I am in Aranmor, sitting over a turf fire, listening to a murmur of
Gaelic that is rising from a little public-house under my room.
The steamer which comes to Aran sails according to the tide, and it
was six o'clock this morning when we left the quay of Galway in a
dense shroud of mist.
A low line of shore was visible at first on the right between the
movement of the waves and fog, but when we came further it was lost
sight of, and nothing could be seen but the mist curling in the
rigging, and a small circle of foam.
There were few passengers; a couple of men going out with young pigs
tied loosely in sacking, three or four young girls who sat in the
cabin with their heads completely twisted in their shawls, and a
builder, on his way to repair the pier at Kilronan, who walked up
and down and talked with me.
In about three hours Aran came in sight. A dreary rock appeared at
first sloping up from the sea into the fog; then, as we drew nearer,
a coast-guard station and the village.
A little later I was wandering out along the one good roadway of the
island, looking over low walls on either side into small flat fields
of naked rock. I have seen nothing so desolate. Grey floods of water
were sweeping everywhere upon the limestone, making at limes a wild
torrent of the road, which twined continually over low hills and
cavities in the rock or passed between a few small fields of
potatoes or grass hidden away in corners that had shelter. Whenever
the cloud lifted I could see the edge of the sea below me on the
right, and the naked ridge of the island above me on the other side.
Occasionally I passed a lonely chapel or schoolhouse, or a line of
stone pillars with crosses above them and inscriptions asking a
prayer for the soul of the person they commemorated.
I met few people; but here and there a band of tall girls passed me
on their way to Kilronan, and called out to me with humorous wonder,
speaking English with a slight foreign intonation that differed a
good deal from the brogue of Galway. The rain and cold seemed to
have no influence on their vitality and as they hurried past me with
eager laughter and great talking in Gaelic, they left the wet masses
of rock more desolate than before.
A little after midday when I was coming back one old half-blind man
spoke to me in Gaelic, but, in general, I was surprised at the
abundance and fluency of the foreign tongue.
In the afternoon the rain continued, so I sat here in the inn
looking out through the mist at a few men who were unlading hookers
that had come in with turf from Connemara, and at the long-legged
pigs that were playing in the surf. As the fishermen came in and out
of the public-house underneath my room, I could hear through the
broken panes that a number of them still used the Gaelic, though it
seems to be falling out of use among the younger people of this
The old woman of the house had promised to get me a teacher of the
language, and after a while I heard a shuffling on the stairs, and
the old dark man I had spoken to in the morning groped his way into
I brought him over to the fire, and we talked for many hours. He
told me that he had known Petrie and Sir William Wilde, and many
living antiquarians, and had taught Irish to Dr. Finck and Dr.
Pedersen, and given stories to Mr. Curtin of America. A little after
middle age he had fallen over a cliff, and since then he had had
little eyesight, and a trembling of his hands and head.
As we talked he sat huddled together over the fire, shaking and
blind, yet his face was indescribably pliant, lighting up with an
ecstasy of humour when he told me anything that had a point of wit
or malice, and growing sombre and desolate again when he spoke of
religion or the fairies.
He had great confidence in his own powers and talent, and in the
superiority of his stories over all other stories in the world. When
we were speaking of Mr. Curtin, he told me that this gentleman had
brought out a volume of his Aran stories in America, and made five
hundred pounds by the sale of them.
'And what do you think he did then?' he continued; 'he wrote a book
of his own stories after making that lot of money with mine. And he
brought them out, and the divil a half-penny did he get for them.
Would you believe that?'
Afterwards he told me how one of his children had been taken by the
One day a neighbor was passing, and she said, when she saw it on the
road, 'That's a fine child.'
Its mother tried to say 'God bless it,' but something choked the
words in her throat.
A while later they found a wound on its neck, and for three nights
the house was filled with noises.
'I never wear a shirt at night,' he said, 'but I got up out of my
bed, all naked as I was, when I heard the noises in the house, and
lighted a light, but there was nothing in it.'
Then a dummy came and made signs of hammering nails in a coffin. The
next day the seed potatoes were full of blood, and the child told
his mother that he was going to America.
That night it died, and 'Believe me,' said the old man, 'the fairies
were in it.'
When he went away, a little bare-footed girl was sent up with turf
and the bellows to make a fire that would last for the evening.
She was shy, yet eager to talk, and told me that she had good spoken
Irish, and was learning to read it in the school, and that she had
been twice to Galway, though there are many grown women in the place
who have never set a foot upon the mainland.
The rain has cleared off, and I have had my first real introduction
to the island and its people.
I went out through Killeany--the poorest village in Aranmor--to a
long neck of sandhill that runs out into the sea towards the
south-west. As I lay there on the grass the clouds lifted from the
Connemara mountains and, for a moment, the green undulating
foreground, backed in the distance by a mass of hills, reminded me
of the country near Rome. Then the dun top-sail of a hooker swept
above the edge of the sandhill and revealed the presence of the sea.
As I moved on a boy and a man came down from the next village to
talk to me, and I found that here, at least, English was imperfectly
understood. When I asked them if there were any trees in the island
they held a hurried consultation in Gaelic, and then the man asked
if 'tree' meant the same thing as 'bush,' for if so there were a few
in sheltered hollows to the east.
They walked on with me to the sound which separates this island from
Inishmaan--the middle island of the group--and showed me the roll
from the Atlantic running up between two walls of cliff.
They told me that several men had stayed on Inishmaan to learn
Irish, and the boy pointed out a line of hovels where they had
lodged running like a belt of straw round the middle of the island.
The place looked hardly fit for habitation. There was no green to be
seen, and no sign of the people except these beehive-like roofs, and
the outline of a Dun that stood out above them against the edge of
After a while my companions went away and two other boys came and
walked at my heels, till I turned and made them talk to me. They
spoke at first of their poverty, and then one of them said--'I dare
say you do have to pay ten shillings a week in the hotel?' 'More,'
Then he drew back and did not question me any further, either
thinking that I had lied to check his curiosity, or too awed by my
riches to continue.
Repassing Killeany I was joined by a man who had spent twenty years
in America, where he had lost his health and then returned, so long
ago that he had forgotten English and could hardly make me
understand him. He seemed hopeless, dirty and asthmatic, and after
going with me for a few hundred yards he stopped and asked for
coppers. I had none left, so I gave him a fill of tobacco, and he
went back to his hovel.
When he was gone, two little girls took their place behind me and I
drew them in turn into conversation.
They spoke with a delicate exotic intonation that was full of charm,
and told me with a sort of chant how they guide 'ladies and
gintlemins' in the summer to all that is worth seeing in their
neighbourhood, and sell them pampooties and maidenhair ferns, which
are common among the rocks.
We were now in Kilronan, and as we parted they showed me holes in
their own pampooties, or cowskin sandals, and asked me the price of
new ones. I told them that my purse was empty, and then with a few
quaint words of blessing they turned away from me and went down to
All this walk back had been extraordinarily fine. The intense
insular clearness one sees only in Ireland, and after rain, was
throwing out every ripple in the sea and sky, and every crevice in
the hills beyond the bay.
This evening an old man came to see me, and said he had known a
relative of mine who passed some time on this island forty-three
'I was standing under the pier-wall mending nets,' he said, 'when
you came off the steamer, and I said to myself in that moment, if
there is a man of the name of Synge left walking the world, it is
that man yonder will be he.'
He went on to complain in curiously simple yet dignified language of
the changes that have taken place here since he left the island to
go to sea before the end of his childhood.
'I have come back,' he said, 'to live in a bit of a house with my
sister. The island is not the same at all to what it was. It is
little good I can get from the people who are in it now, and
anything I have to give them they don't care to have.'
From what I hear this man seems to have shut himself up in a world
of individual conceits and theories, and to live aloof at his trade
of net-mending, regarded by the other islanders with respect and
A little later when I went down to the kitchen I found two men from
Inishmaan who had been benighted on the island. They seemed a
simpler and perhaps a more interesting type than the people here,
and talked with careful English about the history of the Duns, and
the Book of Ballymote, and the Book of Kells, and other ancient
MSS., with the names of which they seemed familiar.
In spite of the charm of my teacher, the old blind man I met the day
of my arrival, I have decided to move on to Inishmaan, where Gaelic
is more generally used, and the life is perhaps the most primitive
that is left in Europe.
I spent all this last day with my blind guide, looking at the
antiquities that abound in the west or north-west of the island.
As we set out I noticed among the groups of girls who smiled at our
fellowship--old Mourteen says we are like the cuckoo with its
pipit--a beautiful oval face with the singularly spiritual
expression that is so marked in one type of the West Ireland women.
Later in the day, as the old man talked continually of the fairies
and the women they have taken, it seemed that there was a possible
link between the wild mythology that is accepted on the islands and
the strange beauty of the women.
At midday we rested near the ruins of a house, and two beautiful
boys came up and sat near us. Old Mourteen asked them why the house
was in ruins, and who had lived in it.
'A rich farmer built it a while since,' they said, 'but after two
years he was driven away by the fairy host.'
The boys came on with us some distance to the north to visit one of
the ancient beehive dwellings that is still in perfect preservation.
When we crawled in on our hands and knees, and stood up in the gloom
of the interior, old Mourteen took a freak of earthly humour and
began telling what he would have done if he could have come in there
when he was a young man and a young girl along with him.
Then he sat down in the middle of the floor and began to recite old
Irish poetry, with an exquisite purity of intonation that brought
tears to my eyes though I understood but little of the meaning.
On our way home he gave me the Catholic theory of the fairies.
When Lucifer saw himself in the glass he thought himself equal with
God. Then the Lord threw him out of Heaven, and all the angels that
belonged to him. While He was 'chucking them out,' an archangel
asked Him to spare some of them, and those that were falling are in
the air still, and have power to wreck ships, and to work evil in
From this he wandered off into tedious matters of theology, and
repeated many long prayers and sermons in Irish that he had heard
from the priests.
A little further on we came to a slated house, and I asked him who
was living in it.
'A kind of a schoolmistress,' he said; then his old face puckered
with a gleam of pagan malice.
'Ah, master,' he said, 'wouldn't it be fine to be in there, and to
be kissing her?'
A couple of miles from this village we turned aside to look at an
old ruined church of the Ceathair Aluinn (The Four Beautiful
Persons), and a holy well near it that is famous for cures of
blindness and epilepsy.
As we sat near the well a very old man came up from a cottage near
the road, and told me how it had become famous.
'A woman of Sligo had a son who was born blind, and one night she
dreamed that she saw an island with a blessed well in it that could
cure her son. She told her dream in the morning, and an old man said
it was of Aran she was after dreaming.
