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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Edith Anna Somerville (1858–1949) and Violet Florence Martin (Martin Ross) (1862–1915)

The Wreck

From “Some Experiences of an Irish R.M.”

THAT afternoon I was wrapped in the slumber, balmiest and most profound, that follows on a wet Sunday luncheon, when Murray, our inspector of police, drove up in uniform, and came into the house on the top of a gust that set every door banging and every picture dancing on the walls. He looked as if his eyes had been blown out of his head, and he wanted something to eat very badly.

“I’ve been down at the wreck since ten o’clock this morning,” he said, “waiting for her to break up, and once she does there’ll be trouble. She’s an American ship, and she’s full up with rum and bacon and butter and all sorts. Bosanquet is there with all his coast-guards, and there are five hundred country people on the strand at this moment, waiting for the fun to begin. I’ve got ten of my fellows there, and I wish I had as many more. You’d better come back with me, Yeates, we may want the riot act before all’s done!”

The heavy rain had ceased, but it seemed as if it had fed the wind instead of calming it, and when Murray and I drove out to Shreelane, the whole dirty sky was moving, full-sailed, in from the south-west, and the telegraph wires were hanging in a loop from the post outside the gate. Nothing except a Skebawn car-horse would have faced the whooping charges of the wind that came at us across Corran Lake; stimulated mysteriously by whistles from the driver, Murray’s yellow hireling pounded woodenly along against the blast, till the smell of the torn sea-weed was borne upon it, and we saw the Atlantic waves come towering into the bay of Tralagough.

The ship was, or had been, a three-masted bark; two of her masts were gone, and her bows stood high out of water on the reef that forms one of the shark-like jaws of the bay. The long strand was crowded with black groups of people, from the bank of heavy shingle that had been hurled over on to the road, down to the slope where the waves pitched themselves and climbed and fought and tore the gravel back with them, as though they had dug their fingers in. The people were nearly all men, dressed solemnly and hideously in their Sunday clothes; most of them had come straight from Mass without any dinner, true to that Irish instinct that places its fun before its food. That the wreck was regarded as a spree of the largest kind was sufficiently obvious. Our car pulled up at a public-house that stood askew between the road and the shingle; it was humming with those whom Irish publicans are pleased to call “bona feeds,” and sundry of the same class were clustered round the door. Under the wall on the lee side was seated a bagpiper, droning out “The Irish Washerwoman,” with nodding head and tapping heel, and a young man was cutting a few steps of a jig for the delectation of a group of girls.

So far Murray’s constabulary had done nothing but exhibit their imposing chest measurement and spotless uniforms to the Atlantic, and Bosanquet’s coast-guards had only salvaged some spars, the débris of a boat, and a dead sheep, but their time was coming. As we stumbled down over the shingle, battered by the wind and pelted by clots of foam, some one beside me shouted, “She’s gone!” A hill of water had smothered the wreck, and when it fell from her again nothing was left but the bows, with the bowsprit hanging from them in a tangle of rigging. The clouds, bronzed by an unseen sunset, hung low over her; in that greedy pack of waves, with the remorseless rocks above and below her, she seemed the most lonely and tormented of creatures.

About half an hour afterward the cargo began to come ashore on the top of the rising tide. Barrels were plunging and diving in the trough of the waves, like a school of porpoises; they were pitched up the beach in waist-deep rushes of foam; they rolled down again, and were swung up and shouldered by the next wave, playing a kind of Tom Tiddler’s ground with the coast-guards. Some of the barrels were big and dangerous, some were small and nimble like young pigs, and the blue-jackets were up to their middles as their prey dodged and ducked, and the police lined out along the beach to keep back the people. Ten men of the Royal Irish Constabulary can do a great deal, but they cannot be in more than twenty or thirty places at the same instant; therefore they could hardly cope with a scattered and extremely active mob of four or five hundred, many of whom had taken advantage of their privileges as “bona-fide travellers,” and all of whom were determined on getting at the rum.

As the dusk fell the thing got more and more out of hand; the people had found out that the big puncheons held the rum, and had succeeded in capturing one. In the twinkling of an eye it was broached, and fifty backs were shoving round it like a football scrimmage. I have heard many rows in my time: I have seen two Irish regiments—one of them militia—at each other’s throats in Fermoy barracks; I have heard Philippa’s water-spaniel and two fox-terriers hunting a strange cat round the dairy; but never have I known such untrammelled bedlam as that which yelled round the rum-casks on Tralagough strand. For it was soon not a question of one broached cask, or even of two. The barrels were coming in fast, so fast that it was impossible for the representatives of law and order to keep on any sort of terms with them. The people, shouting with laughter, stove in the casks, and drank rum at thirty-four degrees above proof, out of their hands, out of their hats, out of their boots. Women came fluttering over the hillsides through the twilight, carrying jugs, milk-pails, anything that would hold the liquor; I saw one of them, roaring with laughter, tilt a filthy zinc bucket to an old man’s lips.

