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AN ISLAND ON THE WILD WEST COAST
THE isle of Achill barely misses being a part of the mainland, so narrow is the separating channel. A bridge affords connection, and access is easy. It is reputed to contain the most striking scenery to be found on the wild west coast; but I got small hint of anything romantic on the twelve-mile ride across it to the island’s single hotel at Doogort. The landscape, now dipping into wide valleys and now heaving into broad, rounded hills, or at times rising into steep mountains with rocky, pinnacled tops, was desolate in the extreme, and the little reclaimed patches, with their accompanying cabins, were few and far between. Indeed, the island was one almost interminable bog, and its peat deposits, which often attain the remarkable depth of twenty feet, are extensive enough to supply all Ireland.
Doogort proved to be a little settlement of whitewashed houses on a hill slope, with a big mountain behind, and, close below, a small bay that the sea had scooped out of the land, and rimmed with a long curve of sandy beach. The other villages on Achill were even less imposing than Doogort. Nearly all of them were small fishing hamlets, each made up of a huddle of low stone houses with roofs of thatch or turf, on which there were apt to be sproutings of sorrel and grasses. I passed several such places on a jaunting-car trip I made the second day I was on the island, and in every one had a tagging of boys running after the car with “diamonds” for sale. Investigation showed that these diamonds were simply broken amethyst crystals, and the inducement to purchase did not seem very great.
However, I made one diamond boy happy at a certain village, where I left the jaunting-car behind, by taking him along with me as guide on a visit I paid to a rocky promontory, reaching in a thin wedge far out into the Atlantic. The boy was, of course, barefoot, and said he went so most of the year, and that many of the Achill people never wore shoes, either winter or summer. He didn’t when he was little. But now, for wear in cold weather, he had a new pair once in three years.
We clambered along a rough path cut in the side of a slope, that descended in steep turf and rocky leaps from the heights far above, to the sea far below, and at length we came to a big stone by the pathside which the boy pointed out as having been a favorite seat of the famous Captain Boycott. It seemed that this notable spent his last days on Achill, near that part of the island where we then were, but it was on the mainland that he won his reputation and gave the language a new word. He was agent on an estate, and the tenantry took offence at what was regarded as his severity, and tried to prevent any one’s dealing with him. The laborers refused to help in the harvesting and the household servants left, and the family had to do their own work as best they could. No one dared to sell them provisions, and there was danger that the agent would be starved and ruined, if he was not killed by the riotous peasantry. Matters finally became so serious that a large body of soldiers was sent to protect him. Besides intimidating the boycotters, the soldiers assisted in the forsaken fields, and, as they had to have food, the captain sold them, at a good profit, the produce they helped to harvest. Thus the first boycott not only failed, but the man against whom it was aimed made money on it.
GOATS ON AN ACHILL HILLSLOPE
The day’s weather was a curious medley of dull clouds and of bright sunshine. For a while the sky would be gentle and soft and summery to perfection; then it would turn frowning and dark, the mountains would be shrouded, the gloomy shadows gather over the bogs, and presently the cold rain would come sweeping down from the high slopes and go driving in gray mists across the sea. I encountered one of these showers while I was still on the path, and hastened to raise my umbrella, and sat down on a convenient hummock to await its passing. The boy, at the same time, crawled into the lee of a bank just above. From this high perch I had in sight a fine sweep of lofty cliffs extending along the coast, until lost to view in the hazy distance. Seaward there were frequent rocky islets girt about by the foaming waves tearing ceaselessly at their crumbling ramparts, and, near at hand, feeding peacefully on the steep slope, were a few cows and several flocks of goats and sheep.
I lingered where I sat for some time after the rain had ceased falling, and presently along came a party of tourists, ascending with the intent to climb to the topmost height of the promontory. Three natives were in attendance, one with a hamper on his back, another loaded with a bag of peats, and the third, a boy, at the rear of the procession, bearing a teapot. I was cordially invited to join this caravan, but I concluded instead to return to my car. The driver was waiting for me with the information that there was just time to get to the “Cathedral Cliffs” before high tide, which would make them inaccessible. As it was, we would have to race for them, he said. So off we went by a short cut along the shore — a straight three miles of hard, wet beach that held reflections like a mirror, and over which the horse padded very fast and smoothly. Then we came to a muddy torrent right athwart our course, so fierce and loud I thought it would sweep us out to sea if we attempted crossing. But into it we drove and picked a careful passage to the farther side and hurried on once more.
Finally the beach ended abruptly in a line of great cliffs that the waves had chiselled into stupendous caverns and arches. The rock that formed the bluffs was in layers distinct enough in their marking to look at a little distance as if they were man’s handiwork. One section that was particularly fine took the form of fretted columns, and, overhead, a green bank sloped down from far above like a roof, giving the whole quite the appearance of a big church.
