It will naturally be expected, upon a new issue of works which may be said to treat exclusively of a people who form such an important and interesting a portion of the empire as the Irish peasantry do, that the author should endeavour to prepare the minds of his reader - especially those of the English and Scotch - for understanding more clearly their general character, habits of thought, and modes of feeling, as they exist and are depicted in the subsequent volumes. This is a task which the author undertakes more for the sake of his country than himself; and he rejoices that the demand for the present edition puts it in his power to aid in removing many absurd prejudices which have existed for time immemorial against his countrymen.
It is well known that the character of an Irishman has been hitherto uniformly associated with the idea, of something unusually ridiculous, and that scarcely anything in the shape of language was supposed to proceed from his lips but an absurd congeries of brogue and blunder. The habit of looking upon him in a ludicrous light has been so strongly impressed upon the English mind, that no opportunity has ever been omitted of throwing him into an attitude of gross and overcharged caricature, from which you might as correctly estimate his intellectual strength and moral proportions, as you would the size of a man from his evening shadow. From the immortal bard of Avon down to the writers of the present day, neither play nor farce has ever been presented to Englishmen, in which, when an Irishman is introduced, he is not drawn as a broad grotesque blunderer, every sentence he speaks involving a bull, and every act the result of headlong folly, or cool but unstudied effrontery. I do not remember an instance in which he acts upon the stage any other part than that of the buffoon of the piece, uttering language which, wherever it may have been found, was at all events never heard in Ireland, unless upon the boards of a theatre. As for the Captain OCutters, OBlunders, and Dennis Bulgrudderies of the English stage, they never had existence except in the imagination of those who were as ignorant of the Irish people as they were of their language and feelings. Even Sheridan himself was forced to pander to this erroneous estimate and distorted conception of our character; for, after all, Sir Lucius OTrigger was his Irishman, but not Irelands Irishman. I know that several of my readers may remind me of Sir Boyle Roche, whose bulls have become not only notorious, but proverbial. It is well known now, however, and was when he made them, that they were studied bulls, resorted to principally for the purpose of putting the government and opposition sides of the Irish House of Commons into good humour with each other, which they never failed to do - thereby, on more occasions than one, probably, preventing the effusion of blood, and the loss of life, among men who frequently decided even their political differences by the sword or pistol.
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 state. 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. In the early periods of communication between the countries, when they stood in a hostile relation to each other, and even long afterwards, it was not surprising that the wild Irishman who expressed himself with difficulty, and often impressed the idiom of his own language upon one with which he was not familiar, should incur, in the opinion of those who were strongly prejudiced against him, the character of making the bulls and blunders attributed to him. Such was the fact, and such the origin of this national slander upon his intellect, - a slander which, like every other, originates from the prejudice of those who were unacquainted with the quickness and clearness of thought that in general characterise [p.ii in 1990 Reprint being a facs. copy of 1843 Edn.] the language of our people. At this moment there is no man acquainted with the inhabitants of the two countries, who does not know, that, where the English is vernacular in Ireland, it is spoken with far more purity and grammatical precision than is to be heard beyond the Channel. Those, then, who are in the habit of defending what are termed our bulls, or of apologising for them, do us injustice; and Miss Edgeworth herself, when writing an essay upon the subject, wrote an essay upon that which does not, and never did exist. These observations, then, easily account for the view of us which has always been taken in the dramatic portion of English literature. There the Irishman was drawn in every instance as the object of ridicule, and consequently of contempt; for it is incontrovertibly true, that the man whom you laugh at, you will soon despise.
In every point of view this was wrong, but principally in a political one. At that time England and Englishmen knew very little of Ireland, and, consequently, the principal opportunities afforded them of appreciating our character were found on the stage. Of course, it was very natural that the erroneous estimate of us which they formed there should influence them everywhere else. We cannot sympathise with, and laugh at, the same object, at the same time; and if the Irishman found himself undeservedly the object of coarse and unjust ridicule, it was not very unnatural that he should requite it with a prejudice against the principles and feelings of Englishmen, quite as strong as that which was entertained against himself. Had this ridicule been confined to the stage, or directed at us in the presence of those who had other and better opportunities of knowing us, it would have been comparatively harmless. But this was not the case. It passed from the stage into the recesses of private life, wrought itself into the feelings until it became a prejudice, and the Irishman was consequently looked upon, and treated, as a being made up of absurdity and cunning, - a compound of knave and fool, fit only to be punished for his knavery or laughed at for his folly. So far, therefore, that portion of English literature which attempted to describe the language and habits of Irishmen, was unconsciously creating an unfriendly feeling between the two countries, a feeling which, I am happy to say, is fast disappearing, and which only requires that we should have a full and fair acquaintance with each other in order to be removed for ever. [1990 Edn. pp.ii-iii.]
At present, indeed, their mutual positions, civil, commercial and political, are very different from what they were half-a-century ago, or even at a more recent period. The progress of science, and the astonishing improvements in steam and machinery, have so completely removed the obstructions which impeded their intercourse, that the two nations can now scarcely be considered as divided. As a natural consequence, their knowledge of each other has improved; and, as will always happen with generous people, they begin to see that the one was neither knave nor fool, nor the other a churl or a boor. Thus has mutual respect arisen from mutual intercourse, and those who hitherto approached each other with distrust, are beginning to perceive, that in spite of political or religious prejudices, no matter how stimulated, the truthful experience of life will in the event create nothing but good-will and confidence between the countries.
Other causes, however, led to this; - causes which in every state of society exercise a quick and powerful influence over the minds of men: I allude to literature.
