Picture of George Head

George Head

places mentioned

Roscommon to Galway

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Preparations for Departure—Mail Coach Guard—Starting of a Mail Coach—Energy of Coachman—A Mail Guardsman—Rumination—Wonderful Effect of the Horn—Merit self-rewarded—An Exotic Refreshment—A Roadside Inn—A rural Hebe—A thrifty Precaution—A Flirtation—Light Hearts and Thin Breeches—Ringing a Pig—Happy Slumbers—The poor Equestrians.

A COUPLE of days, I think, after the event related in the last brief chapter, I left the town of Athlone early in the morning, on my way to Galway, attended, as the mail departed from another street, by a rough headed fellow who carried my portmanteau, and, fearful of being late, jostled every body he met, and bawled "By your lave" in their ears, loud enough to crack a china teacup; in fact the horses were actually put to, and the vehicle was ready to start, barring requisite post-office arrangements, when I arrived at the coach-office. A broad shouldered, heavy man, Mr. Connor, the mail-guard, dressed in a tarnished royal livery, and otherwise bedizened in full costume, was determinedly stamping and jumping upon the white leather letter-bags, in order to force these bulky implements within sufficiently small space under the lid of the seat behind; but the more he jumped and the more he stamped, the less, as it seemed to me, did he complete matters to his mind. Meanwhile he inflicted serious discomfiture on those of the outside passengers whose legs were necessarily distorted in various uncomfortable positions by the raising the said lid, till, by dint of might and the help of St. Patrick, he at last finished the operation. Putting an end to labours too violent to last a long time, he wiped his face with a handkerchief taken from the inside of his hat, reached downwards and received from the porter's hand my portmanteau, swung the same vigorously upon the roof of the coach, and then gave notice that all was right to the coachman. I had already ascended, and fronting the coach beside him, took my seat behind.

Without the testimony of one's own eyes and ears, it is quite impossible fully to comprehend in mortal imagination the noise and hubbub attendant on the departure of an Irish mail-coach at its first start, consisting of sounds and words different altogether and in intonation, from those produced and delivered by any of our English drivers; rather indeed resembling more closely the shouting of a Smithfield drover among two adverse commingled flocks of black-horned cattle. Mr. Connor blew the horn, and our driver, urging his cattle instantly to full gallop, continued to crack and ply his whip with utmost force, moving his arms and legs like a scaramouch, and hallooing in a key too peculiar, after what I have already said, to attempt to describe. In vain did the poor horses, stung to a degree of violent excitement by unceasing flagellation, fling their heads high in the air, and rolling and reeling, now on one side of the road, and again on the other, wince, flounder, and bolt, some traces long, others short, the chains rattling, and the coach itself meanwhile swinging, bumping, and pitching most tremendously; still did the minister of torment hover over the ill-fated heads of the four poor horses, and like Olympian Jove brandishing his thunderbolts, or an ancient Roman in a chariot race imparting still increasing action to his fervid wheels, seem as if determined to find out, by actual experiment, the exact point or maximum of endurance of life and matter; of iron, wood, leather, bones, and sinews. But the too profuse expenditure of animal power seldom lasts long; so, as might in due course be expected, our pace, soon after we were clear of the town, at any rate before we had proceeded one mile, dwindled down to the trot. The effervescent spirit of the coachman at the same time having subsided, nothing more than a flourish at starting being ever intended, the cattle were now allowed to recover their wind, and he sat meditatively on the box tying knots in his whipcord; hereupon, since the winkers of the head-pieces fitted badly, each horse, as a party concerned, seemed to take especial interest in the latter operation.

There happened now to be nobody except our two selves on the hinder part of the coach, that is to say, myself and Mr. Connor, who, I have before hinted, was a strong square-built man, dressed in a tarnished royal mail-guardsman's livery; and since his visage was ruddy, his flaxen hair crisp and curly, his nose broad and flat, and he cherished moreover carroty whiskers of more than ordinary calibre, there was altogether in his complexion and appearance a shadow of resemblance, sufficient at least to recall to my mind on surveying his features, those of another unquestionably powerful animal, namely, a Devonshire bull.

