The story below is recounted by Moritz Hartmann, a radical democrat born to German-speaking Jewish parents in the Czech village of Trhové Dušniky (Duschnik). Hartmann visited Dublin in 1850. He was on the run from both the German and Austro-Hungarian police following his involvement in the revolutions of 1848 in central Europe. Unlike many German visitors, he did not recoil from the extreme poverty and filth in Dublin. He recounted his experiences in a series of letters to a female German friend, a radical and campaigner for women’s rights based in London. His reportage offers a rare window onto the life of Dublin’s urban poor in the mid-nineteenth century. The translation is by Eoin Bourke, who included the story in his excellent Poor Green Erin.
Meditating thus, I reached Kingsbridge, where a beautiful sight distracted me and let me forget all the ministers and kings of the world. Leaning on the bridge parapet there stood a most delightful young couple, the boy 19 years of age at the most, the girl no more than 16. With their arms intertwined they gazed down into the depths of a river. The boy was tall and slim and had pale features, a boldly aquiline nose, a broad forehead under which blue eyes shone forth, thick black curly hair that spread out over his shoulders. Through his very plain and utterly tattered linen shirt one could glimpse a fine but muscular torso bound around the very slim waist with a tight, broad belt. The girl wore the inevitable cape and the even more inevitable hat. Everything on her was frittered and ragged; the hems of the cape were completely frayed and it was caked with dirt; her hat was full of holes that were stuffed with flowers and leaves. Her ash-blonde hair lay dishevelled on her unwashed forehead. But through all the dirt there radiated a beam of endlessly poignant beauty. Her faun-like eyes had a soft and mild look, her small but somewhat curved nose gave evidence of spirit and intelligence, her broad full-lipped mouth let a row of shining pearly teeth be seen, while her chin and cheeks were softly rounded despite hardship and poverty. Youth can endure so much before it finally decides to take leave of a beautiful countenance. The cape, which she had thrown over her shoulders to lean more comfortably on the balustrade, revealed a lovely tender breast that billowed white and lustrous through the threadbare material of a black silken blouse. The hand that supported the chin, though sunburnt, was lovely to look at, and her slender and tiny feet that stood bare in worn-away shoes would have made many a German duchess envious. At last she gave up her meditative posture, removed the boy’s pert red cap and stroked his black curls out of his radiant forehead. What I saw was Amor and Psyche disguised as young Irish paupers.
Soon they noticed me standing on the quay observing them. They spoke a few words that I could not understand, and then she left him and came towards me with the softest possible smile. I thought she wanted to beg and I was already putting my hand into my pocket. But no! – she asked me … I cannot get myself to repeat the question. Whether it was her brother or her lover whom she left, who looked on quietly awaited the result – one possibility is as horrible as the other. Appalled I shook my head sadly and she was about to go away, but I held her back to ask about her relationship with the handsome youth. He was her lover. I asked what her name was and she replied “Juddy”. The shilling that I gave her I let drop into her hand as she was so covered in filth that I did not dare to touch her. When she gratefully took her leave, I realised that Juddy would be the perfect guide for a night-time tour and therefore asked her to meet me at 9 o’clock in Thomas Street. She promised to do so and hurried to her lover with her earnings.