With the darkness came anarchy. The rising tide brought more and yet more booty; great spars came lunging in on the lap of the waves, mixed up with cabin furniture, seamen’s chests, and the black and slippery barrels, and the country people continued to flock in, and the drinking became more and more unbridled. Murray sent for more men and a doctor, and we slaved on hopelessly in the dark; collaring half-drunken men, shoving pig-headed casks up hills of shingle, hustling in among groups of roaring drinkers—we rescued perhaps one barrel in half a dozen. I began to know that there were men there who were not drunk and were not idle; I was also aware, as the strenuous hours of darkness passed, of an occasional rumble of cart-wheels on the road. It was evident that the casks which were broached were the least part of the looting, but even they were beyond our control. The most that Bosanquet, Murray, and I could do was to concentrate our forces on the casks that had been secured, and to organise charges upon the swilling crowds in order to upset the casks that they had broached. Already men and boys were lying about, limp as leeches, motionless as the dead.

“They’ll kill themselves before morning, at this rate!” shouted Murray to me. “They’re drinking it by the quart! Here’s another barrel; come on!”

We rallied our small forces, and after a brief but furious struggle succeeded in capsizing it. It poured away in a flood over the stones, over the prostrate figures that sprawled on them, and a howl of reproach followed.

“If ye pour away any more o’ that, major,” said an unctuous voice in my ear, “ye’ll intoxicate the stones and they’ll be getting up and knocking us down!”

I had been aware of a fat shoulder next to mine in the throng as we heaved the puncheon over, and I now recognised the ponderous wit and Falstaffian figure of Mr. James Canty, a noted member of the Skebawn board of guardians, and the owner of a large farm near at hand.

“I never saw worse work on this strand,” he went on. “I considher these debaucheries a disgrace to the counthry.”

Mr. Canty was famous as an orator, and I presume that it was from long practice that he was able, without apparent exertion, to outshout the storm.

At this juncture the long-awaited reinforcements arrived, and along with them came Dr. Jerome Hickey, armed with a black bag. Having mentioned that the bag contained a pump—not one of the common or garden variety—and that no pump on board a foundering ship had more arduous labours to perform, I prefer to pass to other themes. The wreck, which had at first appeared to be as inexhaustible and as variously stocked as that in the “Swiss Family Robinson,” was beginning to fail in its supply. The crowd were by this time for the most part incapable from drink, and the fresh contingent of police tackled their work with some prospect of success by the light of a tar-barrel, contributed by the owner of the public-house. At about the same time I began to be aware that I was aching with fatigue, that my clothes hung heavy and soaked upon me, that my face was stiff with the salt spray and the bitter wind, and that it was two hours past dinner-time. The possibility of fried salt herrings and hot whisky-and-water at the public-house rose dazzlingly before my mind, when Mr. Canty again crossed my path.

“In my opinion ye have the whole cargo under conthrol now, major,” he said, “and the police and the sailors should be able to account for it all now by the help of the light. Wasn’t I the finished fool that I didn’t think to send up to my house for a tar-barrel before now! Well—we’re all foolish sometimes! But indeed it’s time for us to give over, and that’s what I’m after saying to the captain and Mr. Murray. You’re exhausted now, the three of ye, and if I might make so bold, I’d suggest that ye’d come up to my little place and have what’d warm ye before ye’d go home. It’s only a few perches up the road.”

The tide had turned, the rain had begun again, and the tar-barrel illumined the fact that Dr. Hickey’s dreadful duties alone were pressing. We held a council and finally followed Mr. Canty, picking our way through wreckage of all kinds, including the human variety. Near the public-house I stumbled over something that was soft and had a squeak in it; it was the piper, with his head and shoulders in an overturned rum-barrel, and the bagpipes still under his arm.

