Thinking Back

by Thomas John Mulvey, PhD

shamrock Childhood reflections of rural, 1870s Ireland and Celtic history. shamrock
Edited by Eric C. Biemiller and William L. Mulvey
Grandsons of Thomas John Mulvey, PhD

Copyright© William L. Mulvey, all rights reserved
cottage 2013 Aughagrania Bridge Slieve Anieran Mountains stream
Cottage/homestead in 2013 Aughagrania Bridge Slieve Anieran Mountains Stream

Chapter Four

My father returned to America early in 1871 when I was less than a year old. He returned, presumably, to get some ready cash against the birth of this second child whom my mother was then carrying. His dream of making a go of it on the small farm which his father worked and in the working of which my father helped, proved to be just that, a dream begotten of patriotism and filial devotion. It was a time of great unrest in Ireland, a time which saw the birth of the Land League movement. Crushed by the burden of an annual rent which the farmers had little or no means of raising, the peasants eked out a bare existence tilling the soil and toiling from morning to night.

With the formation of the Land League, a ray of hope gleamed for the peasantry of Ireland and my father was caught up by its glow. Charles Stewart Parnell was the leader of the movement. It promised every Irishman the hope of being able to buy and own his own land, a hope that was realized too late for my father to share in its blessings; for it was not until 1881, and more especially by the great Land Purchase Act of 1885, that the Irish tenant farmer was enabled to buy a holding of land and pay for it in installments extending over a period of years.

Meantime my father came back from America on the 6th of July, 1872 a day and date which I heard tell of frequently when I was old enough to remember it. It was the first birthday anniversary of my baby sister, Ellie, or Ellen, as she was christened for her two grandmothers, Ellen O'Connor Mulvey and Ellen O'Neill Slack. It was an Irish tradition that the first born son should be named for his father's father, and so I had been christened Thomas for my grandfather Thomas Mulvey. In like manner, the first girl was to be named for her mother's mother. In the case of our family, there could be no cause of jealousy, as at times was likely to result, for both our grandmothers were named Ellen. Consequently when they called my baby sister Ellen, both sides of the family were appeased, not that there was any danger of umbrage on one side or the other in the case of the Mulveys and the Slacks.

The new infant was a lovely child. She grew into a still lovelier girl and young woman as all the neighbors and later friends and acquaintances could attest. As she grew up, we called her Ellie which was later changed to Ella, to conform with the custom of the times.

On that day, her first birthday, she had taken her first few steps alone, toddling from her grandmother Mulvey's outstretched and protecting hands to her Mother's receiving arms about six or eight feet away. My mother was delighted. Her little girl had walked alone on her first birthday and on the same day that her father, who had not yet seen his little daughter, was expected home from America. Sure enough, he arrived that very afternoon.

You may be certain there was great rejoicing that day in the Mulvey household. The cottage which was ours was like many another cottage in the neighborhood and like most cottages in that part of the country. It was built of stone, one story high, white washed inside and out. It had a high-pitched thatched roof that gave room for an ample loft beneath. The eves of the roof, extended several feet front and back, so that the rain rolling down from it would wear a trench in the ground outside, but for some flagstones set beneath. The thatched roof was warm in winter, cool in summer.

There was a low chimney a little to one side of the center of the ridgepole, or rooftree, which gave to the cottage a squat appearance. The short chimneys, rising only a foot or two at most above the rest of the roof, were a characteristic of the Irish cottage. Anyway, chimneys were rare in England and, I presume, in Ireland, before Elizabeth's time. Their place and function were supplied by a vent in the roof to let out the smoke. Fires of houses were rare. Indeed I don't remember ever hearing of even one for miles around in that part of the country. Certainly such a fire would be a calamity, for there were no means of fighting it, should one get started.

No gable windows gave light to the loft under the roof. One climbed up to this loft, characteristic of every such cottage, by means of a ladder that rested on the clay floor below.

