Here to return to
IN THE GOLDEN VALE
IT did not look golden from my window in the second story of a hotel at Kilmallock. Down below was a rough, dirty street, wet with recent showers, and all of the place that was in sight had an appearance of grimy, hopeless decadence which, unfortunately, is far too characteristic of the Irish towns throughout Erin.
Kilmallock was a fortified town in the Middle Ages, and two massive towers and remnants of the old walls are still standing. In the near meadows is another reminiscence of medievalism, — the extensive remains of a fine abbey that was wrecked by Cromwell in the course of his devastating conquest of the island. The place has seen stirring times, and some of its days of turmoil are yet fresh in men’s memories. A prominent feature of the chief street is a monument, spoken of by the inhabitants as a “Fenian Cross,” erected “in memory of the heroic dead” of 1798 and 1867. Among the names inscribed on the stone are those of two “who died for Ireland at Kilmallock on March 6th, 1867,” and of three who, shortly after that date, “were done to death in English prisons.”
That fatal 6th of March marked the high-tide of the land agitation. The Limerick people rose to assert what they believed were their rights, and a real battle on a small scale was fought in Kilmallock’s streets. The townfolk and the farmers, to the number of two thousand, armed themselves and made a night assault on the local government barracks. But informers had given the constabulary an inkling of what was coming, and they were on their guard, and reënforcements promptly came to their assistance. For a time the town ways were full of uproar, and bullets flew, and there was loss of life on both sides. In the end the mob yielded to the soldiery, and the leaders of the insurrection were apprehended and imprisoned, and some of their number were later transported to “the Bush” in Australia.
DISPENSERS OF CHARITY
There were similar risings in other districts, all short-lived, with the same melancholy outcome. The Irish had hoped to gain successes that would bring on a general struggle, in which event they believed the Americans would take their part, and Erin would win its independence. The rancor of these conflicts between the populace and the government has not yet died out, and the informers will be remembered as “traitors” and “scabs” as long as they live. They are blacklisted, and are social outcasts; they are handicapped in making a living, and their sons and daughters cannot contract desirable marriages.
This attempt to liberate Ireland originated with the “Fenian Brotherhood,” a vast organization that had members in all parts of the world. New York was the headquarters of the league. It had money at its disposal, and, more than that, soldiers trained by the American Civil War. But all was not harmony among the would-be revolutionists, and their enthusiasm was not without alloy. A leader of the movement in Dublin expressed his dissatisfaction with the American allies by declaring that the recruits they furnished were exceedingly few, and that they were merely “glib talkers, lavish of boast and promise, who did more harm than good by their glozing words and scanty deeds.” However, preparations went on apace for a rising, arms and munitions of war were purchased, military exercises were practised, and on the 31st of May, 1866, the Fenians in America invaded Canada. They occupied Fort Erie, defeated the Canadian volunteers, and captured some flags. But the United States interfered to enforce the neutrality of its frontier, arrested most of the leaders, and extinguished the invasion.
The Fenians in England planned the capture of Chester Castle, with the intention of seizing its military stores. Then they expected to cut off telegraphic communications, hasten to Holyhead, take possession of such steamers as might he there, and invade Ireland before the authorities could prepare for the blow. The plan, however, was betrayed, and came to nothing.
The attempt to foment a general rising in Erin itself in March, 1867, was hardly more successful. The very elements fought against it, and snow, rare in Ireland, fell with disheartening insistence. The persons engaged in the movement were either American and Irish-American adventurers, or artisans, day laborers, and mechanics, generally unprovided with arms and, in many cases, scarcely beyond the years of boyhood. The only military enterprises undertaken by them consisted in attacks on the barracks of the rural constabulary. These attacks were almost without exception defeated, and as a rule the parties dispersed of their own accord, or were made prisoners after a single night’s campaign. The rest betook themselves to the mountains; but a few days of exposure and hardship, in which they managed to evade pursuit, sufficed to entirely discourage them, and none of the bands long held together.
