Buckram-Back:The Country Dancing Master

William Carleton

ONE of the most amusing specimens of the Irish dancing-master, that I ever met, was the person who went under the nickname of Buckram-Back. This man had been a drummer in the army for some time, where he had learned to play the fiddle; but it appears that he possessed no relish whatever for a military life, as his abandonment of it without even the usual form of a discharge or furlough, together with a back that had become cartilaginous from frequent flogging, could abundantly testify. It was from the latter circumstance that he had received his nickname.

Buckram-Back was a dapper light little fellow, with a rich Tipperary brogue, crossed by a lofty strain of illegitimate English, which he picked up whilst abroad in the army. His habiliments sat as tight upon him as he could readily wear them, and were all of the shabby-genteel class. His crimped black coat was a closely worn second-hand, and his crimped face quite as much of the second-hand as the coat. I think I see his little pumps, little white stockings, his coaxed drab breeches, his hat, smart in its cock but brushed to a polish, and standing upon three hairs, together with his tight questionable-coloured gloves, all before me. Certainly he was the jauntiest little cock living-quite a blood, ready to fight any man, and a great defender of the fair sex, whom he never addressed except in that high-flown bombastic style so agreeable to most of them, called by their flatterers the complimentary, and by their friends the fulsome. He was in fact a public man, and up to everything. You met him at every fair, where he only had time to give you a wink as he passed, being just then engaged in a very particular affair; but he would tell you again. At cockfights he was a very busy personage, and an angry bettor from half-a-crown downwards. At races he was a knowing fellow, always shook hands with the winning jockey, and then looked pompously about, that folks might see he was hand and glove with people of importance. The house where Buckram-Back kept his school, which was open only after the hours of labour, was an uninhabited cabin, the roof of which, at a particular spot, was supported by a post that stood upright from the floor. It was built upon an elevated situation, and commanded a fine view of the whole country for miles about it. A pleasant sight it was to see the modest and pretty girls, dressed in their best frocks and ribbons, radiating in little groups from all directions, accompanied by their partners or lovers, making way through the fragrant summer fields, of a calm cloudless evening, to this happy scene of innocent amusement.

And yet what an epitome of general life, with its passions, jealousies, plots, calumnies, and contentions, did this tiny segment of society present! There was the shrew, the slattern, the coquette, and the prude, as sharply marked within this their humble sphere, as if they appeared on the world's wider stage, with half its wealth and all its temptations to draw forth their prevailing foibles. There too was the bully, the rake, the liar, the coxcomb, and the coward, each as perfect and distinct in his kind as if he had run through a lengthened course of fashionable dissipation, or spent a fortune in acquiring his particular character. The elements of the human heart, however, and the passions that make up the general business of life, are the same in high and low, and exist with impulses as strong in the cabin as in the palace. The only difference is, that they have not equal room to play.

Buckram-Back's system, in originality of design, in comic conception of decorum, and in the easy practical assurance with which he wrought it out, was never equalled, much less surpassed. Had the impudent little rascal confined himself to dancing as usually taught, there would have been nothing so ludicrous or uncommon in it; but no; he was such a stickler for example in everything, that no other mode of instruction would satisfy him. Dancing! why, it was the least part of what he taught or professed to teach.

In the first place, he undertook to teach every one, of us-for I had the honour of being his pupil-how to enter a drawing-room "in the most fashionable manner alive," as he said himself.

Secondly. He was the only man, he said, who could in the most agreeable and polite style teach a gintleman how to salute, or, as he termed it, how to shiloote, a leedy. This he taught, he said, with great success.

Thirdly. He could taich every leedy and gintleman how to make the most beautiful bow or curchy on airth, by only imitating himself-one that would cause a thousand people if they were all present, to think that it was particularly intended only for aich o' themselves!

Fourthly. He taught the whole art o' courtship wid all peliteness and success, accordin' as it was practised in Paris durin' the last saison.

Fifthly. He could taich them how to write love-letthers and valentines accordin' to the Great Macademy of compliments, which was supposed to be invinted by Bonaparte when he was writing love letthers to both his wives.

Sixthly. He was the only person who could taich the famous dance called Sir Roger de Coverly, or the Heiter-Skelter Drag, which comprehended widin itself all the advantages and beauties of his whole system-in which every gintleman was at liberty to pull every leedy where he plaised, and every leedy was at liberty to go wherever he pulled her.

With such advantages in prospect, and a method of instruction so agreeable, it is not to be wondered at that this establishment was always in a most flourishing condition. The truth is, he had it so contrived that every gentleman should salute his lady as often as possible, and for this purpose actually invented dances in which not only should every gentleman salute every lady, but every lady, by way of returning the compliment, should render a similar kindness to every gentleman. Nor had his male pupils all this prodigality of salutation to themselves, for the amorous little rascal always commenced first and ended last, in order, he said, that they might cotch the manner from himself. "I do this, leedies and gintlemen, as your moral (model), and because it's part o' my system-ahem!"

