The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Cork.

Amidst the bustle and gayeties of the Agricultural meeting, the working-day aspect of the city was not to be judged of: but I passed a fortnight in the place afterwards, during which time it settled down to its calm and usual condition. The flashy French and plated goods’ shops, which made a show for the occasion of the meeting, disappeared; you were no longer crowded and jostled by smart male and female dandies in walking clown Patrick Street or the Mall; the poor little theatre had scarcely a soul on its bare benches: I went once, but the dreadful brass band of a dragoon regiment blew me out of doors. This music could be heard much more pleasantly at some distance off in the street.

One sees in this country many a grand and tall iron gate leading into a very shabby field covered with thistles: and the simile to the gate will in some degree apply to this famous city of Cork, — which is certainly not a city of palaces, but of which the outlets are magnificent. That towards Killarney leads by the Lee, the old Avenue of Mardyke, and the rich green pastures stretching down to the river, and as you pass by the portico of the county jail, as fine and as glancing as a palace, you see the wooded heights on the other side of the fair stream crowded with a thousand pretty villas and terraces presenting every image of comfort and prosperity. The entrance from Cove has been mentioned before, nor is it easy to find anywhere a nobler, grander and more cheerful scene.

Along the quays up to Saint Patrick’s Bridge there is a certain bustle. Some forty ships may be lying at anchor along the walls of the quay, and its pavements are covered with goods of various merchandise: here a cargo of hides; yonder a company of soldiers, their kits and their Dollies who are taking leave of the redcoats at the steamer’s side. Then you shall see a fine, squeaking, shrieking drove of pigs embarking by the same conveyance, and insinuated into the steamer by all sorts of coaxing, threatening, and wheedling. Seamen are singing and yeehoing on board, grimy colliers smoking at the liquor shops along the quay, and as for the bridge — there is a crowd of idlers on that, you may be sure sprawling over the balustrade for ever and ever, with long ragged coats, steeple-hats, and stumpy doodeens [A clay pipe. KF.].

Then along the Coal Quay you may see a clump of jingle-drivers, who have all a word for your honour; and in Patrick Street, at three o’clock, when “The Rakes of Mallow” gets under weigh (a cracked old coach with the paint rubbed off, some smart horses, and an exceedingly dingy harness) — at three o’clock, you will be sure to see at least 40 persons waiting to witness the departure of the said coach: so that the neighbourhood of the inn has an air of some bustle.

At the other extremity of the town, if it be assize time, you will see some 500 persons squatting by the courthouse, or buzzing and talking within. The rest of the respectable quarter of the city is pretty free from anything like bustle: there is no more life in Patrick Street than in Russell Square of a sunshiny day; and as for the Mall, it is as lonely as the chief street of a German Residenz.

I have mentioned the respectable quarter of the city — for there are quarters in it swarming with life, but of such a frightful kind as no pen need care to describe: alleys where the odours and rags and darkness are so hideous, that one runs frightened away from them. In some of them, they say, not the policeman, only the priest, can penetrate. I asked a Roman Catholic clergyman of the city to take me into some of these haunts, but he refused very justly; and indeed a man may be quite satisfied with what he can see in the mere outskirts of the districts, without caring to penetrate further. Not far from the quays is an open space where the poor hold a market or bazaar. Here is liveliness and business enough: ragged women chattering and crying their beggarly wares; ragged boys gloating over dirty apple and pie-stalls; fish frying, and raw and stinking; clothes-booths, where you might buy a wardrobe for scarecrows; old nails, hoops, bottles, and marine wares; old battered furniture, that has been sold against starvation. In the streets round about this place, on a sunshiny day, all the black gaping windows and mouldy steps are covered with squatting lazy figures-women, with bare breasts, nursing babies, and leering a joke as you pass by — ragged children paddling everywhere. It is but two minutes’ walk out of Patrick Street, where you come upon a fine flashy shop of plated-goods, or a grand French emporium of dolls, walking-sticks, carpet-bags, and perfumery. The markets hard by have a rough, old-fashioned, cheerful look; it’s a comfort after the misery to hear a red butcher’s wife crying after you to buy an honest piece of meat.

