| In Wicklow and West Kerry
by John M. Synge
Published by Maunsel & Company Ltd, Dublin and London 1912
|The Vagrants of Wicklow
The Oppression of the Hills
On the Road
At a Wicklow Fair
A Landlord's Garden in County Wicklow
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Some features of County Wicklow, such as the position of the principal workhouses and holiday places on either side of the coach road from Arklow to Bray, have made this district a favourite with the vagrants of Ireland. A few of these people have been on the roads for generations; but fairly often they seem to have merely drifted out from the ordinary people of the villages, and do not differ greatly from the class they come from. Their abundance has often been regretted; yet in one sense it is an interesting sign, for wherever the labourer of a country has preserved his vitality, and begets an occasional temperament of distinction, a certain number of vagrants are to be looked for. In the middle classes the gifted son of a family is always the poorest – usually a writer or artist with no sense for speculation – and in a family of peasants, where the average comfort is just over penury, the gifted son sinks also, and is soon a tramp on the roadside.
In this life, however, there are many privileges. The tramp in Ireland is little troubled by the laws, and lives in out-of-door conditions that keep him in good-humour and fine bodily health. This is so apparent, in Wicklow at least, that these men rarely seek for charity on any plea of ill-health, but ask simply, when they beg: ‘Would you help a poor fellow along the road?’ or, ‘Would you give me the price of a night’s lodging, for I’m after walking a great way since the sun rose?’
The healthiness of this life, again, often causes people to live to a great age, though it is not always easy to test the stories that are told of their longevity. One man, however, who died not long ago, claimed to have reached one hundred and two with a show of likelihood; for several old people remember his first appearance in a certain district as a man of middle age, about the year of the Famine, in 1847 or 1848. This man could hardly be classed with ordinary tramps, for he was married several times in different parts of the world, and reared children of whom he seemed to have forgotten, in his old age, even the names and sex. In his early life he spent thirty years at sea, where he sailed with some one he spoke of afterwards as ‘Il mio capitane,’ visiting India and Japan, and gaining odd words and intonations that gave colour to his language. When he was too old to wander in the world, he learned all the paths of Wicklow, and till the end of his life he could go the thirty miles from Dublin to the Seven Churches without, as he said ‘putting out his foot on a white road, or seeing any Christian but the hares and moon.’ When he was over ninety he married an old woman of eighty-five. Before many days, however, they quarrelled so fiercely that he beat her with a stick, and came out again on the roads. In a few hours he was arrested at her complaint, and sentenced to a month in Kilmainham. He cared nothing for the plank-bed and uncomfortable diet; but he always gathered himself together, and cursed with extraordinary rage, as he told how they had cut off the white hair which had grown down upon his shoulders. All his pride and half-conscious feeling for the dignity of his age seemed to have set themselves on this long hair, which marked him out from the other people of his district; and I have often heard him saying to himself, as he sat beside me under a ditch: ‘What use is an old man without his hair? A man has only his bloom like the trees; and what use is an old man without his white hair?’
Among the country people of the east of Ireland the tramps and tinkers who wander round from the west have a curious reputation for witchery and unnatural powers.
‘There’s great witchery in that country,’ a man said to me once, on the side of a mountain to the east of Aughavanna, in Wicklow. ‘There’s great witchery in that country, and great knowledge of the fairies. I’ve had men lodging with me out of the west – men who would be walking the world looking out for a bit of money – and every one of them would be talking of the wonders below in Connemara. I remember one time, a while after I was married, there was a tinker down there in the glen, and two women along with him. I brought him into my cottage to do a bit of a job, and my first child was there lying in the bed, and he covered up to his chin with the bed-clothes. When the tallest of the women came in, she looked around at him, and then she says:
‘”That’s a fine boy, God bless him.”
‘How do you know it’s a boy,’ says my woman, “when it’s only the head of him you see?”
‘“I know, rightly,” says the tinker, “and it’s the first too.”
‘Then my wife was going to slate me for bringing in people to bewitch the child, and I had to turn the lot of them out to finish the job in the lane.’
I asked him where most of the tinkers came from that are met in Wicklow.
