Here to return to
A MOUNTAIN CLIMB
In the schools the approach of the storm was heralded by a general desire to scud for home, where the children had the feeling they would be safer, but the teachers refused permission. From the first rumble of thunder to the last the scholars were so frightened that studying was out of the question, and they could only tremble and protect themselves from impending destruction by continual crossings. When the storm passed the praying ceased, and I suppose no more wholesale repenting was done until there was another thunderstorm.
My purpose to scale one of the Killarney mountains had been foiled on the previous day, but now the clear sunshine and a fresh breeze encouraged me to try again. I had no very roseate fancy for the task — a gentler sort of exercise would have been more to my liking; yet I could not help feeling the attraction of those purple heights that serrated the whole southern sky-line. I decided I must at least have a single experience of the pleasures and possible hardships of an ascent, and I chose for my objective, Mt. Mangerton, twenty-eight hundred feet high, an altitude slightly exceeded by a rival peak across the lakes, but not attained by any other mountain in all Ireland.
The route to Mangerton passed near the village where I had been during the storm of the day before, immediately beyond which, climbing began in earnest. The land upheaved in a big heathery slope strewn with boulders and dotted with clumps of furze. I kept to a faint path that followed a dry watercourse choked with stones and bordered on either side with a narrow ribbon of green turf. In places the trail was so uncertain that I would lose it and get off among the hummocks of the bog, where the heather and the spongy mosses intermitted with cracks and chasms of black mud. Some of these oozy crevasses I leaped, some I went around. At a distance the bog looked innocent enough, and I would not have imagined that walking on it could have been so toilsome and confusing. It was always a relief to get back to the firm track along the stony ravine.
A few goats and sheep were feeding on the mountain-side, but I saw no human life — not even a shepherd boy. The way continued steep and difficult, and the steady upward climb was hot and exhausting. It would have been worse still had not gathering clouds occasionally obscured the sun. I paused often to rest and look back on the dwindled world below. There lay the lakes, with their irregular outlines and their numerous islets, and there spread the dusky undulations of the land through which crept the shining, sinuous streams, and over which drifted a vast patch‑work of sunlight and cloud-shadows, evanescent and vague as a dream.
At last the path brought me to a small lough lying in a great, high-cuffed pocket of the mountain-top — a sombre, lonely little tarn known as the Devil’s Punch Bowl. In spite of its name, I ventured to drink from it, and found the water very pure and cold. But back in the days when the O’Donoghues were the acknowledged rulers of the Killarney country this highland pool was not so innocent. The story is that a certain chieftain of the clan was on familiar terms with his Satanic Majesty, and in the latter’s honor one time filled the lake with whiskey. Hence the name. Besides being icy cold, the water contains no fish, and is said to be always in a state of agitation. The English statesman, Fox, swam around its twenty-eight acres in 1772, and the natives still talk of the exploit.
The Punch Bowl is twenty-two hundred feet above the level of the sea, and my goal, the summit of Mangerton, was somewhat over half a thousand feet higher. I soon resumed climbing, and the view broadened as I went on, until I could see all the great company of mountains round about. The heavy-based blue peaks rose on every side in vaporous mystery, a conclave of giants; and it seemed to me there could hardly be finer mountains anywhere in the world.
Shortly after leaving the Punch Bowl, the path entirely disappeared, and only trackless bog lay before me. But it was not uneven and broken, like the bogs lower down. Heavily saturated surface vegetation overspread it, and the water spirted from beneath my shoes at every step, almost as if I had been wading through a shallow pond. I was rejoiced to find a momentary escape from this watery waste at the very summit of the mountain in the shape of a low cairn of stones. Thence I looked about me more particularly. The situation, just there, was not very impressive, for Mangerton has a rounded top, and I was in the midst of a wide plain of weak grasses, moss, and stunted heather. Save for a few skylarks soaring and singing, the mountain-top was wholly abandoned and silent, and I had no desire to linger.
By the time I had descended to the Punch Bowl, a shower came drooping across the sober moorlands, and I crouched under some projecting rocks and waited for it to pass. Afterward I sought out the mountain-path by which I had come up and continued down its now moist declivity until I reached the level of the tiny hamlet off beyond the marsh. It was after two o’clock, and I had eaten nothing since breakfast, with the exception of a few cakes I had carried along in my pocket. On the chance of getting a glass of milk in the village, I crossed the marsh and went up one of the hamlet’s rough, narrow lanes. The place proved to be well-nigh deserted, but the desertion was temporary, not permanent. It was a “Holy Day” — Corpus Christi — and nearly every one had gone off to town to attend mass and to trade at the shops. Only a few women and old men were left behind; for the day, as spent in the town, meant a peculiarly satisfactory combination of religion, business, and pleasure, and no one was willingly a stay-at-home.
