by Thomas John Mulvey, PhD
|Childhood reflections of rural, 1870s Ireland and Celtic history.|
Edited by Eric C. Biemiller and William L. Mulvey|
Grandsons of Thomas John Mulvey, PhD
Copyright© William L. Mulvey, all rights reserved
When my father returned to Ireland from America on that red-letter day, July 6, in 1872, it was with the intention of being able to settle down as an Irish farmer, on what was considered in those parts one of the most fertile, one of the most beautiful pieces of land in the whole of the County Leitrim, which, though one of the smallest counties in Ireland, yet is an epitome of the island itself, with its fine valleys, gently rolling hills covered with fair fields divided so numerously and delightfully by hawthorn, those hedges, which support at times the housewife's washing spread out on the thorn bushes that kept them from blowing away. His return to Ireland was prompted by the prospect of better times for the long suppressed Irish land holders, or rather tenant-serf, whose land was not his own but was owned by an absentee-landlord. For the Land League was forming. It held large promise for direct ownership of the farms, large and small, by such as my father. That ownership he and every other Irishman considered as his inherent right to and in the soil which he tilled by the sweat of his brow, but which he had been robbed of by an alien aggressor, the Sassenach.
Besides, while he had gone to America twice by force of dire circumstance in order to make the little money which his native country denied him the opportunity of making, even the opportunity of eking out an existence from the soil; yet his heart-strings were bound up in Ireland; his affections were there, and he could say with Deirdre, as J. M. Synge says, after the seven years of forced exile in Alban, "It's a lonesome thing to be away from Ireland always."
I can remember his walking of a Sunday after Mass, in the late Spring or early Summer, with my Uncle Patrick Slack through the meadows, down through the patch of potatoes, and the bog-land adjoining, pointing out to him the virtues of the land he loved and the beauties of the surroundings. There was the purple of the heather, the delicate white purity of the bog cotton tassels, and the pale pink and lavender of the potato blossoms. There was the turf, or peat, to be cut and "reared," as they say in Ireland. Turf, is the poor man's fuel. Soon, he told my uncle, he and a "mehhil" of men, his neighbors, would begin to cut the turf against the needs of the ever-burning fire, especially through the long winter months. Uncle Patrick, of course, knew how it was done. Two or three of the neighbors, forming a "mehhil" of men, would give a whole day or two to doing the job.
One or two men, taking turns, if there were two, worked at the cutting. This was done with an implement called a Slane consisting of two cutting edges, one at right angles to the other, on a long handle. The man doing the cutting drove the slane into the turf and tossed the cut piece to another higher up on the bank. This man passed the cut piece, about the size and shape of a brick, to a third, perhaps a gossoon, or young lad, who then stacked the cut pieces in a little hill, so as to let the air circulate between and around them, thus drying or curing or "rearing" them. When they were properly dried by the sun or weather, they were brought up to the house and formed into a turf rick, which was the fuel supply for the year. The carrying was done in creels hung one on each side of an ass. The creels being supported on spikes, one on a side of what might be called a saddle. Or, if there were grown girls in the family, or grown gossoons, they carried the brick-shaped turf in a creel furnished with errishes that is, with long pieces of rope, formed into loops, one on each side of the creel, into which they slipped their arms and then hoisted the creel into position on their backs between the shoulders. It was no novelty at all to see turf so transported from bog to house in the season of cutting. Our turf was coal-black, and when dried, as hard as stone.
Anent the use of asses for carrying the turf, let me mention here the ass's foal that a kindly neighbor gave me as gift when I was seven or eight years of age. He was a diminutive little creature, that gave no promise of ever growing to be my size, even though the asses of Ireland are relatively small as compared to some I've seen on the Continent of Europe - one of the reasons, I make no doubt, for the gift. But he was a sturdy little jackass. I took great pleasure in bringing him up, at first on a bottle in lieu of his mother's milk, later in such provender as thy fed to asses. I named him Joeie and taught him to come at my call. He would follow me all over the place. I also taught him to jump over a rope held at each end by my sister Ellie and me. At the words, "Jump, Joeie"! he would come a running and clear the rope, held at first some six or seven inches from the ground. Finally, when he was strong enough to carry me, I rode him bare back with great delight.
The European donkey is marked across the shoulders with a strip of black or dark hair, which, with the dark ridge running from neck to back, forms a cross. My grandmother Mulvey whose maiden name, by the way, was Ellen O'Connor, and had a store of folk stories, among which was one about the ass. This story narrated how he came by the mark of the cross on his back, the transcript, so to speak, up on his shoulders and cutting across the dark line that runs from the mane on his neck part way down his back. She told me, with all the faith and sincerity in the world, for she believed it implicitly herself, that the ass got the marking of the cross when he carried the Child Jesus into Egypt accompanied by Mary and Joseph. And so the ass was treated with consideration, especially in the West of Ireland.
She also told me how the robin came by his blood-red feathers that earn him his name of robin redbreast. The European, certainly the Irish robin, is a much smaller bird than that which goes by the same name here in the United States. In Ireland he is a dainty little fellow and very tame, probably because of the legend as to how he got his name of redbreast. When in Ireland the snow is on the ground, the little robin-red-breast is a frequent visitor around the door and at the windows in the house; for then all the elder berries have disappeared from the trees and the scarlet haws have been gobbled up from the hawthorn bushes. The poor little friendly redbreast comes seeking crumbs from the children and from the housewife. If there are any to spare or left over, he seldom goes away disappointed. And if he gets caught in the bird-cradle, a contraption to catch larger birds, he is given his liberty.
When Jesus was hanging on the cross, still wearing His crown of thorns, a little bird flying by saw Him, stopped, and circled about the unusual sight. The bird saw the tiny rivulets of blood that had issued from the wounds made by the individual thorns and sullied His Holy Face. Moved to compassion, the little feathered Samaritan flew gently in and with his beak drew out one of the offending thorns. The red blood dripping from it stained his breast. "And from that day to this," my grandmother said, "that little bird has always had a breast stained red, hence the name of Robin-Red-Breast." No wonder that the Irish peasantry hold him in reverence and respect.
My grandmother also told me how the wren, the smallest, or so she said, of all birds, was doomed never to fly very high off the ground, but was condemned always to build its nest close to the earth or in the lowest branches of the hedgerow bushes.
Once upon a time there was a council of all the birds in the world to determine which of them should be king. They agreed that the one which could fly highest should be king over all of them.
They accordingly met of a morning at a given time and in a given place. There was the eagle and a host of other birds from the largest to the smallest, each eager to try the strength of his wings and the buoyancy of his body as he fluttered or flew or soared into the eye of the sun.
At a given signal they took off. They circled and soared, each trying to out fly the other as they spiraled upward. At last there was but the eagle in the blue of the empyrean circling about and looking for his nearest competitor. Seeing none near him, he screamed, "Lo, I am the king of all birds, for I have flown the highest!"
Just then a little feathered morsel that had concealed itself on the back of the eagle, jumped from its perch and tweeted, "No so, for lo, I am higher up than the eagle!" Thereupon, the eagle by an extra effort darted after the little sprite, struck it one blow of his powerful wing and it hurtled down to earth. From that day to this the wren, for it was he who had dared to challenge the supremacy of the king of the birds, has been condemned to hug close to the earth, unable to fly many feet off the ground.
Grandmother Mulvey was a quiet, unobtrusive woman who never got into an argument with my mother nor ever interfered with the upbringing of us children. I can see her now, sitting at the edge of the hearthstone, which was both broad and deep, in her white cap and smoking her dudeen, or clay pipe, her almost constant companion. She habitually sat at the left of the wide fireplace, almost under the slightly bell-shaped flue and nearly against the hob on which was kept the ever-useful teakettle for a supieen of tea that stimulated without inebriating, when she or my mother felt in the mood and the mood was fairly frequent. She was, as I remember her, old and stooped and worn, as well she might be, for she had borne twelve children to my grandfather, and had worked and slaved, as only the Irish peasant's wife had to slave in rearing a large family.
Yet, withal, she was a rather knowledgeable woman, rich in the lore of the country and full of anecdotes. She had the warm Irish heart for man and bird and beast, as witness her brief story of the poor snip. She would croon it to me, especially of a raw and rainy evening when the compassion, and the pathos and pain in her voice was enough to bring tears to my eyes and pity to my boyish heart. It went like this: "Poor snipey, poor snipey, where did you sleep last night?" And the snipe was supposed to make answer: "In the bog, where my breast was dirty." Then grandmother, making as though she held the bird resting in the palm of one hand and sleeking it down with the other, compassionately would whisper: “Poor snipey, poor snipey!" She would repeat the same thing three or four times - and by then I was in a flood of tears.
