Here to return to
THE LAKES OF KILLARNEY
THE Lakes of Killarney — there is something melting and delicate about the phrase that draws one strangely. It has a melody that charms with a vague suggestion of gentle, dreamy landscapes, peaceful waters, and mild blue mountains.
I suppose when the imagination has dwelt long on the fascination of a place beforehand, there is bound to be a certain degree of disappointment in seeing the reality; but at Killarney the combination of lakes and streams, mountains and varied foliage, is so fine that even in one’s fancy it could hardly be more attractive. The lakes are three in number, each with a character and beauty of its own, and the only serious fault I had to find was that they were too much shut away from the public by the bordering estates of the gentry. One of these estates — that of a Mr. Herbert — had, at the time of my visit, recently come on the market, and was the subject of a good deal of newspaper comment, both in Britain and America. The items and the headlines not infrequently gave the impression that the lakes themselves were to be sold, and that this single estate held them all within its boundaries. The fear was expressed that the domain would pass into the hands of speculators, and be exploited as a vulgar commercial show place, or, worse still, that it would be purchased by some aristocrat who would exclude outsiders altogether. Efforts were made to have the government buy the estate and convert it into a public park; and when this project failed, the suggestion was offered that the Irish in America might unite in contributing the needful sum, and do themselves honor by turning the domain over to their homeland for a national pleasure-ground.
The estate is hardly as vital as would be inferred from much that was published; yet it includes nearly all of the middle lake and a considerable strip along the east shore of the lower lake. I heard the laboring folk speak of Mr. Herbert as a good landlord and employer, and they all regretted his financial embarrassment, and looked forward to a change of proprietors with misgiving. Whenever they mentioned his having “gone broke,” I noticed they added the information that he had an American wife whom he had married for her beauty, wholly reckless of the fact that she did not possess wealth. It seemed to be taken for granted that such a match on the part of a British subject of the upper classes was very unusual and unwise, and the dismal sequel was held to be a natural consequence.
The lakes lie in a basin between several mountain groups, and they convey an impression of permanence and of age coeval with that of the heights which overlook them. A native of the region, however, informed me there once were no Lakes of Killarney at all. Where they now are was just a low valley, and in the valley were farms and a town. Unluckily, one of the dwellers in the vale had a charmed well. Still, everything was all right if he kept it covered nights, and this he took great care to do. But late on a certain evening, after the owner of the well had gone to bed, a neighbor visited it, drew a bucketful, and went away without restoring the cover. The next morning a great river was pouring out of the well, and the farms and the town were fathoms deep under water. There they are to this day, and when conditions are favorable, the old-time houses of the vale can be clearly seen at the bottom of the lakes, and so can the charmed well. Into it runs one stream, and out of it runs another — at least, that was the story as it was told me.
THE UPPER LAKE
My acquaintance with the lakes began with an extended walk along their eastern side. Killarney town, on their northern borders, was my starting point, and I continued to the opposite end of the group, ten miles southward. Around the large lower lake is a pleasant, alluvial country of gentle slopes, where the grass flourishes, and the trees grow spreading and stately. But of this I saw less than I could wish, for the ribbon of winding roadway which I followed was so hemmed in by the walls of the adjoining estates of the aristocracy, that I might almost as well have been in a tunnel. Not until the middle lake was half passed did I find freedom. Then the wayside walls dwindled and disappeared, and the road, instead of being crowded far back from the shore by the broad parks of the gentry, came down to the borders of the water.
The landscape, meanwhile, had undergone a change, and was wrinkled into little hills that constantly grew more rugged, and the shade trees gave way to wild forest growths that had an almost tropical luxuriance.
There were beeches, elms, and oaks clad in their spring greens, and there were pines and drooping larches. Ivy vines crept up the tall tree trunks, and the ground was hidden by a tangle of dark, glossy holly and arbutus. I doubt if any woodland rivalling this in rich and varied profusion exists in all Britain. The forest, however, is not extensive, and after a few miles the trees are less lofty and less exuberant, and I found little left of the woods in the vicinity of the upper lake save stunted and infrequent patches growing among the rude gray crags at the foot of the mountain ridges. Where there was soil here, it was mostly a barren heath or a peaty bogland; but in the rocky ravines were streams of crystal as refreshing as they were pellucid, and I could hear the pleasant sound of distant waterfalls. Best of all, the waste was wholly unfenced, and there was nothing to prevent my wandering through it at will, and getting all the changing views the region afforded. I enjoyed this thoroughly, and by the time I was ready to turn back I had concluded that the little upper lake, with its many islets and irregular shores and wild surroundings, was the most satisfying of the three.
