William Carleton,

Historian of the Famine

The famous Irish author and poet, W.B. Yeats, once described the 19th Century Irish author William Carleton (1794–1869) as ‘a great Irish historian’. Yeats considered “the history of a nation is not in parliaments and battlefields but in what the people say to each other on fair-days and high days, and in how they farm, and quarrel, and go on pilgrimage”. In all of his books and short stories these were precisely the things that Carleton recorded and left for succeeding generations to read. A new edition of his book “Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry” was published in 1843, and in its ‘Introduction’ he explained that he was trying to give his readers “a panorama of Irish life among the people . . . their loves, sorrows, superstitions, piety, amusements, crimes and virtues”. With great word skills Carleton had as he said, “painted them honestly and without reference to the existence of any particular creed or party”. Throughout his novels and his sketches of peasant life in Ireland during the first half of the nineteenth century William Carleton described in great detail the living conditions and living standards of the poor, alongside other social realities that existed such as the relationship between poverty and illness, the prevalence of disease among the poor, and the recurring famines and accompanying fever epidemics that had become a major feature of Irish peasant life.

Carleton’s story ‘The Black Prophet’ was subtitled ‘A Tale of Irish Famine’, and it was serialised in the Dublin University Magazine between May and December 1846. By this time the entire country was gripped in the crisis that was to become the ‘Great Irish Famine’ and Carleton’s story created such interest that it was published in book form early in the following year. The story itself was based on the author’s experience of famine between 1817 and 1819, and again in 1821 and 1822. In that same year, 1846, an influential pamphlet concerning famine and fever as cause and effect in Ireland also appeared. It was written by Dr Dominic Corrigan, whose work with many of Dublin’s poorest inhabitants had led to him specialising in diseases of the heart and lungs, and the abnormal “collapsing” pulse of aortic valve insufficiency is named ‘Corrigan’s Pulse’ Corrigan’s influential pamphlet on famine and disease was based on earlier famines and fever epidemics that had plagued the country. His central thesis was that fever was the inevitable consequence of famine. From his studies he had come to the conclusion that famine would always be accompanied by a lethal outbreak of disease.

Corrigan’s pamphlet was widely noted and widely reviewed, because his argument was extremely controversial. This was a time when medical science was still a great mystery and long before the germ theory of disease was formulated and causes of disease were still speculative. But, the manner in which Carleton portrayed fever in ‘The Black Prophet’ was closely based on Corrigan’s controversial pamphlet. In a footnote to the story, Carleton reproduced several extracts from the pamphlet, including the final paragraph in which Corrigan compared the relative impact of typhus fever and Asiatic cholera, both of which had appeared in Ireland for the first time in the early 1830s, causing unprecedented consternation and panic. In Corrigan’s opinion fever was much more lethal and destructive than cholera or any other infectious disease. Corrigan stated – “Cholera may seem more frightful but it is in reality less destructive. It terminates rapidly in death, or in as rapid recovery. Its visitation too is short, and it leaves those who recover unimpaired in health and strength. Civil war, were it not for its crimes, would be, as far as regards the welfare of a country, a visitation less to be dreaded than epidemic fever.”[1]

As Carleton wrote in his lengthy footnote, Corrigan’s pamphlet “ought to be looked on as a great public benefit”, because it revealed “it conveyed ‘most important truths to statesmen’. Both Carleton’s story and Corrigan’s pamphlet were written with the purpose of serving as a warning to the government in England and its administration in Ireland about the inevitable consequences of the current famine situation that was evolving throughout the country. In ‘The Black Prophet’ Carleton warned that during the famine and fever epidemic of 1817–19 “the number of those who were reduced to mendicancy was incredible”, which was an observation that was corroborated by numerous contemporary accounts. Carleton compared Ireland during these years of famine to a huge fever-hospital that was filled to capacity with victims of famine, disease and death. Adding to the desolation of the scenes that he had witnessed he wrote, “The very skies of heaven were hung with the black drapery of the grave”. The author also commented that hearses, coffins, and long funeral processions appeared to be everywhere one looked. Describing the deathly note of the constantly pealing church bells, Carleton wrote about the roads of the countryside being “literally black with funerals”.[2]

The language and imagery used in ‘The Black Prophet’ resembles those used by a young Irish doctor, Dr. Robert James Graves, who had been sent to Galway during the famine of 1822 as an emergency physician. He reported that the local peasants were always scrupulous in the manner that they conducted wakes, while the cries and lamentations of the large numbers that thronged after funerals, alongside the tolling of the death-bell from the church, always gave the local area a strikingly mournful appearance.  But, one of the features of Graves’s report, which occurs regularly in Carleton’s stories, is the terrible fear of infection among the Irish peasantry. It was a fear that intensified on every occasion that any one of the deadly epidemic diseases that plagued Ireland periodically, in the first half of the nineteenth century, appeared among them. Dr. Graves had accurately described the alarm that he met among the people when he arrived in Galway during late September 1822, where, he noted, that the common topics of conversation among the peasants were the sick and the dead. The ties of blood, friendship and hospitality were frequently broken by the same fear of contagion, Graves reported, and those who had been infected were either turned out of their cabins or left therein and abandoned to their own devices.

 “The dreadful typhus was now abroad in all its deadly power, accompanied, on this occasion, as it always is among the Irish, by a panic, which invested it with tenfold terrors. The moment fever was ascertained, or even supposed, to visit a family, that moment the infected persons were avoided by their neighbours and friends as if they carried death, as they often did, about them, so that its presence occasioned all the usual interchanges of civility and good-neighbourhood to be discontinued.”[3] In this extract from ‘The Black Prophet’ Carleton captures the reaction of the ordinary people to communicable diseases like typhus fever. There are also contained within Carleton’s tales that make up ‘Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry’ many echoes of Dr. Graves’s reports.

In the ‘The Black Prophet’ Carleton also wrote, “Such as had typhus in their own families were incapable of attending to the wants or distresses of others, and such as had not, acting under the general terror of contagion which prevailed, avoided the sick houses as they would a plague”. This is an authentic portrayal of Irish social realities in the first half of the nineteenth century. The fear, dread, mass panic and hysteria that filled the people were features that were prevalent in all outbreaks of fever and other diseases in Ireland. It was a terrible fear of the unknown, because these simple and virtually uneducated people did not understand how these diseases were caused. Not knowing the causes, they had no idea how to begin to cure them, and they feared anything that they did not know and could not control. But, they were very much aware of the terrible impact and consequences of diseases like fever upon those already weakened by hunger. If these diseases did not kill their victims, they were often left in much worse condition than prior to infection.

