A singular country, p.2
A Singular Country, p.2J. P. Donleavy
Ah but not all of your arriviste aristocrats were inclined to go. So now let’s instead concentrate on your invariably tweedy man who remained. And who was another kettle of philosophical fish entirely. Now perhaps surprisingly, there were more than a few of this kind of chap who came to tolerate it here. Indeed some even liked it and preferred it to England. Usually such a chap had practised and perfected and had handy a stage Irish brogue to use in his occasional banter with the household and estate staff who would be well known not to do anything too quickly or at all if addressed in the superior tones of an English accent.
“Ah begorra Paddy now how do them cattle faring over beyond?”
“Sir I have just this second every last one of them counted and there be not a bother on them. There’d only be two heifers or is it the three, gone missing.”
Now of course with the latter bad news from Paddy, your squire would lapse instantly into his best Royal Navy lingo as to where the bloody hell were the two missing heifers. But otherwise your squire man, as Paddy scratched his skull, would remain the benign landlord and mostly uncomplainingly tolerant of the foibles of this indigenous race. Who interpret their oft told lies as being the truth only told for the time being. And sure they didn’t mind braiding the mane of your horse till midnight or polishing the hooves of your man’s steed at dawn for the day’s hunting ahead of the fox. Or them down in the kitchens making a sandwich or two to fit snugly in your silver sandwich box along with polishing, sampling and filling your brandy flask. Or the same if your man set out to shoot pheasant or to loose many a barrel trampling his boggy wastes bang, bang at the elusive snipe darting up. And when not busy with his shotgun out on the miles of bogs he’d row out on one of his lakes to be yanking out the trout. Or with Paddy leading him to the best pools to take salmon out of the river. Or pike out of the lake that do be eating the trout. And prior to and following such sport, your gentleman up in the big house, as he would now be widely known and referred to, would enjoy his Madeira, claret and port. And if a sudden chill was coming on, he would not hesitate to have a few belts of whiskey in between to keep warm. And in this pursuit of such sporting and occasionally comfortable habits, your indigenous Anglo Irishman came to be born. Such gentleman was not inclined to take much notice of his staff robbing him blind. For at least there always seemed a bullock or two left from those gone missing, that could be sent to market. And in the more dire event that there weren’t, there were still a few acres that could be sold to the neighbouring farmer. But even before that was done, a few trees out of the plantation of oaks out of sight beyond the hill would bring in a quid or two. For they were growing quick enough in the favourable climate. But never would the sacrilege be committed of taking axe or saw to those trees decorating his parklands and pleasure gardens, or those sheltering him and his mansion from sight along the road. And wherever you see soaring boughs keeping the sun from sweetening the grass you’d know an Anglo Irishman was not far away. So for the present could this squire preserve his endless time being. And do so without having to plumb the depths of what might be a non existent fortune.
But even when there are no more cattle, trees or land to be sold and you yourself up in the big house are going rapidly native in the serenity of the Irish countryside, the days in your life do be flying by like lightning and your feet do tip toe unnoticed towards your grave always nicely situated down its peacefully sylvan dell. And if the natives haven’t crept close by moonlight to deliberately put a torch to your mansion or a servant accidentally drop a red hot glowing ember in one of your turf baskets, then only time itself will imperceptibly bring upon you hard times with the usual slate slippings, blocked gutters and downspouts and the roof beams rotting overhead. As you in your trusty, if threadbare, satin smoking jacket, go with your crystal decanter of port, having moved your comfortable sofa and bed to drier rooms, where now, as you quaff your vintages, you avoid the heavier drips of moisture descending from the ceiling.
