Reminiscences of the West

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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CHAPTER III...continued

There is a freemasonry—a craft, or mystery, in all this, which, quite independent of other objects, possesses a charm for the human mind; and this alone will gain proselytes at all times, and among all classes, descending from the magi and heathen priests of old through the illuminati of later days, down to the various secret societies, or bodies possessing secret signs, symbols, or passwords, among the educated classes at present, either recognized by the law, or connived at by the officers of justice. We repeat it, there is a charm in this state of things which has lured many a young and innocent peasant into the snare of designing men. Besides these, there are the evil disposed at all times—the revengeful of the lower classes, the timid, and the wavering, who will each, for their respective motives, join any illegal society which may start up in their vicinity.

Where and when we allude to, murder, and crimes of such debasing nature, formed no part of the ribbon system. Agrarian outrage was not known. There was no famine, the people were well fed and comfortably clothed, there were no harsh evictions, such as were lately recorded daily, neither had the clearing system then come into full operation; drunkenness was not rife, but too frequently the cruel and unmeaning practice of houghing cattle marked the progress of the epidemic. Some Manchester delegate generally commenced the work, the village schoolmaster wrote out and copied the regulations, oaths were administered, the peaceable and well-disposed were compelled, under fearful penalties, to join, the people assembled on some neighbouring hill, or on a lonesome road, at dead of night, an old pensioner drilled, marched, and counter-marched the corps; and yet, though the system of military training has been so long resorted to by Irish insurgents, we cannot record an instance in which it has been of the slightest use to those so trained.

The peasantry now became cautious, reserved, and gloomy. Faction fights ceased at fairs and markets, men drank in the backs of tents, and in the upper rooms of public-houses, and conversed in low tones, and generally in Irish. Ill-spelled Rockite notices, signed "Liftinint Starlite," or "Corporlar Moonbame," were posted on public places. Abducting horses, and riding them in the "cavalry," during the entire night, upon some embassy, to a distant part of the country, and then leaving them in a pound, with a notice to the owner of their whereabouts, was continually resorted to. But the grand feature of the ribbonism of that day was of a dramatic nature. Decorations and processions chiefly characterized the Connaught disturbances about the years 1823 and 1825. The men wore white shirts outside their clothes, or displayed scarfs or shawls of some kind, and invariably had white bands on their hats, and were otherwise adorned with ribbons of as many colours as could be procured, tied upon their hats and arms, like the Spanish contrabandista—as if to form the better mark for the soldiers with whom they might come in contact—and all dressed in their best attire for these nightly promenades.

It was really a sort of melo-dramatic exhibition. Those who wore cut paper round their hats, as wren-boys, when they grew up to be young men decorated themselves with ribbons and white shirts to act the May-boys—and, as mummers, painted their faces, and went through the Christmas pantomime with old rusty swords. These were the mechanists, stage-managers, wardrobe-keepers, dressers, scene-shifters, and "property" manufacturers of the Roscommon ribbonmen. There was a frolic, and a spirit of rude enterprise and adventure in meeting, thus attired, with an old gun, or a yeoman's rusty halbert, of a November night, and marching, by moonlight, to the sound of the fiddle or bagpipes, though what end was to be obtained thereby, the great majority of them neither knew nor cared. The people had long been taught that there was no law or justice for the poor man, unless his master was a magistrate, or, what would be still better, had an "ould family grudge" with an opposing magistrate, or that the priest would interfere in his behalf. That Irishmen were ill-treated, and got no fair play, was well known; that it was right to do something for O'Connell and the Emancipation, was firmly impressed on all; and to put down the tithe-proctors, was believed to be a most meritorious act, and for "the good of the country." But what was to be ultimately obtained by these organisations, either by themselves or others, I say again, they had no very distinct idea;—the people were, generally, the dupes of others; for what purpose we have no desire now to discuss.

Unfortunately there was, and still is, but little work for the Irish cottager or small farmer from the beginning of November till the end of February; and what little might be done, partly from ignorance and partly from apathy, he does not do; so that except when he went to the fair or the market, or was compelled to go to the bog for a clieve of turf, or had occasion to put a face [8] on a pit of potatoes, he slept most of his days, and went out with "the boys" at night.

