From Thackeray’s ‘The Irish Sketchbook of 1842.
The crowd of swaggering ‘gents’ (I don’t know the corresponding phrase of the Anglo-Irish vocabulary to express a shabby dandy) awaiting the Cork mail, which kindly goes twenty miles out of its way to accommodate the town of Skibbereen, was quite extraordinary. The little street was quite blocked up with shabby gentlemen and shabby beggars, awaiting the daily phenomenon. The man who had driven up to Loughine did not fail to ask for his fee as driver and then, having received it , came forward in his capacity of boots and received another renumeration. The ride is desolate, bare and yet beautiful. There are a set of hills that keep one company the whole day; they are partially hidden in a grey sky, which flung a general hue of melancholy too over the green country through which we passed. There was only one wretched village along the road, but no lack of population ragged people who issued from their cabins as the coach passed or were sitting by the wayside. Everybody seems to be sitting by the wayside here one never sees this general repose in England – a sort of ragged lazy contentment. All the children seem to be on the watch for the coach; waited very knowingly and carefully their opportunity and then hung on by scores behind. What a pleasure to run over flinty roads with bare feet, to be whipped off and to walk back to the cabin again.
These were very different cottages to those neat ones I had seen in KIldare. The wretchedness of them is quite painful to look at; many of the potato gardens were half dug up and it is only the first week in August, near three months before the potato is ripe and at full growth and the winter still six months away. There were chapels occasionally and smart new-built churches – one of them has a congregation of ten souls, the coachman told me. Would it not be better that the clergyman should receive them in his room and the church building money should be bestowed otherwise?
‘At length, after winding up all sorts of dismal hills speckled with wretched hovels, a ruinous mill every now and then, black-bog lands and small winding streams, breaking here and there into little falls, wwe come upon some ground well tilled and planted and descendin (at no small risk from stumbling horses) a bleak long hill, we see thewater before us and turning to thr right by the handsome little park of Lord Berehaven, enter Bantry, The harbour is beautiful. Small mountains in green undulations rising on the opposite side; great grey ones further back; a pretty island in the midst of the water, which is wonderfully bright and calm. A handsome yacht and two or three vessels with their Sunday colours out, were lying in the bay. It looked like a seaport scene at a theatre, gay, cheerful, neat and picturesque. At a little distance too the town, too, is pretty. There are some smart houses on the quays, a handsome court house as usual, a fine large hotel and plenty of people flocking around the wonderful coach.
The town is most picturesquely situated,climbing up a wooded hill, with numbers of neat cottages here and there, an ugly church with an air of pretension and a large Roman Catholic chapel at the highest point of the place. The main sStreet was as usual thronged wiht the squatting blue cloaks, carrying on their eager trade of buttermilk and green apples and such cheap wares. with the exception of this street and the quay, with their whitewashed and slated houses, it is a town of cabins. The wretchedness of some of them is quite curious, I tried to make a sketch of a row which lean against an old wall and are built upon a rock that tumbles about in thee oddest and most fantastic shapes, with a brawling waterfall dashing down a channel in the midst. These are it appears, the beggars houses: anyone may build or lodge against that wall, rent free and such places were never seen! As for drawing them, it was in vain to try; one might as well make a sketch of a bundle of rags. An ordinary pigsty in England is really more comfortable. Most of the were not six feet long or five feet high, built of stones huddled together, a hole being left for people to creep in at, a ruined thatch to keep out some little portion of the rain. The occupiers of these places sat at their doors in tolerable contentment, or the children came down and washed their feet in the water. I declare I believe a Hottentot krall has more comforts in it, even to write of places makes one unhappy and the words move slow. But in the midst of all this misery there is an air of actual cheerfulness and go but a few score yards off and those wretched hovels lying together look really picturesque and pleasing.