William Carleton

Unfortunately, the Irish people had an unrivalled knowledge of fever, its symptoms and its consequences. They were very much aware that the disease was contagious, and their terrible fear of infection drove them to quarantine any fever victims. There were, at the time, two main ways in which they could try to keep people in isolation, each of which was dependent upon the family circumstances of the affected persons. Those victims from the middle and upper classes of Irish society, with better housing and superior domestic arrangements than their poorer neighbours, would often try to isolate the infected person within their homes. One common method was described by a County Kilkenny doctor in 1844, stating that when fever appeared in the homes of wealthier farmers the door of ‘the sick room’ was “built up with sods, and a hole made in the back wall, through which the doctor must scramble in the best way he can upon all fours into an apartment which is almost invariably dirty, dark and damp”. However, he added that such efforts were invariably fruitless and any attempts at domestic segregation of the sick did little to check the spread of disease.[4]

The method employed by the peasantry to isolate the fever victims was to house them in shelters that they called ‘fever huts’. These huts usually consisted of a few stakes, covered with long sods called ‘scraws’ and a small portion of straw or rushes. These flimsy structures were quickly thrown together at the side of a road, the corner of a field or at the verge of a bog. In the 1830s a County Kildare doctor informed a parliamentary commission that was inquiring into the circumstances of the Irish poor, the so-called ‘Poor Inquiry’, of a fever patient he had found lying on some straw in a ditch. He told the commission, “It could not be called a hut, because it had only two sides, the back of the ditch forming one and some straw and furze tied together formed the other. This was removable and changed to whatever side the wind blew from.” In 1839 a visitor to County Fermanagh 1839 came across five instances “where the inmates of fevered hovels had fled to the roadside and struck up a kind of wigwam, composed of an upright stick, at the back of a ditch, and a lock of straw”.

In ‘The Poor Scholar’, one of several tales forming Carleton’s “Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry”, the author describes the experiences of Jemmy McEvoy, who had contracted fever. He writes, “The early symptoms of the prevailing epidemic were well known . . . The Irish are particularly apprehensive of contagious maladies. The moment it had been discovered that Jemmy was infected, his school-fellows avoided him with a feeling of terror scarcely credible.” In Carleton’s story, the infected schoolboy was avoided as if he was a leper. Even when a group of agricultural labourers discovered the dazed and barely conscious Jemmy, they too were afraid of the disease but, after some deliberation, agreed to help him because, as one of them said, “there’s a great blessin’ to thim that assists the likes of him”. “Let us help him!” exclaimed another, “for God’s sake, an’ we won’t be apt to take it thin!” The labourers then built a small hut’ for Jemmy on the side of the public road, which was built from a few loose sticks that were covered over with “scraws”, which are the sward of the earth pared into thin strips. Jemmy, the ‘Poor Scholar’, Jemmy, was placed on some straw that had been laid in this structure, and food and drink were passed to him by means of a pitchfork and a long-shafted shovel, which was the custom of the time. It was a strategy that the peasantry resorted to in their efforts to avoid coming into personal contact with the infected person.

The sentiments expressed in Carleton’s story follows the evidence that was recorded in the ‘Poor Inquiry’ relating to the provision of charity to beggars and vagrants. ‘The Poor Inquiry’, conducted in the mid-1830s, took place almost at the same time as Carleton was writing ‘Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry’. When speaking to the inquiry several contributors expressed sentiments, such as, “When I give, I do so for the good of my soul, the honour of God, and for their benefit”, “I give, recollecting that I have another place to go to, where, if I give alms, I will receive fourfold reward”. Because of his knowledge of the people Carleton was able to capture the popular voice, which we find is often absent from the historical record. But, we must recognise the fact that Carleton was more than just a social chronicler. ‘The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine’ has a special meaning with regard to the Anglo-Irish politics of the day.  Carleton dedicated this work to Lord John Russell, who was the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland, acknowledging that both Russell and his predecessor, Sir Robert Peel, were “sincerely anxious to benefit” Ireland. However, in his dedicatory preface he did add, “. . . the man who, in his ministerial capacity, must be looked upon as a public exponent of those principles of government which have brought our country to her present calamitous condition, by a long course of illiberal legislation and unjustifiable neglect, ought to have his name placed before a story which details with truth the sufferings which such legislation and neglect have entailed upon our people.”

Carleton assured the Prime Minister that all of the facts and circumstances that he had depicted in his book were authentic, and he expressed the hope that Russell would prove himself to be ‘a friend’ of Ireland.  Although well-meaning it had little chance of success, as the events of the ‘Great Irish Famine’ would show. ‘The Black Prophet’ is indeed an historical record of the manner in which the peasant way of life in Ireland disappeared, and how an entire society was utterly changed by that ‘Great Famine’. Anyone who has read the wonderful stories written by William Carleton will without doubt agree with W.B. Yeats that he was a historian of the people, and through his words we have a better insight into what life in early-nineteenth century Ireland was like.

[1] From an article by Laurence M. Geary in ‘History Ireland’ Magazine.

[2] W. Carleton, The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine (Belfast and London, 1847).

[3] W. Carleton, The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine (Belfast and London, 1847).

[4]  J. Robins, ‘The Miasma. Epidemic and panic in nineteenth-century Ireland’, Dublin, 1995.

Irish Travellers

One Perspective

Ireland is well-known for its whiskey, its Poitin, Turf, Storytelling, the Music and the Craic. But, as well as the remote mountains, peat bogs, lakes, and country roads, there is the sight of Irish Travellers, who make up just under 30,000 people or one percent of the country’s population. Being a ‘Traveller’ is a recognised status within Ireland’s social strata, and to be considered a member of the ‘Traveller’ community an individual must have at least one ‘Traveller’ parent. What is also striking about the ‘Traveller’ community in the country is that they have their own language, formally known as ‘Shelta’,  which the ‘Travellers’, themselves, call ‘Gammon’ or ‘Cant’. An analysis of ‘Shelta’ has led some scholars to conclude that it came to the fore when the use of the Irish language was prohibited by English conquerors, some 350 years ago.

