Sir Timothy's Dinner Party
by George A. Birmingham
Mr. Courtney, the R.M., was a man of ideas, and prided himself on his
sympathy with progress, the advance of thought, and similar delights. If
he had been thirty years younger, and had lived in Dublin, he would have
been classed among the "Intellectuals." He would then have written a
gloomy play or two, several poems and an essay, published at a shilling,
in a green paper cover, on the "Civilization of the Future." Being,
unfortunately, fifty-five years of age, he could not write poetry or
gloomy plays. Nobody can after the age of forty. Being a Resident
Magistrate, he was debarred from discussing the Civilization of the Future
in print. No Government allows its paid servant to write books on
controversial subjects. But Mr. Courtney remained intellectually alert,
and was a determined champion of the cause of progress, even amid the
uncongenial society of a West of Ireland town.
The introduction of Summer Time gave Mr. Courtney a great opportunity.
Almost everyone else in the neighbourhood objected to the change of the
clock. Cows, it was said, disliked being milked before their accustomed
hour. Dew collects in deep pools, and renders farm work impossible in the
early morning. It is unreasonable to expect labourers, who have to rise
early in any case, to get out of their beds before the day is properly
warm. Mr. Courtney combated all these objections with arguments which
struck him as sound, but irritated everybody else. When it appeared that
Ireland, worse treated as usual than England, was to be fined an
additional twenty-five minutes, and was to lose the proud privilege of
Irish time, Mr. Courtney was more pleased than ever. He made merry over
what he called the arguments of reactionary patriotism.
Sir Timothy was the principal landlord, and, socially, the most important
person in the neighbourhood. Sir Timothy did not like Mr. Courtney. He was
of opinion that the R.M. was inclined to take a high hand at Petty
Sessions and to bully the other magistrates—Sir Timothy was himself
a magistrate—who sat with him on the Bench. He also thought that Mr.
Courtney was "too d——d superior" in private life. Sir Timothy
had the lowest possible opinion of the progress made by civilization in
his own time. The Civilization of the Future, about which Mr. Courtney
talked a great deal, seemed to Sir Timothy a nasty kind of nightmare.
It was natural, almost inevitable, that Sir Timothy should take a
conservative view on the subject of the new time.
"I don't see the use of playing silly tricks with the clock," he said.
"You might just as well say that I'd live ten years longer if everybody
agreed to say that I'm forty-eight instead of fifty-eight. I'd still be
fifty-eight in reality. It's just the same with the time. We may all make
up our minds to pretend it's eight o'clock when it's really seven, but it
will still be seven."
Mr. Courtney smiled in a gentle, but very annoying manner.
"My dear Sir Timothy," he said, "don't you see that what is really wanted
is a complete change in the habits of the population? We've been gradually
slipping into wasteful ways of living. Our expenditure on artificial light———"
"I know all about that," said Sir Timothy. "If you've said it to me once,
you've said it a dozen times, and last year I did alter my docks. But this
year—hang it all! They're sticking another twenty-five minutes on
it. If they go on at this rate, moving us back an extra half hour every
May, we'll be living in the middle of the night before we die."
"I'm sorry to hear you taking up that question of the so-called Irish
time," said Mr. Courtney. "Reactionary patriotism——"
Sir Timothy spluttered. Being an Irish gentleman, he hated to be accused
of patriotism, which he held—following Dr. Johnson—to be the
last refuge of a scoundrel.
"There's nothing patriotic about it," he said. "What I object to hasn't
anything to do with any particular country. It's simply a direct insult to
"The sun," said Mr. Courtney, smiling more offensively than ever, "can
take care of itself."
"It can," said Sir Timothy, "and does. It takes jolly good care not to
rise in Dublin at the same time that it does in Greenwich, and what you're
trying to do is to bluff it into saying it does. When you come to think of
it, the sun doesn't rise here the same time it does in Dublin. We're a
hundred and twenty miles west of Dublin, so the real time here——"
"We can't have a different time in every parish," said Mr. Courtney. "In
the interests of international civilization——"
"I don't care a row of pins about international civilization. We're
something like twenty minutes wrong already here. When you've made your
silly change to summer time, and wiped out that twenty-five minutes Irish
time, we shall be an hour and three quarters wrong."
