The County Book Series General Editor Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald LEINSTER, MUNSTER AND CONNAUGHT
|VI||LEIX AND OFFALY|
|VII||CARLOW AND KILKENNY|
|X||WATERFORD AND CORK|
|XVI||MAYO AND SLIGO|
Books about a country usually begin with its history. Books about Ireland which do this have a tendency to remain unread. The misunderstandings are too many. Our grandfathers had no difficulty in finding explanations for them. “Kelts are all mad, furious fools,” Tennyson said. In softer moods, “while granting and liking the lyrical and humorous qualities of the Kelts and their pleasant manners,” he called Ireland “that horrible island.” If history has not made us more enlightened, it has at least made us doubtful if ever there was such a race as the “Kelts” or if any peculiar qualities could be attributed to them.
Ultimately, perhaps, all the misunderstandings can be traced to sixty miles of salt water which stretches between Britain and Ireland, and we may hope they will disappear with time. Even today there is no perfect method of getting in and out of the country. The channel is rough; it is too far to swim; the mail-boat is atrociously uncomfortable; the air service is infinitely more comfortable but far more precarious, or at least appears to be at seven thousand feet above the Welsh mountains. But at least it is considerably better than it was in those early days when so many of the misunderstandings arose.
As most visitors still arrive at Westland Row Station, it is as well to begin there. It is only a few minutes’ walk from College Green, the cultural centre of Dublin. As you approach the Green from this direction the building on your left is Trinity College; that which so finely closes the street is the one-time House of Lords, now, like the rest of Parliament Buildings, the headquarters of the Bank of Ireland.
College Green is a place to linger in, particularly on a summer evening when the westering light streams down Dame Street, the old High Street of Dublin, plays hide-and-seek in the colonnade of Parliament House, and rejuvenates the whole great screen of Trinity, with Hogan’s beautiful statue of Goldsmith standing before it. With the statue of Daniel O’Connell in the National Bank across the road, the work of Andrew O’Connor, this is the best of our public monuments.
With perhaps the solitary exception of the ruined chapel of Cormac MacCarthy at Cashel, Parliament House seems to me the finest public building in Ireland and one of the finest I know anywhere. It was begun in 1729 by somebody called Pearce, and completed about ten years later by Arthur Dobbs. Finally, in 1785, Gandon, the architect of the Customs House, added the east front as an entrance to the House of Lords, for no visible reason changing the order from Ionic to Corinthian. The best that can be said for Gandon’s work is that he did not actually spoil a masterpiece.
Pearce was faced with the usual nightmare of Renaissance architects when building on an extended front. In such a front the portico with its colonnade and pediment tended to get lost—one has only to look at Blenheim to see what a mess can be made of them— and architects had to use all their skill to give it prominence without exaggerating its width and height. Some English architects made the columns so tall that the building seems to be in gaiters. Gandon in his Customs House front solved it by building an attic wider than the portico and ostensibly supporting it on columns within the walls; the architects of Trinity College raised the whole building a storey and took the columns off piers which frame the main gateway. Pearce solved the problem as only an artist could by placing his front in a rectangular colonnaded courtyard, the pavilions being merely entrances to covered passages, and of the same height as the main block, and then sweeping the whole building backwards at either side in great curves of wall, blank but for columns and niches. My generation was brought up to think of freedom as represented by The Old House in College Green. I am sentimental enough to regret that practical considerations ever induced us to abandon that most dignified and beautiful centre of national life.
The screen of Trinity (1759) by Keene and Saunders is also a fine piece of work, though not in the same class. Within the college there is plenty of excellent Georgian building, though I have found no one to share my admiration of de Burgh’s fine Library (1712), which seems to me to challenge comparison with Wren’s at Trinity College, Cambridge.
This is the south, the fashionable, side of Dublin, and all roads lead to Stephen’s Green, which contains some of the best of our eighteenth-century houses. It is worth while making a digression up Wicklow Street to see Powerscourt House (1771) by Robert Mack, now the warehouse of Messrs. Ferrier Pollock, who keep it well and are endlessly patient and courteous with visitors. In narrow William Street it is hard to see and almost impossible to photograph the florid and impressive front. Within it is elaborately decorated, mostly by Michael Stapleton, the Irish contemporary of Adam.
One of the two most interesting houses in Stephen’s Green itself is the Stephen’s Green Club, but it requires something like an Act of Parliament to see it. It is magnificently decorated—according to Mr. C. P. Curran, our greatest authority on the period and to whose work I am completely indebted—by the Francini brothers. Their known work, traced by Mr. Curran, consists of this, Clanwilliam House at the opposite side of the Green, the saloon at Carton, Co. Kildare, and a beautiful room in Riverstown House, Co. Cork. English art historians also ascribe to them 15, Queen Square, Bath, the home of John Wood, but in my opinion wrongly. There seems to me no evidence that they did any work outside Ireland. If you do not call at mealtimes the porter of the Club may allow you to see the dining-room, which contains a beautiful ceiling representing the Triumph of Bacchus. The putti are exquisitely modelled, and the whole composition, like the bottled baby collapsing on a cloud, is full of delicate fun.
But the more remarkable of the two, Nos. 84-6, is the property of the National University, and visitors are always welcomed. It consists of two houses thrown into one: the first (1760) decorated in his usual barbaric high relief by a Dublin plasterer called Robert West, and the second, Clanwilliam House (1730), built by the German architect Cassell, and decorated by the Francini brothers. The ceiling of the saloon is coved, with a frieze of putti in high relief swinging from garlands and enclosing mythological panels—a design almost identical with that of the equally beautiful saloon at Carton. With its view over St. Stephen’s Green it is one of the finest interiors in Dublin.
Almost all the Stephen’s Green houses have decoration of one sort or another, but it is worth walking the few hundred yards along Leeson Street to the canal bridge and chancing securing admission to Mespil House (1751). This old house in its own wide grounds on the bank of the canal, which for many old Dubliners will always be associated with its last occupant, Sarah Purser, was built by a doctor called Barry, and contains a number of ceilings by an unidentified artist of amazing skill. One room on the ground floor contains a magnificent ceiling showing in the centre Jupiter in majesty, and in the panels along the walls the four elements, All are beautiful, the water panel unforgettable.*
It is worth returning to the city along the canal bank and through Fitzwilliam and Merrion Squares if for nothing but St. Stephen’s, a charming Greek Revival church by J. Bowden, islanded at the end of Upper Mount Street, and in its related architectural setting a perfect companion piece to Francis Johnston’s St. George’s in its crescent on the other bank of the river. Visitors who don’t succeed in getting admittance needn’t worry too much; contemporary church fittings are rare in Dublin. Besides, nobody living has ever succeeded in getting into St. George’s!
Dame Street is really the opening of the old High Street of Dublin, which reaches up past the Castle and the Cathedral till it comes to rest in Guinness’s Brewery. There is very little of the Castle itself: in the Lower Castle Yard there is Johnston’s Chapel Royal (1814), a piece of Revival Gothic which I heartily detest, but the Upper Yard is excellent, with the Office of Arms and its admirable tower and the State Apartments, which are shown each day at three—usually by a charwoman, if my own experience is any indication of the normal procedure.
Immediately before the Castle, facing down towards the river and Capel Street, is the Royal Exchange, now the City Hall (1769), by Thomas Cooley. Beyond this again is Christchurch Cathedral, restored to death, while
* As this book goes to print I hear that the ceiling has been removed.
at the corner of the street on the left which leads down to St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Dublin has two within a stone’s throw of one another, both belonging to the Church of Ireland) is St. Werburgh’s, the Castle church. This is an exceedingly tall, plain, twelfth-century building with a Restoration front. As you can see from the drawings on display inside, the front, probably representing the reconstruction of 1719 and probably by de Burgh, the architect of the College Library, once had a tower to which a beautiful steeple was later added. But first the steeple and then the tower were condemned on the usual lazy plea of insecurity, and, though the famous Irish architect, Francis Johnston, offered to make both secure, the offer was refused and they were demolished, leaving only the splendid facade. Inside, after many restorations, it is still full of interest, and has a magnificent carved pulpit, brought here from another church in process of demolition. I should warn visitors who may have come to the conclusion that Dublin churches are never opened at all that the usual entrance is round the lane at the side, and the caretaker’s house is here. Except for its rude tower like a “peel” castle, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, like Christ Church, has been entirely rebuilt by an architect of no great sophistication. Shaw has somewhere suggested that he was probably the Devil in person. In spite of that, I find it a very moving building, and I suggest that nobody makes up his mind about it before first attending service there. And that is not entirely because it is the church of Swift, though this naturally gives it the added quality of association. Here are the Boyle and the Schomberg monuments, over the upkeep of which he fought with their miserly descendants; here the monument he erected to his faithful servant, Alexander Magee; and here he sleeps himself under what Yeats has called “the greatest epitaph in history” beside Stella, the English girl who accompanied him into exile.
This is the place to see Dublin, for Swift was Dublin. In a sense he was also Ireland, and if one can for a little while detach one’s mind from the lambasting or defending of these “mad, furious fools,” the Kelts, and consider the effect which Ireland produced upon this man of English race, driving him in upon himself until pride and introspection made him mad, one may, I think, see that he is the first of a type which includes men as various as Yeats and Joyce, Parnell and Oscar Wilde.
He is the most vivid figure which ever walked in Dublin streets, and if you sit here, as I have sometimes done, in the dusk of a winter evening, you will find it very easy to imagine him as he must have appeared, with his plump, pompous clerical cheeks, his poker face, which never lost its air of gravity, his brisk, boisterous manner and his preposterous sense of humour. That mature Swift makes a remarkable first entrance in the description of his arrival to take up the living of Laracor in Co. Meath. “He walked straight to the curate’s house, demanded his name, and announced himself as his master. . . . The curate’s wife was ordered to lay aside the doctor’s only clean shirt and stockings which he carried in his pocket, nor did Swift relax his airs of domination until he had excited much alarm.”
We can be quite sure that story is not invented, because nobody could have invented the details, any more than anyone could have invented the details of Pope’s description of the call which he and Gay paid on the same plump-visaged practical joker. Swift began by inviting them to dinner, but they had already dined. Then he gravely went into a long calculation of how much it would have cost him if they hadn’t. “Let me see, what should I have had? A couple of lobsters; ay, that would have done very well; two shillings—tarts a shilling . . . a bottle of wine, two shillings—two and two is four and one is five. There, Pope, there’s half a crown for you, and there’s another for you, sir; for I won’t save anything by you, I am determined.”
The eighteenth century loved characters, and the character is there even more than in any portrait. But this brisk, boisterous, bullying practical joker had a secret terror which caused him, in his own vivid phrase, to “fly from the spleen to the world’s end.” My friend Denis Johnston has proved to his own satisfaction and that of the editor of the “Shorter Cambridge History of English Literature” that Swift was really the natural son of Sir John Temple, Master of the Rolls in Ireland, and hence a brother of Sir William Temple, while Esther Johnson, his lifelong companion, was really the natural daughter of Sir William Temple, and so Swift’s niece. A stronger situation for drama could scarcely be imagined, but Mr. Johnston seems to have begun with the situation rather than the man, and the result of this, as we know from the study of Shakespeare, is always to prove the hero must really have been somebody else. If, as Mr. Johnston assumes, the adoption of Swift by Sir William Temple was because of his relationship to the family, we are bound to conclude that, since Swift’s cousin Thomas was received first into Moor Park, old Sir John had a fixation on women of the name of Swift.
According to this view, it was well known in Swift’s lifetime that he and Esther Johnson were both Temples; yet in 1706, after the departure of Stella and her chaperon, Mrs. Dingley, to Ireland, we find Swift’s cousin, the Rev. Thomas Swift, writing to a friend to ask “whether Jonathan be married? Or whether he has been able to resist the charms of both these gentlewomen that marched forth from Moor Park to Dublin... with full resolution to engage him?” Setting aside the question of Thomas himself being a Temple, is it natural to find a Protestant clergyman enquiring in that light-hearted way whether or not his cousin, also a clergyman, has committed incest?
Again, we find Swift making a pilgrimage to the church of old Thomas Swift, who, according to Mr. Johnston and Dr, Sampson, Swift new was not his grandfather, and presenting it with a chalice inscribed in his memory by his grandson, Jonathan Swift. Even admitting that clergymen may not have the same high moral standards as the rest of us and that the sacraments mean less to them than to intelligent agnostics (all of which seems to be implied in this theory), are they usually so coarsely and casually sacrilegious?
Of course, the simple explanation, that adopted in Yeats’ fine play “The Words on the Window-pane,” is the true one, and Mr. Johnston’s own researches have produced fresh evidence of it. He has shown that the minutes kept by Swift’s father in the office of the Master of the Rolls show a swift, progressive decline, which he attributes to alcoholism, induced by the knowledge that its victim had married his employer’s discarded mistress. But, after all, his brother had died mad, and the same cousin, Thomas Swift, a nasty bit of work if ever there was one, in claiming that he is the real author of his cousin’s “Tale of a Tub,” admits Jonathan’s authorship of the digressions, like that “Concerning the Use and Improvement of Madness”— “with which,” he adds malevolently, “he was not unacquainted.” If this does not mean that Swift’s father was mad or that he himself in his lonely and distracted boyhood had a mental breakdown, what does it mean? In later life he told Gay that like the blasted tree he would “die at the top.”
But quite apart from his fear of madness, his mother’s marriage and his own early misfortunes had left him with an almost equal horror of improvident marriages. We find him over and over, even in his little private charities, denouncing the beggars who brought children into the world. It is quite clear that when he invited Stella to Ireland to be his companion he had no intention whatever of marrying her, and almost certainly told her as much, without, however, telling her the reason, which would have been an admission of weakness. It is equally clear that Stella didn’t believe a word of it, and, in Thomas Swift’s words, went to Ireland “with full resolution to engage him.” Except for its tragic implications, all summed up in the inscription he is supposed to have put upon a packet after her death—“Only a woman’s hair”—what followed was the purest Congreve.
Woman-like, on finding him slow, the first thing Stella did was to try to make him jealous. She began a violent flirtation with a clergyman, one Billy Tisdall of Carrickfergus, who, she afterwards admitted, bored her to distraction with church politics. When he proposed to her she referred him to her guardian, Dr. Swift, for his consent. Only a woman could fully appreciate the archness of that. Swift, with his mania for bossing, didn’t. He took it in deadly earnest and refused his consent on the ground (perfectly reasonable to him) that neither of the parties was sufficiently well off. Of course, as well as the natural objection to their poverty, there was also in this a certain element of resentment which Swift did not see at all, but which was perfectly obvious to both Tisdall and Stella. That young lady must have been very pleased indeed with the success of her ruse. To judge by Swift’s description, which may, of course, have been prejudiced, she continued to flirt as violently as ever.
But she had badly misjudged her man. Tisdall then inherited a sufficient fortune to marry on and again Wrote to Swift, asking his consent. This time his resentment became apparent and he evidently accused Swift of playing the dog in the manger and refusing his consent merely because he was in love with Stella himself. He drew from Swift, not the thunderbolt he must have expected, but one of the most amazing letters ever written by one man to another.
“First,” wrote Swift, “I think I have said to you before that if my fortunes and humour served me to think of that state I should certainly among all the persons on earth make your choice, because I never saw that person whose conversation I entirely valued but hers; this was the utmost I ever gave way to.”
Putting aside the peculiarity of a clergyman writing in this manner about his niece, the significance of this— any woman will see the point at once—is that, though addressed to Tisdall, it is intended for Stella, and is a rejection of what, in effect, were her advances. His fortunes and his humour—in other words, his fear of making an improvident marriage, combined with his fear that the melancholia which afflicted him was really insanity—had made him from the very beginning rule out the idea of marriage with her, yet if he had dared to think of marriage it would only have been with her. It is an appeal and a challenge. He can love her only in his own way, and, if this is not good enough for her, let her marry and be damned! Her choice had never for an instant been in doubt. We hear no more of Tisdall except in Swift’s gibes about his smelly feet, even though their flirtation, according to Swift, had left her no alternative but marriage with him.
Swift had called Stella’s little bluff. Now he had to meet the woman who called his. He had educated Stella according to his own ideas (it was part of his mania for bossing and interference, about which Stella kept on teasing him and which the indignant Swift kept on denying); in the same way he proceeded to educate Hester Vanhomrigh, a Dublin girl brought up in London. No doubt he anticipated the same sort of result, for, in spite of his great kindness, Swift was unconsciously a cruel philanderer. Vanessa, like Stella, fell madly in love with him, but he failed miserably to call her bluff. She may have compelled him to become her lover, but this can only be in the most elastic sense of the word, because he never writes as anything but a celibate. She pursued him to Ireland, and at last he was faced with the great tragedy of his life—the awakening in a woman of the passions he suppressed in himself.
While he savaged them, Vanessa gave them rein; while he evaded their gloomy aftermath which so much resembled the madness he feared, she sought it out and nursed it. “I fly from the spleen to the world’s end,” he wrote to her; “you run out of your way to meet rte When in despair of keeping her quiet in a city of scandal he broke off with her, she took to drink and died after refusing the ministrations of a clergyman, one Price, of whom we shall hear further in another connection. “No Price, no prayers,” is her recorded reply. Swift set out alone on a gloomy tour of Ireland, writing no letters. He may have fled the spleen, but the ruin of a woman’s life had brought it home to him for ever.
Vanessa’s death coincides with a new interest in Irish politics. He had met her first as the representative (self-appointed) of the Whig Church of Ireland to an English Whig ministry which did not receive him as he felt he should have been received. He turned from them to the Tories, Harley and St. John, who became his lifelong friends.
The seriousness of this step has always been rather understated by his biographers, who too hastily assume that Whig and Tory meant to him the Liberal and Conservative, or Republican and Monarchist, which they meant to contemporary Englishmen. This is completely unhistorical, Behind Whig and Tory in England was the background of a Civil War fought by gentlemen. Behind them in Ireland was the background of a Cromwellian conquest carried out with a diabolism for which there are, thank God, few parallels in European history. The Irish Whigs were the Cromwellian vultures, the Tories, apart from a tiny handful of country gentlemen like the Duke of Ormonde, who still remained after the Williamite wars, were the enslaved masses of the Catholic Irish, reduced by the penal laws to a condition of moral degradation from which they have never entirely recovered. In Ireland to be a Tory was to be a Jacobite, to be a Jacobite was to take your stand with the victims.
Swift could have taken no step which could more drastically have imperilled his own career and even his personal safety. That was why, when he returned to Dublin as Dean of St. Patrick’s, he was hooted through the streets by the Whig mob. His biographers in their simple-minded way assume that he was completely unaware of the Jacobite intrigues of Harley and St. John, though they fail to explain his lack of suitable indignation when he came to realise (if he ever came to realise) how he had been deceived. If he really was deceived, he must have been the only man in Ireland who was. Why else should the Dublin mobs have hooted him? Why else did he bear that grudge in mind so many years and refer to it again when many years after he was presented with the Freedom of the City by the same Whig Party? What are we to imagine he understood by the menacing letters of King, the Whig Archbishop of Dublin, who politely hoped that my Lord Bolingbroke “can tell no ill story of you”? And what of the letter to King by Lord Sunderland’s assistant secretary, acknowledging his Lordship’s help as a spy on Swift, and adding, “I received yesterday a letter from Mr. Manley (the Postmaster) giving an account of the seizing of a parcel of treasonable papers which one Jeffereys directed to Dr. Swift,” and Erasmus Lewis’ warning to Swift that “if you have not already hid your papers in some private place, in the hands of a trusty friend, I fear they will fall into the hands of our enemies”? Of course, Swift was up to his eyes in Jacobite plots, and the Dublin Whigs and the Catholic Irish knew it.
After Vanessa’s death he went far beyond these, and in doing so led his adopted country for ever out of Charlie-over-the-Waterism and towards the separatist Republicanism which since then has always distinguished it from its Jacobite ally, Scotland. The turning-point came when the British Parliament, in genuine fear of an Irish Whig vendetta against the handful of Irish Tories, reduced the Irish Parliament to a subsidiary body. Swift’s friends in England hailed this with relief and enthusiasm, but Swift’s abstract mind saw it very differently. He saw it as the subjection not only of the Cromwellian ascendancy, but of the whole population of Ireland to the interests of a few Irish Tories, even though they were his friends, and propounded the alternative of an independent Irish nation. That is why he wrote the Drapier Letters and, using the weapon of economic fear, levered the Dublin mob free of their allegiance to England.
Then came Stella’s death. There are few things in literature more moving than the memoir he began of her as she lay dead in a Dublin lodging-house. Through his bedroom window he saw the lights in the cathedral aisle where the workmen were opening her grave, and changed his room to the other side of the house. The emotion is in the gesture rather than the words. Poker-face had not learned from Vanessa that there are occasions when it is better not to keep a stiff upper lip. “She was,” he wrote, “sickly from her childhood until about the age of fifteen, and then grew into perfect health and was looked upon as one of the most beautiful, graceful and agreeable young women in London, only a little too fat.”
After that he posed as the Man who Knew Women, the celibate sour grapes who attitudinises in every ecclesiastical institution in the world. The characteristic lavatory complex harks back to the emotional age of thirteen, But the irony of the later political pamphlets is wonderful, as wonderful in its own way as the last quartettes of Beethoven, these, two, full of the utter loneliness of the deaf man. It is an irony which no longer hopes to effect anything; irony for its own sake, a voice speaking to itself in an empty house at night. There is the “Modest Proposal” for the export of fat Irish babies as delicacies for the tables of the English, who have already devoured the parents. There is the pamphlet where he asks whether the feces about the Dublin streets (as prominent today as in his day) can possibly be Irish, the Irish, as is well known, having nothing which they could evacuate. Evil-minded people pretend that the British Government employs secret agents to defecate about the city of Dublin at night in hope of convincing the world that the Irish still have something to eat. The excreta have been examined by an expert, who has pronounced that the squiggle at the end is characteristic of the British rectum.
His behaviour grew wilder, more irresponsible. When a guest at a house-party was compelled to use his chamber-pot for purposes for which it is not intended outside the nursery or sick-room, Swift insisted on a mock trial and the production of the evidence. No longer able to take long walks, he exercised himself by chasing the young Grattans up and down the Deanery stairs with a horsewhip. Then, as he had foretold, the tree died at the top.
Now he sleeps by Stella “where savage indignation can no longer lacerate his heart.” “Timon hath built his everlasting mansion.” It is two hundred years since then, but no men and women who have walked our streets are as vivid in our memories as that unhappy pair of sweethearts. As we stand in the dusk of the cathedral “the living seem more shadowy than they.”
Cross the river anywhere near the cathedrals and you reach the north side and, symbolically, the Four Courts, for this is one of Dublin’s worst slum areas; that is to say, one of the worst in Europe.
The Four Courts is another of Dublin’s acknowledged masterpieces, and, like the Post Office and the Customs House, it has died for Ireland. It was begun in 1776 by the English architect Cooley, who also designed the Royal Exchange, but only one wing was completed to his design, and the rest of the work is Gandon’s, Contemporary criticism of the change was severe. It was said that Gandon had spoiled Cooley’s plans by bringing the centre block forward to the quay, thus cutting the courtyard in two and closing this by a screen, so that the building became impossible to see. This is sound criticism and reveals the surprising fact that Dubliners of the eighteenth century wanted to see architecture. It was this critical attitude which made Dublin one of the three beautiful sisters of eighteenth-century architecture in these islands, and, though she married beneath her, and is regularly beaten up by her husband, she still has admirers who rank her above both Bath and Edinburgh—a conclusion visitors would perhaps do better not to dispute.
Not being a visitor, my own fancy leans towards Edinburgh, though I regret the absence of red brick and (occasionally) the excessively logical preoccupation of Scotch architects. The first thing which strikes a Dubliner in Edinburgh is the elaborate, even meticulous, punctuation. Every variety of stop is illustrated, usually too heavy, as, for instance, where you find a big pedimented centre-piece repeated at either end. The punctuation sometimes leads to massive academic discord, the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, as at the corner of Heriot Square and Dundas Street, where a block stopped on pediments collides with a block stopped on chimneys at right angles to the remaining chimneys in the street; the result is like two Oxford Fellows having a boxing match in the quad.
But I think my affection for Edinburgh comes from the fact that it did have some sort of intellectual life. Throughout the eighteenth century, and indeed to our own day, Dublin remained provincial. I am not impressed by traditions of Garrick or Peg Woffington. I admire the Houses of Parliament, but no suspicion of enthusiasm for associations ever sullies the purity of my appreciation. After Swift there is no figure in its history whom I can visualise, who creates an atmosphere of visibility about himself as he does, or as Pepys does, or as Boswell does. No Irishman can fail to be impressed by the tremendous achievement of Grattan and the Irish Volunteers who were mobilised to fight at the side of England against the French, and who struck such terror into the hearts of their allies that these almost fell over themselves in their haste to grant the Volunteers national independence, which the latter immediately proceeded to dispose of to the highest bidder. I admire Grattan and Charlemont, but rather in the way I admire great mathematicians. Goldsmith, the one Irishman of his generation who could have surrounded himself with this atmosphere of visibility, who could have made anything which interested him of interest to all eternity, could not have made a living there, then or now. “There has been more money spent in the encouragement of the Padareen mare there one season than given in rewards to learned men since the times of Usher. All their productions in learning amount to, perhaps, a translation, or a few tracts in divinity, and all their productions in wit, just to nothing at all.”
If you go up Capel Street, the fine street which leads away over the bridge from the Royal Exchange, you see on your left what was once the most fashionable street in Dublin, Henrietta Street. Now it might carry the same legend as Dante’s Inferno. It is well worth a visit, because here the slums, having absorbed the most beautiful of the early eighteenth-century houses, are at their most fantastic. They are largely to the design of Cassell. Most have double staircases of fine design which fill either the whole back or the whole front of the house, according to the position of the saloon, and in some the slum landlords, hating such waste of beautiful living space, have provided extra accommodation by flooring the well of the stairs. Doors and walls are sheeting, but within are great plaster panels and ceilings with what the poor tenants admiringly call “variegations.” These are bold and striking compared with the later and more delicate plaster-work: plain strapwork, like some hangover of Jacobean, mixed with rococo shells and scrolls. The work is of similar type to that in Tyrone House (1740), now the Ministry of Education (also by Cassell), and that in Castletown House, Co. Kildare. One room, cut up by wooden sheeting into a hall, a bedroom and a sitting-room, has a particularly fine Apollo ceiling, and very strange it looks over the squalid clutter below.
I have always found the people of this street particularly gracious, but, if you feel you can’t stand the smells, Nos. 9 and 10 (1730) by Cassell have been turned into a convent, and, though the exterior of one has been hideously mucked up, the interiors have some rooms which are fairly well kept and very beautiful. The building which closes the street is the King’s Inns, begun in 1795 by Gandon and finished by Baker.
Here you are in the heart of the slum area, In Dominic Street I have often had to walk in the middle of the roadway to escape the stench of the rotting houses on either side. If you are one of the Very Important Persons received by representatives of the Government, you will probably be told how happy the slum-dwellers are (it is extraordinary how nostalgic about slums Irishmen become when they leave them), but before making up your mind on that point I suggest that you should sample the Dominic Street ones. Once more, if you prefer to take the smells for granted, the priests of St. Saviour’s Orphanage will always be glad to let you see the interior of their fine house, once the home of Robert West, the plasterer, and, by way of advertisement, decorated in the highest of high relief. The plaques are coarse but pleasant, and the priests have been sensible enough to realise that the orphans are unlikely to suffer any serious ill effects from the naked putti representing Love and Eternity in what is now the chapel, or the winsome Venus who overlooks their dormitory. This domestication of heathen divinities is one of the picturesque and amusing things about Dublin: Apollo and the Sacred Heart, Venus and the orphanage dormitory, Hercules and the Pope in the hall of a great town mansion now taken over as the headquarters of a Catholic secret society.
The Rotunda Hospital by Cassell (1750) is equally friendly, and you have only to push in the front door and go quietly upstairs to the chapel. The light switch is on the wall outside the door on your right, and you will need it. With the saloon of Clanwilliam House this is the most beautiful interior in Dublin, and a place to go less for sightseeing than for prayer and meditation. Except for the glass it is perfect, and the woodwork is extraordinarily good. The ceiling (1755) and the altarpiece (1757) by a French plasterer called Cramillion are the only Baroque work in Ireland. Here, in place of the rigid symmetry of the Renaissance, fully expressed in the boxlike stolidity of the architecture, you find each line subtly contradicting the next, so that movement replaces repose, symmetry almost disappears, and only perfect taste prevents the whole decorative scheme from degenerating into confusion. Good modern critics complain of the contradiction between the restless plasterwork and the decorous architecture, but I cannot say it has ever worried me much. Half a chapel is better than no Baroque.
Behind the Rotunda is a square of fine houses once called Rutland, now Parnell, Square, the central house on the north side being that of Lord Charlemont, which has been turned into a Municipal Art Gallery. Beyond this again, moving outward from the Georgian centre into the Victorian suburb of Phibsborough, you strike a vein of Regency, where a little street on the right leads to the finest of our Greek Revival churches—St, George’s (1802), by Francis Johnston, the dwindling aspirations of Georgian Dublin expressed in its charming little crescent.
This is the church whose bells ring out in the opening of Joyce’s “Ulysses” to herald Mr. Bloom’s day of adventure. Mr. Bloom himself lived in Eccles Street at the other side of the main road. One aspect of Dublin is for ever summed up and preserved in that immortal, unreadable work. Joyce’s Dublin resembles that of Swift in its dreary hopelessness, but whereas Swift, coming to it almost as an outsider, snarls and bellows at it, and, dying, leaves it the richer by his great gift of Swift’s Hospital, even as his sweetheart Stella helped in founding the charming little Steevens Hospital near Kingsbridge Station, Joyce, never having known anything else but Dublin, grew up dreamy, embittered and indifferent, the only hope of a respectable family sinking steadily lower in the world, and incapable of shouldering the burden. “Gulliver’s Travels” was written in the hope (faint, perhaps, but unmistakable) of making the whole world new; the author of “Finnegan’s Wake” knew that the world had always been old and ugly, and that the only wisdom was to enjoy as best one could its ignorance and squalor. When, bogged in debt, Joyce left Dublin for ever he wrote and had printed a savage doggerel against those who had been foolish enough to lend him money, and circulated it to them by way of repayment—not the gesture of a young man mad with conceit, though Joyce had plenty, but of one incapable of accepting the burden of gratitude, who has no choice but to declare himself emotionally bankrupt.
By cutting himself off from Ireland he became the prisoner of his memories. The “paralysis” which he defined as the quality of Dublin which he wished to capture in “Dubliners,” his first book of stories, is the same which we find in “Portrait of the Artist,” “Ulysses,” and “Finnegan’s Wake,” and between these astonishing books the development is technical, not intellectual. Being entirely passive, the material was responsive to endless technical development, so that Joyce could treat it rather as a professor than as an artist. In him the detachment of the artist has become prodigious and abnormal. An academic friend, defending “Ulysses” against my criticism, said mildly that “it was a professor’s idea of how a novel should be written.” There is considerable truth in this. Joyce was the first of the Ph.D. writers, of whom Eliot is a later example. Accidents of time and place, the change in the meaning of words, a compositor’s day-dreaming, have made older writers like Shakespeare partly unintelligible to any but scholars. Why was Olivia “a Cataian”? Did Shakespeare, as I fancy, really write “Catonian”? Is “the be-all and the end-all. Here but here upon this Bank and shoal of time” really (as I fancy) “the trial and the endal, heard but here upon this bank and stool of time”? We cannot say with certainty; all we can say is that whatever Shakespeare wrote he intended to be understood, without reference to his sources; but Joyce and Eliot have anticipated the accidents and required us in their very lifetime to seek for sources. Did you know that liliata rutilantium was a quotation from the Catholic prayer for the dying and that its recurrence in “Ulysses” indicates that Stephen Dædalus is again thinking about his mother’s death? Did you know that his cry of “Nothung” when he smashes the lampshade in the brothel was a reference to Siegfried’s splitting of the anvil in Wagner’s “Valkyrie”? In his modest way Joyce proclaimed that he expected any reader to devote a lifetime to the study of his work. What he really meant was that he wrote entirely for Ph.D.s who had nothing better to do with their time. There will, I fancy, be a terrific reaction against Ph.D. literature from which the work of its masters will never recover. When pedantry becomes unfashionable it remains unfashionable.
Joyce himself went to school round the corner in Belvedere House (1775). Belvedere and Powerscourt Houses are the two best surviving examples of the work of Michael Stapleton, and both have the charm and weakness of the Adam period. They are more like picture-books than houses. The Jesuit Fathers, much astonished by the fame which has accrued to them from Michael Stapleton and John Joyce’s dotty son, have been very discreet. They have contented themselves with obliterating the very innocent central figure of the Venus Room and greet enquiries about Joyce with a long-suffering smile. Of course, it is hard luck when a hundred years of pious labours have left you little to boast of but one atheist and some pagan divinities. Here you are back at the Rotunda with O’Connell Street before you. It was blasted to hell in the Rebellion of 1916, and its modern sections are well up to the level of Manchester. Nelson Pillar (1808) is the natural centre of Dublin and an eyesore to all true Nationalists. Like the General Post Office (1818) which stands beside it, another lovely piece of Greek Revival, it is the work of one of the best of Irish architects, Francis Johnston. Unlike the Pillar, the Post Office, having been the headquarters of the Rebellion, has worked its passage, and is now regarded as something like a national shrine, though this in no way improves the efficiency or temper of the staff. The Royal Arms has been removed from the pediment, one of the many steps we have taken to exorcise the devils of Anglicisation and make our monuments feel at home. As you have probably noticed, our street names appear both in Irish and English. True there is frequently no visible connection between the two, but the English names are not always amenable to translation, at least by a Nationalist. Our sweepstakes proudly proclaim themselves “The Little Sweeping Brushes of the Hospitals of Ireland”; Beresford Place, called after the ruffian who was responsible for building the Customs House, becomes “The Place of the Ford of the Berries”; Serpentine Avenue either “Curly Armpit” or “Armpit of the Girls”; while Bath Avenue Gardens is rendered as “The Gardens of the Armpits of the Vats.” A man might grow old seeking for explanations of the Irish names of streets; as, for instance, why Wilfield Road should become “The Road of the Field of the Tree,” unless, indeed, it be that the obsolete word for tree, bile, is pronounced rather like the English “Bill,” which is short for “Will,” which may have been the name of the man who originally owned the field, if any.
It is worth going down the quay to the Place of the Ford of the Berries and crossing Butt Bridge to get an uninterrupted view of Gandon’s Customs House, the third of the accepted Dublin masterpieces, though I have never been able to warm to it. If you really feel the need of a masterpiece, it is better to take a bus from the quay above the Customs House and ask the conductor to let you down at Marino, where Lord Charlemont had his big house. Charlemont, Grattan’s backer and the brain behind the Irish Volunteers, is one of the few Irish eighteenth-century figures who seems to rise a little above the prevailing provincialism. His house has gone, except for the gates, and its place has been taken by a pestilential red-brick vagary of the Irish Christian Brothers, but the wonderful little Casino, designed for him by Sir William Chambers, the architect of Somerset House, remains on the hill-top. From the outside it appears to be a single-storied building with an attic, but in reality this is a most ingenious bit of masking which conceals a complete miniature Georgian house in which everything from floor to ceiling was once of the most expensive and exquisite. The little plaster ceilings are marvellous. It did not escape the fate of other Georgian houses and for a while became a tenement whose tenants amused themselves by tearing down the interior woodwork for firewood and heaving the ornamental urns off the roof, but it has now been partially and unenthusiastically restored by the Irish Board of Works, who have enclosed it with most unsightly fencing. The view from the roof over Dublin Bay is particularly fine.
But the most famous building in the heart of Dublin is the architecturally undistinguished Abbey Theatre, once the city morgue and now entirely restored to its original purpose. For a time it was probably the most famous theatre in the world, ranking above even the Moscow Arts Theatre. It was made so by the genius of Yeats and the sagacity and patience of Lady Gregory. Without her I doubt if Yeats could ever have achieved the results which were achieved. I was a director for two years under him, and it left me with a boundless admiration for the old lady. One soon knows from any institution the sort of person who has given it its characteristic stamp. When the Government proposed to build a National Theatre, I secured the insertion of a clause that the main theatre should be called after her.
Now, I doubt if that theatre will ever be built. In its great days the theatre was the mouthpiece of three writers with a very similar outlook—Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory. All three approached literature from a romantic, poetic angle, an angle which deliberately excluded the whole middle-class conception of life. Its origin is to be sought more than anywhere else in the folk-poetry and legends of Connacht. These and the great sagas of the eighth and ninth centuries provided its material. It was, if you will, an experiment in the economics of literary poverty.
The style of acting which they developed to suit that material was really the old Senecan convention of the university plays which was routed by Shakespeare and the Globe Theatre. Everything was sacrificed to the words. Nobody spoke while moving, and while one actor spoke nobody else moved. The words were delivered in the same simple, almost monotonous way— “Homer’s way” according to Yeats. (When an American lady asked how he knew this was Homer’s way, he replied: “The ability of the man justifies the assumption.”) It was a noble style of acting, even though critics might say with Kemp in “The Return from Parnassus”: “It is good sport in a part to see them never speak in their walk, but at the end of the stage, just as though in walking with a fellow we should never speak but at a stile, a gate or a ditch, where a man can go no further.”
But when I knew the theatre it was already drifting rapidly to the devil. After the Civil War there was a complete change of mood throughout the country, which gave rise to a realistic movement of which O’Casey and O’Flaherty were the leaders. Synge was dead, Lady Gregory was dead, and there was no one connected with the theatre who understood what the realistic movement implied or how it could be directed. Yeats was completely at sea. For a short time the theatre was able to keep O’Casey, but after him for years it was kept going by a handful of noisy farces. The old cry (again being raised) was up: there were no new plays. Even when the old plays were produced, as they occasionally were, it was usually impossible to see them for the acting. It wasn’t only that the Connemara girls in “The Playboy of the Western World” had permanent waves. It was that for lack of careful production the actors had gone to seed and shot up to several times their natural height, while those of them with real theatrical technique were able to dominate any scene whatever they played in. Under those circumstances real theatre was impossible. I shall never forget the heart-rending scene in “Grogan and the Ferret” where Grogan’s brother holds out for threepence a week more before he will give the old man shelter, a scene which the players, without altering a line, turned into uproarious farce.
Yeats, impressed by the unanimity of public protests and alarmed by the successes of Edwards and MacLiammóir, the rival company, brought some new members, including Higgins and Ernest Blythe, on to the Board of Directors, and they decided to compete with Edwards and Macliammóir in the production of foreign plays. The reason for Mr. Blythe’s appointment was that as ex-Minister for Finance he might be supposed to know how to save the theatre from bankruptcy, a familiar delusion of artists. (“Mr. MacEntee,” I heard one of the company say to his successor in office, “as Minister for Finance I wonder could you tell me what to do with a few shares I have?”) Mr. Blythe’s real love is not finance, by the Irish language. He has translated “The Isle of Capri” and other classical lyrics into an Irish not intelligible to me, though I should not hold this against him, for it is the very nature of hobbies that they should be exclusive.
Hugh Hunt had been brought over from England to produce these plays and Tanya Moisiewitch to design the scenery. Obey’s “Noah” had been produced, a pietistic Spanish play about St. Ignatius was in production, while “Coriolanus” and “Dr. Faustus” were queueing up. By this time the theatre was in debt to the tune of £2,500, and the bank had threatened to close it down.
It was at this time that I joined the Board, and the first task I set myself was to get rid of the crazy scheme for competing with Edwards and MacLiammóir. I have no interest in what I call Museum Theatre—Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, plays about periods remote in time or places remote in space—and I hold that if Shakespeare’s company had a museum repertory to fall back upon instead of having to produce a new play every month, William Shakespeare would never have been heard of.
My second reason was that the Abbey Theatre is the only possible market for Irish plays. Working at full speed it can rarely produce more than ten plays a year, which is as though all the Irish writers were to be confined to one publisher capable of producing only ten books a year. If you cut that ten to five, as the Abbey Board proposed to do, and allowed for the inevitable plays of certain established writers, it was obvious that there would be nowhere for a young Irish writer of talent to begin.
The production of “Dr. Faustus,” for which expensive masks of the Seven Deadly Sins had been designed and made, never, I am glad to say, took place, though Mr. Hunt, thinking it a pity to see such nice expensive masks knocking about the theatre unused, had a little scene for them written into a new play he was producing. That was the last of the New Abbey Policy. The arrangement by which Hunt only produced foreign plays also ceased, because he was appointed manager and producer for the following two years.
For the first time in years the theatre began to be well and economically run. Within a year the debt to the bank was paid off and we were able to buy adjacent property with an eye on extension. And, in spite of the wails, there never was a time when we hadn’t as many reasonably good plays as we could produce. For the whole year up to December, when Hunt got under way, the theatre had produced two new one-act plays. In 1936 it produced nine full-length plays; in 1937 ten, with three new one-acters.
This, again, was largely due to Hunt, who, eager for work, read every possible play, circulated it expeditiously
and got snap decisions. Of most of the directors it would be quite fair to say that the loss of a new play would not have cost them a night’s sleep. A comedy by an Ulster dramatist whom I may call Boyd was submitted and sent back to him for certain revisions. In the meantime a Dublin dramatist of the same name submitted a tragedy which Higgins and I thought showed promise. This tragedy was returned by one director with the note, “This play has been considerably improved by revision, and I now recommend acceptance.” I suppose it was in his favour that he remembered the dramatist’s name.
But what was of more importance from my point of view was that, with the increase in the number of new plays, a new style of acting was developing which was the theatrical equivalent of the sort of short stories that Liam O’Flaherty was writing—delicate, precise and poetic in its own realistic way. Cyril Cusack was the most remarkable of the new players, but there were half a dozen, all of whom showed this new quality in their different ways.
It is clear to me now that where we really failed was in the lack of an administrator. Lady Gregory was that. When I was appointed Managing Director in an honorary capacity I asked Yeats how I should behave. “I asked Lady Gregory exactly the same question when I was Managing Director,” he replied, “and she said: ‘Give very few orders and see that they are obeyed.’” Admirable advice! Admirable old lady, knowing perfectly that her poet would never discover that she was merely quoting Sancho Panza! Most of the Board were amiable but useless. Higgins was probably the ablest man on it, but he was a poet and excitable and truculent. I was still very simple. Yeats said: “You remind me of a character I once read of in a Victorian novel who thought the great majority of people never intended any harm for the greater part of the time.”
What sunk me was the damn classical repertory. I took advantage of my position as director, and Higgins and I both had a heavenly time reviving the plays we admired most—“The Shadowy Waters,” Lady Gregory’s “Dervorgilla,” Colum’s “Thomas Muskerry”— while, with lamentable results, I tried to get “The Player Queen” produced again. But they wouldn’t come right, not in Hunt’s precise, delicate, naturalistic convention. They needed that stiff, rather declamatory technique of the heroic, romantic play. Even at the curtain of “Dervorgilla” I had to beg Hunt to get the two women to stop weeping, an incident which Yeats put into a poem he was writing at the time:
Poor Yeats had every reason for alarm at what we were doing to his beautiful repertory. I wanted to see “The Player Queen,” his best play, on the stage, and suggested Jean Forbes-Robertson for the title part. Yeats, bound by a promise to some obscure English actress, would not let her have it. Instead he offered us “Deirdre,” a bad play and entirely unsuited to Miss Forbes-Robertson’s coloratura style. He was first out of the theatre that night, bellowing with fury.
As potential heir to grandfather’s musical box, Higgins was equally concerned with the traditions of the theatre. Hunt, brilliant with modern realistic plays and with an uncanny knack of squeezing poetry out of them, was lost when it came to what Higgins called “porthery.” The production which roused Higgins’ indignation was one of “The Playboy of the Western World.” Within the realistic frame of reference I thought it lovely. Anne Clery as Pegeen Mike was exquisite, and Cusack as the Playboy was superb but hopelessly miscast.
Hunt being away, Higgins burst into Cusack’s dressing-room and created a scene. Hunt, on his return, protested. I thought Higgins’ criticism well founded, but his way of expressing it deplorable. Since then I have always had a sneaking respect for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who had the misfortune to get mixed up in Hamlet’s tortuous affairs.
Yeats returned to Ireland and took up the cudgels for his widow-presumptive. Instead of arguing it out over a cup of tea, he decided to descend like Zeus in wrath on an unsuspecting Board meeting. My recollection is that, as he usually did when he was looking for a fight, he moved me to the chair—it was the best way of preventing my flinging it at him. Primed by Higgins, he made the bad mistake of beginning with a list of offences supposed to have been committed by directors during his absence. I took my chance and told him that he could have my resignation, but that I was not prepared to reply to green-room gossip. (That really hurt him badly, because he was a most loyal colleague and had merely been caught on the wrong foot; over a year after he grumbled at me: “I know you think I go round collecting green-room gossip.”) Then he gave us a sales talk on the traditions of the theatre and how it differed from the naturalistic English theatre, all of which I could have repeated in my sleep. I replied that he might remember the tradition, but that nobody else did. I knew I wasn’t being fair, because I had already given Hunt exactly the same sales talk in private, but I felt that, if Yeats insisted on establishing a party with Higgins against Hunt, I must back up my man. It ended in a compromise, Hunt being debarred from future productions of the classics, while as an act of atonement to Synge’s memory “The Playboy” was to be produced again under Higgins’ supervision.
I shall never forget that production. After “porthery” what Higgins liked best was what he called “Peasant Quality,” which the players renamed P.Q. To me it seemed as great a confusion of literary planes as Hunt’s naturalistic productions of poetic plays. He carefully trained the players to turn every “st” into “sht,” so that “Castlebar” became “Cashtlebar.” The girls politely asked how he wished them to pronounce “sit.” The play opens after dark in a country pub, but when the curtain went up every blessed light on the stage was on—all amber—reducing the stage to an apparent depth of eighteen inches, and removing every trace of colour from furniture and dresses. Men came on with a lantern. The lights did not change. They went off with the lantern. The lights did not change. Pegeen lit the lamp, then lit a candle and turned out the lamp, and finally Christy blew out the last conceivable source of illumination while the stage still continued to look like Edinburgh Castle by floodlight. I left after the first act, but Yeats thought it a splendid production, and, Synge’s shade appeased, Mount Jerome Cemetery had a quiet night.
