On Irish Society before the Famine
On Irish Society before the Famine
Mr. and Mrs. S. C. Hall
Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Carter Hall made five visits to Ireland between 1825 and 1841 and presented their observations in a monumental three-volume work. The following extracts deal with transportation to and within Ireland, a peasant wedding, the Irish game of hurling, and observations on social class.
A voyage to Ireland is, at present, very different from what it was, within our memory, before the application of steam had made its duration a matter of certainty, and enabled the traveller to calculate without reference to wind or tide. "The sailing-packet" was a small trader—schooner, or sloop; the cabin, of very limited extent, was lined with "berths"; a curtain portioned off those that were appropriated to ladies. In the centre was a table—seldom used, the formality of a dinner being a rare event; each passenger having laid in his own supply of "sea store," to which he resorted when hungered or athirst; finding, however, very often, when his appetite returned, that his basket had been impoverished by the visits of unscrupulous voyagers who were proof against sea-sickness. The steward was almost invariably an awkward boy, whose only recommendation was the activity with which he answered the calls of unhappy sufferers; and the voyage across was a kind of purgatory for the time being, to be endured only in cases of absolute necessity. It was not alone the miserable paucity of accommodation and utter indifference to the comfort of the passengers, that made the voyage an intolerable evil. Though it usually occupied but three or four days, frequently as many weeks were expended in making it. It was once our lot to pass a month between the ports of Bristol and Cork; putting back, every now and then, to the wretched village of Pill, and not daring to leave it even for an hour, lest the wind should change and the packet weigh anchor. But with us it was "holiday time," and our case was far less dismal than that of an officer to whom we recently related it; his two months' leave of absence had expired the very day he reached his Irish home.
Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that comparatively little intercourse existed between the two countries, or that England and Ireland were almost as much strangers to each other as if the channel that divided them had been actually impassable. . . .
Machines for travelling in Ireland are, some of them at least, peculiar to the country. The stage-coaches are precisely similar to those in England, and travel at as rapid a rate. They, of course, run upon all the great roads, and are constructed with due regard to safety and convenience. The public cars of M. Bianconi have, however, to a large extent, displaced the regular coaches, and are to be encountered in every district in the south of Ireland. In form they resemble the common outside jaunting-car, but are calculated to hold twelve, fourteen, or sixteen persons; they are well horsed, have cautious and experienced drivers, are generally driven with three horses, and usually travel at the rate of seven Irish miles an hour; the fares averaging about twopence per mile. They are open cars; but a huge apron of leather affords considerable protection against rain; and they may be described as, in all respects, very comfortable and convenient vehicles. . . . His stud consists of 1300 horses—a larger number than her Majesty possesses in Ireland—[and] his cars travel, daily 3500 miles, and visit no fewer than 128 cities and towns. . . .
The cars are of three kinds: "the covered car," "the inside jaunting-car," and the "outside jaunting-car"; the latter being the one most generally in use, and the only one employed in posting. The two former, indeed, can seldom be procured except in large towns. The covered car is a comparatively recent introduction, its sole recommendation being that it is weather-proof, for it effectually prevents a view of the country, except through the two little peep-hole windows in front, or by tying back the oil-skin curtains behind. . . .
The inside jaunting-car is not often to be hired; it is usually private property, and is, perhaps, the most comfortable, as well as elegant, of the vehicles of the country.
The outside jaunting-car is that to which especial reference is made when speaking of the "Irish" car. It is exceedingly light, presses very little upon the horse, and is safe as well as convenient; so easy is it to get on and off, that both are frequently done while the machine is in motion. It is always driven with a single horse; the driver occupies a small seat in front, and the travellers sit back to back, the space between them being occupied by "the well"—a sort of boot for luggage; but when there is only one passenger the driver usually places himself on the opposite seat "to balance the car," the motion of which would be awkward if one side was much heavier than the other. . . .