‘They come from every part,’ he said. ‘They’re gallous lads for walking round through the world. One time I seen fifty of them above on the road to Rathdangan, and they all match-making and marrying themselves for the year that was to come. One man would take such a woman, and say he was going such roads and places, stopping at this fair and another fair, till he’d meet them again at such a place, when the spring was coming on. Another, maybe, would swap the woman he had with one from another man, with as much talk as if you’d be selling a cow. It’s two hours I was there watching them from the bog underneath, where I was cutting turf, and the like of the crying and kissing, and the singing and the shouting began when they went off this way and that way, you never heard in your life. Sometimes when a party would be gone a bit down over the hill, a girl would begin crying out and wanting to go back to her ma. Then the man would say: “Black hell to your soul, you’ve come with me now, and you’ll go the whole way.” I often seen tinkers before and since, but I never seen such a power of them as were in it that day.’
It need hardly be said that in all tramp life plaintive and tragic elements are common, even on the surface. Some are peculiar to Wicklow. In these hills the summer passes in a few weeks from a late spring, full of odour and colour, to an autumn that is premature and filled with the desolate splendour of decay; and it often happens that, in moments when one is most aware of this ceaseless fading of beauty, some incident of tramp life gives a local human intensity to the shadow of one’s own mood.
One evening, on the high ground near the Avonbeg, I met a young tramp just as an extraordinary sunset had begun to fade, and a low white mist was rising from the bogs. He had a sort of table in his hands that he seemed to have made himself out of twisted rushes and a few branches of osier. His clothes were more than usually ragged, and I could see by his face that he was suffering from some terrible disease. When he was quite close, he held out his table.
‘Would you give me a few pence for that thing?’ he said. ‘I’m after working at it all day by the river, and for the love of God give me something now, the way I can get a drink and lodging for the night.’
I felt in my pockets, and could find nothing but a shilling piece.
‘I wouldn’t wish to give you so much,’ I said, holding it out to him, ‘but it is all I have, and I don’t like to give you nothing at all, and the darkness coming on. Keep the table; it’s no use to me, and you’ll maybe sell it for something in the morning.’
The shilling was more than he expected, and his eyes flamed with joy.
‘May the Almighty God preserve you and watch over you and reward you for this night,’ he said, ‘but you’ll take the table; I wouldn’t keep it at all, and you after stretching out your hand with a shilling to me, and the darkness coming on.’
He forced it into my hands so eagerly that I could not refuse it, and set off down the road with tottering steps. When he had gone a few yards, I called after him: ‘There’s your table; take it and God speed you.’
Then I put down his table on the ground, and set off as quickly as I was able. In a moment he came up with me, holding the table in his hands, and slipped round in front of me so that I could not get away.
‘You wouldn’t refuse it,’ he said, ‘and I after working at it all day below by the river.’
He was shaking with excitement and the exertion of overtaking me; so I took his table and let him go on his way. A quarter of a mile further on I threw it over the ditch in a desolate place, where no one was likely to find it.
In addition to the more genuine vagrants a number of wandering men and women are to be met in the northern parts of the county, who walk out for ferns and flowers in bands of from four or five to a dozen. They usually set out in the evening, and sleep in some ditch or shed, coming home the next night with what they have gathered. If their sales are successful, both men and women drink heavily; so that they are always on the edge of starvation, and are miserably dressed, the women sometimes wearing nothing but an old petticoat and shawl – a scantiness of clothing that is sometimes met with also among the road-women of Kerry.
These people are nearly always at war with the police, and are often harshly treated. Once after a holiday, as I was walking home through a village on the border of Wicklow, I came upon several policemen, with a crowd round them, trying to force a drunken flower-woman out of the village. She did not wish to go, and threw herself down, raging and kicking on the ground. They let her lie there for a few moments, and then she propped herself up against the wall, scolding and storming at every one, till she became so outrageous the police renewed their attack. One of them walked up to her and hit her a sharp blow on the jaw with the back of his hand. Then two more of them seized her by the shoulders and forced her along the road a few yards, till her clothes began to tear off with the violence of the struggle, and they let her go once more.
She sprang up at once when they did so. ‘Let this be the barrack’s yard, if you wish it,’ she cried out, tearing off the rags that still clung about her. ‘Let this be the barrack’s yard, and come on now, the lot of you.’
Then she rushed at them with extraordinary fury; but the police, to avoid scandal, withdrew into the town, and left her to be quieted by her friends.
