The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

From Cork to Bantry; with an account of the city of Skibbereen.

That light four-inside, four-horse coach, the “Skibbereen Perseverance,” brought me 52 miles to-day, for the sum of three-and-sixpence, through a country which is, as usual, somewhat difficult to describe. We issued out of Cork by the western road, in which, as the Guide-book says, there is something very imposing. “The magnificence of the county court house, the extent, solidity, and characteristic sternness of the county jail,” were visible to us for a few minutes; when turning away southward from the pleasant banks of the stream, the road took us towards Bandon, through a country that is bare and ragged-looking, but yet green and pretty; and it always seems to me, like the people, to look cheerful in spite of its wretchedness, or, more correctly, to look tearful and cheerful at the same time.

The coach, like almost every other public vehicle I have seen in Ireland, was full to the brim and over it. What can send these restless people travelling and hurrying about from place to place as they do? I have heard one or two gentlemen hint that they had “business” at this place or that; and found afterwards that one was going a couple of score of miles to look at a mare, another to examine a setter-dog, and so on. I did not make it my business to ask on what errand the gentlemen on the coach were bound; though two of them, seeing an Englishman, very good-naturedly began chalking out a route for him to take, and showing a sort of interest in his affairs which is not with us generally exhibited. The coach, too, seemed to have the elastic hospitality of some Irish houses; it accommodated an almost impossible number. For the greater part of the journey the little guard sat on the roof among the carpet-bags, holding in one hand a huge tambour-frame, in the other a bandbox marked “Foggarty, Hatter.” (What is there more ridiculous in the name of Foggarty than in that of Smith? and yet, had Smith been the name, I never should have laughed at or remarked it.) Presently by his side clambered a green-coated policeman with his carbine, and we had a talk about the vitriol-throwers at Cork, and the sentence just passed upon them. The populace has decidedly taken part with the vitriol-throwers: parties of dragoons were obliged to surround the avenues of the court; and the judge who sentenced them was abused as he entered his carriage, and called an old villain, and many other opprobrious names.

This case the reader very likely remembers. A saw-mill was established at Cork, by which some 400 sawyers were thrown out of employ. In order to deter the proprietors of this and all other mills from using such instruments further, the sawyers determined to execute a terrible vengeance, and cast lots among themselves which of their body should fling vitriol into the faces of the mill-owners. The men who were chosen by the lot were to execute this horrible office on pain of death, and did so, — frightfully burning and blinding one of the gentlemen owning the mill. Great rewards were offered for the apprehension of the criminals, and at last one of their own body came forward as an approver, and the four principal actors in this dreadful outrage were sentenced to be transported for life. Crowds of the ragged admirers of these men were standing round “the magnificent county court-house” as we passed the building. Ours is a strange life indeed. What a history of poverty and barbarity, and crime and even kindness, was that by which we passed before the magnificent county court house, at eight miles an hour! What a chapter might a philosopher write on them! Look yonder at those 200 ragged fellow-subjects of yours: they are kind, good, pious, brutal, starving. If the priest tells them, there is scarce any penance they will not perform; there is scarcely any pitch of misery which they have not been known to endure, nor any degree of generosity of which they are not capable: but if a man comes among these people, and can afford to take land over their heads, or if he invents a machine which can work more economically than their labour, they will shoot the man down without mercy, murder him, or put him to horrible tortures, and glory almost in what they do. There stands the men; they are only separated from us by a few paces; they are as fond of their mother and children as we are; their gratitude for small kindnesses shown to them is extraordinary; they are Christians as we are; but interfere with their interests, and they will murder you without pity.

It is not revenge so much which these poor fellows take, as a brutal justice of their own. Now, will it seem a paradox to say, in regard to them and their murderous system, that the way to put an end to the latter is to kill them no more! Let the priest be able to go amongst them and say, The law holds a man’s life so sacred that it will on no account take it away. No man, nor body of men, has a right to meddle with human life: not the Commons of England any more than the Commons of Tipperary. This may cost two or three lives, probably, until such time as the system may come to be known and understood; but which will be the greatest economy of blood in the end?

