The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Cork — the Agricultural Show — Father Mathew

A man has no need to be an agriculturist in order to take a warm interest in the success of the Irish Agricultural Society, and to see what vast good may result from it to the country. The National Education scheme — a noble and liberal one, at least as far as a stranger can see, which might have united the Irish people, and brought peace into this most distracted of all countries — failed unhappily of one of its greatest ends. The Protestant clergy have always treated the plan with bitter hostility; and I do believe, in withdrawing from it, have struck the greatest blow to themselves as a body, and to their own influence in the country, which has been dealt to them for many a year. Rich, charitable, pious, well-educated, to be found in every parish in Ireland, had they chosen to fraternise with the people and the plan, they might have directed the educational movement; they might have attained the influence which is now given over entirely to the priests; and when the present generation, educated in the national-schools, were grown up to manhood, they might have had an interest in almost every man in Ireland. Are they as pious, and more polished, and better educated than their neighbours the priests? There is no doubt of it; and by constant communion with the people they would have gained all the benefits of the comparison, and advanced the interests of their religion far more than now they can hope to do. Look at the national-school: throughout the country it is commonly by the chapel side — it is a Catholic school, directed and fostered by the priests; and as no people are more eager for learning, more apt to receive it, or more grateful for kindness than the Irish, he gets all the gratitude of the scholars who flock to the school, and all the future influence over them, which naturally and justly comes to him. The Protestant wants to better the condition of these people: he says that the woes of the country are owing to its prevalent religion; and in order to carry his plans of amelioration into effect, he obstinately refuses to hold communion with those whom he desires to convert to what he believes are sounder principles and purer doctrines. The clergyman will reply that points of principle prevent him: with this fatal doctrinal objection, it is not, of course, the province of a layman to meddle; but this is clear, that the parson might have had an influence over the country, and he would not; that he might have rendered the Catholic population friendly to him, and he would not; but, instead, has added one cause of estrangement and hostility more to the many which already exist against him. This is one of the attempts at union in Ireland, and one can’t but think with the deepest regret and sorrow of its failure.

Mr. O’Connell and his friends set going another scheme for advancing the prosperity of the country, — the notable project of home manufactures, and a coalition against foreign importation. This was a union certain, but a union of a different sort to that noble and peaceful one which the National Education Board proposed. It was to punish England, while it pre tended to secure the independence of Ireland, by shutting out our manufactures from the Irish markets; which were one day or other, it was presumed, to be filled by native produce. Large bodies of tradesmen and private persons in Dublin and other towns in Ireland associated together, vowing to purchase no articles of ordinary consumption or usage but what were manufactured in the country. This bigoted, old-world scheme of restriction-not much more liberal than Swing’s crusade against the threshing-machines, or the coalition in England against machinery — failed, as it deserved to do. For the benefit of a few tradesmen, who might find their account in selling at dear rates their clumsy and imperfect manufactures, it was found impossible to tax a people that are already poor enough; nor did the party take into account the cleverness of the merchants across sea, who were by no means disposed to let go their Irish customers. The famous Irish frieze uniform which was to distinguish these patriots, and which Mr. O’Connell lauded so loudly and so simply, came over made at half-price from Leeds and Glasgow, and was retailed as real Irish by many worthies who had been first to join the union. You may still see shops here and there with their pompous announcement of “Irish Manufactures;” but the scheme has long gone to ruin: it could not stand against the vast force of English and Scotch capital and machinery, any more than the Ulster spinning-wheel against the huge factories and steam-engines which one may see about Belfast.

The scheme of the Agricultural Society is a much more feasible one; and if, please God, it can be carried out, likely to give not only prosperity to the country, but union likewise in a great degree. As yet Protestants and Catholics concerned in it have worked well together; and it is a blessing to see them meet upon any ground without heart-burning and quarrelling. Last year, Mr. Purcell, who is well known in Ireland as the principal mail-coach contractor for the country, — who himself employs more workmen in Dublin than perhaps any other person there, and has also more land under cultivation than most of the great landed proprietors in the country, — wrote a letter to the newspapers, giving his notions of the fallacy of the exclusive-dealing system, and pointing out at the same time how he considered the country might be benefited by agricultural improvement, namely. He spoke of the neglected state of the country, and its amazing natural fertility; and, for the benefit of all, called upon the landlords and landholders to use their interest and develop its vast agricultural resources. Manufactures are at best but of slow growth, and demand not only time, but capital; meanwhile, until the habits of the people should grow to be such as to render manufactures feasible, there was a great neglected treasure, lying under their feet, which might be the source of prosperity to all. He pointed out the superior methods of husbandry employed in Scotland and England, and the great results obtained upon soils naturally much poorer; and, taking the Highland Society for an example, the establishment of which had done so much for the prosperity of Scotland, he proposed the formation in Ireland of a similar association.

