Statistical Survey of the County of Clare, 1808

By Hely Dutton

Chapter V - Section 31

Morals, manners, and customs of the people

To shew that a deplorable laxity of morals prevails, I need only refer my readers to the section on roads; they will there see a specimen of those of the higher ranks; and for a sample of those in the middling and lower ranks I must send them to Ennis on a Sunday morning; there they will see shops open, goods hanging at the doors for sale, standings in the streets, timber for sale leaning against the sessions-house, in short every appearance of business as there was on the previous market day; and many neighbouring ladies defer their shopping until that day, after paying their devotions to heaven, totally regardless of the fourth commandment. Had I not frequently seen magistrates sharing in this monstrous abuse of the sabbath, I could not have thought there was one in the town; it surely would be a meritorious act of the Lord Chancellor to supersede the abetters of such gross impiety.

The children, even infants, in this town are particularly wicked, and the ears (not of the clergy, magistrates, or church-wardens) are constantly grated by the most shocking and novel cursing and swearing.

A curious custom prevails in a part of this county; when a beast is slaughtered, the smith claims, and in some instances receives the head of the beast; formerly it was more general, but some have sense enough to refuse such a sacrifice to Vulca; probably the custom originated in a renumeration for the use of his sledge and his sinewy arm in knocking down the beast; however it may have been introduced, it is or was practiced lately in the Western isles, for Dr. Johnson in his Tour, page 183, informs us, that the smith has the head, the piper the udder, (how appropriate!) the weaver and others so many pieces, that a small share falls to the laird.

In many places gentlemen are called by the country people by their christian names, without any of those additions, which modern pride expects from inferiors; on the road to Skarriff, I enquired from a poor woman, who lived in a gentleman’s house within view; she said, "Charley;" pray who is Charley? "Arrah don’t you know Charley? Why you must be a stranger in the country, or you’d know Charley O’Callaghan," meaning Mr. O’Callaghan of St. Catherine’s.

I saw hounds hunting near Spansel-hill on the 19th of August, and all the corn standing!

In no part of Ireland is hospitality more practised than in this county. I should be most ungrateful indeed, if I did not feel and acknowledge it; I wish I could say so much for my mare; for, whilst I have had every attention paid to my comfort in the parlour, she poor creature had often after a long journey been obliged to go to bed without her supper of oats: I am totally at a loss to account for this, which is by no means peculiar to this county; it may be found in Galway and elsewhere. You will be the more welcome the more wine you drink, yet six-pence worth of oats will be denied to your horse. I would advise no person to travel without a servant, and a sharp fellow too. If your horse is turned to grass at night, in all probability he will be sent to the deer-park, the calf-park, or stone-paddock, places proverbially bare; not one house in ten has either oats or straw in summer, and frequently but little hay.

A strange custom prevails in this county, and indeed in most parts of Ireland, (a remnant of feudal times;) if a poor man has business to transact with a gentleman, instead of coming up to the door, and sending in a servant with his message, he loiters about the door, and the stables, or frequently waits to catch his honor on the road from his house; thus losing his time at perhaps a very busy season. Frequently poor people, and sometimes wealthy ones, that come to pay their rent, are treated in this manner. I have often thought, that gentlemen seemed to take a pride in seeing and shewing so many dependents about their doors; if not, why not dispatch them immediately?

The men are now scarcely ever barefooted, except they are working in bogs, or other wet places, and the women not so much as formerly; they usually walk to market barefooted, but, when they come near the town, always wash there feet, put on their shoes and stockings, and adjust their dress like their superiors.

Very great use is made of mules and asses, for carrying baskets, and small loads, such as poor people usually load them with: for such persons, as are not able to keep a horse, they are a great convenience. It is astonishing, what a load some of these little animals (asses) will carry, frequently above 24 stone, much more than their own weight; and often a large stone is added up to the load, to balance one of the baskets: these kinds of loads are called up-loads. Though these kinds of loads are useful to poor people, it is ridiculous to see them so much used by those, who could very well afford to buy a cart, which with a moderate sized horse would very easily draw 128 stone, or 16 cwt.: but the cart must be got from Dublin; from the Implement manufactory on the Northwall; for a cart made in the country, not being constructed on any principle, would not carry half the weigh with the same ease to the horse.

It is very much the custom to make sacks for corn of a most unwieldy length, and frequently to load their small horses so heavily as to injure and sometimes break their backs; they have the further inconvenience of being difficult to move; none but the strongest men their to attempt it, and even these are often injured in their backs; but all - powerful custom reconciles them to it, and the example of their betters confirms it.

The Irish peasantry have often been accused, by their polite and travelled neighbours, and by absentees, of almost every nice incident to human nature. If this even was the case, could it be wondered at for a moment, if the extreme ignorance, in which they are reared, were considered? The poor people themselves are so sensible of this, that every man, that can possibly spare the money, gives his children such education, bad as it is, as he can procure for such a trifle as is usually paid at country schools. Can it be surprising, after reading the list of Irish classics, which I have before detailed, that they should believe in fairies, hobgoblins, witches, Will o’the wisp, ghosts, and a multitude of legendary tales, which old women are fond of relating? It is rather astonishing they are so free from vice.

Many pagan rites still remain; and the poor ignorant native little thinks, when he is dancing round his bonfire, or dressing his May-bush, that he is using the same ceremonies the worshippers of Baal did.

In this county, as elsewhere, it is much the custom to put children to nurse with some healthy cottager; fine ladies don’t like either the trouble, or to spoil their shapes as this unnatural custom does not take place so much in England, it may help to account for the superior prolificacy of our Irish ladies. A great inconvenience attends this custom; the nurse and indeed her whole family think you are obliged to assist them, whilst they live; in fact there is no shaking them off: they in general endeavour to avoid taking any money as payment for nursing, but they contrive by collops, (grazing cattle,) wool, corn, potatoes, &c. &c. to get thrice more than a liberal allowance in money would amount to; and indeed many of the better kind of people would rather pay three times the amount in this unsatisfactory way, than in cash. It must at the same time be admitted, that the poor man’s family generally retain a great affection for the child during life.

Wakes, quite different from what are so called in England, still continue to be the disgrace of the country. As it would be thought a great mark of disrespect not to attend at the house where the corpse lies, every person makes it a point, especially women, to shew themselves; and when they first enter the house, they set up the most hideous but dry-eyed yell, called the Irish cry; this, however, lasts but a short time. The night is usually spent in singing, not mournful dirges, but merry songs, and in amusing themselves with different small plays, dancing, drinking, and often fighting, &c.

Hurling matches or goals I have mentioned before. Chairs are meetings at night in some whiskey-house, where they dance, drink, fight, and frequently settle the politics of the county, &c. These two last kinds of meetings are ruinous to the young people of both sexes: it is nothing uncommon for servants of both sexes to stay out all night; the general custom of leaving outside doors open at night gives great facility to this breach of trust. It is by no means unusual for the gentleman of the house to lock himself up carefully in his bedchamber, and leave the key in both street and back-door; frequently there is no lock to either. Surely they cannot blame young people for taking advantage of so very reprehensible a neglect; in many cases, that indolence, which pervades the whole county, is the cause of it.

It is the custom of the women of this county, in common with I believe every other in Ireland, to walk at some distance behind their husbands. Paddy, let him be ever so fond of his rib, would think it a mark of disrespect, if she walked by his side.

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