The cottage, oblong in shape, looked to the south. It had in the center a low doorway; low, because it allowed the owner and his family to come in, but made it easily defended against the marauder or other unwelcome visitor—a relic, I suppose, of the times when such gentry were more or less common. The low doorway, incidentally, was common in early American homes, especially upon the frontier. The door itself opened in halves, one upon the other. The upper half was usually open; the lower half, closed, so as to keep out strolling animals--ducks, geese, hens, and the like. On each side of this center doorway were two windows set at decent distances from it. One gave light and air to the large room in the middle; the other two were the windows of bedrooms situated at each end of the big room, which served as kitchen, dining-room and living-room. Another door in the rear wall of the cottage led to a large cabbage-patch. Besides cabbages, other garden vegetables were grown here. At the left of it, to one looking from this back door, was, in season, a hayrick and maybe a stack of threshed oats. The same view from the rear of the cottage took in a meadow immediately beyond the truck garden and cabbage patch and extending some distance to the right. Then came the road bounding the meadow and separated from it by a marin, or hedge of hawthorn bushes. A path through the meadow led to a stile through which one climbed to reach the road. A stone bridge protected on each side by parapets of stone spanned the river a little to the left of one coming to the road from the aforementioned meadow. Right across from the stile was the schoolhouse, by the side of which and a little to the left was a lane which to my childish vision lost itself in windings leading to other cottages whose inmates I hardly knew.

Beyond this panorama of meadow, stile, road, bridge, schoolhouse and, fanning out in the distance, other whitewashed cottages similar to ours, rose the Slieve Anieran mountains that always bore for me much mystery. For my father used to tell me of coal and iron buried there, did England but allow men to mine them and bring the ore out and ship it from Galway or other ports on the west coast of Ireland. But no, England would not permit the mines to be worked lest Ireland should compete industrially with the tight little island across the Channel.

Pointing to those hills and to the mountains rising out of them, my father told me that on the first of May every year, there were bonfires lighted in honor of Beltaine, or the pagan god Baal, by some of the oldest inhabitants among whom were still some of the customs of those primitive pagan days. Nor did these practices of that ancient time still enduring militate against their belief in Christianity as expressed in their Catholic Faith, for my father also pointed out that Saint Patrick himself employed the bonfires of Beltaine as symbolic of the Paschal fires of Easter. For, be it noted that the Apostle of Ireland and the tradition of the Church, which he established, were not in harmony with the Church of Rome as to the time for celebrating the feast of Easter.

In front of the cottage was what we called the street, pretty well paved with flagstones. It led to the haggard at the right of which was the byre with accommodations for four cows. In the byre was also a threshing-floor on which my father and one or two neighbors threshed the oats at harvest-time. For the threshing they used flails, which consisted of two rounded sticks bound together at the ends by thongs of leather. One stick was shorter than the other so that I t could be wielded with a swinging motion over the shoulder and brought down on the heads of oats, thus separating oats and chaff from the stalks. Afterwards the results of the threshing were winnowed to free the oats from the chaff.

The byre was built of stone, of course, with its gable-end at right angles to the gable-end of the house and separated from it by a wide lane which led down to the river some hundred yards away. On the other side of the street on the left in front of the house was the pig-sty where the sow and her litter were kept when she farrowed and had little pigs to raise.

Our house was only a couple hundred yards from the river that flowed down from the mountains to the north. There was a causeway by which one passed around the gable-end of our house along the riverbank. It led to a path across the meadow to the stile and on to the road which made a gentle curve after crossing the bridge. This road then led on into our nearest town of Drumshanbo.

Before the house across the haggard (hedge), stretched our small farm ending in some bottomland and the bog from which we got our turf. I was always led to look upon this bog, or a certain portion of it, as belonging to us and as part of our holding.

First of all there was a large field of meadowland used by our cows and calves for grazing. Some of this land was devoted to the raising of hay. Beyond, was land set aside for potatoes and other vegetable crops. By the side of these fields flowed the river, at times shallow as a stream, and at times a roaring flood. Our bank of the river had clumps of bushes and beech trees overhanging deep, quiet pools in which an occasional trout made his appearance in the late spring or early summer. There was a lone tree near the foot of the pasture under the spreading branches of which the cows and a heifer or two sought shade in the middle of a summer day.

It was here by the banks of this stream that, as a child, I hunted wild strawberries and strung them on a long blade of grass which we called a traneen, and brought them as a gift to my mother. They were small berries, but very sweet, though I seldom ate more than a few of them, saving them all to make a good showing as I presented them to her up at the house.

Here too, I gathered primroses, daisies, buttercups as well as other wild flowers late in the afternoon when I was sent to round up the ducks which had wandered down to the bottoms to feed on snails and frogs and other tidbits that dwelt in a kind of marshy strip of land lying in the approaches to the bog-land.