"At all events," said Mr. Courtney, "you'll have to do it."
"And when you've got accustomed to it, you'll see the advantages of the
Sir Timothy was profoundly irritated.
"You may do as you like," he said, "I mean to stick to the proper time.
The proper time, mind you, strictly according to the sun, as it rises in
this neighbourhood. I haven't worked it out exactly yet, but I should say,
roughly, that there'll be two hours' difference between your watch and
Mr. Courtney gasped.
"Do you mean to say that you're actually going to add on two hours?
"I'm going to take off two hours," said Sir Timothy.
Mr. Courtney thought for a moment.
"You'll be adding on those two hours," he said, "not taking them off——"
"You're an extraordinarily muddle-headed man, Courtney. Can't you see that
if I call it six when you say it's eight I'm taking off——"
"You're not. The way to look at it is this: A day is twenty-four hours
long. You say it's twenty-six hours. Therefore, you add on."
"I don't do anything of the sort," said Sir Timothy. "Look here, the sun
rises, say, at 6 a.m. You and a lot of other silly people choose to say
that it rises at 8. What I'm doing—I and the sun, Courtney—mind
that. The sun's with me—— What we're doing is taking off two
The argument went on for some time. Its result was that Sir Timothy and
Mr. Courtney did not speak to each other again for a fortnight Arguments,
religious, political and economic, often end in this way.
During that fortnight summer time established itself, more or less, in the
neighbourhood. Mr. Courtney, the local bank, the railway company, and the
police observed the new time in its full intensity. The parish priest and
most of the farmers took a moderate line. They sacrificed the twenty-five
minutes of the original Irish time, but resisted the imposition of a whole
extra hour. With them it was eight o'clock when the nine o'clock train
started for Dublin. A few extremists stood out for their full rights as
Irishmen, and insisted that the bank, which said it opened at 10 a.m., was
really beginning business at 8.35 a.m. Sir Timothy, dragging his household
with him, set up what he called actual time, and breakfasted a full two
hours after the progressive party.
The practical inconvenience of these differences of opinion became obvious
when Sir Timothy arrived at the Petty Sessions Court to take his seat on
the Bench just as Mr. Courtney, having completed the business of the day,
was going home for a rather late luncheon.
"No cases to-day?" said Sir Timothy, coldly polite.
"Oh, yes, there were, several. I've finished them off."
"But," said Sir Timothy, "it's only just the hour for beginning."
"Excuse me, it's 2 p.m."
"12 noon," said Sir Timothy.
"2 p.m.," repeated Mr. Courtney.
Sir Timothy took out his watch. The hands were together at the hour of 12.
He showed it to Mr. Courtney, who grimed. Sir Timothy scowled at him and
turned fiercely to a police sergeant who stood by.
"Sergeant," he said, "what time is it?"
It is not the function of the Irish police to decide great questions of
State. Their business is to enforce what the higher powers, for the time
being, wish the law to be. In case of any uncertainty about which power is
the higher, the police occupy the uncomfortable position of neutrals. The
sergeant was not quite sure whether Sir Timothy or Mr. Courtney were the
more influential man. He answered cautiously.
"There's some," he said, "who do be saying that it's one o'clock at the
present time. There's others—and I'm not saying they're wrong—who
are of opinion that it's half-past twelve, or about that. There's them—and
some of the most respectable people is with them there—that says
it's 2 p.m. If I was to be put on my oath this minute, I'd find it mortal
hard to say what time it was."
"By Act of Parliament," said Mr. Courtney, its 2 p.m.
"In the matter of an Act of Parliament," said the sergeant, "I wouldn't
like to be contradicting your honour."
Sir Timothy turned on his heel and walked away. The victory was with Mr.
Courtney, but not because he had an Act of Parliament behind him. Nobody
in Ireland pays much attention to Acts of Parliament. He made his point
successfully, because the police did not like to contradict him. From that
day on Sir Timothy made no attempt to take his seat on the Magistrates'
Bench in the Court House.
