Penelope's Irish Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Chapter XXII. The Weeping West.
'Veiled in your mist, and diamonded with showers.' Alfred Austin.
Shan Van Vocht Hotel,
Shan Van Vocht means in English the 'Poor Little Old Woman,' one of the many endearing names given to Ireland in the Gaelic. There is, too, a well-known rebel song called by this title--one which was not only written in Irish and English, but which was translated into French for the soldiers at Brest who were to invade Ireland under Hoche.
We had come from Knockcool, Donegal, to Westport, in County Mayo, and the day was enlivened by two purely Irish touches, one at the beginning and one at the end. We alighted at a certain railway junction to await our train, and were interested in a large detachment of soldiers--leaving for a long journey, we judged, by the number of railway carriages and the amount of luggage and stores. In every crowded compartment there were two or three men leaning out over the locked doors; for the guard was making ready to start. All were chatting gaily with their sweethearts, wives, and daughters, save one gloomy fellow sitting alone in a corner, searching the crowd with sad eyes for a wished-for face or a last greeting. The bell rang, the engine stirred; suddenly a pretty, rosy girl flew breathlessly down the platform, pushing her way through the groups of onlookers. The man's eyes lighted; he rose to his feet, but the other fellows blocked the way; the door was locked, and he had but one precious moment. Still he was equal to the emergency, for he raised his fist and with one blow shattered the window, got his kiss, and the train rumbled away, with his victorious smile set in a frame of broken glass! I liked that man better than any one I've seen since Himself deserted me for his Duty! How I hope the pretty girl will be faithful, and how I hope that an ideal lover will not be shot in South Africa!
And if he was truly Irish, so was the porter at a little way station where we stopped in the dark, after being delayed interminably at Claremorris by some trifling accident. We were eight persons packed into a second-class carriage, and totally ignorant of our whereabouts; but the porter, opening the door hastily, shouted, "Is there anny one there for here?"--a question so vague and illogical that none of us said anything in reply, but simply gazed at one another, and then laughed as the train went on.
We are on a here-to-day-and-gone-to-morrow journey, determined to avoid the railways, and travel by private conveyance and the public 'long cars,' just for a glimpse of the Weeping West before we settle down quietly in County Meath for our last few weeks of Irish life.
Thus far it has been a pursuit of the picturesque under umbrellas; in fact, we're desthroyed wid the dint of the damp! 'Moist and agreeable--that's the Irish notion both for climate and company.' If the barometer bore any relation to the weather, we could plan our drives with more discretion; but it sometimes remains as steady as a rock during two days of sea mist, and Francesca, finding it wholly regardless of gentle tapping, lost her temper on one occasion and rapped it so severely as to crack the glass. That this peculiarity of Irish barometers has been noted before we are sure, because of this verse written by a native bard:-
'When the glass is up to thirty, Be sure the weather will be dirty. When the glass is high, O very! There'll be rain in Cork and Kerry. When the glass is low, O Lork! There'll be rain in Kerry and Cork!'
I might add:-
And when the glass has climbed its best, The sky is weeping in the West.
The national rainbow is as deceitful as the barometer, and it is no uncommon thing for us to have half a dozen of them in a day, between heavy showers, like the smiles and tears of Irish character; though, to be sure, one does not need to be an Irish patriot to declare that a fine day in this country is worth three fine days anywhere else. The present weather is accounted for partially by the fact that, as Horace Walpole said, summer has set in with its usual severity, and the tourist is abroad in the land.
I am not sure but that we belong to the hated class for the moment, though at least we try to emulate tourist virtues, if there are any, and avoid tourist vices, which is next to impossible, as they are the fruit of the tour itself. It is the circular tour which, in its effect upon the great middle class, is the most virulent and contagious, and which breeds the most offensive habits of thought and speech. The circular tour is a magnificent idea, a praiseworthy business scheme; it has educated the minds of millions and why it should have ruined their manners is a mystery, unless indeed they had none when they were at home. Some of our fellow-travellers with whom we originally started disappear every day or two, to join us again. We lose them temporarily when we take a private conveyance or when they stop at a cheap hotel, but we come altogether again on coach or long car; and although they have torn off many coupons in the interval, their remaining stock seems to assure us of their society for days to come.