Although a distinct nomadic group of people they are in a unique position in Ireland because the ‘Travellers’ are native to this land. Over the centuries they have had to face many internal and external influences working against them, which have left their present sociological status is a precarious condition. They have been considered a ‘problem’ by many generations of Irish men and women and have had to suffer repression, suppression and discrimination to varying degrees, leaving them be currently viewed by many in ‘settled’ population as second-class Irish citizens.

The true origins of Irish Travelling People is a continuous source of debate in Ireland, but four main causes behind how ‘Irish Travellers’ came into being. One theory suggests that their direct descendants became nomadic for some economic, social, or cultural reason that caused them to prefer living outside the ‘Brehon Laws’, which were an ancient body of ‘Common Law’ dating from pre-historic times in Ireland. The wandering habits of the people within Gaelic Ireland have also been advanced as a possible explanation for nomadic metalworkers or  ‘plain tinkers’. Some researchers have emphasised the mobile, nomadic nature of Gaelic society, believing that the suppression of this lifestyle during the sixteenth-century Tudor reconquest laid the colonial foundations of anti-Traveller racism. Despite such actions by the English elements of the Gaelic pastoral economy continued, the best-known example being ‘booleying’. This is basically the practice of people living in temporary shelters moving herds of cattle from winter to summer pastures. ‘Booleying’ is an important factor in the context of nomadism because it was an agricultural practice demanding seasonal movement that survived within Ireland in some form until the nineteenth century. Its persistence illustrates the difficulty of describing all agriculture as being carried out on settled farmland when the pastoral economy favoured by the Irish cattle farmer could be described as partly nomadic.

The theory that ‘Travellers’ emerged from such a nomadic population has three distinct aspects i.e. craftsmen, the poor and dispossessed, and social misfits. It is believed that craftsmen in metal work and their families were the original nomadic population, and date from the pre-Christian days in this land. A second theory suggests that the ‘Travellers’ are the direct descendants of native Irish chieftains who were dispossessed of their lands and property by the English during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, and ‘planted’ with English and Scottish protestant farmers. There is another theory that claims that the ‘Travellers’ were the result of intermarriage between the ‘Romany’ Gypsies and Irish peasants. However, it is more likely that the ‘Travellers’ are the descendants of peasants and labourers who were driven from their land by the political and economic upheaval caused by the Great Irish Famine (1845-1850).

In prior centuries, great poverty, Cromwellian wars, and dispossession, evictions and pressure upon the land all combined to produce ‘the crisis of the Irish peasantry’, which drove thousands to wander the roads of Ireland. Researchers have been very careful to say that it is not possible to put an accurate figure on the number of dispossessed tenants and labourers joined the ranks of itinerant craftsmen, and eventually became permanent Travellers. All that we have are theories even today we cannot accurately place their origin of ‘Travellers’ within a certain and credible historical context. Nevertheless, the scholars cannot resist making a link between contemporary ‘Traveller’ surnames and the poverty-stricken population of the west of Ireland, encouraged by the fact that we do know that forty percent of the ‘Travellers’ share ten common surnames.

Over the centuries, ‘Travellers’ became a separate group because they were permanently nomadic and were able to distance themselves from the numerous male tramps and vagabonds who were always on the roads in these times. This distancing other itinerant people is a strange contradiction, but it demonstrates that the similarity in their lifestyles was not the most important factor in bringing about the ‘Traveller’ population. This difficulty has only added to the problems that scholars have had in placing ‘Travellers’ within the historical records as a distinct cultural minority. We cannot, therefore, presume that ‘Travellers’ in the past were the same as the ‘Travellers’ we know today. In the same way, the well-understood boundaries between ‘Travellers’ and settled people are evident in the recent past, based on family structure, work patterns, religious beliefs, and gender roles, cannot be presumed to have existed in earlier societies. Some researchers claim that after the end of the ‘Great Famine’ in 1850, the antipathy which is shown in present-day attitudes towards itinerants appears to have begun to develop’, although there is little evidence to support such a claim. But we do know that life in twenty-first century Ireland is as different to the Ireland of the mid-nineteenth century as it is to the Ireland of the ninth century.

The ‘Travelling People’ are so much a part of Ireland today, but we cannot definitively state that they emerged as a result of dispossession, and colonial oppression. Historians have not directly blamed Anglo-Irish relations for the existence of homeless individuals and families who subsisted on begging and seasonal employment. However, epidemic disease, the lack of organised welfare, economic crises, poor harvests, and demobilisation do seem to feature as causes. Local studies of efforts to improve the status of the homeless poor do show that institutional confinement was the method most favoured by eighteenth-century society. But, since there was no statutory, nationwide system of poor relief in Ireland until 1838, urban and rural dwellers who could not earn or produce enough to support themselves frequently resorted to begging and vagrancy.

Although the ‘Travelling’ population in Ireland was large, contemporary observers did not see it clearly as a separate grouping of people. However, research into Irish attitudes to poverty before 1838 shows that most are attempts by society to differentiate between the men, women, and children who travelled the roads seeking work or alms. In eighteenth-century Dublin, those with money and authority attempted to ‘devise specific types of responses to the different types of pauper which they believed existed. These distinctions were made on the basis of origin, health, ability to work, age, gender, and religion. But even within these categories, there were further differences, causing more attempts to better understand the homeless population and a long list of different terms to describe them, including strange beggar, local beggar, habitual beggar, foreign beggar, stroller, mendicant, vagrant, vagabond, badged poor, impotent poor, sturdy poor, idle poor, church poor, foundling. The number of terms and the subtleties of meaning conveyed by their varying uses in different contexts suggests that there was a complex attitude to the homeless in those days. It is not possible for us to say whether the extent of differentiation between the poverty-stricken people included any notice being taken of culturally distinct nomads as separate from, or in addition to, the various categories of homeless poor. However, since the researchers of the time were primarily interested in describing people with no fixed abode who begged for alms, the cultural life of these individuals would have held no importance.

