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The People of the Glens


HERE and there in County Wicklow there are a number of little known
places--places with curiously melodious names, such as Aughavanna,
Glenmalure, Annamoe, or Lough Nahanagan--where the people have
retained a peculiar simplicity, and speak a language in some ways
more Elizabethan than the English of Connaught, where Irish was used
till a much later date. In these glens many women still wear
old-fashioned bonnets, with a frill round the face, and the old men,
when they are going to the fair, or to Mass, are often seen in
curiously-cut frock-coats, tall hats, and breeches buckled at the
knee. When they meet a wanderer on foot, these old people are glad
to stop and talk to him for hours, telling him stories of the
Rebellion, or of the fallen angels that ride across the hills, or
alluding to the three shadowy countries that are never forgotten in
Wicklow--America (their El Dorado), the Union and the Madhouse.

'I had a power of children,' an old man who was born in Glenmalure
said to me once; 'I had a power of children, and they all went to
California, with what I could give them, and bought a bit of a
field. Then, when they put in the plough, it stuck fast on them.
They looked in beneath it, and there was fine gold stretched within
the earth. They're rich now and their daughters are riding on fine
horses with new saddles on them and elegant bits in their mouths,
yet not a ha'porth did they ever send me, and may the devil ride
with them to hell!'

Not long afterwards I met an old man wandering about a hill-side,
where there was a fine view of Lough Dan, in extraordinary
excitement and good spirits.

'I landed in Liverpool two days ago,' he said, when I had wished him
the time of day; 'then I came to the city of Dublin this morning,
and took the train to Bray, where you have the blue salt water on
your left, and the beautiful valleys, with trees in them, on your
right. From that I drove to this place on a jaunting-car to see some
brothers and cousins I have living below. They're poor people,
Mister honey, with bits of cabins, and mud floors under them, but
they're as happy as if they were in heaven, and what more would a
man want than that? In America and Australia, and on the Atlantic
Ocean, you have all sorts, good people and bad people, and murderers
and thieves, and pickpockets; but in this place there isn't a being
isn't as good and decent as yourself or me.'

I saw he was one of the old people one sometimes meets with who
emigrated when the people were simpler than they are at present, and
who often come back, after a lifetime in the States, as Irish as any
old man who has never been twenty miles from the town of Wicklow. I
asked him about his life abroad, when we had talked a little longer.

'I've been through perils enough to slay nations,' he said, 'and the
people here think I should be rotten with gold, but they're better
off the way they are. For five years I was a ship's smith, and never
saw dry land, and I in all the danger and peril of the Atlantic
Ocean. Then I was a veterinary surgeon, curing side-slip,
splay-foot, spavin, splints, glanders, and the various ailments of
the horse and ass. The lads in this place think you've nothing to do
but to go across the sea and fill a bag with gold; but I tell you it
is hard work, and in those countries the workhouses is full, and the
prisons is full, and the crazyhouses is full, the same as in the
city of Dublin. Over beyond you have fine dwellings, and you have
only to put out your hand from the window among roses and vines, and
the red wine grape; but there is all sorts in it, and the people is
better in this country, among the trees and valleys, and they
resting on their floors of mud.'

In Wicklow, as in the rest of Ireland, the union, though it is a
home of refuge for the tramps and tinkers, is looked on with supreme
horror by the peasants. The madhouse, which they know better, is
less dreaded.

One night I had to go down late in the evening from a mountain
village to the town of Wicklow, and come back again into the hills.
As soon as I came near Rathnew I passed many bands of girls and men
making rather ruffianly flirtation on the pathway, and women who
surged up to stare at me, as I passed in the middle of the road. The
thick line of trees that are near Rathnew makes the way intensely
dark even on clear nights, and when one is riding quickly, the
contrast, when one reaches the lights of Wicklow, is singularly
abrupt. The town itself after nightfall is gloomy and squalid.
Half-drunken men and women stand about, wrangling and disputing in
the dull light from the windows, which is only strong enough to show
the wretchedness of the figures which pass continually across them.
I did my business quickly and turned back to the hills, passing for
the first few miles the same noisy groups and couples on the
roadway. After a while I stopped at a lonely public-house to get a
drink and rest for a moment before I came to the hills. Six or seven
men were talking drearily at one end of the room, and a woman I
knew, who had been marketing in Wicklow, was resting nearer the
door. When I had been given a glass of beer, I sat down on a barrel
near her, and we began to talk.