On all the long road I had come there had been scarcely a village worthy the name, and even the cottages were infrequent. I saw few people, and the busiest scene was on a spongy peat moss where several groups were getting out their year’s supply of fuel. Four or five men composed each gang. One of them, using a spadelike cutter, dug out the long, soggy bricks of peat; another with a fork tossed them up on the turf as fast as cut; and the rest of the company, also armed with forks, spread the sods to dry.
Instead of returning as I came, I took a side way, and paid a shilling at a lodge gate for the privilege of following a devious road across several bridges and large islands through the Herbert estate. At length I was again on the main land and had before me the ruins of Muckross Abbey — a great ivy-grown church minus roof and windows, but otherwise practically complete. It had a fine situation on a hill, with the lake in sight not far away, and the peaks of the big mountains looming across the water. Close about was a burying-ground where rest the remains, if tradition is to be trusted, of many Irish kings and chiefs. The churchyard continues to be used as a place of interment, and white modern crosses are mingled with gray moss-grown slabs, many of the latter fallen and worn blank by the storms of the passing years. The usual place of burial now is on the south and east sides, for the north is regarded as the Devil’s side, and on the west are buried only unbaptized children, soldiers, and strangers.
Within the abbey are many dim vaults and passages and several great halls open to the sky, in which are graves and sombre tombs and headstones. One cloistered court contains a yew tree grown to maturity with branches reaching out so thickly over the upper walls that scarcely more light comes from above than if the room had a roof. Naturally a tree so strangely placed has its mystic attributes, and the saying is that whoever takes a twig from the venerable yew will die within a year.
A century ago a hermit by the name of John Drake lived in the abbey for the space of eleven years. By covering an open cell of one of the upper apartments with fragments of tombs and coffins he protected himself against the inclemencies of the weather and made himself a home. He acquired a wide reputation for piety and for a demeanor that combined solemnity and cheerfulness. Pilgrims were in the habit of coming from a considerable distance to do penance at Muckross Abbey, and they exhibited their devotion to the saint of the place by going around the building a certain number of times reciting prayers. The neighboring peasantry supplied the hermit with food, and everything was quite idyllic, until he was seen reeling intoxicated among the graves, and it was discovered that the holy man was given to solitary whiskey indulgences. In consequence the superstitious veneration of the Killarney folk and pilgrims diminished, and one night the hermit left for parts unknown.
The final touch is given to the story by the relation that, some years later, a lady speaking with a foreign accent arrived at Muckross accompanied by two servants who knew no English whatever. She asked many questions about the hermit, passed some weeks in praying and weeping over his stony couch, and then, after distributing alms, went away never to return.
When I reached my hotel in Killarney town at the conclusion of the long day’s tramping, I was weary enough to find it a very welcome haven. It was a humble establishment on one of the town byways; yet, in spite of certain drawbacks, there was something about it decidedly congenial and interesting. It was a good place to see life and to meet everyday people, and this went far toward palliating its shortcomings. Of these I will not make a list further than to say that my room was a mixture, very characteristic of Ireland, of attempts at tidiness and of what was pretty closely related to dowdyishness and dirt; and the kitchen, of which I had glimpses as I went in and out, appeared not to have been cleaned or put in order for a month; while the hotel parlor looked like an asylum for second-hand furniture.