We have a Protestant clergyman who is travelling for his health, but beguiling his time by observations for a volume to be called The Relation between Priests and Pauperism. It seems, at first thought, as if the circular coupon system were ill fitted to furnish him with corroborative detail; but inasmuch as every traveller finds in a country only, so to speak, what he brings to it, he will gather statistics enough. Those persons who start with a certain bias of mind in one direction seldom notice any facts that would throw out of joint those previously amassed; they instinctively collect the ones that 'match,' all others having a tendency to disturb the harmony of the original scheme. The clergyman's travelling companion is a person who possesses not a single opinion, conviction, or trait in common with him; so we conclude that they joined forces for economy's sake. This comrade we call 'the man with the evergreen heart,' for we can hardly tell by his appearance whether he is an old young man or a young old one. With his hat on he is juvenile; when he removes it, he is so distinctly elderly that we do not know whether to regard him as damaged youth or well- preserved old age; but he transfers his solicitous attentions to lady after lady, rebuffs not having the slightest effect upon his warm, susceptible, ardent nature. We suppose that he is single, but we know that he can be married at a moment's notice by anybody who is willing to accept the risks of the situation. Then we have a nice schoolmaster, so agreeable that Salemina, Francesca, and I draw lots every evening as to who shall sit beside him next day. He has just had seventy boys down with measles at the same time, giving prizes to those who could show the best rash! Salemina is no friend to the competitive system in education, but this appealed to her as being as wise as it was whimsical.
We have also in our company an indiscreet and inflammable Irishman from Wexford and a cutler from Birmingham, who lose no opportunity to have a conversational scrimmage. When the car stops to change or water the horses (and as for this last operation, our steeds might always manage it without loss of time by keeping their mouths open), we generally hear something like this; for although the two gentlemen have never met before, they fight as if they had known each other all their lives.
Mr. Shamrock. "Faith, then, if you don't like the hotels and the railroads, go to Paris or London; we've done widout you up to now, and we can kape on doing widout you! We'd have more money to spind in entertainin' you if the government hadn't taken three million of pounds out of us to build fortifications in China."
Mr. Rose. "That's all bosh and nonsense; you wouldn't know how to manage an hotel if you had the money."
Mr. Shamrock. "If we can't make hotel-kapers, it's soldiers we can make; and be the same token you can't manage India or Canada widout our help! Faith, England owes Ireland more than she can pay, and it's not her business to be thravelin' round criticisin' the throubles she's helped to projuce."
Mr. Rose. "William Ewart Gladstone did enough for your island to make up for all the harm that the other statesmen may or may not have done."
Mr. Shamrock, touched in his most vulnerable point, shrieks above the rattle of the wheels: "The wurrst statesman that iver put his name to paper was William Ewart Gladstone!"
Mr. Rose. "The best, I say!"
Mr. Shamrock. "I say the wurrst!"
Mr. Rose. "The best!!"
Mr. Shamrock. "The wurrst!!"
Mr. Rose (after a pause). "It's your absentee landlords that have done the mischief. I'd hang every one of them, if I had my way."
Mr. Shamrock. "Faith, they'd be absent thin, sure enough!"
And at this everybody laughs, and the trouble is over for a brief space, much to the relief of Mrs. Shamrock, until her husband finds himself, after a little, sufficiently calm to repeat a Cockney anecdote, which is received by Mr. Rose in resentful silence, it being merely a description of the common bat, an unfortunate animal that, according to Mr. Shamrock, "'as no 'ole to 'ide in, no 'ands to 'old by, no 'orns to 'urt with, though Nature 'as given 'im 'ooks be'ind to 'itch 'imself up by."
