Death and Burial of an Irish Cottier

James Orr
The Cabinet of Irish Literature (edited by Charles A. Read)
Volume 2

(This poem is written in the Scotch dialect, precisely as the peasantry and small farmers in the north of Ireland spoke when Orr lived among them. They were with few exceptions of Scotch descent, and were considered by the native Irish of the other provinces an alien race. To the present day the Scotch accent prevails in the north of Ireland).

Erin! my country! preciously adorn’d

With every beauty, and with every worth,

Thy grievances through time shall not be scorn’d,

For powerful friends to plead thy cause step forth:

But more unblest, oppression, want, and dearth,

Did during life distressfully attend

The poor neglected native of thy north,

Whose fall I sing. He found no powerful friend,

Till death was sent by Heaven to bid his soul ascend.

The blameless Cottier, wha his youth had pass’d

In temperance, and felt few pains when auld,

The prey o’ pleurisy, lies low at last,

And aft his thoughts are by delirium thrall’d:

Yet while he raves he prays in words weel wal’d,

An’ mutters through his sleep o’ truth an’ right;

An’ after pondering deep, the weans are tald

The readiest way he thinks they justly might

Support themselves thro’ life when he shall sink in night.

Wi’ patient watchfu’ness, lasses an’ lads,

Carefu’ an’ kin’, surroun’ his clean caff bed,

Ane to his lips the coolin’ cordial ha’ds,

An’ ane behin’ supports his achin’ head;

Some bin’ the arm that lately has been bled,

An’ some burn bricks his feet mair warm to mak;

If e’er he dose, how noiselessly they tread!

An’ stap the lights to mak the bield be black,

An’ aft the bedside lea, an’ aft slip saftly back.

Rang’d roun’ the hearth, where he presides nae mair,

Th’ inquirin’ nybers mourn their sufferin’ frien’;

An’ now an’ then divert awa their care

By tellin’ tales to please some glaiket wean,

Wha’s e’e soon fills whan told about the pain

Its sire endures, an’ what his loss wad be;

An’ much they say, but a’, alas! in vain,

To soothe the mither, wha ha’f pleas’d could see

Her partner eas’d by death, though for his life she’d die.

And while they’re provin’ that his end is sure

By strange ill omens—to assuage his smart

The minister comes in, wha’ to the poor

Without a fee performs the doctor’s part:

An’ while wi’ hope he soothes the suff’rer’s heart,

An’ gies a cheap, safe recipe, they try

To quat braid Scotch, a task that foils their art;

For while they join his converse, vain though shy,

They monie a lang learn’d word misca’ an’ misapply.

An’ lo! the sick man’s dyin’ words to ’tend,

Th’ alarm’d auld circle gather roun’, an’ weep;

Deceiv’d by hope, they thought till now he’d mend,

But he thought lang in death’s embrace to sleep.

“Let ithers will,” he says, “a golden heap,

I can but lea my blessin’ an’ advice—

Shield your poor mither, an’ her counsel keep;

An’ you, my senior sons, that ay were wise,

Do for my late-born babes, an’ train them for the skies.

“Be honest an’ obligin’; if ye thrive,

Be meek; an’ firm whan crosses come your road;

Should rude men wrang ye, to forgie them strive;

An’ gratefu’ be for benefits bestow’d:

Scorn nae poor man wha bears oppression’s load,

Nor meanly cringe for favours frae the proud;

In ae short sentence—Serve baith man an’ God.

Sae, whan your clay lies mould’rin’ in a shroud,

Your saul shall soar to heaven, and care nae mair becloud.”

His strength here fail’d, but still affection’s e’e

Spak on; a moment motionless he lay;

Bade “Peace be wi’ them!” turn’d his head awee,

And pass’d through death’s dark vale without dismay.

The speechless widow watch’d the stiff’ning clay,

And shed some “nat’ral tears”—rack’d yet resign’d;

To loud laments the orphan group gied way,

An’ mourn’d, unfelt, the wants and wrangs they’d find,

Flung friendless on the warl, that’s seldom unco kind.

Come hither, sons of plenty! an’ relieve

The bonny bairns, for labour yet owre wee,

An’ that mild matron, left in life’s late eve,

Without a stay the ills o’ age to dree:

Had I your walth, I hame wad tak wi’ me

The lamb that’s lookin’ in my tear-wat face;

An’ that dejected dame should sit rent free

In some snug cot, that I wad hae the grace

To visit frequently, and bid her hardships cease.