When the Irishman was made to stand forth as the butt of ridicule to his neighbours, the first that undertook his vindication was Maria Edgeworth. During her day, the works of no writer made a more forcible impression upon the circles of fashionable life in England, if we except the touching and inimitable Melodies of my countryman, Thomas Moore. After a lapse of some years, these two were followed by many others, who stood forth as lofty and powerful exponents of the national heart and intellect. Who can forget the melancholy but indignant reclamations of John Banim, - the dark and touching power of Gerald Griffin, or the unrivalled wit and irresistible drollery of Samuel Lover? Nor can I omit remarking, that amidst the array of great talents to which I allude, the genius of our female writers bore elf, by the free award of public opinion, some of the brightest wreaths of Irish literature. It would be difficult indeed, in any country, to name three women who have done more in setting right the character of Ireland and her people, whilst exhibiting at the same time the manifestations of high genius, than Miss Edgeworth, Lady Morgan, and Mrs. Hall. About the female creations of the last-named lady, especially, there is a touching charm, blending the graceful and the pensive, which reminds us of a very general but peculiar style of Irish beauty, where the lineaments of the face combine at once both the melancholy and the mirthful in such a manner, that their harmony constitutes the unchangeable but ever-varying tenderness of the expression.
That national works like these, at once so healthful and so true, produced by those who knew the country, and exhibiting Irishmen - not as the blundering buffoons of the English stage, but as men capable of thinking clearly and feeling deeply - that such works, I say, should enable a generous people, as the English undoubtedly are, to divest themselves of the prejudices which they had so long entertained against us, is [p.iv. in 1990 Rep. Edn.] both natural and gratifying. Those who achieved this great object, or aided in achieving it, have unquestionably rendered services off most important nature to both the countries, as well as to literature in general.
Yet, whilst the highly gifted individuals whom I have named succeeded in making their countrymen respected, there was one circumstance which, notwithstanding every exhibition of their genius and love of country, still remained as a reproach against our character as a nation. For nearly a century we were completely at the mercy of our British neighbours, who probably amused themselves at our expense with the greater licence, and a more assured sense of impunity, inasmuch as they knew that we were utterly destitute of a national literature. Unfortunately the fact could not be disputed. For the last half century, to come down as far as we can, Ireland, to use a plain metaphor, instead of producing her native intellect for home consumption, was forced to subsist upon the scanty supplies which could be procured from the sister kingdom. This was a reproach which added great strength to the general prejudice against us.
A nation may produce one man or ten men of eminence, but if they cannot succeed in impressing their mind upon the spirit and intellect of their own country, so as to create in her a taste for literature or science, no matter how highly they may be appreciated by strangers, they have not reached the exalted purposes of genius. To make this more plain I shall extend the metaphor a little farther. During some of the years of Irish famine, such were the unhappy circumstances of the country, that she was exporting provisions of every description in the most prodigal abundance, which the generosity of England was sending back again for our support. So was it with literature. Our men and women of genius uniformly carried their talents to the English market. whilst we laboured at home under all the dark privations of a literary famine.
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. [p.iv-v in 1900 Rep. Edn.]
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.
Precisely in this state was the country when the two first volumes - of the Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry were given to the public by the house of Messrs. Curry and Co., of Sackville-street. Before they appeared, their author, in consequence of their originating from an Irish press, entertained no expectation that they would be read, or excite any interest whatever in either England or Scotland. He was not, however, without a strong confidence that notwithstanding the wild and uncleared state of his own country at the time, so far as native literature was concerned, his two little pioneers would work their way with at least moderate success. He felt conscious that every thing depicted in them was true, and that by those who were acquainted with the manners, and language, and feelings of the people, they would sooner or later be recognised as faithful delineations of Irish life. In this confidence the event justified him; for not only were his volumes stamped with an immediate popularity at home, where they could be best appreciated, but awarded a very gratifying position in the literature of the day by the unanimous and not less generous verdict of the English and Scotch critics.
Thus it was that the publication of two unpretending volumes, written by a peasants son, established an important and gratifying fact - that our native country, if without a literature at the time, was at least capable of appreciating, and willing to foster the humble exertions of such as endeavoured to create one. Nor was this all; for so far as resident authors were concerned, it was now clearly established that an Irish writer could be successful at home without the necessity of appearing under the name and sanction of the great London or Edinburgh booksellers.
The rapid sale and success of the first series encouraged the author to bring out a second, which he did, but with a different bookseller. The spirit of publishing was now beginning to extend, and the talent of the country to put itself in motion. The popularity of the second effort surpassed that of the first, and the author had the gratification of knowing that the generosity of public feeling and opinion accorded him a still higher position than before, as did the critics of the day, without a dissentient voice. Still, as in the case of his first effort, he saw with honest pride that his own country and his countrymen placed the highest value upon his works, because they best understood them.
About this time the literary taste of the metropolis began to feel the first symptoms of life. As yet, however, they were very faint. Two or three periodicals were attempted, and though of very considerable merit, and conducted by able men, none of them, I believe, reached a years growth. The Dublin Literary Gazette, the National Magazine, the Dublin Monthly Magazine, and the Dublin University Review, all perished in their infancy - not, however, because they were unworthy of success, but because Ireland was not then what she is now fast becoming, a reading, and consequently a thinking country. To every one of these the authors has contributed, and he has the satisfaction of being able to say that there was been no publication projected purely for the advancement of literature in his own country, to which he has not given the aid of his pen, such as it was, and this whether he received remuneration or not. Indeed, the consciousness that the success of his works had been the humble means of inciting others to similar exertions in their own country, and of thus giving the first impulse to our literature, is one which he has on his part created an enthusiastic interest in it which will only die with him.
Notwithstanding the failure of the Periodicals just mentioned, it was clear that the intellect of the country was beginning to feel its strength, and put forth its power. A national spirit that rose above the narrow distinctions of creed and party began to form itself, and in the first impulses of its early enthusiasm a periodical was established, which it is only necessary to name - the Dublin University Magazine - a work unsurpassed by any magazine of the day; and which, moreover, without ever departing from its principles, has been as a bond of union for literary men of every class, who have from time to time enriched its pages by their contributions. It has been, and is, a neutral spot in a country where party feeling runs so high, on which the Roman Catholic priest and the Protestant parson, the Whig, the Tory, and the Radical, divested of their respective prejudices, can meet in an amicable spirit. I mention these things with great satisfaction, for it is surely a gratification to know that literature, in a country which has been so much distracted as Ireland and, is progressing in a spirit of noble candour and generosity, which is ere long likely to produce a most salutary effect among the educated classes of all parties, and consequently among those whom they influence. The number, ability, and importance of the works which have issued from the Dublin press within the last eight years or ten years, if they could be enumerated here, would exhibit the rapid progress of the national mind, and satisfy the reader that Ireland in a few years will be able to sustain a native literature as lofty and generous, and beneficial to herself, as any other country in the world can boast of.
