Penelope's Irish Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Part Fifth--Royal Meath.
Chapter XXIX. Aunt David's garden.
'O wind, O mighty, melancholy wind, Blow through me, blow! Thou blowest forgotten things into my mind From long ago.' John Todhunter.
No one ever had a better opportunity than we, of breathing in, so far as a stranger and a foreigner may, the old Celtic atmosphere, and of reliving the misty years of legend before the dawn of history; when
'Long, long ago, beyond the space Of twice two hundred years, In Erin old there lived a race Taller than Roman spears.'
Mr. Colquhoun is one of the best Gaelic scholars in Ireland, and Dr. Gerald, though not his equal in knowledge of the language, has 'the full of a sack of stories' in his head. According to the Book of Leinster, a professional story-teller was required to know seven times fifty tales, and I believe the doctor could easily pass this test. It is not easy to make a good translation from Irish to English, for they tell us there are no two Aryan languages more opposed to each other in spirit and idiom. We have heard little of the marvellous old tongue until now, but we are reading it a bit under the tutelage of these two inspiring masters, and I fancy it has helped me as much in my understanding of Ireland as my tedious and perplexing worriments over political problems.
After all, how can we know anything of a nation's present or future without some attempt to revivify its past? Just as, without some slender knowledge of its former culture, we must be for ever ignorant of its inherited powers and aptitudes. The harp that once through Tara's halls the soul of music shed, now indeed hangs mute on Tara's walls, but for all that its echoes still reverberate in the listening ear.
When we sit together by the river brink on sunny days, or on the greensward under the yews in our old garden, we are always telling ancient Celtic romances, and planning, even acting, new ones. Francesca's mind and mine are poorly furnished with facts of any sort; but when the kind scholars in our immediate neighbourhood furnish necessary information and inspiration, we promptly turn it into dramatic form, and serve it up before their wondering and admiring gaze. It is ever our habit to 'make believe' with the children; and just as we played ballads in Scotland and plotted revels in the Glen at Rowardennan, so we instinctively fall into the habit of thought and speech that surrounds us here.
This delights our grave and reverend signiors, and they give themselves up to our whimsicalities with the most whole-hearted zeal. It is days since we have spoken of one another by those names which were given to us in baptism. Francesca is Finola the Festive. Eveleen Colquhoun is Ethnea. I am the harper, Pearla the Melodious. Miss Peabody is Sheela the Skilful Scribe, who keeps for posterity a record of all our antics, in the Speckled Book of Salemina. Dr. Gerald is Borba the Proud, the Ard-ri or overking. Mr. Colquhoun is really called Dermod, but he would have been far too modest to choose Dermot O'Dyna for his Celtic name, had we not insisted; for this historic personage was not only noble-minded, generous, of untarnished honour, and the bravest of the brave, but he was as handsome as he was gallant, and so much the idol of the ladies that he was sometimes called Dermat-na-man, or Dermot of the women.
Of course we have a corps of shanachies, or story-tellers, gleemen, gossipreds, leeches, druids, gallowglasses, bards, ollaves, urraghts, and brehons; but the children can always be shifted from one role to another, and Benella and the Button Boy, although they are quite unaware of the honours conferred upon them, are often alluded to in our romances and theatrical productions.
Aunt David's garden is not a half bad substitute for the old Moy- Mell, the plain of pleasure of the ancient Irish, when once you have the key to its treasures. We have made a new and authoritative survey of its geographical features and compiled a list of its legendary landmarks, which, strangely enough, seem to have been absolutely unknown to Miss Llewellyn-Joyce.
In the very centre is the Forradh, or Place of Meeting, and on it is our own Lia Fail, Stone of Destiny. The one in Westminster Abbey, carried away from Scotland by Edward I., is thought by many scholars to be unauthentic, and we hope that ours may prove to have some historical value. The only test of a Stone of Destiny, as I understand it, is that it shall 'roar' when an Irish monarch is inaugurated; and that our Lia Fail was silent when we celebrated this impressive ceremony reflects less upon its own powers, perhaps, than upon the pedigree of our chosen Ard-ri.
The arbour under the mountain ash is the Fairy Palace of the Quicken Tree, and on its walls is suspended the Horn of Foreknowledge, which if any one looks on it in the morning, fasting, he will know in a moment all things that are to happen during that day.
The clump of willows is the Wood of the Many Sallows (a willow-tree is familiarly known as a 'sally' in Ireland). Do you know Yeats's song, put to a quaint old Irish air?
'Down by the sally gardens my love and I did meet, She passed the sally gardens with little snow-white feet. She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree, But I, being young and foolish, with her did not agree.'
The summer-house is the Greenan; that is, grianan, a bright, sunny place. On the arm of a tree in the Greenan hangs something you might (if you are dull) mistake for a plaited garland of rushes hung with pierced pennies; but it really is our Chain of Silence, a useful article of bygone ages, which the lord of a mansion shook when he wished an attentive hearing, and which deserved a better fate and a longer survival than it has met. Jackeen's Irish terrier is Bran,--though he does not closely resemble the great Finn's sweet-voiced, gracefully-shaped, long-snouted hound; the coracle lying on the shore of the little lough--the coracle made of skin, like the old Irish boats--is the Wave-Sweeper; and the faithful mare that we hire by the day is, by your leave, Enbarr of the Flowing Mane. No warrior was ever killed on the back of this famous steed, for she was as swift as the clear, cold wind of spring, travelling with equal ease and speed on land and sea, an' may the divil fly away wid me if that same's not true.
We no longer find any difficulty in remembering all this nomenclature, for we are 'under gesa' to use no other. When you are put under gesa to reveal or to conceal, to defend or to avenge, it is a sort of charm or spell; also an obligation of honour. Finola is under gesa not to write to Alba more than six times a week and twice on Sundays; Sheela is bound by the same charm to give us muffins for afternoon tea; I am vowed to forget my husband when I am relating romances, and allude to myself, for dramatic purposes, as a maiden princess, or a maiden of enchanting and all-conquering beauty. And if we fail to abide by all these laws of the modern Dedannans of Devorgilla, which are written in the Speckled Book of Salemina, we are to pay eric-fine. These fines are collected with all possible solemnity, and the children delight in them to such an extent that occasionally they break the law for the joy of the penalty. If you have ever read the Fate of the Children of Turenn, you remember that they were to pay to Luga the following eric-fine for the slaying of their father, Kian: two steeds and a chariot, seven pigs, a hound whelp, a cooking-spit, and three shouts on a hill. This does not at first seem excessive, if Kian were a good father, and sincerely mourned; but when Luga began to explain the hidden snares that lay in the pathway, it is small wonder that the sons of Turenn felt doubt of ever being able to pay it, and that when, after surmounting all the previous obstacles, they at last raised three feeble shouts on Midkena's Hill, they immediately gave up the ghost.
The story told yesterday by Sheela the Scribe was the Magic Thread- Clue, or the Pursuit of the Gilla Dacker, Benella and the Button Boy being the chief characters; Finola's was the Voyage of the Children of Corr the Swift-Footed (the Ard-ri's pseudonym for American travellers); while mine, to be told to-morrow, is called the Quest of the Fair Strangers, or the Fairy Quicken Tree of Devorgilla.