She recited to me snatches of verse about birds, most of which I "disremember," as she herself would say. One I remember only in part; it went something like this: “The corn carne, the……, the cuckoo and the swallow." The detested cuckoo which had the habit of laying its eggs in the nests of other birds for them to hatch. She pointed out that the cuckoo was too lazy or too improvident to provide a nest of its own in which it should rear a family - a wanton fly-by-night that spent its days gadding about instead of settling down in its own home and caring for its own brood before and after hatching. And so my grandmother instilled a little moral teaching whenever she had the chance.
My grandmother was too old to sing at the time of which I have any recollection, though I make no doubt she had a voice for singing in her young days. She would, however, recite "The Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow" with a kind of gusto that showed she had the music of it and the feeling of the real singer in her head and heart. She knew many of Tom Moore's poems by heart, and those that she didn't recall, she would read to me from my National School Reader in which several of that famous and well-beloved Irish poet's works were printed.
I remember one especially that she read, first explaining the theme, or argument of the poem. It had to do with the Israelites passage of the Red Sea, and more particularly of the Egyptians' attempted crossing, and of their being overwhelmed by the waters closing upon them.
Jehovah hath triumph'd, - his people are free!"
Jehovah has triumphed - his people are free.
Sing - for the pride of the Tyrant is broken,
His chariots, his horsemen, all splendid and brave—
How vain was their boast, for the Lord hath but spoken,
And chariots and horsemen are sunk in the wave.
Sound the loud Timbrel o'er Egypt's dark sea;
Jehovah has triumphed - his people are free.
Praise to the Conqueror, praise to the Lord!
His word was our arrow; His breath was our sword -
Who shall return to tell Egypt the story
Of those she sent forth in the hour of her pride?
For the Lord hath looked out from his pillar of glory,
And all her brave thousands are dashed in the tide.
Sound the loud Timbre o'er Egypt's dark sea;
Jehovah has triumphed - his people are free!
The spoils of silver and of gold, not counting the raiment, must have amounted to a pretty penny, for there went out of the land of Egypt a great multitude to the number of "about six hundred thousand on foot, that were men, besides children. And a mixed multitude went up also with them, and flocks and herds, even very much cattle."
The Israelites were smart; perhaps they had heard how Jacob, i.e. Israel, had bilked his father-in-law, Laban, by getting the ewes and the cattle to conceive before rods which were streaked with white so that they brought forth young which were "ringstraked, speckled, and spotted … And the man (Jacob) increased exceedingly and had much cattle," according to the account in Genesis, chapter thirty.
But they were not the only kind of stories she told me, for as I said, she was a knowledgeable woman. She told me about those brave and pious men who went to the wars to recover the Holy Sepulcher from the hands of the Saracen. If they fell in battle, fighting against the Infidel, even if they only threw a clod of turf at one of them, they, the Crusaders, would go straight to heaven. That was, of course, the greatest boon that anyone could wish for - eternal salvation. As a good Irish Catholic, she lived partly in two worlds, in this, the vale of tears, the seen world to be endured, and the unseen world, which, after all, was close about her, where she'd be forever happy, singing eternal Glories before the throne of God. That was her idea of Heaven - the mysticism of the devout Catholic, especially in Ireland. It is a characteristic of the race, quite apart from the form it takes under a particular religion. It was the same when Druidism was their pagan creed. They believed even then in the immortality of the human soul; at times, they believed in the transmigration of the soul. St. Patrick turned this inherent belief in immortality to good account in his preaching of Christianity. Intensely religious always and firm believers in the unseen world, they gave to natural physical phenomena the attributes of life. They worshipped the sun and moon and venerated mountains, rivers and wells. They have holy wells to this day. I remember that both my father and grandmother told me of the fires lighted on Mayday in honor of the pagan god Baal, or Beltaine, in ancient custom. St. Patrick made use of that custom when he lighted the Paschal fire outside Tara and by force of argument with the priests of Baal, won the Ard Righ, or King, to Christianity.
Grandmother told me many stories of St. Patrick, who spent seven years in Connaught, and sixty years in the whole of Ireland, leaving the island at his death in the year 492 A.D. completely Christian. She stressed the point that unlike other lands, Ireland became entirely Christian without the shedding of a drop of blood. That, she said, was reserved for a later date when there was plenty of it shed by those who would blot out the ancient faith.
One story she told me about the Patron Saint of Ireland has stuck to me all these years; in fact, I made use of it in an illustrated lecture that I gave at St. Francis of Assisi's church at the turn of the century. It was the story of the King of Cashel's baptism by St. Patrick when the latter was a very old man. The Saint carried his bishop's crozier, a long staff surmounted by a shepherd's crook, symbolic of his office as pastor, or shepherd, of his flock, and furnished with a sharp ferrule-like point at the other end so that it could be driven into the ground and remain erect while the Saint was preaching. The king, Aengus by name, stood with bowed head before Saint Patrick to receive the water of baptism. The Saint proceeded to pour the water while he said, "I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." The king did not stir, nor did he make any motion to move from the spot. Saint Patrick looking down saw the greensward red with blood and on looking closer saw with astonishment that the pointed end of his crozier had pinned the king's foot firmly to the sod. My child," said Patrick, "why did you not say something?" The king made answer, "I thought that the piercing of my foot was part of the ceremony. Besides,” he continued, “it was little enough to bear when I remember what my Lord had suffered for me."
She and those about her, including my father, were firm believers in ghosts. In fact, my father was loath to pass a churchyard at night, especially at the witching hour of midnight. Sometimes I was allowed to sit up, that is, not go to bed, when somebody came in to make a ceile, as the Irish called it, or pay a visit. I sat on a creepie stool outside of the circle they mad about the turffire. Many's the time I heard weird stories of the headless horsemen, or the headless carriage that was met on the road outside of town, perhaps conjured up by an extra "half-one" of poleeen, quaffed at a shebeen on the way home. (A "half-one" was a measure of drink, as was also a "noggin.") I heard it said on such an occasion of my being a totally forgotten listener, that a man on horseback would often have his horse shy under him at the sudden appearance of some preternatural appearance invisible to the rider. However, if the man would but look forward between the horse's ears, he too would see the ghost. I fancy that few men would relish the sight. Often after such a session, I crept into bed haunted by visions of stories I had just listened to.
My father was sure that at least on one occasion he had heard the wailing of the banshee, or the "White Woman" of Irish folklore, which was not folk-lore to him, "but a real and vivid belief," as H. V. Morton puts it in his book called "In Search of Ireland." This author was an Englishman of a different faith from that which the majority of the people whom he visited professed and cannot be accused of being unduly influenced by that which he had heard and seen. Here is his comment: "I have met many men and women who swear that they have heard the banshee, many of them educated people, but I have encountered only one man who claims to have seen it. He says it was combing its hair beside a stream and stopping now and then to dip its hands in the water.
"I can well understand any man in the west of Ireland believing in the supernatural, and it is unfair to call the countryman an ignorant, superstitious creature until you have experienced the almost indescribably eeriness of the wild west country."
While I am on this subject of the supernatural, of things above the natural, or rather, preternatural, that is, outside the natural, I should like to borrow further from another author who is quoted by Mr. Morton and with whose works I am familiar, namely, Padraic Colum, who gives another Irishman's explanation of the origin of the Irish fairies. I quote it because it is similar to that told me by both my father and grandmother.
"What are the fairies?" Padraic Colum asked a blind man whom he met on a west of Ireland road.
"His face filled with an intensity of conviction"
"The fairies," he said, "I will tell you what the fairies are. God moved from His Seat, and when He turned round Lucifer was in it. Then Hell was made in a minute. God moved His hand and swept away thousands of angels. And it was in His mind to sweep away thousands more." "O God Almighty stop!" said Angel Gabriel. "Heaven will be swept clean out." "I'll stop," said God Almighty. "Them that are in Heaven, let them remain in Heaven; them that are in Hell, let them remain in Hell; and them that are between Heaven and Hell, let them remain in the air." And the angels that remained between Heaven and Hell are the fairies."
"What he said was as true to the man as one of the Gospels."
There you have a sample of the Irishman's intimacy with the unseen. It is as real to him as the things seen and dealt with in everyday life, more so, in fact; for the things of the spirit are his companions every day of his life, waking and sleeping.
My father spent only a little less than seven years in Ireland upon his return from America in July 1872. For a few years things went pretty well with him. He had settled down to being an Irish tenant farmer on a small scale and to the rearing of a large family. But the odds were against him from the very start. The little money that he was able to send home and to save up during his year and a half or so in America was soon eaten up by the drain upon it in rent and incidental expenses.