I was sitting in this parlor one evening when my landlady requested me to vacate in favor of two men who wanted to talk over a marriage which they hoped to consummate between their children. Nearly all the Irish marry young, and among the poorer class they do so quite improvidently, with no question as to how rude the new home must be, and how barren its furnishings, and how meagre the prospect of income. Those who have property, however, do not make matrimonial alliances without careful calculation. A hotel is very apt to be chosen as a convenient meeting-place for the parents, and there they discuss the matter of dowry at great length, and the marriage depends more on their amicable agreement than on the love of those most concerned. Indeed, the match is frequently made by the elders before the young people have settled it themselves. The respective fathers haggle over what they will give with all the adroitness at their command, each trying to make as good a bargain as he can. If they fail to agree, they may call in a mutual friend to arbitrate; but, more likely, when one or the other concludes his companion will not donate enough, he goes elsewhere to seek some parent more liberal, and the difference of a cow or a donkey or so often breaks off a match.
Most of the day following my walk to the upper lake I spent in rambling through the town. There were several streets of shops, but nearly all these shops were small and the majority of them looked cheap and slovenly. Shabby buildings were common, and on the by-lanes were frequent low cottages with thatched roofs. The town forms part of the Kenmare estate, and about a century ago it was entirely rebuilt by the lord of the soil. He was careful to have garden space behind each house, but in the leases omitted to prohibit the use of this space for other purposes. The tenants, therefore, took advantage of their liberty, and the meagre bits of ground intended only for lawn or tillage were soon sublet and built over with hovels. Irish landlords everywhere have the greatest difficulty in preventing a mischievous subdivision of holdings. The tenantry persist in this practice even to the starving point, and, aided by dirt and shiftlessness, they quickly transform what is planned to be a model village into a rookery.
Killarney is a place of some five or six thousand inhabitants, yet in some ways it was as rustic as any farm hamlet. Cows, goats, and fowls of various sorts were familiar features of its streets, and went in and out the houses with surprising freedom. It was clear that the townsfolk lived on hardly less intimate terms with the farmyard creatures than did their brethren in the country. Once, as I passed a corner saloon, I saw a party of geese (not human ones) waddle in with an air of frequenters of the place which was emphasized by their crooked gait. They looked this way and that, and I thought cast thirsty glances at the array of bottles on the shelves, and then, no bartender chancing to be present, began nosing about the sawdust-sprinkled floor.
The cows enlivened the town ways with their coming and going every morning and every evening. At this season of the year they spent most of their time in the fields, and after each milking they were driven back to their pasturage. Their owners had stalls for them near their dwellings, in which the creatures were kept in winter.
The costumes of the women of the laboring class added a good deal to the picturesqueness of the town. When near home they appeared on the street bareheaded, and on more extended errands they donned an old shawl. If the weather was chilly, they pulled the shawl about their faces and looked out on the world from its hooded seclusion. Women with bare feet were common, and even those who wore shoes did not always esteem it necessary to have on stockings.
One feature of Killarney that was particularly noticeable when I was there was the number of broken windows right through the town, both in dwellings and in shops. It gave the place a depressing air of poverty, decay, and drunkenness. In explanation of this wreckage I was informed that a county council election had recently taken place.
“Ah, we had hot work here, we did that!” was the comment.
A TOWN BYWAY
In most districts of Ireland the election had passed off peacefully enough; for nearly everywhere the national party was so dominant that no outside opposition existed, and the contest was between two home-rulers. Thus it was all in the family, and there were no very marked explosions of partisan ardor.
But at Killarney the rivals were a home-ruler and a unionist, and resort was had to methods of dealing with political heresy that in most places are now becoming a little old-fashioned. As a matter of course, the enthusiasm of the patriots on both sides was braced with drink, and the persuasiveness of ardent spirits was used freely on the doubtful ones to make clearer to them the way they should vote; but this was not all. On Easter Sunday the home-rulers gathered for a rally on the public square, where they had erected a platform. The speaking had begun and everything was moving smoothly when the unionists made a descent on the meeting, armed with eggs and a great number of little paper bags filled with flour. The invaders pelted right and left, aiming more especially at the orators and dignitaries on the platform. The air was full of yells, and blows mingled with the crack and spatter of the eggs, and the soft bursting of the flour bags.
The crowd got well smeared, to say nothing of the bruises of the hand-to-hand hostilities, and the meeting was effectually broken up. To the home-rulers the mortification was the deeper because this was the last gathering of the campaign and they were robbed of the chance to retaliate. But the thing about the assault which grieved them most was that the eggs used on them were in part bought from their own leader’s wife. She kept a poultry yard, and the evening before had unsuspiciously sold to the enemy all the eggs she had on hand — some eight or ten dozen.
