Here to return to
PEASANT LIFE IN CONNEMARA
AS compared with the other divisions of Britain, Ireland has a run-down, out-at-the-heels look that is depressing. Both the country districts and the towns show marked signs of dilapidation, decay, and thriftlessness. There are broken walls and litter in the neighborhood of all the villages and cities, and the land commonly has the appearance of being tilled neither energetically nor carefully.
I was more than ever impressed by this aspect of melancholy in an August trip I made across the Island from Dublin to Galway. The country, as seen from the car window, was uniformly flat, and much of it was bogland — wide, brown, unfenced grazing wastes with black stacks of peat scattered over them, and dark pools gleaming in the cuttings. Now and then there were places in the bogs where the heather grew in great masses of pink bloom; but it was only in patches, and never covered acres and miles as on the Highland moors of Scotland.
I travelled third class, and though that gave me a chance to see more of life than in one of the better apartments, the discomfort was rather greater than I anticipated. In England the average third-class carriage, in spite of its being very plain and boxy, is quite satisfactory for a ride of moderate length. But in Ireland it is entirely cushionless, and the men smoke and spit with the most barbaric freedom. The people were, however, lively and talkative, and almost without exception were good-natured and accommodating. They were much inclined to excitement at the stations, and there was always a commotion and a scramble to get hold of the baggage as it was unloaded from the van.
A tendency to loiter till the last moment on the platform was manifest among intending travellers, and when the train prepared to start the guard had to cry, “Take your sates!” vehemently, to get the passengers on board.
At one place several girls entered my apartment, and an old man, who was seeing them off and giving them all sorts of directions, presently bethought himself to step to the lunch room and buy some ginger beer for a treat. He carne back with a bottle and a glass just as the conductor was slamming the doors and warning everybody to get on. That put the old gentleman in a flurry, and when he tried to pour the beer he did not hold the bottle right, and the glass ball in the neck kept rolling down and stopping the passage, so that with each attempt he only got a few drops. The train began to move, and one of the girls snatched bottle and glass. She was more successful in her pouring, but the old gentleman was reaching in at the window in great turmoil to get the things back.
“Here,” said the girl, handing out the bottle, “I’ll give you that, anyway.”
“The glass, the glass too!” cried the old man, now breaking into a trot to keep pace with the accelerating speed of the train.
After taking one more hasty gulp the girl relinquished the glass, and then to our surprise the train slowed up sharply and came to a standstill. We had made a false start — been switching or something of that sort — and we had only gone a few rods. In a moment the old gentleman was at the window, panting, with beads of perspiration on his forehead. He handed in the glass and the bottle again, and the girls finished the beverage at their leisure. The passengers were all much pleased over the performance, especially a man with a bottle of his own sticking out the inside pocket of his coat. “Ah,” said he, “sure, we’d be nearly arrivin’ at Galway now if it wasn’t for your drinkin’!”
We passed many little, gray, stone towns along our route, and now and then a ruined tower or castle. The cottages that I saw from the car window were small, with whitewashed walls, thatched roofs, and a good deal of filth and rubbish about the yards. In the fields were numerous cattle feeding, goats and geese were common, and donkeys, the national beasts of burden, popularly believed to be equal to anything, and to be able to live on air if occasion demands, were omnipresent. The fields were pleasantly green, and looked fairly fertile, and a most attractive touch was bestowed on the landscape by the old hedgerows. These were at this season just maturing their fruit — little hawthorn apples with so strong a reddish tinge as to give the bushes the appearance of being full of bright blossoms.
At Galway I stayed over night. It is a battered old town, with many lofty stone warehouses in the business section, but a large fraction of these were grimly vacant, and the place did not look as if it was thriving. A few years ago there was hope of rejuvenating it by making it the terminus of a line of Atlantic greyhounds. The harbor furnished a fine anchorage, and the port is nearer New York than any other in Europe. The passage would be eight hours shorter than to Queenstown, and the mail expenses would be materially reduced. A million dollars were spent in jetties, quays, docks, and basins, but the entrance to the harbor is difficult, and the loss of a large steamer which struck a forgotten reef and foundered in sight of the town damped all enthusiasm, and, except for a few small emigrant ships, Galway has as little sea traffic as ever.
