Irish Writer and Novelist, best known for his "Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry"
Irish Writer and Novelist, best known for his "Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry"
Careful with fire is good advice we know. Careful with words is ten times doubly so.
Feeling in the young precedes philosophy, and often acts with a more certain aim.
The machine can free man or enslave him; it can make of this world something resembling a paradise or a purgatory. Men have it within their power to achieve a security hitherto dreamed of only by the philosophers, or they may go the way of the dinosaurs, actually disappearing from the earth because they fail to develop the social and political intelligence to adjust to the world which their mechanical intelligence has created.
With the welfare of the Irish people my heart and feelings are identified, and to. this object, in all its latitude, have my pen and my knowledge of their character been directed. I found them a class unknown in literature, unknown by their own landlords, and unknown by those in whose hands much of their destiny was placed. If I became the historian of their habits and manners, their feelings, their prejudices, their superstitions, and their crimes; if I have attempted to delineate their moral, religious, and physical state, it was because I saw no other person willing to undertake a task which surely must be looked upon as an important one. I had also other motives. I was anxious that those who ought, but did not, understand their character, should know them - [x] not merely for selfish purposes, but that they should teach them to know themselves and appreciate their rights, both moral and civil, as rational men, who owe obedience to law, without the necessity of being slaves either to priest or landlord: such is the position in which I wish to see them. There is little prospect, however, of this. Even since the period in which these stories were written, now so short a time since, a gloomy change has come over them. The pestilent poison of mercenary agitation, joined to the neglect of landlords and the interference of priests, has created a reaction which threatens to trample - and does trample - law, morals, and religion, under foot. How it may end, it is impossible to say; but God grant that it may be for the best!
Poor unsuspecting people … pitiable creatures … sunk forever in the incurable apathy of religious melancholy… The heartfelt sense of God’s presence, which Christian prayer demands [and] its existence in the mind would not only be a moral but a physical impossibility in Lough Derg... I experienced also that singular state of being in which, while the senses are accessible to the influence of surround objects, the process of thought is suspended, the man seems to enjoy an inverted existence, in which the soul sleeps, and the body remains awake and susceptible of external impressions… At the end, the narrator is robbed of his clothing, and appears to himself as ‘a goose stripped of my feathers; a dupe beknaved and beplundered.
Strong feelings do not necessarily make a strong character. The strength of a man is to be measured by the power of the feelings he subdues not by the power of those which subdue him.
That the Irish either were or are a people remarkable for making bulls or blunders, is an imputation utterly unfounded, and in every sense untrue. The source of this error on the part of our neighbours is, however, readily traced. The language of our people has been for centuries, and is up to the present day, in a transition stage. The English tongue is gradually superseding the Irish. In my own native place, for instance, there is not by any means so much Irish spoken now, as there was about twenty or five-and-twenty years ago. This fact, then, will easily account for the ridicule which is, and I fear ever will be, unjustly heaped upon those who are found to use a language which they do not properly understand.
The Captain approached him coolly and deliberately. “You will prosecute no one now, you bloody informer”, said he; “you will convict no more boys for taking an ould rusty gun an’ pistol from you, or for giving you a neighbourly knock or two into the bargain.” Just then from a window opposite him, proceeded the shrieks of a woman who appeared at it with the infant in her arms. She herself was almost scorched to death; but with the presence of mind and humanity of her sex, she was about to thrust the little babe out of the window. The Captain noticed this, and with characteristic atrocity, thrust, with a sharp bayonet, the little innocent, along with the person who endeavoured to rescue it, into the red flames, where they both perished. This was the work of an instant.
The house to which Phelim and his father directed themselves was, like their own, of the humblest description. The floor of it was about sixteen feet by twelve; its furniture rude and scanty. To the right of the fire was a bed, the four posts of [xii] which ran up to the low roof; it was curtained by straw mats, with the exception of an opening about a foot and a half wide on the side next the fire, through which those who slept in it passed. A little below the foot of the bed were ranged a few shelves of deal, supported by pins of wood driven into the wall. These constituted the dresser. In the lower end of the house stood a potato-bin, made up of stakes driven into the floor, and wrought with strong wicker-work. Tied to another stake beside this bin stood a cow, whose hinder part projected so close to the door, that those who entered the cabin were compelled to push her over out of their way. This, indeed, was effected without much difficulty, for the animal became so habituated to the necessity of moving aside that it was only necessary to lay a hand upon her. Above the door in the inside, almost touching the roof, was the hen-roost, made also of wickerwork; and opposite the bed, on the other side of the fire, stood a meal chest, its lid on a level with the little pane of glass which served as a window. An old straw chair, a few stools, a couple of pots, some wooden vessels and crockery, completed the furniture of the house. The pig to which Sheelah alluded was not kept within the cabin, that filthy custom being now less common than formerly.