The letter made an extraordinary sensation throughout the country. Noblemen and gentry of all sides took it up; and numbers of these wrote to Mr. Purcell, and gave him their cordial adhesion to the plan. A meeting was held, and the Society formed: subscriptions were set on foot, headed by the Lord Lieutenant (Fortescue) and the Duke of Leinster, each with a donation of 200l.; and the trustees had soon 5,000l. at their disposal: with, besides, an annual revenue of 1,000l. The subscribed capital is funded; and political subjects strictly excluded. The Society has a show yearly in one of the principal towns of Ireland: it corresponds with the various local agricultural associations throughout the country; encourages the formation of new ones; and distributes prizes and rewards. It has further in contemplation, to establish a large Agricultural school for farmers’ sons; and has formed in Dublin an Agricultural Bazaar and Museum.

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It was the first meeting of the Society which we were come to see at Cork. Will it be able to carry its excellent intentions into effect? Will the present enthusiasm of its founders and members continue? Will one political party or another get the upper hand in it? One can’t help thinking of these points with some anxiety — of the latter especially: as yet, happily, the clergy of either side have kept aloof, and the union seems pretty cordial and sincere.

There are in Cork, as no doubt in every town of Ireland sufficiently considerable to support a plurality of hotels, some especially devoted to the Conservative and Liberal parties. Two dinners were to be given apropos of the Agricultural meeting; and in order to conciliate all parties, it was determined that the Tory landlord should find the cheap ten-shilling dinner for 1,000, the Whig landlord the genteel guinea dinner for a few select hundreds.

I wish Mr. Cuff, of the “Freemasons’ Tavern,” could have been at Cork to take a lesson from the latter gentleman: for he would have seen that there are means of having not merely enough to eat, but enough of the very best, for the sum of a guinea; that persons can have not only wine, but good wine, and if inclined (as some topers are on great occasions) to pass to another bottle, — a second, a third, or a fifteenth bottle, for what I know is very much at their service. It was a fine sight to see Mr. MacDowall presiding over an ice-well and extracting the bottles of champagne. With what calmness he did it! How the corks popped, and the liquor fizzed, and the agriculturalists drank the bumpers off! And how good the wine was too — the greatest merit of all! Mr. MacDowall did credit to his liberal politics by his liberal dinner.

“Sir,” says a waiter whom I asked for currant-jelly for the haunch — (there were a dozen such smoking on various parts of the table — think of that, Mr. Cuff!) — “Sir,” says the waiter, “there’s no jelly, but I’ve brought you some very fine lobster-sauce.” I think this was the most remarkable speech of the evening; not excepting that of my Lord Bernard, who, to 300 gentlemen more or less connected with farming, had actually the audacity to quote the words of the great agricultural poet of Rome-

O fortunatos nimium sua si,” & c.

How long are our statesmen in England to continue to back their opinions by the Latin grammar? Are the Irish agriculturalists so very happy, if they did but know it — at least those out of doors? Well, those within were jolly enough. Champagne and claret, turbot and haunch, are gifts of the justissima tellus, with which few husbandmen will be disposed to quarrel:— no more let us quarrel either with eloquence after dinner.

If the Liberal landlord had shown his principles in his dinner, the Conservative certainly showed his; by conserving as much profit as possible for himself. We sat down 1,000 to some 250 cold joints of meat. Every man was treated with a pint of wine, and very bad too, so that there was the less cause to grumble because more was not served. Those agriculturalists who had a mind to drink whiskey-and-water had to pay extra for their punch. Nay, after shouting in vain for half an hour to a waiter for some cold water, the unhappy writer could only get it by promising a shilling. The sum was paid on delivery of the article; but as everybody round was thirsty too, I got but a glassful from the decanter, which only served to make me long for more. The waiter (the rascal!) promised more, but never came near us afterwards: he had got his shilling, and so he left us in a hot room, surrounded by a thousand hot fellow-creatures, one of them making a dry speech. The agriculturalists were not on this occasion nimium fortunati.

