“Olive laughed …

“Olive laughed with her usual facile lightness, then the three women screamed – and for one electric instant the city appeared in hideous silhouette upon a chalky-white sky. A narrow drain-like river wedged between high-stone embankments; right along in a slight curve the perspective floats, an a few factory chimneys close a sinister horizon of whiskey and beer. On the left is squalor multiform and terrible. The plaster, in huge scabs falls from the walls, and the flaring light of a tallow candle reveals a dismantled room. You see a huge shouldered mother, a lean-faced crone, and a squatting tailor that poverty chains till midnight to his world-board; you see a couple of coarse girls, maids of all work, who smile and call to the dripping coachmen on the boxes; and there are low shops filled with cheap cigars and tobacco, shops were old clothes rot in fetid confusion, shops exhaling rancid odours of decaying vegetables, shops dingy with rusting iron and cracked china, shops that traffic and obscene goods and prints, shops and streets that are but a leer of malign decrepitude. And as you near the Castle the traces of the destroyer become more apparent – more foul. Beneath the upas tree they city, even to her remotest suburb, has withered; but in that immediate shadow – Ship Street – was black, plague-spotted, and, as a corpse, quick with the life of the worm.
Notwithstanding the terrible weather the streets were lined with vagrants, patriots, waifs, idlers of all sorts and kinds. Plenty of girls of sixteen and eighteen come out to see the ‘finery.’ Poor little things in battered bonnets and draggled skirts, who would dream upon ten shillings a week; a drunken mother striving to hush a child that dies beneath a dripping shawl; a harlot embittered by feelings of commercial resentment; troops of labourers batter and bruised with toil; you see their hang-dog faces, their thin coats, their shirts torn and revealing beast-like hair on their chests; you see also Irish-Americans, with their sinister faces, and broad-brimmed hats, standing scowling beneath the pale flickering gas-lamps, and , when the block brought the carriage to a standstill, sometime no more than a foot of space separated their occupants from the crowd on the pavement’s edge. Never were poverty and wealth brought into plainer proximity. In the broad glare of the carriage lights the shape of every feature, even the colour of the eyes, every glance, every detail of dress, every strain of misery were revealed to the silken exquisites who, a little frightened, strove to hide themselves with the scented shadows of the broughams: and in like manner, the bloom of every aristocratic cheek, the glitter of every diamond, the richness of every plume were visible to the avid eyes of those who stood without in the wet and cold.
‘I wish they would not stare so,’ said Mrs. Barton; ‘one would think they were a lot of hungry children looking into a sweetmeat shop. The police really ought to prevent it.’
‘And how those wicked men in the big hats look,’ said Olive, ‘I’m sure they would rob us if they only dared.’

Alice thought of the Galway ball, with the terrible faces looking in at the window.”

From George Moore, A Drama in Muslin (Belfast: Appletree Press,1992. First published in 1886)


Published by katymilligan

Art Historian.

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