That finished Hunt if only he had known it. It also finished me. Yeats, knowing he had only a short time to live and wishing to provide for the two things nearest his heart, made Higgins Director of his publishing business and Managing Director of the theatre. To quiet me, who knew there was no work in the theatre for a salaried managing director, the appointment was made only for six months, but I knew that every Irishman approaches a job with an eye to the marriage service—“till death us do part”—and a job is always self-perpetuating, never lacks an heir, and, like other families of dubious origin, rapidly acquires respectability. Having no work to do, Higgins diverted himself by doing Hunt’s. “My heavens,” he reported in his queer, jerky style, “things are terrible here—all in a state of chassis. The B.B.C. treated [threatened] to cancel broadcast because we could [couldn’t] give the cast Hunt offered—of which we knew nothing! However, had a visit from a B.B.C. official and together we hammered out a suitable cast. Also Hunt never consulted Belfast Opera House re our plays for Belfast, etc.” The style is familiar: “There lives not three good men unhanged in England, and one of them is fat and grows old.”
Then, a few days before he left Ireland for ever, Yeats suddenly woke from his hypnotic trance. “W.B. has left in a difficult temper owing to a personal awkwardness,” wrote Higgins. On his deathbed Yeats wrote to me full of alarm for the future of the theatre. He asked me to wire if I wished him to come home and begin a complete reconstruction of the Board. I wrote a soothing reply, but as I was taking the letter to the post I picked up the Daily Telegraph and read of his death. My reply—during the 1948 protests in the Abbey Theatre it fell out of the book I was reading—makes me shudder. Like the Victorian lady in the book, I believed that nobody on the Board meant much harm to anybody else for the greater part of the time. Within a few weeks of his death I realised that the Board was determined on forcing my resignation. Yeats was wrong about his own guile, but he understood me very well.
Higgins, of course, retained his appointment until his 43 death, and after his death Blythe became Managing Director. Pantomime with lyrics like “Chattanooga Choo Choo” translated into Irish took the place of plays by Yeats and Synge. The temporary appointment intended to bridge the gap between the departure of Hunt and the appointment of his successor has now lasted eight years. The home of comedy had ended its career in high comedy, with the family retainer inheriting the ancestral home, where his priceless collection of postage stamps is nightly on view.
But anyone who calls to ask me to join the Board of another theatre will be shot at sight.
The city of Dublin exists in an apology for a county, a narrow strip of coast some seven miles deep and twenty miles long. It is not of great interest to the student of architecture. The fine Royal Hospital at Kilmainham can best be combined with a tour of the city, as can the equally beautiful Casino at Clontarf. There is the interesting little church of St. Doulough on the Malahide Road, with its curious combination of Gothic and early Irish building motifs, which may perhaps be explained as a bit of conscious archaism such as one finds in other churches of the neighbourhood. There are the ruined churches of Malahide and Howth and the effigies of mediæval tombs rotting under the rain or, exceptionally in Howth, protected by a clumsy lych-gate type of roof. Then there is all that is usually left of parish churches older than the early nineteenth century: the striking towers of Swords, Lusk and Balrothery, which dominate that perfect landscape of North County Dublin with its rich pastures, its long creeks and sandy beaches and its views of the Wicklow Mountains behind. These have the same combination of Irish and English conventions which you see in St. Doulough’s; and Lusk, where the rectangular tower with its conical roof has been set inside four corner towers modelled on Irish round towers, is the oddest collection of planes which it would be possible for the mind of man to envisage. Lusk is exceptional in having also a modern Catholic church in what one assumes to be an architect’s impression of Irish Romanesque, which is very beautiful. Pastiche seems endemic in the locality.
Its literary and historic associations are equally thin. A tall G.I. once accosted me in Trafalgar Square and asked in one drawling breath: “Are there any houses here occupied by Benjamin Jonson, Dr. Johnson, William Shakespeare, William Hazlitt or others?” and, though I chuckled to myself at the form of the question, I nearly fell over myself directing him towards Fleet Street and the Temple. By nature and conviction I am a pilgrim. I know I shall be haunted on my deathbed by Samuel Daniel, because once, to avoid the necessity of a steep climb, I did not visit the church in Beckington where he is buried. I did make my first entry into Italy over the Alps, because that was how the Irish scholars of the eighth and ninth centuries travelled and I wished to see it almost as they had seen it.
And why not? There is no greater folly than to sneer at that characteristic American piety which wishes to see the entry in the Stratford Church register of the baptism of a son of Mr. John Shakespeare’s. A great man goes off like a rocket, illuminating not only his own heart and mind, but the characters of those who surround him, the life of the town in which he lives, the form of civilisation he accepts. Thomas Hardy has stamped himself upon the landscape of Dorset like a phase of history.
The trouble is that our rockets have a tendency to go off in the wrong place. The Scots are provincial too, but they have more of the elemental pieties. It was Boswell, not Goldsmith, who took Johnson on a tour of his native country, yet what would we not give for an Irish “Tour to the Hebrides” or “Journey to the Western Islands”? Literary nationalism is of no importance to an author; he may write his “Deserted Village” better in London than in Lissoy, but it is of incalculable significance to those who must spend the greater part of their lives in particular surroundings that these should be memorable and dear to them.
When I ask myself what are the things which endear to me this particular portion of the world where I spend my days, I find them pitiably few. I write this in a room which looks towards Dunleary (Dun Laoghaire or Kingstown) across the wide reaches of Merrion Strand, and I remember that this is the strand where in the eighth-century saga of “Da Dearga’s Hostel” the British outlaws land, and that if I walk out a mile or two the Sandymount houses will slip out of sight and the mountains will rise up with those foothills where the hostel is supposed to have stood, on the Dodder bank, and its firelight shone through the spokes of the chariot wheels outside it. I remember that Stephen Dædalus in “Ulysses” walked here, as did Mr. Bloom; that an English lad called L. A. G. Strong spent his holidays in Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire or Dunleary) and recorded them later in a few perfect short stories like “Prongs” and “The English Captain,” and that on Dalkey Hill above it another boy called George Bernard Shaw suddenly asked himself why he went on saying his prayers.
And I feel sad that that most amazing of literary rockets went off, like Goldsmith, in London and illuminated so much which is merely on the periphery of my imagination and so very little of what engages it day by day. Instead of illuminating his early life, he seems to me almost to have darkened it. We know from himself that, running dead true to type, he had a father who drank in the way of Joyce’s father, and an uncle in the manner of Yeats’ uncles, who quarrelled over an open grave as to which should inherit grandfather’s musical-box; who played the ophicleide, read the Bible and studied the figures of bathing belles through an opera-glass before finally committing suicide by stuffing his head in a carpet bag. (The carpet bag is pure London Shaw, writing at a great remove from his subject; of the misery of a fellow-creature who commits suicide, even in a carpet bag, there is not a hint.)
Yet even from his own descriptions, written late in life, it is perfectly plain that God’s intention regarding George Bernard Shaw was not to make him into a social reformer, but into a poet—a great poet might not be overstating the case. He was lonely, shy and easily moved to tears; he invented imaginary worlds in which he was hero, lover and foundling—exactly the same sort of childhood as Joyce described in “The Portrait of the Artist.” “The dreaming, the dreaming, torturing heart-scalding, never-satisfying dreaming, dreaming, dreaming.” That is the description which the Irishman in “John Bull’s Other Island” gives of his youth, but the figure which Shaw had in mind was clearly that of somebody called Shaw who worked in a lawyer’s office.
I cannot help thinking that Mr. Shaw has heavily censored the official version of his life from the time when his mother and sisters left Ireland for London until that when he joined them. By this time his father had apparently given up drink and out of his small income was contributing a pound a week to the support of his family, but nothing in Shaw’s account of the matter suggests that George Carr Shaw ever saw any of them again, or, indeed, that they even bothered to attend his funeral. He died in a strange house in Leeson Park Avenue, not, apparently, to the inexpressible grief of his bereaved family. What all that may mean is now known probably only to Mr. Shaw himself. He has explained that he left Dublin because London was the obvious centre for a young man of literary tendencies, but this scarcely explains why, until his marriage with an Irishwoman many years after, he refused even to discuss Ireland, and walked out of a Left-Wing meeting which was wasting its time by doing so. Nor does it explain the peculiar direction which his genius took. Joyce and Yeats also left Dublin, but Joyce went to Paris and studied Aquinas, and Yeats went to London and studied Blake, and into the early work of these two other introverts has been poured all the recollections of their Irish boyhood. Shaw went to the British Museum and studied “The Manners and Tone of Good Society,” and for many, many years he never referred to his own youth except lightly, by way of a passing joke. He cut away his adolescence as though it had never existed. That deliberate extroversion has given him his matchless objective intelligence, operating with none of the tabs of sad experience. Nobody with any experience could have written “Cashel Byron’s Profession.” Who can forget Lydia? “I have formed my habits in the course of my travels, and so live without ceremony. We dine early—at six.” It must be the only novel in the world inspired by an etiquette book.
Having no roots, his mind is almost ageless, and if its blossoms have no scent at least they do not easily wither. And yet I fancy a psychologist would not say that it was a happy mind. It seems to me to be haunted by all the things it leaves unsaid, by the ghosts of the experiences it has never drawn upon. Sometimes one seems to hear them in a stirring of the curtains. “Candida,” for instance, I can never read except as an allegory. The heroine of that beautiful play is the wife of a clergyman called Morell, a self-confident, thrusting social reformer, as it might be Shaw himself with the devil of dreaming cast out and the contents of “The Manners and Tone of Good Society” in his head. Candida is loved by, and apparently loves, a poet, Marchbanks, thirteen years younger than herself: poor, shy and tortured by self-mistrust. Marchbanks might be the same Shaw who has described himself for us, walking up and down for hours before a house, unable to summon up courage enough to call. She remains faithful to Morell, not because of his strength, but his weakness.
I cannot help wondering exactly how much Shaw knew he was revealing of himself in that beautiful play. The closest analogy I know to it is Chekhov’s “The Duel,” which describes the conflict between Chekhov the poet and Chekhov the doctor in terms of a duel between a shady literary gent and an honest but brutal scientist. So far as Shaw’s work goes, it is only in this play that I seem to hear the cry of a dissatisfied heart, but it is latent in all that he writes. In the characters of Father Keegan, Major Barbara and Joan of Arc the extrovert returns with a sort of agonised curiosity to the problem of what befell the young poet who worked in a lawyer’s office in Dublin and walking among the furze-bushes on Torca Hill asked himself why he continued to pray.
But the escape of Shaw from Dublin to London is only one of a hundred problems which confront you the moment you begin to move outside the confines of the capital. Dublin is comparatively easy; except for a brief period when Yeats, Synge, Lady Gregory and George Moore made it one of the art capitals of the world, it has always been a provincial city. Handel’s “Messiah” was performed here; Garrick played here; it has spent considerable sums on the encouragement of the Padareen mare. But move only a mile or two in any direction, and the landscape at once becomes a book full of difficult passages to which you are bound to seek a key. Why are there no pretty villages? Why are those you see so dirty, the graveyards so neglected, the older churches all in ruin and the newer ones an offence? Why should the older people you meet drink like Shaw’s father, and the younger ones, like Shaw himself, reveal “the dreaming, the dreaming, torturing, heart-scalding, never-satisfying, dreaming, dreaming, dreaming”? There are two keys to this landscape, either of which rationalises it into something like a mediæval mystery play. First, there is the official Irish explanation, which was adequately summed up by a speaker at a western political meeting, who told his audience that “the greatest civilisation the world has ever known was destroyed in the seventeenth century by English barbarians,” or, as an Irish nationalist poet put it:
On our side was Virtue and Erin, On theirs was the Saxon and Guilt.
The alternative explanation is the official one given by upholders of the English interest in Ireland, that in the twelfth century the Normans introduced the benefits of civilisation to the Irish, who were too backward to appreciate them. This official view reappeared in the friendliest reviews of a little book I wrote on Irish architecture, even from the pens of those who knew architecture and knew history. “Every good Irish building,” wrote one very intelligent reviewer, “with the exception of a few Celtic crosses and a handful of plain, if imposing, Round Towers, derives from the English connection.” (I wonder what connection he thinks the best English buildings derive from!) In other words, “Kelts are all mad, furious fools.” If one tries to trace the genealogy of this attitude a little further, it becomes apparent that it is another variant of the official English attitude towards the Anglo-Saxons. England, as Mr. Belloc tells us, “was a place of heavy, foolish men with random laws, pale eyes and a slow manner; their houses were of wood: sometimes they built (but how painfully and how childishly!) with stone. There was no height, there was no dignity, there Was no sense of permanence.” “Mad, furious fools”; “heavy, foolish men”; the “Kelts” one sees are really the “Anglo-Saxons” with a difference.
If one asks the reason for this extraordinarily unhistorical attitude towards the Anglo-Saxons, one finds it in the simple necessity for rationalising a Conquest, for making it quite clear that the English of today are not to be confused with the conquered, but are all (more or less) directly descended from the conquerors; this, combined with an act of faith in racialism, the belief that there really was such a race as the Anglo-Saxon and the “Keltic.”
My friend Sean O’Faolain, in a fit of exaggerated generosity and a desire to give the “Virtue-and-Erin” type of historian a slap in the eye, has resurrected the whole racial myth in his little book on “The Irish.” The Celts (“mad, furious fools”) never formulated a religion; they were incapable of creating an epic (this by W. P. Ker out of Matthew Arnold); they received from the Normans the blessings of the abbey and of central ecclesiastical government. According to Mr. O’Faolain, there were even no bishops before the Normans. Likewise the Eskimos failed to formulate sunshades, the Hindus to invent snowshoes, and William Shakespeare to anticipate nuclear fission.
One thing we must do if we are to attempt to understand this Irish landscape and to clear our minds of history books written to rationalise political prejudices is to consider things in their proper order. After all, there are certain things which we do know: that time moves in one direction only and that the universe is not gradually growing hotter; that civilisation is a river which takes its rise somewhere and moves in some direction; that it does not rise in the Arctic Circle and peter out finally on the shores of the Mediterranean.
Because of obvious conditions of climate and facilities of transport, civilisation begins about the Mediterranean and moves northward in widening circles, making rapid progress where communication is easy, bypassing great mountain ranges, halted by great tracts of scarcely navigable water, by war or famine. To compare Celtic literature with Greek literature as Matthew Arnold and Ker do, to criticise the Celts for failing to produce an epic, is exactly as though one were to stand before Stonehenge and criticise it for not being a Parthenon. It argues that one is quite incapable of appreciating Stonehenge and only doubtfully capable of appreciating the Parthenon.
The Celts and Anglo-Saxons described by Mr. O’Faolain and Mr. Belloc are a complete myth. The real Celts and Anglo-Saxons were inhabitants of Western Europe, receiving cultural life from the same source as the Normans received it, the only source from which any nation of the time could have received it. Between the widening circles of civilisation there is an inevitable time-lag as between the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons and the Anglo-Saxons and the Irish; indeed, between the people who inhabited the east and west coasts of each country. They testified to their capacity for receiving that civilisation, the Anglo-Saxons by the great outburst of sculpture during the eighth century, inspired presumably by the arrival of Roman masons in Northumbria; the Irish by the great eighth- and ninth-century flowering of saga and lyric poetry, this, too, inspired by their first contact with Latin literature.
Apart from the interruptions caused by the raids of the Vikings, a people then at a lower level of civilisation, they continued to develop normally at their own easy-going pace up to the time of the Norman Conquest. The Conquest temporarily cut the time-lag and speeded up the normal processes of developing civilisation by perhaps as much as fifty years, but the prodigious changes for the better postulated both by Mr. Belloc and Mr. O’Faolain are completely impossible; the continuity of historical development is never so violently interrupted by anything short of prolonged war or famine; there was no such time-lag as would be required to justify their panegyrics. The use of timber for building material in heavily wooded country is plain good husbandry; Anglo-Saxon architecture, from the little I have seen of it, is anything in the world but childish, and the superiority of Anglo-Saxon sculpture to anything which the Normans could produce is unquestionable.
But that the Norman conquest of Ireland resulted in anything but loss to both parties is a complete fallacy. Whatever time-lag was made up in the relative superiority of Norman techniques was lost twenty times over in the two hundred years of uninterrupted warfare which followed. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. At the time of the Norman Conquest Ireland was filled with little new Romanesque churches, the building of which went on for a considerable time after the invasion; the Normans in the lands they conquered were able to build beautiful Transitional and Early English churches which are as fine as anything of their kind in England: by the fifteenth century, when the Irish, thanks to the fact that the English were busy with their own civil wars, were able to secure themselves against molestation, and building began again on a considerable scale, both nations were reduced to what we call Composite architecture, which, whatever its charms for authors of text-books, is very poor indeed by comparison with work of the twelfth or thirteenth century.
Of course, it stands to reason. It is only a child’s mind which can conceive of a country growing great on conflict. It was not until after 1691, when the conquest of the Irish was completed, that art and architecture became possible again, and then only as the creation of the Whig Ascendancy—a very different thing, as I have pointed out before, from the Whig aristocracy of England, for in that country the Whigs may be said to have represented the Many against the Few; in Ireland they represented only the Few against the Many.
That is why our villages and Big Houses nearly all date from the eighteenth century, why the former are so beggarly and the latter so extravagant, why the parish church has been deserted and the churchyard, no longer visited each Sunday on the way to Mass, has become the wilderness which in Ireland has become associated with the dead.
To get out of the field of theory with its “Kelts” and “Anglo-Saxons” and to get some notion of how the processes of history really operate, let us take one county, and, instead of going through it town by town on our way to somewhere else, consider it historically phase by phase. No county near Dublin is ideal for a survey like that, for there has been too much destruction of native monuments, and I can think of none from which some phase would not have to be omitted; but Wicklow is as good as most. It is largely mountain country which comes down almost to the outskirts of the city. There are only two practical ways into it—one, the roads which follow the narrow strip of coast between the mountains and the sea, and the other, along the foothills to the west. For those who like solitude, mountain scenery and the absence of architecture the county is split down the middle by the magnificent military road which reaches over the mountains to Laragh, where it is joined by another east-to-west road coming down the valley of the King’s River. Naturally, for hundreds of years these mountains were the refuge of native Irishmen deprived of their lands by English settlers on the plains. The outlaws were finally broken up and scattered by these mountain roads, which otherwise are no part of history.
From Laragh a road leads up the valley to Glendalough and its lake. Three mountains rise over it like a cromlech whose roof is the sky. A more beautiful or desolate spot it would be hard to conceive of. A tall, tapering round tower rises out of a graveyard with an ancient gateway. Within are the ruins of several small churches.
This is all that remains of the monastery and cathedral of Glendalough. Like so many Irish monastic sites, it grew up about a hermitage. Kevin, a monk of the late fifth century, became a hermit here, and others followed him until there were sufficient to form a monastic settlement. In the course of time this became a college. In the great pæan which opens the Calendar of Ængus the Culdee, a ninth-century composition, it is listed with Clonmacnois, Kildare and Ferns as one of the thronged centres of civilisation since the overthrow of the pagan system.
From the fragments of Irish literature which have come down to us from the earlier periods we can form a pretty clear idea of the sort of life they lived in such a monastery. Various snatches of poetry picture them, roused at night by the striking of the bell, coming shivering through the stormy night over the cold stones to the little chapel hung with linen, where “candles shine above the pure white scriptures”; at a later period. when the Vikings are making their stealthy landings along the Wicklow coast we can hear them thanking God for the high wind that breaks the trees and will keep the Viking brutes in their harbours, just as later generations in London have watched the moon rise and thanked God the German bombers would be grounded. The early phase is represented architecturally by the tiny oratories and the earlier carved grave-slabs. The “cathedral,” which is no more than an enlarged oratory, and the hundred-foot-high detached belfry are later, subsequent to the Viking raids. One aspect of the normal development of monastic settlements is missing altogether. There are none of the sculptured high crosses such as we find in Kells and Monasterboice. As the round tower and the high cross are the only Irish monuments admitted by the New Statesman reviewer as of Irish origin, it is as well to say that the first is merely the detached belfry of Carolingian architecture, the second a modification of the Saxon high cross, similar to what we find in the remoter parts of England, with the inexplicable vine-leaf decoration translated into interlacing and the great sculptural panels reduced to narrow bands.
Again, Irish literature gives us a vivid picture of the devastation caused by the Danish raids. Failing the Roman expedient of a North Sea fleet, there was no answer and all Europe shuddered. In the year 848 an embassy from Leinster went to the Court of Charles the Bald to report a resounding victory over the raiders. On that embassy, as Robin Flower has shown, were probably Sedulius of Liége and a number of other clerics from Leinster. The clerics did not return, but scattered over Europe, bringing with them their scholarship and their Irish traditions. On the margins of Latin manuscripts they scribbled remembered fragments of Irish poetry like the most famous one on the scholar’s cat, which I like to think may be by Sedulius himself, for it has all the prim playfulness of his donnish occasional verse. It is a very gentle world it describes, into which the horrors of the night raids have never yet penetrated.
No wonder scholars have always loved that poem. It is Oxford, the don and the sheltered life hit off to all eternity. But another few lines of poetry call up the fate of another scholar in war-time, and remind us of the pirates’ roars in this quiet valley, of the churches blazing to heaven and the screams of old scholars with the knife at their throats:
Peace came only when the Vikings settled down as farmers and traders along the coast, became Christians and acquired a vested interest in law and order. As merchants in contact by sea with other trading societies, they even speeded up the process of civilisation which for hundreds of years they had so cruelly interrupted. They had learned the arts of metalwork from the exquisite chalices they had looted from places like Glendalough, and by the eleventh century, as we can see from things like the sarcophagus at Cashel, they were setting the pace and the Irish were learning from them. They were the first to build a walled town and the first to establish a diocese of the European type, and in the next century we find them narking at “the man Ceallach, bishop of the Irish in Armagh,” who is claiming to be Primate and have control over them. No one is more conservative than the reformed pirate. Here again we see the continuity of history, which is not interested in racial theories and makes its own of “mad, furious Kelts,” “heavy, foolish Anglo-Saxons” and pirates from the heathen north. Archæologists describe the gateway of Glendalough as the only surviving example of the gateway of a monastic civitas, but, as no other monastic civitas has been shown to have had a gateway, this is surely ingenuous. The Glendalough gateway, which had originally a gatehouse and tower, can scarcely be anything else but an imitation of the gateway of the Danish city of Dublin, and undoubtedly marks the point at which monastic settlements were turning into towns, as Ferns certainly was and Derry and Armagh did turn. The market cross, sculptural rather than decorated, also marks the arrival of new continental influences, probably through the Danish towns.
The last stage of the process so far as Glendalough is concerned is represented by the beautiful little priory of St. Saviour, a little down the stream. This delightful little church in its romantic setting is traditionally associated with St. Lorcan O’Toole, later Archbishop of Dublin, who became Abbot of Glendalough in 1153, and the style of the work supports the attribution. Lorcan was a relative of Diarmuid MacMurrough, King of Leinster, and, just as Edmund Curtis shows Diarmuid affected in his charters by feudal conceptions, one can see Lorcan affected by the twelfth-century reformation of the Irish church. The little Priests’ House, the chancel of the cathedral and St. Saviour’s are all in a rather similar style of Late Romanesque. The carving is full of charm, and the east window of St. Saviour’s in particular, though hideously mucked about by restorers, is a bold and brilliant bit of decoration. Nothing exactly like it occurs anywhere else in Leinster to my knowledge, and, though there is nothing here which one can positively identify as Danish, it leaves me with a suspicion that perhaps here also we have a European influence coming through Dublin. Anyway, here it is, and it flatly contradicts all the special pleading of the historians because it is typical twelfth-century European architecture, and from odd capitals and archstones scattered all over the shop one can see that at that time all Leinster must have been covered with similar churches and must have much more resembled the countryside of Norman England than the savage landscape which historians conjure up for us. Once more, the thing stands to reason.
For the next phase one has to go back over the mountains to the road which runs over the western foothills and on to Baltinglass, now a dreary hole enough. It contains the ruins of a Cistercian abbey, one of the first to be built after Mellifont. Mellifont was begun in 1142 and Baltinglass founded six years later, but, whereas the building of Mellifont Church was proceeded with immediately, some grave interruption—almost certainly the Norman invasion—delayed the building of all the other Cistercian churches until the end of the twelfth century.
At the same time it does not derive from any Norman building, and clearly represents a characteristic compromise between the demands of the Clairvaux-trained Irish monks and native traditions of building. We know from Graiguenamanagh exactly what a Norman Cistercian church looked like, and it did not look in the least like this. The first glance is enough to show that the great church, with its magnificent background of russet mountain from which in later years the dispossessed of Leinster launched their raids upon the abbey lands, was built by the same masons who built the Cistercian monastery at Jerpoint in Kilkenny. The alternation of columns and piers in the arcade and the superficial decoration of the square block capitals show that much without recourse to a ground plan. Like those of many little Late Romanesque churches throughout the Midlands, the tall pillars of the chancel arch have bulbous bases. Again, the remaining stones of a decorated Romanesque doorway cleared in the graveyard wall—all that remains of the north aisle—are of a characteristically Irish type, as are the deeply splayed windows, though “Irish” used in this connection is itself a misnomer. It is the sort of thing which happens when a contemporary international language is spoken with a strong local accent.
What remains of the church is a chancel and one arcade of eight bays; transepts, aisles and the remaining arcade have all disappeared in a smother of gravestones and mausoleums, and the view up the long, narrow nave is obstructed by a most offensive tower erected early in the last century, and fortunately itself also a ruin. During the eighteenth century the chancel still continued to be used as a Protestant church, though the nave became embodied in the churchyard; in 1813 (the fact is commemorated by an inscription) the square late mediæval tower was demolished and this thing put up farther west, within the nave proper. Then, to end a tale of futility, in 1883 an old lady of the Aldboro family was sufficiently misguided to leave the sum of £8,000 for a new church. The chance was too good to lose; the old abbey was deserted and a thoroughly nasty little church built next door to it. The roof fell in, the tower fell into ruin, and the building is now “protected” — if that is the word—by the Irish Office of Works.
After the first half of the thirteenth century, outside Connacht and Clare, the Irish indulged little in architecture; they were kept too busily occupied defending themselves. In the Norman townships Franciscans and Dominicans built quite charming preaching churches of the plain rectangular kind, though there is no good example that I know of in Wicklow. Nor is there a good example of the kind of building which emerged in the fifteenth century during a temporary lull in the Irish wars, and which was of much the same type, whether built by native or settler, and far inferior to what had preceded it. By that time both sides had exhausted themselves.
After that, for another two centuries, there was little building except of the most makeshift kind. As I have said, it was only after the Irish defeat at Limerick in 1691 and the dispersal of the Irish aristocracy on the Continent that architecture really began again. Typical mansions of the Whig Ascendancy are Powerscourt House in Enniskerry and Russborough House in Blessington, both by Richard Cassell, the German architect. Russborough, built in 1748, must have been the last house which Cassell designed, because he drank himself to death before its completion, and it was finished by an inferior Irish painter called Bindon. It is one of the most beautiful of all the Irish country houses, and there is something magical about the way its quite modest proportions are recklessly scattered across the landscape —colonnades, pavilions and dreamlike stable entrances —until they dominate all the wild country before them.
History is about its business again. As Germans taught Cormac MacCarthy’s masons to build the exquisite chapel at Cashel, so another German teaches the Whig Ascendancy to build country mansions. History doesn’t worry whether the inspiration comes from Germany or England or if the owner is of “Keltic,” Anglo-Saxon or pure Norman blood. I have just sufficient patriotism in me to wish I could believe that Bindon had any share in the house, but I am afraid that it is pure Cassell, and that Bindon’s main contribution must have been the ghastly plaster-work, some of which is illustrated in Mr. Sitwell’s “British Architects and Craftsmen,” with an ascription to the Francini which would have broken their stout Italian hearts. Apart from this the interior is excellent: the hall with pedimented mahogany doors and pedimented niches, the bedrooms and their powder closets with coved ceilings, small windows and admirable mantelpieces. Some of the mantelpieces in the reception-rooms, like the contemporary one with the broken pediment, are also good, though there is a horror with human heads on it which looks as though it might have been brought as a curiosity from some French house at the time of the Revolution. The ceilings of the reception-rooms, while remaining pretty frightful, are comparatively restrained, but the plaster-work on the staircase is completely barbarous, as though Francis Bindon had a cousin a plasterer in Ennis. They must be Bindon’s responsibility; when they were carried out Cassell must already have been dead, unless, indeed, we are to understand that the sight of them killed him.
Two houses in the county annotate and explain the history of that Whig Ascendancy. The first is on that enchanting road which passes through the mountain gap called the Scalp, revealing the wonderful views of the Wicklow Mountains and Bray and Enniskerry at their feet. Near Powerscourt, the second of the great Cassell mansions, stands a house called Tinnehinch, once an old inn, later the residence of Henry Grattan, leader of the Opposition in the Irish Parliament. Grattan, a contemporary of Horace Walpole and Gray, was, like them, deeply influenced by contemporary romanticism, by the “lofty precipices” and “awful chasms” which at every bend of the roads make County Wicklow seem like an eighteenth-century book of prints.
The Whig Ascendancy, in fear of vengeance by the enslaved Irish, leaned always on the English connection, so much so that they permitted the English Government to ruin their trade in the interests of one town like Bristol. Swift was the first to make propaganda of this, to drive home the lever of economic resentment and detach a considerable part of the Ascendancy from its dependence on England. Grattan was moved less by practical considerations and more by the idealism which accompanied the romantic movement and which acclimatised “liberty” like “awful chasms” as part of the domestic arrangements of a respectable society. At the astonishingly early age of thirty-six he had succeeded in completing a bloodless revolution and could say truthfully and finely to the assembled House of Commons: “I found Ireland on her knees; I watched over her with a paternal solicitude; I have traced her progress from injuries to arms and from arms to liberty. Spirit of Swift, spirit of Molyneux, your genius has prevailed! Ireland is now a nation; in that new character I hail her, and, bowing to her august presence, I say, Esto perpetua.” Eighteen years later he stood over her bier and in another superb oration said farewell to her in the words of Romeo:
If the man’s character had not been so lofty, his emotion so profound, there would be something faintly comic about it, something reminiscent of the pages of Turgenev or Chekhov. “Dear honoured bookcase! Hail to thee who for more than a hundred years hast served the pure ideals of good and justice; thy silent call to fruitful labour has never flagged in those hundred years, maintaining in the generations of man courage and faith in a brighter future and fostering in us ideals of good and social consciousness. ... Cannon off the right into the pocket!”
In that gorgeously funny speech Chekhov, the most incurable of dreamers and idealists, hit off Grattan’s weakness. His mind was too abstract; like that of the Russian liberals, it was too filled with principles evolved from the poetry and the philosophising of a stable and well-ordered society. It is a disease which afflicts all educated Irishmen, a noble infirmity of judgment which fails to realise that Ireland is not a nation, but a bad case of arrested development. Fitzgibbon, Lord Clare, brutally defending the need for extirpating the liberties of the Irish Parliament, showed on the whole a far greater grasp of the essential realities when he described. the immediate forbears of his patriotic hearers as “a motley crew of English adventurers.” It is one of the most extraordinary examples of insolence I know; it was no slight on the Ascendancy that they were the children of “a motley crew of English adventurers,” since variety and adventurousness are respectable qualities in any society, but the fact that, in expectation of the pensions and peerages which awaited those who voted for England, they tolerated it from him shows that they were scarcely the stuff of which free parliaments are made.
This latest conquest had already revealed the fatal flaw of all the other English conquests of Ireland: there was no one to rule the conquerors. If any of these had established himself as King of Ireland, the development of Irish history would have followed a normal channel. Instead England continued to punish the secondary lawlessness of the natives while making no attempt to control the primary lawlessness of their rulers. At any time in the previous five hundred years the Conquest could have been made a fact by the extension of a rule of law, any rule of law, however arbitrary, to all the inhabitants of the kingdom. Perhaps only Strafford realised it.
Of the wisdom of Grattan’s views I have no doubt at all. The older I grow the more I realise that he was correct in stating that the United Irishmen should have been hanged, but that members of the Government should have been hanged along with them, though I doubt whether his romantic nature would have been capable of the very realistic steps which were necessary. Ireland was suffering from the natural results of several hundred years of warfare; the people had been dieted on hysteria and violence, and if these, as the racial historians would have it, are Celtic qualities, then the descendants of “the motley crew of English adventurers” were Celts in disguise. In 1782, in a fit of enthusiasm for the abstract liberty of Grattan, they held out their arms to embrace their suffering Catholic fellow-countrymen; in 1798, on the merest suggestion that these suffering fellow-countrymen were organising to right their own wrongs, they hanged, half hanged, roasted, scalped and burned them by the thousand until all Ireland was a slaughter-house.
Some forty years later a small boy on another estate at the other side of County Wicklow was to have his imagination seared for ever by his gatekeeper’s description of a poor countryman, at the end of a cart, being flogged on the belly instead of the back until his bowels hung down before him. In later years that lad, a traitor to his class, would tear to pieces the very structure of Whig Ascendancy.
His house is still there at the head of the beautiful Avoca valley on the road from Rathdrum to Arklow, a plain, solid Regency house now the property of the Forestry Commission. Charles Stewart Parnell himself is, like Swift, one of our very few rockets; a man so incomparably great that he throws a brilliant light on the very ordinary folk about him and invests with all the glamour of romance old feuds on which the eye of history would scarcely otherwise have lit. Yet even he, cold master of circumstance that he was, asked too much of the ragged battalions which he led.
No biographer has pierced the secret of his greatness; perhaps none ever will. They write of his coldness, but that is only a symptom. I have frequently thought that, as with Swift, it was the fear of insanity, and that it was this which gave him his unnatural detachment from ordinary human emotion, his mastery over men and lack of it over himself. What others envied he must have feared, and gone searching through the world for someone who could relieve him of his solitude.
Meanwhile, Nature, preparing great tragedy, had ordained that the Dear Little Woman who had that gift should be the wife of a charming but brainless and unscrupulous waster called O’Shea; that, to further his schemes, the Dear Little Woman should be sleeping with any gentleman who could forward them—not to his knowledge, of course, for real gentlemen do not sell their wives, though they may share them for a consideration.
So Captain O’Shea was not told in so many words that Parnell and his wife were lovers, and, when Parnell was thrown into Kilmainham Gaol at a time when Mrs. O’Shea was having a baby, Captain O’Shea understood that the child was his, while Parnell understood that it was his. And in prison, when Parnell’s mind should have been entirely devoted to the political situation, it was being torn asunder by hysterical letters from the Dear Little Woman whose husband was asserting, or attempting to assert, his rights—rights which neither before nor after did she ever scruple to deny him.
Parnell’s position at this time is something which the most imaginative dramatist would draw back from. That Captain O’Shea should visit Parnell in prison as a representative of the British Government coming to seek terms, he would consider possible only as a symbolic, theatrical expedient. It would scarcely occur to him that Mrs. O’Shea, in touch with the British Government, if not actually its agent in Parnell’s home, would secure this favour for him without worrying about his capacity to make use of it, for of politics Mrs. O’Shea seems to have felt as Dr. Johnson felt of trade, that it “could not be managed by those who manage it, if it had much difficulty.”
But the incredible scene in O’Shea’s home over the dying child whom both men believed to be theirs; Parnell’s throwing away of the superb position for bargaining in which he found himself, all to “protect” Mrs. O’Shea from the advances of a husband whom, according to her extremely odd lights, she still loved; the annihilation of any little advantage he had gained from his surrender by the Phoenix Park murders, which followed it like a thunder-peal announcing the displeasure of God—these are the very stuff of melodrama.
Many cheques had passed into O’Shea’s account before his political bosses decided that the hour had struck when they could force the retirement of Parnell. Parnell’s last struggle against them has the quality of myth. Parnell was still the Hero, but he had broken his taboos; he had accepted comfort in the solitude which was his strength. His strength was that at heart he was indifferent to everybody, at heart he was alone with his fear of madness. Now caught in the web of lies, vanity and jealousy—all that unspeakable vulgarity of the O’Shea household—he did care. Mrs. O’Shea had sapped his indifference. The horror of his nights when he was alone in a hotel bedroom in Ireland was too great to be borne. At any cost he had to catch the boat back to her and sob out his terrors on her breast.
Meanwhile all the lesser men—O’Brien, Dillon, Healy—whom he had made great by his reflected light turned on him. Nobody now living can imagine the effect of that betrayal on what rudiments of conscience existed in the mixum-gatherum which tried to believe itself a nation. From it poured all the hatred of politics which turned sensitive people to art, to labour movements, to the revival of the Irish language. There was something about the betrayal which was monstrous, sacrilegious, like the murder of a god. I was brought up next door to an old woman who had never attended Mass or the Sacraments during a long lifetime because, when the priests went from door to door threatening the poor with eternal damnation if they voted for Parnell, she had hung his portrait over her door on the street and defied them. That crisis in the imagination of a people has been set down for ever by Joyce in “The Portrait of the Artist,” when his aunt, a clerical, and Mr. Casey, a Parnellite, quarrel over the supper-table.
Only those who have met the people of that generation in the flesh can ever tell how true that scene is, not only for those who worshipped, but for those who fought against Parnell. That element of the Unknowable which he carried about in him acted like a magnet for coincidence and enables us to understand how miracles accumulated about the memory of mediæval saints. Yeats has told of the comet which was seen at the time of his funeral. Here are two unpublished stories told me by Mr. James Dillon, son of John Dillon.
Nearly thirty years after Parnell’s death, when John Dillon’s own time had come and he was waiting to enter hospital to die, he, another member of the old Irish Parliamentary Party, and his son were sitting in his fine house in North Great George’s Street when a knock came at the door. The maid entered with a letter which she handed to John Dillon. He looked at the envelope, put on his spectacles, looked at it again and then silently passed it to the other old parliamentarian.
“Parnell!” said the other in a whisper.
John Dillon opened it. The address ran: “Kilmainham Gaol.” The date was 1881, the signature “C. S. Parnell,”
The explanation turned out to be simple enough. It had been handed to a warder to be delivered to Dillon, but in the meantime he, too, had been arrested, and the warder hid it in a cupboard, where an auctioneer on the quays had that day discovered it. A coincidence? Some men are a magnet for coincidences.
After his father’s death Mr. James Dillon examined his papers and found an old diary. In this he discovered one extraordinary entry concerning an event which his father had never mentioned to any member of the family. The time was a few months after Parnell’s death, and John Dillon was on a tour in Germany. In Munich he attended the opera, and during an interval went out on the street to smoke a cigar. There was a small group of people on the pavement near him, speaking English. Suddenly he heard Parnell’s voice and, looking round, saw him with the group, with that shabby and neglected air he wore in later life. Dillon studied him attentively and had no doubt of his identity. He waited until the group broke up. The man he believed to be Parnell passed him, and, as he did, Dillon caught the unmistakable stench which his immediate acquaintances swore hung round him in those years.
Next day Dillon resumed his diary with a description of Innsbruck. Of his meeting of the night before there was not another word, then or any other time. Was it that he had forgotten—or that he was afraid to remember?
This, then, right or wrong, is the historic background of the places and events I hope to describe, the unscholarly pigeon-holes into which I fit them in my own mind. Various phases of the pattern will crop up again and again, for with slight variations it covers all the Irish counties.
Ireland, according to Mr. O’Faolain and the other Celtophobes, had no towns. A casual visitor to Kildare might come to the conclusion that the omission has never been repaired. An old rhyme tells us that “The town of Naas is a horrid place”; it needs no authority to support the statement that Newbridge is, and as for Kildare———!
Yet of all places in Ireland Kildare should be attractive, for it was one of the most famous of Irish monasteries. The author of the great prologue to the Calendar of Ængus the Culdee had spoken of its wide-flung fame. Regarding the group of Irish scholars which included the famous Sedulius of Liège, Robin Flower has made it certain that they were all Leinstermen; probable that they came from the monastery of Kildare, for they show a particular veneration for its patron, St. Brigid.
But inside the great eighteenth-century gates of the cathedral there is no trace of St. Brigid’s monastery except the belfry, which is graced with battlements as unsightly as a bow on a dog’s tail. There is little to be said of the cathedral, which was too long a ruin and too thoroughly restored by Street to have anything of interest left outside its Early English shell with the arcaded buttresses. The belfry has a beautiful doorway of Decorated Romanesque, but in a sandstone so soft that it flakes away at the touch of your finger. All round this tower there must be foundations and perhaps remains of a dozen little chapels, and some day, when our archæologists have exhausted their passion for pottery, I hope we may have them cleared, and not only here, but in all the other famous Christian sites. From the fragments of carved stone preserved in the cathedral we know that one was a twelfth-century Decorated chapel.
At that time, begging the pardon of the Celtophobes, it must have been a pretty substantial settlement. It was the scene of an exploit which earned Diarmuid MacMurrough, the inviter-in of the Normans, much odium. In 1135, the Annals tell us, “the abesse of Killdare was forced and taken out of her Cloysters by Dermott McMurrough, King of Leinster, and compelled to marie one of the said Dermott’s people, at whose takeing he killed one hundred and seventy of the townesmen and [burned the] house of the abesse.” One cannot help wondering, if there was no town, who exactly the hundred and seventy men were, or what name you could call Clonmacnois, where in 1179 the English set fire to 105 houses, or who the townsmen were who in 1124, in the abbacy of the man who later became Primate, defeated the forces of the provincial king in an attack on Derry. But then it may be that, as Mr. O’Faolain says, there was no Primate!
I think in reading early Irish history we tend to exaggerate the raids, strangulations and blindings, and to ignore the fat, comfortable bishops who passed their time reading Irish story-books. “Life and health from Finn Bishop of Kildare,” wrote one such at his time, “to Ædh MacCrimhthainn, professor of learning to the high king of Southern Ireland, abbot of Terryglass. ... Write out for me the conclusion of this little story. ... Send me the poem-book of MacLonain that I may understand the meaning of the poems in it et vale in Christo.” Imagine an Irish bishop sending off today for the poems of Yeats or the stories of Sean O’Faolain!
I do not mean that life was not both brutal and lawless, or that the Irish Reformers were not fully justified in the harsh things they said. There were many unhealthy features about it. Apart from their acquired Latinity, the Irish were the inheritors of pre-Roman Europe; they distinguished between the two cultures, calling the former legind (reading), the latter senchas (tradition). In bad times tradition came to the top; you could burn books, but you couldn’t burn what went on in people’s minds. In discussing the failure of the Norman Conquest some modern English historians take the view that the two civilisations were too well matched, though if this implies a criticism of Anglo-Saxon Britain it needs some qualification. Anglo-Saxon culture was more purely European and went down sooner.
But though tradition has in warfare a higher survival value than learning, it is in times of peace a nuisance, being almost incapable of development. In the twelfth century Irish literature was suffering from a monstrous inflation of style. Bishop Finn’s own letter is not free of it, and the sagas in the great book he commissioned from Terryglass are smothered in it. No intelligent human being could read the national saga, “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” in the version presented to the Bishop. Yet even then there were men who could still write Irish beautifully.
The saga called “The Siege of Howth” must clearly have originated in the neighbourhood of Kildare. It is a clumsy bit of work which looks rather like a compilation of two versions of the same story. I do not know what to make of Thurneysen’s view that it is an imitation of the saga “The Death of Cú Chulainn.” In places it repeats it word for word, but where it goes off on its own it does so on the same high level. The passages of dramatic dialogue in both have the same purely literary (not oral-traditional) ring. Take this, for instance, from “The Death of Cú Chulainn” as a standard:
“I shall satirise you,” said the satirist.
“I have paid for my honour today” [said Cú Chulainn]. “I am only bound to confer one favour in a day.”
“I shall satirise the men of Ulster in your default.”
“I have paid for their honour,” he said.
“I shall satirise your tribe,” said the satirist.
“News of my dishonour shall not go before me to the land I have not reached. Anyhow, there is little left of my life.”
The end of “The Siege of Howth” is one of the great things in Irish literature. Note that the hero, as usual in Leinster sagas, is not Cú Chulainn, but Conall Cearnach. Note also that the charioteer turns the sword on himself, a clear proof of the humanist origin of the story:
Conall Cearnach went alone in pursuit of the Leinstermen to avenge his two brothers who had been killed in the battle: Mess Dead and Lægaire. He went by Dublin, past Drimnagh, by Hy-Gavla in Forchartain, past Oughterard and past Naas to Clane.
When the Leinstermen reached their country they all
went home. Mess Gegra however remained by Clane Pathway alone with his charioteer when they had gone.
“I shall sleep now,” said the charioteer to Mess Gegra, “and you can sleep later.”
“That suits me,” said Mess Gegra.
While Mess Gegra watched the water he saw a nut come towards him on the river. The nut was the size of a man’s head. He went and brought it in, split it with his knife, and left half the kernel for the charioteer. Through his sleep the lad saw him get up and then woke.
“What ails you, boy?” said the king.
“A bad dream I had,” said the boy.
“Harness the horses, boy,” said the king.
So the boy harnessed the horses.
“Did you eat that nut?” said the boy.
“I did,” said the king.
“Did you leave half for me?” said the boy.
“I lessened it first,” said the king.
“The man that ate the lesser unknown to me would eat the more,” said the boy.
The king’s hand with half the nut in it was stretched out. The boy struck at it with his sword and cut off the hand.
“That is bad work, boy,” said the king. “Open my fist; half the kernel is inside.”
When the boy saw that he turned the sword against himself and it went out through his back.
“Hard luck, lad,” said the king.
Mess Gegra himself tied up his chariot and threw his hand in before him. As he left the ford going west Conall reached it from the east.
“Is that how it is, Mess Gegra?” said Conall.
“Here I am,” said Mess Gegra.
“What then?” asked Conall Cearnach.