The leaders of the insurrection were promptly tried by a special commission, and tranquillity for a time seemed to be restored in Ireland. But the Fenian Brotherhood continued to exist, and there was still much discontent. Considerable alarm was created in England and Scotland by the daring of the league. An assault was made in the open day on a police-van in Manchester, and the officer in charge was killed, and his prisoners, who were suspected Fenians, were released. A few weeks later an attempt was made to blow up the Clerkenwell prison, to set free some Fenians held there. But the explosion failed to accomplish its purpose. Instead, several innocent persons were killed, and the perpetrator was hanged. Rumors were circulated of intended burnings in the cities and towns, gunsmith’s shops and even government stores were broken open and pillaged, and there was for a time a vague but wide-spread feeling of apprehension.
The disestablishment of the Irish Church in 1869 and the land act of 1870 removed some of the grievances most complained of, and the Fenians became less belligerent, and turned their attention to righting wrongs by political agitation. There still is talk of war whenever English arms are desperately engaged abroad, but the hopelessness and folly of it are apparent to all save a few extremists, and the peace of Ireland’s future seems assured.
To see the vale of Limerick in its “golden” aspect you have to leave the town. Then you find yourself amid a wide sweep of lowlands, fertile and luscious beyond any other part of Ireland. The generous fields are bounded by hawthorn hedgerows, and there are no bogs, and no wastes of stony hillsides, which, one or both, are common in most sections. If you overlook the vale from the crest of one of its gentle undulations, and see the sun strike down to the earth through a break in the clouds, the fields brighten beneath the caress of the warm rays into a fresh, juicy, lightsome green, so charming in color and suggestiveness that you feel it must have been some such vision which inspired the island’s prefix of “Emerald.” The greenness of Ireland is not, however, confined to any chance play of light. Few countries are more moist and showery, and fewer still, in the temperate zone, can rival Ireland’s equable freedom from extremes of heat and cold.
A FARM IN THE GOLDEN VALE
The Golden Vale is a great dairy district, and the land is in the main devoted to grazing and to raising cattle feed. Local creameries take all the milk produced, separate the cream, and make butter for the English market. Their product finds a ready sale at a good price, while the butter made in Irish farmhouses is regarded askance, and not without reason. The farmers bring their milk to the creameries in great clumsy cans known as “churns,” a name originating in their shape, which resembles that of the old up-and-down variety of those articles. A two-wheeled cart drawn by a donkey is the usual conveyance. The driver may be the farmer, a hired man or boy, or possibly one of the women of the farm household. When the churns are emptied they are refilled with skim milk, which is taken home to feed the calves.
The farms in southern Ireland vary in size from a few acres to many hundreds, but holdings of less than fifty acres are accounted small, while those rising above that number are spoken of as large. Land of exceptional quality and placing will yield a rental of £2 an acre. Ten to fifteen shillings is, however, nearer the average. Farm homes are apt to be unprepossessing and beggarly, even where the inmates are well-to-do. The Irish, from long-established habits or lack of pride, seem to have no concern as to the appearance of their dwellings, and they take little interest in making improvements, though this is partly because they in most cases do not and never will own the property they occupy.
The ordinary small farmer goes to and from town driving a donkey or a horse attached to a springless and seatless farm cart. He sits on one side just in front of the wheel, with his legs hanging off over the shaft. The vehicle is diminutive, yet on occasion it will accommodate half a dozen persons in one position and another. Large farmers drive a jaunting-car or a trap. When their wives are along, the distinction between the large and the small farmers is still more marked, as the women of the former class are addicted to wearing hats and bonnets. Yet such a test is not a sure one, for among the younger women, rich and poor alike, the tendency is to more and more recognize fashion and discard the plebeian shawl as a head covering.
