The Gentlemen of Ireland

Frank Mathew & Francis S. Walker
The Gentlemen of Ireland

NOW, having dwelt for a little on the nature of Ireland, let us consider the common nature of Irishmen. This can best be done by dividing them into two classes, the Gentry and Peasantry, and studying each. Perhaps this is an old-fashioned division; but in Ireland we are old-fashioned people. Again you might contend that it overlooks the well-to-do farmers and the tradesmen; but these are of a connecting class—you will find names that were once wholly aloof from commerce of any kind now over shops or associated with farms—so we can leave them to decide for themselves to which of the other two they belong. One word more, this division has nothing to do with pedigree; for apart from the universality of royal extraction, there have been in Ireland so many changes of fortune that the inhabitants of thatched cabins have sometimes as honourable and ascertained a descent as their masters. By the gentlemen I mean the landlords.

It is worth while to study this class, because there is good reason to hold that it will soon be extinct. "Whether that will prove a very great advantage to Ireland is (I venture to think) open to doubt; but that point cannot be discussed without continuing those political wrangles of which we have heard more than enough. To avoid these, I mean to confine myself mainly to the gentlemen and the peasants of yesterday. This plan has the further advantage that it will enable us to think of those classes in their prime, for now —to tell the truth—both have degenerated, one under English influence and the other under American, and both are exhausted. But in the recent past, say in the second half of the eighteenth century and in the beginning of the nineteenth, both flourished and both were still national.


O'Sullivan's Punchbowl

O'Sullivan's Punchbowl

There may be need to remind you that the landlords are not aliens. Many have old Irish names, and those who have not can in nearly every case prove a strain of Celtic descent. Formerly they were divided by their creeds, though even in the worst days of the Penal Laws many Catholics owed their estates to the loyalty of Protestant friends, and they were once sundered too as Old Irish or English of Ireland or Cromwellians; but for many a day they have been united by danger. Now they are in every way as Irish as any Nationalist orator is, and they are as proud of the fact. Their different stocks have all been moulded by Ireland. "Lord!" wrote Edmund Spenser, "how quickly doth that country alter men's natures!"

That quick alteration, whether it was an improvement or not, left the English of Ireland hard to distinguish from the descendants of its earlier lords. There was a time when they recognised a division. Thus Dean Swift wrote to Pope that there was "a great distinction between the English gentry of Ireland and the savage Old Irish." Meanwhile the savage Old Irish looked on the others as upstarts and thieves. You may remember Arthur Young's story of how an O'Hara of Annaghmore went with Lord Kingsborough and other men of English descent, one of whom, named Sandford, could boast that his mother was an O'Brien, to visit The MacDermot of Coolavin, and how that magnate received them with a calm discrimination, saying, "O'Hara, you are welcome; Sandford, I am glad to see your mother's son; as for the rest of you, come in as you can." But, though the separation was made more marked by the fact that while many of the Old Irish were Catholics most of the others were not, a foreigner could have easily missed seeing it. Look at the names of the most redoubtable duellists, or of the families most renowned for a whimsical and profuse hospitality, and you will find both races represented alike. They were to all intents one, as their children are now, and so they should be studied together.

The saints of Ireland were skilled in the invocation of curses; and in this they have always been rivalled by the peasants, as many traditions of Irish families show, and as you will probably find if you turn a deaf ear to a beggar. One of the imprecations most commonly employed, in the old days, by those to whom help was refused was "Green grow the grass before your door!" It was every man's aim to keep open house and an open heart; and this is one of the reasons why that curse has since come upon so many homes in which it was never merited.

In the old days, the gentlemen of Ireland were mainly renowned for three things, hospitality and feasting and duelling. The first involved the second, and that was in turn one of the chief causes of the third. You will not understand the old prevalence of duels unless you bear in mind that those meetings were often friendly. They were regulated by laws made in the year 1777 at Clonmel in Tipperary by men representing that county and Galway and Roscommon and Sligo and Mayo. Note that four of these counties belonged to the Irish Pale. These laws were known as the Galway Code of the Duel. Having enacted that a blow is strictly prohibited under any circumstances amongst gentlemen, they proceeded to indicate how disputes should be settled in an orderly way with pistols or swords. "No dumb-shooting or firing in the air is admissible in any case," they decided, for such conduct was "children's play." They showed how a man should kill his best friend without a trace of unkindness for any reason or none. Many of these conflicts were caused, not by mutual hate, but by a common love of danger. There is a good deal to be said for duelling as a form of sport; it must have been more exciting and dangerous than hunting big game, nor did it necessitate journeys to India or Africa; it had a moral influence, for it made men feel the value of a clear eye and a steady hand; above all, it inculcated civility and the importance of an accurate tongue. At the same time, it had some disadvantages. If a man was very proud of his swordsmanship or his knack with a pistol, he might become a public nuisance, a bully or fire-eater.

