Here to return to
THE jaunting-car is Ireland’s most characteristic vehicle for ordinary, light riding. It is a slender, two-wheeled contrivance whose virtues and peculiarities can only be fully appreciated by actual use. Immediately over the wheels on either side is a seat facing outward, and accommodation for one’s feet is furnished by a swaying shelf or step on a level with the hubs. The driver has a seat in front, but he never occupies it unless the other two are filled. He usually has a mania for going about with a breakneck impetuosity, and a first experience on a jaunting-car is vividly suggestive of the adventurous. Every turn is full of startling possibilities, and as you swing around them you cling to your precarious perch over the wheel with a realizing sense of the power of centrifugal force such as you never have had before.
It was a vehicle of this genus which I mounted one afternoon at Recess for a ten-mile drive to Cong on the shores of Lough Corrib. I occupied the right-hand seat and my driver the one opposite. The country along the route was bare and boggy, upheaving into frequent, steep, stony-topped hills that sometimes had little farms on their lower slopes. We passed many geese, pigs, and donkeys feeding by the roadside, and the driver always took pains to give the pigs a cut with his whip when they were within reach. Perhaps he had a touch of viciousness in his nature, for, in addition to his attention to the pigs, he was continually belaboring his horse, and was never content unless the creature was humping along in an uncomfortable canter.
Once we passed a schoolhouse. The door was open, and we could look in and see a room full of children. Outside were many more — a group of fifteen or twenty on each side of the porch. A woman teacher had charge of the group on the right, and one of the older boys, acting as monitor, had charge of the other. The driver said that in the case of most schoolhouses the reciting was all done indoors, but this particular one was very much crowded and there wasn’t room. Then he went on to explain that he did not approve of the new methods of education in vogue. About the craziest notion of all, he thought, was the attempt to teach the children words before they were taught the alphabet.
“It did used to be the way,” said he, “before anything else, to learn your ah-b-c’s so you could say ‘em back’ards and for’ards and up and down till you knew ‘em thorough — and that was the right way too! Our ould schoolmaster, his name was Connolly, sir, he taught his son that’s now the captain of a liner sailin’ to the foreign; and the master, nor his son neither, niver heard of no such nonsince as this learnin’ readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic before the ah-b-c’s.”
Among the people we saw on the road was an old man and a girl of sixteen or seventeen, the latter carrying her shoes in her hand.
“Why is it,” I asked the driver, “that most of the women here in Connemara go barefoot, while most of the men wear shoes?”
“I cannot tell, sir,” he replied, “except that the women do not care to wear shoes. They will not be bothered with them, sir.”
During the latter part of our journey we kept along the borders of the broad, island-dotted Lough Corrib, which afforded a pleasant relief to the eye after being so long among the omnipresent bogs. Cong, too, as we approached it, looked quite attractive, owing to the presence of an unusual number of trees in and about it. But close acquaintance revealed a rusty, decadent little village. It was formerly much more prosperous and populous, and was the centre of considerable trade. In these modern days, however, steam connection with the outside world is a vital business necessity and, lacking this, Cong’s condition has become one of settled hopelessness. The old women beggars lie in wait for all corners at the street corners, ruined buildings are frequent, and an atmosphere of decay and blight pervades the whole village. Cows loiter in the public ways, chickens hang about the home thresholds and walk in and out the houses at pleasure, and the pigs wander freely through the streets nosing into the puddles and garbage. At times these four-legged scavengers are assaulted by roving dogs, and then there is squealing and scampering; but the rout is not permanent, and the pigs are soon at their labors again.
A JAUNTING CAR
Cong’s chief claim to interest is its ancient abbey, one of the finest ruins in Ireland. The building dates back to the sixth century, and at one time it was the home of seven hundred monks and was the island’s chief seat of learning. Contemporary with Cong Abbey there were in Erin various other monastic founts of knowledge, and at a time when England was sunk in Druidic barbarism, or engaged in wars with invading Saxons, Danes, and Normans, Ireland was well advanced in civilization.
