Penelope's Irish Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Chapter XVII. The Glens of Antrim.
'Silent, O Moyle,* be the roar of thy water; Break not, ye breezes, your chain of repose; While murmuring mournfully, Lir's lovely daughter Tells to the night-star her tale of woes.' Thomas Moore.
* The sea between Erin and Alban (Ireland and Scotland) was called in the olden time the Sea of Moyle, from the Moyle, or Mull, of Cantire.
Sorley Boy Hotel,
We are here for a week, in the neighbourhood of Cushendun, just to see a bit of the north-eastern corner of Erin, where, at the end of the nineteenth century, as at the beginning of the seventeenth, the population is almost exclusively Catholic and Celtic. The Gaelic Sorley Boy is, in Irish state papers, Carolus Flavus--yellow-haired Charles--the most famous of the Macdonnell fighters; the one who, when recognised by Elizabeth as Lord of the Route, and given a patent for his estates, burned the document before his retainers, swearing that what had been won by the sword should never be held by the sheepskin. Cushendun was one of the places in our literary pilgrimage, because of its association with that charming Irish poetess and good glenswoman who calls herself 'Moira O'Neill.'
This country of the Glens, east of the river Bann, escaped 'plantation,' and that accounts for its Celtic character. When the grand Ulster chieftains, the O'Donnells and the O'Neills of Donegal, went under, the third great house of Ulster, the 'Macdonnells of the Isles,' was more fortunate, and, thanks to its Scots blood, found favour with James I. It was a Macdonnell who was created first Earl of Antrim, and given a 'grant of the Glens and the Route, from the Curran of Larne to the Cutts of Coleraine.' Ballycastle is our nearest large town, and its great days were all under the Macdonnells, where, in the Franciscan abbey across the bay, it is said the ground 'literally heaves with Clandonnell dust.' Here are buried those of the clan who perished at the hands of Shane O'Neill- -Shane the Proud, who signed himself 'Myself O'Neill,' and who has been called 'the shaker of Ulster'; here, too, are those who fell in the great fight at Slieve-an-Aura up in Glen Shesk, when the Macdonnells finally routed the older lords, the M'Quillans. A clansman once went to the Countess of Antrim to ask the lease of a farm.
"Another Macdonnell?" asked the countess. "Why, you must all be Macdonnells in the Low Glens!"
"Ay," said the man. "Too many Macdonnells now, but not one too many on the day of Aura."
From the cliffs of Antrim we can see on any clear day the Sea of Moyle and the bonnie blue hills of Scotland, divided from Ulster at this point by only twenty miles of sea path. The Irish or Gaels or Scots of 'Uladh' often crossed in their curraghs to this lovely coast of Alba, then inhabited by the Picts. Here, 'when the tide drains out wid itself beyant the rocks,' we sit for many an hour, perhaps on the very spot from which they pushed off their boats. The Mull of Cantire runs out sharply toward you; south of it are Ailsa Craig and the soft Ayrshire coast; north of the Mull are blue, blue mountains in a semicircle, and just beyond them somewhere, Francesca knows, are the Argyleshire Highlands. And oh! the pearl and opal tints that the Irish atmosphere flings over the scene, shifting them ever at will, in misty sun or radiant shower; and how lovely are the too rare bits of woodland! The ground is sometimes white with wild garlic, sometimes blue with hyacinths; the primroses still linger in moist, hidden places, and there are violets and marsh marigolds. Everything wears the colour of Hope. If there are buds that will never bloom and birds that will never fly, the great mother-heart does not know it yet. "I wonder," said Salemina, "if that is why we think of autumn as sad--because the story of the year is known and told?"
Long, long before the Clandonnell ruled these hills and glens and cliffs they were the home of Celtic legend. Over the waters of the wee river Margy, with its half-mile course, often sailed the four white swans, those enchanted children of Lir, king of the Isle of Man, who had been transformed into this guise by their cruel stepmother, with a stroke of her druidical fairy wand. After turning them into four beautiful white swans she pronounced their doom, which was to sail three hundred years on smooth Lough Derryvara, three hundred on the Sea of Erris--sail, and sail, until the union of Largnen, the prince from the north, with Decca, the princess from the south; until the Taillkenn** should come to Erinn, bringing the light of a pure faith, and until they should hear the voice of a Christian bell. They were allowed to keep their own Gaelic speech, and to sing sweet, plaintive, fairy music, which should excel all the music of the world, and which should lull to sleep all who listened to it. We could hear it, we three, for we loved the story; and love opens the ear as well as the heart to all sorts of sounds not heard by the dull and incredulous. You may hear it, too, any fine soft day if you will sit there looking out on Fair Head and Rathlin Island, and read the old fairy tale. When you put down the book you will see Finola, Lir's lovely daughter, in any white-breasted bird; and while she covers her brothers with her wings, she will chant to you her old song in the Gaelic tongue.
