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The Lighter Side of Irish Life  —  £ 3.99

Go to the eBook Shop George A. Birmingham was the pen name of Belfast-born James Owen Hannay, who wrote many books about Ireland and the Irish. Published in 1911 this one, as the title suggests, concentrates on the lighter side, but it contains a wealth of detail that conjures up a picture of a way of life that had all but disappeared by the time he described it.

If you have ancestors from Ireland you may be amused or horrified by his depiction. Some of Hannay's other works caused controversy and this one, in attempting to dismiss the stereotypical image of the time, creates another.

This eBook contains the entire text and all sixteen illustrations. See the extract below, listing the contents and containing the chapter on "Yanks" (anyone on a return visit after emigrating to America).

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The cover is a copy of the original with one of the illustrations added.

This story, from the book, is often re-told about an encounter between Winston Churchill and Lady Astor, substituting 'ugly' for 'a fool'.

It is related of an Irish member of Parliament that he once walked up to an Englishman in the lobby of the House of Commons and said, without provocation, "You're a fool."
"Sir," said the Englishman, "you must be drunk."
"I may be," said the Irishman, "but I'll be sober tomorrow, whereas you'll be a fool then too."


The text and any images below are identical to the eBook; however, depending on the typeface, etc., that you select, they may not display here exactly as they do on your eReader. Also, pages turn as normal, rather than the scrolling effect seen here.



Chapter I
   As others see us
Chapter II
   As we see ourselves – Old Ireland
Chapter III
   As we see ourselves – The New Irishman
Chapter IV
   The Irish Clergy
Chapter V
   The Irish Official
Chapter VI
   The Government
Chapter VII
   The Irish Peasant
Chapter VIII
   The Brouge
Chapter IX
   Old Customs and Superstitions
Chapter X
   "The Yank"
Chapter XI
   The Irish Servant
Chapter XII
   Wit and Humour
Chapter XIII
   Spoil Five

Chapter Ten

"The Yank"