During my stay in Killarney there was a funeral in one of the thatched cottages on a lane neighboring my hotel. I was not as close and personal a witness of it as I could wish, but it served to set my landlady talking, and I learned a good deal about Irish funeral customs. The body of the deceased, from the time of death until it leaves the house for burial, lies in state in the “best” room, which means the kitchen in the average home. It is wrapped in a shroud, face uncovered, on a table lightly sprinkled with salt. Flowers decorate the shroud if the body is that of a child — otherwise ribbons — black ribbons for a married person and white for unmarried.
Such tables and other articles of furniture as are not immediately required are piled up on the bed, and forms are brought from the nearest public house to help seat the numerous company certain to be at the wake. Two candles are kept burning on each side of the departed one’s head, and it is deemed imperative that these shall not be in common tin or iron candlesticks, but in the aristocratic brass ones of the olden time. Rather than do without brass candlesticks the bereaved family will search over half a township to borrow them.
The funeral expenses are usually heavy as compared with the people’s means. Among other outgoes, a coffin must be bought, goods for the wake purchased, and food and drink provided for the mourners. The family spend freely if they have money; and where their poverty is so pronounced as to prevent adequate preparations, some neighbor is pretty sure to go about and take up a collection in their behalf.
The wake, which begins the night after the death, is in most instances resumed the night following, and may be continued three or even four nights before the funeral takes place, if the fortune of the deceased will permit, and if the temperature of the season will allow the burial to be deferred that long. The friends all come, for to stay away would be to slight the memory of the dead. The house is much crowded, and there are seats for only a small portion of those present. Formerly a wake was apt to degenerate into a carousal, no matter how well the melancholy proprieties were observed when it began. But now the common feeling is that for people to get drunk on such an occasion “gives a bad look to things,” and, besides, the priests threaten not to hold a service at the house if the mourners at the wake indulge in strong spirits. A sup of whiskey for those who want it is still, I believe, not lacking; yet it is imbibed sparingly, and, on the whole, the gathering is decorous and quiet. There may be some telling of stories, and joking in the back shed to while away the tedium of the slow hours, but it is never boisterous.
Prominent among the mourners are the old women of the neighborhood. Long pipes and snuff are provided for them, and they are given the most comfortable seats around the fireplace. There they sit and puff and solemnly meditate, and every time the snuff saucer is circulated they each take a pinch, and say in Irish, referring to the deceased, “May God be merciful to his (or her) soul!”
About midnight light refreshments are passed, ordinarily bread and butter with tea and wine, or porter. After this repast most of the company scatter to their homes; but some linger until daylight, and a few elderly women stay by the corpse, in relays, from the death until the funeral.
There is seldom any keening at the wakes now, save in out-of-the-way villages. Usually, the only lamentations are the words that the old women address spontaneously to the corpse. Suppose the deceased is a young man, and an old woman comes in and stands looking down to view the remains. She says, “Wisha, sure, ‘twas well! I knew your father, and ‘twas he was the dacint man; and little I thought I’d see you lying there to-day; and sure ‘twas yoursilf was the dacint boy! ‘Tis well I remimber when I used to rock you in the cradle mesilf; and sure I expicted ‘twas you who’d be at my wake instead of my comin’ to lament over you!”
If it was an aged person who had died, the woman would say, “God be merciful to you, and God be with the ould times! Sure, ‘tis many the long day we’ve had together! But, sure, God’s will be done; we’ll all have to go the same road some day!”
The old woman also addresses words of comfort to members of the family of the departed, as, for instance, these to a mother who has lost a little girl. “You mustn’t be frettin’ now, poor woman. ‘Tis well for you to have the little angel gone to heaven before you. Look at the way I lost my poor little Johnny; and, sure, hadn’t I to bear it; and wasn’t he the strong b’y when he wint on me? What loss is yours, after all, compared with others I could name! Look at Mary Nolan, poor woman, and hadn’t she to put up with the loss of the provider of the family? So you mustn’t be frettin’ now, agra! That little angel will be intercedin’ for you in the next worruld!”