And yet, after all, it was in Ireland that he wished to live and die. For, like all Irishmen, he loved the country as country, in contrast to city life, he loved his own fields, his own house of hewn stone with its thatched roof of many layers of straw, the river running by the end of the house with stepping stones across it which served as a short cut to the Drumshanbo road when the river wasn't in flood - he loved all this as his own, though it wasn't his own at all, and couldn't be just yet; but he had hopes, for wasn't the Land-League Movement taking shape, and didn't Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell promise the Irish tenant-farmer that he would be allowed to purchase his holding when the English Parliament passed the necessary measures?
This was the state of his hopes in eighteen seventy-two and onward for some three, four, or five years. But little by little things began to go from bad to worse until finally came the potato failure of 1877-8 and 9. He realized then that his hopes were all in vain.
Life, as I remember it, was very pleasant for us all, in 1875-6 and seven. The earliest recollection I have of that life is of one afternoon when my father went in swimming in a large pool formed by a bend in the river some distance down from our house. The bend was caused by a high bank of land jutting out, around which the river swept on its way to a lough some miles farther down. I make no doubt that our stream, or river, was either one of the head-waters of the Shannon, or, flowing into the lough, contributed to that noble river, one of the largest, if not the longest, (225 miles from source to mouth in the Atlantic Ocean) in the British Isles.
That day, of which I have a vivid picture, my father, mother and I were strolling down the field close to the river, when my father suggested that he take a dip in the pool, now that the sun was low on the horizon. Suiting the action to the word, he made for an opening in the bushes on the bank and peeled off his clothes. He waded a few feet into the pool till the water came up to his thighs, then plunged in and swam to the other side. He used the breast-stroke, for it was the only one that he knew or cared for. After a few turns in the water, he stood up and said to my mother:
"Peel off Thomas' clothes and I'll give him a lesson in swimming."
Everybody gave me my full name in those early days. My parents or grandparents would not think of calling me Tom. It was Thomas with the TH sounded on both letters. Once in a while my mother used the diminutive, Thomasseen affectionately, still sounding the TH.
So my mother stripped me of my few clothes; I did not wear shoes or stockings around the house nor in the fields. I gingerly waded ankle-deep into the pool. My father picked me up, carried me in deeper and let me down gently where the water was about up to my armpits. I was frightened stiff. But he picked me up in his hands—for I was little more than a handful - and told me to lie flat in the water, keep my chin above it, and, while he held his hand under my chest, told me to strike out with my hands and feet. Needless to say I didn't make any progress in my first swimming lesson.
He then put me on his back and told me to hold on to his neck while he swam the length and breadth of the pool. My father was a strong swimmer and took great delight in the water.
"Now Alanna," said my mother to me, "run up and down until you get yourself dry. Come here now till I put yer duds on ye."
When my father and I were dressed, we started for the house. We wended our way to and through the gap in the white thorn hedge that was by the bank of the river, on past the village ground planted to potatoes gay with their pale pink blossoms, and quiet in the evening after-glow, through the field by which the river ran with the three cows and a young heifer lying peacefully in the shade of the spreading beech tree, and contentedly chewing their cuds. We saw the smoke rising lazily from the short chimney, spreading out over the byre, over the stack of fine black turf, and over the dunghill by the byre on and around which were the hens foraging for their evening meal. We were soon in the "street" before the house and then in the house itself through the doorway with its half door. Within was the level floor of hardened clay, the flags of the hearth with the swinging crook from which hung the black pot of praties which, with buttermilk in porringers, bread already baked by my mother, batter and the inevitable pot of tea, to be poured in cups and generally drunk from the saucers, were our evening meal.
Before we sat down at the table, my father had driven home the cattle, put them in the byre, milked the three cows and bedded them down for the night.
There was cheer around the hearthstone with the wide chimney sticking out from the wall like a huge candle-extinguisher, or an inverted broad bell, its lips extended and the whole front pressed in, or flattened, so as to draw the better and catch up the stray sparks from the glowing turf.
There was a dresser on which shone dishes, plates, cups and saucers, and a row of polished tins, in all of which my mother, like nearly every Irish housewife, took particular pride.
When the evening meal was finished, the clay pipes were lighted by my father, grandfather, and grandmother; my mother gathered the dishes, washed them, and put them away. Grandmother hardly ever helped with washing the dishes - that was my mother's usual chore. Grandmother got busy with her pipe and backy. I always remember her with the dudeen in her mouth. My mother never smoked.
On one such night at the end of the long twilight, as we were sitting just outside the glow of the turf fire on the broad hearthstone, my grandmother, grandfather, myself, my father and mother, she on the other side close to the hob, the talk turned on the end of the world. There was talk of the "Abomination of desolation," and "The war of elements, the wrecks of matter, and the crush of worlds." They painted an awesome and terrifying picture while I listened, as was becoming, in spellbound silence.
Previously, I had heard them speak of the Earth as God's Footstool, and I wondered. Finally I said, "But what will God do then for His Footstool?"
"Glory be to God," said my mother, "what put that into the gaffer's head? Thomas agrah, don't be asking your father questions."
"Hould yer whist, Annie,” promptly came from my grandfather.
"Let the gossoon be. Don't ye know that God is a Spirit, and has no need of a footstool?"
That was that. We were always taught that, "Children should be seen and not heard." The fact that I was allowed to sit up with my elders around the fire did not in anyway cancel out that precept, although I know that my question gave pause to those who heard it.
But my father and grandfather liked to indulge in such discussions. Each of them liked the language of the Bible with its sonorous Latin words, especially those ending in ation; they had such a resounding cadence, were so suitable for oratory even in ordinary conversation. I confess that I fell heir to the liking for the ore rotundo of Latinity. Oh, yes; I learned better that the Anglo-Saxon words were more concrete and more suitable in writing that appealed to the people. I suppose it is something in my Celtic heritage that makes me partial to Celtic oratory, with a leaning toward rhyme and alliteration; though I never learned my Irish, more's the pity! - except for a few well know phrases.
Many an evening a neighbor or two would drop in to our house for a ceilidh, which we pronounced kaylek. As soon as the Kayleher lifted the latch on the door and came in, he said, "God save all here!" to which my father and all inside the house responded, "God save you kindly. You're kindly welcome, Dan," if it happened to be our next door neighbor, Dan Curran, whose house was up a way across the river from us and on the other side of the Drumshanbo road.
"Pull up a chair to the fire, Thomas agrah, for Dan."
Then my mother would bring a glass of "new" milk, as we always called milk fresh from the cow. She would never have it said of Annie Mulvey that she let anybody darken her door and have him go away without asking him whether he "had a mouth on him." She never said, "Will you have a glass of milk?" for "will you?" is considered a "bad fellow;" meaning that one should always serve refreshments without asking, thereby giving the visitor a chance to refuse. That would not be Irish hospitality.
The pipes were pulled out of their pockets and my father passed around the plug of tobacco. Each one cut off a sizeable piece, cut it into small bits and ground it into powder in the hollow of his left hand, the ball of the right thumb acting as pestle to this human mortar. When the pipes were drawing well, there would ensue the usual talk about the weather and the crops, or the political situation as it was in the seventies. There was talk of the Land League then forming, with speculation as to what it would mean to the small farmer, who would be allowed to buy his small holding on easy, suitable terms. Michael Davitt was then the leading man in the movement, with Charles Stewart Parnell coming into prominence. There was always talk of Home Rule for Ireland, a cherished dream that was taking shape in men's minds in the eighteen-seventies as the nearest approach to complete Irish independence. The idea of a Free Ireland was always in the back of their heads as a thing devoutly to be wished, but purely visionary and unattainable at that time.
Then it was that I listened to the stories they told of the past, of the great and famous Irishmen, of bygone days, of the battles and sieges and assaults in which they figured, and of almost unbelievable heroism. They were tales calculated to fire any young mind with the desire and aspiration to emulate them. I was only a bit of a boy then, but once in a while I was allowed to sit up and listen, crouched on my creepie stool off to one side close to the turf fire, and more often than not, entirely forgotten by the men-folks in the heat of their narrative. But while I stayed awake, I drank it all in and resolved to be able sometime to strike a blow for Ireland.
Frequently Master Murray, the schoolmaster, came in for a ceilidh, and so did Michael Nugen who had a farm up the land that led by the side of the schoolhouse from the Drumshanbo road into the hills at the foot of Slieve Anieran mountain.
Master Murray was a cripple with a withered left leg, the knee of which stuck out in front and supported a shriveled foot about twelve inches from the ground. He walked with the aid of a crutch carried under the right armpit. He could cover the ground like lightning when there was a scholar to be hit over the knuckles with the ruler he carried, or when told to hold out his hand for punishment with the same omnipresent ruler. He didn't subscribe to "spare the rod and spoil the child," and he didn't have to in those days. Just the same, he turned out scholars better grounded in the fundamental of mathematics and English grammar than do many schools and colleges today, when students are allowed to select soft courses of froth and flummery, the so-called "snap" courses which allow pupils to be graduated on "points" rather than on sound and solid learning. He taught "to the rule of the hickory stick," which pounded things into one's head, willy-nilly, but it got there, and there were likely to abide.
