prefer their liberty, and less certain means of gaining support. We asked one who was calling down all the blessings of all the saints and angels upon us, and telling a most piteous tale of poverty, why she did not go to the poor-house. The woman’s look at once changed from a sentimental whine to a grin. “Dey owe £200 at dat house,” said she, “and faith, an honest woman can’t go dere.” With which wonderful reason ought not the most squeamish to be content?

* * *

After describing, as accurately as words may, the features of a landscape, and stating that such a mountain was to the left, and such a river or town to the right, and putting down the situations and names of the villages, and the bearings of the roads, it has no doubt struck the reader of books of travels that the writer has not given him the slightest idea of the country, and that he would have been just as wise without perusing the letter-press landscape through which he has toiled. It will be as well then, under such circumstances, to spare the public any lengthened description of the road from Waterford to Dungarvan; which was the road we took, followed by benedictions delivered gratis from the beggarhood of the former city. Not very far from it you see the dark plantations of the magnificent domain of Curraghmore, and pass through a country, blue, hilly, and bare, except where gentlemen’s seats appear with their ornaments of wood. Presently, after leaving Waterford, we came to a certain town called Kilmacthomas, of which all the information I have to give is, that it is situated upon a hill and river, and that you may change horses there. The road was covered with carts of seaweed, which the people were bringing for manure from the shore some four miles distant; and beyond Kilmacthomas we beheld the Cummeragh Mountains, “often named in maps the Nennavoulagh,” either of which names the reader may select at pleasure.

Thence we came to “Cushcam,” at which village be it known that the turnpike-man kept the drag a very long time waiting. “I think the fellow must be writing a book,” said the coachman, with a most severe look of drollery at a cockney tourist, who tried, under the circumstances, to blush, and not to laugh. I wish I could relate or remember half the mad jokes that flew about among the jolly Irish crew on the top of the coach, and which would have made a journey through the Desert jovial. When the pike-man had finished his composition (that of a turnpike-ticket, which he had to fill,) we drove on to Dungarvan; the two parts of which town, separated by the river Colligan, have been joined by a causeway 300 yards along, and a bridge erected at an enormous outlay by the Duke of Devonshire. In former times before his Grace spent his £80,000 upon the causeway, this wide estuary was called “Dungarvan Prospect” because the ladies of the country, walking over the river at low water took off their shoes and stockings (such as had them) and tucking up their clothes, exhibited — what I have never seen, and cannot therefore be expected to describe. A large and handsome Catholic chapel, a square with some pretensions to regularity of building, a very neat and comfortable inn, and beggars and idlers still more numerous. than at Waterford, were what we had leisure to remark in half an hour’s stroll through the town.

Near the prettily situated village of Cappoquin is the Trappist House of Mount Meilleraie, of which we could only see the pinnacles. The brethren were presented some years since with a barren mountain, which they have cultivated most successfully. They have among themselves workmen to supply all their frugal wants: ghostly tailors and shoemakers, spiritual gardeners and bakers, working in silence, and serving heaven after their way. If this reverend community, for fear of the opportunity of sinful talk, choose to hold their tongues, the next thing will be to cut them out altogether, and so render the danger impossible: if, being men of education and intelligence, they incline to turn butchers and cobblers, and smother their intellects by base and hard menial labour, who knows but one day a sect may be more pious still, and rejecting even butchery and bakery as savouring too much of worldly convenience and pride, take to a wild-beast life at once? Let us concede that suffering, and mental and bodily debasement, are the things most agreeable to heaven, and there is no knowing where such piety may stop. I was very glad we had not time to see the grovelling place; and as for seeing shoes made or fields tilled by reverend amateurs, we can find cobblers and ploughboys to do the work better.

By the way, the Quakers have set up in Ireland a sort of monkery of their own. Not far from Carlow we met a couple of cars drawn by white horses, and holding white Quakers and Quakeresses, in white hats, clothes, shoes, with wild maniacal-looking faces, bumping along the road. Let us hope that we may soon get a community of Fakeers and howling Dervishes into the country. It would be a refreshing thing to see such ghostly men in one’s travels, standing at the corners of roads and praising the Lord by standing on one leg, or cutting and hacking themselves with knives like the prophets of Baal. Is it not as pious for a man to deprive himself of his leg as of his tongue, and to disfigure his body with the gashes of a knife, as with the hideous white raiment of the illuminated Quakers?