Sometimes, it is fair to add, the police are generous and good-humoured. One evening, many years ago, when Whit-Monday in Enniskerry was a very different thing from what it is now, I was looking out of a window in that village, watching the police, who had been brought in for the occasion, getting ready to start for Bray. As they were standing about, a young ballad-singer came along from the Dargle, and one of the policemen, who seemed to know him, asked him why a fine, stout lad the like of him wasn’t earning his bread, instead of straying on the roads.
Immediately the young man drew up on the spot where he was, and began shouting a loud ballad at the top of his voice. The police tried to stop him; but he went on, getting faster and faster, till he ended, swinging his head from side to side, in a furious patter, of which I seem to remember-
Take the nation,
In the stable,
Cain and Abel,
Tower of Babel,
And the Battle of Waterloo
Then he pulled off his hat, dashed in among the police, and did not leave them till they had all given him the share of money he felt he had earned for his bread.
In all the circumstances of this tramp life there is a certain wildness that gives it romance and a peculiar value for those who look at life in Ireland with an eye that is aware of the arts also. In all the healthy movements of art, variations from the ordinary types of manhood are made interesting for the ordinary man, and in this way only the higher arts are universal. Beside this art, however, founded on the variations which are a condition and effect of all vigorous life, there is another art – sometimes confounded with it – founded on the freak of nature, in itself a mere sign of atavism or disease. This latter art, which is occupied with the antics of the freak, is of interest only to the variation from ordinary minds, and for this reason is never universal. To be quite plain, the tramp in real life, Hamlet and Faust in the arts, are variations; but the maniac in real life, and Des Esseintes and all his ugly crew in the arts, are freaks only.
Among the cottages that are scattered through the hills of County Wicklow I have met with many people who show in a singular way the influence of a particular locality. These people live for the most part beside old roads and pathways where hardly one man passes in the day, and look out all the year on unbroken barriers of heath. At every season heavy rains fall for often a week at a time, till the thatch drips with water stained to a dull chestnut, and the floor in the cottages seems to be going back to the condition of the bogs near it. Then the clouds break, and there is a night of terrific storm from the south-west – all the larches that survive in these places are bowed and twisted towards the point where the sun rises in June – when the winds come down through the narrow glens with the congested whirl and roar of a torrent, breaking at times for sudden moments of silence that keep up the tension of the mind. At such times the people crouch all night over a few sods of turf, and the dogs howl in the lanes.
When the sun rises there is a morning of almost supernatural radiance, and even the oldest men and women come out into the air with the joy of children who have recovered from a fever. In the evening it is raining again. This peculiar climate, acting on a population that is already lonely and dwindling, has caused or increased a tendency to nervous depression among the people, and every degree of sadness, from that of the man who is merely mournful to that of the man who has spent half his life in the madhouse, is common among these hills.
Not long ago in a desolate glen in the south of the county I met two policemen driving an ass-cart with a coffin on it, and a little further on I stopped an old man and asked him what had happened.
‘This night three weeks,’ he said, ‘there was a poor fellow below reaping in the glen, and in the evening he had two glasses of whisky with some other lads. Then some excitement took him and he threw off his clothes and ran away into the hills. There was great rain that night, and I suppose the poor creature lost his way, and was the whole night perishing in the rain and darkness. In the morning they found his naked footmarks on some mud half a mile above the road, and again where you go up by a big stone. Then there was nothing known of him till last night, when they found his body on the mountain, and it near eaten by the crows.’
Then he went on to tell me how different the country had been when he was a young man.
‘We had nothing to eat at that time,’ he said, ‘but milk and stirabout and potatoes, and there was a fine constitution you wouldn’t meet this day at all. I remember when you’d see forty boys and girls below there on a Sunday evening, playing ball and diverting themselves; but now all this country is gone lonesome and bewildered, and there’s no man knows what ails it.’
There are so few girls left in these neighbourhoods that one does not often meet with women that have grown up unmarried. I know one, however, who has lived by herself for fifteen years in a tiny hovel near a cross roads much frequented by tinkers and ordinary tramps. As she has no one belonging to her, she spends a good deal of her time wandering through the country, and I have met her in every direction, often many miles from her own glen. ‘I do be so afeard of the tramps,’ she said to me one evening. ‘I live all alone, and what would I do at all if one of them lads was to come near me? When my poor mother was dying, “Now, Nanny,” says she, “don’t be living on here when I am dead,” says she; “it’d be too lonesome.” And now I wouldn’t wish to go again’ my mother, and she dead – dead or alive I wouldn’t go again’ my mother – but I’m after doing all I can, and I can’t get away by any means.’ As I was moving on she heard, or thought she heard, a sound a distant thunder.