Gentlemen of the jury, let me ask you what has been the state and condition of this unhappy and distracted country? I have mentioned two opposing creeds, and consequently two opposing parties, and I have also mentioned persecution; but let me also ask you again on which side has the persecution existed? Look at your Roman Catholic fellow-subjects, and ask yourselves to what terrible outburst of political and religious vengeance have they not been subjected? But it is said they are not faithful and loyal subjects, and that they detest the laws. Well, let us consider this - let us take a cursory view of all that the spirit and operation of the laws have left them to be thankful for - have brought to bear upon them for the purpose, we must suppose, of securing their attachment and their loyalty. Let us, gentlemen, calmly and solemnly, and in a Christian temper, take a brief glance at the adventures which the free and glorious spirit of the British Constitution has held out to them, in order to secure their allegiance. In the first place, their nobles and their gentry have been deprived of their property, and the right of tenure has been denied even to the people. Ah, my lord, and gentlemen of the jury, what ungrateful and disloyal miscreant could avoid loving a Constitution, and hugging to his grateful heart laws which showered down such blessings upon him, and upon all those who belong to a creed so favored? But it would seem to have been felt that these laws had still a stronger claim upon their affections. They would protect their religion as they did their property; and in order to attach them still more strongly, they shut up their places of worship - they proscribed and banished and hung their clergy - they hung or shot the unfortunate people who tied to worship God in the desert - in mountain fastnesses and in caves, and threw their dead bodies to find a tomb in the entrails of the birds of the air, or the dogs which even persecution had made mad with hunger. But again - for this pleasing panorama is not yet closed, the happy Catholics, who must have danced with delight, under the privileges of such a Constitution, were deprived of the right to occupy and possess all civil offices - their enterprise was crushed - their industry made subservient to the rapacity of their enemies, and not to their own prosperity. But this is far from being all. The sources of knowledge - of knowledge which only can enlighten and civilize the mind, prevent crime, and promote the progress of human society - these sources of knowledge, I say, were sealed against them; they were consequently left to ignorance, and its inseparable associate - vice. All those noble principles which result from education, and which lead youth into those moral footsteps in which they should tread, were made criminal in the Catholic to pursue, and impossible to attain; and having thus been reduced by ignorance to the perpetration of those crimes which it uniformly produces - the people were punished for that which oppressive laws had generated, and the ignorance which was forced upon them was turned into a penalty and a persecution. They were first made ignorant by one Act of Parliament, and then punished by another for those crimes which ignorance produces.
Hearses coffins, long funeral processions, and all the dark emblems of mortality, were reflected, as it were, on the sky, from the terrible works of pestilence and famine which were going on the earth beneath it.
I mentioned, some time ago, that a man had adopted a scythe. I wish from my heart there had been no such bloody instrument there that day; but truth must be told. John O’Callaghan was now engaged against a set of the other O’s, who had rallied for the third time, and attacked him and his party. Another brother of Rose Galh’s was in this engagement, and him did John O’Callaghan not only knock down, but cut desperately across the temple. A man, stripped, and covered with blood and dust, at that moment made his appearance, his hand bearing the blade of the aforesaid scythe. His approach was at once furious and rapid, and I may as well add, fatal; for before John O’Callaghan had time to be forewarned of his danger, he was cut down, the artery of his neck laid open, and he died without a groan. It was truly dreadful, even to the oldest fighter present, to see the strong rush of red blood that curvated about his neck, until it gurgled, gurgled, gurgled, and lappered, and bubbled out, ending in small red spouts, blackening and blackening, as they became fainter and more faint. At this criticality, every eye was turned from the corpse to the murderer; but he had been instantly struck down, and a female, with a large stone in her apron, stood over him, her arms stretched out, her face horribly distorted with agony, and her eyes turned backwards, as it were, into her head. In a few seconds she fell into strong convulsions, and was immediately taken away. Alas! alas! it was Rose Galh; and when we looked at the man she had struck down, he was found to be her brother! flesh of her flesh, and blood of her blood! On examining him more closely, we discovered that his under-jaw hung loose, that his limbs were supple; we tried to make him speak, but in vain - he too was a corpse.
