Reminiscences of the West

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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"In Ireland a Fetch is the supernatural fac-simile of some individual which comes to insure to its original a happy longevity or immediate dissolution; if seen in the morning, the one event is predicted; if in the evening, the other."—BANIM.

Hell or Connaught—The West—Its present and former condition; Hopes for its future—Poor-houses and Depopulation—The Right Honourable and Tim Muldoon—Secret Societies—The Ribbonmen—Peelers and Barony Constables—A Militia Major—Paddy Welsh the Fisherman, his Life, Doings, and Death—The blood of the Welshes—The Third Dream—Treasure-seeking—Ballintober Castle, its capture in 1786—The History of Cathel Crove-derg—Sandy O'Conor—The Widow's Son and the Fetches—Roscommon in 1825—A Gladiatorial Exhibition—The Gallows—Lady Betty, a Female Executioner—The last recorded Gibbeting—The civilizing effects of whipcord and lead.

"To Hell or Connaught!" was a malediction well known and often expressed in the North and East fifty years ago; the choice of localities being generally left to the person entrusted with the mission. We have not ventured to explore the former, for although the way thither is clearly defined by the ministers of all religious sects in this country, the return is not so easy. Connaught, however, as the other alternative, we have tried, having been, as the Yankees say, "raised in that province," and are now to the fore to offer some reason for its supposed contiguity to a more tropical region.

What the country west of the Shannon has been heretofore, may be conjectured by observing, even cursorily, what it is at the present moment; and the estimate, of a portion of it at least, has been tolerably well defined in the late bidding for the Connemara estates,[1] when, despite the puff preliminary in the friendly invitation of a Viceroy, the puff collusive in the speech of a London Lord Mayor, and the puff direct in the eloquent "setting up" of the first auctioneer of the day, before an auditory almost choking with a plethora of wealth—little more than half their intrinsic value was offered. The Quarterly knew better than any of them, and was just out in time to save the London millionaire from risking his fifty or sixty thousand pounds in the dillisk, sloak, and carrigeen moss on the rocks and cliffs, from Roundstone to Slimehead, or in growing flax upon the serpentine and granite of the twelve pins of Bennabola. But what's the use in going over the same story, and ringing the famine and fever, and poor-law desolation in your ears, good Christians, again;—Sure I told you how it was with all Ireland when I discoursed you before on the same subject as the present; and if you want to know how Connaught is now, I can tell you that it is ten times worse—only that the people (and more is the wonder) are honester, more peaceable, and although given a trifle to lying, bear starvation with less grumbling than in any other part of the world where human beings are subjected to like misery, and have so long suffered from the same demoralizing influences.

No one will buy in Connaught now;—it is said they cannot. Why? Certainly English capitalists, some of them of great name, who have lately visited this country, have assured us that it was not the ill-conditioned state of the peasantry—nor the desolate appearance of the country—nor the debts due by the landlords, no—nor the want of title, or the defect of drainage—nor of means of access—nor even the low price of corn—nor the danger to life or property:—all these could be calculated upon; their probable losses and profits summed up; and when a "view" was made of the whole, it would be found to be just worth, like any other property, so many years' purchase, and would bring its proper price in the market; but it was the taxation which they dreaded, the poor-law taxation of which they could form no estimate, even for the next couple of years,—a taxation which, it is feared, may soon increase to such an extent as to exceed the fee-simple of the land. Well, this is all very true; but this taxation is to feed the people,—will it not increase as the population increases? Yes, but the population will not, cannot increase under the present circumstances. Already it has been thinned to an extent almost unparalleled under any condition of the country, as will be proved when the next census is taken.[2] We now speak of the West, with which we have been long familiar, and we venture to assert that, within two years from the present, the numbers which will have taken advantage of poor-law relief, and who must consequently be a burden upon the land, will have reached, if not passed, the maximum; and as the numbers requiring relief, either within doors or without, shall be thinned and decreased, so ought the taxation to lessen also.

We lately made a tour of the West, after an absence of twelve years. What have we seen—what was the impression made upon us in passing through districts with which we have been long familiar? This—that until the late potato failure and consequent famine, there must have been immense agricultural improvement going forward even in Connaught; for, although we passed over miles of country without meeting the face of a human being, and seldom that of a four-footed beast, and though we came, in some places, hot upon the smoking ruins of a recently unroofed village, with the late miserable inmates huddled together and burrowing for shelter among the crushed rafters of their cabins; and although there were large tracts of land untilled and untenanted—still, with the traces of cultivation, far beyond what we remember in former times, passing under our eyes; With improved drainage—in many places rendering the former swamp a meadow; with the dark patches of green crops creeping up the sides of the valleys; with the turnip, the cabbage, and the parsnip surrounding the cottage, where alone the potato had a footing previously; and, with large tracts of bog reclaimed wherever there was an improving, and, consequently, a wise and humane as well as thriving landlord [3]—we could not but feel that the appearance of the country, generally, had improved since 1837. But, to the subject of the depopulation,—