I walked to the farther side of the village and back, and saw all of its seven houses. Their surroundings were very unkempt and filthy. The stable yards, with their muck and mire, were right before the house-doors, and the chickens and other farmyard creatures wandered about as they chose, and were nearly as well acquainted with the family kitchens as were the human inmates. On the hillside about the houses were many little fields that looked to be under very thorough tillage, some of them green with grass or oats, while others, which had recently been dug over, were as yet brown earth. Heavy stone walls crisscrossed the slope in a small-meshed network, which, nevertheless, failed to absorb all the stones the soil yielded, and there were frequent great piles in the midst of the fields.
One old man, who closely resembled a travelling ragbag, greeted me from a doorway, and went on to say that he was eighty-eight years old, and almost blind. He had been a boatman on the lakes when he was younger, and at the time Queen Victoria was at Killarney, in 1861, he had been one of her rowers. This was the single great event of his life, and he dwelt on it fondly. The recollection of it seemed to bring to mind his personal appearance, and to awake the feeling that his clothes were not all they should be, in consideration of the dignity conferred by this long-ago honor. Nothing would do but he must go in and tidy up. After a considerable interval he reappeared, wearing a black dress-coat much too small for him. Indeed, it was not wholly on, but stuck half way; and it so constrained his arms that he could do little to better adjust the garment himself, and had to ask me for assistance. When he finally succeeded in pinching the coat about him, he resumed, with added satisfaction, the story of his life. But it soon came to an end. Aside from that luminous period of the queen’s visit, when he was among those chosen to be her rowers, the only feature of his experience that had made deep impress was the increasing blindness of these sombre latter years.
I called again at the cottage where I had been during the thunderstorm the day before. The daughter was at home, but the old mother had gone to mass early in the morning, and would not return until evening. I asked if I could get a glass of milk, and the woman filled a teacup from a large earthen bowl that had been on a shelf in a dark corner. When she handed it to me she apologized for any smoky taste the milk might have, and in all she did and said my hostess was thoroughly considerate and kindly. She was no longer young, and she was homely, and worn with rude labor almost to ugliness; but she could not have treated me with more genuine politeness had she been a lady in a mansion.
It was she who did most of the work about the place, for her brothers were day laborers in the valley, and her mother was getting old. “Ah, no,” she said, “mother cannot worruk long together now. She likes best to light her pipe and tramp off to Killarney to mass, or to sit on a bank in the fields and smoke there, and often she do lay down her pipe on the bank and forget it.”
I spoke of Queen Victoria’s rower, and the woman said: “That was Daniel Hurley. He was a good rower when he was young and strang, but he’s nearly dark, now, the poor man!”
Life must be very sober-hued, I thought, in the forlorn little hamlet; but it has its bright spots, notwithstanding. One of these is dancing, a favorite recreation throughout Ireland. With the approach of summer, in nearly every well-settled region the young men join in contributing enough money to put up a dancing platform at some central place. There they have their jigs each pleasant evening, until the chill days of the late autumn put an end to these open-air festivities. Then the scene of them is transferred indoors, and they come at longer intervals; but in some convenient farmhouse a dancing party is pretty sure to gather on Sunday evening, if on no other evening of the week, the winter through. In case of a grand, all-night ball, a half-barrel of porter is provided to keep up the enthusiasm, which otherwise would tend to flag in the small hours of the morning.
A place like the remote little mountain village I was visiting had to forego the pleasure of the summer dances. The community was too small, and the work of the day too heavy and prolonged. Winter brought comparative leisure, and the able-bodied folk of the hamlet could not only attend the dances in the home village, but those that occurred for miles around. On the mountain, where the houses are all small, room was secured for the merrymaking by moving out most of the furniture. The music, on ordinary occasions, was supplied by some of the local youths who played the concertina, but in a really tony affair a fiddler, or perhaps a piper, was hired.
There was a curious lack of animation in the woman’s voice and manner as she told me about these rural balls. I suppose for her the days of sweethearts were past, and that she no longer joined in the dancing, but sat among the old folks, looking on.
When I prepared to go on down the mountain, I offered a piece of silver for the milk I had drank. That was a mistake. It hurt the woman’s feelings. The welcome accorded me had not been for money, but was an unselfish expression of hospitality. What was true in this upland home was true of the Kerry peasantry generally — they like to have a stranger come into their houses and sit and chat, and perhaps have a bit to eat and drink with them. To offer pay is to destroy the comradeship which they value above profit. This open-hearted friendliness was a surprise to me, and wherever I met with it, there was awakened not only respect and warm regard for my entertainers, but, to some degree, for all Ireland.