The poor-house, newly established, cannot hold a fifth part of the poverty of this great town: the richer inhabitants are untiring in their charities, and the Catholic clergyman before mentioned took me to see a delivery of rice, at which he presides every day until the potatoes shall come in. This market, over which he presides so kindly, is held in an old bankrupt warehouse, and the rice is sold considerably under the prime cost to hundreds of struggling applicants who come when lucky enough to have wherewithal to pay.

That the city contains much wealth is evidenced by the number of handsome villas round about it, where the rich merchants dwell; but the warehouses of the wealthy provisionmerchants make no show to the stranger walking the streets; and of the retail-shops, if some are spacious and handsome, most look as if too big for the business carried on within. The want of ready-money was quite curious. In three of the principal shops I purchased articles, and tendered a pound in exchange — not one of them had silver enough; and as for a five-pound note, which I presented at one of the topping bookseller’s, his boy went round to various places in vain, and finally set forth to the Bank, where change was got. In another small shop I offered half a crown to pay for a sixpenny article — it was all the same. “Tim,” says the good woman, “run out in a hurry and fetch the gentleman change.” Two of the shopmen, seeing an Englishman, were very particular to tell me in what years they themselves had been in London. It seemed a merit in these gentlemen’s eves to have once dwelt that city; and I see in the papers continually ladies advertising as governesses, and specifying particularly that they are “English ladies.”

I received six 5l. post-office orders; I called four times on many different days at the Post Office before the capital could be forthcoming, getting on the third application 20l. (after making a great clamour, and vowing that such things were unheard-of in England), and on the fourth call the remaining 10l. I saw poor people, who may have come from the country with their orders, refused payment of an order of some 40s.; and a gentleman who tendered a pound-note in payment of a foreign letter, was told to “leave his letter and pay some other time.” Such things could not take place in the hundred-and-second city in England; and as I do not pretend to doctrinise at all, I leave the reader to draw his own deductions with regard to the commercial condition and prosperity of the second city in Ireland.

Half a dozen of the public buildings I saw were spacious and shabby beyond all cockney belief. Adjoining the “Imperial Hotel” is a great, large, handsome, desolate reading-room, which was founded by a body of Cork merchants and tradesmen, and is the very picture of decay. Not Palmyra — not the Russell Institution in Great Coram Street — presents a more melancholy appearance of faded greatness. Opposite this is other institution, called the Cork Library, where there are plenty of books and plenty of kindness to the stranger; but shabbiness and faded splendour of the place are quite painful.

There are three handsome Catholic churches commenced late years; not one of them is complete: two want their porticoes; the other is not more than thirty feet from the ground, and according to the architectural plan was to rise as high as a cathedral. There is an Institution, with a fair library scientific works, a museum, and a drawing-school with a supply of casts. The place is in yet more dismal condition than, the Library; the plasters are spoiled incurably for want of a penny feather-brush; the dust lies on the walls, and nobody seems to heed it. Two shillings a year would have repaired much of the evil which has happened to this institution; and it is folly to talk of inward dissensions and political differences causing the ruin of such institutions: kings or law don’t cause or cure dust and cobwebs, but indolence leaves them to accumulate) and imprudence will not calculate its income and vanity exaggerates its own powers, and the fault is laid upon that tyrant of a sister kingdom. The whole country is filled with such failures; swaggering beginnings that could not be carried through; grand enterprises begun dashingly, and ending in shabby compromises or downright ruin.

