Ascent of the Diamond Mountain

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter XXIV (12) | Start of Chapter

Monday morning.—My heart was light and buoyant, and the young Catholic lady set off with me to Diamond Mountain, a walk of ten miles, where we had been invited by two police-men the Saturday previous. We filled a basket with books, and were early on our way. The walk was romantic, diversified with lofty mountains, transparent lakes, and every variety of man, woman, and child, that poverty could present. Women with all kinds of burdens, doing all manner of work; some shovelling sea-gravel into baskets, lifting it upon their backs, and throwing it upon the potatoe-ridges.

"This is hard work," I observed, "for women." "This is our lot," answered one, "and we must do it; but if we had money to go to your country we wouldn't be here." One shrewd woman said, "I wish there would be war; then we'd have both work and money. Anything for a change. Here we toil like dogs and beasts, and live because the Almighty God don't call us." This woman was daily employed at this heavy work, for five pence a day, leaving her husband and ten children at home, a mile from her place of labor. We passed her cabin, and found her husband doing a little job at coopering. Miserable, miserable huts, and ragged children, so darkened the pleasant scenery of mountain, lake, and river, that my morning buoyancy began to flag a little.

On a rocky promontory of steep ascent sat a Connemara woman, with a red flannel jacket and petticoat, looking out, and a ragged girl standing near. I ran up the rock, sat down at a little distance, and commenced singing. She sat mute, looking into the sea, as if petrified; and though a boat was cheering, and crying "Long life to you," she remained unmoved, and when I proffered my hand, and spoke kindly, she looked steadily, but made no attempt at speaking. We passed down and left her, nor did she move till we had gone from her sight. We next called at a cabin, where a number of children had collected, to whom we gave books. Finding they attended a school near, we entered the school-room, and may I never see the like again. In one corner was a pile of potatoes, kept from rolling down by stones, on which the ragged bare-footed children were seated. In another corner was a pile of cart wheels, which were used for the same purpose; and in the middle of the room was a circular hole made in the ground, for the turf fire. Not a window, chair, or bench could be seen. The pupils, with scarcely a book, looked more like children who had sheltered themselves there in a fright, to escape the fury of a mad animal, or the tomahawk of some yelling savage, than those who had assembled for the benefit of the light of science. This was a Connemara school, and it was all they could do. I had seen sprinkled all over Ireland, schools in miserable cabins, where were huddled from forty to seventy in a dark room without a chimney; but they had benches to sit upon, and their school-room was upon the way-side, while this one was in a wet backyard. Those parents who are able, pay a penny a week; those who are not, pay nothing; while the wealthiest among them pay half a crown a quarter. I saw many schools of this kind, where the child takes a piece of turf under his arm, and goes two miles, and sometimes three, without breakfast. In many parts of the south, and among the mountains, they could eat but once in the day from Christmas to the next harvest, and this meal is generally from two to three o'clock.

We now proceeded to the police-station. Here the wife of the sergeant treated us politely, and placed a dinner of meat, bread, and potatoes before us; and the sergeant then sent two of his men to show us Diamond Mountain, so called from having upon the top a transparent stone which resembles a diamond, and is used in breast-pins and bracelets. We waded through bog till the ascent became difficult, and the rain poured down without mercy. We crawled under a shelving rock, but the furious wind sent the drops to seek us out, and we again attempted the ascent. To me it was quite difficult, and a little dangerous, my India-rubber shoes slipping, and compelling me to crawl, and support myself by holding to the heath. Here I lost a second pair of silver-mounted spectacles, which I used entirely for reading, and which had served me years for that purpose. I looked back to Lismore, renewed the lament there made at the loss of my favorites, and felt that spectacle troubles were peculiarly my lot.

The mountain was a mile high; one of the men had gained an eminence above us, and commenced rolling tremendous stones down the precipice, which bounding from hillock to hillock, from rock to rock, made a most frightful appearance as they tore their way, splitting and thundering till the mountain trembled as by a slight earthquake. To finish the drama, he crept upon the highest peak of the rock, where was poised a stone of tons weight. He gave a desperate push, and dislodged it. I saw the first movement of his body and fell upon my face, supposing man and rock were tumbling together. The young woman had succeeded in reaching a shelving part of the cliff, and was holding by some twigs. I ventured, as the thundering a little ceased, to peep up, and saw her standing like a petrified monument, her white naked feet looking like marble. When the rock had shattered in fragments, all was still, and the police-man called out, "I am here." I looked, there he sat upon the frightful pinnacle, happy, as he afterwards acknowledged, that he did not pay for his presumption by going headlong.

The steep upon which the young woman stood was nearly perpendicular; she had contrived to accomplish the ascent by disrobing her feet, and insisted that I should do the same, and follow her. "Here," she said, "you can see all the world, and all the sea, and here, too, is a cave." I crept up with my India-rubbers upon my feet, but so steep and so slippery was it, that I could retain my position only by holding fast to the heath. Here was a cave like a room, with a stone in the middle for a seat, and the roof of square stones as if laid by the hand of man. It seemed impossible that this could be the work of nature, yet what monk or chieftain could carry up his food and his water, and subsist upon the mountain? It was a proud height. A mile were we sitting, or rather hanging, above the level where we commenced, and the sea and earth seemed spread beneath us. The presumptuous man kept his position, looking at the crumbling fragments, and said he well nigh lost his balance, and was shocked at his own bold exploit. We could not reach the diamonds. The rain was pouring, and how to descend was the question. The barefooted girl could keep her hold, while my slippery rubbers exposed me at every step to a long slide which might be fatal. But by sitting down and sliding where walking was impossible, I succeeded in reaching a cabin near the bottom, in time to secure a couple of roasted potatoes, which the adventurous policeman and girl had prepared from a heap in the corner, where was a fire, and a little girl only to keep it.

We reached the barracks, leaving the diamonds to sparkle at a distance, as all diamonds generally do. But a kind lady gave me some fine specimens which were gathered from the rock, and nothing now remained but to compose my mind with the loss of the spectacles, and a breast pin of Killarney curiosity in addition.

A good fire and pot of potatoes dried our clothes and filled our mouths; and now for the lodging. The policeman had promised to secure this, but deferred it till night, when we had no time for choosing. And if the compassionate reader has been touched by our mountain adventure, let his sympathy follow us to the lobby at least of our resting-place.

As the policeman led us to the door, "You will as usual," he said, "find cattle in the room, but you will have a clean bed." Ah, the poor hapless girl and myself tested that bed! We entered the house, two cows were lying and chewing their cud, and a horse caparisoned with a straw saddle taking his supper. The mistress was sitting on a stone projecting from the chimney, her head up the pipe of it, smoking. She could lodge us "right well," and we were shown into the room, our feet sticking upon the floor, which when damp is like pitch and tar. We instantly committed ourselves to our fate. The father and mother soon joined us, and men, women, and boys, were in an almost open loft over our heads.

Daylight did certainly dawn; we rose in good time, paid our bill, and said good morning to the mistress, leaving her in the same spot where we found her, and at the same employment, with her cows and horse by her side.

Ireland’s Welome to the Stranger is one of the best accounts of Irish social conditions, customs, quirks and habits that you could wish for. The author, Mrs Asenath Nicholson, was an American widow who travelled extensively in Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine and meticulously observed the Irish peasantry at work and play, as well as noting their living conditions and diet. The book is also available from Kindle.