While these reflections were going on, the beautiful Blackwater river suddenly opened before us, and driving along it for three miles through some of the most beautiful, rich country ever seen, we came to Lismore. Nothing can be certainly more magnificent than this drive. Parks and rocks covered with the grandest foliage; rich, handsome seats of gentlemen in the midst of fair lawns and beautiful bright plantations and shrubberies; and at the end, the graceful spire of Lismore church, the prettiest I have seer”’ in, or, I think, out of Ireland. Nor in any country that I have visited have I seen a view more noble — it is too rich and peaceful to be what is called romantic, but lofty, large, and generous, if the term may he used; the river and banks as fine as the Rhine; the castle not as large, but as noble and picturesque as Warwick. As you pass the bridge, the banks stretch away on either side in amazing verdure, and the castle walks remind one somewhat of the dear old terrace of St Germains, with its groves, and long grave avenues of trees.

The salmon-fishery of the Blackwater is let, as I hear, for a thousand a year. In the evening, however, we saw some gentlemen who are likely to curtail the profits of the farmer of the fishery — a company of ragged boys, to wit-whose occupation, it appears, is to poach. These young fellows were all lolling over the bridge, as the moon rose rather mistily, and pretended to be deeply enamoured of the view of the river. They answered the questions of one of our party with the utmost innocence and openness, and one would have supposed the lads were so many Arcadians, but for the arrival of an old woman, who suddenly coming up among them poured out, upon one and all, a volley of curses, both deep and loud, saying that perdition would be their portion, and calling them “shchamers “ at least a hundred times. Much to my wonder, the young men did not reply to the voluble old lady for some time, who then told us the cause of her anger. She had a son, — “Look at him there, the villain.” The lad was standing, looking very unhappy. “ is father, that’s now dead, paid a fistful of money to bind him ‘prentice at Dungarvan; but the shchamers followed him there; made him break his indentures, and go poaching and thieving and shchaming with them. The poor old woman shook her hands in the air, and shouted at the top of her deep voice: there was something very touching in her grotesque sorrow; nor did the lads make light of it at all, contenting themselves with a surly growl, or an oath, if directly appealed to by the poor creature.

So, cursing and raging, the woman went away. The son, a lad of 14, evidently the fag of the big bullies round about him, stood dismally away from them, his head sunk down. I went up and asked him, “Was that his mother?” He said, “Oh yes.” “Why not come back to her? “ I asked him; but he said “he couldn’t.” Whereupon I took his arm, and tried to lead him away by main force; but he said, “Thank you, sir, but I can’t go back,” and released his arm. We stood on the bridge some minutes longer, looking at the view; but the boy, though he kept away from his comrades, would not come. I wonder what they have done together, that the poor boy is past going home The place seemed to be so quiet and beautiful, and far away from London, that I thought crime couldn’t have reached it; and yet here it lurks somewhere among six boys of 16, each with a saint in his heart, and some black history to tell. The poor widow’s yonder was the only family about which I had a chance of knowing anything in this remote place; nay, in all Ireland: and God help us, hers was a sad lot! — A husband gone dead, — an only child gone to ruin. It is awful to think that there are eight millions of stories to be told in this Island. Seven million nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety eight more lives that I, and all brother cockneys, know nothing about. Well, please God, they are not all like this.

That day, I heard another history. A little old disreputable man in tatters, with a huge steeple of a hat, came shambling down the street, one among the 500 blackguards there. A fellow standing under the “Sun” portico (a sort of swaggering, chattering, cringing touter, and master of ceremonies to the gutter,) told us something with regard to the old disreputable man. His son had been hanged the day before at Clonmel, for one of the Tipperary murders. That blackguard in our eyes instantly looked quite different from all other blackguards: I saw him gesticulating at the corner of a street, and watched him with wonderful interest.