Like all the other ancient Irish monasteries, that at Cong owed its being to the promulgation of Christianity in Erin by St. Patrick, with whom the authentic history of the island begins. The saint was not Irish born, and he made his first acquaintance with the island in his sixteenth year as the captive of a band of pirates who had seized him on his father’s farm in France. They sold him to a petty chief, in whose service he remained for six years. When he at length succeeded in escaping, he made his way back to France, where he became a monk and rose high in the Christian church. In the year 432 he returned to Ireland as a missionary appointed by the Pope, and wherever he went conviction and conversion followed. By degrees he visited all parts of the island, and king after king and chieftain after chieftain became the servants of Christ. St. Patrick had found Ireland pagan, but when he died the power of the old gods was gone forever.
After he had been laid to rest his disciples carried the cross of Christ to Scotland and England, to the Continent, and to the wild islands of the northern seas. Numerous monasteries sprang up, and Erin became famous as the island of saints, and was the resort of many students of distinction from various parts of Europe. Indeed, it is now conceded that the Anglo‑Saxons were indebted to the Irish mainly for Christianity and entirely for letters.
The ruin of Cong Abbey is well cared for, and a bushy-bearded, gray old gardener is always on hand, ready to act as guide for such visitors as stray into the domain. There are fine grounds with gravel paths overarched by gnarled trees, and sweeps of lawn through which a little river winds, sliding over its pebbly bed in crystal clearness. At one place the current of the stream is divided by a small island, on which are the remains of a tiny fishhouse that in architecture suggests a miniature church. From this building the old monks used to let down a net into the stream, and it was so arranged that when the net filled with fish, a bell rang and the monks went and drew in their catch. Tradition relates that it was their success in fishing which led to their downfall. The ruler of the district became envious of their good eating, and banished the whole fraternity and appropriated their fishing arrangements to himself.
Within the main part of the ruined abbey is a cemetery full of great stone slabs laid flat over the graves of the village dead. The space is cramped, and there is hardly a foot of it unoccupied. Each family, the old gardener said, owned just the width of one grave, and when a body is to be buried this grave is reopened. In making room for a fresh interment a good many bones are unearthed, and sometimes three or four coffins still undecayed. It has always been customary to return the coffins to the grave, one above the other, in company with the most recent addition to their number; but the bones, until a few years ago, were simply thrown out and left scattered about the cemetery.
The grewsome spectacle presented by Cong in former days was not exceptional, for it was once the general habit throughout Ireland to inter the dead carelessly within two or three feet, or even less, of the surface; and when room had to be made in a grave for a new inmate, the earlier occupants were treated with scant ceremony. All the old churchyards were littered with decayed coffin planks and bones, with no regard whatever for decency. The sight of these human relics proved offensive to modern fastidiousness, and the lord of Cong Manor now compels the sexton to put the bones his pick and shovel brings to the surface back underground, while those that once strewed the place have been gathered up and are heaped in a mossy alcove of the ruin. If you choose, you can look in on them lying there in their dim cell — hundreds of skulls on one side, and thousands of lesser bones on the other side.
My attention was attracted, the second morning of my stay in Cong, to a little open square, at the bottom of the main street, where were erected some primitive scales, consisting of a balance swung from a tripod of poles. This open square was the town market-place, and here began to gather, about nine o’clock, those who wished to buy or sell. They made a motley group, few in numbers, and with only the most meagre supplies of produce. I was particularly interested in the country people bringing in bags of potatoes on their little donkeys. Some of the men made very quaint figures. They wore knee-breeches, heavy shoes, and bobtailed coats, and they all carried short canes, shillalahs I suppose, and one or two had on antique stovepipe hats. They were like characters from the comic papers come to life.
Beyond the market-place, the village soon gave way to an upland country, that looked like the wreck of worlds. All the broad hilltops as far as the eye could see were covered with plains of limestone rock — gray, waterworn, and crisscrossed by multitudinous cracks, as if, after being subjected to great heat, the rock had suddenly cooled and shrivelled.
One of the peculiarities of the stone is, that it is sufficiently porous to allow water to filter through it readily, a fact demonstrated by a canal excavated at immense cost, to connect Lough Corrib with another large lough a few miles to the north. The enterprise was only abandoned at the last moment, when the water was turned on and surprised the promoters by all disappearing as if the bottom of the canal had been a sieve. Nothing was left to show for money and labor, and for the prosperity the canal was to bring to Cong and the country round about, save this useless dry channel in the gray rock.