‘Ah, your honour,’ she said, ‘do you think it’s thunder we’ll be having? There’s nothing I fear like the thunder. My heart isn’t strong – I do feel it – and I have a lightness in my head, and often when I do be excited with the thunder I do be afeard I might die there alone in the cottage and no one know it. But I do hope that the Lord – bless His holy name! – has something in store for me. I’ve done all I can, and I don’t like going again’ my mother and she dead. And now good evening, your honour, and safe home.’
Intense nervousness is common also with much younger women. I remember one night hearing some one crying out and screaming in the house where I was staying. I went downstairs and found it was a girl who had been taken in from a village a few miles away to help the servants. That afternoon her two younger sisters had come to see her, and now she had been taken with a panic that they had been drowned going home through the bogs, and she was crying and wailing, and saying she must go to look for them. It was not thought fit for her to leave the house alone so late in the evening, so I went with her. As we passed down a steep hill of heather, where the nightjars were clapping their wings in the moonlight, she told me a long story of the way she had been frightened. Then we reached a solitary cottage on the edge of the bog, and as a light was still shining in the window, I knocked at the door and asked if they had seen or heard anything. When they understood our errand three half-dressed generations came out to jeer at us on the doorstep.
‘Ah, Maggie,’ said the old woman, ‘you’re a cute one. You’re the girl likes a walk in the moonlight. Whist your talk of them big lumps of childer, and look at Martin Edward there, who’s not six, and he can go through the bog five times in an hour and not wet his feet.’
My companion was still unconvinced, so we went on. The rushes were shining in the moonlight, and one flake of mist was lying on the river. We looked into one bog-hole, and then into another, when a snipe rose and terrified us. We listened: a cow was chewing heavily in the shadow of a bush, two dogs were barking on the side of a hill, and there was a cart far away upon the road. Our teeth began to chatter with the cold of the bog air and the loneliness of the night. I could see that the actual presence of the bog had shown my companion the absurdity of her fears, and in a little while we went home.
The old people of county Wicklow, as in the rest of Ireland, still show a curious affection for the landed classes wherever they have lived for a generation or two upon their property. I remember an old woman, who told me, with tears streaming on her face, how much more lonely the country had become since the ‘quality’ had gone away, and gave me a long story of how she had seen her landlord shutting up his house and leaving his property, and of the way he had died afterwards, when the ‘grievance’ of it broke his heart. The younger people feel differently, and when I was passing this landlord’s house, not long afterwards, I found these lines written in pencil on the door-post:
In the days of rack-rentingA year later the door-post had fallen to pieces, and the inscription with it.
And land-grabbing so vile
A proud, heartless landlord
Lived here a great while
When the League it was started,
And the land-grabbing cry,
To the cold North or Ireland
He had for to fly.
One evening after heavy rains I set off to walk to a village at the other side of some hills, part of my way lying along a steep heathery track. The valleys that I passed through were filled with the strange splendour that comes after wet weather to Ireland, and on the tops of the mountains masses of fog were lying in white, even banks. Once or twice I went by a lonely cottage with a smell of earthy turf coming from the chimney, weeds or oats sprouting on the thatch, and a broken cart before the door, with many straggling hens going to roost on the shafts. Near these cottages little bands of half-naked children, filled with the excitement of evening, were running and screaming over the bogs, where the heather was purple already, giving me the strained feeling of regret one has so often in these places when there is rain in the air.
Further on, as I was going up a long hill, an old man with a white, pointed face and heavy beard pulled himself up out of the ditch and joined me. We spoke first about the broken weather, and then he began talking in a mournful voice of the famines and misfortunes that have been in Ireland.