      The letter of recommendation is unquestionably a powerful instrument in Ireland, generally for evil, always for trouble and annoyance to the recipient. A leading captain of industry, who employed a great many men, once told me that when considering the characters of applicants for posts in his gift he always began by putting all letters of recommendation from clergymen into the waste-paper basket without reading them. That saved him some time, but he must still have had to wade through an enormous amount of MSS., for laymen as well as clergymen write those letters. Society being what it is in Ireland, we all have to write uproarious commendations of our neighbours whenever a post of any sort falls vacant. We try not to, but it is very seldom indeed that we escape. A clergyman, who was afflicted with a troublesome conscience, was once asked to write a letter to a very eminent man, the head of a great Government department. He did not want to write the letter, because the applicant was obviously unsuited for the post he sought. But he did not want to refuse, because the applicant was what we call "a decent poor man that nobody had a word to say against." He bethought himself of a way of getting out of the difficulty. The eminent head of the Department had just sailed for America, where he proposed to spend a couple of months. "There's no use my writing the letter," said the clergyman, "because that gentleman isn't in Ireland." "Is it America?" said the applicant. "It is" said the clergyman," so you see a letter would be no good." "Well now," said the applicant, "isn't it true enough what they're always saying, that emigration is the curse of this country? If so be he'd been at home, I'd have been certain of the job with your honour's letter in my pocket. But, sure, when the like of him has to go there's little good in the rest of us stopping in this country." The sentiment is pretty general in Ireland. Politicians round off their speeches with it. Poets give it eloquent expression in verses about the beauty of the Irish hills. Reformers devise schemes for keeping the people at home. But the lure of America is strong. The emigration agent still flourishes. Our boys and girls still go; although we are all in practical agreement with the fact that emigration is the curse of the country.
      The way is unfortunately made easy enough for most of us. There are a great many Irish people in America already, and they are always willing to help their relations in the old country to go out and join them. Sarah goes and somehow gets a situation in New York, earning what sound like fabulous wages. So we learn from her first letter home. The next letter brings a photograph of Sarah, strangely transformed from the girl we knew. She has a large feathery hat on her head. She has a fur boa round her neck. Her dress is of a grandeur past imagining. On her wrist is a bracelet which looks as if it might be gold. The old people sigh and wonder; but the imagination of little Molly is fired. "Isn't it better to be wearing grand hats and fine frocks than to be slobbering barefoot across a muddy yard with a tub of boiled turnips for the pigs?" The old people sigh and wonder, but Molly is sure. The next few letters from Sarah contain hints of a possible future for Molly if only Molly were in America. Then comes the fatal letter which contains a ticket for New York, paid for and ready for Molly to use. There are tears, excited preparations, the final heart-breaking farewell at the railway station when the emigrant train steams out. Then Molly is gone from us, and we go home to elaborate once more the old theme that emigration is the curse of the country.
      Sometimes, however, even the gift of a ticket to New York does not make the way quite plain for the intending emigrant. There was an old farmer in Co. Galway who was bitterly opposed to letting his last son go. He was a hard old man, who had toiled on a patch of land, lived closely, and saved. He had the reputation of being rich, stingy with his money, and exceedingly shrewd. His reasons for objecting to parting with his son were far more economic than sentimental. He thoroughly understood the value of an unpaid labourer on his farm. When the ticket for America arrived the young man wanted to go. The father refused to give him a single penny to buy an outfit. No shop in the neighbouring town would give the young man credit for as much as a pair of boots; nor would the shopkeepers take his word for it that the father would ultimately pay the bill. They knew the old man, and felt sure that he would not pay for anything except what he ordered himself. The boy was, as his brothers in America would have said, "up against a tough proposition." The period for which the ticket was available was passing rapidly. He had to get his clothes at once or forfeit his opportunity. After long consideration he wrote the following letter to the principal shopkeeper in the town. "Give my son Tom a suit of clothes, a pair of boots, and three shirts." To this he signed his father's name. Then by way of postscript he added, "But give him no more; for if you do, I won't pay for it, not if it was only to the value of an old sack." With this document in his hand the young man walked into the shop on the morning of the day on which he intended to start for America. The shopkeeper inspected the order, sceptically at first. The postscript, when he came to it, convinced him. It was so exactly the sort of thing the old man would have been likely to write that he accepted it as genuine. Tom, with his very meagre outfit, went joyfully to America. The shopkeeper later on felt a new force in the saying that emigration is the curse of this country; for the old man refused to pay the bill and repudiated the written order. He made good his assertion that the document was a forgery in the simplest way. He could not possibly have written it, because he could not write.
      But for all the cursedness of emigration, we owe some gratitude to our sons and daughters in America. They finance our politics for us, which is a very important matter. We should be – it is hard to say exactly where, but certainly not in our present position, if we had no one to go and make speeches on our behalf at Westminster. They also – and this is a still more important matter – to a very considerable extent finance our homes. Nothing is more beautiful, nothing more wonderful, than the generosity of the American Irish to their friends at home. Christmas after Christmas brings into the poorest houses in Ireland a shower of postal orders representing money which must have been hard to win, desperately hard to save, which no one without the motive power of great love could endure to part with.
      Curiously enough, considering all they do for us, we are not fond of the Irish Americans. They come home to us from time to time, sometimes to settle down in the old country, sometimes for brief visits. We do not, as a rule, much like them either as settlers or visitors. If they come home for good and all, they put up the price of land, bidding up small holdings which happen to be for sale to quite ridiculous prices. Then they build houses which are out of keeping with our humble dwellings. Their ways of life are a continual reproach to our easy-going habits. We call them "Yanks" or "returned Yanks," and feel that we should get on better without them. If they come as visitors their conversation annoys us. They tell us of splendid kinds of life of which we have no experience. Electric light is a commonplace thing with them. They speak with familiar contempt of telephones. They impress on us that we ought to "hustle round a bit," a thing we detest doing, and tell us that a year in America would "speed us up." We know it would, but we have not yet accepted speed as one of the ideals of life. Their clothes even are an annoyance to us. They walk our streets like Solomon in all his glory, and by the look of them even at a distance we are able to say with confidence, "Them ones is Yanks." This is all the more galling because we very well remember the Tom, who is now so lordly, cutting turf behind in the bog; and Mary Ellen, whose dresses are as if they came out of fashion books, we knew when her red petticoat very scantily covered a pair of mottled purple legs.
