Sydney Owenson, The Wild Irish Girl: A National Tale (1806)

Volume I
Introductory Letters; Letters I-VIII

Chapter Index


Questa gente benche mostra selvagea
E pur gli monte la contrada accierba
Nondimento l’e dolcie ad cui l’assagia.

‘This race of men, tho’ savage they may seem,
The country, too, with many a mountain rough,
Yet are they sweet to him who tries and tastes them.’

 
—Fazio Delli Uberti’s Travels through Ireland in the 14th Century


Introductory Letters

THE EARL OF M—
TO THE HON. HORATIO M—, KING’S BENCH

Castle M—, Leicestershire
Feb.—, 17—

If there are certain circumstances under which a fond father can address an imprisoned son, without suffering the bitterest heart-renderings of paternal agony, such are not those under which I now address you. To sustain the loss of the most precious of all human rights, and forfeit our liberty at the shrine of virtue, in defence of our country abroad, or of our public integrity and principles at home, a soothing solace, almost concomitant to the poignancy of its afflictions, and leaves the decision difficult, whether in the scale of human feelings, triumphant pride or affectionate regret preponderate.

‘I would not,’ said the old Earl of Ormond, ‘give up my dead son for twenty living ones.’ Oh! how I envy such a father the possession, and even the loss of such a child: with what eagerness my heart rushes back to that period when I too triumphed in my son, — when I beheld him glowing in all the unadulterated virtues of the happiest nature, flushed with the proud consciousness of superior genius, refined by a taste intuitively elegant, and warmed by an enthusiasm constitutionally ardent; his character indeed tinctured with the bright colouring of romantic eccentricity, but marked by the indelible traces of innate rectitude, and ennobled by the purest principles of native generosity, the proudest sense of inviolable honour, I beheld him rush eagerly on life, enamoured of its seeming good, incredulous of its latent evils, till fatally fascinated by the magic spell of the former, he fell an early victim to the successful lures of the latter. The growing influence of his passions kept pace with the expansion of his mind, and the moral powers of the man of genius, gave way to the overwhelming propensities of the man of pleasure. Yet in the midst of these exotic vices (for as such even yet I would consider them), he continued at once the object of my parental partiality and anxious solicitude; I admired while I condemned, I pitied while I reproved.

The rights of primogeniture, and the mild and prudent cast of your brother’s character, left me no cares with for his worldly interest of moral welfare: born to title affluence, his destination in life was ascertained previous to his entrance on its chequered scene; and equally free from passions to mislead, or talents to stimulate, he promised to his father that series of temperate satisfaction which, if unillumined by those coruscations your superior and promising genius flashed on the parental heart, could not prepare for its sanguine feelings that mortal disappointment with which you have destroyed all its hopes. On the recent death of my father I found myself possessed of a very large but encumbered property: it was requisite I should make the same establishment for my eldest son, that my father had made for me; while I was conscious that my youngest was in some degree to stand indebted to his own exertions, for independence as well as elevation in life.

You may recollect that during your first college vacation, we conversed on the subject of that liberal profession I had chosen for you, and you agreed with me, that it was congenial to your powers, and not inimical to your taste; while the part I was anxious you should take in the legislation of your country, seemed at once to rouse and gratify your ambition; but the pure flame of laudable emulation was soon extinguished in the destructive atmosphere of pleasure, and while I beheld you, in the visionary hopes of my parental ambition, invested with the crimson robe of legal dignity, or shining brightly conspicuous in the splendid galaxy of senatorial luminaries, you were idly presiding as the high priest of libertinism at the nocturnal orgies of vitiated dissipation, or indolently lingering out your life in elegant but unprofitable pursuits.

It were as vain as impossible to trace you through every degree of error on the scale of folly and imprudence, and such a repetition would be more heart-wounding to me than painful to you, were it even made under the most extenuating bias of parental fondness.

I have only to add, that though already greatly distressed by the liquidation of your debts, at a time when I am singularly circumstanced with respect to pecuniary resources, I will make a struggle to free you from the chains of this your present Iron-hearted creditor, though the retrenchment of my own expenses, and my temporary retreat to the solitude of my Irish estate, must be the result; provided that by this sacrifice I purchase your acquiescence to my wishes respecting the destiny of your future life, and an unreserved abjuration of the follies which have governed your past.

