Wednesday, December 17, 2008

1798 - year of woe

Mary Leadbeater, an Irish poet and diarist, was born 250 years ago this month. Her diary, published as The Annals of Ballitore, provides a literary but graphic account of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, as well as an incredibly moving account of the death of her own daughter - ‘so beautiful, so engaging, so beloved’ - which is reproduced below. 

Born in December 1758 (the exact date is not known), Mary Shackleton was the daughter of the schoolmaster in Ballitore, a village in County Kildare founded by the Quakers in the 1700s. She travelled to London with her father in 1784, where they paid several visits to Edmund Burke’s town house, and where she met Sir Joshua Reynolds and George Crabbe. In 1791, she married William Leadbeater, a former pupil and teacher at her father’s school, and they settled in Ballitore. More biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, The Diary Junction, and Library Ireland.

Mary Leadbeater’s first published work, Extracts and Original Anecdotes for the Improvement of Youth, appeared anonymously in 1794, but she went on to publish collections of poems and several books - Her Cottage Dialogues and The Landlord’s Friend for example - which are considered to provide insight into the domestic and communal life of rural Ireland at the time. She is best remembered, though, for her diary, which she began aged only 11, and which she continued writing until a few years before her death in 1826. Extracts from this, entitled The Annals of Ballitore, were published in the first volume of The Leadbeater Papers in 1862. The full text can be read online at Internet Archive or Googlebooks.

Her first hand account of the Irish Rebellion in 1798 is particularly harrowing. Ballitore was occupied first by yeoman and soldiers and them by insurgents. The Leadbeaters themselves narrowly escaped death, but they then suffered the death of their daughter. Here is a longish extract from the Annals, dated almost exactly 210 years ago, the last weeks of 1798, in which Mary Leadbeater writes about her daughter’s dying.

‘A general rebuilding of the ruined houses now took place, but even this work was in a great measure carried on by plunder. The stately trees of Ballitore were often missed in the morning, and we could hear at night the sound of their being felled and the creaking of the cars which took them away. Desolation threatened in various shapes - the darkness of the winter nights was illumined by the fires of the houses burnt by the insurgents, and fatal was their vengeance. One man whom they thought they had killed and had thrown into a ditch, pulling down part of the bank upon him, was not fatally injured, struggled out of his grave, ran naked to Baltinglass, and convicted his intended murderers. A large burial moved through Ballitore with a kind of indignant solemnity. It was that of a young man who had been hanged, and whose father, on his son’s being apprehended, put an end to his own life. Such were the tragedies with which we were surrounded, and with which we had grown shockingly familiar.

Thus were we circumstanced when a sore domestic calamity seemed to fill up the measure of our sufferings. We thought we had a little respite from our foes, and we were once more assembled in peace around Mary and Anne’s fireside, when our dear little Jane was trusted by me with a wax taper to go up stairs alone. The staircase was short, and her grandmother was in her own room with her attendant. I was not used to be so incautious, and the thought crossed my mind, ‘Is it safe?’ A distinct voice seemed to reply, ‘The child is so steady;’ and all recollection of her left me till I heard her shrieks. Then the truth flashed upon me, and I accused myself of having murdered my child! She had gone into another room than her grandmother’s, and had laid down the taper; it caught her clothes, and the flames were not easily extinguished. A kind of convulsion stiffened her for a moment; the burns though extensive were but skin-deep, and those around us assured us she was in no danger. Alas, we were not aware that the fright she got had stopped the circulation of the blood. 0! why were we not aware of it? Let this be remembered by others, and may no one else experience the distress caused by our error.

The dear child soon ceased to complain of pain, kissed all those about her, and was cheerful, yet all night was thirsty, wakeful, and cold, with but little pulse. In the morning her whole form and sweet countenance underwent a momentary revolution which I cannot describe. We had sent to Athy for a doctor, but he said nothing could be done. Meantime, unconscious that she was leaving us, the dear innocent got her book and her work into her bed, and repeated her little verses, spoke with her usual courtesy to all around her, and, happy in her short life, closed her eyes never more to open them, just twenty-four hours after the accident happened. We who had lost our darling child of four years old felt deeply the deprivation, and struggled hard to submit to the will of Him who gives and takes away.

My grief was aggravated by self-accusation. I beheld my little cherub lie as in a placid sleep, her bloom not quite gone. I listened to those who desired me to reflect on the many fathers of families who lay buried in ditches, slaughtered in the prime of manhood and of usefulness; and to the widow who with tears reminded me that I had still my husband! I reflected how, a brief time ago, his precious life had seemed near departing, and I strove to extract consolation from the genuine sympathy bestowed by our friends; yet I thought no sympathy reached my heart so fully as once when I raised my eyes from contemplating the lovely remains of my child, and met those of a poor neighbour woman fastened upon me in silence, large tears streaming down her cheeks, her countenance filled with the deepest concern. She was a coarse-featured, strong, rough woman, and had forborne any expression by words of what she felt.

Our Jane was borne from our sight; the grave closed upon her for ever; her little playfellows bedecked it with flowers, and wept for their lost companion, while their schoolmistress and her husband mourned as for a favourite grandchild. Even in this season of universal dismay the loss of this dear child was very generally deplored; she was so beautiful, so engaging, so beloved - not like a thing of earth. So ended the year 1798. Oh! year of woe!

That year, that eventful year, which to me began with the fulness of joy, I saw depart laden with deep and piercing sorrow. Thus trouble takes its rounds; but ‘shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord, and shall we not also receive evil?’

We were almost prepared to congratulate our precious child on her escape, and to think that her timid nature might have been terrified into imbecility, when, shortly after her death, the robbers paid us another visit, breaking in the windows in the solemn midnight, and scaring us out of our quiet slumbers to behold armed men in our very chambers. They discovered what we strove to conceal, for their search was very strict, and they took whatever suited their purposes; but withal treated us with civility and respect.’

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