In ancient times the port was much frequented by merchants from Spain, with which country it had a considerable commerce. The town still retains architectural peculiarities, due to the old-time Spanish influence — houses decorated with fantastic, weather-worn carvings, and buildings that have a court in the centre with a gateway opening into the street. Perhaps the most interesting reminiscence of the past, to the stranger, is that recalled by a tablet on the wall of St. Nicholas Churchyard commemorating the “stern and unbending justice” of James Lynch Fitz-Stephen, who was mayor of the city some four hundred years ago. A son had conspired with the crew of a ship in which he was returning from a voyage, to murder the captain and convert the property to their own use. For this crime the son was tried and condemned to death by his father, the mayor. The young man had numerous friends, and they laid their plans to go enmass and intercede for him, but the father learned of their intentions, and lest their pleadings should swerve him from fulfilling the demands of the law, he caused the condemned man to be executed before their arrival. When they approached the house they saw the son’s lifeless body dangling from one of the windows.
Down by the shore of Galway Bay, on the outskirts of the city, live the fishing folk in a community by themselves. Their houses are whitewashed cabins, with thatch roofs, and the inhabitants are purely Celtic, clinging to the Irish language and to antiquated customs and costumes. They elect their own chief magistrate or “King” yearly, and although under the same municipal rule as the rest of the city, they acknowledge the authority of their king as supreme in regard to many of their affairs. While I was loitering in their village, I made the acquaintance of a boy carrying a scrawny black kitten. He was all in tatters from head to foot, but he was entirely unconscious of his attire, and was wholly cheerful. “It is me own cat,” he said, referring to the creature in his arms; “and, bedad, it runned away yisterday, and sure, I have hunted the town all over, till to-day I found it.”
The lad looked as if he had gone through as many trials in his quest of rescue as any knight of the old legends. He was going on to relate these in detail, when a woman coming down the street hailed him. She was apparently his mother, for she spoke with authority. “Will you come home, thin?” said she, and she picked up a stone and threw it, to show him she meant business. We both dodged, and in haste parted company.
From Galway I went by rail northward into a much more rugged region than any I had seen in the journey across the island. The bogs bordered desolate lakes, and the stony Connemara Mountains rose in ragged outlines. This railroad on the west coast had been built only a year, and .it gave easy access to a district where the Irish peasant could be seen unaffected by the march of modern improvement. Not that the life there is exceptional; for what is true of Connemara, is just as true of many other parts of Ireland, and even in the sections most favored the peasant life is exceedingly primitive, and the home surroundings dubiously poverty-stricken.
I left the train at a place called Recess, and found myself on the platform of a lonely little station in the midst of a bog. No houses were in sight, but a man with a jaunting-car took me aboard, and raced his horse for a hotel a mile away, as if he was going to a fire. I hung on for dear life, and was thankful when I alighted without mishap.
At the hotel — a whitewashed stone building in a little wood on the edge of a lough — I was welcomed by a slick waiter, with an expansive shirt-bosom, and a posy in his buttonhole. He gave one the impression that the hotel was a very high-toned establishment; but the interior was rather forlorn, nevertheless, with its stained and out-of-date wall-paper, its decrepit furniture, and an odor that suggested a need of scrubbing and renovation.
THE HUMBLEST HOME IN IRELAND
Soon after I arrived it was announced that the table d’hôte dinner was ready, and about fifteen people gathered around the long dining room table. Most of them were persons touring, who were just stopping at Recess for a day or so. They would indulge in the exertion of a mountain climb, would walk or ride to several spots in the neighborhood that were recommended as interestingly picturesque, and then be off to do the same at the next place. But there were two men at the head of the table whose stay was less fitful. They had come for the fishing, and every morning they went off to toil on the windy loughs, rowing up and down, and up and down, all day, through sunshine and showers, and heat and cold. At dusk they returned with the local peasants who had been with them to do the pulling at the oars, and they were met at the hotel door by the women of their respective families with the question, “What luck?”
