Penelope's Irish Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Chapter XIX. 'In ould Donegal.'
'Here's a health to you, Father O'Flynn! Slainte, and slainte, and slainte agin; Pow'rfulest preacher and tenderest teacher, And kindliest creature in ould Donegal.' Alfred Perceval Graves.
It is a far cry from the kingdom of Kerry to 'ould Donegal,' where we have been travelling for a week, chiefly in the hope of meeting Father O'Flynn. We miss our careless, genial, ragged, southern Paddy just a bit; for he was a picturesque, likable figure, on the whole, and easier to know than this Ulster Irishman, the product of a mixed descent.
We did not stop long in Belfast; for if there is anything we detest, when on our journeys, it is to mix too much with people of industry, thrift, and business sagacity. Sturdy, prosperous, calculating, well-to-do Protestants are well enough in their way, and undoubtedly they make a very good backbone for Ireland; but we crave something more romantic than the citizen virtues, or we should have remained in our own country, where they are tolerably common, although we have not as yet anything approaching over-production.
Belfast, it seems, is, and has always been, a centre of Presbyterianism. The members of the Presbytery protested against the execution of Charles I., and received an irate reply from Milton, who said that 'the blockish presbyters of Clandeboy' were 'egregious liars and impostors,' who meant to stir up rebellion 'from their unchristian synagogue at Belfast in a barbarous nook of Ireland.'
Dr. La Touche writes to Salemina that we need not try to understand all the religious and political complications which surround us. They are by no means as violent or as many as in Thackeray's day, when the great English author found nine shades of politico- religious differences in the Irish Liverpool. As the impartial observer must, in such a case, necessarily displease eight parties, and probably the whole nine, Thackeray advised a rigid abstinence from all intellectual curiosity. Dr. La Touche says, if we wish to know the north better, it will do us no harm to study the Plantation of Ulster, the United Irish movement, Orangeism, Irish Jacobitism, the effect of French and Swiss Republicanism in the evolution of public sentiment, and the close relation and affection that formerly existed between the north of Ireland and New England. (This last topic seems to appeal to Salemina particularly.) He also alludes to Tories and Rapparees, Rousseau and Thomas Paine and Owen Roe O'Neill, but I have entirely forgotten their connection with the subject. Francesca and I are thoroughly enjoying ourselves, as only those people can who never take notes, and never try, when Pandora's box is opened in their neighbourhood, to seize the heterogeneous contents and put them back properly, with nice little labels on them.
Ireland is no longer a battlefield of English parties, neither is it wholly a laboratory for political experiment; but from having been both the one and the other, its features are a bit knocked out of shape and proportion, as it were. We have bought two hideous engravings of the Battle of the Boyne and the Secret of England's Greatness; and whenever we stay for a night in any inn where perchance these are not, we pin them on the wall, and are received into the landlady's heart at once. I don't know which is the finer study: the picture of his Majesty William III. crossing the Boyne, or the plump little Queen presenting a huge family Bible to an apparently uninterested black youth. In the latter work of art the eye is confused at first as the three principal features approach each other very nearly in size, and Francesca asked innocently, "Which is the secret of England's greatness--the Bible, the Queen, or the black man?"
This is a thriving town, and we are at a smart hotel which had for two years an English manager. The scent of the roses hangs round it still, but it is gradually growing fainter under the stress of small patronage and other adverse circumstances. The table linen is a trifle ragged, though clean; but the circle of red and green wineglasses by each plate, an array not borne out by the number of vintages on the wine-list, the tiny ferns scattered everywhere in innumerable pots, and the dozens of minute glass vases, each holding a few blue hyacinths, give an air of urban elegance to the dining- room. The guests are requested, in printed placards, to be punctual at meals, especially at the seven-thirty table d'hote dinner, and the management itself is punctual at this function about seven forty-five. This is much better than in the south, where we, and sixty other travellers, were once kept waiting fifteen minutes between the soup and the fish course. When we were finally served with half-cooked turbot, a pleasant-spoken waitress went about to each table, explaining to the irate guests that the cook was 'not at her best.' We caught a glimpse of her as she was being borne aloft, struggling and eloquent, and were able to understand the reason of her unachieved ideals.
There is nothing sacred about dinner to the average Irishman; he is willing to take anything that comes, as a rule, and cooking is not regarded as a fine art here. Perhaps occasional flashes of starvation and seasons of famine have rendered the Irish palate easier to please; at all events, wherever the national god may be, its pedestal is not in the stomach. Our breakfast, day after day, week after week, has been bacon and eggs. One morning we had tomatoes on bacon, and concluded that the cook had experienced religion or fallen in love, since both these operations send a flush of blood to the brain and stimulate the mental processes. But no; we found simply that the eggs had not been brought in time for breakfast. There is no consciousness of monotony--far from it; the nobility and gentry can at least eat what they choose, and they choose bacon and eggs. There is no running of the family gamut, either, from plain boiled to omelet; poached or fried eggs on bacon it is, weekdays and Sundays. The luncheon, too, is rarely inspired: they eat cold joint of beef with pickled beetroot, or mutton and boiled potatoes, with unfailing regularity, finishing off at most hotels with semolina pudding, a concoction intended for, and appealing solely to, the taste of the toothless infant, who, having just graduated from rubber rings, has not a jaded palate.
