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AN IRISH WRITER AND HER HOME
IN 1891 there was published in Dublin a thin book of poems entitled “Bogland Studies,” and the author, as announced by the title-page, was J. Barlow. Like most books of poems by unknown writers, Bogland Studies was brought out at the author’s expense; but, unlike the common run of them, the verse was characterized by striking originality, refined feeling, and great aptness and vigor of expression. Still the world was very full of books, and few bought the modest volume. Its writer was nearly as unknown as before, when, presently, the book fell into the hands of a London editor, who read it with such interest that he looked up the name on the title-page and wrote a letter to “Mr. J. Barlow.”
Great was his surprise when J. Barlow proved to be no Mister at all, but Miss Jane Barlow, daughter of a Dublin professor. Forthwith the editor introduced Miss Barlow to the literary public, and induced her to write a series of short stories in prose. These form her “Irish Idylls,” so far the best-known book she has produced. They deserve to grow in public favor, for truer and more entertaining transcripts of peasant life we have never had. Yet they will not appeal to the masses; they are too quiet, too simple, too delicate in flavor, to stir minds that crave high-seasoned action and a plot full of turmoil and mystery. Such stories as Miss Barlow’s are reserved for the enjoyment of those who like sometimes to see nature and life as loiterers, and to catch the slighter odors and tints and twinklings that escape the person who must go through a book on the jump or not at all. The stories lack the spice of sensation; but to the lover of sweet and simple realities they are full of interest and sparkle.
I do not recall anything in imaginative literature that deals with life that in itself and in its environment is so humble as in the several books written by Miss Barlow. The scene of her stories is always the Connemara district of the Irish west coast, a forbidding region of water-soaked bogland, sombre loughs, and stony mountains. In the forlorn little villages on this bogland live the people she describes. Lisconnel is the place that appears oftenest in her stories — a hamlet of ten houses, counting one with the roof fallen in. It is seven miles to a neighbor village. No one in Lisconnel owns a cow, such is the poverty of the inhabitants, and the live-stock is limited to a few goats, pigs, and chickens; even these disappear speedily in bad seasons. The cabins are small, their furnishings meagre, wind and frost find easy entrance through their un-chinked stone walls, and the rain drips through the rush-thatched roofs. The wet fields, fenced off by stone walls into tiny squares about the houses, yield scant crops of potatoes and oats. The pinch of poverty makes itself felt in every household, and hunger is a not infrequent visitor.
A PEDDLER OF DISTILLERY WASTE
Could one have more scanty material for story-writing? Yet, as the Irish say in one of their proverbs, “There are plenty of things beside turf to be found in a bog;” and one of the things that Miss Barlow finds there is human nature. The sympathetic reader sees himself in these humble villagers, and he feels a strange interest in their struggles, their loves, their sacrifices and heroism, their quaint conversations and views of the world; and he could not be more vividly impressed with the loneliness of the bog and the cheer of its sunshine and the frowning frequency of its showers were he himself a bogland dweller. The descriptions are indeed all so convincing it was something of a shock to me to learn that Lisconnel was not a real village at all, and that the author neither lived in nor anywhere near such a place.
Miss Barlow’s home is on the other side of the island, at Raheny, a suburb of Dublin, four miles out of the city. Raheny is a shapeless, straggling little hamlet with parklike, tree-dotted fields round about. It has two inns, two churches, the same number of schoolhouses, and a single shabby little shop. On the day I was there the most notable human feature of the village was a row of men near its chief inn, sitting or standing along a house wall. They were laborers waiting to be hired. It did not seem a very energetic way of finding work, but it saved shoe-leather and perhaps nervous wear and tear, and it is the Irish custom.
WAITING TO BE HIRED
The station-master said there was no middle class in the village — they had only “swells and laborers.” The dwellings seemed to bear out his statement; for they were either the retiring homes of gentlefolk, with lawns and shrubbery about, shut away from the gaze of the street-passers by high stone walls, or the barren little cottages of the peasantry. The cottages congregated thickest along a small stream that ran through the village centre. Many of them had thatch roofs, often weedy and green-mossed. Their surroundings were very untidy, and quite in keeping with the dilapidated aspect of the buildings themselves. Several dogs were lazing about the doorways, scratching at the fleas that infested their scraggy coats. One of them, which looked rather younger and brighter than the rest, was sitting on a bag near a cottage doorway. This luxury of having a seat suggested that he was the household pet; and, by way of introducing myself to the woman of the house, I remarked, “That’s a nice dog you have.”
