Reminiscences of the West

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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CHAPTER III...continued

The reader acquainted with Irish local history may form some idea of the state of Connaught at the period to which this tale refers, and the barbarous condition of the country at the time, when we tell him, that it was many years after some of the gentry—not the "good people," but the landed proprietors, the so-called gentlemen—of Mayo, having overpowered the guards, broke into the jail of Castlebar, and attempted to assassinate one of the prisoners, whom they left for dead.[4]

And it occurred a few years before one of the members for the county of Galway, a magistrate and a deputy-lieutenant, was tried, sentenced, and imprisoned several months, for heading a riotous armed mob; marching off with them many miles through a neighbouring town, and taking illegal and forcible possession of an acre of bog, whereby several persons were severely injured, and the peace of the realm disturbed.[5] And it was about this time, or shortly after it, that a gentleman, then residing not far from the town of Roscommon, abducted a drove of pigs from a neighbouring magistrate with whom he happened to be dining: for which crime he was transported for life—a life he, after a long space of time, forfeited to the offended laws of a penal colony. Not many years ago, his son—who had been a cabin-boy at the battle of Navarino—proved in the public court-house of Leitrim, that he was the rightful heir to the estates of a man who had then but recently filled the office of high sheriff of the county, but whom a jury believed to be a supposititious child, the son of a pipe-maker.[6] We well remember, when a boy, seeing a lady's white satin dress bedabbled with the blood of a dying game-cock, as she stood in the pit of a cock-fight, which formed part of the amusements got up to do honour to the coming of age of a nobleman, who was afterwards murdered in England.

Of the state of Mayo, even thirty years ago, some idea may be formed from the knowledge of the fact, that no sooner had the judges of the land left the county-town after each assizes, than a certain very celebrated character, who figures in the conclusion of this tale, went to the jail and re-ruled the books, imposing severer punishments on some, and remitting those already awarded to others by the constituted authorities. Lord Chancellor Plunket once went the Connaught circuit as judge. The redoubted ruler of Mayo sat beside him on the bench. There was a general jail delivery at the conclusion of the assizes, and all the untried prisoners were put forward in the dock to be discharged, in the usual manner, by proclamation. The Right Honourable, for by such appellation he was known, seeing rather an obnoxious character among them, turned to the presiding judge and said:—

"Surely, my Lord, you are not going to let Tim Muldoon, that ill-looking fellow in the corner there, loose on the world."

"Pray, Mr. B——, what accusation can you bring against him; for the crime for which he was imprisoned appears to be so slight, that the law officers of the crown have not thought it necessary to prosecute him, or put the country to the expense of a trial."

"Oh, he is the greatest vagabond in the whole country; he is a noted ribbonman and cock-fighter; he plays the fiddle at all the wakes and dances; he is, moreover, a most determinate poacher; he would not leave a hare in the county, and he is always engaged in illicit distillation. If you let him out, no man would be safe in the kingdom."

"But, Mr. B——, I don't find any distinct charge or indictment against him, so I must discharge him with the others."

The Right Honourable having gained a few minutes delay descended to the dock, and after holding a short conference with the prisoner returned to the bench, and gravely informed the judge that he had arranged matters with Tim Muldoon, who, he said, "has consented to plead guilty without trial to any indictment that may be extemporaneously preferred against him—provided your lordship undertakes not to transport him for longer than seven years."

The judge rose up, and with all that dignity of manner and solemnity of accent which few could exhibit with greater effect, desired Tim to be put forward, and then told him he was discharged. Great was the poor culprit's amazement after the bargain he had so recently concluded with the uncompromising western ruler.

"Whe, then, your worship's raverence;—me lady, I mane;—och your lordship; but you're an illigent gintleman all out, and its much wantin' ye were to these parts; but might I make bould jist to ax yer honor wan favor afore I go."

"Yes, my man," said Plunket, "if it is anything the law or the court can do for you, you may demand it."

"Oh, thin, 'tis you are the laughey and the asey spoken gintleman entirely. I'll tell you what it is thin. Just keep the Right Honourable where he is sittin' there beside you, fare and asey for the next twinty minutes, till I get clear of the town of Castlebar; for if you didn't, be me soukins, he'd have me be the scruff of the neck, and he'd ram me into the stone jug afore you'd say Jack Robison."

And so he would, for such were his notions of "law and order" at the time to which we refer.

Tim Muldoon vaulted out of the dock, and was never heard of since; but from that hour the power and the terror of "the big man" over the people of Mayo waned, and was never again in the ascendant. Verily, we have been a peculiar people in Connaught; and, shall we not add, zealous of bad works. These little, but truthful memorabilia may, however, serve to remind some of our friends of whom, and of what times, we write.

Connaught generally, and Roscommon in particular, was the scene of one of those paroxysms of outrage, the result of secret association, that in different localities, and at divers times, have affected the Irish peasantry, sometimes for one object, sometimes for another; a war against tithes, or, more properly speaking, tithe proctors, or against landlords and agents, or on account of con-acre, or to aid in getting emancipation or repeal to tenant right—often without any cause that even the people themselves could assign. Hence arose the Hearts-of-Steel, Caravats, and Shanavests, the Croppies, Defenders, Chalkers, Houghers, White Boys, Right Boys, Peep-o'-Day Boys, Carders,[7] Hacklers, Trashers, Rockites, Ribbonmen, Terry-Alts, and Molly Maguires.

Some idle malcontent, labouring under the smart of a real or supposed grievance, some pot-house agitating demagogue, some mere pecuniary speculator or tatterdemallion, obliged, for crimes of his own, to be "on the run," and seek shelter in a different county, has frequently stirred up a hitherto peaceable peasantry to band themselves into a secret society, to meet in ribbon lodges, to assume certain nicknames, to organize and arm, to have secret signs and passwords, by which the initiated might be recognized at fair or market, when a grip of the hand, or a nudge of the elbow, the way in which a man carried the tail or skirts of his big coat, hitched up the waistband of his breeches, lifted his glass, or knocked his quart upon the public-house table when he wanted more drink; the manner in which he cocked his hat, or handled his blackthorn; or some casual or apparently unimportant word thrown out in passing the way, as "God save you," or "the time of day," or the ordinary salutation among the lower orders, were all used as means of recognition.

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[4] See the trial of the celebrated George Robert Fitzgerald, in 1786; and "of Timothy Brecknock, James Fulton, and others, for the procurement of, and for the murder of Patrick Randal M'Donnell and Charles Hickson; and also the trial of John Gallagher and others, for an assault on George Robert Fitzgerald, in the Gaol of Castlebar." Dublin: printed by P. Byrne. See also "The Life of George Robert Fitzgerald." in the Dublin University Magazine, for July, August, and September, 1840, and lately republished as one of this series of popular works.

[5] The Battle of the Bog occurred in 1837, at Oughterard, between some of the tribe of the "Ferocious O'Fflaherties," of H-Iar Connaught, and the retainers of Ballynahinch; Thomas Martin, Esq., M.P. and J.P., the last male descendant of "Nimble Dick," having led the van, against a friend and relative of my own.

[6] See the trials of Keon v. Keon, in Roscommon, Leitrim, and Galway from 1828 to 1833.

[7] One of the cards, or hackles, with spikes on it an inch and a half long which used to be hammered into the back, and then dragged down along the spine is still in the collection of antiquities of a gentleman in Mullingar.