In years past the ‘Traveller’ would be well-known for story-telling, word-of-mouth histories and they travelled from place to place singing, playing music, and telling stories to entertain people. More importantly, however, for the more isolated Irish communities, these itinerants provide a useful social function in bringing the news with them. As their name suggests the ‘Travellers’ were habitual wanderers, moving from place to place and having no fixed abode that they could call home. In more recent times, however, such a definition neglects to include those partially settled travellers who have elected to live in houses, as opposed to Campsites or Halting sites. Nevertheless, their nomadic inclinations remain a key part of the culture of the ‘Travelling People.’ But, even in years past, mobility was not something that was confined to the destitute but was a relatively common feature of agricultural and urban work. Apart from the ‘Booleying’ that has been mentioned, labourers travelled to gather the harvest, and there was an annual migration between Britain and Ireland of labour, which has been well-studied. However, little is known about the internal migration patterns of seasonal labourers in Ireland, who travelled between certain counties or areas on a regular basis. Although Irish agriculture may not have required as many seasonal workers as the farms of England or Scotland, harvest time continued to generate a demand for labour that could not be met by farmers’ families or the local labour force.

Seasonality and its attendant mobility persisted even in industrial occupations. People in the cities and towns also left their fixed homes to become seasonal agricultural labourers, while men employed in the building trade tramped for miles to secure work. The scholars would divide these ‘migrating classes’ into four separate categories, based on the extent and patterns of their mobility. In the first group, there were habitual wanderers who possessed no home base. Second, there were those who spent a large part of the year on country roads, but who kept regular winter quarters in the town. Thirdly, some were ‘fair weather’ travellers, who travelled only in the summer, but stayed in one place for the remainder of the year and, finally, some travelled frequently on short trips to the country, never travelling far from their home. The same scholars point out that the Gypsy population could be similarly differentiated, with some groups having very limited seasonal travel circuits. Today, however, the customs and habits of ‘Travellers’ are, for the most part, at variance to those of the settled population within whose midst they live. Not surprisingly, these differences have often been deliberately misinterpreted by certain sections of the main population, which has resulted in ‘Travellers’ being left isolated on the margins of mainstream society.  Moreover, despite advancements among the ‘Traveller’ communities, many continue to suffer from a range of social, health and economic problems. In most cases, they have no direct access to piped water or plumbed toilets. They also suffer the consequences of holding few or no educational qualifications, particularly due to the unfortunate fact that their children are the most likely to suffer social intolerance. Added to these factors, it has been noted that ‘Travellers’ have a high mortality rate. Statistics suggest that a ‘Traveller’ woman lives twelve years, nine years for a ‘traveller’ man when compared to the general population of the country.

There are many within the general population who cannot understand why the ‘Travellers’ have been granted ethnic status by the Irish Government. When one considers ethnicity, this would naturally include national, racial, religious or language differences. But when compared to the settled population of the country all such traits are very similar. There is very little, if any, difference in the way both communities physically appear. They speak English and count themselves as practicing Catholics, which is also in line with the majority settled population. Their uniqueness, therefore, is more subtle than simply skin colour, religion or language, and may lie in their history.

Although they make up only one percent of total national people, the ‘Travellers’ have very high visibility because of their practice of living in caravans by the roadside. This ‘high visibility’ factor and nomadic lifestyle appear   to have made the ‘Travellers’ the least likely minority grouping in Ireland to be made welcome by the settled population in either the urban or the rural, setting. Although essentially native to Ireland and having a heritage that is intertwined with Irish history, as a social group, ‘Travellers’ continue to be regarded as second-class Irish citizens by many within the dominant or ‘settled’ population.

In years gone by the traditional way of life in Ireland allowed ‘Travellers’ and the ‘settled community’ to live under a system of mutual tolerance. Historically, Irish dependency on agrarianism and farming created an economic need for migrant labourers in particular areas, and ‘payment in kind’ became the norm. A ‘Traveller’ man would call to a farm, work there for the day and be given food and a place to sleep for the night. The Industrial Revolution, however, would wreak havoc on the traditional trade of ‘Travellers’ and resulted in little work coming into their community. Machinery and efficient methods gradually caused the economic gap between Travellers and settled people to be widened considerably since this period. Moreover, what the ‘Traveller’ defines as employment is not what is traditionally considered as employment by the dominant population. The arrival of the ‘Welfare State’ and the benefits available to the unemployed, large families, disabled, sick, or disadvantaged saw an increase in Traveller uptake of these benefits. At the same time, they would continue working on whatever manual jobs came their way.

The Jaunting Car

A symbol of old Ireland

I found some old Dublin newspapers in the attic of the Parochial House one night and I browsed through them to see what I could learn about the past. In one newspaper, dated July 1832. I read a report about the ‘Jaunting Car’ as a method of travel. A ‘Jaunting Car’, as all the Irish people know, is a light two-wheeled carriage for a single horse, with a seat in front for the driver. In its most common form, it had seats for two or four persons placed back to back and with the footboards projecting over the wheels and the typical conveyance for persons in Ireland at one time.

Jaunting Car


The colloquial name for the driver of this type of vehicle was ‘Jarvey’ and there were mainly two types of Jaunting Cat – ‘The outside Jaunting Car’ and ‘Inside Jaunting Car’. The former was the more common type and the passengers faced outward over the wheels. The other type was considered to be the more genteel Jaunting Car, in which the passengers sat with their backs to the sides of the car and faced each other, but some described it as being, “The most uncomfortable kind of vehicle yet invented” (Anthony Trollope). There was a third type of car known as an ‘Inside or Covered Car’ that had oiled canvas arranged on all sides to protect the passengers from the weather, but at the expense of visibility.

