Quotation of the Week: Impressions of Ireland

This week’s quotation is provided by Sydney Owenson/Lady Morgan’s The Wild Irish Girl: A National Tale  (1806). Fed up with his son Horatio’s  feckless behaviour, The Earl of M dispatches him to Connaught where he hopes he will focus on his legal studies. Upon his arrival in Dublin, Horatio writes a letter to a friend to share his initial impressions of Ireland…

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…I feel the strongest objection to becoming a resident in the remote part of a country which is still shaken by the convulsions of an anarchical spirit; where for a series of ages the olive of peace has not been suffered to shoot forth one sweet blossom of national concord, which the sword of civil dissention has not cropt almost in the germ; and the natural character of whose factious sons, as we are still taught to believe, is turbulent, faithless, intemperate, and cruel; formerly destitute of arts, letters, or civilization, and still but slowly submitting to their salutary and ennobling influence.

To confess the truth, I had so far suffered prejudice to get the start of unbiased liberality, that I had almost assigned to these rude people scenes appropriately barbarous; and never was more pleasantly astonished, than when the morning’s dawn gave to my view one of the most splendid spectacles in the scene of picturesque creation I had ever beheld, or indeed ever conceived; the bay of Dublin.

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A foreigner on board the packet, compared the view to that which the bay of Naples affords: I cannot judge of the justness of the comparison, though I am told one very general and common-place; but if the scenic beauties of the Irish bay are exceeded by those of the Neapolitan, my fancy falls short in a just conception of its charms. The springing up of a contrary wind kept us for a considerable time beating about this enchanting coast: the weather suddenly changed, the rain poured in torrents, a storm arose, and the beautiful prospect which had fascinated our gaze, vanished in mists of impenetrable obscurity.”

As we had the mail on board, a boat was sent out to receive it, the oars of which were plied by six men, whose stature, limbs, and features, declared them the lingering progeny of the once formidable race of Irish giants. Bare-headed, they ‘bided the pelting of the pitiless storm,’ with no other barrier to its fury, than what tattered check trowsers, and shirts open at the neck, and tucked above the elbows afforded; and which, thus disposed, betrayed the sinewy contexture of forms, which might have individually afforded a model to sculpture, for the colossal statue of an Hercules, under all the difference aspects of strength and exertion.

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A few of the passengers proposing to venture in the boat, I listlessly followed, and found myself seated by one of these sea monsters, who in an accent and voice that made me startle, addressed me in English at least as pure and correct as a Thames boatman would use; and with so much courtesy, cheerfulness, and respect, that I was at a loss how to reconcile such civilization of manner to such ferocity of appearance; while his companions, as they stemmed the mountainous waves, or plied their heavy oars, displayed such a vein of low humour and quaint drollery, and in a language so curiously expressive and original, that no longer able to suppress my surprize, I betrayed it to a gentleman who sat near me, and by whom I was assured that this species of colloquial wit was peculiar to the lower classes of the Irish, who borrowed much of their curious phraseology from the peculiar idiom of their own tongue, and the cheeriness of manner from the native exility of their temperament; ‘and as for their courteousness,’ he continued, ‘you will find them on a further intercourse, civil even to adulation, as long as you treat them with apparent kindness, but an opposite conduct will prove their manner proportionably uncivilized.’

‘It is very excusable,’ said I, ‘they are of a class in society to which the modification of the feelings are unknown, and to be sensibly alive to kindness or to unkindness, is, in my opinion, a noble trait in the national character of an unsophisticated people.’ While we spoke, we landed, and for the something like pleasurable emotion, which the first on my list of Irish acquaintance produced in my mind, I distributed among these ‘sons of the waves’ more silver than I believe they expected. Had I bestowed a principality on an Englishman of the same rank, he would have been less lavish of the eloquence of gratitude on his benefactor, though he might equally have felt the sentiment.-So much for my voyage across the Channel!

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“This city is to London like a small temple of the Ionic order, whose proportions are delicate, whose character is elegance, compared to a vast palace whose Corinthian pillars at once denote strength and magnificence.  The wonderous extent of London excites our amazement; the compact uniformity of Dublin our admiration. But as dispersion is less within the coup-d’œil of observance, than aggregation, the small, but harmonious features of Dublin seize at once on the eye, while the scattered but splendid traits of London, excite a less immediate and more progressive admiration, which is often lost in the intervals that occur between those objects which are calculated to excite it. In London, the miserable shop of the gin seller, and the magnificent palace of a Duke, alternately create disgust, or awaken approbation. In Dublin the buildings are not arranged upon such democratic principles. The plebeian hut offers no foil to the patrician edifice, while their splendid and beautiful public structures are so closely connected, as with some degree of policy to strike at once upon the eye in the happiest combination.”

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“In other respects this city appears to me to be the miniature copy of our imperial original, though minutely imitative in show and glare. Something less observant of life’s prime luxuries, order and cleanliness, there is a certain class of wretches who haunt the streets of Dublin, so emblematic of vice, poverty, idleness, and filth, that disgust and pity frequently succeed in the minds of the stranger to sentiments of pleasure, surprize, and admiration. For the origin of this evil, I must refer you to the supreme police of the city; but whatever may be the cause, the effects (to an Englishman especially) are dreadful and disgusting beyond all expression.”

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