And then he would perk up his little hard face, that was too barren to produce more than an abortive smile, and twirl like a wagtail over the floor, in a manner that he thought irresistible.

Whether Buckram-Back was the only man who tried to reduce kissing to a system of education in this country, I do not know. It is certainly true that many others of his stamp made a knowledge of the arts and modes of courtship, like him, a part of the course. The forms of love letters, valentines, &c., were taught their pupils of both sexes, with many other polite particulars, which it is to be hoped have disappeared for ever.

One thing, however, to the honour of our country-women we are bound to observe, which is, that we do not remember a single result incompatible with virtue to follow from the little fellow's system, which, by the way, was in this respect peculiar only to himself, and not the general custom of the country. Several weddings, unquestionably, we had, more than might otherwise have taken place, but in no one instance have we known any case in which a female was brought to unhappiness or shame.

We shall now give a brief sketch of Buckrarn-Back's manner of tuition, begging our readers at the same time to rest assured that any sketch we could give would fall far short of the original.

"Paddy Corcoran, walk out an' 'inther your drawin'-room;' an' let Miss Judy Hanratty go out along wid you, an' come in as Mrs. Corcoran."

"Faith, I'm afeard, master, I'll make a bad hand of it; but, sure, it's something to have Judy here to keep me in countenance."

"Is that by way of compliment, Paddy? Mr. Corcoran, you should ever an' always spaik to a leedy in an alablasther tone; for that's the cut."

[Paddy and Judy retire.

"Mickey Scanlan, come up here, now that we're braithin' a little; an' you Miss Grauna Mulholland, come up along wid him. Miss Mulholland, you are masther of your five positions and your fifteen attitudes, I believe?"

"Yes, sir." "Very well, Miss. Mickey Scanlan-ahem-Misther Scanlan, can you perform the positions also, Mickey?"

"Yes, sir; but you remember I stuck at the eleventh altitude."

"Attitude, sir-no matther. Well, Misther Scanlan, do you know how to shiloote a leedy, Mickey?"

"Faix, it's hard to say, sir, till we try; but I'm very willin' to larn it. I'll do my best an' the best can do no more."

"Very well-ahem! Now merk me, Misther Scanlan; you approach your leedy in this style, bowin' politely, as I do. Miss Mulholland, will you allow me the honour of a heavenly shiloote? Don't bow, ma'am; you are to curchy, you know; a little lower eef you plaise. Now you say, 'Wid the greatest pleasure in life, sir, an' many thanks for the feevour.' (Smack). There, now, you are to make another curchy politely, an' say, 'Thank you, kind sir, I owe you one.' Now, Misther Scanlan, proceed."

"I'm to imitate you, masther, as well as I can, sir, I believe?"

"Yes, sir, you are to imitate me. But hould, sir; did you see me lick my lips or pull up my breeches? Be gorra, that's shockin' unswintemintal. First make a curchy, a bow I mane, to Miss Grauna. Stop again, sir; are you going to sthrangle the leedy? Why, one would think that it's about to teck laive of her for ever you are. Gently, Misther Scanlan; gently, Mickey. There-well, that's an improvement. Practice, Misther Scanlan, practice will do all, Mickey, but don't smack so loud, though. Hilloo, gintlemen! Where's our drawin'-room folks? Go out, one of you, for Misther and Mrs. Paddy Coreoran."

Corcoran's face now appears peeping in at the door, lit up with a comic expression of genuine fun, from whatever cause it may have proceeded.

"Aisy, Misther Corcoran; an' where's Mrs. Corcoran, sir?"

"Are we both to come in together, masther?"

"Certainly: turn out both your toses-turn them out, I say."

"Faix. sir, it's aiser said than done wid some of us."

"I know that, Misther Corcoran; but practice is everything. The bow legs are strongly against you, I grant. Hut tut, Misther Corcoran-why, if your toes wor where your heels is, you'd be exactly in the first position, Paddy. Well, both of you turn out your toses; look street forward; clap your caubeen-ahem!-your castor under your ome (arm), an' walk into the middle of the flure, wid your head up. Stop, take care o' the post. Now, take your caubeen, castor I mane, in your right hand; give it a flourish. Aisy, Mrs. Hanratty-Corcoran I mane-it's not you that's to flourish. Well, flourish your castor, Paddy, and thin make a graceful bow to the company. Leedies and gintlemen"-

"Leedies and gintlemen"-

"I'm your most obadient sarvint"-

"I'm your most obadient sarwint."

"Tuts man alive! That's not a bow. Look at this: there's a bow for you. Why, instead of meeking a bow, you appear as if you wor goin' to sit down with an embargo (lumbago) in your back. Well, practice is every thing; an' there's luck in leisure."

"Dick Doorish, will you come up, and thry if you can meek anything of that treblin' step. You're a purty lad, Dick; you're a purty lad, Misther Doorish, with a pair o' left legs an you, to expect to larn to dance; but don't dispeer, man alive, I'm not afeard, but I'll make a raceful slip o' you yet. Can you meek a curchy?"