Your &c., &c.

M—   

˜

TO THE EARL OF M—

My Lord,

Suffer me, in the fullness of my heart, and in the language of one prodigal and penitent as myself, to say, ‘I have sinned against Heaven and thee, and am no longer worthy to be called thy son.’ Abandon me then, I beseech you, as such; deliver me up to the destiny that involves me, to the complicated tissue of errors and follies I have so industriously woven with my own vices have drawn down on me, I cannot support the cruel mercy with which your goodness endeavours to avert its weight.

Among the numerous catalogue of my faults, a sordid selfishness finds no place. Yet I should deservedly incur its imputation, were I to accept of freedom on such terms as you are so generous to offer. No, my Lord, continue to adorn that high and polished circle in which you are so eminently calculated to move; nor think so lowly of one who, with all his faults, is your son, as to believe him ready to purchase his liberty at the expence of your banishment from your native country.

I am, &c., &c.

H.M.

King’s Bench.

˜

TO THE HON. HORATIO M—

An act to which the exaggeration of your feelings gives the epithet of banishment, I shall consider as a voluntary sequestration from scenes of which I am weary, to scenes which, though thrice visited, still preserve the poignant charms of novelty and interest. Your hasty and undigested answer to my letter (written in the prompt emotion of the moment, ere the probable consequence of a romantic rejection to an offer not unreflectingly made, could be duly weighed or coolly examined), convinces me experience has contributed little to the modification of your feelings, or the prudent regulation of your conduct. It is this promptitude of feeling, this contempt of prudence, that formed the predisposing cause of your errors and your follies. Dazzled by the brilliant glare of the splendid virtues, you saw not, you would not see, that prudence was among the first of moral excellencies; the director, the regulator, the standard of them all; — that is in fact the corrective of virtue herself; for even virtue, like the sun, has her solstice, beyond which she ought not to move.

If you would retribute what you seem to lament, and unite restitution to penitence, leave this country for a short time, and abandon with the haunts of your former blameable pursuits, those associates who were at once the cause and punishment of your errors. I myself will become your partner in exile, for it is to my estate in Ireland I banish you for the summer. You have already got through the ‘first rough brakes’ of your profession: as you can now serve the last term of this season, I see no cause why Coke upon Lyttelton cannot be as well studied amidst the wild seclusion of Connaught scenery, and on the solitary shores of the ‘steep Atlantic,’ as in the busy bustling precincts of the Temple.

I have only to add, that I shall expect your undivided attention will be given up to your professional studies; that you will for a short interval resign the fascinating pursuits of polite literature and belles lettres, from which even the syren spell of pleasure could not tear you, and which snatched from vice many of those hours I believed devoted to more serious studies. I know you will find it no less difficult to resign the elegant theories of your favourite Lavater, for the dry facts of law reports, than to exchange your duodecimo editions of the amatory poets for heavy tomes of cold legal disquisitions; but happiness is to be purchased, and labour is the price; fame and independence are the result of talent united to great exertion, and the elegant enjoyments of literary leisure are never so keenly relished as when tasted under the shade of that flourishing laurel which our own efforts have reared to mature perfection. Farewell! my agent has orders respecting the arrangement of your affairs. You must excuse the procrastination of our interview till we meet in Ireland, which I fear will not be so immediate as my wishes would incline. I shall write to my banker in Dublin to replenish your purse on your arrival in Ireland, and to my Connaught steward, to prepare for your reception at M— house. Write to me by return.

Once more, farewell!

M—

˜

TO J.D. ESQ. M.P.

Holyhead

We are told in the splendid Apocrypha of ancient Irish fable, that when one of the learned was missing on the Continent of Europe, it was proverbially said,

‘Amandatus est ad disciplinum in Hibernia.’