Neither man caught more than three or four fish as a rule in any one day, and as they had to pay roundly for the fishing privilege, the fish often cost them half a guinea or more apiece. They had a good deal to say about their experiences, but it had very much of a sameness, I thought, and the most entertaining incident I heard related was of a rainy day when one of the boats neglected to carry along anything with which to bail out the water, and a rower had taken off a shoe and made that serve the purpose. I failed to see any pleasure in spending two months, as these men had, in that lonely spot fishing those solemn loughs.
The dining room was a curious combination of fine intentions and shabbiness. The floor was uneven, and the doors and windows were warped, and had to be wrestled with whenever the attempt was made to either open or close them. At one end of the room stood a piano, but it was badly marred and out of tune. The table linen was dirty, the sugar bowls were pewter, and the knives and forks were rude and much worn. In the daytime a number of hornets were buzzing about and disputing the possession of the jam with the guests. But as an antidote to these flaws and imperfections there was our waiter with his starched linen and a flower in his buttonhole, and there were the fine big bouquets set along the middle of the table, and there were the trout, freshly caught and beyond criticism.
The day following that on which I reached Recess was Sunday, and at breakfast I asked the waiter where I could attend service. He said there was no church anywhere near, but that the people went to mass every other Sunday at a farmhouse a mile down the road. This was the alternate Sunday, and service would begin at nine o’clock in the morning. I started as soon as breakfast was over and, warned that I would be late by the intermittent running along the road of three women who passed me, I walked rapidly. When I approached the farmhouse I could hear the monotonous voice of the priest going through the service in the kitchen. The door was open and I could see that the room was packed with kneeling worshippers. But the house interior could not accommodate all who had come, and in the yard were thirty or forty persons more. They gathered as near as they could conveniently get to the doorway, and knelt like their fellow-worshippers inside. The yard was narrow and grassless, and entirely open to the highway. On one side of it were a number of jaunting-cars with their shafts tipped up skyward, and, tied to the walls of a neighboring stable, was a saddled pony.
I felt a little doubtful as to how to deport myself, and I took my place on the outskirts of the open air portion of the congregation near the carts, whence, through the single small kitchen window, I sometimes caught a glimpse of the priest in his white robes. The service was an hour long, and most of that time the people were on their knees. The yard was rough, and not over-and-above neat, and the worshippers got down on its grit and stones with reluctance and caution, evidently picking out the softer and cleaner spots. Sometimes a man would ease a kneepan by putting under it his red bandana or his cap. A part of the time he would be down on one knee, then he would change to the other, then get down on both. One old man, with bushy gray whiskers sticking out from under his chin in a prehistoric semicircle, found even these changes insufficient, and now and then would get down on all fours. In that posture he looked very like a monstrous toad.
The sounds of the priest’s voice came to us outside indistinct and confused, and the people in the yard apparently kneeled and rose in unison with a man next the door who had a better opportunity to hear than the rest, and who occasionally peeked inside. The open air devotees were not specially attentive. Their eyes were constantly wandering to me or to each other, and their hands kept up a lively rubbing and slapping in a losing warfare with the abounding midges.
At one point the priest came to the threshold, and the outdoor worshippers all hurried into a huddled group about him, while he threw holy water on them. He did the job by wholesale, using a stick with a swab on the end. This swab he dipped into a bowl that he held in his left hand, and then made sudden flings this way and that out on the audience, the members of which would keep up an awkward hopping movement, as if in an ecstatic eagerness to feel some of the precious drops trickling over them.
