Penelope's Irish Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Chapter XX. We evict a tenant.
'Soon as you lift the latch, little ones are meeting you, Soon as you're 'neath the thatch, kindly looks are greeting you; Scarcely have you time to be holding out the fist to them-- Down by the fireside you're sitting in the midst of them.' Francis Fahy.
Of course, we have always intended sooner or later to forsake this life of hotels and lodgings, and become either Irish landlords or tenants, or both, with a view to the better understanding of one burning Irish question. We heard of a charming house in County Down, which could be secured by renting it the first of May for the season; but as we could occupy it only for a month at most we were obliged to forego the opportunity.
"We have been told from time immemorial that absenteeism has been one of the curses of Ireland," I remarked to Salemina; "so, whatever the charms of the cottage in Rostrevor, do not let us take it, and in so doing become absentee landlords."
"It was you two who hired the 'wee theekit hoosie' in Pettybaw," said Francesca. "I am going to be in the vanguard of the next house-hunting expedition; in fact, I have almost made up my mind to take my third of Benella and be an independent householder for a time. If I am ever to learn the management of an establishment before beginning to experiment on Ronald's, now is the proper moment."
"Ronald must have looked the future in the face when he asked you to marry him," I replied, "although it is possible that he looked only at you, and therefore it is his duty to endure your maiden incapacities; but why should Salemina and I suffer you to experiment upon us, pray?"
It was Benella, after all, who inveigled us into making our first political misstep; for, after avoiding the sin of absenteeism, we fell into one almost as black, inasmuch as we evicted a tenant. It is part of Benella's heterogeneous and unusual duty to take a bicycle and scour the country in search of information for us: to find out where shops are, post-office, lodgings, places for good sketches, ruins, pretty roads for walks and drives, and many other things, too numerous to mention. She came home from one of these expeditions flushed with triumph.
"I've got you a house!" she exclaimed proudly. "There's a lady in it now, but she'll move out to-morrow when we move in; and we are to pay seventeen dollars fifty--I mean three pound ten--a week for the house, with privilege of renewal, and she throws in the hired girl." (Benella is hopelessly provincial in the matter of language: butler, chef, boots, footman, scullery-maid, all come under the generic term of 'help.')
"I knew our week at this hotel was out to-morrow," she continued, "and we've about used up this place, anyway, and the new village that I've b'en to is the prettiest place we've seen yet; it's got an up-and-down hill to it, just like home, and the house I've partly rented is opposite a fair green, where there's a market every week, and Wednesday's the day; and we'll save money, for I shan't cost you so much when we can housekeep."
"Would you mind explaining a little more in detail," asked Salemina quietly, "and telling me whether you have hired the house for yourself or for us?"
"For us all," she replied genially--"you don't suppose I'd leave you? I liked the looks of this cottage the first time I passed it, and I got acquainted with the hired girl by going in the side yard and asking for a drink. The next time I went I got acquainted with the lady, who's got the most outlandish name that ever was wrote down, and here it is on a paper; and to-day I asked her if she didn't want to rent her house for a week to three quiet ladies without children and only one of them married and him away. She said it wa'n't her own, and I asked her if she couldn't sublet to desirable parties--I knew she was as poor as Job's turkey by her looks; and she said it would suit her well enough, if she had any place to go. I asked her if she wouldn't like to travel, and she said no. Then I says, 'Wouldn't you like to go to visit some of your folks?' And she said she s'posed she could stop a week with her son's wife, just to oblige us. So I engaged a car to drive you down this afternoon just to look at the place; and if you like it we can easy move over to-morrow. The sun's so hot I asked the stableman if he hadn't got a top buggy, or a surrey, or a carryall; but he never heard tell of any of 'em; he didn't even know a shay. I forgot to tell you the lady is a Protestant, and the hired girl's name is Bridget Thunder, and she's a Roman Catholic, but she seems extra smart and neat. I was kind of in hopes she wouldn't be, for I thought I should enjoy trainin' her, and doin' that much for the country."