“He’s more than nice — he’s good,” was her proud response.
I had not intended my words to be taken too literally, and I did not pursue the subject further, but looked into the woman’s kitchen. It had a rough and not overclean dirt floor. The walls were of rudely plastered stones, partly hidden, as was the ceiling, by newspapers pasted together, forming a queer sort of tapestry. It was a tiny room, yet there were in it two rickety beds, some scantily filled shelves of crockery, several chairs, and various other household belongings. Not much spare standing room was left.
The hens of the neighborhood wandered in and out of the cottage doors, and with the other fowls held conventions around the house fronts, very much as they pleased. While I was looking in at the living-room of the woman who owned a “good” dog, a boy drove up a flock of turkeys. They stopped in front of the cottage, and the woman came out with a pan of feed. She knelt down before them and doled out the food, and saw that they all had a fair chance, at the same time giving a smart rap every once in a while at her neighbor’s ducks that showed a tendency to steal up and grab for a share.
The cottage dwellers had no water supply in their homes, but went for it either to the convenient stream or to an iron pump in the middle of the street. The women were mostly frowzy-headed and slovenly, and the children were ragged and dirty. But what the little folk lacked in immaculateness of attire and person was more than made up by their liveliness and piquant individuality. They had nothing of the shyness of English children. One of them, a small boy, carrying a crooked sapling with a line attached, wanted me to go down to the stream and see him catch “pinkeens”; and they all showed a good deal of volubility and the spirit of investigation.
I saw one little drama of child life that illustrates the methods of child training in general vogue in Ireland — methods not unknown in some other parts of the world. It took place in a field back of a cottage where two venerable goats were feeding. In the shadow of the cottage stood a woman waiting for a little boy, who had crawled through the hedge at the far side of the field, and now came running toward her with a bottle hugged tight in his arms. I suppose he was returning from some errand. Then, in the middle of the field, there was a false step, a tumble, and a smash of glass. The mother started forward and picked up a switch, and the boy got up whining and began edging away, while the goats looked on in long-whiskered surprise. The nearer the mother came, the more the little one dodged, and presently he took to his heels and ran back of the house with his mother in close pursuit.
Donkey carts were the most frequent vehicles seen on the Raheny streets. Both carts and donkeys seemed very small, and when a grown man or a woman sat perched on the seat, the size of the rider seemed quite disproportionate to that of the cart and the creature which drew it. But the donkeys were sober beasts, and apparently were contented with their lot, though I did encounter a single exception — a tiny specimen pulling a cart with two young men in it up a hill, and braving in a manner distinctly alarming and protesting. One donkey, with a lad in charge, was drawing a load of sour-smelling distillery waste about the village. The stuff looked like wet sawdust, but the boy said it was barley, and that he sold it a pailful at a time, to feed hens and pigs.
Both the village schools were supervised by the government, but one was conducted under Protestant auspices and the other was controlled by the Catholics. The Protestant building was neat and modern. The Catholic schoolhouse, on the contrary, was dismal and old-fashioned. It was low and broad, with gray plaster walls. Within were two rooms — one for the boys, one for the girls — each in charge of a separate teacher. The girls’ room was nearest the street, and, as the door was open, I went in.
Thirty or forty scholars were present, between the ages of four and twelve. The room was of fair size, with grimy, whitewashed walls and long, unpainted benches. Near the entrance was a small, much-battered organ and a table for the teacher’s use, behind which was the room’s one chair. The table drawers were gone, and it was as cheap and shaky a specimen of a table as I have ever seen. The thin, middle-aged woman who presided over the school politely offered me the one chair as soon as I entered the room, and I carelessly accepted, and nearly lost my balance sitting down in it, for the chair toppled sideways in a manner to suggest that it had only three legs. I braced myself accordingly, and as soon as the teacher looked away I took advantage of the opportunity to slide my hand back and investigate. The fourth leg was there, after all, and the only trouble was that it was an inch short at the bottom, making the chair a sort of primitive rocker.
The teacher gave all her time to entertaining me, and turned the school over to three of her oldest pupils, each in charge of a section. The youngest section, composed of infants, adjourned to the back of the room, where they arranged themselves in a double semicircle and began picking out words on a wall chart. They were aided in their efforts by the girl monitor, armed with a long stick which was intended for a pointer, but which she did not confine strictly to that use. This girl was nervously disposed, and when a child missed and had to go to the foot she would take the delinquent by the shoulders and push it along to its new place with quite unnecessary energy. If a child’s answer came too slowly, she would brisken its ideas by a tap from her stick. Once, when one of her charges was out of order, she gave the culprit a slap with her hand.
