Reminiscences of the West

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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CHAPTER III...continued

November had come; the mornings sharp and foggy, the days bright and sunny, and the evenings cold and raw, but the middle and later hours of night so bright, that "you'd pick pins in the stubbles," when the ground became crisp with the light hoar frost. The month wore on. It was Saturday, and Mick, having finished putting the last scollop in the patches of thatch with which he was mending the roof, and the last bobbin in the rigging, got down off the ladder, and, about three o'clock in the afternoon, sauntered over to the bawne of Ballintober, and climbed (a favourite amusement of his) to the top of one of the highest towers of that beautiful ruin. From thence he enjoyed a most extensive prospect, over a gently undulating, but generally flat country, chiefly grass lands, with tracts of bog intervening, particularly towards the river.

The landscape was interspersed with snug villages, with their long, low, drab-coloured, mud-built cabins, surrounded, however, with well-stocked haggards; and, here and there, extensive plantations of young firs and larch, distinguished by their dark green and bright yellow hues, stretching along the hill-sides from the groves of fine old timber in the adjoining valleys, marked the progress of improvement, and pointed out the residences of the wealthy country gentleman—the old English settlers, high in birth—some of the ancient Milesian stock—and the monster graziers of Roscommon; all happy compared with present times—the landlord rich, the peasant comfortable. What would we see now if we looked over the same scene? Not one of those mansions tenanted; whole acres of that patriarchal timber felled, to supply those necessaries to the owners which they in former times dealt with liberality to their dependants, their tenants, and to the neighbouring poor; many of those houses roofless, some of them converted into poor-houses; the villages recognized only by the foundations of the cabins, and the few alder and whitethorn bushes that linger by their sites, and seem like spirits presiding over the reigning desolation; the population dead, starved, uprooted, or swept off by the pestilence; its remnant lingering away its sickly existence in the workhouse, or planted by the waters of the Ohio and the Mississippi. But, contemplating the present aspect of the place, we are ourselves falling into the reverie in which we left the fisherman's son.

Droves of long-horned, reddish-coloured bullocks, the largest and fattest in Ireland, cropt in huge mouthfuls the deep, rank aftergrass, as if conscious that the day was passing, and that the hour of evening meal, before they were driven into the inclosure of some old castle or bare paddock for the night, was drawing near. Large flocks of fat wethers quickly nibbled the short herbage that intervened between the recently-formed sandpits and irregular patches of dark green furze, or whins, that studded over the vast tracts of upland. Now and then the sharp report of the fowling-piece from the margin of the bog started the snipe, which, as it rose, to change its resting-place or feeding-ground, emitted a quick, shrill cry, as of distress. Long forked trains of wild geese, high over-head, telling by their distant whistling note their great elevation, presaged a severe winter; the large grey gulls quietly sailed across in noiseless course from the Suck, to rest for the night in some of the blue flashes or closhes of water with which the country was interspersed, or to take their evening meal at the great Turlough of Carrowkeel. The golden plover uttered its shrill whistle as it coursed in low and rapid flight along the loose stone fences, and the lapwing turned up its silver under-wing to the parting daylight, as it rose in confused gambols into the still calm ether; and enormous clouds of fieldfares and starlings, almost darkening the air, appeared in the horizon, and careered, and wheeled, and rose and fell, separated and gathered together again, as if directed by the trumpet note of some presiding general, who regulated their movements before they encamped for the night; while here and there might be seen a solitary heron, wending its noiseless way with broad expanded pinions and outstretched legs, to roost for the night in some of the tall fir trees in the neighbouring demesnes.

The pale, but well-defined moon, looking almost translucid in the remaining daylight, was high in the washy sky; the sun was settling towards the west, bright but watery; long slanting rays of golden light shot down through broken apertures in the sluggish, muddy clouds, like angels' faces peeping through the leaden curtain that veiled the heavens, and lighting up with peculiar brightness the patches of red bog, or russet potato field, on which they fell. The pale, reddish-yellow streaking of the west, was blurred and dappled with the vapours that exhaled from the over-saturated curraghs [32] and swamps that stretched away towards the confines of Mayo and Galway. The lengthened shadows of the old towers, and even of the long curtain walls of the castle, had crossed the still and stagnant moat, and the branching ivy, as it rustled and waved to and fro with the evening wind, threw fantastic shadows on the greensward of the common which surrounded the ruin.

