An Irish Dance Master

An Old Tale of Ireland’s Past

There was a time in Ireland when the speech and manners of the Irish man were simple, rural, and kindly. They did not, in the least resemble the manners and speech that fill the lives of modern-day Irishmen. But, in those old times, dancing was cultivated as one of life’s chief amusements and the ‘dancing-master’ was a vital part of a community, if it was to enjoy this recreation activity to its full.

Storytelling, dancing and singing are popular among the Irish people. But it was dancing that was by far the most important recreation, although much less so now in these modern times. Nevertheless, Irish traditional dancing is an indication of the spirit and character of the Irish people, who may not have experienced the best things in life but are apparently filled with a joyous hope for their future. Being Irish, it is not surprising that I believe that no people dance as well as us and enjoy it as much as us. Dancing, most will agree, is a delightful amusement for the people, but Irish dancing is not a simple recreational activity. It is, instead, a very distinct form of dance that belongs to the people of our nation, providing its people with a happy and agreeable way of enjoying Irish music. In the dance the person feels the music in their heart and move their body and limbs in time with its rhythm. Not only Ireland, however, but every nation has a feeling for music and, through it, a love of dance. Music and dance, therefore, dependent on each other, and I am confident in my opinion that the Irish nation excels at both.

It is my contention that, unless you have seen it and taken part in it, you cannot truly know the fantastic exhilaration that Irish dancing gives to the people of Ireland. This exhilaration was caused by an emotion much deeper than enthusiasm and to properly understand you should put yourself in the place of a person among those who are gathered at a house-dance, or Ceilidh, and feel the change which occurs in the temperament of an Irish man. When the dance was called, he would lazily get to his feet, select  a girl for whom he may have some romantic attachment, and would then place himself and his partner on the dance floor with both facing the fiddle player as he begins his tune. The dance would begin, quietly at first, and gradually the man’s steps would become even more lively. Then, his right hand would rise a little and his fingers would crack, to be followed a short time later with the raising of both hands and the sound of two cracks. His eyes would brighten as his enjoyment of the moment increased, and he tried hard to keep pace with the tempo of the music and the others on the floor. His eyes would be lovingly fixed on his partner who, in her modesty, would not return his gaze. She would, however, give her partner a quick glance which encourages him to dance more enthusiastically, aided by a little kindness, love, pride in his own ability, and whiskey. Encouraged by this he would begin dancing at a constantly increasing pace, flinging himself about, cracking his fingers, cutting and trebling his feet, heel and toe, right and left. You would see him fling the right heel up to the buttock, up again the left, the whole face reddening as if in a blast-furnace fed with the ecstasy of delight. “Yo! Ho! Ye boy ye! Move your elbow a little quicker, Mickey!” he would call to the fiddle player. “Quicker! Quicker! man dear, or you’ll have me ahead of you! That’s it, Jenny! That’s my girl! move your feet, my darling. That’s it, sweetheart! Keep up with me! Yahoo for us!

And in this manner, he would proceed with renewed vigour, and an agility, that incredibly keeps in time with the music, especially when we consider the great burst of excitement that he would have to direct through his body. Meanwhile, his partner’s face would be lit up with enthusiasm to a modest blush. Who could resist her partner’s great joy, though she demonstrates her own with great natural grace, that is combined with a delicate liveliness? Her movements are equally gentle and animated, which is precisely the way in which ladies ought to dance i.e. with a blend of healthful exercise and innocent enjoyment.

It is not that long ago that I witnessed a dance by a very talented young man, and it was good, except for the performance of his female partner. The entire programme of the dance was, sadly, made to look amateurish by her actions, to say the least. She did not dance with the modesty that is expected of the female Irish dancers but performed some of the unseemly movements of a drunken hellcat, or one of those unfortunate women from the red-light areas of the city. Her face had a maliciously desirous expression on it that would remind you of posters you may find outside places of ill-repute. Such things cannot be allowed, and we must always endeavour to portray in our dances the most chaste and modest females.

There are a considerable variety of dances in Ireland, from the simple “reel of two”, to the team dance, and the step dance, all of which are filled with fun. But there are, however, other dances of a more serious note, which could be considered to have had their origins in the sad times that are a great part of our small country’s history. It is a sad fact that the difficulty of communications in previous times and the remoteness of many areas has led to the loss of many of these less joyful dances, some of which may only have been danced on mournful occasions. With the state-sponsored efforts of the English overlords to suppress Gaelic culture and language it was only at wakes and other funereal rites held in the remote parts of the country where these old dances were stubbornly clung to. At the present time, I believe, that the only remnant of these old dances can be seen in some of the Slip-jigs and hornpipes that are danced. These dances of ancient days may not have been performed to music but depended upon the steps of the dancer to tap out the rhythm, and were symbolic dances used in various pre-Christian rites.  But, having said this, I must make it clear that this is just a thought on my part without real evidence to support it. But, the old dancing masters of past years would probably have more knowledge about such things. Unfortunately, like the old dances, none of these old masters remain.

The old dancing-masters of past generations were itinerants, having no settled home or family, but lived from place to place within a specified area, beyond which he would seldom or never go. The farming community were his patrons, and when he visited their houses the old bachelor brought with him a holiday spirit that brightened the lives of all. When he arrived at a farm you could be sure that there would be a dance that night, after the working day came to an end. The crowd would be gathered, and the old dancing-master would good-naturedly supply the music and, in return for this, they would have a little underhand collection for him. This collection would amount to no more than a couple of shillings or half-a-crown which, under some pretence or other, would be ingeniously and delicately slipped into his pocket. The covert action was so that the dancing-master would know that his patron thought him to be on a higher level than a mere fiddle player. To show his own kindness and generosity, at the end of the dance, he would ask for a door, or other hard surface to be laid down on the floor, on which he would dance several popular hornpipes accompanied by his own fiddle. This would demonstrate to his audience just how great a dance-master he was and further build up his reputation within his chosen area.

The dancing-master was a peculiar character who stood out in the community within which he lived. His dress was peculiar to him and, because it made him stand out in the crowd, he always had an air of self-pride about him. He almost always wore a ‘fedora’-style or ‘bobble’-type hat, whether it made him look good or bad. He also appeared in public carrying an ornamental staff, made from ebony, hickory, mahogany, or some other rare type of cane, which almost always had a silver head and a silk tassel, or other adornment. This staff or cane was seen by the dancing-master, and others, as a type of baton or staff of office, without which he would never be seen in public. Yet another necessary adornment that was so much a part of the dancing-master’s dress code was a gold, or gold-plated, ornately decorated pocket watch which he was always ready to produce when asked for the time of day by anyone. But of all the items of dress that he chose to wear, and which made him stand-out from a fiddler or piper, were the dancing-master’s pumps and stockings, for the man seldom wore shoes. They would always keep themselves in a neat and tidy condition, and constantly able to demonstrate his lightness of foot that their customers would expect of them. In those far off days among the ordinary rural people of Ireland the man wearing the finest of stockings, and the lightest shoe, upon the most symmetrical legs usually denoted the most accomplished of dance teachers.