A large proportion of the laborers in the Golden Vale come from the comparatively sterile neighboring county of Kerry, where wages are decidedly less. The Sundays of March are the hiring days, and these are marked by a great deal of hurly-burly in Kilmallock, which is the labor centre for all the eastern part of County Limerick. Hundreds of the Kerry “boys and girls” congregate on its streets each recurring Sunday, to bargain for places with the farmers who drive in from many miles round about.
BY THE KITCHEN FIRESIDE
The weather was showery while I was at Kilmallock, but there were bright spells intermingled, so that I was not kept indoors. I liked best to wander out into the farming country. The people on the road always greeted me with a friendly nod and a “Good day,” and I often talked with them, and occasionally visited their homes. One farmer who entertained me was a man named Lynch. He was prosperous, and his farm was well-tilled, but his dwelling and its surroundings were nevertheless not without hints of squalor. The farmyard was the heart of the establishment, with the house, the cowshed, and the various lesser buildings hemming it in on three sides. Its slimy, ill-odored area was the picking-ground of the hens and ducks and of a flitting flock of sparrows, and it was the gathering-place for all sorts of wrecked vehicles, broken tools, and other rubbish. Several children were running about the farmyard when I entered it, and not far from the house door twenty or thirty calves were feeding from a trough.
While I was regarding the confusion of this well-populated enclosure, a poor old woman came groaning in at the gate, hobbled along to the porch, and rapped at the door. The housewife promptly appeared, and without a word stepped past her caller across the yard to the granary. She soon returned with as many potatoes as she could carry in her hands, and emptied them into the old woman’s apron. This garment was held by its wearer gathered up into a sacklike receptacle which was already half full before the potatoes were added. Apparently the old woman was a beggar doing a wholesale business. She bestowed a mumbled blessing on her benefactor and went groaning away.
I learned later that mendicants of her class are an accepted Irish institution. Quite a number of them make their homes in Kilmallock, and each day leave their hovels to scour the surrounding country, only taking care not to go over the same route too often. But the most numerous beggars are those without fixed abode. Such usually spend their nights at some peasant’s cottage, sleeping by the fire. In the morning they are perhaps invited to share the family breakfast, or, if not that, will at least be allowed the use of the fireplace, to cook whatever they may choose to draw from the supplies that they are carrying along.
The appeals of the beggars are rarely refused, and at one place they get potatoes, at another a little bread, or flour, or tea, or a bit of money. Their gatherings are in some instances considerable, and they often have a surplus to sell, and may even accumulate a certain wealth. The householders near Kilmallock expected one or two appeals every day, as a matter of course. Some of the beggars are able-bodied ne’er-do-wells; but probably the majority are no longer capable of supporting themselves by labor, and are simply endeavoring to keep for a little longer out of the dreaded workhouse.
Their antipathy to the workhouse, as far as concerned that at Kilmallock, was largely a matter of sentiment, and not founded on any reasonable fear of bodily hardship; for the buildings provided for the unfortunates were substantial and clean, and the inmates were well treated. They are given plenty of bread, milk, and potatoes, and they have their tea, and twice a week meat is furnished. But in the poorer districts of Ireland the workhouse conditions are not so favorable. Taxes cannot be raised to properly house or feed the numerous paupers, and they are very wretched, and the sick often have no one to care for them but feeble old women inmates of the institutions.
Like most farmhouses of the region, the Lynch dwelling had a thatch roof, and was low and primitive. That the kitchen was the family living-room was proclaimed by the sloppiness of its rough, cobble floor, and its general disorder. All of one side was taken up by a wide, open fireplace, with an accompaniment of pots, kettles, shoes, and other litter. Conspicuous in a convenient corner of the room stood the swill-barrel. On the walls were hung pieces of harness, a tin lantern, a slab of bacon, and a variety of clothing, cooking utensils, and farm tools. The only touch of the aesthetic I observed consisted in a decorative arrangement of dishes on the dresser.