In a party fight, a prophetic sense of danger, hangs, as it were, over the crowd - the very air is loaded with apprehension; and the vengeance burst is proceeded by a close, thick darkness, almost sulphury, that is more terrifical than the conflict itself, though dearly less dangerous and fatal. The scowl of the opposing parties, the blanched cheeks, the knit brows, and the grinding teeth, not pretermitting the deadly gleams that shoot from their kindled eyes, are ornaments which a plain battle between factions cannot boast, but which, notwithstanding, are very suitable to the fierce and gloomy silence of that premeditated vengeance which burns with such intensity in the heart, and scorches up the vitals into such a thirst for blood. Not but that they come by different means to the same conclusion; because it is the feeling, and not altogether the manner of operation, that is different. / Now a faction fight doesn’t resemble this at all at all. Paddy’s at home here; all song, dance, good-humor, and affection. His cheek is flushed with delight, which, indeed, may derive assistance from the consciousness of having no bayonets or loaded carabines to contend with; but anyhow, he’s at home - his eye is lit with real glee - he tosses his hat in the air, in the height of mirth - and leaps, like a mounteback, two yards from the ground. Then, with what a gracious dexterity he brandishes his cudgel! what a joyous spirit is heard in his shout at the face of a friend from another faction! His very “who!” is contagious, and would make a man, that had settled on running away, return and join the sport with an appetite truly Irish. He is, in fact, while under the influence of this heavenly afflatus, in love with every one, man, woman, and child. If he meet his sweetheart, he will give her a kiss and a hug, and that with double kindness, because he is on his way to thrash her father or brother. It is the acumen of his enjoyment; and woe be to him who will adventure to go between him and his amusements. To be sure, skulls and bones are broken, and lives lost; but they are lost in pleasant fighting - they are the consequences of the sport, the beauty of which consists in breaking as many heads and necks as you can; and certainly when a man enters into the spirit of any exercise, there is nothing like elevating himself to the point of excellence. Then a man ought never to be disheartened. If you lose this game, or get your head good-humoredly beaten to pieces, why you may win another, or your friends may mollify two or three skulls as a set-off to yours; but that is nothing.
In conclusion, I have endeavored, with what success has been already determined by the voice of my own country, to give a panorama of Irish life among the people … and in doing this, I can say with solemn truth that I painted them honestly and without reference to the existence of any particular creed or party.
In truth until within the last ten or twelve years an Irish author never thought of publishing in his own country, and the consequence was that our literary men followed the example of our great landlords; they became absentees, and drained the country of its intellectual wealth precisely as the others exhausted it of its rents. Thus did Ireland stand in the singular anomaly of adding some of her most distinguished names to the literature of Great Britain, whilst she herself remained incapable of presenting anything to the world beyond a school-book or a pamphlet; and even of the latter it is well known that if the subject of it were considered important, and its author a man of any talent or station in society, it was certain to be published in London.
It is in your character of Prime Minister that I take the liberty of prefixing your Lordship's name to this “Tale of Irish Famine”. Had Sir Robert Peel been in office, I would have placed his name where that of your Lordship now stands. There is something not improper in this; for although I believe that both you and he are sincerely anxious to benefit our unhappy country, still I cannot help thinking that the man who in his ministerial capacity, must be looked upon as a public exponent of those principals of Government which have brought our country to her present calamitous condition, by a long course of illiberal legislation and unjustifiable neglect, ought to have his name placed before a story which details with truth the sufferings which such legislation and neglect have entailed upon our people.