Such a one was Hyacinth O'Rorke of Kilvarney. Of him it is told that he was accustomed to take his walks abroad with a pistol in one hand and a horsewhip in the other. When we think of him it is a comfort to know that he met his deserts. After long years of glory, he happened to thrash an importunate shopkeeper, and for some time there could be found no magistrate courageous enough to issue a warrant against him; but at length one, a man of peace, Philip Caoch Perceval of Temple House, dared to do it, and was speedily thrashed. On this, a duel was fought in the rath of Liscat near Achonry. O'Rorke was entitled to keep the advantage of having the rising sun behind him, but he surrendered it because Perceval's eyes were weak. Then at fourteen paces he fired and missed. "Beg your life, sir," said Blind Philip. "Never! fire away, you blind rascal!" said Hyacinth; and the next moment he was shot through the head. Whereupon the peasantry of Sligo and Leitrim mourned for him because he was of the Old Irish and because his behaviour had made him a popular hero.

By-the-by, how excellent a name is Hyacinth O'Rorke! In those days, the gentlemen loved such nomenclature. Do not names like Sir Teague O'Regan, Bartholomew Blake, Sir Hercules Langrishe, and Cornelius O'Callaghan, ring gallantly? They must have been borne with a proud and cheerful defiance; no weakling could ever have done justice to them. Nor were the houses less magnificently named. To this day you will find every county in Ireland full of Castles and Abbeys, and if you pause to inspect them, you will often see nothing more than an old squat white house in a weedy and rough park, and will learn that the title is due to the fact that there is a ruined tower somewhere in the grounds or to a legend that a monastery stood in the neighbourhood.

But, to return to the matter of duelling, you must not think that Hyacinth O'Rorke's case was typical. The usual spirit was better shown by Jack Taafe of Camphill near Ballysadare, who when he went out of doors always bestrode a tailless horse, and was accompanied by a servant of his seated on a saddle of straw. By this custom, he could often provoke a stranger to smile. That was all he required; for then the next morning would see him squinting along the barrel of his pistol or smiling in turn, rapier in hand. You will observe that he was not misanthropic nor quarrelsome; he was merely resolved to avoid a monotonous life. Of course, there were duels with a purpose, as when Lord Mount Garrett and his sons, Somerset Butler and Pierce Butler, challenged eight barristers who were employed by an opponent in a troublesome lawsuit, or as when during the election of 1808 one candidate for Wexford, John Alcock, killed the other, John Colclough of Tintern, or as when there was some real grievance. But in a great many encounters the only purpose was pleasure. A good instance of this is to be found in an old book called Irish Varieties.

The author relates how George Mathew of Thomastown and a friend of his named MacNamara fought two English champions, Major Pack and Captain Creed, who had come to Ireland to pick a quarrel with them. "To work the four champions fell," he writes, "with the same composure as if it were only a fencing match with foils. Creed first went down; upon which Pack exclaimed 'Ah, poor Creed, are you gone?' 'Yes,' said Mathew very composedly, 'and you shall instantly pack after him'; at the same time making a home-thrust quite through his body. When the Englishmen came to themselves, Pack in a feeble voice said to his friend, 'I think we are conquerors, for we have kept the field of battle.' For a long time their lives were despaired of; but to the astonishment of everyone, they both recovered. Mr Mathew and his friend attended them daily; and a close intimacy afterwards ensued, as they found them men of probity and of the best dispositions."

Here is an incident worthy of Dumas, and indeed no other writer could have done justice to that time. Faithful descriptions are to be found in Castle Rackrent and in a few chapters of Lever's novels; but none of these are complete. Still, the English belief that they are exaggerated is a mistake; it would be easy to cap their wildest stories with true ones. The more you learn of those days from family traditions or old correspondence, the more you are inclined to exclaim "a mad world, my masters!" Yet in that noble madness there was a method. And you must not fall into the opposite mistake of imagining that everyone shared it. Take Hyacinth O'Rorke's case, for instance, and you will observe that most of his neighbours were only too peaceful. So also there is reason to think that quite a number of men usually went to bed sober. But it was not the sober men nor the quiet ones who became famous.