Being that these Jaunting Cars are few and far between these days I thought you readers might want to hear what the correspondent of that Dublin newspaper reported, and read about what Dublin was like in those far off days …

“This is properly, an Irish machine. The ‘Jaunting Car’ is almost peculiar to our island. A Scotchman or an Englishman, on first landing at Dublin or Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire), is immediately struck by this peculiarity, but they soon learn to relish so agreeable and handsome a conveyance. It is true that the cars for hire do not present very great temptations, the miserable horses, and too often the squalid, dirty drivers, clamouring for a fare, and underbidding each other with fierce vociferation, while the furious driving and incessant attempts to take advantage of ignorance and inexperience, render the Dublin car-men almost intolerable, (We speak generally) except to those who are content to endure these disadvantages for the pleasure and ease of being conveyed to any part of the city or country. But none who have enjoyed the comforts of that pleasant vehicle, a private car, will quarrel with our designating it agreeable and handsome. Almost every citizen who can afford it, (and we are sorry to add, many who cannot) keeps a car …

“Who has not enjoyed the advantages of the jaunting car: who that has even traversed the beautiful road to Kingstown on the various vehicles denominated ‘DISLOCATORS’, which pass and repass in unremitting whirl; or who that has watched the beautiful daughters of the ‘green isle’ borne through the streets of our extending metropolis on this handsome and commodious vehicle, that will not feel curious to know from what humble principle it has thus risen to perfection. And in good time, have I met with Master Bush’s ‘Hibernia Curiosa’: he was a careful and observant traveller, and feel I cannot do better than amuse you readers
with an extract on the above matter from his work:

A ‘Noddy’

They have an odd kind of a machine here, which they call the ‘NODDY’(See above picture); it is nothing more than an old cast-off one-horse chaise or chair; with a kind of stool fixed upon the shafts just before the seat, on which the driver sits, just over the horse, and drives you from one part of the town to another, at stated rates for a ‘set-down’ and a good ‘set-down’ it is sometimes, for you are well off if you are not set-down in a channel, by the breaking of wheels, or an overset-down it is sometimes; nor can you see anything before you but your nod, nod, nodding charioteer, whose situation on the shafts obliges his victim to be conformed to that of the horse, from whence I suppose they have obtained the name ‘Noddy’. I assure you the ease of the fire is not much consulted in the construction of these nodding vehicles. But the drollest and most diverting kind of conveyance for your genteel and ungenteel parties of pleasure is what they call here the ‘Chaise-marine’, which is nothing less or more than any common car with one horse. A simple kind of carriage constructed with a pair of wheels, or thin round blocks, of about twenty inches in diameter, and axle and two shafts, which over the axle are spread out a little wider than the sides of the horse, and framed together with cross pieces in such a manner as to be nearly in a level position for three or four feet across the axle.

These simple constructions are almost the only kind of carts in common use for carrying or moving of goods, merchandise of every kind, hay, corn, etc, through the kingdom. These are, however, used for parties of pleasure, when on the level part a mat is laid for the commonality, and for the genteeler sort of people a bed is put on this, and a half-dozen get on, two behind and two on each side, and away they drive with their feet not above six inches from the ground as they sit, on little jaunts of a few miles out of town; and they are the most sociable carriages in use, for ten or a dozen will take one of the ‘Chaise-marine’ parties on the Sunday we landed coming out of town as we went up to it from Dun Laoghaire.”  Such was the ‘Jaunting Car’ in 1764 and could the honest gentleman to whom we are indebted for this description “Revisit the moon,” and see the vehicle of 1832, how great would be his praises, and surprise. I shall take an early opportunity of returning to his pages, from whence I have no fear of being enabled to extract much that will be agreeable, useful, and entertaining.”

Baron of Sluggan

An Old Tale from the Annals of my Family

There was a time when every poor Irish peasant could tell you that he was the descendants of Chieftains and Kings, who were all beaten down by the vile English and had their lands stolen from them. Now, I am not going to tell you that my ancestry stretches back to one of the ruling families of old Ireland since I cannot trace my paternal or maternal line beyond ‘The Great Potato Famine in Ireland’, or as some would call it the ‘The Irish Genocide by the English.’ There are stories from days prior to the beginning of that terrible time that have been handed down but not earlier than the beginning of that century. It appears, after the failure of the ‘United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798’ the British Government decided to increase its military presence throughout the land. One area that saw an increase in the number of red-coated soldiers was the County of my forefathers, County Tyrone.

In the year of the ‘Union’, 1801, a certain regiment was ordered to Tyrone and was very soon dispersed over various districts of that County. One detachment was sent to be stationed in the townland of Sluggan, and their first impressions of that area were far from favourable. The detachment leader and his two assistants, however, soon discovered an Síbín (Shebeen), which was an illegal drinking place, where alcoholic drink was sold without a license and without having paid revenue to the government. This drinking den for the locals was based in the small, thatched cabin where the soldiers had been sent to be billeted. One night, soon after arriving, the three soldiers began to discuss the types of leisure-time amusement that were on offer, and they were quite quickly disappointed with what they found.

Under the instructions of their military superiors, the three men were not allowed to associate with the locals or get too friendly with them because of their rumoured rebellious nature. They sought further entertainment to keep them amused but, for them, there was no hunting, no shooting, no gaming, no horses to ride, no lively young ladies that they might flirt with. It should be understood, military men in those days rarely had an interest in literature, but books suddenly became very important to these men and, when they had read the few they had, they sent to the nearest town, which was quite a distance away, for more. Unfortunately, reading is not the sort of active amusement that young, healthy men truly yearned for.

One evening the three soldiers took a walk along some of the tracks and boreens of the district, and their faces soon brightened when they saw a local peasant boy, wearing a shabby hat, a torn coat, and a pair of britches that were held together by a single button and a rope belt. As he paraded merrily along his way, he was whistling a merry tune and, in one hand dangled two fine-looking trout in one hand. In his other hand he was waving a long ‘switch’, and he marched along the track with his curly red hair blowing over his bright, rosy-cheeked face in the fresh breeze. He was a picture of health and of careless happiness.

“Hello! My fine fellow! Where did you catch these trout?” asked the leading soldier.

“Now, your honour, in the small lake, just over ‘thonder’,” replied the boy with a smile, pointing back along the track

“’Thonder!’ Where the devil is that?”

“Do you see ‘thone’ hills? Well, just behind them hills there’s the lake with plenty of fish. By Jaysus, if I had but a decent fishing-rod, and something more sensible than a crooked pin!’

“Aren’t you a handsome intelligent boy! What are you called?’

‘Patrick McCoille, if pleases your honour.’

‘Well, Paddy, if you will show us the trout lake, I’ll give you a shilling.’

Paddy McCoille had heard of a shilling, but he had never yet seen one, so he was overjoyed at the prospects of getting one. He not only showed them the small lake but made rush-baskets to carry the fish they caught. He told tales to the three soldiers, sung them songs, and, by his good-humour and love of fun, very much enlivened their stay at Sluggan. He was happy to be at the centre of the soldiers’ attention and was happy to be doing anything for them that gained him a few coppers. Now, when the time came for the soldiers to leave the district, Paddy was genuinely sorrowful at their going. The soldiers decided that they could help the young lad by recruiting him as a boy soldier in the regiment.

