Thursday, 14 May 2015

Tavern Singing, and an Irish Wake

I knew the landlord very well, and was on friendly terms with him; this was what is termed and 'Irish' house, and the host, himself an Irishman, had but little indoor custom except amongst his countrymen: and they were mostly of the labouring class. I was well known to the different parties that used the place, and was invariably treated by them with great civility. There was one young man, a breeches-maker, with whom I was intimately acquainted; he worked at a shop close by, on Moorfields pavement, and happening just now to drop in, asked me, " If I had ever been to an Irish 'cock and hen' club?" Upon my replying that "I had not," he requested me to go upstairs: saying, that I should see some excellent fun.

The room we entered was about forty feet by twenty, rather indifferently lighted; the company was a motley gathering of choice Hibernian specimens, both male and female. Quarts of porter were circulated in rapid succession; halfpints of gin were gallantly handed round to the 'ladies,' with compliments in Irish, pure as the sweet waters of Killarney. As their hearts warmed with potent draughts of the ' cratur,' they began capering about and whirling round with the velocity of spinning-wheels,—occasionally, in the course of their evolutions, giving vent to such discordant shouts, as called to mind the descriptions of an Indian war-dance.

At length the floor was cleared: and two fine daughters of the emerald isle, stepping gracefully into the centre, commenced a jig. They began to slow time, but kept on gradually increasing in speed amidst the shouting and clapping of hands, till both performers appeared wrought up to the highest pitch of frenzy; and perspiration streamed down their blowzy faces as they whirled dizzily round, urged on by the mad drunken creatures that surrounded them, until one dropped.

As the girl who had tired the other down was a great favourite, the delicate half-swipy gentlemen surrounded her: all scrambling to snatch a kiss from the lips of the victorious damsel, who had saved the credit of their province. The vanquished was taken below, and received the benefit of the pure air to be found in the skittle-ground,—for this was one of the most confined and offensive localities in London; the sign of the house was the 'Punch-bowl,' in Half-moon alley, Little Moorfields. When the girl had recovered from the effects of her over-exertion, she was brought back into the room by her friends; and singing and dancing continued till the entire group was furiously excited. One of the pot-valiant heroes smashed the fiddle, because the fiddler was too far gone and had fallen asleep, his head hanging over the back of his chair in the corner.

At this peculiar juncture, a mighty storm arose in the assembly. One Jim Donohoe was seen to kiss Mr. Pat Flannigan's wife as she came up the stairs: 'Och, by St. Pathrick,' roared out Pat, 'and is it that you mane, Mr. Donohoe ?'—'You dirty spalpeen,' retorted Jim, 'I don't care the great-coat of a pratie for the like o' yees, nor all the Flannigans 'twixt here and Belfast, your dirty native place!'—' Och, by the powers then,' said Pat, 'just be after bringing your filthy carcass downstairs, and I'll tache you better manners than you ever larned under that bottle-nosed ould sexton of a Protestant at Mullingar: where you could never git a congregation at all, at all, if the ould woman as opened the pews happened to be sazed wid the toothache!' 

'D'ye say that, ye dirty blackguard!' roared out Jim; 'faith, and I'll make ye know your lord and master from Biddy Sullivan!' Downstairs they rushed by mutual consent: and at it they went in true Irish style,—when both being drunk, tumbled against each other and fell rolling over like a couple of hogs at sea. After this splendid display of science the combatants were propped up, while they shook hands, kissed, and made it up; but in attempting to put on his shirt poor Jim was terribly bothered. The sleeves had got so entangled with the fragments of the body (which was slit into ribbons) that from what was once a shirt, it had become a puzzle of so difficult a nature that the poor fellow gave up the attempt in despair, exclaiming: 'By Jasus, although I've been a long time acquainted wid yees, I can't find the way into yees at all, at all,—any more than if we'd been strangers!' With this short soliloquy he gave up the job, and put on his clothes without the usual under garment.

Treating the late belligerents to half-a-pint of whiskey at the bar, we took leave of the interesting revellers: and strolling up the City-road as far as the Angel, on our return looked in at old Rouse's twopenny concert; the tickets for which were eightpence, but each entitled the bearer to sixpenny-worth of grog. Here some of the best room-singers of the day were engaged; amongst them was Charley Rayner, with Bob Glendon, Joe Martin, and other celebrities of the time; there were also two brothers (boot-closers) who recited remarkably well.

The company was a mixture of both sexes, and of all ages, from sixteen years of age up to middle life; nay, even greyheaded old men and women were there, who seemed as well pleased as their juvenile companions. On a platform elevated about three feet from the floor stood a piano; at which a man presided, who accompanied the vocalists. Some of these could sing to music; but in the case of such as could not, the pianist accommodated the music to the voice, as he best might. The singers were introduced according to the programme, and announced by a conductor or master of the ceremonies; and, on finishing their allotted parts, each and all enjoyed a hearty round of applause.

