Pioneering Reminiscences of Old Wairoa
"If you have a pleasant thought,
Write it down;
Time thus spent is wisdom bought,
Write it down."
"Trace some words that banish care,
Life has sighs enough to bear;
Gladness with a brother share;
Write it down."
"Hearing that you are about to publish some reminiscences of old Wairoa," writes Mr. R. McIntyre, "may I ask you to include a few biographical notes kept since your seventy-seventh birthday, when I was present at its celebration, and fulfilled Bobbie Burns' dictum: "There's a chiel amang us takin' notes an' faith he'l prent 'em." The author consents, so here goes:
"Mr. T. Lambert, Wairoa's veteran journalist, and one of the rapidly diminishing band of Wairoa pioneer settlers, on attaining his seventy-seventh birthday (now over eighty), had some interesting reminiscences to hand out to his relations and friends, and through them to the people of Wairoa and the East Coast of this island. He was born in the west of Ireland in County Galway, on 3rd December, 1854, the year of the Crimean War, during which period thousands of Irishmen went to fight the Russians for England, and for a Sovereign that many of them at heart did not acknowledge. Included in the Loyalists who took part were some of the Lambert family, the military spirit having descended from the grandfather of the subject of this sketch, who was colour-sergeant page 2in one of the regiments of the line under Wellington, the leader of the "forlorn hope" at the siege of Badajoz in the Peninsular War—not so very "forlorn" either for the fortress was taken and Sergeant Lambert was one of the first to pass the breach made by the artillery.
"Ireland at that time presented a paradox in history, being in some respects a beautiful country and a "distressful" one, as the peripatetic ballad singers declared. In the west of Ireland, especially, the people were steeped in ignorance, and their own leaders, pastors, and teachers did little to help them. Oppressed they were, no doubt, but not so much by the Governments of the day as by the agents of the absentee landlords. The living conditions were awful. The people practically lived on "praties and buthermilk," and "potatoes and point" was a common meal for the Irish labourer. That meant, he drank, the "buthermilk" out of a wooden "noggin," took a potato out of the "skib," a willow-ware basket, on the table, and pointed to the flitch of bacon hanging from the roof. Wages were very low, the average being 10d per day for men and 6d for women, the highest rate, 2/6 per day, being for mowers. Buxom, strong, good-looking girls could be got to take service in the homes of the better paid class at £4 0s 0d per annum, and engagements were usually made at the local fairs, almost reminiscent of the slave days, minus the cruelties, for the girls were practically exhibited at these hiring fairs. With all the low wages and the hard conditions of farm life, the labourers were always ready of an evening to take down the barn door, and with the aid of Mickey's fiddle, dance the Irish Jig, getting a good deal of fun out of same. These, with "wakes" and hurling matches, and games in the ball alley were about the only recreation the young people of the West had. The standard of morality was very page 3high, and for a girl to go astray was considered a reflection on the whole parish, whilst the male offender (if one of the people) was ostracised, and if a landlord's son, sometimes shot, and many of them richly deserved that fate, though in Sassenach quarters it was branded as a political crime.
"The greatest paradox in the West was that while the people were poor, half-starved and ragged they lived in 'marble halls.' Some of the 'cabins' were almost wholly built of beautiful marble, cut out of the quarries by the stonemasons. The colours ranged from black to grey, and green, besides being mottled with all these colours. Carara never, he said, turned out a better sample; and doubtless it is now being utilized, but 'marble halls' and a thatched roof!—there was the paradox. The bulk of the huts were built of mud, thatched with straw or rushes, and the accommodation was divided this way: 'the pig, the craythur' at one end, the cow at the other and the humans in the centre, whilst the manure heap occupied the quadrangle. The wonder is that any survived in such conditions of living, but there were few who cared.
"Though Mr. Lambert's parents were teachers, and his father a 'preacher of the Word,' he went only for a short time to a Church of England school, kept by a German woman. Reading an account of the conquests of Julius Ceasar, Lambert refused to pronounce the latter name as 'Kaiser,' and getting into disgrace, he left, and then spent three weeks in one of the Irish national schools. In the winter every boy had to carry a sod of turf under either arm, and if not, it was a case of no turf no share of the fire. The rest of his education fell to his father.
"By this time Ireland had become very revolutionary, and 'outrages'—reprisals, the Irish people called them—became numerous. The subject of my page 4sketch witnessed many assaults on his home by masked men in search of arms, though no physical injury was ever done. One dark night after a fusilade of bricks, stones, and bottles, a party knocked at the house and demanded the gun known to be there. One person being known, the head of the house replied, 'All right, Casey, wait until I get it, and you shall have it'; but they left. Many times troops of the famous 17th Lancers were quartered on the lawn, while out after 'the boys' in the hills.
