The Witness
A Sketch of Irish Character

by W. Collier

During an excursion through the south of Ireland in the summer of 18--, I was obliged, owing to an accident which occurred to myself and gig (by which the former was a little bruised, and the latter pretty considerably broken), to take up my quarters for a day or two at an Inn in a town, where the business of the assizes had commenced that morning. It happened that the window of the apartment assigned me overlooked a spacious yard, at the rear of one of those venerable looking Court-houses, which may be found in many parts of the south of Ireland. Among the strange characters I there witnessed, and the stranger conversations I overheard, the subject of the following chapter was particularly impressed upon my mind.

It was on a fine tranquil summer's evening, such as one is sometimes to be met with in that land of wet days and dry potatoes, while sitting at my window in the aforesaid inn, in full enjoyment of the mild passing breeze, and the surpassing excellence of the whiskey-punch, that my attention was attracted by the sound of a voice possessing considerable humour. Anxious to know who I was indebted for as good an Irish ditty (and as well sung, too) as I had ever heard, I was on the point of ringing to inquire of the waiter, when the voice from beneath my window again broke silence, and I overheard the following soliloquy delivered in as rich a brogue as ever ornamented the mouth of a Connaught-man.

"Och! Thin what the divil is the use of my lugging this confounded lump of a portmantil up and down here? By my soul, ould chap, but turn-about's fair play all the world over any how; and since I've been carrying you for the last three quarters of an hour to mighty little purpose, you'll not be after taking it unkind if I make you return the compliment, for by the hokey it's tired I am." Suiting the action to the word, down my gentleman seated himself on one end of the portmantil (as he was pleased to term it) totally unconcerned as to the damage he might do to the interior, and commenced another lively national strain.

'Twas one of the bumpkin called his own,
Because it's name was Garryowen.

I could not help musing for some time on the apparently happy and contented turn of mind of my friend on the portmanteau, who found equal amusement in his vocal oratorical powers, as the following specimen may serve to illustrate--

"Och! Whiskey it's you are my darlint,
'Tis you that keeps me on my feet,
Though often you cause me to stagger,
Whinever we chance for to meet."

"Musha thin may the divil fly away wid the roof off the house, where my master is either sitting or standing at this present spaking; for its what I call far from polite to lave me here all alone by myself after this faxhion, like a milestone upon a common widout a mother's sowl to enter into conversation wid."

This generous effusion had barely escaped the lips of my friend Lanty (for such was the name of my humorous acquaintance) when a couple of respectably attired persons entered the court-yard; these I shall distinguish by the names attorney and client, for such I afterwards understood to be their relative situations. My friend Lanty was dumb as a fish--his eyes fixed full upon the new comers, and evidently much interested with their conversation, which ran nearly as follows.

"Now Mr. Clancy jewil, why would you be after spoiling this same? Sure it's the very pink of a will, and what could you desire that's more complete?"

"True--very true, but my conscience! Think of that, sir."

"Don't talk to me of conscience: I tell you the business must be done without delay, if it is to be done at all--and isn't is as nate an instrument as heart could wish?--Sure if the ould gentleman did die without making his will, where will be the harm in our doing that good turn for him?"

"That's all very correct, no doubt; but do you ever expect to be able to procure a witness to that will?"

"Oh! Then don't trouble yourself upon that point: remember the ould saying, my boy, 'where there's a will there's a way,' and may be I don't know the way to work out a witness on a pinch."

This information had no sooner reached the ears of Lanty, than he exclaimed (without appearing to notice the gentlemen) "Och! Thin every day's bad look to you for the same, you pair of unnatural brutes." --I was at this moment interrupted by the entrance of the waiter, a very loquacious and witty sort of personage, from whose conversation I had considerably difficulty freeing myself. To return to my former eaves-dropping occupation was but the work of a moment, but I was sorry to find that, during my short absence, the worthy Mr. Clancy had taken his departure, and that the man of law had entered into conversation with Lanty.