In all this previous declining time one fact is forever salient. The Irish neighbouring farmer has his gimlet eye on you. He has all along been cunningly letting his own cattle break through your fences to graze every green nibble off your remoter fields. Of course in such winter days it is already too dark by the time you dislodge from bed to exercise your hunting horse out to where the intrusion can be seen. But don’t worry, soon your neighbouring farmer will have his cattle brazenly out tearing the emerald blades of grass off the big house park lands and soon after, in fact upon the day of your most exasperated pained complaint, will offer to buy the land at a knockdown price. And why not. You’d still be gentry. And such a convenient arrangement could mean years yet for you peacefully up in the big house allowing you to gracefully pursue your comfortable habits by retaining a paddock or two to graze your hunting horses plus retain the sporting rights over your previous land which would allow you still to hunt, shoot and fish and be surrounded by your flea bitten dogs peeing up against all four posts of your bed. And never mind that now you be digging your meals out of a sardine can with an old rusted wood chisel.
So god forbid should the last examples of this gone native landlord gentleman be taken for his ultimate journey and finally vanish entirely from the last room of his house. The mood of the landscape would surely be poorer without him. But alas more to hear their clipped vowels or to see them in their libraries reading the Daily Telegraph. Not that you would dare brave the four giant Irish wolfhounds to get that close to the window anyway, such faithful dogs being used by Irish kings to smell out traitors in their camp. However, what now. Your man of the gentry is finally laid deep mouldering under the daffodils. Well let me tell you for a start, what now. What use is the big old crumbling mansion to any local farmer or even his hard working wife if she had the nerve to put on such airs and weather the scorn of the neighbours. She’d at the outset need a raincoat for the roof leaks in the kitchen and roller skates to cover the back and forth miles in the hallways. Plus a tiara to wear of an evening down the main staircase on the way to dinner. So in his wellington boots your farmer climbs the granite steps and opens up the front double doors wide to let his cattle in. And here on the parquet floors these beasts have somewhere to scratch themselves on the marble mantels of the chimney pieces and in the commodious reception rooms to be sheltering out of the chill wind and cold rain and not lose a pound or two of flesh that such inclemency would melt off them.
Ah but then as the cow flop goes plop on such mansion’s floors and the mooing of the farmer’s beasts reverberates through where once the locals were in fear to tread, so too are we left with the ghosts of many of the Anglo Irish. Whose spirits still dwell here and can make the hair stand up on the back of your head. For on some wild Irish winter nights with gales blowing storm force and rain pelting down, you will see up there on the hill candle light faintly glowing. On this blackest of black evenings. And up there beyond, away within a broken window in the mansion’s ballroom, chandeliers glisten and long tables hold silver trays of canapés and great crystal bowls sparkle with punch and champagne. Servants in their moss green livery glide to and fro. And listen. Above the thrashing wind and lashing rain. Do you hear that music? The harp, the viola and the violins. It would be your usual Hungarian orchestra imported all the way by rail and sea from Budapest and playing this waltz. And there be himself enthralled, the gentleman squire, impeccably accoutred in white tie and tails. Protestant angel wings sprouting from his back to flutter from each shoulder blade. Taking the first lady in her flowing long gown of crinolines and silks out to dance across the parquet floor. And lurking near, retainers pull forelocks and bow and scrape. While the fox the master of the household would be hunting in the morning, canine paws on the sill, is peering in through the window. And you might say it was grand, grand, grand. And that all that now is gone, gone, gone. But you would be
SUCH ANCIENT MONUMENTS WORN BY TIME AND RAIN STAND IN WITNESS AND REM
It is time now to get it firmly established in your mind that Ireland is more upper cruster pukka than you think. Not all of your living and breathing ascendancy have disappeared. And more than some little elegance is still hidden under the decay and decline. For there be other settlers who, like their bones in their coffins under the emerald turf, will never vanish from this landscape as so many less resilient of their ilk have, who, clinging to the last shreds of their original magnificence, beat it back to England. For there were some of these folk who had come to love Ireland as their own. And who because of their sympathetic regard and tolerance for the ways of the natives never were totally pilfered into paupery or had their mansions burned. Here and there sheltered back from the roadway they remain upon the landscape, smoke still rising from at least one chimney. Their gateways in their long walls still to be seen. And the squire inhabitant of the big house neither putting a gun to his head nor having to repress the desire to return to the ordered civilisation and safety of the Motherland.
