Friday, February 10, 2012

A Memoir of Rural County Dublin

Accounts of country life in bygone days are not uncommon and although Dublin is usually only associated with city living, one of the most interesting accounts I have read is from Dublin. Written by his friend Doctor George A. Little, who himself had served a medical officer in the Dublin Brigade of the IRA; Malachai Horan Remembers is a testimony of long forgotten Dublin. Even in 1945, when the book was written, the world Malachi Horan describes was a world far removed from contemporary Dublin. In the memoir Malachi recalls his life and the social conditions of the time. Memories of 1798 and the Night of the Big Wind in 1839 were still fresh in peoples’ minds when he was born in Killinarden in 1847, ten miles from Dublin between Saggart and Old Bawn, where he spent his entire life. The famine was at its height, though the Horans were largely, due to living in the hills, which form The Dublin Mountains and where the blight did not reach, were largely spared this affliction. Those who were starving went to nearby Tallaght to get their Indian meal. Speaking nearly a hundred years later he made the interesting observation: “I was born the year it started. It was not that it made them that lived after poor-God knows they were used to that-but it made them so sad in themselves. It made many a one hard, too. The people have not got rid of the effect of it yet.” The stable diet of most people at the time was stirabout, wheaten bread, cabbage, potatoes and a little meat. His first school was a Hedge School in a barn at Killinarden Four Roads where the master worked and lived. The master was a really a labourer who had received only very little education himself and was both hated and feared by the children. For their education they brought a sod of turf and a penny a week. He later went to the Belgard school in Ballysack where he claimed the mistress did not each. When she beat him the sally switch he left and never went back. Malachi says that at the time it was not unusual for a man to work from six in the morning until eight in the evening and even longer if his master so desired. Men prided themselves in their physical strength and how much they could work. Up until the beginning of the twentieth century there was a hiring fair in Tallaght. Those who wished to be hired stuck their clay pipe in their hat bands and then into their pockets when hired. The farmers would meet and decide on a common wage- a crown a day without keep and about a shilling with bed and board. The men were expected to reap an acre a day. As a form of entertainment people went to watch and bet on cock fights which are now illegal. Malachi speaks of Mass paths which were just short cuts to mass that had been public rights of way for centuries. Landlords hated people using these paths and erected fences, which the locals tore down. Going to the doctor at the time would have been an expensive option that people could ill afford and they had their own cures-dandelion tea for yellow jaundice and scalded buttermilk and whiskey for sore throats. For the common cold scalteen-a drink of boiled whiskey, water, sugar, butter, pepper and sometimes caraway seeds, was used. For stomach complaints the water from the Holy well of St. Moling at Toolmaling was good. Belief in piseogs was much stronger back then and Malachi believed firmly in the féar gorta or The Hungry Grass, a spot where someone from the Famine had died and describes how when out walking with a friend near the Sally Gap in Wicklow they took a short cut through the furze and he suddenly felt weak. His friend knew what it was and put food into his mouth. Most people at the time never undertook a journey without food in case something like this happened. There is a description of wakes and the games played at them. As he points out staying awake all night by the corpse after a long day’s work was hard going and the people needed some form of entertainment. It was a time when people were still being hanged in public, usually in their own neighbourhood or even in front of their house. There are several descriptions in the book, one such event was the Kearneys of Bohernabreena, a farmer and his two sons who were hanged for the murder of a land agent called Kinlon, although there was very little evidence to support this. The book contains a description of resurrection men who stole corpses from the graveyard in Saggart to sell them on to doctors. Officially only the bodies of criminals were to be used for dissection but not enough people were being hanged to meet the demand. It was usual for the relatives to stay by the grave until it was filled in to deter body snatching. The resurrection men used to shoe their horses with leather to make less noise. It was a lucrative business and they were vicious people who would murder anyone who interrupted their activity. Malachi describes how his father met them on the road and they pursued him until he reached the safety of an inn and explained what was happening. The people in the inn, some of them relatives of the deceased caught up with the resurrection men and gave them a severe beating. Malachi also describes how the son of a well known surgeon was shot dead while body snatching. Malachi was still living in his little thatched cottage when Little interviewed him at the age of 98. He never married and died the same year the book was published. The book which was reprinted three times has since proven to be a valuable and rare resource and a gateway to rural County Dublin, which would have otherwise been lost forever.

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