One evening as they sat before the turf fire, my father recounted an experience, a real one that he just had on a visit paid to the home of a neighbor whose son was ailing, or at least, confined to his bed, although there was no visible or discernible thing the matter with him. Just acting queerly, my father said. The young man recognized visitors and called them by name. But he had a strange look in his eyes, sometimes of fear, sometimes of cunning.
The young man occupied the upper room, as it was called. The room was sparsely furnished - a feather bed lengthwise across the gable-end of the house and close to the wall; a small table near the window in the sidewall of the house; a porringer on the table and a gallon, or pail, of spring water beside the table. There was a homemade chair or two in the room and a clothes closet stood on one side.
The woman of the house, after the usual greetings were exchanged and an admonition that her son was acting very queer preceded my father into the room and at once withdrew. My father bade the time o' day to the sick man and asked him how he was feeling.
The man turned his head toward my father and put his forefinger on his lips and, looking entreatingly at my father, made a sound like "Shsh"! He whispered, "Don't disturb him! Sit down, William but don't make any noise!" Then turned his head to the wall and murmured something as though to someone in the bed beside him.
My father said to those around the hearthstone, "Begorra but I felt a strange, unearthly feeling creeping over me, as if the hair on my head were standing on end and taking the scalp with it. I didn't know what I should do if I saw the Evil Spirit shtick his head up out of the bedclothes, I was that powerless. I thought of blessing myself (making the Sign of the Cross from forehead to breast to left shoulder, then to the right shoulder, saying as he did so, 'In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen), but I couldn't, I was that frightened. Thrath I was! I tried to back step away from the man in the bed, but I felt frozen where I stood.
"Then the man on the bed says to me, 'William, a hashkie, get me a dhrink o' spring wather out o' the gallon there by the table.'
"I found my feet at long last and, for the twinkling of an eye, bethought myself of making for the door, but I felt a power greater than I was making me go toward the gallon of spring water. I took the porringer from the table, dipped it in the gallon, came back to the bed and handed it to the sick man.
“He took it, and what do you think he did with it? Did he put it to his lips and drink it? Thrath and faith, he did not! He turned again to the wall and, 'pon me sowl, he up and pours the porringer of water between him and the wall, saying, 'There, my laddie buck, will that do ye?'
"He then looked at me, cunning like. I felt the spell, or whatever it was that held me, I felt it drop from me. Shortly after, I left the room and, without a word, the house. I haven't darkened its door from that day to this."
As my father finished his story, there was a weird, eerie silence throughout the room. The turf fire seemed to share it, when suddenly, as often happened to burning turf, a sod of it was consumed on one end, and the unburned part capsized on to the hearthstone, sending up a shower of sparks which lighted the quiet men sitting in a kind of semi-circle outside the glowing turf.
My father took the tongs and adjusted the glowing sods, saying to my mother, "Come, Annie, let us have a cup of tay to warm the cockles of our heart."
She walked around to the hob, took the tea kettle, and we all had tea. I have since diagnosed the young man's ailment as schizophrenia, or a split personality, that strange mental derangement by which its victim imagines himself, alternately, as living in two worlds.
There were many such evenings when I was eight or nine years of age, and many before then, but much more pleasant than the dreadful days and evenings of 1877-78 and '79; for in those years the potato crop was blighted, not only in Ireland, but throughout the greater part of Europe.
It was a recurrence of the great famine of 1846-47 that blighted the whole of Ireland. Her peasant population died by the thousands of stark starvation. According to the records, one hundred and thirty bodies were found along the roadsides in a single day. In that great disaster, one-fourth of the population of the island perished.
It was a sad time in which to be brought into the world, as my father was, for he was born on the twenty-fourth of May 1846. In spite of the hard times, when an infant was likely to be famished, or at least, undernourished, he apparently suffered not at all; for, by all accounts, as well as by the evidence of later years, he was a strong and vigorous child, and developed into a manhood notable for a sturdy frame, broad shoulders, and erectness of carriage which made him stand out conspicuous among men of his own age. Indeed he inherited a characteristic of his family, the Mulvey broadness of back and square-ness of shoulders which lasted until his dying day.
The year after my father's birth was noteworthy for the passing from life of the "great agitator," Daniel O'Connell, a fact which helped my grandfather to remember the date, as well as did the great famine of 1847, when his youngest son was a year old.
I often heard my grandfather and the older men who dropped in of an evening for "ceile," or "kayley," reminisce on those early years in the nineteenth century when O'Connell was in his prime. For O'Connell had all the endowments of the true Celt. He was a typical Irishman of the best stock—wily, witty, eloquent, emotional and magnetic, carrying his listeners with him as the words seemed to pour from his lips. People came from miles around to hear him speak. The English, of course, tried to catch him in some statement that they could construe as subversive or seditious. But Dan was too wily for them fighting shy of any such direct statement. He was clever at repartee, that characteristic of the true Irishman, requiring, as it does, nimbleness of thought and richness of vocabulary. He could turn an argument on an adversary in such a way as to keep his audience in stitches of laughter. As a young barrister he tied a witness up in a knot and often covered him with confusion until he elicited the truth from him.
On one occasion he observed that a witness repeated over and over again the same phrase, "while the life was in him." O'Connell was struck by the repetition and became suspicious. Here was some quibble on the use of words. The witness averred time and time again that he saw the supposed testator's hand sign a will "while the life was in him." O'Connell hit upon a shrewd question based upon the well-known fact that an Irishman's conscience will not allow him to tell a forthright lie if he can salve that conscience with a distinction of terms, but with a difference of meaning.
O'Connell hit upon it in a twinkling.
"Now, tell me upon your oath, wasn't it a fact that you saw someone take the dead man's hand and with it sign this will while there was a live fly placed, and remaining, in the dead man's mouth?" The witness was covered with confusion, admitted the truth, and O'Connell won the case.
The Irish are good at that kind of circumvention. I heard my grandfather Mulvey recount examples of one kind of circumvention to which a man had recourse when taking an oath in a court of law. The witness was required to kiss the Bible after reciting the usual formula, whereupon he would take the open Bible by the bottom of the pages and cover in his two hands, taking care to have his thumbs on the leaves, bring the book to his lips, and kiss one of his thumbs instead of the page of the Bible. In that way he considered that he would not perjure himself, no matter what he said.
My grandfather heard O'Connell speak on more than one occasion, often walking miles for that privilege. O'Connell was a rapid, but clear and distinct speaker, sometimes rolling out his language at the rate of two hundred words a minute for hours at a time. His voice was as clear and sonorous as a bell, deep-toned and penetrating. The English were hard put to it to prove any seditious utterances again such a speaker, with such a torrent of words. But they tried. On the occasion of one such appearance of O'Connell, they had English stenographers present to take down every word he uttered. Dan received them courteously and, to the consternation of his friends, placed tables and chairs for them directly in front of the platform from which he was to speak. There, when they were all set with pencil poised to take down every word he said, O'Connell delivered his address to the audience in Irish!
My grandfather, my father, and the cripple, Master Murray, made an excellent trio at reminiscing and story-telling as they gathered round the fire of an evening in the early winter. Master Murray never tired of reciting whole passages from Goldsmith's "Deserted Village." My grandfather took delight in recounting and dwelling upon the beauties of the Valley of Breiffuy, the loveliest Vale in all Ireland; and especially the little town of Lissoy near the Shannon which Goldsmith is supposed to have had in mind when he wrote
Where health and plenty cheer the laboring swain."
Master Murray dwelt at length on poor old Goldsmith, that typical child of Ireland, talented but impecunious, who traveled through most of Western Europe without a shilling in his pocket, but with a flute in his hand. Like the majority of Irishmen, he had music in his soul; in fact, could not live without it. His friend, Dr. Johnson, said of him, "No man was more foolish when he had not a pen in hand, or more wise when he had."
The Master could quote chapter and verse on Goldsmith, and indeed, on a variety of other characters and subjects. I remember my father's telling me much later in life when I came to read, and read about, Goldsmith, that he recalled his quotation used by Master Murray in his talks on the author of the finest novel of domestic life ever written in the English tongue, or, for the matter of that, ever written in any tongue, namely, "The Vicar of Wakefield."
Master Murray, my father said, was wont to quote the impromptu epitaph on Goldsmith struck off by David Garrick:
Who wrote like an angel, and talked like poor Poll."
