Picture of George Head

George Head

places mentioned

Ireland: Roscommon

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An Interruption—An Irish Crowd—A cheap Evening's Entertainment—The poor Equestrians.

IT was a remarkably fine, clear summer's evening, when, after a rather uncomfortable journey, I stood quietly gazing over the parapet of the bridge of Athlone. As I looked downwards upon the Shannon, the broad surface of that noble river was here and there smooth as a mirror, or occasionally fretted as the stream bubbled in contact with those abrupt angular points that restrain its course, and compel it to meander through a variegated series of rich pastures. The cows stood still in the meadows; the air was filled with glittering insects; the swallows dipped gracefully in the water in chase of their small winged prey, which sometimes the heavy splashing trout would rescue from their grasp; and nature all around, cheered by the more genial rays of the sun on his decline, exuberantly teemed with animal and vegetative life, till I became in such a degree absorbed by the prospect before me, that I might just as well have been in perfect solitude, as far as regards a crowd of country people, whom now I perceived making their way across the said bridge into the town.

When I say I perceived, it were more correct to express myself, I was made to observe, for my attention was roused from meditation or reverie by a coarse hard punch of a fist or an elbow in the side, that destroyed my equilibrium, and completely forced me suddenly from my position. The words, "by your lave," in the meantime sounded an apology in my ears. To be startled is always annoying; self-accusation immediately succeeds on yielding to an impulse of fear, and the act of an inconsiderate stranger, who unnecessarily demolishes the web of one's thought, offends still more;—though the whole fabric cost nothing in weaving, and when finished be worth nothing after all, yet, dining manufacture, the toil is a pleasure, and the thread, like the severed ends of a gossamer line, is gone for ever.

I had no sooner, roused and somewhat irritated by the salutation, turned round in a hurry, than my wrath quickly subsided at the greeting of the honest, good-natured smile of a fat, healthy woman, who, oppressed by the weight of a heavy child, and herself in a violent perspiration, had merely possessed herself of an elevated resting-place whereon to place her foot against the balustrades of the bridge. Hastily drawing her fore-arm across to wipe her forehead, and resting the infant upon a knee highly raised against the balustrade, she had already commenced her object in view by extracting several pins, and making very necessary arrangements relating to the little creature's clothes, for the purpose of setting to rights sundry small matters that had gone wrong. A poor woman with a baby is really an object of compassion, for the service is one of perpetual slavery; the source of her pain, the alloy of her pleasure, a tormenting burden by day and by night,—she beats about with her wherever she goes a froward brat perhaps, that tardily, if at all, requites a mother's care and affection. I would certainly have rendered this woman assistance, but the office was positively so extremely disagreeable, that I was on a sudden constrained to turn round and walk away.

"By your lave," is an expression at once significant and urgent—a form of periphrasis for the purposes of its application, in despite of the philologist, difficult to be improved: in fact, it conveys a proposition, and at the same time concedes the right of election; that is to say, it offers an individual a distinct choice, either to bundle immediately out of the way, or stand still and be knocked down on the same spot like a ninepin. In an Irish crowd, physical force speedily overcomes moral gravity; at least the philosopher inclined to ruminate, must needs at the same time be peripatetic, for, so sure as the words "by your lave" are uttered, do what he will, in spite of all his efforts to retain his position, on he must go, with reason, moreover, to consider himself remarkably fortunate, provided he happens to know whither he is going. Such in fact was precisely my case, though I do not mean to say I am a philosopher; but I had fallen in with a crowd of people, all going the same way, myself among the rest, without being in anywise informed as to the whence, whither, and wherefore. Anything to an Irishman is a party of pleasure, whether the wedding or the funeral of a neighbour, although the present concourse, amongst whom time was in inverse proportion to their small plots of potatoes, had left their houses on a special occasion. A band of strolling equestrians, lately arrived at Athlone, were on the present evening to afford the public an exhibition, of which fact being apprised by one of the throng, I readily made up my mind to be a spectator with the rest.

The spot chosen for the hippodrome was the butchers' shambles, whither we all straightway repaired en masse; and here, since a pallisadoed fence, and a door confined by a strong wooden bar had been previously arranged for the express purpose of keeping people out, we were accordingly all detained a considerable time at the outside without being able to get in; whereat the boys grew restless and obstreperous, discomposing the women's dress as they unceasingly shifted their position. No sooner, however, had the town clock struck the appointed hour, than the said formidable bar being removed, we all rushed in.

