The Christian Examiner was an influential Dublin journal in the early part of the nineteenth century. Among other things the Examiner discovered and first published William Carleton, the peasant genius of nineteenth century Irish literature. Carleton was attractive to the editors, and in particular to Caesar Otway, because he rejected the religion of his peasant forbears, offered a window onto the mores and culture of peasant Ireland and was in addition a talented writer.
In the later 1820s Dublin was transfixed by religious disputation, the ultimate (political) question being whether the poor would abandon their traditional religion in favour of a Bible-centred Protestantism. The stakes were high and involved nothing less than determining who would enjoy power in Ireland into the distant future.
Carleton was a convert to Protestantism, and if over time he drifted away from belief he never returned to the religion of his family and childhood. When he was dying in Ranelagh in 1869 a Jesuit came down from Milltown to see if he would consider departing the world in the religion of his forefathers. Presumably an entreaty of sorts was to be made and, in the manner of these set pieces, we can assume his ancestors and the welfare of his eternal soul would have been mentioned. However, when the inquiry was initiated the ailing Carleton responded by turning his face to the wall.
In September 1827 the Examiner published an article entitled “A Sabbath Stroll through Dublin”. The author affects an apolitical tone, but in fact his writing groans beneath the political obsessions of the time, in particular the preoccupation with religion, the poor and the necessity to reform that reprehensible mass and direct them towards the light of pure religion.
Below we reprint an excerpt from “Sabbath Stroll” which tells us something of how life was lived around Thomas Street in Dublin during the 1820s.The depiction of the diminutive men of Connaught as “potato-fed pigmies” about to embark on a steam packet to England is unintentionally moving. The group was spotted standing together early on the Sunday morning in question on Thomas Street with wallets of oaten cake strung behind them and carrying strong blackthorn sticks for the journey. The small band of adventurers was setting forth in search of seasonal employment on English farms, work that would enable their families in Connaught to survive another year.
As he strolls, the author comments that “the professors of the Popish faith seem to have no moral sense in regard to the observance of the Lord’s day”. Shopkeepers, he noted, opened for business on Sunday mornings. He mentions, with a little irony, the practice of leaving up some wooden shutters on shop premises as a gesture towards the Sabbath. There was a high level of small-scale commercial activity in poorer areas on Sundays, as on other days, because of the exigencies of hand-to-mouth living, a fact which the disapproving author does not seem to take into consideration. (The partial shuttering of shops on Sunday was a long-lived custom and the present writer observed the practice in the streets around Thomas Street as late as the 1960s.)
Mention of news vendors is also made, suggesting an interest amongst the urban poor in political developments as the campaign for Catholic Emancipation intensified. There were no Sunday newspapers published in Dublin at the time but a few weeklies were published on Saturdays at various times throughout the 1820s. Newspapers were also hired out for set times by paper-sellers and it is also likely that in poorer areas second-hand copies of papers published some days earlier were also sold. If multiple news vendors were bawling their wares it suggests a reasonable level of literacy in the city’s poorer quarters. Newspapers of the time bore the stamp of the political class’s cultural values, which were literate, educated and middle class. While the poor were hugely interested in the doings of that world and aware of their importance, it was not entirely their world. Some signs of the urban poor’s own culture are also to be found in “Sabbath Stroll”.
The mention of storytellers on the streets suggests an autonomous culture in poorer areas and offers further evidence that oral culture was not only central to the lives of the rural poor but also to those who lived in the city. The prevalence of ballad singers, who were cultural institutions in Dublin and were last heard sometime in the early 1930s, is also interesting. One of the functions of ballad singers was as cultural translators, redacting events from high politics into forms compatible with the norms and values of oral culture.
In addition to this interesting cultural and political mix the author also tells us of a boy bellowing out, amidst an immense crowd: “The Bible-men defeated, or the glorious victory of the Rev. Father Maguire over the Protestant Pope”. The shouting boy was selling a chapbook or pamphlet covering the great public debate on the relative merits of Roman Catholicism and reformation Protestantism which had recently taken place between the the Reverend Richard Pope and the Reverend Father Maguire. In popular opinion Father Maguire had triumphed, a view perhaps endorsed by the series of articles which subsequently appeared in the Examiner pointing out where he had been in error – a series which would scarcely have been necessary had Mr Pope done the job of exposing popery and Romish debasement properly.