They must have been interesting evenings that they spent before the turf fire, smoking their pipes and discussing the exploits of Irish soldiers, the beauties of Irish poetry written in English verse. My father remembered many a nugget of knowledge, many a nugget of fact left from such conversations and reminiscences, yes, left in the pouch of his memory to be brought out at a later date and held up for my edification and for the enrichment of my mind. He had it from Master Murray that knowledge is of two kinds: we know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. We have, for example, a general knowledge, a general view, of universal history, of literature, of geography, of this or that art, of this or that science; and then we know where to find the particulars, the details, on any incident, or fact, or person, or situation falling under the general subject. When a man like Francis Bacon said that he had taken all human knowledge as his proving his ambition was bigger than his capacity, bigger than any man's capacity. The human mind cannot hold, nor can the years of one human life serve to embrace, all of knowledge, either human or divine - and Bacon had in view to know all of theology as well as philosophy. An educated man, it has been well said, is one who knows something of everything, and everything of some thing. And even that is a large order. It means, of course, that the lawyer should know, as far as possible, everything about - not all of the law - but all he can learn in a lifetime about his particular branch of the law, and then be well enough read to know something of everything - enough to know where to look for fuller information on any particular subject. Otherwise, what are reference books for, what are unabridged dictionaries, encyclopedias for, if not to be used, not to be consulted on occasion? It takes many, many learned men to collaborate in the making of an encyclopedia.
This, he said, is the secret of success for all professional men, and for all others who have to teach or speak in public. That lawyer is the most successful who knows where to find decisions and opinions handed down by learned jurists upon questions of law similar to the one before the court; and not only in the matter of the law, but also in the matter of the statement, of the language in which the law is made clear. Especially in the lawyer's summing up and making his plea to the jury, is such research of great value. Knowing where to find forensic effort, reading it over and over again, and passing it through the alembic of his own mind, makes for richness of thought and richness of language for the attorney in presenting his case to the jury.
A favorite topic with my grandfather and grandmother Mulvey on those evenings when Master Murray was present was "the trouble of ninety-eight" in which they had a special interest. The events of that year, 1798, and the characters connected with it and with the years following, were very fresh in the memory of both of them from having heard them frequently discussed by their own parents and elders as they sat by just such another hearthstone and watched the turf burning and the crickets singing and chirping in the long evenings.
They talked of "poor" Robert Emmet (though he wasn't poor at all in the sense of being poverty-stricken), and of his noble and heroic appearance as he stood in the prisoners' dock and there delivered his immortal response to the judge who asked him whether he had anything to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced upon him according to law. Master Murray waxed eloquent as he pictured that scene and gave the speech which he knew by heart.
Then he would hold forth on the pathetic figure of young Emmet, cut down on the gallows of English rule at the age of twenty-five. Robert Emmet and Tom Moore were fellow students at Trinity College, Dublin. Emmet was the young man of action, Moore, a year younger than his friend, sympathized with the aspirations of the rebellion of 1798, but never committed himself as a rebel, save in song. He longed for the overthrow of the "Saxon oppressor" and was almost drawn into the vortex of conspiracy as an undergraduate at Trinity, but he was not born to be a rebel. Moore played and sang "Let Erin remember the days of Old," but that's as far as he went: composed, sang, and played patriotic airs; while Robert Emmet, listening to his friend singing, "Let Erin remember," exclaimed: "Oh that I were at the head of twenty thousand men marching to that air!"
A favorite song of my father's was the one in which Tom Moore sung of Sarah Curran, the sweetheart of the same Robert Emmet. She migrated to Australasia, which fact Moore celebrates in this song:
And lovers are round her sighing:
But coldly she turns from their gaze and weeps,
For her heart in his grave is lying.
Every note which he loved awaking;-
Ah! little they think who delight in her strains,
How the heart of the minstrel is breaking.
They were all that to live had entwined him;
Nor soon shall the tears of his country be dried,
Nor long will his love stay behind him.
When they promise a glorious morrow;
They'll shine o'er her sleep, like a smile from the West,
From her own loved island of sorrow.
My grandfather often served as a whetstone to Master Murray's memory and evoked song after song and tale after tale, for of both he had store. Grandfather's recollection, of course, went farther back than did the good Master's, for he was born somewhere between 1810 and 1815; therefore in his youth, when Tom Moor was in the full flower of his popularity, he heard many of Moore's Irish Melodies when the poet was still alive and becoming enshrined in the hearts of high and low, even in the hearts of Ulster Protestants.
And so my grandfather discoursed on ancient Irish chivalry and ancient Irish dauntless courage, for he had somewhere in his memory snatches of songs by Tom Moore celebrating incidents that memorialized the one and the other Irish characteristic.
Thus, as my father was wont to tell me afterwards, grandfather would bring up some tradition of Irish valor and jog the memory of Master Murray who was pretty sure to recall a song by Moore commemorating the incident. A favorite subject on those evenings of long conversations, my father said, were exploits connected with the campaigns of Brian Boru against the Danes. I had only a hazy recollection of those glories of ancient Ireland until I refreshed my memory; but, just the same, there lingered in my mind lines which contained the nucleus of stories of deeds done and of exploits carried off by the heroes for those bygone days.
Such was the story told by my grandfather and repeated to me by my father, together with Master Murray's rendering of the poem by Tom Moore in memory of the deed of valor, of courage, and of scorn of death while the breath of life was in the men who besought the privilege of doing it.
It seems that after the battle of Clontarf, in which Brian was victorious, though in death, his favorite troops, the Dalgais, were interfered with and opposed by Fitzpatrick, Prince of Ossory.
The Dalgais, as we can well imagine, were almost spent and wearied from that last but victorious struggle with the Danish invaders of the Emerald Isle. Albeit, the wounded men among them entreated that they be allowed to fight with the rest. "Let stakes (they said) be stuck in the ground, and suffer each of us, tied to and supported by one of these stakes, to be placed in his rank by the side of a sound man." Between seven and eight hundred wounded men, according to O'Halloran, who narrates the heroic incident in his History of Ireland, "pale, emaciated, and supported in this manner, appeared mixed with the foremost of the troops; never was such another sight exhibited,"
As my grandfather would tell the story substantially as narrated above, Master Murray, according to my father, would burst into the song as Tom Moore wrote it, giving the poem with appropriate gestures of old time elocution, sometimes aided by his crutch, which he would hold by the crosspiece and brandish over his head.
Tho' the days of the hero are o'er;
Tho' lost to Mononia, and cold in the grave,
He returns to Kinkora no more.
Its beam on the battle, is set;
But enough of its glory remains on each sword
To light us to victory yet.
Of thy fields, and thy mountains so fair,
Did she ever intend that a tyrant should print
The footstep of slavery there?
No! Freedom, whose smile we shall never resign,
Go; tell our invaders, the Danes,
That 'tis sweeter to bleed for an age at thy shrine
Than to sleep for a moment in chains.
In the day of distress by our side;
While the moss of the valley grew red with their blood,
They stirred not, but conquered and died.
That sun which now blesses our arms with his light,
Saw them fall upon Ossory's plain;
Oh! Let him not blush, when he leaves us tonight,
To find that they fell there in vain.
"Come now, Thomas, my friend," Master Murray would reply, "I'll not hear you belittle Tom Moore like that. Don't you know that music and song are essential to keeping up the spirits of fighting men, especially of Irishmen?"
"You know yourself that a wise man said once upon a time that if he could write the songs of a nation, he didn't care who made its laws. Now, isn't that the truth? For the songs that are sung by the people everywhere, get into the people's head and heart and issue from their vocal organs in paeans of praise, of triumph, of exaltation for deeds well done that inspire men to do better by their forebears; or, as in the case of Old Ireland, in threnodies of lamentation over oppression, over cruelties sustained, over tyrannies imposed but never supinely endured, always fixing their eyes upon the stars and looking toward the hills from which should come their help. I tell you, Thomas Mulvey, give me the maker of songs that the people can sing, and there will rise up leaders both able and worthy to champion their cause."
"Why, bless my soul, the Irishman craves music as he craves food and drink. I remember reading of Irishmen who were thrown into a dungeon, whose loud lament was that they were without music. Don't you know, but I'm sure a well-read man like yourself does know, that the men of Ireland were famous, as musicians from the earliest days? Look at the bards of old Druid Ireland. Why, the Druid priesthood were nearly all bards or musicians and sang their songs in the courts of kings. Yes, and by the same token, they were universally reverenced and feared and were held next to the King himself. The curse of a bard was something to be dreaded and avoided at all costs. And this, mind you, was before Christianity was brought to our island by the blessed Saint Patrick. Sure you know yourself that Ireland was advanced in culture and in art long centuries before even the coming of Christianity to this world of ours."
"And even in Christian times Ireland led all Europe in the science and the art of music. Her masters of the harp were in demand in many countries of the Continent. Don't tell me you never heard tell or never read of the two Irish monks who taught music in the convent of Nivelles in Belgium. Why, Ireland was always famous as a musical country. The cloister schools of St. Gaul in Switzerland had an Irishman as teacher who made their singing famous. Moreover, a writer of the twelfth century says of the harpers of Ireland that they were incomparably more skillful than those of any other nation he had ever heard.