‘There have been three cruel plagues,’ he said, ‘out through the country since I was born in the west. First, there was the big wind in 1839, that tore away the grass and green things from the earth. Then there was the blight that came on the 9th of June in the year 1846. Up to then the potatoes were clean and good; but that morning a mist rose up out of the sea, and you could hear a voice talking near a mile off across the stillness of the earth. It was the same the next day, and the day after, and so on for three days or more; and then you could begin to see the tops of the stalks lying over as if the life was gone out of them. And that was the beginning of the great trouble and famine that destroyed Ireland. Then the people went on, I suppose, in their wickedness and their animosity of one against the other; and the Almighty God sent down the third plague, and that was the sickness called the choler. Then all the people left the town of Sligo – it’s in Sligo I was reared – and you could walk through the streets at the noon of day and not see a person, and you could knock at one door and another door and find no one to answer you. The people were travelling out north and south and east, with the terror that was on them; and the country people were digging ditches across the roads and driving them back where they could, for they had great dread of the disease.
‘It was the law at that time if there was sickness on any person in the town of Sligo you should notice it to the Governors, or you’d be put up in the gaol. Well, a man’s wife took sick, and he went and noticed it. They came down then with bands of men they had, and took her away to the sick-house, and he heard nothing more till he heard she was dead, and was to be buried in the morning. At that time there was such fear and hurry and dread on every person, they were burying people they had no hope of, and they with life within them. My man was uneasy a while thinking on that, and then what did he do, but slip down in the darkness of the night and into the dead-house, where they were after putting his wife. There were beyond twoscore bodies, and he went feeling from one to the other. Then I suppose his wife heard him coming – she wasn’t dead at all – and “Is that Michael?” says she. “It is then.” Says he; “and, oh, my poor woman, have you your last gasps in you still?” “I have, Michael,” says she; “and they’re after setting me out here with fifty bodies the way they’ll put me down into the grave at the dawn of day.” “Oh, my poor woman,” says he; “have you the strength left in you to hold on my back?” “Oh, Micky,” says she, “I have surely.” He took her up then on his back, and he carried her out by lanes and tracks till he got to his house. Then he never let on a word about it, and at the end of three days she began to pick up, and in a month’s time she came out and began walking about like yourself or me. And there were many people were afeard to speak to her, for they thought she was after coming back from the grave.’
Soon afterwards we passed into a little village, and he turned down a lane and left me. It was not long, however, till another old man that I could see a few paces ahead stopped and waited for me, and is the custom of the place.
‘I’ve been down in the Kilpeddar buying a scythe-stone,’ he began, when I came up to him, ‘and indeed Kilpeddar is a dear place, for it’s three-pence they charged me for it; but I suppose there must be a profit from every trade, and we must all live and let live.’
When we had talked a little more I asked him if he had been often in Dublin.
‘I was living in Dublin near ten years,’ he said; ‘and indeed I don’t know what way I lived that length in it, for there is no place with smells like the city of Dublin. One time I went up with my wife into those lanes where they sell old clothing, Hanover Lane and Plunket’s Lane, and when my wife – she’s dead now, God forgive her! – when my wife smelt the dirty air she put her apron up to her nose, and, “For the love of God,” says she, “get me away out of this place.” And now may I ask if it’s from there you are yourself, for I think by your speaking it wasn’t in these parts you were reared?’
I told him I was born in Dublin, but that I had travelled afterwards and been in Paris and Rome, and see the Pope Leo XIII.
‘And will you tell me,’ he said, ‘is it true that anyone at all can see the Pope?’
I described the festivals in the Vatican, and how I had seen the Pope carried through long halls on a sort of throne. ‘Well, now,’ he said, ‘can you tell me who was the first Pope that sat upon that throne?’
I hesitated a moment, and he went on: ‘I’m only a poor, ignorant man, but I can tell you that myself if you don’t know it, with all your travels. Saint Peter was the first Pope, and he was crucified with his head down, and since that time there have been Popes upon the throne of Rome.’
Then he began telling me about himself.
‘I was twice a married man,’ he said, ‘My first wife died at her second child, and then I reared it up till it was as tall as myself – a girl it was – and she went off and got married and left me. After that I was married a second time to an aged woman, she lived with me ten years, and then she died herself. There is nothing I can make now but tea, and tea is killing me; and I’m living alone, in a little hut beyond, where four baronies, four parishes, and four townlands meet.’
By this time we had reached the village inn, where I was lodging for the night; so I stood him a drink, and he went on to this cottage along a narrow pathway through the bogs.