"Had you any assistance in drinking that dozen of claret?" was the question in a favourite story, and the answer was "Yes, sir, I had the assistance of a bottle of brandy." The man who could make such a reply would have been honoured; but if one had been found grossly intoxicated after drinking a bottle or two of honest wine he would have been scorned. Sobriety was held in esteem, after a fashion. The man who was most respected was he who could drink the most wine without being the worse for it, he who remained at the table when all his companions were under it. His was a tested sobriety, not a fugitive and cloistered virtue. Such an ambition was disastrous to many; but we should extenuate their fall by reflecting that they were doing their best, and would have been delighted to find themselves sober at dawn.


Cathedral Cliffs, Achill

THE Cathedral Cliffs are only accessible when the tide is out. They are worn into arches and caves by the action of the water, which has given them a remarkable resemblance to Gothic architecture. On the shaded side they look sombre and impressive, but when the sun shines there are varied and brilliant colours on the lichen rocks.

The drinking sprang from the hospitality. Since a man would have been disgraced if his guests had not found enough to eat and drink, he was apt to see that they had too much. That from the point of view of a guest was a fault on the right side. As for the hospitality, there were many reasons for that: there were no comfortable inns by the roads, and it would have been cruel to leave a stranger to share the different life of the few inn-keeping peasants; the spirit of the times was in every way antiquated—it might be called mediaeval—and the old methods of travelling and of welcoming travellers therefore survived; above all, the country itself had such a lonely look that people were driven to foregather. In studying Irishmen, you should always remember that theirs is the saddest and kindest country on earth. By dwelling in it, they were made sad and kind.

The kindness, of course, is proverbial; but it must be admitted that in those times it was withheld from the men of one calling, the bailiffs. These were by virtue of their avocation considered outside the pale of humanity. In Connemara there is an old house from which you will be shown a miniature island called the Bailiff's Bock. This is covered by the sea when the tide is in. The owners of that house will tell you how a bailiff, who had taken possession of the property, was lured to that island by an ancestor of theirs, to take possession of it, and was left on it till he was drowned by the in-coming tide. Such killing was no murder in Galway, and this was regarded as a practical joke. This was, I fancy, an exceptional instance of humour; but it was quite common to have a bailiff beaten or ducked or forced to swallow his writ. Even the Sheriffs were not always on the side of the Law. I know another family that boasts of an ancestor, of whom it is told how when he was Sheriff of Galway he was handed a writ addressed to one of a party seated around his hospitable board, how he announced what it was without mentioning any name, and then read it out with a solemn deliberation, and how when he had ended he looked up and saw that he was alone, for his guests had all fled through the window.

The sadness, on the other hand, is not so recognised; and as a matter of fact, it was not often to be seen on the surface then, though with good reason there is more of it visible now. None the less, melancholy lies at the root of the Irish character. In those days it inspired the feasting, the fighting, and the heroic improvidence. Men fought because life was worth very little to them, and revelled together because they chose to forget; they were merry because they were mournful. Sir Jonah Barrington, in a chapter called "Irish Dissipation in 1778," records how his two brothers and six of their friends, being prevented from hunting by a hard frost, locked themselves in a room where they had provided a hogshead of claret and abundance of food, and how they proceeded to close all its shutters, so that no intrusion of changing light should remind them of external affairs, and to devote themselves to drinking and eating and singing, and how they did not desist till they had exhausted their store. That obstinate feast was more than an instance of the prevalent ways; it was also a symbol. The spirit that animated Ireland's rejoicings was this,—a deliberate exclusion of care. It was expressed in the song,—

"As in wailing, there's nought availing,

And death unfailing will strike the blow;

Then for that reason, and for a season,

Let us be merry before we go."

This mood ensured many disasters. These we have seen, for the children have suffered for the sins of the fathers, or for their follies. Still, though we in our greater wisdom condemn such doings, there is no need to be unjust. Certain it is that these men were careless landlords, who paid little attention to the prosperity or the comfort of tenants. But were they not equally careless about their own concerns? If a man gave no thought to the morrow, he would not dwell on what the future might bring to others; if he was accustomed to have his roof leaking or his window panes cracked, he would not be afflicted if his tenants should live in dilapidated cabins; if his house was overrun by dogs, he would be aware of no reason why his poor neighbours should not be allowed the society of animals too. It must be admitted that some of the rents were exorbitant; but in many cases these were fixed by the tenants, who in their recklessness and blind competition for unprofitable patches of land, crippled themselves and their children. A perfect man would refuse to accept too heavy a rent, a wise one would see that by listening to impossible promises he would damage himself; but in this world we are not all either perfect or wise. There were, of course, other cases in which the rents were deliberately raised by harsh landlords or by the agents, those professional scapegoats; and this will remind you of the worst accusation against the landlords, that many of them were absentees, who while spendthrifts abroad, left their tenants to the mercy of underlings whose business it was to extort the necessary gold.


