Continuing his wry and sardonic observations on the personalities, and the heaving populated life that he encounters on the roads, towns and villages along the way, the young William Makepeace Thackeray continued his journey through Connemara. In 1842 he spent four months on an extensive tour of this island, and later published his observations in the well received Irish Sketch Book to which he added numerous drawings mainly of the people he met. Yet for all his sceptical comments he is genuinely moved by the landscape of Connemara, and writes eloquently on intimate moments.
As his ‘car’ passes through Oughterard he exclaims ‘a more beautiful village can scarcely be seen than this’. He is on his way to stay three days at the Martin estate at Ballynahinch, and to test the legendary trout lakes around it. From there he would visit Roundstone, and Clifden before heading into the mountains of Co Mayo.
The Martin household however, with its large rambling and draughty interiors, was on its last legs. The late Richard Martin, a generous and extravagant character, whose love of animals and whose successful Parliament Bill forbidding their ill treatment, won him warm praise from George IV. The king called him ‘Humanity Dick’. Nevertheless, despite his humanity, he had ruinously mortgaged his vast estate of some 200,000 acres, on top of the debts of his father and grandfather for which he took responsibility. Creditors were literally banging on the doors.
The present owner Tom Martin,* had inherited his father’s debts, and no doubt as he contemplated his future, he accepted paying guests for angling holidays.
Thackeray arrived at Ballynahinch unaware of the drama confronting his host as he was lost for words, which was unusual for him, to describe the beauty of the landscape he had just driven through. ‘All one can do is to lay down the pen and ruminate, and cry “beautiful” once more, and to the reader say: Come and see!”’
‘Breach of confidence’
As Thackeray’s ‘car’ drew up to the door ‘three comfortable, well-clothed, good humoured fellows’ came down the steps to greet him, and insisted on carrying one piece of luggage apiece. There were other guests staying, and one, a Mr Marcus Carr, filled Thackeray in about the house, its master and no doubt touched on the troubles the master was facing.
‘As for the maids, there were half a score of them skurrying about the house; and I am not ashamed to confess that some of them were exceedingly good looking’. As for Connemara breakfasts, Thackeray becomes quite conspiratorial. To reveal their quantity or content, or any shenanigans that might have carried on at breakfast ‘would have been a flagrant breach of confidence.’
‘A Paris gourmand’
The fishing, however, constantly defies even Thackeray’s power of words. After an hour’s sport on the Derryclear or on the Ballynahinch lakes ‘where you have but to cast, and lo! a big trout springs at your fly, and after making a vain struggling, splashing and plunging for a little while, is infallibly landed in the net and then into the boat.’
There must have been two boats as five men pulled into the shore, and walked with Thackeray to a ‘pretty’ herdsman’s cottage where the fish, there and then, were gutted and cleaned by Marcus the boatman, and put to grill on the burning embers in the hearth. The smell of the fish no doubt drew the men, the herdsman’s wife, ‘I don’t know how many sons and daughters’, a cow and her calf, and numerous fowl, inside to enjoy the feast.
They ate the fish with their fingers. ‘They were such trouts as, when once tasted, remain for ever in the recollection of a commonly grateful mind - rich, flaky, creamy, full of flavour - a Paris gourmand would have paid 10 francs for the smallest ‘cooleen’ among them; but when transported to his capital, how different in flavour they would have been! How inferior to what they were as we devoured them, fresh from the fresh waters of the lake, and jerked as it were from the water to the gridiron.’
After the fish was eaten the men ‘set to work upon a ton of potatoes’ and ‘everyone sat around the turf-fire in the dark cottage, as the rain come down steadily outside.’
They were further joined by two ‘healthy young herdsmen in corduroy rags, and the herdsman’s daughter padding about with her bare feet…’
There was a story told of a mermaid seen at Killala Bay, by a huntsman, and how he shot and wounded her and how her screams were so terrible and loud that they were heard by fishermen way out at sea. They were furious with the shooter (whose name was never mentioned ) as all the fish were frightened, and could only be caught in dangerous deep water.
On the way back to Ballynahinch they tried a few more casts, and eventually got back to the house around 10 o’clock. Dinner would be served at 11, followed by whiskey-punch ‘recommended medicinally, to prevent the ill effects of the wetting.’
But Thackeray was exhausted and content. He went straight to bed.
Next week: The priest who cried for two years, and brief visits to Clifden and Roundstone.
NOTES: Tom died in April 1847 having contacted ‘famine fever’ while visiting his tenants at the Clifden workhouse. The heavily encumbered estate was passed to his daughter Mary, an interesting novelist, who spoke barrack-room French learned from a Napoleonic officer who sought refuge at Ballynahinch. Mary’s intelligence and character was admired by an earlier visitor Maria Edgeworth. Moved by the plight of her tenants during the Great Famine Mary borrowed further funds to feed the starving. She married Arthur G Bell of Brookhill, Co Mayo, before fleeing from her creditors to Belgium where she earned a meagre living from contributions to newspapers and magazines. She and her husband emigrated to America where, after giving birth prematurely on board ship, she died November 7 1850 at the Union Place Hotel, New York, shortly after arrival. That was the end of the Martins of Ballynahinch.