A year or two ago I wished to visit a fair in County Wicklow, and as the buying and selling in these fairs are got through very early in the morning I started soon after dawn to walk the ten or twelve miles that led to Aughrim, where the fair was to be held. When I came out into the air the cold was intense, thought it was a morning of August, and the dew was so heavy that bushes and meadows of mountain grass seemed to have lost their greenness in silvery grey. In the glens I went through white mists were twisting and feathering themselves into extraordinary shapes, and showing blue hills behind them that looked singularly desolate and far away. At every turn I came on multitudes of rabbits feeding on the roadside, or on even shyer creatures – corncrakes, squirrels and snipe – close to villages were no one was awake.
Then the sun rose, and I could see lines of smoke beginning to go up from farm-houses under the hills, and sometimes a sleepy, half-dressed girl looked out of the door of a cottage when my feet echoed on the road. About six miles from Aughrim I began to fall in with droves of bullocks and sheep, in charge of two or three dogs and a herd, or with whole families of mountain people, driving nothing but a single donkey or kid. These people seemed to feel already the animation of the fair, and were talking eagerly and gaily among themselves. I did not hurry, and it was about nine o’clock when I made my way into the village, which was now thronged with cattle and sheep. On every side the usual half-humorous bargaining could be heard above the noise of the pigs and donkeys and lambs. One man would say: ‘Are you going to not divide a shilling with me? Are you going to not do it? You’re the biggest schemer ever walked down into Aughrim.’
A little further on a man said to a seller: ‘You’re asking too much for them lambs.’ The seller answered: ‘If I didn’t ask it how would I ever get it? The lambs is good lambs, and if you buy them now you’ll get home nice and easy in time to have your dinner in comfort, and if you don’t buy them you’ll be here the whole day sweating in the heat and dust, and maybe not please yourself in the end of all.’
Then they began looking at the lambs again, talking of the cleanness of their skin and the quality of the wool, and making many extravagant remarks in their praise or against them. As I turned away I heard the loud clap of one hand in another, which always marks the conclusion of a bargain.
A little further on I found a farmer I knew standing before a public-house, looking radiant with delight. ‘It’s a fine fair, Mister,’ he said, ‘and I’m after selling the lambs I had here a month ago and no one would look at them. Then I took them to Rathdrum and Wicklow, getting up at three in the morning, and driving them in the creel, and it all for nothing. But I’m shut of them now, and it’s not too bad a price I’ve got either. I’m after driving the lambs outside the customs (the boundary where the fair tolls are paid), and I’m waiting now for my money.’ While we were talking, a cry of warning was raised: ‘Mind yourselves below; there’s a drift of sheep coming down the road.’ Then a couple of men and dogs appeared, trying to drive a score of sheep that some one had purchased, out of the village, between the countless flocks that were standing already on either side of the way. This task is peculiarly difficult. Boys and men collect round the flock that is to be driven out, and try to force the animals down the narrow passage that is left in the middle of the road. It hardly ever happens, however, that they get through without carrying off a few of some one else’s sheep, or losing some of their own, which have to be restored, or looked for afterwards.
The flock was driven by as well as could be managed, and a moment later an old man came up to us, and asked if we had seen a ewe passing from the west. ‘A sheep is after passing,’ said the farmer I was talking to, ‘but it was not one of yours, for it was too wilful; it was a mountain sheep.’ Sometimes animals are astray in this way for a considerable time – it is not unusual to meet a man the day after a fair wandering through the country, asking after a lost heifer, or ewe – but they are always well marked and found in the end.
When I reached the green above the village I found the curious throng one always meets in these fairs, made up of wild mountain squatters, gentlemen farmers, jobbers and herds. At one corner of the green there was the usual camp of tinkers, where a swarm of children had been left to play among the carts while the men and women wandered through the fair selling cans or donkeys. Many odd types of tramps and beggars had come together also, and were loitering about in the hope of getting some chance job, or of finding some one who would stand them a drink. Once or twice a stir was made by some unruly ram or bull, but in these smaller fairs there seldom is much real excitement till the evening, when the bad whisky that is too freely drunk begins to be felt.