Though dancing was the main business of the dancing-master he would also have a side-line in the business of matchmaking. Indeed, it was not uncommon for a dance-master to be employed as a negotiator between families, as well as individual lovers. He had practised the use of his eyes to detect the slight mistakes in a dancer’s feet,  and this talent would serve him well at the dances. After all, during a dance, there is always opportunities for a keen observer to notice any signs of passion between the assembled dancers. Even in today’s dancing clubs and parties you can witness the blushing, admiring glances, squeezes of the hand, and stealthy whisperings between couples that would signal a strong affection between the two. It is no wonder, therefore, that a knowledgeable observer, such as the dancing-master, could offer his experience as a go-between for a price. He would soon become a necessary part of the marriage of the two people in a time when arranged marriages, dowries, and matchmakers were common. More strangely, there are earlier reports that the dancing-master would also advertise himself to be a skilled teacher in the art of fencing. In a time when duelling was common, fencing-schools of this class were almost as numerous as dancing-schools and, therefore, it was not unusual for one man to teach both.

While, for the most part, dancing-masters were bachelors there were exceptions to the rule. My grandfather recalled having been taught Irish dancing by an old, married dancing-master who had to face a heart-breaking tragedy in his life. Tuberculosis (TB) was a deadly disease and it had been rife during the during the spring of the year when this tragedy occurred and had brought death to many. Grandfather told me that this poor man’s only daughter was taken from him by this terrible disease and he was forced to close his dancing school to mourn her passing. This period lasted for a month before he felt able to call all his pupils together again one evening, and my grandfather also returned to the class. The dancing-master’s daughter, a beautiful and intelligent young girl of sixteen years, was also a pupil at her father’s school until that terrible sickness cut her down like a blooming flower. The dancing classes began again much the same way that they had ended, until a certain young man who had been the dancing partner of the young girl came to the floor to dance. The old dancing-master tried to play as he had for the others, but his music was unsteady and erratic. He paused for a moment or two so that he could gather himself, and the dancing ceased as he wiped away a few hot tears from his eyes. The man tried to resume the class, but all he could see was the partner of his beloved daughter now standing with the hand of another girl in his. “I’m sorry,” said the old man as he lay aside his fiddle and burst into tears. “She was all that I had, and I loved her deep in my heart and now you are all here but her. Please, just go home, boys and girls. Go home and say a prayer for me, for you all know what she was to me. Allow me another two weeks to mourn her, for Our Lady’s sake! I am her heart-broken father and, as I see you all here, I know I will never, ever see her again on this floor. I miss the light sound of her foot, the sweetness of her voice, and the smile of those bright eyes that spoke to me, saying how much she loved me as her father and her teacher. Just two more weeks and we shall all meet again in less sorrowful circumstances”  There was a wave of sympathy that filled the room, leaving few dry eyes among those who were present, and not a heart that did not feel deeply and sincerely for his sense of terrible loss.

In the local communities the dancing-master, despite his most strenuous efforts to the contrary, bore, in his habits and manners similar level of respect as that given to the fiddler. It was this struggle of superiority among these two characters that was the cause of there being no good feeling existing between them. One looked up at the other as someone a man who was unnecessarily and unjustly placed above him, while the other looked down upon him as being no more than a servant, who provided the music for those whom he taught practise  their skills. It was a very petty rivalry, which was very amusing to neutral observers and neither of them did anything that might put an end to competition. While the fiddler had the best of the argument being the more loved, the dancing-master had the advantage of a higher professional position and being more respected. It was particularly amusing to watch the great skill employed by the dancing-master, when travelling, to carry his fiddle in a manner that it would not be seen and, therefore, he would not be mistaken for a fiddler. To be regarded as such would have been the greatest insult that his vanity could have received and would be a source of endless anger. In our modern times, however,  things are different and neither the fiddler nor the dancing-master have the same influences in society.

My grandfather told me that one of the most amusing dancing-masters was a man who had started as a fiddler and travelled under the nickname of ‘Dodger’. This man had started life as an army musician, where he had also learned to play the fiddle. But, typical of many Irishmen, life in the British Army did not suit a free-thinking, free-drinking man, and he chose to leave without thought of informing anyone. Some, including the army authorities, would consider him to be a deserter, but he preferred to be known as a person who was ‘dodging’ the crown forces, which endeared him to many in the country and earned him his nickname.

‘Dodger’ was stylishly dressed, small, thin, man with a rich Southern brogue, whose language could be described as being ‘rich’ with words and phrases undoubtedly learned while he was in the army. His dress, though stylish, were as tight as they could be without splitting and appeared to be second-hand. His creased thin face appeared to be just as second-hand as creased, closely fitting black coat. On his feet he wore his little pumps, with little white stockings, his neatly attended breeches, his hat,  and his tight coloured gloves. It was said that he was the jauntiest wee man that ever lived. He stood ready to fight any man and was a great defender of the female sex, whom he always addressed in a flattering manner that was very agreeable to most of them. He was also a man who enjoyed the public spotlight and was involved in almost everything. He could be seen at every fair, where he would only have time to give you a wink of recognition as he passed, because he was engaged in some deep discussion with another person. At races and cockfights, he was a very busy, and very angry, gambler waging whatever he had on the result. At these competitions he was always appeared to be a knowing fellow, shaking hands with the winning owner or jockey, and then looked about the crowd to ensure that people saw him in the company of those who were in the know.

The house where ‘Dodger’ kept his school, which was only open after working hours, was an uninhabited cabin, the roof of which was supported by a post that stood upright from the floor. This cabin was built upon a small hill that gave a fine view of the whole countryside for miles about it. My grandfather recalled how pleasant it was to see the modest and pretty girls, dressed in their best frocks and ribbons, coming in little groups from all directions. Often, they would be accompanied by their partners or boyfriends as they made their way through the fragrant summer fields of a calm cloudless evening, toward this place of happy and innocent amusement. But such scenes were also a picture of the general life in the community that was filled with passions, jealousies, plots, lies, and disagreements! Among those pretty girls could be found the shrew, the slovenly, the flirt, and the excessively modest, just as sharply obvious within their community as they would appear in the wider world with all its temptations to bring out such characteristics. Among the crowd, too, was the bully, the promiscuous, the liar, the pretentious, and the coward, each as perfect and distinct in his type as if he had spent a fortune in acquiring his particular character.

‘Dodger’s’ system, in originality of design, in comic conception, and in the ease with which it could be taught was something that would have been difficult to equal, much less surpass. Had the impudent little rascal restricted himself to dancing as it was usually taught, there would have been nothing uncommon about it. But ‘Dodger’ always insisted in teaching by example, and he would not entertain any other manner of instruction. Moreover, dancing was only one of the things that ‘Dodger’ taught or professed to teach. At one time he undertook to teach everyone in his school how they should enter a room in the most correct and fashionable way. He also insisted that he was the only man who could teach a gentleman how he should greet a lady in the most agreeable and socially acceptable style. The man insisted that he had already taught this important lesson to many others and with great success, as he had the art of the curtsy or bow. He professed to be able to teach every lady and gentleman how to make the most beautiful bow or curtsey, by imitating him. So confident was he of this boast that he said if there was a great crowd present each would think it had been intended for them! In fact, according to ‘Dodger’, he could teach the entire art of courtship with all the grace and success of any Frenchman or Italian. He could teach how love-letters and valentine cards should be written, containing every compliment ever invented by that great lover ‘Casanova’. But he insisted that only he could teach a person a magical dance which would allow a gentleman to lead a lady to wherever he wished, and for a lady to feel free to go wherever she was being led.