It was one evening at the close of a September month and a September day that two equestrians might be observed passing along one of those old and lonely Irish roads that seemed, from the nature of its construction, to have been paved by a society of antiquarians, if a person could judge from its obsolete character, and the difficulty, without risk of neck or limb, of riding a horse or driving a carriage along it. Ireland, as our English readers ought to know, has always been a country teeming with abundance - a happy land, in which want, destitution, sickness, and famine have never been felt or known, except through the mendacious misrepresentations of her enemies. The road we speak of was a proof of this; for it was evident to every observer that, in some season of superabundant food, the people, not knowing exactly how to dispose of their shilling loaves, took to paving the common roads with them, rather than they should be utterly useless. These loaves, in the course of time, underwent the process of petrifaction, but could not, nevertheless, be looked upon as wholly lost to the country. A great number of the Irish, within six of the last preceding years - that is, from ’46 to ’ 52 - took a peculiar fancy for them as food, which, we presume, caused their enemies to say that we then had hard times in Ireland. Be this as it may, it enabled the sagacious epicures who lived upon them to retire, in due course, to the delightful retreats of Skull and Skibbereen, and similar asylums, there to pass the very short remainder of their lives in health, ease, and luxury.
Let not the reader imagine, however, that the principal interest of this Tale is drawn from so gloomy a topic as famine. The author trusts that the workings of those passions and feelings which usually agitate human life, and constitute the character of those who act in it, will be found to constitute its chief attraction.
My father, indeed, was a very humble man, but in consequence of his unaffected piety and stainless integrity of principle, he was held in high esteem by all who know him, no matter what their rank might be. When the state of education in Ireland during his youth and that of my mother is considered, it will not be a matter of surprise that what education they did receive was very limited. It would be difficult, however, if not impossible, to find two persons in their lowly station so highly and singularly gifted. My father possessed a memory not merely great or surprising, but absolutely astonishing. Ile would repeat nearly the whole of the Old and New Testaments by heart, and was besides a living index to almost every chapter and verse in them. In all other respects, too, his memory was amazing. My native place is a spot rife with old legends, tales, traditions, customs, and superstitions; so that in my early youth, even beyond the walls of my own humble roof, they met me in every direction. It was at home, however, and from my father’s lips in particular, that they were perpetually sounding in my ears In fact, his memory was a perfect storehouse, and a rich one, of all that the social antiquary, the man of the letters, the poet, or the musicians, would consider valuable. As a teller of old tales, legends and historical anecdotes he was unrivalled, and his stock of them was inexhaustible. He spoke the Irish and English languages with nearly equal fluency. With all kinds of charms, old ranns, or poems, old prophecies, religious superstitions, tales of pilgrimages, anecdotes of blessed priests and friars, revelations form ghosts and fairies was he thoroughly acquainted. And so strongly were all these impressed upon my mind by frequent repetition on his part, that I have hardly every since heard, during a tolerably enlarged intercourse with Irish society, both educated and uneducated - with the antiquary, the scholar, or the humble seanachie - any single tradition, legend, or usages, that, so far as I can at present recollect, was perfectly new to me or unheard before in some similar cognate dress. This is certainly saying much, but I believe I may assert with confidence that I could produce, in attestation of its truth, the names of Petrie, Sir William Betham, Ferguson, and Donovan, the most distinguished antiquaries, both of social usages an otherwise, that every Ireland produced. What rendered this besides of such peculiar advantage to me in after life, as a literary man, was that I heard them as often in the Irish language as in the English, if not oftener, a circumstance which enabled me in my writings to transfer the genius, the idiomatic peculiarity and conversational spirit of the one language into the other, precisely as the people themselves do in their dialogue, whenever the heart or imagination happens to be moved by the darker or the better passions.
My native place was [alive] with old legends, tales, traditions, customs and superstitions; so that in my early youth, even beyond the walls of my own humble roof, they met me in every direction.
A man must be brought up among the Irish peasantry and under the influence of superstition, before he can understand its form and character correctly... But there is no specimen of Irish superstition equal to that which is to be seen at St. Patrick’s Purgatory, in Lough Dearg. A devout Romanist who has not made the pilgrimage to this place can scarcely urge a bold claim to the character of piety.
Almost every house had a lonely and deserted look; for it was known that one or more beloved beings had gone out of it to the grave. A dark, heartless spirit was abroad. The whole land, in fact, mourned and nothing on which the eye could rest bore a green or thriving look or any symptom of activity, but the Churchyards, and here the digging and the delving were incessant - at the early twilight, during the gloomy noon, the dreary dusk, and the still more funereal-looking light of the midnight taper.
But why talk of exaggeration or contradiction? Alas! do not the workings of death and disolarion among us in the present time give them a fearful corroboration, and prove how far the strongest imagery of Fiction is frequently transcended by the terrible realities of Truth?