A Tour to Connaught: Letter VII (Kilbeggan).

From The Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, Number 34, February 16, 1833


SIR--The country from Tyrrell's Pass to Kilbeggan is improved. The hills are generally well timbered, the low grounds are drained, and gentlemen's seats are to be seen on either side of the road. One in particular caught my attention, as well remembered, having, in my younger days, enjoyed the hospitality of its then owner. It has since more than once changed masters; on enquiring who now possessed it, I was informed by one of my fellow-travellers, that its present proprietor was not satisfied with his bargain; and he mentioned, as the common report of the country, how an ingenious trick was played off, in order to induce him to effect the purchase. "The land," said he, "is naturally very light--the upland a dry hungry gravel--the lowland, such as reclaimed bog generally is, wet, rushy, and inclined to return to its original unproductiveness. The gentleman struck with the beautiful forms of the grounds, and with the tasteful way in which it was planted, appointed a time on which he would come and view the house and land, and previous to that day the owner proceeded to some neighbouring fairs, and bought up some forty or fifty of the fattest heifers he could meet--these were, of course, grazing on the land the day the visitor arrived; accordingly, in passing along, he put the question, whether the land could provide good beef and mutton for the table." "My object, Sir, is, if I take a country place, to live within myself, to go to market for nothing, to buy as little and sell as much as I can." Right, Sir," says the owner, "that is what I have always done--look yonder, pray, the proof of the pudding may be in the feeding, as well as the eating; do, Sir, come over with me and handle a few of these heifers--there is nice beef for you, fit for any market --not better made up cattle from this to Kells." The stratagem was successful--the admiring gentleman struck with such convincing proofs of good land, soon concluded the bargain. But, alas! since he became possessed of the title deeds, he has never yet been able to have a good sirloin on his table from his grounds. "Confound the blockhead!" exclaimed a farming man, who was listening to the story, "he must have been some soft Cit to be taken in so--could he not have looked at the blackheads and fairy flax and the traneens? and they would have told him that he could not expect a fat goose, let alone a fat cow, from such sun burnt hills." "Sir Henry Piers, in his account of Westmeath," observed I, "written 160 years ago, describes the inferior Westmeath farmers, as follows:--"The Sculloges, which may be Englished farmers, or boors, are generally very crafty and subtle in all manner of bargaining, full of equivocation and mental reservation, especially in their dealings in fairs and market, where, if lying and cheating be no sin, they make it their work to overreach any one they deal with, and if by slight or fetch they can hook in the least advantage, they are mighty tenacious thereof." If the story just told has any foundation, which I trust it has not, this Westmeath gentleman played a very sculloge trick.