I have said something in praise of the manners of the Cork ladies: in regard of the gentlemen, a stranger too must remark the extraordinary degree of literary taste and talent amongst them, and the wit and vivacity of their conversation. The love for literature seems to an Englishman doubly curious. What, generally speaking, do a company of grave gentlemen and ladies in Baker Street know about it? Who ever reads books; in the City, or, how often does one hear them talked about at a Club? The Cork citizens are the most book-loving men I ever met. The town has sent to England a number of literary men, of reputation too, and is not a little proud of their fame. Everybody seemed to know what Maginn was doing, and that Father Prout had a third volume ready, and what was Mr. Croker’s last article in the Quarterly. The young clerks and shopmen seemed as much au fait as their employers, and many is the conversation I heard about the merits of this writer or that — Dickens, Ainsworth, Lover, Lever.

I think, in walking the streets, and looking at the ragged urchins crowding there, every Englishman must remark that the superiority of intelligence is here, and not with us. I never saw such a collection of bright-eyed, wild, clever, eager faces. Mr. Maclise has carried away a number of them in his memory; and the lovers of his admirable pictures will find more than one Munster countenance under a helmet in company of Macbeth, or in a slashed doublet alongside of Prince Hamlet, or in the very midst of Spain in company with Senor Gil Blas. Gil Blas himself came from Cork, and not from Oviedo.

I listened to two boys almost in rags: they were lolling over the quay balustrade, and talking about one of the Ptolemys! and talking very well too. One of them had been reading in “Rollin” and was detailing his information with a great deal of eloquence and fire. Another day, walking in the Mardyke; I followed three boys, not half so well dressed as London errand-boys: one was telling the other about Captain Ross’s voyages, and spoke with as much brightness and intelligence as the best-read gentleman’s son in England could do. He was as much of a gentleman too, the ragged young student; his manner as good, though perhaps more eager and emphatic; his language was extremely rich, too, and eloquent. Does the reader remember his school-days, when half a dozen lads in the bedroom took it by turns to tell stories? how poor the language generally was, and how exceedingly poor the imagination! Both of those ragged Irish lads had the making of gentlemen, scholars, orators, in them. Apropos of love of reading, let me mention here a Dublin story. Dr. Lever, the celebrated author of “Harry Lorrequer,” went into Dycer’s stables to buy a horse. The groom who brought the animal out, directly he heard who the gentleman was, came out and touched his cap, and pointed to a little book in his pocket in a pink cover. ”I can’t do without it; sir,” says the man. It was “ Harry Lorrequer.” I wonder does any one of Mr. Rymell’s grooms take in “Pickwick,” or would they have any curiosity to see Mr. Dickens, should he pass that way?

The Corkagians are eager for a Munster University; asking for, and having a very good right to, the same privilege which has been granted to the chief city of the North of Ireland. It would not fail of being a great benefit to the city and to the country too, which would have no need to go so far as Dublin for a school of letters and medicine; nor, Whig and Catholic for the most part, to attend a Tory and Protestant University. The establishing of an open college in Munster would bring much popularity to any Ministry that should accord such a boon. People would cry out, “Popery and Infidelity,” doubtless, as they did when the London University was established; as the same party in Spain would cry out, “Atheism and Heresy.” But the time, thank God! is gone by in England when it was necessary to legislate for them; and Sir Robert Peel, in giving his adherence to the National Education scheme, has sanctioned the principle of which this so much longed-for college would only be a consequence.

The medical charities and hospitals are said to be very well arranged, and the medical men of far more than ordinary skill. Other public institutions are no less excellent. I was taken over the Lunatic Asylum, where everything was conducted with admirable comfort, cleanliness, and kindness; and as for the county jail, it is so neat, spacious, and comfortable, that we can only pray to see every cottager in the country as cleanly, well lodged, and well fed as the convicts are. They get a pound of bread and a pint of milk twice a day: there must be millions of people in this wretched country, to whom such food would be a luxury that their utmost labours can never by possibility procure for them; and in going over this admirable institution, where everybody is cleanly, healthy, and well-clad, I could not but think of the rags and filth of the horrid starvation market before mentioned; so that the prison seemed almost a sort of premium for vice. But the people like their freedom, such as it is, and prefer to starve and be ragged as they list. They will not go to the poor-houses, except at the greatest extremity, and leave them on the slightest chance of existence elsewhere.