On such expeditions, when I was seven or eight years of age, I was accompanied by a pet dog, named Quannie. Later on that same Quannie came to a rather sad end, an end due solely to her over indulgence in mice.

It was this way. We had erected a hayrick at the back of our house toward the causeway so as to be convenient to the byre which stood across the path leading down to the river. One day late in the fall my father removed much of the hay to the byre, thus exposing the broad foundations of the rick. Quannie remained outdoors, come nightfall. When we got up in the morning, there was poor Quannie all bloated up from eating the mice she found at the base of the rick of hay. I was nearly inconsolable. I would not consider any replacement, though I was offered my choice of several puppies by sympathizing neighbors when they heard of my loss.

But time serves to take the sharp edges off any sorrow and gradually to assuage every grief. For a child, that time marches on leaden-soled shoes, so long does it seem in passing. From one Christmas to another, for example, was an eon to a seven-or-eight year old; would Christmas never come? And so it was with my childish grief at the loss of Quannie. In a month or less I had acquired a more than half-grown puppy which I promptly named Tray for the dog in the ballad, "My poor dog Tray." Right away I began to take Tray with me on my daily excursions to drive in the cows and to round up the foraging ducks from their marshy dining rooms.

On these excursions my impressionable mind was filled with bits of poetry and folklore and history that I was constantly hearing discussed and exchanged between my father and grandfather Mulvey and one or two neighbors that dropped in to make a ceilidh, or as I would spell the word, according to the way my father, and for the matter of that, the way that all the neighbors pronounced it, “kailey,” of an evening. It was on such occasions that I learned, without knowing it, what a poetic, imaginative, romantic people the Irish are. Of course, I drank in all that I heard without any question as to the historicity of the facts, which historicity I have found to be in the main substantially true. The folklore was founded upon a solid tradition which, after all, is history handed down from father to son, usually uncolored by the personality of the narrator. This is true of that story or stories of Ireland to which Wallace Nutting refers, or would seem to refer, in his superb volume, "Ireland Beautiful." "The Irishman," he says, "insofar as he has surrendered himself to the charm of the myths, the fables, the epics, and the legends of the early centuries, has become original in his literature and sentiment. The flavor of his mind, we may say, has a finer tang, and a richer aroma. Thus the Irish are more interesting. When their lovable and ebullient natures are shot through with a knowledge of their delightful early literature, they become perhaps the most interesting people of earth." So it was with the stories that I listened to, stories that at one time or another took in the whole range of Irish history, of Irish tradition, as well in the ream of myth and fable, as in more historic times. Mr. Murray, the schoolmaster, who occasionally paid us a visit, contributed much to these mythological, and especially, to these historical discussions.

It was pleasant to wander in the meadows below the house and enjoy the idyllic scenes of the cows at noon lying in the shade of the spreading beech, quietly chewing their cuds, or a little later in the afternoon, as they stood almost up to their udders in one of the pools of the river beneath the beech trees and bushes which almost everywhere grew along the banks. In the evening they were ready to go up to the house to give their milk from those well-filled sacks.

We must have had some sheep at one time, though I don't seem to have any very definite recollection of them in the fields or in the pasture; but I have a very definite and clear-cut memory of sheep-shearing time and of my grandmother Mulvey carding wool and spinning it into yarn. I remember the spinning wheel dragged out of the corner. And I do have a picture of hanks of woolen thread being wound into balls from the same hanks held on my mother's or my out-stretched hands, just about the wrists, while my grandmother slipped the thread on to a ball held in her nimble fingers. Our hands curtsied alternately as the thread slipped off the wrist and over the hand, now left, now right, to be transferred by her to the revolving and growing ball.

Our small farm and those adjoining it for miles around all through the south of the County Leitrim and Longford and Cavan, formed the country of Breffay, Breifne or Brieffery, the most picturesque and pleasing vale in all Ireland. It was of this vale that Goldsmith sang so hauntingly and so plaintively in his "Deserted Village."
    "The hawthorn bush, with seats beneath the shade,
    For talking and whispering lovers made."
It was here that his parson father spent his peaceful life, for
    "A man he was to all the country dear,
    And passing rich with forty pounds a year."
But Goldsmith bemoans the wave of oppression that was threatening to inundate Ireland and carry away with it or bury beneath its crest the hardy peasantry of the countryside:
    "But a bold peasantry, their county's pride,
    When once destroy'd can never be supplied."
and it was sought to destroy them, or to uproot them by transportation to distant lands; or by herding them into Connaught between the Shannon and the Atlantic Ocean where the Sassenach could rule them with an iron hand.