In those days there was not much money in a family of Roman Catholic, Irish Peasants, and Paddy’s mother encouraged him to begin a military career as a fifer in the British Regiment. There he would get clothes, shoes, a bed of his own, and three good meals a day. When he was older, Paddy entered the ranks full-time and became valet to a Captain Chalmondley-Rowbotham.  Within months Paddy’s extraordinary intelligence and military bearing brought quick promotion to the rank of Sergeant. There was a war with France at this time, of course, and on two occasions he showed great courage and wisdom while leading a detachment of men in battle. As a result, Paddy was unanimously put forward for officer training and once again succeeded in gaining the promotion. Despite his rapid rise through the ranks, however, he retained the good opinion and friendship of all who had been former comrades.

It is said that Paddy was considered by many to be a handsome man and, as we have seen a very clever person. What he lacked in education he took advantage of every opportunity to improve himself. But no one is perfect, and Patrick McCoille became extremely ambitious and ever vainer. He came to a point in his ‘new’ life that he did not want to remain in a situation where his very humble origins were so well known, and he finally transferred to another regiment, where he soon became equally as popular with his new companions as he had been with his old friends. Eventually, however, war with France came to an end and Paddy’s financial status quickly fell below that which he had been used to. He needed a new life and he decided to use his long-held talents to help him seek out a fortune and further growth in his social status.

With the peace gained, Paddy settled himself in a town that lay along the north coast of France and began to seek a wife that would bring with her position and wealth. He did not have long to wait. Having become a fluent French speaker and his quick wits helped him greatly to open many doors which were closed the higher born, but less talented army companions. Before long, he met the widow of a wealthy hotelkeeper who, though twenty years his senior, gave him clear signals that all he needed to do was to propose. Whether this was a case of him being greedy or a real case of love, it is hard to say. Nevertheless, they married, and lived together for three years, during which he was both affectionate and kind to her. Then, when his wife died, she left him all that she had, which, although much less than he had hoped for, made up, together with his army pension, a reasonably good income.

Although this amount of income would have represented a mere pittance to most men, it was a fortune to such an adventurer. Armed with this money and his natural talents, Paddy set out for Paris, where he made a great impression upon a young and beautiful widow who held a high situation within French society, and very soon after they met the two were married.  One problem arose, however, during the nuptial preparations when the lady objected to his name.

McCoille!” she cried, (pronouncing it as M’ecole — My School); “I cannot allow myself to accept such a name in my social circle. It is demeaning!

Well, my dear, I am very sorry about that, but it is my name.”

Does your family not possess a title?

None,” said Paddy, who now insisted on being called Patrick.

What, then, is the name of your father’s estate?

Patrick’s thoughts turned to the small, thatched cabin in which he had passed his childhood. He recalled the pig that had once been a playmate before it was delivered to the landlord to pay the rent. He remembered his father, in his long, heavy coat, with a hay-band round his hat, and his mother, dressed in fluttering rags which so many of the Irish peasantry thought added smartness to their dress. After so many years he, perhaps, thought with regret of the warm, loving hearts that had beat beneath in their breasts, so fond and so proud of him. With quiet dignity, he told her, ‘Sadly, my love, it is no longer in our family.

But” persisted the lady, “you were born near some village, or in some place that had a name?”

“The townland of Sluggan was where we lived.”

Fantastique! That is just what is needed! You will call yourself the Baron de Sluggan!

“Call myself?”

Of course, and why not? I shall not object to being called ‘De Sluggan’”.

She accordingly had her cards printed ‘La Baroness de Sluggan,’ and her husband, who had a great love of his family name, now became known to all as ‘Baron McCoille de Sluggan’. One of these cards is preserved as a memento by one of my relatives and Paddy’s adventures are frequently repeated at wakes, weddings, and other family gatherings.

The Sham Fight

 This story is set in Northern Ireland, not so long ago, and gives the reader some idea about the sectarianism that is prevalent in that land, which has been based on historical events over three hundred years ago. The characters are fictitious, though the sham fight continues to be played out every year on 13th July in the village of Scarva….

Tommy Hyde was a well-known, character in the area where I lived. He had the sagacity that long life can bring, but he could also be quite a cantankerous old man with a tongue that cut deeper than any knife. At first sight he could be described as a small man, though he was very broad and brawny in stature. He had a big, round face that had been reddened by years of working outdoors, attending to his fields in all types of weather. On his head of thick, grey hair sat Tommy’s trademark cloth cap. But Tommy’s thick grey hair was also quite long for a man of his age, matching his thick, rather unkempt grey beard, spotted dark brown with the tobacco juice that he often spat out when smoking his pipe. In fact, it was a rare sight to see Tommy without a pipe stuck in his mouth, and him puffing out grey clouds of that “Walnut Plug” tobacco that he so enjoyed.

It was one summer’s morning, as I was taking my customary stroll on the outskirts of town, that I encountered ‘Old Tommy’ standing at the edge of the narrow lane that was known to most as ‘Castle Lane.’ It was Tommy’s way to let people see that he was a very busy man and, when encountering a person, he could be found digging at this or hammering at that. On this particular morning I found him leaning on his hoe and contemplating the weeds on the roadside verge that, despite his attention, never seemed to decrease in number. Indeed, even when, on those rare occasions that actually began to do some work, the same man never appeared to be in a hurry unrushed and always carried himself with a certain, calm dignity. Tommy, however, fankly could not have cared less about what people thought about him. He had the attitude that whatever he decided he would do, or not to do, it was no person’s business but his own.

As I was approaching him, I could see that he was ready for a bit of ‘Craic’ by the glint in his eye as he glanced at me. Putting down his hoe, Tommy leaned up against a nearby dry-stone wall, took a drag from his pipe, exhaled a large cloud of grey smoke, and spat a globule of deep brown saliva on the grass verge. Greeting him with a nod of recognition I ambled up to where he stood and positioned myself next to him. In his gruff voice, and without removing his pipe he began, “Do you know, Jimmy, what I’m goin’ to tell you?

