POETS AND DREAMERS: STUDIES & TRANSLATIONS FROM THE IRISH, BY LADY GREGORY.
DUBLIN: HODGES, FIGGIS, & CO., LTD. NEW YORK: CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS. 1903.
TO SOME UNDERGRADUATES OF TRINITY COLLEGE
'Will you seek afar off? You surely come back at last, In things best known to you finding the best, or as good as the best; In folks nearest to you finding the sweetest, strongest, lovingest; Happiness, knowledge not in another place, but this place—not for another hour but this hour.'
PAGE RAFTERY 1
WEST IRISH BALLADS 47
JACOBITE BALLADS 66
AN CRAOIBHIN'S POEMS 76
BOER BALLADS IN IRELAND 89
A SORROWFUL LAMENT FOR IRELAND 98
MOUNTAIN THEOLOGY 104
THE WANDERING TRIBE 121
WORKHOUSE DREAMS 128
ON THE EDGE OF THE WORLD 193
AN CRAOIBHIN'S PLAYS:— 196
THE TWISTING OF THE ROPE 200
THE MARRIAGE 216
THE LOST SAINT 236
THE NATIVITY 244
POETS AND DREAMERS
One winter afternoon as I sat by the fire in a ward of Gort Workhouse, I listened to two old women arguing about the merits of two rival poets they had seen and heard in their childhood.
One old woman, who was from Kilchreest, said: 'Raftery hadn't a stim of sight; and he travelled the whole nation; and he was the best poet that ever was, and the best fiddler. It was always at my father's house, opposite the big tree, that he used to stop when he was in Kilchreest. I often saw him; but I didn't take much notice of him then, being a child; it was after that I used to hear so much about him. Though he was blind, he could serve himself with his knife and fork as well as any man with his sight. I remember the way he used to cut the meat—across, like this. Callinan was nothing to him.'
The other old woman, who was from Craughwell, said: 'Callinan was a great deal better than him; and he could make songs in English as well as in Irish; Raftery would run from where Callinan was. And he was a nice respectable man, too, with cows and sheep, and a kind man. He would never put anything that wasn't nice into a poem, and he would never run anyone down; but if you were the worst in the world, he'd make you the best in it; and when his wife lost her beetle, he made a song of fifteen verses about it.'
'Well,' the Kilchreest old woman admitted, 'Raftery would run people down; he was someway bitter; and if he had anything against a person, he'd give him a great lacerating. But there were more for him than for Callinan; some used to say Callinan's songs were too long.'
'I tell you,' said the other, 'Callinan was a nice man and a nice neighbour. Raftery wasn't fit to put beside him. Callinan was a man that would go out of his own back door, and make a poem about the four quarters of the earth. I tell you, you would stand in the snow to listen to Callinan!' But, just then, a bedridden old woman suddenly sat up and began to sing Raftery's 'Bridget Vesach' as long as her breath lasted; so the last word was for him after all.
Raftery died over sixty years ago; but there are many old people still living, besides those two old women, who have seen him, and who keep his songs in their memory. What they tell of him shows how closely he was in the old tradition of the bards, the wandering poets of two thousand years or more. His satire, his praises, his competitions with other poets were the dread and the pride of many Galway and Mayo parishes. And now the songs that he never wrote down, being blind, are known, if not as our people say, 'all over the world,' at least in all places where Irish is spoken.
Raftery's satires, as I have heard them repeated by the country people, do not seem, even in their rhymed original—he only composed in Irish—to have the 'sharp spur' of some of his predecessors, such as O'Higinn, whose tongue was cut out by men from Sligo, who had suffered from it, or O'Daly, who criticised the poverty of the Irish chiefs in the sixteenth century until the servant of one of them stuck a knife into his throat. Yet they were much dreaded. 'He was very sharp with anyone that didn't please him,' I have been told; 'and no one would like to be put in his songs.' And though it is said of his songs in praise of his friends that 'whoever he praised was well praised,' it was thought safer that one's own name should not appear in them. The man at whose house he died said to me: 'He used often to come and stop with us, but he never made a verse about us; my father wouldn't have liked that. Someway it doesn't bring luck.' And another man says: 'My father often told me about Raftery. He was someway gifted, and people were afraid of him. I was often told by men that gave him a lift in their car when they overtook him now and again, that if he asked their name, they wouldn't give it, for fear he might put it in a song.' And another man says: 'There was a friend of my father's was driving his car on the road one day, and he saw Raftery, but he didn't let on to see him. But when he was passing, Raftery said: "There was never a soldier marching but would get his billet. But the rabbit has an enemy in the ferret;" so then the man said in a hurry, "Oh, Mr. Raftery, I never knew it was you: won't you get up and take a seat in the car?"' A girl in whose praise he had made a song, Mary Hynes, of Ballylee, died young, and had a troubled life; and one of her neighbours says of her: 'No one that has a song made about them will ever live long;' and another says: 'She got a great tossing up and down; and at last she died in the middle of a bog.' They tell, too, of a bush that he once took shelter under from the rain, and how he 'praised it first; and then when it let the rain down, he dispraised it, and it withered up, and never put out leaf or branch after.' I have seen his poem on the bush in a manuscript book, carefully written in the beautiful Irish character, and the great treasure of a stonecutter's cottage. This is the form of the curse: 'I pronounce ugliness upon you. That bloom or leaf may never grow on you, but the flame of the mountain fires and of bonfires be upon you. That you may get your punishment from Oscar's flail, to hack and to bruise you with the big sledge of a forge.'
