Reminiscences

MY DEARLY BELOVED READERS, — I will begin with giving an account of my experiences amongst the publicans. Well, I must say that the first man who threw peas at me was a publican, while I was giving an entertainment to a few of my admirers in a public-house in a certain little village not far from Dundee but, my dear friends, I wish it to be understood that the publican who threw the peas at me was not the landlord of the public-house, he was one of the party who came to hear me give my entertainment. Well, my dear readers, it was while I was singing my own song, “The Rattling Boy from Dublin Town“, that he threw the peas at me. You must understand that the Rattling Boy was courting a lass called Biddy Brown, and the Rattling Boy chanced to meet his Biddy one night in company with another lad called Barney Magee, which, of course, he did not like to see, and he told Biddy he considered it too bad for her to be going about with another lad, and he would bid her good-bye for being untrue to him. Then Barney Magee told the Rattling Boy that Biddy Brown was his lass, and that he could easily find another–and come and have a glass, and be friends. But the Rattling Boy told Barney Magee to give his glass of strong drink to the devil! meaning, I suppose, it was only fit for devils to make use of, not for God’s creatures. Because, my friends, too often has strong drink been the cause of seducing many a beautiful young woman away from her true lover, and from her parents also, by a false seducer which, no doubt, the Rattling Boy considered Barney Magee to be. ‘Therefore, my dear friends, the reason, I think, for the publican throwing the peas at me is because I say, to the devil with your glass, in my song, “The Rattling Boy from Dublin,” and he, no doubt, considered it had a teetotal tendency about it, and, for that reason, he had felt angry, and had thrown the peas at me.

My dear readers, my next adventure was as follows:– During the Blue Ribbon Army movement in Dundee, and on the holiday week of the New-year, I was taken into a public-house by a party of my friends and admirers, and requested to give them an entertainment, for which I was to be remunerated by them. Well, my friends, after the party had got a little refreshment, and myself along with the rest, they proposed that I should give them a little entertainment, which I most willingly consented to do, knowing I would be remunerated by the company for so doing, which was the case; the money I received from them I remember amounted to four shillings and sixpence. All had gone on as smoothly as a marriage bell, and every one of the party seemed to be highly delighted with the entertainment I had given them. Of course, you all ought to know that while singing a good song, or giving a good recitation, it helps to arrest the company’s attention from the drink; yes! in many cases it does, my friends. Such, at least, was the case with me — at least the publican thought so — for — what do you think? — he devised a plan to bring my entertainment to an end abruptly, and the plan was, he told the waiter to throw a wet towel at me, which, of course, the waiter did, as he was told, and I received the wet towel, full force, in the face, which staggered me, no doubt, and had the desired effect of putting an end to me giving any more entertainments in his house. But, of course, the company I had been entertaining felt angry with the publican for being guilty of such a base action towards me, and I felt indignant myself, my friends, and accordingly I left the company I had been entertaining and bade them good-bye. My dear friends, a publican is a creature that would wish to decoy all the money out of the people’s pockets that enter his house; he does not want them to give any of their money away for an intellectual entertainment. No, no! by no means; give it all to him, and crush out entertainment altogether, thereby he would make more money if he could only do so. My dear friends, if there were more theatres in society than public-houses, it would be a much better world to live in, at least more moral; and oh! my dear friends, be advised by me. Give your money to the baker, and the butcher, also the shoemaker and the clothier, and shun the publicans; give them no money at all, for this sufficient reason, they would most willingly deprive us of all moral entertainment if we would be as silly as to allow them. They would wish us to think only about what sort of strong drink we should make use of, and to place our affections on that only, and give the most of our earnings to them; no matter whether your families starve or not, or go naked or shoeless; they care not, so as their own families are well clothed from the cold, and well fed. My dear friends, I most sincerely entreat of you to shun the publicans as you would shun the devil, because nothing good can emanate from indulging in strong drink, but only that which is evil. Turn ye, turn ye! why be a slave to the bottle? Turn to God, and He will save you.

I hope the day is near at hand,
When strong drink will be banished from our land.