"Don't you know that as late as 1750 and 1760, Ireland still retained her supremacy in this respect and that students of the harp from Wales and Scotland went, as a matter of course, to take their finishing lessons of Irish masters?"
"Shure, shure, Murray, I'll grant all that you say about the importance of the bard, but I'll still maintain that Robert Emmet was a man after my own heart."
"But come now, give us another song, even if it's one of Tom Moore's. Don't you remember that one where he speaks, of sings, of the Red-Branch of Ulster and of the days of Irish chivalry? And about that old belief about Lough Neagh?"
My grandfather was right, as my father told me afterwards, when recounting the conversations of those pleasant evenings. He told me some of the things touched upon in the song that Master Murray sang so well, and that was entitled from its first line, "Let Erin remember the days of Old." He told me of the epic fight between Malachi, then monarch of Ireland in the tenth century, and the two champions of the Danes, whom Malachi met successively, hand to hand, in mortal combat, taking from the neck of the one his collar of gold, and from the other his sword, carried off as trophies of his victory.
Anent the other references in the song, he said there were military orders of knights very early established in Ireland and long before the birth of Christ: therefore thousands of years before the Knights of Malta, or of Saint John, or of Jerusalem were ever heard of. There was an hereditary order of Chivalry in Ulster called the Knights of the Red Branch, from their chief seat in Emain Macha, right north of the County of Leitrim - Emain Macha, celebrated for the ancient Irish story of the lovely Deirdre, or the Lamentable Fate of the Sons of Usnach by the treachery of the King of Ulster, variously called Conor, or Conchubor, the coward.
Grandmother Mulvey was always silently incensed when anyone, even in joking - and it would have to be in joke, not in earnest, recited lines which went something like this: "Famous O'Neill, valiant O'Rourke, and coward O'Connor." You see, she was an O'Connor before she became a Mulvey, and the old Irish fighting spirit in her was aroused by an aspersion on her former family. I don't know what the reason was, if any, for the line which charged the O'Connor with cowardice, for, goodness knows, all the O'Connors that I knew, or ever heard tell of, were as quick to flare up as the next one, should anybody dare to "tread on the tail o' me coat."
But to go back to the song that Master Murray sang, "Let Erin Remember," there was a very old tradition among the Irish that Lough Neagh, situated in the Province of Ulster and between the Counties of Antrim, Londonderry, Tyrone, and Down, had been originally a fountain by whose sudden overflowing the country was inundated, and the whole region, like the Atlantis of Plato, overwhelmed. In clear weather the fishermen were accustomed to point out to strangers the tall, ecclesiastical towers under the water.
At the urging of my grandfather, Master Murray, nothing loath, sang as follows:
Ere her faithless sons betrayed her;
When Malachi wore the collar of gold,
Which he won from her proud invader,
When her kings, with standard of green unfurled,
Led the Red-Branch Knights to danger; -
Ere the emerald gem of the western world
Was set in the crown of a stranger.
When the clear cold eve's declining,
He sees the round towers of other days
In the wave beneath him shining;
Thus shall memory often, in dreams sublime,
Catch a glimpse of the days that are over;
Thus, sighing, look through the waves of time
For the long faded glories they cover.
On one such occasion when a neighbor or two dropped in for a "ceile" (kayley), the conversation turned on the annual exodus of farmers and of farmers' sons to England to work at getting in the English harvests. It was common practice nearly all through Ireland. The poor fellows thus picked up a few pounds sterling to help meet the rent. The trip was only one night on the Irish Sea. I heard them talk of going by packets, or boats on which accommodations were very primitive, especially if they went by way of Holyhead and thence to Liverpool. Then they worked in the fields pretty hard from morning till night.
Now and then the owner of one or the other of the estates on which they were employed, unbent as much as an Englishman could, and had the laborers up to "the big house" for a chat and, maybe, a pipe of tobacco.
"William," said Master Murray to my father one evening, "why is it you never joined the rest of the men who went to England to help with harvest? I should think the shorter journey than that to America would be more to your liking."
"Troth an' it would, an' no mistake," said my father. "But then consider the difference in the wages. Why, tare an' ouns, I'd get twice as much, maybe three times as much for a days' work in America as I'd get in England. That would count up in the long run. Then, besides, in New York I'd be working indoors, working in a big jobbing house and handling goods made in different parts of the world and imported by a firm doing a big business in them. They would sell these goods to retail stores all over the country. No Sir, I have enough of farming an' back-breaking work here on my own bit of land to go looking for more of it in England or in any place else.
"Besides, every man in America is the equal of any other man. Do your job, an' you can call yer soul yer own, as well in the store as on the street.
"Ye know yerself," continued my father, "that an Irishman doesn't like to be patronized by anybody, for he considers himself the equal of any man, whether gentle or simple.
"Maybe ye've often heard the story of that good gossoon of an Irishman who was once asked up to the big house by the gintleman (save the mark!) who owned the place. The man of the house was probably feeling just a bit expansive himself after having a couple o' drinks before he sat down to a dinner of roast beef.
"Anyway, says he to Pat - for every Irishman was 'Pat' to the English, whether that was his name or not, and most likely it wasn't - so says he to the laborer, "How are you feeling, my good man? It's been a beastly warm day, working out in the sun, now hasn't it?"
"Troth, begorra but it has that, now that ye mention it, sor.'
"'Very well, my good man; I'm going to give you a nip of brandy that the Governor had in his cellar. It's twenty years old.'"
"And with that, he walked to the sideboard, took up a decanter, poured a few thimblefuls into a small whisky glass, and handed it to Pat, saying,
"'Now, drink that and tell me what you think of it.'
"Pat took the glass, looked at it for a couple of seconds and tossed its contents off without hardly tasting it.
"'What do you think of it?' said the Englishman.
""'How old did yer worship say it was?' said Pat.
"' Twenty years, if it's' a day,' said his lordship.
"'Well, all I can say is, that it's dam' shmall fer its age.'"
Once in a while we had a trout for supper, if my father could snare one. Of course, snaring a trout was against the law, but my father contrived to do it occasionally. It took considerable skill, for the trout is a wary fish and very agile. I never saw him try for trout with hook and line, if it could be done; and as for using a rod and reel that was far beyond my father's ken. So, he did the only thing he was skilled in doing, namely, used a snare. This consisted of a light pole cut from a sapling to which was attached a string with a running loop at the end. The loop was big enough to allow it to go over the trout's head. My father usually spotted the trout in the large pool in the bend of the river where he was wont to take a swim. On the far side of the pool, Dan Curran's side, there was a fairly high bank, and here my father would take up his position. On a cloudy afternoon, so that his shadow would not fall across the surface of the water and so frighten the gamy trout, he would lie flat on his stomach over the edge of the bank, drop the looped line into the pool sufficiently far away from his quarry, and move it dexterously toward the trout's head, as it lay on the bottom of the pool. He took care not to let any part of it come in contact with its tail; for if it did so much as cast a shadow on, or move the water close to its tail, the trout would be off to hide under a lodge of rock or a flat stone sticking up from the floor of the pool. When my father had negotiated the loop to the mouth of the trout and gingerly worked it over its head down below the gills, he would give the line a quick jerk to make it slide under the gills and then swing his catch clear of the water and up onto the grassy bank where it flopped around until he pinned it down with his hand and let it gasp its poor life out. Then we had a toothsome trout for supper.
There was another kind of fishing my father and a few neighbors indulged in, namely fishing in Lough Allen, one corner of which was only a matter of six or seven miles distant from Aughagrania.
A neighbor or two would meet at our house or at the house of a friend. Here they would prepare some fish-food to be dropped at a certain spot on the Lough so as to attract the fish to that place for their feeding-time. The fishermen would then be on hand with a hook and line. The poor fish would take the bait and land in the bottom of the boat.
After catching a goodly mess of fish, the men would clean them; wrap them in large, cool dock leaves and hurry home. There my father would take his share—share and share alike as was the custom - and we'd all have a good meal. Tabby, the cat, was always on hand for her share of the fish - "sthukerin'" we called it, or hanging around expectantly for one's portion of what was going; in this case, usually a head or a tail, which my mother tossed to her saying, "A cat likes fish, but she will not wet her paw," referring to the cat's instinctive aversion to getting even her feet wet in the river.
On one occasion when I was between eight and nine years of age, I was present when a cow of ours was about to calve. It was late at night. My father had driven her and the others into the byre. He had made them all comfortable for the night, with particular attention to the expectant mother. In the course of the evening he and my mother paid a few visits to the byre to see whether everything was all right. I had not gone to bed at my usual time; I supposed I was affected by the atmosphere of expectancy that pervaded the whole household.