By this time the vitriol-men were long passed away, and we began next to talk about the Cork and London steamboats; which are made to pay, on account of the number of paupers whom the boats bring over from London at the charge of that city. The passengers found here, as in everything else almost which I have seen as yet, another instance of the injury which England inflicts on them. “As long as these men are strong and can work,” says one, “you keep them; when they are in bad health, you fling them upon us.” Nor could I convince him that the agricultural gentlemen were perfectly free to stay at home if they liked: that we did for them what was done for English paupers — sent them, namely, as far as possible on the way to their parishes; nay, that some of them (as I have seen with my own eyes) actually saved a bit of money during the harvest, and took this cheap way of conveying it and themselves to their homes again. But nothing would convince the gentleman that there was not some wicked scheming on the part of the English in the business; and, indeed, I find upon almost every other subject a peevish and puerile suspiciousness which is worthy of France itself.

By this time we came to a pretty village called Innishannon, upon the noble banks of the Bandon river; leading for three miles by a great number of pleasant gentlemen’s seats to Bandon town. A good number of large mills were on the banks of the stream; and the chief part of them, as in Carlow, useless. One mill we saw was too small for the owner’s great speculations; and so he built another and larger one: the big mill cost him 10,000l, for which his brothers went security; and, a lawsuit being given against the mill-owner, the two mills stopped, the two brothers went off, and yon fine old house, in the style of Anne, with terraces and tall chimneys — one of the oldest country-houses I have seen in Ireland — is now inhabited by the natural son of the mill-owner, who has more such interesting progeny. Then we came to a tall, comfortable house, in a plantation; opposite to which was a stone castle, in its shrubberies on the other side of the road. The tall house in the plantation shot the opposite side of the road in a duel, and nearly killed him; on which the opposite side of the road built this castle, in order to plague the tall house. They are good friends now; but the opposite side of the road ruined himself in building his house. I asked, “ Is the house finished?" — “A good deal of it is”’ was the answer. — And then we came to a brewery, about which was a similar story of extravagance and ruin; but, whether before or after entering Bandon, does not matter.

We did not, it appears, pass through the best part of Bandon: I looked along one side of the houses in the long street through which we went, to see if there was a window without a broken pane of glass, and can declare on my conscience that every single window had three broken panes. There we changed horses, in a market-place, surrounded, as usual, by beggars; then we passed through a suburb still more wretched and ruinous than the first street, and which, in very large letters, is called DOYLE STREET: and the next stage was at a place called Dunmanway.

Here it was market-day, too, and, as usual, no Jack of attendants: swarms of peasants in their blue cloaks, squatting by their stalls here and there. There is a little miserable old market-house, where a few women were selling buttermilk; another, bullocks’ hearts, liver, and such like scraps of meat; another had dried mackerel on a board; and plenty of people huckstering of course. Round the coach came crowds of raggery, and blackguards awning for money. I wonder who gives them any! I have never seen any one give yet; and were they not even so numerous that it would be impossible to gratify them all, there is something in their cant and supplications to the Lord so disgusting to me, that I could not give a halfpenny.

In regard of pretty faces, male or female, this road is very unfavourable. I have not seen one for 50 miles; though, as it was market-day all along the road, we have had the opportunity to examine vast numbers of countenances. The women are, for the most part, stunted, short, with fiat Tartar faces; and the men no handsomer. Every woman has bare legs, of course; and as the weather is fine, they are sitting outside their cabins, with the pig, and the geese, and the children sporting around.

Before many doors we saw a little flock of these useful animals, and the family pig almost everywhere: you might see him browsing and poking along the hedges, his fore and hind legs attached with a wisp of hay to check his propensity to roaming. Here and there were a small brood of turkeys; now and then a couple of sheep or a single one grazing upon a scanty field, of which the chief crop seemed to be thistles and stone; and, by the side of the cottage, the potato-field always.

