Penelope's Irish Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Chapter XIII. 'O! the sound of the Kerry dancing.'
'The light-hearted daughters of Erin, Like the wild mountain deer they can bound; Their feet never touch the green island, But music is struck from the ground. And oft in the glens and green meadows, The ould jig they dance with such grace, That even the daisies they tread on, Look up with delight in their face.' James M'Kowen.
One of our favourite diversions is an occasional glimpse of a 'crossroads dance' on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, when all the young people of the district are gathered together. Their religious duties are over with their confessions and their masses, and the priests encourage these decorous Sabbath gaieties. A place is generally chosen where two or four roads meet, and the dancers come from the scattered farmhouses in every direction. In Ballyfuchsia, they dance on a flat piece of road under some fir-trees and larches, with stretches of mountain covered with yellow gorse or purple heather, and the quiet lakes lying in the distance. A message comes down to us at Ardnagreena--where we commonly spend our Sunday afternoons--that they expect a good dance, and the blind boy is coming to fiddle; and 'so if you will be coming up, it's welcome you'll be.' We join them about five o'clock--passing, on our way, groups of 'boys' of all ages from sixteen upwards, walking in twos and threes, and parties of three or four girls by themselves; for it would not be etiquette for the boys and girls to walk together, such strictness is observed in these matters about here.
When we reach the rendezvous we find quite a crowd of young men and maidens assembled; the girls all at one side of the road, neatly dressed in dark skirts and light blouses, with the national woollen shawl over their heads. Two wide stone walls, or dykes, with turf on top, make capital seats, and the boys are at the opposite side, as custom demands. When a young man wants a partner, he steps across the road and asks a colleen, who lays aside her shawl, generally giving it to a younger sister to keep until the dance is over, when the girls go back to their own side of the road and put on their shawls again. Upon our arrival we find the 'sets' are already in progress; a 'set' being a dance like a very intricate and very long quadrille. We are greeted with many friendly words, and the young boatmen and farmers' sons ask the ladies, "Will you be pleased to dance, miss?" Some of them are shy, and say they are not familiar with the steps; but their would-be partners remark encouragingly: "Sure, and what matter? I'll see you through." Soon all are dancing, and the state of the road is being discussed with as much interest as the floor of a ballroom. Eager directions are given to the more ignorant newcomers, such as, "Twirl your girl, captain!" or "Turn your back to your face!"--rather a difficult direction to carry out, but one which conveys its meaning. Salemina confided to her partner that she feared she was getting a bit old to dance. He looked at her grey hair carefully for a moment, and then said chivalrously: "I'd not say that that was old age, ma'am. I'd say it was eddication."
When the sets, which are very long and very decorous, are finished, sometimes a jig is danced for our benefit. The spectators make a ring, and the chosen dancers go into the middle, where their steps are watched by a most critical and discriminating audience with the most minute and intense interest. Our Molly is one of the best jig dancers among the girls here (would that she were half as clever at cooking!); but if you want to see an artist of the first rank, you must watch Kitty O'Rourke, from the neighbouring village of Dooclone. The half door of the barn is carried into the ring by one or two of her admirers, whom she numbers by the score, and on this she dances her famous jig polthogue, sometimes alone and sometimes with Art Rooney, the only worthy partner for her in the kingdom of Kerry. Art's mother, 'Bid' Rooney, is a keen matchmaker, and we heard her the other day advising her son, who was going to Dooclone, to have a 'weeny court' with his colleen, to put a clane shirt on him in the middle of the week, and disthract Kitty intirely by showin' her he had three of thim, annyway!