Finally my father took the lamp and, accompanied by my mother, with me tagging along hardly noticed, paid a final visit to the byre. The cow had her calf, the makings of a fine young heifer.
My father got the calf up on its feet - four long shanks that one would think could hardly support the body, and gently led it around to the side of its mother. She bent her neck to bring her head to meet her child with a look of tenderness in her large, all embracing, all possessive eyes that was almost human. She went over her calf with her tongue as though she would fondle it and know it forever as her own - flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone.
The first milking of a cow that has newly calved was called "beestings"—a peculiarly rich milk that was considered a treat when made into a posset. My mother did the milking in the morning and that evening served it smoking hot right out of the pot.
The said pot was a familiar sight to us children. It was suspended from a crook hanging down over the turf fire. In it the stirabout was boiled - stirabout, that stand-by of the Irish peasant family almost as much as was the so-called Irish potato. I say "so-called Irish potato," for it isn't Irish at all in its origin, since the tuber came originally from America. I suppose, too, it has been called the Irish potato because it constituted the main food of the Irishman all the year around.
Stirabout is generally made of Indian meal, which is ground Indian corn, or maize. It is cooked to a pretty thorough consistency, is served hot in a large porringer, and is eaten with a little new milk. When cold, it can be cut with a knife. We often ate it cold, or at least warmed up again, and at times were glad to get it.
Of course, my mother baked her own bread, big loaves of it that cut into a man-sized slice, in thickness as well as in length and breadth, and afforded a solid foundation for spreading butter on it, or, maybe, treacle, (molasses to you), which word we pronounced with the Elizabethan ea, as we did in the case of many a similarly spelled word.
Potatoes were always boiled with the skins on, or, more politely, in their jackets. We peeled them in the primitive way, with our thumb, dipped them in salt, by way of "ketchin," or seasoning, to give them more taste. We thought nothing of all this; it was the usual meal in that last year or two in Ireland—the whole of the year 1870 and up to the spring of 1880, when my father sent for us to come to America in April of the latter year.
I remember those last twelve or fifteen months very well, as well I might. I was nine years of age on June the ninth in eighteen hundred and seventy-nine, and, by dint of hardship in helping to make ends meet, I was, and was considered, old for my age. Although small of stature, I associated with boys of my own years, and with some a little older. With them I went a-bird's-nesting in the summer of seventy-nine, although both my mother and grandmother frowned upon the practice.
"Thomas agrah," my grandmother would say to me, "just think of the poor little mother bird whose eggs you steal or that you just as much as breathe on them. For you know, achuslah, that a bird will never come back to sit on her eggs if the breath of a human being ever reaches them. Ah, sooch on such a boy! He ought to be ashamed of himself. Now, Alanna, promise your auld gran'mother that you'll never go nex't nor near a bird's nest. And I know you wouldn't be so cruel as to destroy one that has young in it. Glory be to God, leave birds' nests alone!
"Now, be off width ye, and never let me hear again of your robbin' a poor bird of its nest.
"Here, take this gallon; go up to the spring, and bring us back some dhrinkin' wather."
The "gallon" was a pail, or bucket, made of tin, sturdy and large. Its name had no reference to the measure of water that it would hold. As a matter of fact, as I remember its size, it would contain a good many gallons of water. It was as much as I could do to fetch it half full all the way from the spring to which my grandmother alluded.
This spring was on the other side of the river and up a short way from the bridge near the schoolhouse. It issued from the side of a hill extending down along the bank of the river that flowed a short way from the gable end of our house. The hills leading up to the spring and along the riverbank were middling steep in places. We called them braes. The neighbors from some distance around about frequented the spring to get good drinking water, just as we did. The river water, roiled, mudded, and contaminated by animals wading, and at times, standing there in the shade of the trees and bushes along its banks, was not fit for drinking.
A young woman, the daughter of a neighbor, sometimes was to be seen making the trip to the spring. She was a somewhat eccentric young person, by the name of Ann. She cavorted playfully, we thought rather oddly, on her way to the spring. The hills were pretty steep in places and the footpath, especially after a rain, was not very safe. For one stretch of the way the hill was sheer perpendicular, and Ann's progress could be compared to that of a sailor negotiating the starboard side of the deck of a ship on his way forward during a storm. When the ship plunged into the trough of the sea, and yawed, the starboard rails, almost awash with seawater, the sailor would lean well over to his left for balance. And so it was with poor Ann; she would almost come parallel with the steep of the hill while she made sure her footing.
When school was over for the afternoon, some of the bigger boys would congregate on the bridge and wait for Ann's trip to the spring.
As she wobbled along the winding, sometimes slippery, path, the boys would shout to her, "Shlant the brae, Ann! Shlant the brae, why don't ye?"
Ann would stop, pick a clod or two from the hillside, and let fly at her tormenters. Of course the distance was too great for the clods to reach their mark, but she would keep hurling them for a while, the boys roaring with laughter. Finally she would give the empty gallon she carried a couple of swings round her head and go dancing on her way.
Once while my father and I were strolling on the bank of the river in the shade of some trees, we went down near the water's edge, my father picked out a hummock covered with grass and sat there. He was evidently looking for something among the stones on the brink of the stream. Soon he spotted it - a four or five inch-long lizard with tapering tail, slithering from one flat stone to another, pausing now and then to raise and wiggle its little head from side to side. My father made a slight motion to me to keep quiet and, as it came closer to where he was crouched low and alert; his hand shot out and caught the lizard by the body.
Manipulating it carefully, he finally got it between a thumb and forefinger of each hand, back of its head and at the butt of its tail, and, with his two hands in that position, raised the lizard to his mouth and licked his tongue up and down its back. Then releasing it and throwing it into the river, he told me that his tongue would be a sure cure for burns when he licked the skin of anyone so afflicted.
For five or six years after my father's return from America in 1872, he kept a brood sow. The pigsty was at the left of the street as we came from the house, well off to one side. When the sow farrowed, my sister Ellie and I took great delight in watching her litter of pigs as they gamboled about her in the sty, especially at feeding time. Then the mother sow lay down upon her side while the little piggies jostled and pushed each other for a place at her tits, where finally settled, they tugged with might and main for their share of the mother's milk.
We did not interrupt them at their feeding, oh no, for we knew the old sow too well for such hazardous interference. Even looking at her and them when so engaged brought grunts of warning from her. Woe betides the one who at any time dared lay hands upon her precious piggies. Her grunts of disapproval frightened us to the marrow of our bones. Consequently we had to be satisfied with just looking.
The old sow was an excellent example of what the maternal instinct is, or should be. She watched over and stood guard on her offspring, warding off every danger, real or imaginary, that threatened them. In the bottom lands where she and her young ones were sometimes allowed to root and forage, she would stand taut, her head high in the air, her little eyes darting defiance at any one of us who presumed to come near as though to trespass on her domain. The little pigs, as they grew up, soon learned the attitude from their mother, or had it by instinct. They would stick their snouts out aggressively, trying the air with their nostrils at the approach of a human being.
During that time the family, which increased by one with almost yearly regularity, got along fairly well economically. In addition to the sow and her periodic litter of pigs, which soon developed into sizeable young porkers to be sold on some fair or market day, we had three or four milch cows and, therefore, plenty of milk for drinking or for the making of butter. My mother had acquired a reputation with the professional buyers for export because of the consistency and the salting of her butter. This enabled her to get a good price for the product of her churning. When she took her firkins to the town of Drumshanbo, she was always welcome. A buyer whom she usually went to, sampled the butter with a hollow skiver, and gave her the highest market price.
Of course all the cows weren't giving milk at the same time. One or the other of them was usually at the stripper stage: that is, she was with calf and for that reason had ceased to be milked, or she had gone dry when she was ready for the bachelor.
In 1877-78-79 the potato crop in Ireland failed. Just as the stalks were less than a foot high, they were blighted into a shriveled-up mess, dropping and seared as they began to blossom. The tubers in the ground, as they began to take form and shape, became black, shapeless things of no value to man or beast.
Those were indeed the years that tried men's souls in Ireland. My father must have been full of hope during those first two or three years after his second return from America. What, after all, brought him back to Ireland in the first place? The desire, the strong urge to live there for the rest of his life, to till the soil, and to rear a family. After the first few years he began to realize how futile his efforts would be. In spite of his working like a Trojan to make ends meet, he saw that each year, the income failed to balance with the outgo, so that the little reserve he may have had in 1872 was gradually eaten away. There was the rent to be met each year; there were repair and replacement of farming utensils; there was especially his growing family with the expense, however small, of each new addition to be met with hard cash.
