Dublin to Ballinasloe 1838

From the series “A Few more Days in Ireland”, by one of the Conductors of the Journal, on his second visit to Ireland, in August 1837, in Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal conducted by William Chambers and Robert Chambers Vol VI No 261–312, Edinburgh 1838

Galway, in the west of Ireland, above a hundred miles from Dublin, being the point at which our travels were to commence in earnest, we proposed to reach it by the readiest means, and ultimately resolved to adopt the conveyance offered by the proprietors of the Grand Canal, who transport travellers over the distance, partly by water and partly by land conveyance, for the moderate sum of ten shillings and sixpence.

For want of that knowledge of minute local circumstances which only a native can have, we committed ourselves to a slow boat instead of a fast one, and, on going on board at two o’clock on Monday, found ourselves condemned to remain where we were until next day at ten, when we were to be emancipated at Ballinasloe. The boat was a long narrow vehicle, consisting of two cabins, with a steward’s room between, the front cabin being the best. It was only broad enough to admit of two seats along the sides, with a stripe of table in the centre. There was also a deck, on which it was possible to enjoy a walk in the open air.

Our cabin was nearly filled with persons of respectable appearance. Between four and five, a smart Irish girl, named Mary, appeared at the lower extremity of the table, along which she pushed forward a cloth, which, by the aid of the company, was soon spread over the whole expanse. Then she brought cruet-frames, plates, and knives and forks, which in like manner were sent upwards along the table. Finally, she pushed up a few dishes containing smoking viands, and the passengers were informed that dinner was before them. Notwithstanding the want of many of the nicer requisites, we dined heartily, as did our fellow-travellers, and, when all was over, the things were withdrawn in much the same way as they had been sent in.

The potations which followed dinner, slight as that were, set the tongues of the company in motion, and we soon found that our journey, though slow, was not to be a dull one. For my own part, internally to speculate upon the characters and pursuits of such a set of fellow-travellers, and to watch as trait after trait was unconsciously added by themselves to the portrait which I had already mentally outlined, would have furnished a sufficient amusement under much more sombre circumstances.

There was one old man, with a fine cast of face, but very plainly dressed, who sat close beside the door, on the side from which it opened. People went out to get the air, and came in again, to escape the cold, and in doing so, jostled him not a little; but no complaint did he utter, nor did he ever move a single inch from his post, though it was obvious that if he had gone further up, he would have escaped much of the annoyance. It was his privilege, evidently, to sit beside the door. We in time found a reason for this principle; but it must not be explained just yet.

There were two men like land-stewards — one gentleman-like young man in plain clothes, whom we found to be an officer out of uniform, on his way to barracks — an old lame man — two ladies — and a good-looking widow of thirty, with a plainly dressed man who seemed to be in attendance upon her.
I remarked in the former series of papers, that, in public places in Ireland, there is a remarkable abstinence from political topics, apparently because every body is sensible that the least allusion to such subjects would set the company by the ears. On the present occasion, Mr Guiness’s [sic] porter brought on an allusion to the unpopularity into which that liquor had fallen, in consequence of a recent vote of the brewer against Mr O’Connell. I ventured to make the remark to a gentleman opposite, that I felt much puzzled respecting the great power and popularity attributed to the individual just named, as, wherever I had been in Ireland, I had heard more speak as his enemies than as his friends. No satisfactory reply was given to my observation; and as the general feeling seemed to be that this was not a topic for a public place, I said no more.

Walking, however, a few minutes after, on the hinder part of the deck, I heard the strains of a fiddle, accompanied by a human voice, proceeding from the inferior cabin, where there seemed to be a much merrier party than in our own more elegant portion of the vessel. Curious to know the name of the song, I inquired of one of the conductors of the boat, who, leaning over the side, repeated the question in at one of the cabin windows. Presently a beaming Irish face was thrust forth, which, looking upwards for a moment, with a broad grin, exclaimed, “Why, it’s O’Connell’s triumph all over the world, to be sure!” and instantly disappeared. Was not this incident in some measure an answer to the question I had just put in the front cabin? It is in the bosoms of the poor, who are the great mass of the Irish people, that this extraordinary man is enthroned.

I was now informed that the singer was a blind man named Phil — I have forgot the latter appellation — who gained his bread by playing and singing throughout the country. In the hope of hearing some Irish airs, in a native and unsophisticated style, I desired that he might be brought upon deck, and he accordingly appeared. Phil sang one or two popular ballads, accompanied by his fiddle, without which he said that he could do nothing, and I have rarely enjoyed any musical treat with greater zest. It was impossible to discover a single word of the songs, but the airs had that wild pathos which marks all Irish slow music in so remarkable a manner, giving it, in my opinion, a charm even superior to that of the Scottish melodies — a pathos which Mr Moore has in scarcely any instance done justice to in the songs he has written for the Irish melodies, though no one could have a greater sympathy for the long-descended woes which many of them seem to express. I should not like to describe exactly the degree to which my sensibilities were excited by this Leinster minstrel.