To get a closer view of this temple of nature I left the car, and walked along at the foot of the crags over a beach strewn with rounded stones and brightened with shreds of seaweed from the distant tropics. The tide was fast rising and the waves were roaring on the strand, and sliding in farther and farther and trimming it narrower each moment. Already the green water had invaded the outer arches of the cathedral. But the spot was a grand one, and I stayed on until I heard the faint shout of my driver behind me, and saw him standing up in the car and waving his whip excitedly. I took warning and started back; where there were smooth stretches I ran, and when I reached the car and clambered aboard the driver lashed his horse and we were off at a gallop. The sandy beach, which a little before was many rods wide, was now a mere ribbon, and the waves, stealthy, powerful, insistent, in a minute more would wipe it out altogether. I clung to the car, the horse raced, and, at the last moment, with the waves lapping about the wheel-spokes, we turned sharply aside and climbed over a great ridge of pebbles, and were on the firm turf beyond the reach of the hungry sea, which had taken full possession of the beach we had just left.
We now went on back to Doogort; and when we arrived, about four in the afternoon, I took a fancy to get a downlook on the country from the mountain near the hotel. This mountain was twenty-two hundred feet high, but the guide-books and the people at the hotel said the ascent was easy, and I started with cheerful anticipations. I went up a village lane that soon carried me beyond the little group of houses and huddling fields into the marshlands. Then I followed the top of a turfed wall for a time, and after that jumped along on the tussocks of the bog, avoiding the wet hollows as much as possible. The bog did not keep to the lower slopes, as I expected, but went up and up, and the whole mountain side was wrapped with its miry mosses. The spongy earth, thickly hidden by grasses and heather, was soaking, and the water came squeezing out in quantities with every footstep. It was steep, hard work.
At length I came to the edge of a precipice that looked as if half the mountain on the seaward side had slid away, and along the verge of this cliff I continued to zigzag for a long time, getting higher and higher and more and more tired. The wind blew in rough gusts that in the exposed places threatened to carry me away, and every little while a shower came pelting down, and I would hunt up a boulder for a seat and huddle beneath my umbrella. On ahead rose a pinnacle of rocks toward which I had been long striving. I had thought this projection would be near the summit, but when I actually gained it I saw that the crown of the mountain was still far skyward. Apparently I had only come about half way, and the rest of the distance was all strewn with splintered rock and was worse than the bog I had been climbing through. Below lay the world spread out like a map — hills and valleys, villages, roads, a lake, the sea, several islands, and, far off eastward, the dim mainland, while over all hovered the wraiths of the doubtful, oft-changing weather — fog, showers, cloud shadows, gleams of sunlight, and now and then a vague rainbow. High above me, marked by a flagstaff, was the mountain summit, one minute lost in a whirl of mists and wild clouds, and the next minute coming forth clear and powerful and beckoning me upward.
THE CATHEDRAL CLIFFS
But it was of no use. The experience in climbing to the point already attained was sufficient, and I now went jolting and slipping on the rough journey downward. When I reached the hotel I made a reckoning of the number of showers I had been out in that day, and could recall nine. Besides these, several others preceded my start in the morning, or fell after I returned in the evening.
I had finished dining and gone to my room, when some commotion outside drew me to the window. There, on a wall close below, lay the long, sleek body of a seal, shot that day by a hotel guest, on an islet fifteen miles distant. The caverns of this islet are a famous haunt of the seals, and parties frequently row out to have a try at the game. The seals are of one of the coarser species, and the skins have little value, save as trophies of the hunt to decorate, in the form of rugs, the sportsmen’s homes.
It was the custom of the guests at this Doogort hostelry to gather in the parlor evenings to chat, and to hear the landlord tell stories. I found a company of fifteen or twenty there when I came down from my room. A tall Englishman was discoursing about the day’s shooting on the seal island. He said that the natives were disinclined themselves to molest the beasts, as they believed the seals were human souls, allowed by special grace to survive the deluge, and in this shape to await the last judgment. He added that one of his rowers told him he had seen a mermaid in Achill waters the year before, and that five other men, who were with him at the time, had also seen her. She was at first swimming toward them, and they distinctly observed her woman’s face and her long hair floating behind. Then she turned and swam away, and they saw she had a scaly body like a fish.
This reminded one of the company gathered about the peat fire in the hotel parlor, that only the other day, in Tipperary, some men took an old woman, who was said to be a fairy, and scorched her in the fire to drive out the evil spirit. They burned the old woman horribly, and it was doubtful if she could live.
Next our landlord took a turn. He said: “A good many believe that the fairies will spirit away children. They will carry off a healthy child and leave instead a weazened little dwarf. One day they played that trick on a tailor, and he kept the dwarf several years and it didn’t grow any, and was just the same shrivelled little thing it was in the beginning. Finally, the tailor made up his mind what the matter was. So he heated his goose red-hot and held it over the dwarf, and said, Now, get out of here — I know you!’