'She brought her son down by the coast of Galway, and came out in a
curagh, and landed below where you see a bit of a cove.
'She walked up then to the house of my father--God rest his
soul--and she told them what she was looking for.
'My father said that there was a well like what she had dreamed of,
and that he would send a boy along with her to show her the way.
"There's no need, at all," said she; "haven't I seen it all in my
'Then she went out with the child and walked up to this well, and
she kneeled down and began saying her prayers. Then she put her hand
out for the water, and put it on his eyes, and the moment it touched
him he called out: "O mother, look at the pretty flowers!"'
After that Mourteen described the feats of poteen drinking and
fighting that he did in his youth, and went on to talk of Diarmid,
who was the strongest man after Samson, and of one of the beds of
Diarmid and Grainne, which is on the east of the island. He says
that Diarmid was killed by the druids, who put a burning shirt on
him,--a fragment of mythology that may connect Diarmid with the
legend of Hercules, if it is not due to the 'learning' in some
hedge-school master's ballad.
Then we talked about Inishmaan.
'You'll have an old man to talk with you over there,' he said, 'and
tell you stories of the fairies, but he's walking about with two
sticks under him this ten year. Did ever you hear what it is goes on
four legs when it is young, and on two legs after that, and on three
legs when it does be old?'
I gave him the answer.
'Ah, master,' he said, 'you're a cute one, and the blessing of God
be on you. Well, I'm on three legs this minute, but the old man
beyond is back on four; I don't know if I'm better than the way he
is; he's got his sight and I'm only an old dark man.'
I am settled at last on Inishmaan in a small cottage with a
continual drone of Gaelic coming from the kitchen that opens into my
Early this morning the man of the house came over for me with a
four-oared curagh--that is, a curagh with four rowers and four oars
on either side, as each man uses two--and we set off a little before
It gave me a moment of exquisite satisfaction to find myself moving
away from civilisation in this rude canvas canoe of a model that has
served primitive races since men first went to sea.
We had to stop for a moment at a hulk that is anchored in the bay,
to make some arrangement for the fish-curing of the middle island,
and my crew called out as soon as we were within earshot that they
had a man with them who had been in France a month from this day.
When we started again, a small sail was run up in the bow, and we
set off across the sound with a leaping oscillation that had no
resemblance to the heavy movement of a boat.
The sail is only used as an aid, so the men continued to row after
it had gone up, and as they occupied the four cross-seats I lay on
the canvas at the stern and the frame of slender laths, which bent
and quivered as the waves passed under them.
When we set off it was a brilliant morning of April, and the green,
glittering waves seemed to toss the canoe among themselves, yet as
we drew nearer this island a sudden thunderstorm broke out behind
the rocks we were approaching, and lent a momentary tumult to this
still vein of the Atlantic.
We landed at a small pier, from which a rude track leads up to the
village between small fields and bare sheets of rock like those in
Aranmor. The youngest son of my boatman, a boy of about seventeen,
who is to be my teacher and guide, was waiting for me at the pier
and guided me to his house, while the men settled the curagh and
followed slowly with my baggage.
My room is at one end of the cottage, with a boarded floor and
ceiling, and two windows opposite each other. Then there is the
kitchen with earth floor and open rafters, and two doors opposite
each other opening into the open air, but no windows. Beyond it
there are two small rooms of half the width of the kitchen with one
The kitchen itself, where I will spend most of my time, is full of
beauty and distinction. The red dresses of the women who cluster
round the fire on their stools give a glow of almost Eastern
richness, and the walls have been toned by the turf-smoke to a soft
brown that blends with the grey earth-colour of the floor. Many
sorts of fishing-tackle, and the nets and oil-skins of the men, are
hung upon the walls or among the open rafters; and right overhead,
under the thatch, there is a whole cowskin from which they make
Every article on these islands has an almost personal character,
which gives this simple life, where all art is unknown, something of
the artistic beauty of medieval life. The curaghs and
spinning-wheels, the tiny wooden barrels that are still much used in
the place of earthenware, the home-made cradles, churns, and
baskets, are all full of individuality, and being made from
materials that are common here, yet to some extent peculiar to the
island, they seem to exist as a natural link between the people and
the world that is about them.
The simplicity and unity of the dress increases in another way the
local air of beauty. The women wear red petticoats and jackets of
the island wool stained with madder, to which they usually add a
plaid shawl twisted round their chests and tied at their back. When
it rains they throw another petticoat over their heads with the
waistband round their faces, or, if they are young, they use a heavy
shawl like those worn in Galway. Occasionally other wraps are worn,
and during the thunderstorm I arrived in I saw several girls with
men's waistcoats buttoned round their bodies. Their skirts do not
come much below the knee, and show their powerful legs in the heavy
indigo stockings with which they are all provided.
The men wear three colours: the natural wool, indigo, and a grey
flannel that is woven of alternate threads of indigo and the natural
wool. In Aranmor many of the younger men have adopted the usual
fisherman's jersey, but I have only seen one on this island.
As flannel is cheap--the women spin the yarn from the wool of their
own sheep, and it is then woven by a weaver in Kilronan for
fourpence a yard--the men seem to wear an indefinite number of
waistcoats and woollen drawers one over the other. They are usually
surprised at the lightness of my own dress, and one old man I spoke
to for a minute on the pier, when I came ashore, asked me if I was
not cold with 'my little clothes.'
As I sat in the kitchen to dry the spray from my coat, several men
who had seen me walking up came in to me to talk to me, usually
murmuring on the threshold, 'The blessing of God on this place,' or
some similar words.
The courtesy of the old woman of the house is singularly attractive,
and though I could not understand much of what she said--she has no
English--I could see with how much grace she motioned each visitor
to a chair, or stool, according to his age, and said a few words to
him till he drifted into our English conversation.
For the moment my own arrival is the chief subject of interest, and
the men who come in are eager to talk to me.
Some of them express themselves more correctly than the ordinary
peasant, others use the Gaelic idioms continually and substitute
'he' or 'she' for 'it,' as the neuter pronoun is not found in modern
A few of the men have a curiously full vocabulary, others know only
the commonest words in English, and are driven to ingenious devices
to express their meaning. Of all the subjects we can talk of war
seems their favourite, and the conflict between America and Spain is
causing a great deal of excitement. Nearly all the families have
relations who have had to cross the Atlantic, and all eat of the
flour and bacon that is brought from the United States, so they have
a vague fear that 'if anything happened to America,' their own
island would cease to be habitable.
Foreign languages are another favourite topic, and as these men are
bilingual they have a fair notion of what it means to speak and
think in many different idioms. Most of the strangers they see on
the islands are philological students, and the people have been led
to conclude that linguistic studies, particularly Gaelic studies,
are the chief occupation of the outside world.
'I have seen Frenchmen, and Danes, and Germans,' said one man, 'and
there does be a power a Irish books along with them, and they
reading them better than ourselves. Believe me there are few rich
men now in the world who are not studying the Gaelic.'
They sometimes ask me the French for simple phrases, and when they
have listened to the intonation for a moment, most of them are able
to reproduce it with admirable precision.
When I was going out this morning to walk round the island with
Michael, the boy who is teaching me Irish, I met an old man making
his way down to the cottage. He was dressed in miserable black
clothes which seemed to have come from the mainland, and was so bent
with rheumatism that, at a little distance, he looked more like a
spider than a human being.
Michael told me it was Pat Dirane, the story-teller old Mourteen had
spoken of on the other island. I wished to turn back, as he appeared
to be on his way to visit me, but Michael would not hear of it.
'He will be sitting by the fire when we come in,' he said; 'let you
not be afraid, there will be time enough to be talking to him by and
He was right. As I came down into the kitchen some hours later old
Pat was still in the chimney-corner, blinking with the turf smoke.
He spoke English with remarkable aptness and fluency, due, I
believe, to the months he spent in the English provinces working at
the harvest when he was a young man.
After a few formal compliments he told me how he had been crippled
by an attack of the 'old hin' (i.e. the influenza), and had been
complaining ever since in addition to his rheumatism.
While the old woman was cooking my dinner he asked me if I liked
stories, and offered to tell one in English, though he added, it
would be much better if I could follow the Gaelic. Then he began:--
There were two farmers in County Clare. One had a son, and the
other, a fine rich man, had a daughter.
The young man was wishing to marry the girl, and his father told him
to try and get her if he thought well, though a power of gold would
be wanting to get the like of her.
'I will try,' said the young man.
He put all his gold into a bag. Then he went over to the other farm,
and threw in the gold in front of him.
'Is that all gold?' said the father of the girl.
'All gold,' said O'Conor (the young man's name was O'Conor).
'It will not weigh down my daughter,' said the father.
'We'll see that,' said O'Conor.
Then they put them in the scales, the daughter in one side and the
gold in the other. The girl went down against the ground, so O'Conor
took his bag and went out on the road.
As he was going along he came to where there was a little man, and
he standing with his back against the wall.
'Where are you going with the bag?' said the little man. 'Going
home,' said O'Conor.
'Is it gold you might be wanting?' said the man. 'It is, surely,'
'I'll give you what you are wanting,' said the man, 'and we can
bargain in this way--you'll pay me back in a year the gold I give
you, or you'll pay me with five pounds cut off your own flesh.'
That bargain was made between them. The man gave a bag of gold to
O'Conor, and he went back with it, and was married to the young
They were rich people, and he built her a grand castle on the cliffs
of Clare, with a window that looked out straight over the wild
One day when he went up with his wife to look out over the wild
ocean, he saw a ship coming in on the rocks, and no sails on her at
all. She was wrecked on the rocks, and it was tea that was in her,
and fine silk.
O'Conor and his wife went down to look at the wreck, and when the
lady O'Conor saw the silk she said she wished a dress of it.
They got the silk from the sailors, and when the Captain came up to
get the money for it, O'Conor asked him to come again and take his
dinner with them. They had a grand dinner, and they drank after it,
and the Captain was tipsy. While they were still drinking, a letter
came to O'Conor, and it was in the letter that a friend of his was
dead, and that he would have to go away on a long journey. As he was
getting ready the Captain came to him.
'Are you fond of your wife?' said the Captain.
'I am fond of her,' said O'Conor.
'Will you make me a bet of twenty guineas no man comes near her
while you'll be away on the journey?' said the Captain.
'I will bet it,' said O'Conor; and he went away.
There was an old hag who sold small things on the road near the
castle, and the lady O'Conor allowed her to sleep up in her room in
a big box. The Captain went down on the road to the old hag.
'For how much will you let me sleep one night in your box?' said
'For no money at all would I do such a thing,' said the hag.
'For ten guineas?' said the Captain.