This hasty sketch of its progress I felt myself called upon give, in order that our neighbours may know what we have done, and learn to respect accordingly; and, if the truth must be told, from a principle of honest pride, arising from the position which our country holds, and is likely to hold as an intellectual nation.
Having disposed of this topic I come now to one of not less importance as being connected with the other, - the condition and character of the peasantry of Ireland.
It may be necessary, however, before entering upon this topic, to give my readers some satisfactory assurance that the subject is one which I ought well to understand, not only from my humble position in early life, and my uninterrupted intercourse with the people as one of themselves, until I had reached the age of twenty-two years, but from the fact of having bestowed upon it my undivided and most earnest attention ever since I left the dark mountains and green vales of my native Tyrone, and began to examine human life and manners as a citizen of the world. As it is admitted, also, that there exists no people whose character is so anomalous as - that of the Irish, and consequently so difficult to be understood, especially by strangers, it becomes a still more appropriate duty on my part to give to the public, proofs sufficiently valid, that I come to a subject of such difficulty with unusual advantages on my side, and that, consequently, my exhibitions of Irish peasant life, in its most comprehensive sense, may be relied on as truthful and authentic. For this purpose, it will be necessary that I should give a brief sketch of my own youth, early station in society, and general education, as the son of an honest humble peasant.
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 knew him, no matter what their rank in life 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 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. He could repeat nearly the whole of the Old and New Testament by heart, and was, besides, a living index to almost every chapter and verse you might wish to find in it. In all other respects, too, his memory was equally 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 fathers 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 letters, the poet, or the musician, 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 pilgrims, miracles, and pilgrimages, anecdotes of blessed priests and friars, revelations from ghosts and fairies, was he thoroughly acquainted. And so strongly were all these impressed upon my mind, by frequent repetition on his part, and the indescribable delight they gave me on mine, that I have hardly ever since heard, during a tolerably enlarged intercourse with Irish society, both educated and uneducated - with the antiquary, the scholar, or the humble senachie - any single tradition, usage, or legend, that, as far as I can at present recollect, was perfectly new to me or unheard before, in some similar or 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 W. Betham, Ferguson, and ODonovan, the most distinguished antiquaries, both of social usages and otherwise, that ever 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 better passions.
Having thus stated faithfully, without adding or diminishing, a portion, and a portion only, of what I owe to one parent, I cannot overlook the debt of gratitude which is due to the memory of the other.
My mother, whose name was Kelly - Mary Kelly - possessed the sweetest and most exquisite of human voices. In her early life, I have often been told by those who had heard her sing, that any previous intimation of her presence at a wake, dance, or other festive occasion, was sure to attract crowds of persons, many from a distance of several miles, in order to hear from her lips the touching old airs of their country. No sooner was it known that she would attend any such meeting, than the fact spread through the neighbourhood like wild-fire, and the people flocked from all parts to hear her, just as the fashionable world do now, when the name of some eminent songstress is announced in the papers; with this difference, that upon such occasions the voice of the one falls only upon the ear, whilst that of the other sinks deeply into the heart. She was not so well acquainted with the English tongue as my father, although she .spoke it with sufficient ease for all the purposes of life; and for this reason, among others, she generally gave the old Irish versions of the songs in question, rather than the English ones. This, however, as I said, was not her sole motive. In the first place, she had several old songs, which at that time, - I believe too I may add at this, - had never been translated, and I very much fear that some valuable ones, both as to words and airs, have perished with her. Her family were all embued with a poetical spirit, and some of her immediate ancestors composed in the Irish tongue, several fine old songs, in the same manner as Carolan did; that is, some in praise of a patron or a friend, and others to celebrate rustic beauties, that have long since been sleeping in the dust. For this reason she had many old compositions that were almost peculiar to our family, which I am afraid could not now be procured at all, and are consequently lost. I think her uncle, and I believe her grandfather, were the authors of several Irish poems and songs, because I know that some of them she sang, and others she only recited.
Independently of this, she had a prejudice against singing the Irish airs to English words; an old custom of the country was thereby invaded, and an association disturbed which habit had rendered dear to her. I remember on one occasion, when she was asked to sing the English version of that touching melody The Red-haired Mans Wife, she replied, I will sing it for you; but the English words and the air are like a quarrelling man and wife: the Irish melts into the tune, but the English doesnt - an expression scarcely less remarkable for its beauty than its truth. She spake the words in Irish.
This gift of singing with such sweetness and power the old sacred songs and airs of Ireland, was not the only one for which she was remarkable. Perhaps there never lived a human being capable of giving the Irish cry, or Keene, with such exquisite effect, or of pouring into its wild notes, a spirit of such irresistible pathos and sorrow. I have often been present when she has raised the keene over the corpse of some relative or neighbour, and my readers may judge of the melancholy charm which accompanied this expression of her sympathy, when I assure them that the general clamour of violent grief was gradually diminished, from admiration, until it became ultimately hushed, and no voice was heard but her own - wailing in sorrowful but solitary beauty. This pause, it is true, was never long, for however great the admiration might be which she excited, the hearts of those who heard her soon melted, and even strangers were often forced to confess her influence by the tears which she caused them to shed for those whose deaths could, otherwise, in no other way have affected them. I am the youngest, I believe, of fourteen children, and of course could never have beard her until age and the struggles of life had robbed her voice of its sweetness. I heard enough, however, from her blessed lips, to set my heart to an almost painful perception of that spirit which steeps these fine old songs in a tenderness which no other music possesses. Many a time, of a winter night, when seated at her spinning-wheel, singing the Trougha, or Shuil agra, or some other old song of sorrow, have I, then little more than a child, gone over to her, and with a broken voice and eyes charged with tears, whispered Mother dear, dont sing that song, it makes me sorrowful; she then usually stopped, and sung some one which I liked better because it affected me less. At this day I am in possession of Irish airs, which none of our best antiquaries in Irish music have heard, except through me, and of which neither they nor I myself know the names.