I knew from experience that this was the way that he normally began a conversation. He does not, of course, expect you to answer him because you would need to be a clairvoyant of some sort to know the answer. But Tommy did not say anything more for a moment or two, but lifted his hoe to raise a large weed out of the ground before placing it on the edge of the tarmac road. He took another drag from his pipe and, after exhaling, declared, “Do you know, Jimmy, there’s not a hair’s breadth of a difference between any two women that you would ever meet.

This was definitely not a conversation opener that I had expected at that moment. Having absolutely no opinion on this subject, I found it very difficult to give him an answer. “There’s that boy of mine,” said Tommy, ” and although I say it myself, he’s a fine boy in many ways, so he is. There is no way is he a wrong one, who would cause trouble and strife.”

“That’s true,” says I honestly.

 “And another thing,” Tommy continued, ” I can tell you that he’s as brave a boy as you’d ever wish for to see.”

“Aye!” I nodded in affirmation.

 “Do you know, that from the time that boy was six years old, he was that particular about himself that he wouldn’t go to church without his Sunday boots on his feet. Those boots were great ‘creakers’, and you could’ve heard them all over the church when he came in for Sunday service, always just a wee bit late. But that wee boy could rhyme off all the responses to the prayers better than a grown up. Mind you, Jimmy, that was no wonder since it was myself who learned him his religion and encouraged him follow the example of him that has gone before us!

I thought Old Tommy was going to take a bit of a pause at this junction but devil the bit of him. He continued, “But then the buck eejit took to messing around with a group of wee fellas who hung around the corner at the top of ‘Irish Street’. That’s the truth, but I soon quit him out of that. Says I to him: ‘Do ye know what I’m going to tell ye? Me heart’s broke with ye, so it is. I’ll have no messing about from only boy that I have, so I won’t. You’ll have no more contact with them, no, nor will ye pass the the time of day with anyone that’s not your own sort. None that would differ from the Very Reverend Clamp, me, Reverend Johnston of Ballykeel, and the Big Man himself. What’s that ye say? Who is the Big Man? Now! Now! Who else would it be, but yer man on the white horse?’

Now, those of you who are reading this might wonder where the man rode a horse in St. John’s vision of the Apocalypse as recorded in the ‘Good Book’. But it is an easily recognisable image to those who are in the know, so to speak. It is an allusion to William of Orange, of ‘Glorious, pious, and immortal memory, Defender of Protestantism in Ireland’, who is always represented on a white horse. “But” I argued with Old Tommy, “King Billy did converse with those who disagreed with him. It is even said, you know, that when he came to England he was subsidised by the Pope in Rome.”

Old Tommy, it appeared, did not hear a word that I had said and continued to rattle on about his son. “As I was saying to ye, that boy of mine has a mind to get himself wed. So, I says to him, ‘There’s not a hair’s difference between any two of them.’ You see, it’s this way. He has the two of them courted down to the asking, and he’s afeard that if he asks one of them, he’ll be always thinking about the other, or maybe he’ll think he’d sooner have had the other. He is not behaving well at all. He can’t, of course, marry them both, and yet he has raised hopes which must in one case be disappointed, and he might break the poor girl’s heart. Break her heart! What a load of bollix, heart is it?”

Old Tommy had told me on previous occasions what he thought about ‘love’ and the relationships between young boys and girls. “But” I interrupted him, hoping that I could delve a little deeper, “Don’t you believe in love, Tommy?”

I knew, of course, that Old Tommy had been married to two different women. His first wife was called Peggy, and the poor woman only lived for a year after her marriage. I didn’t know the woman personally because she died before I was born, but those who did know Peggy say that she was a handsome woman and the love of Old Tommy’s life.  The current Mrs. Hyde, has been his wife for twenty-five-years and he always spoke of her as “That oul’ widow woman.” She was once the wife of John Adams, who was a simple man whose only reason to be remembered seemed to be the fact that he was Old Tommy’s second wife’s first husband. For his part, Tommy had little time for the man or his memory, insisting that he held heretical views that certainly have prevented him from entering Heaven.

Do I not believe in love, you ask me? Why, haven’t I seen it all myself? Sure, and didn’t I have an uncle, my own mother’s brother, that was taken in that way? And what do you think he went and did but got the whole of Paul’s wickedest Epistle learned off by heart, so he did, and he offered for to tell it all to her in one single sitting. Boys, oh! but he was the quare poet! And she got married to a boy out from Ballinahoe, and do ye know what I’m goin’ to tell ye? He took to the hills and never did a hand’s turn after that.”

“Surely, Tommy you have been in love yourself. When you first met Peggy and now with your present wife? When you asked them to marry you, you must have had to at least pretend you loved them. What did you say to them at the time?”

“Well, I’ll tell you it was this way with me and Peggy. The two of us went the whole way to Scarva village on the thirteenth. Did ever ye hear tell of the ‘Battle of Scarva’? I mind it all so well. I had a packet of cold meat sandwiches in my coat pocket, and Peggy, she had taken a few wee home-baked buns. Says I to her, “Peggy, would ye care for a wee sandwich?” And says she to me, “Take a wee bun, Thomas!” And the very next morning I went in and gave our names to the Reverend Clamp, so I did.”

There are many worse ways to conclude such business, after all, and very few that would be more filled with symbolism. There is the mutual help, the inevitable “give and take” of married life. There is the strength and fulfilment of the cold meat sandwiches, combined with the freshness and sweetness of the maidenly home-baked goods. These were two souls that had been united in the flavour of both scents which, when combined, rose to heaven on the summer air.  In all honesty, I cannot recall any tale or reminiscence of my married friends on this particularly interesting topic, that describes a “proposal” of marriage more delicately and less ostentatiously. While Old Tommy graciously accepted my congratulations on his elegant and good taste, he was not as forthcoming about his current wife. When I asked about the manner of his proposal to his second wife, he only shook his head despairingly and muttered, “Them widows! Them widows!” In his answer to me there was almost a suggestion that he was taken at a disadvantage, but I could hardly give it credit. It seemed impossible to me that this crafty old man would not have extricated himself from such a situation with all the inspired dexterity of a Sherlock Holmes, or the undoubted abilities of a Disney hero.

“As I was saying,” he resumed, “Did ever ye hear tell of the ‘Battle of Scarva’?” I had, of course, heard of it. After all who has not heard of the open air, theatrical epic of the North? But just in case you haven’t heard of it, let me explain. Every year, in a quiet country village thousands of people gather at a pretty, wooded park, on a large open meadow that slopes down to a clear running stream. There, on 13th July, they enacted what is a veritable ‘Passion Play’ of the historically influential ‘Battle of the Boyne’.