'Not for ten guineas,' said the hag.
'For twelve guineas?' said the Captain.
'Not for twelve guineas,' said the hag.
'For fifteen guineas?' said the Captain.
'For fifteen I will do it,' said the hag.
Then she took him up and hid him in the box. When night came the
lady O'Conor walked up into her room, and the Captain watched her
through a hole that was in the box. He saw her take off her two
rings and put them on a kind of a board that was over her head like
a chimney-piece, and take off her clothes, except her shift, and go
up into her bed.
As soon as she was asleep the Captain came out of his box, and he
had some means of making a light, for he lit the candle. He went
over to the bed where she was sleeping without disturbing her at
all, or doing any bad thing, and he took the two rings off the
board, and blew out the light, and went down again into the box.
He paused for a moment, and a deep sigh of relief rose from the men
and women who had crowded in while the story was going on, till the
kitchen was filled with people.
As the Captain was coming out of his box the girls, who had appeared
to know no English, stopped their spinning and held their breath
The old man went on--
When O'Conor came back the Captain met him, and told him that he had
been a night in his wife's room, and gave him the two rings. O'Conor
gave him the twenty guineas of the bet. Then he went up into the
castle, and he took his wife up to look out of the window over the
wild ocean. While she was looking he pushed her from behind, and she
fell down over the cliff into the sea.
An old woman was on the shore, and she saw her falling. She went
down then to the surf and pulled her out all wet and in great
disorder, and she took the wet clothes off her, and put on some old
rags belonging to herself.
When O'Conor had pushed his wife from the window he went away into
After a while the lady O'Conor went out searching for him, and when
she had gone here and there a long time in the country, she heard
that he was reaping in a field with sixty men.
She came to the field and she wanted to go in, but the gate-man
would not open the gate for her. Then the owner came by, and she
told him her story. He brought her in, and her husband was there,
reaping, but he never gave any sign of knowing her. She showed him
to the owner, and he made the man come out and go with his wife.
Then the lady O'Conor took him out on the road where there were
horses, and they rode away.
When they came to the place where O'Conor had met the little man, he
was there on the road before them.
'Have you my gold on you?' said the man.
'I have not,' said O'Conor.
'Then you'll pay me the flesh off your body,' said the man. They
went into a house, and a knife was brought, and a clean white cloth
was put on the table, and O'Conor was put upon the cloth.
Then the little man was going to strike the lancet into him, when
says lady O'Conor--
'Have you bargained for five pounds of flesh?'
'For five pounds of flesh,' said the man.
'Have you bargained for any drop of his blood?' said lady O'Conor.
'For no blood,' said the man.
'Cut out the flesh,' said lady O'Conor, 'but if you spill one drop
of his blood I'll put that through you.' And she put a pistol to his
The little man went away and they saw no more of him.
When they got home to their castle they made a great supper, and
they invited the Captain and the old hag, and the old woman that had
pulled the lady O'Conor out of the sea.
After they had eaten well the lady O'Conor began, and she said they
would all tell their stories. Then she told how she had been saved
from the sea, and how she had found her husband.
Then the old woman told her story; the way she had found the lady
O'Conor wet, and in great disorder, and had brought her in and put
on her some old rags of her own.
The lady O'Conor asked the Captain for his story; but he said they
would get no story from him. Then she took her pistol out of her
pocket, and she put it on the edge of the table, and she said that
any one that would not tell his story would get a bullet into him.
Then the Captain told the way he had got into the box, and come over
to her bed without touching her at all, and had taken away the
Then the lady O'Conor took the pistol and shot the hag through the
body, and they threw her over the cliff into the sea.
That is my story.
It gave me a strange feeling of wonder to hear this illiterate
native of a wet rock in the Atlantic telling a story that is so full
of European associations.
The incident of the faithful wife takes us beyond Cymbeline to the
sunshine on the Arno, and the gay company who went out from Florence
to tell narratives of love. It takes us again to the low vineyards
of Wurzburg on the Main, where the same tale was told in the middle
ages, of the 'Two Merchants and the Faithful Wife of Ruprecht von
The other portion, dealing with the pound of flesh, has a still
wider distribution, reaching from Persia and Egypt to the Gesta
Rornanorum, and the Pecorone of Ser Giovanni, a Florentine notary.
The present union of the two tales has already been found among the
Gaels, and there is a somewhat similar version in Campbell's Popular
Tales of the Western Highlands.
Michael walks so fast when I am out with him that I cannot pick my
steps, and the sharp-edged fossils which abound in the limestone
have cut my shoes to pieces.
The family held a consultation on them last night, and in the end it
was decided to make me a pair of pampooties, which I have been
wearing to-day among the rocks.
They consist simply of a piece of raw cowskin, with the hair
outside, laced over the toe and round the heel with two ends of
fishing-line that work round and are tied above the instep.
In the evening, when they are taken off, they are placed in a basin
of water, as the rough hide cuts the foot and stocking if it is
allowed to harden. For the same reason the people often step into
the surf during the day, so that their feet are continually moist.
At first I threw my weight upon my heels, as one does naturally in a
boot, and was a good deal bruised, but after a few hours I learned
the natural walk of man, and could follow my guide in any portion of
In one district below the cliffs, towards the north, one goes for
nearly a mile jumping from one rock to another without a single
ordinary step; and here I realized that toes have a natural use, for
I found myself jumping towards any tiny crevice in the rock before
me, and clinging with an eager grip in which all the muscles of my
feet ached from their exertion.
The absence of the heavy boot of Europe has preserved to these
people the agile walk of the wild animal, while the general
simplicity of their lives has given them many other points of
physical perfection. Their way of life has never been acted on by
anything much more artificial than the nests and burrows of the
creatures that live round them, and they seem, in a certain sense,
to approach more nearly to the finer types of our aristocracies--who
are bred artificially to a natural ideal--than to the labourer or
citizen, as the wild horse resembles the thoroughbred rather than
the hack or cart-horse. Tribes of the same natural development are,
perhaps, frequent in half-civilized countries, but here a touch of
the refinement of old societies is blended, with singular effect,
among the qualities of the wild animal.
While I am walking with Michael some one often comes to me to ask
the time of day. Few of the people, however, are sufficiently used
to modern time to understand in more than a vague way the convention
of the hours, and when I tell them what o'clock it is by my watch
they are not satisfied, and ask how long is left them before the
The general knowledge of time on the island depends, curiously
enough, on the direction of the wind. Nearly all the cottages are
built, like this one, with two doors opposite each other, the more
sheltered of which lies open all day to give light to the interior.
If the wind is northerly the south door is opened, and the shadow of
the door-post moving across the kitchen floor indicates the hour; as
soon, however, as the wind changes to the south the other door is
opened, and the people, who never think of putting up a primitive
dial, are at a loss.
This system of doorways has another curious result. It usually
happens that all the doors on one side of the village pathway are
lying open with women sitting about on the thresholds, while on the
other side the doors are shut and there is no sign of life. The
moment the wind changes everything is reversed, and sometimes when I
come back to the village after an hour's walk there seems to have
been a general flight from one side of the way to the other.
In my own cottage the change of the doors alters the whole tone of
the kitchen, turning it from a brilliantly-lighted room looking out
on a yard and laneway to a sombre cell with a superb view of the
When the wind is from the north the old woman manages my meals with
fair regularity; but on the other days she often makes my tea at
three o'clock instead of six. If I refuse it she puts it down to
simmer for three hours in the turf, and then brings it in at six
o'clock full of anxiety to know if it is warm enough.
The old man is suggesting that I should send him a clock when I go
away. He'd like to have something from me in the house, he says, the
way they wouldn't forget me, and wouldn't a clock be as handy as
another thing, and they'd be thinking of me whenever they'd look on
The general ignorance of any precise hours in the day makes it
impossible for the people to have regular meals.
They seem to eat together in the evening, and sometimes in the
morning, a little after dawn, before they scatter for their work,
but during the day they simply drink a cup of tea and eat a piece of
bread, or some potatoes, whenever they are hungry.
For men who live in the open air they eat strangely little. Often
when Michael has been out weeding potatoes for eight or nine hours
without food, he comes in and eats a few slices of home-made bread,
and then he is ready to go out with me and wander for hours about
They use no animal food except a little bacon and salt fish. The old
woman says she would be very ill if she ate fresh meat.
Some years ago, before tea, sugar, and flour had come into general
use, salt fish was much more the staple article of diet than at
present, and, I am told, skin diseases were very common, though they
are now rare on the islands.
No one who has not lived for weeks among these grey clouds and seas
can realise the joy with which the eye rests on the red dresses of
the women, especially when a number of them are to be found
together, as happened early this morning.
I heard that the young cattle were to be shipped for a fair on the
mainland, which is to take place in a few days, and I went down on
the pier, a little after dawn, to watch them.
The bay was shrouded in the greys of coming rain, yet the thinness
of the cloud threw a silvery light on the sea, and an unusual depth
of blue to the mountains of Connemara.
As I was going across the sandhills one dun-sailed hooker glided
slowly out to begin her voyage, and another beat up to the pier.
Troops of red cattle, driven mostly by the women, were coming up
from several directions, forming, with the green of the long tract
of grass that separates the sea from the rocks, a new unity of
The pier itself was crowded with bullocks and a great number of the
people. I noticed one extraordinary girl in the throng who seemed to
exert an authority on all who came near her. Her curiously-formed
nostrils and narrow chin gave her a witch-like expression, yet the
beauty of her hair and skin made her singularly attractive.
When the empty hooker was made fast its deck was still many feet
below the level of the pier, so the animals were slung down by a
rope from the mast-head, with much struggling and confusion. Some of
them made wild efforts to escape, nearly carrying their owners with
them into the sea, but they were handled with wonderful dexterity,
and there was no mishap.
When the open hold was filled with young cattle, packed as tightly
as they could stand, the owners with their wives or sisters, who go
with them to prevent extravagance in Galway, jumped down on the
deck, and the voyage was begun. Immediately afterwards a rickety old
hooker beat up with turf from Connemara, and while she was unlading
all the men sat along the edge of the pier and made remarks upon the
rottenness of her timber till the owners grew wild with rage.
The tide was now too low for more boats to come to the pier, so a
move was made to a strip of sand towards the south-east, where the
rest of the cattle were shipped through the surf. Here the hooker
was anchored about eighty yards from the shore, and a curagh was
rowed round to tow out the animals. Each bullock was caught in its
turn and girded with a sling of rope by which it could be hoisted on
board. Another rope was fastened to the horns and passed out to a
man in the stem of the curagh. Then the animal was forced down
through the surf and out of its depth before it had much time to
struggle. Once fairly swimming, it was towed out to the hooker and
dragged on board in a half-drowned condition.