** A name given by the Druids to St. Patrick.
'Ah, happy is Lir's bright home today With mirth and music and poet's lay; But gloomy and cold his children's home, For ever tossed on the briny foam. Our wreath-ed feathers are thin and light When the wind blows keen through the wintry night; Yet oft we were robed, long, long ago, In purple mantles and robes of snow. On Moyle's bleak current our food and wine Are sandy seaweed and bitter brine; Yet oft we feasted in days of old, And hazel-mead drank from cups of gold. Our beds are rocks in the dripping caves; Our lullaby song the roar of the waves; But soft, rich couches once we pressed, And harpers lulled us each night to rest. Lonely we swim on the billowy main, Through frost and snow, through storm and rain; Alas for the days when round us moved The chiefs and princes and friends we loved!'+
The Fate of the Children of Lir is the second of Erin's Three Sorrows of Story, and the third and greatest is the Fate of the Sons of Usnach, which has to do with a sloping rock on the north side of Fair Head, five miles from us. Here the three sons of Usnach landed when they returned from Alba to Erin with Deirdre--Deirdre, who was 'beautiful as Helen, and gifted like Cassandra with unavailing prophecy'; and by reason of her beauty many sorrows fell upon the Ultonians.
Naisi, son of Conor, king of Uladh, had fled with Deirdre, daughter of Phelim, the king's story-teller, to a sea-girt islet on Lough Etive, where they lived happily by the chase. Naisi's two brothers went with them, and thus the three sons of Usnach were all in Alba. Then the story goes on to say that Fergus, one of Conor's nobles, goes to seek the exiles, and Naisi and Deirdre, while playing at the chess, hear from the shore 'the cry of a man of Erin.' It is against Deirdre's will that they finally leave Alba with Fergus, who says, "Birthright is first, for ill it goes with a man, although he be great and prosperous, if he does not see daily his native earth."
So they sailed away over the sea, and Deirdre sang this lay as the shores of Alba faded from her sight:-
"My love to thee, O Land in the East, and 'tis ill for me to leave thee, for delightful are thy coves and havens, thy kind, soft, flowery fields, thy pleasant, green-sided hills; and little was our need of departing."
Then in her song she went over the glens of their lordship, naming them all, and calling to mind how here they hunted the stag, here they fished, here they slept, with the swaying fern for pillows, and here the cuckoo called to them. And "Never," she sang, "would I quit Alba were it not that Naisi sailed thence in his ship."
They landed first under Fair Head, and then later at Rathlin Island, where their fate met them at last, as Deirdre had prophesied. It is a sad story, and we can easily weep at the thrilling moment when, there being no man among the Ultonians to do the king's bidding, a Norse captive takes Naisi's magic sword and strikes off the heads of the three sons of Usnach with one swift blow, and Deirdre, falling prone upon the dead bodies, chants a lament; and when she has finished singing, she puts her pale cheek against Naisi's, and dies; and a great cairn is piled over them, and an inscription in Ogam set upon it.
We were full of legendary lore, these days, for we were fresh from a sight of Glen Ariff. Who that has ever chanced to be there in a pelting rain but will remember its innumerable little waterfalls, and the great falls of Ess-na-Crubh and Ess-na-Craoibhe? And who can ever forget the atmosphere of romance that broods over these Irish glens?