The church with the handsome spire, that looks so graceful among the trees, is a cathedral church, and one of the neatest kept and prettiest edifices I have seen in Ireland. In the old graveyard Protestants and Catholics lie together — that is, not together; for each has a side of the ground where they sleep, and, so occupied, do not quarrel. The sun was shining down upon the brilliant grass-and I don’t think the shadows of the Protestant graves were any longer or any shorter than those of the Catholics? Is it the right or the left side of the graveyard which is nearest heaven I wonder? Look, the sun shines upon both alike, “ and the blue sky bends over all.”

Raleigh’s house is approached by a grave old avenue, and well-kept wall, such as is rare in this country; and the court of the castle within has the solid, comfortable, quiet look, equally rare. It is like on of our colleges at Oxford: there is a side of the quadrangle with pretty ivy-covered gables; another part of the square is more modern; and by the main body of the castle is a small chapel exceedingly picturesque. The interior is neat and in excellent order; but it was unluckily done up some 30 years ago (as I imagine from the style), before our architects had learned Gothic, and all the ornamental work is consequently quite ugly and out of keeping. The church has probably been arranged by the same hand. In the castle are some plainly-furnished chambers, one or two good pictures, and a couple of oriel windows, the views from which up and down the river are exceedingly lovely. You hear praises of the Duke of Devonshire as a landlord wherever you go among his vast estates; it is a pity that with such a noble residence as this, and with such a wonderful country round about it, his Grace should not inhabit it more.

Of the road from Lismore to Fermoy it does not behove me to say much, for a pelting rain came on very soon after we quitted the former place, and accompanied us almost without ceasing to Fermoy. Here we had a glimpse of a bridge across the Blackwater, which we had skirted in our journey from Lismore. Now enveloped in mist and cloud, now spanned by a rainbow, at another time, basking in sunshine, Nature attired the charming prospect for us in a score of different ways; and it appeared before us like a coquettish beauty who was trying what dress in her wardrobe might most become her. At Fermoy we saw a vast barrack, and an overgrown inn, where, however, good fare was provided; and thence hastening came by Rathcormack, and Watergrass Hill, famous for the residence of Father Prout, whom my friend the Rev. Francis Sylvester has made immortal; from which descending we arrived at the beautiful wooded village of Glanmire, with its mills, and steeples, and streams, and neat school-houses, and pleasant country residences. This brings us down upon the superb stream which leads from the sea to Cork.

The view for three miles on both sides is magnificently beautiful. Fine gardens, and parks, and villas cover the shore on each bank; the river is full of brisk craft, moving to the city or out to sea; and the city finely ends the view, rising upon two hills on either side of the stream. I do not know a town to which there is an entrance more beautiful, commodious, and stately.

Passing by numberless handsome lodges, and near the city, many terraces in neat order, the road conducts us near a large tract of some hundred acres which have been reclaimed from the sea, and are destined to form a park and pleasure-ground for the citizens of Cork. In the river, and up to the bridge, some hundreds of ships were lying; and a fleet of steamboats opposite the handsome house of the St. George’s Steam-Packet Company. A church stands prettily on the hill above it, surrounded by a number of new habitations very neat and white. On the road is a handsome Roman Catholic chapel, or a chapel which will be handsome so soon as the necessary funds are raised to complete it. But, as at Waterford, the chapel has been commenced, and the money has failed, and the fine portico which is to decorate it one day, as yet only exists on the architect’s paper. Saint Patrick’s Bridge, over which we pass, is a pretty building; and Patrick Street, the main street of the town, has an air of business and cheerfulness, and looks densely thronged.

As the carriage drove up to those neat, Comfortable, and extensive lodgings which Mrs. MacO’Boy has to let, a magnificent mob was formed round the vehicle, and we had an opportunity of at once making acquaintance with some of the dirtiest rascally faces that all Ireland presents. Besides these professional rogues and beggars, who make a point to attend on all vehicles, everybody else seemed to stop too, to see that wonder, a coach and four horses. People issued from their shops, heads appeared at windows. I have seen the Queen pass in state in London, and not bring together a crowd near so great as that which assembled in the busiest street of the second city of the kingdom, just to look at a green coach and four bay-horses. Have they nothing else to do? — or is it that they will do nothing else but stare, swagger, and be idle in the streets?

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