The freedom of the sand seemed to give a stronger spirit of revolt,
and some of the animals were only caught after a dangerous struggle.
The first attempt was not always successful, and I saw one
three-year-old lift two men with his horns, and drag another fifty
yards along the sand by his tail before he was subdued.
While this work was going on a crowd of girls and women collected on
the edge of the cliff and kept shouting down a confused babble of
satire and praise.
When I came back to the cottage I found that among the women who had
gone to the mainland was a daughter of the old woman's, and that her
baby of about nine months had been left in the care of its
As I came in she was busy getting ready my dinner, and old Pat
Dirane, who usually comes at this hour, was rocking the cradle. It
is made of clumsy wicker-work, with two pieces of rough wood
fastened underneath to serve as rockers, and all the time I am in my
room I can hear it bumping on the floor with extraordinary violence.
When the baby is awake it sprawls on the floor, and the old woman
sings it a variety of inarticulate lullabies that have much musical
Another daughter, who lives at home, has gone to the fair also, so
the old woman has both the baby and myself to take care of as well
as a crowd of chickens that live in a hole beside the fire, Often
when I want tea, or when the old woman goes for water, I have to
take my own turn at rocking the cradle.
One of the largest Duns, or pagan forts, on the islands, is within a
stone's throw of my cottage, and I often stroll up there after a
dinner of eggs or salt pork, to smoke drowsily on the stones. The
neighbours know my habit, and not infrequently some one wanders up
to ask what news there is in the last paper I have received, or to
make inquiries about the American war. If no one comes I prop my
book open with stones touched by the Fir-bolgs, and sleep for hours
in the delicious warmth of the sun. The last few days I have almost
lived on the round walls, for, by some miscalculation, our turf has
come to an end, and the fires are kept up with dried cow-dung--a
common fuel on the island--the smoke from which filters through into
my room and lies in blue layers above my table and bed.
Fortunately the weather is fine, and I can spend my days in the
sunshine. When I look round from the top of these walls I can see
the sea on nearly every side, stretching away to distant ranges of
mountains on the north and south. Underneath me to the east there is
the one inhabited district of the island, where I can see red
figures moving about the cottages, sending up an occasional fragment
of conversation or of old island melodies.
The baby is teething, and has been crying for several days. Since
his mother went to the fair they have been feeding him with cow's
milk, often slightly sour, and giving him, I think, more than he
This morning, however, he seemed so unwell they sent out to look for
a foster-mother in the village, and before long a young woman, who
lives a little way to the east, came in and restored him to his
A few hours later, when I came into the kitchen to talk to old Pat,
another woman performed the same kindly office, this time a person
with a curiously whimsical expression.
Pat told me a story of an unfaithful wife, which I will give further
down, and then broke into a moral dispute with the visitor, which
caused immense delight to some young men who had come down to listen
to the story. Unfortunately it was carried on so rapidly in Gaelic
that I lost most of the points.
This old man talks usually in a mournful tone about his ill-health,
and his death, which he feels to be approaching, yet he has
occasional touches of humor that remind me of old Mourteen on the
north island. To-day a grotesque twopenny doll was lying on the
floor near the old woman. He picked it up and examined it as if
comparing it with her. Then he held it up: 'Is it you is after
bringing that thing into the world,' he said, 'woman of the house?'
Here is the story:--
One day I was travelling on foot from Galway to Dublin, and the
darkness came on me and I ten miles from the town I was wanting to
pass the night in. Then a hard rain began to fall and I was tired
walking, so when I saw a sort of a house with no roof on it up
against the road, I got in the way the walls would give me shelter.
As I was looking round I saw a light in some trees two perches off,
and thinking any sort of a house would be better than where I was, I
got over a wall and went up to the house to look in at the window.
I saw a dead man laid on a table, and candles lighted, and a woman
watching him. I was frightened when I saw him, but it was raining
hard, and I said to myself, if he was dead he couldn't hurt me. Then
I knocked on the door and the woman came and opened it.
'Good evening, ma'am,' says I.
'Good evening kindly, stranger,' says she, 'Come in out of the
rain.' Then she took me in and told me her husband was after dying
on her, and she was watching him that night.
'But it's thirsty you'll be, stranger,' says she, 'Come into the
parlour.' Then she took me into the parlour--and it was a fine clean
house--and she put a cup, with a saucer under it, on the table
before me with fine sugar and bread.
When I'd had a cup of tea I went back into the kitchen where the
dead man was lying, and she gave me a fine new pipe off the table
with a drop of spirits.
'Stranger,' says she, 'would you be afeard to be alone with himself?'
'Not a bit in the world, ma'am,' says I; 'he that's dead can do no
hurt,' Then she said she wanted to go over and tell the neighbours
the way her husband was after dying on her, and she went out and
locked the door behind her.
I smoked one pipe, and I leaned out and took another off the table.
I was smoking it with my hand on the back of my chair--the way you
are yourself this minute, God bless you--and I looking on the dead
man, when he opened his eyes as wide as myself and looked at me.
'Don't be afraid, stranger,' said the dead man; 'I'm not dead at all
in the world. Come here and help me up and I'll tell you all about
Well, I went up and took the sheet off of him, and I saw that he had
a fine clean shirt on his body, and fine flannel drawers.
He sat up then, and says he--
'I've got a bad wife, stranger, and I let on to be dead the way I'd
catch her goings on.'
Then he got two fine sticks he had to keep down his wife, and he put
them at each side of his body, and he laid himself out again as if
he was dead.
In half an hour his wife came back and a young man along with her.
Well, she gave him his tea, and she told him he was tired, and he
would do right to go and lie down in the bedroom.
The young man went in and the woman sat down to watch by the dead
man. A while after she got up and 'Stranger,' says she, 'I'm going
in to get the candle out of the room; I'm thinking the young man
will be asleep by this time.' She went into the bedroom, but the
divil a bit of her came back.
Then the dead man got up, and he took one stick, and he gave the
other to myself. We went in and saw them lying together with her
head on his arm.
The dead man hit him a blow with the stick so that the blood out of
him leapt up and hit the gallery.
That is my story.
In stories of this kind he always speaks in the first person, with
minute details to show that he was actually present at the scenes
that are described.
At the beginning of this story he gave me a long account of what had
made him be on his way to Dublin on that occasion, and told me about
all the rich people he was going to see in the finest streets of the
A week of sweeping fogs has passed over and given me a strange sense
of exile and desolation. I walk round the island nearly every day,
yet I can see nothing anywhere but a mass of wet rock, a strip of
surf, and then a tumult of waves.
The slaty limestone has grown black with the water that is dripping
on it, and wherever I turn there is the same grey obsession twining
and wreathing itself among the narrow fields, and the same wail from
the wind that shrieks and whistles in the loose rubble of the walls.
At first the people do not give much attention to the wilderness
that is round them, but after a few days their voices sink in the
kitchen, and their endless talk of pigs and cattle falls to the
whisper of men who are telling stories in a haunted house.
The rain continues; but this evening a number of young men were in
the kitchen mending nets, and the bottle of poteen was drawn from
One cannot think of these people drinking wine on the summit of this
crumbling precipice, but their grey poteen, which brings a shock of
joy to the blood, seems predestined to keep sanity in men who live
forgotten in these worlds of mist.
I sat in the kitchen part of the evening to feel the gaiety that was
rising, and when I came into my own room after dark, one of the sons
came in every time the bottle made its round, to pour me out my
It has cleared, and the sun is shining with a luminous warmth that
makes the whole island glisten with the splendor of a gem, and fills
the sea and sky with a radiance of blue light.
I have come out to lie on the rocks where I have the black edge of
the north island in front of me, Galway Bay, too blue almost to look
at, on my right, the Atlantic on my left, a perpendicular cliff
under my ankles, and over me innumerable gulls that chase each other
in a white cirrus of wings.
A nest of hooded crows is somewhere near me, and one of the old
birds is trying to drive me away by letting itself fall like a stone
every few moments, from about forty yards above me to within reach
of my hand.
Gannets are passing up and down above the sound, swooping at times
after a mackerel, and further off I can see the whole fleet of
hookers coming out from Kilronan for a night's fishing in the deep
water to the west.
As I lie here hour after hour, I seem to enter into the wild
pastimes of the cliff, and to become a companion of the cormorants
Many of the birds display themselves before me with the vanity of
barbarians, performing in strange evolutions as long as I am in
sight, and returning to their ledge of rock when I am gone. Some are
wonderfully expert, and cut graceful figures for an inconceivable
time without a flap of their wings, growing so absorbed in their own
dexterity that they often collide with one another in their flight,
an incident always followed by a wild outburst of abuse. Their
language is easier than Gaelic, and I seem to understand the greater
part of their cries, though I am not able to answer. There is one
plaintive note which they take up in the middle of their usual
babble with extraordinary effect, and pass on from one to another
along the cliff with a sort of an inarticulate wail, as if they
remembered for an instant the horror of the mist.
On the low sheets of rock to the east I can see a number of red and
grey figures hurrying about their work. The continual passing in
this island between the misery of last night and the splendor of
to-day, seems to create an affinity between the moods of these
people and the moods of varying rapture and dismay that are frequent
in artists, and in certain forms of alienation. Yet it is only in
the intonation of a few sentences or some old fragment of melody
that I catch the real spirit of the island, for in general the men
sit together and talk with endless iteration of the tides and fish,
and of the price of kelp in Connemara.
After Mass this morning an old woman was buried. She lived in the
cottage next mine, and more than once before noon I heard a faint
echo of-the keen. I did not go to the wake for fear my presence
might jar upon the mourners, but all last evening I could hear the
strokes of a hammer in the yard, where, in the middle of a little
crowd of idlers, the next of kin laboured slowly at the coffin.
To-day, before the hour for the funeral, poteen was served to a
number of men who stood about upon the road, and a portion was
brought to me in my room. Then the coffin was carried out sewn
loosely in sailcloth, and held near the ground by three cross-poles
lashed upon the top. As we moved down to the low eastern portion of
the island, nearly all the men, and all the oldest women, wearing
petticoats over their heads, came out and joined in the procession.
While the grave was being opened the women sat down among the flat
tombstones, bordered with a pale fringe of early bracken, and began
the wild keen, or crying for the dead. Each old woman, as she took
her turn in the leading recitative, seemed possessed for the moment
with a profound ecstasy of grief, swaying to and fro, and bending
her forehead to the stone before her, while she called out to the
dead with a perpetually recurring chant of sobs.
All round the graveyard other wrinkled women, looking out from under
the deep red petticoats that cloaked them, rocked themselves with
the same rhythm, and intoned the inarticulate chant that is
sustained by all as an accompaniment.
