Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Types of Irish Landlords
By Maria Edgeworth (17681849)
From Castle Rackrent
SIR PATRICK died that night: just as the company rose to drink his health with three cheers, he fell down in a sort of fit, and was carried off; they sat it out, and were surprised, on inquiry in the morning, to find that it was all over with poor Sir Patrick. Never did any gentleman live and die more beloved in the country by rich and poor. His funeral was such a one as was never known before or since in the county. All the gentleman in the three counties were at it; far and near, how they flocked: my great grandfather said, that to see all the women even in their red cloaks, you would have taken them for the army drawn out. Then such a fine whillaluh! you might have heard it to the farthest end of the county, and happy the man who could get but a sight of the hearse! But whod have thought it? just as all was going on right, through his own town they were passing, when the body was seized for debta rescue was apprehended from the mob; but the heir who attended the funeral was against that, for fear of consequences, seeing that those villains who came to serve acted under the disguise of the law: so, to be sure, the law must take its course, and little gain had the creditors for their pains. First and foremost, they had the curses of the country: and Sir Murtagh Rackrent, the new heir, in the next place, on account of this affront to the body, refused to pay a shilling of the debts, in which he was countenanced by all the best gentlemen of property, and others of his acquaintance; Sir Murtagh alleging in all companies, that he all along meant to pay his fathers debts of honour, but the moment the law was taken of him, there was an end of honour to be sure. It was whispered (but none but the enemies of the family believe it) that this was all a sham seizure to get quit of the debts, which he had bound himself to pay in honour.
Its a long time ago, theres no saying how it was, but this for certain, the new man did not take at all after the old gentleman; the cellars were never filled after his death, and no open house, or anything as it used to be; the tenants even were sent away without their whiskey. I was ashamed myself, and knew not what to say for the honour of the family; but I made the best of a bad case, and laid it all at my ladys door, for I did not like her anyhow, nor anybody else; she was of the family of the Skinflints, and a widow; it was a strange match for Sir Murtagh; the people in the country thought he demeaned himself greatly, but I said nothing: I knew how it was; Sir Murtagh was a great lawyer, and looked to the great Skinflint estate; there, however he overshot himself; for though one of the co-heiresses, he was never the better for her, for she outlived him manys the long dayhe could not see that to be sure when he married her. I must say for her, she made him the best of wives, being a very notable stirring woman, and looking close to everything. But I always suspected she had Scotch blood in her veins; anything else I could have looked over in her from a regard to the family. She was a strict observer for self and servants of Lent, and all fast days, but not holidays. One of the maids having fainted three times the last day of Lent, to keep soul and body together we put a morsel of roast beef into her mouth which came from Sir Murtaghs dinner, who never fasted, not he; but somehow or other it immediately reached my ladys ears, and the priest of the parish had a complaint made of it the next day, and the poor girl was forced as soon as she could walk to do penance for it before she could get any peace or absolution in the house or out of it. However, my lady was very charitable in her own way. She had a charity school for poor children, where they were taught to read and write gratis, and where they were kept well to spinning gratis for my lady in return; for she had always heaps of duty yarn from the tenants, and got all her household linen out of the estate from first to last; for, after the spinning, the weavers on the estate took it in hand for nothing, because of the looms my ladys interest could get from the Linen Board to distribute gratis. Then there was a bleach-yard near us, and the tenant dare refuse my lady nothing, for fear of a lawsuit Sir Murtagh kept hanging over him about the water-course. With these ways of managing, tis surprising how cheap my lady got things done, and how proud she was of it. Her table the same way, kept for next to nothing; duty fowls and duty turkeys, and duty geese, came as fast as we could eat em, for my lady kept a sharp look-out, and knew to a tub of butter everything the tenants had, all round. They knew her way, and what with fear of driving for rent and Sir Murtaghs lawsuits, they were kept in such good order, they never thought of coming near Castle Rackrent without a present of something or othernothing too much or too little for my ladyeggs, honey, butter, meal, fish, game, grouse, and herrings fresh or salt, all went for something. As for their young pigs, we had them, and the best bacon and hams they could make up, with all young chickens in spring; but they were a set of poor wretches, and we had nothing but misfortunes with them, always breaking and running away. This, Sir Murtagh and my lady said, was all their former landlord, Sir Patricks fault, who let em all get the half years rent into arrear; there was something in that to be