“What?” asked Mess Gegra, “but that the creditor should push his claim with all his might.”
“You have my brothers,” said Conall.
“Not in my belt,” said Mess Gegra.
“A pity,” said Conall.
“It is not good soldiering to fight me with my one arm,” said Mess Gegra.
“We shall do it like this,” said Conall. “My arm shall be tied to my side.”
Conall Cearnach’s arm was tied three times over to his side. They fought one another till the river was red with their blood. But Conall’s swordsmanship was the better.
“Enough, Conall!” said Mess Gegra. “I know you will not leave without my head; so add my head to your head and my glory to your glory.”
Conall cut off his head in Clane Pathway. ...
Then he went into his own chariot and his charioteer into Mess Gegra’s chariot. He continued as far as Uachtar Fine. There he met fifty women: Buan, Mess Gegra’s wife, with her womenfolk, coming south from the border.
“Whose wife are you, woman?” said Conall.
“The wife of Mess Gegra, the king.”
“You are to come with me,” said Conall.
“Who said so?” said the woman.
“Mess Gegra,” said Conall.
“Have you brought a sign?” said the woman.
“These are his chariot and horses,” said Conall.
“He gave treasures to many,” said the woman.
“Then here is his head,” said Conall.
“Now, indeed, I am lost to him,” said the woman.
The head blushed and paled, turn by turn.
“What ails the head, woman?” said Conall.
“I know,” said the woman. “An argument he had with Athirne. He said no Ulsterman would ever carry me away single-handed. Breaking his word is what ails his head.”
“Come into the chariot to me,” said Conall.
“Wait,” she said, “till I lament my husband.”
She raised her cry until it was heard in Tara and Allen and then dropped backwards, dead.
I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that this is great art. But the only thing in Kildare today on that imaginative plane is the Japanese Garden which Wavertree, the millionaire racehorse owner, had planted a mile or two outside the town, on the Tully Road. He employed a family of Japanese on the job, supposed to be second only to the Emperor’s own garden in Tokyo, which pious Japanese are not permitted to excel; and he spent a fortune draining the bog and importing the dwarf trees, hundreds of years old. It is certainly one of the oddest things in Ireland, this exquisite piece of Oriental sophistication in the middle of boglands dotted with squalid towns which don’t even boast a public lavatory.
The story which the garden tells is the story of Everyman. Stone lanterns light Everyman’s way, symbolising his faith in God. The story begins in a deep hollow overhung by the boughs of a cherry-tree. In the time of cherry blossoms the symbol must be plain for anyone to read. It is the symbol of Everyman’s birth. Childhood and adolescence are symbolised by a multitude of paths, the earlier ones shakily paved to suggest the tottering feet of babyhood, the later ones all leading nowhere. Education rises before him as a steep hill and a difficult path full of broken steps, and from the summit he can look down with a touch of superiority upon the rest of the world. Then comes another choice of paths: bachelorhood, a safe and narrow path that skirts the garden wall, and experience, a wider path, paved with slabs of varying shapes and sizes to suggest its multitude of forms.
Everyman chooses the second, and again climbs a hill—the Hill of Wonder and Joy—which suggests the quest of an ideal partner. Boy and girl meet and cross a broken bridge, leaving their youth for ever behind. It is too late now for either of them to retrace their steps. There is a dwarf tree at the other side of the stream, cut into the shape of a table for the celebration of the wedding. (It is the only illustrative touch in the whole garden, and I found it coarse and unnecessary.) Beyond is another bridge formed of two slabs springing from either side of the little stream and lying side by side, but never entirely bridging the gap. That is marriage. The young couple stray into a broad and lovely pathway flanked by a pool and overhung by maple boughs, and far away from them they see the narrow, cramped path of the bachelor straggling dejectedly along by the garden wall.
The path divides into two and joins up again—their first tiff! They pray to one of the garden gods, who averts his face from them and seems to be speaking to another god standing at the farther side of a stream. The second god seems to be shouting to them to beware, and his eyes are fixed on a spot behind them. You look and see a demon face grinning from the stone.
Another hill lies before them. This time it is the Hill of Ambition, and at once the paths diverge brutally. Quite close to them they see the goal at which they are aiming, a little Japanese house with a well beside it—the Family and Wisdom. They make a bee-line for it, but its closeness is only fictitious and they find themselves stranded on an island with a wide stream between them and the goal. They have no choice but to go back over the Hill of Ambition. By the longer road they reach the goal at last, their declining years symbolised in the steps they take, which become shallower and shallower.
The last scene of all is on a stretch of lawn with a chair cut from a tree beside the path. This is the Survivor’s chair, the old man or old woman who watches his companion die. The pavementing across the open strip of lawn is now crazy; Everyman can no longer walk erect; and at the end stands a tomb, while above it shines the last of the lanterns which have guided his feet through life—the trust in God’s Providence.
I can only speak for myself when I say that I found the garden to be one of the great things of my travels in Ireland, profoundly moving and satisfying like a great work of art. But from my own experience I should say that if a man sets out to see it he should do so alone. Women’s minds are too concrete for pure symbolism. They cannot appreciate that a thing can be something and at the same time something else.
But if Kildare has no towns it has some charming villages and splendid houses. Celbridge is a very pleasant village indeed, and you can get a sniff of Hester Vanhomrigh’s house, where Swift is supposed to have visited her on that last terrible meeting after she had written to Stella asking if the Dean and she were married. Here it was that she drank herself to death. She visited at the house of Mr. Conolly, Speaker of the Whig Parliament, and that wonderful house, Castletown, built in 1722, is at the end of the village. You may walk through the grounds past the house. Lord Carew, the present owner, is intelligent and interested.
Yeats records the story that Bishop Berkeley refused to advise on the building, as too many of the gentlemen of the county had already done so, but there must be something wrong with this legend, because Castletown certainly bears no appearance of committee-work, and is most probably the work of Pearce, the architect of the Houses of Parliament. It is a palace rather than a house, and I know few houses which create such an overwhelming impression as this does when you walk up the avenue with the proportions of the little Georgian village still in your mind.
The hallway has great grandeur, and there is a fine impression of the great staircase through the archway on the right, with the hunting-piece in a decorative plaster frame. According to the owners, this was a favourite seat of Mahaffy, the old Provost of Trinity. The plaster and the ceilings generally are of the heavy strapwork type you find in the Cassell houses in Henrietta Street, but the Conollys kept up with the fashion; the little print-room is an enchanting bit of Regency flightiness, and the painted saloon an excellent example of the finicking, fussy style of the period. When Lord Edward Fitzgerald wished to convey to his relatives the glory of the Alhambra, he could only say that “the painting of one of the rooms is even now better than that of the gallery at Castletown.” The paintings are good, and the portrait of Squire Conolly is one of the finest Gainsboroughs I know. Lord Edward’s own portrait hangs among them, for his aunt, Lady Louisa, had married Squire Conolly, and, according to the family opinion, become almost as great a Whig as her husband. The Fitzgeralds all had Liberal sympathies—strange as it may seem to use Whig as the antithesis of Liberal, which, in Ireland, was exactly what it was.
His gracious personality is enough to give the house the charm of association. It even gives some charm to Leinster House in Dublin, which is certainly Cassell’s biggest flop. “By the by,” Lord Edward wrote to his mother, “what a melancholy house it is; you can’t conceive how much it appeared so when first we came from Kildare, but it is going off a little. A poor country housemaid I brought with me cried for two days and said she thought she was in prison.”
Doesn’t the man’s charm come out even in that one last sentence? The whole tragedy of eighteenth-century Ireland is summed up in him. With the best blood of England and Ireland in his veins he was so much the aristocrat that he never even needed to remember he was one; with the literary gifts which he seems to have inherited from the Lenox side he writes letters which might be the despair of a professional literary man, every sentence with a Mozartian ripple in it. With his passionate affection for his English mother went an ability to convey it so that it still flashes the picture before our eyes! “I long for a little walk with you, leaning on me, or to have a long talk with you, sitting out in some pretty spot, of a fine day, with your long cane in your hand, working at some little weed at your feet, and looking down, talking all the time.” His exquisite courtesy made him treat a Red Indian squaw exactly as he would have treated one of the great ladies of London society!
“We fell in with some savages and travelled with them to Quebec; they were very kind to us and said we were ‘all one brother’—‘all one Indian.’ They fed us the whole time we were with them. You would have laughed to have seen me carrying an old squaw’s pack which was so heavy I could hardly waddle under it. However, I was well paid whenever we stopped, for she always gave me the best bits, and most soup, and took as much care of me as if I had been her own son; in short, I was quite l’enfant chéri. We were quite sorry to part: the old lady and gentleman both kissed me very heartily. I gave the old lady one of Sophia’s silver spoons which pleased her very much.”
A fine soldier, a lover of the type of Romeo, an amateur gardener, a man who wrote as some people sing, he seemed to have the sunniest of lives opening before him. But, no. His brother, the Duke of Leinster, would insist on his sitting in the Irish Parliament, and what could he do there except what was right? Under English rule there simply was no place in Ireland for men who wished to do right. Grattan’s Declaration of Independence had proved something of a mare’s nest; the King, Lords and Commons of the Constitution meant in practice an English king bribing both Lords and Commons. With a minority of the Whig patriots and a majority of the enslaved Catholics becoming restless, and the Government determined on forcing them into open rebellion in order finally to teach patriotism a lesson, what on earth could men like Grattan, Charlemont, Sir Laurence Parsons or Lord Edward Fitzgerald do? When Grattan, their greatest statesman, walked out of the House of Commons and abandoned politics in despair, it would be a bold man who could suggest what they might have done. For Fitzgerald the only possible course was to support those who sought a French invasion and a popular rising in support of it, and it 1s scarcely for us to say that he was wrong. For a man like him there was no alternative but to leave Ireland. The man who had hobnobbed with the housemaid and the Indian squaw was not made to be either a tyrant or a slave. When a party of dragoon officers ordered him to remove his green necktie, he suggested that the best man of them should try to take it from him.
But a French invasion? It is hard to believe that either Tone or Lord Edward understood the real position. Propaganda about Liberty and Carmagnoles no doubt went well in Belfast, but Irish was still the language of the vast majority of the Irish people, and the popular poets of Munster were still writing about Prince Charlie! A major war fought over Irish soil would have admirably suited both England and France, but it is hard to see what good it could have done the wretched Irish countryfolk. When a French expedition did land at Killala and was joined by an army of peasants, it proceeded to Ballinamuck, where the French troops surrendered and politely stood aside while their Irish allies were massacred to a man by the English. One’s views change as one gets older. Here is a translation of a typical Irish song of the period, and I do not know whether to be sorry for the helplessness so perfectly described in the first verse, or angry against those who encouraged the hopes of the last:
That the English Government were determined on forcing these poor wretches into an open explosion should surely have been sufficient for any Liberal to have done all in his power to keep them quiet.
But it is easy to be wise after the event, and Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone were the first victims of their own plans. One can imagine what sort of revolutionary Lord Edward, with his guileless character, made. “In the month of November, 1797, Lord Edward Fitzgerald called upon me, at my house in Park Street, and said that he came to request me to become a Colonel for the Barony of Kilkea and Moon, in which Barony I had then purchased a place. I at first hesitated, but he used many arguments, and I at length agreed to accept the command.” This is not a private letter from a friend, but the evidence of a Government spy.
A few days before the general rising was to take place he was captured in a house in Thomas Street, fought to the last with only a dagger to defend him, and, when later told that his wound was not serious, replied that he was sorry. He need not have been troubled. Within a few days he died, and the troops went on with the grand game of driving the poor Irish into insurrection. On that subject we cannot take the opinion of people of Irish blood. Its most effective condemnation is that of decent English folk. Lady Sarah Napier writes to the Duke of Richmond: “The cruel hardships put on his [the Duke of Leinster’s] tenants, preferably to all others, has driven them to despair, and they join the insurgents, saying: ‘It’s better to die with a pike in my hand than be shot like a dog at my work, or see my children faint for want of food before my eyes.’ ”
Carton, the Duke of Leinster’s house where so many of Lord Edward Fitzgerald’s happiest days were passed, and from which the tenants drifted off with pikes on their shoulders rather than be shot like dogs in their fields, is a quiet place enough now. It lies a few miles north of Castletown, beside the Duke’s village of Maynooth and the ecclesiastical college of Roman Catholic Ireland. The college, “where,” in Shaw’s words, “the young priests of Ireland are taught that if the world is not exactly flat, it is not quite so round as it is generally supposed to be,” has an old Fitzgerald castle at its gate, “a symbol of the Maynooth mind,” one of its old students called it.
Carton is an old manor-house, reconstructed in 1739 by Cassell, who had also built the Duke’s town house in Kildare Street. Internally it was again bloodily rehandled in the nineteenth century, the main staircase being removed. It has all the weaknesses of the make-do-and-mend style of architecture. Everything about it is wrong, from the mysterious pediment which seems to grow out of the parapet rather than define the front of the house to the awkward spacing of columns in the porch, beneath the Venetian windows and in the colonnades. Yet it has great charm, like the Fitzgeralds themselves, and its magnificent saloon (a trifle disturbed by the amiable architectural vagaries of Lord Walter Fitzgerald which adjoin it) is the masterpiece of the Francini brothers, whose work you will already have seen in the houses in Stephen’s Green. The ceiling of Carton’s saloon is an expansion of that in Clanwilliam House, coved, with cherubs in high relief, practising hair-raising acrobatics over the cornice, and gods and goddesses disporting themselves in the panels.
The room is itself a perfect work of art, and has the power of a work of art to isolate us as in an iridescent bubble. Here among the portraits of the Leinster family, with wide views across the green meadows of Kildare, it is hard indeed to imagine the drunken soldiery outside, Maynooth burning, Celbridge burning, the poor tenantry going off with pikes to fight for they know not what, or Lord Edward in a cell asking, “What is that?” when they hang yet another man before the gate, and then sinking into the delirium from which he waked only to see his aunt, Lady Louisa Conolly, and his favourite brother, Lord Henry, come to say good-bye. Which the real delirium was he must have wondered when he woke.
Leix is a county you simply cannot miss on your way to Cork or Limerick, as it spans the two highways, and most people are naturally quite satisfied to leave it at that. I once travelled with some very nice schoolgirls who were returning to school in Leix, and as we were approaching their destination one of them said thoughtfully that the thing she would best like in the world would be for an accident to happen to the bus—not bad enough for anybody to be actually killed, she added hastily; just bad enough for everybody to be brought back to Dublin for an enquiry; and I fancy a lot of people of maturer age have felt much the same. It is flat; it is characterless, and in the matter of utterly unprepossessing towns I have sometimes thought that Mountrath beats Banagher, and, as everyone knows, Banagher beats the devil.
I fancy Leix people can’t have yet got over the sheer wonder of having towns, for they certainly haven’t reached the stage of looking after them; and this is surprising, because a publican in Rathdowney assured me that by comparison with the Tipperary people they were a holy terror for keeping up appearances. A Leixman wouldn’t go to the workhouse without a collar and tie; that was what she said, and you could see she was far from approving of it. Clearly, she thought it pansy.
Leix used to be called Leix before it was called Queen’s County, and with the departure of the English it has gone back to Leix again. There are also towns in it called Abbeyleix and Portleix, though on very anti-English maps the latter may appear as Port Laoighise, a detail I shouldn’t take too seriously, as nobody ever calls it anything but Maryboro. Maryboro boasts of a very capacious gaol, and while a town in a flighty mood may change its name from Bagenalstown to Cúl an tSúdaire, it is not so easy to get convicts or those concerned with them to treat a gaol so lightly. I shall believe in the ceremonial purification of Maryboro when somebody tells me that an acquaintance is doing time in Portleix Gaol.
Once I cycled out from Maryboro (Portleix or Port Laoighise, according to which persuasion you belong to) to a place called Timahoe, a little hamlet in the foothills south-east of the town, which once had a mediæval church as well as a modern one. Now all that is left of the old church is the belfry, which has a very fine carved Romanesque doorway. Unfortunately, the round Irish belfries having been designed more for the safety of the monks than the bells, the door is skied. True, it is only twelve or thirteen feet up, but you would be surprised how little you could see of a small doorway at that height when you stand back a similar distance to look up at it. There is a similar doorway to the Round Tower in Kildare, but Kildare isn’t in Leix, and the chapter supply you with wooden steps and a platform.
I began to search the farmhouses for a fifteen-foot ladder. This is not at all as easy to obtain as you might imagine, and I fancy that at certain seasons it would be quite unobtainable. When I found a farmhouse which had one, the farmer naturally attached a labourer to the ladder to make sure it came back. This set the cost instantly at half a crown. Away went the labourer and myself with the ladder, and we erected it against the round wall of the belfry, where it proceeded to rock gently from side to side in the most alarming way. I realised then that the ladder was too short and placed you too close to the wall to see the doorway at all.
When I reached the top I stepped off into a deep stone passage through the belfry wall, not high enough to stand up in. It was a very good example of a Late Romanesque doorway in the Midland style, deep and squat, with fine heads on the capitals going off into Celtic interlacing, and one remarkably fine head in a most extraordinary position, acting as the base of one of the columns. Inside was what appeared to be a floor covered with the twigs dropped by the birds who used the belfry as their little home, and I had put one foot on it before I pulled myself back with a jerk which nearly sent me down at the other side, for the twigs were only a few inches deep, and beneath them was an abyss it mightn’t have been at all easy to get out of. I could not use the camera.
Of course, I am not saying that the people of Leix are more responsible for the Board of Works than the rest of us, but still, I should hate to think of any reader of this book wandering round in search of a fifteen-foot ladder.
Leix has—but only just—another piece of work in this particular style at a place called Killeshin, about three miles up the hills from Carlow town and best visited from there. I have repeated elsewhere the bitter words spoken by a Leixman in Killeshin on the subject of the vanity and ignorance of the townspeople of Carlow, so I needn’t go into that here. This is the ruin of a fascinating old church which lost its belfry only in Victorian times. The doorway, enclosed in a plain pediment and frame, has all the characteristics of this peculiar style; it is squat and deep, with human-headed capitals that go off into interlacing, and bulbous bases; and every square inch of it has been decorated, though much of the decoration has been worn away, and it is best visited at evening when the light brings it up. Round the capitals, partly hacked away by some vandal, there is an inscription in Irish which has been read as “Pray for Art ... King of Leinster and for ... Steward. Pray for ... Ua Mellach ... Ui Duaich. ... Pray for Ceallach.” The only other Irish church with such a votive inscription is that of Freshford outside Kilkenny, which runs: “Pray for Niav, daughter of Corc, and for Mahon O’Ciarmac who founded this church. Pray for Gilla MacColmog O’Cecuchain who built it.” Neither inscription has been dated, though the use of fixed patronymics did not begin until the eleventh century, and, indeed, was far from regular in the twelfth. Historians know nothing of any Art who was King of Leinster, and as his family name has been obliterated we have no means of identifying him. From the style I should have no hesitation in saying that both churches were twelfth century. Freshford is clearly modelled on Cormac’s Chapel at Cashel; the O’Ciarmhaics (Kerwicks) were vassals of Cormac, and one of them (possibly a foster-brother) was murdered by Turlough O’Connor along with Cormac’s own son.
As for Art, there seem to me two possibilities. One is that he was a Leinster prince who claimed the title at some time between 1126, when Enda MacMurrough died, and 1134, when Dermot MacMurrough seized power. Turlough O’Connor made several attempts to fill the vacancy, first by the appointment of his own son, then by the appointment of a vassal. The other possibility is that he was a pretender who rose after the death of Demot in 1171. Somebody must have claimed Dermot’s title, for Irish law could not have admitted Strongbow’s claim. The style suggests the latter, though, on the other hand, Killeshin was an important Norman settlement.
In the eighteenth century the Irish Parliament brought considerable improvements to the Irish river towns, and these spread with the opening of the canals. The canals themselves are frequently the only things of interest in the desolate landscape; the lock-keeper’s cottages are charming, and the hump-backed bridges with their wide, curving wings are sometimes the only points from which one can get a view. But this period also produced in the river and canal towns a very pleasant type of small Late Georgian dwelling with a delightfully informal air and a great variety of design. Monastereven, just outside the border on the Kildare side, is a horrid little hole which has a whole row of beauties looking out on a mall beside the canal. Mountmellick must once have been very good, but it is succumbing to the curse of cement, which has done more damage to Irish towns than Cromwell himself.
But the best example of this style of architecture anywhere in Ireland is Portarlington, a town which the railway passes by, but which is almost unknown to those who use cars and buses. The guidebooks tell you that it was built by French officers who settled here after the Battle of the Boyne, but it is unquestionably Late Georgian and as Irish as they make them. The only thing really French about it is its orientation towards the long gardens which lead to the river, which causes some of the houses to turn their blank backs on to the main street. It contains an extraordinary number of small residences in an amazing variety of styles, most of them delightful. The hotel—excellent, by the way—is an old schoolhouse, which is admirable, and across the road from it are a tall Early Victorian house with a sculped-in doorway and two small houses, one unspoiled, the other ruined by a bay window and an ugly doorway. This sort of destruction is going on wholesale through the town. In the lovely little market-place they have built a cinema which bawls uninterruptedly in an American accent the whole evening through, and banks which thrust out offices from the house front into the street, and shops which are falling for chromium plating, are doing the rest.
Offaly, alias King’s County, which neighbours Leix, alias Queen’s County, is the same sort of landscape, and as holiday country one can safely say that neither will ever be very popular except among cyclists with weak hearts. Still, there is one spot in King’s County which is compulsory in every topographical work—Clonmacnois. Apart from its beautiful name, Clonmacnois is one of the most famous sites of early Irish Christianity. Its name rings out like a repeated trumpet-call in the great hymn on the downfall of heathendom which opens the Martyrology of AÆngus:
Rolleston’s wonderful adaptation of an early Gaelicpoem expresses the profound veneration for the site which has lasted throughout the centuries:
Here, at the beginning of the twelfth century, the famous “Book of the Dun Cow” was compiled by Mael Muire, who was killed by robbers in the cathedral church in 1106. The descent of Mael Muire, as traced by Drs. Bergin and Best in their edition of the book, tells us everything we need to know about the rise of the great Irish ecclesiastical families and the decline of religion in the centuries immediately preceding the Irish Reformation. Mael Muire was the son of Ceileachar, Bishop of Clonmacnois, who died in 1067. His grandfather was Conn, called Conn of the Poor, who was head of the well-known religious order, the Spouses of God, and died in 1059. His father, again, was Joseph, Confessor of Clonmacnois, who died in 1022, and he was the son of Dunchad, Bishop of Clonmacnois, who died in 953. The editors have traced Mael Muire’s descent back to the year 610 through a long line of hermits, abbots and bishops. Though completely unprejudiced against aristocracies, I must admit that in poetry and religion they seem to be impractical.
It was a favourite church of the O’Connors; both Turlough and Rory were buried in the cathedral, and a list of the treasures stolen from the altar in 1129 by a man called Giolla Comhgain contained a number of O’Connor gifts, including a gold “model of the Temple of Solomon.” (St. Ciaran, we are told, revealed the thefts, and hindered Giolla Comhgain from taking ship at Cork, Waterford and Lismore, so that the poor devilwas finally caught by the inhabitants of Limerick and handed over to Conor O’Brien for hanging.)
Henry de Londres and the Normans appeared in 1213 to build the fort commanding the river, and from this on Clonmacnois began to decline, until in 1552, as the prize bore who haunts the site will probably tell you, “the English garrison from Athlone burned the monastery.”
It lies about ten miles down from Athlone on the bank of the river, an appallingly filthy and neglected graveyard with a forest of tall gravestones and toppling Celtic crosses that almost hides from view the little village of ruined chapels and belfries which is all that remains of the monastic city. The sheep are put on to keep down the grass, and a nice side of Irish mutton from this locality may well represent a substantial portion of somebody’s grandmother. The Catholics have built a wooden shed which contains a glaring altar for use on Pattern Day, when people come from miles to make the rounds. I can only conclude that Rolleston’s great poem was written in absentia; I have known a man to laugh aloud when I recited it there. The condition of the place calls for parody:
Within the monastery enclosure there is very little left that has much beauty: an east window in the King’s Chapel in the style of the Transitional window in Clonfert; the ornamented fifteenth-century door of the cathedral (where somewhere or other are the tombs of Turlough and Rory O’Connor, if only somebody would trouble to look for them); the ornamental cross before the west door of the cathedral. But it is all so dilapidated that it is hard to be fair. Since Petrie’s day, according to Macalister, sixty-five of the beautiful early tombstones, including some of absorbing historical interest, have disappeared; some of the carved stones have been removed to St. John’s Church in Athlone, apparently without protest. Up the river bank, outside the enclosure, is the beautiful little Nuns’ Chapel, which was “restored” or probably entirely rebuilt by Dervorgilla, the wife of Tiarnan O’Rourke, of Brefny, whom Dermot MacMurrough carried off. Nothing remains of it but the west door and the chancel arch, both elaborately carved. In its time it must have been exquisite.
Any excursion to Clonmacnois should take in Clonfert in Co. Galway, which is what Clonmacnois should have been. There is very little else round here which is worth seeing. The road back to Birr passes a charming little castle at Clononey and an equally charming canal halt at Shannon Harbour, where, beside the fine bridge, are the hotel, houses and stores, now lost and forgotten in a desolate countryside. Banagher, a little farther on, which looks like the end of the world, and probably is, has a surprisingly good row of houses in the canal style; one, a whopper, is fortunately being preserved as a technical school.
Rahan, on the canal bank outside Tullamore, is a second Celtic monastery like Clonmacnois, but much better preserved. The smaller, ruined church has a most beautiful little doorway with diminutive chevrons, six inches in length, which have very good designs. The modern Protestant church contains the chancel of another Romanesque chapel, but I must warn you that when I visited it the key was being kept in the minister’s house at Golden Ball, a good many miles away across the bogs, and a journey I would wish on nobody.
It is well worth seeing, because the fine chancel with its beautiful capitals has been credited by almost everybody from Petrie on with an almost fabulous antiquity. That great man wrote that “if to these evidences we add the fact that the Irish authorities are silent as to the re-erection of churches at Rathain at a later time, or to any devastation by the Danes that would create a necessity for such re-erection, the inference is, I think, only natural that this church, as the style of ornament seems to me to indicate, was erected about the middle of the eighth century.” This is an interesting example of the way a scholar’s mind is directed by a preconceived idea, because so obsessed was Petrie by the antique Oriental appearance of the chancel that it never even crossed. his mind that the devastation he was seeking for could have been later than the Danes. The goings-on in Rahan during the twelfth century make it a miracle that anyone named Mulloy is left in the world. In 1131 alone the O’Mulloys managed to get one of their great enemies, the O’Melaghlins of Meath, but, on the other hand, we read that “Donnough O’Molloy, king of Fearkall, was killed in captivity by Murrough O’Melaghlin. Murtogh O’Molloy that succeeded as King of Fearkall was burnt by the family of Moyntyr Lwanym (Looneys, to wit) in the church of Rahin.” Unless we are to assume that Murtogh was more combustible than timber, we are bound to admit that some necessity for restoration existed.
That the building of the big church at Rahan was at some time subsequent to this seems certain. The style of the chancel arch is typical Midland Romanesque, much as you find it in Timahoe or Killeshin, and, so far as I know, it always occurs in immediate relation to work of a late date. Here it occurs with an ornamented rose window, which Mlle. Henry takes to be an interpolation. The bulbous bases are characteristic of the style, and the only example of these which can be approximately dated is in Baltinglass Abbey, built about the end of the twelfth century. To say, as Mr. Leask does, that this is a late example is, of course, to beg the question; until another is dated we cannot say whether it is late or early.
Birr is easily the pleasantest town in the county, with a nice square which contains a monument to—can my memory possibly be playing me tricks?—the Duke of Cumberland, a gracefully islanded church, rows of very pleasant Late Georgian and Early Victorian houses, and a battlemented courthouse, which suggests that hard-fought cases sometimes include a siege. It is the seat of the Earls of Ross, and I know my guidebook contains a reference to a famous observatory which I should know something about. My own vote goes to an earlier member of the family, Sir Laurence Parsons, a member of the Irish Parliament whose unpublished memoirs, quoted by Mr. Stephen Gwynn in his “Life of Grattan,” are full of interest, and show how the contemporary situation appeared to a man of high principles and genuine patriotism. I put it on record that the family is still spoken highly of in the town pubs.
Birr used to be remarkable for having the only Little Theatre in Ireland which was a theatre. The organisers rented a derelict room, built themselves a stage and cyclorama, raked the floor of the auditorium and installed comfortable tip-up seats. They performed excellent plays, and friends of mine in the Midlands regularly travelled forty miles in an evening to each performance. When it meant so much to people from remote towns, one can imagine what it meant to the townspeople and to those who at last found something creative to do.
Four years later the little group decided to perform Paul Vincent Carroll’s “Shadow and Substance.” As you may know, this admirable play deals with a continental priest who is contrasted with his Irish curate, much given to football. It is a very pious, inoffensive, almost sentimentally Catholic play which ends with the inevitable miracle. But it offended the local Catholic priests. According to my friend Michael Farrell, who reported the history of the production, the players rehearsed three nights a week for eleven weeks, one Protestant clergyman coming and going seventeen miles each night in midwinter. On the night of the dress rehearsal, when the players were dressed and ready to go on the stage, they were instructed to desist. To have gone ahead might have provoked violence and would probably have injured individual players in their business for the rest of their lives. Until dawn next morning the little company sat together. “It was as if someone had died on us,” they told Mr. Farrell.
Someone had. In Wales they tell a story of a plot to kill a tyrannical mine-owner when he arrived to inspect a certain pit. He heard of the plot and came to the mine at the usual time, alone and unarmed. Overawed by his defiance, the plotters held back. Within a few months several of them had committed suicide. There are certain challenges which may be evaded, but, once made, must be met. In the two years following the Birr company produced only two plays.*
Few things which have happened in my time in Ireland have made me so angry. The Birr Little Theatre was the only thing of its kind in Ireland. Leaving aside all questions of audiences, you have only to see, as I have seen, how the unfortunate country people grasp at anything creative—the theatre or choral singing—as an escape from the miserable round of whisky and cards, to realise the wickedness of those who will not allow the parson, the shop-girl and the colonel’s daughter to get together and forget the fanaticisms by which they have been mutilated from birth. But this sort of thing happens every month of the year all over Ireland, and only occasionally do we get to know of it.
* I understand that since this was written the theatre has closed.
People who come to Ireland on holiday are invariably advised to go either to Achill or the Aran Islands. Maybe they are well advised; they seem to get over it quite well, and have even been known to return. I suppose it depends on the sort of thing you’re used to. Maybe you get tired of Wiltshire and Somerset and little places like Chipping Campden and Woodstock, and long for the wastes and the wild. I once knew an Englishman who spent a Christmas in Donegal and thought England was only dirt to it. On Christmas Eve the police politely sent up word to the pub where he was staying that they would have to raid it at eleven that night and would the people there mind going across the fields to another pub which they wouldn’t be raiding till half-past eleven? So at eleven all the customers trooped over the field to the next pub, and at half-past back they trooped again with all the customers from the other pub, and at midnight the police went back to the case of whisky which had been obligingly provided by the two publicans.
A short time ago I took an Irish friend to Chipping Campden, and we sat in the pub, and the locals blew in and for hours they told funny stories which all seemed to revolve about some crazy repartee, as, for instance, a man saying he was going home to his dinner and his neighbour saying, “You don’t have dinner on Friday, surely?” and the other replying, “Only once a week,” at which everybody roared, and then at ten everybody said goodnight to everybody else and departed without a cross word being spoken, and my fellow-Irishman swore he wouldn’t have believed that people could be so charming in a pub.
As I say, it depends on what you’re used to, and, like Chekhov, I feel that civilisation means “Turkish carpets and beautiful women,” and so I tell the visitors who come to me for advice that the county for them is Kilkenny. Not, indeed, that they are likely to find either in Kilkenny, but they may at least find the only things which can compensate a man for their absence, beautiful country and good architecture. For me Kilkenny, with its sensuous hills, its trees, its river-valleys and the blue mist that rises from them, its absence of furze, is the loveliest of Irish counties. It is still thirteenth-century country which you can imagine as the setting for the Canterbury Tales.
The way to approach it is through Carlow, also a beautiful county. In the eighteenth century the development of river traffic brought a certain measure of prosperity to the towns along their banks, and it was an age when it was difficult to spend money without making something beautiful. Carlow, with a great rampart of hills to the west of it, tilled to the top, is beautifully situated and has some excellent streets with sculped-in doorways. There being always someone to say the bad word for a place, Carlow has become associated with a rhyme which no Carlowman is ever allowed to forget:
In Killeshin we met a man who cycled all the way to Bagenalstown to do his shopping rather than tolerate the Carlow pride. “And what have they to be proud about?” he asked us. “Counter-jumpers that came into town and married the master’s daughter!” Carlow is on the Barrow, and its course down to New Ross is amazingly beautiful. Leighlinsbridge has a delightful old ruined castle dominating the bridge, and a couple of miles up the hill is the cathedral of Old Leighlin, one of the abortive sees of Gillespie’s reconstruction of the Irish church, though little of the old monastery is left and the church is mainly sixteenth century.
Bagenalstown is a charming old place with a Greek temple over the river and a lot of nice Georgian buildings. When I was there last a local shopkeeper had just died and left his fortune to provide dowries for the respectable Catholic girls of the district. If the other shopkeepers are anything like him, I could see why the man in Killeshin cycled so far to make his own purchases. There is a pleasant, civilised, old-world feeling about the legacy, and incidentally the man who made it had obviously kept his eyes open and seen what was happening in Irish rural life. Many of the dirty jokes which cheered our boyhood centred about the rural mariage de convenance, like that about the man who nudged his sleeping wife on their wedding night and said, “Can I trouble you again, Miss Ryan?” and the other about the man who, before proceeding, wanted to have the little matter of the extra cow settled, and then said firmly: “Reach me down me trousers, there’s no harm done.” Irish folk literature is full of the tragedy of the dowry, of the poor or parentless girl who for want of money could never have a husband.
Bryan Merryman, the Clare poet, with his unique clarity of vision, saw it in humour and rage:
Undoubtedly it had its sordidness and its tragedies, but in the main it was successful. Romance may do very well for town-dwellers, at least if it is the sort of romance which has a hard core of intelligence, but you cannot base a stable society on it, and stability is the one thing which the countryman needs. The dowry capitalised a farm, or, if there were unmarried girls on it, it helped to pay their dowries and rid it of liabilities. One of the main weaknesses of rural Ireland today is that the economic basis of marriage has broken down, and that, even if a girl has a little “fortune” and a young farmer could do with it, both would be too self-conscious to permit a match to be made for them. As a result the country is full of old curmudgeons and embittered old maids. The brother of a friend of mine, a successful farmer, likes to bring visitors to a hill-top from which they have a view of the surrounding country and point out all the farms which depend only on the life of a bachelor owner. “Degeneracy” is how he describes it.
The Kilkenny road leaves the Barrow at Bagenalstown and traverses a dull strip of road to the next river valley. Gowran, which you can see on your left, has a really beautiful early collegiate church, in the ruins of which the Protestants have built their own little meeting-house—an unfortunate trick of a minority religion, very common throughout these counties, which has resulted in the ruin of many beautiful churches. The interior of Gowran contains some early tombs which have been fortunately taken in for protection, as well as a handsome Greek Revival monument which is well worth seeing.
Kilkenny itself, the capital of the English colony, must at one time have been ravishing. There are moments when it still appears to be so, as when, if you happen to have spent the night, as I once did, at an old millhouse up the river, you walk in along the bank on a Sunday morning in summer, when the valley is filled with mist, the cathedral, standing on a rock on the north side of the town, sends out its chimes like a pigeon’s cooing, and behind it you see the group of towers without realising how many of them rise over ruins: the tower of the Franciscan monastery now mostly embodied in the brewery, the tall wooden tower of the Tholsel, and those of the castle.
Even before the English, Kilkenny must have had a substantial monastic settlement, because built into the cathedral are odd carved stones of an Irish church in Decorated Romanesque. The cathedral itself is a beautiful thirteenth-century building with a fine squat tower of later date. The tall lancets of the east window are masked by trefoil-headed rear-arches; these with the quatrefoils of the clerestory are characteristic of Kilkenny work. Like Kildare, it is largely a shell. The glass of the east window was so fine that Rinuncini, the Papal Legate, tried to buy it for Italy, but the chapter refused to part with it, and the only result was that it fell to Cromwell’s troops. There are a number of very good tombs, the sixteenth-century altar-tombs of the Butlers in the south transept being particularly good, but the most beautiful are a few shattered fragments of early fourteenth-century tombs in the floor near the west door. This type of tomb with incised figures, a substitute for brasses, seems to have originated in the West Country, and is a feature of the English Pale, but it degenerated very rapidly, and within a generation the drawing became stiff and angular. The drawing of the drapery in some of these fragments is beautifully fluid and very striking.
The High Street runs from the cathedral to the castle, and has a good Georgian courthouse, a Tholsel (1720) with a portico projecting over the pavement and a charming high wooden tower which some local lunatics would like to see removed, and some Tudor town houses, the only ones I know in Ireland.
Off the High Street are narrow lanes which contain bits and scraps of mediæval work: the chancel and tower of the Franciscan monastery behind the brewery on the left, which has some very good carving; portion of a Dominican priory, which has been restored as a Catholic church; and some old inns and almshouses. At the end of the High Street is the open space before the Georgian front of the castle—the best part of it, in my opinion—with a row of Georgian houses and a fine avenue of trees. Here, outside the cramping influence of the mediæval walls, is the Georgian quarter, and here for a short time flourished the Kilkenny Theatre, such as it was. To your left over the bridge, with its excellent view of the castle, is the Grammar School and St. John’s Priory, or at least the quire of it, and that itself a ruin except for one chapel still used as a Protestant church. A friend who is an expert assures me that the carvings in this portion are original, but I continue to have my doubts. St. John’s is lovely, both in its stonework and its beautiful fenestration, but my stomach turns at the vandalism which can leave sixteenth-century tombs unprotected to be broken and washed flat by the rains.
There isn’t much more to Kilkenny, but you have to be brought up elsewhere in Ireland to realise how exciting it is for an Irishman, as exciting as for someone brought up in a Lancashire mill-town the first sight of Oxford. It is unique because, owing to the protecting hand of the Ormondes, it suffered comparatively little, except during the Cromwellian wars. It should have been the site of an Irish university, for it has something of the atmosphere of a university town. Swift and Berkeley attended its Grammar School. Even its hotels and pubs contain old prints, old cartoons, little museum pieces of pottery and glass, such as you will find nowhere else in Ireland.
It had a brief revival of communal life during the war. People who before that had found it as depressing as any other Irish town, and got out of it as often as they could to Dublin and Waterford, found when their petrol supply was cut off that they had some enterprising neighbours. Unknown to them, all the potentialities of civilised existence had been all round them from birth, It was even alleged—though this I find very hard to believe—that some of the female neighbours had advanced views. Clearly, some of them painted, for in a short while it became possible to establish an art gallery in the town. If the war had continued a few years longer, Heaven knows what might not have happened—a little theatre? a small publishing house printing local poets and novelists? Who knows? But it didn’t, and no doubt by this time the cars are again on the roads to Waterford and Dublin and the moneyed shopkeepers are buying their water-colours and seeing their nightlife there.
It is an excellent subject for a comedy, but it seems to me to require a Kilkenny setting, for nowhere else is there that background from which civilised life could emerge. All down the Nore, and all down the Barrow to the east, are the remains of beautiful buildings. There is less to the west of the town. Callan—a most wretched, dreary hole on the road to Fethard—has two ruined churches, one of which has fine doorways. Freshford has a church with a Romanesque front, of which I have already spoken. The porch—unfortunately in a very soft sandstone—is modelled on Cormac’s Chapel, and the votive inscription shows that it was built by the O’Ciarmhaics, who were his vassals. The Kerwicks, kings of a district called Any, were apparently involved in Cormac MacCarthy’s schemes for the reformation in his kingdom, for in 1123 we read of one of them called Giolla Caeich, a deacon, who attacked the abbot’s residence at Emly, where a relative of his, the king’s son, was staying, killed some men and destroyed the relic of St. Ailbe, his bell. Giolla Caeich clearly regarded himself as the legal Steward of Emly, which would have been his reason for taking minor orders, and the abbot, Melmurrough, as a usurper. He was beheaded for his pains, but this does not seem to have been by any means the end of the matter, for his name crops up again the following year in connection with a revolt of the Kerry princes against Cormac MacCarthy.
Down the Nore from Kilkenny you leave Kells on your right, and Kells has the ruins of a vast Norman priory, where the chancel with its carved tombs has now been blocked off as the town ball-alley. In its present state it is scarcely worth visiting, but Thomastown has the remains of a fine parish church, and from Thomastown on you see the tower of Jerpoint Abbey, covered with golden moss, directing you up the little stream.
Jerpoint was an Irish foundation and certainly built by the same masons and to the same design as Baltinglass in Co. Wicklow. It is a very plain Transitional building with a great deal of Irish idiom in the capitals and in the wide splaying of the clerestory and west window. The fine tower, with its striking and beautiful battlements, is much later, as is the clumsy Decorated east window, which replaced a far more beautiful three-light ornamented window, of which you can still see the outline on the exterior. The architecture of Irish Cistercian churches does not seem to stem from the French type of church, which was first built at Mellifont, the mother house. We know from St. Bernard that there was some row about the building of that particular church, and that the French monk who acted as architect went home: from the archæological evidence we know that an original apsidal quire was destroyed and promptly replaced by something plainer.
At the same time the influence is not English, as we shall see when we come to deal with Graiguenamanagh. On the whole, the Irish churches are very like those of Wales—Buildwas, for instance. The use of alternate piers and columns, both in Baltinglass and Jerpoint, is peculiar and needs to be explained. In origin it must have been functional and related to the alternate-bay church like Jumiéges, but here there is no functional reason for the device, and it must have been carried over without consideration from whatever model the builders had in mind.
Jerpoint is a very beautiful church, full of atmosphere and of interesting sculptural details, mostly of a later date. As I say, the east window is bad, but the figure of the angel at the foot of the hood moulding is excellent. The cloisters are fifteenth century and most elaborately carved with knights, monks and ladies. The carvings are not very good in themselves, but full of interesting details of costume. Some have been pinched to decorate an ugly modern monument in the west wall, and ought to be restored. There is the usual late tomb by one of the O’Tunnys in the transept, with a dignified effigy collapsing gently through the top and decorated along the sides with the figures of apostles looking like something out of an illuminated manuscript of the eighth century. As well as these there is one really remarkable incised tomb in the manner of the earlier Kilkenny fragments. It is broken but complete, and portrays what would appear to have been two brothers, one in a helmet with lowered visor, the other in a mail cap, both with drawn swords. There is great freedom about the treatment, which distinguishes it, not only from the usual effigies of the period, but even from the English brasses on which it is modelled. None of them that I know has anything like the same boldness. The wavering, delicate line is flowing and full of poetic feeling. It is a little masterpiece.
What that type of tomb soon descended to you can see if you go a mile or two down the river to Inishtioge, from which a road leads over the hills to the Barrow valley. Here there are a couple of them under the tower, the only ancient part of the church which remains, and very stiff and angular they are.
The Barrow valley at the other side of the hills is even finer than that of the Nore. All the way down from Bagenalstown, at which we left it originally, it flows through beautiful country. Borris is a charming little Gothic Revival village outside the Gothic residence of the MacMurrough Kavanaghs. Ullard, a mile or so farther down the river, has the ruin of a Transitional church in a strongly marked Irish idiom, though the Irish note is perhaps most perceptible at the east wall, which has been turned into a ball-alley.
The road here is lovely, the hills rising higher at either side, the road winding over them down into Graiguenamanagh. This little town grew up in—I shan’t say round—a great Cistercian monastery, the English foundation of Duiske established in the first quarter of the thirteenth century. By comparison with any Irish work of the time it is almost incredibly polished, but after its usual period of ruin during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was restored as a Catholic church in the early nineteenth century in an absolutely deplorable way.
The octagonal tower, roof, groining and crossing arches had all collapsed, and the restorers simply left them where they were and built over them and within the arcade, letting the aisles also go to ruin. As the churchyard naturally overflowed the ruined aisle walls, grave-diggers are constantly unearthing paving tiles from the floor.
Inside the church the transformation is terrible. The rear arch of the tower, the only one remaining, has its bases buried eight or ten feet deep under the flooring. The capitals of the clustered columns as well as the corbels of the sanctuary groining are used as pedestals for statuary. The level of the roof has been lowered and the clerestory and arcade have been built up, while “lancet” windows of a sort have been inserted. By the infinite mercy of God the money gave out before the builders could extend their restoration to the back of the nave. Except for the building up of the arcade, where vulgar shrines of Lourdes and the Crucifixion have been inserted, this has been left pretty well alone—so much alone that it would need a potent weed-killer to clean up the clerestory windows.
Excavation for a baptistry under the south transept has cleared a fine Transitional doorway which once led from the church into the cloisters. The capitals have mostly been hacked away, but the remaining one has very fine, stiff-leaved foliage. This is the real level of the church, and if one could dig one’s way through the debris on which it is built one would find a mass of beautiful tombs like those in Kilkenny and Jerpoint (one effigy has been dug out and propped against the door of the north transept) as well as the bases of the arcading,
The houses all along the pleasant little street which leads to the river are built within the abbey walls; you can follow their massive line through kitchen gardens overlooked by great Gothic windows, while the arches of the chapter-house door rise mysteriously from the floor of somebody’s garage, columns and bases buried far below. It is a staggering place, and it sums up the whole problem of Irish architecture. It is not so much vandalism as ignorance which has been the principal enemy. In that we differ from Britain. The material is all there, but it is scattered or buried. If we could preserve intact the little that remains until a generation arises which can appreciate its value and is prepared to do the work of excavation which needs to be done, we should accumulate a great mass of architecture and sculpture sufficient to enable us to write the real history of Ireland. Piecemeal preservation is our principal danger. The tiles from the aisles of Graiguenamanagh are already being scattered.