Kitty is a beauty, and doesn't need to be made 'purty wid cows'--a feat that the old Irishman proposed to do when he was consummating a match for his plain daughter. But the gifts of the gods seldom come singly, and Kitty is well fortuned as well as beautiful; fifty pounds, her own bedstead and its fittings, a cow, a pig, and a web of linen are supposed to be the dazzling total, so that it is small wonder her deluderin' ways are maddening half the boys in Ballyfuchsia and Dooclone. She has the prettiest pair of feet in the County Kerry, and when they are encased in a smart pair of shoes, bought for her by Art's rival, the big constable from Ballyfuchsia barracks, how they do twinkle and caper over that half barn door, to be sure! Even Murty, the blind fiddler, seems intoxicated by the plaudits of the bystanders, and he certainly never plays so well for anybody as for Kitty of the Meadow. Blindness is still common in Ireland, owing to the smoke in these wretched cabins, where sometimes a hole in the roof is the only chimney; and although the scores of blind fiddlers no longer traverse the land, finding a welcome at all firesides, they are still to be found in every community. Blind Murty is a favourite guest at the Rooney's cabin, which is never so full that there is not room for one more. There is a small wooden bed in the main room, a settle that opens out at night, with hens in the straw underneath, where a board keeps them safely within until they have finished laying. There are six children besides Art, and my ambition is to photograph, or, still better, to sketch the family circle together; the hens cackling under the settle, the pig ('him as pays the rint') snoring in the doorway, as a proprietor should, while the children are picturesquely grouped about. I never succeed, because Mrs. Rooney sees us as we turn into the lane, and calls to the family to make itself ready, as quality's comin' in sight. The older children can scramble under the bed, slip shoes over their bare feet, and be out in front of the cabin without the loss of a single minute. 'Mickey jew'l,' the baby, who is only four, but 'who can handle a stick as bould as a man,' is generally clad in a ragged skirt, slit every few inches from waist to hem, so that it resembles a cotton fringe. The little coateen that tops this costume is sometimes, by way of diversion, transferred to the dog, who runs off with it; but if we appear at this unlucky moment, there is a stylish yoke of pink ribbon and soiled lace which one of the girls pins over Mickey jew'l's naked shoulders.
Moya, who has this eye for picturesque propriety, is a great friend of mine, and has many questions about the Big Country when we take our walks. She longs to emigrate, but the time is not ripe yet. "The girls that come back has a lovely style to thim," she says wistfully, "but they're so polite they can't live in the cabins anny more and be contint." The 'boys' are not always so improved, she thinks. "You'd niver find a boy in Ballyfuchsia that would say annything rude to a girl; but when they come back from Ameriky, it's too free they've grown intirely." It is a dull life for them, she says, when they have once been away; though to be sure Ballyfuchsia is a pleasanter place than Dooclone, where the priest does not approve of dancing, and, however secretly you may do it, the curate hears of it, and will speak your name in church.
It was Moya who told me of Kitty's fortune. "She's not the match that Farmer Brodigan's daughter Kathleen is, to be sure; for he's a rich man, and has given her an iligant eddication in Cork, so that she can look high for a husband. She won't be takin' up wid anny of our boys, wid her two hundred pounds and her twenty cows and her pianya. Och, it's a thriminjus player she is, ma'am. She's that quick and that strong that you'd say she wouldn't lave a string on it."
Some of the young men and girls never see each other before the marriage, Moya says. "But sure," she adds shyly, "I'd niver be contint with that, though some love matches doesn't turn out anny better than the others."
"I hope it will be a love match with you, and that I shall dance at your wedding, Moya," I say to her smilingly.
"Faith, I'm thinkin' my husband's intinded mother died an old maid in Dublin," she answers merrily. "It's a small fortune I'll be havin' and few lovers; but you'll be soon dancing at Kathleen Brodigan's wedding, or Kitty O'Rourke's, maybe."
I do not pretend to understand these humble romances, with their foundations of cows and linen, which are after all no more sordid than bank stock and trousseaux from Paris. The sentiment of the Irish peasant lover seems to be frankly and truly expressed in the verses:-
'Oh! Moya's wise and beautiful, has wealth in plenteous store, And fortune fine in calves and kine, and lovers half a score; Her faintest smile would saints beguile, or sinners captivate, Oh! I think a dale of Moya, but I'll surely marry Kate. . . . . . 'Now to let you know the raison why I cannot have my way, Nor bid my heart decide the part the lover must obey- The calves and kine of Kate are nine, while Moya owns but eight, So with all my love for Moya I'm compelled to marry Kate!'
I gave Moya a lace neckerchief the other day, and she was rarely pleased, running into the cabin with it and showing it to her mother with great pride. After we had walked a bit down the boreen she excused herself for an instant, and, returning to my side, explained that she had gone back to ask her mother to mind the kerchief, and not let the 'cow knock it'!
Lady Kilbally tells us that some of the girls who work in the mills deny themselves proper food, and live on bread and tea for a month, to save the price of a gay ribbon. This is trying, no doubt, to a philanthropist, but is it not partly a starved sense of beauty asserting itself? If it has none of the usual outlets, where can imagination express itself if not in some paltry thing like a ribbon?