When the service ended the congregation straggled off, some up the road, some down, some following paths across the bogs, and a few lingering in the yard to visit. A young fellow mounted the saddled horse, and other horses were brought from the stable and hitched into the jaunting-cars. Such men as had a team would light their pipes as soon as they finished hitching up, then would start the horse and clamber up to the seat from either side, just as the creature was breaking into a trot. This hit-or-miss tumbling on looked reckless to me, but its spice of gymnastic unconventionality seemed to just suit the Irish nature.
I chose to make a detour in returning to my hotel, and went off on a bog road that led to a straggling group of four or five cottages. The road grew more crooked and narrow and fuller of ledges and loose stones with each house I passed, till it conducted me into the barnyard of a final dwelling and stopped. But I climbed over the wall and went on across the water-soaked barren of the bog. My route was one of frequent zigzags, to avoid the spots that looked wettest and softest, but in spite of all my care in jumping from grass-tuft to grass-tuft, I could not avoid getting wet feet. I thought I knew just how to cut across the bog to my hotel, but the heaving surface of the marsh was so uniformly sober and so without mark of tree or stone that as soon as I lost sight of the hamlet through which I had passed, I was confused and had naught to guide me but a general idea of direction. I went on thus for some time, and then came to a lonely little ruin. It was a single small building with walls still entire. The roof was there, too, but it had fallen down within the walls at one end.
At first glance I took it for granted that the place was deserted, yet a closer approach revealed a potato patch by the door, and wisps of smoke were streaking up from the peak of the gable that had not yet parted company with the thatch. I was about to look in at the open door when two cows walked out. A third stood inside chewing her cud. She turned her head and regarded me with mild-eyed interest. It was a curious apartment, with the half-fallen roof high at one end and slanting down to the floor at the other. By chance the rafters had so dropped that the thatch remained complete, or else it had been made weather-proof where it lay, by adjusting and patching. Against the farther wall were set two chairs, and above them was a shelf holding a few dishes, and there was a little fireplace with some fragments of peat smouldering on the hearth. Otherwise the room looked like a rude stable. The house had one tiny window, but even that was unglazed, and was just a square hole in the wall. No doubt it was stuffed with sedge in bad weather — that is, if this really was a human habitation. But I saw neither man, woman, nor child, and came away wondering. Did those three cows keep house there on the remote bogland unbeknown to every one, after the manner of animals in the fairy tales, or was it all a dream?
I continued for some distance over the bog, in what I judged was the direction of my hotel, and was beginning to fear I had gone hopelessly astray, when I espied a boy on donkey-back riding across the waste. I called and beckoned to him, and he stopped and waited till I came up. In response to my questions he told me where to find a path that would lead me back to civilization, and I left him seated stock-still on his donkey, twisted half around, gaping at me as if I was beyond his comprehension. But after the space of a minute or two I noticed he had slipped off his creature’s back and was searching in the bog. Then he remounted with something in his hand, and came cantering along awkwardly in my wake to offer me, in the hope of a tip, a sprig of white heather he had picked. White heather is comparatively rare, and besides, it has a touch of romantic interest; for if a lover presents to his lady a bouquet of it, she understands that he has in a delicate way proposed marriage. I gave the boy a bit of silver, and then it occurred to me to inquire about the little ruin of a house back on the bog.
“Oh,” he said, “that’s the house of an ould body by the name o’ Mary McCarty, and sure, here comes hersilf, now.”
A barefoot woman with a colored handkerchief tied about her head was approaching. She greeted the boy familiarly when she came near, and asked him, with a good deal of angry and distressed perturbation, if he had seen any of “thim villains” who had been stealing her hay. It seemed she had mowed a little piece near her cabin with her hand sickle, and while she was away some men had come — “the nagurs! and they got two loads off from me — as much as they could carry on their backs.”
The crime was all the blacker because she had no one but herself to “depind on.” She lived alone in the hut, save that with her in the tiny broken-roofed apartment were housed her three cows. The bit of land she cultivated and the cows barely kept her from starvation. Then, too, she did not know when the house would be down on her head.