The comforting beams of a newly risen sun had already illumined his features; a calm after violent exertion had settled on his spirits, and it appeared evident to me, even after so extremely short an acquaintance, that he was a man at least of an independent mind and happy. His person was arranged in the easiest possible position; his thoughts far away, in a brown study. He sat in fact in the attitude wherein a mail-coach guard ought to sit, particularly if he be broad and weighty, that is to say, well supported behind, bolt upright, and both hands in his coat-pockets. Before him rested, suspended upon the hinder part of the coach, a brass-barrelled blunderbuss, and a large silver watch in a square mahogany case took place by its side. At his right hand, fixed in a loop, was along straight tin horn.

Were it not that the scenery on both sides of the road, and the soft refreshing air were conducive to reflection and silence, the present disinclination evinced by Mr. Connor to enter into converse was sufficient cause to trouble him with no remarks, wherefore I followed his example, and fell to rumination. The morning was cloudless, every blade of thick matted grass glistened with beads of dew, the wreathing mist rolled gently through the valley, the lark twittered high in the air, the blackbirds and thrushes whistled in the hedges, and the renovated earth exhaled healthful fragrance, mingled with the scent of wild flowers. As the eye ranged uninterruptedly over a wide expanse of this peculiarly fertile country, the exhilarated senses attracted and jumbled together sensible external objects with ideal fancies and bygone recollections, as it were in a mental kaleidoscope, wherein trifles the most minute, and of imaginative creation, appear once only in a lifetime, glitter for a solitary instant, and are then extinguished for ever.

An interjection from the coachman demolished in a moment the dream of Mr. Connor. Suddenly he started on his feet, and hastily seizing in his grasp the aforesaid long tin horn, placed the same to his lips, and straining his capacious chest, poured through its inmost chambers a powerful blast.

An old half-starved horse, gently proceeding on the road before us, dragged slowly and at his leisure along behind him, a cart-load of newly cut black turf, the same neatly piled high above the cart, and a ragged boy, perched above all, sat on the top of the load. The harness consisted merely of a straw saddle and collar, with rope traces; the head-piece was a hempen halter without reins or winkers. The froward old horse, inspired by the sound of the horn with reminiscences of the chase, at any rate forgetting for an instant bodily infirmities and the load at his tail, responded fiercely to the summons by a loud snort, flung forwards his nose in defiance, and swinging his head first on one side and then on the other, made a desperate effort to trot. ' He was lame in a fore leg, and dead lame in one of the hind ones, the latter, incurably callous and stiff in the hock, moving outwards in a semicircle; nevertheless, he continued to shake his head, flourish his tail, and make progress by a pace of his own, which, bad as it was, notwithstanding the boy continued to cry gip-gip-gip with all his might, served to jolt him off the top of the cart and half empty the vehicle besides. Still louder than before did Mr. Connor blow his horn at this disaster, while the wicked old horse, encouraged thereby in the ways of unrighteousness, thus influenced by evil counsel, and enlivened by the heaving overboard his cargo, improved in his extraordinary gait to such a degree, that it actually became even odds against the boy, who had risen from the ground unhurt by his fall, whether or not he might have good fortune to catch the runaway at all.

Mr. Connor meanwhile drove fresh volumes of wind continually through the tin horn, till as he at last placed the instrument in its sling, his jowl was resplendent with a rosy purple hue, and for many seconds his bulbous lips retained the impression of the mouth-piece.

