PHELIM AND THE EAGLE
Well as I seem to know these people of the islands, there is hardly a day that I do not come upon some new primitive feature of their life.
Yesterday I went into a cottage where the woman was at work and very carelessly dressed. She waited for a while till I got into conversation with her husband, and then she slipped into the corner and put on a clean petticoat and a bright shawl round her neck. Then she came back and took her place at the fire.
This evening I was in another cottage till very late talking to the people. When the little boy--the only child of the house--got sleepy, the old grandmother took him on her lap and began singing to him. As soon as he was drowsy she worked his clothes off him by degrees, scratching him softly with her nails as she did so all over his body. Then she washed his feet with a little water out of a pot and put him into his bed.
When I was going home the wind was driving the sand into my face so that I could hardly find my way. I had to hold my hat over my mouth and nose, and my hand over my eyes while I groped along, with my feet feeling for rocks and holes in the sand.
I have been sitting all the morning with an old man who was making sugawn ropes for his house, and telling me stories while he worked. He was a pilot when he was young, and we had great talk at first about Germans, and Italians, and Russians, and the ways of seaport towns. Then he came round to talk of the middle island, and he told me this story which shows the curious jealousy that is between the islands:--
Long ago we used all to be pagans, and the saints used to be coming to teach us about God and the creation of the world. The people on the middle island were the last to keep a hold on the fire-worshipping, or whatever it was they had in those days, but in the long run a saint got in among them and they began listening to him, though they would often say in the evening they believed, and then say the morning after that they did not believe. In the end the saint gained them over and they began building a church, and the saint had tools that were in use with them for working with the stones. When the church was halfway up the people held a kind of meeting one night among themselves, when the saint was asleep in his bed, to see if they did really believe and no mistake in it.
The leading man got up, and this is what he said: that they should go down and throw their tools over the cliff, for if there was such a man as God, and if the saint was as well known to Him as he said, then he would be as well able to bring up the tools out of the sea as they were to throw them in.
They went then and threw their tools over the cliff.
When the saint came down to the church in the morning the workmen were all sitting on the stones and no work doing.
'For what cause are you idle?' asked the saint.
'We have no tools,' said the men, and then they told him the story of what they had done.
He kneeled down and prayed God that the tools might come up out of the sea, and after that he prayed that no other people might ever be as great fools as the people on the middle island, and that God might preserve theft dark minds of folly to them fill the end of the world. And that is why no man out of that island can tell you a whole story without stammering, or bring any work to end without a fault in it.
I asked him if he had known old Pat Dirane on the middle island, and heard the fine stories he used to tell.
'No one knew him better than I did,' he said; 'for I do often be in that island making curaghs for the people. One day old Pat came down to me when I was after tarring a new curagh, and he asked me to put a little tar on the knees of his breeches the way the rain wouldn't come through on him.
'I took the brush in my hand, and I had him tarred down to his feet before he knew what I was at. "Turn round the other side now," I said, "and you'll be able to sit where you like." Then he felt the tar coming in hot against his skin and he began cursing my soul, and I was sorry for the trick I'd played on him.'
This old man was the same type as the genial, whimsical old men one meets all through Ireland, and had none of the local characteristics that are so marked on lnishmaan.
When we were tired talking I showed some of my tricks and a little crowd collected. When they were gone another old man who had come up began telling us about the fairies. One night when he was coming home from the lighthouse he heard a man riding on the road behind him, and he stopped to wait for him, but nothing came. Then he heard as if there was a man trying to catch a horse on the rocks, and in a little time he went on. The noise behind him got bigger as he went along as if twenty horses, and then as if a hundred or a thousand, were galloping after him. When he came to the stile where he had to leave the road and got out over it, something hit against him and threw him down on the rock, and a gun he had in his hand fell into the field beyond him.
'I asked the priest we had at that time what was in it,' he said, 'and the priest told me it was the fallen angels; and I don't know but it was.'
'Another time,' he went on, 'I was coming down where there is a bit of a cliff and a little hole under it, and I heard a flute playing in the hole or beside it, and that was before the dawn began. Whatever anyone says there are strange things. There was one night thirty years ago a man came down to get my wife to go up to his wife, for she was in childbed.
'He was something to do with the lighthouse or the coastguard, one of them Protestants who don't believe in any of these things and do be making fun of us. Well, he asked me to go down and get a quart of spirits while my wife would be getting herself ready, and he said he would go down along with me if I was afraid.
'I said I was not afraid, and I went by myself.
'When I was coming back there was something on the path, and wasn't I a foolish fellow, I might have gone to one side or the other over the sand, but I went on straight till I was near it--till I was too near it--then I remembered that I had heard them saying none of those creatures can stand before you and you saying the De Profundis, so I began saying it, and the thing ran off over the sand and I got home.
'Some of the people used to say it was only an old jackass that was on the path before me, but I never heard tell of an old jackass would run away from a man and he saying the De Profundis.'
I told him the story of the fairy ship which had disappeared when the man made the sign of the cross, as I had heard it on the middle island.
'There do be strange things on the sea,' he said. 'One night I was down there where you can see that green point, and I saw a ship coming in and I wondered what it would be doing coming so close to the rocks. It came straight on towards the place I was in, and then I got frightened and I ran up to the houses, and when the captain saw me running he changed his course and went away.