An elegant young woman, attired in a neat plain dress of white muslin, was here seated to receive the entrance-money; beside her stood a young man in the costume of clown, his face painted in alternate streaks of red and white, as is usual at our theatres; and so soon as each candidate for the spectacle had liquidated his fee of admittance, the latter of these two persons lifted a low bar, whereon he kept his hand, and accordingly let him in. These two young people it appeared were sole proprietors, doorkeepers, and performers, having no other human being whatever to assist them; neither were any placards published or bills issued relating to the entertainment, so that I was a little surprised, and indeed somewhat amused, to find, as I approached the said bar, that the price of admission was only one penny. Somehow or other the silly conceit for the moment struck me, of receiving a whole evening's entertainment at the small charge of a penny; and yielding thereto carelessly, I advanced onwards in my place, and paid no more nor less—just a penny. A melancholy glance of the poor young woman's dark eyes seemed to cast a look of reproach upon me as I paid the penny, whereof I felt the reproof; and driven forwards by the crowd, was uncomfortably chagrined, and sorry thus to have trifled with human sorrows, and stingily, as it were, contributed not a jot more than the most ragged of the spectators around me, when a piece of silver might have afforded relief and consolation to the truly indigent. But the present area was not, in point of fact, a spot wherein to indulge in sober reflection, for since there was no sort of distinction, whether box, pit, or gallery, every one had enough to do to choose a position for himself, and afterwards defend and maintain it. A circle for the performers, covered with saw-dust in the usual manner, was prepared in the middle: immediately behind the circle two rows of people were seated on the ground, and in the rear of these stood the rest of the assemblage, which latter composed by far the greater portion, and the most noisy. In a few minutes way was made for the performers, who entered the arena, and the exhibition began.

The first act of the drama was performed by the young man before mentioned, who, without assistance or human coadjutor of any description what ever, led forward by the bridle within the circle, a well proportioned piebald horse, caparisoned with broad padded saddle, bearing rein and surcingle. Having arrived in the middle, and bowed to the spectators, without a moment's delay he sprang as nimble as a bird on the animal's back, starting off immediately in a brisk canter, and fearlessly increasing the pace by a few sharp strokes of the whip on his withers. An universal shout burst forth among the crowd, as the rider still urged the beast upon his mettle, till, revolving with awful velocity, leaning inwards towards the earth, man and horse seemed wholly supported by the centrifugal motion; and the saw-dust from the heels of the latter filled, or half filled, the open mouth of many a gaping spectator. The human form never appears to greater advantage than when thus contending against so many, so various and differently directed motions, it successfully maintains a graceful equilibrium; and since the performer was an adept in his vocation, and entire novelty added to the effect at present of the spectacle, the impression consequently created was such, that boys, men, and women literally screamed with delight as the piebald horse gallantly persevered in his orbit, and the equestrian, in figure a pattern for the sculptor's chisel, continued to perform feats calculated to the very highest pitch to arouse their understandings. Now he was off, running by the side of the steed; again, with one hand on the withers, he sprang on the saddle, standing erect during topmost career, or, on pointed toe, poised firmly, in attitude a flying Mercury. Leaping over the whip,' again through the hoop, he performed in turn all those specimens of agility that are by far too common to need remark, were it not to contrast with minds rejoicing in freshness, and drinking deep in the cup of novelty. Exhausted by a hearty course, the performer at last suddenly leaped on the ground, when the piebald horse, obediently dropping his head, followed to the centre of the circle, gave himself a violent shake, and, rubbing his forehead forcibly against his master's bosom, received caresses from many an admiring spectator. Turbulence had now utterly perished in the midst of the general satisfaction testified in all quarters to the praise of both horse and rider, and congratulations were accordingly delivered with native warmth of heart and forcible expression.

The exhibition had already, one would have imagined, far exceeded in quantity and quality the amount reasonably to be expected at the charge of only one penny, when another act of the performance was immediately announced to follow. Again the piebald horse, wind and vigour refreshed, made his appearance in the arena. The young woman now, with a peculiar air of timidity, preparing in turn to contribute to the entertainment; was with difficulty assisted by her husband on the back of her piebald palfrey, gathered the reins like a novice in her hand, reared herself unsteadily on her feet, and set forward round the circle in an extremely gentle canter. It was at once evident, from her pale cheek, cowering attitude, and terrified countenance, that she was a totally unpractised performer, and accordingly, in the course of a couple of minutes, crouching still lower and lower, though the young man kept assiduously running at her side, nature totally gave way. She was again on the ground, and the effort confessedly a failure.

I bade adieu to the performance, and went home to my inn, leaving the fainting woman, her black hair broken loose, surrounded by an eager crowd of her own sex, who, partly from true kindliness of nature, and partly from curiosity to know precisely what was the matter, hardly allowed the sufferer room to breathe among the cluster. As I lay down to rest, tormented by the scene I had witnessed, my ears, filled with the plaintive tone of the young woman's voice, rang monotonously with the sound of "one penny;"—a copper spectre, as it were, that caused me to resolve, but the resolution was broken on the morrow;—and when on the third day I did, as I determined, actually visit the abode of the poor equestrians, they had packed up their all, and were gone.

George Head, A Home Tour through various parts of the United Kingdom (London: John Murray, 1837) Conversion to HTML and placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall, 2012.

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