Mason's Parochial Survey, 1814-19

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Union of Kilrush, Killard, Kilfieragh, Moyferta, and Kilballyhone

VI. Genius and Disposition of the Poorer Classes, &c.

Genius and Disposition
The genius of the poorer classes here is acute, and wants only the aid of education to develope and cherish it. Their disposition is kind; but they largely partake of the faults as well as the excellencies of the Irish character: classed into clans, families, and factions, they violently resent the injuries or affronts offered to each other. In too many instances they keep up hereditary feuds, like those of the Montagues and Capulets; and often decide their quarrels by pitched battles at the fairs of Ballykett, Kilmurry, and Kilmacaduane. It is much to be regretted also, that a general abuse and disregard of oaths prevail in this district in common with too many other parts of Ireland. When two men quarrel, and beat each other, they are too often known to run to a justice of the peace, after the combat is over, and each of them offers to depose upon the Holy Evangelists that the other was the aggressor. The road making and presentment systems hold out strong inducements to the ignorant and avaricious, for the commission of this crime; and some revenue laws or regulations have been hitherto as little conducive to the preservation of the morals of our people here as elsewhere.

The language generally spoken here, except in the remote parts of the union, is English. Many persons however are still utterly ignorant of the English language; and a great proportion of the inhabitants speak Irish in preference. In the years 1799 and 1802, twenty-four copies of the gospel of St. Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles, were sent by Doctor Stokes, of Trinity College, to the curate of this parish and union, to be distributed here. One consequence of this was, that the parish priest of Moyarta endeavoured to collect these books, for the purpose, it was generally understood, of burning them on the high road, as false translations: in this, however, he met with more resistance than he expected; for many refused to give up the Irish gospel, and the books remained in the hands of the people.

The manners of the people here, like those of the native Irish in all parts of our island, are courteous and engaging in the highest degree. With the politeness of courtiers they qualify their refusal by civil excuses, and grant requests in a manner which doubles the value of the favour they confer.

Genius and Disposition
In common with the rest of the inhabitants of the province of Munster, these people are accused of insincerity; but due allowance being made for their manners, they are just as sincere as any other people in the empire. The peasant who volunteers to open a gate, break down a ditch, and perhaps go three miles out of his way to oblige a stranger, can hardly be suspected of any design in taking so much trouble for one whom he never saw before, nor ever expects to see again, particularly as he parts him with as much civility, when he gets nothing but thanks, as when half-a-crown is put into his hand. Neither can they be suspected of insincerity in keeping open houses for all strangers, dividing their potatoes and milk with the wanderer, and taking him to sleep under the same blanket with themselves and their children. The “Laban an Oultagh,” or Ulsterman’s bed, is not uncommon here; it is a bed of straw in a small room, covering the whole floor, in which the husband and wife, and oftentimes a guest or two sleep. Mr. Paterson of Kilrush, called very early one morning at the house of a boatman, to send him to Limerick, and found the door open. He went towards the ‘Laban’ to enquire for the man, whose wife, a handsome young
woman, answered, that he had gone to the boat. While she was speaking, Mr. Paterson to his great surprise, saw a man fast asleep among the children, between her and the wall; and asking, “what the deuce brought him there,” she replied with unconcern, that “he was an uncle’s son of Paddy’s, who came to see them the night before.” The farmers have a kind of a bed, (generally by the fire side) called a ‘Cullentine.’ It is enclosed by four straw mats, with a small door-way for entrance, and though comfortable enough in the winter nights, it is, from its closeness, unwholesome in summer, and too often a safe receptacle for more kinds of vermin than one.

The New Year is opened with divine service in Kilrush. On this day congratulations and wishes for many happy new years, resound in all directions, and the young people expect ‘new year’s gifts,’ to fill their ‘Christmas boxes.’ On the first of February, a stimulus to industry being offered by the lengthening day and brightening sky, the labour of spring commences with the old adage, “Candlemas day, throw candle and candlestick away.” Shrove Tuesday is the greatest day in the year for weddings; and the Roman Catholic priests are generally occupied in the celebration of matrimony from sunrise till midnight. The general fee on this occasion is two guineas and a half; and many thoughtless couples, under the age of sixteen, pay it with cheerfulness, when they have not another penny in their possession. They who do not marry on this day must wait until Easter Monday, on account of the intervening Lent. The usual dessert and supper on Shrove Tuesday is the pancake. Small pieces of them rolled up in a stocking, and placed under a lover’s pillow, are found to be very efficacious in producing prophetic dreams to console those who are compelled to defer their matrimonial engagements from Ash Wednesday to Easter Monday.