It was getting cold and gloomy. Michael slowly descended by the old winding staircase, looking out from the windows of each story as he passed down; and when he stood in the great court, or inclosure of the castle, the gloom there appeared the greater, from his having so lately enjoyed an extensive prospect from his elevated position. The cold grey light paled in through the long irregular apertures in the massive walls, and the stillness was most startling. As he walked slowly and meditatively across the court, towards the entrance leading to his home, he suddenly stopped opposite one of the embrasures, put his hand to his face, quickly passed it over his eyes, and the cold drops burst forth, and stood in dew upon his face; his heart ceased for a few moments to act, and then beat with quick, rapid, and irregular, but audible motion. He quailed in every member, a slight shivering passed over his frame; his lips remained apart as his jaw fell, and a choking feeling of want of air seized him by the throat—it was with difficulty he could maintain his standing. Still, there he gazed—his eyes set, but riveted on the fringed opening in the wall. He took off his hat, raised his right hand, and devoutly crossed himself on the forehead, shoulders, and breast. His lips moved, but he uttered no audible sound as he inwardly repeated the usual invocation to the Trinity; he approached the situation of the object of his terror, and walked again slowly backwards, still keeping his eyes fixed on the spot. At last the noise of some sheep clattering over a loose part of the wall, diverted his attention; and when he looked again, his breath came more freely. The sight of the shepherd and his dog, now following the sheep, seemed to nerve him sufficiently to leave the spot, and he hurried homeward, downcast and unstrung.

Evidently something appeared to him, either in reality or in imagination, which had given no ordinary shock to his nervous system. His face was ghastly pale, and its expression was that of one who had suffered intense pain; and the suffering, though but for a few minutes, had left its traces still deeply lined into his countenance. The lips—those uncontrollable dial-plates of the mind—yet quivered, though they were compressed until the blood had almost left them. The lip's emotion is unmanageable—no actor can imitate it. The angles of the mouth were drawn slightly downward; the forehead deeply seamed; the eyes were wild, and did not appear to move in unison; the voice, as he returned the salutation of a neighbour in crossing the moat, was hollow and slightly tremulous; and his limbs moved quickly, but rather irregularly. Every now and then he gulped, as if swallowing large draughts of air; and as he proceeded homewards, sometimes slowly, and then almost at a run, he occasionally turned sharply round, as if to see whether there was not some one following him. At each angle of the road, at every tree, he stopped to examine; and he carefully tried to avoid the few persons that happened to be in his path, until he got to the boreen leading to his house. Here, at the end of the lane, he rested, and leaning his back against the ditch, endeavoured to compose himself, and arrange his features for the meeting with his family, for he was himself conscious that some great change must have passed over him; and as he walked up the lane a deep sigh escaped him, and he exclaimed aloud—"Oh, Queen of Heaven! what will become of my poor mother and Biddy?"

It was almost dark as young Welsh "drew over" a stool, and sat moodily looking into the fire at his mother's hearth. She plied her wheel without remark, and his sister was busily engaged in straining the potatoes on the skeib for their evening meal. Neither of them remarked anything unusual in his manners or appearance, and his custom of passing in and out without exchanging a word had nothing novel in it. "The little girl" placed the table opposite the fire, and put a rushlight in the long wooden sconce beside it, and then laid down the murpheys and the drop of milk in the noggin,—for it is not unusual for all the members of a small Irish peasant family to drink out of the same vessel, although each apportions a certain part of the brim to their special use. The mother pushed her wheel to one side, drew near the table, and looking at the haggard face of her son, uttered a suppressed scream, and exclaimed:—

"Saints in Heaven! Michauleen, jewel, what's come over you at all at all? Does anything ail you, ma lannou bocht? You look as if you'd seen what wasn't right."

"Troth, then, mother dear, you are not far from it; I'll never be the same man again—it's all over with me."

Peggy threw her arms round her brother, and, while the big sobs burst from her, she entreated him to tell them what had happened to him, or whether anybody had vexed him.

"Oh, no, the sorra vex. I'm neither sick, sore, nor sorry, for the matter of that; but I know I'm done for, anyhow,—and 'tisn't for my own sake I care, but to be after lavin' you and my mother all alone, and without any one to look after ye. Mother," said he, gazing steadily upon the pale anxious face that was bent upon him, "I've seen the thivish. I stud face to face with my fetch this blessed evening, straight forninst me in the bawne of Ballintober. There it was in the gap in the ould wall, as like me as if I stud before a lookin'-glass. Whatever I did, it did the same; and I thought it might be one of the boys making game of me, till I blessed myself—but it never riz a hand, and then I knew it was the thivish. It was well I didn't fall out of my standing. Mother, I'm a gone man, and I thought as much this many a day." And the swimming eyes refused longer to hold the scalding fluid which now ran down his care-worn cheeks.

The family were silent for some minutes, awe-struck by the sad warning, in which they all more or less believed. At last the mother said:—

"Michauleen, sthore ma chree that you were, never mind it; don't give in to the likes. I often heard tell of people that saw fetches, and never a hurt came on them."

"Thrue for you, mother, but that was in the morning; or maybe it was some one else's fetch they saw."

Still, though she endeavoured to calm his fears, it was evident, from the anxious countenance with which she frequently regarded him, that the loving mother's mind was not at rest upon the subject; but she struggled to suppress, if she could not quite conceal her agitation, and strove to direct his attention to other matters. At length she persuaded him to take a drop of sperrits in a warm drink, and to go to bed, as she was sure some sickness was over him.

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[32] Curragh, unreclaimed land—a sedgy, tufted, and quagmirish marsh.