Irish Popular Superstitions

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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CHAPTER I...continued

There is at present a spring tide of emigration from Ireland, and great is the rejoicing of those who imagine we are to be benefited by it;--the Malthusian who feared for the consequences of over-population (although we are inclined to believe the country was not much over-populated as a whole, although it certainly was most unequally populated); the ratepayer, who is now paying twenty-five shillings and sixpence in the pound! and the landlord who is buying up the small holdings for three or five pounds each, from those who "cumber the ground." Every one who can muster three pounds ten by the pledge of his crop, or for the good-will of his holding, or by "making-off" with the rent, or by any means within his power; all the able-bodied among the people, from the snug yeoman and frieze-coated cottier to the top-booted buckeen, are on the move for America, leaving us the idle and ill-conditioned, the weakly, the decrepid, the aged and the orphan, to be supported in our workhouses, or to drag out a miserable existence begging from door to door,--so that it may well be said, the heart of Ireland now beats in America.

The sums of money that are returned to this country from the western continent daily, for the purpose of taking out emigrants, are quite astonishing. Not only that, but the feelings with which they leave are becoming altered. There is scarcely an observer of Irish manners, or who has mixed much among the people, that has not witnessed many heart-rending scenes at the parting of emigrants for some years past. It was not amidst the noise and bustle of the crowded quay that these outpourings of the heart could always be seen; but by the canal's banks, when the "whole countryside" came to bless and bid adieu to the travellers, and crowded round at every lock and station for miles along the road, raising at times the wild Irish cry, and often forcing their way upon deck to have another last embrace. We remember many such scenes ten or twelve years ago.

There was one instance, in particular, which struck us not only as characteristic of a mother's love, but of the ideas which the Irish peasantry possessed on the subject of the new continent, and of the complete earthly severing which took place when friends and relations parted on the Bog of Allen. The Royal Canal packet-boat, dragged by a pair of lazy garrauns at the rate of three miles an hour, had taken in a cargo of emigrants, principally labourers from the county of Longford. Their friends followed for a considerable distance, many, brimful of whisky as well as grief, crowding upon the bridges, and sometimes pulling the boat to the brink by the tow-rope, for the purpose of sending a message to one of their transatlantic friends,--to the great terror and no small danger of the non-emigrating passengers. All gradually fell back, except one very old woman, who, with her grey elf-locks streaming in the wind, her petticoat tucked above the knees, and her old red cloak floating free from her shoulders, still, with unabated energy, ran after the vessel which contained her only son. He was a red-headed freckled-faced codger of about twenty years of age, rather diminutive in size, but what is called set in his build, clad in a huge whitish frieze coatha more, corduroy smalls open at the knees, a Killamanka waistcoat, and a grinder round his neck, and with sullen looks, trembling lips, and swollen eyes, sat upon his chist, with his legs hanging over the side of the vessel. Whenever our speed slackened, or we came to a lock, or any impediment stopped our way, the poor woman knelt down and offered up a fervent prayer for the child she was parting with for ever, and occasionally gave him some advice as to his future conduct. At last, having invoked, with all the eloquence of frantic grief, a blessing upon his head, she cried out, "Orah, Thomasseen, don't forget to say your prayers, and never change your voice nor your colour when you go among the blacks." [18]

"What a difference has ten years made in the feelings of the Irish peasant! He now no longer looks forward to better or happier times in his father-land; seed-time and harvest, the price of pigs or the rise of grain, enter not into his calculations; but he turns with a longing eye to his far-distant destination in the west, and he starves, and grinds, and toils, not for the good of the land which gave him birth, but to amass and husband the means which are to transport him for ever from his once-loved Erin. The friends who now accompany the band of emigrants to the railway terminus part as if they were but going into the next county--"Well, Jim, God be with you, and a safe journey to you; take care of the woman that owns you, and remember me to Biddy Sullivan. Tell her I'll be after you agin Aesther." The bell rings, the shrill whistle of the engine gives the warning note, and the parting is over.[19]

Take care, landlords, gentlemen, and governors of Ireland. The clearing system, if not carried too far, has been, at least, carried on too rapidly. Had you improved the condition of the peasantry, or even attempted to do so, some twenty years ago, you might not have to support them in the poor-house now, nor receive their dying malediction. You may want the labourer yet; the English farmer also may require the aid of the spalpeen before harvest is over. We will not press this subject further, at a time when almost every hand and every pen is raised against the landed proprietors indiscriminately, and when, perhaps, one of our next essays may be upon the paleontology of the Connaught estated gentry, as well as those who reside in the butter-cups and among the raths and mounds erected by our ancestors. [This, it must be recollected, was written in the Spring of 1849. How truly it has turned out, the past year proves.]