In recalling what I saw of the tillage about these mountain huts at Killarney, I am impressed with the predominance of the potato plots; and it was the same in the poor little bogland villages everywhere I travelled. As a matter of history, potatoes have been the mainstay of Ireland for more than two hundred years. The question is still disputed whether they have proved a boon, or a sustainer of poverty and wretchedness. A very limited portion of land, a few days of labor, and a small amount of manure will create a stock on which a family can exist for twelve months. But the dependence on a single crop is disastrous when that crop fails, as it naturally must, from time to time, so that on the whole it is to be regretted that the potato has won such an exclusive place for itself.
The potato was first made known to Ireland by Sir Walter Raleigh, who owned an estate on the south coast. It won its way slowly, and both in Britain and on the continent was for some time cultivated only in gardens, and even there as a curiosity rather than as an article of food. Presently it was imagined that it might be used with advantage for feeding “swine or other cattle,” and by and by that it might be eaten by poor people, and thus serve to prevent famine when the grain crops failed. Ireland led all European countries in the adoption of the potato by many years; and it was from there it was introduced into Lancashire, about the end of the seventeenth century, whence it spread over England.
Erin’s most distressing experience with this staple was in the famine years of 1846 and 1847. I am acquainted with no more graphic description of that period — the darkest through which the island has passed in centuries — than is contained in the pages of “Realities of Irish Life,” by W. Steuart Trench. His story is well worth retelling. Mr. Trench resided at Cardtown, in Queen’s County, where he had become much interested in reclaiming an extensive tract of mountain land, chiefly of rough pasture covered with heather. He kept no less than two hundred laborers constantly employed in this enterprise at good wages, and the upland glen where his mountain property was located, with a clear trout brook flowing through it to enhance its attraction, had come to be known as “The Happy Valley.”
He accomplished the reclaiming mostly by means of the potato, the only green crop which would flourish on such ground. Guano had at that time recently been brought into use as a manure, and he found it was particularly suited to the potato. This and lime he applied liberally. The land was ploughed into “lazy beds” — ridges about five feet in width, alternating with furrows. The potatoes were planted on the ridges by merely sticking the spade into the rough earth and dropping in the seed back of the tool, where it remained two or three inches beneath the surface, when the spade was withdrawn. The potatoes thus treated developed to perfection, and the harvest well repaid all labor and expense. Meanwhile the heather rotted under the influence of the lime, and was transformed with other abundant vegetable matter which the soil contained into a valuable fertilizer. Finally, in digging the crop, the ground was thoroughly turned and stirred. As it was now both mellow and greatly enriched, it was in excellent order for sowing grass or grain, and was permanently worth twenty times its former value.
The expense of reclamation was practically defrayed by the sale of the first year’s crop alone; and encouraged by success attained in previous seasons, Mr. Trench, in 1846, planted to potatoes more than one hundred and fifty acres. Everything went well during the early summer, and in July the extent and luxuriance of his upland potato fields were the wonder of every one who saw them. He felt certain that the harvest would bring him at least £3000. But on August 1st he was startled by the report that all the potatoes of the district were blighted. He immediately hurried up to the Happy Valley, and was relieved to find his crop as flourishing as ever, in full blossom, the stalks matted across each other with richness, and promising a splendid increase. Things were quite otherwise in the lowlands, whither he rode on his return. The leaves of the potatoes, in many instances, were withered, and a strange stench, such as he had never smelled before, filled the atmosphere about every blighted field. He learned that the odor was generally the first indication of the disease, and the withered leaf followed in a day or two afterward; lastly the tubers themselves were affected and rapidly blackened and melted away. Much alarm prevailed in the country, and those who, like Mr. Trench, had staked a large amount of capital on the crop became extremely uneasy, while the peasantry looked on, helplessly dismayed, at the total disappearance of the crop of all crops on which they depended for food.
GOING TO MARKET
Mr. Trench now went regularly each day to his mountain farm, and saw it steadily advance toward a healthy and abundant maturity until August 6th. On that day as he rode up the valley he was met by the stench. This increased as he kept on, until he could hardly bear the fearful smell. The fields still looked as promising as ever, but he recognized that their doom was sealed. As soon as the necessary arrangements could be made, he attempted to save himself from total loss by converting into starch as many of the potatoes as could be rescued from the impending decay, but the sum realized was more than counterbalanced by the expense.
Desolation, misery, and starvation now rapidly affected the poorer classes throughout Ireland. In the comparatively fertile and prosperous midland counties there were few deaths from actual starvation; yet many succumbed to impure and insufficient diet, while fever, dysentery, and the crowding in the workhouse carried off thousands.