To have heard a nobleman, however, who discoursed to the meeting, you would have fancied that we were the luckiest mortals under the broiling July sun. He said he could conceive nothing more delightful than to see, “on proper occasions," — (mind on proper occasions!) — “the landlord mixing with his tenantry; and to look around him at a scene like this, and see the condescension with which the gentry mingled with the farmers!” Prodigious condescension truly! This neat speech seemed to me an oratoric slap on the face to about 970 persons present; and being one of the latter, I began to hiss by way of acknowledgement of the compliment, and hoped that a strong party would have destroyed the harmony of the evening, and done likewise. But not one hereditary bondsman would join in the compliment — and they were quite right too. The old lord who talked about condescension is one of the greatest and kindest landlords in Ireland. If he thinks he condescends by doing his duty and mixing with men as good as himself, the fault lies with the latter. Why are they so ready to go down on their knees to my lord? A man can’t help “condescending” to another who will persist in kissing his shoestrings. They respect rank in England — the people seem almost to adore it here.

As an instance of the intense veneration for lords which distinguishes this county of Cork, I may mention what occurred afterwards. The members of the Cork Society gave a dinner to their guests of the Irish Agricultural Association. The founder of the latter, as Lord Downshire stated, was Mr. Purcell: and as it was agreed on all hands that the Society so founded was likely to prove of the greatest benefit to the country, one might have supposed that any compliment paid to it might have been paid to it through its founder. Not so. The society asked the lords to dine, and Mr. Purcell to meet the lords.

After the grand dinner came a grand ball, which was indeed one of the gayest and prettiest sights ever seen; nor was it the less agreeable, because the ladies of the city mixed with the ladies from the country, and vied with them in grace and beauty. The charming gayety and frankness of the Irish ladies have been noted and admired by every foreigner who has had the good fortune to mingle in their society; and I hope it is not detracting from the merit of the upper classes to say that the lower are not a whit less pleasing. I never saw in any country such a general grace of manner and ladyhood. In the midst of their gayety, too, it must be remembered that they are the chastest of women, and that no country in Europe can boast of such a general purity.

In regard of the Munster ladies, I had the pleasure to be present at two or three evening-parties at Cork, and must say that they seem to excel the English ladies not only in wit and vivacity, but in the still more important article of the toilette. They are as well dressed as Frenchwomen, and incomparably handsomer; and if ever this book reaches a 30th edition, and I can find out better words to express admiration, they shall be inserted here. Among the ladies’ accomplishments, I may mention that I have heard in two or three private families such fine music as is rarely to be met with out of a capital. In one house we had a supper and songs afterwards, in the old honest fashion. Time was in Ireland when the custom was a common one; but the world grows languid as it grows genteel; and I fancy it requires more than ordinary spirit and courage now for a good old gentleman, at the head of his kind family table, to strike up a good old family song.

The delightful old gentleman who sung the song here mentioned could not help talking of the Temperance movement with a sort of regret, and said that all the fun had gone out of Ireland since Father Mathew banished the whiskey from it. Indeed, any stranger going amongst the people can perceive that they are now anything but gay. I have seen a great number of crowds and meetings of people in all parts of Ireland, and found them all gloomy. There is nothing like the merry-making one reads of in the Irish novels. Lever and Maxwell must be taken as chroniclers of the old tunes-the pleasant but wrong old times-for which one can’t help having an antiquarian fondness.

On the day we arrived at Cork, and as the passengers descended from “the drag,” a stout, handsome, honest-looking man, of some two-and-forty years, was passing by, and received a number of bows from the crowd around. It was

with whose face a thousand little print-shop windows had already rendered me familiar. He shook hands with the master of the carriage very cordially, and just as cordially with the master’s coachman, a disciple of temperance, as at least half Ireland is at present.