We now arrived at Kilbeggan, situated on the Upper Brusna river, a small town, though before the Union returning two members to Parliament. This was in old times the chief town of M'Geoghegan's country, and there were two religious establishments here, one an Abbey, founded by St. Beccan, a cotemporary of St. Columbkill; and in the year 1200, another religious house, called the Abbey of the River of God--why so called I have not ascertained, was founded by the D'Alton family under the invocation of the Blessed Virgin; this was supplied with monks from the great Abbey of Mellifont, whose mitred Abbot could ride straight forward on lands belonging to his house, from the sea near Drogheda to the Shannon. In Elizabeth's reign, the Dillon family had the property of the suppressed Abbey; in the following reign, Oliver Lord Lambert was seized of the Monastery lands of the Blessed Virgin, and his descendant, Mr. Gustavus Lambert is now in possession of the property. Passing rapidly through the town, some circumstances connected with it came vividly to my recollection; the Inn of the town I must remember as long as I live--its titled landlady I well recollect--the Lady Cuffe; never did the fountain of honour play off such a ludicrous prank, as when it showered its spray on the head of an Innkeeper; yet so it was, when about sixty years ago the Viceroy of Ireland dubbed mine host of Kilbeggan a Knight. Lord Townshend, the then Lord Lieutenant, a man addicted to the most dissolute habits, and who, by the satirical writers of that day, was represented as one perfectly regardless of pomp, dignity, or parade--one, who as he walked the streets, used to scatter his ribbald jests among the common passengers, whose festivities were often degraded down to disorder, and his recreations to indelicacy; he, on occasion of a journey to Connaught, was, by some accident that occurred to his equipage, obliged to stop at Kilbeggan for the night, and partake of such accommodation as Mr. Cuffe, the Innkeeper, could afford. In those days good claret was not an unusual thing to be had even in small country Inns; and it so happened that Mr. Cuffe was able to send up some fowl and fish well cooked and well served, and that the claret was in its bouquet and flavour adapted to his Excellency's taste; accordingly the great man unbent himself amongst his boon companions, so as while losing sobriety, he forgot decorum; and as he on another occasion, introduced his fox-hounds into the Council Chamber, now as a half-witted bacchanalian, he ordered the host to make his appearance, and when he came into the PRESENCE, the Viceroy, in an affectedly grave speech, returned him thanks for his excellent cheer, and announced, that he would not repay the obligation in any other manner but in conferring on him the order of Knighthood; and accordingly, in spite of some of the more sober of the party, who remonstrated against this act of whimsical licentiousness, he actually forced mine host to kneel down, and duly dubbing him in proper phrase and form, said--"Rise up thou mirror of Innkeepers, and be from henceforth Sir Thomas Cuffe." The astonishment of the Innkeeper may be well supposed, as he returned to his wife to inform her of her new honours. The Viceregal visitor, as usual, retired to rest, utterly reckless of what he had done, and rose in the morning altogether forgetful, until reminded of the transaction; of which, when informed, he was not a little annoyed, but plucking up courage, he said to his Aide-de-Camp--"It certainly was carrying the joke too far, but curse the fellow, sure he will not take any advantage of it? Call him before rne, and I'll persuade him to hush up the matter." Accordingly, the man was introduced--"Mr. Cuffe,'' says his Excellency, "a circumstance occurred last night, which I am sure you understood in the proper light; it was, it is true, carrying THE JOKE too far; I hope, Sir, you feel as becomes you, and that you will say no more about it, nor let the thing get wind." "Oh! indeed, my Lord, the honour you have conferred on me, though I am right sensible of its importance, is still what I, for one, would have no objection to forego, under a proper consideration; but, please your Excellency, what will my Lady Cuffe say?"