Tipperary, which adjoins Kilkenny, though considerably untidier, is nearly as fine a county as it. At any rate, it has Cashel, a very pleasant little town with a charming Georgian cathedral and a beautiful deanery. But the most important thing in Cashel is St. Patrick’s Rock, which dominates the whole town and can be seen from miles away over the great plain in which it is set.
As its name suggests, it must have been originally a fort. Then it was probably a monastery of some sort, but in 1106 Murtagh O’Brien, High King, made a gift of it in perpetuity to the clergy of Ireland. The form in which the gift was made suggests, as Curtis has pointed out, that it was not presented to any existing ecclesiastical organisation, but as the site for an archæepiscopal see which was planned but not in existence. What the meaning of that is we shall see later.
Later in the century (1134) Cormac MacCarthy, King of South Munster, who had come into possession of Cashel through the partition of Munster by Turlough O’Connor, built the exquisite little chapel which bears his name. Again the balance of power in Munster shifted, and the O’Briens were responsible for building the Gothic cathedral during the thirteenth century. In the Middle Ages a walled town grew up about it, with a Dominican priory and a Cistercian abbey, of which the ruins still remain. After the Reformation, Myler MacGrath, the scald-priest, was Archbishop for a considerable period, and is reported to have held a service for one in the cathedral while upstairs a hunted priest was saying Mass for the benefit of his wife and children. It is comforting to know that the MacGraths kept their faith because they certainly did well out of the benefices which Myler looted. He is believed to have died a Catholic.
Another O’Brien, Murrough of the Burnings, sacked it at the head of his Roundheads during the Cromwellian wars, and there is a heart-breaking description of the orgy of statue-breaking that followed. The ghost of the church continued in use into the first half of the eighteenth century, and there is a letter to Swift from Bishop Theophilus Bolton, inviting him to come and see Cormac’s Chapel. In 1744, Price, the idiot who had courted Vanessa and whom on her deathbed she had dismissed with the words “No Price, no prayers,” became Bishop and decided that the cathedral was too inconvenient. Twenty pounds, according to a contemporary writer, would have removed the inconveniences, but Price went ahead and received permission to transfer the chapter to St. John’s Church in the town. There was one slight objection to this: St. John’s Church was not built. For a great part of the eighteenth century the cathedral rotted and caved in, while the Protestants of Cashel, with no church to worship in, held services in the courthouse. Finally the present Georgian church was completed and the cathedral became a complete ruin. The east wall collapsed altogether, and it is now in the care of the Board of Works.
During the Middle Ages the western portion of the nave was adapted as a castle, but apart from this it is a very beautiful church, aisleless with a raised quire, a soaring chancel arch under the central tower, and lancet windows with fine dripstones. It contains the tomb of Myler MacGrath with an excellent Latin epitaph, which shows that the arch-trimmer of Irish history had some suspicion of what posterity’s judgment would be.
As I have said, with the Houses of Parliament Cormac’s Chapel seems to me the most beautiful building in Ireland. It is a tiny church by the side of the cathedral, with a corbelled stone roof, walls covered with arcading, a splendid north porch (unfortunately overshadowed by and partly embodied in the cathedral wall) and twin flanking towers. One of these has been stupidly tricked out with a parapet, and there has also been some tinkering with the apse. As its appearance and ground-plan resemble those of churches in the Rhineland, German influence has been conjectured. Munster at this time certainly had regular communication with Germany; shortly before its erection monks from Germany had arrived collecting for a new church, and one Marcus, associated with Cormac MacCarthy in the Reformation movement of the twelfth century, was the author of a work called “The Vision of Tundale,” which he wrote in Ratisbon. The building shows an acquaintance with the very best of continental architecture and a perfection of craftsmanship which is unknown anywhere else in Ireland, and I think we are fully justified in accepting some foreign influence.
You may borrow a ladder from the caretaker, and you will certainly need a torch if you wish to see the carving. When I knew the church first it had considerable remains of paintings, but recently the Board of Works thought it would be a good idea to whitewash the interior. Later they seem to have decided that it wasn’t, and got to work with a wire brush, which had little effect on the whitewash, though I suspect it did not do the wall-paintings any good. A splendid tomb-chest with interlaced designs of a Danish type has been stored in Cormac’s Chapel is the principal effort of church-building by the leaders of the Irish Reformation, and, in my opinion, it is from it that most of the examples of so-called Hiberno-Romanesque churches spring. I have sketched elsewhere the development of that remarkable movement, but I make no apology for doing so again— first, because it is the only thing of its kind in Irish history; second, because, like the old woman who kept on confessing the one passionate sin of her youth, I like talking about it.
Let me begin with a few bones from the charnelhouse of history and see if we cannot build up the skeleton of the first portion of the Reformation. And, first, what was it that made the Reformation necessary? It was that the Church had become absorbed into the elaborate social system to such a degree that it was no longer distinguishable, or indeed distinguished. When we read of the burning of churches we must remember that the Irish did not think of them any longer as places set apart for all men’s worship, but as fortresses whose abbots were members of a branch of the ruling family and elected in a similar way. I have used the term “lawless” to describe the life of the period, but in one sense no more inaccurate term could be employed. The real trouble of this highly organised system was that it was all laws, but the laws were out of date.
When Anselm carried on a friendly correspondence with Murtagh O’Brien, High King of Ireland, and begged him to establish the Irish Church on the lines of the Hildebrandine Reformation, he was asking something which was humanly almost impossible. Except in Dublin there was no such thing as a bishop in Ireland. Bishops were honorary officers, but with no place in the system. There were only abbots, and these abbots, whom I shall call stewards, were members of a branch of the ruling family and elected in the same way. Not only were they elected, but, as with the ruling families, their successors were elected also. Literally, Irish law did not even permit the existence of a church, and literally you could not establish the Catholic Church in Ireland without tearing down the whole social system. Murtagh O’Brien, though his family were no longer as strong as they had been in the time of Brian Boru, was a brave man. That was precisely what he attempted to do. Watch!
|1096||Murtagh O’Brien presents Samuel O’Hanley to Anselm for consecration as Bishop of the Danish city of Dublin. Murtagh O’Brien establishes the Danish city of Waterford as a diocese and presents Maeleesa to Anselm for consecration.|
|1103||War between the O’Neills of Tyrone and North-East Ulster. Murtagh comes to the assistance of Ulster, but suffers a considerable defeat, and the O’Neills march back “with great spoils and many treasures, including the king’s tent and the standard.”|
|1104||Donal O’Loughlin (“O’Neill”) takes hostages from Ulster.|
The surrender of hostages by O’Brien’s vassals in North-East Ulster marks the beginning of the decline in Murtagh’s power.
|1105||Murtagh establishes the Danish city of Limerick as a diocese and presents Gillespie (“Gilbertus”) to Anselm. Donal, Steward of Armagh, coming to Dublin to make peace between O’Neill and O’Brien, falls ill and is carried to Duleek, where he dies. Ceallach (“Celsus”) elected in his place as Steward, “by the choice of the men of Ireland” (i.e., the Danes not consenting), and takes orders.|
In “Irish Miles” I took this to mean that Ceallach was ordained priest, and that this was part of the general plan of Murtagh O’Brien. Apart from Curtis’ statement that Ceallach was a married man (which, considering some of the real difficulties which confronted them, would only have been a minor headache to the canonists), I am now inclined to think that Ceallach took only minor orders. His principal task as Steward was Keeper of the Relics, charged with the duty of preserving the peace and registering oaths taken on the relics, and for this only minor orders would have been necessary. The rest of the plan must have matured in Munster in the following year.
|1106||Caoincormac O’Boyle, superior Bishop of Armagh, dies. Ceallach, Steward of Armagh, on visitation in O’Neill territory, receives his full tribute. On visitation in Munster he receives full tribute and “the rank of superior bishop” by consent of the men of Ireland. Murtagh O’Brien donates Cashel to the clergy of Ireland (i.e., as the seat of an archbishopric).*|
The first entry explains the other one. In the eyes of the canonists, at least, Ceallach was consecrated Archbishop of Armagh and was therefore Primate of Ireland. As Primate of Ireland he could create Cashel an archdiocese subject to Armagh and appoint Melmurry, Bishop of Meath, Archbishop. The model for the reformers was the English Church; Armagh was to be their York, Cashel their Canterbury. In fact, the skeleton of the reformed church of Ireland was in existence. But the canonists’ fact was a legal fiction, for in the eyes of
* I take Keating’s date. Keating had access to annals now lost which reveal considerable inside knowledge regarding the Reformation. the law Ceallach remained nothing more than Steward of Armagh. The Bishop of Armagh would no doubt be appointed by the proper authorities. Which he was!
|1107||Malcolm O’Brolchan took the bishopric of Armagh. Ceallach, Steward of Armagh, made a year’s truce between Murtagh O’Brien and Donal O’Loughlin (O’Neill)—i.e., took their oaths on St. Patrick’s Crozier, “the Staff of Jesus.”|
That entry shows us Ceallach in his purely legal capacity. But even in this he was hamstrung by the fact that his successor was already elected, and he could not alienate property which might in time be expected to become the latter’s.
|1108||Ceallach, Steward of Armagh, on visitation in Connacht. Aed, Vice-Steward and successor of Armagh, died.|
|1109||Murtagh O’Brien, on hosting with Murrough O’Melaghlin of Meath, plunders O’Rourke territory. Hosting by Donal O’Loughlin (O’Neill) to meet him. Ceallach, Steward of Armagh, arranges a year’s truce between them. Then the O’Neills march into Ulster, where the Ulstermen give them hostages.|
|1111||Synod at Rath Breasail called by Ceallach, Steward of Armagh, Melmurry O’Dunan, “Bishop of Meath” (read “Archbishop of Cashel”), and Murtagh O’Brien “with the nobles of Southern Ireland” (i.e., Munster and Leinster only).|
It was at this synod that Gillespie’s constitution for the new diocesan church was adopted. Clerics from North-East Ulster and possibly even from the O’Neill territory attended, because, as Lawlor points out, only the Connaught clerics are noted as absenting themselves. Later the weakness of Murtagh O’Brien is fully revealed with the growing strength of Donal O’Loughlin (O’Neill). We see, too, that Ceallach’s family are still continuing to elect successors to him.
|1113||Donal O’Loughlin (O’Neill) banishes Donagh from the kingship of North-East Ulster and divides it between O’Mahon and MacDonlevy. Murtagh with the men of Connacht and Leinster come to Donagh’s rescue. The two armies are separated by Ceallach. Later, Donagh is blinded by Donal’s vassal O’Mahon, and Murtagh makes a second expedition, which is immediately met by Donal. For a month the two armies face one another until Ceallach, with the Staff of Jesus, arranges a truce of a year. Flanagan, successor to the stewardship of Armagh, dies.|
|1114||Murtagh O’Brien falls ill and is compelled to resign the kingship. The kingship of Munster is taken by Diarmuid O’Brien without Murtagh’s consent. Melmurry, Archbishop of Cashel, leaves Munster in protest. Donal MacLoughlin (O’Neill) makes a hosting to Rath Ceann, where O’Mahon and the men of North-East Ulster submit, with Donogh O’Lynch and the Dalnaire, Hugh O’Rourke with the men of Brefny and Murrough O’Melaghlin with the men of Meath. Then all go together over the Shannon at Athlone to the fort of Dun Leo, where Turlough O’Connor and the Connachtmen and Niall O’Loughlin and the Tyrconnel men join his hosting. They proceed to Clare, where Donal makes a year’s truce with the Munstermen.|
Donal is now clearly King of Northern Ireland, but it is doubtful if anyone is High King. But Turlough O’Connor is already entertaining ideas of it. Both Donal and Murtagh O’Brien are old men, and Murtagh’s temporary come-back has no punch in it.
|1115||Murtagh O’Brien resumes his kingship and places Diarmuid O’Brien under arrest. He goes hosting in Leinster and Bregia and burns the “Cathedral” of Ardbraccan and many other churches, Donal O’Brien, King of Dublin, and the Danes defeat the Leinstermen. Turlough O’Connor raids North Munster as far as Limerick.|
|1118||Turlough O’Connor with Murrough O’Melaghlin of Meath and Hugh O’Rourke of Brefny enter Munster. Turlough “gives South Munster to MacCarthy and North Munster to the sons of Diarmuid O’Brien,” and takes hostages of both parties. He then marches on Dublin, releases O’Melaghlin’s son, who is a prisoner of the Danes, and takes hostages from these, from the Leinstermen and from Ossory.|
This marks a great transfer of political power, and Turlough’s aims are now perfectly clear. He is aiming at the High Kingship. O’Rourke of Brefny and O’Melaghlin of Meath are now his vassals. He has completely smashed the power of the O’Briens, who had been his greatest rivals. He has first reduced them to being merely kings of North Munster instead of kings of the whole; furthermore he has split the North Munster kingdom in two and given it to two O’Briens, who are content to act as his vassals; above all, he has raised up the free family of the MacCarthys as a kingdom, with the purpose of checking any move they may later make.
|1119||Murtagh O’Brien dies.|
|1121||Donal O’Loughlin (O’Neill) dies. Hostings of Turlough O’Connor into South Munster, one to Tralee, another to Lismore in which he burns seventy churches! Samuel O’Hanley, Bishop of Dublin, dies. Ceallach, Steward of Armagh, takes the bishopric “by choice of the Irish and the Danes.”|
The last entry is very peculiar. Why should the Archbishop of Armagh become bishop of a subsidiary see? The next entry, I believe, shows why. So far Ceallach had got nowhere. It was still merely a fiction of the canonists that he was bishop at all, and to regularise his position he did actually become Bishop of Dublin and establish it as an arch-diocese.
The last entries for the first quarter of the twelfth century bring in the note of tragedy. As we have seen from the last entry already given, there was some friction in South Munster as a result of Turlough O’Connor’s establishment of an independent kingdom for the MacCarthys. For the first time we hear the name of the builder of Cormac’s Chapel. For the first time we hear of St. Malachy, the most famous of the reformers. The stage is set for the battle of the Reformation.
|1122||Malcolm O’Brolchan, Bishop of Armagh, dies.|
|1124||Teigue MacCarthy, King of South Munster, dies. The hostages of South Munster are slain by Turlough O’Connor, including Melaghlin, son of Cormac MacCarthy. Ardgar, heir-presumptive of the O’Neills, is killed by Gelasius, Abbot of Derry, and the people of Derry, in defence of the monastery. St. Malachy sits in the bishopric of Connor.|
|1125||The cathedral of Armagh, having remained a ruin for 130 years, is roofed by Ceallach, Steward of Armagh.|
We can now stand back and take a look at this astonishing historical spectacle. It is extremely picturesque, and, as I have said before, anything but lawless. All these raids and counter-raids are moves in an exceedingly complicated political game, of which the ultimate aim is the high kingship. There are about a hundred states, of which somewhere in the region of ninety, being merely tributaries of the provincial kings, do not count. Only four of the five provinces count: Munster, Leinster, Ulster and Connaught. Each provincial king has within his borders at least one free state, whose rulers are his rivals for the provincial kingship, as, for instance, the O’Neills of Tyrone have the O’Donlevys of North-East Ulster, and the O’Briens of Thomond have the MacCarthys of Desmond, and the aim of each provincial ruler is to compel them to pay tribute, or, failing that, exact hostages for their good behaviour. If they still continue troublesome, he may partition their state and set up two rulers of his own choice, but of the ruling family. Conquest is barred. His aim is not to secure more land, but more vassals to assist him in his claim to the high kingship. When, as Turlough O’Connor later did, he attempts conquest, he breaks the rules, and then there is a real storm. The system operates from year to year, so that the balance of power is constantly in movement.
Within each state the monasteries are organised on the same semi-hereditary, semi-elective basis. The abbots are elected, but from the same sort of family electoral college as the kings (indeed, by this time the poets themselves had been organised as an hereditary institution), and not only that, but their successors are also elected to avoid any friction on the death of the possessor of the title, and at the same time to make sure that he does nothing to lessen the inheritance. Thus when Ceallach was appointed Steward of Armagh, a relative called Hugh was appointed to succeed him; when Hugh died without having attained the succession, an uncle of Ceallach called Flanagan was appointed successor; when Flanagan in turn died before becoming abbot, Murtagh was appointed successor and automatically succeeded on the death of Ceallach, whatever the reformers might think. It was a system which cut out any form of intrusion, and it applied literally everywhere in Ireland. In some measure it applied to bishops as well, though the bishops had little functional place in the system. When Bishop O’Boyle of Armagh died and the reformers ingenuously consecrated Ceallach, the thing was merely ignored. Malcolm O’Brolchan, or O’Brollaghan, one of a famous clerical family from the O’Neill monastery of Derry, was presented to the see. When he died, still ignoring the very existence of the Reformation, a relative, Mulbride O’Brolchan, was presented. It would be a mistake to consider the O’Brolchans as anything but pious and learned men—one of them had been a famous religious poet—but they were priests, as poets like the O’Dalys were poets, because it was a regular family business, a joint-stock company. That is what we must remember when we read of things like the attack made by the O’Neills on their own monastery of Derry when they lost their heir-presumptive; and still more when we read of Dermot MacMurrough’s attack on Kildare when he compelled the abbess “to marie one of the said Dermott’s people,” a polite euphemism for what actually took place. But before we criticise we must remember that both the
Abbot of Derry and the Abbess of Kildare were state officials. Presumably they were either disobeying their lawful king, or, worse still, having become infected with the principles of the Reformation, were trying to alienate property which didn’t belong to them.
The fine new constitution drawn up by Gillespie and accepted by the Synod of Rathbresal was entirely impractical against such a system, and was, in fact, ignored by everybody except Gillespie himself, who strictly defined the boundaries of his own diocese. For the rest, all the reformers could do was to find some official sufficiently enthusiastic to take orders himself, or even allow somebody else a life-interest in a monastery, make the monastery a diocesan see, and leave the rest to God. That was why Ceallach himself took the vacant see of Dublin, although the Synod of Rathbresal, in order to avoid a row with Canterbury, did not even admit Dublin as a diocese; that was why St. Malachy created dioceses for himself or his friends wherever an opportunity occurred.
And that is the importance of the younger princes like Cormac MacCarthy of South Munster, Conor O’Brien of North Munster, Donough O’Carroll of Oriel: men with European connections and ideas who could sympathise with the reformers. No more than Murtagh O’Brien could they abolish ancient rights or install a bishop from another state, but they could give protection and they could give new grants of land for monasteries organised on different lines. But time was important. Within the structure of the real state they had built up the structure of a fictional church, but that fictional church depended on one major fiction—that Ceallach, the Steward of Armagh, was really Archbishop and Primate of Ireland. When Ceallach died and his successor was appointed, the whole fiction threatened to collapse on them.
Here, then, is Melvogue O’Morgar, called Malachy, who with his brother Gilchreest (“Christian”) grew up in the old town of Armagh, sons of one of the teachers. Picturesque the old town must have been, if not beautiful, with its ruined cathedral, its dozen plain stone oratories, its tall, round, detached belfry, and the streets of wooden houses. His teacher was Ivar O’Hagan, and from him he would have heard the life-stories of the early Irish saints and their incredible austerities. In the Irish manner Malachy was naturally a hermit, as a man of action was naturally a hunter. The Irish saints, as Flower says, were Franciscan before St. Francis; they were also Jansenist before Jansenius. Theirs was not a religion of thought, but of profound and passionate feeling.
Ceallach ordained Malachy first as deacon, then as priest, and sent him to Lismore to study. Lismore, the capital of the Reformation, seems to have had a great place in Ceallach’s heart, for it was there he chose to be buried. There Malachy met for the first time Cormac MacCarthy, brother of Teigue MacCarthy, King of South Munster. The two men struck up a friendship. There is scarcely a doubt that Malachy also met there the two principal figures in the Reformation—Meleesa, the Bishop of Waterford, and Gillespie, the Bishop of Limerick. These must have been very different from any churchmen he had yet met. We know little of the former, then a very old man, but that he had been a monk of Winchester. The latter, a friend of Anselm, had spent some time in France, and was a churchman of the Norman type, with the ruthless organising capacity of a military race drilled into him. Intellectually he was head and shoulders above everyone else in the movement. He was the man who had drafted the constitution of the new diocesan church; his own diocese, as Lawlor points out, is the only one which remains in its original form as hammered out by himself. He was certainly the author of the extraordinary fiction by which a mere official like Ceallach was considered to be Primate of Ireland, and we shall see other instances where a dominating will and a refusal to be shackled by convention or custom can only be attributed to him.
That dominating will was soon to be needed. Cormac’s brother, Teigue, died, and Cormac was elected king. Turlough O’Connor chose to take offence and took Cork from the sea. He established Dermod, Cormac’s other brother, in the kingship and drove Cormac out, taking as hostages for his good behaviour his son Melaghlin and two others, probably foster-brothers, who in the Irish system were regarded as closer than any relatives by blood. Cormac retired to Lismore.
Now, Munster had up to this been the citadel of the Reformation, and it was not the desire of men like Gillespie and Meleesa that it should be dominated from Connacht, which had absented itself altogether from the Synod of Rathbresal. The O’Brien family had been the historical protectors of the Reformation, and Malachy was asked to persuade Cormac into joining an alliance with them. Even the form of this alliance is strange, for it would appear that the O’Brien brothers, among whom North Munster had been partitioned, recognised Cormac as King of Munster and surrendered the city of Limerick to him. Leinster and Dublin recognised him too and drove out Turlough O’Connor’s son, and it was at the head of a southern army that Cormac chased his brother and followers over the Connacht border.
It was at this time that Malachy was invited to rebuild the ruined monastery of Bangor outside Belfast. Ceallach wished to consecrate him as bishop, but for a considerable time Malachy refused. St. Bernard was entertained by the picture of the saint as a carpenter building his timber church—“a Scottic work, not devoid of beauty,” he says. But Bangor was in North-East Ulster, that country which the O’Neills hated and feared, and one day they swept down on Bangor, and the Scottic work and whatever beauty it had went roaring to the sky, while Malachy with his hundred monks went to seek another home.
In “Irish Miles,” forgetting St. Bernard’s specific statements on the subject, I made the mistake of assuming that this was in Oriel. There is no doubt that he went to Cormac MacCarthy for protection, and that the monastery which Cormac had built for him was in South Munster, probably on Church Island near Waterville. It was there he had the strange dream of the woman “of grave stature and reverend mien” who said she was Ceallach’s wife and who gave him a pastoral staff. A few days later he learned that Ceallach was dead in County Limerick and had left a will making Malachy his heir in the primacy and pledging the two kings of Munster, Cormac and Conor, to install him.
I do not think I am suspicious in saying that there is something fishy about the will, “a sort of testament,” as St. Bernard calls it. I have no doubt that it represents Ceallach’s secret wishes, but there is about it a sort of impatience with the laws and customs of the little kingdoms, a frenzied desire to override and abolish them, which I find also in the consecration of Ceallach. It is the Norman attitude rather than the Irish one. Malachy’s attitude was typically Irish. He refused to agree “because at that time it was impossible that he should have a peaceful entry.” He knew how Ceallach’s family would feel if asked to give up their long-established business; how the townspeople of Armagh would feel if he did manage to make the good old firm shut up shop; how the O’Neills who had burned his monastery of Bangor over his head would treat his intrusion into their town.
From Ceallach’s death in 1129 until 1132 the primacy remained in abeyance. Murtagh was Steward of Armagh. In 1132 Murtagh died and Niall succeeded him. This was too much for the Roman bishops. They offered Malachy the choice of the primacy or excommunication.
“You are leading me to death,” he replied, “but I obey in the hope of martyrdom, yet on this condition, that if, as you expect, the enterprise has good success, and God frees his heritage from those who are destroying it, all being then at length completed and the church in peace, it may be lawful for me to return to my former spouse and friend, Poverty, from which I am carried off. ...”
That Malachy said all this is unlikely, but the sense is probably correct, and that proviso, if he made it, was to work terrible mischief to the Reformation.
From this on we are very much in the dark about the progress of events. There is a great gap in the main annals, and those which remain reveal only the haziest ideas of what was going on. All the pious monks knew was that it was monstrous, without precedent. They record that in 1132 Malachy took the stewardship of Armagh “at the request of the clergy of Ireland,” acquitting the laity of any part in such a misconceived scheme. They record a truce between Turlough O’Connor and Cormac MacCarthy arranged by the clergy of Munster. They record very hazily an expedition of Cormac and Conor O’Brien into Connacht, from which they returned without “peace or hostages.” They seem to record the burning of the O’Neill church at Maghera by such an expedition.* They are vague and rattled about events in Armagh. “Change of abbots at Armagh,” they record, “Malachy instead of Niall.” “Malachy buys the Staff of Jesus from Niall and removes it from its cave.” “Malachy gives up the stewardship of Armagh for the sake of God.” “Change of abbots at Armagh, Gelasius instead of Niall.”
We must fall back on St. Bernard, who was sparing in his use of Gaelic proper names. For two years, he tells us, Malachy did not attempt to enter the town, but went on foot about the countryside with his monks, baptising, marrying, trying to restore some semblance of order. At the end of two years “the king and the bishop and the faithful of the land came together that they might bring in Malachy, and lo, there was an assembly of the wicked to oppose them.” One would give a great deal to know who the king and bishop were. I cannot help thinking
* Referred to by Lawlor, “Life of St. Bernard,” but I cannot trace his reference.that the king may have been Donough O’Carroll of Oriel, which adjoins Tyrone. On the other hand, Donough was not considered in the will of Ceallach, which is obviously the basis on which Malachy is demanding the primacy; it is the same year as the curious expedition of the Munster kings into Connacht, from which they returned with empty hands, and, if Lawlor’s reference is correct, they seem to have reached Tyrone. If St. Bernard’s “king” is Cormac MacCarthy, then there is not a shadow of doubt that the “bishop” is Gillespie, now Papal Legate, and the whole proceedings assume the significance of a crusade.
In any circumstances the inaction of the O’Neills is extraordinary, and shows how very law-abiding these men were, according to their lights. “A certain man of the sons of Belial,” says St. Bernard, “ready for mischief, mighty in iniquity, who knew the place where they (Malachy and his party) had decided to come together, gathered many with him and secretly seized a neighbouring high hill, opposite to it, intending when they were engaged with other things, suddenly to rush upon them unawares and murder the innocent. For they had agreed to butcher the king also with the bishop, that there might be none to avenge the righteous blood. The plan became known to Malachy and he entered the church which was close by and lifted up his hands in prayer to the Lord. Lo, there came clouds and darkness, yea, also dark waters and thick clouds of the skies changed the day into night, lightnings and thunderings. ... The leader of so great wickedness was struck by a thunderbolt and perished with three others ... and the next day the bodies were found half burnt and putrid clinging to the branches of trees.”
We should be careful before rejecting mediæval miracles; as it happens this particular one is attested; its victims were Tyronemen from the O’Neill coronation-place of Tullahogue, and this may well have alarmed the rest, but behind their inaction there must have been something of the bewilderment of decent men whose ancient laws are being openly flouted by one who appears to have no mark of the beast. After the departure of king, bishop and faithful laity a local prince again decided on Malachy’s death, but, hearing of the meeting, Malachy, accompanied only by three of his monks, forced his way into his house and so astonished the leader of the conspiracy that he became converted. It was not so easy to convert the others, for Niall had fled and hidden the Gospels of St. Patrick and the Staff of Jesus, and, as St. Bernard notes, without these the simple people would not accept Malachy.
The rest is a long story, how Malachy bought back the relics from Niall (who died, “after intense penitence,” as well he might) and then retired in favour of Gelasius, the Abbot of Derry, who thirteen years before had beaten off the attack of the O’Neills. It is the least inspiring part of the story and reveals the fatal weakness of Irish churchmen of the time. One cannot imagine Gillespie doing it or even agreeing to it. Because it was a compromise; Derry, whatever the sanctity of its monks, was still an O’Neill monastery, and the appointment of its abbot was an admission that Armagh was an O’Neill church, and when later we read that the Bishop of Derry consecrated by the reformers was Flaherty O’Brolchan, brother of the man who had been “Bishop of Armagh” during Ceallach’s lifetime, we begin to wonder what the reformers thought they had achieved. At the same time it is only fair to add that O’Brolchan was a loyal servant of the Reformation and joined in the excommunication and final abdication of Murtagh MacLoughlin (O’Neill).
But all that was in the future, and it must have been a happy Munster to which Malachy returned on his first visitation. We read that a synod of bishops attended the consecration of Cormac MacCarthy’s Chapel, which more than suggests that he was there as well and heard the first service held in that lovely bit of pure European civilisation on the bare rock which overlooks the great plain of Tipperary.
In every direction from Cashel there are things worth seeing. Athassel Priory, just outside the village of Golden, some six or seven miles from Cashel, is the remains of one of those great Norman structures which were barrack as well as church. It commands one of the fords of the Suir. Inside the gatehouse is the great bawn into which the monastery cattle were driven. Except for the shrines for statuary at either side, the whole west front, door and window, has disappeared, but it must have resembled the fine screen before the crossing with its shrines, doorway and great frame for the rood. The nave has almost disappeared, but what remains of the east end is on a great scale, with the soaring arches taken off piers. A recent and long overdue clean-up has produced a number of finds, including an effigy and portion of a remarkable early tomb with figures of knights, apparently of English workmanship and equal to anything in Westminster Abbey. Unfortunately, the Board of Works in its wisdom has built it into a wall exposed to the rain, and within a few weeks of its discovery it was already beginning to crack up, and needed only a heavy frost to disintegrate completely. By the time this book appears it may not be any longer there. Another very beautiful incised tomb which you used to have to dig out with a penknife from before the high altar has also been built into the wall.
Holy Cross is about ten miles north of Cashel on the road to Thurles. It is a Cistercian abbey built by the O’Briens, and its possession of a portion of the True Cross apparently made it very wealthy, because it was largely reconstructed in the bad taste of the Irish fifteenth century, with numbers of buttresses which do not buttress anything and Decorated windows which do everything but decorate. It contains fine sedilia and an interesting shrine of the relic.
There is an even better Cistercian abbey at a place called Kilcooley in the foothills of the Slieve Ardaghs near Freshford. It was restored at the same time and by the same masons as Holy Cross, and it is full of interesting details like the peculiar stalls under the tower arch, the excellent screen in the south transept, and the late incised tombstone in the chancel. The complete tomb in the recess on the north side of the chancel is by the O’Tunnys, a family who went in for tombs on a mass-production scale.
South of Cashel are Fethard, Cahir, Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir, four little towns all beautifully situated and all worth a visit. Fethard in the valley under Slievenamon has two monastic churches, bits of which have been restored as parish churches for the two sects. Cahir has the castle which Essex took instead of going to fight Hugh O’Neill, and it is still very impressive. Clonmel is a picturesque wreck of a hole where George Borrow’s father was stationed, and on the main street as you go down towards the handsome old Tholsel is the deserted Grammar School, “where his honour’s son” had the “opportunity of making acquaintance with all the Protestant young gentlemen of the place, the handsome, well-dressed young persons whom your honour sees in the church on Sundays,” and where, instead, his honour’s son struck up a friendship with young Murtagh, who taught him Irish. Those few chapters of “Lavengro,” for all their intolerable covenanting cant, are still the best introduction to Tipperary itself and to that terrible Ireland of the early nineteenth century with its mad Whig Ascendancy and its brutalised peasantry.
Carrick-on-Suir is a pretty little town with a charming Tholsel. In Ireland, as in England, the market-houses are frequently far better than the church. As well, it has the ghost of a beautiful manor-house, “where Anne Boleyn was born,” as the guide and guidebooks tell you. She wasn’t, but this old home of the Ormond family is still exceptional among Irish houses, with its plaster friezes and fine ceilings, which have collapsed, and its overmantel and panelling, which have now been removed to Kilkenny Castle. It is another of the Butler seats, like Cahir, and there is a strange romance about it which tells how Catherine Fitzgerald, daughter of the Earl of Desmond, came to stay here with her relative, the Earl of Ormond, who had married an Englishwoman called Isabella, “the Countess of Wiltshire.” These two great families, the Fitzgeralds of South Munster and the Butlers of East Munster, had had very different histories. Though both to a considerable extent had become hibernicised, spoke Irish and wrote their Renaissance love-songs in Irish, the Fitzgeralds had become much more completely absorbed by the Irish system of life and were almost indistinguishable from Irish provincial kings, while the Butlers maintained their contacts with England.
“The English countess” received her clothes from England, and one day Catherine Fitzgerald dressed up in them and mocked at the Earl because, like the rest of his family, he had married an Englishwoman. She became Ormond’s mistress, and her father, John of Desmond, secretly arranged to meet Ormond on the bank of the Suir by the Cistercian abbey of Inishlounaght, near Clonmel. His horse slipped on the river bank and Desmond was drowned. Meanwhile his daughter had sent a present of poisoned wine to “the English countess,” who had left her husband and was living in Waterford, and both mother and daughter died after drinking it. “After that,” according to the story, “the Earl put her away and Fitzthomas had her.”
Mr. James Carney, who has investigated the story, has shown that it has a basis in history, although Catherine was the sister, not the daughter, of the Earl who was drowned at Inishlounaght; the name of “the English countess” was Anne, not Isabella, and, far from putting Catherine away, the Earl of Ormond attempted to have their union legalised at Rome. It was only after his death that she became the wife of Fitzthomas.
In the north of the county, either on or near the Dublin-Limerick road, there are Templemore, Roscrea and Nenagh. Templemore is principally for Borrow fans, because it is the town where his father was stationed after he had left Clonmel, and its neighbourhood is the scene of the wonderful chapter about the old woman in the ruined castle. But Roscrea is a grand little town with lots of ruins: the ruin of a Franciscan monastery which acts as gatehouse to the present Catholic church; the ruin of a fine early castle, in the courtyard of which is a magnificent Queen Anne house, now mercifully rescued for use as a technical school; and the bare west wall of a really beautiful twelfth-century church which stands at a dangerous bend of the Dublin road, with its belfry isolated in a garage at the other side of the road and a twelfth-century cross beside it. It marks the site of a once important monastery.
A mile or two out from Roscrea on the bog road are the ruins of another in a place called Monaheensha, “the bog of the island.” This is a most romantic spot, for, as its name indicates, it was at one time an island in the boglands, and it had a monastery whose fame was known to Giraldus Cambrensis. The island was known as “The Island of the Living”—Inisnambeo or Insula Viventium—and its name probably gave rise to the legend that nothing could die on it. During the Penal Days Catholics sailed out to it on boats to hear Mass, but then the Birch family drained the lake. Even so late as the early nineteenth century the topographical handbooks describe a second church on the island, “the Nuns’ Church,” but the Birches removed this to decorate their garden, and no attempt has been made to return what now remains of it. The remaining church has a fine carved doorway clumsily restored, an elaborately decorated chancel arch and charming thirteenth-century windows, and it has a reputation for being haunted, which, in my experience, would seem to be fully justified.
Nenagh, on the other hand, would, I think, be quite safe for the most timid visitor. Its ruined church is more ruined than anything you’re likely to see for twenty miles around, and it has a war memorial which is known to its many admirers as “Jamesy Stoney.” On the other hand, Nenagh has great conveniences. I once travelled on the little train from Birr to Roscrea with a number of locals who included a dyspeptic-looking man whom I should have guessed was a national teacher if his conversation hadn’t revealed he was a farmer, and a very fat man from Nenagh. The fat man was in a state which bordered on exaltation. He had been revisiting his old friends at Birr after an interval of forty years.
“And one man stopped me in the street and said, ‘Good God, I heard you were dead!?” he exclaimed.
“You should have told him you were,” said the thin man, with the dry humour of the chronic dyspeptic.
“Like Joe Walsh the mason. You remember Joe Walsh?”
“I do, I do.”
“It was in the papers that poor Joe was found dead, and all the time it was another man. ‘I heard you were dead,’ said a neighbour. ‘Sure I was,’ says Joe, ‘only I didn’t believe it.’ You should have told him you were.”
There was a slight pause.
“Well, as a matter of fact,” said the fat man rather apologetically, “I was.”
Then there was a pause which suggested that we were all suffering from shock. We looked at the fat man incredulously. As at a well-made play, we had ceased to be individuals and become an audience.
“What?” asked the thin man. “Dead?”
“Yes,” said the fat man, as if he were a bit ashamed of himself. “I was laid out and all. Mr. Reilly of Nenagh—you knew Mr. Reilly?—’twas he laid me out.”
“Go on!” said the thin man, and we sat there without a geek out of us, waiting for him to go on.
“I had the coffin alongside me,” said the fat man. “When I opened my eyes they were all so scared they ran out of the room.”
“You wouldn’t be surprised,” said the thin man dryly. “Was this some time ago?”
“Ah, I was only a baby,” said the fat man, as though he were putting this forward as an excuse for his bad behaviour.
We all drew a deep breath and ceased to be an audience. Two young fellows of about sixteen sitting beside me began to giggle at some private joke. The fat man looked at them indignantly.
“I’m telling the truth,” he said to the thin man. “What are they laughing at?”
“Ah,” the other replied, with mournful humour, “people would always be anxious to meet someone that happened to. They’d like to pick up a few tips. But I dare say,” he added, without a flicker of a smile, “you were too young to remember.”
Immediately after the thin man began to congratulate the other on living in a nice civilised place like Nenagh. The fat man didn’t seem to appreciate the privilege as much as you’d expect, or maybe he was only being modest.
“The people of Nenagh have one great advantage over the Roscrea people,” said the thin man. “I can say it because I’m a Roscrea man myself. They’re more polite. Roscrea people are very bad-mannered.”
“Oh, they are, they are!” said two good-looking girls from the same town.
There is no fallacy more firmly maintained in Ireland than that of the complete difference in character between one town and the next. Those who believe that Celts are all “mad, furious fools” and that Anglo-Saxons were “heavy, foolish men with random laws, pale eyes and a slow manner” would have a heavenly time here. But the fat man took the cultural-historical point of view held by M. Stalin and myself.
“Ah, I dunno,” he said.
“The Roscrea people are too fond of the money,” said the thin man.
“And aren’t they the same everywhere else?” asked the fat man.
“Ah, well,” sighed the thin man, “that might be too, but at the same time they’re more polite. On a fair day in Roscrea a man would have no place to leave his beast, but in Nenagh any shopkeeper would oblige you by the use of his yard.”
“He’d oblige you with the use of anything that would bring him custom,” retorted the fat man, who might almost be described as historical-materialist in attitude.
“Even so, even so,” said the thin man mournfully, “’tis very polite.”
I must say in all honesty that in my experience the Nenagh people are polite. Maybe they feel they have to be with a town like that. Or maybe there was something wrong with the Anglo-Saxons.
After Carlow and Kilkenny my favourite counties are, I think, Meath and Louth, adjoining Dublin on the north, and when I say adjoining I mean adjoining, because if you set out to cycle through Phoenix Park you find yourself at the farther gate in County Meath and in the very heart of the Irish countryside. For some reason Dublin has never had any western or northwestern development.
Meath is the high kings’ county, actually a province in itself, and full, not only of history, but of prehistory. If you share my mania for Swift, you may well aim at Laracor, in which case you are likely to find yourself beside the very interesting ruins of Summerhill, a mansion of Cassell burned during “the Troubles.” It is, for Cassell, a most ornate house, and for once he throws aside his usual tight Teutonic style and lets himself go.
Laracor is a disappointment. It contains no memories at all of the great dean, of Stella and Dingley, of Joe Beaumont and the other characters who grow upon you from the pages of the Journal to Stella. “The willows by the river’s side my heart is set upon,” but you are not likely to find them. Trim is also very vivid in the Journal, but there isn’t much left there either, except bits of the Castle and Priory and the shattered sides of the Yellow Tower, which you see for miles round. The best way to see it is as I saw it once in the dusk cycling home from Kells, when Castle and Tower seemed complete and one could imagine what it appeared like to some tired fifteenth-century traveller from the north.
Beyond it is Kells, where the famous Irish manuscript of the Gospels, now at Trinity College, was written, but little remains of its famous monastery except the remarkable collection of pictorial crosses for which Kells seems to have been a centre. One, which tradition says was used as a gallows by the English, fills the mouth of the painted, decorous Georgian street, with which it forms a striking and mysterious contrast. A number of others, complete, broken and even unfinished, are to be found in the churchyard, and all are well worth study, particularly the beautiful broken shaft near the round tower.
The Boyne road from Trim to Navan is enchanting. All this area to the sea is to Ireland what the country north of Salisbury to Swindon is to England. It has the same sense of having been populated from the remotest times and of having gathered together whatever was most striking in all.
Half-way between Trim and Navan a road bears right to Bective Abbey, a Cistercian foundation so ruined that I should hardly advise anyone to take the trouble of visiting it, except for another Cassell house beyond it just south of the Boyne. With Russborough House in Wicklow I should be inclined to place it as his most successful country house. You don’t need to ask yourself if he really built it. We ran into it quite by accident and recognised his hand at once. It is as beautiful inside as out, and we had a very pleasant surprise when the hospitable owner took us to see the pictures and we saw Stella’s portrait among them. It was still pleasanter when we discovered that this is the only portrait of Stella which Mr. Henry Mangan is prepared to recognise as authentic. Originally it was the property of Charles Ford, Swift’s friend, and, according to the authorities, was probably painted at Ford’s house in Wood Park, Co. Meath, in 1723, when Stella was forty-two. The house also contains what may well be an authentic portrait of Vanessa,
Slane, with its four little Georgian houses forming a square, and its little streets where now you can only read the houses as cut-stone inscriptions in the high walls, is one of the pleasantest little villages in Ireland and contains a remarkably good hotel. It has a ruined abbey on top of the hill, and a castle in revival Gothic on the river bank, and a great bridge over the Boyne which appears in the famous lament of one of King James’s army after 1691:
That was the last stand of Gaelic Ireland, and here, too, was its first, for along the river banks are the great tumuli, the burial-places of the early kings, which in mythology reappear as the Palace of the Boyne, the home of Ængus, the Irish Apollo. From Newgrange, with its long tunnels of carved stones and its circle of monoliths like those of Avebury and Stonehenge—a place of mystery if ever there was one—one can look across at Tara, the site of the kings’ palace. The sagas which deal with the two places—as, for instance, the cycle of beautiful sagas dealing with Etain (“Aideen” and her posterity—have more of the mythological element than the other Irish sagas and suggest a kingship which is half a priesthood.
Newgrange, according to the sagas, was originally the home of one Elcmar, whose wife was called Eithne, or Boand (“Boyne”). She was loved by the King of Ireland, Eochaid Allfather, otherwise known as the Dagda, or “Good God.” Eochaid Allfather sent Elcmar on a journey which to him appeared as only a day and night, but which was in reality a period of nine months, during which Eochaid Allfather became the lover of Boand, and she bore Ængus. Ængus was fostered by Midir in Bri Leith (in Co. Longford), and when he was old enough was brought to Eochaid Allfather, who showed him how to get possession of Elcmar’s palace on the Boyne by a trick, taking it for a day and night, which comprehended permanent possession. As a reward for injury done to his foster-father Midir, Ængus wooed for him the daughter of an Ulster king, Etain (“Aideen”) Echraide (“horse-riding”). As a bride-price her father insisted on the clearing of great plains and the opening up of rivers, which Ængus, assisted by his father, the Good God, was able to accomplish.
But Midir’s wife, Fuamnach, struck Etain with a quicken-bough and turned her to a pool of water, which then turned to a worm and finally to a fly. Fuamnach caused a wind to blow the fly away, and after seven years she lit on the cloak of Ængus, who caused a sunny palace to be made for her, where she grew strong on the fragrance and bloom of certain herbs. But once again Fuamnach drove her away and she fell into the golden cup before the wife of a woman called Etar, who drank the wine and became pregnant with a daughter, who was really Etain.
In the second and most beautiful of the sagas Etain, in her reincarnation, is married to Eochaid Airem, King of Tara, and loved by his brother, Ailill Anguba. When Ailill falls ill the physician says: “One of the two pains is in you that kill a man and that physicians cannot cure —the pain of love and the pain of jealousy.” While her husband is away Ailill reveals his trouble to Etain, who agrees to become his mistress, “not for sin or harm, but that one of the royal family of Ireland should be saved from death.” She will not deceive her husband in Tara, and makes an appointment for the hill-top. A man like him keeps the appointment, but it is not Ailill, who has been asleep. This occurs several times until at last the strange visitor who keeps the appointment tells her he is her real husband of a previous incarnation, Midir, and had come instead of Ailill to save her from dishonour. She refuses to leave Eochaid unless he himself consents.
This is the theme of the third saga, in which Midir and Eochaid play chess for vast stakes, and Midir loses. Again we get a repetition of the tasks laid on Ængus of the Boyne, and Eochaid compels Midir to make a great causeway over Moin Lamraige. Then Midir wins his stake, which is “two hands round Etain and a kiss from her.” Though Eochaid has filled Tara with his men, Midir carries Etain through the roof in his arms, and they fly off as two swans to the fairy mound of Femuin (Slievenamon mountain over Clonmel). Eochaid starts to dig it up, and Midir offers to let Etain come back to him if he can pick her out. Fifty women, all resembling her, are sent to Tara, and Eochaid picks out one who is most like her, yet unlike. It is only after he has slept with her that he realises she is really Etain’s daughter, and his daughter by her is exposed in the manner of Œdipus in the Greek legend, and reared by a cowherd. This child, Mess Buachalla, the Cowherd’s Foster-child, was the mother of Conaire the Great, hero of the saga of Da Derga’s Hostel. Eochaid Airem was later killed by Midir’s grandson Sigmall Cael.
Professor O’Rahilly’s work, “Early Irish History and Mythology,” has thrown considerable light on these sagas, but even without this we can feel the esoteric significance of the cycle. O’Rahilly has shown that Ængus, whose other name is Mac an Og, is the Welsh Mabon and the British Maponos, identified with Apollo.
