Sunday 23 September 2018

Joys of the diligent detailed Diary of a Dundalk Nobody

Declan Mc Cormack

Future historians will be indebted to a 19th century gentleman for the diary he kept, says Declan McCormack

Journal of Henry McClintock

Padraig O'Neill (ed)

Co Louth Archaeological and Historical Society

euro57.15 (£45)

ONE has to be more than a little suspicious of diary-keepers. Especially pertinacious diary keepers who get beyond January 15. Something mysterious happens on January 15, the date in the New Year when most normal people abandon their diaries, resume smoking and recommence cussing.

Henry McClintock was, by the evidence of his voluminous diary, not your average guy. A Dundalk customs officer by profession, he sired 14 children and still managed to keep a diary with unremitting pertinacity from 1805 to 1843.

The diary's contents were blessedly free from any unsavoury domestic details and so his widow was happy to keep it up for another five years after his death. Clearly she had always enjoyed his entries and was now determined to mark his exit.

Now, thanks to the remarkable endeavours of a doughty local historian, Padraig O'Neill, the whole McClintock diary has been painstakingly transcribed, scrupulously edited and published in most handsome format by the Louth Archaeological and Historical Society.

It is a whopping 960-page hardback and is available at a giveaway price of euro57.15 (£45) to the general public (a mere euro38.10/£30 to LA+H members). For serious students of Irish social history, or students of historiography or local historians, that constitutes very good value indeed. For those who are fascinated by anyone who would try to inhibit the flow of contraband in the border counties it's a veritable steal.

Padraig O'Neill has laboured lovingly, and the fruits of his amorous scholarship are manifest here in the erudite biographical notes and index which frame the text.

One might quibble, however, with the absence of a general introduction which might have placed the diary in a broader historical context. But the main misgiving that the general reader will have is not with the scholar but with the diarist whose entries range from the stultifyingly repetitive to the risibly Pooteristic.

In many ways this is the diary of a dull nobody, and even a quick gallop through it brings to mind Sam Weller's remark, "Vether it's worth going through so much to learn so little, as the charity-boy said ven he got to the end of the alphabet, is a matter o' taste." It is, actually, but it's a damn close-run thing.

This diary is often dull, and it repeats. A lot. Sample: "Jan 3, 1842. Cold day. I attended at the Custom House we dined at home. Jan 4. Fine cold day. Custom House as usual. We dined at home ." Yawn, yawn.

But Irish meteorologists will have a field day, as will followers of Irish field sports. "February 10, 1818. I went hunting with Wolfe McNeale's hounds at Kilcurry Chapel my horse carried me famously Feb 18, 1818. I went out hunting with W McNeale's hounds near Murphy's Bog had good running." Mr Surtees couldn't compete with Henry when it came to riding to hounds. And, sadly, animal lovers maybe perturbed by the amount of hares which Henry's hounds kill ("Oct 10, 1814. I went out hunting on Sally Roy had very good sport killed three hares"). The hare's feelings are not recorded.

Though the venatorial sports (fishing, deer shooting, foxhunting) form a large part of Henry's leisure ("April 20, 1842: fished killed two small trout and four sprat"; "Feb 5, 1823: I went out shooting killed a redshank and some small birds, larks, etc"), there are other interesting sports recorded, including billiards, boat-racing and, most intriguing of all, a velocipede race in 1819. There is also a tantalising reference (November 21, 1818) to him going to see "Sig'r Germandi's celebrated dancing dogs".

Life wasn't without charm in Co Louth in the period, especially when your surgeon "ordered [me] to leave off all medicines for a day or two and to take three wine glasses of claret at my dinner; thitherto I have taken no wine except a little hock, Vin de Graves or Prepignac" (Dec 19, 1818).

Or when you can pass a stormy evening at Rokeby Hall where a grand ball and supper was hosted by Countess de Salis, the fare including an "excellent supper" accompanied by "champagne, tokay, madeira", followed by some "quadrilles with Miss Brabazon, Miss McCarthy (the little one) and a country dance with Miss Griffiths".

And life wasn't without its dramas. There was the outbreak of anthrax (yes anthrax) on November 28, 1841 ("Ernest's head is better but far from well yet it will take months before it is well and the hair grown upon it the complaint is called anthrax").

The event which takes pride of place in his weather thesaurus was the Night of the Big Wind , January 6, 1839.

It was an event which would become part of the folk memory of Victorian Ireland, and the ability to recall it was comically taken as proof of one's entitlement to the Old Age Pension when it was introduced in 1908. Needless to say, many of those so tested made it their business to recall that night in most vivid terms.

But Henry McClintock recalls it as it was ("one of the most awful hurricanes ever remembered took place last night"). It didn't stop him making his diary entry on the following day, January 7.

But then nothing would deter this assiduous diarist from chronicling his life, and future historians of Louth will be forever indebted to him for his diligence, and to Padraig O'Neill for rescuing this valuable social document from microfilmic obscurity. Buy, read and enjoy!

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