The character of the landscape for the most part is bare and sad; except here and there in the neighbourhood of the towns, where people have taken a fancy to plant, and where nature has helped them, as it almost always will in this country. If we saw a field with a good hedge to it, we were sure to see a good crop inside. Many a field was there that had neither crop nor hedge. We passed by and over many streams, running bright through brilliant emerald meadows; and I saw a thousand charming pictures, which want as yet an Irish Berghem. A bright road winding up a hill; on it a country cart, with its load, stretching a huge shadow; the before-mentioned emerald pastures and silver rivers in the foreground; a noble sweep of hills rising up from them, and contrasting their magnificent purple with the green; in the extreme distance the clear cold outline of some far-off mountains, and the white clouds tumbled about in the blue sky overhead.

It has no doubt struck all persons who love to look at nature, how different the skies are in different countries. I fancy Irish or French clouds are as characteristic as Irish or French landscapes. It would be well to have a daguerreotype and get a series of each. Some way beyond Dunmanway the road takes us through a noble savage country of rocks and heath. Nor must the painter forget long black tracts of bog here and there, and the water glistening brightly at the places where the turf has been cut away. Add to this, and chiefly by the banks of rivers, a ruined old castle or two: some were built by the Danes, it is said. The O’Connors, the O’Mahonys, the O’Driscolls were lords of many others, and their ruined towers may be seen here and along the sea.

Near Dunmanway that great coach, “The Skibbereen Industry,” dashed by us at seven miles an hour; a wondrous vehicle: there were gaps between every one of the panels; you could see daylight through and through it. Like our machine, it was full, with three complementary sailors on the roof, as little harness as possible to the horses, and as long stages as horses can well endure: ours were each 18-mile stages. About eight miles from Skibbereen a one-horse car met us, and carried away an offshoot of passengers to Bantry. Five passengers and their luggage, and a very wild, steep road: all this had one poor little pony to overcome! About the towns there were some show of gentlemen’s cars, smart and well appointed, and on the road great numbers of country carts: an army of them met us, coming from Skibbereen, and laden with grey sand for manure.

Before you enter the city of Skibbereen, the tall new poorhouse presents itself to the eye of the traveller; of the common model, being a bastard-Gothic edifice, with a profusion of cottage-ornee (is cottage masculine or feminine in French?) — of cottage-ornee roofs, and pinnacles, and insolent-looking stacks of chimneys. It is built for 900 people, but as yet not more than 400 have been induced to live in it; the beggars preferring the freedom of their precarious trade to the dismal certainty within its walls. Next we come to the chapel, a very large, respectable-looking building of dark-grey stone; and presently, behold, by the crowd of blackguards in waiting, “The Skibbereen Perseverance” has found its goal, and you are inducted to the “hotel” opposite.

Some gentlemen were at the coach, besides those of lower degree. Here was a fat fellow with large whiskers, a geranium, and a cigar; yonder a tall handsome old man that I would swear was a dragoon on half-pay. He had a little cap, a Taglioni coat, a pair of beautiful spaniels, and a pair of knee-breeches which showed a very handsome old leg; and his object seemed to be to invite everybody to dinner as they got off the coach. No doubt he has seen the “Skibbereen Perseverance “ come in ever since it was a “Perseverance.” It is wonderful to think what will interest men in prisons or country towns!

There is a dirty coffee-room, with a strong smell of whiskey; indeed three young “materialists” are employed at the moment: and I hereby beg to offer an apology to three other gentlemen — the captain, another, and the gentleman of the geranium, who had caught hold of a sketching-stool which is my property, and were stretching it, and sitting upon it, and wondering, and talking of it, when the owner came in, and they bounced off to their seats like so many school-boys. Dirty as the place was, this was no reason why it should not produce an exuberant dinner of trout and Kerry mutton; after which Dan the waiter, holding up a dingy decanter, asks how much whiskey I’d have.