He has shown that Etain’s name, “Echraide” (“horse-riding’), identifies her with the sun-goddess. There is an obvious esoteric meaning in Apollo’s being the child of a day and a night, and again in his tenancy of the Boyne palace for a similar period. The story of the woods is obviously the legend of a pioneer race who have made this part of Ireland habitable. These beautiful stories, so different in quality from the stories of the heroic period, are as mysterious as the trumpet patterns on the circle of monoliths about the palace of Ængus himself, and one guesses as vainly at their meaning.
But here stories of all ages jostle you. For instance, I feel that there is a beautiful story in one house not far from this which I once visited with a party of friends. We saw it from the road, a handsome streel of an early Georgian facade which had lost its original windows, but which had a certain lack of symmetry that made me suggest it was really a reconstructed manor-house. My friend the archæologist disagreed, so we went along to see. It looked as if we should never be able to answer the question, because through the half-open window of a room on the ground floor emerged the head of a Tibetan mastiff, howling for our blood.
I was chosen nem. con. as the person best qualified to speak to the mastiff. I knocked, and the door was opened by a pleasant middle-aged woman, who invited us in. The room we were shown into was a rather long, dull Regency room, but the hall through which we passed was magnificent. After a while a timid man appeared, whom I took to be the butler. He agreed to let us see the house after he had put the mastiff away, and we assured him that nothing would give us greater pleasure than to know he was put away. There seemed to be no servants. The two people were alone in the house and obviously as frightened of us as we of the mastiff.
After we had had a good look at the hall the owner invited us to see the splendid panelled dining-room. By this time it was beginning to dawn on himself and his sister that we were interested only in the house and had no designs on their life and property. They began to expand. They told us of a recent fire in the house and of the kindness of neighbours and passers-by, who had joined in putting it out. They spoke as though looting was the least they had expected.
Pat asked for the name of the family, and the owner mentioned a well-known Norman name—let us call it De Courcy, which it wasn’t.
“You’re here a long time, then?” said Pat,
“Yes. Since the twelfth century. Perhaps you’d like to see the chapel?”
They led the way across the avenue, and there, under the trees, was the little ruined chapel attached to the house. It made me more certain than ever that it was a manor-house converted. In striking contrast to the churches in the care of the Board of Works, it was excellently kept: the floor was cemented, a modern statue had been placed inside the doorway, and on the altar was a beautiful medieval Virgin and Child.
“You see,” he said, “twelfth century.”
“Fifteenth, surely,” said I.
“I think not,” he said. “When we were laying the floor we found a lot of the old paving tiles. Perhaps you’d like to see them?”
He went back to the house and returned with a few. They put my nose badly out of joint, because there was no mistaking their date. They were twelfth century all right. Pat elicited the fact that the old couple did not own the land about the house, apart from one field at the back. By this time it must have been obvious to them that, far from having any intentions against them, we had now transferred our affections from the house to themselves, and when we suggested leaving they pooh-poohed it. We must see the dove-house and then have tea. We compromised on the dove-house and sherry. The sherry was good, but it was the old-world charm and courtesy of that delightful pair which really made us a bit tight. By this time they were convinced we shouldn’t dream of killing them, and were trying to detain us by suggesting other things we might have a look at.
“Wouldn’t you like to see our courtyard?” they asked.
I didn’t say it, but a courtyard was the one thing I had been really anxious to see. A man who has been proved grossly ignorant in his guess at a building’s date needs something to restore his confidence. The courtyard proved that the house was a reconstruction. I have never been so glad to see a courtyard.
I could hardly wait until I got home to look up the history of the De Courcys and their house. Well, I found the house all right. There it was, an old mansion, reconstructed in the early eighteenth century by somebody or other with a Cromwellian name you could chain a Bible to, and the inevitable reference to some eighteenth-century gossip writer who had attended a great ball there and danced with the Earl of Something. But not a word about the De Courcys!
To this day I don’t know what the story behind that charming couple is; their family there since the twelfth century, in a beautiful old house without land or servants; a reconstructed manor-house which certainly goes back long before the Cromwellian who was responsible for it. How did it come into their possession and why should they have desired to possess it?
All that Boyne road is full of interest. A couple of miles north of the river is the very fragmentary remains of Mellifont Abbey—not much more than a striking bit of circular baptistery and a ruined chapel with a good Decorated window. Behind it is the story of the twelfth-century reformation which I have already told, Malachy’s visit to Rome to secure papal approval of what the reformers had done, and of the friendship which he struck up with St. Bernard of Clairvaux on the way—a friendship to which we owe almost everything we know of the history of the Reformation, for St. Bernard made it the main theme of his “Life of St. Malachy.” The great saint on his death-bed was laid out in the habit of the Ulster monk.
Monasterboice with its belfry—an unforgettable picture from the main Belfast-Dublin road—is considerably less inspiring when viewed from close at hand, because little of interest is left but two fine pictured crosses and some gravestones.
The whole neighbourhood is thick with beautiful houses. One of the most attractive is Beau Parc, a few miles east of the dreary little town of Drogheda, at the mouth of the Boyne. Beau Parc is, presumably, a house of late seventeenth-century date, but of anything but late seventeenth-century appearance, with a sunk fence at its gate, a brick front lamentably cemented up, a high roof with spreading eaves and chimneys as wide as sailors’ trousers. As usual, it is attributed to that much-travelled man, Christopher Wren. Without knowing anything of Dutch architecture of the period, I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the architect’s name was Van Wren. The interior is full of interest, with a musicians’ gallery overlooking the hall, and fine bold strapwork on the ceilings of the reception-rooms (the men of the family amused themselves at dinner by aiming the corks of their champagne bottles at the plaster ornaments).
The owners of Beau Parc are the Montgomerys; it is a great pity that they parted with another fine house some eight miles farther on, which reached them through the Robinsons. This is Rokeby Hall, built by Francis Johnston for that famous member of the Robinson family who built Peckwater Quad in Christ Church and was largely responsible for the building of Armagh during his archbishopric. Rokeby Hall faces north, presumably so that the Archbishop could keep an eye on his diocese. From outside the house is imposing but not beautiful. The interior is more successful. The centre of the building is treated as a circle within a square; the bedrooms, in a ring round the stair, are linked by communicating doors which emerge on to a back staircase of stone—an ingenious form of fire-escape. The house is in a sad, sad state of dilapidation.
This country north to the Mourne Mountains is still one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland, with the gentle roll of its low hills and its wide vistas of green and blue. It is the open gateway of Ulster, the country of the sagas and background of the greatest of all the Irish tales, “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” which tells how the boy hero of Ulster, Cú Chulainn, defended the province against the men of Ireland led by Maeve of Connacht, who had come in quest of a famous bull. Cú Chulainn’s own fort is traditionally situated at Dundalk; at Ardee is the spot where he is supposed to have killed his friend Ferdia.
“The Cattle Raid” has been as much fought over as the Brown Bull of Cooley himself. It is generally used as the basis for the statement that “the Celts were incapable of producing an epic” (the charge made by Matthew Arnold and W. P. Ker), but really those who expect to find epic in the remotest corner of Europe should go and search for sunshades in the Arctic. “The Cattle Raid of Cooley” bears the same relation to epic that Avebury, say, does to the Parthenon, and those who can be impressed by the magnificence of Avebury may appreciate the beauty of “The Cattle Raid.”
It was the most famous and popular of Irish stories, That partly accounts for the deplorable state in which it has come down to us, because our earliest manuscript is of the twelfth century, while the Irish in which it is written is of the ninth. Probably the story goes back another hundred years; that means four hundred odd years of copying and recopying, with all the revisions, interpolations and sheer misunderstandings which that involved in the very early days of European civilisation. Another reason is that the centre of Irish civilisation was for some reason shifting and that the Irish aristocracy of letters quarrelled among themselves for the privilege of having given Cú Chulainn a helping hand in his great battle against the army of Ireland.
A great Swiss scholar, Rudolf Thurneysen, has devoted almost half the magnificent book he wrote about the Irish sagas to this one story. He has cleared the text of a mass of rubbish and cut a clean path through what remains. Roughly, his belief is that “The Cattle Raid” was composed in the eighth century, passed on orally until the ninth, when it was written down in two independent versions, and finally rehandled by somebody he calls the Compiler, who attempted to construct a standard text out of the two, and only made confusion worse confounded because he recounts many episodes twice in contradictory forms.
Generally speaking, I think this is correct, though Thurneysen seems to me to minimise the actual amount of rewriting done by the Compiler, which I think was considerable. There seem to me to be two main hands at work in the story. The first I call the Poet’s. The Poet conceived of the story as something in the nature of grand opera, a series of obscure rhetorical chants linked by brief passages of narrative, which in the language of the films were probably “adlibbed.” Much of what editors print as prose is really verse, rhymed or unrhymed, and pitched in a key altogether higher than that used by later story-tellers.
It is the Poet’s hand which seems to be revealed in the wonderful climax. The Connachtmen at last succeed in bringing home the Brown Bull from Ulster, but he fights with the Connacht bull, and after a battle of a day and a night in a Roscommon lake, emerges triumphantly with the wreck of the Connacht bull on his horns. Then, maddened by homesickness and wounds, he sets off on his lonely journey across Ireland, tossing the fragments of the Connacht bull to the four quarters, until, reaching his fatherland, he drops dead. The Celts may have been incapable of creating an epic, but nowhere else in literature that I know is the very nature of war expressed as in those last couple of pages of “The Cattle Raid.”
The second hand is that which dominates the opening of the saga, that of the author of a long interlude called “The Boyish Adventures of Cú Chulainn,” and whom I call the Prose-writer. This man’s work is very literary, and the very placing of “The Boyish Adventures” in the mouths of the exiled Ulstermen at their first encounter with Cú Chulainn is proof of a humanist origin—the long flash-back is a refinement of literary art entirely beyond the capacity of the original story-teller. Thurneysen points out that the exaggerated importance he gives to the performance of the Leinster battalion establishes him as a Leinsterman. At the same time he is clearly wrong in taking this interlude to be part of the original “Cattle Raid.” It cannot be anything but the work of an editor, and at no time could it have been orally transmitted. There are little naturalistic touches in it like “That took place in the presence of Bricriu here” and “I met him in the door of the fort after I had been badly wounded” and “Nine of them dashed past myself and Conor; we were playing chess”—little visual touches which oral transmission would instantly have obliterated.
In spite of the barbaric fantasy which fills his work, the Prose-writer was a deliberate and self-conscious artist of the very greatest ability. He had a powerful imagination and a capacity for fixing it in unforgettable pictorial sequences. His pictures are those of a child; being a barbarian, he has no sense of perspective, and he draws the hero bigger than the house and the chariot bigger than both, but the child has genius; the impression is conveyed. The picture of the little Cú Chulainn leaving home, pucking his ball, throwing his hurley after it and his dart after both, and then running to catch them before they fall, is the picture of every small boy in the world setting out on the great adventure of existence: one never forgets it, as one never forgets the picture of his return from his first foray with a wild deer tied behind his chariot, a flock of wild birds tied with string storming through the air over his head, and the heads of his enemies dripping on his chariot-poles.
“They went after that to Emain (Navan Fort by Armagh). ... He turns the left side of his chariot to Emain, and that was forbidden to it. And Cú Chulainn said: ‘I swear by the gods the Ulstermen swear by, unless a man is found to fight me I shall spill the blood of everyone in the fort. ‘Naked women against him,’ says Conor. Then the women of Emain go out to meet him about Mugain, Conor Nessa’s Son’s wife, and strip their breasts to him. ‘These are the heroes who will fight with you today,’ says Mugain. Cú Chulainn covers his face. Then they seize the hero of Emain and dip him in a vat of cold water. That vat bursts round him. The next vat he was put in boils in bubbles. The third vat he went into he heated till it was lukewarm. He went out then, and the queen, Mugain, put a blue cloak round him with a silver brooch and a hooded shirt. And then he sits under Conor’s knee, and that was his place ever after”
Part of our trouble with this great saga was that there grew up about it a whole group of sagas which had to be reconciled with it. We can see this process at work in a few lines of the saga itself. “In his fifth year he [Cú Chulainn] went to seek arms to the boy corps in Emain Macha; in his seventh he went to study arms and exercises with Scathach [the Amazon] and to woo Emer; in his eighth he took arms.” Some scribe has added the note: “The Wooing of Emer’ contradicts this.” It does, because it makes Cú Chulainn seventeen when he went to Scathach.
Why did this happen? Partly because Cú Chulainn was becoming a national hero, and it was important that he should meet, and be on friendly terms with, men from the rest of Ireland, but principally because he had attracted to himself the story of the man who killed his own son; his residence in Scotland provided the obvious occasion for the begetting of the son, but the storyteller’s imagination boggled at the idea of a boy of seven becoming a father.
The story of how Cú Chulainn killed his son, retold by Yeats in “On Baile’s Strand,” is very beautiful, but generally this expansion was deplorable. “The Wooing of Emer” in the version we know is closely related to two other sagas, “Bricriu’s Feast” and “The Drunkenness of the Ulstermen,” and none of them is good. And these stories were familiar to the third hand, which I can trace in “The Cattle Raid,” and which I describe as the Bad Poet’s. I call him so because he seems to me responsible for all the bad poetry in the saga.
He gives himself away in an interesting manner in his handling of one character. His name is Dubtach, sometimes called Dubtach the Ulster Beetle because of his black complexion. Now, according to the tradition, Dubtach the Beetle was one of the leaders of the Ulstermen who went over to Medb of Connacht as a protest against the treachery of Conor Nessa’s Son in the killing of the children of Usnagh. In the earliest draft of “The Cattle Raid” by the man I call the Poet we find Dubtach in his proper place with the Connacht army, and one of the chants is given to him. But the second man, the Prose-writer, was a Leinsterman, and the character which always appealed to Leinster writers was not Cú Chulainn, but Conall the Victorious. So the Prose-writer quietly drops most of the Ulster heroes, including Dubtach, and quietly annexes Conell the Victorious from his proper place with the Ulster army to bring him on to what the Prose-writer probably thought of as the right side.
But then, half-way through the saga, you suddenly discover that this honourable man, Dubtach, is proposing to his fellow-Ulster exiles that Cú Chulainn shall be killed, and his friend Fergus, who has left Ulster with him, gives him a kick which sends him flying into the next camp. Something has been happening to our friend Dubtach’s character. And not only has he changed his views, he has also changed his name, for in the poem he is called Dubtach Beetle Tongue, and it is clear that the story-teller is fusing him with Bricriu Poison Tongue.
There is little doubt that the Bad Poet is doing the fusing. He also wrote the opening passages of the saga in the form in which it has come down to us. “A great hosting was made by the Connachtmen.” He describes the arrival of the Ulster exiles under Cormac, Conor’s Son. Then, after describing the quest for auguries, which, as Thurneysen points out, shows that he knew his “Æneid,” he goes on with a scene between Maeve and the prophetess Fedelm, without noticing that in doing so he has changed the Ulster leader from Cormac to Fergus. Worse, for he has forgotten to tell us why the Connachtmen made the hosting! The key to the whole story has been allowed to drop out.
Each editor had his own favourite hero. The Leinsterman, as I have pointed out, dropped the Ulster heroes who did not interest him and developed his own, but the Bad Poet went much farther. As Cú Chulainn’s friend in the Irish army he introduced, not another Ulsterman, but a Munsterman, Lugaid, a character whom he had probably picked up out of “The Wooing of Emer.” I am very much afraid the Bad Poet was a fellow-Munsterman. This Lugaid introduces a whole series of duels which Cú Chulainn fights with other old school-friends, and, though I have no evidence but the change of style to offer, I feel convinced that all these old school-friends are a monstrous, sentimental expansion which culminated in the schoolgirl gush of the fight with that other old school-friend, Fer Diad. That episode Thurneysen clearly shows to be an interpolation.
We can, I think, trace a distinct movement in the sagas from the northern monasteries like Armagh to places like Kildare, and from this to Clonmacnois. The Leinster versions seem to me to be incomparably the best. Perhaps the reason is that, as we have seen, in the ninth century there was a fine classical school in Leinster which included people like Sedulius of Liége. There are some very curious links between the sagas which I conjecture to have been shaped in Leinster. Take, for instance, what is probably the best of all the Irish sagas, “Mac Datho’s Pig.” This is about a Leinsterman called Mac Datho, who has a dog which both Connacht and Ulster want. He awards the dog to both and arranges a feast at which they can quarrel about precedence. A gigantic Connachtman, Cet Mata’s Son, overawes all the Ulster heroes by his bragging. He tells, for instance, how one of the Ulstermen got his nickname of “Handwail.”
“Handwail made a cast with a large lance at me. I threw it back and struck off his hand so that it lay on the ground before him.”
Suddenly the door springs open and there enters Conall the Victorious, the favourite Ulsterman among Leinster story-tellers.
“‘I swear by what my people swear,’ said Conall, ‘since I first took spear and weapons I was never a day without killing a Connachtman, nor a night without raiding one, nor have I ever slept without a Connachtman’s head under my knee.’
“‘That is true,’ said Cet Mata’s Son; ‘you are a better fighter than I, but if Anluan Mata’s Son [his brother] were in the house he would be a match for you, and it is a shame he is not.’
“‘Oh, but he is,’ said Conall, and he took Anluan’s head from his belt and hurled it at Cet’s chest, so that blood burst from his lips. Then Conall sat down by the pig and Cet left it.”
For me the most interesting thing in this fine story is the reference to Handwail’s chopped-off hand, because this was something of an obsession with Virgil. In the “Æneid” we get a man’s hand cut off exactly in this way by a spear-cast, and another passage addresses a fighter whose “severed hand seeks its master and whose dying fingers twitch and clutch again at the sword.”
The chopped-off hand returns again in “The Siege of Howth.” There, as my readers may remember, “the king’s hand with half the nut in it was in front of him. The charioteer struck at it with his sword and cut off the hand”; later “Mess Gegra himself tied up his chariot and threw his hand in before him.” But in the line which describes how the charioteer “turned the sword against himself and it went through his back” we clearly have a classical reference, quite different from the usual vague mention of Allecto and Tisiphone. The only other place in Irish literature where I can remember the classical suicide is in a Leinster version of the story of Phædra called “The Death of Ronan’s Son.” In such a context I can only assume that the episode of the chopped-off hand did come from the “Æneid.”
The third story with a Leinster origin is, I should say, “The Death of Cú Chulainn.” “The Siege of Howth” is generally supposed to have been imitated from this, but I have given my reasons for doubting the theory. It seems more probable that both had a common origin. It is sad to think that “The Death of Cú Chulainn” has never been edited or fully translated. Its opening has been lost, and in the fragments which I know it opens with the refusal of the Grey of Macha, Cú Chulainn’s horse, to be yoked. Cú Chulainn reproaches the horse, who weeps over him. Here, once again, we have a clear classical reference. The weeping horse is straight out of the tenth and eleventh books of the “Æneid.” In fact, so strongly is the story-teller inspired by Mezentius and his horse that he forgets for all practical purposes that there were two horses in Cú Chulainn’s chariot, and at one point of the saga makes Conall the Victorious arrive on horseback.
Probably the most famous passage in Irish literature is that which describes Cú Chulainn’s death. He is struck with a spear in the belly and asks leave of his enemies to go to the lakeside to drink.
“‘We give you leave,’ they said, ‘provided you come back.’
“If I cannot come,’ said Ca Chulainn, ‘I will bid you come for me.’
“Then he gathered his guts into his belly and went to the lake. When he reached the lake he drew his hand across his belly and stripped away his bowels. Then he took a drink and washed himself. He left the lake then and shouted for them to come for him. He went a good distance from the lake before his sight left him. Then he went to a pillarstone that is on the plain and tied himself to it with his belt, so that he might not die sitting or lying down, but standing. The men came round him, but they did not dare come near him. They thought he was still alive. ‘It is a shame for you,’ said Erc, Cairbre’s Son, ‘not to take that man’s head for the head of my father which he took and buried at Nia Fer’s Neck.’ Then the Grey of Macha (Cú Chulainn’s horse) went to protect him so long as the life was in him and the hero-light remained about his head. After that birds came and lighted on his shoulder. ‘There used to be no birds on that shoulder,’ said Erc, Cairbre’s Son. Lugaid caught up Cú Chulainn’s hair behind and cut off his head. The sword fell from Ca Chulainn’s hand. It chopped off Lugaid’s hand so that it fell to the ground. They cut off Cú Chulainn’s hand in revenge for it. Then the host set out for Tara.”
I deal with the seaboard counties as groups: first, the southern group, which comprises Waterford, Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Clare; secondly, the western counties. They form the same sort of pattern, centres of European civilisation linked by long tracts of wilder country where the Gaelic way of life has to a greater or lesser degree continued until this day.
Waterford, the most easterly and most influenced by European contacts, has always been a favourite county of mine. When I lived in Cork I liked the long cycle trip along the coast. I never cared much about Waterford City, nor did I hold with the old sailor in Youghal who declared that “the quays of Waterford and the Square of Dungarvan licks the whole world for beauty.” Waterford contains a lot of interesting eighteenth-century work, including a charming cathedral, but I never got inside the skin of it sufficiently to hate it as I have always hated Galway, or like it as I have always liked Limerick. But I loved that road over the moors with the slopes of the Comeragh Mountains behind, and for many years I used to be haunted by the ghost of a little fishing village called Bunbeg, which I had never seen except from the hill above it as I went by on my bicycle. And it wasn’t one of those pleasant ghosts of places which suddenly float into your mind and make you close your eyes to day-dream for a few minutes, but a thoroughly nasty little obsession that used to hit me in the midriff and make me want to chuck my job and go off as apprentice to a tinker.
Oh yes, I have always had a deep affection for that Waterford coastline, for little seaside places like Ardmore, with their cottages all soft pink and creamy peach, their geranium-red roofs and the long, narrow fields that fall to the sea, with the gold of wheat and the pale yellow of barley and oats, the jade of turnips and the dark emerald of potatoes.
It was always a joy when one came to the mouth of the Blackwater and saw Youghal at the other side; Youghal with Ralegh’s house, which you can just peep at, and the parish church (one of the few pre-Reformation churches still in existence) with its monument to the Boyle family. A few miles away is Cloyne, which was Berkeley’s cathedral, though the church itself is gutted, and there is little of interest in it but the fine woodwork of the porch by the west door. This is tamed, civilised country, and its Gaelic hinterland has grown thinner with each generation. Along the Waterford coast is probably the only Gaelic-speaking pocket that counts, though within living memory all the coast from Waterford to Cork must have been Gaelic-speaking. My grandmother, whose native language was Irish, came from a little village on Cork harbour called Aghada; now the only Irish-speaking tract from Youghal to Cork is rather astonishingly inhabited by a settlement of West Country sailor families bearing good Gaelic names like Hawkins. They say you can still tell the difference, because in West Cork, if you make a mistake in Irish, the people will repeat it after you, whereas if you do the same thing in East Cork people will laugh in your face. I think myself that must be a legend.
But there is no mistaking the air of culture and leisure in the landscape. The only Irish associate of Shakespeare’s one can put a finger on is the author of “Ram Alley,” David Viscount Barry, and he can scarcely not have come from Midleton. Just off the Cork road, only a few miles from the city, is Riverstown House, now a farmhouse, a beautiful Queen Anne house with Georgian additions, built for an old Bishop of Cork. The dining-room in this remarkable house was decorated by the Francini brothers, who, as you may remember, were responsible for the decoration of Carton and of Clanwilliam House. As well as beautiful plaster panels around the walls, the room contains a great plaster ceiling which depicts Time rescuing Truth from the clutches of Discord and Envy, which my friend C. P. Curran has identified as a copy of a Poussin picture in the Louvre. The inland road along the foot of the mountains is equally good, and it is worth striking up towards it from Youghal by the fine road which runs along by the Blackwater. Lismore is a beautiful old town into which all the gentleness of the country about it seems to have seeped. The bedroom of the hotel where we stayed was decorated with a set of “The Drunkard’s Progress”: “The Expectant Mother,” “Sick with Remorse,” “The Relapse.” The staircase was decorated with scenes from the Crimea War. One could produce a wonderful exhibition of pictures from Irish country hotels. There is a cathedral of sorts, a seventeenth-century successor of a whole series of churches from the sixth century onwards, of which little now remains. Lismore seems to have been the capital of the Irish Reformation of the twelfth century. Ceallach, the first Primate of the Reformed Church, sent St. Malachy here for instruction, and he himself is buried here. It was here that Malachy struck up his friendship with Cormac MacCarthy, later King of South Munster, who also had a veneration for the spot. We know that, as well as Cormac’s Chapel, he built two other churches here, but of these every trace has disappeared, unless, as I think very possible, the fine figure of the bishop which you can see built into the west wall is a carved stone from one of them. It has a dwindling congregation. The verger remembers when it was a hundred and forty; now only thirty remain, and of these the majority come from the Castle. The Catholic cathedral in the well-known Cork blend of limestone and purple sandstone is a sorry affair, but the tree-lined streets and Georgian houses against their background of pale mountain are lovely.
That is more than you can say for its neighbour, Cappoquin, whose only importance is that the road runs through it up the mountain to the modern Cistercian monastery of Melleray, architecturally to be clearly distinguished from its medieval prototype, for it sprawls there on the mountainside, as unsightly as any other modern Irish ecclesiastical building. In my youth Melleray used to be the place where drunks were sent for a yearly cure, but now I believe the distinction has passed to the other Cistercian monastery of Mount St. Joseph, near Roscrea. There is a wayside pub half-way up, where these unfortunates halted to undo a little of the monks’ cure. The stories they tell about them are endless. One (which was the basis of a story of my own, called “Song Without Words”) was of an English clerical student who was sent there by his bishop to study a little Latin. The life didn’t suit him at all, and he complained to the abbot that he was feeling unwell for lack of exercise. Instead of allowing him to take a daily walk to the pub, the abbot suggested that he might give himself some exercise by taking a hand in the stables. At first the English student didn’t at all appreciate the abbot’s sense of humour, until he discovered that an outside carrier called at the stables and could be persuaded to leave a quart bottle of beer in hiding there for a small consideration. He was then perfectly happy until he found his bottle emptied for several mornings running. One of the monks had nosed out his hiding-hole and was taking advantage of the blessing God had sent him. At this point the English student decided that he knew enough Latin and returned home.
Another English priest went there after a nervous upset and remained for months, enchanted by its solitude and peace. But he still continued to have sleepless nights and practised shadow-boxing to weary himself. One night a poor chronic from Dublin arrived in the last stages of intoxication and was put to bed. The thirst woke him. He went to the washstand and emptied the carafe. As this failed to satisfy him, he started on the water-jug and finished that. In the early hours of the morning he found himself still mad with thirst and with nothing to drink, so he took the water-jug and set off in search of a bathroom. In the corridor outside his cell he saw the English priest shadow-boxing. At first he thought it must be he who had the d.t.’s, but after watching the apparition for several minutes decided it must be the other man.
“How—how long are you here for, sir?” he asked.
“Oh, I’ve been here six months,” said the apparition.
“Jasus!” said the chronic.
I am sorry it is losing that old distinction. It was part of its quality. Now the place of the drunks is taken by pilgrims from all over Ireland. There were charabancs of them outside the guest-house when I visited it last. The apartments weren’t very clean and the food which was served out by the guest-master and another monk wasn’t very good, but it probably is not fair to judge it by so busy a day. The gaiety of the monks themselves made up for a lot. After dinner we men were taken on a conducted tour of the monastery, the women being left behind. They are allowed to eat in the guest-house; there is even an apartment labelled “Ladies? Wash-hand and Toilet Room,” but if they wish to stay they must go and sleep at a safe distance. They are not allowed within the monastery precincts. There seemed to be no vocations among the party which I accompanied through the bare dormitories, the refectory with the name-plates on the tables, the hall with its labelled hangers, where silent monks passed us with bowed heads,
“What do you think of it?” asked the pleasant young monk who acted as guide.
“Cripes, brother,” said one young man in a horrified tone, “I think ’tis awful!”
I noticed that there were no dissenting voices. Afterwards I stayed for Compline in the ugly little chapel with its screen decorated with pictures of the Blessed Virgin, and was bitterly disappointed with the chant. No doubt it was all in a very good tradition, but I don’t like traditions which scamper through the Gregorian Credo. I want to hear it thundered out as though someone believed in it. Above all, in the gallery of that horrid little church, with the dusk falling on the desolate mountainside behind me, and behind the screen, invisible, those men who had abandoned the world, I felt the Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum should at least suggest that they had something to look forward to.
But that is only a superficial view, and even as a superficial view it is not without impressiveness. Looking deeper, you see what Melleray means to Ireland. In its extremest form it is an expression of the conflict between the soul and the world, and every ugly stone of it is a story, tragic or comic. As on any other battlefield, comedy exists in its own right, and nobody enjoys it more than the monks themselves. I once knew two men in Cork who decided to leave the world for ever and become Cistercian monks. They left their comfortable jobs and disposed of their worldly goods. Their male relatives drove them down. The occasion was grave, and the gravity of it necessitated a little alcoholic encouragement. After all, it is not every day that a chap leaves the world for ever. The more they discussed it, the more encouragement they found they needed, and they were finally presented to the novice-master in the monastery in no state to care where they were. Later they returned to the jobs they had left and took up their worldly lives again. That incident just misses tragedy, but it is a real tragedy when a monk who has been for years in the order leaves it. Clerics in general who have all their lives been accustomed to obedience are badly fitted to face the world, and a worse training for the world than a Cistercian monastery affords is inconceivable. For the most part the comedy confines itself to those romantic spirits who imagine themselves equipped for so gruelling a life. One, who got the horrors on the first evening, slipped out of a window during the night, stole a suit of overalls belonging to a painter employed in the monastery, and then raced for dear life over the mountains. That, I fancy, would be my own reaction.
But those who get over their horror learn to love the life, and their piety is of an altogether different type from that of more worldly orders. Like soldiers who themselves have been tested so far that they become almost incapable of criticising one another, they have a large charity which approaches worldliness in everything but its source.
Once I was in a nursing home after a serious operation. I was only just beginning to emerge from the chloroform when the door opened quietly, and there stood a little cleric with a rosy face and twinkling eyes.
“Would you like a drop of fizz?” he asked in a conspiratorial whisper, screwing up his face at me.
I was surprised when I found he was a Cistercian. “Tis supposed to be for my teeth,” he said, “but °tis really for the holiday. I have friends in town. They send me up a case of drink. Usually I go to the Sisters of . This is my first time with these ones.”
In the room beyond his was a mad nun.
“Begob,” he said, “if they only told her she was sleeping next door to a man the shock would cure Her?
He decided that the surgical knives needed sharpening, and took on the job, mostly in my room. There was a very pretty young nun nursing me, and he grew very attached to her. He locked the door and made her listen while he told dirty stories—not very dirty stories, but ones that would pass in a convent for dirty, like the one about the married man with the three hot-water bottles who complained of the cold. “Ah, Sister, you don’t know what Jane is like.’ He made an appointment with her for my room at ten o’clock one night, and when she didn’t turn up said they must have found her out: all them ould nuns were ould divils, and for the future he’d go back to the Sisters of . Next morning the young nun slipped into my room to explain why she hadn’t kept the appointment. She had been put on night duty in the farthest wing. I suspect Reverend Mother must have had a brother in the Cistercians.
I never saw the little monk again, though I went to the monastery to see him, but friends who met him assured me that he was very happy to be back. He said it gave him time to think his own thoughts. And I know that in the eyes of Reverend Mothers, male and female, lay and cleric, it sounds pretty bad, but since the old monk’s death I have frequently found myself thinking that, wherever he has ‘gone, I should be very glad to take my chance—which is more than I could say of any Reverend Mother whom I have met.
Waterford is one thing, Cork another. I once travelled in the train from Kilkenny with an amiable lunatic. “Could you tell me the name of that castle?” I asked, and he put on a grave face, scratched his head and replied slowly: “That comes under the heading of fortification.” “But the bridge!” I urged. “What do you call the bridge beside it?” A look of real anguish came over the lunatic’s face as he scratched his head again. “That,” he replied, “comes under the heading of navigation.”
Something of the same‘pain affects me when I turn to try and write of my native city. “That comes under the heading of autobiography,}’ Just in flashes and for a day or two only I can see it under the heading of topography: a charming old town with the spire of Shandon, two sides of it limestone and two sandstone, rising above the river, as beautiful as any of the Wren spires in the city of London, and the bow fronts which undulate along Patrick Street and the Grand Parade, with their front doors high up as in round towers, and flights of steps so high that they go up parallel to the pavement, because the river flows beneath, and areas had to be built upon street-level. I can admire as if I were a stranger the up and down of it on the hills as though it had been built in a Cork accent. But it doesn’t last. Objectively I am observing, subjectively I am observed, and in a way I know all too well.
That isn’t, I think, because I am naturally melancholy or introspective, or because my memories of childhood are mainly unhappy ones. For a great part of my childhood I was very happy, but ‘I cannot help thinking that towns need to be classified according to their maximum mental age, a which should appear in every directory beside their population. It would be difficult for the average person over eighteen to be happy in Cork. Of course, there are worse towns, towns where the mental age is nearer twelve, and Dublin’s own mental age is not so high—twenty-three or four at best. In the history of the world only a few towns have existed where a man could grow old in the fullest development of his mental faculties, and one of these murdered Socrates.
I came in the heel of the intellectual resurgence led by Yeats after it had spent its main force and before it had begun to go bad. Today it seems strange that such a resurgence should have been necessary, but it was. My father and both my uncles had been in the British Army, and, though I differed from them and from most of the children round me in that I was fond of reading, the papers and books I read were English public-school stories. I do not decry these stories, nor am I worried as much as Mr. Orwell seemed to be about whatever bad principles they may be supposed to inculcate. Children are the last people in the world whose reading you need to censor; they are the most selective of all readers, and can graze on any garbage heap and find only the nourishment they need. These stories gave me great pleasure and also caused me much embarrassment, because I tried to apply the code of honour they contained, and it didn’t seem to work. It wasn’t only my schoolmates who hadn’t read them; my teachers hadn’t read them, nor, indeed, without doing an injustice to their memory, had they read much else either. For an outsider there would have been a good deal of comedy in the picture of a small boy attempting to apply the English public-school code in an Irish national school.
“Did you throw that book, boy?”
“The impudence of it! ‘Yes, sir.’ Come here, sir, and I’ll show you, sir.”
“Who was with you in the yard?”
“I’d rather not say, sir.”
“You’d rather not say,” etc.
It is no use pretending the small boy’s feelings weren’t hurt, or that it didn’t sometimes occur to him that perhaps the writers of school stories were making it up. But he liked the code and preferred the approval of the creatures of his imagination to that of the masters and pupils whom he knew.
All that changed one day when a new master came to the school, a small man with a limp, a small, round, rosy face, a small black moustache and a slight, harsh, staccato voice. That afternoon when we should have been going home he kept us in. There was a strange feeling of excitement in the air, part resentment and part expectation. He went to the blackboard and wrote some words on it in a strange script. Then he stood before the class and taught us our first words of Irish. It was a language we had never even heard of. Before I left to report this strange news to my mother, I tried, for her benefit, to copy the words on the blackboard. I felt sure she would be able to tell me all about them. Then I went up to the new master.
“Please, sir, what do the words on the blackboard mean?”
“Waken your courage, Ireland!” he said.
Very queer words indeed! But even queerer when I went home to find that, though my mother knew nothing of this strange language, my grandmother knew it very well indeed, so well that within a few days I discovered with all a child’s cunning that I had established myself in a position of unassailable superiority in the class. Where the teacher used the word twirseach for “weary” she said cortha, and he did not attempt to contradict her. That sloppy old countrywoman whose manners were a constant source of vexation to me knew Irish better than the master.
That conflict between the imaginative and the real world which had embarrassed me so much was resolved for the time being and never again occurred in so pronounced a shape. Daniel Corkery, the new master, took down the silly old pictures which hung in the schoolroom and placed others there instead. One was a picture of a lane in the city with washing hung across the street, and Shandon, tall and pearly, framed between its high Georgian houses. The second was of a blind old man playing with his back to a group of country people. Underneath in the same strange script, which I thought of then as Irish, was a poem:
I learned it in the way children and adolescents learn poetry, as an incantation, without troubling myself any more about its meaning than later I did when I learned Keats’ odes about what the “hungry generations” were.
But because of that it has remained with me when other verse has faded:
That was the form in which the Yeatsian resurgence reached me, the return to popular tradition represented by the picture of Raftery, the blind peasant poet; the cult of familiar, commonplace things represented by the picture of a Cork laney Its immediate inspiration was then spent; the little theatre which Corkery had established under it was closed, and he himself was turning to the novel and the short story. But it still influenced me more perhaps than anything else that has happened to me since. For prize he gave me some popular retellings of Irish stories, but they had less influence on me than a book I found for myself, Eleanor Hull’s children’s versions of the Irish sagas of the eighth and ninth centuries, and, though I was far from knowing it, with these I reached Yeats’ own immediate inspiration.
I was not long in Corkery’s class, no more than a few months, when I migrated to the Christian Brothers school. Why, I don’t remember, unless perhaps because I may have had to go under another teacher and couldn’t bear it. The monks decided I was not clever and put me into the Trades School, but by that time it made very little difference what the monks thought. When Corkery painted his first water-colour in the city he came out at six on a summer’s morning so that no one might see him, but when he returned at nine on his way to school a small boy was sitting in the same spot with a sheet of paper and a can of water, screwing up one eye to study the view and then splashing the paper with his wetted finger. I was very like that small boy; there are still occasions when I can see myself splashing water from a can. It wasn’t until years after, when I had published some things I thought were poems in a language I thought was Irish, that I met Corkery again, and with him Sean O’Faolain, three years older in age and twenty in gumption.
Apart from the usual miseries of adolescence and (with me) of poverty, our youth was happy enough. We knew that Cork was the most musical city in the United Kingdom—the visiting tenors told us that. It was also the most appreciative of great literature—visiting Shakespearean actors confirmed it. At some street corner Thackeray had heard two newsboys discuss I forget what classical text. We listened, but we must have got hold of the wrong newsboys, or perhaps it was the wrong text. We admired the university buildings, which he had said were worthy of Oxford High Street. Before we knew what the High was like that sounded like a compliment. We liked the Italianate names which some old fogy had foisted on the suburbs at either side of the river—Montenotte, Tivoli and the Marina—and walking along the river banks we remembered Rudin, and the German girls murmuring Guten Abend in the dusk, and I quoted Mignon’s Song:
The town was full of marvellous characters—Chekhov characters, Dostoevsky characters; as in the usual English conception of the Irish you had only to record what they said and produce a masterpiece.
We recorded what they said all right, but it never mounted up to what you could call a masterpiece. We developed the defensive attitude of the provincial to the outsider, and yet were miserable if we hadn’t an outsider to practise it on. O’Faolain ran a paper; I ran a dramatic society which produced “The Cherry Orchard.” We had to drop the line “At your age you should have a mistress,” but we were one better than the company playing “Juno and the Paycock,” in which the heroine had to have tuberculosis instead of a baby. Denouncing my misguided efforts to make a theatre, a priest wrote in the local paper that “Mike the Moke” (meaning me) “will go down to posterity at the head of the Pagan Dublin Muses.” Though not on so high a literary plane, he was of one mind with another local priest who in his sermons deplored “the madness and melancholy of the moderns meandering in the marshes of mediocrity— without God!” Oh, we had characters all right, but they did not respond to the sort of romantic treatment we tried to give them.
And Europe of the literature seemed ever farther away, and walking by myself in the evening I found that Mignon’s Song had a deeper note: You know the house, its roof and pillared line; The hall is gleaming, chair and mirror shine, And marble forms look down with pitying eye: “What have they done to you, poor child?” they cry: You know it well, it haunts me so, There, there, with you, my father, let me go.
Definitely that comes under the heading of autobiography, and whenever I find myself in Cork for more than a night it comes under it with great rapidity. Corkery has ceased to be a writer. A young poet called David Marcus and his friend Terence Smith are producing a magazine there as I write. I cannot prophesy which houses they will occupy on the coast between mine at Sandymount and O’Faolain’s at Killiney. All I can prophesy is that they will be on the coast, so that, in case of necessity, they can catch the mail-boat in a hurry. An Irish writer cannot take too many precautions in the matter of keeping the mail-boat in sight.
But once I am on my bicycle, or safe in a railway compartment on my way into the country, I become—except for a slight tremor imperceptible to all but a fellow-Corkman—objective again. Cork is a big county and a beautiful one, and at one time my work took me all over it. In those days I particularly detested Kinsale, which is in the last stages of dilapidation, but now I should put it above any other town in the county, unless it be Youghal. It is an old town built, for the sake of its harbour, in a spot where there is no room for a town, and the hillside is terraced with splendid Georgian houses, with narrow lanes and pathways running wildly between them, while below, in what passes for the town, is a tiny market-place and a beautiful early church which has the most beautiful and the most angry epitaphs in the country. “Heere Lyeth Dorothy” says everything, which is more than epitaphs generally do. As for the angriest, the Chudleighs were local shipbuilders, one of whom built for Cromwell a boat in sections which could be carted overland to Killarney and used in the attack on Ross Castle from the lake. That man’s son built for the second Charles a warship called the Kinsale, for which somebody else got all the credit—one of Pepys’ friends, no doubt. An indignant family has recorded the facts in elegiacs and beautiful lettering on the family monument. There are several wall monuments, exceptionally good, and the hideous plaster ceiling probably conceals a good roof.
East Cork approximates to Waterford, which is flat, civilised country, West Cork to Kerry, which is mountainous and wild. The coast west of Kinsale, as it grows wilder, becomes in places magnificent. The life there, among the horrid little towns and villages, is equally exciting, at least to a writer, for it combines sordidity with a violence of emotion and a vigour of phrasing which I have never known the equal of elsewhere in Ireland. “If I done a thing like that,” said one old fisherman to me, contemptuously describing another man’s bad behaviour, “the sun wouldn’t shine on me, nor a bird wouldn’t sing to me in Glengarriffe no more.” Even the national teachers’ English is queer. One letter I got in my job was from a teacher, and it ran: “Expenses not yet paid though furnished twicely muchly reduced.” One can imagine the peculiar views of literature held by the populace. “I hear you’re a famous writer,” said a man who stopped me on the road. “I’d like to be a famous writer too, but ’tis bloody hard. The comma and the apostrophe are easy enough, but the semicolon is the very divil.”
The remoteness, the wildnesss breeds eccentricity and insanity, and, begging the pardon of the racialists, who are firmly convinced that a man with blue eyes and fair hair is invariably a moderate and well-balanced individual with a taste for cricket and understatement, the descendants of the English settlers are the dottiest of the lot.
At precisely this point in my narrative, just as I wondered how best I could introduce the subject of Somerville and Ross and “The Irish R.M.,” a small boy of two came staggering up the stairs with what he calls “a king,” meaning a letter from England, inviting me to read the part of Slipper in a performance of that famous book. The producer was good enough to say that I should fill the part perfectly. The ambiguity of the compliment will be completely lost on those who don’t know their “R.M.,” but the problem of introduction was solved.
That extraordinary book, which simply sets out coarsely and commercially to please, is the authors’ masterpiece. They have written other books which had both seriousness and intensity, but none delights me like “The R.M.,” which is diversion pure and simple; a series of misunderstandings, misadventures and practical jokes, turning in the authors’ hands into a sort of game carried on with horrid schoolgirl vivacity. The humour, if you can call it humour, is of the extrovert, slapstick kind you find in stories for small boys. Howls of laughter pursue the unfortunate hero as he breaks his eyeglass, puts his foot through the barometer, or buys the ladder which has just been stolen from his own home. Sometimes the authors decide to be serious, but their seriousness is of the same breed as their humour. Usually it involves a ghost, and when the seriousness collides with the humour the result is a bad accident. In one story, which annoyed me so much that at last I sat down one day and analysed it line by line, the R.M. is visited by the Sweep, so he decides to spend the day elsewhere with his wife and son. Before they leave a neighbour calls for the loan of a ladder, which the R.M. refuses. They drop in at the house of two lady friends, one of whom is psychic, and find them gone to an auction in a neighbouring house. They follow, and discover that the auction is at the house of a mine manager who has committed suicide. At the auction the R.M.’s wife buys a barometer, while he buys a second ladder. While a guest of the R.M.’s and the psychic young lady are playing the piano the R.M. sees the figure of a man in a yachting cap standing beside them. The R.M.’s dog comes back covered in clay, having apparently been rabbiting on the cliffs. The child is missed, and the psychic young lady says she saw him pass along the cliffs accompanied by a man in a yachting cap. Sensation! The dog leads the party to a disused mine; the child is rescued with the aid of the R.M.s newly purchased ladder, which is immediately seen to be his own, the one which earlier in the day he had refused to a neighbour. This story, as I have said in another place, is obviously the original Starky who had an affair with a darky. The Tailor of Gougane Barra used to complain to my friends that there were never enough “marvels” in my shtories, but, begor, in a shtory like that there are enough marvels for twenty tailors. How that extraordinary collection of drain-pipes, umbrella-ribs and cogwheels of clocks manages to produce a thing that moves at all I don’t know, but it does. Perhaps because, with Joyce’s “Dubliners,” “The R.M.” is the most closely observed of all Irish. story-books, but, whereas Joyce observes with cruel detachment, the authors of “The Irish R.M.” observe with love and glee. “The atmosphere of the waiting-room set at naught at a single glance the theory that there can be no smoke without fire.” Not only does that opening sentence of one story bring you straight into the waiting-room of any Irish railway station, it gives you the very accent of an Irish companion on observing it. The flick of the wit sends the phrase spinning. “A path with the angles of a flash of lightning indicated the views of the local cow as to the best method of dealing with the situation.” The dialogue has the same absolute authenticity, and, with apologies to a critic who has argued that the genius of “The R.M.” was Miss Violet Martin, I must say that the dialogue has to my ears an unmistakable ring of County Cork. As a description of a swarm of rabbits, “I thought the face of the field was running from me” is excellent, but I cannot hear it in any but a Cork accent, while as for “Lisheen Races, Second Hand”—the man from the B.B.C. was right: I should fill the part of Slipper perfectly. Nobody born west of the Shannon would.