Such, gentle reader, were my humble parents, under whose untaught, but natural genius, setting all other advantages aside, it is not to be wondered at that my heart should have been so completely moulded into that spirit and those feelings which characterize my country and her children.
These, however, were my domestic advantages; but I now come to others, which arose from my position in life as the son of a man who was one of the people. My father, at the farthest point to which my memory goes back, lived in a townland called Prillisk, in the parish of Clogher, and county of Tyrone; and I only remember living there in a cottage. From that the family removed to a place called Tonagh, or, more familiarly, Towny, about an English mile from Prillisk. It was here I first went to school to a Connaught-man named Pat Frayne, who, however, remained there only for a very short period in the neighbourhood. Such was the neglected state of education at that time, that for a year or two afterwards there was no school sufficiently near to which I could be sent. At length it was ascertained that a master, another Connaught-man by the way, named OBeirne, had opened a school, - a hedge-school, of course, - at Findramore. To this I was sent, along with my brother John, the youngest of the family next to myself. I continued with him for about a year and a half, when who should return to our neighbourhood but Pat Frayne, the redoubtable prototype of Mat Kavanagh in the Hedge School. OBeirne, it is true, was an excellent specimen of the hedge-schoolmaster, but nothing at all to be compared to Frayne. About the period I write of, there was no other description of school to which any one could be sent, and the consequence was, that rich and poor (I speak of the peasantry), Protestant and Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist, boys and girls, were all congregated under the same roof, to the amount of from a hundred to a hundred and fifty, or two hundred. In this school I remained for about a year or two, when our family removed to a place called Nurchasy, the property of the Rev. Dr. Story, of Corick. Of us, however, he neither could nor did know any thing, for we were undertenants, our immediate landlord being no less a person than Hugh Traynor, then so famous for the distillation, sub rosa, of exquisite mountain dew, and to whom the reader will find allusions made in that capacity more than once in the following volumes. Nurchasy was within about half-a-mile of Findramore, to which school, under OBeirne, I was again sent. Here I continued, until a classical teacher came to a place called Tulnavert, now the property of John Birney, Esq., of Lisburn, to whom I had the pleasure of dedicating the two first volumes of my Traits and Stories. This tyrannical blockhead, whose name I do not choose to mention, instead of being allowed to teach classics, ought to have been put into a strait - waistcoat or the stocks, and either whipped once in every twenty-four hours, or kept in a madhouse until the day of his death. He had been a student in Maynooth, where he became deranged, and was, of course, sent home to his friends, with whom he recovered sufficiently to become cruel and hypocritical, to an extent which I have never yet seen equalled. Whenever the son of a rich man committed an offence, he would grind his teeth and growl like a tiger, but in no single instance had he the moral courage or sense of justice to correct him. On the contrary, he uniformly nursed his wrath to keep it warm, until the son of a poor man transgressed, and on his unfortunate body he was sure to wreak signal vengeance for the stupidity or misconduct of the wealthy blockhead. This was his system, and my readers may form some opinion of the low ebb at which knowledge and moral feeling were at the time, when I assure them, that not one of the humbler boys durst make a complaint against the scoundrel at home, unless under the certainty of being well flogged for their pains. A hedge-schoolmaster was then held in such respect and veneration, that no matter how cruel or profligate he might be, his person and character, unless in some extraordinary case of cruelty, resulting in death or mutilation, were looked upon as free from all moral or legal responsibility. This certainly was not the fault of the people, but of those laws, which, by making education a crime, generated ignorance, and then punished it for violating them.
For the present it is enough to say, that a most interesting child, a niece of my own, lost her life by the severity of Pat Frayne, the Connaught-man. In a fit of passion he caught the poor girl by the ear, which he nearly plucked out of her head. The violence of the act broke some of the internal muscles or tendons, - suppuration and subsequently inflammation, first of the adjoining parts and afterwards of the brain, took place, and the fine intelligent little creature was laid in a premature grave, because the ignorance of the people justified a pedantic hedge-schoolmaster in the exercise of irresponsible cruelty. Frayne was never prosecuted, neither was the classical despot, who by the way sits for the picture of the fellow in whose school, and at whose hands, the Poor Scholar receives the tyrannical and heartless treatment mentioned in that tale. Many a time the cruelty exercised towards that unhappy boy, whose name was Quin, has wrung my heart and brought the involuntary tears to my eyes, - tears which I was forced to conceal, being very well assured from experience, that any sympathy of mine, if noticed, would he certain to procure me or any other friend of his, an ample participation in his punishment. He was, in truth, the scapegoat of the school, and it makes my blood boil, even whilst I write, to think how the poor friendless lad, far removed from either father or mother, was kicked, and cuffed, and beaten on the naked head, with a kind of stick between a horse-rod and a cudgel, until his poor face got pale, and he was forced to totter over to a seat in order to prevent himself from fainting or falling in consequence of severe pain.
At length, however, the inhuman villain began to find, when it was too late, that his ferocity, in spite of the terror which it occasioned, was soon likely to empty his school. He now became as fawning and slavish as he had before been insolent and savage; but the wealthy farmers of the neighbourhood, having now full cognizance of his conduct, made common cause with the poorer men whose children were so shamefully treated, and the result was, that in about six weeks they forced him to leave that part of the country for want of scholars, having been literally groaned out of it by the curses and indignation of all who knew him.
