AN ULSTER CHILDHOOD – LYNN C. DOYLE
I never became really friendly with a pig.
Pigs collectively I liked, just as I liked hens and geese and sheep ; but I never singled out any individual as a special object of affection, as I have sometimes done with all the other species of animals on my uncle’s farm. I never knew a pig by name. Yet pigs rightly considered are attractive animals.
Common report deals hardly with them. To say that a man is as dirty as a pig is to insult the pig. For a pig is a clean animal when his master will permit him to be so. He does not dwell in his moist, insanitary piggery from choice, but loves sweet, dry straw, and spends much of his time perambulating the dunghill to which he is condemned, in search of such a bed. We misapprehend his efforts to attain personal purity, and hold him up to obloquy v/here we should rather approve.
The sow that returned to her wallowings in the mire was really seeking cleanliness. A fallible being will fail somewhere, Doctor Johnson has pithily said. The sacred writer, inspired only about heavenly things, in the matter of pigs was little better than one of the foolish.
Nor have profane writers dealt more happily with them. There was an old copy of the Essays of Elia in our lumber-room, when I was ji boy. Even then I was a devoted Elian, but I could never quite forgive Lamb for his callous attitude towards sucking pigs. His heartless conceit about the roasted youngsters’ jellied eyes was to me disgusting. It was not worthy of the gentle Elia. He would not have been guilty of it had he ever stood, as I have done many a day for half-an-hour at a time, watching the engaging gambols of a young litter, seen best when fresh straw had been thrown them. There is no more charming picture of animal infancy. Here a roguish eye appears, there a moist shining disk of nose working anticipatively in the hope of provender that your coming has aroused. One sportive little chap seizes a long straw in his mouth and frisks off with it, champing his jaws in pretended relish, another shakes his head till his neck smacks with the long, silken ears, then parades round rakish, with one ear turned inside out. This moment they are all fun and gambol, one jumping over another, or two or three butting a comrade down and nosing him playfully ; the next they form a group before the door, eyeing you with inquiring gravity, then in a sudden impulse scatter diverse through the straw again, squealing in affected panic. There was better matter and more akin to the mild spirit of Elia in such a sight than in the horrid spectacle of a roasted innocent. He might have given us a chapter on tails, and shown us with infinite adornment of fancy how that little embellishment of one end of a pig can modify the character of the other end of him ; how the accident of a straight tail can throw a subtle suggestion of melancholy over a snub and cheerful coun- tenance, or a curly tail bestow a certain archness on a long, serious snout.
To an Irish boy Lamb’s transports over the flavour of sucking pig seemed unnatural and ghoulish. We Irish have a repugnance to immature meats. We do not reckon sucking pig among our dishes. I would as soon think of eating a baby.
But Charles was punished for his repulsive preference. He never knew pig at its best. He does not seem to have known the incom- parable lusciousness (he would have called it sapor) of stuffed pork fillets. From his remark about ” the rank bacon ” he can have enjoyed no breakfast dallyings with mild-cured Irish such as my Cousin Joseph — esteemed a connoisseur — used to deal out to me some morning after I had been storm-stayed at his house, accompanying the generous helping with his time-honoured joke that ” there was something better than Shakespeare.”
Yet it was bacon that prevented my ever having a pig for my friend. The butcher’s knife hung suspended over the most captivating youngster of our rearing. ■ I could not bear to embark on a friendship of which the end must, inevitably be tragedy. I knew too well the warnings of doom, the straw scattered in the yard, the cauldron of boiling water, the beam in winter laid along the rafters of the barn, in summer resting on two branches of the great ash tree — ^the sledge hammer and cord. Already I saw the carcasses hideously suspended. It was no mere porcine tragedy that my imagination bodied forth. Romance and history swelled the scene. Perhaps the Great Marquis had met his pitiful fate ; or I was in the Middle Ages, and Villon and his associates hung pendent from the gallows.