But I cannot recollect that in its fabulous or veracious history, Ireland was ever the mart of voluntary exile to the man of pleasure; so that when you and the rest of my precious associates miss the track of my footsteps in the oft-trod path of dissipation, you will never think of tracing its pressure to the wildest of the Irish shores. And exclaim, ‘Amandatus est ad,’ &c. &c. &c.

However, I am so far advanced in the land of Druidism, on my way to the ‘Island of Saints,’ while you, in the emporium of the world, are drinking from the cup of conjugal love a temporary oblivion to your past sins and wickedness, and revelling in the first golden dreams of matrimonial illusion.

I suppose an account of my high crimes and misdemeanours, banishment, &c. &c. have already reached your ears; but while my brethren in transportation are offering up their wishes and their hopes on the shore, to the unpropitious god of winds, indulge me in the garrulity of egotism, and suffer me to correct the overcharged picture of that arch caricature report, by giving you a correct ébauche of the recent circumstances of my useless life.

When I gave you convoy as far as Dover on your way to France, I returned to London, to

‘Surfeit on the same
and yawn my joys

And was again soon plunged in that dreadful vacillation of mind from which your society and conversation had so lately redeemed me.

Vibrating between an innate propensity to right, and a habitual adherence to wrong; sick of pursuits I was too indolent to relinquish, and linked to vice, yet still enamoured of virtue; weary of the useless, joyless inanity of my existence, yet without energy, without power to regenerate my worthless being; daily losing ground in the minds of the inestimable few who were still interested for my welfare; nor compensating for the loss, by the gratification of any one feeling in my own heart, and held up as an object of fashionable popularity for sustaining that character, which of all others I most despised; my taste impoverished by a vicious indulgence, my senses palled by repletion, my heart shill and unawakened, every appetite depraved and pampered into satiety, I fled from myself, as the object of my own utter contempt and detestation, and found a transient pleasurable inebriety in the well-practiced blandishments of Lady C .

You who alone know me, who alone have openly condemned, and secretly esteemed me, you who have wisely culled the blossom of pleasure, while I have sucked its poison, know that I am rather a merchant par air, than from any irresistible propensity to indiscriminate libertinism. In fact, the original sin of my nature militates against the hackneyed modes of hackneyed licentiousness; for I am too profound a voluptuary to feel any exquisite gratification from such gross pursuits as the ‘swinish multitude’ of fashion ennoble with that name so little understood, pleasure. Misled in my earliest youth by ‘passion’s meteor ray,’ even then, my heart called (but called in vain), for a thousand delicious refinements to give poignancy to the mere transient impulse of sense.

Oh! my dear friend, if in that sunny season of existence when the ardours of youth nourished in our bosom a thousand indescribable emotions of tenderness and love, it had been my fortunate destiny to have met with a being, who — but this is an idle regret, perhaps an idle supposition; — the moment of ardent susceptibility is over, when woman becomes the sole spell which lures us to good or ill, and when her omnipotence, according to the bias of her own nature, and the organization of those feelings on which it operates, determines in a certain degree our destiny through life — leads the mind through themedium of the heart to the noblest pursuits, or seduces it through the medium of the passions to the basest career.

That I became the dupe of Lady C, and her artful predecessor, arose from the want of that ‘something still unpossessed,’ to fill my life’s dreadful void. I sensibly felt the want of an object to interest my feelings, and laboured under that dreadful interregnum of the heart, reason and ambition; which leaves the craving passions open to every invader. Lady C- perceived the situation of my mind, and — but spare me the detail of a connexion which even in memory, produces a nausea of every sense and feeling. Suffice to say, that equally the victim of the husband’s villany as the wife’s artifice, I stifled on its birth a threatened prosecution, by giving my bond for a sum I was unable to liquidate: it was given as for a gambling debt, but my father, who had long suspected, and endeavoured to break this fatal connexion, guessed at the truth, and suffered me to become a guest (mal voluntaire) in the King’s Bench. This unusual severity on his part, lessened not on mine the sense of his indulgence to my former boundless extravagance, and I determined to remain a prisoner for life, rather than owe my liberty to a new imposition on his tenderness, by such solicitings as have hitherto been invariably crowned with success, though answered with reprehension.

