Penelope's Irish Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Part Fifth--Royal Meath.
Chapter XXVI. Ireland's gold.
'I sat upon the rustic seat- The seat an aged bay-tree crowns- And saw outspreading from our feet The golden glory of the Downs. The furze-crowned heights, the glorious glen, The white-walled chapel glistening near, The house of God, the homes of men, The fragrant hay, the ripening ear.' Denis Florence M'Carthy.
The Old Hall, Devorgilla,
We have now lived in each of Ireland's four provinces, Leinster, Munster, Ulster, and Connaught, but the confines of these provinces, and their number, have changed several times since the beginning of history. In A.D. 130 the Milesian monarchy was restored in the person of Tuathal (Too'hal) the Legitimate. Over each of the Irish provinces was a ri or king, and there was also over all Ireland an Ard-ri or supreme monarch who lived at Tara up to the time of its abandonment in the sixth century. Before Tuathal's day, the Ard-ri had for his land allowance only a small tract around Tara, but Tuathal cut off a portion from each of the four older provinces, at the Great Stone of Divisions in the centre of Ireland, making the fifth province of Royal Meath, which has since disappeared, but which was much larger than the present two counties of Meath and Westmeath. In this once famous, and now most lovely and fertile spot, with the good republican's love of royalty and royal institutions, we have settled ourselves; in the midst of verdant plains watered by the Boyne and the Blackwater, here rippling over shallows, there meandering in slow deep reaches between reedy banks.
The Old Hall, from which I write, is somewhere in the vale of the Boyne, somewhere near Yellow Steeple, not so far from Treadagh, only a few miles from Ballybilly (I hope to be forgiven this irreverence to the glorious memory of his Majesty, William, Prince of Orange!), and within driving distance of Killkienan, Croagh-Patrick, Domteagh, and Tara Hill itself. If you know your Royal Meath, these geographical suggestions will give you some idea of our location; if not, take your map of Ireland, please (a thing nobody has near him), and find the town of Tuam, where you left us a little time ago. You will see a railway line from Tuam to Athenry, Athlone, and Mullingar. Anybody can visit Mullingar--it is for the million; but only the elect may go to Devorgilla. It is the captive of our bow and spear; or, to change the figure, it is a violet by a mossy stone, which we refuse to have plucked from its poetic solitude and worn in the bosom or in the buttonhole of the tourist.
At Mullingar, then, we slip on enchanted garments which conceal us from the casual eye, and disappear into what is, in midsummer, a bower of beauty. There you will find, when you find us, Devorgilla, lovely enough to be Tir-nan-og, that Land of the Ever Youthful well know to the Celts of long ago. Here we have rested our weary bodies and purified our travel-stained minds. Fresh from the poverty- ridden hillsides of Connaught, these rich grazing-lands, comfortable houses, magnificent demesnes and castles, are unspeakably grateful to the eye and healing to the spirit. We have not forgotten, shall never forget, our Connemara folk, nor yet Omadhaun Pat and dark Timsy of Lisdara in the north; but it is good, for a change, to breathe in this sense of general comfort, good cheer, and abundance.
Benella is radiant, for she is near enough to Trim to go there occasionally to seek for traces of her ancestress, Mary Boyce; and as for Salemina, this bit of country is a Mecca for antiquaries and scholars, and we are fairly surrounded by towers, tumuli, and cairns. "It's mostly ruins they do be wantin', these days," said a wayside acquaintance. "I built a stone house for my donkey on the knockaun beyant my cabin just, and bedad, there's a crowd round it every Saturday callin' it the risidence of wan of the Danish kings! An' they are diggin' at Tara now, ma'am, looking for the Ark of the Covenant! They do be sayin' the prophet Jeremiah come over from England and brought it wid him. Begorra, it's a lucky man he was to get away wid it!"
Added to these advantages of position, we are within a few miles of Rosnaree, Dr. La Touche's demesne, to which he comes home from Dublin to-morrow, bringing with him our dear Mr. and Mrs. Colquhoun of Ardnagreena. We have been here ourselves for ten days, and are flattered to think that we have used the time as unconventionally as we could well have done. We made a literary pilgrimage first, but that is another story, and I will only say that we had a day in Edgeworthstown and a drive through Goldsmith's country, where we saw the Deserted Village, with its mill and brook, the 'church that tops the neighbouring hill'; and even rested under
'The hawthorn bush with seats beneath the shade For talking age and whispering lovers made.'
There are many parts of Ireland where one could not find a habitable house to rent, but in this locality they are numerous enough to make it possible to choose. We had driven over perhaps twenty square miles of country, with the view of selecting the most delectable spot that could be found, without going too far from Rosnaree. The chief trouble was that we always desired every dwelling that we saw. I tell you this with a view of lessening the shock when I confess that, before we came to the Old Hall where we are now settled for a month, and which was Salemina's choice, Francesca and I took two different houses, and lived in them for seven days, each in solitary splendour, like the Prince of Coolavin. It was not difficult to agree upon the district, we were of one mind there: the moment that we passed the town and drove along the flowery way that leads to Devorgilla, we knew that it was the road of destiny.
The whitethorn is very late this year, and we found ourselves in the full glory of it. It is beautiful in all its stages, from the time when it first opens its buds, to the season when 'every spray is white with may, and blooms the eglantine.' There is no hint of green leaf visible then, and every tree is 'as white as snow of one night.' This is the Gaelic comparison, and the first snow seems especially white and dazzling, I suppose, when one sees it in the morning where were green fields the night before. The sloe, which is the blackthorn, comes still earlier and has fewer leaves. That is the tree of the old English song:-
'From the white-blossomed sloe My dear Chloe requested A sprig her fair breast to adorn. "No, by Heav'ns!" I exclaimed, "may I perish, If ever I plant in that bosom a thorn!"'