Here then was I once more at a loss for a school, and I must add, in no disposition at all to renew my acquaintance with literature. Our family had again removed from Nurchasy, to a place up nearer the mountains, called Springtown, on the northern side of the parish. I was now about fourteen, and began to feel a keen relish for all the sports and amusements of the country, into which I entered with a spirit of youth and enthusiasm rarely equalled. For about two years I attended no school, but it was during this period that I received, notwithstanding, the best part of my education. Our farm in Springtown was about sixteen or eighteen acres, and I occasionally assisted the family in working at it, but never regularly, for I was not called upon to do so, nor would I have been permitted even had I wished it. It was about six months after our removal to Springtown, that an incident in my early life occurred which gave rise to one of the most popular tales perhaps, with the exception of the Miser, that I have written - that is the Poor Scholar. There being now no classical school within eighteen or twenty miles of Springtown, it was suggested to our family by a nephew of the parish priest, then a young, man of six or eight and twenty, that, under the circumstances, it would be a prudent step on their part to prepare an outfit, and send me up to Munster as a poor scholar, to complete my education. Pat Frayne, who had by the way had been a poor scholar himself, had advised the same thing before, and as the name does not involve disgrace I felt no reluctance in going, especially as the priests nephew, who proposed it, had made up his mind on accompanying me for a similar purpose. Indeed, the poor scholars who go to Munster are indebted for nothing but their bed and board, which they receive kindly and hospitably from the parents of the scholars. The masters are generally paid their full terms by these pitiable beings, but this rule, like all others, of course has its exceptions. At all events, my outfit was got ready, and on a beautiful morning in the month of May I separated from my family to go in quest of education. There was no collection, however, in my case, as mentioned in the tale; as my own family supplied the funds supposed to be necessary. I have been present, however, at more than one collection made for similar purposes, and heard a good-natured sermon not very much differing from that given in the story.
The priests nephew, on the day we were to start, suddenly changed his mind, and I consequently had to undertake the journey alone, which I did with a heavy heart. The farther I got from home the more my spirits sank, or, in the beautiful image of Goldsmith, I dragged at each remove a lengthening chain. I travelled as far as the town of Granard, and during the journey, it is scarcely necessary to say, that the almost parental tenderness and hospitality which I received on my way could not be adequately described. The reader will find an attempt at it in the story. The parting from home and my adventures on the road are real.
Having reached Granard my courage began to fall, and my family at home, now that I had departed from them, began also to feel something like remorse for having permitted one so young and inexperienced as I then was, to go abroad alone upon the world. My mothers sorrow, especially, was deep, and her cry was, Oh, why did I let my boy go I maybe I will never see him again!
At this time, as the reader may be aware from my parental education, there was not a being alive more thoroughly imbued with superstition; and, whether for good or ill, at all events that superstition returned me to my family. On reaching Granard I felt, of course, fatigued, and soon went to bed, where I slept soundly. It was not, however, a dreamless sleep: I thought I was going along a strange path to some particular place, and that a mad bull met me on the road, and pursued me with such speed and fury that I awoke in a state of singular terror. That was sufficient; my mind had been already wavering, and the dream determined me. The next morning after breakfast I bent my steps homewards, and, as it happened, my return took a weighty load of bitter grief from the heart of my mother and family. The house I stopped at in Granard was a kind of small inn, kept by a man whose name was Peter Grehan. Such were the incidents which gave rise to the tale of The Poor Scholar.
I was now growing up fast, and began to feel a boyish ambition of associating with those who were older and bigger than myself. Although miserably deficient in education - for I had been well beaten but never taught - yet I was looked upon as a prodigy of knowledge; and I can assure the reader that I took very good care not to dispel that agreeable delusion. Indeed, at this time, I was as great a young literary coxcomb as ever lived, my vanity being high and inflated exactly in proportion to my ignorance, which was also of the purest water. This vanity, however, resulted as much from my position and circumstances as from any strong disposition to be vain on my part. It was generated by the ignorance of the people, and their extreme veneration for any thing in the shape of superior knowledge. In fact, they insisted that I knew every earthly subject, because I had been a couple of years at Latin, and was designed for a priest. It was useless to undeceive men who would not be convinced, so I accordingly gave them, as they say, the length of their tether; nay, to such purpose did I ply them with proofs of it, that my conversation soon became as fine a specimen of pedantic bombast as ever was uttered. Not a word under six feet could come out of my lips, even of English; but as the best English, after all, is but common-place, I peppered them with vile Latin, and an occasional verse in Greek, from St. Johns Gospel, which I translated for them into a wrong meaning, with an air of lofty superiority that made them turn up their eyes with wonder. I was then, however, but one of a class which still exists, and will continue to do so until a better informed generation shall prevent those who compose it from swaggering about in all the pompous pride of young impostors, who boast of knowing the seven languages. The reader will find an illustration of this in the sketch of Denis OShaughnessy going to Maynooth.
In the meantime, I was unconsciously but rapidly preparing myself for a position in Irish literature, which I little dreamt I should ever occupy. I now mingled in the sports and pastimes of the people, until indulgence in them became the predominant passion of my youth. Throwing the stone, wrestling, leaping, football, and every other description of athletic exercise filled up the measure of my early happiness. I attended every wake, dance, fair, and merrymaking in the neighbourhood, and became so celebrated for dancing hornpipes, jigs, and reels, that I was soon without a rival in the parish.
This kind of life, though very delightful to a boy of my years, was not, however, quite satisfactory, as it afforded me no ultimate prospect, and the death of my father had occasioned the circumstances of the family to decline. I heard, about this time, that a distant relative of mine, a highly respectable priest, had opened a classical school near Glasslough, in the county of Monaghan. To him I accordingly went, mentioned our affinity, and had my claims allowed. I attended his school with intermission for about two years, at the expiration of which period I once more returned to our family, who were then very much reduced.
I was now about nineteen, strong, active, and could leap two-and-twenty feet on a dead level; but though thoroughly acquainted with Irish life among my own class, I was as ignorant of the world as a child. Ever since my boyhood, in consequence of the legends which I had heard from my father, about the far-famed Lough-derg, or St. Patricks Purgatory, I felt my imagination fired with a romantic curiosity to perform a station at that celebrated place. I accordingly did so, and the description of that most penal performance, some years afterwards, not only constituted my debut in literature, but was also the means of preventing me from being a pleasant, strong-bodied parish priest at this day; indeed, it was the cause of changing the whole destiny of my subsequent life.