"May be ye'd just tell me, my friend, what it is you are sitting upon, and contriving to kick a hole through with the back of your brogues?"

"Nothing, y'er honor," said Lanty, adding in a low tone, "bad look to your curiosity."

"Nothing! why my good fellow, isn't is a portmanteau?"

"And sure that's nothing--to you."

"So! So a bit of a wag, I find."

"Faith you may say that wid your own ugly mouth."

"For one who looks so poor and needy, you are not over-sparing of your impudence."

"Thrue for you--it's poor enough I am, for if the divil or your honor was to dance in my pockets, it's not your shins you'd be after breaking against a tin penny, I'll be bail."

"Well you appear to bear your misfortunes with a light heart, my friend."

"And for why not? Though I have nothing left in the wide world save this portmantil, and that isn't intirely my own."

"Then to whom does it belong?"

"To the lawful owner to be sure, and that's my master."

"Oh! Then you have a master?"

"To be sure I have, only he's dead."

It now became pretty evident to me that the Irish peasant was trying to "take a rise" out of the lawyer, and well able I found him to execute the task.

"Pray, my fine fellow, since your master is dead, how, or by what means do you intend to live in future?"

"How? Why after your fashion to be sure, by eating and drinking--and a mighty dacent and agreeable way it is, for want of a better."

"Well, I see you are a shrewd clever fellow, and may be able to do some good for yourself. What was your master's name, my friend?"

This question seemed for a moment to confuse Lanty, but he soon recovered his self-possession and impudence. His eyes sparkled with a low cunning, and from his look I could perceive he was evidently composing a lie.

"What are you considering about, man?"

"Asy, agra, it's not considering I am, but in devouring to spill my master's name that you may have it correct--that's it, by the powers!" at the same time slapping his thigh with delight, "Mr. Theabauld Throughmorton, senior, Esquire at your service."

"Thank you, --and his profession was --?"

"How the divil should I know what it was? Do you think I don't know what common decency and politeness is? Or that I'd so far forgit myself as to ax a gentlemen how he contrived to pay sarvant's wages."

"I commend your discretion, and if you will follow me into the next tavern, you shall not lack a dinner and a glass of good wine, and I may perhaps be able to render you further service."

"You couldn't conveniently make the wine whiskey? For I'm not over partial to sloe juice, it's so long inlivening the spirits."

"Whiskey by all means, if you prefer it."

"Thin, by my sowl, yourself if the very man I wanted, if it's whiskey you said: come along, my darling, and I'll be bail I'll follow you; and if you'll only stick by me at the whiskey punch,--for that's the rale rum punch after all--and I'm the b'y that knows how to make a tumbler of it---it's as drunk as a piper I'll make you before we part, or my name's not what Father Doyle christened me."

The reader will naturally suppose I felt considerable anxiety to learn the result of my friend Lanty's interview with his liberal entertainer, though, little doubting, from his shrewd and pertinent answers, that the rustic would prove a sufficient match for the lawyer. Having finished another jug of the diluted crather, I sallied forth into the town of Clonmel in search of amusement and adventure. I had not proceeded above a mile beyond the outskirts of the town, when, passing through a long, green, shady lane, my attention was directed to a sheebean on the road side, from whence issued sounds of the most enlivening discord, produced by an itinerant tormentor of catgut on a dilapidated violin. Seeing the door stand most invitingly open, my curiosity induced me to enter, well knowing, from more than report, that I find a warm-hearted and hospitable reception; for such, gentile reader, is the stranger sure to meet with among the peasantry of the Emerald Isle. Assuming somewhat of the Irish mode of salutation, I entered boldly, with a "God save all here!" and was on the instant welcomed by at least a dozen voices ejaculating "God save you kindly!" and, "May-be your honor wouldn't take a sate." "Sure and you'll find plinty of mirth, and everything else that's comfortable, in Mick Kelly's own cabin" -- "and it's the beautiful we're going to have for a bit of a jig" -- "Paddy, you devil, don't stand there eyeing your bran-new corduroys, but mount the tub and give us a lilt, agra" -- "jig Polthouge you beauty" -- "Now your honor's glory one sup of the potheen just to rouse the cockles of your heart" -- "Och! Wait till a while ago, and may-be we won't get you an illegant partner, for I'll go bail you can kiver the buckle, and come the double shuffle as nate as nine-pence."

