Father Toban, the greatest scholar in the world

July 30, 2021 0 Comments
Henry Wyndham Phillips, George Borrow (1843)

It’s late summer, 1854.  George Borrow, walking around Wales, has arrived at Holyhead.  He stays overnight at the ‘Railway Hotel’ – reluctantly, because he detests railroads and never takes a train if he can do the same journey on foot.  In the morning he explores the town and then finds himself on the breakwater at the mouth of the harbour.  A steamer lies offshore, and he can see fishing boats on both sides of the pier.  Here he comes across a group of Irishmen:

On the shady side of the breakwater under the wall were two or three dozen of Irish reapers; some were lying asleep, others in parties of two or three were seated with their backs against the wall, and were talking Irish; these last all appeared to be well-made middle-sized young fellows, with rather a ruffianly look; they stared at me as I passed.  The whole party had shillealahs either in their hands or by their sides.  I went to the extremity of the pier, where was a little lighthouse, and then turned back.  As I again drew near the Irish, I heard a hubbub and observed a great commotion amongst them.  All, whether those whom I had seen sitting, or those whom I had seen reclining, had got, or were getting on their legs.  As I passed them they were all standing up, and their eyes were fixed upon me with a strange kind of expression, partly of wonder, methought, partly of respect.  “Yes, ’tis he, sure enough,” I heard one whisper.

A spokesman for the group, an athletic young man with dark features and eyes, and a ‘jumble of savagery and roguishness’ on his ‘genuine wild Irish face’, approaches Borrow to make a request of him:

‘Well, what do you want?’ said I, after we had stared at each other about half a minute.
‘Sure, I’m just come on the part of the boys and myself to beg a bit of a favour of your reverence.’
‘Reverence,’ said I, ‘what do you mean by styling me reverence?’
‘Och sure, because to be styled your reverence is the right of your reverence.’
‘Pray what do you take me for?’
‘Och sure, we knows your reverence very well.’
‘Well, who am I?’
‘Och, why Father Toban to be sure.’

‘The dirty steamer yonder for ould Ireland’

Borrow fails to put the man right, and plays along with the mistaken identification.  He asks what the Irishmen want of him.  They answer that they are about to board ‘the dirty steamer yonder for ould Ireland’, and they want him to bless them before they go.  A blessing, the men say, would preserve the ferry from catching fire, or running aground on the Hill of Howth in the mist.  Borrow continues to amuse himself at the expense of the deluded reapers:

‘And suppose I were to tell you that I am not Father Toban?’
‘Och, your reverence, will never think of doing that.’
‘Would you believe me if I did?’
‘We would not, your reverence.’
‘If I were to swear that I am not Father Toban?’
‘We would not, your reverence.’
‘On the evangiles?
‘We would not, your reverence.’
‘On the Cross?’
‘We would not, your reverence.’
‘And suppose I were to refuse to give you a blessing?’
‘Och, your reverence will never refuse to bless the poor boys.’
‘But suppose I were to refuse?’
‘Why, in such a case, which by-the-bye is altogether impossible, we should just make bould to give your reverence a good big bating.’

Breakwater, Holyhead

Before conceding their request Borrow makes them confess their sins, as ‘great big blackguards … without one good quality’ (they agree) and asks them whether he should give the blessing in Irish, Irish being one of his many languages.  No, they reply, Irish won’t do, nor English; the blessing has to be in Latin.  Borrow consents.  ‘Down on your marrow bones, ye sinners’, the man shouts to the group, ‘for his reverence Toban is about to bless us all in holy Latin’.  They obey and prostrate themselves – ‘thirty bare-headed Eironaich on the pier of Caer Gybi beneath the broiling sun’.

Borrow gives them the best Latin blessing he can remember, Latin being another of the languages he has mastered.  He remembers the words from ‘an old Popish book of devotion, which I bought in my boyhood at a stall’.  Afterwards he asks them not to bother him further, and they comply, resuming their lounging and dozing by the breakwater wall, as if nothing had happened.

That is how George Borrow narrates the episode, in chapter 41 of his account of his travels, Wild Wales, published in 1862.  Eight years separate the tour and the book, and in the interval Borrow has had plenty of time to craft his story.  It is a well-crafted story. 