The terrible old lady from Coole used to say when hesitant Americans only vaguely remembered her work: “No, I am not de autor of ‘The Irish R.M.’” “We work,” she kept on reminding herself and others, “to add dignity to Ireland,” and dignity is the thing which Anglo-Irish literature lacked before her time. When the curtain rose in the Abbey Theatre on a gaol gate before which two poor countrywomen are waiting for news of a lad called Denis Cahel, who is suspected of having turned King’s evidence, Anglo-Irish literature died. “A terrible beauty was born.” Also a terrible boredom. I only realised that years later when I attended a performance of a silly barn-storming play of the nineteenth century about Wolfe Tone. When Tone raised the dagger and shouted, “George of England, this is between thee and me,” a young man got up behind me and called: “As a Catholic I protest against what I consider a defence of suicide.” At least one is safe from that sort of thing in the pages of “The R.M.”
But old Augusta Gregory was right all the same. In our youth we cycled out to the West Cork mountains whenever we wanted romance. The little hamlet of Ballingeary and the mountain valley of Gougane Barra were then the centre of our Irish world. It was Macroom rather than Kinsale that I loved then. It is a dirty old town with a castle, now burned, and a pleasant little market-house in a good nineteenth-century manner. But it marks an older market-house, and there one day in 1768 a daughter of O’Connell of Derrynane, staying on holiday with her sister, Maire Baldwin, in Macroom, met a young Austrian officer, Art O’Leary. Eileen at the time was a widow, still in her teens, and she fell wildly in love with him. In almost any house west of Macroom they could have quoted you her own words. How often one heard them!
And that was no bad choice... .
In her father’s house they were bitterly opposed to the match. The O’Connells were notorious for shrewdness, and O’Leary for his love-affairs. Their marriage, its tragic end and the extraordinary poem she composed sum up the whole history of West Cork—one might say of Ireland—in the eighteenth century. In 1691 William III shipped 14,000 of the Irish Jacobite Army, including scions of every great house in Ireland, to take service with Louis XIV, thus bringing his Irish Brigade to 20,000 men. At the same time the King of Spain had five Irish regiments, and almost every European state, including Russia, had its share. All through the eighteenth century the privateers worked, reinforcing these regiments, and, meeting the French recruiting officers on the roads, the wandering Irish labourers sang:
Eileen’s own family were smugglers in a big way; they smuggled in the wine and the silks, and smuggled out the recruits. As the English had no truck with Catholics, most of her own family had, like Art O’Leary, to seek advancement abroad: her brother Connell, “Connell that died by drowning”; and her sister Abby, who “went across the water to be a queen’s companion,” for Abby was not only the wife of an O’Sullivan who was one of Maria Theresa’s officers, but was also herself a friend of the Empress. Her husband died as Brigade Major of Prague. It was to another O’Sullivan, Murty Ogue, a cousin of the Derrynane O’Connells, that Maria Theresa presented a sword. He, too, came home to become a smuggler like the O’Connells; his boat with her eight guns lay anchored in sheltered harbours round Bantry, and in war-time he flew the French flag. Like the rest of the returned aristocracy, he was hunted down; betrayed by a nephew, he was trapped in his home, killed, and his body dragged through the sea behind an English warship to Cork, where his head was spiked on the gaol gate. There, too, his old servant was hanged, and on the night before his execution he composed a lament, not for himself, but for his master. Murty Ogue’s nurse composed a second lament, well known in Callanan’s version:
It was the story of every great Irish family of the eighteenth century. We see them pass through the pages of Saint-Simon, their pedigrees in their fists, for commissions, marriages, influence, everything depended on these. Over the fireplace in Desmond MacCarthy’s home is such a pedigree which no Irish aristocrat dare leave home without bringing with him. In the churchyard of St. Mullin’s is the epitaph on “Gerty Shortall, alias Kavanagh, who died May ye 27th 1767, aged 81 years. She was daughter of Mr. Maurice Kavanagh, and sister to General Kavanagh who died in Germany.” Another Kavanagh was Governor of Prague, a third became Baron de Ginditz. Michael Kelly, Mozart’s acquaintance, describes his own confusion when addressed in Irish by a group of Austrian officers, and his tactful reply to the astonished question of the King of Bavaria as to why he did not know his own language, that “in Ireland only the lower classes spoke Irish.”
The astonishing thing is that so many of them returned to a country “where only the lower classes spoke Irish.” Here and there we still light on traces of that terrible, gnawing homesickness of the Irish armies abroad. One evening in a Longford cottage I heard an old man describe the adventures of an ancestor of his own in the eighteenth century, and that ancestor was no figment of his imagination, for he could be traced in French history.
When the Protestants of Ballinya refused to let Catholics enter the town to buy or sell, that O’Reilly gathered some friends and drove them from the town at the point of the gun. Then he took shelter with a farmer in Meath. “The farmer betrayed him to the English. The maidservant knew it. When she brought him a herring for his breakfast she said: ‘There is a fellow that will never be cut up for his guts.” He knew it was a warning and ran out the back door. He saw the soldiers coming up the lane. After that he took ship for France. He married a lady of title and property in the Isle of France—the Isle of France, that’s what grandfather called it. He beat off Wellington’s army on the heights over Old Saragossa. When he was old and doddering he escaped from home. They found him in a seaport town, looking for a ship, and when they brought him back he cried like a child. ‘I want to go back to Ballinya,’ he said. ‘I want to go back to Ballinya.’ ” One can almost understand the author of an Irish pietistical work, written on the Continent, who argues the identity of Luther and Lucifer by the fact that the latter had kept the souls of the just in banishment from grace until the coming of Christ, while Luther had driven the Irish race into exile.
But at home the position of aristocrats like Art O’Leary and Murty Ogue O’Sullivan, who had mixed with the best blood in Europe, was intolerable. As Catholics they were not entitled by law to possess a horse worth more than five pounds. An English planter named Morris offered O’Leary the legal sum, and O’Leary replied with a blow. Then he had to hide, and Eileen O’Connell accompanied him and, tradition says, loaded the guns when their house was surrounded by the English. Finally, in 1773 O’Leary was captured and killed in Carriganimma, “perish it, name and people”! He is buried in Kilcrea churchyard, where his epitaph can still be read—“generous, handsome, brave,” three epithets it would be impossible to conceive united on an English tomb, so completely do they express the Irish ideal of manhood. Art’s brother is supposed to have killed Morris in Cork, after which he, too, had to leave for France. Conor O’Leary, Art’s son, became an exchange agent who handled the financial transactions involved in the smuggling and recruiting business.
It is all there, all West Cork of the eighteenth century: the pride of ancestry and centuries of hierarchical tradition which Egan O’Rahilly had already captured in one line that was always on Yeats’ lips: “My fathers followed theirs before Christ was crucified.”
There is the tragic intensity of loss expressed in one vivid image:
And then the tragic release, when the writer, already, like Cleopatra, beyond her grief, remembers the old-fashioned lightless schoolhouses of the poets, and, turning to the professional mourners, says:
That poem expresses all that we found in the country beyond Macroom, in Ballingeary and in Gougane Barra. It could be summed up in Lady Gregory’s word, “dignity.” And for some of us the best thing even there was the Tailor’s house on the little mountain road that leads up to Gougane Barra Lake from the main road between Cork and Bantry.
The Tailor, when I knew him first, was over eighty, a crippled little Kerryman with soft, round, rosy cheeks exactly like a baby’s and two brilliant, mischievous baby eyes. His eyes were the first thing that attracted you. He had no teeth, and he spoke very fast from far back in his throat, and talk and laughter mixed and bubbled like water and wind in a pipe. Most fine days he sat on the road outside his house, maybe minding the cow, but never doing anything much else in the nature of work; the most approachable man in the world, for he had no slyness and distrusted no human being, wherever he might come from. If a Chinese had happened to pass the way, the Tailor would have saluted him politely and asked him how the divil things were by them in China, and, if the man was an intelligent, conversible sort of man who could pass a shrewd comment or crack a joke, the Tailor would have brought him home to Anstey, his wife, and accepted him as a friend along with Kirsten, the Danish girl, Ripley, the American, Seumas, the sculptor, and the English colonel—his “scholars,” as he called them.
Not only did he not distrust people, but, what is much rarer in Ireland, country or town, he did not distrust ideas or conventions. I could not say if this was charity, natural good breeding or simple intellectual independence, but, if someone had dropped in an auto-giro and offered the Tailor a lift, the old man would have gone without giving it a thought, in spite of the shrieks and curses of Anstey. “Take the world easy and the world will take you easy,” the Tailor told her, but he never managed to get her to appreciate it, because she was a woman of the ancient world, and love and hatred stuck like hooks in her heart.
There are only two dialects of Irish, plain Irish and toothless Irish, and, lacking a proper acquaintance with the latter, I think I missed the cream of the old man’s talk, though his English was very colourful and characteristic. But I noticed how almost every phrase he spoke was rounded off by an apt allusion. When Anstey hurried, the Tailor, enthroned on his butter-box by the fire, reproved her and instantly followed up with the story of the Garlach Coileanach’s mother. “A year is past since my mother was lost; she’d be round the lake since then.” Or when someone spoke of a girl having a baby he came back with: ‘“She’s having last year’s laugh’s cry.” In Irish, poems, rhymes and proverbs tumbled from him literally in hundreds.
He had all the traditional stuff—the pishogues about the fairies and the pookas, and the witch-doctors born on Good Friday and christened on Easter Sunday, whose power was entirely in their thumbs. He remembered when a cock who grew old was not killed, but plucked and put out on the mountain to die—some savage offering. All that was part of his environment, and it was probably only his fluency and sheer delight in storytelling that made him so much more impressive than other old shanachies I have met. But it was his character which kept him from succumbing to the charms of the invisible world and maintained his lively curiosity about the real one. He was excellent on the history of the parish, on the old days and the faction fights between Cork and Kerrymen which took place in these mountains. He described the Horgan family of Kenmare, whose landlord was attempting to suppress the faction fights and warned them that if they attended another they would be evicted, and how they all preferred to face the workhouse or the emigrant ship rather than let down their kinsmen. He described Sean Mor Lucy, the most powerful man ever was in these parts, with his cry of “Two o’clock and not a blow shtruck yet,” coming late to the faction fight because he had met a bull and never passed a bull without fighting it. It was the same Sean Mor who was nearly beaten by a black wrestler at the fair of Macroom and was saved only by a neighbour shouting: “What do you stand on, Sean?” “Because,” the Tailor added to my astonishment, “the black man’s weakness is in his shin and his elbow.” How, I still wonder, did folk-lore, which can never get anything right, pass on such an extraordinary bit of information as the anatomical formation of a negro’s foot?
But the Tailor was at his best as a yarn-spinner, and I never heard a better. Unlike the usual traditional storytellers, whose stories have been transmitted to them from previous generations and whose own creative powers seem to be non-existent, the Tailor could take a simple little incident of life in the valley, embroider it here and there with a traditional touch, and it became a masterpiece. So, for instance, with the story of the inquest in Mr. Cross’s book on him, and with the story of his friend Jerry Coakley, “The Captain.” The Captain had a cat called Moonlighter, who, according to the Tailor, was so bleddy human that he always joined in the Captain’s favourite patriotic song, “We’ll plant a tree in Ould Ireland.” One night the Captain, who slept stark naked, found himself with a terrible toothache. In anguish he left his little hut and ran down the road towards the river, followed by Moonlighter. He buried his face in the icy water till the shock killed the toothache, and then, seeing that it was a fine moonlight night, he thought he might as well put in a little poaching. He caught a salmon and tossed it on the bank, but Moonlighter dug his teeth in the salmon, who gave a mighty leap which carried himself and Moonlighter back into the river, where the Captain had the divil’s own job to rescue the cat.
The pleasantest Christmas of my life was spent in the inn in Gougane Barra, though most of the day I was with the Tailor and Anstey. On Christmas Eve the valley was like something out of a fairy-tale, with the still mountain lake mirroring the little white cottages and the little grey fields by day, and at night a hundred candles from a score of cottages. There was only one other visitor at the inn, a middle-aged woman who said she had come there for a quiet holiday. Anstey made great play of that; herself and myself to be all alone in the hotel and no wan at all to oblige the poor woman; what would she think the men of the county were like? The cottage was nearly full after supper, a row of old men sitting on the settle with their hats down over their eyes and their sticks between their knees, while the Tailor sat by the fire in front of them on his butter-box. I brought the whisky and the Tailor supplied the beer. I have never seen the Tailor in better form. He knew I wanted the words and music of a beautiful song which had never been recorded, and he had brought down the only old man in the locality who knew it. The talk began with stories of ghosts and pookas, and then the Tailor sang his favourite song, a version of the Somerset song, “The Herring.”
Then it was the turn of the other old man, and he hummed and hawed about it.
“’Tis a bit barbarous.” “Eyen so, even so,” said the Tailor, who had his own way with censorships, “’twasn’t you made or composed it.”
“That’s a powerful line,” interjected the singer after the Gaelic words buidheachtan na gréine. “There’s a cartload of meaning in that line.”
The tune was exquisite and there was nothing in the song you could call barbarous except the young woman’s warmly expressed objection to sleeping alone instead of having a companion to “drive the geese” with her. But with the whisky it loosened the tongues of the old men, and they quoted with gusto the supposed dying words of Owen Roe O’Sullivan and told scandalous stories about the neighbours, and then the Tailor sang his party piece about the blacksmith:
Late that night as we stumbled out along the little causeway from the cabin to the road one of the old men slapped me vigorously on the shoulder and roared: “Well, thanks be to the Almighty God, Frinshias, we had wan grand dirty night.” I admit that at the time I was a little surprised, but, remembering it afterwards, I felt that to thank God for a good uproariously bawdy party was the very hallmark of a deeply religious mind. I don’t know, but I commend the idea to moralists,
But then a young man from London came to live in the neighbourhood, to whom the Tailor became deeply attached, and Mr. Eric Cross began to write down his stories and sayings in a little book which appeared as “The Tailor and Anstey.” For those of us who knew the old couple it is beyond criticism, for it preserves them for us in all their warmth and humanity. That the Tailor saw nothing wrong in the idea of a book goes without saying; he no more minded it than he would have minded an airman or a Chinese. But I still blame myself for not realising that to all good Irishmen a book is anathema. Mr. De Valera’s Department of Justice banned the book as being “in its general tendency indecent.” Then three priests came to the cabin one day, and that dying old man was forced to go on his knees and burn his own copy of the book at his own hearth— “eight and sixpence worth,” Anstey continued to echo mournfully. To her eight and sixpence was a week’s income. This was followed by a boycott; the cottage where night after night you had seen a half-dozen men sitting on the settle with their hats over their eyes was shunned as if it had the plague.
Yet in Ireland there were professors, priests, folklorists by the hundred who had accepted the hospitality of that kind old couple, and been glad to listen, as I had, to the “indecent” talk round the fire at night, and none of them had the courage to protest but one pious Catholic reviewer in the Sunday Independent, who had enthused over the book on its appearance and had the courage to repeat his statements word for word when the campaign against it began.
But the one man who really took up the case was no advocate of Gaelic Ireland, but a Southern Unionist, Sir John Keane. He raised it in the Senate, and Mr. De Valera’s stalwarts, no longer content with attacking the book, attacked the old couple about whom it was written —“a dirty old man” and “a moron.” Nobody who does not know the Irish countryside can realise the extent of the tragedy which descended on that old couple at the end. of their days. “When people are as old as we are there is little more the world can do to them,” the Tailor said, masking his grief with philosophy. But Anstey had never learned philosophy. You could see the old woman was eating her heart out.
Then the Tailor died, the happy, holy, peaceful death which anyone who knew him would have expected for him; Anstey went to the District Hospital, and there she too died. And then when Mr. De Valera’s buffoons had made laughing-stocks of themselves by banning several works of Catholic piety, and even to conciliate their own supporters had to invent some machinery for ridding themselves of the odium they had brought on their country, they established a Censorship Appeal Board.
And, lo and behold! it was instantly discovered that “The Tailor and Anstey” was not, after all, an indecent book and might safely be put into the hands of anybody. Strangely, up to that moment not one member of that Appeal Board had felt it necessary to express any view about the book when it might have meant so much to a poor old man and woman. When they did nerve themselves to speak it was too late. No friend or neighbour could come rushing up the Gougane Barra road to tell the Tailor that he was not after all “a dirty old man” and Anstey that she was not “a moron.”
But one lesson it did teach me, and others too, I think: that it would be far better that the language and traditions of Ireland should go into the grave with that great-hearted couple than that we should surrender our children to the professors and priests and folklorists.
Kerry is remarkable for its scenery—when you can see it, which, owing to the appalling weather the county enjoys, is very rarely. It is a continuation of the mountain and lake country on the West Cork border, and it can be ravishing, particularly at evening, when the golden light brings up the deep blues and browns of mountain, sea and lake. If it would only stay dry for a few days on end it would be the finest country in the world.
There is not much to see except the scenery; the towns, with the exception of Tralee, are terrible. Outside Tralee there is the old ruined diocesan centre of Ardfert, with the remains of a rather fine Early English cathedral and abbey and bits and scraps of excellent Romanesque. The builders of the cathedral made an attempt to take in the decorated front of the old Romanesque cathedral, but the shooting was bad, and they only scored a near miss, which makes the front look very odd indeed. Near the shore of Dingle Bay in one of the wildest spots in Ireland, Kilmalchedar, is the ruin of another beautiful little Romanesque chapel, on the site of a very early anchoritic monastery.
The capital is Killarney, which the Romantic movement turned into a sort of tourist resort. In itself it is a depressing hole, too wealthy for its lack of taste, and infested by hotel-keepers, touts, jarveys and boatmen, all with a glib flow of patter which also probably goes back to the Romantic movement. But on the lakes or on the hills above them you are in the world of Scott and >Vigny. The most striking spot is the little twelfth-century church of Aghadoe, which has a doorway whose design you can trace through the little church of Clonkeen outside Limerick to the church on Holy Island in Lough Derg. It commands a tremendous view of lakes and mountain.
There is a monument near the railway station to the Four Kerry Poets, by Seumas Murphy, the Tailor’s friend, though poets is a large word to use of any of those commemorated by it. The best of these is Egan O’Rahilly, who is buried by the lake in Muckross. O’Rahilly was a typical specimen of the Irish literary man of the early part of the eighteenth century, entirely dependent on patronage, and completely astray after the disappearance of patronage overseas in 1691. He was quite prepared to sing for the new breed of English planters, but they had no use for his praises. In one tragic little poem he goes for patronage to Valentine Browne, Lord Kenmare, and comes away empty-handed.
According to tradition, he died in his sister’s cottage on the shore of Dingle Bay, opposite the long golden strand of Inch, and his body was brought over the mountains into Killarney. It was there that his “Last Lines” were composed as he lay, dying and hungry, listening to the waves lash the strand:
The second poet, Owen O’Sullivan, comes of a later generation, which had lost even the tradition of patronage, for where were patrons to be found? The O’Connells in their ugly house in Derrynane, where the French privateers ran in with the wine and silks and out again with the young recruits? A meal and a bed by the fire was as much as a poet could hope for there. O’Sullivan was the Irish irresponsible as a hundred years of irresponsible government had fashioned him, “The Wild Irish Boy” who was only wild because nothing was to be gained by industry. He got a girl into trouble, joined the British Army, served with Rodney on a famous victory and wrote a poem on it in quite passable English; won his discharge and drifted back to Kerry to eke out rural schoolmastering at five or ten pounds a year with whatever he could make as a wandering labourer in harvest-time. One of his best poems is addressed to a smith called Fitzgerald, sending him a spade for repair:
His reputation among the country people has become slightly confused with that of Priapus. Describing his death, they say the woman of the house, not knowing whether he was alive or dead, got a girl to hoist her skirts before him, whereupon O’Sullivan opened his eyes and recited a quatrain beginning “Nine and twenty young women I have seduced.” A more poetic version, probably equally authentic, describes how he asked for a pen, but could not write with it, and said: “The poet is weak indeed when the pen falls from his hand.”
I remember one summer evening sitting on the cliffs at Dunquin and showing some old men a photograph of an acquaintance of theirs and mine, a professor. They were shocked to learn that he wasn’t married, “A man like that with good money! He could well afford it.” Then and there there sprang up one of those endless abstract arguments, trials of wit which Kerry people delight in,
“Owen Roe O’Sullivan, the greatest poet who ever lived,” shouted one old man, “he wasn’t married.”
“If he wasn’t,” said his antagonist, with murderous calm, “he had a fling here and a fling there, and I’d have no complaint of the professor if he did the same.”
The curiously donnish traditions of this very literary poetry, which I fancy still continues in a degraded form, has had perceptible effects on Kerry English, which is inclined to be ornate and eloquent. I quoted one example from a Kerry paper in “Irish Miles”: “Father is staying with his friend Father at the house of the latter’s father. The advent of our young priests makes the sun to shine brighter and the wind blow sweeter from our lovely old hills.” In Listowel you can drink in a pub which has inscriptions in three languages: “Erin go Bragh,” “Maison de Ville” and “Spes Mea in Deo.”
But as the cattle-dealer in Roscrea once told me, “a good Kerryman’s great.” My tailor, Mr. G., was a Kerryman, a sharp-tongued, keen-witted little man to whom I was very attached. Mr. G. would never say a man was cowardly; he would say he was “pusilannimous,” and if you drove him too far he would add that he was “Jacking in the manly virtues of what Virgil calls Bet!
“Mr, O’Cannor,” he said to me once (like most Kerry people, he used the old West Country pronunciation which Ralegh is supposed to have made fashionable at Queen Elizabeth’s court and on which Hamlet bases his filthy pun about the “trapics” and the “mouse-trap”), “whaat would you say is the greatest line in aall literature?”
“I couldn’t say, Mr. G.,” I replied.
“Mr. O’Cannor, the greatest line in aall literature is by the English poet Crashaw: Lympha puella deum vidit et erubuit.”
“I’m afraid I have no Latin, Mr. G.”
“‘The maddest waater saa her Gad and bleshed,’ Mr. O’Cannor.”
He wrote to the literary papers pointing out their errors in English, but, as literary journalists never know English, they probably had no idea what he was talking of, and the letters remained unpublished. When I asked him his reason for his great interest in language, he told me a story which I know to be manufactured, but he told it with such gusto that he almost persuaded me it had happened. Perhaps, indeed, it had, for in Kerry queer things do happen.
“When I was a small boy at home there was a very decent farmer called Tim Leahy living a short distance away from us on a high rocky place. Tim was fond of his little drop, and, like most of the farmers round, when he got it he wasn’t used to it. One day I saw him in town the worse for drink. I knew that rocky path up to his home, and I was in dread he’d come to grief on it. I thought it would be a real act of kindness to take the poor man home, so I did. He was so drunk that while I knocked I had to put him leaning up against the wall. Then a voice inside asked, ‘Who is there?’ and, just as I was on the point of answering, that poor drunken man drew himself erect and replied, ‘It is I, Timothy Leahy’ —a saying I never forgot.”
Mr. G. had taken first place in English for all Ireland, and his father had intended him for a professional career. The old man was known locally as “Honest John.” “He was a just man and he loved the truth. If one of the workmen spoiled a job and was in danger of excusing himself with a lie, my father would try to coax the truth out of him. ‘Tell me, Mick,’ he’d say, with a smile, ‘was it a little drop you had taken?’ “For Gods sake tell me no lies!’ he would cry if they still tried to blind him. ‘They degrade the man who tells them, but even more they degrade the man they’re told to.? When I said I was going for the tailoring and wanted to be apprenticed to him, he got very black. He took out his wallet and handed me a five-pound note. ‘Go and fee your own attorney,’ he said. He would never teach me anything. He kept me on at the trouser-making. That is a job that would break any man’s spirit. At last I said to him: ‘I can learn nothing more here, sir. I must go to Todd’s in Limerick.? When I was leaving home he gave me some advice. He was in a very difficult position, and I saw it. He wanted to beg me to be honest, but he couldn’t; it would degrade me too much to assume I could ever be anything else. At last he said:
“‘Now that you are going out into the world, there is only one thing I will beg of you: never to debase yourself by the disgusting habit of keeping your hands in your pockets. I needn’t tell you to keep them out of other people’s.’ ”
A good Kerryman’s great!
And how much modern Ireland owes to Kerry eloquence! Daniel O’Connell was a nephew of the Eileen O’Connell who wrote the great “Lament for Art O’Leary,” and perhaps, like another famous orator of the time, Curran, he received his first ideas of eloquence from such extempore laments. Like Eileen, he grew up in that strange, ugly old smugglers’ house we can still see between the wild Kerry mountains and the Atlantic, a house Selma Lagerlof would have loved, with its army of retainers and fosterers. He got his education in the only place where a young Irishman of his time could have got it—France—and returned to take up the law in a country where it forbade his ever becoming a judge or Member of Parliament. He saw the Parliament, such as it was, abolished, and it roused whatever passion of patriotism there was in him—strange that a Catholic Irishman could have felt loyalty to such an institution. The Bar, of which he had the honour of being a member, was (always excepting the bench recruited from it) as corrupt a body as it would have been possible to find even in an age notorious for its venality. The law existed for the sole purpose of exploiting five-sixths of the population, for, as Merryman put it—
O’Connell was something unprecedented in the courts. He was, like Owen Roe O’Sullivan, the Catholic Irishman of the wild seaboard as a century of outlawry had fashioned him, and he had the outlaw’s attitude to the law. It is clear, for instance, that dignity would have availed him nothing. Like many an Irishman before and after him, he had to depend upon what Tennyson called “the lyrical and humorous qualities of the Kelts”—“Irish charm,” if you insist. He had to be an entertainer, to take the measure of some brutal, half-witted judge or corrupt jury and flatter them with laughter or melt them with tears. Somewhere or other he boasts that there never was a time when he couldn’t do it—a terrible admission. He learned all the arts of cajolery and scurrility.
He was a brilliant cross-examiner, for he was one of the people and knew their form of casuistry. It was one of their weapons against foreign courts, and it still goes on in a most unpleasant way. In a certain town in the west of Ireland, for instance, there used to be a man who swore never again to take a drink, inside or outside a public house, and for the rest of his days drank with one foot in and the other out. Mr. O’Faolain, in his fine “King of the Beggars,” tells the famous story of how O?Connell caught out one witness who kept on repeating of somebody who was supposed to have signed a will that “there was life in him,” meaning merely that somebody had put a fly into the dead man’s mouth. O?Connell in cross-examination could tear holes through witnesses like that, because, in fact, that was exactly the sort of mind he had himself. It is the outlaw’s mind, the smuggler’s mind. When later he boasted that there wasn’t an Act of Parliament which he could not drive a coach and four through, he implied that behind the law there were no realities, merely words, and that is precisely what our rural casuists imply. It is a most dangerous type of mind, and nothing can save the possessor of it from eternal damnation except passion, because, of course, every time you tinker with objective truth you tinker with the subjective capacity for perceiving it, and the only result is that personality itself withers away. Reading Mr. O’Faolain’s biography, and trying to follow him trying to follow the twistings and turnings of O’Connell, I find myself returning to that extraordinary sentence which O’Connell himself wrote in his youth: “A man, I believe, meets with many difficulties in playing even his own character.”
Even as early as that his own personality is no more than a part which the great actor adopts. “Our noble monarch,” “our valiant and chivalrous British troops,” “the cowardly and skulking French,” “the brutal and degraded Micky Murphy—Micky, me boy, you didn’t mind the little touch I gave you? You know I love you very dearly.” There is no personality. Like every other virtuoso, O’Connell ultimately became his own victim, and there is that sickening moment when he begins to sport with the crowd, to cock his hat at them and shout, “Do yez like me, boys?”? when we realise that the piano has begun to play the pianist; but there are also the moments in his early life when the virtuoso is a medium, is possessed by some power from beyond this world, and then, when O’Connell spoke it was like listening to the roaring of a stormy sea. No wonder Mitchel, his bitter critic, spoke of his defence of the journalist Magee as the greatest oratorical performance since Demosthenes. For once he spoke without exaggeration. It is mighty oratory; it is the voice of the Irish outlaw who has had to seek his education abroad, has been mocked and flouted by a Protestant tyranny, mocking and flouting that tyranny in the very place where it sat enthroned.
That is why, when Irish Protestant historians compare him unfavourably with Grattan, we let them have their say and go on adoring just the same. One Irish novelist, Canon Sheehan, has enshrined the story of his interference in the Doneraile Conspiracy case, when already four of the unfortunate accused had been sentenced to death. A messenger on horseback was despatched to O’Connell in Derrynane, and all day and night O’Connell tore wildly over the mountains to arrive in Cork just as the trial began. No, the judge wanted blood; he would not allow O’Connell even half an hour to change and eat, and O’Connell, exhausted, sat down with a plate of bread and meat and a mug of milk before him, rising with a full mouth to bellow: “That is not law!” At that trial he secured disagreement, at the next the prisoners, on identical evidence, were acquitted, and the first victims had to be reprieved.
One cannot understand O’Connell, because it is hard to understand the conditions in which he worked with a population reduced to the condition of negro slaves. One cannot understand his triumphs, because one cannot imagine what they meant to wretches as abandoned as the Irish of his time. It was not that Murphy was acquitted while O’Leary hanged; it was that O’Connell, the seed and breed of outlaws like themselves, could go into the dreaded English courts, the haunts of perjury, fraud and brutality, and beat their enemies on their enemies’ ground, even though he beat them in their own shameless way.
When he, a Catholic, in defiance of the law, stood for Clare and, using all the shameless arts of the demagogue, defeated an honourable Protestant like Vesey Fitzgerald, he showed the people exactly how far they could go. The Catholic Emancipation which he won may have been, as Mr. O’Faolain says, a sham; it certainly seems a sham to us, but to them it did not seem a sham. Nor did it seem a sham to the rest of the world, to Balzac or to Goethe. When Yeats quoted, as he loved to do, that remark of Goethe’s that “the Irish are always like a pack of curs, dragging down some noble stag,” he showed a pathetic innocence of German literature and the profundities of German imbecility, for the “curs” that Goethe spoke of were O’Connell and his followers, and the noble stag—need one say it?—-Wellington!
That even to Goethe it should seem that the noble stag was dragged down is significant enough. It was no small achievement to have revealed to the “curs” that the noble stag could be brought down, and the “curs,” having tasted blood, were ready for that other great huntsman, Parnell.
I don’t know why I should always have had a soft spot in my heart for Limerick. Of course, my family came originally from that county, but that was in the eleventh century, and I am no believer in racial memories. Probably it began in an internment camp during the Civil War, for here I hit it off admirably with a whole hutful of Limerickmen. They were a tough, argumentative, clannish lot with very good voices, who amused themselves in the evenings with part-singing, a recreation they were alone in enjoying.
It was as well I had friends among them, because our mess-leader was a Limerickman, and I might otherwise have starved, but no Limerickman dared exploit even a Limerickman’s pal. When a hunger-strike was declared and I opposed it and became violently unpopular in the camp, they made me sleep in their hut for safety. It must have been something of a strain on them to see me return three times a day from the dining hall, and they always asked fondly after the menu, but they would not let a pal be knocked about by any Dublin jackeen.
Since then I have always felt at home in the city. I have no doubt whatever that if you had been brought up in it, it would seem a hell-hole worse even than Cork. At any rate, my Limerick cousins assure me that the great pleasure of living there is that you know everybody’s business, which is my definition of hell; but knowing nobody’s business except your friends’, and not caring a rap whether or not anyone knows yours, you can be as happy here as in any Irish town.
Limerick consists of two towns, old and new, but as the new town is there since Georgian days the two have become acquainted. The old town has a castle, as every old town should have, with drum towers which command the bridge across the Shannon into Clare, and on the little hill behind the castle is a real honest-to-God mediæval cathedral, very stiff and battlemented, with a tall, skinny, battlemented tower. Cork has no mediæval church.
This one is not remarkable in any way; a plain little church of four bays, with an arcade on great square piers which are only relieved by half-columns at the corners, and extra aisles have been added, also on piers. The style suggests Cistercian architecture of the late twelfth century, perhaps by the builders of Monasternenagh Abbey, near Croom. It is very odd and very attractive, and at certain hours of the day, when the sunlight through the fifteenth-century windows is broken into great geometrical masses of shadow by the stout piers, it is also exceedingly impressive. But a cathedral—any sort of cathedral—gives a town an air.
The new town has some very fine Georgian streets, squares and crescents, and though the beautiful Arthur’s Quay, which overlooks the pool of Limerick with the Clare hills behind, is now falling into ruin, there is close to it a charming little custom-house by the French architect who also built the Mercy Hospital in Cork.
Limerick has even literary associations, though not many. At No. 5, Clare Street, on the Kilmallock road, died Bryan Merryman, the Gaelic poet. Admittedly Merryman was a Clareman, but so are most other Limerickmen. So little does Limerick know or care about him that not even a tablet marks the house.
I fancy the spectacle of Limerick in our own day would have made Bryan Merryman very angry, because he was an eighteenth-century rationalist. I once met a disgusted Galwayman who had been shifted from a comfortable billet in Cork to Limerick, which he detested. He said it was a haunt of hypocrisy, a thing almost unknown in Cork! He said everyone you drank with in Cork frankly admitted that he didn’t believe in God, but that in the other accursed hole every soul he met put on a pretence of orthodoxy. Maybe my cousins were right, and what’s wrong with Limerick is that everybody’s business is known.
But there is a certain fanaticism about the town which is most repellent to people of Irish Catholic stock. It may have some foundation in history, because it was at Limerick that the Irish Jacobite army suffered its last great defeat, and from Limerick that the 14,000 Irish troops sailed to join the army of Louis XIV, leaving the Treaty of Limerick to be broken and the stone on which it was signed to be erected on a pedestal on the Clare bank as a monument to English treachery.
It is certainly no new thing. There are few nicer walks than that up the Shannon from Limerick to Castleconnell Spa, which, like Portarlington, is a little treasure-house of Late Georgian architecture which should somehow or other be preserved before more of its houses fall to the house-breakers. If you take the right-hand bank, you pass a number of beautiful houses, some of them already in ruins. The first—perhaps more accessible from the road on your way back—is Mount Shannon, built in the second half of the eighteenth century, and once the home of John Fitzgibbon, Lord Clare, later Chancellor of Ireland. The next is Hermitage, the home of Bruce, the banker, which later passed to the Masseys; then Stradbally, another Massey house; and Belmont, the home of a man called Grady, who wrote a libellous poem on Bruce which culminated in a legal action. There are other fine houses, such as Stradbally Lodge, Woodlands and Island House; a terrace called the Tontines, built by a company which went broke; and some charming villas and inns, as well as the Assembly Rooms overlooking the Shannon weir. It is a perfect eighteenth-century resort, and Grattan spent some time here. The villas have amusing wrought-iron gateways put up at the end of the last century, with designs of Irish Round Towers and the Treaty Stone at Limerick.
But that wonderful ruined house of Lord Clare, with its great Ionic porch facing the wild Clare hills, brings us back with a jolt to the fanaticism of Limerick. Fitzgibbon’s father was a Catholic; there are various local slanders about the family, such as the story that they made their fortune through a thief in flight tossing stolen money over their half-door. He began life with | only one loyalty, to the Protestant ascendancy. Having probably known from childhood how renegades like his father were regarded, he grew up with the firm conviction that the concessions to Catholics demanded by his friend Grattan would never satisfy the down-trodden Irish. He began as a sincere nationalist, but as he came to realise the strength of liberal sentiments among his nationalist friends, he rested finally upon the fancy that the only safeguard of the Protestant interest in Ireland was complete union with England. An able and sincere man, he was so obsessed by the illusion that any concession to the Catholics would result in the destruction of his own class that he became the arch-persecutor of Catholics and principal architect of the union with England. He shows quite clearly that the motivating force of himself and his followers was guilt and fear. Again and again in Parliament he hammered home the lesson that the titles of its members, Liberal and Whig alike, rested only on murder and expropriation, and that murder and expropriation would be the methods of the Catholics if ever they were emancipated. “The ancient nobility and gentry of this kingdom have been hardly treated: that act by which most of us hold our estates was an act of violence.” The warnings never cease. “If any man can be so wild as to desire to communicate the efficient power of a free government to the great majority of the people of Ireland professing the Popish religion, I do not scruple to say it is an absurd and wicked speculation.” He failed to share the racialist views of most eminent historians; Catholics, English and Irish were all one to him. “From the first introduction of the Protestant colony by James I the old distinctions of native Irish and degenerate English, and English of blood and English of birth, were lost and forgotten.”
He reminds us again that all fanaticism results in the obliteration of distinctions, and just as Communists frequently produce statements which could equally well emanate from Catholic bishops, and vice versa, he makes speeches which, almost word for word, could be those of an Irish Catholic fanatic of his own type. “The whole power and property of this country has been conferred by successive monarchs of England upon an English colony composed of three sets of English adventurers who poured into this country at the termination of their successive rebellions. Confiscation is their common title, and from their first settlement they have been hemmed in on every side by the old inhabitants of the island, brooding over their discontents in sullen indignation.” Few Irish nationalist leaders would ever have committed themselves to statements of such violence. Daniel O’Connell would never have dreamed of saying such things as “It is impossible to defend the Acts of Settlement and Explanation. I wish gentlemen who call themselves ‘the dignified and independent Irish nation’ to know that 7,800,000 acres of land were set out to a motley crew of English adventurers, civil and military, mainly to the total exclusion of the old inhabitants of the island.” Never once does it seem to have crossed the mind of this brilliant, sincere, half-crazy man that the poor people of Ireland drew a very clear distinction between the titles of those landowners like the Beresfords, who exploited them, and those of the Parsons of Birr, who protected them. Grattan was right. It wasn’t only people like Wolfe Tone who needed hanging; civilisation in Ireland would have been considerably forwarded by the hanging of John Fitzgibbon as well. And the result of all this fanaticism? The Fitzgibbons are long gone from the place; the house was later taken by a family of Irish-Americans called Nevin, whose three coffins repose in the grotto in that wilderness of garden which surrounds the gutted house, while below in the city the same sort of fanaticism which John Fitzgibbon thought to keep in check lords it. Limerick is much more like Belfast than Cork. All the religious orders in Ireland have established themselves there, even the Jesuits, who are popular nowhere else, and my poor unfortunate Galway friend cannot find a soul who will admit to any doubt of orthodox religion. The religious orders run confraternities which march to church behind their bands, and exclusion from one of these confraternities is almost equivalent to social extinction. Just try, as I once innocently did, inviting a Protestant clergyman to sit at the same table with Catholics, and you will realise how deep the stream of fanaticism runs. Limerick has the honour of being the only town in Ireland which has ever staged anti-Semitic demonstrations. Jews, evangelists and strolling players have all at various times suffered from these outbursts of demented religion. The Limerick snarl is so pronounced that it is said a Dublin specialist can recognise a Limerick nose across the whole breadth of O’Connell Street:
One Limerick friend—an extreme republican, I need scarcely say—describes how he grew up there during the hysteria of the Parnell divorce case and the split it caused in the ranks of Limerick nationalists. His father, a real old Limerick gentleman, took the unpopular Parnellite side. One of his father’s oldest friends, whom we may call Mr. Murphy, took the side of the Church. One evening, while my friend Paddy was at his lessons, Mr. Murphy arrived and was welcomed, and then the talk shifted to the divorce case.
“Why should any man sacrifice his country for an English prostitute?” Mr. Murphy asked heatedly.
“Joe,” said my friend’s father gravely, “you and I are old friends, and I hope we’ll remain so. But I must ask you not to let me hear you speak again of a lady in those disgusting terms—at least, not in my house.”
Ten minutes passed; the argument became still more heated, and Mr. Murphy burst out:
“I’m no tool of the priests, but I say the woman is a prostitute.”
Paddy’s father rose.
“Paddy,” he said quietly. “Get Mr. Murphy’s hat and coat.”
“You’ll see I’m right,” said Mr. Murphy.
“The weather has been keeping very fine, Joe,” said Paddy’s father while the boy brought the visitor’s hat and coat. Father helped the guest on with his coat and showed him out, talking freely all the time. He opened the door and then, with a lightning move, stepped out after Mr. Murphy and drew the door shut behind him.
A moment later it opened, and Paddy saw Mr. Murphy lying flat on the pavement, while his father looked back scowling.
“You foul-mouthed cur!” he said. Oh, a real old Limerick gentleman!
In most Irish cities nationalism has always come first, religion second; but in Limerick, where the two fanaticisms are almost equally balanced, they produce conflict on a very considerable scale. Readers of Joyce will remember the fanatical nationalist Davin in “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” This was a Limerickman, George Clancy, who was later murdered by the Black and Tans. Another famous local nationalist was a baker. The Bishop at that time was a toady called Dwyer, who had been appointed by Rome and was determined on crushing nationalist opposition (later he changed his tune and became something of a national hero). When the baker stood for election to the Corporation, Dwyer turned the whole power of the Church against him. In spite of this, he was elected. It became even worse when he was nominated for the mayoralty. Then everything Dwyer could do in the way of intrigue and threats was done, but the unfortunate councillors had a second loyalty beside their loyalty to the Church, and to Dwyer’s chagrin the baker was elected. His first business as Mayor was to attend High Mass at the cathedral with the Corporation. A special chair was reserved for him, and he appeared there in his mayoral robes. Dwyer was sitting in the Bishop’s throne. When the Mayor appeared he sent a message ordering him out of the cathedral. The Mayor rose and left, but the Corporation had gone as far as it could go and it skulked behind.
But perhaps the most typical of all Limerick stories is that of a friend who watched a well-known Limerick character on the train to Dublin. He had a pack of cards with him, and on these he told the fortune of the girls in the carriage. Then he decided to try his own. As he studied the cards his face lit up and he said to the whole carriage in a horrid Limerick snarl:
“Well, isn’t that amaazing? There’s a little girril in England, and tomorrow night she’s going to get her wish with a daark maan from over the waather.”
Perhaps, after all, Limerick people don’t know everything about everybody’s business. Perhaps it isn’t hell, only purgatory.
There is lovely stuff within reach of the city in every direction, and for those who cycle it is nearly all on the flat, which is a considerable attraction. There is, for instance, the little Romanesque church at Clonkeen, beyond Annacotty Bridge, which can be taken in comfortably with a view of Mount Shannon. West of the town is a great stretch of flat country leading into North Kerry, with dull, sleepy towns half lost in the drowsy pastoral land. It has been unforgettably described in O’Faolain’s “Nest of Simple Folk.”
The formula for all these towns and villages is the same: an old bridge, unless it’s been blown up in the Civil War; an old castle, blown up by Cromwell; an old abbey, destroyed in Tudor times. Askeaton fits the formula perfectly. Then there is Kilmallock, the old Fitzgerald capital, with the Galtees pegged up behind it like clothes on a line, which must have been one of the finest towns in Ireland. Up to the last century it had a whole street of those grim fortified town houses of which you can still see odd examples in Galway, Limerick and Youghal, but the last decent example was recently torn down to build a cinema. Its parish church is a ruin; so is its noble Dominican priory, whose shattered tower rises out of the river meadows, and which still contains some interesting carvings. It is a fine example of an early town church of the preaching orders—long and narrow, with a high tower arch, a five-light east window and lancets grouped along the sunny south side of the quire. The transept with the honeycomb window was added during the Irish revival of the fifteenth century.
But the most beautiful village in the county, not even excluding Castleconnell, is Adare, ten miles to the southwest. It owes it all to the local patriotism of the Wyndham Quins, who succeeded the Fitzgeralds, who in their turn had supplanted the O’Briens, who—I do not say it with any desire to impugn the title of the Wyndham Quins, but truth will out—got possession of it through the expulsion of my own family, which had made itself unpopular through intermarriage with the Danes.
They have turned the Augustinian monastery founded by the Fitzgeralds into a Protestant parish church, and the Trinitarian monastery into a Catholic church, and I have no doubt, if there had been any Dissenters among their tenants, they would have installed them in the beautiful ruined Franciscan monastery now in the middle of the golf course. Perhaps it is just as well that there were no Dissenters, because in some ways this is the most attractive of the three. These tall, tapering chancel towers, which look so delightful when you see them in ruins, are much less so- when they rise over a completed church. Look, for instance, at the Protestant church in Adare. When the roof is on you cannot see the base of the tower, and personally I like a tower to be a tower. It gives me a feeling of insecurity when I see one apparently resting on nothing more substantial than a slate roof,
There are a good many fine houses in the county, apart from those grouped about Castleconnell. The loveliest of them, Shannongrove, is only a short distance from Limerick on the Askeaton road. It is a house of Queen Anne date, with a high roof and wide, ornamented chimneys which look like the trousers of a bluejacket standing on his head, and stable buildings with Dutch gables. Up to a short time ago it was a farmhouse, with a hideous Victorian porch which concealed a fine doorway moulded rather in the manner of Composite doorways like Quin. The panelling had been cut away to fit the furniture. Its present owner, Major Fielding, has stripped away the porch and begun to restore the house. The river front, with its splendid doorway and great flight of steps that once led almost to the river bank, is equally fine.
There is another Queen Anne house at Ballyneety on the Bruff road, though this has little to recommend it but a good doorway and a flight of what I understand are called “water-lily” steps. These are steps in a curve, each stone of which is also curved—obviously the invention of a temperance advocate who determined to break the leg of anybody leaving his house under the influence of drink. At the other side of the road is the ruined home of Boss Croker, with statues “all standing naked in the open air.” There was a proposal to bring Hercules to Limerick, but a committee of inspection, having studied him carefully fore and aft, decided that he would never do for the confraternities. Where Jews, salvationists and actors had not escaped, what chance had poor old Hercules?
The main road from Limerick to Ennis follows first the Shannon and then its tributary, the Fergus, passing on its way the fine old castle of Bunratty, which guards the bridge over its little river in perilous juxtaposition to Shannon airport. I have no doubt that already some engineer has drawn up plans involving the demolition of this charming old bridge, which, with its ruined castle, its Georgian manor-house and a few bits of ruined chapel, is all that remains of an Irish attempt at a village. The castle contains some interesting plasterwork.