I had been already six weeks a prisoner, deserted by those gay moths that had fluttered round the beam of my transient prosperity; delivered up to all the maddening mediation of remorse, when I received a letter from my father (when with my brother in Leicestershire), couched in his usual terms of reprehension, and intervals of associating every fault with some ideal excellence of parental creation, alternately the father and the judge; and as you once said, when I accused him of partiality to his eldest born, ‘talking best of Edward, but most of me.’

In a word, he has behaved like an Angel! So well, that by Heavens! I can scarcely bear to think of it. A spurious half-bred generosity — a little tincture of illiberality on his side, would have been Balm of Gilead to my wounded conscience; but with unqualified goodness he has paid all my debts, supplied my purse beyond my wants, and only asks in return, that I will retire for a few months to Ireland, and this I believe merely to wean me from the presence of an object which he falsely believes still hangs about my heart with no moderate influence.

And yet I wish his mercy had flowed in any other channel, even though more confined and less liberal.

Had he banished me to the savage desolations of Siberia, my exile would have had some character; had he even transported me to a South-Sea Island, or thrown me into an Esquimaux hut, my new species of being would have been touched with some interest; for in fact, the present relaxed state of my intellectual system requires some strong transition of place, circumstance, and manners, to wind it up to its native tone, to rouse it to energy, or awaken it to exertion.

But sent to a country against which I have a decided prejudice — which I suppose semi-barbarous, semi-civilized; has lost the strong and hardy features of savage life, without acquiring those graces which distinguish polished society — I shall neither participate in the poignant pleasure of awakened curiosity and acquired information, nor taste the least of those enjoyments which courted my acceptances in my native land. Enjoyments did I say! And were they indeed when the sentiment it once clothed no longer exists. Would that my past pursuits wore even in recollection, the aspect of enjoyments. But even my memory has lost its character of energy, and the past, like the present, appears one unvaried scene of chill and vapid existence. No sweet point of reflection seizes on the recollective powers. No actual joy woos my heart’s participation, and no prospect of future felicity glows on the distant vista of life, or awakens the quick throb of hope and expectation; all is cold, sullen, and dreary.

Laval seems to entertain no less prejudice against this country than his master, he has therefore begged leave of absence until my father comes over. Pray have the goodness to send me by him a box of Italian crayons, and a good thermometer; for I must have something to relieve the tedium vitæ of my exiled days; and in my articles of stipulation with my father, chemistry and belles lettres are specifically prohibited. It was a useless prohibition, for Heaven knows chemistry would have been the last study I should have flown to in my present state of mind. For how can he look minutely into the intimate substance of things, and resolve them into their simple and elementary substance, whose own disordered mind is incapable of analyzing the passions by which it is agitated, of ascertaining the reciprocal relation of its incoherent ideas, or combining them in different proportions (from those in which they were united by chance), in order to join a new and useful compound for the benefit of future life? As for belles lettres! so blunted are all those powers once so

‘Active and strong, and feelingly alive
To each fine impulse,’

that not one ‘pensèe couleur de rose’ lingers on the surface of my faded imagination, and I should turn with as much apathy from the sentimental sorcery of Rousseau, as from the voluminous verbosity of an high German doctor, yawn over ‘the Pleasures of Memory,’ and run the risk of falling fast asleep with the brilliant Madame de Sevigne in my hand. So send me a FAHRENHEIT, that I may bend the few coldly mechanical powers left me, to ascertain the temperature of my wild western territories, and expect my letters from thence to be only filled with the summary results of meteoric instruments, and synoptical views of common phenomena.

Adieu,

H.M.

LETTER I


TO J.D. ESQ. M.P.