Now His Nib’s accent would have long lost its clipped vowels and there would be a soft mellifluousness to his voice. And except for his tailoring, and matched Purdey shotguns and penchant for vintage port, you’d nearly think at a distance he was one of your hand to forelock local natives. And indeed to some considerable extent he is. For hasn’t he while maturing to manhood and afterwards, been sowing a few of his wild oats in and among the staff. Now no one is suggesting he couldn’t control his healthy outdoor fortified carnal appetites but it would be natural enough for him after some fine dining and wining and a little the worse for port, to be having a go or two at Bridie or Bridget the stout built scullery maids retired after midnight to bed up in their attic cells. And with the consequences arriving like little calves be doing out in the fields, your man wouldn’t be thinking any differently about it than he would over the expansion of the numbers in his cattle herd. The increased population simply being there in the household and growing up making themselves as useless as their mothers were and fitting in well with the other staff lurking and lounging around the place. In any event you’d end up having a crew perhaps no better but at least no worse than you’d find in many another Irish country house where the same kind of licentiousness was going on with a gone native Anglo Irish widow or two.
But now as you’d imagine this gentleman and pasha and squire of this great estate is, and has become, a strange specimen indeed. His motto being, hunt, shoot and fish and live and let live. His habit being to turn a blind eye to malingering, pilfering, trespassing and poaching. And not a bad word would be said about him by those less materially endowed who dwelled in the surrounding parish. In fact he would be referred to as a generous, friendly, decent and fair man who only had a few screws loose in the head and perhaps a few bats flying around in his belfry. It being nearly unanimously agreed that his mansion should be left standing and he left eating, drinking and even betimes fornicating in it. But of course there would always be your contrary politically motivated nationalists growling discontent, however these usually crackshot and skilled fishermen, provided they were able to poach a few salmon, rabbits and pheasant from your man’s rivers, forest and parklands would always hold their agitation till another day.
Now coming out of any reasonable sized town you don’t have to travel far to see such mansion’s chimneys towering on the landscape. And with His Nibs still in it. The first telltale sign being a stone wall and a plethora of ancient trees flanking along the road. You’ll get some hint of the owner’s financial condition by the number of holes that falling trees have flattened in the wall. Then soon you’ll come to a gate lodge, tattered curtains behind its broken windows and with a tree growing through the roof. But intact will be the massive iron gates which limp from their hinges and which are locked closed with a stout chain. All of which says keep out. Take no special notice of any of this. But continue on past the shiny leaved mass of rhododendrons and wait till you encounter what looks like an old rutted narrow overgrown boreen. Now this little hedged in lane would have once been the exit from the stately entrance drive you’ve already passed a wee bit back. Such an arrangement being that in your old former grander days one did not have to turn a vehicle around in front of the house but could with utter nonchalant convenience drive your carriages or motor car straight out another road. No small advantage to Your Nibs, the owner who can bloody well keep you, as you reverse all over the place, from rutting up his ruddy lawn. So if you’ve no mind of branches and briars scratching your car, go in this entrance. If it’s day time you may be thinking you’re entering a strange nightmare. Pay no attention to this overgrown jungle surprise. And fear not in the passing shadows the great writhing roots of the rhododendrons which would look like a bunch of hungry dark grey pythons ready to come and get you. St Patrick took care of all of them sorts of creatures. But hold on to your hat over the potholes. These would do more damage to you than cobras or crocodiles with your wheel axles breaking and mud splashing up into your gearbox. But take courage. Motor on. Worth it all for what you’ll see at the end.