To give my readers any thing like a correct idea of the sort of tenement I had just entered, would puzzle even the ingenuity of our old friend Robins, who is, I believe, considered one of the most ingenious men going in that particular branch of the descriptive art. The cabin was much the same as those that generally fall to the lot of the Irish peasantry -- a comfortless and by no means cleanly looking dwelling, part of the thatch mush decayed, and here and there a hole to admit "the blessed light of heaven," or carry off the superfluous smoke; a miserable window (and only one) about two feet square, with a broken pane, through which was introduced the crown of a hat tastefully environed with a wisp of straw, evidently looking as if it felt in pain from the broken glass. I had often heard of "keeping open house for want of a door;" on this occasion the Irishism was verified: door -- there was none, and the posts were dragged several inches from their original position in the wall, owing to the too frequent demand made upon them for "a loan o' the door." It has always been my custom, through life's chequered scenes, to conform as nearly as possible to men and manners; and of this I feel confident, that no person ever truly enjoyed the sweets of real happiness and a contented mind, who wandered through the rugged path of life by a different course -- "Non noblis solum, sed toto mundo nati," is an old maxim of mine, and one that I would earnestly recommend every well wisher to his own happiness to bear in mind. I was now fairly housed, (cabined, I should have said) with every prospect of passing one of those delightful evenings of which I knew but little except from hearsay. On such occasions, it is half the battle to be in as good humour with oneself as with those around us. Fortunately I was so, and you may be sure I found no very great difficulty in making myself tolerably agreeable to the company, and particularly so, to a pretty little black-eyed daughter of Erin, who as soon as the door (which had been taken off the hinges on purpose) was laid down for the dance, dropped me a "low bob," and most condescendingly invited me to become her partner in a jig. I'm now fairly in for it, thought I; but the honor of a Cockney was at stake, and not wishing to cast even the shadow of a strain upon the gallantry of my Brothers of Bow, I of course consented. Laugh if you list, as you no doubt would have done, had you beheld me capering away with my pretty Norah, to the no small delight of those around us, and to a tune I think they called the "Irish fox hunter's jig," which, for at least a quarter of an hour, kept me moving at a rate far beyond my accustomed speed. I was as last obliged to resign the honor of contending further with my fair partner, who I found, was only then entering upon what she called, "the spirit of the thing;" and not wishing to emulate

"The pair, who simply sought renown,
By holding out to tire each other down."

Judge my surprise, when I found that my successor for the honors of Terpsichore and the lady's hand, was no other than my old friend Lanty; who, like myself, had been attracted to the spot by the harmonious scraping of Paddy Madden's fiddle. I now thought myself amply repaid for all the fatigue I had undergone, and determined not to lose sight of my man until I had procured all the information he could give me respecting his friend the lawyer, for which I felt no small degree of interest. In this transitory state, sooner or later all things must have an end -- 'twas so with our merry-making. Poor Paddy Madden, the fiddler, when I entered the scene of merriment, was at least three sheets in the wind; but now, alas! Owing to sundry potations of potheen, he was fuddled quite. Down he went "from his high estate," tub and all, sprawling upon the floor. I now thought it high time to beat a retreat, and having made my host a compliment for his hospitable entertainment, I took my departure, amid the hearty and honest good wishes of my merry companions; determined, however, to watch the motions of Master Lanty. It was not long before I heard him "shouting away for dear life" --

"Och it's merry I've been, and it's merry I'll be,
Care and sorrow I'll drive to the divil;
Thin a lass, and a glass of good whiskey give me,
And you'll find I'm the boy that is civil."