I passed through the house to the side opposite that which opened on the farmyard, and there found a plot of grass, a few flowers, trees, and shrubs, and a tidy garden. This side of the building was its front, in the polite acceptation of the term; but the mildewed door and the mossy pavement leading from it, half overgrown with vagrant weeds sprouting undisturbed in the crevices, showed plainly that the “front” might nearly as well not have existed.
A few days after my visit at the Lynch dwelling a chance shower drove me to shelter in another farmhouse, where a tall, white-capped old woman wiped off a backless kitchen chair for me with her apron, and after remarking she hoped the weather was not “broke,” went on about her work. A brisk fire burned within the fireplace, and over it hung a big iron kettle, from which wisps of steam were puffing out around the edges of its cover. A young woman sat beside the fire turning an iron wheel, and I at first imagined she was churning, and watched her for some time before I discovered that, instead, she was working a bellows. Coal is the usual fuel in the Golden Vale, but it is burned on the bare hearth, not in a grate, and this peculiar bellows, blowing the air through a pipe that runs under the flagging-stones, is necessary to fan the fire into brightness and heat.
For baking purposes peat, or “turf,” as it is called, is bought from “hawkers,” who peddle it on carts from house to house. It comes in blocks, each three or four times the size of a brick; and a score, with an extra one thrown in for good measure, cost six‑pence. Ovens are only found in “gintlemin’s” houses. Farmers and cottagers bake their bread in a “bastable,” — a low, flat kettle with a heavy cover. It is set on the coals and burning turf piled on top, and at the end of an hour the “cake,” in a single, broad, round loaf, is baked. The bread is rather solid, but it is wholesome, and not unpleasant to the taste.
WORK IN A POTATO FIELD
The rain was soon over, and I was preparing to go, when I happened to mention that I was from America. The house inmates had been friendly, but not especially sociable. Now there was a change, and the old woman, intent on keeping me a little longer, declared that I must not walk too much. “It is not good to do so, and the weather soft like,” said she. “Sit down, sir, and perhaps you would take a glass of milk, sir.”
The backless chair which I had been occupying was pushed out of the way, and the best in the room was set forth — one so recently purchased that the shine of the varnish was still apparent on it. Then the old woman got me a cup of rich, sweet milk, and sat down to ask questions about “the States,” and to tell about friends she had there. Lastly she spoke of a son who had crossed the Atlantic, long, long years ago; and the tears came to her eyes while she related how he had sickened and died there. Ah! America was a fine country, but she did not think it was a healthy one. The old woman’s interest was not greater than that of the girl by the fire, who herself intended to emigrate to America the next year.
Those who go, rarely return, though stragglers come on visits. The few prodigals who settle permanently in their native island usually bring money with them and go into business. Most often they are impelled by the desire to buy back some little shop or other interest that has been a pride of their families in the past, but which has been lost through misfortune.
I was at Kilmallock over Sunday, and in the early morning walked out to a country parish some miles distant to attend eight o’clock mass. The church was a plain, spireless structure, ungraced by vines and un-shadowed by trees, standing in the midst of a hilltop group of thatched cottages. Neighboring it on one side was a creamery, and I could hear the hum of machinery and the puff of steam the same as if it had been a week day. Many milk carts were hitched along the wayside near the creamery and in front of the houses adjoining the church, and there were numbers of other vehicles, — traps, jaunting-cars, and heavy farm carts, with their accompanying donkeys, mules, and horses of all sizes, colors, and conditions. The aspect of the village was more suggestive of a market or fair than a religious gathering, and this secular look was further emphasized by a canvas-covered booth open for business beside the churchyard gate. Here were sold prayer-books and other Catholic publications, beads, crosses, and a variety of gaudy church emblems and images. This ecclesiastical mart was, however, temporary, and would be discontinued at the end of a fortnight’s special services that were being held.