"Not right, sir, I doubt."

"Well, sir, I know that; but, Misther Doorish, you ought to know how to meek both a bow and a curchy. Whin you marry a wife, Misther Doorish, it mightn't come wrong for you to know how to taich her a curchy. Have you the gad and suggaun wid you?" "Yes, sir." "Very well, on wid them; the suggaun on the right foot, or what ought to be. the right foot, an' the gad upon what ought to be the left. Are you ready?" "Yes,sir." "Come, then, do as I bid you. Rise upon suggaun an' sink upon gad; rise upon suggaun an' sink upon gad; rise upon-Hould, sir; you're sinkin' upon suggaun an' risin' upon gad, the very thing begad you ought not to do. But, God help you! sure you're left-legged. Ah, Misther Doorish, it 'ud be a long time before you'd be able to dance Jig Polthogue or the College Hornpipe upon a drum-head, as I often did. However, don't despeer, Misther Doorish: if I could only get you to know your right leg-but God help you! sure you hav'n't such a thing-from your left, I'd make something of you yet, Dick."

The Irish dancing-masters were eternally at daggers-drawn among themselves; but as they seldom met, they were forced to abuse each other at a distance, which they did with a virulence and scurrility proportioned to the space between them. Buckram-Back had a rival of this description, who was a sore thorn in his side. His name was Paddy Fitzpatrick, and from having been a horse-jockey, he gave up the turf, and took to the calling of a dancing-master. Buckram-Back sent a message to him to the effect that "if he could not dance Jig Polthogue, on the drum-head, he had better hould his tongue for ever." To this Paddy replied, by asking if he was the man to dance the Connaught Jockey upon the saddle of a blood horse, and the animal at a three-quarter gallop.

At length the friends on each side, from a natural love of fun, prevailed upon them to decide their claims as follows: Each master with twelve of his pupils, was to dance against his rival with twelve of his; the match to come off on the top of Mallybeny Hill, which commanded a view of the whole parish. I have already mentioned that in' Buckram-Back's school there stood near the middle of the floor a post, which, according to some new manoeuvre of his own, was very convenient as a guide to the dancers when going through the figure. Now, at the spot where this post stood it was necessary to make a curve, in order to form part of the figure of eight, which they were to follow; but as many of them were rather impenetrable to a due conception of the line of beauty, he forced them to turn round the post, rather than make an acute angle of it, which several of them. did. Having premised thus much, we proceed with our narrative.

At length they met, and it would have been a matter of much difficulty to determine their relative merits, each was such an admirable match for the other. When Buckram-Back's pupils, however, came to perform, they found that the absence of the post was their ruin. To the post they had been trained-accustomed; with it they could dance; but wanting that, they were like so many ships at sea without rudders or compasses. Of course a scene of ludicrous confusion ensued, which turned the laugh against poor Buckram-Back, who stood likely to explode with shame and venom. In fact he was in an agony.

"Gintlemen, turn the post!" he shouted 'stamping upon the ground, and clenching his little hands with fury; "leedies, remimber the post! Oh, for the honour of Kiinahushogue don't be bate. The post, gintlemen! leedies the post, if you love me. Murdher alive, the post!"

"Be gorra, masther, the jokey will distance us," replied Bob Magawly; "it's likely to be the winnin'-post to him, any how."

"Any money," shouted the little fellow, "any money for long Sam Sallaghan; he'd do the post to the life. Mind it, boys dear, mind it or we're lost. Divil a bit they heed me: it's a flock of bees or sheep they are like. Sam Sallaghan, where are you? The post, you blackguards!"

"Oh, masther dear, if we had even a fishin'-rod or a crow-bar, or a poker, we might do yet. But, anyhow, we had betther give in, for it's only worse we're gettin'."

At this stage of the proceedings, Paddy came over, and making a low bow, asked him, "Arra, how do you feel, Misther Dogherty?" for such was Buckram-Back's name.

"Sir," replied Buckram-Back, bowing low, however, in return, "I'll take the shine out of you, yet. Can you shiloote a leedy wid me-that's the chat! Come, gintlemen, show them what's betther than fifty posts-shiloote your partners like Irishmen. Kilnahushogue for ever!"

The scene that ensued baffles all description. The fact is, the little fellow had them trained, as it were, to kiss in platoons, and the spectators were literally convulsed with laughter at this most novel and ludicrous character that Buckram-Back gave to his defeat, and the ceremony which he introduced. The truth is, he turned the laugh completely against his rival, and swaggered off the ground in high spirits, exclaiming, "He know how to shiloote a leedy! Why the poor spalpeen never kissed any woman but his mother, an' her only when she was dyin'. Hurra for Kilnahushogue!"

Such is a slight sketch of an Irish dancing-master, which if it possesses any merit at all, is to be ascribed to the circumstance that it is drawn from life, and combines, however faintly, most of the points essential to the truest conception of the character.

Publication information:
Amusing Irish Tales, by William Carleton
Fourth Edition - Published in London by Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co.
Mid-nineteenth century


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