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On the Road

ONE evening after heavy rains I set off to walk to a village at the
other side of some hills, part of my way lying along a steep
heathery track. The valleys that I passed through were filled with
the strange splendour that comes after wet weather in Ireland, and
on the tops of the mountains masses of fog were lying in white, even
banks. Once or twice I went by a lonely cottage with a smell of
earthy turf coming from the chimney, weeds or oats sprouting on the
thatch, and a broken cart before the door, with many straggling hens
going to roost on the shafts. Near these cottages little bands of
half-naked children, filled with the excitement of evening, were
running and screaming over the bogs, where the heather was purple
already, giving me the strained feeling of regret one has so often
in these places when there is rain in the air.

Further on, as I was going up a long hill, an old man with a white,
pointed face and heavy beard pulled himself up out of the ditch and
joined me. We spoke first about the broken weather, and then he
began talking in a mournful voice of the famines and misfortunes
that have been in Ireland.

'There have been three cruel plagues,' he said, 'out through the
country since I was born in the west. First, there was the big wind
in 1839, that tore away the grass and green things from the earth.
Then there was the blight that came on the 9th of June in the year
1846. Up to then the potatoes were clean and good; but that morning
a mist rose up out of the sea, and you could hear a voice talking
near a mile off across the stillness of the earth. It was the same
the next day, and the day after, and so on for three days or more;
and then you could begin to see the tops of the stalks lying over as
if the life was gone out of them. And that was the beginning of the
great trouble and famine that destroyed Ireland. Then the people
went on, I suppose, in their wickedness and their animosity of one
against the other; and the Almighty God sent down the third plague,
and that was the sickness called the choler. Then all the people
left the town of Sligo--it's in Sligo I was reared--and you could
walk through the streets at the noon of day and not see a person,
and you could knock at one door and another door and find no one to
answer you. The people were travelling out north and south and east,
with the terror that was on them; and the country people were
digging ditches across the roads and driving them back where they
could, for they had great dread of the disease.

'It was the law at that time that if there was sickness on any
person in the town of Sligo you should notice it to the Governors,
or you'd be put up in the gaol. Well, a man's wife took sick, and he
went and noticed it. They came down then with bands of men they had,
and took her away to the sick-house, and he heard nothing more till
he heard she was dead, and was to be buried in the morning. At that
time there was such fear and hurry and dread on every person, they
were burying people they had no hope of, and they with life within
them. My man was uneasy a while thinking on that, and then what did
he do, but slip down in the darkness of the night and into the
dead-house, where they were after putting his wife. There were
beyond twoscore bodies, and he went feeling from one to the other.
Then I suppose his wife heard him coming--she wasn't dead at
all--and "Is that Michael?" says she. "It is then," says he; "and,
oh, my poor woman, have you your last gasps in you still?" "I have,
Michael," says she; "and they're after setting me out here with
fifty bodies the way they'll put me down into my grave at the dawn
of day." "Oh, my poor woman," says he; "have you the strength left
in you to hold on my back?" "Oh, Micky," says she, "I have surely."
He took her up then on his back, and he carried her out by lanes and
tracks till he got to his house. Then he never let on a word about
it, and at the end of three days she began to pick up, and in a
month's time she came out and began walking about like yourself or
me. And there were many people were afeard to speak to her, for they
thought she was after coming back from the grave.'

Soon afterwards we passed into a little village, and he turned down
a lane and left me. It was not long, however, till another old man
that I could see a few paces ahead stopped and waited for me, as is
the custom of the place.

'I've been down in Kilpeddar buying a scythe-stone,' he began, when
I came up to him, 'and indeed Kilpeddar is a dear place, for it's
three-pence they charged me for it; but I suppose there must be a
profit from every trade, and we must all live and let live.'

When we had talked a little more I asked him if he had been often in
Dublin.

'I was living in Dublin near ten years,' he said; 'and indeed I
don't know what way I lived that length in it, for there is no place
with smells like the city of Dublin. One time I went up with my wife
into those lanes where they sell old clothing, Hanover Lane and
Plunket's Lane, and when my wife--she's dead now, God forgive
her!--when my wife smelt the dirty air she put her apron up to her
nose, and, "For the love of God," says she, "get me away out of this
place." And now may I ask if it's from there you are yourself, for I
think by your speaking it wasn't in these parts you were reared?'

I told him I was born in Dublin, but that I had travelled afterwards
and been in Paris and Rome, and seen the Pope Leo XIII.

'And will you tell me,' he said, 'is it true that anyone at all can
see the Pope?'

I described the festivals in the Vatican, and how I had seen the
Pope carried through long halls on a sort of throne. 'Well, now,' he
said, 'can you tell me who was the first Pope that sat upon that
throne?'

I hesitated for a moment, and he went on:

'I'm only a poor, ignorant man, but I can tell you that myself if
you don't know it, with all your travels. Saint Peter was the first
Pope, and he was crucified with his head down, and since that time
there have been Popes upon the throne of Rome.'

Then he began telling me about himself.

'I was twice a married man,' he said. 'My first wife died at her
second child, and then I reared it up till it was as tall as
myself--a girl it was--and she went off and got married and left me.
After that I was married a second time to an aged woman, and she
lived with me ten year; and then she died herself. There is nothing
I can make now but tea, and tea is killing me; and I'm living alone,
in a little hut beyond, where four baronies, four parishes, and four
townlands meet.'

By this time we had reached the village inn, where I was lodging for
the night; so I stood him a drink, and he went on to his cottage
along a narrow pathway through the bogs.

J. M. Synge

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