It is telling that the young boy was surrounded by “an immense crowd”. The poor knew which side they were on and if intellectuals such as Carleton saw Protestantism as the best option for the development and modernisation of the country most others of his class did not agree. The enthusiasts for a second reformation who conducted the Examiner were undoubtedly gratified by the collaboration of Carleton. However, the Protestant crusaders of the 1820s had taken on an immense challenge. The odds were stacked against them and they were met in the field by O’Connell, whose victory in 1829 confirmed to perceptive Protestant intellectuals that the great campaign to render Ireland Protestant had failed.
Entering then the south-western avenue to the city, and passing by the City Basin, once the resort and fashionable promenade of the nobility, gentry, and citizens, but now redolent with tan-pits and putrescency, I took my way through that broad thoroughfare, Thomas-street*, and so through Meath, and by Patrick-streets, into the centre of the city. And as I passed along I observed many of the shops were open and the shopmen here and there occupied in taking down half of the shutters – some panels left up in honour of the God of the Sabbath, others taken down for the service of the god of this world: content to sell in the dark, in courtesy to the fourth commandment – but resolved to sell by all means, as decided devotioners of Mammon. Look at yonder public-house disgorging and receiving crowds of dirty degraded creatures. See that sallow, unshaven tradesman, emerging from its gloomy and cavernous recesses, lit up still with the lurid light flickering from a gas-pipe – (and oh, what a record it would be, were the confession and indictment of that light taken against all the abominations of word, thought, and deed, upon which it shone!) See him reeling forth, and shewing, by his loitering step and brutalized countenance, that his wages and his night were spent amidst the orgies of this pot-house. Observe the slattern dress, the filthy face, the maudlin eye of that female just stealing in, unsatisfied with her MORNING (the cant phrase for a dram of whiskey), and still recklessly resolved to continue under the excitement of ardent spirits. A little farther on, I passed a carrier’s inn, and saw tall, long-faced, high-shouldered Munster Carmen, loading their drays, and preparing to take the road – for Sunday is the lucky day on which it is PROSPEROUS to commence a journey. A little farther, in the middle of the street, stood a group of Connaught men, congregating like swallows before they commenced their harvest migration. These poor creatures were preparing to go on board the steam-packet – the dark brown clothing, the reaping-hook on the shoulder, the wallet full of oaten cake suspended from behind, a black thorn bludgeon in hand. These low-statured, light-limbed, sallow-skinned bogtrotters, the descendants and true likeness of the red-shanked kernes, described by Spenser and Stanihurst, three hundred years ago, these gaping Westerlings presented themselves in curious contrast to one of Guinness’s draymen, who at the instant passed by; his immense height, his sinewy breadth of body, made more manifest by the frowzy quilted frock which he wore. The poor potato-fed pigmies stood indeed in ridiculous juxta-position beside this “stoute churle,” who exhibited what bacon, porter, and comparative idleness can do in bloating gout and enlarging the human frame.
*If any of our English readers should desire, when they visit Dublin, to see that part of the city where true Irish characteristics can be best observed, we would recommend a walk to Thomas-street, on a Saturday evening in Summer. It is the great retail street for the lower classes – the great resort of carriers and countrymen from the South and West of the kingdom. Here flock the ballad-singers, the news-venders, and the story-tellers; here you observe a woman, with her hoarse, vice-degraded voice, singing to the praise of whiskey; a little further, a fellow detailing the barbarous murder of a whole Catholic family by the bloody Orangemen; and just at the corner of a street may be observed a boy bellowing out, amidst an immense crowd, “The Bible-men defeated , or the glorious victory of the Rev.Father Maguire over the Protestant Pope.” This street must ever remain infamous in the annals of Dublin, for the cold-blooded slaughter of Lord Kilwarden, in the year 1803. There scarcely exists on record a murder more inhuman or wanton than that of this venerable and excellent Judge. In this street also was Lord Edward Fitzgerald arrested, after a sanguinary struggle in the year 1798.