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. Hartmann has featured in our Dublin Stories blog before ( http://www.drb.ie/dublin-stories/dublin-stories/2013/08/11/amor-and-psyche) when we republished his striking account of the lives people lived in Dublin of the time and their unyielding humanity in the face of grinding poverty. In this extract Hartmann visits a more salubrious part of the city – Dalkey. He is struck by the great beauty of the area and becomes something of a local hero after he rescues a young boy from the waves. This account begins just as he has heard the voices of women aboard a boat singing the ballad “Robert a Roon”. Once again this extract is taken from Eoin Bourke’s invaluable Poor Green Erin.
The sombre melody of this song belongs originally to an old Irish ballad “Eileen a Roon”, whose celebrated hero, an ancestor of Lord [Robert] Molesworth, lived in Holby Park, Co. Wicklow. [Georg Friedrich] Handel declared that he would rather be the composer of this melody than of any other modern composition. According to [James] Hardiman [in his Irish Minstrelsy], the refrain “a Roon” means “my heart’s secret treasure”.
Inwardly moved by the sight of all this beauty and the flow of the song coming like a dirge from below, I stood up and went out into the garden. […] The friends followed me, and while the two guests joined me and were also moved by seeing the infinite beauty of the surroundings, the host walked through the garden and sought out the loveliest flowers. He tied them into a bunch and offered them to me as a gracious gift. His little son did the same. That was so Irish and thoughtful, so worthy of a people that possesses so many gentle melodies and fairy-tales.
At last I took my leave. My friendly host did not leave me alone but accompanied me to Dalkey, where young males gathered between the crags to go swimming. We, too, threw our clothes upon a boulder and sprang into the rolling tide. It was a lovely scene. The broad old [Martello] tower on the hillock by the shore threw its thick shadow onto the bathing place. Wilder and wilder the waves stormed forward and cast their white spume over the highest cliffs that like small towers ran out far into the sea. From the distance there rang out the jubilant cries of the most daredevil swimmers who battled with the rushing tide or clung on to boats passing by and joked with the women and girls sitting in them. Suddenly I heard an anxious cry for help behind me. I looked around, and there a young Irish boy of about 11 years of age was struggling with the waves that continuously surged over him and eventually threw him to the bottom of the sea. With great ease and without any risk I reached him and waded with him in my arms to the next crag. While I was placing him on his feet, the treacherous tide used my bowed posture to crash into my back and throw me against the rocks. My breast was scratched and blood appeared. This coincidence made a deed out of a non-event and friends out of the swimmers and the onlookers on the shore. At the sight of my bleeding chest they all rushed forward, screaming loudly. The lifeguards came swimming and the onlookers jumped fully clothed into the water to help me. It was not necessary, and yet the whole crowd did not want to leave me and accompanied me to Dalkey. As my guide still wanted to show me some more beauty spots, the majority of my company arranged to meet me later in the garden of an inn. My guide led me through underground tunnels to a spring [Lady’s Well] that gives forth the most invigorating freshwater. The under-ground tunnels, which wind their way in different directions for some hundred yards, have occasional openings in their roof that lend them a magical chiaroscuro. Girls carrying jugs on their heads went back and forth. Here and there sat single groups on the stones that had fled the heat of the day; there were also some courting couples and solitary dreamers. The well itself, which burbles forth humbly and unadorned from the grey stone, has been given poetic shape in many sagas and celebrated in many songs. When we reached daylight once more, we were standing in the grounds of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. It is a very simple green surface directly beside the seashore. The greenish lawn is continuously breached by gigantic outcrops of rock covered over by yellow cryptogams. Only here and there stands a tree of meagre growth. In short: a little desert. At first sight one is astonished by the sparseness, but in fact it does credit to the owner. These enormous colossi of rock could have been dynamited and cleared away and an artificial vegetation of sickly trees and flowers could have easily been conjured up. Uncomplaining statues can be placed everywhere and sentimental arbours stuck together all over the place. But the owner knew what harmonious contrast this wild piece of earth forms with the serenely beautiful Dublin Bay. The rock masses lie there cold and rigid, but the ebbing and flowing sea booms and lisps around them with eternal life. Their cryptogams and lichens put forth no blossoms, but the slumbering sea throws its transfiguring shimmer over them and the storming sea its white flakes of foam. The whole picture is rounded off by the simple villa rising at the entrance to the garden and gazing out with glistening eyes over the bare surface of rock towards the blue waves and white sails. The nearby garden of the [Loreto] nuns, enclosed only by a low wall, is similar. The barrenness expresses the lonely life of these women better than shaded and secretive pergolas. They gave me an unearthly impression the way they wandered about with folded arms in their dark habits on the barren ground and disappeared and reappeared between boulders as between gravestones. Only the splendid new convent building equipped with great luxury and elegance has a perturbing effect when one thinks of the poverty which oppresses 99% of the Irish laity. Those who take the vow of poverty know how to live in abundance, even in Ireland.
On the way to the public house I saw O’Connell’s country residence, now occupied by his son John. It is a pretty single-storey house surrounded by a garden ornamented by statues. The gateway is decorated with Hiberno-Celtic inscriptions. In the public garden I found the entire group assembled that I had left half-an-hour previously. I was received with loud cheers as the “Rescuer”. That at first made me embarrassed, but I soon felt at home and in genial company among them. At a long table on the edge of the sea, from which we were separated only by a low wall so that without it our feet would have been washed by the tide, we partook of a frugal midday meal. Time passed in animated conversation and admiration of the lovely evening. A lawyer who had just returned from a circuit court in the countryside and told us of the strangest court cases in which not a thief, not a robber, indeed not even a murderer had been sentenced. The whole public was happy for him. Irish people observe all crimes committed by one of their compatriots as a part of the great war that his nation is fighting against England. England makes the laws, so how can one possibly respect them? To them every criminal who has been successfully defended by his lawyer is a child of Ireland who has been rescued from the clutches of the English judicial system. Perhaps they are right. Experience may have brought them to the same conclusion that our most progressive philosophers have reached, i.e. that a criminal is only an unfortunate and neglected child of society and a victim of outdated laws. How can we expect him not to steal when traditional law-making has stolen his field, by which he wanted to nourish his wife and children by the sweat of his brow? How easy the transition is from theft to robbery and from robbery to murder! How easy it is to take this path when starvation is consuming the newborn baby’s strength at home while its mother watches over it and waits for the stolen booty that will rescue her child!
The sun had already sunk deep when I returned on the train to Kingstown and Dublin. The high tide had released the ships and now they danced playfully on the swirling waves, the evening wind whistled in the reefed sails, further out in the bay the steamships flew away onto the high seas, on the left-hand shore there were merry ramblers everywhere singing on their way home. At last the moon rose full and luminous. In the railway station a cheerful crowd jostled one another, and just as the Irish on Sundays forget the troubles of the previous week, I, too, forgot that I was in the capital city of affliction and, like someone drunk on whiskey, I reeled on my way to my flat intoxicated by all the beautiful things I had experienced, to apply cold compresses to my wounded chest.