And so we drove over to this village of Knockcool (Knockcool, by the way, means 'Hill of Sleep'), as much to make amends for Benella's eccentricities as with any idea of falling in with her proposal. The house proved everything she said, and in Mrs. Wogan Odevaine Benella had found a person every whit as remarkable as herself. She is evidently an Irish gentlewoman of very small means, very flexible in her views and convictions, very talkative and amusing, and very much impressed with Benella as a product of New England institutions. We all took a fancy to one another at first sight, and we heard with real pleasure that her son's wife lived only a few miles away. We insisted on paying the evicted lady the three pounds ten in advance for the first week. She seemed surprised, and we remembered that Irish tenants, though often capable of shedding blood for a good landlord, are generally averse to paying him rent. Mrs. Wogan Odevaine then drove away in high good humour, taking some personal belongings with her, and promising to drink tea with us some time during the week. She kissed Francesca good-bye, told her she was the prettiest creature she had ever seen, and asked if she might have a peep at all her hats and frocks when she came to visit us.
Salemina says that Rhododendron Cottage (pronounced by Bridget Thunder 'Roothythanthrum') being the property of one landlord and the residence of four tenants at the same time makes us in a sense participators in the old system of rundale tenure, long since abolished. The good-will or tenant-right was infinitely subdivided, and the tiniest holdings sometimes existed in thirty-two pieces. The result of this joint tenure was an extraordinary tangle, particularly when it went so far as the subdivision of 'one cow's grass,' or even of a horse, which, being owned jointly by three men, ultimately went lame, because none of them would pay for shoeing the fourth foot.
We have been here five days, and instead of reproving Benella, as we intended, for gross assumption of authority in the matter, we are more than ever her bond-slaves. The place is altogether charming, and here it is for you.
Knockcool Street is Knockcool village itself, as with almost all Irish towns; but the line of little thatched cabins is brightened at the far end by the neat house of Mrs. Wogan Odevaine, set a trifle back in its own garden, by the pillared porch of a modest hotel, and by the barracks of the Royal Irish Constabulary. The sign of the Provincial Bank of Ireland almost faces our windows; and although it is used as a meal-shop the rest of the week, they tell us that two thousand pounds in money is needed there on fair-days. Next to it is a little house, the upper part of which is used as a Methodist chapel; and old Nancy, the caretaker, is already a good friend of ours. It is a humble house of prayer, but Nancy takes much pride in it, and showed us the melodeon, 'worked by a young lady from Rossantach,' the Sunday-school rooms, and even the cupboard where she keeps the jugs for the love-feast and the linen and wine for the sacrament, which is administered once in three years. Next comes the Hoeys' cabin, where we have always a cordial welcome, but where we never go all together, for fear of embarrassing the family, which is a large one--three generations under one roof, and plenty of children in the last. Old Mrs. Hoey does not rightly know her age, she says; but her daughter Ellen was born the year of the Big Wind, and she herself was twenty-two when she was married, and you might allow a year between that and when Ellen was born, and make your own calculation.
She tells many stories of the Big Wind, which we learn was in 1839, making Ellen's age about sixty-one and her mother's eighty-four. The fury of the storm was such that it forced the water of the Lough far ashore, stranding the fish among the rocks, where they were found dead by hundreds. When next morning dawned there was confusion and ruin on every side: the cross had tumbled from the chapel, the tombstones were overturned in the graveyard, trees and branches blocked the roadways, cabins were stripped of their thatches, and cattle found dead in the fields; so it is small wonder old Mrs. Hoey remembers the day of Ellen's birth, weak as she is on all other dates.