I knew the outward appearance of Mr. Canty’s house very well. It was a typical southern farm-house, with dirty white-washed walls, a slated roof, and small, hermetically sealed windows staring at the morass of manure which constituted the yard. We followed Mr. Canty up the filthy lane that led to it, picked our way round vague and squelching spurs of the manure heap, and were finally led through the kitchen into a stifling best parlour. Mrs. Canty, a vast and slatternly matron, had evidently made preparations for us; there was a newly lighted fire pouring flame up the chimney from layers of bogwood, there were whisky and brandy on the table, and a plateful of biscuits sugared in white and pink. Upon our hostess was a black silk dress which indifferently concealed the fact that she was short of boot-laces, and that the boots themselves had made many excursions to the yard and none to the blacking-bottle. Her manners, however, were admirable, and while I live I shall not forget her potato-cakes. They came in hot, and hot from a pot-oven, they were speckled with caraway seeds, they swam in salt butter, and we ate them shamelessly and greasily, and washed them down with hot whisky-and-water; I knew to a nicety how ill I should be next day, and heeded not.

“Well, gentlemen,” remarked Mr. Canty later on, in his best board-of-guardians’ manner, “I’ve seen many wrecks between this and the Mizen Head, but I never witnessed a scene of more disgraceful ex-cess than what was in it to-night.”

“Hear, hear!” murmured Bosanquet with unseemly levity.

“I should say,” went on Mr. Canty, “there was at one time to-night upward of one hundhred men dead dhrunk on the strand, or anyway so dhrunk that if they’d attempt to spake they’d foam at the mouth.”

“The craytures!” interjected Mrs. Canty sympathetically.

“But if they’re dhrunk to-day,” continued our host, “it’s nothing at all to what they’ll be to-morrow and afther to-morrow, and it won’t be on the strand they’ll be dhrinkin’ it.”

“Why, where will it be?” said Bosanquet, with his disconcerting English way of asking a point-blank question.

Mr. Canty passed his hand over his red cheeks.

“There’ll be plenty asking that before all’s said and done, captain,” he said, with a compassionate smile, “and there’ll be plenty that could give the answer if they’ll like, but by damn I don’t think ye’ll be apt to get much out of the Yokahn boys!”

“The Lord save us, ’twould be better to keep out from the likes o’ thim!” put in Mrs. Canty, sliding a fresh avalanche of potato-cakes on to the dish; “didn’t they pull the clothes off the gauger and pour potheen down his throath till he ran screeching through the streets o’ Skebawn!”

James Canty chuckled.

“I remember there was a wreck here one time, and the undherwriters put me in charge of the cargo. Brandy it was—cases of the best Frinch brandy. The people had a song about it; what’s this the first verse was?

  • ‘One night to the rocks of Yokahn
  • Came the bark Isabella so dandy,
  • To pieces she went before dawn,
  • Herself and her cargo of brandy.
  • And all met a wathery grave
  • Excepting the vessel’s carpenther,
  • Poor fellow, so far from his home.’”
  • Mr. Canty chanted these touching lines in a tuneful if wheezy tenor. “Well, gentlemen, we’re all friends here,” he continued, “and it’s no harm to mention that this man below at the public-house came askin’ me would I let him have some of it for a consideration. ‘Sullivan,’ says I to him, ‘if ye ran down gold in a cup in place of the brandy, I wouldn’t give it to you. Of coorse,’ says I, ‘I’m not sayin’ but that if a bottle was to get a crack of a stick, and it to be broken, and a man to drink a glass out of it, that would be no more than an accident.’ ‘That’s no good to me,’ says he, ‘but if I had twelve gallons of that brandy in Cork,’ says he, ‘by the Holy German!’ says he, saying an awful curse, ‘I’d sell twenty-five out of it! Well, indeed it was true for him; it was grand stuff. As the saying is, it would make a horse out of a cow!”

    “It appears to be a handy sort of place for keeping a pub,” said Bosanquet.

    “Shut-to the door, Margaret,” said Mr. Canty, with elaborate caution. “It’d be a queer place that wouldn’t be handy for Sullivan!”

    A further tale of great length was in progress when Dr. Hickey’s Mephistophelian nose was poked into the best parlour.

    “Hullo, Hickey! Pumped out? eh?” said Murray.

    “If I am, there’s plenty more like me,” replied the doctor enigmatically, “and some of them three times over! James, did these gentlemen leave you a drop of anything that you’d offer me?”

    “Maybe ye’d like a glass of rum, doctor?” said Mr. Canty with a wink at his other guests.

    Dr. Hickey shuddered.

    I had next morning precisely the kind of mouth that I had anticipated, and it being my duty to spend the better part of the day administering justice in Skebawn, I received from Mr. Flurry Knox and other of my brother magistrates precisely the class of condolences on my “Monday head” that I found least amusing. It was unavailing to point out the resemblance between hot potato-cakes and molten lead, or to dilate on their equal power of solidifying; the collective wisdom of the bench decided that I was suffering from contraband rum, and rejoiced over me accordingly.