The Lough-derg Pilgrim is given in the present edition, and may be relied on, not so much as an ordinary narrative, as a perfect transcript of what takes place during the stations which are held there in the summer months.
Having returned from this, I knew not exactly how to dispose of myself. On one thing I was determined - never to enter the Church; but this resolution I kept faithfully to myself. I had nothing for it now but to forget my sacerdotal prospects, which, as I have said, had already been renounced, or to sink down as many others like me had done, into a mere tiller of the earth, - a character in Ireland far more unpopular than that which the Scotch call a sticket minister!
It was about this period, that chance first threw the inimitable Adventures of the renowned Gil Blas across my path. During my whole life, I had been an insatiable reader of such sixpenny romances and history-books as the hedge-schools afforded. Many a time have I given up my meals, rather than lose one minute from the interest excited by the story I was perusing. Having read Gil Blas, however, I felt an irrepressible passion for adventure, which nothing could divert; in fact, I was as much the creature of the impulse it excited, as the ship is of the helmsman, or the steam-engine of the principle that guides it.
Stimulated by this romantic love of adventure, I left my native place, and directed my steps to the parish of Killanny, in the county of Louth, the Catholic Clergyman of which was a nephew of our own Parish Priest, brother to him who proposed going to Munster with me, and an old schoolfellow of my own, though probably twenty years my senior. This mans residence was within a quarter or half a miles distance of the celebrated Wild-goose Lodge, in which some six months before a whole family, consisting of, I believe, eight persons, men, women and children, had been, from motives of personal vengeance, consumed to ashes. I stopped with him for a fortnight, and succeeded in procuring a tuition in the house of a wealthy farmer named Piers Murphy, near Corcreagh. This, however, was a tame life, and a hard one, so I resolved once more to give up a miserable salary and my board, for the fortunate chances which an ardent temperament, and a strong imagination, perpetually suggested to me as likely to be evolved out of the vicissitudes of life. Urged on, therefore, by a spirit of romance, I resolved to precipitate myself on the Irish Metropolis, which I accordingly entered with two shillings and ninepence in my pocket; an utter stranger, of course friendless; ignorant of the world, without aim or object, but not without a certain strong feeling of vague and shapeless ambition, for the truth was I had not yet begun to think, and, consequently, looked upon life less as a reality than a vision.
Thus have I, as a faithful, but I fear a dull guide, conducted my reader from the lowly cottage in Prillisk, where I first drew my breath, along those tangled walks and green lanes which are familiar to the foot of the peasant alone, until I enter upon the highways of the world, and strike into one of its greatest and most crowded thoroughfares - the Metropolis. Whether this brief sketch of my early and humble life, my education, my sports, my hopes and struggles, be calculated to excite any particular interest, I know not; I can only assure my reader that the details, so far as they go, are scrupulously correct and authentic, and that they never would have been obtruded upon him, were it not from an anxiety to satisfy him that in undertaking to describe the Irish peasantry as they are, I approached that difficult task with advantages of knowing them, which perhaps few other Irish writers ever possessed; and this is the only merit which I claim. [p.xvii in 1990 Rep. Edn.]
A few words now upon the moral and physical condition of the people may not be unsuitable before I close, especially for the sake of those who may wish to acquire a slight knowledge of their general character, previous to their perusal of the volumes which are to follow. This task, it is true, is not one of such difficulty now as it was some years ago. Much light has been thrown on the Irish character, not only by the great names I have already enumerated, but by some equally high which I have omitted. On this subject it would be impossible to overlook the names of Lever, Maxwell, or Otway, or to forget the mellow hearth-light and chimney-corner tone, the happy dialogue and legendary truth which characterise the exquisite fairy legends of Crofton Croker. Much of the difficulty of the task, I say, has been removed by these writers, but there remains enough still behind to justify me in giving a short dissertation upon the habits and feelings of my countrymen.
Of those whose physical state has been has so deplorably wretched, it may not be supposed that the tone of morals can be either high or pure; and yet if we consider the circumstances in which he has been for such a lengthened period placed, it is undeniable that the Irishman is a remarkably moral man. Let us suppose, for instance, that in England and Scotland the great body of the people had for a couple or three centuries never received an adequate or proper education: in that case, let us ask, what the moral aspect of society in either country would be to-day? But this is not merely the thing to be considered. The Irishman was not only not educated, but actually punished for attempting to acquire knowledge in the first place, and in the second, punished also for the ignorance created by its absence. In other words, the penal laws rendered education criminal, and then caused the unhappy people to suffer for the crimes which proper knowledge would have prevented them from committing. [p.xviii in 1990 Rep. Edn.] It was just like depriving a man of his sight, and afterwards causing him to be punished for stumbling. It is beyond all question, that from the time of the wars of Elizabeth and the introduction of the Reformation, until very recently there was no fixed system of wholesome education in the country. The people, possessed of strong political and religious prejudices, were left in a state of physical destitution and moral ignorance, such as were calculated to produce ten times the amount of crime which was committed. Is it any wonder, then, that in such a condition, social errors and dangerous theories should be generated, and that neglect, and poverty, and ignorance combined should give to the country a character for turbulence and outrage? The same causes will produce the same effects in any country, and were it not that the standard of personal and domestic comfort was so low in Ireland, there is no doubt that the historian would have a much darker catalogue of crime to record than he has. The Irishman, in fact, was mute and patient under circumstances which would have driven the better-fed and more comfortable Englishman into open outrage and contempt of all authority. God forbid that I for a moment should become the apologist of crime, much less the crimes of my countrymen! but it is beyond all question that the principles upon which the country was governed have been such as to leave down to the present day many of their evil consequences behind them. The penal code, to be sure, is now abolished, but so are not many of its political effects among the people. Its consequences have not yet departed from the country, nor has the hereditary hatred of the laws, which unconsciously descended from father to son, ceased to regulate their conduct and opinions. Thousands of them are ignorant that ever such a thing as a penal code existed; yet the feeling against law survives, although the source from which it has been transmitted may be forgotten. This will easily account for much of the political violence and crime which moments of great excitement produce among us; nor need we feel surprised that this state of things should be continued, to the manifest injury of the people themselves, by the baneful effects of agitation.