“Many’s the time,” said she, “in a storrum, when in fear of me life I have gone out and stayed in the open sandpit at the back till the storrum was over. Ah, it is a poor place, sir, and sure, there’s no worse in all Erin!”
GETTING OUT PEAT
And it seemed to me then, as it does now, in recalling all I have seen of the Irish cabins in various parts of the island, that she was right.
When we parted, the woman and boy went away in company across the bogland desolation, and I kept along a vague path that led me in time to several houses straggling along a steep slope, at the foot of which flowed a little river. The single village lane, with a tiny rivulet trickling among its stones, was about as much like the bed of a brook as it was a roadway, and whenever there was a heavy rain it must have contained a torrent. I followed the lane through the house dooryards until I met an old man driving two cows up to their pasturage on the moor. He stopped me, apparently for the express purpose of imparting the information that he was one hundred years old. With his lean figure, his faded eyes, and his loose-hung chin covered with gray stubble, he looked as old as he said he was, but driving cows seemed a rather sprightly occupation for a centenarian.
I asked him how I should get to my hotel, and when, with some difficulty, he got his mind off his age and concentrated on this new topic, he led me to a knoll a little higher up, and pointed out the hotel’s white walls a half mile distant on the other side of the river in the hollow. He said I could cross the stream by some stepping-stones “down beyant.” I descended the hillside to the spot indicated, but the stones, though they made what would be a fair crossing for a goat, or the barefooted natives, were too unstable for a Christian used to bridges. Some children had followed me from the village, after the manner of their kind, and were watching my hesitation with interest. From them I learned that there were better stepping-stones farther up.
I kept along the marshy shores, over walls, through briers and sloughs, with now and then a pause to pick some of the luscious blackberries that abounded. Far up above sat a man on a boulder smoking his pipe, and meditatively watching me, but when he noted presently that I was having difficulty in getting through a thorny hedge, down he came to my assistance and broke aside the bushes. Then he led the way across several little fields to the stepping-stones, and went skipping over them with a nimbleness that was far beyond my abilities. He said the water often came up and covered the stones clean out of sight.
“How do you cross, then?” I asked.
“We have to wade it, bedad!” was the response. “Thim as hasn’t a harsey to ride, is the worst aff — for, sure, sir, thim that is on foot go through the wather at the danger of their lives.”
It was a relief to get across the stream, and it was a relief to escape from the bog, and I was heartily glad when I reached my hotel, thoroughly tired, hungry, and belated.
On the evening of the day following I went for another bogland walk, up a long hillocky slope near the hotel. The earth was spongy and yielding. A mass of moss overspread its surface, intermingled with scanty and unthrifty grasses, clumps of heather, and a scattering of reeds. Here and there the moor was brightened with touches of delicate yellow green, but the general tone was brownish and sombre. Frequent gray boulders thrust up into view. These became more numerous as the land rose higher, till I climbed a ridge where the soil was thin and strewn everywhere with shattered rock. Beyond this ridge was a little huddle of houses with an accompaniment of tiny stone-walled fields running down into a green valley. The houses were low, and their walls and thatched roofs were dark colored, and so like the surrounding bog that they seemed not the work of human beings, but some huge mushroom growths of nature. Not a tree was in sight, nor anything related to a tree, save a few little osier beds in the garden patches, and these osiers were quite inconspicuous, for they were cut off periodically to furnish wands for weaving creels.
As soon as I began to descend the ridge, a barefoot woman with a shawl over her head and a big baby in her arms came hurrying to me from an outlying cabin of the village. She arrived breathless, and thrust a bit of green marble into my hand, and called down blessings on my head in her fervent jargon. All this was intended to soften my heart and coax forth a tip. She told with pride how fond the little “Pat” in her arms was of money — how if he saw strangers coming, he would run to her and say, “Gentlemens! gentlemens! come and get money.”
When any one gave him a bit he would say, “Thank God, I’ve got my money.”