Cou’d he whose limbs they decently hae stretch’d,

The followers o’ freets awake an’ mark,

What wad he think o’ them, he oft beseeched

To be mair wise than mind sic notions dark?

To bare the shelves o’ plates they fa’ to wark;

Before the looking-glass a claith they cast;

An’ if a clock were here, nae ear might hark

Her still’d han’s tell how hours an’ moments pass’d;

Ignorance bred such pranks, an’ custom gars them last.

· · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·

Belyve an old man lifts the Word o’ God,

Gies out a line, an’ sings o’ grief an’ pain;

Reads o’er a chapter, chosen as it should,

That maks them sure the dead shall rise again;

And prays, that He, wha’s hand has gien and ta’en,

May be the orphan’s guide, the widow’s stay;

An’ that, rememb’rin’ death ere health be gane,

They a’ may walk in wisdom’s heavenward way,

Like him, the man o’ worth, that’s now a clod o’ clay.

An’ now a striplin’, wi’ becomin grace,

Han’s the wauk-supper, in a riddle, roun;

Hard bread, an’ cheese, might nicest palates please,

Bought frae a huxter in the nyb’rin’ town;

An’ gies them gills a piece o’ rum sae brown,

By polished sots wi’ feign’d reluctance pried;

Though here an’ there may sit a menseless loun,

The thoughtfu’ class consider poor folks’ need,

An’ only “kiss the cup,” an’ hardly ance break bread.

While thus they sit, the widow lifts the sheet,

To kiss the corps that worms will shortly gnaw;

Some argue Scripture—some play tricks—some greet;

Here they’re asleep—an’ there they slip awa’.

Folk wha lay list’nin’ till the cock wad craw,

Now rise frae rest, an’ come to sit a while;

Salute their frien’s, and speer for their folk a’,

An’ to the fire step ben, frae which a file

O’ warmer rustics rise, polite in simplest style.

Syne wi’ anither glass they hail day-light,

An’ crack mair cruse o’ bargains, farms, an’ beasts;

Or han’ tradition down, an’ ither fright,

Wi’ dreadfu’ tales o’ witches, elves, an’ ghaists.

The soger lad, wha on his pension rests,

Tells how he fought, an’ proudly bears his scaur;

While unfledg’d gulls, just looking owre their nests,

Brag how they lately did their rivals daur,

Before their first sweethearts, an’ dashed them i’ the glaur.

An’ while some lass, though on their cracks intent,

Turns to the light and sleely seems to read;

The village sires, wha kent him lang, lament

The dear deceas’d, an’ praise his life an’ creed;

For if they crav’d his help in time o’ need,

Or gied him trust, they prov’d him true an’ kin’;

“But he,” they cry, “wha blames his word or deed,

Might say the sun, that now begins to shine,

Is rising i’ the wast, whare he’ll at e’en decline.”

Warn’d to the Cottier’s burial, rich an’ poor

Cam’ at the hour, tho’ win’ an’ rain beat sair;

An’ monie met it at the distant moor,

An’ duly, time-about, bore up the bier,

That four men shouther’d through the churchyard drear.

Twa youths knelt down, and humbly in the grave

Laid their blest father. Numbers shed a tear,

Hop’d for an end like his, and saftly strave

To calm his female frien’s, wha dolefully did rave.

An’ while the sexton earth’d his poor remains,

The circling crowd contemplatively stood,

An’ mark’d the empty skulls, an’ jointless banes,

That, cast at random, lay like cloven wood:

Some stept outbye, an’ read the gravestanes rude,

That only tald the inmates’ years an’ names;

An’ ithers, kneeling, stream’d a saut, saut flood,

On the dear dust that held their kinsfolks’ frames—

Then, through the gate they a’ pass’d to their diff’rent hames.

Erin! my country! while thy green sward gilds

The good man’s grave, whose fall I strove to sing,

Ten thousand Cottiers, toiling on thy wilds,

Prize truth and right ’bove ev’ry earthly thing:

Full many a just man makes thy workshops ring;

Full many a bright man strips thy meads to mow;

Closer in thy distress to thee they cling;

And though their fields scarce daily bread bestow,

Feel thrice more peace of mind, than those who crush them low.

James Orr

The Irishman

Song of an Exile

Death and Burial of an Irish Cottier