Where the limestone begins to give place to earth, on the borders of the village, there are patches of fir woods. In one of these, on a level outcropping of rock near the road, I glimpsed through the evergreen boughs a cluster of curious cairns of stones, some of which had slight wooden crosses stuck in their tops. On inquiring, I learned that these stone heaps marked a spot where, long ago, the monks, at the time they were expelled, had stopped on their melancholy pilgrimage and erected a cross. Ever since, when a corpse is brought along this road on the way to the burial-place, it is set down here, and the priest offers a prayer for the soul of the dead; and the cairns in the wood are memorial piles, heaped up from time to time by those who have lost friends.
One doubtful morning, encouraged by a few patches of blue that showed fitfully in the misty sky, I hired a jaunting-car and started for Letterfrack, twenty miles away. My driver was a stout, red-faced old man, who, in deference to the threatening aspect of the day, wore a greatcoat, and had a heavy red muffler wound around his neck and across his chin. He carried a stub of a whip with a long lash, and every now and then encouraged his horse by a cut underneath. But he was kindly disposed toward the beast on the whole, and when the road was at all steep he got off and walked. We visited as we jogged along, and, among other things, we talked about the fairies.
A CLASS IN THE SCHOOLYARD
“They do be all dead now, sir,” solemnly affirmed my companion. “We did used to have them in the ould times, sir, but they be all dead, long ago. I’ve niver seen a fairy mysilf, sir, and in the last thirty years I’ve been out as late at night as any one, many’s the time, driving about. Some may fancy they sees something in the dark, but it’s not fairies. They do be all dead now, sir, though I thought different, sir, whin I was a slip of a lad; for, clost to where I lived then, there was a rath — that’s a fort, you know, sir, big banks of earth around the top of a hill, that some says the sojers used to fight from. But it was always telled me whin I was a lad that the rath was a fairies’ fort, and we niver dared to touch it with a spade, or cut down a tree growin’ on it, or carry away a stone; and they said if you put your ear to the ground at night you would hear the fairy music risin’ up from under the earth, but I was too scared to go there after dark, and I niver could hear anything of it in the daytime. Ah, well, sir, that was all just my boy notions. The fairies do be all dead, sir.”
“But there are queer things happen even if the fairies are all dead,” I ventured to suggest.
“Indeed there are, sir. Did you iver hear of Tom Taylor, sir? Well, sir, the man that’s done the most good in Connemara and left the most money here was the gintleman I mintioned — ‘Tom’ Taylor, we called him. He was a gr-reat man. He would come to Mulaky’s hotel and stop eight weeks and spind £400 there. He would give £15’s apiece to his boatmen, and ivery one that had anything to do with Tom Taylor did get big money.
“Whin he wint out for a day’s fishin’ he would take along a dozen of porther and a dozen of ale and a quart of whiskey and two or three bottles of champagne. Oh, he was a har-rd dr-rinker, sir, he was that! On Sunday he would be havin’ all sorts of races and lip-pin’, and he payin’ the best man. He was kind to the poor women, too, and always buying this Irish tweed cloth stuff from them and payin’ them five shillin’ a yard for’t, though it was nothing he wanted in the worrld; and he would give it to his boatmen, and very like the boatmen would give it back to the women Tom bought it of, and they’d have it to sell to him again, or some other man.
“Well, sir, he had a house up here by Lough Inagh, and an ould man and his wife stayed there to take care o’ the place; and, comin’ on winter, one time, Tom went away and said he would be back such and such a day and month. But just after he left he died. Well, sir, that time he said he would be back come, and the ould man and his wife that was stayin’ in the house was sleepin’ in their bed that night whin they heard a bell dingle dangle in the hall. It was about the middle o’ the night, and the bell kept on and kept on and kept on, dingle, dangle, dingle, dangle, all the time till the ould man said he would go and see what that ringin’ was if he died for’t.