That calculation need not be made here; and if a man sleeps well, has he any need to quarrel with the appointments of his bedroom, and spy out the deficiencies of the land? As it was Sunday, it was impossible for me to say what sort of shops “the active and flourishing town” of Skibbereen contains. There were some of the architectural sort, viz.: with gilt letters and cracked mouldings, and others into which I thought I saw the cows walking; but it was only into their little cribs and paddocks at the back of the shops. There is a trim Wesleyan chapel, without any broken windows; a neat church standing modestly on one side. The Lower Street crawls along the river to a considerable extent, having by-streets and boulevards of cabins here and there.

The people came flocking into the place by hundreds, and you saw their blue cloaks dotting the road and the bare open plains beyond. The men came with shoes and stockings to clay, the women all bare-legged, and many of them might be seen washing their feet in the stream before they went up to the chapel. The street seemed to be lined on either side with blue cloaks, squatting along the doorways as is their wont. Among these, numberless cows were walking to and fro, and pails of milk passing, and here and there a hound or two went stalking about. Dan the waiter says they are hunted by the handsome old captain who was yesterday inviting everybody to dinner.

Anybody at eight o’clock of a Sunday morning in summer may behold the above scene from a bridge just outside the town. He may add to it the river, with one or two barges lying idle upon it; a flag flying at what looks like a custom-house; bare country all around; and the chapel before him, with a swarm of the dark figures round about it.

I went into it, not without awe (for, as I confessed before, I always feel a sort of tremor on going into a Catholic place of worship: the candles, and altars, and mysteries, the priest and his robes, and nasal chanting, and wonderful genuflexions, will frighten me as long as I live). The chapel-yard was filled with men and women; a couple of shabby old beadles were at the gate, with copper shovels to collect money, and inside the chapel four or five hundred people were on their knees, and scores more of the blue-mantles came in, dropping their curtsies as they entered, and then taking their places on the flags.

And now the pangs of hunger beginning to make themselves felt, it became necessary for your humble servant (after making several useless applications to a bell, which properly declined to work on Sundays) to make a personal descent to the inn-kitchen, where was not a bad study for a painter. It was a huge room, with a peat fire burning, and a staircase walking up one side of it, on which stair was a damsel in a partial though by no means picturesque dishabille. The cook had just come in with a great frothing pail of milk, and sat with her arms folded; the ostler’s boy sat dangling his legs from the table; the ostler was dandling a noble little boy of a year old, at whom Mrs. Cook likewise grinned delighted. Here, too, sat Mr. Dan the waiter; and no wonder the breakfast was delayed, for all three of these worthy domestics seemed delighted with the infant.

He was handed over to the gentleman’s arms for the space of 30 seconds; the gentleman being the father of a family, and of course an amateur.

“Say Dan for the gentleman,” says the delighted cook.

“Dada,” says the baby; at which the assembly grinned with joy: and Dan promised I should have my breakfast “in a hurry”

But of all the wonderful things to be seen in Skibbereen, Dan’s pantry is the most wonderful: every article within is a makeshift, and has been ingeniously perverted from its original destination. Here lie bread, blacking, fresh-butter, tallow-candles, dirty knives — all in the same cigar-box with snuff, milk, cold bacon, brown sugar, broken teacups and hits of soap No pen can describe that establishment, as no English imagination could have conceived it. But lo! the sky has cleared after a furious fall of rain — (in compliance with Dan’s statement to that effect, “that the weather would be fine “) — and a car is waiting to carry us to Loughine.

Although the description of Loughine can make but a poor figure in a book, the ride thither is well worth the traveller’s short labour. You pass by one of the cabin-streets out of the town into a country which for a mile is rich with grain, though bare of trees; then through a boggy bleak district, from which you enter into a sort of sea of rocks, with patches of herbage here and there. Before the traveller, almost all the way, is a huge pile of purple mountain, on which, as one comes near, one perceives numberless waves and breaks, as you see small waves on a billow in the sea; then clambering up a hill, we look down upon a bright green flat of land, with the lake beyond it, girt round by grey melancholy hills. The water may be a mile in extent; a cabin tops the mountain here and there; gentlemen have erected one or two anchorite pleasure-houses on the banks, as cheerful as a summer-house would be on Salisbury Plain. I felt not sorry to have seen this lonely lake, and still happier to leave it. There it lies with crags all round it, in the midst of desolate plains: it escapes somewhere to the sea; its waters are salt: half a dozen boats lie here and there upon its banks, and we saw a small crew of boys plashing about and swimming in it, laughing and yelling. It seemed a shame to disturb the silence so.

