In travelling through Ireland a stranger is very frequently puzzled by the singular ways, and especially by the idiomatic equivocation characteristic of every Irish peasant. Some years back, more particularly, these men were certainly originals – quite unlike any other people whatever. Many an hour of curious entertainment has been afforded me by their eccentricities; yet though always fond of prying into the remote sources of these national peculiarities, I must frankly confess that, with all my pains, I never was able to develop half of them, except by one sweeping observation – namely, that the brains and tongues of the Irish are somehow differently formed or furnished from those of other people.
One general hint which I beg to impress upon all travellers in Hibernia, is the following: that if they shew a disposition towards kindness, together with a moderate familiarity, and affect to be inquisitive, whether so or not, the Irish peasant will outdo them tenfold in every one of these dispositions. But if a man is haughty and overbearing, he had better take care of himself.
I have often heard it remarked and complained of by travellers and strangers, that they never could get a true answer from any Irish peasant as to distances when on a journey. For many years I myself thought it most unaccountable. If you meet a peasant on your journey and ask him how far, for instance, to Ballinrobe? he will probably say it is “three short miles.” You travel on, and are informed by the next peasant you meet, that it is “five long miles.” On you go, and the next will tell “your honour” it is “four miles, or about that same.” The fourth will swear “if your honour stops at three miles you’ll never get there!” But on pointing to a town just before you, and inquiring what place that is, he replies,
“Oh! plaze your honour, that’s Ballinrobe, sure enough!”
“Why, you said it was more than three miles off!”
“Oh yes! to be sure and sartain, that’s from my own cabin, plaze your honour. We’re no scholards in this country. Arrah! how can we tell any distance, plaze your honour, but from our own little cabins? Nobody but the schoolmaster knows that, plaze your honour.”
Thus is the mystery unravelled. When you ask any peasant the distance of the place you require, he never computes it from where you then are, but from his own cabin; so that if you asked 20, in all probability you would have as many different answers, and not one of them correct. But it is to be observed, that frequently you can get no reply at all, unless you understand Irish.
In parts of Kerry and Mayo, however, I have met with peasants who speak Latin not badly. On the election of Sir John Brown for the County of Mayo, Counsellor Thomas Moore and I went down as his counsel. The weather was desperately severe. At a solitary inn, where we were obliged to stop for horses, we requested dinner, upon which the waiter laid a cloth that certainly exhibited every species of dirt ever invented. We called, and remonstrating with him, ordered a clean cloth. He was a low, fat fellow, with a countenance perfectly immovable, and seeming to have scarcely a single muscle in it. He nodded, and on our return to the room, which we had quitted during the interval, we found, instead of a clean cloth, that he had only folded up the filthy one into the thickness of a cushion. We now scolded away in good earnest. He looked at us with the greatest sang froid; and said sententiously: “Nemo me impune lacessit.”
He kept his word; when we had proceeded about four miles in deep snow, and through a desperate night, on a bleak road, one of the wheels came off the carriage and down we went! We were at least two miles from any house. The driver cursed in Irish Michael the waiter, who, he said, had put a new wheel upon the carriage, which had turned out to be an old one, and had broken to pieces. We had to march through the snow to a wretched cottage, and sit up all night to get a genuine new wheel ready for the morning.
The Irish peasant also never answers any question directly: in some districts, if you ask him where such a gentleman’s house is, he will point and reply, “Does your honour see that large house there all amongst the trees, with a green field before it?” You answer, “Yes.” “Well,”says he, “plaze your honour that’s not it. But do you see the big brick house with the cowhouses by the side of that same, and a pond of water?” “Yes.”
“Well, plaze your honour, that’s not it. But, if you plaze, look quite to the right of that same house, and you’ll see the top of a castle amongst the trees there, with a road going down to it betune the bushes.”
“Well, plaze your honour, that’s not it neither; but if your honour will come down this bit of a road a couple of miles I’ll shew it you sure enough – and if your honour’s in a hurry I can run on hot foot and tell the squire your honour’s galloping after me. Ah! who shall I tell the squire, plaze your honour, is coming to see him? He’s my own landlord, God save his honour day and night!”
Read more from the Personal Sketches and Recollections of Jonah Barrington (1827) here.
Download a PDF file from the Internet Archive here.
Sir Jonah Barrington (1760-1834) was an Irish judge, politician and writer. His memoirs contain “scathing but humorous thumbnail portraits of contemporary Irish lawyers, judges and politicians during the last years of the Protestant Ascendancy. His Personal sketches also includes vignettes on Irish people from every background.” However, they must be taken with a large grain of salt…