The morning had been beautifully fine, but as they lowered the
coffin into the grave, thunder rumbled overhead and hailstones
hissed among the bracken.
In Inishmaan one is forced to believe in a sympathy between man and
nature, and at this moment when the thunder sounded a death-peal of
extraordinary grandeur above the voices of the women, I could see
the faces near me stiff and drawn with emotion.
When the coffin was in the grave, and the thunder had rolled away
across the hills of Clare, the keen broke out again more
passionately than before.
This grief of the keen is no personal complaint for the death of one
woman over eighty years, but seems to contain the whole passionate
rage that lurks somewhere in every native of the island. In this cry
of pain the inner consciousness of the people seems to lay itself
bare for an instant, and to reveal the mood of beings who feel their
isolation in the face of a universe that wars on them with winds and
seas. They are usually silent, but in the presence of death all
outward show of indifference or patience is forgotten, and they
shriek with pitiable despair before the horror of the fate to which
they are all doomed.
Before they covered the coffin an old man kneeled down by the grave
and repeated a simple prayer for the dead.
There was an irony in these words of atonement and Catholic belief
spoken by voices that were still hoarse with the cries of pagan
A little beyond the grave I saw a line of old women who had recited
in the keen sitting in the shadow of a wall beside the roofless
shell of the church. They were still sobbing and shaken with grief,
yet they were beginning to talk again of the daily trifles that veil
from them the terror of the world.
When we had all come out of the graveyard, and two men had rebuilt
the hole in the wall through which the coffin had been carried in,
we walked back to the village, talking of anything, and joking of
anything, as if merely coming from the boat-slip, or the pier.
One man told me of the poteen drinking that takes place at some
'A while since,' he said, 'there were two men fell down in the
graveyard while the drink was on them. The sea was rough that day,
the way no one could go to bring the doctor, and one of the men
never woke again, and found death that night.'
The other day the men of this house made a new field. There was a
slight bank of earth under the wall of the yard, and another in the
corner of the cabbage garden. The old man and his eldest son dug out
the clay, with the care of men working in a gold-mine, and Michael
packed it in panniers--there are no wheeled vehicles on this
island--for transport to a flat rock in a sheltered corner of their
holding, where it was mixed with sand and seaweed and spread out in
a layer upon the stone.
Most of the potato-growing of the island is carried on in fields of
this sort--for which the people pay a considerable rent--and if the
season is at all dry, their hope of a fair crop is nearly always
It is now nine days since rain has fallen, and the people are filled
with anxiety, although the sun has not yet been hot enough to do
The drought is also causing a scarcity of water. There are a few
springs on this side of the island, but they come only from a little
distance, and in hot weather are not to be relied on. The supply for
this house is carried up in a water-barrel by one of the women. If
it is drawn off at once it is not very nauseous, but if it has lain,
as it often does, for some hours in the barrel, the smell, colour,
and taste are unendurable. The water for washing is also coming
short, and as I walk round the edges of the sea, I often come on a
girl with her petticoats tucked up round her, standing in a pool
left by the tide and washing her flannels among the sea-anemones and
crabs. Their red bodices and white tapering legs make them as
beautiful as tropical sea-birds, as they stand in a frame of
seaweeds against the brink of the Atlantic. Michael, however, is a
little uneasy when they are in sight, and I cannot pause to watch
them. This habit of using the sea water for washing causes a good
deal of rheumatism on the island, for the salt lies in the clothes
and keeps them continually moist.
The people have taken advantage of this dry moment to begin the
burning of the kelp, and all the islands are lying in a volume of
grey smoke. There will not be a very large quantity this year, as
the people are discouraged by the uncertainty of the market, and do
not care to undertake the task of manufacture without a certainty of
The work needed to form a ton of kelp is considerable. The seaweed
is collected from the rocks after the storms of autumn and winter,
dried on fine days, and then made up into a rick, where it is left
till the beginning of June.
It is then burnt in low kilns on the shore, an affair that takes
from twelve to twenty-four hours of continuous hard work, though I
understand the people here do not manage well and spoil a portion of
what they produce by burning it more than is required.
The kiln holds about two tons of molten kelp, and when full it is
loosely covered with stones, and left to cool. In a few days the
substance is as hard as the limestone, and has to be broken with
crowbars before it can be placed in curaghs for transport to
Kilronan, where it is tested to determine the amount of iodine
contained, and paid for accordingly. In former years good kelp would
bring seven pounds a ton, now four pounds are not always reached.
In Aran even manufacture is of interest. The low flame-edged kiln,
sending out dense clouds of creamy smoke, with a band of red and
grey clothed workers moving in the haze, and usually some
petticoated boys and women who come down with drink, forms a scene
with as much variety and colour as any picture from the East.
The men feel in a certain sense the distinction of their island, and
show me their work with pride. One of them said to me yesterday,
'I'm thinking you never saw the like of this work before this day?'
'That is true,' I answered, 'I never did.'
'Bedad, then,' he said, 'isn't it a great wonder that you've seen
France and Germany, and the Holy Father, and never seen a man making
kelp till you come to Inishmaan.'
All the horses from this island are put out on grass among the hills
of Connemara from June to the end of September, as there is no
grazing here during the summer.
Their shipping and transport is even more difficult than that of the
homed cattle. Most of them are wild Connemara ponies, and their
great strength and timidity make them hard to handle on the narrow
pier, while in the hooker itself it is not easy to get them safely
on their feet in the small space that is available. They are dealt
with in the same way as for the bullocks I have spoken of already,
but the excitement becomes much more intense, and the storm of
Gaelic that rises the moment a horse is shoved from the pier, till
it is safely in its place, is indescribable. Twenty boys and men
howl and scream with agitation, cursing and exhorting, without
knowing, most of the time, what they are saying.
Apart, however, from this primitive babble, the dexterity and power
of the men are displayed to more advantage than in anything I have
seen hitherto. I noticed particularly the owner of a hooker from the
north island that was loaded this morning. He seemed able to hold up
a horse by his single weight when it was swinging from the masthead,
and preserved a humorous calm even in moments of the wildest
excitement. Sometimes a large mare would come down sideways on the
backs of the other horses, and kick there till the hold seemed to be
filled with a mass of struggling centaurs, for the men themselves
often leap down to try and save the foals from injury. The backs of
the horses put in first are often a good deal cut by the shoes of
the others that arrive on top of them, but otherwise they do not
seem to be much the worse, and as they are not on their way to a
fair, it is not of much consequence in what condition they come to
There is only one bit and saddle in the island, which are used by
the priest, who rides from the chapel to the pier when he has held
the service on Sunday.
The islanders themselves ride with a simple halter and a stick, yet
sometimes travel, at least in the larger island, at a desperate
gallop. As the horses usually have panniers, the rider sits sideways
over the withers, and if the panniers are empty they go at full
speed in this position without anything to hold to.
More than once in Aranmor I met a party going out west with empty
panniers from Kilronan. Long before they came in sight I could hear
a clatter of hoofs, and then a whirl of horses would come round a
corner at full gallop with their heads out, utterly indifferent to
the slender halter that is their only check. They generally travel
in single file with a few yards between them, and as there is no
traffic there is little fear of an accident.
Sometimes a woman and a man ride together, but in this case the man
sits in the usual position, and the woman sits sideways behind him,
and holds him round the waist.
Old Pat Dirane continues to come up every day to talk to me, and at
times I turn the conversation to his experiences of the fairies.
He has seen a good many of them, he says, in different parts of the
island, especially in the sandy districts north of the slip. They
are about a yard high with caps like the 'peelers' pulled down over
their faces. On one occasion he saw them playing ball in the evening
just above the slip, and he says I must avoid that place in the
morning or after nightfall for fear they might do me mischief.
He has seen two women who were 'away' with them, one a young married
woman, the other a girl. The woman was standing by a wall, at a spot
he described to me with great care, looking out towards the north
Another night he heard a voice crying out in Irish, 'mhathair ta me
marbh' ('O mother, I'm killed'), and in the morning there was blood
on the wall of his house, and a child in a house not far off was
Yesterday he took me aside, and said he would tell me a secret he
had never yet told to any person in the world.
'Take a sharp needle,' he said, 'and stick it in under the collar of
your coat, and not one of them will be able to have power on you.'
Iron is a common talisman with barbarians, but in this case the idea
of exquisite sharpness was probably present also, and, perhaps, some
feeling for the sanctity of the instrument of toil, a folk-belief
that is common in Brittany.
The fairies are more numerous in Mayo than in any other county,
though they are fond of certain districts in Galway, where the
following story is said to have taken place.
'A farmer was in great distress as his crops had failed, and his cow
had died on him. One night he told his wife to make him a fine new
sack for flour before the next morning; and when it was finished he
started off with it before the dawn.
'At that time there was a gentleman who had been taken by the
fairies, and made an officer among them, and it was often people
would see him and him riding on a white horse at dawn and in the
'The poor man went down to the place where they used to see the
officer, and when he came by on his horse, he asked the loan of two
hundred and a half of flour, for he was in great want.
'The officer called the fairies out of a hole in the rocks where
they stored their wheat, and told them to give the poor man what he
was asking. Then he told him to come back and pay him in a year, and
'When the poor man got home he wrote down the day on a piece of
paper, and that day year he came back and paid the officer.'
When he had ended his story the old man told me that the fairies
have a tenth of all the produce of the country, and make stores of
it in the rocks.
It is a Holy Day, and I have come up to sit on the Dun while the
people are at Mass.
A strange tranquility has come over the island this morning, as
happens sometimes on Sunday, filling the two circles of sea and sky
with the quiet of a church.
The one landscape that is here lends itself with singular power to
this suggestion of grey luminous cloud. There is no wind, and no
definite light. Aranmor seems to sleep upon a mirror, and the hills
of Connemara look so near that I am troubled by the width of the bay
that lies before them, touched this morning with individual
expression one sees sometimes in a lake.
On these rocks, where there is no growth of vegetable or animal
life, all the seasons are the same, and this June day is so full of
autumn that I listen unconsciously for the rustle of dead leaves.
The first group of men are coming out of the chapel, followed by a
crowd of women, who divide at the gate and troop off in different
directions, while the men linger on the road to gossip.
The silence is broken; I can hear far off, as if over water, a faint
murmur of Gaelic.
In the afternoon the sun came out and I was rowed over for a visit
As my men were bringing round the curagh to take me off a headland
near the pier, they struck a sunken rock, and came ashore shipping a
quantity of water, They plugged the hole with a piece of sacking
torn from a bag of potatoes they were taking over for the priest,
and we set off with nothing but a piece of torn canvas between us
and the Atlantic.
Every few hundred yards one of the rowers had to stop and bail, but
the hole did not increase.
When we were about half way across the sound we met a curagh coming
towards us with its sails set. After some shouting in Gaelic, I
learned that they had a packet of letters and tobacco for myself. We
sidled up as near as was possible with the roll, and my goods were
thrown to me wet with spray.
After my weeks in Inishmaan, Kilronan seemed an imposing centre of
activity. The half-civilized fishermen of the larger island are
inclined to despise the simplicity of the life here, and some of
them who were standing about when I landed asked me how at all I
passed my time with no decent fishing to be looking at.
I turned in for a moment to talk to the old couple in the hotel, and
then moved on to pay some other visits in the village.
Later in the evening I walked out along the northern road, where I
met many of the natives of the outlying villages, who had come down
to Kilronan for the Holy Day, and were now wandering home in
The women and girls, when they had no men with them, usually tried
to make fun with me.
'Is it tired you are, stranger?' said one girl. I was walking very
slowly, to pass the time before my return to the east.
'Bedad, it is not, little girl,' I answered in Gaelic, 'It is lonely
'Here is my little sister, stranger, who will give you her arm.'
And so it went. Quiet as these women are on ordinary occasions, when
two or three of them are gathered together in their holiday
petti-coats and shawls, they are as wild and capricious as the women
who live in towns.
About seven o'clock I got back to Kilronan, and beat up my crew from
the public-houses near the bay. With their usual carelessness they
had not seen to the leak in the curagh, nor to an oar that was
losing the brace that holds it to the toll-pin, and we moved off
across the sound at an absurd pace with a deepening pool at our
A superb evening light was lying over the island, which made me
rejoice at our delay. Looking back there was a golden haze behind
the sharp edges of the rock, and a long wake from the sun, which was
making jewels of the bubbling left by the oars.
The men had had their share of porter and were unusually voluble,
pointing out things to me that I had already seen, and stopping now
and then to make me notice the oily smell of mackerel that was
rising from the waves.
They told me that an evicting party is coming to the island tomorrow
morning, and gave me a long account of what they make and spend in a
year and of their trouble with the rent.
'The rent is hard enough for a poor man,' said one of them, 'but
this time we didn't pay, and they're after serving processes on
every one of us. A man will have to pay his rent now, and a power of
money with it for the process, and I'm thinking the agent will have
money enough out of them processes to pay for his servant-girl and
his man all the year.'
I asked afterwards who the island belonged to.
'Bedad,' they said, 'we've always heard it belonged to Miss--and she
When the sun passed like a lozenge of gold flame into the sea the
cold became intense. Then the men began to talk among themselves,
and losing the thread, I lay half in a dream looking at the pale
oily sea about us, and the low cliffs of the island sloping up past
the village with its wreath of smoke to the outline of Dun Conor.
Old Pat was in the house when I arrived, and he told a long story
There was once a widow living among the woods, and her only son
living along with her. He went out every morning through the trees
to get sticks, and one day as he was lying on the ground he saw a
swarm of flies flying over what the cow leaves behind her. He took
up his sickle and hit one blow at them, and hit that hard he left no
single one of them living.
That evening he said to his mother that it was time he was going out
into the world to seek his fortune, for he was able to destroy a
whole swarm of flies at one blow, and he asked her to make him three
cakes the way he might take them with him in the morning.
He started the next day a while after the dawn, with his three cakes
in his wallet, and he ate one of them near ten o'clock.
He got hungry again by midday and ate the second, and when night was
coming on him he ate the third. After that he met a man on the road
who asked him where he was going.
'I'm looking for some place where I can work for my living,' said
the young man.
'Come with me,' said the other man, 'and sleep to-night in the barn,
and I'll give you work to-morrow to see what you're able for.'
The next morning the farmer brought him out and showed him his cows
and told him to take them out to graze on the hills, and to keep
good watch that no one should come near them to milk them. The young
man drove out the cows into the fields, and when the heat of the day
came on he lay down on his back and looked up into the sky. A while
after he saw a black spot in the north-west, and it grew larger and
nearer till he saw a great giant coming towards him.
He got up on his feet and he caught the giant round the legs with
his two arms, and he drove him down into the hard ground above his
ankles, the way he was not able to free himself. Then the giant told
him to do him no hurt, and gave him his magic rod, and told him to
strike on the rock, and he would find his beautiful black horse, and
his sword, and his fine suit.
The young man struck the rock and it opened before him, and he found
the beautiful black horse, and the giant's sword and the suit lying
before him. He took out the sword alone, and he struck one blow with
it and struck off the giant's head. Then he put back the sword into
the rock, and went out again to his cattle, till it was time to
drive them home to the farmer.
When they came to milk the cows they found a power of milk in them,
and the farmer asked the young man if he had seen nothing out on the
hills, for the other cow-boys had been bringing home the cows with
no drop of milk in them. And the young man said he had seen nothing.
The next day he went out again with the cows. He lay down on his
back in the heat of the day, and after a while he saw a black spot
in the north-west, and it grew larger and nearer, till he saw it was
a great giant coming to attack him.
'You killed my brother,' said the giant; 'come here, till I make a
garter of your body.'
The young man went to him and caught him by the legs and drove him
down into the hard ground up to his ankles.
Then he hit the rod against the rock, and took out the sword and
struck off the giant's head.
That evening the farmer found twice as much milk in the cows as the
evening before, and he asked the young man if he had seen anything.
The young man said that he had seen nothing.
The third day the third giant came to him and said, 'You have killed
my two brothers; come here, till I make a garter of your body.'
And he did with this giant as he had done with the other two, and
that evening there was so much milk in the cows it was dropping out
of their udders on the pathway.
The next day the farmer called him and told him he might leave the
cows in the stalls that day, for there was a great curiosity to be
seen, namely, a beautiful king's daughter that was to be eaten by a
great fish, if there was no one in it that could save her. But the
young man said such a sight was all one to him, and he went out with
the cows on to the hills. When he came to the rocks he hit them with
his rod and brought out the suit and put it on him, and brought out
the sword and strapped it on his side, like an officer, and he got
on the black horse and rode faster than the wind till he came to
where the beautiful king's daughter was sitting on the shore in a
golden chair, waiting for the great fish.
When the great fish came in on the sea, bigger than a whale, with
two wings on the back of it, the young man went down into the surf
and struck at it with his sword and cut off one of its wings. All
the sea turned red with the bleeding out of it, till it swam away
and left the young man on the shore.
Then he turned his horse and rode faster than the wind till he came
to the rocks, and he took the suit off him and put it back in the
rocks, with the giant's sword and the black horse, and drove the
cows down to the farm.
The man came out before him and said he had missed the greatest
wonder ever was, and that a noble person was after coming down with
a fine suit on him and cutting off one of the wings from the great
'And there'll be the same necessity on her for two mornings more,'
said the farmer, 'and you'd do right to come and look on it.'
But the young man said he would not come.
The next morning he went out with his cows, and he took the sword
and the suit and the black horse out of the rock, and he rode faster
than the wind till he came where the king's daughter was sitting on
the shore. When the people saw him coming there was great wonder on
them to know if it was the same man they had seen the day before.
The king's daughter called out to him to come and kneel before her,
and when he kneeled down she took her scissors and cut off a lock of
hair from the back of his head and hid it in her clothes.
Then the great worm came in from the sea, and he went down into the
surf and cut the other wing off from it. All the sea turned red with
the bleeding out of it, till it swam away and left them.
That evening the farmer came out before him and told him of the
great wonder he had missed, and asked him would he go the next day
and look on it. The young man said he would not go.
The third day he came again on the black horse to where the king's
daughter was sitting on a golden chair waiting for the great worm.
When it came in from the sea the young man went down before it, and
every time it opened its mouth to eat him, he struck into its mouth,
till his sword went out through its neck, and it rolled back and
Then he rode off faster than the wind, and he put the suit and the
sword and the black horse into the rock, and drove home the cows.
The farmer was there before him and he told him that there was to be
a great marriage feast held for three days, and on the third day the
king's daughter would be married to the man that killed the great
worm, if they were able to find him.
A great feast was held, and men of great strength came and said it
was themselves were after killing the great worm.
But on the third day the young man put on the suit, and strapped the
sword to his side like an officer, and got on the black horse and
rode faster than the wind, till he came to the palace.
The king's daughter saw him, and she brought him in and made him
kneel down before her. Then she looked at the back of his head and
saw the place where she had cut off the lock with her own hand. She
led him in to the king, and they were married, and the young man was
given all the estate.
That is my story.
Two recent attempts to carry out evictions on the island came to
nothing, for each time a sudden storm rose, by, it is said, the
power of a native witch, when the steamer was approaching, and made
it impossible to land.
This morning, however, broke beneath a clear sky of June, and when I
came into the open air the sea and rocks were shining with wonderful
brilliancy. Groups of men, dressed in their holiday clothes, were
standing about, talking with anger and fear, yet showing a lurking
satisfaction at the thought of the dramatic pageant that was to
break the silence of the seas.
About half-past nine the steamer came in sight, on the narrow line
of sea-horizon that is seen in the centre of the bay, and
immediately a last effort was made to hide the cows and sheep of the
families that were most in debt.
Till this year no one on the island would consent to act as bailiff,
so that it was impossible to identify the cattle of the defaulters.
Now however, a man of the name of Patrick has sold his honour, and
the effort of concealment is practically futile.
This falling away from the ancient loyalty of the island has caused
intense indignation, and early yesterday morning, while I was
dreaming on the Dun, this letter was nailed on the doorpost of the
'Patrick, the devil, a revolver is waiting for you. If you are
missed with the first shot, there will be five more that will hit
'Any man that will talk with you, or work with you, or drink a pint
of porter in your shop, will be done with the same way as yourself.'
As the steamer drew near I moved down with the men to watch the
arrival, though no one went further than about a mile from the
Two curaghs from Kilronan with a man who was to give help in
identifying the cottages, the doctor, and the relieving officer,
were drifting with the tide, unwilling to come to land without the
support of the larger party. When the anchor had been thrown it gave
me a strange throb of pain to see the boats being lowered, and the
sunshine gleaming on the rifles and helmets of the constabulary who
crowded into them.
Once on shore the men were formed in close marching order, a word
was given, and the heavy rhythm of their boots came up over the
rocks. We were collected in two straggling bands on either side of
the roadway, and a few moments later the body of magnificent armed
men passed close to us, followed by a low rabble, who had been
brought to act as drivers for the sheriff.
