Penelope's Irish Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Chapter XI. 'The rale thing.'
'Her ancestors were kings before Moses was born, Her mother descended from great Grana Uaile.' Charles Lever. Knockarney House, Lough Lein.
We are in the province of Munster, the kingdom of Kerry, the town of Ballyfuchsia, and the house of Mrs. Mullarkey. Knockarney House is not her name for it; I made it myself. Killarney is church of the sloe-trees; and as kill is church, the 'onderhanded manin'' of 'arney' must be something about sloes; then, since knock means hill, Knockarney should be hill of the sloe-trees.
I have not lost the memory of Jenny Geddes and Tam o' the Cowgate, but Penelope O'Connor, daughter of the king of Connaught, is more frequently present in my dreams. I have by no means forgotten that there was a time when I was not Irish, but for the moment I am of the turf, turfy. Francesca is really as much in love with Ireland as I, only, since she has in her heart a certain tender string pulling her all the while to the land of the heather, she naturally avoids comparisons. Salemina, too, endeavours to appear neutral, lest she should betray an inexplicable interest in Dr. La Touche's country. Benella and I alone are really free to speak the brogue, and carry our wild harps slung behind us, like Moore's minstrel boy. Nothing but the ignorance of her national dishes keeps Benella from entire allegiance to this island; but she thinks a people who have grown up without a knowledge of doughnuts, baked beans, and blueberry-pie must be lacking in moral foundations. There is nothing extraordinary in all this; for the Irish, like the Celtic tribes everywhere, have always had a sort of fascinating power over people of other races settling among them, so that they become completely fused with the native population, and grow to be more Irish than the Irish themselves.
We stayed for a few days in the best hotel; it really was quite good, and not a bit Irish. There was a Swiss manager, an English housekeeper, a French head waiter, and a German office clerk. Even Salemina, who loves comforts, saw that we should not be getting what is known as the real thing, under these circumstances, and we came here to this--what shall I call Knockarney House? It was built originally for a fishing lodge by a sporting gentleman, who brought parties of friends to stop for a week. On his death is passed somehow into Mrs. Mullarkey's fair hands, and in a fatal moment she determined to open it occasionally to 'paying guests,' who might wish a quiet home far from the madding crowd of the summer tourist. This was exactly what we did want, and here we encamped, on the half-hearted advice of some Irish friends in the town, who knew nothing else more comfortable to recommend.
"With us, small, quiet, or out-of-the-way places are never clean; or if they are, then they are not Irish," they said. "You had better see Ireland from the tourist's point of view for a few years yet, until we have learned the art of living; but if you are determined to know the humours of the people, cast all thought of comfort behind you."
So we did, and we afterward thought that this would be a good motto for Mrs. Mullarkey to carve over the door of Knockarney House. (My name for it is adopted more or less by the family, though Francesca persists in dating her letters to Ronald from 'The Rale Thing,' which it undoubtedly is.) We take almost all the rooms in the house, but there are a few other guests. Mrs. Waterford, an old lady of ninety-three, from Mullinavat, is here primarily for her health, and secondarily to dispose of threepenny shares in an antique necklace, which is to be raffled for the benefit of a Roman Catholic chapel. Then we have a fishing gentleman and his bride from Glasgow, and occasional bicyclers who come in for a dinner, a tea, or a lodging. These three comforts of a home are sometimes quite indistinguishable with us: the tea is frequently made up of fragments of dinner, and the beds are always sprinkled with crumbs. Their source is a mystery, unless they fall from the clothing of the chambermaids, who frequently drop hairpins and brooches and buttons between the sheets, and strew whisk brooms and scissors under the blankets.
We have two general servants, who are supposed to do all the work of the house, and who are as amiable and obliging and incapable as they well can be. Oonah generally waits upon the table, and Molly cooks; at least she cooks now and then when she is not engaged with Peter in the vegetable garden or the stable. But whatever happens, Mrs. Mullarkey, as a descendant of one of the Irish kings, is to be looked upon only as an inspiring ideal, inciting one to high and ever higher flights of happy incapacity. Benella ostensibly oversees the care of our rooms, but she is comparatively helpless in such a kingdom of misrule. Why demand clean linen when there is none; why seek for a towel at midday when it is never ironed until evening; how sweep when a broom is all inadequate to the task? Salemina's usual remark, on entering a humble hostelry anywhere, is: "If the hall is as dirty as this, what must the kitchen be! Order me two hard-boiled eggs, please!"
"Use your 'science,' Benella," I say to that discouraged New England maiden, who has never looked at her philosophy from its practical or humorous side. "If the universe is pure mind and there is no matter, then this dirt is not a real thing, after all. It seems, of course, as if it were thicker under the beds and bureaus than elsewhere, but I suppose our evil thoughts focus themselves there rather than in the centre of the room. Similarly, if the broom handle is broken, deny the dirt away--denial is much less laborious than sweeping; bring 'the science' down to these simple details of everyday life, and you will make converts by dozens, only pray don't remove, either by suggestion or any cruder method, the large key that lies near the table leg, for it is a landmark; and there is another, a crochet needle, by the washstand, devoted to the same purpose. I wish to show them to the Mullarkey when we leave."