The entrance to the county of Kerry ("the kingdom of Kerry," as it was anciently called), from that of Cork, is through a tunnel, of about two hundred yards in length; a very short distance from which there are two others of much more limited extent. They have been cut through rocks—peaks to the mountain we have described as overlooking Glengariff. As the traveller emerges from comparative darkness, a scene of striking magnificence bursts upon him—very opposite in character to that which he leaves immediately behind; for while his eye retains the rich and cultivated beauty of the wooded and watered "glen," he is startled by the contrast of barren and frightful precipices, along the brinks of which he is riding, and gazes with a shudder down into the far off valley, where a broad and angry stream is diminished by distance into a mere line of white. Nothing can exceed the wild grandeur of the prospect; it extends miles upon miles; scattered through the vale and among the hill slopes, are many cottages, white always and generally slated; while to several of them are attached the picturesque lime-kilns; so numerous in all parts of the country. . . .
We had scarcely passed the tunnel, and entered the county of Kerry, when we encountered a group that interested us greatly; on enquiry we learned that a wedding had taken place at a cottage pointed out to us, in a little glen among the mountains, and that the husband was bringing home his bride. She was mounted on a white pony, guided by as smart looking and well dressed a youth as we had seen in the country; his face was absolutely radiant with joy; the parents of the bride and bridegroom followed; and a little girl clung to the dress of a staid and sober matron—whom we at once knew to be the mother of the bride, for her aspect was pensive, almost to sorrow; her daughter was quitting for another home the cottage in which she had been reared—to become a wife. . . .
Postponing, for a while, our descriptive details of the wildest but perhaps most picturesque of the Irish counties, we shall take some note of the games in favour with the peasants of the county . . .
But the great game in Kerry, and indeed throughout the South, is the game of "Hurley"—a game rather rare, although not unknown in England. It is a fine manly exercise, with sufficient of danger to produce excitement; and is indeed, par excellence, the game of the peasantry of Ireland. To be an expert hurler, a man must possess athletic powers of no ordinary character; he must have a quick eye, a ready hand, and a strong arm; he must be a good runner, a skilful wrestler, and withal patient as well as resolute. . . .
The forms of the game are these:—The players, sometimes to the number of fifty or sixty, being chosen for each side, they are arranged (usually bare-foot) in two opposing ranks, with their hurleys crossed, to await the tossing up of the ball, the wickets or goals being previously fixed at the extremities of the hurling-green, which, from the nature of the play, is required to be a level extensive plain. . . . A person is chosen to throw up the ball, which is done as straight as possible, when the whole party, withdrawing their hurleys, stand with them elevated, to receive and strike it in its descent; now comes the crash of mimic war, hurleys rattle against hurleys—the ball is struck and re-struck, often for several minutes, without advancing much nearer to either goal; and when some one is lucky enough to get a clear "puck" at it, it is sent flying over the field. It is now followed by the entire party at their utmost speed; the men grapple, wrestle, and toss each other with amazing agility, neither victor nor vanquished waiting to take breath, but following the course of the rolling and flying prize; the best runners watch each other, and keep almost shoulder to shoulder through the play, and the best wrestlers keep as close on them as possible, to arrest or impede their progress. The ball must not be taken from the ground by the hand; and the tact and skill shown in taking it on the point of the hurley, and running with it half the length of the field, and when too closely pressed, striking it towards the goal, is a matter of astonishment to those who are but slightly acquainted with the play. At the goal, is the chief brunt of the battle. The goal-keepers receive the prize, and are opposed by those set over them; the struggle is tremendous,—every power of strength and skill is exerted; while the parties from opposite sides of the field run at full speed to support their men engaged in the conflict; then the tossing and straining is at its height; the men often lying in dozens side by side on the grass, while the ball is returned by some strong arm again, flying above their heads, towards the other goal. Thus for hours has the contention been carried on, and frequently the darkness of night arrests the game without giving victory to either side. It is often attended with dangerous, and sometimes with fatal, results. . . .
The pecularities of the old Irish gentry are all but extinct; the originals of the past century bear but a very remote resemblance to their successors;—the follies and vices—the drinking, duelling, and "roistering," in former times considered so essentially "Irish," belong exclusively to the ancestors of the present race. Such anecdotes as that told, upon good authority, of the father of Toler—afterwards Lord Norbury—who provided for his son by giving him, at his outset in the world, "a hundred guineas and a pair of duelling-pistols," no more illustrate the Ireland of to-day, than the Smithfield fires do the justice of England. The habits once fashionable are no longer tolerated; and the boasts and glories of a past age are scorned and execrated in this. It was, indeed, always acknowledged, that although the "Irish gentleman" was often an object of suspicion, the "gentleman from Ireland" was ever an example of courtesy, good breeding, honour, and intelligence.