How the long breakfast bill at an up-to-date Belfast hostelry awed us, after weeks of bacon and eggs! The viands on the menu swam together before our dazed eyes.
Porridge Fillets of Plaice Whiting Fried Sole Savoury Omelet Kidneys and Bacon Cold Meats.
I looked at this array like one in a dream, realising that I had lost the power of selection, and remembering the scientific fact that unused faculties perish for want of exercise. The man who was serving us rattled his tray, shifted his weight wearily from one foot to the other and cleared his throat suggestively; until at last I said hastily, "Bacon and eggs, please," and Salemina, the most critical person in the party, murmured, "The same."
It is odd to see how soon, if one has a strong sense of humanity, one feels at home in a foreign country. I, at least, am never impressed by the differences, but only by the similarities, between English-speaking peoples. We take part in the life about us here, living each experience as fully as we can, whether it be a 'hiring fair' in Donegal or a pilgrimage to the Doon 'Well of Healing.' Not the least part of the pleasure is to watch its effect upon the Derelict. Where, or in what way, could three persons hope to gain as much return from a monthly expenditure of twenty dollars, added to her living and travelling expenses, as we have had in Miss Benella Dusenberry? We sometimes ask ourselves what we found to do with our time before she came into the family, and yet she is as busy as possible herself.
Having twice singed Francesca's beautiful locks, she no longer attempts hair-dressing; while she never accomplishes the lacing of an evening dress without putting her knee in the centre of your back once, at least, during the operation. She can button shoes, and she can mend and patch and darn to perfection; she has a frenzy for small laundry operations, and, after washing the windows of her room, she adorns every pane of glass with a fine cambric handkerchief, and, stretching a line between the bedpost and the bureau knob, she hangs out her white neckties and her bonnet strings to dry. She has learned to pack reasonably well, too. But if she has another passion beside those of washing and mending, it is for making bags. She buys scraps of gingham and print, and makes cases of every possible size and for every possible purpose; so that all our personal property, roughly speaking--hair-brushes, shoes, writing materials, pincushions, photographs, underclothing, gloves, medicines,--is bagged. The strings in the bags pull both ways, and nothing is commoner than to see Benella open and close seventeen or eighteen of them when she is searching for Francesca's rubbers or my gold thimble. But what other lady's-maid or travelling companion ever had half the Derelict's unique charm and interest, half her conversational power, her unusual and original defects and virtues? Put her in a third-class carriage when we go 'first,' and she makes friends with all her fellow-travellers, discussing Home Rule or Free Silver with the utmost prejudice and vehemence, and freeing her mind on any point, to the delight of the natives. Occasionally, when borne along by the joy of argument, she forgets to change at the point of junction, and has to be found and dragged out of the railway carriage; occasionally, too, she is left behind when taking a cheerful cup of tea at a way station, but this is comparatively seldom. Her stories of life belowstairs in the various inns and hotels, her altercations with housemaid or boots or landlady in our behalf, all add a zest to the day's doings.
Benella's father was an itinerant preacher, her mother the daughter of a Vermont farmer; and although she was left an orphan at ten years, educating and supporting herself as best she could after that, she is as truly a combination of both parents as her name is a union of their two names.
"I'm so 'fraid I shan't run across any of grandmother's folks over here, after all," she said yesterday, "though I ask every nice- appearin' person I meet anywheres if he or she's any kin to Mary Boyce of Trim; and then, again, I'm scared to death for fear I shall find I'm own cousin to one of these here critters that ain't brushed their hair nor washed their apurns for a month o' Sundays! I declare, it keeps me real nerved up . . . I think it's partly the climate that makes 'em so slack," she philosophised, pinning a new bag on her knee, and preparing to backstitch the seam. "There's nothin' like a Massachusetts winter for puttin' the git-up-an'-git into you. Land! you've got to move round smart, or you'd freeze in your tracks. These warm, moist places always makes folks lazy; and when they're hot enough, if you take notice, it makes heathen of 'em. It always seems so queer to me that real hot weather and the Christian religion don't seem to git along together. P'r'aps it's just as well that the idol-worshippers should get used to heat in this world, for they'll have it consid'able hot in the next one, I guess! And see here, Mrs. Beresford, will you get me ten cents'--I mean sixpence--worth o' red gingham to make Miss Monroe a bag for Mr. Macdonald's letters? They go sprawlin' all over her trunk; and there's so many of 'em I wish to the land she'd send 'em to the bank while she's travellin'!"