The back road, a little before you come to Bunratty, runs through Sixmilebridge and Quin. Sixmilebridge is a nice eighteenth-century village intended for a prosperous future it never attained, and it contains one of the most beautiful of Irish houses of Queen Anne date, Mount Ivers. This is a very tall house, more like a tower than a house, with tall steps, tall, narrow doorways and tall windows, all with the original heavy sashes. It replaced a fortified house, of which the main chimney-piece is in the hall, and it contains a number of fine mantelpieces by Bossi. There is also a painting of the house as it was intended to be and never became, with gardens like those of a French chateau. A tall house with tall notions, for you have only to mount the stairs to see where the money gave out on the first landing, and the windows are still unpanelled, and in the attics you can see the plaster centre-pieces all ready to be fixed up, and can visualise that sad morning when carpenters and plasterers realised that they would never be paid and set off on the journey back to Limerick.
Quin, which also lies on this back road, is the completest of the Irish Franciscan monasteries, and in a country where so many things are incomplete it would be interesting on that account alone. But it is beautiful in its own right. It is part of that Irish resurgence which took place during the English civil wars, and is symbolically built within the four towers of a Norman castle which was founded by the De Clare who built Bunratty. The battlementing of the tall, tapering tower is delightful, and the moulded west door is good and frames a fine picture of the high, narrow chancel arch. But, beautiful as it is, it still shows that all the Normans had brought to Ireland by their unremitting warfare was, as one would expect, not civilisation, but barbarism. Cormac’s Chapel, built before the Norman invasion, is a pure European building; Quin, for all its charm, is, like the Irish literature of the time, provincial, and represents a general decline in standards caused by two hundred years of warfare. Yet it would be so easy to roof, and so perfect an addition to an Irish village, that one can only hope that some day some religious order will go mad and take it over instead of building some redbrick monstrosity of their own.
The Franciscan monastery at Ennis, built a hundred and fifty years earlier, is a far finer building, though the tower was badly knocked about by some nineteenth-century restorer who didn’t think the battlementing austere enough and changed it for spikes. Irish Protestants have always had a mania for spikes. It shows quite clearly what Ireland had lost even in the interim between it and Quin. It is supposed to have been founded in 1242 by Donough O’Brien, brother-in-law of Cahal O’Connor Redhand, who was almost his match in the civilising influence he exerted. O’Connor and he are doubly linked by the poems of the madcap Murrough O’Daly. The O’Briens, the most civilised of all the great Irish families—I record this with the deepest regret, having regard to their thoroughly unsportsmanlike attitude to my own forbears—are entirely responsible for the fact that this county, at the back of beyond, is so rich in ecclesiastical buildings. Offhand, I can think of three cathedrals, two Cistercian abbeys and scores of other abbeys and monasteries, all of their foundation. Even in their later period of decline they could still employ a Roubilliac in some little church in Clare.
Ennis must have been a very wealthy monastery. It has a mass of carved work—a St. Francis, a Christ, a Virgin and Child; none very good, though all deeply interesting—as well as some fine tombs, or the remains of them. One is in smithereens, though a couple of labourers could put it together in a few days. The other, a nineteenth-century monstrosity, has been eked out with five beautiful panels of the Passion, imitated from English alabaster work of the period. These are rotting away in the open air, and Ennis should be ashamed of the fact. A town with three first-rate hotels should know better.
Clare Abbey, just outside the town, is another O’Brien foundation; so is Killone, a charming little ruined convent on the shore of a lake a few miles out. But the whole county is rich in peculiar little churches with fascinating decorative detail. Take, for instance, Dysert O’Dea, off the road to Corofin, about seven miles out of Ennis. This was apparently a rich monastery, because the east window of the little church was put together, apparently by the village idiot, with bits and pieces of carved stone in half a dozen different styles. The south doorway, though it, too, seems to have been badly mucked about, is a splendid bit of work, with noble jambs and soffits carved in the boldest of decorated chevron patterns, and among the archstones is an outer row of mingled beakheads and human heads of a distinctly Mongolian cast. This ranks with the best Romanesque carving in Ireland, and one would dearly love to know something about the masons who were responsible for it and about their patrons.
Kilfenora is another of these old monasteries, and the very sight of it is sufficient to work the average educated visitor to a foaming fury, because it is in an appalling state of neglect. When we visited it and heaved up some of the tombstones in the churchyard they turned out to be bits of carved high crosses. The Protestants adapted the nave of the church to their own fell devices and then allowed the quire to fall into ruin. This is all the more regrettable because the decorated east window is a remarkably fine piece of work, with one capital which represents a row of clerics in prayer, and its stiff style of carving rather resembles that on the corbels in the quire of Killaloe Cathedral.
The last is the loveliest of the churches, and the little town in which it is situated is the most attractive spot in Clare. It is a tiny little hilltown on Lough Derg, about twelve miles up the Shannon from Limerick, and the best place to view it from is across the long old bridge which spans the lake in the Tipperary suburb of Ballina. Here you can see how the mountains hem it in, and in the still water the east wall of the cathedral is reflected between Guinness’ crimson barges.
In the grounds of the Catholic church (which contains some stained glass by Harry Clarke) one of the tiny hermitage churches from an island in the lake, drowned during the development of the Shannon hydro-electric scheme, has been re-erected. There is a larger chapel beside the cathedral, with a doorway the style of which I find completely baffling. 1 don’t know anything else in Ireland which resembles it. It isn’t the only baffling thing of its kind there. Inside the door of the cathedral, a plain, aisleless, Early Gothic church, a very remarkable Romanesque doorway has been built in, facing the wrong way, and with its interior order eaten away in the wall outside. My guidebook quotes the tradition that this was “the entrance to the tomb of Murtagh O’Brien, King of Munster (d. 1120),” but I shouldn’t take this too much to heart. It is probably the west door of another church, perhaps even of an earlier cathedral, because the date (1182) given by the same guidebook for the present cathedral seems to me far too early, while it would do excellently for the doorway. This is one of the most sumptuous bits of Late Romanesque in Ireland, and, like the plainer doorway of the little chapel in the grounds, is full of details for which I don’t know any parallel. Seeing the proximity of the Danish city of Limerick, and the Runic stone beside it which commemorates some Danish chief, one is tempted to see Scandinavian influence in it.
But the ideal time to see Killaloe is after dark on a wet and stormy night, as a few friends and myself last saw it. Once inside the door, nothing whatever could be discerned but the three tall, pale pencils of light from the east window, so narrow that one could scarcely imagine them giving light at all, while those along the quire might just as well not have been there. Finally, after we had let this sink in, I managed to find the lighting switches in the transept, and the splendid lighting system picked out the whole decorated expanse of the east wall, leaving the rest of the church almost in darkness. Outside, the rain fell, the wind whistled, but we stood there entranced. Rarely have I experienced anything in Ireland so satisfyingly beautiful.
That matter of the Romanesque work built into an Early Gothic building can be pursued farther up the lake in the nasty little hamlet of Tomgraney. Tomgraney Church was here when Brian Boru was a boy; he must have frequently visited it, and he presented it with a belfry which has disappeared (I only wish the present one would do the same, for it is a ponderous little Victorian structure which has caused the high gable of the old church to be lowered). It is the only tenth-century Irish church still in use. In the twelfth or, more probably, the early thirteenth century, perhaps at the same time as the building of Killaloe Cathedral, a quire was added with lancets and coign shafts, though the lancets have been built up and a modern window compiled in their place. In this part of the building, now used as the Protestant parish church, appear some bits and scraps of splendid Late Romanesque decorated windows. As in Killaloe, they do not seem to belong to the church itself. God knows where they did come from. They may belong to one of the numerous chapels which this type of monastery possessed, or they may even belong to the same chapel as provided the great doorway in Killaloe. Wherever they came from, they are of excellent quality, particularly the fine north window, crudely built into a wall too narrow to carry it, and wrecked by some botching mason.
Up the hills over the Shannon, just off the road between Tomgraney and Quin, is the little village of Feakle. This locality is doubly famous, principally as the headquarters of Biddy Early, whom all readers of Yeats rapidly tire of hearing about. Biddy was a witch, and she had the second sight, and the greatest praise Yeats has for any old woman is that she resembled Biddy Early. Like other wise women, she had her bottles of medicine, and with these she also had a bottle, which served her as a crystal and told her whether or not she could help the patient. If the patient had any doubts about her powers, the bottle registered the fact. If he hadn’t, she gave him a bottle of medicine and a warning as to the occult powers which would try to deprive him of the bottle sit might be no more than the shying of his horse, or the slipperiness of the road, or frogs crossing the road between Kilbarron Cross and Hayes’ Forge, but whatever it was she warned him against it was bound to happen. The priest threatened to put a curse on anyone going to her himself or showing others the way to her house. On her death-bed she is supposed to have handed over the crystal to the priest, who thereupon threw it into Kilbarron Lake. It is there still, so I am told, and ever since there have been no fish in the lake. I haven’t tried: if I did I should probably find millions, I am that unsusceptible to charms and spells.
The second great figure is Bryan Merryman, the poet. He is one of the most curious figures in Irish literary history. For the usual five or ten pounds a year he taught in the hedge school at Knocknageeha, eked it out with a little farming, and somehow or other managed to read and assimilate a great deal of contemporary literature. Local tradition describes him as a master of Greek, Latin and English. Even with compulsory education, the English language and county libraries, you would be hard set today to find a Clareman of Merryman’s class who knew as much of Lawrence, Gide and Proust as he , seems to have known of Savage, Swift, Goldsmith and Rousseau.
To me it seems equally certain that he knew Burns’ work almost immediately after its first appearance. His one famous poem, “The Midnight Court,” describes a vision which took place in 1780, and on the assumption that that is also the date of the poem every account of his life and work is based. But it seems to me clear that the poem can scarcely have been written before 1790, after the appearance of Burns’ “Poems.” In “The Midnight Court” there is a famous passage listing the spells which the young girl uses to get a husband, and some of these are clearly lifted from Burns’ “Hallowe’en,” and, in fact, are scarcely intelligible without reference to that poem. One spell describes how she “washed her shift against the stream.” That is difficult to understand apart from Burns’ note that “you go out, one or more, for this is a social spell, to a south-running spring or rivulet, where ‘three lairds’ lands meet,’ and dip your left shirt sleeve. Go to bed in sight of a fire, and hang your wet sleeve before it to dry. Lie awake; and some time near midnight an apparition, having the exact figure of the grand object in question, will come and turn the sleeve, as if to dry the other side of it.”
“I hid my wool in the lime-kiln late” is another of Merryman’s spells fully explained by Burns. “Steal out, all alone, to the kiln, and darkling, throw into the pot a clew of blue yarn; wind it in a new clew off the old one; and towards the latter end something will hold the thread: demand ‘Who hauds?’ and answer will be returned from the kiln-pot.” Spell after spell is taken from Burns, and this alone would be fully sufficient to substantiate what I said in my translation of the poem about the influence of the continental Enlightenment on Merryman. The influence of Rousseau is equally clear.
How he managed all that in an Irish-speaking community at the end of the eighteenth century is a mystery to me. He was undoubtedly a man of powerful objective intelligence; his obituary describes him as a teacher of mathematics, and, though his use of “Ego vos” for the marriage service suggests a Catholic upbringing, his use of the Scriptures has to my ear a stout Protestant ring about it. Tradition says he was a United Irishman and quarrelled bitterly with the local priests about it. One other surprising thing it records is that in 1797 he was presented with a linen wheel by the Dublin Society (now the Royal Dublin Society) as a prize for his flax crop.*
He certainly had intellectual independence. In “The Midnight Court” he imitated contemporary English verse, which he obviously knew and liked, and it is clear that he had resolved to cut adrift altogether, not only from traditional Irish forms, but from traditional Irish subject-matter, which suffered from chronic somnambulism.
As I have been publicly contradicted about all this by scholar-friends who are firmly convinced that Merryman never heard of Rousseau and was deeply influenced by a Clare poem called “An Siotach is a Mhathair,” let me say once for all that there is no comparison whatever between Merryman’s poem and this:
That sort of good stout rustic stuff has nothing whatever to do with Merryman’s intellectual world. The nearest one can get to describing it is to say that he was to Irish literature what Daniel O’Connell was to Irish politics: he cut the navel-string of the new-born democracy.
His story is harmless enough. The poet falls asleep and, in a dream, is summoned to the Fairy Court, where the unmarried women of Munster are pleading their inability
* Recorded by Mr. Thomas Dillon, Lough Park, Caher Feakle.to get husbands. An old man replies by telling the story of his own marriage and wedding night, when his young wife presented him with another man’s child. The young girl rebuts the charge, and tells the story of the marriage from the wife’s point of view, and then the Fairy Queen sums up and gives judgment in favour of the women, whose first victim is the poet himself.
The treatment of the opening is almost as guileless as the story. Merryman had almost no feeling for Nature, and he even forgets what season he is supposed to be writing of, so that we get leaves and flowers on the first of January. Fairies always look rather awkward in classical literature, and Merryman’s fairy messenger is twenty feet high. But the moment the girl begins speaking Merryman is on familiar ground, and the whole mood of the poem changes. The girl goes to fortunetellers and experiments in white magic, and Merryman, with Burns at his elbow, knows what that means in relation to country life. As always when he deals with women’s human needs, he is beautifully tender.
At this point the girl announces that for the future she is going in for black magic, and on that master-stroke the first part ends. With the old man a new quality appears, which is characteristic of Merryman. This is his first opportunity of describing the peasant background, and he does it with tremendous gusto. The old man abuses the girl and describes the misery of which she came before he launches into a delightful digression about another flighty girl he knew who became a respectable wife:
It is a comfort to think that even in the beastly conditions under which O’Connell was starting the work of emancipation girls were still girls.
Then, after a terrific bit of rustic comedy, in which the old man describes his wedding night, comes a curious structural weakness—the first of several. For it is into the old man’s mouth, not the girl’s, where one would have expected it, that Merryman puts his great lines in praise of the bastard. The lines themselves are typical of their period; witness Burns’ fine poem to his own child. The hero of Merryman’s poem is Nature as an eighteenth-century Utopian saw it, a Utopian with a bull-roar of masculinity in every word and not at all resembling the majority of his kind:
At this point Merryman breaks into an attack on marriage. To assume that this is merely humorous, as most critics do, is to miss the note of sincerity in Merryman, and to treat him, as Professor Daniel Corkery does, as one of those people “who, lacking sensibility themselves, raise laughter by shocking it in others.” The man who on an income of five or ten pounds a year became a classical scholar and a student of contemporary literature, and wrote a poem of a thousand lines, was scarcely one of those.
With the girl’s reply Merryman reverts to his natural realistic manner. There is splendid poetry in this third canto. The girl’s description of the old man’s wife begins in a mood of great tenderness, but from this it mounts into a perfect storm of frustrated sexual passion which is almost untranslatable. Yet even this is kept within very narrow limits and never allowed to become disproportionate to the total effect. It is interesting and rather moving to find this mountainy poet, who had probably never been farther than Limerick in his life, writing as though he knew of no boundaries to the human intellect.
Then, as the argument in favour of free love develops, the girl bursts into a furious attack on clerical celibacy. This is where Merryman’s audacity reaches its full height. He was not the typical happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care poet of Gaelic tradition like Owen O’Sullivan, yet here he was in the eighteenth century writing, in an Irish village in the back of beyond, things that very few men would dream of writing in Dublin of the twentieth. And at the same time he never for an instant loses his bland and humane humour, and is as full of pity for his well-fed canons and curates who have to conceal their indiscretions as for his farmers’ daughters who have to conceal theirs. It is superb comedy, kept well in character, but once more we get the sudden shifting of planes, and we find Merryman, the intellectual Protestant and disciple of Rousseau, referring to Scripture for his authority.
After that the whole poem begins to fall away. Clearly the last canto was intended to be the keystone; the Queen’s judgment was to have been Merryman’s judgment, but something went wrong. Something went badly wrong. Only once does he speak again in the grand manner, when he suddenly turns and in a fine outburst of the old Utopian passion rends the men who desecrate | human love—an echo of a passage in Ovid’s “Art of Love?
A very, very curious passage in the mouth of one of those jesters “who, lacking sensibility themselves, raise laughter by shocking it in others.”
After that Merryman never wrote again. If, as tradition says, he was a United Irishman, the very urge to write must have been destroyed by the failure of the 98. About 1799 he went to live in Limerick with his daughter and her husband, Michael Ryan, a tailor, and died suddenly in 1805 in a house in Clare Street, which you still can see. He was brought back to Feakle for burial.
Why did he go there? Probably because what Professor Corkery sneers at as “his much-enlightened soul” longed for some sort of intellectual society. To say that the man was 150 years before his time would be mere optimism. When my translation of the poem appeared it was immediately banned by the Southern Irish Government. My publisher appealed against the ban, but the appeal was rejected without hearing witnesses or counsel for the defence. Professor James Hogan, well known to all who know Cork well, wrote to the papers to say it was an immoral poem, though he admitted that he couldn’t read it. Neither, apparently, could any other member of the Board, but somebody had told them that two lines were inaccurately translated. I regret to say there were at least twenty.
But then began the comedy of the memorial. In my translation I had pointed out that Merryman had none and was never likely to get it. This was admittedly a try-on, and it produced instant results. A fund was started to erect a memorial over his grave in Feakle, and Mr. De Valera, whose Government had banned the translation of the poem, was the first subscriber. Then followed a long correspondence in a Clare paper denouncing the proposal to erect a monument in a decent Clare graveyard to a dirty ruffian the likes of that. One public man declared that if such an infamous thing was permitted he would tear the thing down with his own hands. Another suggested that Merryman was really a decent Clareman, and anything that was wrong in the poem had been introduced by someone else—a Corkman, no doubt. The damage is always done by the boys from another parish. Even Merryman’s good national record availed him nothing. The Clare County Council refused to permit the erection of the monument, and the money collected is now being spent on a new edition of the poem, which will probably be immediately banned.
It is understood that the Clare County Council is proposing to erect a monument to Biddy Early instead. Witches are more in their line.
The architectural vagaries and delights of Clare continue along the Galway border. In Corcomroe, in the extreme north of Clare, by the coast, is a Cistercian abbey with the tomb of Conor O’Brien. At a place called Drumacoo, across the border, and a little off the main Galway road, is a queer little tenth-century church with a trabeated west door looking like something from an Egyptian temple and an inserted Early Gothic door on the south side which transports you at once to the Cotswolds.
Inland there is the remains of the Celtic monastery of Kilmacduagh: the usual amorphous clutter of cathedral, round tower and ruined chapels which you see all over the country in hundreds of places, but which also has the remains of a striking Transitional chapel at the foot of the field. It is known as ““Hynes’ Chapel” and has the usual Transitional coign-shafts, a beautiful deeply splayed east window, and very tall, slender chancel pillars, from which the archstones have dropped. Kilmacduagh is worth a visit if for nothing but its picturesque setting on the hillside with the bushy slopes of Slieve Aughty behind.
Architecturally both Galway and Mayo well repay study. With the election of Giolla Mac Liaigh (“Gelasius”) as Primate in place of St. Malachy, Connacht conformed to the Roman obedience, and there are a number of interesting Late Romanesque and Transitional churches. In the beginning of the thirteenth century Cahal O’Connor Redhand, who, like his brother-in-law, Donough O’Brien, seems to have been a man of great taste, built a number of monasteries, all of which are good.
In Tuam, for instance, there was at one time a small, highly decorated Romanesque cathedral, supposed by Petrie to have been built by Turlough O’Connor early in the twelfth century, though the date seems to me impossible. It probably belongs to the last quarter of the century, and is the work of either Rory or Cahal Redhand. The builder who erected the new Gothic cathedral did not like to destroy it entirely, and took in the chancel arch as a west porch. Then a nineteenth-century architect reversed the process and built a horrid church in front of the old chancel, restoring it to its original function and leaving the Gothic cathedral as a chapter-house. It must be one of the oddest architectural vagaries in the whole of Western Europe. The chancel arch, and particularly the east window, are very beautiful and most elaborately decorated.
About seven miles out of Tuam, at a place called Knockmoy, is the ruin of a Cistercian abbey, of which a great deal remains and which is very interesting. This was founded by Redhand, we are told, to celebrate his victory over the Normans in 1189, and he is supposed to be buried in the founder’s tomb (Curtis’ “Mediaeval Ireland” buries him in the Franciscan monastery he founded at Athlone, but, as there were no Franciscans in Ireland during his reign, it is hard to see how he achieved that). There is another monastery at a desolate spot on the edge of the lake at Annaghdown, which has a decorated window and the remains of a decorated doorway of the Midland type—very Late Romanesque, I fancy.
But the architectural gem of the county is Clonfert Cathedral, about nine miles east of Ballinasloe and seven west of Banagher—the devil of a place to get to, but well worth it when you do get there.
It is one of those “cathedrals” established, not because they were suitable sites for a diocesan see, but because the spot had been sanctified by the cell of some hermit saint. It could be conveniently lost in any respectable English parish church. The doorway, a tall, gabled porch, extravagantly and exquisitely decorated in every conceivable pattern of Romanesque, is twelfth century except for the inner order, which belongs to a fifteenth-century restoration that also added the chancel arch with its delightful and absurd decorations and the little tower which stands on the west front, with no other apparent means of subsistence. The original inner order of decorated chevrons has been built into the wall inside the door. The date of the beautiful east window is disputed, but it seems to me to be thirteenth-century work. It resembles the window in one of the Clonmacnois churches and that in Hynes’ Chapel in Kilmacduagh. All are good; everything in this little church is good, but the doorway and east window are of remarkable beauty.
It is one of the peculiarities of literary history that, for no apparent reason, a literary movement will centre round some particular region. In Cork, for instance, you have a whole group of story-tellers like Dr. Edith Somerville, Elizabeth Bowen, Daniel Corkery and Sean O’Faolain, while in these western counties the Irish dramatic movement produced Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn of Galway, George Moore of Mayo, Yeats of Sligo. Unfortunately, Lady Gregory’s house in Coole, the headquarters of the Irish Literary Theatre, was sold by Mr. De Valera’s Government to a Galway builder for £500 and torn down for scrap. Merely as a literary museum its value to the nation was almost incalculable; one feels that they should at least have held out for £600.
The old lady was a holy terror; that is the only way I can describe her. On the first evening that I called at Yeats’ I also met her. She came into the drawing-room in her mantilla, and, while I warmed to Yeats, she struck cold terror into my heart. In my embarrassment I told the story of an unfortunate Gaelic teacher I knew in Cork, whose only hope of collecting his salary was to put on a concert and play, and who would have got no salary at all if he produced a play which required the payment of royalties. He produced her “Workhouse Ward” under the title of “Crime and Punishment, translated from the original Russian of Fyodor Dostoievsky.” The old lady looked at me bleakly. “And didn’t he know it was wrong?” she asked in her flat, charwoman’s voice—a comment which deserves to go down to history with “We are not amused.”
For the rest of my life I nourished something like an inferiority complex about the old lady until long after Yeats’ death. Mrs. Yeats revealed to me that he was as terrified of her as I was. She had always treated him as a talented but naughty child. When at last he married and took his young wife to Coole, he felt the time had come for him to assert his manhood. No animals were permitted in Coole—which, considering what most Irish country houses are like, seems to me to be kindness to Christians —and Yeats was fond of his cat. Now that he was a married man, a mature man, a famous man, he was surely entitled to his cat. So Pangur was duly bundled up and brought to Gort. But as the outside car drove up the avenue of Coole the married, mature, famous man grew panic-stricken at the thought of the old lady’s forbidding countenance. He bade the jarvey drive him first to the stables. There Pangur was deposited until, everyone having gone to bed, Yeats crept out in his slippers and brought him up to the bedroom. Yet till the day she died he secretly nursed the hope of being able to treat her as an equal. Nobody who had not been squelched by her could realise the relief with which I heard this. Of all the women I knew she had the most powerful will. I have told how I suddenly felt it when I first entered the Abbey Theatre board-room as a director. For those others who have turned it into a music-hall I await with sadness but resignation some really horrible fate. I am not concerned about her slowness in taking action; she was never a one for precipitation. “Grip is a good dog,” she used to say, “but hold fast is a better.”
Lennox Robinson, in a delightful essay, tells the typical story of her. During her days as a diplomatist’s wife she held a lunch-party, saw off her guests, went upstairs alone and there lay down quietly and had her baby. There was never any nonsense about comfort in the old lady. Though she continued to accept first-class expenses, she never travelled any way but third. It was in her diplomatic days that she first got to know the English poet Scawen Blunt, and she helped him in his fight for justice for the Egyptian fellaheen. But when Blunt, in his forthright English way, came to Co; Galway and started to fight for justice for the Irish peasant, she had no mercy on him. She left him, as he tells us himself, under the impression that their friendship was at an end. But noblesse oblige. While he was doing time in Galway Gaol, where he wrote one of the finest of his sonnets, the old lady saw that her relatives “called.” That meant a lot for them, because Blunt was a Catholic, and when he visited their house it took a great deal of persuasion on the old lady’s part to get her mother to receive him at all. Living in the very heart of a Catholic community, the Pearces had never received a Catholic visitor.
The fascination I find in the old lady’s mind is its capacity for making the complete circle. Convinced at last by Yeats that only from those same Galway peasants could salvation come, that she must, in his phrase, be “baptized of the gutter,” she produced a series of little plays which as a writer fill me with despair, so perfect is their Franciscan austerity and charm. She was only restrained by Yeats’ scepticism from becoming a Catholic, and Robinson gives one final glimpse of her during an ambush in O’Connell Street, when all the passers-by were lying on the pavement and English machine-guns sweeping the street, standing, erect and defiant, a tiny little woman in black shouting: “Up de rebels! ”
She always knew precisely what she wanted and set about getting it. Her comment on modern poetry gave Yeats the theme for a well-known poem of his own. He had presented her with a volume of translations from the Irish and a book of poems by one of the Auden school. He found the modern book lying unread. “I like de translations better,” said the old lady. “Dey’re all about original sin”—the most blasting comment ever made on modern poetry. “What theme had Homer but original sin?” was how Yeats put it.
Perhaps it was only from these western counties that so romantic a literature could have sprung. A little civilisation would have upset it, and there isn’t enough civilisation for that. The capital, Galway, is a terrible town. It has, of course, St. Nicholas, one of the few remaining pre-Reformation churches; the frontispiece of a Renaissance town house erected as gateway to the public park; and a medieval fortified house about which they tell the well-known story of the Lynch who hanged his own son when the sheriff wasn’t available. At least once a year while I was director of the Abbey Theatre we got a play on that. From Miss Edgeworth’s account of her travels in Galway it would appear that as a theme for tragedy it was equally popular a hundred years ago. But even before that I had a lively hatred of the town.
Tuam is even worse, much worse. Once in a Dublin bookshop I saw an ecclesiastical dignitary buying a book.
“Of course,” said the assistant, “I can make an effort to get you the complete poems.”
“I’d be very glad if you would try,” said the ecclesiastical dignitary. “You know the address. Tuam will find me.”
My curiosity as to what sort of poetry people would read in a hole like Tuam was too much for me. I am afraid I stole up behind to get a look at the book.
“Of course,” the assistant said enthusiastically, “just as poetry this is a very good selection.”
“I don’t mind the poetry,” said the ecclesiastical dignitary wearily. “It’s the crossword clues I want. They use Kipling such a lot in the puzzles.”
The trouble with Galway is that it stands in a closer relationship with a Gaelic hinterland than any other Irish city. The alleged prayer of the Galwegian citizens, “From the ferocious O’Flahertys, good Lord, deliver us!” has certainly not been heard. The ferocious O’Flahertys run the place. And, as if that were not enough to break the heart in any responsible community, it has the Aran Islands on its hands as well. That is not to decry Connemara, or even the Aran Islands, which are a wonderful place for those who do not suffer as badly as I do from insulaphobia. But they do not produce city-dwellers. Theirs is an exclusively agricultural culture, excluding even villages, and indeed agriculture, for with my own two eyes I have seen a Connemara man who competed in a garden competition with lettuce several feet high, “the finest crop anywhere.”
He would not have made a mistake like that about poteen. This is poteen country, and it would be most unwise to believe the hotel-keeper when he tells you that “there used to be a lot of it in the old days, but the priests put it down.” He probably has a still himself, and if you can gain his confidence you may be taken to some mountain-top, or maybe some deserted island, where a brew is in progress.
It is as pleasant a way as I know of spending an evening in summer, sitting in a hollow on top of a mountain, out of the wind, smoking and swapping stories with the men, taking a swig of the ale out of which the poteen is distilled, while the children run up and down the mountainside with skeps of turf to keep the fire going, and the mountain lakes below grow brighter between their darkening banks. The views are usually superb; they have to be, with the nasty spiteful way the guards have of creeping up on a still.
“Beyond the Leap, beyond the law,” as they say in my own county. Some poteen-makers asked a friend and me to bring back a bottle as a present to the local judge. Whenever he tried them for poteen-making he always treated them fairly, and they wished to return the compliment.
The poetry is still there, though how long it will last against the cinema and the radio is another thing. The schools, too, are at their task of destroying one tradition without being able to provide sufficient of another to fill the vacuum they create. Yet it was a school inspector in Connemara who offered sixpence for the best song the children brought in from home who gave me the original Irish of the beautiful version of “How Well for the Birds,” which I translated:
It is wonderful for anybody who cares deeply about poetry but only knows it as the preserve of small, exclusive coteries to make his first contact with a community among whom it is still the normal and accepted thing. Once, in Germany, buying a bottle of lemonade at a stall by the roadside, I got into talk with the middle-aged woman who kept it. In reply to some difficult question about religion which my German would not rise to I quoted Faust’s Nenn’s Glueck! Herz! Liebe! Gott! Ich habe keinen Namen dafuer. At once she took up the quotation and, finishing it, added with a smile: “We, too, know our classics.”
But that was exceptional. It was not exceptional for a drunken Mayo tramp who asked me if I knew Killeadan and was answered with Raftery’s lines about the place, to draw himself erect and add:
Of course, it is a very different sort of poetry from Goethe’s; very different even from the sort of poetry you can hear in Cork and Kerry with its over-elaborate rhyme-schemes and pseudo-literary conventions. The poetry of the west is almost pure folk poetry; Raftery’s lines are the height of literacy, and these so close to doggerel that only a miracle of poetic feeling keeps you from laughing outright at them. The poetry here is almost shapeless; it drifts like mist, and whole verses transfer themselves from one poem to another until the very subject is obscured, and what begins as a woman’s song ends as a man’s, or a love-song suddenly turns into a political song, while neither singer nor audience becomes aware of any incongruity. It is more the incantation of poetry than its form, a sort of rhapsody from which suddenly break passages full of poetic fire. Once I remember when I was taking down a rather tough love-song from an adorable little girl of nine, whose grandfather had been a well-known story-teller, her grandmother came in carrying a load of sticks and sat down. When the child had finished the old woman began on a song of a seduced girl, the very first lines of which brought tears to my eyes by their beauty:
That is the sort of thing which can happen to you still in Connemara, and nowhere else I know of in Western Europe, unless it be in the Scottish islands.
Of course, this poetry is functional, and almost as disturbing as its presence is the realisation that those people who practise it also believe in the fairies and in magic. I was once staying in the west of Ireland with a friend, a man of great intelligence and a very kind heart, but with an alarming notion that he understood what he called the “peasants.” When I couldn’t stand it any longer I asked the man of the house: “Have yea dead hand here?”
“Well, no,” he replied slowly, “but there is one in the next parish.”
A dead hand is a hand cut from a corpse and maliciously used to
attract the butter from other people’s
churns. There is a variant of it applied
to the spinning-wheel to bring in the wool. As a rule it is very little
use enquiring about spells. “There used to be a lot of them in the old
days, but the priests put them down.” That particular locality was
just then greatly afflicted by a county council doctor whose only
method of curing erysipelas was by treating it, which, as everyone
knows, is a long and wearisome process compared with the spell. (I
have the spell against erysipelas, in case any of my readers cares to
try it.) Our host told us how he had seen his own father bleeding to
death on the roadway and. how the wise woman stopped it with a
spell. (I have the spell against bleeding too, but though I have tried
it, it has no effect on me.) Many of the spells are common And with all the poetry and all the guilelessness there is a craft
that would take flakes off you without your even perceiving it. Once a
Dublin doctor and myself set out to visit the local poet. The poet
wasn’t feeling well and he described his symptoms with real poetic
“Sure that man would never be fit to go into town tomorrow, doctor?”
said his wife.
“Of course not,” replied the doctor. ““What has he to go to town for!”
“Some court case they want him for,” replied the
poet’s wife, with what struck me as studied vagueness. “Sure a man
like that would be of no use to them in a court. He’s old and given to
the poetry, and the thing he’ll say today is not the thing he’li say
tomorrow. Would you ever give him a certificate, doctor?”
I noted with the greatest care that perfect description of the poetic
temperament, but I was alarmed at the request for a certificate. I
looked round for the teacher who had come with us. He was no longer
there. In the middle of the discussion he had quietly drifted
out. When the local man disappears at a moment like that it always
means that there is something which doesn’t appear on the surface. I
slipped out and found the teacher leaning against the gable of the
cottage, and apparently studying a very fine sunset over the sea,
“What’s this court case about?” I asked.
“I knew they wouldn’t like me to tell the doctor beforehand,” replied
the teacher dreamily. “The whole neighbourhood is summoned, scores of
“Why?” I asked. “Is it poteen?”
“No,” he replied sadly. “Insurance. It seems they had their daughter
employed as a maid. Of course, there was nothing wrong with that, but
then when they sacked the daughter she became entitled to unemployment
benefit. Some families had three maids. It was a great thing while it
lasted, but, of course, it couldn’t last.”
But the only time the poetry is positively dangerous is when engines
are concerned. Once myself and a friend set out for the Aran Islands
with a crew of which the engine-man was very given to the poetry. One
song he sang had some really shocking lines in it:
There wasn’t a priest in France but refused to say Mass When he heard
talk of the Sweet Pearl of White Mountain.
I knew that blasted engine would break down, and it did—four times. Of
course, some would say that it was the irreverence, but I think myself
it was the poetry. In my experience engines do not like poetry.
And with all the poetry and all the guilelessness there is a craft that would take flakes off you without your even perceiving it. Once a Dublin doctor and myself set out to visit the local poet. The poet wasn’t feeling well and he described his symptoms with real poetic vividness.
“Sure that man would never be fit to go into town tomorrow, doctor?” said his wife.
“Of course not,” replied the doctor. ““What has he to go to town for!”
“Some court case they want him for,” replied the poet’s wife, with what struck me as studied vagueness. “Sure a man like that would be of no use to them in a court. He’s old and given to the poetry, and the thing he’ll say today is not the thing he’li say tomorrow. Would you ever give him a certificate, doctor?”
I noted with the greatest care that perfect description of the poetic temperament, but I was alarmed at the request for a certificate. I looked round for the teacher who had come with us. He was no longer there. In the middle of the discussion he had quietly drifted out. When the local man disappears at a moment like that it always means that there is something which doesn’t appear on the surface. I slipped out and found the teacher leaning against the gable of the cottage, and apparently studying a very fine sunset over the sea,
“What’s this court case about?” I asked.
“I knew they wouldn’t like me to tell the doctor beforehand,” replied the teacher dreamily. “The whole neighbourhood is summoned, scores of them!”
“Why?” I asked. “Is it poteen?”
“No,” he replied sadly. “Insurance. It seems they had their daughter employed as a maid. Of course, there was nothing wrong with that, but then when they sacked the daughter she became entitled to unemployment benefit. Some families had three maids. It was a great thing while it lasted, but, of course, it couldn’t last.”
But the only time the poetry is positively dangerous is when engines are concerned. Once myself and a friend set out for the Aran Islands with a crew of which the engine-man was very given to the poetry. One song he sang had some really shocking lines in it:
There wasn’t a priest in France but refused to say Mass When he heard talk of the Sweet Pearl of White Mountain.
I knew that blasted engine would break down, and it did—four times. Of course, some would say that it was the irreverence, but I think myself it was the poetry. In my experience engines do not like poetry.
Mayo is, in every sense of the word, an extension of Galway. I have spent a night drinking in Tubbercurry with a traveller for whisky, who produced his order book and showed me how you could tell from the movement of the orders where poteen was being brewed, how often and how much. It was the same man who told me of a delightful eighteenth-century toy which had obviously been the joy of his travelling life—a Mayo bridge in which the coping stones covered hollows of varying sizes, so that when you struck them they gave forth different musical notes, all tuned like a piano. I fancy he must have spent a lot of time chasing up and down the bridge with a stick playing “The Wearing of the Green” on it. But then a county council surveyor decided that the bridge wasn’t safe for heavy traffic and had the hollows filled with cement, and now the bridge played no more. “He died after,” he added a moment later. That is the end of every Irish story in which the imprudent interfere with powers they do not understand.
The poetry is there as well. I have told how the Mayo tramp I met responded to Raftery’s song of “County Mayo”:
The loveliest of all western poems is the lament which the woman who is Ireland sings in Yeats’ “Cathleen Ni Houlihan,” amazing in its contrast to “The Lament for Art O’Leary,” where everything is still hierarchic, literary and aristocratic, because it is the very voice of the humble and poor and uncomplaining, an eerie voice like the wail of a banshee:
All the same, it is a great pity what these poetic people have done to the town of Westport, which was built for Anthony Browne by a French architect and must in its day have been one of the loveliest towns in Ireland. The little stream running down the middle of the street in its bed of stone, spanned by beautiful bridges, with lovely little Georgian houses at either side of it, in which you wake of a morning and, seeing the trees along the Mall, imagine yourself for a few moments somewherein France, is enchanting, and the Octagon is the best piece of town-planning in Ireland. But, God help us! the rebuilding and the new shop-fronts have already altered the elevations almost beyond recognition, and you have to study it for quite a while before you can make out the original design; the pleasant little market-house is falling into ruin, and at the foot of the octagonal Glendinning monument, which was clearly designed to fit in with the architecture, the local council have built a urinal,
Castlebar is a dull town, but the road across the bare boglands to Cong is very fine with its views of the blue cone of distant Croagh Patrick and of the Partry Mountains. At the head of Lough Carra (“thinking of Carra and Gallen beneath it”) is Ballintubber Abbey, partly restored as a parish church. There are at least three churches in this locality which all show the hands of the same group of masons—Ballintubber, Inishmaine and Cong. These were, I think, the masons who completed Boyle Abbey. Ballintubber itself is a monastery which dates from the first quarter of the thirteenth century, and is apparently a foundation of Cahal Redhand. It is the most complete of the three. The quire and transepts only are used as a parish church; the nave is a ruin. I believe it is the Kilronan Abbey of George Moore’s “The Lake,” which was restored while Archbishop MacEvilly was in Tuam, and on which he stopped the work because of an old prophecy of what would happen to his family when the church was re-roofed. No doubt the priest who restored it “died after.” It should have been MacEvilly, because it is a most attractive church. The quire and transepts, which, like Christchurch in Dublin, have both round and pointed arches side by side, are very good, and there is excellent carving on doors and windows. The Early English detail is very hazy and eked out with Irish Romanesque. Inishmaine, not far from this, is a tiny little church on an island from which the lake has dropped away, and it has the remains of a chancel arch in the same style and a very charming little east window.
From the road you can see the ruins of Moore Hall across the lake, and lake and countryside are fully, not to say tediously, described in George Moore’s novel, “The Lake.” Nowadays it seems to me a maundering tale told in a most inappropriate style, though in my boyhood I thought it the best of all Irish novels. Probably because it seemed so daring; its hero is a priest who denounces a school-teacher who has a love-affair, and only gradually realises that he is in love with her himself. Still, I wish the old house had been preserved, because I have a great affection for that preposterous little man who wished to be thought a man of the world, a judge of food, wine, women, music and literature, and died without ever knowing the difference between good and bad in any of them. Perhaps he cannot be considered apart from his cousin, Edward Martyn, because if Moore was the Irishman as adventurer, Martyn was the Irishman as whatever the opposite of adventurer may be—the Irishman who never does anything without consulting the parish priest or the wise woman. Obviously they acted as foils for one another, Moore delighting in Martyn’s dumb orthodoxy and Martyn in Moore’s professional heterodoxy, while after their separation they both declined into characters. “That fellow,” Moore shouted indignantly about Martyn, “that fellow has no feelings. He quite genuinely believes that I’m damned, and he’s not even sorry for me!”
“Everybody in Dublin is worried to death about what George is saying of them in his new book,” Martyn said one day to Yeats. “I’m the only one who never worries.”
“Ah, Martyn,” replied Yeats, “that’s only because you don’t know what he is saying about you.”
“What is he saying?” growled Martyn.
“That you started the pro-cathedral choir, not because you liked choirs, but because you liked choirboys.”
“The scoundrel!” shouted Martyn, turning purple. “I’ll have the law on him.”
But a few days later Yeats met him again, his old smug, philosophic self,
“Oh, Yeats,” he said, “about that thing that George wrote ———”
“He’s not printing that part, he tells me. Its only a chapter he reads to his friends on Saturday nights.”
Martyn seems to me to be the only living creature whom Moore ever drew with certainty. Delightful as “Ave, Salve, Vale” is as gossip, the A. E. is merely dully benevolent like a parson, the Yeats silly, which Yeats never was. Moore was ruined as a creator of character by his complete lack of taste. The maundering style which he invented for “The Lake” he applied to a score of other subjects, including the life of Christ. “You will like this better than any of my books,” wrote Moore, sending A. E. a copy of “The Brook Kerith.” “On the contrary,” replied A. E., “I like it less than any other of your books. Jesus converted the world; your Jesus wouldn’t convert an Irish county council.”
Relations became strained and for years the two men did not meet. Then, as A. E. was passing through London on his way to America, they were reconciled and had dinner together. The subject of “The Brook Kerith” was not raised. But as A. E. was going down the street the ancient grudge rose in Moore, and he shouted after the retreating figure of his old friend: “You wanted Jesus to be clever!”
“No, Moore,” A. E. shouted back. “Just intelligent.”
Cong, where a very good hotel has been opened in the house of one of the Guinnesses, has the remains of a monastery much favoured by the O’Connors. Rory, the last King of Ireland, died here, and his body was taken for burial to Clonmacnois. Cahal Redhand, his brother, also stayed here, and the existing monastery is almost certainly the work of his time. Little remains of the church itself, but the cloisters have been restored and have a good deal of excellent Transitional work.
But if Mayo is only Galway in extension, Sligo is unique. It is the only county along this seaboard which has been civilised. Who civilised it is not for me to say. It spills over the border of Donegal into Ballyshannon and over the borders of Roscommon into Boyle. And, for a cyclist, it is extraordinary, having cycled for days through the wilds of Donegal and Mayo, to emerge at Bundoran or Ballysodare into this gracious country with its lovely landscapes and poetic feeling. I shall never forget arriving one evening, wet and exhausted, at Bundoran and going into the lounge of the hotel, where a little orchestra from Sligo was playing a selection of Carolan’s airs. That is certainly something you would not hear anywhere else in Ireland.
It may have been the civilising effect of the bardic families, because Sligo was always poet’s country, but, judging from the little I know about the Irish bards, I shouldn’t say so. In 1213 Murrough O’Daly was living at Lissadell, now the home of the Gore-Booths, and at that time coming under the jurisdiction of the ruling family of Tyrconnell. An impudent Ulster income-tax inspector called, presumably to go into the question of O’Daly’s royalties. O’Daly, who had a hot temper, took an axe to him. This the lord of Tyrconnell resented, and Murrough had to leave Sligo in a hurry, so he addressed himself anxiously to the nearest bigwig, Richard Fitzwilliam FitzAdelm de Burgo—a real sign of desperation, for de Burgo had scarcely had time to learn the Irish language. “I have come in flight,” says Murrough’s poem, “since I no longer dare be under the feet of the northern men because of the indignation of Donal of Derry and Drumcliffe; so do not desert me, William’s son: the northern king does not desert those who have behaved badly to you. My difference with him was trifling; a lout abused me and I killed him. Good God, is that any reason for anger?”
But even in the rough-and-ready thirteenth century income-tax inspectors were as carefully protected from the wrath of their victims as now, and O’Daly, feeling that the aristocracy was letting him down badly, had to push on to Cahal Redhand. Redhand and O’Daly were old friends, though the former, a prudent man, had neglected to fulfil O’Daly’s prophetic vision of him “going out into Meath while every stone tower turned into a burning bush.” There would be no burning bushes in defence of the poet’s right to hew down income-tax inspectors, and again Murrough had to resume his travels, this time to Cahal’s brother-in-law, Donough O’Brien, in Ennis. But there, too, the persons of tax collectors were sacred, and poor O’Daly had to clear out to Scotland, where anyone with the surname of MacVurrich may be perfectly satisfied that he is an honorary Sligoman and an hereditary murderer of income-tax inspectors. Lissadell was subsequently the home of Tadhg O’Higgins the Blind, another court poet, who among much unadulterated tosh wrote one beautiful elegy on O’Connor Sligo, while another O’Higgins was responsible for the great poem “O’Rourke’s Wife,” of which I shall have more to say.
Something of Sligo’s uniqueness comes of the fact that it is largely Protestant and has the explosive feeling of a border county, where, if people are not occupied in murdering one another, they may well settle down to write poetry and produce plays. It has nothing of the snug, smug majority orthodoxy of Protestant towns like Portadown or Catholic towns like Clonakilty. Dundalk, on the other side of the country, though less spectacular, has something of the same explosiveness. “I perceive,” as one of the Three Musketeers says, “that if we do not kill one another we shall become very good friends.”
I saw this incipient explosiveness at work for the first time when I went to Sligo as a young fellow on my first job. I lodged in the house of a Corkwoman, who, within a few days, told me in confidence that Sligo people were awful. I am always fascinated by the views of people on inhabitants of another locality; they are so like the views of English people on French or of Mr. Hilaire Belloc on the Anglo-Saxons. “Thank God to be back to civilisation!” as the woman in Dover said to me after she had left the Channel packet. “Thank God to be back to non-robbery!” as her husband added. When I asked the Corkwoman how awful the Sligo people were, she said they had no nature. She had been in one house where a pot of boiling water had toppled over on the daughter of the house, and, after one glance at her, her mother had said calmly: “No loss on her.” My landlady’s husband was an ex-soldier. Occasionally of an evening after the mechanical chimes in the Catholic cathedral had played “The Men of the West” with a missing note which always sent shudders down my spine, a window at the opposite side of the street would open and a neighbour’s gramophone would play “God Save the King.” Almost at the first insulting bars my landlord, ordinarily the placidest of men, would burst into my bedroom with a portable gramophone, throw open my window, thrust out the gramophone and put on a record of “A Soldier’s Song.” It was merely a matter of gramophones instead of machine-guns.