Under our educational regime, the 'metaphysical' veneer, badly applied in the first place, and wholly unsuited to the foundation material, is slowly disappearing, and our Benella is gradually returning to her normal self. Perhaps nothing has been more useful to her development than the confusion of Knockarney House.
Our windows are supported on decrepit tennis rackets and worn-out hearth brushes; the blinds refuse to go up or down; the chairs have weak backs or legs; the door knobs are disassociated from their handles. As for our food, we have bacon and eggs, with coffee made, I should think, of brown beans and liquorice, for breakfast; a bit of sloppy chicken, or fish and potato, with custard pudding or stewed rhubarb, for dinner; and a cold supper of--oh! anything that occurs to Molly at the last moment. Nothing ever occurs either to Molly or Oonah at any previous moment, and in that they are merely conforming to the universal habit. Last week, when we were starting for Valencia Island, the Ballyfuchsia stationmaster was absent at a funeral; meantime the engine had 'gone cold on the engineer,' and the train could not leave till twelve minutes after the usual time. We thought we must have consulted a wrong time-table, and asked confirmation of a man who seemed to have some connection with the railway. Goaded by his ignorance, I exclaimed, "Is it possible you don't know the time the trains are going?"
"Begorra, how should I?" he answered. "Faix, the thrains don't always be knowin' thimselves!"
The starting of the daily 'Mail Express' from Ballyfuchsia is a time of great excitement and confusion, which on some occasions increases to positive panic. The stationmaster, armed with a large dinner- bell, stands on the platform, wearing an expression of anxiety ludicrously unsuited to the situation. The supreme moment had really arrived some time before, but he is waiting for Farmer Brodigan with his daughter Kathleen, and the Widdy Sullivan, and a few other local worthies who are a 'thrifle late on him.' Finally they come down the hill, and he paces up and down the station ringing the bell and uttering the warning cry, "This thrain never shtops! This thrain never shtops! This thrain never shtops!"-- giving one the idea that eternity, instead of Killarney, must be the final destination of the passengers. The clock in the Ballyfuchsia telegraph and post office ceases to go for twenty-four hours at a time, and nobody heeds it, while the postman always has a few moments' leisure to lay down his knapsack of letters and pitch quoits with the Royal Irish Constabulary. However, punctuality is perhaps an individual virtue more than an exclusively national one. I am not sure that we Americans would not be more agreeable if we spent a month in Ireland every year, and perhaps Ireland would profit from a month in America.
At the Brodigans' (Mr. Brodigan is a large farmer, and our nearest neighbour) all the clocks are from ten to twenty minutes fast or slow; and what a peaceful place it is! The family doesn't care when it has its dinner, and, mirabile dictu, the cook doesn't care either!
"If you have no exact time to depend upon, how do you catch trains?" I asked Mr. Brodigan.
"Sure that's not an everyday matter, and why be foostherin' over it? But we do, four times out o' five, ma'am!"
"How do you like it that fifth time when you miss it?"
"Sure it's no more throuble to you to miss it the wan time than to hurry five times! A clock is an overrated piece of furniture, to my mind, Mrs. Beresford, ma'am. A man can ate whin he's hungry, go to bed whin he's sleepy, and get up whin he's slept long enough; for faith and it's thim clocks he has inside of himself that don't need anny winding!"
"What if you had a business appointment with a man in the town, and missed the train?" I persevered.
"Trains is like misfortunes; they never come singly, ma'am. Wherever there's a station the trains do be dhroppin' in now and again, and what's the differ which of thim you take?"
"The man who is waiting for you at the other end of the line may not agree with you," I suggested.
"Sure, a man can always amuse himself in a town, ma'am. If it's your own business you're coming on, he knows you'll find him; and if it's his business, then begorra let him find you!" Which quite reminded me of what the Irish elf says to the English elf in Moira O'Neill's fairy story: "A waste of time? Why, you've come to a country where there's no such thing as a waste of time. We have no value for time here. There is lashings of it, more than anybody knows what to do with."
I suppose there is somewhere a golden mean between this complete oblivion of time and our feverish American hurry. There is a 'tedious haste' in all people who make wheels and pistons and engines, and live within sound of their everlasting buzz and whir and revolution; and there is ever a disposition to pause, rest, and consider on the part of that man whose daily tasks are done in serene collaboration with dew and rain and sun. One cannot hurry Mother Nature very much, after all, and one who has much to do with her falls into a peaceful habit of mind. The mottoes of the two nations are as well rendered in the vernacular as by any formal or stilted phrases. In Ireland the spoken or unspoken slogan is, 'Take it aisy'; in America, 'Keep up with the procession'; and between them lie all the thousand differences of race, climate, temperament, religion, and government.
I don't suppose there is a nation on the earth better developed on what might be called the train-catching side than we of the Big Country, and it is well for us that there is born every now and again among us a dreamer who is (blessedly) oblivious of time-tables and market reports; who has been thinking of the rustling of the corn, not of its price. It is he, if we do not hurry him out of his dream, who will sound the ideal note in our hurly-burly and bustle of affairs. He may never discover a town site, but he will create new worlds for us to live in, and in the course of a century the coming Matthew Arnold will not be minded to call us an unimaginative and uninteresting people.