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The Oppression of the Hills


AMONG the cottages that are scattered through the hills of County
Wicklow I have met with many people who show in a singular way the
influence of a particular locality. These people live for the most
part beside old roads and pathways where hardly one man passes in
the day, and look out all the year on unbroken barriers of heath. At
every season heavy rains fall for often a week at a time, till the
thatch drips with water stained to a dull chestnut, and the floor in
the cottages seems to be going back to the condition of the bogs
near it. Then the clouds break, and there is a night of terrific
storm from the south-west--all the larches that survive in these
places are bowed and twisted towards the point where the sun rises
in June--when the winds come down through the narrow glens with the
congested whirl and roar of a torrent, breaking at times for sudden
moments of silence that keep up the tension of the mind. At such
times the people crouch all night over a few sods of turf and the
dogs howl, in the lanes.

When the sun rises there is a morning of almost supernatural
radiance, and even the oldest men and women come out into the air
with the joy of children who have recovered from a fever. In the
evening it is raining again. This peculiar climate, acting on a
population that is already lonely and dwindling, has caused or
increased a tendency to nervous depression among the people, and
every degree of sadness, from that of the man who is merely mournful
to that of the man who has spent half his life in the madhouse, is
common among these hills.

Not long ago in a desolate glen in the south of the county I met two
policemen driving an ass-cart with a coffin on it, and a little
further on I stopped an old man and asked him what had happened.

'This night three weeks,' he said, 'there was a poor fellow below
reaping in the glen, and in the evening he had two glasses of whisky
with some other lads. Then some excitement took him, and he threw
off his clothes and ran away into the hills. There was great rain
that night, and I suppose the poor creature lost his way, and was
the whole night perishing in the rain and darkness. In the morning
they found his naked footmarks on some mud half a mile above the
road, and again where you go up by a big stone. Then there was
nothing known of him till last night, when they found his body on
the mountain, and it near eaten by the crows.'

Then he went on to tell me how different the country had been when
he was a young man.

'We had nothing to eat at that time,' he said, 'but milk and
stirabout and potatoes, and there was a fine constitution you
wouldn't meet this day at all. I remember when you'd see forty boys
and girls below there on a Sunday evening, playing ball and
diverting themselves; but now all this country is gone lonesome and
bewildered, and there's no man knows what ails it.'

There are so few girls left in these neighbourhoods that one does
not often meet with women that have grown up unmarried. I know one,
however, who has lived by herself for fifteen years in a tiny hovel
near a cross roads much frequented by tinkers and ordinary tramps.
As she has no one belonging to her, she spends a good deal of her
time wandering through the country, and I have met her in every
direction, often many miles from her own glen. 'I do be so afeard of
the tramps,' she said to me one evening. 'I live all alone, and what
would I do at all if one of them lads was to come near me? When my
poor mother was dying, "Now, Nanny," says she, "don't be living on
here when I am dead," says she; "it'd be too lonesome." And now I
wouldn't wish to go again' my mother, and she dead--dead or alive I
wouldn't go again' my mother--but I'm after doing all I can, and I
can't get away by any means.' As I was moving on she heard, or
thought she heard, a sound of distant thunder.

'Ah, your honour,' she said, 'do you think it's thunder we'll be
having? There's nothing I fear like the thunder. My heart isn't
strong--I do feel it--and I have a lightness in my head, and often
when I do be excited with the thunder I do be afeard I might die
there alone in the cottage and no one know it. But I do hope that
the Lord--bless His holy name!--has something in store for me. I've
done all I can, and I don't like going again' my mother and she
dead. And now good evening, your honour, and safe home.'

Intense nervousness is common also with much younger women. I
remember one night hearing some one crying out and screaming in the
house where I was staying. I went downstairs and found it was a girl
who had been taken in from a village a few miles away to help the
servants. That afternoon her two younger sisters had come to see
her, and now she had been taken with a panic that they had been
drowned going home through the bogs, and she was crying and wailing,
and saying she must go to look for them. It was not thought fit for
her to leave the house alone so late in the evening, so I went with
her. As we passed down a steep hill of heather, where the nightjars
were clapping their wings in the moonlight, she told me a long story
of the way she had been frightened. Then we reached a solitary
cottage on the edge of the bog, and as a light was still shining in
the window, I knocked at the door and asked if they had seen or
heard anything. When they understood our errand three half-dressed
generations came out to jeer at us on the doorstep.

'Ah, Maggie,' said the old woman, 'you're a cute one. You're the
girl likes a walk in the moonlight. Whist your talk of them big
lumps of childer, and look at Martin Edward there, who's not six,
and he can go through the bog five times in an hour and not wet his
feet.'

My companion was still unconvinced, so we went on. The rushes were
shining in the moonlight, and one flake of mist was lying on the
river. We looked into one bog-hole, and then into another, where a
snipe rose and terrified us. We listened: a cow was chewing heavily
in the shadow of a bush, two dogs were barking on the side of a
hill, and there was a cart far away upon the road. Our teeth began
to chatter with the cold of the bog air and the loneliness of the
night. I could see that the actual presence of the bog had shown my
companion the absurdity of her fears, and in a little while we went
home.

The older people in County Wicklow, as in the rest of Ireland, still
show a curious affection for the landed classes wherever they have
lived for a generation or two upon their property. I remember an old
woman, who told me, with tears streaming on her face, how much more
lonely the country had become since the 'quality' had gone away, and
gave me a long story of how she had seen her landlord shutting up
his house and leaving his property, and of the way he had died
afterwards, when the 'grievance' of it broke his heart. The younger
people feel differently, and when I was passing this landlord's
house, not long afterwards, I found these lines written in pencil on
the door-post:

In the days of rack-renting
And land-grabbing so vile
A proud, heartless landlord
Lived here a great while.
When the League it was started,
And the land-grabbing cry,
To the cold North of Ireland
He had for to fly.

A year later the door-post had fallen to pieces, and the inscription
with it.


J. M. Synge

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