But first, before you reach the big house, hear a little more about your upper cruster man, His Nibs the pasha. In his worn and torn tweeds, his boots and cap and secluded beyond redemption in this grown wild estate, he would for a start have his gold cuff links holding his silk shirt cuffs together. And never mind the wintry rain pelting him, he’d be well adapted for his survival. He’d be late of a morning out of bed after his mountainous heap of bacon, eggs, tomatoes and sausages washed down with enough thick tea to float a battleship. He is, like the bastards who run yelping between his legs and around his house, born in Ireland. Indeed born up in the bedroom just below the very attic of the very mansion where he himself has put the scullery maids in calf. He has long been able to suffer both your descending and rising varieties of damp, which long ago seeped deep into your man’s bones. While his labour force is out in the stableyard tackroom contemplatively having a smoke, he’d be wearing thick gloves and cap and still in his muddy boots as he sits huddled in front of his newspaper. His life is simplicity itself. He’d have long ago accepted the fact that no one but himself was going to be really attentive to minding his cattle. Or go as he does to open his own gates to his beef herd when it’s thought time to let them graze further afield where the grass would be longer and sometimes even greener. And your men having a smoke in the tackroom would always be ready to drive the beasts into the yard for castration and skulling off their horns, the latter activity being their most highly enjoyed of farming chores. But soon your cattle themselves would be knowing this and by god before you had a chance to open a gate they’d put their own convenient holes in the hedge or fences and soon be gone distantly in a lot of your unwanted directions.
Now what has just happened is an event which brings about another of great significance. Lurking deep down in the soul of your pasha still glows an ember of imperialism and empire and the long learnt lessons taught that the natives should be kept in and know their place and such be demonstrated by all your outward signs of behaviour. And it is coincident with his final cattle escape that your man the squire finally throws down the gauntlet to admit and let it be known that he has gone unreservedly native. Availing as he does of the cheapest and fastest way of mending a broken fence or blocking up a gap in a hedge. For out of the big house and lugged down the servants’ stairs come the old iron bed steads and springs from the many disused servants’ rooms. And these often quite elaborately brass adorned furnishings are placed intertwined with a few briars or a stout bough of a blackthorn to hold them in the hedge gap or to block up a breached fence lashed with a strand or two of barbed wire. All of which fencing is utter anathema and blasphemy to your local fox hunting fraternity whose horses go crashing through such hedges and jumping over such fences. Which are now lethal flesh tearing obstacles to those pursuing the fox and which by god
However, your presently eccentric squire gone native would still like when necessary to remain able to purchase your odd manmade necessity such as candles for the house, and so would soon need to sell an odd head or two of his unstrayed cattle at the market. And mind you he wouldn’t have gone totally native in what he would do next. Taking a bath. Getting out a clean silk shirt. Popping in his best cuff links and with monocle gleaming over an eye, be taken by horse and carriage to the train to Dublin. Where, arriving in the metropolis, he would first deposit himself in the splendid ambience of the lounge of the Royal Hibernian Hotel or down in its buttery and quaff back a snipe of champagne. Letting himself get thoroughly bored before he would deign to escape from the noise and the people and go dine within the red brick sanctum of the Kildare Street Club. Followed later by much port and sport over an emerald glowing snooker table.
Meanwhile back at the farm, the mansion and the big estate, the downspouts are blocked and the dead leaves long settled and rotted in the roof gutters are causing drips descending the stone work. And some more of the slates have slipped. Leaving gaps that would have you dodging downpours within. And your man was long ago warned that the king post spanning his attic and holding aloft trusses and beams and which supported the surrounds of the glass dome that arches over the great entrance hall three storeys high, was weakened with rot. Now the theory is that, as everything has been this way for years past, why wouldn’t it in the same mood of immobility last these few more years holding, as it has long held, the beams, trusses and rafters faithfully serving their purpose under the many tons of massive slates. And so it does in the ample timelessness available continue to miraculously do. Ah but them traitorous old prehistoric woodworms have since a past suddenly warm June been also wreaking their dusty havoc, and weakening the king post. And although this massive piece of timber is, outwardly at least, looking fine, within, it is but a crumbling brittle bit of old pulverulence that wouldn’t hold up the weight of a monk’s impure thought and would resemble more your morning piece of burnt toast that Bridget or Bridie have put blackened on your breakfast tray.
A Singular Country by J. P. Donleavy / Humor have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes