In Wicklow and West Kerry Part 7

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In Wicklow and West Kerry is a Webnovel created by John M. Synge.
This lightnovel is currently completed.

Many remedies were suggested that did not sound rea.s.suring, and in the end the horse was led off in a hopeless condition. A little later the race ended with an easy win for the wildest of the young horses. Afterwards I wandered up among the people, and looked at the sports. At one place a man, with his face heavily blackened, except one cheek and eye–an extraordinary effect–was standing shots of a wooden ball behind a board with a large hole in the middle, at three shots a penny. When I came past half an hour afterwards he had been hit in the mouth–by a girl some one told me–but seemed as cheerful as ever.

On the road, some little distance away, a party of girls and young men were dancing polkas to the music of a melodeon, in a cloud of dust. When I had looked on for a little while I met some girls I knew, and asked them how they were getting on.

‘We’re not getting on at all,’ said one of them, ‘for we’ve been at the races for two hours, and we’ve found no beaux to go along with us.’

When the horses had all run, a jennet race was held, and greatly delighted the people, as the jennets–there were a number of them–got scared by the cheering and ran wild in every direction. In the end it was not easy to say which was the winner, and a dispute began which nearly ended in blows. It was decided at last to run the race over again the following Sunday after Ma.s.s, so everyone was satisfied.

The day was magnificently bright, and the ten miles of Dingle Bay were wonderfully brilliant behind the of people, and the canvas booths, and the scores of upturned shafts. Towards evening I got tired taking or refusing the porter my friends pressed on me continually, so I wandered off from the racecourse along the path where Diarmuid had tricked the Fenians.

Later in the evening news had been coming in of the doings in the sandhills, after the porter had begun to take effect and the darkness had come on.

‘There was great sport after you left,’ a man said to me in the cottage this evening. ‘They were all beating and cutting each other on the sh.o.r.e of the sea. Four men fought together in one place till the tide came up on them, and was like to drown them; but the priest waded out up to his middle and drove them asunder. Another man was left for dead on the road outside the lodges, and some gentleman found him and had him carried into his house, and got the doctor to put plasters on his head. Then there was a red-headed fellow had his finger bitten through, and the postman was destroyed for ever.’

‘He should be,’ said the man of the house, ‘for Michael Patch broke the seat of his car into three halves on his head.’

‘It was this was the cause of it all,’ said Danny-boy: ‘they brought in porter east and west from the two towns you know of, and the two porters didn’t agree together, and it’s for that the people went raging at the fall of night.’

I have been out to Bolus Head, one of the finest places I have met with. A little beyond Ballinskelligs the road turns up the side of a steep mountainy hill where one sees a brilliant stretch of sea, with many rocks and islands–Deenish, Scariff the Hog’s Head, and Dursey far away. As I was sitting on the edge of the road an old man came along and we began to talk. He had little English, but when I tried him in Irish we got on well, though he did not follow any Connaught forms I let slip by accident. We went on together, after a while, to an extraordinary straggling village along the edge of the hill. At one of the cottages he stopped and asked me to come in and take a drink and rest myself. I did not like to refuse him, we had got so friendly, so I followed him in, and sat down on a stool while his wife–a much younger woman–went into the bedroom and brought me a large mug of milk. As I was drinking it and talking to the couple, a sack that was beside the fire began to move slowly, and the head of a yellow, feverish-looking child came out from beneath it, and began looking at me with a heavy stare. I asked the woman what ailed it, and she told me it had sickened a night or two before with headache and pains all through it; but she had not had the doctor, and did not know what was the matter. I finished the milk without much enjoyment, and went on my way up Bolus Head and then back to this cottage, wondering all the time if I had the germs of typhus in my blood.

Last night, when I got back to the cottage, I found that another ‘travelling man’ had arrived to stay for a day or two; but he was hard of hearing and a little simple in his head, so that we had not much talk. I went to bed soon after dark and slept till about two o’clock in the morning, when I was awakened by fearful screams in the kitchen. For a moment I did not know where I was; then I remembered the old man, and I jumped up and went to the door of my room. As I opened it I heard the door of the family room across the kitchen opening also, and the frightened whispers of the people. In a moment we could hear the old man, who was sleeping on the settle, pulling himself out of a nightmare, so we went back to our beds.