The interior of the church had a row of pews along the walls on either hand, unpainted, battered, and dingy, and in the broad aisle between was a line of backless benches. All the seats were full when I arrived, and many people stood in the narrow passages and in the open space at the rear. It was evident that the women had on their Sunday garments, but many of the men wore their ordinary work clothes and heavy, dirty shoes, just as they had come from the milk wagons.
Up before the altar was a priest in a gorgeous yellow gown, with an attendant robed in black and white. I was hardly able to catch a word in the whole service, as far as the priest’s part was concerned, for he began his sentences with a mumble which faded rapidly away into a nearly inaudible murmur. Indeed, I thought it all very perfunctory and meaningless, yet I could not help feeling that it was satisfying to the congregation. Their devout attentiveness never flagged, and they conned their prayer-books with exemplary persistence. It seemed to me that most of the time was spent in kneeling. I tried to accommodate myself to the routine of the service, but my knees gave out on the hard stone floor, and I had to stand, at the risk of appearing heretical. There was no organ and no singing. Country communities are not musical. Their churches have no choirs, and the old-fashioned people object to the introduction of an organ, because they think its “noise” is not religious, and that it is opposed to a genuine spirit of worship.
After mass came communion, and the worshippers in relays went up to the front seat and knelt while the priest gave them each an indistinct blessing, and administered a wafer from a goblet that he carried. This goblet his assistant refilled as often as the supply ran low. The communicants did not touch the wafers themselves, but opened their mouths, and the priest placed one on each awaiting tongue. That the wafers are the real body and blood of Christ the communicants did not doubt; and if a crumb dropped, some one was pretty sure to pick it up and eat it, to get the benefit of its mystic virtues, whatever those might be.
When the worshippers left the church, those who had teams betook themselves to their milk carts and other vehicles, and drove away, while the rest scattered down the roads and lanes on foot. I mentioned to a man of the latter class that the congregation was a very full one; but he said, “Ah, no! that is nothing at all, sir, to what there will be at the eliven o’clock mass. There will be five times as many thin.”
I did not think my knees were equal to another service, and I returned to Kilmallock. In the afternoon the town was well-nigh deserted by the male population, who went harum-scaruming off somewhere in long-cars, jaunting-cars, and odds and ends of other vehicles, to see the favorite Irish game of hockey played, or, as they expressed it, “to see the hurrling match.” Sunday is a holy day only during mass. The rest of the time the people spell it holiday, and are ready for whatever recreation offers. They go fishing, they go in swimming, they play on the village greens, and you may, on occasion, see a crowd blackening the walls of a country lane for half a mile, watching a bowling match.
Toward evening, while walking on the town outskirts, I accosted an elderly farmer who was standing meditating in his potato patch, with his hands beneath his coat-tails.
“God save ye,” said he, in response to my greeting. “We are going to have a fair day to-morrow, are we not?” I questioned.
“Well, I don’t know thin,” he replied. “I don’t like the look o’ thim castles” — pointing to some snowy cloud-banks on the horizon.
We changed to the subject of potatoes — “spuds” or “Murphys” he called them; and presently he suggested that I should climb the fence and go with him to his house. It was a thick-walled, thatched house adjoining an old, ivy-grown tower that had formerly been a grist-mill. A stream flowed close by which looked peaceful enough, but which Mr. Fennessey — that was his name — declared sometimes became a torrent in the winter, and set back over the banks and invaded his home. The family restrained the water by banks of earth as well as they could. These, however, were not always effective, and the water at times flooded the lower floors to the depth of three feet. Once the water rose in the night, and the farmer awoke in the morning to find his bed afloat and rocking. He complained a good deal of the condition of his house, and of the landlord’s unwillingness to make improvements. At the same time, except for the flooding, he said it was much better than the average house of fifty years ago.