Ellen's husband, Miles M'Gillan, is the carpenter on an estate in the neighbourhood. His shop opens out of the cabin, and I love to sit by the Hoey fireside, where the fan bellows, turned by a crank, brings in an instant a fresh flame to the sods of smouldering turf, and watch a wee Colleen Bawn playing among her daddy's shavings, tying them about her waist and fat wrists, hanging them on her ears and in among her brown curls. Mother Hoey says that I do not speak like an American--that I have not so many 'caperin's' in my language, whatever they may be; and so we have long delightful chats together when I go in for a taste of Ellen's griddle bread, cooked over the peat coals. Francesca, meantime, is calling on Mrs. O'Rourke, whose son has taken more than fifty bicycle prizes; and no stranger can come to Knockcool without inspecting the brave show of silver, medals, and china that adorn the bedroom, and make the O'Rourkes the proudest couple in ould Donegal. Phelim O'Rourke smokes his dudeen on a bench by the door, and invites the passer-by to enter and examine the trophies. His trousers are held up with bits of rope arranged as suspenders; indeed, his toilet is so much a matter of strings that it must be a work of time to tie on his clothing in the morning, in case he takes it off at night, which is open to doubt; nevertheless it is he that's the satisfied man, and the luck would be on him as well as on e'er a man alive, were he not kilt wid the cough intirely! Mrs. Phelim's skirt shows a triangle of red flannel behind, where the two ends of the waistband fail to meet by about six inches, but are held together by a piece of white ball fringe. Any informality in this part of her costume is, however, more than atoned for by the presence of a dingy bonnet of magenta velvet, which she always dons for visitors.
The O'Rourke family is the essence of hospitality, so their kitchen is generally full of children and visitors; and on the occasion when Salemina issued from the prize bedroom, the guests were so busy with conversation that, to use their own language, divil a wan of thim clapt eyes on the O'Rourke puppy, and they did not notice that the baste was floundering in a tub of soft, newly made butter standing on the floor. He was indeed desperately involved, being so completely wound up in the waxy mass that he could not climb over the tub's edge. He looked comical and miserable enough in his plight: the children and the visitors thought so, and so did Francesca and I; but Salemina went directly home, and kept her room for an hour. She is so sensitive! Och, thin, it's herself that's the marthyr intirely! We cannot see that the incident affects us so long as we avoid the O'Rourkes' butter; but she says, covering her eyes with her handkerchief and shuddering: "Suppose there are other tubs and other pup-- Oh, I cannot bear the thought of it, dears! Please change the subject, and order me two hard-boiled eggs for dinner."
Leaving Knockcool behind us, we walk along the country road between high, thick hedges: here a clump of weather-beaten trees, there a stretch of bog with silver pools and piles of black turf, then a sudden view of hazy hills, a grove of beeches, a great house with a splendid gateway, and sometimes, riding through it, a figure new to our eyes, a Lady Master of the Hounds, handsome in her habit with red facings. We pass many an 'evicted farm,' the ruined house with the rushes growing all about it, and a lonely goat browsing near; and on we walk, until we can see the roofs of Lisdara's solitary cabin row, huddled under the shadow of a gloomy hill topped by the ruins of an old fort. All is silent, and the blue haze of the peat smoke curls up from the thatch. Lisdara's young people have mostly gone to the Big Country; and how many tears have dropped on the path we are treading, as Peggy and Mary, Cormac and Miles, with a wooden box in the donkey cart behind them, or perhaps with only a bundle hanging from a blackthorn stick, have come down the hill to seek their fortune! Perhaps Peggy is barefooted; perhaps Mary has little luggage beyond a pot of shamrock or a mountain thrush in a wicker cage; but what matter for that? They are used to poverty and hardship and hunger, and although they are going quite penniless to a new country, sure it can be no worse than the old. This is the happy-go-lucky Irish philosophy, and there is mixed with it a deal of simple trust in God.
How many exiles and wanderers, both those who have no fortune and those who have failed to win it, dream of these cabin rows, these sweet-scented boreens with their 'banks of furze unprofitably gay,' these leaking thatches with the purple loosestrife growing in their ragged seams, and, looking backward across the distance of time and space, give the humble spot a tender thought, because after all it was in their dear native isle!
'Pearly are the skies in the country of my fathers, Purple are thy mountains, home of my heart; Mother of my yearning, love of all my longings, Keep me in remembrance long leagues apart.'
I have been thinking in this strain because of an old dame in the first cabin in Lisdara row, whose daughter is in America, and who can talk of nothing else. She shows us the last letter, with its postal order for sixteen shillings, that Mida sent from New York, with little presents for blind Timsy, 'dark since he were three years old,' and for lame Dan, or the 'Bocca,' as he is called in Lisdara. Mida was named for the virgin saint of Killeedy in Limerick.* "And it's she that's good enough to bear a saint's name, glory be to God!" exclaims the old mother returning Mida's photograph to a hole in the wall where the pig cannot possibly molest it.