With such instruction on offer and delivered in a most agreeable, his school quickly became the most popular in the county. The truth of his system was that he had contrived to make sure every gentleman would salute his lady as often as possible, and to ensure this he invented dances, in which every gentleman saluted every lady but, at the same time, every lady would return the compliment, by saluting every gentleman. But he did not allow his male pupils to have all the saluting to themselves, for the amorous little blackguard always started first and ended last. This, ‘Dodger’ said, was so that they might all catch the method from himself. “Ladies and gentlemen, I do this as an example for you, and because it forms an important part of system!” Then he produce a meagre attempt at a smile before twirling over the floor in a way that he thought was totally irresistible.

The one thing ‘Dodger’s’ system did not affect was the honour of our Irish women. My grandfather could not recall one single occasion when the system was shown to be incompatible with virtue to our countrywomen. This, of course, was a great advantage to the respect he had within the community, and a woman’s virtue was much prized the country. Several weddings, that might otherwise not have taken place, were unquestionably a result of ‘Dodger’s’ system, but in not one instance have we heard that such a union was brought about because a woman had suffered shame or misfortune. According to my grandfather ‘Dodger’s’ way of teaching was conducted in the following way:-

 “Now, Paddy Curran, walk you out and enter the parlour, and Jenny Horan can go out with you and come in as Mrs. Curran.” ‘Dodger’ would direct.

Ah, sure, Master, I’m afraid that I’ll make an awful mess of it, but at least I will Jenny here to help me through it,” Paddy replied.

Is that supposed to be a compliment, Paddy?” asked the Master. “For Mr. Curran, you should always speak to a lady in a smooth tone.

Paddy and Judy left as instructed and the ‘Dodger’ turned to Micky Scullion, directing him, “Micky Scullion, come up here, now that we’re breathing a little, and you, Grainne Mulholland, come up along with him. Miss Mulholland, you can master your five positions and your fifteen attitudes, I believe?

Yes, sir.”

Very well, Miss. Now, Micky Scullion—ahem!—Mister Scullion, can you perform the positions also, Mickey?

Yes, sir! But you remember I got stuck at the eleventh attitude.”

 “Don’t worry about that. But, Mister Scullion, do you know how to salute a lady, Micky?

Sure, it’s hard to say, sir, ‘til we try. But I’m very willin’ to learn it. I’ll do my best, and, sure, I can do no more.” Replied Micky

Alright! Now mark me and what I do, Mister Scullion. You approach your lady in this style, bowing politely, as I do. Miss Mulholland, will you allow me the honour of a heavenly salute? Don’t bow, ma’am, you’re to curtsy, you know. Just a little lower if you please. Now you say, ‘With the greatest pleasure in life, sir, and many thanks for the favour.’ There, now, you are to make another polite curtsy, and say, ‘Thank you, kind sir, I owe you one.’ Now, Mister Scanlan, proceed.”

I’m to imitate you, master, as well as I can, sir, I believe?

Yes, sir, you are to imitate me. But hold on a minute, sir! Did you see me lick my lips or pull up my trousers? By God, but that’s shockingly unromantic. First make a curtsy, a bow I mean, to Miss Grainne. Stop again, sir! Are you going to strangle the poor lady? Why, one would think that you were about to take leave of her for ever! Gently, Mister Scullion! Jaysus, gently, Micky! There now, that’s an improvement. Practice, Mister Scullion, practice will do all. But don’t smack so loud, though. Hello, gentlemen! where’s our parlour-room folk? Go out, one of you, for Mister an’ Mrs Paddy Curran.

Curran’s face peeped in at the door, lit up with a comic expression, from whatever had cause it. “Easy, Mister Corcoran, and where’s Mrs Curran, sir?

Are we both to come in together, master?

Certainly. Turn out both your toes—turn them out, I say.”

Sure, sir, that’s easier said than done with some of us.

I know that, Mister Curran, but practice is everything. The bowed-legs are against you, Mister Curran. Sure, if your toes were where your heels are, you’d be exactly in the first position, Paddy. Well, both of you turn out your toes, look straight forward, clasp your beret, put it under your arm, and walk into the middle of the floor, with your head up. Stop! Take up your post. Now, take your beret, in your right hand, and give it a flourish. Easy, Mrs Horan, I mean Curran, it’s not you that is to flourish. Well, flourish your hat, Paddy, and then make a graceful bow to the company. Ladies and gentlemen.

Ladies and gentlemen.”

I’m your most obedient servant.”

I’m your most obedient servant.”

Jaysus, man alive! that’s not a bow. Look at this – there’s a bow for you. Why, instead of making a bow, you appear as if you were going to sit down with lumbago in your back. Well, practice is everything, for there’s only luck in leisure. Now, Dick Doran, will you come up, and try if you can make anything of that trebling step. You’re a pretty lad, Dick! Yes, a pretty lad, Mister Doran, with a pair of left legs, and you expect to learn to dance. But, don’t despair, man. I’m not afraid and I’ll make a graceful slip of a boy out you yet. Now, Can you make a curtsy?

Not right, now. I doubt.”

Well, sir, I know that. But, Mister Doran, you ought to know how to make both a bow and a curtsy. When you marry a wife, Misther Doran, it mightn’t be a bad thing if you could teach her a curtsy. Have you the ‘gutty’ and ‘pump’ with you?

Yes, sir.”

Very well, on with them! The ‘pump’ on the right foot, or what ought to be the right foot, and the ‘gutty’ upon what ought to be the left. Are you ready?

Yes, sir.”

Come on, then, do as I bid you. Rise up on the ‘pump’ and sink on the ‘gutty’; rise up on the ‘pump’ and sink on the ‘gutty’; rise up on – Hold on, sir! You’re sinking on ‘pump’ and rising up on the ‘gutty’, the very thing you ought not to do. But God help you! sure you’re left-legged! Ah, Mister Doran.it would be a long time before you’d be able to dance a Jig or a Hornpipe. However, don’t despair, Mister Doran. If I could only get you to know your right leg, but God help you! Sure, you haven’t such a thing! From your left, I’ll make something of you yet, Dick.”

Competition between the Dancing-masters was rife and, although they seldom met each other, they still abused each other albeit from a distance. But distance did not lessen the virulence and disparagement that was spread. Now, ‘Dodger’ had just such a rival, who proved to be a constant thorn in his side. His name was Harry Fitzpatrick who, at one-time had been a jockey, but he gave up horse-racing and took the less injurious course of being a dancing-master. ‘Dodger’ once sent Harry a message, which said that, “if he could not dance ‘The Humours of Ballymanus’ (Slip Jig) on the head of a drum, then he would be better holding his tongue for ever.” To this insult Harry replied, by asking if he was a man able to dance the ‘Jockey to the Fair’ upon the saddle of a racing horse, with it travelling at a three-quarter gallop.

As the insults thickened, friends on each side prevailed upon them to settle their claims in a competition. The idea was for each master, with twelve of his pupils, to dance against his rival with twelve of his. The competition was to take place on top of ‘Kilberry Hill’, which had a commanding view of the entire parish. As previously mentioned, in ‘Dodger’s’ school there stood near the middle of the floor a post. In a new manoeuvre developed by ‘Dodger’ this post was convenient as a guide to the dancers when going through the figure in their dance. At the spot where this post stood it was necessary for the dancers to make a curve, in order to form part of the figure of eight, which they were to follow. But, as many of them couldn’t quite get it into their heads what he wanted, he forced them to turn around the post rather than make an acute angle of it, which several of them managed to achieve.