To oppose this state of things there were the local magistrates, and in the larger towns the military; but except when brought for some special purpose, or to attack a large collection of the people, these latter were of little use in subduing insurrection. The usual class of spies and informers soon began to ply their trade, and one of the first acts of the magistrates was to prevent or disperse all merry-makings and amusements of the people. Tents and standings [9] were pulled down at an early hour, public-houses cleared, and all assemblies dispersed; hurlings and football playing, which generally took place on Sundays or holidays, were strictly interdicted, but the ire of the authorities was chiefly directed against cakes [10] and dances. When information was obtained with respect to the locality of one of these, thither the magistrate, with his posse comitatus, repaired, broke into the assembly, dispersed the merry-makers, spilled the whisky, danced on the fiddle, and carried off to the nearest blackhole, or guard-room, the owners of the house.[11]

Really the only available, or permitted amusements, were wakes and funerals—on which account some of the latter were mock. The only available force were the old barony constables—generally superannuated pensioners from the yeomanry or militia; always Protestants, and most of them foresters, cleevins, old servants, or hangers-on of the magistrate—who dressed in long blue surtout coats, with scarlet collars, buckskin breeches, and rusty top-boots. Each of these old men was mounted, and carried a heavy cavalry sword, his only weapon, for he was seldom fit to be entrusted with any other. Two or three of these fogies might be seen at fairs, patterns, and markets, riding up and down to keep the peace, which, as soon as the superintending magistrate had gone to dinner, they generally broke by getting gloriously drunk. This the people usually bore, however, with good humour, seldom injuring the constable, but affording themselves much amusement by welting with shillelaghs and blackthorns their crusty nags, which, knowing perfectly what was about taking place, immediately commenced lashing, as if aware that the time was come for the farce, although during the previous portion of the day they remained as sober as their masters.

So daring had the ribbonmen become, that although several had already been transported from the dock, and others had been whipped at carts'-tails, large bodies of the insurgents approached the small towns in the night time, committing several petty outrages: pulling down pound gates, and letting out the cattle, beating drivers, and warning process-servers; so that the quiet and loyal inhabitants had to form themselves into corps, which appointed watches, and had patroles guarding their houses. Just then Peel's Act came into force; the first Peelers, under the command of the redoubted Major——, entered Connaught, and here our story commences.

The Major, who took no inconsiderable part in the fearful drama which shortly after followed, had originally belonged to a celebrated militia regiment, of one of the midland counties, that was the first to run out of Castlebar on the approach of the French, but having stopped to take breath at Hollymount, and the men having refreshed themselves with some of the claret purloined from the cellars of the neighbouring gentry, they became suddenly seized with a fit of nationality! and, turning their coats inside out, they erected, in the demesne of Lehinch, a pole, crowned with a cap of liberty, round which they drank, danced, and sang till morning's dawn, when many of those who were able to march, or even to stagger, retraced their steps to join Humbert. These renegades made, however, but a bad business of it afterwards at Ballinamuck, and their subsequent liberality provoked the parody upon the well-known air of "Croppies lie down;" so spirited a quick step, that we greatly regret it is still remembered as a party tune.

"Oh! the Longford militia walked into Athlone,
And the first tune they play'd was let croppies alone;
Croppies get up, for you're long enough down,
We'll thrash all those orange dogs out of the town.
Down, down, Orange lie down."

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[8] "To put a face" on anything means to begin, or broach; as, for instance, to commence the removal of a ridge of potatoes, or a stack of hay, or a clamp of turf.

[9] "Standings," the covered booths or open-air shops, in which "soft goods" are exhibited at fairs and markets. Every method of displaying merchandise, even that of a basket or a stall, was styled a standing,—from the ass-cart, propt with a barrel, and covered over with a patch-work quilt stretched on bent rods, underneath which sat, on hunkers, the owner, surrounded with her wares—skallions, tin porringers, remnants of checks, and "ready-me-daisys"—to the regularly boarded shop, covered over with canvas or sail-cloth, in which corduroys, book-muslins, and fancy prints were displayed. Many a splendid fortune has been commenced in one of these.

[10] Cakes, the peasants' balls and suppers. See page 14.

[11] We have just received the following from a distinguished member of the Connaught bar:—"Bryan Kyne was a justice of the peace for three counties. He was tried before Baron Smith, in Roscommon, at the summer assizes of 1830; and the case against him was, that he went to the cabin of an old man, who lived by fiddling for the country people as they danced, and who had a crowd of them assembled, and engaged at that amusement, on a Sunday evening, which Kyne thought he should disperse. On his entering the cabin, he seized the fiddle, and desired the dancers to disperse, which they did at once without a murmur. He had a gun in his hand; and when, by their voices, as they moved away from the cabin, he judged that they were yet within shot, he levelled his gun in the direction they were taking towards their homes, and injured several of them. The principal witness was a very decent-looking youth, about twenty. He took off his shirt, and showed his back to the judge and jury, as he stood on the table in the public court; and although it was nearly six months after the transaction, it exhibited a shocking appearance of scars and cicatrices. Kyne was convicted, and transported for life."