It was this country of Breifne that Thomas Moore saw and had in mind when he wrote the song, "The Valley Lay Smiling Before Me.” The song was a favorite with my father. He did not sing it, for he couldn't sing, though his brothers Thomas and John were lusty singers and one of them, Thomas, played the flute. My father played "The Valley Lay Smiling Before Me" in snatches on the fiddle, as well as "Miss LacLoid's Reel," both of which he tried to teach me when I was fourteen or fifteen. He was not a very good teacher—too impatient. He thought I should be able to play the tunes after two or three tries, as well as he did.

I continued to go, on the long Irish evening, to the bottom lands that lay to the left of our farm accompanied by my dog Tray to round up the ducks and geese and herd them home. On such expeditions I dreamed the day dreams of a boy of eight or nine, dreams that were fed by the stories that I heard as we sat around the turf fire on the open hearth of an evening before I went to my settle-bed against the wall at the lower end of the fairly large center room.

They were interesting stories of the olden-time, myths of the early days, long before history was written; stories of the supposed first inhabitants of the island, of the Forians, or men from beneath the sea, the saints of early Irish literature; of their conquest by the Firbolgs who overran the island and mixed with, rather than tried to exterminate, that earlier race.

Then there were the Tuath de Danaes, great big blond men from Scandinavia, the Vikings of the North, who came to Emain Macha in Ulster to do battle with the then native Firbolgs who had absorbed or blended with the Formorians those necromancers from under the sea.

They rehearsed at odd times their fixed belief in the antiquity of Irish history. They recounted stories of cattle raids that involved the epic of the Bull of I well remember that Schoolmaster Murray laid stress on this antiquity of Irish history. I have since verified his contention, although I should not have called it a contention at all, for those present accepted the Schoolmaster as an authority of such matters. And so I have found that long before Christianity began to spread in Europe, Ireland was known to history. It was known to the Greeks the latter of whom gave it the name of Hibernia. The Greek historian and biographer, Plutarch, who was born about the middle of the first century of our era, speaks of Ireland as "the ancient country, Ogygia." It is evident that even in Plutarch's time, somewhere around 80 or 90 A. D., Ireland had a history.

The Romans also called Ireland Scotia, probably after the name of that queen, Scotti, who surprised the earlier inhabitants by her landing there, and then losing the island during the storm raised by the necromancers. Scotia for the country and Scotus for an Irishman was commonly used all through the Scholastic centuries. It is well established that Scotland took that name from Irish emigrants to that country of Caledonia. There was in very ancient time the name Eire, which is Erin in one of its forms. It has been recently revived in the title of the Free States.

Ireland was known and spoken of by other names, mostly poetic, down through the ages. The one that was most frequently used by my father and his coterie of celidhiers, or kaileyers, was the Celtic name, Inis-Fail, or the Isle of Destiny. Another name, Inis-Eagla, the Noble Island, shows the intense patriotism of the Irish for the land of their birth.

It would be foolish of me to try to give the impression that I, a lad of eight and a half years of age, gathered these stories in anything like a chronological order, or even as a connected account of early Irish history, from what my father told me, or what he discoursed about with my grandfather Mulvey, and at odd times swapped with a neighbor or two, including the local schoolmaster. Far be it from me to seek to create such an impression, though I will say that both he, my father, and his father, Thomas Mulvey, had a fund of stories of the olden time, as well as of the times nearer our own. Of those later times, the seventeenth, eighteenth, and the early nineteenth centuries, the memories were still fresh and green in the minds of the old-timers, either from their having lived through the first half of that nineteenth century, or from having ruminated on the stories handed down to my grandfather by his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, they were in their day, a part of what they told.

No; but I have pieced together their tales from what I have read and am reading, and I have found them to fit into a pattern substantially correct. I can see them as they appealed to my impressionable early boyhood mind. The recollection of them is vivid and the memory of them is verdant even now as I record them, as I approach my seventy-third birthday anniversary, come the ninth of June, nineteen hundred and forty-three. It is the twenty-fourth of May, another anniversary that my memory clings to; namely, that of the opening to the public of old, or first, Brooklyn Bridge on Queen Victoria's birthday, in 1883. But something more about that later.

Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Five Chapter Six
Chapter Seven My Father Leaves
For America
Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
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