At last, the time came for the competition and it was, everyone agreed, a matter of great difficulty to decide who was best, for each was as good as the other. When ‘Dodger’s’ pupils came to perform their dance, however, they found that the absence of the post was an insurmountable problem. They had carried out all their training with the post in place and were accustomed to it. With the post they could dance, but without the post they pranced about like so many ships at sea without rudders or compasses. It fast became a scene of hilarious confusion, which caused some laughter. ‘Dodger’ stood, looking on, like he was about to explode with shame and anger. But, in fact, the man was in agony. “Gentlemen turn the post!” he shouted, stamping on the ground, and clenching his little hands in fury. “Ladies remember the post! Oh, for the honour of the school don’t let them beat you. The post! Gentlemen, ladies, the post if you love me! In the name of God, the post!

By Jaysus, master, that jockey will out distance us,” replied Bob Megarity, “it’s likely he’ll be winning!

Any money,” shouted the ‘Dodger’, “any money for long Sam Callaghan, for he’s be able to stand-in for the post. Mind it, boys dear Jaysus, mind it or we’re lost. The Devil a bit do they heed me! They’re more like a swarm of bees or a flock of sheep. Sam Callaghan, where are the hell are you? The post, you blackguards!

Oh, master, if we only we had a fishing-rod, or a crow-bar, or a poker, we might yet get it done. But, sure, we would be better giving in, for we’re only getting worse at it.”

At this stage of the proceedings Harry came over to ‘Dodger’, and making a low bow, asked him, “Ah, now, how do you feel, Mister Doherty?” which was ‘Dodger’s true name.

Sir,” ‘Dodger replied, “I’ll take the shine out of you yet. Can you salute a lady with me?—that’s the game! Come, gentlemen, show them what’s better than fifty posts, salute your partners like proper Irishmen!

My grandfather described the calamitous scene that now followed. ‘Dodger’ had his people trained to kiss in platoons, and those watching the spectacle were literally convulsed with laughter. No one could quite believe that ‘Dodger’ would introduce such ludicrous ceremony in an attempt to stem the defeat he faced. But he turned the laughter completely against his rival, and swaggered off the ground in high spirits, exclaiming loudly, “He doesn’t know how to salute a lady! Sure, that poor eejit never kissed any woman but his mother, and that only when the poor woman was dying!

Such, friend, is the manner in which my grandfather, God rest his soul, described the character of an Irish dancing-master. There few if any of these men left in Ireland and yet the competition between the current crop of Irish dancing-teachers is the same, though they try very hard not to show it. Whether your child does ‘Traditional’ or ‘Feis’ dancing just watch the next competition that they attend and you will be able to see for yourselves just how close the characters described by my grandfather still carry on the customs.

Across the Sheugh

Little Red Bike


After almost sixty years after the events that follow, in this book of stories, it amazes me that I can still recall so much detail. This was particularly true as I began to recall my very first bicycle. Firstly, it was not a bicycle in the true sense of the word because it had three wheels and was, therefore, technically a tricycle. From the very beginning I must point out that this tricycle was nothing like the hard, plastic tricycles that we see small, children of today using. My tricycle was a much bigger and technically advanced piece of machinery that was much more suitable for an adventurous four or five year old boy
of average height. It was, in fact, a “big boy’s bike” just like the one that I had seen several weeks before Christmas in the toy display window of “Binn’s” Department Store in Middlesbrough town centre. “That’s what I want Santa to bring me for Christmas,” I told my mother even as my face was squashed up against that pane of glass admiring the tricycle. Naturally I had to ask Santa and ensure that I was a very good boy to make sure that I would even have a chance of getting this prize. My mind can clearly recall that wonderful Christmas morning, so long ago, when my eyes first fell upon that
beautiful tricycle. All my prayers and efforts to be good had been rewarded by Santa Claus and he had placed my prize in front of the Christmas tree. The colourful, winkling lights on our Christmas tree reflected on the tricycle’s shiny, all-metal frame upon which three, chrome-spooked wheels with black tyres had been fixed. These were not the solid rubber wheels common to children’s tricycles of the time, but were tyres that were treaded and needed to be inflated, using the small white pump that was clipped to the tricycle’s frame.


Attached to the right-hand side of the chrome handle-bars there was a large, round-shaped, shiny steel bell and I pressed the trigger just to hear it ring. It was a wonderful sound, so loud and shrill in a silent house that Christmas morning. I can remember being so thrilled by that sound and was certain that the bell would provide a more than
adequate warning to any person who might carelessly get in my way. But it was the beauty of that machine, twinkling in the lights of the Christmas tree, that truly overwhelmed me. I gently ran my hand along the chrome handle-bars and then down the glittering frame toward the black mock-leather seat. It was a nervous examination
with my hand shaking as I made every effort to avoid disturbing the tricycle or leaving even the slightest of marks upon it. As my careful inspection continued I came upon a large triangular-shaped, box was secured by a clip lock and when I opened it I was pleasantly surprised at just how spacious the box was and knew that it was sufficient for carrying many of my toys in. Later I would discover that the box had other benefits, including carrying some of the groceries my mother would purchase at the local shops. On certain occasions she would send me to the shops on the tricycle to pick up certain
items that she needed, making me feel proud and grown up. However, the thing that made me puff out my chest most in pride was the fact that the frame of the tricycle had been painted in a bright, metallic-red, colour. This impressed me most because it reminded me of the colour of a fire-engine and, occasionally, I would just sit on my
little red tricycle in the back garden of our house, ringing that shiny bell and pretending that I was a fireman rushing to the rescue of a stricken victim.

The days I spent with friends and my little red trike are still fondly remembered. She was my pride and joy, and we went almost everywhere together. After school I would rush home to cycle it around the houses, and on week-ends I would get up early and play on the tricycle almost all day. But, sadly, children grow up and put aside the things of their childhood. I became too big for the tricycle and all my friends had started to get two-wheel bicycles for their birthdays. It was soon time for me to abandon all the trappings of childhood and this included putting aside my beloved tricycle. To assist me in making this difficult decision my parents convinced me that I should pass my little red tricycle on to my younger cousin. Nonetheless it was with much sadness in my heart that I took the tricycle on the long lonely road to her house, accompanied by my mother. She, of course, tried bravely to be a source of comfort to me on that difficult journey by constantly attempting to engage me in light-hearted conversation. But, throughout that long and sad journey I was almost totally caught up in my own thoughts and memories about the adventures That I had shared with my little red trike. Believe me the tears I shed as we separated that day were very real and came from my heart. At that time it seemed that I had lost my greatest friend and that there was nothing in this whole world that could ever replace it.


I began in early October to pray every day that God would help me get a new bicycle. Then, when Advent arrived, I sent my usual letter to Santa Claus and almost begged him to bring me a bicycle for Christmas. In return I promised Santa that I would be a good person; that I would not fight with the other boys, or say bad words, and that I would make my bed every morning. For a boy of six or seven years these were serious promises and were chosen to demonstrate my real desire for a new bicycle, just like all my friends had. But, I should never have doubted that Santa would find a way to satisfy my Christmas wish. On Christmas morning the great man once again came to the rescue of a child in need by bringing him the perfect present. My mother, of course, insisted that Santa couldn’t have done it on his own without the help of God and made me say a prayer of thanksgiving to Him.


