Reminiscences of the West

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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CHAPTER III...continued

Paddy Welsh was a roving blade—peculiar in everything—in habits, in temper, in thought, in appearance, inPaddy Welsh expression, but especially in gait—one of the class known only to those well acquainted with the peasantry of this country—thoroughly and peculiarly Irish. By trade—oh! Paddy had no trade—he was not a tradesman, if by that term is meant a sober mechanic, following his special calling from week's end to week's end—Sundays, holidays, whole Mondays, and half Saturdays excepted—in pulling wax-ends, thickening hats, or stitching frieze, turning hacks and pearns, or in building walls, plaining planks, hooping churns, or shoeing horses. No, he could, it is true, perform each and all of these feats at a pinch just as well as many, and better than some of those that had served their time to the trade; but he had no genius for such common, continuous, everyday avocations. Neither was he an agriculturist; he held land it is undeniable, and had a snug house upon it, built by his own two hands, but that was for the wife and children, and the farm was generally tilled by "the woman of the house," "the little boy," and an occasional hired servant, with a lift now and then from a neighbour or two at the sowing and digging of the potatoes. Neither was he a trader or a dealer, at least as a legitimate calling. Sometimes when pigs were "looking up," he jobbed upon a few slips from market to market, and may be turned a pound into a thirty-shilling note thereby; but pig-jobber he was not.

If Paudeen Brannagh (Anglice, Patrick Welsh) had any special calling more than another, he was a hackler, as was his father before him, from whom he inherited (all the poor man had to leave) the best-tempered pair of hackles in the country. With these Paddy, in his younger days, when flax was much grown in Connaught, and before he became an adept at another line of life, might be seen traversing the country, his little hackle-boxes, resembling creepy stools, slung across his shoulders, one hanging behind and another before, and seeking occupation wherever there was "flax a-breaking."[12]

Though Paddy was not a tradesman, nor a labourer, nor a dealer, nor any great scholar either, he was an artist—a thing, by the way, he never heard of—uneducated brute! He knew nothing of the "holiness of art," nor the purifying effects of art, nor the religious influence of art, nor medieval ages and illuminated missals—the likes were never heard of in Connaught in those days. There was no definition of such in the old whitey-brown-papered Tommy-and-Harry-illustrated, roughcast-covered Universal Spelling Book, nor in "The Genteel Letter-writer and Young Gentleman's True Principles of Politeness," sewed up into the back of it. Where would he hear of it? His special trade of hackling he had by hereditary descent from his father; his readings were confined to "Raymond the Fox," "The Irish Rogues and Rapparees," "Moll Flanders," "The History of Freney the Robber," and "The Battle of Aughrim,"—the latter a play of some merit, and not only much read, and frequently committed to memory, by the more intelligent of the peasantry, but also at times enacted in barns and unoccupied houses in the small towns and villages.

He was an artist, nevertheless,—a fisherman,—the best we ever met; and that is a great saying. For knowing where to find trout, when and how to get them, what to rise them with, and how to play and kill them, we never met his equal. He had other accomplishments, to be sure: he was a good shot, and could creep upon a flock of grey plover, driving an old cow or a horse before him to screen him from the wary birds, with any other man in the barony. He wasn't a bad fiddler either, particularly at a rousin' tune—"Moll in the Wad," "Rattle the Hasp," "The Grinder," or any of the classic, but now almost forgotten, airs of Connaught. He could feed, and clip, and spur, and "hand" a cock with any man that ever stood in the pit of an Easter Monday. There wasn't a pile nor a stag in the three parishes but he knew its whole seed, breed, parentage, and education. Barring Pat Magreevy, he was the greatest authority on such matters from "the Barony"[13] to Sliebe Bawn, and no main was ever fought without his presence; but latterly he did n't like to have the subject evened to him, by reason of a false accusation made against him by an enemy, some years before, of having stolen, out of the county Sligo, a game chicken that had been hatched in a scald-crow's nest;—but enough of that.

