( Originally Published Early 1900's )
One sees in this country many a grand and tall iron gate leading into a very shabby field covered with thistles; and the simile of the gate will in some degree apply to this famous city of Cork—which is certainly not a city of palaces, but of which the outlets are magnificent. That toward Killarney leads by the Lee, the old Avenue of Mardyke, and the rich green pastures stretching down to the river; and as you pass by the portico of the country jail, as fine and as glancing as a palace, you see the wooded heights on the other side of the fair stream, crowded with a thousand pretty villas and terraces, presenting every image of comfort and prosperity.
Along the quays up to St. Patrick's Bridge there is a certain bustle. Some forty ships may be lying at anchor along the walls of the quay; and its pavements are covered with goods of various merchandise; here a cargo of hides; yonder a company of soldiers, their kits, and their dollies, who are taking leave of the red-coats at the steamer's side. Then you shall see a fine, squeaking, shrieking drove of pigs em-barking by the same conveyance, and insinuated into the steamer by all sorts of coaxing, threatening, and wheedling. Seamen are singing and yeehoing on board; grimy colliers smoking at the liquor-shops along the quay; and as for the bridge—there is a crowd of idlers on that, you may be sure, sprawling over the balustrade for ever and ever, with long ragged coats, steeple-hats, and stumpy doodeens.
At the other extremity of the town, if it be as-size time, you will see some five hundred persons squatting in the Court-house, or buzzing and talking within; the rest of the respectable quarter of the city is pretty free from anything like bustle. There is no more life in Patrick Street than in Russell Square of a sunshiny day; and as for the Mall, it is as lonely as the chief street of a German Residenz. That the city contains much wealth is evidenced by the number of handsome villas round about it, where the rich merchants dwell; but the warehouses of the wealthy provision-merchants make no show to the stranger walking the streets; and of the retail shops, if some are spacious and handsome, most look as if too big for the business carried on within. The want of ready money was quite curious. In three of the principal shops I purchased articles, and tendered a pound in exchange—not one of them had silver enough; and as for a five-pound note, which I presented at one of the topping booksellers, his boy went round to various places in vain, and finally set forth to the bank, where change was got. In another small shop I offered half-a-crown to pay for a sixpenny article—it was all the same.
Half a dozen of the public buildings I saw were spacious and shabby beyond all cockney be-lief. Adjoining the Imperial Hotel is a great, large, handsome, desolate reading-room, which was founded by a body of Cork merchants and tradesmen, and is the very picture of decay. Not Palmyra—not the Russell Institution in Great Co-ram Street—present more melancholy appearances of faded greatness. Opposite this is an-other institution, called the Cork Library, where there are plenty of books and plenty of kindness to the stranger; but the shabbiness and faded splendor of the place are quite painful I have said something in praise of the manners of the Cork ladies; in regard of the gentlemen, a stranger must remark the extraordinary degree of literary taste and talent among them, and the wit and vivacity of their conversation. The love for literature seems to an Englishman doubly curious. What, generally speaking, do a company of grave gentlemen and ladies in Baker Street know about it? Who ever reads books in the City, or how often does one hear them talked about at a Club? The Cork citizens are the most book-loving men I ever met. The town has sent to England a number of literary men, of reputation too, and is not a little proud of their fame. Everybody seemed to know what Maginn was doing, and that Father Prout had a third volume ready, and what was Mr. Croker's last article in the Quarterly. The clerks and shopmen seemed as much "au fait" as their employers, and many is the conversation I heard about the merits of this writer or that—Dickens, Ainsworth, Lover, Lever.
I think, in walking the streets, and looking at the ragged urchins crowding there, every English-man must remark that the superiority of intelligence is here, and not with us. I never saw such a collection of bright-eyed, wild, clever, eager faces. Mr. Maclise has carried away a number of them in his memory; and the lovers of his admirable pictures will find more than one Munster countenance under a helmet in company of Macbeth, or in a slashed doublet alongside of Prince Hamlet, or in the very midst of Spain in company with Signor Gil Blas. Gil Blas himself came from Cork, and not from Oviedo.
I listened to two boys almost in rags : they were lolling over the quay balustrade, and talking about one of the Ptolemys ! and talking very well too. One of them had been reading in Rollin, and was detailing his information with a great deal of eloquence and fire. Another day, walking in the Mardyke, I followed three boys, not half so well drest as London errand-boys: one was telling the other about Captain Ross's voyages, and spoke with as much brightness and intelligence as the best-read gentleman's son in England could do. He was as much of a gentleman, too, the ragged young student; his manner as good, tho perhaps more eager and emphatic; his language was extremely rich, too, and eloquent. Does the reader remember his school-days, when half a dozen lads in the bedrooms took it by turns to tell stories? How poor the language generally was, and how exceedingly poor the imagination ! Both of those ragged Irish lads had the making of gentlemen, scholars, orators, in them.
I have just been strolling up a pretty little height called Grattan's Hill, that overlooks the town and the river, and where the artist that comes Corkward may find many subjects for his pencil. There is a kind of pleasure-ground at the top of this eminence—a broad walk that draggles up to a ruined wall, with a ruined niche in it, and a battered stone bench. On the side that shelves down to the water are some beeches, and opposite them a row of houses from which you see one of the prettiest prospects possible—the shining river with the craft along the quays, and the busy city in the distance, the active little steamers puffing away toward Cove, the farther. bank crowned with rich woods, and pleasant-looking countryhouses—perhaps they are tumbling, rickety, and ruinous, as those houses close by us, but you can't see the ruin from here.
What a strange air of forlorn gaiety there is about the place !-the sky itself seems as if it did not know whether to laugh or cry, so full is it of clouds and sunshine. Little fat, ragged, smiling children are clambering about the rocks, and sitting on mossy doorsteps, tending other children yet smaller, fatter, and more dirty. "Stop till I get you a posy" (pronounced pawawawsee), cries one urchin to another. "Tell me who is it ye love, Jooly," exclaims another, cuddling a red-faced infant with a very dirty nose. More of the same race are perched about the summer house, and two wenches with large purple feet are flapping some carpets in the air. It is a wonder the carpets will bear this kind of treatment at all, and do not be off at once to mingle with the elements; I never saw things that hung to life by such a frail thread.
This dismal pleasant place is a suburb of the second city in Ireland, and one of the most beautiful spots about the town. What a prim, bust-ling, active, green-railinged, tea-gardened, gravel-walked place would it have been in the five-hundredth town in England !—but you see the people can be quite as happy in the rags and without the paint, and I hear a great deal more heartiness and affection from these children than from their fat little brethren across the Channel.