I remember a certain publican in the city that always pretended to have a great regard for me. Well, as I chanced to be passing by his door one day he was standing in the doorway, and he called on me to come inside, and, as he had been in the habit of buying my poetry, he asked me if I was getting on well, and, of course, I told him the truth, that I was not getting on very well, that I had nothing to do, nor I had not been doing anything for three weeks past, and, worse than all, I had no poetry to sell. Then he said that was a very bad job, and that he was very sorry to hear it, and he asked me how much I would take to give an entertainment in his large back-room, and I told him the least I would take would be five shillings. Oh! very well, he replied, I will invite some of my friends and acquaintances for Friday night first, and mind, you will have to be here at seven o’clock punctual to time, so as not to keep the company waiting. So I told him I would remember the time, and thanked him for his kindness, and bade him good-bye. Well, when Friday came, I was there punctually at seven o’clock, and, when I arrived, he told me I was just in time, and that there was a goodly company gathered to hear me. So he bade me go ben to the big room, and that he would be ben himself – as I supposed more to look after the money than to hear me give my entertainment. Well, my readers, when I made my appearance before the company I was greeted with applause, and they told me they had met together for the evening to hear me give my entertainment. Then a round of drink was called for, and the publican answered the call. Some of the company had whisky to drink, and others had porter or ale, whichever they liked best; as for myself, I remember I had gingerbeer. Well, when we had all partaken of a little drink, it was proposed by someone in the company that a chairman should be elected for the evening, which seemed to meet with the publican’s approbation. Then the chairman was elected, and I was introduced to the company by the chairman as the great poet McGonagall, who was going to give them an entertainment from his own productions; hoping they would keep good order and give me a fair hearing, and, if they would, he was sure I would please them. And when he had delivered himself so, he told me to begin, and accordingly I did so, and entertained the company for about an hour and a half. The company was highly satisfied with the entertainment I gave them, and everyone in the company gave three-pence each, or sixpence each — whatever they liked, I suppose — until it amounted to five shillings. Then the chairman told the publican that five shillings had been subscribed anent the entertainment I had given, and handed it to him. Then the publican gave it to me, and I thanked him and the company for the money I received from them anent the entertainment I had given them. Then the chairman proposed that I should sing “The Rattling Boy from Dublin” over again, and that would conclude the evening’s entertainment, and that I would get another subscription, which was unanimously carried by the company, but opposed by the publican; and he told me and the company I had no right to get any more than I had bargained for. But, my friends, his motive for objecting to me getting any more money was to get it himself anent another round of drink he guessed the party would have after I left. And such was the case, as I was told by one of the party the next day, who stayed well up to eleven o’clock, and it was after ten o’clock when I left. Now, my friends, here was a man, a publican, I may say, that pretended to be my friend, that was not satisfied with the money that he got from the company for so many rounds of drink, all through me, of course, that had brought them there to hear me give an entertainment. My opinion is, if I had been as simple to have spent my five shillings that I got for giving my entertainment, he would not have felt satisfied either. In my opinion, he would have laughed at my simplicity for doing so. May heaven protect me from all such friends for ever, and protect everyone that reads my experiences amongst the publications in this little Book of Poetic Gems.

