The Nationalist and Leinster Times 26 September 1896
A Peep at Irish Village Life in the Eighteenth Century
Although well short of half a century since Mary Leadbeater’s charming “Annals of Balitore” were published in book form, it may well be questioned of any but a very small percentage of the present generation have perused her pages, breathing as they do the simplicity of the author’s life, yet not devoid of the literary merit to be expected in the cherished friend of the great Edmund Burke and the correspondent of Maria Edgeworth and other literary lights of her time. The authoress came of a scholarly family, her grandfather, Abraham Shackleton, being the founder of a school in Balitore which became famous throughout the country, and which justly boasted of having had on its roll the name of the great Burke – a name likely to be handed down to many generations yet to come as that of the greatest statesman which the British Isles, of indeed, the modern world has produced. Other eminent men also owed their early training to this seminary of the Shackletons and their successors. Abraham Shackleton was a native of Yorkshire, and we are told by his granddaughter that he was brought over to this country as tutor to the children of John Duckett, Duckett’s Grove, and William Cooper, of Cooper’s Hill, both of whom where Quaker’s, or, as they preferred to call themselves, Friends. In this connection it is interesting to note that several families in Carlow and Kildare are mentioned as members of the society the descendants of which have either become props and pillars of the Irish Protestant Church or have given their allegiance to some of the other Protestant sects. Amongst these are the Lecky’s, of Ballykealy, the Haughton’s, Boakes, Watsons, Rawsons, &c.
Abraham Shackleton was succeeded in the management of the school by his son, Richard, who had the reputation of being a ripe scholar and a man of great culture and literary taste. These eighteenth century schoolmasters did not confine their labours solely to the education of the young. They engaged in farming and turned their attention to the milling industry with remarkable success, so much so that in the second generation the labours of the school were given over to other hands in order that the more commercially important duties of manufacture and commerce might be attended to. Since then the Shackleton family from father to son, have largely engaged in the milling trade, and we hope, notwithstanding the terrible foreign competition with which they have to strive, will long continue to pursue a similar avocation.
Our authoress states that the land surrounding Balitore was purchased about the end of the seventeenth century by John Barcroft and Abel Strettel, respectable members of the Society of Friends, and that through drainage and careful cultivation it was brought from a marshy condition to the fertility it had acquired in her time, and which it still retains. It was reported to have been very bare of wood till the new proprietors began to plant, which they did abundantly, and groves, orchards, and thick hedge rows soon adorned the valley. The following description, published in 1792 is given: – “Within a mile of Timolin, on the right, our eyes were enraptured with the most delicious situation, when through the lofty trees we beheld a variety of neat dwellings. Through a road that looked like a terrace we hastened to this lovely spot, where nature, assisted by art, gave us the most perfect gratification. It is a colony of Quakers, called by the name of Balitore. The River Griese winds its stream very near the houses; and the building, orchards, and gardens show an elegant simplicity peculiar to its people. Their burial place near the road is surrounded with different trees whose verdure made us imagine it a well planted garden till we were informed otherwise . . . Industry reigns amongst this happy society; all their works are executed with taste, corrected by judgement, and seem to prosper as if Heaven smiled on their honest labours.”
This is indeed a picture of a veritable Arcadia, and its charms are heightened by a rather lengthy poem, in which the annalist depicts the rural delights of her peaceful and happy dwelling place. The Balitore of the present day has sadly fallen off from what it was as Mary Leadbeater knew it, and the finger of ruin and decay is upon it – an example on a small scale of what is going on all over the country.
The leading inhabitants of the village and their families, occupations and callings are described with great minuteness. There were Mick Murray, the smith, who was also the village dentist, and who was reported to have lifted the mother of the authoress three times off her chair in a vain attempt to extract an aching molar with a crude pincers; Peter Widdows, a Quaker tailor, who proposed to apprentice his son to Richard Shackleton to be fitted to be a schoolmaster because as he informed the dominie he had not capacity enough to become a tailor, and many others. Concerning Edmund Burke, we are told that he came to Balitore school with his brothers Garret and Richard in 1741. A story is told of the three that when very young they went to school to an old woman who was so cross that they hatched a plot to kill her and set out to execute their object, but the crabbed dame escaped from the infantile conspirators through being absent from home, although it may be conjectured that the attacking party would have come off second best if the encounter had taken place. Burke was sincerely attached to Richard Shackleton, and the friendship lasted to the end of their lives. The statesman often visited Balitore, and in turn Richard Shackleton and his family returned the visits at Burke’s place at Beaconsfield in England. Richard Shackleton used to relate many anecdotes of Burke’s great aptitude and illustrative of the humorous side of his character, and one of these tales is that he and his schoolmates were indulged with a holiday to witness the pageant of the incoming judge of assize to the town of Athy on the condition that each would describe the event in Latin verse. Burke accomplished the task easily enough, but it proved a formidable one to some of his less brilliant companions, one of whom tearfully implored his assistance. Burke good-naturedly complied, but having exhausted the ideas he had gathered from the show he asked the other boy what particular feature he had been struck with. The answer was “a fat piper in a brown coat.” Burke thereupon composed a poem in doggerel Latin, the first line of which was: – “Piper erat fattus qui brownum tegmen habebat.”