“Ye seldom see a mud house in the prisent,” he explained; “but thin they were common. The mud part was the walls, which was a mixture of clay, rushes, and gravel. A man in his bare feet would tread it as it was put up, and ivery time a layer a half-yard thick was put on it had to be left for a few days to dry. Whin it was high enough it was pared down smooth, and ‘twas riddy for the roof, which in thim days was as like to be turf as thatch, with perhaps an ould boiler stuck up through for a chimney. The walls wint fast if the roof broke a leak, but so long as they was kep’dry they was all right. Mud walls that ye see now are whitewashed, and a stranger such as you might not know what was underneath. They used to be left their natural brown color. The floors, thim days, was dirt, and so they are now in our ould counthry cottages; but cement is comin’ to be gineral in the towns, though that wears uneven, too, after a while, and gets broken, in spite of ye.”
We were sitting during this relation in Mr. Fennessey’s kitchen, a small, crowded apartment, whose chief articles of furniture were a dresser, several rickety chairs, and a table with some black pots huddled beneath. A bobtailed hen was picking about underfoot, and two dogs were snoozing on the borders of the fireplace.
“This room wad be a big house intirely, in thim days I’m tellin’ ye of,” Mr. Fennessey continued; “and you’d be lucky if there was not props here and yon to howld up the rafters, and holes leakin’ down, and a large family livin’ in it, too.”
Of late the poorer hovels in the Golden Vale have been largely replaced by cottages built by the county. These, though small, are comfortable and substantial. There are three rooms below, and, under the peak of the roof above, are one or two more, to which ascent is made by a narrow stairway very like a step-ladder. The rent is one shilling a week, and a half-acre of land goes with the cottage, so that the tenants can have their own garden and keep a donkey and perhaps a goat or a little Kerry cow. What the half-acre patch of land lacks in supporting the creatures can be made up by feeding them along the highways, and by the foraging of the children. Some of this foraging is not very sensitive to rights in property, and I remember seeing an undaunted small boy pulling wisps of hay from the outer side of a loaded cart in the publicity of Kilmallock’s principal street. The driver had gone into a shop, and now and then the boy paused and peeped furtively beneath the wagon, to assure himself that the coast was still clear. Finally, with his arms full, the ragamuffin scudded for home.
The cottagers usually keep hens and ducks, and in some instances geese and turkeys, and the fowls and their eggs are chiefly sold to “egg-hawkers,” who go about buying them to ship to England. The prices realized are not what they might be, for the Irish are only beginning to learn the relation between price and quality, and, as a rule, their fowls are of a small, poor breed.
“My good man,” said Mr. Fennessey, at length, “as we have no liquor in the house, would you sit with us and have a cup of tea?”
I accepted the invitation, and the wife set the black tea-kettle on the coals and turned the crank of the creaky bellows. Soon we had gathered around the centre table in the best room to a lunch of bread and butter and tea. The children waited for second table. Only the four youngest of the original thirteen were left. The rest had departed from the parental roof, and were scattered far and wide over the earth. One son was living in California.
“If you ever go to Los Angels,” said my host, “hunt up John Fennessey. You just mintion the ould folks at Kilmallock, and you will be sure of a warrum wilcome.”
Mrs. Fennessey kept my cup replenished, even putting in the sugar and stirring it herself. She took a more personal interest in my affairs than did her companion, and early in our converse wanted to know if I had “an ould woman “at home. Not till she had repeated the question twice did I comprehend that she was asking if I had a wife.
I enjoyed my visit, and I enjoyed the lunch, and when I prepared to leave Kilmallock and went to bid the Fennesseys good-by, I felt as if I was parting from old friends; and the impression given by the hospitality of the people all through the Golden Vale was most agreeable. They did you a favor as though it was for their own pleasure. When I said, “Thank you,” I was almost certain of the quick response, “And all for nothing, sir. It was no trouble at all.”
In thinking over my experiences, therefore, I concluded that whatever the section lacked of being like its name in landscapes and agricultural affluence was more than made up by the sympathetic kindliness of its inhabitants.