But had I been transported back to a sterner century, I could never have made one of the jeering crowd at a gallow’s foot. When our dog Keeper’s furious baying told me that Pat D -, the pig-sticker, was at hand, I fled to my bedroom and remained there with muffled ears till the execution was over in all its grisly details. I only once emerged from my retreat before the carcasses were cleaned and hung up ; it was because I wished to know exactly what happened to Vich Ian Vohr and Evan Maccombich after they drove off from Waverley on the hurdle ; and I wish I hadn’t done it. Ever afterward Pat D was to me ” a horrid fellow as beseemed his trade.” He perceived my distaste for him ; and being a kindly man, as I know now, and fond of children, used to propitiate me with bladders. But a pig’s bladder makes a lopsided football, with no accuracy of flight. I had little pleasui-e in Pat’s gifts, and wasn’t softened towards him. My emotions of horror were transient. Before nightfall I was looking forward eagerly to next morning’s drive to the pork-market ; that is, if I had obtained permission to accom- pany old Tom Brogan, who as a steady, faithful retainer of thirty years standing and more was generally trusted to sell our pork. The best market was nine miles away. To arrive in time it was necessary in winter that the cart should leave our house about five o’clock. It was the only early rising that was ever pleasant to me. But everything connected with it was full of novelty and charm. On such a morning a little boy might wash in the most perfunctory fashion un- reproved. Then there was the delight of having breakfast in the kitchen with Tom Brogan, and mopping up my bacon-gravy with crusts, and cooling my tea in the saucer, just as he did. For our maid-servants were always too sleepy to reprove my breaches of table manners, and my aunt, conscious of the undress beneath her shawl, issued her in- structions to Tom in a series of hoverings round the kitchen door, but never ventured in. I had my tea strong those mornings and ate twice as much breakfast as usual, and in half my usual time, the latter part of the meal degenerating into mere cramming as my uncle’s muffled roars from upstairs became more insistent. When I had gulped down the last possible mouthful of tea — the hottest one— I was pounced upon by our maid and wrapped in such superfluity of mufflers that it became necessary to shake the breath half out of my body before my overcoat would button. Then I mounted the box-seat of the stage-coach — for I was generally Tom Brown going to Rugby on such occasions — and off we went.
I shall never forget those early morning drives, though I cannot recall the details of any one of them. They are all compounded into a single experience. There is the sen- sation of darkness and intense cold. The lantern shadows wheel slowly on the trees as our yard boy lights us down the avenue. The lantern hangs in the air without human agency as I look behind me and call good-bye. The ice crashes under our wheels ; our horse snorts and clatters as he mounts the hill, fearful of the frozen road. We emerge from the trees, and there a pale moon is hanging strangely in the west. Presently we settle down to a steady jog. A phantasmagoria of tree and hedge shapes passes sleepily before my eyes. Across the fields sounds the rattle of another cart, bound as I know, on a like errand with ourselves. Another and another is heard as we draw near the four roads. The countryside is filled with the soothing murmur of innumerable carts, all going to D pork-market. I am lying on the straw and Tom Brogan is covering me with a rug. I peer drowsily over the edge of the cart ; we are one of a long procession of carts. Trees and houses are taking on colour ; here and there a lighted window gleams warmly in the pallid dawn. I close my eyes ; and next moment I am staggering on numbed feet in the pork-market of D , and Tom Brogan is peering into my face and asking me if I am sure I am awake.
Row upon row of carts fill up the market square. I scamper in and out, and am dis- concerted to find that our pigs are not the wonders of the pork world I thought them. I hurry back to warn Tom. He is surrounded by several sharp -faced men with pencils and note-books. They are pork- buyers, city men ; the name of a great bacon- curing firm in Belfast is mentioned. I feel myself a country boy, and am abashed before them, and forbear to warn Tom. But I fume with anxiety when he refuses the offered price, and know in my heart he is making a mistake, and that we shall return home ignominious with our pigs unsold. I cannot bear the strain, but go off again among the carts, and am diverted from my anxiety by observing, rather to my disgust, sundry ol boys from our school enjoying a holiday pork-market day. I return to our cart. ‘ pigs* are sold. I am delighted with success ; but feel that Tom took great ri and wonder at his nerve.
Then Tom and I go to what he calls eating-house, and I have steak and oni( and strong tea again, and fresh bread thicker slices than I had ever seen bef( and do not die of it all as I should now, hurry off to buy sweets with the sixpe that Tom has been authorised to give i and to watch the roulette table, and the n with three thimbles and a pea. I perct that this last is a simple fellow, and am sc I have spent my sixpence, and suggest a 1 from Tom ; but he tells me such men h the Black Art, and that I would only 1 my money ; so I press him no more, avoid evil, and pass on to the Aunt Sally
But my early rising begins to tell on i My appetite for pleasure is dulled soo than usual. I begin to have a curii sensation that all the movement around is happening in a dream. Besides, I anxious to get home again, to tell everyb( how well Tom and I have sped in i marketing. So when the cart is ready I cli in willingly enough. I feel a little sad on homeward journey. It is probably the st and onions ; but I do not know that, I think I am sorry about the dead pigs. When I have had my supper, I go to look at the empty piggery, and feel really sorry when I remember its departed occupants, their tumultuous rush to the gate when they heard my footsteps, their cheerful upraised snouts and interrogative gruntiftgs, their luxurious submission to my scratching of their backs with the handle of the yard shovel. These were the nearest approaches to friendship I ever made with our pigs. On the evening of pork-market days I was always sorry I had gone so far.