The crowd of swaggering “gents” (I don’t know the corresponding phrase in the Anglo-Irish vocabulary to express a shabby dandy) awaiting the Cork mail, which kindly goes 20 miles out of its way to accommodate the town of Skibbereen, was quite extraordinary. The little street was quite blocked up with shabby gentlemen, and shabby beggars, awaiting this daily phenomenon. The man who had driven us to Loughine did not fail to ask for his fee as driver; and then, having received it, came forward in his capacity of boots and received another remuneration. The ride is desolate, bare, and yet beautiful. There are a set of hills that keep one company the whole day; they were partially hidden in a grey sky, which flung a general hue of melancholy too over the green country through which we passed. There was only one wretched village along the road, but no lack of population ragged people who issued from their cabins as the coach passed, or were sitting by the wayside. Everybody seems sitting by the wayside here: one never sees this general repose in England — a sort of ragged lazy contentment. All the children seem to be on the watch for the coach; waited very knowingly and carefully their opportunity, and then hung on by scores behind. What a pleasure to run over flinty roads with bare feet, to be whipped off, and to walk back to the cabin again.

These were very different cottages to those neat ones I had seen in Kildare. The wretchedness of them is quite painful to look at; many of the potato-gardens were half dug up, and it is only the first week in August, near three months before the potato is ripe and at full growth; and the winter still six months away. There were chapels occasionally, and smart new-built churches — one of them has a congregation of ten souls, the coachman told me. Would it not be better that the clergyman should receive them in his room, and that the church-building money should be bestowed otherwise?

At length, after winding up all sorts of dismal hills speckled with wretched hovels, a ruinous mill every now and then, black bog-lands, and small winding streams, breaking here and there into little falls, we come upon some ground well tilled and planted, and descending (at no small risk from stumbling horses) a bleak long hill, we see the water before us, and turning to the right by the handsome little park of Lord Bearhaven, enter Bantry. The harbour is beautiful. Small mountains in green undulations rising on the opposite side; great grey ones farther back; a pretty island in the midst of the water, which is wonderfully bright and calm. A handsome yacht, and two or three vessels with their Sunday colours out, were lying in the bay. It looked like a seaport scene at a theatre, gay, cheerful, neat, and picturesque. At a little distance the town, too, is very pretty. There are some smart houses on the quays, a handsome court-house as usual, a fine large hotel, and plenty of people flocking round the wonderful coach.

The town is most picturesquely situated, climbing up a wooded hill, with numbers of neat cottages here and there, an ugly church with an air of pretension, and a large grave Roman Catholic chapel the highest point of the place. The Main Street was as usual thronged with the squatting blue cloaks, carrying on their eager trade of buttermilk and green apples, and such cheap wares. With the exception of this street and the quay, with their whitewashed and slated houses, it is a town of cabins. The wretchedness of some of them is quite curious: I tried to make a sketch of a row which lean against an old wall, and are built upon a rock that tumbles about in the oddest and most fantastic shapes, with a brawling waterfall dashing down a channel in the midst. These are, it appears, the beggars’ houses: any one may build a lodge against that wall, rent-free; and such places were never seen! As for drawing them, it was in vain to try; one might as well make a sketch of a bundle of rags. An ordinary pigsty in England is really more comfortable. Most of them were not six feet long or five feet high, built of stones huddled together, a hole being left for the people to creep in at, a ruined thatch to keep out some little portion of the rain. The occupiers of these places sat at their doors in tolerable contentment, or the children came down and washed their feet in the water. I declare I believe a Hottentot kraal has more comforts in it: even to write of the place makes one unhappy, and the words move slow. But in the midst of all this misery there is an air of actual cheerfulness; and go but a few score yards off, and these wretched hovels lying together look really picturesque and pleasing.

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