The period, therefore, for putting the character of our country fairly upon its trial has not yet arrived; although we are willing to take the Irishman as we find him; nor would we shrink even at the present moment from comparing him with any of his neighbours. His political sins and their consequences were left him as an heir-loom, and result from a state of things which he himself did not occasion. Setting these aside, where is the man to be found in any country who has carried with him through all his privations and penalties so many of the best virtues of our nature? In other countries the man who commits a great crime is always a great criminal, and the whole heart is hardened and debased, but it is not so in Ireland. The agrarian and political outrage is often perpetrated by men who possess the best virtues of humanity, and whose hearts as individuals actually abhor the crime. The moral standard here is no doubt dreadfully erroneous, and until a correct and christian one, emanating from a better system of education, shall be substituted for it, it will, with a people who so think and feel, be impossible utterly to prevent the occurrence of these great evils. We must wait for thirty or forty years, that is, until the rising or perhaps the subsequent generation shall be educated out of these wild and destructive prejudices, before we can fully estimate the degree of excellence to which our national character may arrive. In my own youth, and I am now only forty-four years, I do not remember a single school under the immediate superintendence of either priest or parson, and that in a parish the extent of which is, I dare say, ten miles by eight. The instruction of the children was altogether a matter in which no clergy of any creed took an interest. This was left altogether to hedge schoolmasters, a class of men who, with few exceptions, bestowed such an education upon the people as is sufficient almost, in the absence of all other causes, to account for much of the agrarian violence and erroneous principles which regulate their movements and feelings on that and similar subjects. For further information on this matter the reader is referred to the Hedge School.
With respect to these darker shades of the Irish character, I feel that, consistently with that love of truth and impartiality which has guided, and I trust ever shall guide, my pen, I could not pass them over without further notice. I know that it is a very questionable defence to say that some, if not principally all, of their crimes originate in agrarian or political vengeance. Indeed, I believe that, so far from this circumstance being looked upon as a defence, it ought to be considered as an aggravation of the guilt; inasmuch as it is, beyond all doubt, at least a far more manly thing to inflict an injury upon an enemy face to face, and under the influence of immediate resentment, than to crouch like a cowardly assassin behind a hedge and coolly murder him without one moments preparation, or any means whatsoever of defence. This is a description of crime which no man with one generous drop of blood in his veins can think of without shame and indignation. Unhappily, however, for the security of human life, every crime of the kind results more from the dark tyranny of these secret confederacies, by which the lower classes are organised, than from any natural appetite for shedding blood. Individually, the Irish loathe murder as much as any people in the world; but in the circumstances before us, it often happens that the Irishman is not a free agent, - very far from it: on the contrary, he is frequently made the instrument of a system, to which he must become either an obedient slave or a victim.
Even here, however, although nothing can or ought to be said, to palliate the cowardly and unmanly crime of assassination, yet something can certainly be advanced to account for the state of feeling by which, from time to time, and by frequent occurrence, it came to be so habitual among the people, that by familiarity it became stripped of its criminality and horror.
It is idle, and it would be dishonest, to deny the fact, that the lower Irish, until a comparatively recent period, were treated with apathy and gross neglect by the only class to whom they could or ought to look up for sympathy or protection. The conferring of the elective franchise upon the forty shilling freeholders, or in other words upon paupers, added to the absence of proper education, or the means of acquiring it, by the fraudulent sub-division of small holdings, by bribery, perjury, and corruption, a state of moral feeling among the poorer classes which could not but be productive of much crime. And yet, notwithstanding this shameful prostitution of their morals and comfort, for the purposes of political ambition or personal aggrandizement, they were in general a peaceable and enduring people; and it was only when some act of unjustifiable severity, or oppression in the person of a middleman, agent, or hardhearted landlord, drove them houseless upon the world, that they fell back upon the darker crimes of which I am speaking. But what, I ask, could be expected from such a state of things? And who generated it? It is not, indeed, to be wondered at that a set of men, who so completely neglected their duties as the old landlords of Ireland did, should have the very weapons turned against themselves which their own moral profligacy first put into the bands of those whom they corrupted. Up to this day the peasantry are charged with indifference to the obligation of an oath, and in those who still have anything to do in elections, I fear with too much truth. But then let us inquire who first trained and familiarised them to it? Why, the old landlords of Ireland; and now their descendants, and such of themselves as survive, may behold, in the crimes which disgrace the country, the disastrous effects of a bad system created by their forefathers or themselves.
In the mean time, I have no doubt that by the removal of the causes which produced this deplorable state of things, their disastrous effects will also soon disappear. That the present landlords of Ireland are, with the ordinary number of exceptions, a very different class of men from those who have gone before them, is a fact which will ultimately tell for the peace and prosperity of the country. Let the ignorance of the people, or rather the positive bad knowledge with which, as to a sense of civil duties, their minds are filled, be removed, and replaced with principles of a higher and more Christian tendency. Let the Irish landlords consider the interests of their tenantry as their own, and there is little doubt that with the aids of science, agricultural improvement, and the advantages of superior machinery, the Irish will become a prosperous, contented, and great people.
It is not just to the general character of our people, however, to speak of these crimes as national, for, in fact, they are not so. If Tipperary and some of the adjoining parts of Munster were blotted out of the moral map of the country, we would stand as a nation in a far higher position than that which we occupy in the opinion of our neighbours. This is a distinction which in justice to us ought to be made, for it is surely unfair to charge the whole kingdom with the crimes which disgrace only a single county of it, together with a few adjacent districts - allowing, of course, for some melancholy exceptions in other parts.
