Penelope's Irish Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Chapter XII. Life at Knockarney House.
'See where Mononia's heroes lie, proud Owen More's descendants,- 'Tis they that won the glorious name and had the grand attendants!' James Clarence Mangan.
It was a charming thing for us when Dr. La Touche gave us introductions to the Colquhouns of Ardnagreena; and when they, in turn, took us to tea with Lord and Lady Killbally at Balkilly Castle. I don't know what there is about us: we try to live a sequestered life, but there are certain kind forces in the universe that are always bringing us in contact with the good, the great, and the powerful. Francesca enjoys it, but secretly fears to have her democracy undermined. Salemina wonders modestly at her good fortune. I accept it as the graceful tribute of an old civilisation to a younger one; the older men grow the better they like girls of sixteen, and why shouldn't the same thing be true of countries?
As long ago as 1589, one of the English 'undertakers' who obtained some of the confiscated Desmond lands in Munster wrote of the 'better sorte' of Irish: 'Although they did never see you before, they will make you the best cheare their country yieldeth for two or three days, and take not anything therefor. . . . They have a common saying which I am persuaded they speake unfeinedly, which is, 'Defend me and spend me.' Yet many doe utterly mislike this or any good thing that the poor Irishman dothe.'
This certificate of character from an 'undertaker' of the sixteenth century certainly speaks volumes for Irish amiability and hospitality, since it was given at a time when grievances were as real as plenty; when unutterable resentment must have been rankling in many minds; and when those traditions were growing which have coloured the whole texture of Irish thought, until, with the poor and unlettered, to be 'agin the government' is an inherited instinct, to be obliterated only by time.
We supplement Mrs. Mullarkey's helter-skelter meals with frequent luncheons and dinners with our new friends, who send us home on our jaunting-car laden with flowers, fruit, even with jellies and jams. Lady Killbally forces us to take three cups of tea and a half-dozen marmalade sandwiches whenever we go to the Castle; for I apologised for our appetites, one day, by confessing that we had lunched somewhat frugally, the meal being sweetened, however, by Molly's explanation that there was a fresh sole in the house, but she thought she would not inthrude on it before dinner!
We asked, on our arrival at Knockarney House, if we might breakfast at a regular hour,--say eight thirty. Mrs. Mullarkey agreed, with that suavity which is, after her untidiness, her distinguishing characteristic; but notwithstanding this arrangement we break our fast sometimes at nine forty, sometimes at nine twenty, sometimes at nine, but never earlier. In order to achieve this much, we are obliged to rise early and make a combined attack on the executive and culinary departments. One morning I opened the door leading from the hall into the back part of the establishment, but closed it hastily, having interrupted the toilets of three young children, whose existence I had never suspected, and of Mr. Mullarkey, whom I had thought dead for many years. Each child had donned one article of clothing, and was apparently searching for the mate to it, whatever it chanced to be. Mrs. Mullarkey was fully clothed, and was about to administer correction to one of the children who, unhappily for him, was not. I retired to my apartment to report progress, but did not describe the scene minutely, nor mention the fact that I had seen Salemina's ivory-backed hairbrush put to excellent if somewhat unusual and unaccustomed service.
Each party in the house eats in solitary splendour, like the MacDermott, Prince of Coolavin. That royal personage of County Sligo did not, I believe, allow his wife or his children (who must have had the MacDermott blood in their veins, even if somewhat diluted) to sit at table with him. This method introduces the last element of confusion into the household arrangements, and on two occasions we have had our custard pudding or stewed fruit served in our bedrooms a full hour after we had finished dinner. We have reasons for wishing to be first to enter the dining-room, and we walk in with eyes fixed on the ceiling, by far the cleanest part of the place. Having wended our way through an underbrush of corks with an empty bottle here and there, and stumbled over the holes in the carpet, we arrive at our table in the window. It is as beautiful as heaven outside, and the table-cloth is at least cleaner than it will be later, for Mrs. Waterford of Mullinavat has an unsteady hand.
When Oonah brings in the toast rack now she balances it carefully, remembering the morning when she dropped it on the floor, but picked up the slices and offered them to Salemina. Never shall I forget that dear martyr's expression, which was as if she had made up her mind to renounce Ireland and leave her to her fate. I know she often must wonder if Dr. La Touche's servants, like Mrs. Mullarkey's, feel of the potatoes to see whether they are warm or cold!