In the morning the woman told me his story:

‘He was living above on a little hillside,’ she said, ‘in a bit of a cabin, with his sister along with him. Then, after a while, she got ailing in her heart, and he got a bottle for her from the doctor, and he’d rise up every morning before the dawn to give her a sup of it. She got better then, till one night he got up and measured out the spoonful, or whatever it was, and went to give it to her, and he found her stretched out dead before him. Since that night he wakes up one time and another, and begins crying out for Maurya–that was his sister–and he half in his dreams. It was that you heard in the night, and indeed it would frighten any person to hear him screaming as if he was getting his death.’

When the little man came back after a while, they began asking him questions till he told his whole story, weeping pitiably. Then they got him to tell me about the other great event of his life also, in the rather childish Gaelic he uses.

He had once a little cur-dog, he said, and he knew nothing of the dog licence; then one day the peelers–the boys with the little caps–asked him into the barracks for a cup of tea. He went in cheerfully, and then they put him and his little dog into the lock-up till some one paid a shilling for him and got him out.

He has a stick he is proud of, bound with pieces of leather every few inches–like one I have seen with a beggar in Belmullet. Since the first night he has not had nightmare again, and he lies most of the evening sleeping on the settle, and in the morning he goes round among the houses, getting his share of meal and potatoes.

I do not think a beggar is ever refused in Kerry. Sometimes, while we are talking or doing something in the kitchen, a man walks in without saying anything and stands just inside the door, with his bag on the floor beside him. In five or ten minutes, when the woman of the house has finished what she is doing, she goes up to him and asks: ‘Is it meal or flour?’ ‘Flour,’ says the man. She goes into the inner room, opens her sack, and comes back with two handfuls. He opens his bag and takes out a bundle carefully tied up in a cloth or handkerchief; he opens this again, and usually there is another cloth inside, into which the woman puts her flour. Then the cloths are carefully knotted together by the corners, put back in the bag, and the man mutters a ‘G.o.d bless you,’ and goes on his way.

The meal, flour and potatoes that are thus gathered up are always sold by the beggar, and the money is spent on porter or second-hand clothes, or very occasionally on food when he is in a neighbourhood that is not hospitable. The buyers are usually found among the coastguards’ wives, or in the little public-houses on the roadside.

‘Some of these men,’ said the woman of the house, when I asked her about them, ‘will take their flour nicely and tastily and cleanly, and others will throw it in anyway, and you’d be sorry to eat it afterwards.’

The talk of these people is almost bewildering. I have come to this cottage again and again, and I often think I have heard all they have to say, and then some one makes a remark that leads to a whole new bundle of folk-tales, or stories of wonderful events that have happened in the barony in the last hundred years. Tonight the people were unusually silent, although several neighbours had come in, and to make conversation I said something about the bull-fights in Spain that I had been reading of in the newspapers. Immediately they started off with stories of wicked or powerful bulls, and then they branched off to clever dogs and all the things they have done in West Kerry, and then to mad dogs and mad cattle and pigs–one incident after another, but always detailed and picturesque and interesting.

I have come back to the north of Dingle, leaving Tralee late in the afternoon. At the station there was a more than usually great crowd, as there had been a fair in the town and many people had come in to make their purchases. A number of messenger boys with parcels from the shops in the town were shouting for the owners, using many familiar names, Justin MacCarthy, Hannah Lynch and the like. I managed to get a seat on a sack of flour beside the owner, who had other packages scattered under our feet. When the train had started and the women and girls–the carriage was filled with them–had settled down into their places, I could see I caused great curiosity, as it was too late in the year for even an odd tourist, and on this line everyone is known by sight.

Before long I got into talk with the old man next me, and as soon as I did so the women and girls stopped their talk and leaned out to hear what we were saying.

He asked first if I belonged to Dingle, and I told him I did not.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘you speak like a Kerry man, and you’re dressed like a Kerry man, so you belong to Kerry, surely.’

I told him I was born and bred in Dublin, and that I had travelled in many places in Ireland and beyond it.

‘That’s easy said,’ he answered, ‘but I’d take an oath you were never beyond Kerry to this day.’

Then he asked sharply: ‘What do you do?’

I answered something about my wanderings in Europe, and suddenly he sat up, as if a new thought had come to him.