Walking away from this palace of a prison, you pass amidst all sorts of delightful verdure, cheerful gardens, and broad green luscious pastures, down to the beautiful River Lee. On one side, the river shines away towards the city with its towers and purple steeples; on the other it is broken by little waterfalls and bound in by blue hills, an old castle towering in the distance, and innumerable parks and villas lying along the pleasant wooded banks. How beautiful the scene is, how rich and how happy! Yonder, in the old Mardyke Avenue, you hear the voices of a score of children, and along the bright green meadows, where the cows are feeding, the gentle shadows of the clouds go playing over the grass. Who can look at such a charming scene but with a thankful swelling heart?

In the midst of your pleasure, three beggars have hobbled up, and arc howling supplications to the Lord. One is old and blind, and so diseased and hideous, that straightway all the pleasure of the sight round about vanishes from you — that livid ghastly face interposing between you and it. And so it is throughout the south and west of Ireland, the traveller is haunted by the face of the popular starvation. It is not the exception, it is the condition of the people. In this fairest and richest of countries, men are suffering and starving by millions. There are thousands of them at this minute stretched in the sunshine at their cabin doors with no work, scarcely any food, no hope seemingly. Strong countrymen are lying in bed “for the hunger“ — because a man lying on his back does not need so much food as a person a-foot. Many of them have torn up the unripe potatoes from their little gardens, to exist now, and must look to winter, when they shall have to suffer starvation and cold too. The epicurean, and traveller for pleasure, had better travel anywhere than here: where there are miseries that one does not dare to think of; where one is always feeling how helpless pity is, and how hopeless relief, and is perpetually made ashamed of being happy.

I have just been strolling up a pretty little height called Grattan’s Hill, that overlooks the town and the river, and where the artist that comes Corkwards may find many subjects for the pencil. There is a kind of pleasure-ground at the top of this eminence — a broad walk that draggles up to a ruined wall, with a ruined niche in it, and a battered stone bench. On the side that shelves down to the water are some beeches, and opposite them a row of houses from which you see one of the prettiest prospects possible — the shining river with the craft along the quays, and the busy city in the distance, the active little steamer puffing away towards Cove, the farther bank crowned with rich woods, and pleasant-looking country-houses; perhaps they are tumbling, rickety and ruinous, as those houses close by us, but you can’t see the ruin from here.

What a strange air of forlorn gayety there is about the place — the sky itself seems as if it did not know whether to laugh or cry, so full is it of clouds and sunshine. Little fat, ragged, smiling children are clambering about the rocks, and sitting on mossy door-steps, tending other children yet smaller, fatter, and more dirty. “Stop till I get you a posy” (pronounced/pawawawee), cries one urchin to another. “Tell me who is it ye love, Jooly?” exclaims another, cuddling a red-faced infant with a very dirty nose. More of the same race are perched about the summer-house, and two wenches with large purple feet are flapping some carpets in the air. It is a wonder the carpets will bear this kind of treatment at all, and do not be off at once to mingle with the elements: I never saw things that hung to life by such a frail thread.

This dismal pleasant place is a suburb of the second city in Ireland, and one of the most beautiful spots about the town. What a prim, bustling, active, green-railinged, tea-gardened, gravel-walked place would it have been in the five-hundredth-town in England! — but you see the people can be quite as happy in the rags and without the paint, and I hear a great deal more heartiness and affection from these children than from their fat little brethren across the Channel.

If a man wanted to study ruins, here is a house close at hand, not 40 years old no doubt, but yet as completely gone to wreck as Netley Abbey. It is quite curious to study that house; and a pretty ruinous fabric of improvidence, extravagance, happiness, and disaster may the imagination build out of it! In the first place, the owners did not wait to finish it before they went to inhabit it! This is written in just such another place; — a handsome drawing-room with a good carpet, a lofty marble mantel-piece, and no paper to the walls. The door is prettily painted white and blue, and though not six weeks old a great piece of the wood-work is off already (Peggy uses it to prevent the door from banging to); and there are some fine chinks in every one of the panels, by which my neighbour may see all my doings.

