Penelope's Irish Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Chapter XXIV. Humours of the road.
'Cheerful at morn, he wakes from short repose, Breasts the keen air, and carols as he goes.' Oliver Goldsmith.
If you drive from Clifden to Oughterard by way of Maam Cross, and then on to Galway, you will pass through the O'Flahertys' country, one of whom, Murrough O'Flaherty, was governor of this country of Iar (western) Connaught. You will like to see the last of the O'Flaherty yews, a thousand years old at least, and the ruins of the castle and banqueting-hall. The family glories are enumerated in ancient Irish manuscript, and instead of the butler, footman, chef, coachman, and gardener of to-day we read of the O'Flaherty physician, standard-bearer, brehon or judge, master of the revels, and keeper of the bees; and the moment Himself is rich enough, I intend to add some of these picturesque personages to our staff.
We afterwards learned that there was formerly an inscription over the west gate of Galway:-
'From the fury of the O'Flaherties, Good Lord, deliver us.'
After Richard de Burgo took the town, in 1226, it became a flourishing English colony, and the citizens must have guarded themselves from any intercourse with the native Irish; at least, an old by-law of 1518 enacts that 'neither O' nor Mac shalle strutte ne swaggere thro' the streetes of Galway.'
We did not go to Galway straight, because we never do anything straight. We seldom get any reliable information, and never any inspiring suggestions, from the natives themselves. They are all patriotically sure that Ireland is the finest counthry in the world, God bless her! but in the matter of seeing that finest counthry in the easiest or best fashion they are all very vague. Indirectly, our own lack of geography, coupled with the ignorance of the people themselves, has been of the greatest service in enlivening our journeys. Francesca says that, in looking back, she finds that our errors of judgment have always resulted in our most charming and unforgettable experiences; but let no one who is travelling with a well-balanced and logical-minded man attempt to follow in our footsteps.
Being as free as air on this occasion (if I except the dread of Benella's scorn, which descends upon us now and then, and moves us to repentance, sometimes even to better behaviour), we passed Porridgetown and Cloomore, and ferried across to the opposite side of Lough Corrib. Salemina, of course, had fixed upon Cong as our objective point, because of its caverns and archaeological remains, which Dr. La Touche tells her not on any account to miss. Francesca and I said nothing, but we had a very definite idea of avoiding Cong, and going nearer Tuam, to climb Knockma, the hill of the fairies, and explore their ancient haunts and archaeological remains, which are more in our line than the caverns of Cong.
Speaking of Dr. La Touche reminds me that we have not the smallest notion as to how our middle-aged romance is progressing. Absence may, at this juncture, be just as helpful a force in its development as daily intercourse would be; for when one is past thirty, I fancy there is a deal of 'thinking-it-over' to do. Precious little there is when we are younger; heart does it all then, and never asks head's advice! But in too much delay there lies no plenty, and there's the danger. Actually, Francesca and I could be no more anxious to settle Salemina in life if she were lame, halt, blind, and homeless, instead of being attractive, charming, absurdly young for her age, and not without means. The difficulty is that she is one of those 'continent, persisting, immovable persons' whom Emerson describes as marked out for the blessing of the world. That quality always makes a man anxious. He fears that he may only get his rightful share of blessing, and he craves the whole output, so to speak.
We naturally mention Dr. La Touche very often, since he is always writing to Salemina or to me, offering counsel and suggestion. Madame La Touche, the venerable aunt, has written also, asking us to visit them in Meath; but this invitation we have declined, principally because the Colquhouns will be with them, and they would surely be burdened by the addition of three ladies and a maid to their family; partly because we shall be freer in our own house, which will be as near the La Touche mansion as possible, you may be sure, if Francesca and I have anything to do with choosing it.
The La Touche name, then, is often on our lips, but Salemina offers no intimation that it is indelibly imprinted on her heart of hearts. It is a good name to be written anywhere, and we fancied there was the slightest possible hint of pride and possession in Salemina's voice when she read to us to-night, from her third volume of Lecky's History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century, a paragraph concerning one David La Touche, from whom Dr. Gerald is descended:-
'In the last of the Irish Parliaments no less than five members of the name sat together in the House of Commons, and his family may claim what is in truth the highest honour of which an Irish family can boast,--that during many successive governments, and in a period of most lavish corruption, it possessed great parliamentary influence, and yet passed through political life untitled and unstained.'