A Home in Achill

IN passing over a mountain-side in Achill, I noticed smoke apparently coming out of the ground. Thinking it was a poteen whisky still, I hurried up, and was much disappointed to find it instead only a habitation, out of which came five people. It looked like a hole in the ground, but on closer examination I saw it was a hollow roughly roofed over with sods. In the low wall there was a small door which answered the purpose both of a chimney and window. The people who live in this hut look after the sheep and cattle on the hills. It is some miles from the nearest village, and very lonely; the only other sign of human habitation in sight being the roofless ruin of what was once the lodge of the late Captain Boycott.

But why were they absent? Some were prodigals who wandered from home seeking pleasure—and let those who have no fancy for pleasure or wandering blame them for that—others had very little choice. It often happened that they inherited homes built on so vast and ostentatious a scale that residence in them would have involved an outlay much greater than wandering did. Some were exiled by a natural wish to be absent from bailiffs. To-day you will find stately and desirable homes left void while their owners live out of Ireland, and you will be inclined to condemn such irrational conduct; but if you enquire how much of the rental is ever paid and what remains after dealing with mortgages and annuities, perhaps you will hesitate. Look for those eccentric proprietors, and you may find them leading lives of mad luxury on a few pounds a week in small rooms in Brighton or Bath. Again, you should remember that most of the absentees represented conquerors, and were not of the same stock or origin as their tenantry. If some Scottish Highland chief should desert his clan, or some English and Protestant landowner representing a family settled for hundreds of years among the stationary English and Protestant rustics, should close his moderate Manor or Hall and employ his rents in Paris, there would be more scope for blame. The nation that made Ireland a province, and stocked it time and again with new masters, was responsible for most of the suffering caused by the absentees.

As for the allegation that the landlords of Ireland were ever as a class harsh or intentionally unfair to their tenants, it is false. There have at all times been men like the first Marquis of Donegal, who have by their tyranny disgraced and disgusted their own class; but these have been few. Most of the landlords have been cruelly kind. I am not saying that they were perfect; but merely that they were Irish, which is, I believe, the next best thing to be. If you want to understand them, you will have to remember that in spite of the differences of religion and origin they were essentially akin to the peasants. If an average peasant had found himself suddenly installed by some trick of fortune in a neighbouring castle, he would have exhibited the vices and virtues of an average landlord. Just as half the misfortunes of the peasants were caused by their land-hunger, their desire to obtain or retain some portion, no matter how small, of their native fields, no matter on what terms, so the landlords were crippled by clinging to their inherited estates. There was in the West an Old Irish family named MacMahon; and they, being Catholics, were threatened with forfeiture under the Penal Laws. On this, one of them, a spinster, saved their property for them by conforming to the Protestant Church. "What is an old maid worth?" said she, "it is better that an old maid's soul should go to the Devil than that the lands of the MacMahons of Clare should go to the Protestants." In that saying she expressed the affection her class had for the land that had been owned by their fathers. This made them hold when wiser men would have sold. And in this course they were influenced by the two curses of Ireland,—a blind hopefulness and a fatal content.

Foreigners, hearing a little of Irish discontent and of the wrongs of the most distressful country, are apt to begin with a radical misunderstanding. They can be pardoned if they think that this race is addicted to grumbling and whining, and that it would deserve more respect if it could practise self-help and take part of the blame of its troubles to itself, instead of assigning it all to somebody else and demanding assistance. But the truth is that the extremity of those troubles is due to the fact that they were ignored when they might have been cured. Because the Irish landlords and peasants were content with so little, they find themselves the owners of less. Because they hoped without reason, they are left to despair.

When I said that the race was a melancholy one, I did not mean that it was dejected. If it is so now, that is due to exhaustion and the ultimate triumph of adversities that were for a long time courageously borne or cheerfully forgotten. Irish melancholy is as irrational as Irish hopefulness. The most prosperous man could then be as pleasantly mournful as the poorest, and the latter was not more firmly persuaded that some great happiness would fall to his portion. The result is the present state of affairs. As for the remnant of the landlords, their struggle seems ending in a final surrender. But before this, their last hour, a great many of them had fallen. In every county of Ireland you will see houses once famous for rejoicing now desolate and left to decay. There is no welcome now in those palaces. Green grows the grass before the doors.