Ebenezer Turner, an Inland Revenue Officer, spent six years in Milltown “a somewhat squalid village” between 1869 and 1874. Second instalment.
I would like to thank Dr. John Knightly for allowing me to copy this from his post in the Milltown & Castlemaine Down Memory Lane FB page. In this second post Ebenezer Turner paints a vivid picture of life in Milltown and in Kerry just twenty years after the Famine
The most evident trait in the general character of the Irishman is his intense hunger for a bit of land. Stony tracts and boggy acres are greedily coveted if nothing better can be had; and it is a point of faith with him when he has once occupied a bit of ground, it is his for all time.
A case in point, my predecessor in the cottage, not requiring the large garden, had let it to a small shopkeeper for the crop (“conacre” they call the system). He might, in the spring, sow or plant what he liked, and gather into his barn in the autumn, when his tenancy should cease. Autumn came, the potatoes were dug. I put in a few rose trees, etc., but the shopkeeper, under one excuse or another, kept some trifles in the ground, and in the spring, came and demanded the key which was refused. He then with nine other men jumped the wall, dug up the garden, and planted eleven hundred cabbages – but without manure. I went to my landlord, Sir John Godfrey, who came up and tried to reason with them; the man’s wife screaming all the time that Mr. Corcoran (my predecessor in the tenancy) had given her a blade of grass and a pinch of dust as evidence of possession, and that she had never given it up and never would. In the end, I had to summon the man to the Petty Sessions Courtwhence the case was remitted as a serious one to the Quarter Sessions. The senior magistrate, however, called me aside and hinted that I was not bound to continue the case, and as the man came and removed his cabbages, and in a manner apologised – “the woman compelled me, and I did dig” – I did no more. My garden was dug for me but unfortunately not manured. Weeks after – it seems scarcely credible – that same man served a process upon me, summoning me to the Quarter Sessions on a charge of “entering his garden by force of arms” and wickedly and maliciously planting rose trees and other vegetables therein”. I had to employ a Tralee lawyer and at the proper moment, when the poor Irishman had made out a very black case against the oppressive Englishman, my lawyer gave the true history of the affair, and produced the judgement of the Court below (Petty Sessions). The effect was quite dramatic. The glib lawyer who had painted my portrait in such black colours that I scarcely knew myself – such a villain I appeared – at once subsided. “Why wasn’t this carried forward? asked the judge. “Pure compassion, my lord” said my advocate and the man and his wife were sent home with an admonition – the man especially being told not to allow his wife to wear certain garments usually unmentionable It was their last shot and they seemed to bear no grudge. Indeed, they showed their friendship by occasionally borrowing domestic articles but when it came to the woman sending across one night for a loan of my wife’s Sunday bonnet, that she might wear it to some wake or wedding, we thought it time to draw the line.
This incident illustrates another phase of the Irish character their extraordinary fondness for litigation. Law is cheap, in the form in which they indulge, and the many pettifogging lawyers keep the people always in hot water. I have known one farmer or cottager prosecute another for the trespass of a hen, and get one penny’s damage – after spending three or four shillings. I remember a shoemaker proceeding against a customer for four pence alleged to be due. In all the villages of any size, monthly Petty Sessions Courts are held, and the time of the Court is largely occupied in hearing such trivial cases.
While speaking of the Courts, I may mention a circumstance that constantly crops up. Witnesses in Ireland are sworn, as in England, by kissing the Book, not as in Scotland by holding up the hand. Now the Irishman thinks that if he can possibly avoid kissing “the Book”, his oath is not binding and that he may wobble around the truth as much as he likes without once touching it. But the Petty Sessions Clerk and the members of the Royal Irish Constabulary are wide awake to this little idiosyncrasy and I have several times known an Irishman to be kept in the path of rectitude by the watchful official. “Your worship, he didn’t kiss the Book”. “I did, yer honour”, “You didn’t sir, you only kissed your thumb”, and the oscillatory function has to be visibly performed before the gentleman’s testimony can be taken.