It took time for would-be helpers to realize the extent and seriousness of the catastrophe, but public relief works were soon set on foot by the government, soup kitchens were established, free trade was partially adopted, Indian meal poured into the country, and money was supplied without limit; yet still the people died. The trouble seemed to be that the sufferers had neither the strength nor energy to seek the aid offered even when it was near at hand. Not far from two hundred thousand perished in all, and as a result of the distress vast numbers emigrated.
A considerable period elapsed before the country recovered from the disaster. This was illustrated by Mr. Trench’s experience in Kerry, where he went toward the end of 1849, by request of Lord Lansdowne, one of the great proprietors of the county. The misery of the famine years had been especially marked at Kenmare. His lordship had there an estate of sixty thousand acres, lying in an extensive valley about thirty miles long and sixteen broad. Little grain was grown in the district, and the portions of land reclaimed from the rocky mountains were so small that they were barely sufficient to grow potatoes and turnips enough for the sustenance of the people and their cattle through the winter. No restraint had been put on the subdivision of holdings, and boys and girls not yet out of their teens married unchecked, without thinking it necessary to provide aught for their future beyond a shed to shelter them and a bit of land for a potato patch. Innumerable squatters had settled unquestioned in huts on the mountain sides and in the remote glens; and when supplies ran short, as they did in the spring or by the beginning of summer nearly every year, these squatters nailed up the doors of their cabins, took all their children along with them, and started out on a migratory and piratical expedition over the counties of Kerry and Cork, trusting to their adroitness and good luck in begging to keep the family alive until the potato crop again matured. When the rot attacked this staple, and it melted completely away before the eyes of the people, Kenmare was paralyzed. All were reduced to nearly equal poverty, and begging was out of the question. Thus it happened that the wretched dwellers of the upland huts were reduced to dire straits, and great numbers of them succumbed to their fate almost without a struggle.
By the time Mr. Trench came to Kenmare the famine was about over, but its after effects were still formidable, and the people were dying nearly as fast as ever of fever, scurvy, and other complaints within the walls of the workhouse. The workhouse itself was not large enough to accommodate the unfortunates who flocked to it, and large auxiliary sheds had been erected to shelter the overflow. About ten thousand persons in the vicinity were receiving relief. Mr. Trench first gave his attention to reducing the crowd in the poorhouse, and to this end promised the inmates outside work near by and reasonable wages. His intention was to put them at draining, subsoiling, removing rocks and stones, and like labor. At once three hundred gaunt, half-famished men, and nearly as many women and boys, presented themselves, expecting him not only to provide employment, but tools. They were too weak to be very effective, and accomplished not much more than one-fourth of what they would have under ordinary conditions.
Now that they had work, they could no longer lodge in the poorhouse, and their scattered home huts were in most instances so far distant that walking to them for housing after the day’s labor was out of the question. As a result, every cabin in the town was packed nightly with these unhappy work-people, and they slept by threes and fours together, wherever they could get a pallet of straw to lie on. They lived from hand to mouth, and on a wet day, when they could not labor, nearly one-half of them were obliged to return for the time being to the poorhouse, and the sudden influx of such a body of famished newcomers created great confusion. Mr. Trench saw plainly that this could not go on, and with Lord Lansdowne’s approval and financial support he put into practice another scheme. He offered free emigration to every man, woman, and child now in the poorhouse who was chargeable to his lordship’s estate. This was not wholly philanthropy; for though it was believed that the paupers would gain thereby, it was also argued that it was cheaper to pay their passage abroad than to continue to support them at home. They were allowed to select what port in America they pleased, whether Boston, New York, New Orleans, or Quebec.
A DWINDLING HAYSTACK
The announcement was at first scarcely credited. To the dwellers of the workhouse it was considered too good news to be true. But when it began to be believed and appreciated, there was an instant rush to get away. A selection was made, and two hundred each week were conducted to Cork, under close surveillance, to keep them from scattering, and were soon safely on board the emigrant ship. They made a motley company; but notwithstanding the distress of their circumstances, they were in the most uproarious spirits. There was no crying or lamentation. All was delight at having escaped the deadly workhouse. The majority of them spoke only the Irish language, and these wild batches direct from the stricken boglands of the old country must have presented a strange spectacle when they landed on the wharves of America; yet Mr. Trench affirms that nearly all, even to the widows and children, found employment immediately after arriving, and adds that they have acquitted themselves, in their adopted land, most creditably. It was many months before the desire for free emigration was satisfied, and the poorhouse filled as fast as it was emptied. In all, forty-six hundred persons were assisted across the sea from this single estate, and very greatly to its benefit. It was no longer over-populated, small holdings were combined, and the tenants were enabled to win much better livings than had been possible before.