Some old customs long since fallen into disuse are alluded to. One of these was the parading of the village by mummers. Says our author – “At the close of the year or rather the beginning of the new one the mummers paraded the village.” These were two men wearing shirts adorned with ribbons over their clothes, and attended by a rightful mask which they called a ‘pickle herring’. My horror of them was beyond telling. Indeed they were a general terror to children, but they afforded such amusement to the children that the wiser part of the community were unable to suppress them. In after years the Whiteboy Act frightened the mummers as much as they had frightened others and put a stop to their proceedings.
The fairies were very much in evidence in these days according to popular belief as the following anecdote proves. “There lived about this time (1772) at the foot of Nine-three-hill, near Balitore, a comfortable farmer named Loughlin Duffy. His son, Thomas, when nine years old, while returning from a funeral of a brother, was suddenly taken ill and lost his speech and power of walking. Continuing in this state he permitted no one to see him eat, but took what was left for him, taught his brothers and sisters to read and write, wrote a good hand himself, and performed several works of ingenuity, such as making a fiddle, a wooden lock, etc., under the bed-clothes. There was, of course, only one cause assigned for this marvellous dispensation – Tom was fairy-struck. The fairies visited and instructed him in the solitude of his confinement; he was serving his apprenticeship to them, and at the end of seven years he would come forth a great doctor. The term continued two years longer and on his recovery Tom became a schoolmaster, which occupation he filled with great credit among the lower ranks for the remainder of his life.”
Freemasonry did not find favour amongst the simple minded Friends, one of the leading articles of whose creed was the practise of charity towards the neighbour. We read that a favourite pupil who had come to years of manhood, left Balitore on account of Mrs. Shackleton having discovered that he had become a Freemason. “She,” we are told, much disapproved of this mysterious society and their oaths of secrecy, and believing that he had violated his conscience by taking the oath, she told him so plainly.
Here is an interesting description of a meeting between characters so utterly opposed as the quiet, peace-loving Quaker schoolmaster, and Beauchamp Bagenal, the wild, rollicking, duelling Irish Squire. “My father and mother with others of the family were by special invitation at the house of their landlord, Clayton Bayley, at Gowran, when Beauchamp Bagenal and a young man of the Butler family, who had dined at Lord Clifden’s, came in a state of intoxication to the house. Clayton Bayley was unwilling to be intruded on whilst enjoying the company of his former preceptor, and his wife was greatly distressed, for she was certain that “that wicked Bagenal would insist that her husband must drink with him all night or else fight him.” It was in vain our host insisted he was “not at home,” which he firmly maintained, malgre the lectures of his old mistress, he was at length obliged to appear, and as an apology for not receiving them to inform Bagenal that he had Quaker guests in the house. This Bagenal declared was an additional inducement to him to desire admission, for of all the things he loved Quakers. He entered on crutches, having been lately hurt in a duel, and though disfigured by lameness and obscured by intoxication the grace of his form and the beauty of his countenance were so conspicuous as to excite in no small degree mingled sensations of admiration, pity, and regret. He had entered into the world with splendid gifts of fortune and still more splendid gifts of Nature, and possessed a mind not unworthy of them till, drawn into the vortex of dissipation, his mind debased, his constitution shattered, his fortune impaired, he became what now appeared before us. It was to my mother that Bagenal addressed his conversation. He repeated his declaration of affection for the Society of Friends, and assured her that he agreed with them in sentiment and wished to belong to their body, “only that in that case he could not retain his corps of volunteers.” My mother made little reply, but he, rising soon after to leave the room, expressed much unwillingness to lose her company, and at length left the house much to the relief of all who remained in except my mother. Her mind was so impressed with sadness in contemplating the situation of this man that she believed it her duty to inform him of it. In a few months she heard he had come to visit his sister Keatinge. She went to Narraghmore and had a conference with him, laying before him the injury he did himself and others by his conduct and example. He heard her not only with polite but serious attention, acknowledged the truth of her remarks, and lamented his inability to keep these good resolutions he had so often made. He thanked her cordially and at parting kissed her hand.”
Time deals not less hardly with the great ones of the earth than with the poor and lowly. The writer refers to the great state kept up at Belan House by Lord Aldborough and by the Keatinge family at Narraghmore. Both families have been long since extinct, and their once splendid mansions are nothing more than masses of crumbling ruins.
Here is an episode in the history of the Lecky family: – “Robert Lecky while at school here was bereft by fever of his father, John Lecky, of Ballykealy. John Lecky’s cheerful, benevolent heart had made him the delight of his family and friends. The poor almost idolized him. It was with difficulty their lamentations were suppressed on leaving the house with his funeral, but when out of hearing of the widow and children they burst forth into loud wailings which were, however, less affecting than the silent tears of the old men and children. Their friend, benefactor and counsellor, snatched suddenly from them in the prime of life, they resisted for a time the entrance of the body into the graveyard. But when the loved remains were about to be deposited in the earth their grief passed all bounds and they declared that he must not be laid in the dark and silent grave. In vain the grave diggers remonstrated. At length they laid down their spades and joined in the lamentation, and for some time nothing could be done but weep with them.” Is there any people in the world more ready to manifest gratitude for just and benevolent treatment than the Irish?
Re-typed by Jennifer O’Conner