There is just the faintest gleam of hope, by the way, that Himself may join us at the very end of June, and he is sure to be helpful on this sentimental journey; he aided Ronald and Francesca more than once in their tempestuous love-affair, and if his wits are not dulled by marriage, as so often happens, he will be invaluable. It will not be long then, probably, before I assume my natural, my secondary position in the landscape of events. The junior partners are now, so to speak, on their legs, although it is idle to suppose that such brittle appendages will support them for any length of time. As soon as we return in the autumn I should like to advertise (if Himself will permit me) for a perfectly sound and kind junior partner,--one who has been well broken to harness, and who will neither shy nor balk, no matter what the provocation; the next step being to urge Himself to relinquish altogether the bondage of business care. There is no need of his continuing in it, since other people's business will always give him ample scope for his energies. He has, since his return to America, dispensed justice and mercy, chiefly mercy, to one embezzler, one honest fellow tempted beyond his strength, one widow, one unfortunate friend of his youth, and two orphans, and it was in no sense an extraordinary season.
To return to notes of travel, our method of progression, since we deserted the high-road and the public car, has been strangely varied. I think there is no manner of steed or vehicle which has not been used by us, at one time or another, even to the arch donkey and the low-backed car with its truss of hay, like that of the immortal Peggy. I thought at first that 'arch' was an unusual adjective to apply to a donkey, but I find after all that it is abundantly expressive. Benella, who disapproves entirely of this casual sort of travelling, far from 'answerable roads' and in 'backwards places' (Irish for 'behind the times'), is yet wonderfully successful in discovering equipages of some sort in unlikely spots.
In towns of any size or pretensions, we find by the town cross or near the inn a motley collection of things on wheels, with drivers sometimes as sober as Father Mathew, sometimes not. Yesterday we had a mare which the driver confessed he bought without 'overcircumspectin' it,' and although you couldn't, as he said, 'extinguish her at first sight from a grand throtter, she hadn't rightly the speed you could wish.'
"It's not so powerful young she is, melady!" he confessed. "You'd be afther lookin' at a chicken a long time and niver be reminded of her; but sure ye might thry her, for belike ye wouldn't fancy a horse that would be leppin' stone walls wid ye, like Dan Ryan's there! My little baste'll get ye to Rossan before night, and she won't hurt man nor mortial in doin' it."
"Begorra, you're right, nor herself nayther," said Dan Ryan; "and if it's leppin' ye mane, sure she couldn't lep a sod o' turf, that mare couldn't! God pardon ye, melady, for thrustin' yerself to that paiceable, brindly-coloured ould hin, whin ye might be gettin' a dacint, high-steppin' horse for a shillin' or two more; an' belike I might contint meself to take less, for I wouldn't be extortin' ye like Barney O'Mara there!"
Our chosen driver replied to this by saying that he wouldn't be caught dead at a pig fair with Dan Ryan's horse, but in the midst of all the distracting discussions and arguments that followed we held to our original bargain; for we did not like the look of Dan Ryan's high-stepper, who was a 'thrifle mountainy,' as they say in these parts, and had a wild eye to boot. We started, and in a half-hour we could still see the chapel spire of the little village we had just left. It was for once a beautiful day, but we felt that we must reach a railway station some time or other, in order to find a place to sleep.
"Can't you make her go a bit faster? Do you want to keep us on the road all night?" inquired Francesca.
"I do not, your ladyship's honour, ma'am."
"Is she tired, or doesn't she ever go any better?" urged Salemina.
"She does; it's God's truth I'm tellin' ye, melady, she's that flippant sometimes that I scarcely can hould her, and the car jumps undher her like a spring bed."
"Then what on earth is the matter with her?" I inquired, with some fire in my eye.
"Sure I believe she's takin' time to think of the iligant load she's carryin', melady, and small blame to her!" said Mr. Barney O'Mara; and after that we let him drive as best he could, although it did take us four hours to do nine Irish miles. He came, did Mr. Barney, from County Armagh, and he beguiled the way with interesting tales from that section of Ireland, one of which, 'the Old Crow and the Young Crow,' particularly took our fancies.
