Thursday 5 May 2016

"Old Q" – An Irish Character Sketch

By Precentor Courtenay Moore, M.A.

The "Old Q" of this paper has no connection whatever, except in title, with "Old Q" of more infamous than famous memory.

My "Old Q" belonged to a class of Irishmen not much exploited in literature; he was in no sense a "Stage Irishman": he never tried to amuse people, though he did amuse "an audience fit though few," very much. He was by nature sour and severe, he had none of the sparkling fun connected with the typical Paddy, far otherwise, his reputation was mainly founded on his facility for making "pinitrative remarks." When I made his acquaintance he represented like Charles Lamb, "Retired Leisure"; but, unfortunately, unlike Lamb, without a pension. He was one of a family of small farmers, and had received a fairly good education. He had a working knowledge of Latin, and was also a fairly good Gaelic scholar. He had been "a guardian of Her Majesty's public revenues," like Mr. Bardell, but for some reason sufficient, or insufficient, his services had been dispensed with, and alas without a pension. Perhaps, or probably in his own estimation, it was "an Irish grievance." Be that as it may, when I knew him first he was what is called in Ireland, "a walking gentleman" – a gentleman at large.

He was then turned sixty, "a grey and gap-toothed man," our intimacy rapidly ripened. Primate Alexander, who was a great master of epigrams, described Bishop Reichel as "an acidulated draught from the Diocese of Meath," and this phrase very happily hits off my "Old Q." He seldom or never smiled, and never laughed; he was always acidulated, sarcastic, caustic, always making "pinitrative remarks." His conversation was also remarkable for his choice of language, he used a good deal, indeed a great deal of what we call in Ireland "Dictionary English," interspersed with strong epithets in Gaelic, which gave it an added flavour. Poor man, "he lived very near his timper," so people used to describe him. Over his official life he drew a decent veil, probably wisely; he had served in England and Scotland, but as a rule never intimated that he had "been foreign." Having no occupation except "caring" a public building, he had much spare time on his hands, and like every Irishman he was a born politician. Friends supplied him with newspapers, and he went by the name of "the pocket o' papers." Descriptive titles of their kind are very common in Ireland. Having much spare time on hands he often paid me a visit to enable him to pass it. He regarded himself as a public censor of morals, not that he was encouraged in this tone and temper of mind, but he had always a grievance, "what harm," he said, a favourite Irish form of expression, "what harm if I wasn't always trying to put people right, and do them good  –  and this is the return they make me"! He was like Corney Delaney in Jack Hinton, "Ugh, the haythens, the Turks." "Old Q's" formula was, "I declare to God I'd rather live among the Kurds of Armenia" – pronounced Armainia – "than be with them – Goths and Vandals! Goths and Vandals"! He had only a few intimate friends, who, partly from pity, and partly for the amusement they found in his society patronized him. "Mr. Bill," a local notable of joking and generous nature, and he had been great allies, and "shone well," as the saying goes, for a time, but "Mr. Bill" deserted him at a crisis, and "Old Q," who required absolute obedience, "Love me all in all or not at all," never forgave this defection.

"Mr. Bill," he used to say with great emphasis, "Mr. Bill made a holocaust of me, but I'll be his Nemesis." This remark was carried to "Mr. Bill" who inquired, "would you give me small change for that, laddy boy." "Mr. Bill" had a great reputation of his own for conversational powers, he was said "to talk like a threshing machine"; it was a good description!

In the course of time "Old Q" got to be described as "the Bodyguard" as well as "the Pocket of Papers," in consequence of his personal attendance on myself. He used to spring out from side streets and back streets on me as I went about the Parish, and accompany me in my walks, giving me some lessons in conversational Gaelic, which were very useful, I had by no means the worst of the intimacy. Every Sunday he had a happy day, for he spent it with a relative, a comfortable farmer in the district. This habit was well known, and got to be described in an amusing way, viz.:–"'Mr. Q' takes a country life every Sunday." It sounds very bloody, but it did not mean that he committed a murder every Sunday, only that he spent it in the country. He had only three or four intimate friends. There was an old woman in the Parish at the time who had an equally limited circle, she used to say to me, "well, I've just the three 'frinds,' God Almighty, yer Reverence, an' 'Mr. Bill'" – the "Mr. Bill" aforesaid. "Old Q" was not so pious, he did not introduce much of religious phraseology into his conversation. His "pinitrative remarks" have been already illustrated. On a certain occasion he followed some young children, who had annoyed him, home to their mother's house, and addressed her as follows:– "My good woman, I'm not certain that your children will end their days on the gallow's, but I'm sure they will in good time appear in the dock." Naturally he was not generally popular, he plentifully showered about such contemptuous Gaelic terms as "bosthoon," "cauboge," "omad-haun," etc., at all and sundry of the lower order who annoyed him. He was wonderfully susceptible of flattery, and one of his friends was in the habit of "bringing him forth butter in a lordly dish." It was most amusing to see and to hear this, the flatterer arranged his attitude, bending his knees, spreading his hands on his thighs, and gazing with the most rapt attention and even devotion into "Old Q's" face, as the latter described how in his earlier days he would clear a street with a "boscaun soggart," literally "death without the priest" – i.e., a stout blackthorn – and how he would glory to do it again. Reader have you ever seen an Irish listener of this type? If not, you don't know Irish life yet – he or she is like Tennyson's nun –
"Breathless with adoration."