Invariably, whenever men deserve well, or fancy they deserve well, either of their country or of themselves, they expect accordingly an adequate reward; and alas frequently, not as in the present instance, with the means in their own hands of remuneration. Mr. Connor, big with self-satisfaction at the exploit above related, no sooner resumed his seat and tranquil position, than it was plain to see he was taking his worldly affairs into serious consideration; that is to say, with his forefinger he traced the circumference of a pimple that grew on his nose with an air of serious attention, as if determining the figure of the earth, and then at once broke from the occupation as if at the flash of an important conclusion; and finally, he drew from the bottom of his coat pocket an iron tobacco-box. With the eye of a hawk or of an angler baiting his hook, he now arranged the preliminaries of the exotic refreshment,—moulding with broad thumb within his palm a pellet of the plastic weed, in size such as, composed of the fur and bones of slaughtered mice, or the husks of pilfered oats, is disgorged from the throat of the sated owl, or the sable patriarch of the rookery, and, placing within the caverns of his jaws the savoury deposit, he leant backwards in his seat, with half-closed eyes bidding adieu for the time being to external objects, and relapsing into placid cogitation.

Ere long another disturbance denned the limits of present enjoyment; at least an event occurred, such as it was, sufficient to awaken thoughts in a different series, and rouse other senses into action; for the horses, apparently for no reason at all, other than that they and the driver happened to be of one mind, bolted across the road without more ado, dragging the vehicle close to the door of a small cabin by the road side, and there immediately drew up. Few events, however, happen in the world without a cause, and if one were now wanting, we were not doomed long to remain in ignorance. A heavy built country wench with a rosy countenance, smiling features, ruddy legs and feet, the latter furnished with stumpy toes, whereof not one in either set was either longer or shorter than the other, made her appearance under the coach-wheel, a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other, as if for the purpose of solving the question, looking at the same time steadily upwards with an enquiring expression of countenance. Not a minute was wasted in ceremony; a glass of whiskey was first handed to the coachman, Mr. Connor then roused himself by a shake, deposited his quid pro tempore in the mouth-piece of the tin horn, and received another.

The effect of the mountain beverage was really instantaneous; and partly probably because the time allotted to the colloquy was necessarily short, partly owing to the artificial excitement produced by the whiskey, the long pent up spirits of Mr. Connor now found vent, and burst forth in a vein of sparkling badinage with Judy. "Did ye get the black stockings I sent ye?" exclaimed he without preface or apology to our rural cup-bearer; whereupon the poor maid was abashed, and looking down blushingly at her own red legs, attracted the attention of all the outside passengers in the same line of direction. "Ah now, Mr. Connor!" replied poor Judy, and having but few words to say, inflicted with her broad thick palm the blow of a mallet on the cork of the bottle, as the coach drove off. Mr. Connor with fluent readiness rejoined, and Judy essayed to retort, but the former, more conversant in the polished phrases of society, defeated his humble antagonist, whereat the latter had recourse to more pastoral images, and with round and high dried missiles that lay conveniently by the roadside, forthwith pursuing the coach, assailed the recreant Mr. Connor. "Ah yuop," said the coachman in his usual style of energetic apostrophe, as the first hard clod lighted full on the broad back of Mr. Connor, who, nothing daunted, seized his tin horn, and fronting his enemy sounded a loud blast in token of defiance, when a second pellet dispatched from the fist of Judy with unerring aim, pitched short of its destination, and a third falling harmlessly on the ground, bore with it a receipt in full of all her grievances.

The horses, refreshed with a sup of water, shook the thistles from their noses, and galloped gaily along, transporting our trundling vehicle through a country abounding in high, slightly-built stone-walls, and growing apparently wilder and wilder every mile we proceeded. The peasants, as if time there were of no value, gazed listlessly on our merry career, leaning in motionless attitude on their long handled spades, while the boys ten or twelve years of age pursued us on foot, sometimes for two or three miles at a stretch, without once stopping to take wind. How little has abstract poverty to do with the energies of our nature; the rags of these urchins flapped about their bare legs and thighs as they bounded buoyantly along, vexed by no thought or earthly care, but stimulated wholly and solely in their onward course by the mere fun of running.

