Page images
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors]

Aiit. VII.—I. Tlte Tourist's Illustrated Handbook for Ireland. 1853.

2. A Fortnight in Ireland. By Sir Francis B. Head, Bart. 1852. London: Murray.

3. Four Days in Connemara. By Sir Digby Neave, Bart. 1852.

The questions which are suggested to an English mind hy any tolerable acquaintance with Ireland, are neither few, nor, in reality, unimportant. We shall confine ourselves, in the present article, to such as concern the surface of things; in other words, to the more obvious and generally recognised characteristics of the nation. What chiefly engages our interest in these, is not so much the importance of them,—indeed they are for the most part trifles—as their prevailing so universally. The slighter they are, the more curious it is that they should be found impressed on every specimen of the class: just as we think it more singular that the brothers and sisters of a family should resemble each other in voice, than that their features should be similar; or that 'Balaam's mark' should be found on a whole genus, than that the members of that genus should in other respects correspond. It is surely remarkable, that a whole nation should consent together in certain departures, all of them indifferent, and some of them ludicrous, from the type to which, on the whole, they are conformable. Why does an Irishman never say 'yes?' Why does the whole nation, to a man, say 'will' for 'shall,' and 'would' for 'should,' when speaking in the first person? Why did it live for three hundred years on potatoes? Why is the national spade five feet long? Or, to come to more mental peculiarities, What makes the Irish eloquent? What makes them make bulls? How is it that the Irishman—aye, one and the same Irishman,—is the very soul of honour, yet the very embodiment of the spirit of lying? constitutionally the most contented, yet practically the most turbulent, of mortals? the most faithful creature, yet the ' biggest chate' in the universe—so that he shall restore you your property most scrupulously one moment, and pillage you of it without mercy the next? These may seem trifling inquiries, but surely they cannot be deemed, either as a matter of ethnology or of ethics, altogether uninteresting.

In truth, the peculiarities of speech or character, which distinguish the secondary offshoots of" the great human genealogical tree from its main branches, deserve to be studied, if we mistake not, in a more painstaking and philosophical spirit than has usually been brought to the investigation of them. Thus, that the Dorians of old spoke the broadest Greek, that the Boeotians were the mo6t stupid, and the Cretans the greatest liars in all Greece, was matter of common observation or opinion. It is to be regretted that it was not made matter of attentive investigation also. It would not have been unworthy of that Socratic philosophy which first proclaimed that * the proper study of mankind was man,' to have gone a little into the cause of the peculiarities thus attaching to some minor varieties of the species. It is disappointing, for example, to find that the lively and acute Athenians were content to laugh at the broad Scotch of their Dorian cousins, as exhibited to them by Aristophanes, and never dreamt of trying to account for it. We should have liked to know whether any philosophical rationale could have been assigned for the fact which Epimenides declared was of immemorial standing in his day (the sixth century before the Christian era), and which had undergone no change in S. Paul's, viz. that' the Cretans were always liars, evil beasts, slow bellies;' and again, whether Boeotian dulness was really owing, as Horace assumes, to the grossness of the air.

We shall not apologise, then, for instituting a brief inquiry into the causes of some of those traits of the Irish national character which we have alluded to, notwithstanding the nonimportance of some of them; convinced as we are that, in the case of nations as of individuals, trifles are often the truest index to character; and that a good service is done whenever any advance is made towards a correct diagnosis of the peculiar tendencies observable in any considerable portion of the human family.

There are circumstances, too, which render such an inquiry more than commonly interesting at the present moment. Until very lately,—indeed, we are by no means sure that the state of things has altogether passed away even now,—the English, as a nation, were not only profoundly ignorant of Ireland, but thankful for their ignorance. And truly they had much to be thankful for. Beyond a confused general notion of an ungovernable race, alternately mad with whiskey and starving on potatoes; flourishing shillelaghs at fairs, and shooting landlords from behind 'ditches,' {i.e. stone walls,) with silver bullets; we doubt whether a much clearer conception has usually been entertained in this country of the interior life of the Irish, than of the interior of Africa. Nor have the historical and ecclesiastical antecedents of the Sister Kingdom been much less misapprehended or ignored, than its real social condition. You shall find to this day persons, otherwise fairly informed, who cannot tell you whether, or when, there was a Norman invasion of Ireland as well as of England; whether it resulted in a Hastings or a Runnymede; whether Ireland had been up to that time a heptarchy or a monarchy, a Pagan or a Christian country; whether Brian Boru was a heathen giant or a Christian king; whether S. Columba's right name was Columba or Columbo.

Whether the immense increase in the number of tourists in Ireland, occasioned by the tempting month's ticket of the Great .North-Western Railway Company, covering some 1,000 or 1,500 miles of route, and accompanied by a copy of the well got-up green book named at the head of our article, has been attended with any proportionate improvement in our acquaintance with the Irish nation, may well be doubted. But recent events have certainly awakened a more intelligent spirit of inquiry into the circumstances of the country, than existed some few years since. Famine, the precursor, and in some sense the parent, of emigration on a colossal scale, and of a religious movement of some pretensions, has turned our eyes towards a country which had hitherto presented no such stimulants to curiosity. These things among the lower classes,— while, amongst the upper, the important transfers of property effected, or effecting, under the Encumbered Estates Commission, have opened a prospect of a re-invigoration cf the national life, by the infusion of a kindred but stronger element. By some sanguine persons, indeed, this is looked upon as all but a fait accompli, both in a social and ecclesiastical point of view. It is but to continue to the exhaustion point the present drain upon the old Irish and Roman Catholic and mortgage-encumbered population, infusing at the same time the requisite amount of omnigenous Protestantism, and of English and Scotch men, money, and enterprise, and the thing is done. Plant the English oak and Scotch fir instead of the shillelagh and arbutus upon Ireland's glorious hills, exeunt the Irish, enter omnes, and a new scene commences. It may be so. But let it be remembered, that this is not the way to restore a nation, but to blot it out, and make a new one.