At first sight Borrow seems to extracting humour from some easy racial and religious stereotyping, all too common among middle-class Englishmen of his time.  But we should remember that Wild Wales is an early example of what we now call ‘autofiction’, and the ‘Borrow’ of the book is a carefully constructed character.  If the hero of many eighteenth-century novels was the ‘man of sentiment’, Borrow sets up his alter ego as the ‘man of prejudice’.  This grump’s prejudices are many – Methodism, teetotalism, railways and indeed his own people, the ‘Saxons’ – and they include ‘Popism’ and the Irish.  But Borrow the man was sympathetic to the Irish – after all, he had lived in Ireland as a child, and had learned the language – and he was also no doubt in reality less hostile to Catholicism than his persona in Wild Wales might suggest.

There are also signs in the Holyhead story that the butt of Borrow’s humour may be himself, rather than the reapers.  Do the Irishmen really believe that Borrow is Father Toban?  Or are they themselves dissembling – deliberately ‘mistaking’ the visitor for their beloved priest?  They too are aware that Father Toban is a fiction.  There are several other anecdotes in the book with Borrow himself as the fall guy.  He is fooled by a bibulous ‘grey man’ he meets on a road in Anglesey into believing that he is one of Wales’s greatest bards.  On another occasion his Welsh is so eccentric that he’s taken to be a visitor from Brittany.

Another sign of Borrow’s ludic intent is the fact that Father Toban makes four other appearances in Wild Wales, all in the course of conversations with other Irish people on the road (itinerant Irish people, in the shadow of the disastrous Great Hunger, were common in Wales at the time).  The first is almost an inverted rehearsal for the Holyhead episode.  In Chester one Sunday, at the start of his trip, Borrow approaches a poor family of Irish tinkers.  They assume he is a minister of religion or priest, come to bring them God.

‘I would as soon listen to your words as those of Father Toban himself.’
‘And who is Father Toban?’
‘A powerful priest in these parts, sir, who has more than once eased me of my sins, and given me God upon the cross.  Oh, a powerful and comfortable priest is Father Toban.’

On this occasion Borrow flatly denies that he is a minister and leaves them, throwing some money towards the children of the family.  This act of petulant charity enrages them.  As with the reapers at Holyhead, it’s his religion they’re after:

‘We do not want your money, sir,’ screamed the woman after me; ‘we have plenty of money.  Give us God!  Give us God!’

Shortly after leaving Cerrigydrudion Borrow meets an Irish fiddler on the road, who also mentions Father Toban in passing: ‘in spite of what I have heard Father Toban say, I am by no means certain that all Protestants will be damned’. 

Thirdly, Borrow and his daughter, having crossed the suspension bridge to Anglesey, meet Michael Sullivan, a peripatetic bookseller from Castlebar.  The two speak in Irish.  Again Borrow is mistaken for someone he is not:

‘I see your hanner is a Munster man.  Ah! all the learned men comes from Munster.  Father Toban comes from Munster.’
‘I have heard of him once or twice before,’ said I.
‘I daresay your hanner has.  Every one has heard of Father Toban; the greatest scholar in the world, who they say stands a better chance of being made Pope, some day or other, than any saggart [priest] in Ireland.’

In the final Father Toban episode it is Borrow who is himself responsible for confusing identifies.  Near Pumsaint in Carmarthenshire he meets an Irish traveller, Mary Bane of Dunmanway, struggling up the road with a load of ‘soft goods’ to sell:

‘Of what religion are you? said I.
‘Oh, I’m a Catholic, just like your honour, for if I am not clane mistaken your honour is an Irishman.’
‘Who is your spiritual director?’ said I.
‘Why, then, it is just Father Toban, your honour, whom of course your honour knows.’
‘Oh yes!” said I; “when you next see him present my respects to him.’
‘What name shall I mention, your honour?’
‘Shorsha Borroo,’ said I.

‘Oh, then I was right in taking your honour for an Irishman.  None but a raal Paddy bears that name.  A credit to your honour is your name, for it is a famous name* …’  

[*Borrow adds in a footnote: ‘The good gentlewoman was probably thinking of the celebrated king Brian Boromhe slain at the battle of Clontarf.’]

These twinned themes, then – an absent, fictitious but powerful character, and personal misidentification – are used by Borrow as a running joke in Wild Wales.  They add to the reader’s suspicion that George Borrow the author and George Borrow the walker are very far from the same person.

Father Toban, it occurs to me, is an ancestor of De Selby, the crazed scientist and philospher who makes several appearances, though never in person, throughout Flann O’Brien’s The third policeman, quite possibly the funniest book ever written.  Wild Wales is not without its own Irish humour.

Leave a Reply