As to the payment of rent, that I found was a thing to be put off as long as possible, and if it could be avoided altogether, so much the better. I called on the landlord’s agent some days after the rent became due for the cottage I have already spoken of. He was a wealthy magistrate and among other estates, managed that of my landlord, Sir John Godfrey. “Come to pay your rent, Mr. Turner? Why, I shall not be asking it for six months yet”, and it was almost reluctantly that he allowed his clerk to make out the receipt and take the money. Months after, a man they called the rent warner called and told me it was to paid on a certain day, and would take no evidence, verbal or written, that it was already paid. It was such an incredible thing that he became wrathful and insolent, and had to be reported; after which he touched his hat to me with a special humility: but I think he always looked upon me as scarcely responsible for my actions – “Paid his rent the date it became due!”.
I must say a few words as to the Social Customs and Ceremonial observances of the people. In the first place, marriage is a curious mixture of the French and British systems. It is a matter of arrangement and bargain. There are professional match-makers: old men who go about the country, and for a consideration bring about marriages between parties they know of. The young folk are consulted, I believe, last of all – the fathers and mothers agreeing what shall be given and accepted with the bride. These dowries commonly consist of a feather bed (the saving of the plucking of innumerable geese, living and dead), a pig or two, and such like. With the poorest, it will be a pig and some fowl. The fulfilment of these pledges is a serious matter, and I once knew a bride sent back to her father because her husband’s mother didn’t approve of the feather bed sent along with her.
On the birth of a child, it is blessed by the priest, and baptised, the top part of the head being thereafter unwashed, lest the holy water should be removed. Thus, a dirty patch forms on the head, which afterwards comes off in a body. To spit in the face of a baby when it is first introduced to you is the height of politeness and civility: and I was though a crazy boor because I scolded an old woman who thus showed her esteem for my firstborn.
I was never actually present at a genuine Irish wake, though I had opportunities of observing how they were conducted. I attended many funerals. It is the custom for all and sundry to join a funeral procession and to accompany it as far as possible. Horsemen are sometimes stationed at crossroads to prevent people from slipping away when they thought they had gone far enough. Even among the highest classes much stress is laid upon a large and imposing funeral. Some of these processions of cars, horsemen and followers are very long – I have seen them from a half to three-quarters of a mile in length. Women who call themselves “keeners” make a most unearthly wail as the procession hurries along the road; the noise increasing with any arrival or any place of concourse.
Sir William Godfrey, dying near Killarney, was to be buried in the family vault at Milltown. Our Parish Minister drove me to the house of death, and in his carriage, we led the procession back to Milltown. On starting, a number of women set up the blood-curdling “Keen”, but learning in the course of a mile or two that their presence would not be officially recognised or recompensed, we heard them inciting each other to go home; for sure the keeners were not going to be paid: and to our intense relief they went home accordingly. I can scarcely describe the awful effect of a funeral hurrying through a village surrounded by these professional mourners. I am sure my hair tried hard to stand on end the first time I heard them.
The coffin is often constructed so hurriedly that the course paint is still wet when the poor clay is put into it. The nails are left sticking out, that at the day of the Resurrection, the body may more easily arise. Picks and shovels are carried by a couple of men, and at the graveyard chocked with rank grass and rotting bones, the grave is dug, not too deep; and the coffin is let down amid the loud cries and prayers of many at the grave, or of those of former acquaintances and friends. I am speaking of what I saw in Kerry 25 years ago.
The vehicles in common use differ from those seen in Scotland or England. For heavy work, they have what they call the Common Car, which is not much more than a strong platform on two wheels. The shafts are continued along the car, and project behind almost as much as before. Heavier loads are placed upon these that would at first sight appear possible but with their small horses and hilly roads, nothing very great is attempted. Yet I recollect getting a ton of coal from Tralee across the Slieve Mish Mountains at a cost of some forty-four shillings. For such loads as turf, etc., a “rail” is placed upon the car to keep the goods from falling off.