“But the dwarf never let on it noticed him; and the tailor lowered the goose little by little till it almost touched the dwarf’s face. Then the dwarf spoke and said, ‘Well, I’ll leave, but first you go to the door and look round the corner.’
“The man knew if he did that the dwarf would get the best of him, and he said he would not. Then the dwarf saw ‘twas no use, and it sprang out of the cradle and went roaring and cackling up the chimney, and a good child lay there in its place.
“I had one queer experience myself. It was the time of the Fenian troubles. I was sitting up late, — I suppose it must have been after midnight, — but I hadn’t taken anything, and was as sober as I am this minute. Well, it got to be very late, as I said, and by and by I heard strange noises in the hall. It was like men tramping past, and they kept going and going, hundreds of them, and they were dragging dead bodies and all that. I could hear their breathing, and I could hear their clothing rub along against the walls. Then the ceiling and the sides of the room I was in began to wave. I took a candle and went out in the hall, and there was nothing there, doors all fastened, everything all right. Now, what do you make out of that? I never have been able to account for it myself.
“That reminds me of the Achill girl that went to service in Dublin. She got a good place — wages and work and everything were perfectly satisfactory; but there was one room in the house that she wasn’t allowed to go into, and that troubled her. She saw a great many people go into that room, and she never saw any of them come out. The room was always quiet-like, and always kept locked, and the girl never had a chance to see it, till one day, when the house folks all happened to be away, she found they had left the key in the door of that room. So she went in, and what did she see there but rows and rows of heads — heads of beautiful ladies — heads severed from the bodies, and the long hair hanging down — yes, rows and rows of them; and the girl like to have fainted, and she got out of there in a hurry and went to her chamber and gathered up all her belongings and came home — never notified the police nor nothing. But I’ll tell you what my idea is. I think it was a barber’s shop she looked into, and the customers went in one door, and out another that she didn’t know about, and it was just wigs, and such fixings, she saw.”
TOURISTS ON A LONG CAR
The company laughed and commented jokingly, but presently lapsed into silence and contemplatively eyed the glow in the fireplace. Then the landlord asked if we had ever heard of the Achill hat. He said that in the olden time a hat was an article that the Achill man never wore while on his native island. But when he went to the mainland he preferred to look like the rest of the world, and at Achill Sound, where the people boated themselves across, a single hat was kept on a pole. When a man was going to town on the mainland he climbed the pole and got the hat. On returning he shinned the pole again and left the hat for the use of the next man.
Following this story, the landlord told of a wreck that makes the saddest chapter in all Achill’s history. Many of the young men and women of the island spend a part of every summer in Scotland helping in the potato harvest. They go by steamer from Westport, and there are those who walk the whole forty miles thither, but most make the journey on some fishing smack. A few years ago, when preparations were being made for the annual exodus, a man who owned an old hooker was engaged to carry a large party down to Westport and put them aboard the Glasgow steamer. The hooker was only allowed by law to carry forty persons, but the owner was to get a shilling apiece, and, intent on making all the profit he could, he took on sixty-eight. The day was quiet, with just enough wind blowing to make it pleasant sailing, and Westport was reached all right. They were in the harbor and within half a mile of the quay, when some one called out that the Glasgow boat was close by.
The young people all hastened to one side to look, and at the same time the hooker approached the steamer in such a way that the big boat’s hull took all the wind out of the hooker’s sails, and it went over at once, and those sixty-eight Achill folk were clinging together and struggling in the water. Thirty-eight of them were drowned, and the next day thirty-eight coffins with the bodies in them came up by special train to Achill Sound.
All the population of the island was at the station to meet them — a thousand people or more, and there were sore hearts in Achill that day. One family lost five, others four, three, and two. The man who owned the hooker drew his boat up on the beach, and there it lies to this day. Those who escaped drowning returned to Achill and gave up going to Scotland, and they never have got the better of their fright, and never will, the landlord said.
Of the homes on the island he related that it was customary to keep the cows and pigs in the living room, and when there was a pony it was usually tied to the foot of the bed. The chickens occupied the same apartment, laid their eggs in any part of the room they found convenient, and roosted on the rungs of the table. Indeed, the people are so poverty-stricken that the home conditions could hardly be otherwise than comfortless and barren to the last degree. A decade or so ago they were almost starving through the failure of their crops and many were assisted to free emigration across the Atlantic. Since the bridge has been built and the railroad has come, the facilities for marketing their fish and farm produce are greatly improved, and the ordinary necessities of life are within easier reach than they once were. Yet the lacks are still serious, and I have never seen a region more boggy, storm swept, and desolate.