After my weeks spent among primitive men this glimpse of the newer
types of humanity was not reassuring. Yet these mechanical police,
with the commonplace agents and sheriffs, and the rabble they had
hired, represented aptly enough the civilisation for which the homes
of the island were to be desecrated.
A stop was made at one of the first cottages in the village, and the
day's work began. Here, however, and at the next cottage, a
compromise was made, as some relatives came up at the last moment
and lent the money that was needed to gain a respite.
In another case a girl was ill in the house, so the doctor
interposed, and the people were allowed to remain after a merely
formal eviction. About midday, however, a house was reached where
there was no pretext for mercy, and no money could be procured. At a
sign from the sheriff the work of carrying out the beds and utensils
was begun in the middle of a crowd of natives who looked on in
absolute silence, broken only by the wild imprecations of the woman
of the house. She belonged to one of the most primitive families on
the island, and she shook with uncontrollable fury as she saw the
strange armed men who spoke a language she could not understand
driving her from the hearth she had brooded on for thirty years. For
these people the outrage to the hearth is the supreme catastrophe.
They live here in a world of grey, where there are wild rains and
mists every week in the year, and their warm chimney corners, filled
with children and young girls, grow into the consciousness of each
family in a way it is not easy to understand in more civilised
The outrage to a tomb in China probably gives no greater shock to
the Chinese than the outrage to a hearth in Inishmaan gives to the
When the few trifles had been carried out, and the door blocked with
stones, the old woman sat down by the threshold and covered her head
with her shawl.
Five or six other women who lived close by sat down in a circle
round her, with mute sympathy. Then the crowd moved on with the
police to another cottage where the same scene was to take place,
and left the group of desolate women sitting by the hovel.
There were still no clouds in the sky and the heat was intense. The
police when not in motion lay sweating and gasping under the walls
with their tunics unbuttoned. They were not attractive, and I kept
comparing them with the islandmen, who walked up and down as cool
and fresh-looking as the sea-gulls.
When the last eviction had been carried out a division was made:
half the party went off with the bailiff to search the inner plain
of the island for the cattle that had been hidden in the morning,
the other half remained on the village road to guard some pigs that
had already been taken possession of.
After a while two of these pigs escaped from the drivers and began a
wild race up and down the narrow road. The people shrieked and
howled to increase their terror, and at last some of them became so
excited that the police thought it time to interfere. They drew up
in double line opposite the mouth of a blind laneway where the
animals had been shut up. A moment later the shrieking began again
in the west and the two pigs came in sight, rushing down the middle
of the road with the drivers behind them.
They reached the line of the police. There was a slight scuffle, and
then the pigs continued their mad rush to the east, leaving three
policemen lying in the dust.
The satisfaction of the people was immense. They shrieked and hugged
each other with delight, and it is likely that they will hand down
these animals for generations in the tradition of the island.
Two hours later the other party returned, driving three lean cows
before them, and a start was made for the slip. At the public-house
the policemen were given a drink while the dense crowd that was
following waited in the lane. The island bull happened to be in a
field close by, and he became wildly excited at the sight of the
cows and of the strangely-dressed men. Two young islanders sidled up
to me in a moment or two as I was resting on a wall, and one of them
whispered in my ear--'Do you think they could take fines of us if we
let out the bull on them?'
In face of the crowd of women and children, I could only say it was
probable, and they slunk off.
At the slip there was a good deal of bargaining, which ended in all
the cattle being given back to their owners. It was plainly of no
use to take them away, as they were worth nothing.
When the last policeman had embarked, an old woman came forward from
the crowd and, mounting on a rock near the slip, began a fierce
rhapsody in Gaelic, pointing at the bailiff and waving her withered
arms with extraordinary rage.
'This man is my own son,' she said; 'it is I that ought to know him.
He is the first ruffian in the whole big world.'
Then she gave an account of his life, coloured with a vindictive
fury I cannot reproduce. As she went on the excitement became so
intense I thought the man would be stoned before he could get back
to his cottage.
On these islands the women live only for their children, and it is
hard to estimate the power of the impulse that made this old woman
stand out and curse her son.
In the fury of her speech I seem to look again into the strangely
reticent temperament of the islanders, and to feel the passionate
spirit that expresses itself, at odd moments only, with magnificent
words and gestures.
Old Pat has told me a story of the goose that lays the golden eggs,
which he calls the Phoenix:--
A poor widow had three sons and a daughter. One day when her sons
were out looking for sticks in the wood they saw a fine speckled
bird flying in the trees. The next day they saw it again, and the
eldest son told his brothers to go and get sticks by themselves, for
he was going after the bird.
He went after it, and brought it in with him when he came home in
the evening. They put it in an old hencoop, and they gave it some of
the meal they had for themselves;--I don't know if it ate the meal,
but they divided what they had themselves; they could do no more.
That night it laid a fine spotted egg in the basket. The next night
it laid another.
At that time its name was on the papers and many heard of the bird
that laid the golden eggs, for the eggs were of gold, and there's no
lie in it.
When the boys went down to the shop the next day to buy a stone of
meal, the shopman asked if he could buy the bird of them. Well, it
was arranged in this way. The shopman would marry the boys'
sister--a poor simple girl without a stitch of good clothes--and get
the bird with her.
Some time after that one of the boys sold an egg of the bird to a
gentleman that was in the country. The gentleman asked him if he had
the bird still. He said that the man who had married his sister was
after getting it.
'Well,' said the gentleman, 'the man who eats the heart of that bird
will find a purse of gold beneath him every morning, and the man who
eats its liver will be king of Ireland.'
The boy went out--he was a simple poor fellow--and told the shopman.
Then the shopman brought in the bird and killed it, and he ate the
heart himself and he gave the liver to his wife.
When the boy saw that, there was great anger on him, and he went
back and told the gentleman.
'Do what I'm telling you,' said the gentleman. 'Go down now and tell
the shopman and his wife to come up here to play a game of cards
with me, for it's lonesome I am this evening.'
When the boy was gone he mixed a vomit and poured the lot of it into
a few naggins of whiskey, and he put a strong cloth on the table
under the cards.
The man came up with his wife and they began to play.
The shopman won the first game and the gentleman made them drink a
sup of the whiskey.
They played again and the shopman won the second game. Then the
gentleman made him drink a sup more of the whiskey.
As they were playing the third game the shopman and his wife got
sick on the cloth, and the boy picked it up and carried it into the
yard, for the gentleman had let him know what he was to do. Then he
found the heart of the bird and he ate it, and the next morning when
he turned in his bed there was a purse of gold under him.
That is my story.
When the steamer is expected I rarely fail to visit the boat-slip,
as the men usually collect when she is in the offing, and lie
arguing among their curaghs till she has made her visit to the south
island, and is seen coming towards us.
This morning I had a long talk with an old man who was rejoicing
over the improvement he had seen here during the last ten or fifteen
Till recently there was no communication with the mainland except by
hookers, which were usually slow, and could only make the voyage in
tolerably fine weather, so that if an islander went to a fair it was
often three weeks before he could return. Now, however, the steamer
comes here twice in the week, and the voyage is made in three or
The pier on this island is also a novelty, and is much thought of,
as it enables the hookers that still carry turf and cattle to
discharge and take their cargoes directly from the shore. The water
round it, however, is only deep enough for a hooker when the tide is
nearly full, and will never float the steamer, so passengers must
still come to land in curaghs. The boat-slip at the corner next the
south island is extremely useful in calm weather, but it is exposed
to a heavy roll from the south, and is so narrow that the curaghs
run some danger of missing it in the tumult of the surf.
In bad weather four men will often stand for nearly an hour at the
top of the slip with a curagh in their hands, watching a point of
rock towards the south where they can see the strength of the waves
that are coming in.
The instant a break is seen they swoop down to the surf, launch
their curagh, and pull out to sea with incredible speed. Coming to
land Is attended with the same difficulty, and, if their moment is
badly chosen, they are likely to be washed sideways and swamped
among the rocks.
This continual danger, which can only be escaped by extraordinary
personal dexterity, has had considerable influence on the local
character, as the waves have made it impossible for clumsy,
foolhardy, or timid men to live on these islands.
When the steamer is within a mile of the slip, the curaghs are put
out and range themselves--there are usually from four to a dozen--in
two lines at some distance from the shore.
The moment she comes in among them there is a short but desperate
struggle for good places at her side. The men are lolling on their
oars talking with the dreamy tone which comes with the rocking of
the waves. The steamer lies to, and in an instant their faces become
distorted with passion, while the oars bend and quiver with the
strain. For one minute they seem utterly indifferent to their own
safety and that of their friends and brothers. Then the sequence is
decided, and they begin to talk again with the dreamy tone that is
habitual to them, while they make fast and clamber up into the
While the curaghs are out I am left with a few women and very old
men who cannot row. One of these old men, whom I often talk with,
has some fame as a bone-setter, and is said to have done remarkable
cures, both here and on the mainland. Stories are told of how he has
been taken off by the quality in their carriages through the hills
of Connemara, to treat their sons and daughters, and come home with
his pockets full of money.
Another old man, the oldest on the island, is fond of telling me
anecdotes--not folktales--of things that have happened here in his
He often tells me about a Connaught man who killed his father with
the blow of a spade when he was in passion, and then fled to this
island and threw himself on the mercy of some of the natives with
whom he was said to be related. They hid him in a hole--which the
old man has shown me--and kept him safe for weeks, though the police
came and searched for him, and he could hear their boots grinding on
the stones over his head. In spite of a reward which was offered,
the island was incorruptible, and after much trouble the man was
safely shipped to America.
This impulse to protect the criminal is universal in the west. It
seems partly due to the association between justice and the hated
English jurisdiction, but more directly to the primitive feeling of
these people, who are never criminals yet always capable of crime,
that a man will not do wrong unless he is under the influence of a
passion which is as irresponsible as a storm on the sea. If a man
has killed his father, and is already sick and broken with remorse,
they can see no reason why he should be dragged away and killed by
Such a man, they say, will be quiet all the rest of his life, and if
you suggest that punishment is needed as an example, they ask,
'Would any one kill his father if he was able to help it?'
Some time ago, before the introduction of police, all the people of
the islands were as innocent as the people here remain to this day.
I have heard that at that time the ruling proprietor and magistrate
of the north island used to give any man who had done wrong a letter
to a jailer in Galway, and send him off by himself to serve a term
As there was no steamer, the ill-doer was given a passage in some
chance hooker to the nearest point on the mainland. Then he walked
for many miles along a desolate shore till he reached the town. When
his time had been put through he crawled back along the same route,
feeble and emaciated, and had often to wait many weeks before he
could regain the island. Such at least is the story.