A couple of score of years, and this house will be just like yonder place on Grattan’s Hill.

Like a young prodigal, the house begins to use its constitution too early; and when it should yet (in the shape of carpenters and painters) have all its masters and guardians to watch and educate it, my house on Grattan’s Hill must be a man at once, and enjoy all the privileges of strong health! I would lay a guinea they were making punch in that house before they could keep the rain out of it! that they had a dinner-party and ball before the floors were firm or the wainscots painted, and a fine tester-bed in the best room, where my lady might catch cold in state, in the midst of yawning chimneys, creaking window-sashes; and smoking plaster.

Now look at the door of the coach-house, with its first coat of paint seen yet, and a variety of patches to keep the feeble barrier together. The loft was arched once, but a great corner has tumbled at one end, leaving a gash that unites the windows with the coach-house door. Several of the arch-stones are removed, and the whole edifice is about as rambling and disorderly as-as the arrangement of this book, say. Very tall tufts of mouldy moss are on the drawing-room windows, with long white heads of grass. As I am sketching this — honk! — a great lean sow comes trampling through the slush within the courtyard, breaks down the flimsy apparatus of rattling boards and stones which had passed for the gate, and walks with her seven squeaking little ones to disport on the grass on the hill.

The drawing-room of the tenement mentioned just now, with its pictures, and pulleyless windows and lockless doors, was tenanted by a friend who lodged there with a sick wife and a couple of little children; one of whom was an infant in arms. It is not, however, the lodger-who is an Englishman — but the kind landlady and her family who may well be described here — for their like are hardly to be found on the other side of the Channel. Mrs. Fagan is a young widow who has seen better days, and that portrait over the grand mantel-piece is the picture of her husband that is gone, a handsome young man, and well to do at one time as a merchant. But the widow (she is as pretty, as lady-like, as kind, and as neat as ever widow could) has little left to live upon but the rent of her lodgings and her furniture; of which we have seen the best in the drawing-room.

She has three fine children of her own there is Minny, and Katey, and Patsey, and they occupy indifferently the dining-room on the ground floor or the kitchen opposite; where in the midst of a great smoke sits an old nurse, by a copper of potatoes which is always bubbling and full. Patsey swallows quantities of them, that’s clear his cheeks are as red and shining as apples, and when he roars, you are sure that his lungs are the finest condition. Next door to the kitchen is the pantry, and there is a bucketful of the before-mentioned fruit, and a grand service of china for dinner and dessert. The kind young widow shows them with no little pride, and says with reason that there are few lodging-houses in Cork that can match such china as that. They are relics of the happy old times when Fagan kept his gig and horse, doubtless, and had his friends to dine — the happy prosperous days which she has exchanged for poverty and the sad black gown.

Patsey, Minny, and Katey have made friends with the little English people up stairs; the elder of whom, in the course of month, has as fine a Munster brogue as ever trolled over the lips of any born Corkagian. The old nurse carries out the whole united party to walk, with the exception of the English baby, that jumps about in the arms of a countrywoman of her own. That is, unless one of the four Miss Fagans takes her; for four of them there are, four other Miss Fagans, from 18 downwards to 14:— handsome, fresh, lively, dancing, bouncing girls. You may always see two or three of them smiling at the parlour-window, and they laugh and turn away their heads when any young fellow looks and admires them.

Now, it stands to reason that a young widow of five-and-thirty can’t be the mother of four young ladies of 18 downwards; and, if anybody wants to know how they come to living with the poor widow their cousin, the answer is, they are on a visit. Peggy the maid says their papa is a gentleman of property, and can “spend his eight hundred a year.”