“So he wint out in the hall, and there was a row of bells there that wint to the different rooms upstairs, and, sir, the bell that was goin’ it back’ards and for‘ards was the one that wint to the room what Tom Taylor always slep’ in. The bell kep’ a ringin’, and the ould man wint on upstairs and opened Tom Taylor’s door, and, sir, he said afterward he wished he’d stayed ablow stairs. For there was Tom’s pipe layin’ on the table with the heel of it toward him and the room was full of the smell of that pipe smoke, and, sir, it had exactly the same smell that Tom Taylor’s tobacco smoke had when he was alive; and that’s all I know about it, sir.”
The road to Letterfrack for nearly the whole distance pursued a winding course through the dull, interminable solitude of the bogland. The waste was unfenced and treeless, and only broken by the great gray mountains that thrust up through the water-soaked peat and lifted their rocky summits into the misty clouds. Often we skirted along a lough with its surface frayed into white caps and streaked with foam. On one of these loughs a melancholy sportsman’s fishing-boat was beating back and forth through the frothy waters. It was astonishing, the amount of dreary hardship the gentry fishermen would bear on the chance of getting a few trout and salmon. Yet the worse the weather the better they liked it, and there had been a good deal of growling this year since the fishing season began because days of clouds and chilling downpour had been too infrequent.
“We wants it saft, sir,” my driver explained, “south winds and rain. But it has been very dry, sir, and the wind blowin’ from the north all the time this three weeks.”
Sometimes we had a little cluster of huts in sight on a far hillside with a checkering of green and yellow fields about them. Once we passed a cart by the roadside. The horse had been detached and was baiting near by while two men were at work a half mile distant in the bog. My driver said they were either cutting sedge for thatch, or were gathering young heather for stable bedding. Another characteristic bit of bogland life was a woman, barefoot and bareheaded, after the usual custom of the region, walking briskly along the road knitting. She carried her ball of yarn under her arm, and as often as she used up the slack she unwound a few feet, tucked the ball back, and set her needles flying again.
THE MONKS' FISHING HOUSE
When we neared the end of our journey the country became pleasanter, the land was more fertile, there were patches of wood, and across a lake a handsome castle came into view.
“A foine castle, that,” remarked my driver, pointing to it with his whip, “but what will be becomin’ of it after the lord that lives there dies? He won’t want to be leavin’ it, and he can’t take it with him, sir. I’m thinkin’ his mind won’t be aisy whin he comes to dyin’. He won’t be thinkin’ of how he dies, but he’ll be thinkin’ of his foine castle.”
Now the roadsides were lined with hedges of hawthorn, furze, and alder — and, more than that, there were gorgeous hedges of fuchsias, which grew broad and thick and five or six feet high, and were all blinking full of pendent blossoms. A sprinkling of fuchsias was to be found even in the other hedges, as if they were so hardy and weedlike they would crowd in anywhere. I was the more surprised, because one naturally thinks of them as a tender hothouse plant. They do, in fact, shrink from the cold, and their presence in the west of Ireland is due to the Gulf Stream, which washes the coast, and so tempers the climate that the winters are very mild. Yet the impression was as if this was some work of the fairies whom my driver had affirmed were all dead.
Letterfrack was a sleepy little village whose chief claims to attention were a genuinely comfortable hotel — a rarity in Ireland — and a stony mountain on the outskirts of the hamlet that the guide-books recommended for climbing purposes. I let others climb who had a liking for that sort of thing, while I spent the remnant of the day that remained after my long ride in looking about the village. The only two persons I saw who seemed to have any special occupation were an old beggar on crutches, posted near the hotel door to beseech alms, and a boy with a donkey, bringing peat to the hamlet from a roadside pile a short distance out on the bog. Across the middle of the beast that the boy drove were hung two big wicker panniers, and the lad as he went to and fro was perched on a side-saddle behind. I watched him once arrive at the peat stack, slip off from the donkey, and back the creature up to the heap. He had just begun to fill the panniers with the brown blocks when a dog broke forth into turbulent barking on a near hill. I looked up, and there was a rabbit leaping along like a streak through the grass tufts, and the dog after it. On they came down the hill, and the donkey boy caught up a stone and ran yelling toward them. He threw the stone, but he might as well have tried to hit a shadow. The rabbit was across the road in an instant and off into the bog. Further pursuit was hopeless, and the boy and dog gave up the chase and stood looking regretfully out on the vacant moorland.