"Asy wid you, now, good look to your honor, asy; and as we are both traveling' the same road, may-be you wouldn't object to company, for it's a dacent man you are, and proud I'll be in following you." We soon became as well pleased with each other's society as if we had been old croneys; and when, during our conversation, I gave my companion to understand that I had overheard all that passed between him and his court-yard acquaintance, I thought he would have jumped out of his brogues with joy.

"Och! Thin, is that the way wid you -- I see how it is, my jew'l, and it's myself that's better pleased wid that bit of information than if I'd found a bran-new guinea. -- May-be I won't tell you how nately I've done the ould thief o' the world -- But you'll keep it snug to yourself' wont you avic?" I satisfied his scruples on that point, by assuring him he might depend upon my secrecy.

"Sure I know that same -- divil a bit of the dirty informer is there about you any how. -- Well thin, you must know, when I left the court-yard wid Mr. Turney, he took me into a mighty gintale sort of tavern, and stood trate to as nate a bit o' dinner as you ever clapt your two good-looking eyes upon -- corned beef and a turkey-poult it was, by the powers! -- and illegant garnish. But, by the piper that played before Moses! May-be we hadn't lashuns of punch! -- Och! Good look to that same whiskey! For it's a magnanimous mollifier of hearts -- it would have done you good, agra, had you seen how it softened the heart of ould Latitat. He wasn't long informing me wid the nature of the job he had for me, and as illegant a black piece of business it is as your honor could wish to hear -- it's only to be witness to a bit of a will, which a dead man is about to make, having forgot to do that same when he was alive."

"This is too much of a good thing, Master Lanty; I suppose you have found something soft about me, and are trying to play off one of your jokes; for who the deuce ever heard of a dead man making his will? You're joking, man."

"Divil a joke: it's thrue as gospel; and more's the pity -- so there's no use in denyin' it. -- It's bad look'll come of it, said I to the ould thief o' the world; and it's twice you ought to think of what you're about to do, that's not wanst before an' wanst afther -- but two times both together."

"If it is nor requiring too much, may-be you would be kind enough to inform me in what way this precious piece of villainy is to be accomplished?"

"Wid all the pleasure in life, and heartily welcome you're to it; for it's soon tould. -- Why, then, suppose your honor was to make up your mind to die decently, widout ever thinking of the bit of a will, by which you make an illegant present of your property after you're dead. In order, therefore, to save your kindred and friends the throuble and disagreement which always follys such a mistake, some good sowl wid the help of a blaguard Turney, makes the bit of a will for you, to which the law in course requires your name to appear in full at the fut. A pen is then placed in your dead hand, and by the kind help of some friend present you are made to sign the will you forgot to make. Well, to make the consciences of the witnesses asy upon that pint, and that everything may be done clane and comfortable, a lusty live lump of a blue-bottle must be put into your honor's mouth, and thin may-be all concerned (barring your honor) can't swear wid parfect safety, that you had life in your body when you put your good-looking hand-writing to the document!!!"

"And have you consented to become a witness?"

"Why, after many promises to procure me a snug bit of a place under government, if I'd folly his instructions, I did agree to become a witness. This set his mind perfectly asy; and having pocketed a couple of his nate yellow b'ys by way of arnist, we parted wid the understanding that I was to be wid him in the morning -- but it's there I'll never be, bad look to him -- do you think I'd be after selling myself to the divil for the likes of such a blaguard? -- not I, faix -- So if he wants any more information consarning Lanty M'Loughlin, he may direct what he's got to say to the care of Peter Mulligan the huxter, who keeps the litter-office in our town; for it's off I am afore peep-o'-day for my own darling Sligo!!!"

I had by this time regained my inn, where I parted with my merry acquaintance, whose character I leave in the hands of my indulgent readers; hoping they will form as favourable an opinion of it as I have done.