Another section of the school sat in a group among the seats, and the girl who acted as their teacher stood facing them between a bench and desk.
The third section were on their feet gathered about a girl who was sitting on a bench at the side of the room with her back against the wall, eating a lunch. The children in her care had slates in their hands, and were doing “sums.”
On the whole, the scene in the schoolroom was very easy-going, social, and domestic, but I was not impressed that the children were making any very determined progress in the acquisition of knowledge. As for their surroundings, they were rather cheerless and depressing. The only attempt at brightness in the room was a row of colored prints that the teacher had pinned up on the wall.
After a time I carefully rose from my crippled chair and bade the teacher “Good day,” with the intention of paying a visit to the boys’ room. I went around to the other side of the building and rapped. No response. I rapped again, and failed to attract attention as completely as I had before. I could see the children through the keyhole, but there was such a clatter of voices and buzz of lips that, though I rapped two or three times more, I did not make myself heard. This was too much, and I abandoned them to their uproar and came away.
I thought, from what I saw of the village, that Raheny held plenty of raw material for a writer who made peasant life her field in fiction, and it seemed odd that Miss Barlow should neglect this for distant Connemara. Miss Barlow’s home is about five minutes’ walk from the station, in what is known as “The Cottage.” As you approach it, you glimpse over the intervening street wall a long thatched roof shadowed by tree-foliage. I wondered if it could be that Miss Barlow lived under that humble thatch. After all, it would not be out of keeping, considering the subjects she chooses to write of and the quiet manner in which she tells her stories. But a little farther on I came to a mildly imposing gateway, with a little shadowed lodge at one side. Thence a tidy driveway led to a near mansion. It was not a pretentious mansion, but just of comfortable size, with a homelike air about its vine-clad walls that was attractive. The structure was rather unusual. It was in three parts, beginning near the street with the low thatched cottage, which was followed in the middle by a larger and more recent structure, while at the rear it rose in a modern dwelling of comparatively imposing proportions. It was like some slow vegetable growth pushing out successively into newer and larger forms, or as if here was a house with its own father and grandfather under its protection on the ancestral grounds.
The cottage section of the house is inconvenient, but its age and associations protect it. Miss Barlow acknowledges a good deal of fondness for it, and pains are taken to get it rethatched when the roof gets bad. The thatch, in the accumulation of many renewals, has grown to a ponderous thickness, and makes the cottage look like some vast mushroom. There were holes in the roof torn by rats and birds that build their nests in it, and a young plane tree had shot up from one of its depressions to a height of two feet. But my visit shortly antedated the coming of a thatcher, under whose hand I suppose these touches of picturesqueness disappeared.
Indoors the house is what any gentleman’s of moderate means might be, except that the upstairs parlor is given a churchlike air by a pipe organ filling one end of the room. This is used by Professor Barlow, the author’s father.
The station-master mentioned to me that all the members of the family were very nice people, and “not swells, if they did belong to the gentry.” He had read some of Miss Barlow’s books, and he was quite appreciative; for he declared she “got the talk of the Connemarese fine.” One of the village women with whom I spoke, and who said she frequently did scrubbing at the Barlows’, was, like the station-master, a warm admirer of the family, and agreed with him about the merits of “Miss Jane’s” books. The comment of these two critics was not praise that meant they caught the atmosphere and delicate flavor of the stories, but which showed that the life portrayed in the printed pages was most accurately interpreted.
The stories convey the same sense of reality to the stranger who has never seen the country, and as he reads he feels that Miss Barlow understands the peasant ways and their thought and conversation in every detail. I was curious to know how she acquired this minute knowledge. It seems that the family took a house one season and lived for a summer on the Connemara coast, and it was then that Miss Barlow absorbed the impressions of local color and character which she uses in her stories with such fidelity. One would suppose she must have been very intimate with the people themselves, she gives such full reports of their work, their homes, and their speech; yet this was not the case. What she knows she has gained mostly from outside observation, and the rest is imagination. But wherever she gets it, the bogland life of her books has the ring of truth, and it lingers long in the reader’s mind, a sweet and fascinating memory.