Among the many popular superstitions attendant upon the breeding and rearing of game fowl, it was believed that if an egg was extracted from a hawk's or raven's, or a hooded crow's nest, and a game egg placed therein, that nothing could beat the bird so reared,—that it always partook of the carnivorous propensity and indomitable courage of its nurse and the foster family with which it had been brought up.

Like St. Patrick's aunt, Misther Welsh "undherstud dishtillin'," though he seldom undertook the office of illicit distiller; but whenever anything went wrong with the ordinary manufacturer, when the burnt beer had too great a tack, or the wash rose into the still-head, or ran through the worm, he knew what to do with it, and could keep it down with a dead chicken, or something worse; and he was famed for making the best lurrogue, or luteing, to keep in the liquor in an old leaky still, of any other person in the seven parishes; but, we repeat, he was not by trade a distiller.

Paddy was great at a wake, where his arrival was hailed as would be that of Strauss or Lanner in a folks-ball at the Sperl or Goldenen Piern at Vienna, for nobody knew the humours of that festival beyond Paudeen Brannagh. He could tell them how to slap,[14] and play forfeits, and shuffle the brogue, and rehearse "the waits;" or he could sing the "Black Stripper,"[15] and "Nell Flaherty's Drake," or repeat a rhan beyond compare. The young, and those unconcerned in the mournful spectacle, welcomed him with loud applause; even those in grief would smile through their tears, and the nearest relative of the deceased would exclaim:—

"Oh, thin, musha Paddy, you summahawn, bad cess to you, is it here you're coming with your tricks, and we in grief and sorrow this night?"

"Hould your whist, sthore ma chree, sure it's for that I stept over, just to keep ye from thinking, and to anose the colleens. Never mind till you see how I'll dress the garlands, and curl the paper for you coming on morning." For this was one of Pat's accomplishments. He could assist the women to lay out the corpse; but in case of the death of a young unmarried person, he could peel, and dress with cut paper, the sally wands to be carried at the funeral, and could shape the white-paper gloves which were to hang on the hoops—the principal decoration of the garland that was to be placed in the middle of the grave. Full of fun and frolic as he was, he was always doing a good turn, and everybody said—"There is no harm in life in him."

Paddy stood five feet nothing in his stocking-feet—no, not that either—in his barefoot; first, because he never had feet to his stockings, and secondly, because, if he put both feet to the ground, he would be nearly six inches lower than the standard we have assigned to him; for, owing to some natural defect, his left leg was by so much shorter than his right. To commence with his lower extremities, which were the most remarkable feature about him, we must inform our readers that he wore neither brogues, pumps, shoes, galouches, nor boots, neither Hessians, tops, nor Wellingtons; but a pair of short-laced buskins, made by a brogue-maker, which caused all the difference to the wearer in the matter of economy.[16]

He was vain (who is not?), and consequently never attempted the knees and long stockings, but clad his nether man in corduroys, or borrogue, a sort of coarse, home-made twilled linen, formed of tow-yarn. His only other garment—at least the only other one which we could discover that he wore for many years—was an old whitish, drab-coloured, double-caped greatcoat, the long skirts of which, first rolled into a sort of twisted rope, were then tucked up below the small of his back, where they formed a sort of male bustle, which, with his fiddle stuck under it, and the acquired set of an eager and habitual fisherman, gave him an extraordinary angular appearance. A sharp, shrewd countenance, prominent nose and cheek-bones—small, keen grey eyes, expressive of naturally great, as well as long-practised observation—a face which would have exhibited as many freckles as a turkey's egg, but that it was, particularly in summer time, too much tanned and sunburnt to let them be seen, exhibited at once hardihood and cunning. The peculiar chestnut hue of his face—the result of constant exposure to wind and sun—descended, like a gorget, to about the middle of his chest, over a remarkably prominent throat, in which, if Paddy inherited his peculiarity of a remarkably projecting larynx from mother Eve, more than half of the apple must have stuck in her throat.[17] Whiskers he had none, but scanty beard, and scarcely a vestige of eyebrow.