I remember another night while giving an entertainment in a certain public-house to my admirers, and as soon as the publican found out I was getting money for giving the entertainment, he immediately wrote a letter and addressed it to me, or caused someone else to do it for him, and one of the waiters gave it to me. As soon as I received it in my hand I gave it to one of the company to read, and before he broke open the letter I told him it was a hoax, in my opinion, got up to make me leave his house; and, my dear friends, it was just as I thought — a hoax. I was told in that letter, by particular request, to go to Gray’s Hall, where a ball was held that evening, and, at the request of the master of the ceremonies, I was requested to come along to the hall, and recite my famous poem, “Bruce of Bannockburn” and I would be remunerated for it, and to hire a cab immediately, for the company at the ball were all very anxious to hear me. So I left the public-house directly, but I was not so foolish as to hire a cab to take me to Gray’s Hall. No, my friends, I walked all the way, and called at the hall and shewed the letter to a man that was watching the hall door, and requested him to read it, and to show it to the master of the ball ceremonies, to see if I was wanted to recite my poem, “Bruce of Bannockburn.” So the man took the letter from me and shewed it to the master of the ceremonies, and he soon returned with the letter, telling me it was a hoax, which I expected. My dear friends, this lets you see so far, as well as me, that these publicans that won’t permit singing or reciting in their houses are the ones that are selfish or cunning. They know right well that while anyone is singing a song in the company, or reciting, it arrests the attention of the audience from off the drink. That is the reason, my dear friends, for the publican not allowing moral entertainments to be carried on in their houses, which I wish to impress on your minds. It is not for the sake of making a noise in their houses, as many of them say by way of an excuse. No! believe me, they know that pleasing entertainment arrests the attention of their customers from off the drink for the time being, and that is the chief reason for them not permitting it, and, from my own experience, I know it to be the case.

I remember another night while in a public-house. This was on a Saturday night, and the room I was in was quite full, both of men and women, and, of course, I was well known to the most of them. However, I was requested to sing them a song, or give them a recitation, which, of course, I consented to do on one condition, that I was paid for it, which the company agreed to do. So accordingly I sang “The Rattling Boy from Dublin,” which was well received by the company. Then they proposed I should recite my Bannockburn poem, which I did, and after I had finished, and partaken of a little refreshment, the company made up for me a handsome collection. Then I began to think it was time for me to leave, as they seemed rather inclined to sing and enjoy themselves. However, when I got up to leave the company, I missed my stick. Lo and behold! it was gone from the place I had left it, and was nowhere to be seen by me or anyone else in the company. And while I was searching for it, and making a great fuss about it, one of the waiters chanced to come in with drink to the company, and he told me it had been taken away; for what purpose, my friends, if you know not, I will tell you: to make me leave the house, because I was getting too much money from the company, and the landlady guessed I would leave the house when I missed my stick, which was really the case.

I remember another Saturday night I was in the same public-house, and I was entertaining a number of gentlemen, and had received a second collection of money from them, and as soon as the landlady found out I was getting so much money, she rushed into the room and ordered me out at once, telling me to “hook it” out of here, and laid hold of me by the arm and showed me to the door.

Another case, I remember, happened to me in Perth; worse, in my opinion, than that. Well, my friends, I chanced to be travelling at the time, and, being in very poor circumstances, I thought I would call at a public-house where I was a little acquainted with the landlord, and ask him if he would allow me to give an entertainment in one of his rooms, and I would feel obliged to him if he would be so kind. Well, however, he consented with a little flattery. Sometimes flattery does well; and in reference to flattery I will quote the beautiful lines of John Dryden the poet:–

“Flattery, like ice, our footing does betray,
Who can tread sure on the smooth slippery way?
Pleased with the fancy, we glide swiftly on,
And see the dangers which we cannot shun.”

The entertainment was to come off that night, and to commence at eight o’clock. So, my friends, I travelled around the city — God knows, tired, hungry, and footsore — inviting the people to come and hear me give my entertainment; and, of course, a great number of rich men and poor men came to hear me, and the room was filled by seven o’clock. But, remember, my dear friends, when I wanted to begin the publican would not allow me until he had almost extracted every penny from the pockets of the company. And when he told me to begin, I remember I felt very reluctant to do so, for I knew i would get but a small recompense for my entertainment. And it just turned out to be as I expected. My dear friends, I only received eighteen pence for my entertainment from, I daresay, about sixty of a company. I ask of you, my dear readers, how much did the publican realise from the company that night by selling drink? In my opinion, the least he would have realised would be eighteen shillings or a pound. But, depend upon it, they will never take the advantage of me again.