I wandered past the railway station and Dean Swift’s laneway to the Royal Hospital where English soldiers live out a comfortable existence amidst Irish destitution. Their residence consists of a large and extensive building and a vast and magnificent garden to which I was given access. On the way back towards Little James’ Street I came through districts that one would not have deemed possible near a big city. Whole alleyways consist of cabins stuck together out of four walls of clay that can hardly support the rotten roof. There are almost no windows at all in these houses. The doors, which open straight onto the street from the one single room that these houses contain, stand permanently open to let in light and air and show the whole atrocious shabbiness of the interiors. There is no sign of a bed, but here and there a plank fixed to the wall to serve as a bench, some crockery between two planks near the ceiling, a copper teapot in the corner – that is the entire household equipped of a typically very large family. These live mostly in the laneway as they could hardly move if assembled inside the house. In front of the doors there were filthy half-naked children playing, often with their mother nearby absent-mindedly gazing ahead of her with her head resting on her hands. Grown-up lads stood idly by leaning against the wall. Only seldom did this or that child beg me for money. The alleys in this area are of course unlevelled and unpaved. They go up and down. Just as I was wondering whether it was advisable to go well-dressed for a midday stroll in this district, I read an inscription on the corner of a very narrow alleyway on my right that led downhill: “Murderer Street.” To give you an idea of the architecture of this city district I shall describe the ruins of about 6 or 7 houses. They were situated on my right propped up against a small hill that carried a garden. The owner of this garden had fenced it in with a ramshackle clay wall hardly of a man’s height running along the foot of the hill. By this means a hollow arose between the wall and the gradually sloping hill. And what does the ingenious speculator do? He covers over this hollow between hill and wall with boards, makes about 6 or7 gaps in the wall, divides up the 6 or 7 plots to which these doors lead by partition walls out of clay and thus creates a number of living spaces that he lets out to 6 or 7 families. The rear walls were formed by the bare earth of the hillside. We would not put cattle into such a hovel. One could clearly see that these recesses had once been inhabited, but the miserable walls had not been able to resist the rain, turned into soggy clay and crumbled. The poor cave-dwellers were made homeless in this way and the owner lost his annual rent of a few pounds. Nevertheless I am quite sure that this enterprising builder will restore the dwellings again as soon as better times come. This year is too bad for the people of Ireland. Not even the occupants of better houses can pay their rent, so why should he incur expenses in vain?
On the dot of 9 o’clock I was in Thomas Street. Juddy sat on the front steps of a house surrounded by children with whom she clowned about. As soon as she caught sight of me she came towards me and made one of those obsolete curtsies from the previous century that have died out on the continent but are still very often made by women of the lower classes in Ireland. She wanted to link my arm in a familiar way, but I made it clear to her that I wished nothing more from her than the services of a guide and that I wanted to acquaint myself with her friends and the common people. “What I would like most, Miss Juddy”, I added, “would be to have an evening meal with you in some public house or other where you usually dine whenever you have a shilling too many.”
Juddy understood that straightaway and held herself at a discreet distance. After giving me a long, probing look she said: “Ah, sir! I’ve got it! You want to paint the poor people of Ireland, is that it?” – “How did you come upon that, Miss Juddy?” – “Last autumn”, she replied, “there were also a gintleman from London here who painted an entire public house and me along with it.” Now at last I knew why Juddy had struck me as being familiar. I looked at her – she was the original of the “Irish Girl” (by Kenneth Macleay) that had caused such a stir last Spring at the London Art Exhibition. I could not help telling her what conquests she had made in London. She listened attentively and was visibly pleased. And yet she did not seem to be glad due to vanity, but on the contrary, she seemed to be occupied with serious ideas. She fell into a silence lasting several minutes while she wrinkled her lovely brow and her rosy lips murmured incomprehensible words to herself. Several times she wanted to say something, but kept quiet. At last she stood still, boldly looked at me straight in the eye and seemed to grow a few inches – then cast her eyes down again and asked in a toneless voice: “Do you think the London gintlemen would like me?” In my perplexity words failed me and I did not have the necessary conviction to be affirmative. Juddy did not feel disturbed by my silence and, without waiting for a reply, she continued: “Peggy from Galway, where I am from as well, was a poor girl like me and not even as nice-looking as me – I can tell you that, Sir, for everyone I know has said it. She went to London – and now she drives through Hyde Park drawn by two fine horses in a lovely carriage and has a servant sitting behind her like the Lady of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. At least that’s what Barry and everyone coming from London told me. A short while ago an Indian Prince is supposed to have given her a present of a gown covered in diamonds, and perhaps he’ll take her with him to his country and make her a Princess.”
Although I could have confirmed much of her story, I remained stubbornly silent. That seemed to embarrass her and she quickly added: “Of course I could go to Liverpool or Glasgow and work there in a factory so as not to starve to death. But who will guarantee that I won’t starve before I’ve found work? And even if I find it – I’ve seen so many girls who came back from England sick and ugly within two years from the long hours of work, and I could stay nice-looking for at least 12 to 15 years if I only had enough to eat and didn’t have to work for 14 hours a day. What do you think?” In order to be able to say something, I asked: “And when you go to London, Miss Juddy, what will come of your beloved?” – “Of who? Of Bill?” ‑ she burst out laughing – “I’ll take him along and make him my coachman!” I did not respond. In the face of the starvation that she spoke about as of a foregone conclusion, I did not feel myself called upon to hold a sermon.