On Ash Wednesday, being the first day of Lent, divine service is read in the parish church, and mass in all the chapels. On this day, as well as on all the Sundays in the year, the same epistle and gospel is read in both places, with this material difference, that one priest reads them in English, and the other in Latin.

The seven weeks of Lent are strictly observed here by the Roman Catholics; and on every Friday during this holy season, and every day of the last week of it, there is divine service in the parish church. On Easter Sunday every one in the union breakfasts on eggs, and dines on flesh meat. Easter Monday is a great holiday here; and multitudes go into Scattery Island this day for the purpose of performing penance on their bare knees, round the stoney beach and holy well there. Tents are generally erected in the island on this occasion, and oftentimes more whiskey is drank by the pilgrims, than is found convenient on their return in crowded boats.

On the first of April, the old practise of fool-making is kept up here. On the first of May bushes are erected before the doors, and decked with flowers.* On the night of the twenty-third of June, being midsummer eve, bonefires are kindled in all directions through the country; the young people dance round them, and some drive their cattle through them. On the 29th of September, (Michaelmas day,) the harvest being generally secured, hunting commences. Plenty of hares are to be had in all parts of the union, and particularly in the bogs of Shragh. Foxes are scarce, and keep chiefly in the cliffs.

On the last day of October, all the Halloween tricks are played here, in a manner similar to those in the mountains of Ulster, or the Highlands of Scotland.

Till within a few years, for some weeks before Christmas, a midnight procession with music took place at Kilrush, called “Waits,” but this custom, with that of assembling in the Christmas holydays as mummers or wren-boys, and baiting a bull on St. Stephen’s day, is now grown obsolete. The good people of Kilrush are too busy to be as gay now as when they had little or nothing to do but amuse themselves; they forget not however the festivity and hospitality of this holy season, which are always accompanied by a liberal relief to the necessities of the poor.

Christenings, Marriages, Wakes and Funerals
It was formerly usual here to make expensive entertainments at christenings; but the custom has been abolished among the Protestants by the present incumbent. It still continues among the Roman Catholics. The inhabitants of this district marry at an early age. In “The West,” a girl’s first appearance at mass, is well understood to be an intimation that her parents wish to receive proposals for her. The marriage fee to the Romish priest fluctuates between one guinea and five. Some wakes and funerals here exhibit the same savage mixture of mirth and grief, which has been so often observed in other parts of Ireland. Dismal howlings are alternated with songs, plays, and ridiculous stories; whilst the various passions of grief, love and anger are in turn elevated to their highest pitch by copious libations of whiskey. It has been sometimes observed on these occasions, that a man who would grudge to buy a bottle of wine, or a blister for his relative when living, has expended thirty guineas in whiskey at the wake and funeral. Many protestants use the Irish cry here, which is not the case in Ulster; and some of them, when speaking of their departed friends have been known to fall into the popular custom of saying “God be merciful to them.”

The vague and contradictory traditions of this tract of country would fill a volume of greater size than value; few of them indeed merit to be recorded. Those connected with ancient Ecclesiastical history have been already noticed; and the two following may serve as samples of those of more modern date.

The Reverend John Vandeleur, a younger son of the Ralahine family, in the east of this country, succeeded to the living of Kilrush, on the 6th of March, 1687, in the room of the Rev. John Paterson deceased. Feeling in common with the rest of the Protestants of Ireland, the intolerable pressure of Lord Tyrconnel’s government, he took an early opportunity of joining his fellow sufferers in seeking redress; and after rendering many services to the Protestant cause, and being severely wounded at the battle of Aughrim, he returned to Kilrush, and repossessed himself of his benefice.