At our request, however, Darby has remained to see what the end of all agitation,--if such a thing is possible in Ireland, --and the next harvest may do for the country. Perhaps we have been somewhat selfish in this respect, for, as he has long been considered the knowingest man in the whole country, and could tell more stories about the ould times and the "good people," and knew more about cures and charms than "all the books that were ever shut and opened," and was up to the genealogy of all the ancient families, and had been at every bawne and coort [20] in Connaught as often as he had fingers and toes, we desired to preserve some of his curious lore before he crossed the Atlantic in his old age.

If, however, we cannot hope much for the future, let us for the present, at least, live in the memory of the past.

We are now in the transition state, passing through the fiery ordeal from which it is hoped we are to arise purified from laziness and inactivity, an honest, truth-telling, hardworking, industrious, murder-hating, business-minding, rent-paying, self-relying, well-clad, sober, cooking, healthy, thriving, peaceable, loyal, independent, Saxon-loving people; engaged all day long, and every day except Sundays (though Archbishop Whately, more power to him! would back us at a hurling on that same), in sowing and mowing, tilling and reaping, raising flax, fattening bullocks, and salting pork, or fishing and mending our nets and lobster-pots; instead of being a poor, dependent, untruthful, idle, ignorant, dirty, slinging, sleeven, cringing, begging set; governed by the bayonet or the bribe; generally misunderstood; always sould by the agitator at home, and the mimber abroad; ground down by the pauper absentee or his tyrannical agent; bullied by the petty sessions magistrates; alternately insulted and cajoled by the minister of the day, misrepresented and scandalized as Whig and Tory prevailed; bullied by the Browns and Beresfords to-day, worshiping O'Connell to-morrow; vilified by the London press, and demoralized by charity jobbing. In fact, the most ill-used, and, to adopt the phraseology of Mr. Doolin, "the most jury-packing, road-jobbing, paper-reading, buckeen-breeding, seabathing, car-driving, cockle-eating, cup-tossing, tea-and-whisky-drinking, ribbon-lodging, orange-lodging, fighting, shouting, landlord-shooting, pig-jobbingest, potato-lovingest, good-for-nothingest nation on the face of the universal globe." All this is to be set aside, and all the good we have described, and more to boot is, it is said, to be brought about, and we hope to live to see the day it may come to pass, though we don't know exactly how it is to be effected.

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[18] Even in the northern, and more independent and comfortable, because more educated and industrious counties, a certain season, usually in spring, was set apart for emigrating, and it was always one of mourning and lamentation. In the west, during the emigrating season, of late years, the canal company were obliged to employ police to travel with the packet-boat, in order to keep back and preserve order among the crowds which rushed on board whenever the vessel approached a landing-place. About five years ago, a frightful accident occurred upon the Royal Canal, near Dublin; the boat was overpowered by numbers both of emigrants and their friends, and sinking with great rapidity, upwards of fourteen persons were drowned.

[19] Considerable surprise has been excited, not only at the quantity of money transmitted to their friends in this country by emigrants, but at the very short time which elapsed between the period of their landing in America and the arrival of the money-order in Ireland. It must not, however, be supposed that the money has been all earned by the emigrant within that short space. To raise the sum required for bringing out one or more of his family, the peasant or the artizan--but principally the former--mortgages his labour for a certain time to a farmer, or other employer, who, glad to procure a good workman for a certain stipulated rate of wages, advances the necessary supply.

[20] Bawne: an inclosed keep--an ancient castle. A modern noble residence is frequently called a coort, or court.