Dublin, March—, 17—

I remember, when I was a boy, meeting somewhere with the quaintly written travels of Moryson through Ireland, and being particularly stuck with his assertion, that so late as the days of Elizabeth, an Irish chieftain and his family were frequently seen seated round their domestic fire in a state of perfect nudity. This singular anecdote (so illustrative of the barbarity of the Irish at a period when civilization had made such a wonderful progress even in its sister countries), fastened so strongly on my boyish imagination, that whenever the Irish were mentioned in my presence, an Esquimaux group circling round the fire which was to dress a dinner, or broil an enemy, was the image which presented itself to my mind; and in this trivial source, I believe, originated that early formed opinion of Irish ferocity, which has since been nurtured into a confirmed prejudice. So true it is, that almost all the erroneous principles which influence our maturer being, are to be traced to some fatal association of ideas received and formed in early life. But whatever may be the cause, I feel the strongest objection to becoming a resident in the remote part of a country which is still shaken by the convulsions of an anarchical spirit; where for a series of ages the olive of peace has not been suffered to shoot forth one sweet blossom of national concord, which the sword of civil dissention has not cropt almost in the germ; and the natural character of whose factious sons, as we are still taught to believe, is turbulent, faithless, intemperate, and cruel; formerly destitute of arts, letters, or civilization, and still but slowly submitting to their salutary and ennobling influence.

To confess the truth, I had so far suffered prejudice to get the start of unbiased liberality, that I had almost assigned to these rude people scenes appropriately barbarous; and never was more pleasantly astonished, than when the morning’s dawn gave to my view one of the most splendid spectacles in the scene of picturesque creation I had ever beheld, or indeed ever conceived; the bay of Dublin.

A foreigner on board the packet, compared the view to that which the bay of Naples affords: I cannot judge of the justness of the comparison, though I am told one very general and common-place; but if the scenic beauties of the Irish bay are exceeded by those of the Neapolitan, my fancy falls short in a just conception of its charms. The springing up of a contrary wind kept us for a considerable time beating about this enchanting coast: the weather suddenly changed, the rain poured in torrents, a storm arose, and the beautiful prospect which had fascinated our gaze, vanished in mists of impenetrable obscurity.

As we had the mail on board, a boat was sent out to receive it, the oars of which were plied by six men, whose stature, limbs, and features, declared them the lingering progeny of the once formidable race of Irish giants. Bare-headed, they ‘bided the pelting of the pitiless storm,’ with no other barrier to its fury, than what tattered check trowsers, and shirts open at the neck, and tucked above the elbows afforded; and which, thus disposed, betrayed the sinewy contexture of forms, which might have individually afforded a model to sculpture, for the colossal statue of an Hercules, under all the difference aspects of strength and exertion. [1]

A few of the passengers proposing to venture in the boat, I listlessly followed, and found myself seated by one of these sea monsters, who in an accent and voice that made me startle, addressed me in English at least as pure and correct as a Thames boatman would use; and with so much courtesy, cheerfulness, and respect, that I was at a loss how to reconcile such civilization of manner to such ferocity of appearance; while his companions, as they stemmed the mountainous waves, or plied their heavy oars, displayed such a vein of low humour and quaint drollery, and in a language so curiously expressive and original, that no longer able to suppress my surprize, I betrayed it to a gentleman who sat near me, and by whom I was assured that this species of colloquial wit was peculiar to the lower classes of the Irish, who borrowed much of their curious phraseology from the peculiar idiom of their own tongue, and the cheeriness of manner from the native exility of their temperament; ‘and as for their courteousness,’ he continued, ‘you will find them on a further intercourse, civil even to adulation, as long as you treat them with apparent kindness, but an opposite conduct will prove their manner proportionably uncivilized.’

‘It is very excusable,’ said I, ‘they are of a class in society to which the modification of the feelings are unknown, and to be sensibly alive to kindness or to unkindness, is, in my opinion, a noble trait in the national character of an unsophisticated people.’

While we spoke, we landed, and for the something like pleasurable emotion, which the first on my list of Irish acquaintance produced in my mind, I distributed among these ‘sons of the waves’ more silver than I believe they expected. Had I bestowed a principality on an Englishman of the same rank, he would have been less lavish of the eloquence of gratitude on his benefactor, though he might equally have felt the sentiment.-So much for my voyage across the Channel!

This city is to London like a small temple of the Ionic order, whose proportions are delicate, whose character is elegance, compared to a vast palace whose Corinthian pillars at once denote strength and magnificence.