There are some other verses made by him that have been less legendary in their effect. The story is:—'It was Anthony Daly, a carpenter, was hanged at Seefin. It was the two Z's got him put away. He was brought before a judge in Galway, and accused of being a Captain of Whiteboys, and it was sworn against him that he fired at Mr. X. He was a one-eyed man; and he said: "If I did, though I have but one eye, I would have hit him"—for he was a very good shot; and he asked that some object should be put up, and he would show the judge that he would hit it, but he said nothing else. Some were afraid he'd give up the names of the other Whiteboys; but he did not. There was a gallows put up at Seefin; and he was brought there sitting on his coffin in a cart. There were people all the way along the road, and they were calling on him to break through the crowd, and they'd save him; and some of the soldiers were Irish, and they called back that if he did they'd only fire their guns in the air; but he made no attempt, but went to the gallows quiet enough. There was a man in Gort was telling me he saw it, planting potatoes he was at Seefin that day. It was in the year 1820; and Raftery was there at the hanging, and he made a song about it. The first verse of the song said: "Wasn't that the good tree, that wouldn't let any branch that was on it fall to the ground?" He meant by that that he didn't give up the names of the other Whiteboys. And at the end he called down judgment from God on the two Z's, and, if not on them, on their children. And they that had land and farms in all parts, lost it after; and all they had vanished; and the most of their children died—only two left, one a friar, and the other living in the town.' And quite lately I have been told by another neighbour, in corroboration, that a girl of the Z family married into a family near his home the other day, and was coldly received; and when my neighbour asked one of the family why this was, he was told that 'those of her people that went so high ought to have gone higher'—meaning that they themselves ought to have been on the gallows; and then he knew that Raftery's curse was still having its effect. And he had also heard that the grass had never grown again at Seefin.
This is a part of the song:—
'The evening of Friday of the Crucifixion, the Gael was under the mercy of the Gall. It was as heavy the same day as when the only Son of Mary was on the tree. I have hope in the Son of God, my grief! and it is of no use for me; and it was Conall and his wife hung Daly, and may they be paid for it!
'But oh! young woman, while I live, I put death on the village where you will be; plague and death on it; and may the flood rise over it; that much is no sin at all, O bright God; and I pray with longing it may fall on the man that hung Daly; that left his people and his children crying.
'O stretch out your limbs! The air is murky overhead; there is darkness on the sun, and the fish do not leap in the water; there is no dew on the grass, and the birds do not sing sweetly. With sorrow after you, Daly, till death, there never will be fruit on the trees.
'And that is the true man, that didn't humble himself or lower himself to the Gall; Anthony Daly, O Son of God! He was that with us always, without a lie. But he died a good Irishman; and he never bowed the head to any man; and it was with false swearing that Daly was hung, and with the strength of the Gall.
'If I were a clerk—kind, light, cheerful with the pen—it is I would write your ways in clear Irish on a flag above your head. A thousand and eight hundred and sixteen, and four put to that, from the coming of the Son of God, to the death of Daly at the Castle of Seefin.'
I have heard, and have also seen in manuscript, a terrible list of curses that he hurled at the head of another poet, Seaghan Burke. But these were, I think, looked on as a mere professional display, and do not seem to have any ill effect.
Here are some of them:—
'That God may perish you on the mountain-side, without a priest, bishop, or clerk. Seven years may you be senseless and without wit, going from door to door as an unfortunate creature.
'May you have a mouth that will go back to your ear, and may your lips be turned back like gums; that your legs may lose feeling from the knee down, your eyes lose their sight, and your hands lose their strength.
'Deformity and lameness and corruption upon you; flight and defeat and the hatred of your kin. That shivering fever may stretch you nine times, and that particularly at the time of Easter ('because,' it is explained, 'it was at Easter time our Lord was put to death, and it is the time He can best hear the curses of the poor').
'May a sore heart and cold flesh be upon you; may there be no marrow or moisture in your bones. That clay may never be put over your coffin-boards, but wind and a sharp blast on you from the north.
'Baldness and nakedness come upon you, judgment from above, and the curses of the crowd. May dragon's gall and poison mixed through it be your best drink at the hour of death.'
Sometimes he left a scathing verse on a place where he was not well treated, as: 'Oranmore without merriment. A little town in scarce fields—a broken little town, with its back to the water, and with women that have no understanding.'
He did not spare persons any more than places, especially if they were well-to-do, for his gentleness was for the poor. An old woman who remembers him says: 'He didn't care much about big houses. Just if they were people he liked, and that he was friendly with them, he would be kind enough to go in and see them.' A Mr. Burke, who met him going from his house, asked how he had fared, and he said in a scornful verse:—
'Potatoes that were softer than the fog, And with neither butter nor meat, And milk that was sourer than apples in harvest— That's what Raftery got from Burke of Kilfinn.'