We have had many advantages here as elsewhere; for kind Dr. La Touche, Lady Killbally, and Mrs. Colquhoun follow us with letters, and wherever there is an unusual personage in a district we are commended to his or her care. Sometimes it is one of the 'grand quality,' and often it is an Ossianic sort of person like Shaun O'Grady, who lives in a little whitewashed cabin, and who has, like Mr. Yeats's Gleeman, 'the whole Middle Ages under his frieze coat.' The longer and more intimately we know these peasants, the more we realise how much in imagination, or in the clouds, if you will, they live. The ragged man of leisure you meet on the road may be a philosopher, and is still more likely to be a poet; but unless you have something of each in yourself, you may mistake him for a mere beggar.
"The practical ones have all emigrated," a Dublin novelist told us, "and the dreamers are left. The heads of the older ones are filled with poetry and legends; they see nothing as it is, but always through some iridescent-tinted medium. Their waking moments, when not tormented by hunger, are spent in heaven, and they all live in a dream, whether it be of the next world or of a revolution. Effort is to them useless, submission to everybody and everything the only safe course; in a word, fatalism expresses their attitude to life."
Much of this submission to the inevitable is a product of past poverty, misfortune, and famine, and the rest is undoubtedly a trace of the same spirit that we find in the lives and writings of the saints, and which is an integral part of the mystery and the traditions of Romanism. We who live in the bright (and sometimes staring) sunlight of common-sense can hardly hope to penetrate the dim, mysterious world of the Catholic peasant, with his unworldliness and sense of failure.
Dr. Douglas Hyde, an Irish scholar and staunch Protestant, says: "A pious race is the Gaelic race. The Irish Gael is pious by nature. There is not an Irishman in a hundred in whom is the making of an unbeliever. The spirit, and the things of the spirit, affect him more powerfully than the body, and the things of the body . . . What is invisible for other people is visible for him. . . He feels invisible powers before him, and by his side, and at his back, throughout the day and throughout the night . . . His mind on the subject may be summed up in the two sayings: that of the early Church, 'Let ancient things prevail,' and that of St. Augustine, 'Credo quia impossibile.' Nature did not form him to be an unbeliever; unbelief is alien to his mind and contrary to his feelings."
Here, only a few miles away, is the Slemish mountain where St. Patrick, then a captive of the rich cattle-owner Milcho, herded his sheep and swine. Here, when his flocks were sleeping, he poured out his prayers, a Christian voice in Pagan darkness. It was the memory of that darkness, you remember, that brought him back, years after, to convert Milcho. Here, too, they say, lies the great bard Ossian; for they love to think that Finn's son Oisin,++ the hero poet, survived to the time of St. Patrick, three hundred years after the other 'Fianna' had vanished from the earth,--the three centuries being passed in Tir-nan-og, the Land of Youth, where the great Oisin married the king's daughter, Niam of the Golden Hair. 'Ossian after the Fianna' is a phrase which has become the synonym of all survivors' sorrow. Blinded by tears, broken by age, the hero bard when he returns to earth has no fellowship but with grief, and thus he sings:-
'No hero now where heroes hurled,-- Long this night the clouds delay-- No man like me, in all the world, Alone with grief, and grey. Long this night the clouds delay-- I raise their grave carn, stone on stone, For Finn and Fianna passed away-- I, Ossian left alone.'
++Pronounced Isheen' in Munster, Osh'in in Ulster.
In more senses than one Irish folk-lore is Irish history. At least the traditions that have been handed down from one generation to another contain not only the sometimes authentic record of events, but a revelation of the Milesian temperament, with its mirth and its melancholy, its exuberant fancy and its passion. So in these weird tales there is plenty of history, and plenty of poetry, to one who will listen to it; but the high and tragic story of Ireland has been cherished mainly in the sorrowful traditions of a defeated race, and the legends have not yet been wrought into undying verse. Erin's songs of battle could only recount weary successions of Flodden Fields, with never a Bannockburn and its nimbus of victory; for, as Ossian says of his countrymen, "they went forth to the war, but they always fell"; but somewhere in the green isle is an unborn poet who will put all this mystery, beauty, passion, romance, and sadness, these tragic memories, these beliefs, these visions of unfulfilled desire, into verse that will glow on the page and live for ever. Somewhere is a mother who has kept all these things in her heart, and who will bear a son to write them. Meantime, who shall say that they have not been imbedded in the language, as flower petals might be in amber?--that language which, as an English scholar says, "has been blossoming there unseen, like a hidden garland of roses; and whenever the wind has blown from the west, English poetry has felt the vague perfume of it."