'Ah, your honour,' she said, 'I hear you're going off in a short
time to Dublin, or to France, and maybe we won't be in the place at
all when you come back. There's no fences to the bit of farm I have,
the way I'm destroyed running. The calves do be straying, and the
geese do be straying, and the hens do be straying, and I'm destroyed
running after them. We've no man in the place since himself died in
the winter, and he ailing these five years, and there's no one to
give us a hand drawing the hay or cutting the bit of oats we have
above on the hill. My brother Michael has come back to his own place
after being seven years in the Richmond Asylum; but what can you ask
of him, and he with a long family of his own? And, indeed, it's a
wonder he ever came back when it was a fine time he had in the
asylum.'

She saw my movement of surprise, and went on:

'There was a son of my own, as fine a lad as you'd see in the
county--though I'm his mother that says it, and you'd never think it
t look at me. Well, he was a keeper in a kind of private asylum, I
think they call it, and when Michael was taken bad, he went to see
him, and didn't he know the keepers that were in charge of him, and
they promised to take the best of care of him, and, indeed, he was
always a quiet man that would give no trouble. After the first three
years he was free in the place, and he walking about like a
gentleman, doing any light work he'd find agreeable. Then my son
went to see him a second time, and "You'll never see Michael again,"
says he when he came back, "for he's too well off where he is." And,
indeed, it was well for him, but now he's come home.' Then she got
up to carry out some groceries she was buying to the ass-cart that
was waiting outside.

'It's real sorry I do be when I see you going off' she said, as she
was turning away. 'I don't often speak to you, but it's company to
see you passing up and down over the hill, and now may the Almighty
God bless and preserve you, and see you safe home.'

A little later I was walking up the long hill which leads to the
high ground from Laragh to Sugar Loaf. The solitude was intense.
Towards the top of the hill I passed through a narrow gap with high
rocks on one side of it and fir trees above them, and a handful of
jagged sky filled with extraordinarily brilliant stars. In a few
moments I passed out on the brow of the hill that runs behind the
Devil's Glen, and smelt the fragrance of the bogs. I mounted again.
There was not light enough to show the mountains round me, and the
earth seemed to have dwindled away into a mere platform where an
astrologer might watch. Among these emotions of the night one cannot
wonder that the madhouse is so often named in Wicklow.

Many of the old people of the country, however, when they have no
definite sorrow, are not mournful, and are full of curious whims and
observations. One old woman who lived near Glen Macanass told me
that she had seen her sons had no hope of making a livelihood in the
place where they were born, so, in addition to their schooling, she
engaged a master to come over the bogs every evening and teach them
sums and spelling. One evening she came in behind them, when they
were at work, and stopped to listen.

'And what do you think my son was after doing?' she said; 'he'd
made a sum of how many times a wheel on a cart would turn round
between the bridge below and the Post Office in Dublin. Would you
believe that? I went out without saying a word, and I got the old
stocking, where I keep a bit of money, and I made out what I owed
the master. Then I went in again, and "Master," says I, "Mick's
learning enough for the likes of him. You can go now and safe home
to you." And, God bless you, avourneen, Mick got a fine job after on
the railroad.'

Another day, when she was trying to flatter me, she said: 'Ah, God
bless you, avourneen, you've no pride. Didn't I hear you yesterday,
and you talking to my pig below in the field as if it was your
brother? And a nice clean pig it is too, the crathur.' A year or
two afterwards I met this old woman again. Her husband had died a
few months before of the 'Influence,' and she was in pitiable
distress, weeping and wailing while she talked to me. 'The poor old
man is after dying on me,' she said, 'and he was great company.
There's only one son left me now, and we do be killed working. Ah,
avourneen, the poor do have great stratagems to keep in their little
cabins at all. And did you ever see the like of the place we live in?
Isn't it the poorest, lonesomest, wildest, dreariest bit of a hill
a person ever passed a life on?' When she stopped a moment, with
the tears streaming on her face, I told a little about the poverty I
had seen in Paris. 'God Almighty forgive me, avourneen,' she went
on, when I had finished, 'we don't know anything about it. We have
our bit of turf, and our bit of sticks, and our bit to eat, and we
have our health. Glory be to His Holy Name, not a one of the childer
was ever a day ill, except one boy was hurted off a cart, and he
never overed it. It's small right we have to complain at all.'

She died the following winter, and her son went to New York.

The old people who have direct tradition of the Rebellion, and a
real interest in it, are growing less numerous daily, but one still
meets with them here and there in the more remote districts.

One evening, at the beginning of harvest, as I was walking into a
straggling village, far away in the mountains, in the southern half
of the county, I overtook an old man walking in the same direction
with an empty gallon can. I joined him; and when we had talked for a
moment, he turned round and looked at me curiously.