I went on the next morning to Leenane by “long car” — a vehicle very much like a shaky omnibus, only the seats are turned outward so that the passengers dangle their heels over the wheels the same as on a jaunting-car. This particular long car was intended to carry eleven people besides the driver, but I imagine it could be made to convey almost any number by packing them into the chinks and corners. There were thirteen this trip. One climbed up beside the driver, the long seats on the sides held five each, and two extras roosted in the middle on the piles of baggage.
It was a heavy load for a single pair of horses, and we all got off and walked up the hills. That gave us a chance to exercise and ward off the cramps, and some of us gathered blackberries along the way, or picked flowers. Most of the journey was across the dark, lonely bogland, with misty-topped mountains glowering about on the horizon.
Leenane, which we reached toward noon, is a small village just back from the shore of an arm of the sea that reaches far inland among the bare mountains. As soon as I finished lunching, I started for a walk.
The road parted not far from my hotel, and, while I paused to consider which way I would take, my attention was caught by a peculiar old man standing in the doorway of a little shop close by. He was pompous in manner, quick and sharp in speech, and was always frowning and scowling with his gray eyebrows. A lanky lad was passing, and the man called at him crustily, “Come here, come here, I say!”
The lad stopped reluctantly and drew near.
“Do you believe there’s a God in heaven?” inquired the man.
“I do,” was the reply.
“Then why do you go around with your mouth hanging open, telling lies?” the man asked. “You promised me a load of lobsters yesterday by twelve o’clock, and you did not fetch them. I lost near five guineas by ye. What is your word good for, I’d like to know!”
This interview was hardly done and the lad gone, when another youth came along, and the old man stepped out to the borders of the highway and asked him how his father was.
“About the same,” was the reply.
“Does he sit up?”
“No, he don’t sit up.”
“Then he must be worse. Oh, he’s not getting along at all!”
The man was going to have the exact truth, no foolish building on false hopes for him, and he was still ferreting out the facts and laying them before the too optimistic young man when I went on. I kept to the main road, and at the end of about a mile came to a village lying in a basin-like hollow, scooped out among the mountains. All over the lower levels of this basin were scattered peasant cottages. There was never any regularity in their placing. They were dotted around just as it happened. Among them were numerous tiny patches of potatoes, oats, cabbages, and turnips, and on the upper hillsides cows and sheep were feeding. Nearly all the little stone-walled plots were fringed about with briers and thorn bushes, and in the vicinity of the cottages grew a few stunted trees — not fruit trees, but birches, alders, and the like, that sprouted up from the crevices of a garden wall, or that rudely hedged a bit of a yard. They no doubt served to some extent to shut off the wind, and they furnished a stick now and then when a roof needed mending, and an occasional handle for a farm tool.
Many of the little grass fields had been mown, and the hay was in process of curing. The drying was hastened by raking the hay to the field corner that was least wet, and then winding it all up by hand in rolls about as large as a good-sized muff. The form of the rolls was such that they shed the rain, and the hole in the middle let the air circulate, and helped the curing at such times as no rain was falling. In a climate so showery ordinary methods of haymaking would be ineffective.
Through the hollow of the glen coursed a small stream, and on one side of it was a rough road, but on the other only a muddy path which went up the hill and down the hill, across brooks and over hummocks, linking the various cottages together, and continually coming to an end in dooryards, and going on again from around the corner of a stable. The average dooryard was very miry, and had a great number of slimy cobblestones strewn about it, which, I believe, were intended to prevent a person from sinking in out of sight when the wet winter weather made all the soil a black morass. Still, the yards served very well as a loitering-place for the geese and hens and pigs, who used them rather more than the cottagers, if anything. The pigs were the most conspicuous of the farmyard creatures, and they were by no means confined to the home premises, but wandered around much as they pleased. They had the air of owning the country, and they did not run away when you approached. On the contrary, they were more likely to come and root up your trousers leg by way of friendly investigation. Not infrequently the cows, pigs, and other creatures occupied the same building with their owners, and in that case the dank manure heap outside sometimes had the appearance of having been thrown out of the parlor window.
In my tour of the village I was watched by the inhabitants from fields and house-doors and the road, as if no stranger had ever visited the place before. Once a shock-headed man came out from a hovel and invited me in to see him weaving on an old hand loom. The children of the neighborhood followed me into the hut, and with them came a dreadful-looking foolish man who persisted in keeping close to me.