On returning to the front cabin, I found that the widow’s tongue, unloosed by the wine which her companion had imprudently given her, was in full possession of the ear of the company. With a gay freedom which suggested Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, she was clacking away about her past life, her connections, and her present pursuits. Every thing came out, even to the price of her last mournings. She had not been very often married — only twice — but she seemed by no means unlikely to take on the silken yoke once more ere many months went about. She had first married a Scotchman, a sea-captain, and with him had gone to Norway, where they lived for some years. In the voyage home, he had caught a bad could, of which he soon after died. She had remained a widow, surprising to relate, for four years, finding refuge in the house of a dowager peeress, whose favour she had acquired by nursing one of her ladyship’s grandchildren. But she was at length induced by “my lady’s advice” to marry again. She had only lived with Number Two for one short year, when he took a severe illness, and went into a Dublin hospital, where he paid a guinea a-week for his board, but where he died in the fourth week; and here she broke out into a loud wail of indignation against the medical men who had attended him, insinuating that he was neglected because he was a Catholic. All this stuff was repeated over and over again, in the approved manner of incessant talkers, till at length what was at first amusing became tedious and annoying, and our young military friend made a jesting remark on the last-mentioned circumstance, by which the widow’s feelings were roused into a state of almost frantic excitement. She had formerly professed neutrality between the two great Irish parties; she knew good Protestants, and she knew good Catholics; she scarcely knew what to say of Mr O’Connell or the late election. But now she broke forth into the most furious exclamations against the protestant party, whom she entitled the bloody Brunswickers. She would be the ruin of that hospital, if allowed to live much longer; and there was not a bloody Brunswicker of them all whom she would not leather to his heart’s content. And here she slapped her hand vigorously on the table. In the midst of her fervid invective, the old man who had taken his post by the door was heard to grunt forth, in a sleepy tone, “Och, will nobody, now, give us , just to comfort my poor old bones?” No other person took notice of the poor woman’s ravings, and on she accordingly went for fully a quarter of an hour in the same phrenzied style, till, having apparently exhausted that vein, or wearied of scolding in this indirect way at the young man who, as she said, had insulted her, she suddenly went off upon an entirely new tack, began to compliment him on his good looks, professed herself extremely fond of him, and concluded by expressing a resolution to make him her next lord and master. Tears, loud laughter, and hysteric sobbings, were interspersed throughout these various exhibitions of impotent anger, which lasted until near midnight, and were, I suspect, much less tolerable to our fellow-passengers than to us, who could not but be in some degree amused by them, tinctured as they were with so much of the national character.

On the approach of midnight, most of the passengers addressed themselves to sleep, leaning down their heads upon pillows placed upon the table. We now perceived the virtue of a place beside the door. It enabled the old gentleman, as his side of the vessel was not crowded, to lie down upon the seat, with his shoulders and head reclining against the end of the room — a position not much worse than that of an ordinary bed, while all the rest had to sleep sitting. The number of pillows being found insufficient for the number of the company, there were loud cries upon Mary for an additional supply; and no voice was heard more active or more loud in this demand that that of the old gentleman, who had already stuffed much more than his full share underneath him, and seemed, for his own part, to be in a state of perfect contentment.

We discovered next day that this veteran was the Protestant curate of a parish near the terminating point of our voyage, a regular Parson Adams, supporting nine or ten children on some seventy or eighty pounds a-year. Nightcapped, covered in a cloak, and reclining in the manner described, he slept through the whole night, while the rest could only take snatches of the delicious forgetfulness. “Ah, sir, he’s been regularly trained to it,” said a wakerife fellow-traveller opposite to me, on hearing him still going on in full snore about six in the morning, The clatter of the breakfast things, as they were laid upon the table between seven and eight, was the first thing to break his enviable repose. He then roused himself, slipped off his night-cap, and after sundry yawnings and buttonings, addressed himself, with the vigour of a hyena, to pretty Mary’s rolls, eggs, and fried bacon.

At the village of Ballinasloe, within the confines of the county of Galway, where the canal terminates, we were transferred to a car which was to be our conveyance for the remainder of our journey. It was one of that strong construction which is used in Ireland instead of stage-coaches upon the less frequented roads. The proprietor of nearly the whole employed in the island is Signor Bianconi, of Clonmel, an enterprising Italian alluded to in my former series of articles on Ireland. A vehicle of this kind is fitted to carry five persons on each side, besides a pile of luggage in the centre; it is drawn by two strong horses, and conducted by a driver who sits on a high seat in front. As we were whisked out of the town, we observed, in the improved appearance of many of the houses and fields, strong proofs of the benefits conferred on this district by the predominating proprietor, Lord Clancarty, of whom all recent travellers in Ireland speak well. […]