For passenger work, there is the ubiquitous “side-car”: some so small that one person only can sit on each side – others for two horses holdings half a dozen passengers a side, properly called “long cars”. The ordinary size holds two passengers on each side, and a driver perched on a little seat in front. The sensation on riding on one of these cars for the first time is most peculiar: you feel as though you must fall off. The first ride my wife and I had on one of these crab-like machines, our “jarvey” seeing we were green, drove us from one end of Dublin to the other among cattle and cavalry to our intense terror. Horns, muzzles, and spurs seemed constantly about our feet. With long usage, however, the seat becomes safe and pleasant; and I often feel that I should like to hail one of the few that cut about Edinburgh and ask for a lift. The donkeys and genets (animals between the horse and the ass) have vehicles proportional to their strength.
We read much of the humour of the Irish peasantry; and such writers as Lever and Carlton have forcibly illustrated it. But so far as I found, they, while enjoying a joke, didn’t appear to have any special aptitude for making one. An old friend who had for fifty years studied the people assured me that the old fun went out when the Famine came in, when to use his own punning expression, the Irish farmer “had, like a famous engineering structure, to run from bank to bank to bridge over Mensai Straits” and his jocularity came to an end. The same providence that blighted his potatoes seemed to blight his wit.
There is a species of involuntary humour which strikes the stranger as very funny. In all seriousness, they introduced the name of the Deity into the most trifling conversations. “It’s a fine wet day God bless it”. “These are big praties, Tim, God bless them”. I remember a curious example of this. A woman came to the door to ask if I would buy a donkey load of manure for the garden. I replied that I had plenty already. “The Lord increase it to your honour” was the ready response, to which I gravely said “Amen”.
And this reminds me of another woman who called and begged that we would bestow our reversions upon her. It was some time before we discovered that she meant anything cast off in the shape of food or dress. A learned word no doubt but properly enough but when on another occasion a woman came to say that a lady friend of ours wished to know that “she was gone to church to play on the tarpaulin” we naturally enough hurried up to see what mad freak our friend was indulging in: and found her quietly playing on the harmonium.
I find I cannot say half of what I would like to say: my verbosity would exhaust the patience of my readers. I wanted to speak of the political side of the Irish character – of what I saw of Fenianism (and my district was the very hot bed of that movement) – of the Home Rule agitation – of parliamentary elections – of voters being escorted for long distances by a company of infantry with fixed bayonets. I wanted to tell of the splendid body of men forming the Royal Irish Constabulary, to speak of their organisation and duties, of some peculiarities in their system of work, and of the nature of that work. I wanted to speak of the mild moist climate, of the blackberries and mushrooms that none would eat until we had set the example; and of the limited knowledge which the peasantry have of the vegetable garden (a disputable young man once slashed into my vegetable marrow bed – oh yes, he knew that weed, it grew in the ditches all over his father’s farm!). I wanted to speak of the preparation and burning of turf; of the emigration of the people; of schools and schoolmasters; of converts and missioners; of the industries of the people – (alas, so far as Kerry is concerned this would not occupy many lines); of their markets, and their large supply of public houses: of their morality and geniality, and of their respect for and toleration of strangers who differed from them on so many points.
But these topics must wait for the “more convenient season” which possibly will never come again: and I can but ask my readers to excuse the disjointed fragments here thrown together and written out amid many distractions.
Only today I heard from my best friend in Ireland who with his family made life more than tolerable there; who for the five years and a half we knew him was a trusted and unfailing guide, counsellor, and friend, whose three little boys were our happy playmates; whose wife was to us as a young mother, loving our baby as one of her own: whose house was to us a second home; who, with his wife, drove us to the railway station at Killarney, so that their kind faces were the last and best of all the pleasant things we saw as we left Kerry, never to return, in August 1874. God bless them!
Since the foregoing lines were drafted, this dear lady has gone to her rest; and the lingering hope of a possible meeting this side of Heaven’s gate is suddenly quenched.