Having now discussed, with I think sufficient candour and impartiality that portion of our national character which appears worst and weakest in the eyes of our neighbours, and attempted to show that preexisting circumstances originating from an unwise policy had much to do in calling into existence and shaping its evil impulses, I come now to a more agreeable task-the consideration of our social and domestic virtues. And here it is where the Irishman immeasurably outstrips all competitors. His hospitality is not only a habit but a principle; and indeed of such a quick and generous temperament is he, that in ninety cases out of a hundred the feeling precedes the reflection, which in others prompts the virtue. To be a stranger and friendless, or suffering hunger and thirst, is at any time a sufficient passport to his heart and purse; but it is not merely the thing or virtue, but also his manner of doing it, that constitutes the charm which runs through his conduct. There is a natural politeness and sincerity in his manner which no man can mistake; and it is a fact, the truth of which I have felt a thousand times, that he will make you feel the acceptance of the favour or kindness he bestows to be a compliment to himself rather than to you. The delicate ingenuity with which he diminishes the nature or amount of his own kindness, proves that he is no common man either in heart or intellect; and when all fails he will lie like Lucifer himself, and absolutely seduce you into an acceptance of his hospitality or assistance. I speak now exclusively of the peasantry. Certainly in domestic life there is no man so exquisitely affectionate and humanized as the Irishman. The national imagination is active and the national heart warm, and it follows very naturally that he should be, and is, tender and strong in all his domestic relations. Unlike the people of other nations, his grief is loud but lasting, vehement but deep; and whilst its shadow has been chequered by the laughter and mirth of a cheerful disposition, still in the moments of seclusion, at his bedside prayer, or over the grave of those he loved, it will put itself forth after half a life with a vivid power of recollection which is sometimes almost beyond belief.
The Irish, however, are naturally a refined people; but by this I mean the refinement which appreciates and cherishes whatever there is in nature, as manifested through the influence of the softer arts of music and poetry. The effect of music upon the Irish heart I ought to know well, and no man need tell me that a barbarous or cruel people ever possessed national music that was beautiful and pathetic. The music of any nation is the manifestation of its general feeling, and not that which creates it; although there is no doubt but the one when formed perpetuates and reproduces the other. It is no wonder, then, that the domestic feelings of the Irish should be so singularly affectionate and strong, when we consider that they have been, in spite of every obstruction, kept under the softening influence of music and poetry. This music and poetry, too, essentially their own-and whether streaming of a summer evening along their pastoral fields, echoing through their still glens, or poured forth at the winter hearth, still, by its soft and melancholy spirit, stirring up a thousand tender associations that must necessarily touch and improve the heart. And it is for this reason that that heart becomes so remarkably eloquent, if not poetical, when moved by sorrow. Many a -time I have seen a Keener commence her wail over the corpse of a near relative, and by degrees she has risen from the simple wail or cry to a high but mournful recitative, extemporized, under the excitement of the moment, into sentiments that were highly figurative and impressive. In this she was aided very much by the genius of the language, which possesses the finest and most copious vocabulary in the world for the expression of either sorrow or love.
It has been said that the Irish, notwithstanding a deep susceptibility of sorrow, are a light-hearted people; and this is strictly true. What, however, is the one fact but a natural consequence of the other? No man for instance ever possessed a high order of humour, whose temperament was not naturally melancholy, and no country in the world more clearly establishes that point than Ireland. Here the melancholy and mirth are .not simply in a proximate state, but frequently flash together, and again separate so quickly, that the alternation or blending, as the case may be, whilst it is felt by the spectators, yet stands beyond all known rules of philosophy to solve it. Any one at all acquainted with Ireland, knows that in no country is mirth lighter, or sorrow deeper, or the smile and the tear seen more frequently on the face at the same moment. Their mirth, however, is not levity, nor their sorrow gloom; and for this reason none of those dreary and desponding reactions take place, which, as in France especially, so frequently terminate in suicide.
The recreations of the Irish were very varied, and some of them of a highly intellectual cast. These latter, however, have altogether disappeared from the country, or at all events are fast disappearing. The old Harper is now hardly seen; the Senachie, where he exists, is but a dim and faded representative of that very old Chronicler in his palmy days; and the Prophecy-man unfortunately has survived the failure of his best and most cherished predictions. The Door old Prophets stock in trade is nearly exhausted, and little now remains but the slaughter which is to take place at the mill of Louth, when the mill is to be turned three times with human blood, and the miller to have six fingers and two thumbs on each hand, as a collateral prognostication of that bloody event.
The amusement derived from these persons was undoubtedly of a very imaginative character, and gives sufficient proof, that had the national intellect been duly cultivated, it is difficult to say in what position as a literary country Ireland might have stood at this day. At present the national recreations, though still sufficiently varied and numerous, are neither so strongly marked nor diversified as formerly. Fun, or the love of it, to be sure, is an essential principle in the Irish character; and nothing that can happen, no matter how solemn or how sorrowful it may be, is allowed to proceed without it. In Ireland the house of death is sure to be the merriest one in the neighbourhood; but here the mirth is kindly and considerately introduced, from motives of sympathy - in other words, for the alleviation of the mourners sorrow. The same thing may be said of its association with religion. Whoever has witnessed a Station in Ireland made at some blessed lake or holy well, will understand this. At such places it is quite usual to see young men and women devoutly circumambulating the well or lake on their bare knees with all the marks of penitence and contrition strongly impressed upon their faces; whilst again, after an hour or two, the same individuals may be found in a tent dancing with ecstatic vehemence to the music of the bagpipe or fiddle.
All these things, however, will be found, I trust I may say faithfully, depicted in the following volume - together with many other important features of our general character; which I would dwell on here, were it not that they are detailed very fully in other parts of my works, and I do not wish to deprive them of the force of novelty when they occur, nor to appear heavy by repetition.
In conclusion, I have endeavoured, with what success has been already determined by the voice of my own country, to give a panorama of Irish life among the people - comprising at one view all the strong points of their general character - their loves, sorrows, superstitions, piety, amusements, crimes and virtues; 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. [END] (Signed: Dublin, August 1842.)