He was two years old, but she said he made her carry him everywhere she went. Even if she had a big sack of peat on her back, she must take him along under one arm. Once, she said, she gave him a little flat stone and tied it in the corner of a handkerchief, and he carried it about in his bosom all day and called it his money.
Rough, narrow, stone-walled lanes, crooked and rocky, connected cottages. Blackberry bushes, thickly dotted with ripe fruit, straggled over the walls. I thought it a wonder, in such a starved-looking community where there were plenty of children, that the berries were left to ripen. All through that region blackberries were plenty and delicious, but few were ever picked in consequence of an old superstition that they are a cause of cholera. This belief is still rife among the Irish peasants. But I, ignorant of the dire possibilities that lay in the berries, picked and ate wherever I went.
AN INSPECTOR OF STREETS
While thus engaged in a village lane, a young man approached me, said, “Good evening to your honor,” and jumped over a wall and snapped off some choice clusters for me. After that he walked about in my company, a self-constituted guide. But he was a quick, intelligent fellow, and I did not object. His name was Michael. Just above the village was a quarry, and many great blocks of stone, curiously grained and colored, were lying round about. This quarry had been a short-lived experiment, and was not worked now. Michael said it had given employment to a number of the village men, and they were paid half a crown a day, while some men that were “brought from away earned as much as five shillings, sir — they did, sir!”
Now there was no employment to be had in the neighborhood. The villagers could only work their little farms or leave. About all the young men and young women went away to the towns or to America. Michael had two brothers in Boston. They did not write what they were doing, but every year they sent home some money to “the ould man,” his father.
The rents of these little farms were from two to six pounds. Each cottager grew a little field of oats, another of potatoes, another of grass, and some raised patches of cabbages or turnips. The crops were grown mostly on the thin-soiled, stony hillsides. If a man took a field in the meadow below, his neighbors thought he was too well off, and accused him of an inclination to put on airs and ape the aristocracy. Besides all this, it added an extra pound to the rent. Most of the people kept two or three cows, several sheep, and a few hens. In some cases they owned a pony or a goat or a flock of geese. There were also two half-grown pigs that frequented the village lanes. They were sharp-nosed, long-legged creatures, nimble of foot, and apparently capable, in their wanderings, of picking up their own living. When at home they lived in their master’s house. This house had but a single room, and the pig-pen was in one corner. Aside from the pigs, the family was composed of a man and wife and three or four children. Their abode was windowless, and light came in only through the two doors and possible chinks in the walls.
Michael said that in old times they used to keep the pigs under the bed, but they did not do so in this village of Lisouter, nowadays. The people sold their poultry at the hotel, and other produce they took to market at the nearest town. Potatoes, of course, stood chief on their bill of fare, as they do among the Irish peasantry everywhere. Some occasionally indulged in mutton, and most families had oatmeal frequently. Now and then they bought fish, and bacon was more or less familiar; but many of them never knew the taste of beef.
The oats raised are fed out to the stock, and the oatmeal for house use is bought, a bagful at a time. Flour is purchased in the same way, and bread is baked in a flat kettle on the hearth. Very little butter or cheese is made, and what little milk the poorly fed cows give is drunk with the potatoes and oatmeal. Since the railroad came, tea has become a family necessity, and all the eggs the hens lay go in exchange for it.
About the only farm tools to be found in Lisouter are spades — primitive, narrow-bladed, and one-sided, but apparently effective. No such contrivance as a plough has ever been seen in the village. The people dig their fields over by hand. Potatoes are planted in rows that are nearly three feet wide, known as “drills,” and the space between each drill and the one next it is dug out like a ditch and serves for drainage. The potato tops grow in a spindling jungle on the drills, much too close together to do well. Crops are not rotated, but are grown over and over on the same ground, and are never what they might be. Often the potatoes fail to come up except scatteringly, in which case cabbage plants are set to fill out the blanks. This year had been wetter than usual, and the “blight had come on the p’taties too early,” so that it seemed likely the Lisouter folk would go on short rations before the next harvest time.