"An old crow was teaching a young crow one day, and says to him, 'Now, my son,' says he, 'listen to the advice I'm going to give you,' says he. 'If you see a person coming near you and stooping, mind yourself, and be on your keeping; he's stooping for a stone to throw at you,' says he.
"'But tell me,' says the young crow, 'what should I do if he had a stone already down in his pocket?' says he.
"'Musha, go 'long out of that,' says the old crow, 'you've learned enough; the divil another learning I'm able to give you.'"
He was a perfect honey-pot of useless and unreliable information, was Barney O'Mara, and most learned in fairy lore; but for that matter, all the people walking along the road, the drivers, the boatman and guides, the men and women in the cottages where we stop in a shower or to inquire the way, relate stories of phookas, leprehauns, and sprites, banshees and all the various classes of elves and fays, as simply and seriously as they would speak of any other occurrences. Barney told us gravely of the old woman who was in the habit of laying pishogues (charms) to break the legs of his neighbour's cattle, because of an ancient grudge she bore him; and also how necessary it is to put a bit of burning turf under the churn to prevent the phookas, or mischievous fairies, from abstracting the butter or spoiling the churning in any way. Irish fays seem to be much interested in dairy matters, for, besides the sprites who delight in distracting the cream and keeping back the butter (I wonder if a lazy up-and-down movement of the dasher invites them at all, at all?), it is well known that many a milkmaid on a May morning has seen fairy cows browsing along the banks of lakes,--cows that vanish into thin mist at the sound of human footfall.
When we were quite cross at missing the noon train from Rossan, quite tired of the car's jolting, somewhat vexed even at the mare's continued enjoyment of her 'iligant load,' Barney appeased us all by singing, in a delightful, mellow voice, a fairy song called the 'Leprehaun,'* This personage, you must know, if you haven't a large acquaintance among Irish fairies, is a tricksy fellow in a green coat and scarlet cap, with brave shoe buckles on his wee brogues. You will catch him sometimes, if the 'glamour' is on you, under a burdock leaf or a thorn bush, and he is always making or mending a shoe. He commonly has a little purse about him, which, if you are quick enough, you can snatch; and a wonderful purse it is, for whatever you spend, there is always money to be found in it. Truth to tell, nobody has yet succeeded in being quicker than Master Leprehaun, though many have offered to fill his cruiskeen with 'mountain dew,' of which Irish fairies are passionately fond.
* By Patrick W. Joyce. 'In a shady nook, one moonlight night, A leprehaun I spied; With scarlet cap and coat of green, A cruiskeen by his side. 'Twas tick, tack, tick, his hammer went, Upon a weeny shoe; And I laughed to think of his purse of gold; But the fairy was laughing too! With tip-toe step and beating heart, Quite softly I drew nigh: There was mischief in his merry face, A twinkle in his eye. He hammered, and sang with tiny voice, And drank his mountain dew; And I laughed to think he was caught at last; But the fairy was laughing too! As quick as thought I seized the elf. "Your fairy purse!" I cried. "The purse!" he said--"'tis in her hand-- That lady at your side." I turned to look: the elf was off. Then what was I to do? O, I laughed to think what a fool I'd been; And the fairy was laughing too!'
I cannot communicate any idea of the rollicking gaiety and quaint charm Barney gave to the tune, nor the light-hearted, irresistible chuckle with which he rendered the last two lines, giving a snap of his whip as accent to the long 'O':-
'O, I laughed to think what a fool I'd been; And the fairy was laughing too!'
After he had sung it twice through, Benella took my guitar from its case for me, and we sang it after him, again and again; so it was in happy fashion that we at least approached Ballyrossan, where we bade Barney O'Mara a cordial farewell, paying him four shillings over his fare, which was cheap indeed for the song.
As we saw him vanish slowly up the road, ragged himself, the car and harness almost ready to drop to pieces, the mare, I am sure, in the last week of her existence, we were glad that he had his Celtic fancy to enliven his life a bit,--that fancy which seems a providential reaction against the cruel despotisms of fact.