      These are the little faults of the "Yanks." They are no more for the most part than defects of manner, unfortunate but in no way interfering with the warmness of their hearts. I have heard graver charges brought against them. It is said sometimes that they corrupt our innocence, and bring with them in to our Eden a dangerous fruit of the tree of knowledge. My experience of them is different. They appear to me almost scrupulously anxious to conform to our very high standard of behaviour in matters of religion. Men who have gone neither to church nor Mass for years in the United States, attend either one or the other in the most exemplary way when they get back to Ireland.
      I have heard it quoted as a fault that the returned "Yanks" use bad language, spreading the use of strange oaths in holy Ireland. But this is surely hyper-criticism. Even those who have never crossed the Atlantic swear occasionally, especially when irritated. A new oath, unless it be one of quite unimaginable malignity, cannot add much to the wickedness of those already in common use.
      On the other hand, the returned "Yanks," if one gets over their little peculiarities of manner, are pleasant, simple people. I remember travelling once with two very grand young ladies. Their splendour was such that but for the fact that we were in a third-class carriage, I should have expected to see their luggage taken charge of by a smart maid. At the station, the terminus of a line of railway which meanders towards the western seacoast, these impressive fellow-travellers of mine were met by an old man, very poor apparently, dressed in a shabby suit of home-made grey tweed. The two girls rippled and beamed with joy at the sight of him, and before the train had quite stopped were out of the carriage, hugging and kissing the old man. Two days afterwards I was wandering round the outskirts of a very poverty-stricken village which clung to the side of a stony hill. I came upon the old man whom I had seen at the railway station. His English was not good. My Gaelic was scanty. But we succeeded in understanding each other, and he told me with pride and joy how his two daughters had come home from America for the summer, and had brought twenty pounds with them, which they had handed over to him and their mother. I asked where the girls were, and what they were doing. He pointed to a field beyond that in which we stood. I crossed the stone wall which enclosed it and came on the two "Yanks." They were dressed then in crimson flannel petticoats, loose bodices, and had handkerchiefs tied over their heads. They were barefooted, and were working vigorously with hay rakes. When I asked them what they were doing, they replied in Gaelic, so completely and wholeheartedly had they gone back – there are people who would say relapsed – into the old life.
      There was a boy who left an Irish village for America when he was about fifteen years of age. He was a good boy, and he got on well. Ten years passed, and he found himself in receipt of a salary which justified him in marrying. He chose a native-born American, and by way of a honeymoon took her to Ireland to see his old home. He remembered every field and every lane. He remembered every face. The fields, the lanes, and the houses were almost unchanged. The faces were different. Ten years had altered the school-fellows whom he looked forward to seeing. It was a shock to him to find grown men instead of those whom he had always thought of as boys. In the bottom of his box he had a little present for each of his old friends. He distributed them very shame-facedly in the end. The things which he had brought were suitable to the boys he recollected, scarcely so suitable to the men he found. But, whatever our faults may be, we have good manners. The gifts were received with serious thanks, and it was not till this "Yank" and his bride had returned to America that the incident was allowed to be treated as a joke.
      That young man returned to America gladly when his holiday was over. He loved his old home, but he was strong and vigorous. He could not have been happy without the constant stimulus of his new life. It is sometimes otherwise. A woman, who had been unusually successful in the New World, came back again some years ago to Ireland. She has stayed there ever since, preferring a life of bare simplicity to the luxury which she enjoyed abroad. She admitted that she missed in her old home much that had come to be almost necessary to her comfort. "I say nothing against America," she said. "Why should I? for I did well when I was in it. I don't deny but it's a fine life, but there's things which you earn too hard. It's better to have a minute or two now and then to yourself, and time to be sitting down even if it's with your feet in the turf ashes, than to be going from morning till night. I'd rather have a little peace than all the money I might earn out there. Sure, money's not everything." It is quite possible that this woman, out of the fullness of her experience, had learned the true philosophy of life.
      But peace, though rural Ireland if anywhere in the world ought to be rich in it, is not always attained by the "Yank" even here. A friend of mine, a clergyman, was told one evening that there was a woman at the door of his house who wanted to speak to him. He expected to find a beggar, and his first impulse when he saw the woman was to give her a small coin. She was very poorly dressed, and had a baby in her arms wrapped in a corner of her own shawl. Instead of clamouring for money she asked my friend to christen the baby for her. The request, coming from a total stranger at nine o'clock at night, was a strange one. The woman's story was stranger still. She had started from a place nearly forty miles distant to tramp to the nearest seaport town, intending to follow her husband by steamer to Glasgow. On the way her child was born, and she wished to have it baptized before venturing farther on her journey. The baby, save for the mother's shawl, which she could ill spare, was absolutely naked. My friend called his wife. Clothes for mother and babe were found, and the baptism took place. The mother was very grateful, and insisted that she would next day work off part of the debt which she felt that she owed. She was set to scrub a floor, which was the only thing she seemed fitted to do. She did it, and then she asked to be allowed to make a cake. Somewhat doubt- fully my friend's wife supplied her with the materials she required. The result was surprising. A cake of the most beautiful kind, a very masterpiece of the confectioner's art, was produced. The woman then offered to cook a dinner. It turned out a most sumptuous repast. Further questions drew from the woman the rest of her story. She had gone to New York as a girl and obtained a situation as kitchen-maid in a pastry cook's shop. She had risen to be the head cook of the establishment. She was earning very good wages, but the life was too hard for her. Like the other woman, who had mastered life's philosophy, she wanted peace and quietness. She came back to Ireland and married. The result for her was not peace, but that long tramp along lonely roads and the baby which my kind friend baptized.


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