When I went back there many years later as adjudicator in a local festival, I found not one festival, but two. The country companies performed before me, and then, with make-up still on, dashed off to the other side of the town to perform before the rival adjudicator, and at the end of the week the differing marks were compared and criticised with such passion that the adjudicators themselves might have become involved, only that by that time they had pocketed their cheques and returned to their wives and families.
I advise anyone who is looking for a really funny film-script to turn his attention to an Irish festival. It is one of those occasions when anything in the world may happen. Once I remember in Dunmanway judging a schoolchildren’s play about the Babes in the Wood, in which the Babes, instead of being covered up with leaves by the birds, as I was always told, were covered by the Blessed Virgin, who appeared, followed by a small boy with an electric torch, which he focused more or less on the back of her neck to represent a halo. A friend in Wexford judged a performance of “Everyman,” in which the seven deadly sins were represented in tableaux; Lust was portrayed as a lot of small boys sitting at café tables, with small girls on their knees, all singing: “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do.”
I saw nothing so good in Sligo, though some companies ran it close. In one production the scenery was a poster pinned up in the middle of the stage. For the prison scenes the poster had bars painted on it. That was all, and, so perverse and extraordinary an art is the theatre, it was entirely and absolutely satisfying and left me feeling that I never wanted to see a painted flat again.
One team was so bad that I took the stage and denounced them. An hour later, when I left the hall, they were waiting for me in the corridor. “’Tis easy for you to talk,” one said, with tears in his voice. “Let me tell you that play was studied in a cold schoolhouse by the light of a candle.”
I threw my arms about the man. As he said, it is easy to talk. Yet all the time I had the feeling that something might happen or be made to happen at any moment. The local dramatic society was of professional standard. A local publican played a comic part with a timing that was almost French. For a split second I found myself thinking, “That fellow’s forgotten his lines”; then, “No, that’s splendid”; then, “Why the hell doesn’t he break it?” and finally, as a whole procession of slow, crafty, crazy thoughts was expressed in one ill-written line, I felt like cheering.
But, of course, Sligo is Yeats, and will be now for ever. A great poet impresses himself on a landscape like a phase of history, and for me East Dorset will always be as much Hardy as Celt or Saxon. One can scarcely look at the toppled-down crown of Knocknarea to the south without remembering “The host is riding from Knocknarea,” or at the long, shiplike beak of Ben Bulben to the north without remembering “When first I saw her on Ben Bulben’s side.” People have swum Lough Gill to reach Innisfree without knowing that the island Yeats really wrote of goes by the unpoetic name of Cat Island. One north of Ireland man with the strong utilitarian northern streak in him was heard to murmur as he looked over Sligo bridge at the foaming weir: “I would that we were, my beloved, white swans on the foam of the sea. Man dear, there’s enough water there to wash all the water-closets in Sligo.”
Now, nine years after his death, Yeats’ remains have been returned to Sligo. It was his own wish, the completion of a work long planned, the crowning of a life which was like some great work of art nobly conceived, nobly executed and here brought to a triumphant conclusion.
As an epitaph it is all right, but as an epitaph on Yeats it is hard to think of anything more inappropriate. The lines of his by which I shall always remember him are those that haunted me all day after I had heard of his death:
The truth is that of all the men I have known there was none who cast a more eager eye on both life and death. He was a blazing enthusiast who, into his seventies, retained all the spontaneity and astonishment of a boy of seventeen. I remember well the first night I went to his house—the occasion that was damped by the Presence of the old lady—and Yeats entered the dim, candle-lit drawing-room, tall, elegantly dressed, stern-looking—a figure to terrify a young man more forthcoming than myself. And then the extraordinary change which came over him when he grew excited; the way he sat bolt upright in his chair, snorted, sniffed, stammered, glared, the head thrown back, while the whole face blazed from within. It was astonishing, because even in extreme old age, when he was looking most wretched and discontented, quite suddenly that blaze of excitement would suddenly sweep over his face like a glory, like a blast of sunlight over a moor, and from behind the mask of age a boy’s eager, intense, appealing face stammered and glared at you, trapped and despairing, like a boy’s face behind a window on a summer day.
When we weren’t quarrelling, which was often enough, we usually got on well, because his adolescent eagerness, his passion for abstract conversation, was the sort of thing I had been used to when Sean O’Faolain and I were boys in Cork and made ourselves intellectually drunk over “objectivity” and “subjectivity,” Keats and Shelley. We had long, excited and very muddled arguments about Hegelianism, Fascism, Communism, pacifism; and sometimes the clash of ideas would release the lightning of phrase or anecdote, always perfectly apt. Once when I quoted the remark of an Irish politician that “the great difference between England and Ireland is that in England you can say what you like so long as you do the right thing, in Ireland you can do what you like so long as you say the right thing,” he capped it with “My father used to say that the great difference between England and Ireland is that every Englishman has rich relations and every Irishman poor ones.”
He published two volumes of my translations from the Irish, and did it with such enthusiasm that he practically rewrote the lot. I met Gogarty about that time, and he said: “Yeats is writing a couple of little lyrics for me, so I’d better drop in and see how he’s getting on.” I made one small effort at interfering in the writing of my own poems, but it was not welcomed. It was in the line “Has made me travel to seek you, Valentine Brown.” “That’s a bad line,” I said. “You can say, ‘Has made me travel to you,’ or, ‘Has made me seek you,’ but you can’t say, ‘Travel to seek you.’ Why not ‘Has made me a beggar before you, Valentine Brown??” “No beggars! No beggars!” he roared,
His first enthusiasm after I got to know him was the establishment of an Academy of Letters, and he had a lovely time chasing about in taxis, giving lunch-parties, sending wires and pulling wires. He was an outrageous old flatterer. At that time I hadn’t even published a book and was being accepted into the Academy on trust, but when I asked whether Mr. Somebody or Other was important enough to be a member Yeats replied: “Why worry about literary eminence? You and I will provide that.”
Then he became a Fascist and started parading Dublin in a bright blue shirt. In his early revolutionary days he wanted the secret society he belonged to to steal the Coronation Stone from Westminster Abbey. In his Fascist phase he wanted the Blueshirts to rebuild Tara and transfer the capital there. He had neighbours who, he decided, were Blueshirts too, and these had a dog. Mrs. Yeats, who was democratic in sympathies, kept hens, and the Blueshirt dog worried the democratic hens, Naturally, Yeats supported the dog. One day Mrs. Yeats’ favourite hen disappeared, and she wrote to the neighbours to complain of the dog. By return the neighbours replied that the dog had been destroyed. Mrs. Yeats, who was very fond of animals, was conscience-stricken, but Yeats was delighted at what he regarded as a true Blueshirt respect for law and order. One evening he called at my flat in a state of high glee. The democratic hen had returned safe and sound and Mrs. Yeats was overwhelmed with remorse. Another victory over the democracies!
Then I became a director of the Abbey Theatre, and our rows went on almost uninterruptedly until his death. He wanted “Coriolanus” produced in coloured shirts, in hopes of starting anti-Fascist riots as in Paris, but I dug in my heels about that. In time I almost became one of his enthusiasms myself, which was flattering but rather embarrassing, as he had fathered more bad art and literature than any great writer of his time. “Within five years,” he told me once, “So-and-So will be a European figure.” “Russell,” he said to A. E., who was refusing to enthuse over another of his protégés, “I wish you and I had the same chance of immortality as that young man.” But one liked the boyish eagerness which prompted it, the questioning way he read you some Godawful poem and tried to persuade you it was “profound,” “Shakespearean,” “the greatest thing produced in our time.”
In his later years he got into a perfect fever over eugenics. It began by his asking me one night if I thought genius could be passed on from one generation to the next. I said I thought not; talent, perhaps, but not genius, and he got very cross, and only then did I realise that he was thinking of his son Michael. Then his face lit up, and he said: “I had an old aunt who used to say you could pass on anything you liked, provided you took care not to marry the girl next door.”
After that the enthusiasm really got under way. Somebody or other, who was the greatest something or other of our time, had invented a method of testing intelligence that dispensed altogether with acquired knowledge and only tested natural aptitude. This had revealed
the alarming fact that if you took children out of a slum and put them in decent surroundings their natural aptitude did not improve, so that the standard of human intelligence was steadily declining. One of the tests turned out to be a labyrinth problem, the second a picture of a heap of clothes on a strand, with a blank space in the middle of the clothes, which the unfortunate children were supposed to fill in with the name of the object that should have been represented. Being myself from a slum, I didn’t like to admit that I didn’t know from Adam what the appropriate object was, but curiosity compelled me to ask.
“Oh,” said Yeats, “a dog. To guard the clothes.”
Intelligent or not, it struck me that the capacity of human beings for deluding themselves was practically infinite.
“By the way,” I asked, “do you think you’d ever have passed an intelligence test?”
He thought about that for a while.
“No,” he admitted regretfully, “I suppose I wouldn’t.”
In the last letter I received from him, written on his death-bed, he suggested that if I wanted his help I should wire and he would return and reorganise the entire Board of the theatre! I used to feel years younger after a visit to him. Disillusionment and cynicism simply dropped away from me when he was round.
That civilisation of Sligo spills over, as I have said, and, though the maps tell you that Boyle is in Co. Roscommon, in spirit at least it belongs to Sligo. It is a charming little town with a very good hotel on the river bank by the bridge. The military barrack, which dominates the town, particularly across the river, is a really magnificent town house of the Stafford family, now, unfortunately, in the condition you would expect after having been used so long as a barrack. Perhaps some day some local council may try to rescue it and restore it as a museum.
It is every bit as good in its way as the abbey, and that is saying a lot. The abbey was founded about the middle of the twelfth century, but the church was not completed until after the first phase of the Norman conquest was over—that is to say, in the reign of Cahal Redhand. Though Early English was well established and used for the north arcade, the south arcade is round-arched. The first couple of bays have plain capitals in the manner of most Cistercian churches, but the four western bays reveal what I think to be the hands of the Ballintubber masons. Only the centre moulding of the arch is supported, and this by clustered columns with beautifully carved blocks of capitals very like those of Inishmaine and full of the feeling of Connacht Romanesque. Even in its ruins it is a very beautiful church.
Rockingham, the present home of the big local landowners, is a shocking disappointment. The beautiful little Regency lodges which whet your appetite on the way up are a false alarm. The house was designed by Nash, and eighteenth-century prints show it as a lovely building with a delightful cupola. But it was felt to be too low, so Nash was commissioned to design an additional storey, and even Nash could not do that without making the house look like the Grand Hotel in Bray. Then came a fire which burned out all the Regency detail, so that now it is nothing but a rather commonplace Victorian residence.
The view from it across Lough Key, with the wonderful background of the Leitrim Mountains and the mass of little islands with their castles and abbeys, is a piece of Sligo gone adrift. On the island abbey the monks wrote the Annals of Lough Key, which are as entertaining as annals usually are. The island castle of the MacDermotts is traditionally supposed to be the place where Una MacDermott died for love of Tomaus Costello. Their love-story is told in Hyde’s “Love-Songs of Connacht” in a grandly Victorian style which suggests a combination of Old Gearge and Mrs. Humphry Ward. Costello, known as “Strong Thomas,” lived in the reign of the second Charles (“I think,” Dr. Hyde adds cautiously). He goes on in a way which tempts one to profanity to say that the old people told so many stories of Costello that he could never be done telling them, and so confines himself to the romance.
Costello was poor, his lands having been seized by some ancestor of the present Minister of Agriculture, a Dillon. The MacDermott family would allow Una to have nothing to do with him and locked her up, at which she began to pine. Finally they sent for him only when she was at death’s door. After she had seen him again she fell into a sound sleep, and Costello, for some reason which the story-tellers do not make clear, left the house, expecting to be recalled by the family. He swore that if he were not recalled by the time he reached Donogue Ford he would not return at all. After he had crossed the ford a messenger reached him from Una, who had just woken up, but he refused to go back. Una died and was buried on the island in Lough Key, to which Costello swam three nights in succession. Finally her ghost appeared to him, touched him on the cheek and bade him not to return again. “The rest of Strong Thomas’ life,” according to Dr. Hyde, “was as wonderful as this story.” He, too, was buried on the island, and ash-trees grew from the two graves and intertwined their branches, a miracle which had been beheld by some of Dr. Hyde’s informants, “but,” he adds, with the caution befitting a true scholar, “it was late when I reached the shore of Lough Key and I could not see them.”
Of the quatrains supposed to have been composed by Costello, and of which Dr. Hyde gives examples, the country people say they are in “hard Irish” and that no fiddler or piper could ever play them! This statement, which Hyde greets with an exclamation mark, is quite correct. These wild, beautiful, blasphemous quatrains are frequently unintelligible (Hyde’s text is certainly corrupt in several places), and the wonderful air is almost unsingable. It is published in several German collections of folk-songs, but, like many other things Irish, almost unknown outside that country. If one could imagine it well sung it would be hair-raising:
The maddening thing about all this folk-lore is that Costello was a real person and is the subject of an almost equally baffling and even more beautiful poem supposed to be spoken by the wife of Hugh O’Rourke of Brefny while Costello is away at the wars. So at least I read it; the original editors state that it is Hugh O’Rourke who is at the wars while Costello is at home making love to his wife, but I fancy that this is merely a materialistic interpretation of a bardic conceit, because clearly the “disguises” in which Costello appears to her are her own wandering fancies. She describes herself torn asunder between love for her husband and love for Costello, and the description of her state of mind is one of the most remarkable I know in any poetry; it is equal in subtlety to the prose of Stendhal or Proust.
The one thing certain about the poem is that it does not mean what it appears to mean. The style is conceited, if not actually facetious. It is the work of a professional poet (Mr. James Carney, who has done a considerable amount of research on it, tells me he was Tomas O’Higgins) and, being court poetry, must be in aid of something. If I understand Mr. Carney’s view, it is allegorical, O’Rourke’s wife being Ireland and O’Rourke’s bard complimenting a local hero on being almost as great a favourite with her as O’Rourke himself. This is certainly the sort of explanation which comes within the bounds of possibility. It does not, of course, detract from the consummate artistry of the poem or the profound psychological skill with which it probes the mind of a woman in love.
Within a few miles of Boyle is one of those big houses whose names are still a terror to the country people. The owner of this had sent seventy families whom he had dispossessed of their little holdings to America in a rotten boat which sank with the loss of every soul aboard. When the maddened country people later murdered him, people in all the shops fell on their knees to thank God that the worst man in Ireland had paid for his crimes. A friend’s father remembered that scene and described it to him. The friend grew up, became a famous man, and went one day on a visit to the house of “the worst man in Ireland.”
In the library he found a diary which had belonged to a previous owner of the house. This described how, when he came into possession of the estate, he found it overcrowded, so that the unfortunate tenants could barely keep body and soul together. Some had to be cleared off so that the others could have farms big enough for their families. His agent warned him that this would cost him a considerable portion of his income, but he and his wife agreed that it was their duty. He offered fifty pounds (a large sum in those days) to any young family which would surrender its holding and emigrate. Then the diary went on to relate how he became aware of the atrocious conditions under which the Irish were being transported across the Atlantic, and came to the conclusion that he must himself charter a ship. It told how he accompanied the seventy families of his tenants to Limerick and saw them comfortably disposed aboard. Then came the entries which told of his growing impatience and dread as no news came from America of the arrival of his ship, and the dawning realisation that man, woman and child whom he had seen off from Limerick were now at the bottom of the sea.
There the entries ceased, for “the worst man in Ireland” had paid the penalty for a crime he had never committed. God forgive us all!
I still have the note I took the first night I spent within the borders of Donegal, and a very depressed note it is. In it I noted my regret that I didn’t know just enough about architecture to be able to distinguish between one Irish town and another. All then seemed to me exactly alike, as though at one moment a group of people, all with exactly the same sort of mind, decided to build the same sort of town as their neighbours, with the same pessimistic-looking Protestant church and the same optimistic Catholic one, the same market-place and the same monument to some national hero whom nobody had ever heard of.
Actually, it shows a glimmer of common sense in me, for Donegal is next-door neighbour to the six counties of Ulster, the official survey of which lays it down that architecturally it is inferior to anything in Western Europe. Stranorlar, in the Six Counties, and its twin, Ballybofey, in the Twenty-Six, were the cause of my misery that night, and I still remember the endless street with the whitewashed cottages along one side, all dark except where the moon sent a shaft of light through some narrow laneway and revealed another identical cottage at the other side. A white cat with a black tail pursued me for a full hour. No doubt he was bored with it, too, and hoped I might bring him to Hollywood to train for the films.
Donegal is a nakedly poor county; any grace it has is on the south, where it borders on Sligo, the country of
William Allingham’s nostalgic verses:
I am afraid I have never appreciated that poem at its true worth; the very words “where everyone is known” send shudders down my spine and make me think at once of my cousins’ praise of Limerick.
For the rest it is two worlds, like the two worlds of Irish mythology, which to the mortal are waves, to the immortal green fields. To the holiday-maker the sands, the mountains and the lakes are holiday ground; to the cottagers in their low cottages, which shine in the darkest night, they are a harsh stepmother. Donegal is the only place in Ireland where “Protestant” does not mean privileged, where the Protestants may be as poor as their neighbours and send their children to the Scotch harvest to make a few pounds to tide them through the winter months. I first learned this one afternoon when myself and a friend took shelter in a little cabin on Horn Head, and I remember how it came as a shock to both of us.
Donegal is the only place in Ireland where a real Left-wing movement might originate which would cut across the artificial religious division of the country. Perhaps, for all I know, Peadar O’Donnell is Left wing. In one Protestant cottage I visited I found the little girl of the house a great admirer of his “Islanders.” “It’s our sort of life,” she said. That was another thing you wouldn’t find in the south.
Living so close to the verge of extinction, the people have a warmth which is unusual even for Ireland.
Policemen are plainly there only to be thwarted or bribed, regulations to be evaded, the feeble flame of life to be nursed at any cost. I don’t say the people are not as cunning or as superstitious as they are in Connemara—there is a place called Kerrytown which is rapidly becoming an Irish Lourdes—but these aren’t the dominant notes. There is more urgency about life here.
One day a friend and myself lost our way and walked too far. We called at the post office of the first village we came to to enquire if there was a bus. No, there was no bus, but the postmistress, a bright, bossy little woman like the reverend mother of a convent, would see whether she couldn’t get a car for us. At this we began to be a little alarmed, but she pooh-poohed it. It was impossible to walk back, and anybody who was going in that direction ought to be glad to oblige us. It might be their own turn next. She sent out a little girl to make enquiries if any car was leaving the village that evening. Then she rang a neighbouring village to enquire if any car was on its way. When she learned that there was none, she gave the other postmistress a bit of her mind, and, in what must have been an apologetic tone, the second woman suggested a third village, from which MacGinley’s car usually set out about this hour. There was nothing doing at that village either, and then our postmistress really began to get cross; she got on to the police and instructed them to stop the first car passing through and tell them to collect us. They did, too, and there was no bloody nonsense about obliging anybody; the owners could consider themselves lucky they weren’t being asked to go to Dublin.
In a queer way that amusing little scene hits off the quality of O’Donnell’s stories at their best, the warmth and eagerness of the pioneering spirit. Once during the war I was staying in a little hotel about thirty miles from London. The regular guests occupied a central table, which was presided over by a Harley Street specialist. A young couple joined us for a while, a man, an officer in the Belgian Merchant Navy, and his young wife, who spoke in a language that none of us could identify. The rest of us had furious discussions over dinner about racialism and other things. The young couple kept silence the whole time. One evening an argument blew up about feminism. The Harley Street specialist thought women’s intelligence inferior to men’s, and as an admirer of Jane Austen I told him exactly what I thought of that. Next morning the little foreign woman moved to take the specialist’s plate. “Oh, please allow me!” he began. “Thank you, Doctor,” she said, fury giving her the gift of tongues, “I know now what you think us fit for.”
That morning she had had to cut her husband’s breakfast. I saw his hands were like those of a corpse. “Frostbite,” she explained. “I was lucky,” said her husband. “We were sunk in mid-Atlantic in icy weather. The crew went off in the lifeboat and were picked up by a destroyer some days after. None of them will ever work again. The mate and I went off in the small boat, and we drifted ashore in a little place you wouldn’t know in the north of Ireland.” And then he mentioned the place where I used to spend so many of my holidays.
“We were taken to a little cottage. The doctor came and would not even let us be shifted to hospital. He just wrapped us up in blankets, without any treatment, without hot-water bottles; just wrapped in blankets like mummies, the mate for six months, me for nine. Then he said: “You are not cured, but you are as well as you ever will be.” He saved our lives. The rest of my crew are useless. The kindness of those Donegal people—I will never forget it, never.” He did not know I was from Ireland, and for a while he made me proud that I was.
A county of warm hearts and muddled heads. The national brew is manufactured a lot here, too, but the accent is Scottish. They call it po’chin. In Mayo and Galway alone is the classical accent preserved; they call it po’cheen. As Professor O’Rahilly has shown, we Munster people have permitted our accent to be corrupted by Norman French and throw it on to the final syllable—pocheen’. But at least we also have developed a Norman French tolerance about other people’s accents. With the Scottish accent the Donegal people have acquired the Scottish dogmatism. I once stayed with a Donegal man for a few days in London, and he was so homesick that he insisted on our speaking Irish the whole time; not a very easy thing to do, since he was speaking in an accent infected by Scottish Gaelic, I in one infected by Norman French. Having bought himself an anthology of modern French poetry, he asked me to read him something from it. I read him Jammes’ “Priére Pour Aller à Paradis Avec les Ânes,” and he murmured rapturously to himself over the beauty of the lines. Now, my French accent is of a very peculiar kind; my ear is quite incapable of recording the sounds of French, but it is sufficiently keen to warn me that the sounds I make bear no relation to the sounds of French. I felt sure that the man must be pulling my leg. Then he opened his eyes and looked at me earnestly.
“You read that beautifully,” he said. “Och, mon dear, isn’t it a terrible pity ye can’t pronounce Irish like you pronounce French?”
As in all places where life is hard, living is hard. The two seem to go together. The toughness of the struggle for existence deprives people of the capacity for enjoying whatever they may win for themselves in it. One friend of mine, a woman of great charm and character, was the daughter of a local teacher. When she was a child she had to be off at six in the morning to buy fish, which she afterwards sold about the town. At half-past seven she was off again in the opposite direction to bring home the cows for milking. Sometimes she was sent off in the cart for timber and thence to the sawmill. Her father bought all the children’s clothes himself; once he bought a web of homespun which kept the family in suits and dresses for five years. The other children called them “the sheep.” They wore “the booties” during the winter, but when once they took them of their father removed them and locked them away until the following spring. He went on tremendous bursts of drinking, and whatever drink he began on originally—beer, whisky, port—he continued on that until the breakdown came. He died after a bout of benedictine.
On the whole I don’t think I want to live in Donegal. Once in Ardara I went into a pub where three men were drinking. The previous day had been Saturday, and they had gone to Dublin to see a match. As the frontier post into Northern Ireland closed too early for the drouth that was on them, they decided to come home via Sligo, which is rather like going from London to Exeter via York. They had drunk their way steadily across the country, and were now, at three o’clock of a Sunday afternoon, drinking their way back up the west coast. As they were proposing to pay a visit to Killybegs Regatta, they wouldn’t, if I knew anything, get home until the following morning. I was inclined to think they would have done better to have slept at the far side of the frontier.
One of the three was a tall, melancholy man who wanted to sing. He suddenly looked at the ceiling and began without warning, to the air of “The Snowy Breasted Pear!”:
“You have the wrong tone for that,” said another, a brisk, loquacious sort of man, the same who had given me their itinerary.
“But I knew Martin Savage,” said the melancholy man, lowering his eyes.
“I know that, but you have the wrong tone. It should go like this.”
Then he began to sing in an exaggerated fashion, with much facial expression and exaggerated diminuendos and crescendos (“He wasn’t what you’d call a good singer,” as a man in Glengarriffe once explained to me, “but he was a good Irish singer”). The melancholy man watched. him for a moment with great interest and then joined in.
“Ah, can’t you listen to me?” said the brisk man indignantly, ceasing to sing.
“But I am listening.”
“Then stop singing and pay attention. I tell you you have the wrong tone. It should go like this.”
He began again, and again the other joined in, and this time the brisk man got really crusty.
“Ah, will you listen, man?”
“But I knew Martin Savage,” said the melancholy man.
“I know that.”
“I fought side by side with Martin Savage.”
“That has nothing to do with it.”
“But that song is about Martin Savage. You never knew Martin Savage.”
“I never said I did. That has nothing at all to do with it.”
“What has nothing to do with it? Sure, you never fired a shot.”
“I know I never fired a shot.”
“I fought with Martin Savage,” said the melancholy man, gripping me by the lapels of the coat. “We were wrong. I admit it now. We were wrong. We fought the English and then we fought one another.”
“But listen to me, man, listen!” shouted the brisk man in agony. “’Tisn’t because you knew Martin Savage that you know how to lament him. That’s a different thing entirely. Now, listen to me and I’ll show you how that should go.”
I left them singing in unison, embracing one another and looking emotionally into one another’s eyes. I’m afraid Donegal would never suit me. There are far too many people there who fought beside Martin Savage, and that, as the other man said, isn’t the same thing at all as knowing how to lament him. There is a world of difference.
Let me be quite honest about the counties of the North Midlands. I do not know them and I shall never really know them, because knowing them is a career in itself. They have towns like Mullingar, Roscommon, Athlone and Longford, of which I can honestly say that I have no idea what they are doing in the world at all. I remember one awful journey in the middle of winter which a friend and I took to Mullingar. Mullingar has a cathedral in the style of Athlone and Cavan, but Limerick has more and worse, and succeeds in remaining good-looking. I do not remember much about this one. What I do remember with appalling vividness is sitting in the lounge of the hotel after supper with two ancient drunks, who talked in a very disjointed manner.
One began to tell the other, whose name seemed to be Clancy, about a fellow in Cape Town—you know Cape Town; a fellow called Smith—you knew Smith. Smith was deaf of one ear. Fella came up to Smith one day in the street and said: “Can you lend me five pounds, Smith?” “Deaf in that ear,” said Smith. “Come around this side.” Fella came to the other side. “Can you lend me five pounds?” “Come back to this side,” said Smith.
Mr. Clancy nodded; he obviously knew fellows who asked you to lend them five pounds. He nodded again and again; obviously he knew lots of fellows like that. And then he discovered that nodding was a most agreeable exercise and that nothing was easier than to go on doing it indefinitely.
The other drunk looked at him for a moment in surprise, and it suddenly began to dawn on him that old Clancy was drunk. A leer lit up his beery features. He slowly shook his head to express his disapproval, and then in some peculiar way caught Mr. Clancy’s infection and found it pleasant. It probably didn’t go on for more than a few moments, but it seemed to go on all night. I looked at my companion to see what he was doing with his head, but he was simply glaring.
Next morning, doing the sights, I ran into Mr. Clancy’s taximan, a poor Dubliner who had been picked up at Limerick Races some days before with instructions to drive Mr. Clancy back to Mayo. He was now beginning to wonder if they would ever reach Mayo or if he would ever be paid. I was able to set his mind at rest about the second point; about the first I still don’t know. For all I know they may be growing old on the road.
That is Mullingar, a typical Midland town. If you don’t like that, there is Roscommon. It is part of the domestic land of the O’Connor kings, which ought to endear it to me, but it doesn’t, not really. The town is ugly, though the pubs and shops still have the bright colours which Connacht used to love and which the grey landscape cries out for, though now they are everywhere giving place to cement and chromium plating. The castle is only a shell, though its array of Elizabethan and Renaissance windows looks well enough from the road as you pass. The priory isn’t much better and is in an appalling state of dilapidation. It contains an O’Connor tomb which looks like a compilation. Being in the position of the founder’s tomb at the north side of the quire, it should be thirteenth century, but it seems to have been built up with a portion of a remarkably fine fourteenth-century tomb-chest, in which the place of the mourners and knights of English tombs has been taken by the figures of heavily armed gallowglasses; very properly so, since it was these stout Hebridean condottieri who, coming on the market in the fourteenth century, helped the Irish to bundle the Normans out and gave the opportunity for the great revival of art and architecture which took place in the following century.
Longford is probably worse than any of them. It is a really terrible town. Yet there on the borders of it is the little village of Edgeworthstown, which has a tradition of culture that goes back before the Battle of the Boyne, for there lived Maria, and there Oliver Goldsmith went to school, and, though Goldsmith may never have laid eyes on Turlough O’Carolan, he had certainly lived in houses where Carolan had stayed, and learned to play his music.
Carolan, a blind lad, had followed the Irish tradition in taking up poetry and music, which the Irish thought a suitable employment for the blind (perhaps that is what is wrong with the stuff). The Irish (and it was a Welshman who said it) excelled all other nations at the harp. Nowadays you might travel the country from end to end without hearing a harp or one note of Carolan’s music, which still remains unedited. Petrie has movingly described how a country where in his youth everybody sang suddenly fell silent during the great famine of 1848 and never sang again.
But Carolan’s appeal went deeper and wider than that of any traditional musician. Though his remoteness and blindness (he composed on the buttons of his long coat) made it impossible for him to follow European musicians in their pursuit of extended form, he had the curiosity which Merryman among Irish writers had, and he wrote in a European idiom. In doing so he cut across the religious and political boundaries, and, as Goldsmith testifies, delighted the “English” as well as the native population. Though as a poet he was undoubtedly the worst ever produced by any civilised country, and the one line of genuine poetry he wrote was written in a foreign tongue to please an English visitor—“Though Mass was my notion, my devotion was she”—as a musician his fame spread rapidly. There is scarcely a book of tunes published during the eighteenth century which doesn’t contain something of his, acknowledged or otherwise, and even when anonymous it is nearly always possible to identify his peculiar blend of masculinity and grace. He was not, as the guidebook tells you, the composer of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (the Library of Congress has produced a substantial book with the sole purpose of proving this), but it gives a good idea of his work.
Goldsmith is the typical Anglo-Irish writer of the period. Trinity College sports at either side of its gate statues of himself and Burke, as though to indicate that it produces for export only. He has never impressed himself on the landscape, for he left it too young, and all the countryside retains is an occasional legend of his idiocy, such as the story that he went to the Squire’s house under the impression that it was a hotel and ordered everyone round until next morning, when the squire explained who he was. This “tradition” is too plainly a borrowing from “She Stoops to Conquer” to be worth a farthing as evidence. That something of the sort did really happen we need not doubt; that the young innocent was directed to the squire’s house and went there to enquire if he might have a room for the night is probably true, for Goldsmith himself used it, and he rarely invented, but the whole story collapses at the front door. Those who are prepared to believe it must have very peculiar notions of what Irish eighteenth-century inns were like.
It was a pity, because Goldsmith was the other type of Irishman from Swift, Yeats and Joyce, the Irishman whose genius seems to consist in ringing true. Both spring from the same thing—the over-intimacy of Irish life—but, whereas the first type shuns it, the second becomes its victim. Goldsmith, who resembles Sheridan and Moore rather than the other trio, had the quality which one can only describe in musical terms as the sense of perfect pitch. “You know,” A. E. once said to me, “all Irish writers are mad except Colum. Yeats is mad, Moore was mad, I’m mad. Colum is the only sane man amongst us.” That is how I feel about Goldsmith. His conception of poetry—the conception of his time—as a social art for the entertainment and instruction of the public has so completely vanished that it is only with the greatest patience that we can work out the relative importance of the poets who accepted it, yet one can still take a passage of Goldsmith, when he is in the grip of his obsession, set it beside a passage of Eliot or Hopkins, and test them as one would test an instrument with a tuning-fork:
If Goldsmith did not impress himself on the landscape, the landscape certainly impressed itself upon him. Even Joyce in exile never thought of Ireland with such intensity of longing as Goldsmith did. The racial element in him counts for nothing whatever. If he counted himself among “the English” when he wrote of Carolan, that can only have been because he failed to study in his glass that long upper lip of his like a shutter, by which Victorian caricaturists always identified the native Irishman, and which I remember having seen in my youth, though in the past thirty years it has disappeared almost as though it never existed. He was more than anybody else of his time a regional writer, and nothing ever happened him after his Irish years. (I remember once saying to Yeats that nothing really happens to a poet after the age of twenty-one. “Oh, much earlier than that,” he said, “much earlier.”)
More than any other writer of his time but Boswell, he was subjective and autobiographical, and I feel sure, if only we knew a few more dates and facts about his early years, we should be able to reconstruct from his work an autobiography as frank and detailed as that of Montaigne or Rousseau. Never did he begin to feel sympathetic to a character of whom he wrote, but at once he grafted on some of his own autobiography to him. “The Vicar of Wakefield” begins by being a study of his father, but after a while we become conscious that the simplicities of the good man are Goldsmith’s own; Mr. Burchell appears and Mr. Burchell instantly assumes all Goldsmith’s little weaknesses and some of his past; Moses appears and Moses becomes Goldsmith too, until finally the other son reappears after his wanderings and proves to be Goldsmith all over again. Even the Chinese philosopher, even the hero of “She Stoops to Conquer,” is a self-portrait, and Mr. Stephen Gwynn has shrewdly observed that the relationship between Tony Lumpkin and his mother is simply that between Goldsmith and his own mother. There is nothing else in literature which resembles that extraordinary hall of mirrors with its endless self-reflections.
And was ever character so clearly drawn? There is, first, the shuddering sensibility of the poet, plunging through life torn asunder by the misery that he saw all round him, because every figure was merely himself, even the prostitute sleeping outside Trinity College, whom he covered with his own bedclothes. In others’ miseries he sees his own and tries to relieve them with his scanty means. But he is also a wise man, “a philosopher,” as he described himself, and when the orgasm of tenderness has passed he realises that he has done nothing at all to relieve his neighbour’s misery and has merely reduced himself to his neighbour’s plight. “Thus he is induced,” says the philosopher, “by misplaced liberality, to put himself into the indigent circumstances of the person he relieves.” Then comes the frenzy of self-contempt for what seems his own folly. “Pity is composed of sorrow and contempt. ... Apply to every passion but pity for redress. You may find relief from vanity, from self-interest or from avarice, but seldom from compassion.”
Mr. Gwynn astonishingly takes this to express a cynicism induced by Goldsmith’s own experience as a borrower, but Goldsmith was not interested in how other people felt. There is no cynicism in that passage because, of course, Goldsmith is thinking of himself not as the borrower but the lender, and lashing himself because the first fine, careless rapture of tenderness does not last, like a poet lashing himself because the divinity of his poem has become a commonplace woman with a taste for whisky.
This man, who scarcely mentioned Ireland in his published work, dreamed of it endlessly, and, just as it is himself whom he represents in every sympathetic character, it is Lissoy which is the background to “The Vicar of Wakefield,” “The Traveller,” and “The Deserted Village.” The secret of why he did not return is locked away for ever in one of those fictions of which we can only guess how much of them is autobiography. The one thing certain is that he did not tramp Europe, flute-playing and begging, for the fun of it. Goldsmith’s type does not seek adventure; it merely runs away from trouble. Twice before, to dodge a row at home, he had set out for America, and each time had crept back “to the place from whence at first he flew.” The first letters written after the long interim of his European journeys to the people at home only partly conceal the reason for his flight. Somehow or other he had got involved in some scrape which meant real disgrace at home; the fantastic story of his imprisonment in Newcastle has probably something to do with it, and he wandered Europe merely because he was afraid to come home. Only spectacular success could now justify the wanderer’s return, and that was what lay behind his wildcat schemes of teaching Greek in Louvain and reading the inscriptions in Arabia.
The resentment against a country so irresponsibly governed emerges not only in his references to the Whig Ascendancy, “who spend their whole lives in running after a hare, drinking to be drunk, and getting every girl that will let them with child,” and under whom “there has been more money spent in the encouragement of the Padareen mare ... in one season than given in rewards to learned men since the times of Usher,” but also, more strangely, in the lines describing a tavern, which he wrote out for his brother Henry:
“All this is taken, you see, from nature,” he adds, and Henry no doubt saw, because it was an alehouse they both knew, the alehouse of home. It is also the alehouse of the Deserted Village, except that now it is transfigured by the exile’s longing:
It was a tragedy that Goldsmith did not return to Ireland, but it is the gentler type of Irishman—the Moores and Sheridans—who permits himself as a rule to become the exile, while the sterner type remains and impresses his character on a country which is already too harsh. This landscape haunted Goldsmith to the day of his death merely because he was that sort of Irishman, the natural type. “Why, why was I born a man, and yet see the suffering of wretches I cannot relieve! Why was this heart of mine formed with so much sensibility! or why was not my fortune adapted to its impulse! Tenderness, without a capacity of relieving, only makes the man who feels it more wretched than the object which sues for assistance.” It was because he was shaped like that, a tuning-fork of natural emotion, that he could write: “There is something so seducing in that spot in which we first had existence, that nothing but it can please; whatever vicissitudes we experience in life, however we toil, or wheresoever we wander, our fatigued wishes still recur to home for tranquillity, we long to die in that spot which gave us birth, and in that pleasing expectation opiate every calamity.” I do not love the Irish Midlands, but it is enough for me that Oliver Goldsmith did.
Let me confess, though, that I do not like “The Vicar of Wakefield,” which seems to me to be one of those classics which are taken on trust and which no critic ever bothers to re-read with his eyes open. The same is true of Maria Edgeworth’s “Castle Rackrent,” though it is far more like a real novel than Goldsmith’s, Miss Edgeworth was too much affected by her father’s moralising ever to have been a good novelist. I have no objection to an author’s exclusion of politics; I do object to an author’s dealing with social conditions while excluding politics. Maria Edgeworth, like Goldsmith, was revolted by the irresponsibility of the Whig aristocracy, but you cannot write a novel dealing with that irresponsibility without discussing its political background. To handle the theme of “Castle Rackrent” while deliberately excluding, for instance, the very names of Protestant and Catholic, privilege and legal serfdom, on which it was based, is merely to create a psychological monstrosity, which is exactly what Maria Edgeworth has done.
That there was a touch of the psychological monstrosity in herself is not improbable. When meeting an old acquaintance in Galway she remembers only that he was “quartered at Longford at the time of the rebellion,” remembers “our all taking shelter there, how near my father was being killed by the mob, and how courageously he behaved.” The “mob” she wrote of are still remembered in her own country, though her stories give no hint of them. Once a local politician took myself and another man to see an old countryman in a poor country cottage. The old man was in bed; he had only a brief while to live. They lit a fire for us in the bare front room. Some time later the old man appeared, white-faced, all skin and bone. Yes, his grandfather had told him all about the French invasion of 1798 under General Humbert—u’ber Grandfather used to call it. It was strange in the dusk over the fire that refused to burn listening to that quavering old voice describe the composition of the little army with its long trail of Irish pikemen from Mayo; their camp in Cloone Churchyard, with the French cooking their meal over fires of bones from the charnel-heap, and the General and staff eating in the parish priest’s house. Some of the Mayo contingent, like the lad of twelve with the pike which was too big for him, he described so vividly that I had to pull myself together and remind myself that it was not this old man who had seen them, but his grandfather. He gave the name of the family who had treacherously stolen the gun chains and thrown them down a well so that the guns had to be man-handled. Very moving it was when he described the last stand of the Irish pikemen when the English had refused their surrender and their French allies stood by and let them perish. “The Irish gunner was Gunner Magee. A shell blew one wheel from under his gun. ‘Ah,’ he said, “if only I could lift it! ’Tis charged I’d fire it at the English.’ Then two big Mayomen threw themselves down and lifted the gun on their backs, and he fired his last shot. It was chain-shot he fired. It mowed the English down, but the two Mayomen were dead. The explosion broke their backs. Gunner Magee was hanged by the gable of Mrs.——— s cottage. When the English put the rope round his neck he threw back his head and laughed. Grandfather said it.”
And as I close this book there are two groups of figures in my mind—the old man in the Longford cottage and the dear old couple in the converted manor-house whose story I have never been able to get at. It is all there, in these two groups, that sense of the past which is all that gives dignity to life, which bases it as on a pedestal, and without which we are only like “the poor Arabian tribesman with his tent.” No one who does not care for the past should come near us; no one who does, whatever our faults may be, should fail in sympathy.
Abbey Theatre, Dublin, see Dublin City
Adare, Co. Limerick, 217
A. E., 251-2, 260, 280.
Aed, Vice-Steward of Armagh, 121
Ængus (Mac an Og), 145, 146, 147-8
Aghadoe, twelfth-century church, 197
Airem, Eochaid, King of Tara, 146, 147
Aldboro family, 62
Allfather, Eochaid (The Dagda), King of Ireland, 145-6
Allingham, William, 268-9
Anguba, Ailill, 146
Annacotty bridge, 216
Anselm, 118, 119, 129
Anstey, 188-9, 191, 194-5
Aran Island, 240
Armagh, 59, 60, 120, 121, 128, 131, 132, 134, 152, 158;
Arthur’s Quay, Limerick, 209
Athassel Priory, 135
Athlone, 122, 276
Avoca valley, 68
Bagenalstown, 103, 104, 106, 112
Baldwin, Maire, 182
Ballinasloe, Galway, 235
Ballingeary, 182, 1
Ballintubber Abbey, 249-50, 262
Ballinya, 185, 186
Balrothery, Co. Dublin, 44
Baltinglass, Cistercian abbey, W. Wicklow, 61-2, 99, 110, 111
Banagher, Galway, 89, 97, 236
Bangor Monastery, 130, 131
Barrow river, 104, 106, 109, 112
Barry, Viscount David (“Ram Alley”), 163
Beaumont, Joe, 143
Beau Pare, 151
Bective Abbey, 144
Belloc, Hilaire, 50-1, 52, 53
Ben Bulben, 256
Beresford family, 213
Berkeley, Bishop, 81, 108, 163
Bindon, Francis, eighteenth-century Irish painter,63-4
Birch family, 139
Birr, 99-101, 139
Blackwater river, 163, 164
Blunt, Scawen, 238
Blythe, Ernest, 36, 43
Boleyn, Anne, 137
Bolton, Bishop Theophilus, 116
“Book of the Dun Cow,” compiled by Mael Muire, 95
Borrow, George, 136, 138
Boru, Brien, 119, 224
Bowen, Elizabeth, 236
Boyle Abbey, 249
Co. Roscommon, 252, 261, 267
Boyne river, 144, 145, 146, 150, 151;
Battle of the, 93, 278;
Palace of the, 145, 148
Bri Leith, Co. Longford, 146
Browne, Anthony, 248
Buachalla, Mess, 147
Bunratty Castle, 219, 220
Burns, Robert, 225-6
Butler family of East Munster, 107, 137
Caeich, Giolla, twelfth-century deacon, 109-10 Cael, Sigmall, 147 Cahir, 136, 137 Calendar of Ængus the Culdee, 56, 73 Callan, 109 Cambrensis, Giraldus, 139 Cappoquin, 165 Carew, Lord, 81 Carlow County, 103 et seg.; town, 91 Carmagnoles, 85 Carney, James, 138, 264-5 Carolan, 252 Carrick-on-Suir, 136, 137 Carriganimma, 186 Carroll, Paul Vincent, “Shadow and Substance,” 100 Carton, house of Duke of Leinster, 87-8, 164 Cashel Cathedral, 115-6 Cormac’s Chapel, 50, 63, 92, 109, 116, 117-8, 124, 135, 164, 220 St. John’s Church, 116 town, 115, 120, 135 Cassell, eighteenth-century German architect, 12, 27, 28, 63-4, 82, 87, 143, 144 Castlebar, 249 Castleconnell Spa, 210, 217 Castletown House, Celbridge, Kildare, 81-2, 87 Cat Island (Yeats’s “Innisfree”), 256 “Cattle Raid of Cooley, (national saga), 75, 152-7 Cavan, 276 Ceallach (“Celsus”), twelfth-century bishop of the Irish in Armagh, later first Primate of Reformed Church, 50, 119, 120-21, 122, 124, 125, 126, 127, 128, 129, 130-1, 133, 134, 164 Cearnach, Conall, hero of Leinster sagas, 76 Ceileachar, eleventh-century Bishop of Clonmacnois, 95 Celbridge, Kildare, 81-2, 88 Charlemont, Lord, 26, 33, 84 Chudleigh family, 178 Chulainn, Cú, 152-3, 154-7, 158, 160-1 Clancy, George, 215 Clanwilliam House, 87, 164 Clare, Abbey, 221 County, 62, 122, 200, 219 et seq. Council, 233 Lord (John Fitzgibbon), 66, 210, 211-12 Clarke, Harry, stained glass by, 222 Cleary, Anne, 40 Clonakilty, 254 Clonfert, Co, Galway, 97; Cathedral, 235-6 Clonkeen Church, 197, 216 Clonmacnois, 56, 74, 94-7, 158, 236, 252 Clonmel, 136, 138 Clononey, 97 Clontarf, Casino, 44 Cloyne, 163 Coakley, Jerry (“The Captain”), 191 Coilednach, Garlach, 189 Colum, 280 Comeragh Mountains, 162 Comhgain, Giolla, 95-6 Conaire the Great, 147 Conall the Victorious, 157, 161 Cong, 240, 252 Connaught (Connacht), 62, 121, 122, 125, 130, 132, 133, 234 Connemara, 240, 270 Conn of the Poor, eleventh-century head of the Order of the Spouses of God, 95 Conolly, Lady Louisa, 88 Mr., Speaker of the Whig Parliament, 81, 82 Coole, 236, 237 Cooley, Thomas, eighteenth-century architect, 13, 25 Corcomroe, 234 Cork City, 170 et seq.; county, 80, 162