In higher society, therefore, little of distinctive character will be perceived, except in that ease and cheerfulness of manner which make a stranger feel instantly "at home," and the peculiar tone of the Irish voice. We do not mean that the better educated have what is understood by "the brogue"; but there is an intonation that belongs to Ireland which is never lost, and cannot be disguised.
The society of the middle class, or rather of the grade above it—the members of the learned professions, and persons on a par with them—is unquestionably agreeable and invigorating in the provinces, and equally so, but more instructive and refined, in the capital and the larger towns. It is everywhere frank and cordial, tempered by playful good-humour and a keen relish for conversation; and is always distinguished by the cheerfulness that borders upon mirth, and the harmony produced by a universal aptness for enjoyment.
The women of Ireland—from the highest to the lowest—represent the national character better than the other sex. In the men, very often, energy degenerates into fierceness, generosity into reckless extravagance, social habits into dissipation, courage into profitless daring, confiding faith into slavish dependence, honour into captiousness, and religion into bigotry; for [in] no country of the world is the path so narrow that marks the boundary between virtue and vice. But the Irish women have—taken in the mass—the lights without the shadows, the good without the bad—to use a familiar expression, "the wheat without the chaff." Most faithful; most devoted; most pure; the best mothers; the best children; the best wives;—possessing, preeminently, the beauty and holiness of virtue, in the limited or the extensive meaning of the phrase. They have been rightly described as "holding an intermediate space between the French and the English"; mingling the vivacity of the one with the stability of the other; with hearts more naturally toned than either: never sacrificing delicacy, but entirely free from embarassing reserve; their gaiety never inclining to levity, their frankness never approaching to freedom; with reputations not the less securely protected because of the absence of suspicion, and that the natural guardians of honour through present are unseen. . . .
In Ireland, as yet, the aristocracy of wealth has made little way; and to be of "good family" is a surer introduction to society, than to be of large fortune. The prejudice in favour of "birth" is, indeed, almost universal, and pervades all ranks. Consequently, classes are to the last degree exclusive; and their divisions are as distinctly marked and recognised as are those determined by the etiquette of a court. Hence arises that perpetual straining after a higher station, to which many worthy families have been sacrificed: persons in business rarely persevere until they have amassed fortunes, but retire as early as possible after they have acquired competence; and the subdivisions which their properties necessarily undergo, when junior branches are to be provided for, creates a numerous class—almost peculiar to Ireland—of young men possessing the means of barely living without labour; disdaining the notion of "turning to trade"; unable to acquire professions, and ill-suited to adorn them if obtained; content to drag on existence in a state of miserable and degrading dependence, doing nothing—literally "too proud to work, but not ashamed to beg." This feeling operates upon the various grades of society; and the number of "idlers" in the busy world is fearfully large; from "the walking gentleman" of the upper ranks, to the "half-sir" of the middle, and "the jackeen" of the class a little above the lower; the walking gentleman being always elegantly attired, of course always unemployed, with ample leisure for the studies which originate depravity; the "half-sir" being, generally, a younger brother, with little or no income of his own, and so educated as to be deprived, utterly, of the energy and self-dependence which create usefulness; the "Masther Tom," who broke the dogs, shot the crows, first backed the vicious horse, and, followed by a half-pointer, half-lurcher, poached, secretly, upon his elder brother's land, but more openly upon the lands of his neighbours; the "jackeen" being a production found everywhere, but most abundantly in large towns. Happily, however, the class is not upon the increase. . . .
Mr. and Mrs. S. C. Hall, Ireland: Its Scenery, Character, &C., 3 vols. (1841–1843), vol. 1, pp. 1–2, 63, 64–65, 161–162, 163, 256–258; vol. 2, pp. 314–316.