Late in the summer Sir Archibald Chesney visited the neighbourhood. Sir
Archibald is, of course, a great man. He is one of the people who are
supposed to govern Ireland. He does not actually do so. Nobody could. But
he dispenses patronage, which, after all, is one of the most important
functions of any Government. It was, for instance, in Sir Archibald's
power to give Mr. Courtney a pleasant and well-paid post in Dublin, to
remove him from the uncongenial atmosphere of Connaught, and set him in an
office in the Lower Castle Yard. There, and in a house in Ailesbury Road—houses
in Ailesbury Road are most desirable—Mr. Courtney could mingle in
really intellectual society.
Mr. Courtney knew this, and invited Sir Archibald to be his guest during
his stay in the neighbourhood. Sir Archibald gracefully accepted the
Then a surprising thing happened. Mr. Courtney received a very friendly
letter from Sir Timothy.
"I hear," so the letter ran, "that Sir Archibald Chesney is to be with you
for a few days next week. We shall be very pleased if you will bring him
out to dine with us some evening. Shall we say Tuesday at 7.30? I shall
not ask anyone else. Three of us will be enough for a couple of bottles of
my old port."
Sir Timothy's port was very old and remarkably good. Mr. Courtney had
tasted it once or twice before the days when summer time was thought of.
No doubt, Sir Archibald would appreciate the port.
He might afterwards take an optimistic view of life, and feel well
disposed towards Mr. Courtney. The invitation was accepted.
Sir Archibald and Mr. Courtney dressed for dinner, as gentlemen belonging
to the high official classes in Ireland should and do. They put on shirts
with stiff fronts and cuffs. With painful efforts they drove studs through
tightly sealed buttonholes. They fastened white ties round their collars.
They encased their stomachs in stiff white waistcoats. They struggled into
silk-lined, silk-faced, long-tailed coats. They wrapped their necks in
white silk scarves. They even put high silk hats on their heads. Their
overcoats were becomingly open, for the day was warm. They took their
seats in the motor. Every policeman in the village saluted them as they
passed. They sped up the long, tree-lined avenue which led to Sir
Timothy's house. They reached the lofty doorway, over which crouched lions
upheld a shield, bearing a coat of arms.
On the lawn opposite the door Sir Timothy, his two daughters and a young
man whom Mr. Courtney recognized as the police inspector, were playing
tennis. It was a bright and agreeable scene. The sun shone pleasantly. Sir
Timothy and the police inspector were in white flannels. The girls wore
pretty cotton frocks.
Sir Archibald looked at Mr. Courtney.
"We've come the wrong day," he said, "or the wrong hour, or something."
"It is Tuesday," said Mr. Courtney, "and he certainly said 7.30."
"It's infernally awkward," said Sir Archibald, glancing at his clothes.
Sir Timothy crossed the lawn, swinging his tennis racket and smiling.
"Delighted to see you," he said. "I'd have asked you to come up for a game
of tennis if I'd thought you'd have cared for it. Had an idea you'd be
busy all day, and would rather dress at your own place. Hullo, you are
dressed! A bit early, isn't it? But I'm delighted to see you."
Sir Archibald stepped slowly from the car. Men who undertake the task of
governing Ireland must expect to find themselves looking like fools
occasionally. But it is doubtful whether any turn of the political or
administrative machine can make a man look as foolish as he feels when,
elaborately dressed in evening clothes, he is suddenly set down on a sunny
lawn in the middle of a group of people suitably attired for tennis. Sir
Archibald, puzzled and annoyed, turned to Mr. Courtney with a frown.
"He said half-past seven," said Mr. Courtney.
"I'm delighted to see you now or at any time, but, as a matter of fact,
it's only half-past five," said Sir Timothy.
Sir Archibald looked at his watch.
"It's—surely my watch can't have gained two hours?"
"It's half-past seven," said Mr. Courtney, firmly.
"Oh, no it isn't," said Sir Timothy. "I don't dine by Act of Parliament."
Sir Archibald frowned angrily.
"We'd better go home again," he said. "We mustn't interrupt the tennis."
He climbed stiffly into the motor.
"I suppose," he said to Mr. Courtney a few minutes later, "that this is
some kind of Irish joke."
Mr. Courtney explained, elaborately and fully, Sir Timothy's peculiar
views about time.
"If I'd known," said Sir Archibald, "that you were taking me to dine with
a lunatic, I should not have agreed to go."
Mr. Courtney recognized that his chances of promotion to a pleasant post
in Dublin had vanished. The Irish Government had no use for men who place
their superiors in embarrassing positions.