To make up, however, for the want of hair upon this portion of his face, he possessed a peculiar power over the part whereon it should have grown; for he could elevate it, particularly toward the outward side, half way up his forehead and temples, and again depress it so as almost completely to obscure his eye. Although his face was thus devoid of hair, he possessed a plentiful head of tow-like wool, of a yellow, sandy colour, which was generally surmounted by an old glazed hat, rather battered in the sides, and invariably encircled, during the fishing season, with casting-lines and trout flies. Oh! what a business it was for some of the young tyros to engage Paddy in conversation about the effects of the last flood, or whether there was too much rain overhead, or how long the dry weather would last, or when the green-drake would be out, or to get him to tell the story of the otter that seized the trout he was playing under the bridge of Balloughoyague, while the others, creeping carefully round, examined what hackles and foxes, or fiery-browns and hares' ears, he had last been fishing with. The genteel part of Paddy was his hand. No lady of gentle blood, or pure aristocratic descent, ever possessed a more delicate finger, or a finer touch. Signs on him, he was the boy that could mount a Limerick hook on a stout bristle, and mix the colour, strip a hackle, or divide a wing with e'er an angler in Connaught. The real wonder about Paddy was his extraordinary powers of progression. Although a baccough, no one could beat him "at the long run" on the road; and as to crossing a country, we could never tell how he got over the fences, or passed the drains, but he was always as soon as his companions.

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[12] After the flax had been steeped in the bog-hole, and bleached on the anough, it was taken home, kiln-dried, and in process of time broken, preparatory to being hackled, scutched, and spun into yarn; all which processes were the result of household manufactory. The flax was generally broken by men; a large stool, such as that used for a table in the peasant's cabin, was everted and laid flat on the floor. The operator sat down behind it, with a leg across each end; placed the sheaf of dried flax along the stool, holding it into the fork of the legs, and with a long stout beetle broke up the outer husk or cuticle of the fibre, preparatory to its removal, by being drawn through the hackle pins. As several persons were generally engaged in the operation at a time, the noise produced thereby was quite deafening, and hence the common expression in Connaught indicative of great uproar—it was like "flax a-breaking."

[13] The Barony of Athlone is always styled, in Roscommon, The Barney, and contra-distinguished from the rich plains, which are called The Maghery. The county Roscommon was famed for cock-fighting in former days, particularly upon Easter week; and in the locality alluded to, it is not yet quite extinct.

There was a main fought at Boyle last year. Carlow was also celebrated for cock-fighting. About forty years ago, the following attractive notice might be seen in a cutler's window in London—"Carlow spurs sold here."

[14] Among the humours of a wake, the small play of slapping was one of the most popular. The person who was doomed, as a forfeit, to the infliction, had to stand with the back of his hand laid upon the small of his back, while each person in the game gave it the severest blow with the palm which they were able. We shall take up the subject of the wake games when considering the ceremonials attendant upon death, and would, in the meantime, be glad to receive from our friends some information upon the subject.

[15] Allegories were not confined to the learned in Ireland. The "Bleeding Iphiginia," or the "History of Cyprus," or the beautiful expressive song of the "Wild Geese," which were intended and adapted for the reading population, had their types among the lower orders in such songs as the "Black Stripper," which signified a potteen still. This song was made by a poor poet near Elphin, upon the celebrated St. Lawrence, the gauger, of Strokestown, the most noted still-hunter in Connaught for many years. It was for a long time the most popular ballad throughout Roscommon and Leitrim, and you heard it as frequently wherever there was an assemblage of the people, as but a little while ago our ears were assailed with "Rory O'More."

[16] The difference between a brogue and a shoe does not altogether consist in the strength of the material. Like a brogue, a shoe may be made very strong, and be unbound; but the former is generally made of what is called kip, a sort of thin cow-hide, and is always unbound and unlined. The grand difference between it and a shoe consists in the sole and welt being sown together with a thong of leather instead of a wax-end. The two trades were quite distinct a few years ago.

[17] There is a popular impression that the peculiar prominence on the front of the throat which some persons, particularly those of red or sandy hair, exhibit, is a remnant of a deformity transmitted to us from Eden; as it is believed that a piece of the apple stuck in Eve's throat, where it ever after remained, an eye-sore and a curse. In some localities, it is said the bit stuck, not in Eve's, but in Adam's throat.