However, in either case, whether the Ireland of ten years ago be destined to be merely remodelled, or to be replaced altogether, it may be well to record, either for the guidance of the future, or as a memorial of the past, to serve as a beacon light or as a monument, such an estimate of the national idiosyncrasy as our acquaintance with the subject enables us to form. This is, we conceive, the kind of information more immediately needed just now, for such as desire to form a correct judgment upon what may be called the Irish problem. Of statistics, Sir Francis Head has furnished us an abundant and valuable supply, in his 'Fortnight in Ireland,' not unmixed, however, with many a cleverly or amusingly put illustration, upon which we shall venture to draw occasionally. To this there needs to be added a truthful conception of the national character, with its depths and shallows; of the mutual feelings prevailing between the two great classes and communions of the country, and similar matters. It is only by the help of such knowledge that it is possible to forecast with any correctness Ireland's future, actual or potential; either what she is to be, or what she might have been. Some of our facts and illustrations may look trifling or irrelevant; others will, perhaps, have the appearance of having been painted or dressed up in a national costume for piquancy's sake. We pledge ourselves, however, to allege nothing which has not, to our mind, a real bearing upon some interesting point of the national ethics or condition; and scarcely any fact or anecdote, for the particulars of which, and as far as possible for its very wording, we cannot vouch our own personal knowledge, or that of a trustworthy authority. To some, again, we shall seem to set Irish character too high, to others too low; nor can we flatter ourselves that we have hit the juste milieu. Thus much we can aver, that our hardest hits, if any there be, are given, like the Irishman's own, in love and goodwill; and that, on the other hand, we are well aware that the very brightness with which some points of character stand out to our view, is in most instances but too certain an indication of some corresponding shadow lurking behind.

Irish character is among the first objects to catch the eye of an Englishman landing in Ireland. And such as he encounters it at the outset, such he finds it to be through all stages of his acquaintance with it Sereatur ad imum qualis ab incepto. It comes before him first in the form of the national physiognomy. Never was family likeness, the fades non omnibus una, nee diversa tamen, more fully exemplified. Amidst every diversity of feature, the Hibernicism of expression never fails. Jovial or roguish, open or sinister, devout or dissipated, it is all the same. Once seen, it can never be forgotten; though, even when seen a thousand times, it defies description. Were we to coin a word to convey our idea of the prevailing expression, it would be latency. There is a latent something, the consciousness of which may be read in every countenance. The inner man is evidently fed on some hidden food; illuminated, like the devotees of Mount Athos, by some inward light, unperceived by all but the possessor of it. Under average circumstances,—indeed under circumstances very far below the average,—this hidden source of satisfaction imparts to the entire man a serenity which a Brachman might envy. But on the slightest provocation given-, it bursts forth with a wouderful expansive power; and makes itself felt, heard, and seen in a thousand vehemences of manner, voice, and action. It is not long before the stranger makes personal acquaintance with the entire cycle of peculiarities, vocal, grammatical, or expressional, to which we have already made some allusion in these pages. A little longer sojourn in the land reveals to him, in like manner, those modes of action, so full of purest paradox, which we have further ventured to speak of as characteristic of the nation. What may be the source of all these peculiarities, our traveller is left wondering still. What that hidden thing is, which thus imparts clemurcness to the national countenance; fire, recklessness, blundering, with other singularities, to the national speech, and perplexing anomaly to the national morals,—if, indeed, any common cause can be assigned to them all,—is a matter open to conjecture. Our own opinion is that these phenomena are reducible to one common cause: but let our readers judge.

The Irishman, then, as we conceive him, is the creature of certain inborn imaginings,T—of a certain metaphysical or cosmical creed, which is a part of hiraself, and which, without his being exactly aware of it, prompts his every action. The impulse communicated by this creed it is that imparts a sense of satisfaction to his whole being, and the expression of it to his countenance. It is this that now brightens for him his arrowy eloquence, and anon plunges him into the obscurity of inextricable confusions:—that awakens at one time the moral sense within him, and at another, to use his own expression, 'confounds it entirely.' But we perceive that, to make ourselves understood, we must be more explicit. We say, then, that the humblest Irishman that treads upon brogues, or Irishwoman that dispenses with chaussure altogether, lives (did they but know it), in the presence of certain great abstractions. Plato did not more firmly believe, if indeed he believed at all, in the

existence of a

1 First good, first perfect, and first fair,'

in the existence, that is to say, of certain abstract perfections, than the Irishman does in the embodiment of those perfections in the world around him. He is the very reverse of a Manichee. Like the cunning woman of Endor, overmatched by her own spells, he 'sees gods ascending out of the earth.' The lively and imaginative Greeks peopled their woods, streams, and hills with Dryads and Naiads, and Oreades. Yet this was rather the elegant and otiose belief of poets and poet-like minds, than the living conviction of the vulgar multitude. It was caviare to the general. But the Irishman actually lives upon the conviction

« PreviousContinue »