'Begging your pardon, sir,' he said, 'I think you aren't Irish.' I
told him he was mistaken.

'Well,' he went on, 'you don't speak the same as we do; so I was
thinking maybe you were from another country.'

'I came back from France,' I said, 'two months ago, and maybe
there's a trace of the language still upon my tongue.' He stopped
and beamed with satisfaction.

'Ah,' he said, 'see that now. I knew there was something about you.
I do be talking to all who do pass through this glen, telling them
stories of the Rebellion, and the old histories of Ireland, and
there's few can puzzle me, though I'm only a poor ignorant man.' He
told me some of his adventures, and then he stopped again.

'Look at me now,' he said, 'and tell me what age you think I'd be.'

'You might be seventy,' I said.

'Ah,' he said, with a piteous whine in his voice, 'you wouldn't take
me to be as old as that? No man ever thought me that age to this
day.'

'Maybe you aren't far over sixty,' I said, fearing I had blundered;
'maybe you're sixty-four.' He beamed once more with delight, and
hurried along the road.

'Go on, now,' he said, 'I'm eighty-two years, three months and five
days. Would you believe that? I was baptized on the fourth of June,
eighty-two years ago, and it's the truth I'm telling you.'

'Well, it's a great wonder,' I said, 'to think you're that age, when
you're as strong as I am to this day.'

'I am not strong at all,' he went on, more despondingly, 'not strong
the way I was. If I had two glasses of whisky I'd dance a hornpipe
would dazzle your eyes; but the way I am at this minute you could
knock me down with a rush. I have a noise in my head, so that you
wouldn't hear the river at the side of it, and I can't sleep at
nights. It's that weakens me. I do be lying in the darkness thinking
of all that has happened in three-score years to the families of
Wicklow--what this son did, and what that son did, and of all that
went across the sea, and wishing black hell would seize them that
never wrote three words to say were they alive or in good health.
That's the profession I have now--to be thinking of all the people,
and of the times that's gone. And, begging your pardon, might I ask
your name?'

I told him.

'There are two branches of the Synges in the County Wicklow,' he
said, and then he went on to tell me fragments of folk-lore
connected with my forefathers. How a lady used to ride through
Roundwood 'on a curious beast' to visit an uncle of hers in
Roundwood Park, and how she married one of the Synges and got her
weight in gold--eight stone of gold--as her dowry stories that
referred to events which took place more than a hundred years ago.

When he had finished I told him how much I wondered at his knowledge
of the country.

'There's not a family I don't know,' he said, 'from Baltinglass to
the sea, and what they've done, and who they've married. You don't
know me yet, but if you were a while in this place talking to
myself, it's more pleasure and gratitude you'd have from my company
than you'd have maybe from many a gentleman you'd meet riding or
driving a car.'

By this time we had reached a wayside public-house, where he was
evidently going with his can, so, as I did not wish to part with him
so soon, I asked him to come in and take something with me. When we
went into the little bar-room, which was beautifully clean, I asked
him what he would have. He turned to the publican:

'Have you any good whisky at the present time?' he said.

'Not now, nor at any time,' said the publican, 'we only keep bad;
but isn't it all the same for the likes of you that wouldn't know
the difference?'

After prolonged barging he got a glass of whisky, took off his hat
before he tasted it, to say a prayer for my future, and then sat
down with it on a bench in the corner.

I was served in turn, and we began to talk about horses and racing,
as there had been races in Arklow a day or two before. I alluded to
some races I had seen in France, and immediately the publican's
wife, a young woman who had just come in, spoke of a visit she had
made to the Grand Prix a few years before.

'Then you have been in France?' I asked her.

'For eleven years,' she replied.

'Alors vous parlez Francais, Madame?'

'Mais oui, Monsieur,' she answered with pure intonation.

We had a little talk in French, and then the old man got his can
filled with porter--the evening drink for a party of reapers who
were working on the hill--bought a pennyworth of sweets, and went
back down the road.

'That's the greatest old rogue in the village,' said the publican,
as soon as he was out of hearing; 'he's always making up to all who
pass through the place, and trying what he can get out of them. The
other day a party told me to give him a bottle of XXX porter he was
after asking for. I just gave him the dregs of an old barrel we had
finished, and there he was, sucking in his lips, and saying it was
the finest drink ever he tasted, and that it was rising to his head
already, though he'd hardly a drop of it swallowed. Faith, in the
end I had to laugh to hear the talk he was making.'

A little later I wished them good evening and started again on my
walk, as I had two mountains to cross.

J. M. Synge

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