sure. But Sir Murtagh was as much the contrary way; for let alone making English tenants of them, every soul, he was always driving and driving, and pounding and pounding, and canting and canting and replevying and replevying, and he made a good living of trespassing cattle; there was always some tenants pig, or horse, or cow, or calf, or goose trespassing, which was so great a gain to Sir Murtagh, that he did not like to hear me talk of repairing fences. Then his heriots and duty-work brought him in something, his turf was cut, his potatoes set and dug, his hay brought home, and, in short, all the work about his house done for nothing; for in all our leases there were strict clauses, heavy with penalties, which Sir Murtagh knew well how to enforce; so many days duty work of man and horse, from every tenant he was to have, and had, every year; and when a man vexed him, why the finest day he could pitch on, when the cratur was getting in his own harvest, or thatching his cabin, Sir Murtagh made it a principle to call upon him and his horse; so he taught em all, as he said, to know the law of landlord and tenant. As for law, I believe no man, dead or alive, ever loved it so well as Sir Murtagh. He had once sixteen suits pending at a time, and I never saw him so much himself; roads, lanes, bogs, wells, ponds, eel-wires, orchards, trees, tithes, vagrants, gravel-pits, sand-pits, dunghills, and nuisances, everything upon the face of the earth furnished him good matter for a suit. He used to boast he had a lawsuit for every letter in the alphabet. How I used to wonder to see Sir Murtagh in the midst of the papers in his office! Why he could hardly turn about for them. I made bold to shrug my shoulders once in his presence, and thanked my stars I was not born a gentleman to so much toil and trouble; but Sir Murtagh took me up short with his old proverb, Learning is better than house or land. Out of forty-nine suits which he had, he never lost one but seventeen; the rest he gained with costs, double costs, treble costs sometimes; but even that did not pay. He was a very learned man in the law, and had the character of it; but how it was I cant tell, these suits that he carried cost him a power of money; in the end he sold some hundreds a year of the family estate; but he was a very learned man in the law, and I know nothing of the matter, except having a great regard for the family; and I could not help grieving when he sent me to post up notices of the sale of the fee-simple of the lands and appurtenances of Timoleague. I know, honest Thady, says he, to comfort me, what Im about better than you do; Im only selling to get the ready money wanting to carry on my suit with spirit with the Nugents of Carrickashaughlin.
He was very sanguine about that suit with the Nugents of Carrickashaughlin. He could have gained it, they say, for certain, had it pleased Heaven to have spared him to us, and it would have been, at the least, a plump two thousand a year in his way; but things were ordered otherwise, for the best to be sure. He dug up a fairy-mount against my advice, and had no luck afterwards. Though a learned man in the law, he was a little too incredulous in other matters. I warned him that I heard the very banshee that my grandfather heard under Sir Patricks window a few days before his death. But Sir Murtagh thought nothing of the banshee nor of his cough with a spitting of blood, brought on, I understand, by catching cold in attending the courts, and overstraining his chest with making himself heard in one of his favourite causes. He was a great speaker with a powerful voice; but his last speech was not in the courts at all. He and my lady, though both of the same way of thinking in some things, and though she was as good a wife and great economist as you could see, and he the best of husbands, as to looking into his affairs, and making money for his family; yet I dont know how it was, they had a great deal of sparring and jarring between them. My lady had her privy purseand she had her weed ashes, and her sealing money upon the signing of all the leases, with something to buy gloves besides; and, besides, again often took money from the tenants, if offered properly, to speak for them to Sir Murtagh about abatements and renewals. Now the weed ashes and the glove money he allowed her clear perquisites; though once when he saw her in a gown saved out of the weed ashes, he told her to my face (for he could say a sharp thing), that she should not put on her weeds before her husbands death. But in a dispute about an abatement, my lady would have the last word, and Sir Murtagh grew mad; I was within hearing of the door, and now I wish I had made bold to step in. He spoke so loud, the whole kitchen was out on the stairs. All on a sudden he stopped and my lady too. Something has surely happened, thought Iand so it was, for Sir Murtagh in his passion broke a bloodvessel, and all the law in the land could do nothing in that case. My lady sent for five physicians, but Sir Murtagh died, and was buried. She had a fine jointure settled upon her, and took herself away, to the great joy of the tenantry. I never said anything one way or the other, whilst she was part of the family, but got up to see her go at three oclock in the morning. Its a fine morning, honest Thady says she; good-bye to you, and into the carriage she stepped, without a word more good or bad, or even half-a-crown; but I made my bow, and stood to see her safe out of sight for the sake of the family.