When I had spoken to one or two men that I wished to see, I sat down near a bridge at the end of the green, between a tinker who was mending a can and a herd who was minding some sheep that had not been sold. The herd spoke to me with some pride of his skill in dipping sheep to keep them from the fly, and other matters connected with his work. ‘Let you not be talking,’ said the tinker, when he paused for a moment. ‘You’ve been after sheep since you were that height’ (holding his hand a little over the ground), ‘and yet you’re nowhere in the world beside the herds that do be reared beyond on the mountains. Those men are a wonder, for I’m told they can tell a lamb from their own ewes before it is marked; and that when they have five hundred sheep on the hills – five hundred is a big number – they don’t need to count them or reckon them at all, but they just walk here and there where they are, and if one is gone away they’ll miss it from the rest.’
Then a woman came up and spoke to the tinker, and they went down the road together into the village. ‘That man is a great villain,’ said the herd, when he was out of hearing. ‘One time he and his woman went up to a priest in the hills and asked him would he wed them for half a sovereign, I think it was. The priest said it was a poor price, but he’d wed them surely if they’d make him a tin can along with it. “I will, faith,” said the tinker, “and I’ll come back when it’s done.” They went off then, and in three weeks they came back, and they asked the priest a second time would he wed them. “Have you the tin can?” said the priest. “We have not,” said the tinker; “we had it made at the fall of night, but the ass gave it a kick this morning the way it isn’t fit for you at all.” “Go on now,” says the priest. “It’s a pair of rogues and schemers you are, and I won’t wed you at all.” They went off then, and they were never married to this day.’
As I went up again through the village a great sale of old clothing was going on from booths at each side of the road, and further on boots were set out for sale on boards laid across the tops of barrels, a very usual counter. In another place old women were selling quantities of damaged fruit, kippered herrings, and an extraordinary collection of old ropes and iron. In front of a public-house a ballad-singer was singing a song in the middle of a crowd of people. As far as I could hear it, the words ran like this:
As we came down from Wicklow
With our bundle of switches;
As we came down from Wicklow,
Oh! what did we see?
As we came to the city
We saw maidens pretty,
And we called out to ask them to buy our heath-broom.
Heath-broom, freestone, black turf, gather them up.
Oh! gradh machree, Mavourneen,
Won’t you buy our heath-broom?
When the season is over,
Won’t we be in clover,
With the gold in our pockets
We got from heath-broom.
It’s home we will toddle,
And we’ll get a naggin,
And we’ll drink to the maidens that brought our heath-broom.
Heath-broom, freestone, black turf, gather them up.
Oh! gradh machree, Mavourneen,
Won’t you buy our heath-broom?
Before he had finished a tinker arrived, too drunk to stand or walk, but leading a tall horse with his left hand, and inviting anyone who would deny that he was the best horseman in Wicklow to fight with him on the spot. Soon afterwards I started on my way home, driving most of the way with a farmer from the same neighbourhood.
A Landlord’s Garden in County Wicklow
A stone’s throw from an old house where I spent several summers in County Wicklow, there was a garden that had been left to itself for fifteen or twenty years. Just inside the gate, as one entered, two paths led up through a couple of strawberry beds, half choked with leaves, where a few white and narrow strawberries were still hidden away. Further on was nearly half an acre of tall raspberry canes and thistles five feet high, growing together in a dense mass, where one could still pick raspberries enough to last a household for the season. Then, in a waste of hemlock, there were some half-dozen apple trees covered with lichen and moss, and against the northern walls a few dying plum trees hanging from their nails. Beyond them there was a dead pear tree, and just inside the gate, as one came back to it, a large fuchsia filled with empty nests. A few lines of box here and there showed where the flower-beds had been laid out, and when anyone who had the knowledge looked carefully among them many remnants could be found of beautiful and rare plants.
All round this garden there was a wall seven or eight feet high, in which one could see three or four tracks with well-worn holes – like the paths down a cliff in Kerry – where boys and tramps came over to steal and take away any apples or other fruits that were in season. Above the wall on the three windy sides there were rows of finely-grown lime trees, the place of meeting in the summer for ten thousand bees. Under the east wall there was the roof of a green-house, where one could sit, when it was wet or dry, and watch the birds and butterflies, many of which were not common. The seasons were always late in this place – it was high above the sea – and redpoles often used to nest not far off late in the summer; siskins did the same once or twice, and greenfinches, till the beginning of August, used to cackle endlessly in the lime trees.