Once again I arose on Christmas morning to find that a brand new bicycle had been placed, by Santa, in pride of place before the Christmas tree. On this occasion, however, it was definitely a bicycle and had only two wheels. The metallic painted frame sparkled with the reflections of the flashing, multi-coloured lights and tinsel that hung from the branches of our Christmas tree. Though it was again red in colour, like my tricycle, on this occasion it was a deep, crimson red that made it stand out from everything that surrounded it. The wide handle-bars were silver-chrome and there was a ‘package shelf’ attached to the rear mudguard, immediately below and behind the red and white bicycle seat. It was just like the bicycles that I had noticed in the shops, but was only allowed to admire them from a distance. Now I could sit on the saddle and put my feet on the pedals.


My heart beat heavily with pride as I examined its modern, streamlined shape with a chain guard that prevented my trouser legs from being soiled with oil. With my foot on the pedal I could imagine myself sitting on the bicycle and propelling us both forward along the highways and byways of the nearby countryside. Meanwhile, on the bike’s wide handle-bars was fixed a silver coloured bell that was much bigger, and much louder, than the bell had been on my little red tricycle. That bicycle looked like perfection to me. In my young mind this new bicycle was much more technically advanced than most of the two wheel bicycles I had seen and I was sure that I would now be the envy of all my friends. My bicycle had a headlight and a red-tail light that were both powered by a dynamo, which was driven by being pressed against the tyre wall on the rear wheel. That little red bike was the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen. The departure of my little red trike was forgotten in the joy and love that I had for that new bicycle, which Santa had brought me for Christmas.

If you enjoyed this story get my book “Across the Sheugh” by sending me a personal message with your eMail address and I will post a invoice on-line to you. Immediately on receipt of invoice amount the book will be despatched to you … Jim Woods @ jimwoods.author@gmail.com

Jim Woods 04/01/2020

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.

The Wake at Big Peter’s.

Celebrating a Man’s Life

Poor Sean Maguire died, just as Mr. Roche suspected he would, and the gold and the notes were found quilted into his wretched clothing. A search was then made for any of his relatives from in and about Moneygeran. in the West of the County, where his mother was known to have lived. Meanwhile, as much was taken from the hoard by ‘Big Peter’, in whose premises he died, as was necessary to buy a shroud and coffin, and some pipes, and tobacco, and snuff. Sheets were hung up in a corner of the barn, and the poor corpse was shaved and washed, and provided with a clean shirt, before he was laid on a table in the same corner and covered with a sheet.

Two or three large, roughly coloured wood prints of devout subjects were pinned on the sheets, and candlesticks, trimmed with coloured paper and furnished with candles, were provided. One or two persons relieved each other during daylight, to keep watch and ward off any evil. Of course, any poor neighbour who was cursed with a taste for tobacco smoke was only too ready for this duty, but the approach of darkness brought company enough, more indeed than were benefitted by the social duty.

The brave old patriarch Peter rested comfortably in his own chair and was talking intently to two or three of his neighbours, as old as himself, on the old chronicles of Castleton. We had paid little attention to his legends and tales, and we are now sorry enough for our inattention. On this occasion the hero of his story was a certain Squire Heaton, who, it appears, was the possessor of the Castleton demesne in some former age, and a terrible blackguard he must have been. He was employed in some fierce argument or other with his neighbours or tenants, we cannot now remember which, about a certain common, overgrown with furze bushes. It was, in fact, a large hill, which gave shelter to hundreds of hares and rabbits, and as the Squire would not give way to the demand made on him about the hill, the party collected and set fire to it on a fine summer evening.

The Wake

Big Peter described, in a most graphic manner, the effect of the fire seen from the country round and about, all the poor hares and rabbits running for their lives, with their fur all scorched, and their eyes nearly burned out of their heads, and themselves falling into the hands of the crowds that kept watch at the edge of the burning mass. This reminiscence drew on others connected with matters that had taken place before the Rebellion, and while everyone was so engaged Eddie, Brian, and Charlie entered the room, reverently uncovering their heads, and reciting the ‘De Profundis’, verse and response. At the end they put their hats back on their heads and approached the elderly group.

A granddaughter of Peter’s and Mrs O’Brien’s servant girl, Joanna, a rattling young girl, came in with them, and after the psalm joined the ‘Big Peter’s’ womenfolk in the house, who occupied seats near the table. The older people, not willing to lose any of their usual hours of rest, began to leave, after having nearly exhausted all the interesting topics of the locality. But it was not long until a considerable amount of more lively conversation, of more interest to the younger portion of the company, began to develop itself among the various groups, two or three of the chief families keeping together near the table, as has been said.

At last a request came from a young woman in this group to Mr. Edmond, that he would entertain them with a song. Never being a man that was troubled with bashfulness, he immediately agreed, merely asking one of the little boys to bring a young cat from the kitchen to walk down his throat and clear away the cobwebs. He warned his audience that his song was useful to anyone thinking of paying a visit to the sites of Dublin.

” THE CONNAUGHT MAN AT THE REVIEW.

” With a neat house and garden, I live at my ease,

But all worldly pleasures my mind cannot please.

To friends and to neighbours I bid them adieu,

And I pegged off to Dublin to see the review.

Chorus Laddly, ta ral lal, ta ral lal, lee.

” With trembling expectations, to the town I advanced,

Till I met with a soup-maker’s cellar by chance,

Where I saw hogs’ puddings, cows’ heels, and fat tripes.

And that delicate sight

Chorus

” I stood in amaze, and I viewed them all o’er

The mistress espied me and came to her door.

‘ Step in, if you please, there is everything nice.

You shall have a good dinner at a reasonable price.’

Chorus

“I tumbled downstairs, and I took off my hat.

And immediately down by the fireside I sat.

In less than five minutes she brought me a plate

Overflowing with potatoes, white cabbage, and meat.

Chorus

” Says she, it was in Leitrim I was born and bred,

And can accommodate you to a very good bed.’

I thanked her, and straightway to bed I did fly,

Where I lay as snug as a pig in a sty.

Chorus

“In less than five minutes my sides they grew hard,

For every feather it measured a yard.

A regiment of black boys my poor corpse overspread,

And insisted they’d tumble me out of the bed.

Chorus

“I slept there all night until clear day-light,

And immediately called for my bill upon sight,

Says she, ‘as we both are come from the one town,

And besides old acquaintance, I’ll charge but a crown.’

Chorus.

” Oh, that is too much now, and conscience to boot;’

So, between she and I there arose a dispute.

To avoid the dispute, and to soon put an end,

She out for the police her daughter did send.

Chorus

“In the wink of an eye I was sorely confounded

To see my poor body so sadly surrounded.

I thought they were mayors, or peers of the land,

With their long coats, and drab capes, and guns in their hands.

Chorus

“‘Gentlemen,’ says I, ‘I’m a poor, honest man:

Before in my life I was never trepanned.’

‘ Come, me good fellow! Come pay for the whole,

Or else you will be the first man in the goal.’

Chorus

“I paid the demand, and I bid her adieu,

And was off to the Park for to see the review.

Where a soldier he gave me a rap of his gun,

And bid me run home, for the white eyes were done.

Chorus

“‘My good fella,’ says I, ‘had I you where I know,

I’d make you full Bore to repent of that blow.’