Rouse, the proprietor, was very particular in keeping order during the hours of performance: and, always proceeding systematically, in the end found himself at the head of a most superb establishment. I have never seen a place of the kind fitted up with such taste and elegance; the grounds are spacious, lighted up with a profusion of gas, and ornamented with grottoes and statues; the saloon, or theatre, is commodious and beautifully adorned with various designs painted on the panels of the dress-circle, which have a very lively and pleasing effect.

But at the time when my friend and I spent our evening here, the original house yet stood. It was an old-fashioned inn, called the 'Shepherd and Shepherdess', with skittle-grounds attached, and a few ill-conditioned arbours where the company smoked their pipes and quaffed their ale. At the back part of the premises, the 'governor' had raised (what he called) 'Russian mountains,' with steep circuitous pathways, made corkscrew fashion, and running from top to bottom: down which the adventurous public travelled in chairs with considerable velocity. The charge for this amusement was something very trifling—I believe a penny, or twopence; but the numbers made it a profitable speculation. From such small beginnings did ' Governor Rouse' elaborate that famous resort known to the world as the ' Eagle Tavern' in the City-road.

On the conclusion of the performances, we made the best of our way home; and parted under a promise to meet again the next evening at the 'Golden Hind' in Little Moorfields, kept by one of my friend's countrymen named Murphy; where we frequently met some excellent players at 'draughts,' in which game both of us were also acknowledged proficients. Eight o'clock being the time appointed for our meeting, I repaired punctually to the little back-parlour, which was our usual rendezvous. On entering the room, I found my friend in serious conversation with a man whom I had frequently seen in the same place, a cooper by trade, who worked at the docks. I soon gleaned from their conversation, that the cooper was inviting my friend to accompany him to an Irish wake: which the latter declined doing, on the ground that he was engaged to spend the evening with me. To obviate this little difficulty, I was also invited; and having never witnessed this ceremony, (except as typified in the wild grief of the poor young widows on board the Tigris) I readily availed myself of the occasion; and we all set out for the locality indicated.

The house was situated in one of the most secluded and dirty lanes betwixt Cripplegate workhouse and Fore-street, then called Featherbed-hill. As we approached the door, which was open, I perceived a number of lighted candles ranged in order, which were stuck into ginger-beer and blacking-bottles. Upon a table close to the door was a plate containing a quantity of silver coin,—into which my two friends threw a shilling each, as did I also, understanding such to be the custom: and then taking my seat on a plank laid between two chairs, proceeded to take a cautious survey of the company who were jabbering away together in their native Irish.

All present seemed of the lowest order; and in one corner sat three hideous-looking old women smoking short pipes black as ebony; it struck me they would have done well for the witches in Macbeth. Some of the younger females had washed their faces, and put on what (I suppose) were intended for clean caps; but the dresses of the entire company were neither of the finest quality nor latest fashion; and were besides, in many instances, considerably patched.

At the further end of the room was the corpse, laid out in white, and surrounded with candles, which threw a glare of light upon the sickening spectacle. The child (for such it was) had died of the most virulent kind of small-pox; the head had swollen beyond all proportion, and wore the appearance of an immense plum-pudding; the features being absolutely obliterated by the horrid disease. Two large bunches of flowers were placed on each side of the body; where sat the parents and kindred of the deceased. In the centre stood a can of beer and three or four earthern pots without handles, which were constantly being handed round,—with, at intervals, a glass of the 'cratur.'

As the liquor began to operate the talk became fast and furious: but what was said I knew not, as all was carried on in the Celtic vernacular. Just when the storm was at its height, the before-mentioned old women broke out into the most hideous yells that ever scared man or beast; the other females joined in a chorus loud enough to have awakened all the Irish that have been buried since the days of St. Patrick; the men began raving and fighting; pots and cans flew about in every direction: over went the tables, out went the lights, and lastly down rolled the corpse upon the floor to be kicked and trampled on by the bacchanalian mourners!

Of all the absurd rites connected with the idea of a religious (!) observance, the ceremony above described is certainly about as brutal and debasing, as any ever practised by the veriest savages in creation. I sat near the door; and, having taken the precaution to put my hat under the seat, as soon as this infernal hubbub reached its climax, I made a hasty retreat, followed by my friend and by the man who had introduced us to this extraordinary exhibition. Glad as I was to escape from such a disgusting scene, I nevertheless felt gratified that I had at least witnessed something to be remembered. The frantic sounds soon died away in the distance: and finding that it was still early, I invited our late guide to return with us and take a glass of grog.

John Brown, Sixty Years' Gleanings from Life's Harvest, 1859 [describing early 1820s]

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