Everyone is used in Ireland to the tragedy that is bound up with the lives of farmers and fishing people; but in this garden one seemed to feel the tragedy of the landlord class also, and of the innumerable old families that are quickly dwindling away. These owners of the land are not much pitied at the present day, or much deserving of pity; and yet one cannot quite forget that they are the descendants of what was at one time, in the eighteenth century, a high-spirited and highly-cultivated aristocracy. The broken greenhouses and mouse-eaten libraries, that were designed and collected by men who voted with Grattan, are perhaps as mournful in the end as the four mud walls that are so often left in Wicklow as the only remnants of a farmhouse. The desolation of this life is often of a peculiarly local kind, and if a playwright chose to go through the Irish country houses he would find material, it is likely, for many gloomy plays that would turn on the dying away of these old families, and on the lives of the one or two delicate girls that are left so often to represent a dozen hearty men who were alive a generation or two ago. Many of the descendants of these people have, of course, drifted into professional life in Dublin, or have gone abroad; yet, wherever they are, they do not equal their forefathers, and where men used to collect fine editions of Don Quixote and Molière, in Spanish and French, and luxuriantly bound copies of Juvenal and Persius and Cicero, nothing is read now but Longfellow and Hall Caine and Miss Corelli. Where good and roomy houses were built a hundred years ago, poor and tawdry houses are built now; and bad bookbinding, bad pictures, and bad decorations are thought well of, where rich bindings, beautiful miniatures, and finely-carved chimney-pieces were once prized by the old Irish landlords.
To return to our garden. One year the apple crop was unusually plentiful, and every Sunday inroads were made upon it by some unknown persons. At last I decided to lie in wait at the dangerous hour – about twelve o’clock – when the boys of the neighbourhood were on their way home from Mass, and we were supposed to be busy with our devotions three miles away. A little before eleven I slipped out, accordingly, with a book, locked the door behind me, put the key in my pocket, and lay down under a bush. When I had been reading for some time, and had quite forgotten the thieves, I looked up at some little stir and saw a young man, in his Sunday clothes, walking up the path towards me. He stopped when he saw me, and for a moment we gazed at each other with astonishment. At least, to make a move, I said it was a fine day. ‘It is indeed, sir,’ he answered with a smile, and then he turned round and ran for his life. I realized that he was a thief, and jumped up and ran after him, seeing, as I did so, a flock of small boys swarming up the walls of the garden. Meanwhile the young man ran round and round through the raspberry canes, over the strawberry beds, and in and out among the apple trees. He knew that if he tried to get over the wall I would catch him, and that there was no other way out, as I had locked the gate. It was heavy running, and we both began to get weary. Then I caught my foot in a briar and fell. Immediately the young man rushed to the wall and began scrambling up it, but just as he was drawing his leg over the top I caught him by the heel. For a moment he struggled and kicked, then by sheer weight I brought him down at my feet, and an armful of masonry along with him. I caught him by the neck and tried to ask his name, but found we were too breathless to speak.
For I do not know how long we sat glaring at each other, and gasping painfully. Then by degrees I began to upbraid him in a whisper for coming over a person’s wall to steal his apples, when he was such a fine, well-dressed, grown-up young man. I could see that he was in mortal dread that I might have him up in the police courts, which I had no intention of doing, and when I finally asked him his name and address he invented a long story of how he lived six miles away, and had come over to this neighbourhood for Mass and to see a friend, and then how he had got a drought upon him, and thought an apple would put him in spirits for his walk home. Then he swore he would never come over the wall again if I would let him off, and that he would pray God to have mercy on me when my last hour was come. I felt sure his whole story was a tissue of lies, and I did not want him to have the crow of having taken me in. ‘There is a woman belonging to the place,’ I said, ‘inside the house helping the girl to cook the dinner. Walk in now with me, and we’ll see if you’re such a stranger as you’d have me think.’ He looked infinitely troubled, but I took him by the neck and wrist and we set off for the gate. When we had gone a pace or two he stopped. ‘I beg your pardon,’ he said, ‘my cap’s after falling down on the over side of the wall. May I cross over and get it?’ That was too much for me. ‘Well, go on,’ I said, ‘and if ever I catch you again woe betide you.’ I let him go then, and he rushed madly over the wall and disappeared. A few days later I discovered, not at all to my surprise, that he lived half a mile away, and was intimately related to a small boy who came to the house every morning to run messages and clean the boots. Yet it must not be thought that this young man was dishonest; I would have been quite ready the next day to trust him with a ten-pound note.
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