At ten thirty there is great confusion and laughter and excitement, for the sportsmen are setting out for the day and the car has been waiting at the door for an hour. Oonah is carolling up and down the long passage, laden with dishes, her cheerfulness not in the least impaired by having served seven or eight separate breakfasts. Molly has spilled a jug of milk, and is wiping it up with a child's undershirt. The Glasgy man is telling them that yesterday they forgot the corkscrew, the salt, the cup, and the jam from the luncheon basket,--facts so mirth-provoking that Molly wipes tears of pleasure from her eyes with the milky undershirt, and Oonah sets the hot-water jug and the coffee-pot on the stairs to have her laugh out comfortably. When once the car departs, comparative quiet reigns in and about the house until the passing bicyclers appear for luncheon or tea, when Oonah picks up the napkins that we have rolled into wads and flung under the dining-table, and spreads them on tea- trays, as appetising details for the weary traveller. There would naturally be more time for housework if so large a portion of the day were not spent in pleasant interchange of thought and speech. I can well understand Mrs. Colquhoun's objections to the housing of the Dublin poor in tenements,--even in those of a better kind than the present horrible examples; for wherever they are huddled together in any numbers they will devote most of their time to conversation. To them talking is more attractive than eating; it even adds a new joy to drinking; and if I may judge from the groups I have seen gossiping over a turf fire till midnight, it is preferable to sleeping. But do not suppose they will bubble over with joke and repartee, with racy anecdote, to every casual newcomer. The tourist who looks upon the Irishman as the merry- andrew of the English-speaking world, and who expects every jarvey he meets to be as whimsical as Mickey Free, will be disappointed. I have strong suspicions that ragged, jovial Mickey Free himself, delicious as he is, was created by Lever to satisfy the Anglo-Saxon idea of the low-comedy Irishman. You will live in the Emerald Isle for many a month, and not meet the clown or the villain so familiar to you in modern Irish plays. Dramatists have made a stage Irishman to suit themselves, and the public and the gallery are disappointed if anything more reasonable is substituted for him. You will find, too, that you do not easily gain Paddy's confidence. Misled by his careless, reckless impetuosity of demeanour, you might expect to be the confidant of his joys and sorrows, his hopes and expectations, his faiths and beliefs, his aspirations, fears, longings, at the first interview. Not at all; you will sooner be admitted to a glimpse of the travelling Scotsman's or the Englishman's inner life, family history, personal ambition. Glacial enough at first and far less voluble, he melts soon enough, if he likes you. Meantime, your impulsive Irish friend gives himself as freely at the first interview as at the twentieth; and you know him as well at the end of a week as you are likely to at the end of a year. He is a product of the past, be he gentleman or peasant. A few hundred years of necessary reserve concerning articles of political and religious belief have bred caution and prudence in stronger natures, cunning and hypocrisy in weaker ones.
Our days are very varied. We have been several times into the town and spent an hour in the Petty Sessions Court with Mr. Colquhoun, who sits on the bench. Each time we have come home laden with stories 'as good as any in the books,' so says Francesca. Have we not with our own eyes seen the settlement of an assault and battery case between two of the most notorious brawlers in that alley of the town which we have dubbed 'The Pass of the Plumes.'* Each barrister in the case had a handful of hair which he introduced on behalf of his client, both ladies apparently having pulled with equal energy. These most unattractive exhibits were shown to the women themselves, each recognising her own hair, but denying the validity of the other exhibit firmly and vehemently. Prisoner number one kneeled at the rail and insisted on exposing the place in her head from which the hair had been plucked; upon which prisoner number two promptly tore off her hat, scattered hairpins to the four winds, and exposed her own wounds to the judicial eye. Both prisoners 'had a dhrop taken' just before the affair; that soft impeachment they could not deny. One of them explained, however, that she had taken it to help her over a hard job of work, and through a little miscalculation of quantity it had 'overaided her.' The other termagant was asked flatly by the magistrate if she had ever seen the inside of a jail before, but evaded the point with much grace and ingenuity by telling his Honour that he couldn't expect to meet a woman anywhere who had not suffered a misforchin somewhere betwixt the cradle and the grave.
*The original Pass of the Plumes is near Maryborough, and was so called from the number of English helmet plumes that were strewn about after O'Moore's fight with five hundred of the Earl of Essex's men.
Even the all too common drunk-and-disorderly cases had a flavour of their own, for one man, being dismissed with a small fine under condition that he would sign the pledge, assented willingly; but on being asked for how long he would take it, replied, 'I mostly take it for life, your worship.'
We also heard the testimony of a girl who had run away from her employer before the completion of her six months' contract, her plea being that the fairies pulled her great toe at night so that she could not sleep, whereupon she finally became so lame that she was unable to work. She left her employer's house one evening, therefore, and went home, and curiously enough the fairies 'shtopped pulling the toe on her as soon as iver she got there!'
Not the least enlivening of the prisoners was a decently educated person who had been arrested for disturbing the peace. The constable asserted that he was intoxicated, but the gentleman himself insisted that he was merely a poet in a more than usually inspired state.
"I am in the poetical advertising line, your worship. It is true I was surrounded by a crowd, but I was merely practising my trade. I don't mind telling your worship that this holiday-time makes things a little lively, and the tradesmen drink my health a trifle oftener than usual; poetry is dry work, your worship, and a poet needs a good deal of liquid refreshment. I do not disturb the peace, your worship, at least not more than any other poet. I go to a grocer's, and, standing outside, I make up some rhymes about his nice sweet sugar or his ale. If I want to please a butcher--well, I'll give you a specimen:-
'Here's to the butcher who sells good meat-- In this world it's hard to beat; It's the very best that's to be had, And makes the human heart feel glad. There's no necessity to purloin, So step in and buy a good sirloin.'
I can go on in this style, like Tennyson's brook, for ever, your worship." His worship was afraid that he might make the offer good, and the poet was released, after promising to imbibe less frequently when he felt the divine afflatus about to descend upon him.
These disagreements between light-hearted and bibulous persons who haunt the courts week after week have nothing especially pathetic about them, but there are many that make one's heart ache; many that seem absolutely beyond any solution, and beyond reach of any justice.