When there is keening an old woman sits rocking back and forth at the foot of the corpse, her face covered with her hands. “Och hone! why did you die?” she chants, and continues with dirgelike cadence, in a long lamentation that in part mourns the death, and in part exalts the virtues, of the departed. At frequent intervals in this monody she breaks out into a keen — a wail thrice repeated in which her companions join. Some old women become experts in the art of keening, and are called on to be chief mourners at all the wakes throughout their home region.
Fifty years ago the merits of a man who died were celebrated with much emphasis on his valor in the fights of the local clans, and it was recalled with pride how well he wielded the blackthorn in his day. Nearly every neighborhood had its “factions “then, each with a leader who was its champion fighter. Fortunately, the dispositions of the members of opposing factions were not so warlike that enemies fought indiscriminately wherever they met. It was mainly when the people got together in force at the fairs or the markets that there was trouble. They only needed to drink a bit and they wanted to try their strength on each other. If a row did not occur naturally, some man would take off his coat, trail it in the dust, and dare any one to step on the tail of it. This provocation never failed of its purpose, and you would hear the sudden, startling yells ringing through the town calling together the partisans, and then there would be “a wild whirl of shillalahs, and God knows what!” Some of the combatants would have to be carried home, possibly maimed for life, or even to die. Feuds were handed down from generation to generation; yet fights seldom occurred without the participants first having their valor strengthened by whiskey, and tales are told of encounters on the seashore where the tide has come in and drowned those that have fallen in the fray too drunk to rise.
The shillalah was the only weapon considered entirely orthodox in these combats. It derives its name from a famous wood in County Wicklow, where the best oaks and blackthorns for its making are reputed to grow. The old-time peasantry-were very careful in selecting a weapon, and also in its preparation after it was cut from hedge or woodland. The usual mode was to rub it over repeatedly with butter and place it up the chimney, where it was left for several months. Shapes varied, but the favorite style was that of a cane three or four feet long. Occasionally a man would arm himself with a shillalah having a length of eight or ten feet, known as a “wattle,” or with what was called a “kippeen” — a short club that had a burly knot on the end. This last was the deadliest of the three, but could not be carried with the innocent appearance of a staff, as could the other two.
That the aggressive use of the shillalah is of the past is witnessed by the fact that at the wakes, instead of a paean over a dead warrior, there is substituted the praise of a good father. “‘Twas he who reared his children well,” cries the keener, “the quite (quiet) poor man — sure, you wouldn’t know whether he was there or not!” That is, he never made his presence a disturbing factor in his home.
Killarney has the name of being a place where the beggars, by reason of their numbers and their persistence, make a real pest of themselves. But while I was there I encountered only one genuine specimen of the genus. I suppose it was as yet too early in the tourist season for visitors to be numerous, and the beggars had not begun to ply their trade in earnest.
AN ABLE-BODIED BEGGAR
My beggar was a man accompanied by a little boy. I had started for a walk, and he overtook me, and remarked on the fineness of the weather, though it looked very threatening at the time, and then he kept on with me for a mile or more. His tongue wagged unceasingly, and he commented on what was to be seen along the way, on the condition of Ireland, of England, and of America, and wove into it all the tale of his own troubles, — how he was a shoemaker, but could find no work these two years, how he had been evicted, and how he had this little boy and four other children to provide for, and would I be good enough to help them a bit to get some food, etc., etc.
After the beggar left me I went on along the lakes. The air darkened as I proceeded, and I could see that a storm was brewing among the mountain peaks. Presently there came a report of distant thunder, and a little girl whom I met at the moment made the sign of the cross and hurried on faster. I stopped and watched the clouds in doubt; but the storm seemed to be swinging off in another direction, and I walked on again, intending to climb one of the mountains and see the country from the heights.
At length I took a road that wound high up the slopes of the hills, and as I went on I discovered that the rain had swept over this portion of my route and the road grew constantly wetter and more muddy. I continued to ascend until, in passing along the borders of the last patch of woods, before the land gave way to the stony upper wastes of heather and furze, I saw a tall, tattered man on ahead. He had a staff in his hand, and a cloak thrown loosely over his shoulders. Near him lay two dead sheep. I thought he looked as if he was some Robin Hood of the forest, who very likely had slain the creatures and was going to bear them stealthily away, and for a moment I entertained the fancy that he might treat me as he had them. He was peering about in a curious manner that I could not understand, but his mild greeting, as I drew near, reassured me. The dead sheep, he said, had been killed by the lightning, and he had just found them there. He showed me some scorched streaks on their bodies, and when I resumed my walk and left him, he still hovered around the spot, as before, considering what was to be done.