And it is not only trees, but hedges and bushes and groves of hawthorn, for a white thorn bush is seldom if ever cut down here, lest a grieved and displeased fairy look up from the cloven trunk, and no Irishman could bear to meet the reproach of her eyes. Do not imagine, however, that we are all in white, like a bride: there is the pink hawthorn, and there are pink and white horse-chestnuts laden with flowers, yellow laburnums hanging over whitewashed farm- buildings, lilacs, and, most wonderful of all, the blaze of the yellow gorse. There will be a thorn hedge struggling with and conquering a grey stone wall; then a golden gorse bush struggling with and conquering the thorn; seeking the sun, it knows no restraints, and creeping through the barriers of green and white and grey, it fairly hurls its yellow splendours in great blazing patches along the wayside. In dazzling glory, in richness of colour, there is nothing in nature that we can compare with this loveliest and commonest of all wayside weeds. The gleaming wealth of the Klondike would make a poor showing beside a single Irish hedgerow; one would think that Mother Earth had stored in her bosom all the sunniest gleams of bygone summers, and was now giving them back to the sun king from whom she borrowed them.
It was at twilight when we first swam this fragrant, golden sea-- twilight, and the birds were singing in every bush; the thrushes and blackbirds in the blossoming cherry and chestnut-trees were so many and so tuneful that the chorus was sweet and strong beyond anything I ever heard. There had been a shower or two, of course; showers that looked like shimmering curtains of silver gauze, and whether they lifted or fell the birds went on singing.
"I did not believe such a thing possible but it is lovelier than Pettybaw," said Francesca; and just here we came in sight of a pink cottage cuddling on the breast of a hill. Pink the cottage was, as if it had been hewed out of a coral branch or the heart of a salmon; pink-washed were the stone walls and posts; pink even were the chimneys; a green lattice over the front was the only leaf in the bouquet. Wallflowers grew against the pink stone walls, and there is no beautiful word in any beautiful language that can describe the effect of that modest, rose-hued dwelling blushing against a background of heather-brown hills covered solidly with golden gorse bushes in full bloom. Himself and I have always agreed to spend our anniversaries with Mrs. Bobby at Comfort Cottage, in England, or at Bide-a-Wee, the 'wee, theekit hoosie' in the loaning at Pettybaw, for our little love-story was begun in the one and carried on in the other; but this, this, I thought instantly, must somehow be crowded into the scheme of red-letter days. And now we suddenly discovered something at once interesting and disconcerting--an American flag floating from a tree in the background.
"The place is rented, then," said Francesca, "to some enterprising American or some star-spangled Irishman who has succeeded in discovering Devorgilla before us. I well understand how the shade of Columbus must feel whenever Amerigo Vespucci's name is mentioned!"
We sent the driver off to await our pleasure, and held a consultation by the wayside.
"I shall call at any rate," I announced; "any excuse will serve which brings me nearer to that adorable dwelling. I intend to be standing in that pink doorway, with that green lattice over my head, when Himself arrives in Devorgilla. I intend to end my days within those rosy walls, and to begin the process at the earliest possible moment."
Salemina disapproved, of course. Her method is always to stand well in the rear, trembling beforehand lest I should do something unconventional; then, later on, when things romantic begin to transpire, she says delightedly, "Wasn't that clever of us?"
"An American flag," I urged, "is a proclamation; indeed, it is, in a sense, an invitation; besides it is my duty to salute it in a foreign land!"
"Patriotism, how many sins are practised in thy name!" said Salemina satirically. "Can't you salute your flag from the high-road?"
"Not properly, Sally dear, nor satisfactorily. So you and Francesca sit down, timidly and respectably, under the safe shadow of the hedge, while I call upon the blooming family in the darling, blooming house. I am an American artist, lured to their door alike by devotion to my country's flag and love of the picturesque." And so saying I ascended the path with some dignity and a false show of assurance.
The circumstances did not chance to be precisely what I had expected. There was a nice girl tidying the kitchen, and I found no difficulty in making friends with her. Her mother owned the cottage, and rented it every season to a Belfast lady, who was coming in a week to take possession, as usual. The American flag had been floating in honour of her mother's brother, who had come over from Milwaukee to make them a little visit, and had just left that afternoon to sail from Liverpool. The rest of the family lived, during the three summer months, in a smaller house down the road; but she herself always stayed at the cottage, to 'mind' the Belfast lady's children.
When I looked at the pink floor of the kitchen and the view from the windows, I would have given anything in the world to outbid, yes, even to obliterate the Belfast lady; but this, unfortunately, was not only illegal and immoral, but it was impossible. So, calling the mother in from the stables, I succeeded, after fifteen minutes' persuasion, in getting permission to occupy the house for one week, beginning with the next morning, and returned in triumph to my weary constituents, who thought it an insane idea.
"Of course it is," I responded cheerfully; "that is why it is going to be so altogether charming. Don't be envious; I will find something mad for you to do, too. One of us is always submitting to the will of the majority; now let us be as individually silly as we like for a week, and then take a long farewell of freakishness and freedom. Let the third volume die in lurid splendour, since there is never to be a fourth."
"There is still Wales," suggested Francesca.
"Too small, Fanny dear, and we could never pronounce the names. Besides, what sort of adventures would be possible to three--I mean, of course, two--persons tied down by marital responsibilities and family cares? Is it the sunset or the reflection of the pink house that is shining on your pink face, Salemina?"
"I am extremely warm," she replied haughtily.
"I don't wonder; sitting on the damp grass under a hedge is so stimulating to the circulation!" observed 'young Miss Fan.'