The last two noteworthy personages in our party are a dapper Frenchman, who is in business at Manchester, and a portly Londoner, both of whom are seeing Ireland for the first time. The Frenchman does not grumble at the weather, for he says that in Manchester it rains twice a day all the year round, save during the winter, when it commonly rains all day.
Sir James Paget, in an address on recreation, defined its chief element to be surprise. If that is true, the portly Londoner must be exhilarated beyond words. But with him the sensation does not stop with surprise: it speedily becomes amazement, and then horror; for he is of the comparative type, and therefore sees things done and hears things said, on every hand, that are not said and done at all in the same way in London. He sees people--ay, and policemen-- bicycling on footpaths and riding without lamps, and is horrified to learn that they are seldom, if ever, prosecuted. He is shocked at the cabins, and the rocks, and the beggar children, and the lack of trees; at the lack of logic, also, and the lack of shoes; at the prevalence of the brogue; above all, at the presence of the pig in the parlour. He is outraged at the weather, and he minds getting wet the more because he hates Irish whisky. He keeps a little notebook, and he can hardly wait for dinner to be over, he is so anxious to send a communication (probably signed 'Veritas') to the London Times.
The multiplicity of rocks and the absence of trees are indeed the two most striking features of the landscape; and yet Boate says, 'In ancient times as long as the land was in full possession of the Irish themselves, all Ireland was very full of woods on every side, as evidently appeareth by the writings of Giraldus Cambrensis.' But this was long ago,-
'Ere the emerald gem of the western world Was set in the brow of a stranger.'
In the long wars with the English these forests were the favourite refuge of the natives, and it was a common saying that the Irish could never be tamed while the leaves were upon the trees. Then passages were cut through the woods, and the policy of felling them, as a military measure, was begun and carried forward on a gigantic scale in Elizabeth's reign.
At one of the cabins along the road they were making great preparations, which we understood from having seen the same thing in Lisdara. There are wee villages and solitary cabins so far from chapel that the priests establish 'stations' for confession. A certain house is selected, and all the old, infirm, and feeble ones come there to confess and hear Mass. The priest afterwards eats breakfast with the family; and there is great pride in this function, and great rivalry in the humble arrangements. Mrs. Odevaine often lends a linen cloth and flowers to one of her neighbours, she tells us; to another a knife and fork, or a silver teapot; and so on. This cabin was at the foot of a long hill, and the driver gave me permission to walk; so Francesca and I slipped down, I with a parcel which chanced to have in it some small purchases made at the last hotel. We asked if we might help a bit, and give a little teapot of Belleek ware and a linen doily trimmed with Irish lace. Both the articles were trumpery bits of souvenirs, but the old dame was inclined to think that the angels and saints had taken her in charge, and nothing could exceed her gratitude. She offered us a potato from the pot, a cup of tea or goat's milk, and a bunch of wildflowers from a cracked cup; and this last we accepted as we departed in a shower of blessings, the most interesting of them being, "May the Blessed Virgin twine your brow with roses when ye sit in the sates of glory!" and "The Lord be good to ye, and sind ye a duke for a husband!" We felt more than repaid for our impulsive interest, and as we disappeared from sight a last 'Bannact dea leat!' ('God's blessing be on your way!') was wafted to our ears.
I seem to have known all these people before, and indeed I have met them between the covers of a book; for Connemara has one prophet, and her name is Jane Barlow. In how many of these wild bog-lands of Connaught have we seen a huddle of desolate cabins on a rocky hillside, turf stacks looking darkly at the doors, and empty black pots sitting on the thresholds, and fancied we have found Lisconnel! I should recognise Ody Rafferty, the widow M'Gurk, Mad Bell, old Mrs. Kilfoyle, or Stacey Doyne, if I met them face to face, just as I should know other real human creatures of a higher type,--Beatrix Esmond, Becky Sharp, Meg Merrilies, or Di Vernon.