What was the cause of this widespread poverty in Ireland, especially in Connacht and all through the west of the island? It has been charged that it was due to the inherent laziness of the people. That charge is refuted and disproved by the facts. My father worked from early morn till late in the evening at the manual labor of tilling the soil in the sweat of his brow, digging with the loy in back-breaking work, turning the earth and breaking the sod to make ready for the planting of the seed-potatoes; cutting the hay with the scythe under the broiling sun, pausing now and then to stand it upright that he might sharpen its long, curved cutting blade with the whet-stone, still by hand. And this laborious work went on hour after hour until he had swaths enough cut to begin turning and shaking them with his pitchfork to expose every part of the new-mown hay to the air and sun for its curing. During all these operations, he would go to the gallon of fresh, cool spring water, or have it brought to him where he stood, mop his brow with a handkerchief, and drink from a porringer that was always handy thereby.
Was this laziness on the part of the Irish peasant-farmer? Far from it. The Irishman likes work. He belongs to a race of workers. The world bears evidence to this trait of Irishmen. In the earliest times, even before Christianity was heard of, Irishmen erected pagan temples and pagan altars for their Druid worship of which the ruins are scattered over the entire island. Among them are the cromlechs, those huge stones, or megaliths, strewn over most of Ireland, ancient relics of the Celtic race, which add interest to almost every part of the island. These cromlechs in their primitive state were erected by Irish hands and put in place by Irish engineering skill to mark the burial places of their illustrious dead who, when alive, decreed that their final resting place should be inviolate against intruders. There are no fewer than three hundred fifty of them to be seen today throughout Ireland. In each case, where they have not been overthrown, they consist of two or three upright stones supporting a great rock, sometimes twenty feet long by six feet thick. How such colossal blocks of stone were brought to one place and then raised into position, the huge capstone elevated atop the supporting two or three stones and balanced there, is as great a mystery as the more publicized pyramids of ancient Egypt, or of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. But there they are, mute testimony to the energetic labor and workmanship of the ancient Irish race.
Besides these cromlechs, there are the Ogham stones with their strange inscriptions, which, by the way, have been deciphered by enthusiastic scholars, after much patient labor - not back-breaking, perhaps, but requiring just as much application of the spirit of dogged perseverance as tilling the soil or mowing the hay in the hot noonday sun. These Ogham stones are so named from the legendary Ogma, The Cadmus of the Celts, who gave them the art of writing. The deciphering was done only by painstaking work without benefit of any Rosetta Stone as in the case of the Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The Rosetta Stone, by the way, is a piece of black basalt found in 1799 by M. Bouchard, a French officer of engineers, in an excavation made at Fort St. Julien, near the Rosetta mouth of the Nile. It has an inscription in three different languages—the hieroglyphic, the demotic characters, and the Greek. It is famous as having given M. Champollion the first clue toward deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Stone was erected in 195 B.C in honor of Ptolemy Epiphanes because he remitted the dues of the sacerdotal body.
This charge, then, that the Irishman is lazy or indolent, or that he shirks work, is disproved as well by the history of Irish achievement in works of art that required devoted labor for their production as well as manual skill and bodily brawn for their erection. This was true not only of the early Irish race, but of the race in all ages of its existence when it was free to give expression to its bent, namely, its love of labor for a self-expression that was its own reward. Witness the ruins of its abbeys and monasteries erected in its ages of faith, and still standing, dismantled, indeed, mere skeletons from which the flesh has been plucked by the ruthless pagan claws of Danes and Scandinavians; roofless and headless, their disiecta membra thrown to the winds and left to moulder into dust. All over the island there stand ruins more numerous than those in the Forum of Ancient Rome or on the Acropolis of Athens that give proof of the industry of Irishmen of all ages while they were free.
The Irish farmer lazy? No indeed; but he had lost every incentive for honest toil beyond that necessary to keep body and soul together both for himself and for his family. If his farm produced more than the bare necessities of life, it was worth more rentals in the eyes of the agent of an absentee landlord, and the poor peasant was confronted with a tax upon his industry, a tax by way of rent which left him worse off than he was before.
And so my father went on tilling, and toiling and slaving to make ends meet in those years in the second-half of the eighteen seventies, but each year he was a little more in arrears than the year before. He always thought he would get ahead, but his growing family made all his efforts futile. He saw the number of his cows and heifers and other livestock reduced year after year, sacrificed in the market-place to the yearly demand for ready cash with which to pay the rent, and sacrificed also to the ever-growing demand of England for beef and more beef for her larders. And so he found a ready market for his few cows and pigs, which driven to it by necessity, he had to let go one by one until there was but a lone cow, to give us milk. Each year he hoped against hope to be able to keep up the struggle for existence, but all in vain. It was true of him as of many another Irish peasant farmer that, "Hope deferred maketh the heart sick." A pall seemed to settle over him and over the whole family—grandfather and grandmother, my mother and her six children.
And yet, during that period of dwindling resources, we all placidly went about the business of living - a sort of "Come-day-go-day, God-send-Sunday" kind of life. I remember that my grandmother sat in her corner by the hob close to the fire slitting the seed potatoes for the planting in the springtime. She took good care to leave an "eye" in every cut of the potato from which should shoot a sprout when planted. My sister Ellie and I were old enough to follow my father along the ridges in the patch of ground devoted to potatoes. He had turned the ridges and prepared them with the loy beforehand and now he went along them, one after one, digging the holes, while I or my sister, taking turn about, followed after him, dropping the quartered or half of the potato, with the "eye" or "eyes" in it, into the hole prepared. This we called "guggering." It was, for us, a fatiguing, backbreaking task. Of course, we had neither shoes nor stockings for our poor little feet; while mittens or gloves or any other protection for our hands was out of the question. After a spell of such "guggerin'" in the cold and bleakness of an early March day, we made our way up to the house and slunk in to warm our hands and feet, sitting on a creepie stool close to the turf fire.
As was to be expected, we frequently developed coughs during the spring and went around the house "pluckerin'", with a soft cough accompanied by phlegm. She dreaded a dry, hacking cough. So long as the cough affected only the bronchial tubes, she relied upon homemade remedies to clear it up. My mother had a sovereign remedy for such conditions, namely, a dose of salts and senna, which we hated; or, maybe castor oil, which was equally distasteful to us. After the salts-and-senna did its work of cleaning out our little systems, we were treated to a concoction of sulfur and treacle, that is, sulfur and molasses, a dose which we abhorred because of its frequent administration during the springtime.
At the approach of the preceding winter, my father built a bird-cradle of osier rods and twigs which he set out near the front of the house. In shape, this bird-cradle was like a basket without a lid. It was placed on the ground with the coverless top to the earth. One side of it was elevated from the ground and supported by a few sticks ingeniously so placed that they collapsed when a bird hopped on one of them to come at the bait in the form of a few bits of bread hanging from the end of one of the sticks. The front of the cradle then dropped to the ground and imprisoned the bird beneath, but unhurt. He had previously built a birdcage of the same osier twigs against our success in capturing a thrush or a blackbird which we would keep and try to tame for his singing. As chance would have it, we saw a blackbird in the bird-cradle one morning and forthwith we transferred him to the cage, which was a large affair, to give him plenty of room in his captivity. But it was a pitiable sight to watch the poor wild thing dashing himself hour after hour and day after day against the walls of his prison in his frantic efforts to escape. We failed utterly to tame him and get him to sing for us, although we placed plenty of food and drink before him. At long last my grandmother took pity on him, placed the cage by a window of the house, left the little door of the cage open, and let him fly away.
On morning shortly after the blackbird's release, we saw a beautiful black-and-white magpie in the bird-cradle. This was a find to our children's mind, for we had heard from grandmother that a magpie could be taught to say words if its tongue were slit with a sixpence. We therefore caged Mister Magpie anxiously awaited the time when he would quiet down enough to permit the performance of the operation of tongue slitting. But, alas, the time never came, for Tabby, our cat, got to him one night when every one was in bed asleep. That put an end to our efforts to tame wild birds and make them sing or talk.
As the winter of 1878-79 drew to a close and the days began to lengthen with the coming of spring, my sister Ellie and I roamed the fields once more looking for the new flower and plucking posies to bring to our mother. They were plentiful enough, especially on the bank of the river and farther landward near the base of the hedgerows that bordered the riverbank. There were bluebells and primroses, arbutuses and violets, and farther afield, daisies such as I have not seen for size in this country.
Then there was the dandelion which we children were warned not to pluck because of its common name, piss-the-bed, (plucking it was supposed to make the plucker wet his bed o' nights.)
We naturally fought shy of ant hills, for the ant was known to us as the pismire. My recollection is that the pismire bit or stung you if you took him in your hand or molested him in any way while he was building his little hill of the excavations from his house beneath the soil.
|Chapter One||Chapter Two||Chapter Three||Chapter Four||Chapter Five|
|Chapter Seven||My Father Leaves
|Chapter Nine||Chapter Ten||Chapter Eleven|
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