Why don’t they remain with the old gentleman then, instead of quartering on the poor young widow, who has her own little mouths to feed? The reason is, the old gentleman has gone and married his cook; and the daughters have quitted him in a body, refusing to sit down to dinner with a person who ought by rights to be in the kitchen. The whole family (the Fagans of good family) take the quarrel up, and here are the young people under shelter of the widow.

Four merrier tender-hearted girls are not to be found in all Ireland; and the only subject of contention amongst them is, which shall have the English baby: they are nursing it, and singing to it, and dandling it by turns all day long. When they are not singing to the baby, they are singing to an old piano: such an old wiry, jingling, wheezy piano! It has plenty of work, playing jigs and song accompaniments between meals and acting as a sideboard at dinner. I am not sure that it is at rest at night either; but have a shrewd suspicion that it is turned into a four-post bed. And for the following reason:—

Every afternoon at four o’clock, you see a tall old gentleman walking leisurely to the house. He is dressed in a long great-coat with huge pockets, and in the huge pockets are sure to be some big apples for all the children — the English child amongst the rest, and she generally has the biggest one. At seven o’clock, you are sure to hear a deep voice shouting “PEGGY!” in an awful tone — it is the old gentleman calling for his “materials;” which Peggy brings without any farther ado; and a glass of punch is made, no doubt, for everybody. Then the party separates: the children and the old nurse have long since trampled up stairs; Peggy has the kitchen for her sleeping apartment, and the four young ladies make it out somehow in the back drawing-room. As for the old gentleman, he reposes in the parlour; and it must be somewhere about the piano, for there is no furniture in the room except that, a table, a few old chairs, a work-box, and a couple of albums.

The English girl’s father met her in the street one day, talking confidentially with a tall old gentleman in a great-coat “Who’s your friend?” says the Englishman afterwards to the little girl. “Don’t you know him, papa? “ said the child in the purest brogue. “Don’t you know him? — THAT’S UNCLE JAMES!” And so it was: in this kind, poor, generous, bare-backed house, the English child found a set of new relations; little rosy brothers and sisters to play with, kind women to take the place of the almost dying mother, a good old Uncle James to bring her home apples and care for her — one and all ready to share their little pittance with her, and to give her a place in their simple friendly hearts. God Almighty bless the widow and her mite, and all the kind souls under her roof!

How much goodness and generosity — how much purity, fine feeling — nay, happiness — may dwell amongst the poor whom we have been just looking at! Here, thank God, is an instance of this happy and cheerful poverty: and it is good to look, when one can, at the heart that beats under the threadbare coat, as well as the tattered old garment itself! Well, please heaven, some of those people whom we have been looking at, are as good, and not much less happy: but though they are accustomed to their want, the stranger does not reconcile himself to it quickly; and I hope no Irish reader will be offended at my speaking of this poverty, not with scorn or ill-feeling, but with hearty sympathy and good-will.

*

One word more regarding the Widow Fagan’s house. When Peggy brought in coals for the drawing-room fire, she carried them — in what do you think? “In a coal-scuttle, to be sure,” says the English reader, down on you as sharp as a needle.

No, you clever Englishman, it wasn’t a coal-scuttle.

“Well, then, it was in a fire-shovel,” says that brightest of wits, guessing again.

No, it wasn’t a fire-shovel, you heaven-born genius; and you might guess from this until Mrs. Snooks called you up to coffee, and you would never find out. It was in something which I have already described in Mrs. Fagan’s pantry.

“Oh, I have you now, it was the bucket where the potatoes were; the slatternly wench! “ says Snooks.

Wrong again! Peggy brought up the coals — in a CHINA PLATE!

Snooks turned quite white with surprise, and almost choked himself with his port. “Well,” says he, “ of all the wum count — with that I ever wead of, hang me if Ireland ithn’t the wummetht. Coalth in a plate! Mawyann, do you hear that? In Ireland they alwayth thend up their coalth in a plate!

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