Under the influence of Dan K.'s worship "Old Q" waxed warm, grasped his blackthorn by the middle, making it flourish round his head after the fashion which the French call faire le moulinet, like the Miller when preparing to fight with Gurth, as described in Ivanhoe – like Goldsmith's broken soldier he –
"Shouldered his crutch and showed how fields were won."

Poor man, unfortunately for himself he lived before the period of Old Age Pensions. He was miserably poor; his financial backbone was a small weekly allowance of outdoor relief. Then there was the country life which he took every Sunday. This implied a good dinner with roast goose, roast beef or roast mutton, and whiskey punch. The taking of the country life also meant a large loaf of home-made bread and a jar of cream which he carried back with him every Sunday night. Still, even with all these little extras he had a hard time of it, and lived a very Spartan life. He had not the usual religious consolation which Irish people as a rule have, not that they were in any sense denied him, but he had not the temperament to enjoy them. "The iron had entered into his soul"; he was "one writ in sour misfortune's book." He spoke of devotees as "craw-thumpers" and schamers – more of his "pinitrative remarks." He could and would and did point out concrete instances of such. He once came in a very angry and unsettled state of mind to complain of one of his own clergy who, he said, had declared that he was selling himself to me as a convert, and that I was buying him. The report was absolutely baseless, and was probably circulated only to annoy him. But, said he, "I'll let him see he can't villify me with impunity." It was a case of:–
"Nemo impune me lacesset."

"If necessary I'll carry him to his Bishop, and if necessary from his Bishop to the Court of Rome and lay his misconduct before his Holiness the Pope himself."

Fortunately, this extreme course did not become necessary. By degrees his health failed, "sharp misery had worn him to the bone." As long as he "could take a country life every Sunday" he took it, but, alas, in time strength failed him. He was obliged to take refuge in the Union Hospital, it was practically the only resource open to him. Naturally he did not like the surroundings and associations. He missed the loose leg, the open air, the blue or grey sky, the green fields, the lofty mountains, the Sunday dinner on roast goose and whiskey punch – all these exchanged for the hospital ward and the companionship of a class which he disliked. Still, he would never say die. I saw him occasionally as a friend before the end came – our friendship continued unbroken and unabated to the last, as might naturally have been expected. He used to say to me when I asked him how he was – "Fauga me shood moratasha" – i.e., leave it alone, leave it as it is; in other words let us be patient – a very philosophic and Christian maxim. Poor man, he went through fire and water in this world, let us hope that God brought him to a wealthy place. I have known many specimens of the Irish character, yet never one quite like him or almost in any degree like him. He had no Irish fun in him, no Irish geniality, little or nothing of what we are accustomed to regard as typically Irish. Yet he was absolutely un-English. If you had met him at the North Pole you would have known him at once to be Irish by his face. Misfortune no doubt sorely tried him. He knew a good deal of old interesting local history, and from him I learned an account of the last duel fought in the Co. Cork, which I contributed to the Cork Historical and Archaeological Journal, then he was a fairly good Gaelic scholar; indeed, take him all round he had a very fairly furnished mind, he was rather, on the whole, an exceptional type of Irishman, he had little or no Blarney, little or no soft sawder, he was too fond of "pinitrative temarks," and he had to take the consequences, which were often anything but pleasant, but, no doubt, he comforted, or tried to comfort himself by saying, "Liberavi animan mean," or, "Fauga me shood moratasha." Another Irish proverb of which he was very fond was, "One must cut the gad nearest the throat." The root idea of this is you must release yourself by ridding yourself of the most choking stricture. Poor "Old Q" was trying to cut the gad nearest the throat all the time I knew him, and if I in any degree helped him in the painful effort I feel thankful, and I readily confess that I owe as much or more to him than he did to me. How can anyone be lonely, even in the country, with such society. There was another great oddity in the parish at the same period, a retired Protestant clergyman – an excellent English scholar, whose favourite authors were Shakespeare and Shelley. He was quite at home with both. He, too, had a great selection of Dictionary English. Take a specimen. He had a vivid imagination. He contemplated long and costly foreign tours, and often talked much of publishing a volume of poems. One day he dropped in and said – "I have been to the railway station inquiring the price of tickets en route to the Continent, and as I crossed the lawn I could not help thinking with what contempt the great Condor of the Andes, and the Albatross that sleeps upon the wing must regard the poor human biped that is compelled to travel with a railway ticket"!

I versified this sentence soon after in order to preserve it:–
O mighty Condor I often ponder,
And think with wonder,
On thy powers of flight
Whilst mine are slight.
And thou O mighty Albatross,
Who art of birds a boss,
Canst sleep upon the wing,
While I a poor weak thing
Must travel with a railway ticket,
And let the guard and porter nick it.

Text: The Church of Ireland Gazette, 22nd April 1914.
Image: Old Tramp, a painting in oils by Laszio Mednyanszky.

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