The Avondhu - By The Fireside
‘Being a lover of the beauties of nature, which in my opinion are never so striking as when combined with those of art, I availed myself of every means, pedestrian, equestrian, and aquatic, to explore those I have attempted to faintly describe, and in one of my excursions had the agreeable surprise of meeting a friend, of whose intention of visiting Ireland I had not before been apprised. My original plan had not been to extend my stay beyond the period of a few weeks, but induced by the desire of my friend, I consented to accompany him on a visit to the lakes of Killarney.
‘... As we passed through a champaign, and naturally fertile country, in which the want of the hedge rows of full grown timber, which I was accustomed to see in so many parts of England, the inferior breed of cattle, the general meanness of agricultural equipments, and the hovels of the peasantry, clearly evinced the want of capital in the tenant, and nearly as distinctly indicated the landlord an absentee.’
It was agreed we should perform the journey on horseback, on which, accompanied by but a single servant, we started on one of the few fine mornings which even in summer the variable and rainy climate of Ireland affords, at the early hour of four o’clock.’
Passing through Carlow, Kilkenny, and Clonmell (sic), we found ourselves towards the close of the fourth evening of our departure ascending the road which leads over the summit of the Kilworth Mountains, which border the counties of Cork and Tipperary. Heavy clouds had been collecting for the last few hours over our heads; the air had the sultry and stifling feel which precedes a thunder storm; no habitation seemed nigh, and to add to the number of our impending disasters, my horse displayed symptoms of lameness which rapidly increased.
Night closed in as we attained the top of the mountain, and just as the vanishing of the first flash of lightning left us involved in gloom, we thought ourselves happy in descrying a glimmering of light at a distance. To this we made all the haste my disabled animal would allow, and the rain had began to descend in torrents, when we tapped at the door of the mansion which contained our beacon, and begged for entrance and shelter for the night.
This abode, as we afterwards more clearly discerned at our departure in the morning, had pretensions much above the common order. The pig had a separate apartment, exterior, and adjoining to, the dwelling of his friend and owner. The dunghill was a little on one side of the path to the entrance, to and from which it allowed free ingress and egress. The door was secured during the night by a wooden bar, instead of the usual mathematical process by which the application of the pitch fork forms, with the hearth and door, a right-angled triangle, and the application of a few brushfulls of whitewash to the front (for to the entire would have been an extravagant and wasteful expenditure) gave the whole a tasteful, light, and airy appearance.
We were promptly admitted, and received with that hospitality which is genuine in the Irish peasantry, and often a more respectable quality than in the gentry who two frequently adulterate it with a mixture of prodigality and ostentation. Over the exertions of our host, his wife and son, to give us the best reception which their humble means admitted, I however thought I could perceive an air of uneasiness for which I was at a loss to account, and which I am free to own when I recollected the lawless and disturbed state of the country, gave me some forebodings of rather a disagreeable nature.
The rain and clouds had soon passed away, the moon was risen, a delightful night was about to succeed - our horses were well fed and littered in a shed behind the cabin, and we were just sitting down to a supper, at which in London we should have started with horror and astonishment, consisting of some cold slices of a late defunct companion of our neighbour of the swinish multitude, with some roast potatoes, and butter of excellent quality, when the noise of a horseman, approaching at a rapid rate, attracted our attention, and visibly added to the perplexity of our entertainers, who exchanged looks more pregnant with meaning than any I had yet observed.
He stopped, dismounted, and knocked at the door, and while we were engaged in discussing a meal, to which exercise and the keen air of the mountains gave a zest, a conversation of nearly ten minutes duration took place, in a tone of voice too low to be overheard, between the stranger and our host, at the conclusion of which, the former entered. The first glance conveyed to my ideas the impression of a farmer of the better class, which, however, a further examination did not confirm. We arose to acknowledge his entrance, and he returned our bow with one, in which I could neither perceive either rusticity, or polish, but a plentiful, and, I thought, too apparent, share of indifference.
He seated himself near the fire, and I had then a better opportunity to observe his person, with which I was much struck. His age I would have estimated between thirty-five and forty years. His person, much above the common size, was more remarkable for strength than agility, although, evidently, not deficient in the latter quality. His broad shoulders, depth of chest, powerful limbs, and general power of frame, clearly denoted a man, capable of enduring the greatest hardships, while his countenance presented the indication of qualities which seemed, in some degree, contradictory. Hardy, indeed, have I seen any thing finer than his forehead, and eye; the former, expansive, smooth, and of a whiteness, which contrasted with the brown hue of the lower part of the face, and must have been so preserved by a hat of an uncommon wide brim, and a peculiar form, which reached from lower than the usual limit ; the eye, of the purest blue and white, indicative of self-possession, clearness, and caution, and which on the slightest contraction of the brow, seemed to penetrate the thoughts of those whom it was fixed on.
Here, however, my commendations must cease. The other features of his face were of a far inferior mould; the nose short, and in two lines, the mouth coarse, the lips being thick, and not compressed. His dress was a frock coat, of green, leathers, and whole boats, spurred; in his hand a whip, of more than ordinary dimensions. He remained in his position, without seeming to regard us for some minutes, and as there was every appearance of his continuing so, I attempted to break the awkwardness of the silence which had seized on the whole party by addressing to him some trivial remarks on the weather, to which he replied, with more attention than I had expected.
Thus encouraged, I adverted to the disturbed state of the country in which we then were, which was commencing that partial resistance of tithes which has since become so violent that a sale of half a dozen cows, under distress, has only been effected by the aid of a regiment of Highlanders and lancers, flanked by two pieces of artillery. This topic evidently fixed his attention, and interested his feelings, so that I was tempted to pursue it; and I mentioned a pamphlet, which had been lately published on the subject by the bishop of Elphin.
“Aye,” said he carelessly, “I know him, the late Provost of Trinity College Elrington.”
“The publication,” replied I, “is considered a most able one.”
“Pity” said he, “it was not written by the bishop of Kildare, who sells milk, and rents a turnpike-road;** you, perhaps, remember its chief points.”
“Yes; he commences with researches in ancient times, to show, that “assesments on the land, to support the priesthood, was the practice in ancient times, even among the Pagans, and instances the case, as well as I remember, of a temple, in the neighbourhood of Syracuse, so maintained, when Sicily was one of the granaries of Rome.”
“The devil he does! He is a hypocrite, and knows better than to believe what he writes, to please those who have given him promotion. He is well aware that in the overflowing population of Ireland, the only consideration with the tenant when he occupies land is, that of the lowest pittance on which he can support life; after which, he offers what be thinks the land will afford; for if he don’t, another will overbid him, and understarve himself to obtain possession.
But granting that the tenant is as independent as the landlord, and can turn himself to other occupations, if he does not obtain a lease, and, therefore, makes his offer on the independent basis with the bishop supposes - what then? Land will never, in itself, yield produce, in which is the tithe. There must be two other indispensable adjuncts, which are supplied, solely, by the tenant, viz. capital, and labour. Thus, of the three parts, the tenant provides two - does he not then pay two-thirds of the tithe from the sweat of his brow, or the outlay of his generally miserable property?”
This was what is commonly called a poser. I made no direct reply, but as the boys say at school, thought it best to ‘skip, and go on,’ and was about to quote some equally powerful position of the bishop’s when the stranger continued - “To even waive what I have just mentioned, we are Catholics - our religion is different from that of those who exact the tithe, and we pay our own clergy. Is it just, then, that we should pay the priesthood also, which a foreign yoke has imposed upon us?”
If the former reply was a ‘poser,’ I felt that, to use a pugilistic simile, this was putting the head of my argument, or rather of the bishop’s into chancery, but the words ‘foreign yoke,’ struck on my ear with a discordant tone that rather confused me, as by the deduction following, I was a foreigner, although in the British dominions.
‘MY ENGLISH BLOOD WAS
Disregarding, or seeming to disregard this, I shifted my ground, and adverted to the atrocities which were committed in the course of the resistance made to the levey which appeared so odious in his eyes.
“These I do not offend. When the angry passions of an ignorant and oppressed peasantry are put in action, think you their rage is to be restrained within the bounds of form, which the precedent and practice of centuries assign to the revenge of a duellist? Yet will I still say, the fate of some of those who have fallen is the just punishment of Heaven on devouring avarice, and steel hearted oppression.”
“But to what end is this desultory warfare? Tithes are still levied in spite of opposition, and will continue to be so. Why, then, kick against the pricks?”