The road now faded into a dim, grassy trail, leading away across a boggy level to a steep slope that mounted high toward the craggy mountain summits. I was crossing this marshy stretch when another shower approached. Behind me the landscape was being fast enveloped in murky blue mist, and a sombre twilight had crept over all the earth. I had a waterproof cape with me, and was about to put it on, intending to sit down on some rock and let the fast-gathering storm sweep over me, when I saw a woman not far ahead, moving off to the right, with a great bag on her shoulders. A glance in that direction revealed several thatched cabins among some tiny fields on a low hillside.
Between me and this gray, earth-hugging little hamlet the ground was a watery, boulder-sprinkled bog, which looked like a vast plum pudding. Had the menacing blackness of the storm been less near and ominous, I would have made a detour. As it was, I took a beeline across the marsh, keeping to the stones as much as possible, and with the first onset of the rain I reached the borders of the village. In a stableyard adjoining a dwelling I found an old woman relieving her shoulders of a plethoric bag full of heather, — bedding for her cow or goats, I presume, — and I concluded she was the person I had seen a few minutes previous toiling over the bog. She readily granted me permission to go into the house out of the downpour, and I hastened to seek the welcome shelter.
When I stooped through the low doorway, the house interior looked perfectly black, save for a feeble gleam of red in the fireplace; but as my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, the surroundings gradually disclosed themselves. The room was open above to the smoke-blackened rafters. Light entered through one small window and the door. This door, after a fashion very common in Irish cabin architecture, was divided horizontally in halves, and while I was present only the lower half was closed. The floor, partly of hard-trodden earth and partly of cobbles, was very uneven, and nothing set level on it. There were two small tables, a dresser sparsely filled with dishes, three chairs, and in odd places about the floor was a varied assortment of black kettles, pots and pans, shoes and rubbish. A good-sized clock was fastened to the wall, and ticked with steady solemnity in the dusk.
The old woman had followed me in and given me a chair, and had herself sat down by the fire. She was telling me how their clock had been up there on the wall where I saw it for twenty years, and what good company it was, when there came a clap of thunder.
“O God Almighty, save us!” she exclaimed, and made the sign of the cross, and then bowed forward and spread out her hands in supplication. The posture was awkward, perhaps, yet was eloquent of a childlike fear and faith. “God bless us and save us,” she continued, “and save his honor (meaning me), and save the people, and all of us.”
The intonations of the thunder were of frequent recurrence after this, for the space of half an hour, and at every clap the old woman crossed herself and prayed something as above, though often mumbling more which I could not catch. The storm reminded her of a story — she would like to know if I had heard it, and whether I thought it might be true or no.
A FARMYARD PUMP
“There was a man, and he was workin’ in a field like, and it came on to thunder, and he put his head in a hole in the wall, and he said, ` God save what’s out o’ me.’ But he ought to have prayed for the whole of him, for he no sooner said that, than the wall fell and took his head clean off. It was telled to me that this was a judgmint on the crathur, because it is not right to pray small, just for yoursilf. But you should pray large — to save us all — pray big and open-hearted. But that may be only a story, sir.”
The fire beside which the woman sat was made on the floor at the end of the room under the wide hood of a chimney that flared out from the wall about five feet above the blaze. A sooty kettle hung over the flames and simmered cheerfully. Now and then the woman reached down to a heap of dry brushwood by her side, took up a few twigs, broke them across her knee, and laid them on the coals. If the fire was low, she would stoop and brighten the embers by blowing. It would flare up then, and its light would shine out into the dusky room. Her supply of pine twigs she obtained from the woodland down below, where the villagers were allowed to gather what they needed. The household store of peat, their usual fuel, was gone. They cut it on the mountain a mile above, and when it was dry carried it down on their backs, a task in which both the men and the women shared. No one in the village owned a horse, and the only beasts of burden, aside from the human ones, were two donkeys. Even for them the task of bringing the “turf” down from the mountain was thought too severe, the path was so steep and rugged, and they were chiefly used “to take to town for some messages.”