The day after the famous dinner at Mac Dowall’s, some of us came down rather late, perhaps in consequence of the events of the night before — (I think it was Lord Bernard’s quotation from Virgil, or else the absence of the currant-jelly for the venison, that occasioned a slight headache among some of us, and an extreme longing for soda-water,) — and there was the Apostle of Temperance seated at the table drinking tea. Some of us felt a little ashamed of ourselves, and did not like to ask somehow for the soda-water in such an awful presence as that. Besides, it would have been a confession to a Catholic priest, and, as a Protestant, I am above it.

The world likes to know how a great man appears even to a valet-de-chambre, and I suppose it is one’s vanity that is flattered in such rare company to find the great man quite as unassuming as the very smallest personage present; and so like to other mortals, that we would not know him to be a great man at all, did we not know his name, and what he had done. There is nothing remarkable in Mr. Mathew’s manner, except that it is exceedingly simple, hearty, and manly, and that he does not wear the downcast, demure look which, I know not why; certainly characterises the chief part of the gentlemen of his profession. Whence comes that general scowl which darkens the faces of the Irish priesthood? I have met a score of these reverend gentlemen in the country, and not one of them seemed to look or speak frankly, except Mr. Mathew, and a couple more. He is almost the only man, too, that I have met in Ireland, who, in speaking of public matters, did not talk as a partisan. With the state of the country, of landlord, tenant, and peasantry, he seemed to be most curiously and intimately acquainted; speaking of their wants, differences, and the means of bettering them, with the minutest practical knowledge. And it was impossible in hearing him to know, but from previous acquaintance with his character, whether he was Whig or Tory, Catholic or Protestant. Why does not Government make a Privy Councillor of him? — that is, if he would honour the Right Honorable body by taking a seat amongst them. His knowledge of the people is prodigious, and their confidence in him as great; and what a touching attachment that is which these poor fellows show to any one who has their cause at heart — even to any one who says he has!

Avoiding all political questions, no man seems more eager than he for the practical improvement of this country. Leases and rents, farming improvements, reading societies, music societies-he was full of these, and of his schemes of temperance above all. He never misses a chance of making a convert, and has his hand ready and a pledge in his pocket for sick or poor. One of his disciples in a liverv-coat came into the room with a tray — Mr. Mathew recognized him, and shook him by the hand directly; so he did with the strangers who were presented to him; and not with a courtly popularity-hunting air, but, as it seemed, from sheer hearty kindness, and a desire to do every one good.

When breakfast was done-(he took but one cup of tea, and says that, from having been a great consumer of tea and refreshing liquids before, a small cup of tea, and one glass of water at dinner, now serve him for his day’s beverage) — he took the ladies of our party to see his burying-ground — a new and handsome cemetery, lying a little way out of the town, and where, thank God! Protestants and Catholics may lie together, without clergymen quarrelling over their coffins.

It is a handsome piece of ground, and was formerly a botanic garden; but the funds failed for that undertaking, as they have for a thousand other public enterprises in this poor disunited country; and so it has been converted into a hortus siccus for us mortals. There is already a pretty large collection. In the midst is a place for Mathew himself — honour to him living or dead! Meanwhile, numerous stately monuments have been built, flowers planted here and there over dear remains, and the garden in which they lie is rich, green, and beautiful. Here is a fine statue, by Hogan, of a weeping genius that broods over the tomb of an honest merchant and clothier of the city. He took a liking to the artist, his fellow-townsman, and ordered his own monument, and had the gratification to see it arrive from Rome a few weeks before his death. A prettier thing even than the statue is the tomb of a little boy, which has been shut in by a large and curious grille of iron work. The father worked it, a blacksmith, whose darling the child was, and he spent three years in hammering out this mausoleum. It is the beautiful story of the pot of ointment told again at the blacksmith’s anvil; and who can but like him for placing this fine gilded cage over the body of his poor little one? Presently you come to a Frenchwoman’s tomb, with a French epitaph by a French husband, and a pot of artificial flowers in a niche-a wig, and a pot of rouge, as it were, just to make the dead look passably well It is his manner of showing his sympathy for an immortal soul that has passed away. The poor may be buried here for nothing; and here, too, once more Thank God! each may rest without priests or parsons scowling hell-fire at his neighbour unconscious under the grass.

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