It seems absurd to apply the same laws to these people and to the
criminal classes of a city. The most intelligent man on Inishmaan
has often spoken to me of his contempt of the law, and of the
increase of crime the police have brought to Aranmor. On this
island, he says, if men have a little difference, or a little fight,
their friends take care it does not go too far, and in a little time
it is forgotten. In Kilronan there is a band of men paid to make out
cases for themselves; the moment a blow is struck they come down and
arrest the man who gave it. The other man he quarreled with has to
give evidence against him; whole families come down to the court and
swear against each other till they become bitter enemies. If there
is a conviction the man who is convicted never forgives. He waits
his time, and before the year is out there is a cross summons, which
the other man in turn never forgives. The feud continues to grow,
till a dispute about the colour of a man's hair may end in a murder,
after a year's forcing by the law. The mere fact that it is
impossible to get reliable evidence in the island--not because the
people are dishonest, but because they think the claim of kinship
more sacred than the claims of abstract truth--turns the whole
system of sworn evidence into a demoralising farce, and it is easy
to believe that law dealings on this false basis must lead to every
sort of injustice.
While I am discussing these questions with the old men the curaghs
begin to come in with cargoes of salt, and flour, and porter.
To-day a stir was made by the return of a native who had spent five
years in New York. He came on shore with half a dozen people who had
been shopping on the mainland, and walked up and down on the slip in
his neat suit, looking strangely foreign to his birthplace, while
his old mother of eighty-five ran about on the slippery seaweed,
half crazy with delight, telling every one the news.
When the curaghs were in their places the men crowded round him to
bid him welcome. He shook hands with them readily enough, but with
no smile of recognition.
He is said to be dying.
Yesterday--a Sunday--three young men rowed me over to Inisheer, the
south island of the group.
The stern of the curagh was occupied, so I was put in the bow with
my head on a level with the gunnel. A considerable sea was running
in the sound, and when we came out from the shelter of this island,
the curagh rolled and vaulted in a way not easy to describe.
At one moment, as we went down into the furrow, green waves curled
and arched themselves above me; then in an instant I was flung up
into the air and could look down on the heads of the rowers, as if
we were sitting on a ladder, or out across a forest of white crests
to the black cliff of Inishmaan.
The men seemed excited and uneasy, and I thought for a moment that
we were likely to be swamped. In a little while, however I realised
the capacity of the curagh to raise its head among the waves, and
the motion became strangely exhilarating. Even, I thought, if we
were dropped into the blue chasm of the waves, this death, with the
fresh sea saltness in one's teeth, would be better than most deaths
one is likely to meet.
When we reached the other island, it was raining heavily, so that we
could not see anything of the antiquities or people.
For the greater part of the afternoon we sat on the tops of empty
barrels in the public-house, talking of the destiny of Gaelic. We
were admitted as travellers, and the shutters of the shop were
closed behind us, letting in only a glimmer of grey light, and the
tumult of the storm. Towards evening it cleared a little and we came
home in a calmer sea, but with a dead head-wind that gave the rowers
all they could do to make the passage.
On calm days I often go out fishing with Michael. When we reach the
space above the slip where the curaghs are propped, bottom upwards,
on the limestone, he lifts the prow of the one we are going to
embark in, and I slip underneath and set the centre of the foremost
seat upon my neck. Then he crawls under the stern and stands up with
the last seat upon his shoulders. We start for the sea. The long
prow bends before me so that I see nothing but a few yards of
shingle at my feet. A quivering pain runs from the top of my spine
to the sharp stones that seem to pass through my pampooties, and
grate upon my ankles. We stagger and groan beneath the weight; but
at last our feet reach the slip, and we run down with a half-trot
like the pace of bare-footed children.
A yard from the sea we stop and lower the curagh to the right. It
must be brought down gently--a difficult task for our strained and
aching muscles--and sometimes as the gunnel reaches the slip I lose
my balance and roll in among the seats.
Yesterday we went out in the curagh that had been damaged on the day
of my visit to Kilronan, and as we were putting in the oars the
freshly-tarred patch stuck to the slip which was heated with the
sunshine. We carried up water in the bailer--the 'supeen,' a shallow
wooden vessel like a soup-plate--and with infinite pains we got free
and rode away. In a few minutes, however, I found the water spouting
up at my feet.
The patch had been misplaced, and this time we had no sacking.
Michael borrowed my pocket scissors, and with admirable rapidity cut
a square of flannel from the tail of his shirt and squeezed it into
the hole, making it fast with a splint which he hacked from one of
During our excitement the tide had carried us to the brink of the
rocks, and I admired again the dexterity with which he got his oars
into the water and turned us out as we were mounting on a wave that
would have hurled us to destruction.
With the injury to our curagh we did not go far from the shore.
After a while I took a long spell at the oars, and gained a certain
dexterity, though they are not easy to manage. The handles overlap
by about six inches--in order to gain leverage, as the curagh is
narrow--and at first it was almost impossible to avoid striking the
upper oar against one's knuckles. The oars are rough and square,
except at the ends, so one cannot do so with impunity. Again, a
curagh with two light people in it floats on the water like a
nut-shell, and the slightest inequality in the stroke throws the
prow round at least a right angle from its course. In the first
half-hour I found myself more than once moving towards the point I
had come from, greatly to Michael's satisfaction.
This morning we were out again near the pier on the north side of
the island. As we paddled slowly with the tide, trolling for
pollock, several curaghs, weighed to the gunnel with kelp, passed us
on their way to Kilronan.
An old woman, rolled in red petticoats, was sitting on a ledge of
rock that runs into the sea at the point where the curaghs were
passing from the south, hailing them in quavering Gaelic, and asking
for a passage to Kilronan.
The first one that came round without a cargo turned in from some
distance and took her away.
The morning had none of the supernatural beauty that comes over the
island so often in rainy weather, so we basked in the vague
enjoyment of the sunshine, looking down at the wild luxuriance of
the vegetation beneath the sea, which contrasts strangely with the
nakedness above it.
Some dreams I have had in this cottage seem to give strength to the
opinion that there is a psychic memory attached to certain
Last night, after walking in a dream among buildings with strangely
intense light on them, I heard a faint rhythm of music beginning far
away on some stringed instrument.
It came closer to me, gradually increasing in quickness and volume
with an irresistibly definite progression. When it was quite near
the sound began to move in my nerves and blood, and to urge me to
dance with them.
I knew that if I yielded I would be carried away to some moment of
terrible agony, so I struggled to remain quiet, holding my knees
together with my hands.
The music increased continually, sounding like the strings of harps,
tuned to a forgotten scale, and having a resonance as searching as
the strings of the cello.
Then the luring excitement became more powerful than my will, and my
limbs moved in spite of me.
In a moment I was swept away in a whirlwind of notes. My breath and
my thoughts and every impulse of my body, became a form of the
dance, till I could not distinguish between the instruments and the
rhythm and my own person or consciousness.
For a while it seemed an excitement that was filled with joy, then
it grew into an ecstasy where all existence was lost in a vortex of
movement. I could not think there had ever been a life beyond the
whirling of the dance.
Then with a shock the ecstasy turned to an agony and rage. I
Struggled to free myself, but seemed only to increase the passion of
the steps I moved to. When I shrieked I could only echo the notes of
At last with a moment of uncontrollable frenzy I broke back to
consciousness and awoke.
I dragged myself trembling to the window of the cottage and looked
out. The moon was glittering across the bay, and there was no sound
anywhere on the island.
I am leaving in two days, and old Pat Dirane has bidden me goodbye.
He met me in the village this morning and took me into 'his little
tint,' a miserable hovel where he spends the night.
I sat for a long time on his threshold, while he leaned on a stool
behind me, near his bed, and told me the last story I shall have
from him--a rude anecdote not worth recording. Then he told me with
careful emphasis how he had wandered when he was a young man, and
lived in a fine college, teaching Irish to the young priests!
They say on the island that he can tell as many lies as four men:
perhaps the stories he has learned have strengthened his
imagination. When I stood up in the doorway to give him God's
blessing, he leaned over on the straw that forms his bed, and shed
tears. Then he turned to me again, lifting up one trembling hand,
with the mitten worn to a hole on the palm, from the rubbing of his
'I'll not see you again,' he said, with tears trickling on his face,
'and you're a kindly man. When you come back next year I won't be in
it. I won't live beyond the winter. But listen now to what I'm
telling you; let you put insurance on me in the city of Dublin, and
it's five hundred pounds you'll get on my burial.'
This evening, my last in the island, is also the evening of the
'Pattern'--a festival something like 'Pardons' of Brittany.
I waited especially to see it, but a piper who was expected did not
come, and there was no amusement. A few friends and relations came
over from the other island and stood about the public-house in their
best clothes, but without music dancing was impossible.
I believe on some occasions when the piper is present there is a
fine day of dancing and excitement, but the Galway piper is getting
old, and is not easily induced to undertake the voyage.
Last night, St. John's Eve, the fires were lighted and boys ran
about with pieces of the burning turf, though I could not find out
if the idea of lighting the house fires from the bonfires is still
found on the island.
I have come out of an hotel full of tourists and commercial
travelers, to stroll along the edge of Galway bay, and look out in
the direction of the islands. The sort of yearning I feel towards
those lonely rocks is indescribably acute. This town, that is
usually so full of wild human interest, seems in my present mood a
tawdry medley of all that is crudest in modern life. The nullity of
the rich and the squalor of the poor give me the same pang of
wondering disgust; yet the islands are fading already and I can
hardly realise that the smell of the seaweed and the drone of the
Atlantic are still moving round them.
One of my island friends has written to me:--
DEAR JOHN SYNGE,--I am for a long time expecting a letter from you
and I think you are forgetting this island altogether.
Mr.--died a long time ago on the big island and his boat was on
anchor in the harbour and the wind blew her to Black Head and broke
her up after his death.
Tell me are you learning Irish since you went. We have a branch of
the Gaelic League here now and the people is going on well with the
Irish and reading.
I will write the next letter in Irish to you. Tell me will you come
to see us next year and if you will you'll write a letter before
you. All your loving friends is well in health.--Mise do chara go
Another boy I sent some baits to has written to me also, beginning
his letter in Irish and ending it in English:--
DEAR JOHN,--I got your letter four days ago, and there was pride and
joy on me because it was written in Irish, and a fine, good,
pleasant letter it was. The baits you sent are very good, but I lost
two of them and half my line. A big fish came and caught the bait,
and the line was bad and half of the line and the baits went away.
My sister has come back from America, but I'm thinking it won't be
long till she goes away again, for it is lonesome and poor she finds
the island now.--I am your friend. ...
Write soon and let you write in Irish, if you don't I won't look on