Manners, Etc., Of The Irish Peasantry
( Originally Published 1884 )
From the amorous disposition of these people's tempers, which breaks out upon all occasions, in an excess of aukward complaisance to their females (who are generally handsotne, if not a little too masculine and indelicate in their limbs) may probably proceed the universal passion that prevails among them for poetry, music, and dancing, after their own rustic fashion. Here one may meet shepherds singing pastorals of their own composition, to some real, not imaginary mistress. Every village has a bagpiper, who, every fine evening, after working hours; collects all the young men and maids in the village about him, where they dance most chearfully; and it is really a very pleasing entertainment to see the expressive, though aukward attempts of nature to recommend themselves to the opposite sex. I have often diverted myself with finding out, from their significant looks and gestures, a prude or a coquet among the girls, and a coxcomb or a fop among the young fellows, and to see all the affectation of the drawing -room practised by these uncouth rusticks on the green.
When a matrimonial compact is agreed. a cow and two sheep are generally the portion of the maid, and a little hut and a potato-garden all the riches of the man. Here the woman always retains her maiden name, and never assumes the surname of the husband, as is generally practised in other countries. I have been informed, that this is owing to a custom they had among 'them, in antient times, of marrying for a year only, at the expiration of which term the couple might lawfully part and engage elsewhere, unless they should chuse to renew their agreement for another year : By this means, if there was any mutual liking at meeting, both parties were continually upon their guard to oblige each other, that an inclination of living together might still be kept alive on both sides. The woman therefore who might, if she chose it, have a new husband every year of her life, always retained her own name, because, to assume a new one with every husband would create infinite confusion ; and this custom, as to the name, is retained to this very day. At their weddings they make a great feast, which is the only time of their lives, perhaps, that they ever taste meat or any kind of strong liquors. Upon these occasions, one of the sheep, at least, is consumed, and the other is sold to purchase a barrel of a kind of very bad ale, which in their language they call sheebeen and a corn-spirit called usquebaugh or whisky, which very much in its taste and qualities resembles the worst London gin. With this they for once carouse and make merry with their friends, They are indeed at all times great pretenders to hospitality, as far as their abili-ties will permit ; whence they have this universal custom among them, that, in all kinds of weather, when they sit down to their miserable meal, they constantly throw their doors open, as it were, to invite all strangers to partake of their repast. And in the midst of all their poverty, chearful content so perfectly supplies the want of other enjoyments, that I verily believe they are the happiest people in the world. In the midst of very hard labour, and what to an English-man would seem pinching necessity, they are ever chearful and gay, continually telling stories, while at their work, of the antient giants of that country, or some such simple tales, or singing songs in their own language ; and, in the wildness of their notes, I have often found something irregularly charming. As these are always of their own composition, I concluded they must be quite original in their thought and manner, as the authors are all illiterate, and understand no other language whence they might borrow either ; and I imagined it would be no bad way to discover the genius, as well as abilities of the people, by observing what turn they generally gave their poetical performances. I was in some measure able to get over the difficulty of understanding their language, by the assistance of a very agreeable young lady who understood the Irish tongue perfectly well, and she has often sung and translated for me some of their most popular ballads. The subject of these is always love; and they seem to understand poetry to be designed for no other purpose than to stir up that passion in the mind. As you are a man of curiosity, I shall present you with one attempted in rhime, as a specimen of their manner; which take as follows :
A translation of an Irish song, beginning, " Ma ville slane g'un oughth chegh;
Blest were the days, when in the lonely shade, Join'd hand in hand, my love and I have stray'd, Where apple-blossoms scent the fragrant air, I've snatch'd soft kisses from the wanton fair.
Then did the feather'd choir in songs rejoice, How soft the cuckoo tun'd her soothing voice ! The gentle thrush with pride display'd his throat, Vying in sweetness with the blackbird's note.
But now, my love, how wretched am I made, My health exhausted and my bloom decay'd ! Pensive I roam the solitary grove
The grove delights not—for I miss my love. Once more, sweet maid, together let us stray, And in soft dalliance waste the fleeting day ; Through hazel-groves, where clust'ring nuts invite, And blushing apples charm the tempted sight.
In awful charms secure, my lovely maid May trust with me her beauty in the shade; Oh, how with sick'ning fond desire I pine,
Till my heart's wish, till you, my love, are mine ! Hence with these virgin fears, this cold delay : Let love advise; take courage, and away. Your constant swain for ever shall be true, O'er all the plain, shall ne'er love one, but you.
To understand many of the beautiful and natural turns of thought in these lines, you must be informed, that wild apples and nuts, which the woods yield spontaneously in that country, as in ours, are the choicest present lovers make to their mistresses, who generally carry the wild apples about them as a perfume ; they are therefore very natural images to be introduced in their poetry.