In the course of such conversations darkness fell and near Golden Lane we arrived in a labyrinth of dark and narrow alleyways. In front of the houses women and girls were sitting in tattered clothing whom Juddy greeted with friendly repartee. Children were playing or snoozing on the threshold. Not a single window was lit up; only occasionally a street lantern was shining, casting its trembling red light onto the picturesque clusters, among whom few men but many women were to be found smoking pipes. Some groups who were sitting on the steps opposite sang melancholy folksongs with muffled voices while others listened to a storyteller’s words. The Irish love fairytales and gruesome blood-curdling stories. On a somewhat larger square that was illuminated by several lanterns a crowd formed a big circle and watched a dancer who leapt about whooping and singing. It was Juddy’s Bill, who was accompanied by an old man in a grey baize jacket playing a clarinet. Both the dancer and the musician had chosen this rather more elegant venue to earn money, but in the passion of their art they forgot their common intention and it became art for art’s sake. They danced and played for the people that watched and listened attentively and gratefully on this festive day. That was genuinely Irish. Bill performed a kind of Spanish dance and held four pieces of tin instead of castanets in his hand. He whirled and swayed his slender waist with considerable grace and while all the girls that surrounded him and urged him on with cries of “Good on yeh!”, he sprang around the circle and had something nice to say to each one without getting out of breath for even a moment. When he glimpsed Juddy he threw her a kiss, greeted me very courteously and danced on. Juddy walked on with me as quietly as before until we made a halt at an old black house near the Coombe Poddle. Juddy took me by the hand and, after she had asked me to walk on tiptoes due to the filth, she led me through an endlessly long, high and dark corridor into a courtyard where a weak light fell on a window that was half papered over. On the threshold of a door on the side of the courtyard that we were approaching there lay a drunken Irishman who, just as I was stepping over him, called me a “bloody ruffian” and tried with slurred speech to set his dog upon us. His watchdog, which lay beside him, might not have understood him or else was used to seeing his master lying on the threshold of the shebeen and let us pass as if nothing had happened.
The shebeen that we entered was so badly lit that I could distinguish neither people nor objects; only the loud shouting that came out of one corner and the muffled snoring out of another told me that I was among human society. Without paying any attention to these, Juddy took the tallow candle, the only source of light in the room, from the mantelpiece and lit up a drawing that was attached to the wall and was already quite damaged and speckled from the dampness of the room. It was by the same painter that Juddy had spoken of and whom she had also brought to this pub to introduce him to poor people. Juddy called the drawing “The Holy Family on the Flight to Egypt”, although it showed nothing more than a poor Irish peasant with his wife and newborn infant being hunted out of their cabin into the depths of despair by a merciless landlord. It is so true that humans create their God after their own image.
After inspecting the picture Juddy introduced me to the company, whom I could only now recognize with the lamp standing on the table. It consisted of 5 or 6 men sitting around a table in the corner if one omits to count the 8 to 10 men and women who singly or in pairs lay about the floor and slept. At the fireplace an old woman kneeled roasting a peeled turnip on the sparse cinders, and as soon as a spot had softened, she nibbled at it with her toothless gums. The men at the table received me affably and called out when I approached: “Make room for the gintleman and his lady friend!” and moved closer together to leave the best places free for us. The shebeen was large, wide and high-vaulted and gave evidence of having seen better days. Its entire furniture consisted of the table at which we were sitting, another in the opposite corner, an opaque mirror with a peeling gold frame over the fireplace, as well as some planks fixed to the wall, propped up by blocks of wood or stones, which served as seating around the room. On one of the walls the ruin of an old oak cupboard on which there still some fine carvings were to be seen. In its belly it carried some teacups, a jug and 5 or 6 more or less damaged glasses. The men at our table were all dressed in rags and shreds and sat doing nothing with the exception of one, who had a cup of tea standing before him and sipped from it from time to time while smoking his pipe. This one played the role of an inscrutable character, which is strange and unnatural for Irishmen, behaved in an aloof manner and as if he were a shrewd judge of human nature by closing his eyelids and observing me from the corner of his eye.