A good deal of smoke drifted out into the room, and the woman explained that the chimney was bad, “but some days we haven’t a bit of smoke, and other days we have a good dale. It’s as the wind turns.”
The woman had two sons and a daughter living with her, as she told me with a fervent “Thank God! And I had another son who wint to Australia, and for two years I heard from him regular, and he sint me money; but I have had no account since, and I suppose he is dead. God help it, sir! And I had a daughter, too, that wint to America, to Worcester it was, sir, and her name it was Mrs. John Dwyer; but I have had no account from her, aither, this long time, and I suppose she is dead, too, sir.”
The family had a cow and a calf and nine or ten sheep. The sheep were grazing on the mountain at this season, but in the winter they were kept in the walled fields near the house. “We sells the wool,” the woman said, “but it brings no price at all, now — it do not, sir.”
Few pigs were owned in the hamlet, but fowls were plenty, as I realized when the woman stepped outside for a moment and left the half-door open. Almost at once a bedraggled rooster skulked in and stood with his head well down between his shoulders, and his tail drooping to let the water run off. He did not look very attractive, but a hen, which seemed to think his company desirable, came with a startling flutter and cackle from a nest in a room corner, lit near the rooster, and began looking about the floor for something to eat. Then a bevy of geese came in from the wet outer world. The place was getting pretty populous, but the woman presently returned and shooed these two-legged friends all out into the yard with a “Begone, you thieves, you!”
The woman’s sons were at work for one of the gentry in the valley, so the family was not dependent on the little farm, and they ate the eggs their hens laid, instead of selling them as they would have to do, “if they were badly off.” They bought oaten meal, and occasionally fish and bacon, and they made a trifle of butter now and then for home use, and raised a few cabbages and enough potatoes, in a good season, to last through the year. As soon as the potatoes matured, they dug day by day what they needed for immediate eating, and just before the winter set in placed the residue in a pit to which they had access in renewing the household supply.
“If it is wet,” explained the old woman, “or the blight do come too soon, the p’taties do not last, and thin we eats bread; and our crops do none of thim do well unless we have the sun — the foine time, sir!”
However, they fared much better than when she was a “gaffer “(a girl of ten or twelve). “Thin the times was tight, and we lived on p’taties altogither. Sometimes we ate thim with only salt, and sometimes we ate thim with milk. We niver had bread ixcipt at Christmas, and very little mate at all.”
Continuing her story of the local life, the old woman said that for the cattle they raised hay and oats, “and we might have plinty of provender, by the will of God, if it was not for the deer comin’ here from the forest. There do be ony amount of thim crathurs back here on the mountains. They gets into the corn and spoils it on us. Every night now, when the stalks gets big, the deer come and do be atin’ them so the corn will not be worth the cuttin’. They feeds on our grass, too, when it gets strang.”
On Sunday all the mountain folk go to mass at Killarney, four miles distant. Winter or summer, it makes little difference. “All the people around go, sir, except it may be those who are too old or feeble.”
I mentioned the fact that Ireland had no snakes, and the woman said, “You have them in your country, I believe, sir, and I suppose they’d eat a person nearly, sir.”
While we were talking the daughter of the house came in very wet with the rain, and the mother got up and had her sit by the fire. A great long-legged dog had entered with the daughter, and after shaking himself vigorously, and sending the water-drops flying all around the room, he, too, drew near to the fire, and his damp fur was soon steaming in the heat.
As I was leaving, the old woman said, “You are an Irishman, sir, I suppose?”
My negative seemed to surprise the two women greatly, for they said one to the other, “God help us, but he looks like an Irishman, does he not, now?”
When I stepped outside I found the water still dripping from the eaves of the thatch, but the storm was over, and by the time I was well started on my way toward the valley the sun came out. It silvered the green-isleted lakes far down below, and even brought a faint gleam of brightness to the watery heights of dun-colored heather; and as the clouds dissolved, and the gauzy mists drifted away from the blue mountain peaks, I saw that their loftier summits were whitened with a film of snow.