Habits and Character of the (Irish) Peasantry [1]

By Thomas Davis

THERE are (thank God!) four hundred thousand Irish children in the National Schools. A few years, and they will be the People of Ireland--the farmers of its lands, the conductors of its traffic, the adepts in its arts. How utterly unlike that Ireland will be to the Ireland of the Penal Laws, of the Volunteers, of the Union, or of the Emancipation?

Well may Carleton say that we are in a transition state. The knowledge, the customs, the superstitions, the hopes of the People are entirely changing. There is neither use nor reason in lamenting what we must infallibly lose. Our course is an open and a great one, and will try us severely; but, be it well or ill, we cannot resemble our fathers. No conceivable effort will get the people, twenty years hence, to regard the Fairies but as a beautiful fiction to be cherished, not believed in, and not a few real and human characters are perishing as fast as the Fairies.

Let us be content to have the past chronicled wherever it cannot be preserved.

Much may be saved--the Gaelic language and the music of the past may be handed uncorrupted to the future; but whatever may be the substitutes, the Fairies and the Banshees, the Poor Scholar and the Ribbonman, the Orange Lodge, the Illicit Still, and the Faction Fight are vanishing into history, and unless this generation paints them no other will know what they were.

It is chiefly in this way we value the work before us. In it Carleton is the historian of the peasantry rather than a dramatist. The fiddler and piper, the seanachie and seer, the match-maker and dancing-master, and a hundred characters beside are here brought before you, moving, acting, playing, plotting, and gossiping! You are never wearied by an inventory of wardrobes, as in short English descriptive fictions; yet you see how every one is dressed; you hear the honey brogue of the maiden, and the downy voice of the child, the managed accents of flattery or traffic, the shrill tones of woman's fretting, and the troubled gush of man's anger. The moory upland and the corn slopes, the glen where the rocks jut through mantling heather, and bright brooks gurgle amid the scented banks of wild herbs, the shivering cabin and the rudely-lighted farmhouse are as plain in Carleton's pages as if he used canvas and colours with a skill varying from Wilson and Poussin to Teniers and Wilkie.

But even in these sketches his power of external description is not his greatest merit. Born and bred among the people--full of their animal vehemence--skilled in their sports--as credulous and headlong in boyhood, and as fitful and varied in manhood, as the wildest--he had felt with them, and must ever sympathise with them. Endowed with the highest dramatic genius, he has represented their love and generosity, their wrath and negligence, their crimes and virtues, as a hearty peasant--not a note-taking critic.

In others of his works he has created ideal characters that give him a higher rank as a poet (some of them not surpassed by even Shakespeare for originality, grandeur, and distinctness); but here he is a genuine Seanachie, and brings you to dance and wake, to wedding and christening--makes you romp with the girls, and race with the boys--tremble at the ghosts, and frolic with the fairies of the whole parish.

Come what change there may over Ireland, in these Tales and Sketches the peasantry of the past hundred years can be for ever lived with.

[1] Tales and Sketches illustrating the Irish Peasantry. By William Carleton. James Duffy, Dublin, 1845. 1 vol. 8vo, pp. 393.