The weaver kicked off his slippers and sat down behind the loom, and got his machine into clattering motion. In the gray gloom of the ill-lighted apartment, I could barely see the warp lifting and falling and the shuttles flying back and forth. The process was picturesque, but it was no pleasure watching it in that low, foul, dirt-floored dwelling, with the wild-looking idiot man and the staring crowd of children so close about. As far as the house was concerned, it was very like the others of the village. They were all low and small, with sedge-thatched roofs. Some had whitewashed walls, which added to their outer cheerfulness, but inside was the same earth floor, with its inevitable spatterings and litter, and meagre, untidy poverty.
In one of the homes I found a woman spinning wool on a great wheel, and a little pig was at her feet with its head in the family porridge-pot. But when I appeared the pig went and sat down on the floor beside the baby, who, unless looks belied appearances, was as much of a rooter as the creature at his side. A few blocks of “turf” were smouldering in the rude fireplace, and, as is usual in these dwellings, much of the smoke found its way out into the room, and made a more or less tardy egress by the door, which is always open when any of the family are at home. A score or so of neighbors gathered to watch me, and, much to their entertainment, I tried spinning, and succeeded in producing a few feet of rough, uneven yarn.
When I was preparing to leave, a half-blind old woman among those looking on remarked, “I hope your honor is going to give us something for your spinning — not that we’d be asking for’t, but because you’d be wantin’ to.”
Naturally a request so diplomatically put had its reward.
I went on from Leenane the day following by jaunting-car northward to Westport. The weather was as uncertain as usual — gray mists about the mountains, now dropping low, now lifting, occasional glints of sunshine, and, hardly less frequent, sweeps of showers veiling the landscape and leaving an aftermath of thin shreds of rainbow wandering about the lonely moors.
Often, when we passed near houses, the bareheaded children would hasten to the roadside and then run beside the car, silently panting, for a long distance. They said nothing, but were constantly looking up to me in the hope I would throw them pennies. Toward the end of the journey there were numerous dark peat cuttings in the bog, and over many acres were scattered cairns of dry peat blocks, which in places gathered so thickly they were quite suggestive of primeval villages.
Presently the marshlands came to a sudden end on the edge of a steep declivity down which our road crept to Westport. There lay the village far below, reposing amid a greenery of trees, and there lay outspread the beautiful Clew Bay, with its multitude of islands, while off to the left, on the mainland, rose the lofty cone of Croagh Patrick, looking forth from the dissolving clouds. This mountain is regarded as sacred to Erin’s patron saint, who is believed to have begun here his mission in Ireland, and who was accustomed, when he was sojourning in Connaught, to retire to it at Lent for fasting and prayer. From its top he is said to have blessed Connemara, which he declined to enter because it looked so bleak and barren. There is also a tradition that he collected on Croagh Patrick all the serpents in Ireland and drove them thence into the sea; and a certain hollow is pointed out as a place in which the serpents endeavored in vain to take refuge as they descended.
Another interesting feature of the mountain is a holy well, the origin of which is of course ascribed to the great saint. One day, warm and thirsty with climbing, he wished for a drink, and instantly from the ground at his feet there gushed out a cool spring. It disappeared after he had drunk; but many centuries later a good priest, poking about the neighborhood, took notice of a flat stone with a cross on it lying by the pathside. He raised the stone and a clear stream poured forth. An excavation, rudely walled about, has since been made for the spring, and in this now dwell two sacred trout who add much to the well’s celebrity. The proof of their sacredness is attested by the fact that some years ago an heretical soldier, having caught one of the trout and taken it home with the intention of eating it, had no sooner placed it on the gridiron than it disappeared from before his eyes; and the next day it was found in the waters of the well as usual, only its side bore the mark of the hot bars of the gridiron.
On account of the mountain’s connection with St. Patrick, it is celebrated as a place of religious pilgrimage, and at certain seasons it is ascended by devotees from near and far. For my part, the saintly associations of the mountain were not sufficient incentive in themselves to induce me to make the climb, and the weather was too doubtful to assure the view which the summit affords, and which, if report is true, would have well repaid the labor.