Michael and I ascended a crag at the rear of the hamlet to get a view. Several of the village children tagged after all the way, taking turns at begging. “Please give me a copper, sir — only one, sir,” they said; and refusals had no effect whatever on them. One boy of eight, still in skirts, had a baby on his back — a solemn, watchful baby that never let out a sound. The boy did not seem to mind his burden, but clambered everywhere the others did. These shoeless children were sure-footed and nimble, and they skipped about the rocky hillside like wild creatures of the bog. I went high up to where I could look down on the long stretches of dreary marshlands that are omnipresent in the region, spotted and linked all over by the loughs, large and small. Far away in the west I could catch a gleam of the sea, while in the near landscape the mountain crags were darkling, and in the hollow close below were the hovels of Lisouter and their little patchwork of varicolored fields. On the way back through the village a stout, fairly well-dressed young man got off the wall where he had been loafing, and came hulking after me. “Please, sir, give me the price of an ounce of tobacco,” he said. The children beggars followed me far down the hill. Begging seemed to be constitutional with the Connemara peasantry, and I always had a persistent group in my wake every time I visited Lisouter.
When I approached the village a day or two afterward, a woman came hurrying across two or three fields with a bundle of cloth on her arm, and greeted me with, “Good marnin’, sir, an’ sure it’s a fine marnin,’ sir.
Then she spread out the cloth along with a few coarse socks and urged me to buy. “Plaze, sir,” she said, “buy the friz, for the love o’ God and a poor woman who’s lost her b’y an’ pit him in the grave only five weeks past.”
She went on to tell me that she had borrowed the money for the boy’s burial from a poor neighbor woman who must be paid now, and she with nothing to pay. Her husband after the funeral had gone far away to get work, “but he soon come back, for there were a big weight on his heart, and he could eat nothing at all, at all.” She spoke of her eight children — “Four of ‘em I’ve given to God, and four of ‘em’s alive — God bless ‘em.”
I went across the fields to her cottage, squatted among the stony patches of oats and potatoes. Like the rest of the Lisouter cabins, its stone walls were loosely chinked with peat. Roofs were of sedge tied on with straw ropes thickly drawn over and fastened to pegs under the eaves or to stones hung along the edges. The thatch was renewed every year. It would last two if new ropes were put on each time, but few would do that. The chimneys were insignificant, and hardly showed above the roofs. Peat was the only fuel burned. It all came from the bog, a sack at a time, on the women’s backs. The Lisouter folk never saw coal till some was brought for use in an engine at the quarry. Then they thought it was rock, and it was a great wonder to them that the stuff burned. Most never saw a railroad till the local one was put through, the year before. As soon as it was finished they all must ride; but when it came to getting aboard, they felt they were taking their lives in their hands, and at the start the old women were all jumping up and screaming they would be murdered and their friends would never see them any more.
The woman with the cloth to sell showed me into her cottage. The door was low, and I had to stoop to enter. She hunted up a level place on the dirt floor, and set out a chair for me. A dim fire burned among the rough stones of the fireplace, and sent a little smoke up the chimney and a great deal of smoke out into the room. The kitchen was full of flies, and it had the odor of a stable. The floor was much littered with heather and rushes that had been brought in to bed the cow and calf that had a home in one end of the kitchen. On some tattered blankets thrown over a heap of sedge near the fireplace two of the children slept. The rest of the family had a bedroom beyond a thin partition.
JOURNEYING ON FOOT
My hostess, in the midst of her talk with me, pulled a short pipe from her pocket and made much mourn that she had no tobacco to fill it. She said a smoke was very comforting. “It’s loike medicine to me.”
My former guide, Michael, had come up to the cottage, and was talking outside with some of the beggar children. The woman saw him and sent out her ragged little girl, Bridget, to “borrow the loan of the pipe” he was smoking. Michael relinquished his pipe readily, and as the woman whiffed she blessed him again and again. When I left, she blessed me likewise, saying, “Long life to ye! An’ may your journey home be better than the one over. God bless ye, an’ give ye a safe crossin’!”