The wonderous extent of London excites our amazement; the compact uniformity of Dublin our admiration. But as dispersion is less within the coup-d’œil of observance, than aggregation, the small, but harmonious features of Dublin seize at once on the eye, while the scattered but splendid traits of London, excite a less immediate and more progressive admiration, which is often lost in the intervals that occur between those objects which are calculated to excite it.

In London, the miserable shop of the gin seller, and the magnificent palace of a Duke, alternately create disgust, or awaken approbation.

In Dublin the buildings are not arranged upon such democratic principles. The plebeian hut offers no foil to the patrician edifice, while their splendid and beautiful public structures are so closely connected, as with some degree of policy to strike at once upon the eye in the happiest combination. [2]

In other respects this city appears to me to be the miniature copy of our imperial original, though minutely imitative in show and glare. Something less observant of life’s prime luxuries, order and cleanliness, there is a certain class of wretches who haunt the streets of Dublin, so emblematic of vice, poverty, idleness, and filth, that disgust and pity frequently succeed in the minds of the stranger to sentiments of pleasure, surprize, and admiration. For the origin of this evil, I must refer you to the supreme police of the city; but whatever may be the cause, the effects (to an Englishman especially) are dreadful and disgusting beyond all expression.

Although my father has a large connexion here, yet he only gave me a letter to his banker, who has forced me to make his house my home for the few days I shall remain in Dublin, and whose cordiality and kindness sanctions all that has ever been circulated of Irish hospitality.

In the present state of my feelings, however, a party on the banks of the Ohio, with a tribe of Indian hunters, would be more consonant to my inclinations than the refined pleasures of the most polished circles in the world. Yet these warm-hearted people, who find in the name of stranger, and irresistible lure to every kind attention, will fore me to be happy in despite of myself, and overwhelm me with invitation, some of which it is impossible to resist. My prejudices have received some mortal strokes, when I perceived that the natives of this barbarous country have got goal for goal with us, in every elegant refinement of life and manners; the only difference I can perceive between a London and a Dublin rout is, that here, even amongst the first class, there is a warmth and cordiality of address, which, though perhaps not more sincere than the cold formality of British ceremony, is certainly more fascinating. [3]

It is not, however, in Dublin I shall expect to find the tone of national character and manner; in the first circles of all great cities (as in courts), the native features of national character are softened into general uniformity, and the genuine feelings of nature are suppressed or exchanged for a political compliance with the reigning modes and customs, which hold their tenure from the sanction and example of the seat of government. Before I close this, I must make one observation, which I think will speak more than volumes for the refinement of these people.

During my short residence here, I have been forced, in the true spirit of Irish dissipation, into three parties of a night; and I have upon these occasions observed, that the most courted objects of popular attention, were those whose talents alone endowed them with distinction. Besides amateurs, I have met with many professional persons, whom I knew in London as public characters, and who are here incorporated in the first and most brilliant circles, appearing to feel no other inequality, than what their own superiority of genius confers.

I leave Dublin to-morrow for M— house. It is situated in the county of , on the north-west coast of Connaught, which I am told is the classic ground of Ireland. The native Irish, pursued by religious and political bigotry, made it the asylum of their sufferings, and were separated by a provincial barrier from an intercourse with the rest of Ireland, until after the Restoration, so I shall have a fair opportunity of beholding the Irish character in all its primeval ferocity.

Direct your next to Bally—, which I find is the nearest post town to my Kamscatkan palace; where, with no other society than that of Blackstone and Co. I shall lead such a life of animal existence, as PRIOR gives to his Contented Couple

‘They ate and drank, and slept — what then?
Why, slept and drank, and ate again.’

Adieu,

H.M


Notes

1. This little marine sketch is by no means a fancy picture; it was actually copied from the life, in the summer of 1805.

2. Although in one point of view, there may be a policy in this close association of splendid objects, yet it is a circumstance of general and just condemnation to all strangers who are not confined to a partial survey of the city.

3. ‘Every unprejudiced traveller who visits them (the Irish), will be as much pleased with their cheerfulness as obliged by their hospitality; and will find them a brave, polite, and liberal people.’ — Philosophical Survey through Ireland by MR. YOUNG.

 

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