* Saint Mide, the Brigit of Munster.
At the far end of the row lives 'Omadhaun Pat.' He is a 'little sthrange,' you understand; not because he was born with too small a share of wit, but because he fell asleep one evening when he was lying on the grass up by the old fort, and--'well, he was niver the same thing since.' There are places in Ireland, you must know, where if you lie down upon the green earth and sink into untimely slumber, you will 'wake silly'; or, for that matter, although it is doubtless a risk, you may escape the fate of waking silly, and wake a poet! Carolan fell asleep upon a faery rath, and it was the faeries who filled his ears with music, so that he was haunted by the tunes ever afterward; and perhaps all poets, whether they are conscious of it or not, fall asleep on faery raths before they write sweet songs.
Little Omadhaun Pat is pale, hollow-eyed, and thin; but that, his mother says, is 'because he is over-studyin' for his confirmation.' The great day is many weeks away, but to me it seems likely that, when the examination comes, Pat will be where he will know more than the priests!
Next door lives old Biddy Tuke. She is too aged to work, and she sits in her doorway, always a pleasant figure in her short woollen petticoat, her little shawl, and her neat white cap. She has pitaties for food, with stirabout of Indian meal once a day (oatmeal is too dear), tea occasionally when there is sixpence left from the rent, and she has more than once tasted bacon in her eighty years of life; more than once, she tells me proudly, for it's she that's had the good sons to help her a bit now and then,--four to carry her and one to walk after, which is the Irish notion of an ideal family.
"It's no chuckens I do be havin' now, ma'am," she says, "but it's a darlin' flock I had ten year ago, whin Dinnis was harvestin' in Scotland! Sure it was two-and-twinty chuckens I had on the floore wid meself that year, ma'am."
"Oh, it's a conthrary world, that's a mortial fact!" as Phelim O'Rourke is wont to say when his cough is bad; and for my life I can frame no better wish for ould Biddy Tuke and Omadhaun Pat, dark Timsy and the Bocca, than that they might wake, one of these summer mornings, in the harvest-field of the seventh heaven. That place is reserved for the saints, and surely these unfortunates, acquainted with grief like Another, might without difficulty find entrance there.
I am not wise enough to say how much of all this squalor and wretchedness and hunger is the fault of the people themselves, how much of it belongs to circumstances and environment, how much is the result of past errors of government, how much is race, how much is religion. I only know that children should never be hungry, that there are ignorant human creatures to be taught how to live; and if it is a hard task, the sooner it is begun the better, both for teachers and pupils. It is comparatively easy to form opinions and devise remedies, when one knows the absolute truth of things; but it is so difficult to find the truth here, or at least there are so many and such different truths to weigh in the balance,--the Protestant and the Roman Catholic truth, the landlord's and the tenant's, the Nationalist's and the Unionist's truth! I am sadly befogged, and so, pushing the vexing questions all aside, I take dark Timsy, Bocca Lynch, and Omadhaun Pat up on the green hillside near the ruined fort, to tell them stories, and teach them some of the thousand things that happier, luckier children know.
This is an island of anomalies: the Irish peasants will puzzle you, perplex you, disappoint you with their inconsistencies, but keep from liking them if you can! There are a few cleaner and more comfortable homes in Lisdara and Knockcool than when we came, and Benella has been invaluable, although her reforms, as might be expected, are of an unusual character, and with her the wheels of progress never move silently, as they should, but always squeak. With the two golden sovereigns given her to spend, she has bought scissors, knives, hammers, boards, sewing materials, knitting needles, and yarn,--everything to work with, and nothing to eat, drink, or wear, though Heaven knows there is little enough of such things in Lisdara.
"The quicker you wear 'em out, the better you'll suit me," she says to the awestricken Lisdarians. "I'm a workin' woman myself, an' it's my ladies' money I've spent this time; but I'll make out to keep you in brooms and scrubbin' brushes, if only you'll use 'em! You mustn't take offence at anything I say to you, for I'm part Irish--my grandmother was Mary Boyce of Trim; and if she hadn't come away and settled in Salem, Massachusetts, mebbe I wouldn't have known a scrubbin' brush by sight myself!"