Yet recently my faith has been shaken; for not long ago in New York I climbed the marble steps of a splendid mansion and was admitted by a servant in livery who carried my card on a silver tray to his master. This master had a son in the “Keeley Institute,” a daughter in her grave, and a wife who shrank from his presence. His heart was as lonely as a winter night at sea. Fate had sent him a coachman, a butler, a gardener and a footman, but she took his happiness and passed it through a hole in the thatch of a mud-plastered cottage in Ireland, where, each night, six rosy children soundly slept in one straw bed.
In that cottage I stayed two days. There was a stone floor and bare, whitewashed walls; but there was a rosebush climbing over the door, and within health and sunny temper that made mirth with a meal of herbs, and a tenderness that touched to poetry the prose of daily duties.
But it is well to bear in mind that an Irishman in America and an Irishman in Ireland are not necessarily the same thing. Often the first effect of a higher civilization is degeneration. Just as the Chinaman quickly learns big swear-words, and the Indian takes to drink, and certain young men on first reading Emerson’s essay on “Self-Reliance” go about with a chip on their shoulders, so sometimes does the first full breath of freedom’s air develop the worst in Paddy instead of the best.
As one tramps through Ireland and makes the acquaintance of a blue-eyed “broth of a bye,” who weighs one hundred and ninety, and measures forty-four inches around the chest, he catches glimpses of noble traits and hints of mystic possibilities. There are actions that look like rudiments of greatness gone, and you think of the days when Olympian games were played, and finger meanwhile the silver in your pocket and inwardly place it on this twenty-year-old, pink-faced, six-foot “boy” that stands before you.
In Ireland there are no forests, but in the peat-bogs are found remains of mighty trees that once lifted their outstretched branches to the sun. Are these remains of stately forests symbols of a race of men that, too, have passed away?
In any wayside village of Leinster you can pick you a model for an Apollo. He is in rags, is this giant, and can not read, but he can dance and sing and fight. He has an eye for color, an ear for music, a taste for rhyme, a love of novelty and a thirst for fun. And withal he has blundering sympathy and a pity whose tears are near the surface.
Now, will this fine savage be a victim of arrested development, and sink gradually through weight of years into mere animal stupidity and sodden superstition?
The chances are that this is just what he will do, and that at twenty he will be in his intellectual zenith. Summer does not fulfil the promise of Spring.
But as occasionally there is one of those beautiful, glowing Irish girls who leaves footsteps that endure (in bettered lives), instead of merely transient tracks in mud, so there has been a Burke, a Wellington, an O’Connell, a Sheridan, a Tom Moore and an Oliver Goldsmith.
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While Goldsmith was an Irishman, Swift was an Englishman who chanced to be born of Irish parents in Dublin. In comparing these men Thackeray says: “I think I would rather have had a cold potato and a friendly word from Goldsmith than to have been beholden to the Dean for a guinea and a dinner. No; the Dean was not an Irishman, for no Irishman ever gave but with a kind word and a kind heart.”