THE LIFE OF THE 18TH CENTURY IRISH PEASANT ( Real life through the eyes of a fictional character) by glenn kinyon

100_1547_0001Thady was born in the west of Ireland in County Kerry, a ruggedly beautiful land of bald mountains, low forests, and deep blue lakes. During Thady’s time, County Kerry was about as provincial a backwater as one would find in Ireland, and that’s saying something. Thady’s father died when he was a toddler and his mother turned him over to her brother’s family to be raised while she disappeared to God knows where. Ultimately he was raised by the family of a companion after running off at the age of twelve. Hunger and beatings had been his lot to that point. He was always big for his age, which meant he was continually being challenged by older boys to defend himself. And that he did very well.Ireland

Thady’s one refuge was the church. The parish curate took pity on him and he was made to feel at home with Irish Catholic ritual and Bible teachings. As did most Catholic peasants, Thady grew up superstitious.  In Ireland, as in Russia or Ethiopia or Scandinavia, Christianity was blended with the ancient beliefs of the local culture. Certain people could cast spells with good or evil intent. Charms could be worn, potions swallowed. The devil might appear in the form of an animal, and the parish priest might consecrate a batch of holy water to protect a parishioner from a perceived evil omen. Banshees cried out in the night.  Pennies were tossed over shoulders, cards were read, and signs were interpreted.Fighting with sticks

At fourteen, Thady was recruited by an exclusively-Catholic organization known as the Whiteboys. The Whiteboys were protectors, a gang of bloody vigilantes with various local chapters and leaders. They settled the grievances of the poor helpless tenants against powerful landlords, agents, and tithe proctors. If a family’s farm was confiscated to pay outstanding debt, the Whiteboys would threaten anyone who turned up at the auction, or they might raise funds to buy the property back at very low bids with no one else bidding against them. They were as violent as it got, and many a manor house was burned to the ground, many a traitor killed by Whiteboy gangs. In the parlance of the time, to be “up” was to be initiated into the Whiteboys.Irish cudgel fighting

Like the Hatfields and McCoys, their cousins in the old country feuded family against family with fatal results. Massive, deadly gang fights occurred at community fairs—or even at funerals or weddings—like clockwork. Rows between families were called “faction fights.” At times these skirmishes might erupt in the middle of town when a member of one family looked sideways at a member of the other, but more often they were planned. Then there were “party fights,” which were essentially religion-based. Party fights pitted Catholics, or “Popish,” against Protestants, who were commonly represented by the “Orangemen” after the latter’s founding in 1795. Party fights were considered to be even more bloodthirsty than the family feuds, as clans that were enemies at other times would join together under the banner of their common faith. Unlike Catholics, Orangemen were allowed by law to carry muskets, which could make those fights a bit unequal.Pikes In “Beyond the Berezina,” Sir Malcolm discovers Thady while watching a party fight between the Whiteboys and the Orangemen from his hotel balcony. As Irish Catholics had been forbidden from owning firearms for so long, their fighting factions had become proficient with other implements of warfare, and particularly the cudgel. They knew which type of wood made the best weapon, and they learned how to fill them with lead at the end “what’s to make acquaintance with the cranium,” as Thady explains in the story.  After seeing fifteen-year-old Thady fail to so much as flinch when a cudgel is broken over his head, Sir Malcolm takes him under his protection and tutelage, and the rest is history. Well, fictional history.Irish brawler

The rural Irish were overwhelmingly Catholic; the entire country had been Catholic roughly from the sixth or seventh century until Henry VIII founded the Anglican Church and began giving Irish land to the Anglican nobility. His daughter Elizabeth I populated Northern Ireland with Protestants from Scotland and England, transferring ownership of land confiscated from the Irish Catholics. In Thady’s time, the rural Irish spoke both the Celtic language and English, and had an interesting way of Anglicizing the one, and Celti-cizing the other. A statement in English might be capped off with ersha misha, which means “Say I.” A common exclamation was dher manhim, or “by my soul.” The Celtic—or Irish or Gaelic—language is a language of deep emotion and colorful description. One of my favorite Irish phrases is acushla machree (or simply acushla), which means “pulse of my heart.” A mother might refer this way to her child, or a man to his sweetheart. I find it to be a touching way of expressing an intense feeling. Asuillish machree means “light of my heart.” When addressing a close friend or loved one, different Irish words meaning essentially “darling” or “beloved” were thrown in at the beginning or end of a sentence—Alannah, avourneen,  astora, achora, aroon, avick, ahagur, inusha, and musha to name a few. A common term of endearment for little boys was bouchal or bouchaleen. Girls were referred to as colleens. Colleen Bawn means “Fair Girl.” 100_1422

Irish curses in those days, likewise, were evocative and meaningful. For instance, “May the grass grow tall at your door.”  While at first thought that might not sound like such an unpalatable imprecation, when you think about it a little harder the meaning is a bit more chilling. Imagine what would precede grass growing tall at your door. You have been kept from the most basic act of tidiness and concern for appearance. For that to have happened, you and your family have been destroyed. “May the crows have your carcass” is another one set off by a real hatred, considering it precludes a “dacent Christian berril.” Evil charms were known as pisthroges. A few other common Irish words or phrases mixed in with English were: kailyee—a friendly evening visit; fetch—a ghost that assumes the form of a known person living or deceased; collogue—verb meaning to whisper; phatie or pratie—potato; shebeen—a drinking establishment; poteen—whiskey. And speaking of whiskey, the rural Irish were adept at designing and building stills to avoid liquor taxes. These were usually hidden up in the mountains near a continuous source of running water, and the locals were ever watchful for government men, who as often as not took their cut to keep quiet.

100_1570Irish speakers in those days were big on puns and word play, but their humor could be quite sophisticated, too, particularly among the more educated groups, such as estate owners, teachers, clergymen, or students of the priesthood. Teachers were highly sought after, by the way, and it was common for them to entertain competing bids from different parishes or communities. Hedge schools were the standard means of imparting an education to the children of the poor. These were so named because, lacking a building, classes were conducted in good weather beside hedge rows. Sometimes, though, a barn or house might be available. There are stories of teachers being kidnapped from one community and taken to another to be plied with gifts and put to work.100_1571_0001

My intent was for Thady’s interests and manner of speech to accurately reflect those of the Irish Catholics of the 18th and 19th centuries. He is a lover of scrapes and scrimmages and busting heads, an occasional pipe smoker and a very occasional brandy drinker. He is also humorous and soft-hearted when someone or something catches his attention just right. He has to part company with his Russian sweetheart in Moscow, but doesn’t let it get to him. He grew up illiterate, but Sir Malcolm teaches him to read and gives him a general education. Thady’s first duty is as a bodyguard for Sir Malcolm; he’s trained as a battlefield warrior, too, in time to take part in the bloody affray at Vinegar Hill in County Wexford against the British.Vinegar Hill Battle He’s the only person Sir Malcolm takes to Russia when fleeing His Majesty’s army—fleeing Brigade Major Robert Wilson, in particular.


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