My dear friends, I entreat of you all, for God’s sake and for the furtherance of Christ’s kingdom, to abstain from all kinds of intoxicating liquor, because seldom any good emanates from it. In the first place, if it was abolished, there would not be so much housebreaking, for this reason: When the burglar wants to break into a house, if he thinks he hasn’t got enough courage to do so, he knows that if he takes a few glasses of either rum, whisky, or brandy, it will give him the courage to rob and kill honest disposed people. Yet the Government tolerates such a demon, I may call it, to be sold in society; to help burglars and thieves to rob and kill; also to help the seducer to seduce our daughters; and to help to fill our prisons, and our lunatic asylums, and our poorhouses. Therefore, for these few sufficient reasons, I call upon you, fathers and mothers, and the friends of Christianity, and the friends of humanity,

To join each one, with heart and hand,
And help to banish the bane of society from our land,
And trust in God, and worship Him,
And denounce the publicans, because they cause sin;
Therefore cease from strong drink,
And you will likely do well,
Then there’s not so much danger of going to hell!

My dear friends, along with my experiences amongst the publicans, I will relate to you a rather dangerous adventure that happened to me some years ago, as follows. Being on travel in the parish of Liff, that is, I think, about six miles from Dundee, and as I was very hard up for money at the time, and being rather at a loss how to get a little of that filthy lucre, as some people term it. But, my dear readers, I never considered it to be either filthy or bad. Money is most certainly the most useful commodity in society that I know of. It is certainly good when not abused; but, if abused, the fault rests with the abuser — the money is good nevertheless. For my own part, I have always found it to be one of my best friends. Well, being near to a smithy at the time I refer to, I resolved to call on the smith at the smithy and ask his permission to be allowed to give an entertainment from my own works in the smithy that same night. A typical 19th century smithy And when I called on the smith and asked his permission to give my entertainment, and told him who I was, he granted me permission of the smithy cheerfully to give my entertainment. So I went from house to house~in the district, inviting people to come to my entertainment, which was to commence at eight o’clock. Admission — adults, twopence each; children, one penny each. When it drew near to eight o’clock there was a very respectable audience gathered to hear me, and gave me a very hearty welcome and a patient hearing; and they all felt I delighted with the entertainment I had given them, and many of them inviting me to hurry back again, and give them another entertainment. The proceeds, I remember, for the entertainment I gave amounted to four shillings and ninepence, which I was very thankful for. Well, my dear friends, after I had thanked the smith for the liberty of his smithy, and had left and had drawn near to Liff school-room, I heard the pattering of men’s feet behind me, and an undefinable fear seized me. Having my umbrella with me I grasped it firmly, and waited patiently until three men came up to me near Liff school-room, and there they stood glaring at me as the serpent does before it leaps upon its prey. Then the man in the centre of the three whispered to his companions, and, as he did so, he threw out both his hands, with the intention, no doubt, of knocking me down, and, with the assistance of the other two, robbing me of the money I had realised from my entertainment. But when he threw out his arms to catch hold of me, as quick as lightning I struck him a blow across the legs with my umbrella, which made him leap backwards, and immediately they then went away round to the front of the school-master’s house, close by the road side, and planted themselves there. And when I saw they were waiting for me to come that way as they expected, I resolved to make my escape from them the best way I could. But how? ah, that was the rub. However, I went round to the front of the school-master’s house, and reviewed them in the distance, and, the night being dark, the idea struck me if I could manage to get away from their sight they would give up the chase and go home to Lochee without satisfying their evil intentions. Well, my friends, the plan I adopted was by lowering my body slowly downwards until my knees were touching the ground, and, in that position, I remained for a few seconds; then I threw myself flat on my face on the road, and I remained in that way watching them in the greatest fear imaginable. But, thank God, the plan I adopted had the desired effect of saving me from being robbed, or perhaps murdered. Then I thought it advisable to go home by Birkhill, for fear of meeting the night poachers or prowlers again. And when I arrived at Birkhiill I resolved to go home by passing through Lord Duncan’s woods. I considered it would be safer doing so than by going home the way the poachers had gone, and, just as I made my entry into Lord Duncan’s woods, I began to sing –

Yea, though I walk in death’s dark vale,
Yet will I fear none ill,
For Thou art with me, and Thy rod
And staff me comfort still.

So, my dear readers, I arrived safe home, and thanked God for delivering me from the hands of evil-doers, as He has done on all occasions.

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