I suppose you have often been to the celebrations in Scarva, Tommy.

Indeed, I have me boy. Many and many a time. But there was one time when the battle beat all those before and since! Do ye know what I’m going to tell ye? I would give a thousand pounds to see that battle again, so I would. But me boy, oh! it was grand thing to see. There was my own aunt’s nephew acting as King William, and him on the top of the loveliest white horse ye have ever seen, with his flowing mane tied with wee loops of braid in orange and blue. Yer man had an orange scarf on him and blue feathers to his hat, and he looked just like one of them foreign Princes. And his Generals and officers were just the same, only not so grand. For the Papish King, James, they had a fine young horse under him that Dan Collins had bought off the Reverend Jackson in the Fair at Dungannon. But the horse set his ears back, and let a squeal out of him, and took a buck leap all over the place whenever Andy Watson came near to him. At that Andy, who was playing King James, shouts aloud, “I am not used with this sort of horse exercise, and I don’t trust that beast.”

“But”’ says Dan Collins, “Get up there with ye sonny boy, and no more whining about it.

“Well, with that Andy turned about, and, says he, “I’ll ride no bloody horse out of Dungannon. Sure, I’d sooner walk. I tell ye I’ll ride none, without I have my own mare that brought me and the wife and the children out of the ‘Pass’, so I won’t.”

“With that the Generals and the officers and the rest of the aide-Campuses headed off until they found Andy’s mare, which was eating on the grass by the roadside, and not too agreeable to coming with them. But she was finally coaxed along by one of those de-Campuses boys who was sweet talking her and complimenting her, “There’s a good wee daughter, sure you’re a wee jewel.” At the same time one of those Generals was holding a bit of grass in the front of her, while another General persuading her in the rear. Finally, they got King James onto her, and the two armies was drawn up on the banks of the wee stream that was to be representing the Boyne River. It was then that they began, in a quite friendly and agreeable fashion, teasing each other with a, “Come on, ye thirsty tyrant ye,’ from King William. “Come on, ye low, mean usurper,” shouted James in answer“Come on ye devil’s son, and enemy to civil and religious liberty,” William cried out to the cheers of the people attending. “Come on, ye glorious, pious, and immoral worm of a man,’ said James. “Are you going to come at all ye traitor to your people, ye Judas, and Rome lover,” calls William amid loud cheering.  Come on ye parasite ye, and disciple of Cromwell,” says James. “Here’s to the victory of God and Protestantism,” says William and with those words he began to go forward. At the same time James should have come forward in front of him, but Andy’s mare just planted her forefeet into the ground and stood there like a statue that was growing up out of the ground. With that there was two of the Aid-de-Campuses came to his assistance and began to pull and haul at the old mare! But devil a toe would she budge, and all the boys began laughing and pointing, so they did.

Then William came up and says he, “Come on or I’ll pull the neck out of ye…. Come on, me brave boy…. Fetch her a clip on the lug! Hit her a skelp on the arse! Give her a jab with your knee, man alive. Och, come on, ye arsehole, ye!” Well, even having the skin of a Rhino wouldn’t let a man stand up and take that from anyone, and Andy, he was quick tempered at best and shouted back “Arsehole yourself.” And as soon as he had said that he let a growl out of him ye might have heard in Portadown. You have never heard the like of that noise and, what’s more, nor had Andy Watson’s mare. That old horse was so taken aback that she just took the one leap and she landed in the stream, just in front of William. Then King James took a tight hold of William and screamed at him “Arsehole!” and with that he threw him off his grand white horse, and he dragged him into the cold stream water.

“Then all hell broke loose on the meadow and it was the best entertainment I have ever seen. Some of the people were for William, and some they were for James. But whoever they were for everyone lifted his foot or raised his fist, or any other weapon that they came across.  The boys were all thumping, and beating each other, drawing blood from all parts of the body and causing chaos and all sorts injuries.”

I thought you were all friends at Scarva?” I asked Old Tommy.

He gave me a sly smile and a wink of his eye as he told me, “And so we were! Just friends fighting through one another.

But was there any one hurt?

Was anyone hurt?” he laughed. “Sure, they were just trailing themselves off the ground. You would have died laughing. There’s Jimmy Hara who has never been his own man since then, and sure I had my nose broke and it still not fixed. There were some who said there was a wee man from Tandragee got himself killed.”

What became of William?”

Och, sure he was clean drowned.” Old Tommy told me, matter-of-factly.

And King James?”

“He’s in hell with Johnny Adams.”

I tried to explain to him that I had not meant the King himself, but the actor whose nature had been stronger than his dramatic instinct. Old Tommy, however, could not or would not make a difference between the two. He really was not listening to me at all. I had come to a conclusion that over some time Tommy’s thoughts were wandering far from our conversation. Suddenly a spasm convulsed his features. With one hand he raised the hoe in the air like a tomahawk, disregarding the weeds and soil from his afternoon’s toil, which were left abandoned and helpless on the gravel of the road. With his other hand he grasped his side. For a moment, I was afraid that the old man was going to have a fit, but it was only uncontrollable laughter at some joke that I was, as yet, unaware of.

“Well, do ye know what I’m going to tell ye? I would just agree that William was a man of great cleverness, so he was. He was subsidised by the Pope of Rome, was he? Boys, oh! Do ye tell me that? Well I’ll tell you that beats all, and him going to do exactly the opposite of what he let on.

Old Tommy, without question, was absolutely sober at the beginning of our conversation, and he had remained “dry” during our talk, but he now became gradually intoxicated with what had appeared to him to be his hero’s cunning ways. The thought of a genius who could outsmart someone else in a bargain rose to his brain like a glass of cold stout. He swayed on his feet and his words ran into each other. Old Tommy was now assuming a gaiety of manner and expression that was quite unusual for him. I stood still, watching him lurch down the walk, and then pause on the bridge. He supported himself by holding on to the wooden railing, which creaked loudly as he swayed to and fro, and he began to talk to the stream and the trees, “Do ye know what I’m going to tell ye? I would just agree that he was a man of great cleverness, so he was.”