At the hearing of this, in a passion he flew,

And his long carving knife on me poor head he drew.

Chorus

There were three or four verses more, but the readers are probably content with the quantity furnished. There was clucking of tongues against palates at the mention of the roguish tricks of the Dublin dealers. But a carrier in company cleared the city-born folk of some of the bad reputation alleged by the song and pronounced country people who had made good their standing in Dublin for a few years, to be the greatest cheats in the kingdom.

Celebrating a Life

Mr. Edmond, having now a right to call someone up, summoned Joanna, the servant maid, previously mentioned, to show what she could do. Joanna, though very ready with her tongue at home, was at heart a modest girl, and fought hard to be let off. But one protested that she was a good singer, in right of a lark’s heel she had, but this was not the case, for Joanna had a neat foot. Another said that she was taught to sing by note when Tone, the dancing-master made his last round through the country, another said, that he heard herself and a young kid sing verse about one day when nobody was within hearing.

So, poor Joan, to get rid of the torment, asked what song they would like her to sing for them, and a dozen voices requested a love song about murder. So, after looking down, with a blushing face, for a while, she began with an unsteady voice, but she was soon under the influence of the subject and sung with a sweet voice one of these old English ballads, which we heard for the first time from a young woman of the Barony of Bardon, in the south.

There is another song on the same subject in some collection which we cannot at this remember at this moment. But Joanna’s version is evidently a faulty one. It has suffered from transmission through generations of negligent vocalists and now it is not easy to give it an original period of time.

“FAIR ELEANOR.

“‘Come, comb your head, Fair Eleanor,

And comb it on your knee,

And that you may look maiden-like

Till my return to thee.’

“”Tis hard for me to look maiden-like,

When maiden I am none:

Seven fair sons I’ve borne to thee,

And the eighth lies in my womb.’

”Seven long years were past and gone.

Fair Eleanor thought it long.

She went up into her bower,

With her silver cane in hand.

“She looked far, she looked near,

She looked upon the strand.

And it’s there she spied King William a-coming,

And his new bride by the hand.

“She then called up her seven sons,

By one, by two, by three.

‘ I wish that you were seven greyhounds,

This night to worry me! ‘

“‘Oh, say not so our mother dear,

But put on your golden pall,

And go and throw open your wide, wide gates,

And welcome the nobles all.’

” So, she threw off her gown of green.

She put on her golden pall,

She went and threw open her wide, wide gates,

And welcomed the nobles all.

” ‘ Oh, welcome, lady fair! ‘ she said.

‘ You’re welcome to your own.

And welcome be these nobles all

That come to wait on you home.’

” ‘ Oh, thankee, thankee, Fair Eleanor!

And many thanks to thee.

And if in this bower I do remain,

Great gifts I’ll bestow on thee.’

” She served them up, she served them down,

She served them all with wine,

But still she drank of the clear spring water,

To keep her colour fine.

“She served them up, she served them down.

She served them in the hall.

But still she wiped off the salt, salt tears,

As they from her did fall.

” Well bespoke the bride so gay,

As she sat in her chair—

‘And tell to me, King William,’ she said,

‘ Who is this maid so fair?

” ‘ Is she of your kith, ‘ she said,

‘ Or is she of your kin,

Or is she your comely housekeeper

That walks both out and in’

” ‘ She is not of my kith,’ he said,

‘ Nor is she of my kin.

But she is my comely housekeeper

That walks both out and in.’

‘\’ Who then was your father,’ she said,

‘ Or who then was your mother 1

Had you any sister dear,

Or had you any brother 1 ‘

” ‘ King Henry was my father,’ she said,

‘ Queen Margaret was my mother,

Matilda was my sister dear,

Lord Thomas was my brother.’

” ‘ King Henry was your father,’ she said,

Queen Margaret, your mother,

1 am your only sister dear.

And here’s Lord Thomas, our brother.

” ‘ Seven lofty ships I have at sea,

All filled with beaten gold.

Six of them I’ll leave with thee,

The seventh will bear me home.’ “

The usual interruptions arising from new visitors entering had occurred several times during these relaxations, with the last visitor being a young giant of a man called Tom Sweeney. He was a labourer on the farm of young Roche, and an admirer of the songstress of Fair Eleanor, who, if she returned his affection, took special care to conceal the fact from the eyes of their acquaintance. Tom was as naïve a young man as there was anywhere in the county, and Peter O’Brien called on him to give a song. But the young man could think of nothing else to sing but the lamentation of a young girl for the absence of her lover.

An Irish Wake

” THE SAILOR BOY.

“‘Oh, the sailing trade is a weary life.

It robs fair maids of their hearts’ delight,

Which causes me for to sigh and mourn,

For fear my true love will ne’er return.

“’The grass grows green upon yonder lea,

The leaves are budding from ev’ry spray,

The nightingale in her cage will sing

To welcome Willy home to crown the spring.

“’ I’ll build myself a little boat.

And o’er the ocean I mean to float:

From every French ship that do pass by,

I’ll inquire for Willy, that bold sailing boy.’

“She had not sailed a league past three

Till a fleet of French ships, she chanced to meet.

‘ Come tell me, sailors, and tell me true,

If my love Willy sails on board with you.’

“‘Indeed, fair maid, your love is not here,

But he is drowned by this we fear.

‘It was your green island that we passed by,

There we lost Willy, that bold sailing boy.’

“She wrung her hands and she tore her hair

Just like a lady that was in despair.

Against the rock her little boat she run—

‘How can I live, and my true love gone? ‘

“Nine months after, this maid was dead,

And this note found on her bed’s head.

How she was satisfied to end her life,

Because she was not a bold sailor’s wife.

“‘Dig my grave both large and deep,

Deck it over with lilies sweet,

And on my headstone cut a turtledove,

To signify that I died for love.’ “

It is probable that the sentiments of this ballad will not produce similar feelings in our readers. It was not the case with the younger portion of Tom’s audience, for he sung it with much feeling. He was, indeed, a sincere young fellow, besides being a lover.

It would be a little boring, except to those with an interest in such things, if I was to let you read many more of the songs which were sung there. If truth be told, there were few that could be distinguished by them possessing genuine poetry or good taste. The people who were there were not so lucky and had to hear “The sailor who courted a farmer’s daughter, that lived convenient to the Isle of Man.” That was followed by the merry song called “The Wedding of Ballyporeen,” which caused the audience to laugh loudly, although they had heard it many times heard before. Then there were popular tunes such as, “The Boy with the Brown Hair,” “The Red-haired Girl,” “Sheela na Guira,” and “The Cottage Maid.” Laments and Ballads about lost loves and promising romantic futures, which were popular and encouraged the audience to join in. But, at last, some of those gathered began to demonstrate by their manner and gestures, that they had heard enough sweet singing, and O’Brien, and Roche, and Redmond, were invited to get up  and perform the wake-house drama of ‘Old Dowd and his Daughters’, which would help them to hold out against the stale air in the room and the want of sleep.

The young men did not exhibit too good a sense of the moral fitness of things, since they were not normally disposed to vice, in private or in public. It was custom that influenced them to think that what was harmless at other times and in other places could be looked on as harmless at a wake. So, Charles at once assumed took his place as stage manager and assumed the role of Old Dowd with a daughter he needed to dispose of. He set the blushing and giggling Joanna on a chair beside him, Tom Sweeney, and two or three other young men on a bench at his other side, cleared an open space in front, procured a good stick for himself and each of his sons, and awaited the approach of the expected suitor.

O’Brien and Roche had gone out, and on their return were to be looked on, the first as the suitor, a caustic poet, who makes himself welcome at rich farmers’ houses by satirizing their neighbours, and the second as his horse, whose forelegs were represented by the man’s arms, and a stool firmly grasped in his hands. Roche’s election to this role was determined by his size and great strength. Finally, amid the most profound silence the performance of “Old Dowd and his Daughters” began—

OLD DOWD AND HIS DAUGHTERS.

[Present: Old Dowd, his marriageable daughter, Sheela, and his six sons. Enter poetic suitor, appropriately mounted. Father and sons eye the pair with much contempt.]

Old Dowd: Who is this, mounted on his old carthorse, coming to disturb us at this hour of the night? What kind of a tramp or traveller are you? for I don’t think we can give you a lodging, sir, and you must go on farther.

Suitor: I’m not an honest man, no more than you are yourself, you old sinner, and I don’t want a room. I’m seeking a cure for life’s troubles. In plain words, a wife who can be with me for the rest of my life on this earth. Are you lucky enough to be able to help me, for you won’t ever get another chance to make a more high-bred connection as myself? My grandfather owned seven townlands, and let more property slip through his fingers than the whole seed, breed, and generation of the Dowds possessed since Adam was a boy. Come on, are you ready for me?

Father of Bride: Aye, and what property have you got?

Suitor: A lawsuit that’s to be decided on day before Christmas Eve. If I gain it, I’ll get fifty acres of land on the side of the mountain at a pound an acre. If I lose, they can only put me in the jail. Come on, now, let us see the bride. But, first, as they used to say at the siege of Troy, let us know your breeding and bloodline.

Father. Here I am, Old Dowd, with his six sons. Himself makes seven, four more would be eleven, and hurrah, brave boys.”

At this point of the conference the patriarch flourished his stick, and aimed a few blows at the steed and rider, more, however, in courtesy than resentment. The suitor warded the strokes with some skill and gave a tap or two to his father-in-law elect. He at last setting his weapon upright and the argument ceased.

Father: Come now, I see that you are not altogether unworthy to enter the family of the Dowds. What’s your profession? How do you earn your bread? I won’t send out my dear Sheela to live on the neighbours.

Suitor: I’m a poet and live by the weaknesses of mankind.

Father: Och, what kind of trade is that? Your coat is white at the seams. Is that some sort of vest or is it a real shirt you have on you? How many meals a day do you get? Everyone knows the saying, ‘as poor as a poet’.

Suitor: Then I think three-quarters of the people about here must be in the same trade. If you were to be a father-in-law to me, then learn to be mannerly, Old Dowd. I scorn a vest, except when my old shirt is worn out, and my new one has not come from the seamstress, and if I could find an appetite, I might eat seven meals a day. I stop at a gentleman- farmer’s and repeat a few verses that I said for against a neighbour for his stinginess to one of the old-stock of the Muldoons, and a poet besides. And don’t myself and my steed live like fighting cocks, and the man of the house not daring to sneeze for fear of getting into a new a bad verse about himself. Is this my bride? Oh, the darling girl, I must make a verse in her praise off the top of my head, for if I was Homer, that noble poet, I’d sing your praises in verses sweet. Or Alexander, that bold commander, I’d lay my trophies down at your feet.”

“Venerable head of the Clan Dowd, my intended looks a little hot. I hope it wasn’t with the pot-rag she wiped her face this morning. Old Dowd, you’ll have to shell out something decent for soap. The young lady’s name is Sheela, you say. She’s not the same Miss Sheela, I hope! You know that Pat Cox, the shoemaker, was lately courting?

Father: You vagabond of a poet, do you think I’d demean the old kings of Leinster, my forefathers, by taking into my family a greasy shoemaker?

Suitor: I only asked a civil question. Pat met his darling one day, as she was binding after the reapers, and asked when she’d let him take her measure for a pair of new shoes. “No time like the present time,” says she, and off she kicked her right foot pump. Her nails were a trifle long and her lovely toes were peeping out through the worsted stockings. If there was anything between the same toes it wouldn’t be polite to mention it. So bewildered was the love-sick fool by the privilege conferred on him, that he felt in his own mind, that a prolonged communication would not be good for the peace of heart. So, the shoes are not yet made, and Pat’s nearest residence is in the village of Derrymore.

Father: And do you dare, you foul-mouthed blackguard, to cast insinuations on the delicate habits of my dear child? Take this for your reward.

Sympathetic Sons: And this … and this.”

And now began a neat cudgel-skirmish between the main contracting parties. The angry father not only struck at the evil-tongued suitor, but also whacked at the inoffensive horse. The suitor warded the blows from his trusty horse as well as he could, but still one or two made impressions on the more sensitive portions of his body, and the sons with their wooden sticks added to his overall discomfort. So, the noble animal, feeling his patience rapidly diminishing, executed a half-jump, and applying the hoof of his off hind leg to the bench on which the old gentleman and his sons were sitting in state, he overturned them with little effort, and their heads and backs made sore acquaintance with the wall and floor.

This disagreeable incident, and the still unconquered difficulties, stopped the further prosecution of the suit, and amid rubbing of sore spots, scratching of heads, and howls of laughter from all parts of the room, they set about another match with Peter’s grand-daughter being obliged to sit for the next blushing bride. In this second act, Redmond came in as a wooer, bestriding Tom Sweeney, His cue was to have nothing of the poet or the vagrant hanging to his skirts. He was the miserly, careful tradesman of country life. O’Brien represented Old Dowd.

Thrifty Suitor: God save all here!  Look here, I want a wife, and no more about it. Have you got one available?

Father: To be sure we have! Who are you if you please?

Thrifty Suitor: I’m not ashamed of my name nor of my business. I’m a brogue-maker to my trade, and my name’s Mick Kinsella, and I’m not short of a few pounds in my pocket, not like that scare-crow, Denny Muldoon, that’ll be obliged to throw his large cloak over his bride to keep her from freezing with the cold in the honeymoon. I won’t have Miss Sheela; you may depend on it.

Father: Indeed, I think you’re right, Mick-the Brogue. That dear girl was a little untidy, still she wasn’t without her good points. But she would persist in wiping the plates with the cat’s tail when the dishcloth was not at hand, and I’m afraid that her husband won’t be known by the whiteness of his shirt collar at the chapel. Well, well, we won’t speak ill of the absent. But here, you son of a turned pump, is the flower of the flock for you. Here’s one that will put a genteel stamp on your stand of brogues at a fair or market. By the way, the shoemakers don’t associate with you, men of the leather strip. They don’t look on you as tradesmen. What shabby pride! Begging your pardon, Mick, what property have you, and what do you intend to leave to your widow? After all, no one can say to your face that you married out of a frolic of youth. You’re turned fifty, I think.

Thrifty Suitor: No, I am not, Old Dowd! I am only pushing forty-five, and I have neither a red nose nor a shaky hand, Old Dowd. And I hope Mrs. Kinsella won’t be at the expense of a widow’s cap for thirty years to come, Old Dowd. But not to make an ill answer, I have three hundred red guineas under the thatch. And now tell me what yourself will lay down on the nail the day your daughter changes her name.

Father: Well, well, the impudence of some people stings! Isn’t it enough, and more than enough, to get a young woman of birth, that has book-learning and reads novels? And you, you big jackass, don’t you think but your bread will be baked the day she condescends to take the vulgar name of Kinsella? Why, man, the meaning of the word is “Dirty Head.” An old king of Leinster got it for killing a priest.

Thrifty Suitor: I don’t care a pig’s bristle for your notions and grand ideas. Give me an answer if you please.

Father: Oh, dear, dear, Old Dowd! Did you ever think you would live long enough to hear your genteel and accomplished daughter, Miss Biddy Dowd, called by the vile name of Biddy -the-Brogue?

Thrifty Suitor: Now, none of your impudence, you overbearing and immoral old toper! I want a wife to keep things snug at home, and make me comfortable, and not let me be cheated by my servants and workmen. You say that Biddy reads novels and, maybe when the ploughmen come in at noon, they’ll only find the praties put down over a bad fire, and the mistress crying over a greasy-covered book in the corner. To the Devil with all the novels in the world.

The Dowds (father and sons): This ignorant gobshite never went as far as the “Principles of Politeness ” in the “Universal Spelling-book.” Let us administer the youth a little of hazel-oil to make his joints supple and teach him some manners!”

Then another battle of arms took place, in which some skilful play was shown with the sticks, and several sound thumps were given and received, to the great delight and edification of the assembly.

Thrifty Suitor: Now that these few compliments are over, what is to be the fortune of Biddy, I beg a thousand pardons, Miss Biddy Dowd, I mean?

Father: Isn’t her face fortune enough for you, you vulgar man? Do you think nothing of the respectability of having her sitting on a pillion behind you going to fair or market to work after you, with her green silk gown and quilted purple petticoat, and her bright orange shawl? Ah, you lucky thief! Won’t you have the crowd of young fellows around you, bargaining for your ware, and inviting Mrs. Kinsella to a glass of punch? I think, instead of expecting a fortune, you should give a big bag of money for being let into my family.

Thrifty Suitor: Old Dowd, all your bluster isn’t worth a cast-off brogue. Mention a decent sum, or back I go to my work. I’m young enough to be married these fifteen years to come.”

Here the father and sons put their heads together, and finally the hard-pressed father named twenty pounds, but the worldly-minded suitor exclaimed against the smallness of the sum and insisted on a hundred. After a series of skilful thrusts and parries, they agreed to split the difference, and the candidate was asked whether he preferred to receive it in quarterly payments or be paid all at once. He inconsiderately named present payment and had soon reason to repent of his haste to become rich, for the dowry descended on himself and his charger in a shower of blows from the tough hazels and blackthorns of his new relatives. After receiving and inflicting several stripes, he shouted out that he was satisfied to give a long day with the balance. And so, with their shoulders and sides sore with blows and laughter, the play came to an end, and much appreciation was shown by the audience both with the action and dialogue, for many in the crowd knew the parties who were represented, and scarcely, if at all, caricatured. Denny Muldoon, and Mick Kinsella, and Biddy-the-Brogue, were well-known under other names.

When the enthusiasm had subsided a little, it being now about one o’clock in the morning, O’Brien, Roche, Edmond, Joanna, and Sweeney withdrew, but not before reciting some prayers before they left the room. When the vacated seats came to be filled, and lately bashful young fellows began to use the tobacco-pipes, which one but the older folk had meddled with before, the hitherto tolerably decent spirit of the society began to evaporate, and confusion and ill manners began to prevail. However, a young fellow, who felt a desire to hear himself sing in company, got some of his supporters to endeavour to quieten the noise, and request him to favour the assembly with a song. The noise did not entirely subside until the first notes were heard, and the dismal style in which the verses were sung needed to be restrained but indifferently.

” THE STREAMS OF BUNCLODY.

“Was I at the moss-house where the birds do increase,

At the foot of Mount Leinster, or some silent place,

At the streams of Bunclody, where all pleasures do meet,

And all I require is one kiss from you, sweet.

” The reason my love slights me, I do understand,

Because she has a freehold and I have no land.

A great store of riches, both Silver and gold,

And everything fitting a house to uphold.

“If I was a clerk who could write a good hand,

I’d write to my true love that she might understand,

That I’m a young man that’s deeply in love,

That lived by Bunclody, and now must remove.

” Adieu my dear father; adieu my dear mother.

Farewell to my sister, and likewise my brother.

I’m going to America, my fortune to try.

When 1 think on Bunclody, I’m ready to die.”

The general feeling at the time was too cynical to relish such a sad song. Several songs were sung, whose composers’ ghosts shall not have the gratification of seeing them here either in substance or name. At last, even the songs, such as they were, began to lose their charm, and games were introduced. The first was played in the following way –

The captain took five assistants, and arranged them in a semicircle, giving to each a name. He then began with a short stick to pound the palm of one to whom the mischance came by lot, keeping a firm hold of his wrist all the time, and naming the troop in this manner “Fabby, Darby Skibby, Donacha the Saddler, Jacob the Farmer, Scour-dish, what’s that man’s name?” He suddenly pointed to one of the group, and if the patient named him on the moment, he was released, and the fellow named was submitted to the handy discipline. If there was the slightest delay about the name, the operator went on as before—”Fibby Fabby, Darby Skibby,” etc., until the poor victim’s fingers were in a sad state.

In the second game a candle was placed on the ground, in the middle of a circle of lads, and all are told to keep their eyes fixed on it, and their hands behind their backs. The captain provided himself with a twisted leathern apron, or something equally unpleasant to be struck with, and walked on the outside of the ring, exclaiming from time to time, “Watch the light, watch the light.” Secretly placing the weapon into the hands of one of the men, he at last cried out, “Use the linger, use the linger;” and this worthy ran round the circle, using it to some purpose on the backs of his playmates. He then became the captain, and in due course delivered the instrument to someone else.

But the most objectionable trick of all was “shooting the buck.” Some person or persons who had not yet seen the performance were essential to its success, as it required a victim or two. The person acting the buck having gone out, the sportsman who was to shoot him required one to three unsuspicious persons to lie in wait inside the door, to catch the animal when falling from the effect of the shot, promising that they should see fine things. All became silent and watchful, and the retrievers were at their post, when the stag appeared in the doorway, a stool on his head, with the feet upturned to represent horns. The huntsman stooped, and squinting along a stick, cried out, “too-oo”! Back fell the animal, and down came the stool, and all the dirt with which the rogue had charged it outside, on the hats and clothes of the raw sportsmen, and great laughter rose from all the throats but theirs.

By this time, it is three or four o’clock, and time for anyone who dreads the terrors of an over-burdened conscience, while he lies passive and stretched out the next morning, to quit the scene of such frivolity. We might here moralize on the inherent evil of the institution, and the number of young men who became hardened in vice by attending wakes, and the number of young women who lost their character thereby, and everything with it, here and hereafter. The evil lay in visiting them at all, for more than a few minutes. It would be out of the question for the best-intentioned to remain in the foul room for the whole night and come out as innocent in the morning as they entered in the evening. Girls with any pretence to good conduct never remained in them beyond the early hours of the night and were always supposed to be there under the guardianship of a brother, cousin, or declared lover. We will say, for the honour of those districts of Ireland that were known to us, that it was rare to hear of a young woman, farmer’s, or cottager’s daughter, of bad character.