Thousands of the peasantry have died annually since 1846, over and above the usual standard of mortality, which, in Ireland, according to the only data yet accessible, did not, upon an average, exceed two per cent. at the utmost. Thousands upon thousands of the best and most productive of the population have emigrated; and among those who remain, and who have eked out a most miserable existence without the walls of the poor-house, the births, as a natural consequence of the unhappy condition in which the country has been, have been lessened to an extent scarcely credible; and marriages—as the priests know to their cost—have fallen off beyond the remembrance of any former time. The few still standing out among the peasantry, clinging with delusive hope to the potato, and still holding on, in chronic starvation, to two acres and a-half of ill-tilled land, with that longing for liberty—but, alas! not for independence—which made the Irish peasant rather die than quit his native hearth; those supported upon public works, where such exist, or who have been receiving from the, as yet, unpauperized landlord five-pence a-day, "without mate or drink," for the few months of spring or harvest, will all have been driven into the poor-house before the beginning of 1853; while those who can muster the price of their passage to New York, either by honest accumulation or by robbing their landlords of the crops, will likewise have emigrated.

Let us go into the poor-houses, and walk through the day-wards, and yards, and workshops. We see there two classes: the worn-down peasantry, with broken constitutions, spectres of men and women, listlessly stalking about—moody, unoccupied, brooding over miseries past, without hope for the future; fit recipients, mentally and corporeally, for all the contagious influences necessarily attendant upon the accumulation of such a crowd of human beings: we feel assured, upon looking at them, that the great majority will never number another year. For the other section of this class—the boys and girls, and young men and women—many of them intelligent and with good constitutions, now growing up in the work-houses, and acclimatised to them: we feel that something must be done by legislative enactment, either to provide for them in the colonies, or to transplant them again throughout the unpopulated districts, or to hire them out as farm-servants—their legitimate and proper calling—before two years elapse; or the land must be taken by the poor-law authorities on which to employ them. And the day will come, and it is not far distant, when, unless Ireland be converted into one great grass-farm, the farmer must go to the workhouse to seek labourers for his harvest.

But there is another portion of the poor-house which we have yet to visit—the hospital. Here, whether it be a temporary shed, or the ordinary ward accommodation, as we pass down the long room, between the rows of beds, and cast our eyes on the thirty or forty human beings arranged on each side of us, a glance practised to disease assures us, that ere to-morrow's sun has set, many of the miserable beings through whom we have passed will have ceased to feel the burning fever or the wasting dysentery: their corpses will lie in the dead-house. The doctor who accompanies us will confirm our remarks. The wards are almost always full; some recent cases from without, others occurring among the broken-down paupers in the house, rapidly filling up the vacancies which every four-and-twenty hours produce. In truth, the mortality which has taken place during the last three or four years, and which is still going forward, to a certain extent, in the poor-houses of Ireland, is beyond belief. We have no desire that it should now be made known. No doubt it will be published at the proper time, and in the proper place. It is not for the sake of exciting angry feelings against these institutions that we write: we believe that, under the circumstances, the mortality has not been greater there than might have been expected; but we have made these statements because we have witnessed what we relate, and because the sum of our inquiries and observations assures us, that the number of persons requiring poor-law relief will begin to decrease, after a very few years, to an extent of which no idea can, at present, be formed. And then taxation will not fall as heavily, nor with that uncertainty which the Irishman who sells, or the Englishman who would buy land, now imagines.

Why the rulers of the West, if they have not earned for it the adage, "To Hell or Connaught," have, at least, assisted to keep up, and, in part, to deserve, the malediction, may be gleaned from the sequel to the following tale, which, while it serves to illustrate a peculiar Irish superstition, details an historical fact, known at this very hour to hundreds where the circumstances occurred, and the proofs of which—in all save the supernatural appearances, probably the result of an excited imagination—are undeniable, and could be produced.

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[1] This chapter was written in the autumn of 1849, shortly after the events alluded to in the text had occurred.

[2] The results of the late census have fully verified this opinion. The loss in Connemara has been 16,493: in the barony of Ballynahinch, 9119; and 7374 in that of Moycullen.

[3] No better proof of this could be adduced than the present condition of the tongue of land—part of the Barnah property, in Connemara, running in from Ballinakille bay to the shores of Kylemore Lake, and now in the possession of Mr. Graham; on one side of it is the Ballynahinch estate, and on the other the Renville—both worse off than they were ten years ago-while this tract which we remember red bog and heathy moor, is now growing corn and green crops and has several snug homesteads upon it.