‘Maybe you’re a wealthy man?’ he said. I smiled complacently.

‘And about thirty-five?’

I nodded.

‘And not married?’


‘Well then,’ he said, ‘you’re a d.a.m.n lucky fellow to be travelling the world with no one to impede you.’

Then he went on to discuss the expenses of travelling.

‘You’ll likely be paying twenty pounds for this trip,’ he said, ‘with getting your lodging and buying your tickets, till you’re back in the city of Dublin?’

I told him my expenses were not so heavy.

‘Maybe you don’t drink so,’ said his wife, who was near us, ‘and that way your living wouldn’t be so costly at all.’

An interruption was made by a stop at a small station and the entrance of a ragged ballad-singer, who sang a long ballad about the sorrows of mothers who see all their children going away from them to America.

Further on, when the carriage was much emptier, a middle-aged man got in, and we began discussing the fishing season, Aran fishing, hookers, n.o.bbies, and mackerel. I could see, while we were talking, that he, in his turn, was examining me with curiosity. At last he seemed satisfied.

‘Begob,’ he said, ‘I see what you are; you’re a fish-dealer.’

It turned out that he was the skipper of a trawler, and we had a long talk, the two of us and a local man who was going to Dingle also.

‘There was one time a Frenchman below,’ said the skipper, ‘who got married here and settled down and worked with the rest of us. One day we were outside in the trawler, and there was a French boat anch.o.r.ed a bit of a way off. “Come on,” says Charley–that was his name–“and see can we get some brandy from that boat beyond.” “How would we get brandy,” says I, “when we’ve no fish, or meat, or cabbages or a thing at all to offer them?” He went down below then to see what he could get. At that time there were four men only working the trawler, and in the heavy season there were eight. Well, up he comes again and eight plates under his arm. “There are eight plates,” says he, “and four will do us; so we’ll take out the other four and make a swap with them for brandy.” With that he set the eight plates on the deck and began walking up and down and looking on them.

‘”The devil mend you,” says I. “Will you take them up and come on, if you’re coming?”

‘”I will,” says he, “surely. I’m choicing out the ones that have pictures on them, for it’s that kind they do set store on?”‘

Afterwards we began talking of boats that had been upset during the winter, and lives that had been lost in the neighbourhood.

‘A while since,’ said the local man, ‘there were three men out in a canoe, and the sea rose on them. They tried to come in under the cliff but they couldn’t come to land with the greatness of the waves that were breaking. There were two young men in the canoe, and another man was sixty, or near it. When the young men saw they couldn’t bring in the canoe, they said they’d make a jump for the rocks, and let her go without them, if she must go. Then they pulled in on the next wave, and when they were close in the two young men jumped on to a rock, but the old man was too stiff, and he was washed back again in the canoe. It came on dark after that, and all thought he was drowned, and they held his wake in Dunquin. At that time there used to be a steamer going in and out trading in Valentia and Dingle and Cahirciveen, and when she came into Dingle, two or three days after, there was my man on board her, as hearty as a salmon. When he was washed back he got one of the oars, and kept her head to the wind; then the tide took him one bit and the wind took him another, and he wrought and he wrought till he was safe beyond in Valentia. Wasn’t that a great wonder?’ Then as he was ending his story we ran down into Dingle.

Often, when one comes back to a place that one’s memory and imagination have been busy with, there is a feeling of smallness and disappointment, and it is a day or two before one can renew all one’s enjoyment. This morning, however, when I went up the gap between Croagh Martin and then back to Slea Head, and saw Inishtooskert and Inishvickillaun and the Great Blasket Island itself, they seemed ten times more grey and wild and magnificent than anything I had kept in my memory. The cold sea and surf, and the feeling of winter in the clouds, and the blackness of the rocks, and the red fern everywhere, were a continual surprise and excitement.

Here and there on my way I met old men with tail-coats of frieze, that are becoming so uncommon. When I spoke to them in English, they shook their heads and muttered something I could not hear; but when I tried Irish they made me long speeches about the weather and the clearness of the day.

In the evening, as I was coming home, I got a glimpse that seemed to have the whole character of Corkaguiney–a little line of low cottages with yellow roofs, and an elder tree without leaves beside them, standing out against a high mountain that seemed far away, yet was near enough to be dense and rich and wonderful in its colour.

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