'Sometimes I used to go out as a pilot at that time--I went a few times only. Well, one Sunday a man came down and said there was a big ship coming into the sound. I ran down with two men and we went out in a curagh; we went round the point where they said the ship was, and there was no ship in it. As it was a Sunday we had nothing to do, and it was a fine, calm day, so we rowed out a long way looking for the ship, till I was further than I ever was before or after. When I wanted to turn back we saw a great flock of birds on the water and they all black, without a white bird through them. They had no fear of us at all, and the men with me wanted to go up to them, so we went further. When we were quite close they got up, so many that they blackened the sky, and they lit down again a hundred or maybe a hundred and twenty yards off. We went after them again, and one of the men wanted to kill one with a thole-pin, and the other man wanted to kill one with his rowing stick. I was afraid they would upset the curagh, but they would go after the birds.
'When we were quite close one man threw the pin and the other man hit at them with his rowing stick, and the two of them fell over in the curagh, and she turned on her side and only it was quite calm the lot of us were drowned.
'I think those black gulls and the ship were the same sort, and after that I never went out again as a pilot. It is often curaghs go out to ships and find there is no ship.
'A while ago a curagh went out to a ship from the big island, and there was no ship; and all the men in the curagh were drowned. A fine song was made about them after that, though I never heard it myself.
'Another day a curagh was out fishing from this island, and the men saw a hooker not far from them, and they rowed up to it to get a light for their pipes--at that time there were no matches--and when they up to the big boat it was gone out of its place, and they were in great fear.'
Then he told me a story he had got from the mainland about a man who was driving one night through the country, and met a woman who came up to him and asked him to take her into his cart. He thought something was not right about her, and he went on. When he had gone a little way he looked back, and it was a pig was on the road and not a woman at all.
He thought he was a done man, but he went on. When he was going through a wood further on, two men came out to him, one from each side of the road, and they took hold of the bridle of the horse and led it on between them. They were old stale men with frieze clothes on them, and the old fashions. When they came out of the wood he found people as if there was a fair on the road, with the people buying and selling and they not living people at all. The old men took him through the crowd, and then they left him. When he got home and told the old people of the two old men and the ways and fashions they had about them, the old people told him it was his two grandfathers had taken care of him, for they had had a great love for him and he a lad growing up.
This evening we had a dance in the inn parlour, where a fire had been lighted and the tables had been pushed into the corners. There was no master of the ceremonies, and when I had played two or three jigs and other tunes on my fiddle, there was a pause, as I did not know how much of my music the people wanted, or who else could be got to sing or play. For a moment a deadlock seemed to be coming, but a young girl I knew fairly well saw my difficulty, and took the management of our festivities into her hands. At first she asked a coastguard's daughter to play a reel on the mouth organ, which she did at once with admirable spirit and rhythm. Then the little girl asked me to play again, telling me what I should choose, and went on in the same way managing the evening till she thought it was time to go home. Then she stood up, thanked me in Irish, and walked out of the door, without looking at anybody, but followed almost at once by the whole party.
When they had gone I sat for a while on a barrel in the public-house talking to some young men who were reading a paper in Irish. Then I had a long evening with the scholar and two story-tellers--both old men who had been pilots--taking down stories and poems. We were at work for nearly six hours, and the more matter we got the more the old men seemed to remember.
'I was to go out fishing tonight,' said the younger as he came in, 'but I promised you to come, and you're a civil man, so I wouldn't take five pounds to break my word to you. And now'--taking up his glass of whisky--'here's to your good health, and may you live till they make you a coffin out of a gooseberry bush, or till you die in childbed.'
They drank my health and our work began.
'Have you heard tell of the poet MacSweeny?' said the same man, sitting down near me.
'I have,' I said, 'in the town of Galway.'
'Well,' he said, 'I'll tell you his piece "The Big Wedding," for it's a fine piece and there aren't many that know it. There was a poor servant girl out in the country, and she got married to a poor servant boy. MacSweeny knew the two of them, and he was away at that time and it was a month before he came back. When he came back he went to see Peggy O'Hara--that was the name of the girl--and he asked her if they had had a great wedding. Peggy said it was only middling, but they hadn't forgotten him all the same, and she had a bottle of whisky for him in the cupboard. He sat down by the fire and began drinking the whisky. When he had a couple of glasses taken and was warm by the fire, he began making a song, and this was the song he made about the wedding of Peggy O'Hara.'
He had the poem both in English and Irish, but as it has been found elsewhere and attributed to another folk-poet, I need not give it.
We had another round of porter and whisky, and then the old man who had MacSweeny's wedding gave us a bit of a drinking song, which the scholar took down and I translated with him afterwards:--
'This is what the old woman says at the Beulleaca when she sees a man without knowledge--
'Were you ever at the house of the Still, did you ever get a drink from it? Neither wine nor beer is as sweet as it is, but it is well I was not burnt when I fell down after a drink of it by the fire of Mr. Sloper.
'I praise Owen O'Hernon over all the doctors of Ireland, it is he put drugs on the water, and it lying on the barley.
'If you gave but a drop of it to an old woman who does be walking the world with a stick, she would think for a week that it was a fine bed was made for her.'
After that I had to get out my fiddle and play some tunes for them while they finished their whisky. A new stock of porter was brought in this morning to the little public-house underneath my room, and I could hear in the intervals of our talk that a number of men had come in to treat some neighbors from the middle island, and were singing many songs, some of them in English or of the kind I have given, but most of them in Irish.
A little later when the party broke up downstairs my old men got nervous about the fairies--they live some distance away--and set off across the sandhills.
The next day I left with the steamer.