The Innkeeper and his wife were Sir and my Lady all their lives. The man died long before I ever passed through Kilbeggan, but I perfectly remember my Lady Cuffe. But the remembrance of an ennobled tavern keeper is not what has fastened the Inn so much on my memory, as a still more personal occurrence; for, be it known, and the part most concerned tingles while I tell it, I got the greatest kicking ever man got in Lady Cuffe's yard. Blood of the O'Tools, where hast thou retreated, while my pen records the frightful transaction! A descendant of the Mountain Kings of Glendalough and Glen Malur, and Imale, --son of the Chieftains, whose bones repose in the lofty cairns that crown the tops of Toulnagee and Lugnaquilla--for thee to make the confession that you were kicked in the yard of an Inn. Is the man alive who lifted his foot and left his mark on that sensitive seat of honour? Truth to tell, reader, I cannot inform you, but the lamentable event was in this wise:--I, in the summer of 1799, the year after the rebellion, was travelling from the county of Westmeath to that of Tipperary, and on my way rode into my Lady Cuffe's Inn, at Kilbeggan; there I saw sauntering about the house, and smoking as they reclined here and there, a set of outlandish soldiers--gigantic looking fellows with terrible moustaches and other marks denoting them to be foreigners. I was a young, spare, lathy lad at that time, much under twenty, and like a gaping green horn, I must needs proceed to the stables to inspect the horses and accoutrements of these much dreaded men, whom I was told were Hessians; suppose me then standing in the stables "sicut mos est Milesianorum," as is the custom of Irishmen, with my mouth open, admiring all the stirrups, saddles, and bridles, &c. &c. of the Germans--moreover, be it recollected, that it was a token of loyalty in those days to carry a quue or tail pendant from the back of your neck, and that those who neglected or lost such an accompaniment were counted disaffected--they were Croppies. Poor innocent Croppy then as I was, there I stood unconscious of coming evil, when I all at once found myself seized on from behind, by the grasp, as it were, of a giant--my arms pinioned with one hand, the poll of my neck searched for the diffident tail with the other, and my seat of honour assailed with an immense jack boot, whose toe did horrible execution, such as a battering ram would inflict on a very weak postern, and then a terrible cry was shouted close to my ears, "You be one Croppie rascal, vat te devill bring te yong rebill here? take dat--and dat--and dat." So he kicked me in the stable, and he kicked me in the yard, and he kicked me in the street, and kicked me up the front steps of the Inn, and there the cruel monster, who was at least six feet six inches in height, then left me as a hound would let drop a hare out of his mouth, pounded in body and wounded in mind. Oh! the toe of that terrible jack boot, never can I forget the infliction--what was I to do? take vengeance of course. Vengeance on whom?--a common soldier--have the fellow punished--stay in the town until you lodge the complaint before his officer--have him tried, flogged, and what not--oh! but that would take time--I should stop with my Lady Cuffe, that would take money, with which I was not over burthened, so I thought it better to take patience, call for a chaise and putting plenty of straw under me, for air cushions were not then invented, proceed in a very delicate state to the end of my journey, my only consolation being, that though a kicked man, the disgrace and pain were not inflicted by a countryman--by a rale O, or a true Mac, but by a brutal Hessian. Proceeding through Kilbeggan, our next stage was Horseleap, where a Church stands crowning an adjoining height, and where are the ruins of one of the first of the castles built by the Norman conquerors to quell the Irish. Sir Hugh de Lacy, the great grantee of Meath, commenced the erection of this stronghold, but it was not his fate to see it finished, for while this great man, the favourite of his Sovereign, and one of the most valiant of that extraordinary race, who came over with Strongbow, was inspecting his rising fortress, and stooping down to give directions to a workman, an Irish labourer, deeply imbued with a sense of his country's wrongs, clove his head with a single blow of his mattock. Tradition has it, that though the most active, valiant, and sage of men, De Lacy was but small in stature and was called Le Petit; and from hence the Le Petits of Westmeath derive their name and origin.

Small men have often been found, not only wise in counsel, but brave leaders in the field--their energies seem to act with more power, as more concentrated; and Sir Hugh De Lacy Le Petit, as well as Napoleon Bonaparte, together with thousands of other little but great men have shown, that the mind--the immortal mind can nerve a little body to achieve great things. Sir Hugh was an extraordinary horseman--his leap over the drawbridge of his fortress is yet recorded, and the spot yet shown, and the name of the place and village will record, as long as time lasts, this feat of a Norman Knight. Alas! for the De Lacys--like the De Courcys and Tyrrells of that day they did not respect the prejudices of the people; the castle he was building he dared to found on the scite of an ancient abbey. The Irish were shocked at the profanation, the act therefore of the assassin was applauded by all, and even the avenging peasant's deed was counted religiously meritorious, as exciting the anger of St. Columbkill on him who was the usurper of his abbey, and the spoiler of his churches. Be it as it will, the De Lacy's were a valiant and noble race. Hugh, the founder of Ardnorchar, or Horseleap Castle, left two sons; Hugh, the eldest, one of the most politic of men, contrived to supplant John De Courcy, the conqueror of Ulster, in the favour of King John, and eventually succeeded in driving him out of his province, and assuming the government. The story of the rivalship of the De Courey's and De Lacys, might be made the subject of a very interesting historical romance. I have often wondered that Sir Walter Scott, after introducing the De Lacy into an English story, did not follow up the subject, by making use of the materials which Irish history affords of this noble race--their strange vicissitudes of fortune--now favourites--now rebels--defeated to-day by De Courcy--and in a short space of time supplanting him, and driving him from Ulster--again falling under the displeasure of their monarch, and obliged to fly for refuge to France, and there forced to work as gardeners on the grounds of a Norman Abbot--and again when, unable to conceal their noble bearing, they were detected by the good ecclesiastic, and by his intercession reconciled to the King, and restored to their fiefs, we find the weak and vacillating John, writing a letter to Walter de Lacy, entreating him to forget all animosities and assuring him of future favour and protection.