His neighbour and contemporary the Reverend Mr. Barclay, Vicar of the union of Kilmurry Mc. Mahon, remained at home during the whole contest, and holding a valuable farm under the see of Killaloe, paid the tythe of it to the Catholic priest, who had usurped his living. The priest was particularly severe in exacting tythes from the ejected vicar, and always required security for their payment. In the summer of 1691, he was unusually hard to be pleased in the security, and Mr. Barclay despairing of being able to procure it, was returning in low spirits to his residence at Ballyartney, when he met Captain O’Brien of Ennistymond, with the news of the utter defeat of the Irish army at Aughrim. He returned immediately to the house where the intruder was setting the tythes of his parish, surrounded by a great number of people. “Have you got security, Sir?” said the priest, in a loud and imperious voice. “I have,” said Barclay; “My security is the great King William; and if you do not deliver up my tythe books in ten minutes, I will have you hanged on the high road of Kilmurry.” The priest turned pale, and trembled on the seat of office. Lord Clare’s dragoons galloped through the village in confusion, pushing for the pass of Moyarta. Mr. Barclay’s tythe books were submissively returned to him; and the Protestants of Clare for fifty year’s afterwards drank “Barclay’s Security,” in a bumper toast.

The Irish language is in general use here, but the English is rapidly gaining ground; most of the rising generation understand it: a sworn interpreter is however still used at the assizes of Ennis and the different quarter sessions, and a country gentleman, ignorant of the Irish Language, would be much at a loss how to transact his business at the fairs or markets. Owing to the great intercourse with English and Scottish navy officers and traders, the dialect of English spoken at Kilrush is much less provincial than in the more inland parts of the south of Ireland. It however differs widely from that of the inhabitants of the northern counties, not only in the mode of pronunciation, but in the tone and inflection of the voice.

State of Medicine
Before the year 1799, and for some time after it, there was no physician, accoucheur, or apothecary between Loops Head lighthouse and the town of Ennis; a tract of country extending upwards of 40 miles, and thickly inhabited. The shopkeepers however vended medicines, guessing at the doses, with the usual ill consequences to the purchasers; and the rate at which they were sold may be ascertained by the price of a common blister, which was 4s. English. Tartar emetic and corrosive sublimate were usually measured on the top of the same knife used for cutting butter or tobacco.

Quack doctors abounded in all directions; who beginning their operations on swine, cows, and horses, proceeded in their medical career from drawing teeth, and boiling herbs, to the more arduous tasks of reducing ruptures, amputating limbs, and managing fevers. Such practitioners could not fail to find abundant employment, creating it as they went along, and often disseminating variolous infection of the very worst description. One of this lion-hearted tribe was known in the year 1802 to adopt an expedient of Alexander the Great. He was called to the relief of a labourer in Carnacolla, when finding some difficulty in reducing an inguinal hernia, he cut the Gordian knot, and gave his patient a summary discharge from the troubles of this life. About this time the Bishop of Killaloe sent an hamper of medicines to Kilrush, for the relief of the poor, and in some time afterwards Lieutenant Augustus Markett, of the Royal Navy made a similar donation, which with occasional aid from the proprietor and incumbent, remedied in some degree one of these evils, until an apothecary settled here. Mr. Vandeleur also provided a regular supply of vaccine lymph, by subscribing annually in the curate’s name to the Cow-pock Institution, and strongly recommended his tenantry to avail themselves of the benefits arising from Dr. Jenner’s discovery. There are now at Kilrush one physician and accoucheur, and four surgeons or apothecaries, all of whom are said to have employment.

Religious Opinions
The inhabitants of this union, (amounting in December 1813 to 17,242 souls) were born and baptized either in the Established or the Romish church, with a few individual exceptions. The incumbent of this benefice has exerted himself most laudably for many years in the discharge of his clerical duties; catechising, preaching, and visiting the sick. But the Protestant establishment, as must have been already observed, is utterly inadequate to the purpose intended by it, for want of resident clergymen, with schoolmasters, churchwardens, and sidesmen in each of these five parishes. It is to be hoped, however, that this subject may ere long occupy some portion of the attention of the public, which has been hitherto lavished on less important objects, and that, by the blessing of God upon the wisdom and munificence of the British nation, the vivifying light of the gospel may yet beam in a permanent and steady manner, upon the multitudes who remain here as well as elsewhere in darkness and the shadow of death. No lover of God or his country can think on this awful subject with unconcern: but to pursue the consideration of it belongs to the political economist and legislator, rather than to the statistical inquirer.

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