An old man and woman by the road side were in the act of ringing a large pig as our coach passed by, whereupon the contrast in countenance between the aged pair was curious to behold; the man freed of all mortal care, and the poor woman, as the weak sex usually are, invested with the arduous part of the operation. The woman, by a cord firmly fixed behind the pig's tusks, steadily held on and pulled, while the man, straddling Colossus-like across the animal's back, stood at ease and stared at our coach; as if, a lord of the creation, having placed in equilibrio the forces subject to his control, he then had nothing else in the whole wide world to do but to take his pleasure. Far different was the province of the woman, fronting face to face her spouse, and vexed by the merciless caprices of their joint prisoner and victim, which, since pigs pull by twitches, now pulled like his forefathers, at every jerk causing sympathetic reaction of the old woman's hips, such as being perfectly unsuited to her appearance and time of life, roused her frame to painful energy, and rendered the scene still more ludicrous. Though her tongue was at liberty, and she vented her spleen plentifully, the tirade disturbed not in anywise the equanimity of her husband, whom I saw, not before we had advanced on our way nearly out of sight, careless apparently to which of the two parties the member might belong, stoop down leisurely and pierce the pig's nose.

"The boy must be light as a bird," they say, who can hop over a six-feet wall, without displacing the stones in Galway; and without other molestation than the natural wind and the storm, one is inclined to wonder how walls so slight at any rate hold together. Through a country unrelieved by other objects than fences like these crossing each other over a flat expanse, in every direction, the Galway mail now proceeded at a fast but steady pace, the horses alternately trotting and cantering over hard stony roads, till the excitement of travelling and trifles having completely subsided, a general silence prevailed among the passengers, who one and all fell to nodding drowsily to the monotonous rumbling of the wheels.

Few, during the journey, were the words and sentiments uttered by Mr. Connor, now fanned by the broad pinion of Morpheus to an enviable state of repose, and exhibiting a figure so effectually supported by fat and muscle, that whether sleeping or waking it were all one to him, since barring the trouble of opening and shutting both his eyes, the same identical attitude served equally for either. He was sound asleep. Now and then animated even in the depth of heavy slumber by a waking sense of duty, he would open a corner of one of the said optics to satisfy himself that all was right, and then drop off again. Yet though the ever-living moral sense, the mystical companion of repose, thus whispered not unheeded in his ear, the hardy physical frame was dead to external assault. A phalanx of flies on his face pursued their gambols over the broad domain without let or hindrance from the lord of the manor, and even when half a dozen of the troublesome insects together, like sheep at the edge of a muddy brook, jostled one another at a corner of his mouth, he would then merely purse up his lips in his sleep and appear to smile. It was a happy, by no means a troublous smile, a smile as if he were dreaming of dairy-maids' kisses, or of playing the flute.

Mr. Connor peacefully slept and snored near a quarter of an hour, when the sound of his own name shouted loudly by the coachman recalled his scattered senses; that is to say, he opened both his eyes, and taking the implement out of its sling began to polish with the palm of his hand the brass barrel of the blunderbuss; then he started on his feet and blew his horn lustily, for we had now arrived at a sudden turn in the road at the bottom of a very steep hill. The sound of the horn, the clatter of galloping horses, and our sudden approach as we rapidly turned the corner, were altogether causes that, combined, shed dismay and terror over an humble party, that now forming a small cavalcade, and proceeding in the same direction immediately before us, were driven to a serious and even painful exertion to get out of harm's way. The docile piebald horse, the same before mentioned at Athlone, now caparisoned as a beast of burthen, a common pack-horse, bearing a few ill-assorted packages badly secured on his back, his head and tail, as if he were conscious of a state of degradation, drooping towards the earth, was slowly advancing up the hill. A few paces in the rear followed the travelling equestrians, the young woman looking ill and jaded, and leaning heavily on her husband's arm, while the melancholy countenance and dejected air of the latter recalled forcibly to my mind the former picture of poverty I had seen during their late performance, and which was now pourtrayed in still more lively colours. Yet it was no sooner viewed than we were gone, and as the Galway mail rolled along, the young unhappy pair had made way for the boisterous equipage, the piebald horse had meekly stepped aside, the little party in a few seconds were far in the rear, and as Mr. Connor obstreperously winded his horn, nothing remained of the spectacle that had appeared and passed away, than as it were a mere recollection,—an unsubstantial vision of the uphill walk of life.

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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