"Mr. Lambert recalled his parents' accounts of the days of the Irish famine following a time of record crops. First, potatoes, the staple food of the people, were so plentiful and so cheap that many a farmer would tip out his loads in the market squares sooner than take them back to the farm. Peculiar names, these potatoes bore, not only 'Skerry Blues' and 'White Rocks' but 'Lumpers,' 'Thumpers,' 'Blacklords' and 'Yellow-legs,' till the nomenclature became a favourite rhyme of the balladists. Then came the days of the famine due to potato blight, when thousands of people died of starvation. America sent over cargoes of maize, which was ground in the Irish corn mills, but it was a long time before it was used as porridge, or as the Irish people called it, 'Stirabout.' Pies, cakes and puddings were made of it, but only at the last was its value assessed as porridge. It was not unknown in the Lambert household, and eaten with butter, sugar or molasses was fairly palatable. In those days newspapers seldom reached the West, consequently the ballad singers gave the news, mostly garbled, according to whether or not the ballads had become much worn. Often the minstrel coming to one of the damaged parts would exclaim, 'Oh, there's a hole in the ballad,' a saying which later became a proverb, and was used when some tall story was considered incapable of verification.page 5
"Mr. Lambert's parents used to tell him of the days when the letter-carriers delivered the letters receiving payment therefor (before the issue of stamps), scenes at the fairs, the faction fights between the O'Donnells and the O'Connells, etc., and the open voting for the 'Parlimint,' rather slightly different to what we have now. They were some election fights surely! Barricades were built on the routes leading to the hustings. Jaunting cars were held up; voters also taken in charge by either partisan till too late to exercise the limited franchise, or else they were made the central figures in a faction fight. The favourite weapon with the men was a blackthorn shillelagh or a hurley stick, and for the women a well-knit stocking filled with small stones; swung round the head this was quite capable of stunning one of the 'free and independent.' The hedge schoolmaster, too, still taught his pupils something of the three R's, and not a little encouraged the spirit of rebellion or patriotism, whichever term applies. Then gradually the boys were all 'scathered and bate,' as told in the ballad story of Shamus O'Brien, and the subject of my sketch drifted to Kerry with his parents. There he witnessed the start of the laying of the second submarine cable to America by the Great Eastern (22,800 tons), then a cable steamer and the largest vessel afloat. The start was made from Valentia Island on the coast of Kerry at a point known as Failhamerum Head. Unfortunately the cable broke in mid-ocean, and another had to be laid the following year. In addition, the broken one was picked up and joined, so that there were then two cables to America instead of one.
"From Cork Mr. Lambert went to Londonderry, and finally to Dublin. It was while in the Londonderry area that he got into trouble with his fellowmen, the Catholics. Following the foolish fashion of the times he not only rang the church-bells on the 12th July, page 6the anniversary of the battle of the Boyne, but went in processions through the streets in the "Irish Jaunting Car," wearing Orangemen's emblems and got stoned for his pains. Looking back now he sees what a silly thing it all was. It was in Dublin he studied the classics under his father, who had won his degree at Trinity, teaching himself and four others. One day a street accident occurred, and while a doctor examined the man, young Lambert looked on unconcerned, but interested, and the medical man suggested his joining up. This came about and he entered the Royal College of Surgeons and 'walked' Mercer's and St. Vincent's hospitals, filling the post of resident pupil-surgeon for eighteen months as a result of a competitive examination. There was no lack of practice, for none of the eighty-six beds was empty for more than a few hours, and during this time thousands of cases passed through his hands. He never, however, finished his medical course, and after the passing of Gladstone's Irish Church Disestablishment Bill the family emigrated to New Zealand. Prior to departure the subject of my sketch and his father, the late Rev. W. Lambert, journeyed over the scenes of their youth, traversing from Dublin to the West through most picturesque and park-like country. They traversed the bog areas of Central Ireland, and fished on the Shannon, of which was written a song of which this is one verse:
'On the green banks of Shannon,
When Sheila was nigh,
No blithe Irish lad
Was so happy as I.'
This fine river is 224 miles long and the greatest river in the British Isles, and is now being harnessed up by a German company for hydro-electric power, though it has only a fall of nine inches to the mile. Then page 7on to the Blackwater, so called because it runs through bogs, and the water looks black, and even the fish, both salmon and trout, have a sad appearance. They finished on the River Lee of which it is written:
'The bells of Shandon,
They sound so grand on,
The pleasant waters
Of the River Lee.'
"Then followed the passage called the Gap of Dunloe, Killarney's beautiful lakes, and the historic ruins of Muckross and the famous Blarney Stone, a climb up the Macgillicuddy Reeks (3,414 feet). Then Lugnaquilla (3,039 feet) and the Mourne Mountains in the East where 'the boys' suffered terrible privations in the Fenian rebellions. Then Londonderry, and the scene of the battle of the Boyne (1690) and good-bye to Ireland and its generous and hospitable people.
"The pity of it all is that to-day, Eamon De Valera is still living in the past and nursing age-old grievances, and letting the golden opportunity pass of making Ireland one of the most prosperous trading-centres in the Commonwealth of Great Britain. After settling down in Wairoa, where there was no doctor within eighty miles, he was called on in a medical capacity on numerous occasions with some measure of success. Varying fortunes met him, as was common to all the pioneers, as the years rolled on, and at eighty he is still able to carry on press-work, but beginning to feel the handicap of many years. Apparently journalism seems to have had an attraction for him, as at nineteen years of age he was reporting special hospital cases for the London Medical Press and Circular. In 1878 he began work in a very subordinate position, and later was editor of the Free Press, Wairoa Guardian, and East Coast Mail, covering a period of forty years.page 8
Looking backward now he recalls the fact that both Napier and Wairoa were very small places, indeed, even as late as 1875—when he landed at 'the Spit' (October 4th)—Wairoa had a population of less than 100, but there were thousands of Maoris. In all the intervening years the subject of my sketch took some part in helping to advance the interests of the district, and though Wairoa is, with the rest of the world, under an economic cloud, he is still hopeful that the much-desired silver-lining will be soon visible, and when that comes to pass Wairoa will assuredly take her place as one of the most progressive areas on the East Coast of the North Island."