I asked if there were an evening meal for me and my lady friend to be had here. The host, one of the men sitting at the table, shrugged and offered me a simple cup of tea. I admired Juddy’s unselfishness in that I had invited her to supper and she nevertheless brought me to this shebeen although she knew it had no sumptuous dish to offer. But Juddy had considered first and foremost my wish to meet poor people and forgot about herself although she had eaten no more than a turnip that day. I solved the problem by asking the host if he would not mind my ordering as many beefsteaks and a corresponding amount of mugs of porter as there were people at the table from an eating-house in the Cornmarket. The host reacted to my suggestion with enormous pleasure and the men did not refuse the invitation but rather thanked me courteously. A girl that been sleeping on the floor was awoken, I gave her the money and she ran to fetch what I had asked for. My guests became more congenial and even Barry ‑ for that was the name of the inscrutable judge of human nature ‑ gave up his observer status. He moved a little closer and asked me what country I came from. “Ah, Germany!”, he exclaimed, “I know that country well; it lies beyond Holland!” – “Correct! Were you there, Mr. Barry?” – “Not exactly, but I was in Amsterdam when I was a stoker on a steamship.” – “You were a stoker on a steamship?” The whole company smiled at my question. “There’s nothing that Barry hasn’t been!” said one of them. That made me curious, and I looked questioningly at Barry. He did not answer but shifted to and fro, stuffed his pipe and put on that look of shrewdness again. But what Irishman can withstand curiosity so great that it repeats a question? Thus Barry began all at once with a glib reply: “Thaddy is right! Is there anything I haven’t done? That I haven’t yet sat on the Irish throne is a wonder. As I told you, I was the stoker of a steamship. The ship went down with all hands on board except me. Then I worked in a Welsh mine to produce black diamonds for the English. The whole coalmine went on fire. After that I wandered to Manchester where I worked in a factory for four weeks till the owner went bankrupt; 400 of us all lost our jobs, mostly young Irishmen. Then I went to Liverpool and once more became the furnace-man of a large factory. The boiler burst, killed four men and tore off the two fingers that you see here!” With these words Barry stretched a hand towards me on which two fingers were missing. There I had a perfect example of an “Irish Bull”.
Barry went on: “On that occasion a fight broke out between me and my boss and he threw me out, me and my two missing fingers. How was I to find work and me with two missing fingers? For weeks I wandered aimlessly around Lancashire and Wales and begged and starved, till I arrived one evening awful hungry in Holyhead. I stood there and looked hungrily across the sea towards Ireland, the lovely Emerald Isle, and thought to myself: If I have to starve, why not in Ireland? That’s more fitting and natural for an Irishman. A tremendous homesickness befell me, and in the night I untied a boat ‑ it was a beautiful sailing boat painted green and red ‑ and steered it out into the Irish Sea. I had a good trip, the wind was favourable, and after just two days I entered Dublin harbour almost starved to death. Needless to say I had not eaten a bite for the whole journey; the boat was not supplied with provisions and I had no money to buy any. And so I arrived in Dublin as gaunt as a corpse. Sea air saps your strength terribly. The first thing I had to do in Dublin was to beg. But, Sir, I begged the whole day and with great diligence without earning a penny. Then I wanted to sell my only possession ‑ the boat ‑ and sell it very cheaply. My God, I’d have given it away for sixpence although among brothers it was worth six pounds. They took the occasion to lock me up because they suspected that I had stolen the boat. I did not try to deny it because you get fed in prison. I was behind bars for three years. Six weeks ago I got out and once more began to starve until Our Lord sent me a French gentleman who brought me with him to Wicklow because I know how to tell the loveliest stories about the loveliest county in the world in the loveliest manner possible. I earned so much by this means that today, eight days after I left the French gentleman, I am still able to afford a cup of tea.”
The food that I had ordered had arrived in the meantime, and the entire company sank into a devout but busy silence. Soon every one of the beefsteaks had disappeared and only some jugs of porter were still half full. Barry wiped his mouth with his sleeve and stretched out his hand over the table. “Sir”, he said, “with that beefsteak you did me a real service. I heartily wish that I could do something for you in turn.” “That will not be too difficult”, I replied; “you said just now that you knew how to tell the loveliest tales of the loveliest county of the world in the loveliest manner possible ‑ well, I love Irish fairy tales. Tell me one.”
Barry smiled, cleared his throat, took another sip, leaned back, rubbed his hands together and said: “I’m ready! Sir, when I’m finished the story you’ll say, ‘I turned to the right person!’ You’ll say, ‘Ireland really has the loveliest fairy tales of the whole world!’ You’ll then have to admit, ‘I have just heard the loveliest of the loveliest fairy tales of the world.’” …