In a cabin a little farther up the hill lived a woman all alone. She was still young and not unattractive. Her husband had gone to America, and he would have taken her with him, but she would not leave. A letter had come from him only the week before in which he sent £3, and the villagers thought that was doing pretty well. Her cottage was hedged in by great growths of nettles that flourished all about. The roof leaked and the cabin had but one room, which the woman shared with two cows. I looked in, but did not care to enter. It was more like a floorless stable, that had not been cleaned for a week, than a human habitation. The house at some time had had a single window, but this was now loosely closed with stones. Most of the Lisouter houses, however, had at least one window, and several of them had two, though occasionally these lacked glass. All were small, varying in number of panes from one to four.
Mud and refuse were almost universal about the doorways, and a “midden” (manure heap) was always handy near the house front. A skeleton horse was feeding in a waste near the quarry; some old men, working-days past, were sunning themselves on the rocks; one or two old women were sitting or leaning on the walls near their cabin doors, some in idleness, some knitting. In the oat fields the men were reaping laboriously handful by handful with their sickles, and the barefoot women followed behind to bind the sheaves. The women gleaned over the ground as they worked, and picked up every straw.
I spoke with one man, and he said he had two or three acres in his farm, but it was very poor land, and in a wet year his crops were well-nigh failures. Still, he considered himself better off than most of his neighbors.
Nearly every day I saw the children going to school in the morning, and met them returning in the evening. Their aspect had the same untamed wildness then that it had as I saw them running about the bogs and crags that surrounded the home village. The schoolhouse was four miles distant, and the route thither was along a desolate road winding through the dun marshes. The children went barefoot and bareheaded, except for a few of the older boys, who wore caps. They each carried a piece of dry bread for their noon lunch, and that was all the food they had till they returned home late in the afternoon. But, with all their hardships, they looked sturdy and healthy. Probably weaklings do not survive long. Once I noticed that a boy in a group of children returning from school carried a book, and I asked to see it. It was a most forlorn little Third Reader — a wreck of a book — covers broken, marked and greasy within, and many pages torn or gone altogether.
As I handed back the book I noticed a great black bug crawling along the path, and I pointed it out to the children, and said, “That’s a beetle, isn’t it?”
But they said, “No, it is a prumpalong, sir.”
They had never heard of such a thing as a beetle. “We do not have thim here, sir, I think,” explained one of the older children; “but we have prumpalongs — plinty of thim.”
The schoolhouse was a bare modern building with gray plaster walls. It stood in the centre of a rough, rocky yard, that was surrounded by a high stone wall. Outside the enclosure all was bog, save for three or four houses with their little fields straggling along the road not far away. I inquired of the children what games they played at school, and they replied that they raced after each other some, and that was all. Indeed, their intermissions were usually spent in just sitting around and doing nothing. They indulged in no games, even about their homes in the village. Apparently, they had lost the impulse to play, and I thought nothing could be more eloquent than this of the depressing environment in which they lived.
One of the things I looked specially for in Ireland was the shamrock. I had no clear idea of what it was like, except that it was green and triple-leaved, and I supposed it was a native of the bogs. Often in my moorland wanderings I saw a coarse, fleshy plant that grew in thin clumps where the water gathered in pools. The leaves were three-parted, but larger than the largest clover. Still, I thought it must be shamrock, and picked some of it and showed it to a native. The native did not even know the name of my bogland weed, but he stooped down and showed me some of the true shamrock growing by the roadside. It is an insignificant, yet delicate, little plant that loves to grow on stone walls and along roadways where the soil is poor and often scraped away. It was more like the downtrodden white clover that in America one finds growing in dooryard paths than anything else. The peasantry feel a real affection for the shamrock, and it is beautiful in their eyes. Like themselves, it lives amid hard conditions, and it seems pathetically appropriate that it should be the Irish national emblem.