'And Mr. Burke begged him to rhyme no more, but to come back, and he would be well taken care of.' I am told of another house he abused and that is now deserted: 'Frenchforth of the soot, that was wedded to the smoke, that is all that remains of the property.... There were some of them on mules, and some of them unruly, and the biggest of them were smaller than asses, and the master cracking them with a stick;' 'but he went no further than that, because he remembered the good treatment used to be there in former times, and he wouldn't have said that much if it wasn't for the servants that vexed him.' A satire, that is remembered in Aran, was made with the better intention of helping a barefooted girl, who had been kept waiting a long time for a pair of shoes she had ordered. Raftery came, and sat down before the shoemaker's house, and began:—
'A young little girl without sense, the ground tearing her feet, is not satisfied yet by the lying Peter Glynn. Peter Glynn, the liar, in his little house by the side of the road, is without the strength in his arms to slip together a pair of brogues.'
'And, before he had finished the lines, Peter Glynn ran out and called to him to stop, and he set at work on the shoes then and there.' He even ventured to poke a little satire at a priest sometimes. 'He went into the chapel at Kilchreest one time, and there was some cabbage after being stolen from a garden, and the priest was speaking about it. Raftery was at the bottom of the chapel, and at last he called out in verse:—"What a lot of talk about cabbage! If there was meat with it, it would feed the whole parish!" The priest didn't mind, but afterwards he came down, and said: "Where is the cabbage man?" and asked him to make some more verses about it; but whether he did or not I don't know.' And another time, I am told: 'A priest wanted to teach him the rite of lay baptism; for there were scattered houses a priest might take a long time getting to, away from the roads, and certain persons were authorized to give the rite. So the priest put his hat in Raftery's hand, and told him the words to say; but it is what he said: "I baptize you without either foot or hand, without salt or tow, beer or drink. Your father was a ram and your mother was a sheep, and your like never came to be baptized before." He was put under a curse, too, one time by a priest, and he made a song about him; but he said he put his frock out of the bargain, and it was only the priest's own body he would speak about. And the priest let him alone after that.' And an old basket-maker, who had told me some of these things, said at the end: 'That is why the poets had to be banished before in the time of St. Columcill. Sure no one could stand the satire of them.'
Irish history having been forbidden in schools, has been, to a great extent, learned from Raftery's poems by the people of Mayo, where he was born, and of Galway, where he spent his later years. It is hard to say where history ends in them and religion and politics begin; for history, religion, and politics grow on one stem in Ireland, an eternal trefoil. 'He was a great historian,' it is said; 'for every book he'd get hold of, he'd get it read out to him.' And a neighbour tells me: 'He used to stop with my uncle that was a hedge schoolmaster in those times in Ballylee, and that was very fond of drink; and when he was drunk, he'd take his clothes off, and run naked through the country. But at evening he'd open the school; and the neighbours that would be working all day would gather in to him, and he'd teach them through the night; and there Raftery would be in the middle of them.' His chief historical poem is the 'Talk with the Bush,' of over three hundred lines. Many of the people can repeat it, or a part of it, and some possess it in manuscript. The bush, a forerunner of the 'Talking Oak' or the 'Father of the Forest,' gives its recollections, which go back to the times of the Firbolgs, the Tuatha De Danaan, 'without heart, without humanity'; the Sons of the Gael; the heroic Fianna, who 'would never put more than one man to fight against one'; Cuchulain 'of the Grey Sword, that broke every gap'; till at last it comes to 'O'Rourke's wife that brought a blow to Ireland': for it was on her account the English were first called in. Then come the crimes of the English, made redder by the crime of Martin Luther. Henry VIII 'turned his back on God and denied his first wife.' Elizabeth 'routed the bishops and the Irish Church. James and Charles laid sharp scourges on Ireland.... Then Cromwell and his hosts swept through Ireland, cutting before him all he could. He gave estates and lands to Cromwellians, and he put those that had a right to them on mountains.' Whenever he brings history into his poems, the same strings are touched. 'At the great judgment, Cromwell will be hiding, and O'Neill in the corner. And I think if William can manage it at all, he won't stand his ground against Sarsfield.' And a moral often comes at the end, such as: 'Don't be without courage, but join together; God is stronger than the Cromwellians, and the cards may turn yet.'
For Raftery had lived through the '98 Rebellion, and the struggle for Catholic Emancipation; and he saw the Tithe War, and the Repeal movement; and it is natural that his poems, like those of the poets before him, should reflect the desire of his people for 'the mayntenance of their own lewde libertye,' that had troubled Spenser in his time.
Here are some verses from his 'Cuis da ple,' 'cause to plead,' composed at the time of the Tithe War:—
'The two provinces of Munster are afoot, and will not stop till tithes are overthrown, and rents accordingly; and if help were given them, and we to stand by Ireland, the English guard would be feeble, and every gap made easy. The Gall (English) will be on their back without ever returning again; and the Orangemen bruised in the borders of every town, a judge and jury in the courthouse for the Catholics, England dead, and the crown upon the Gael....
'There is many a fine man at this time sentenced, from Cork to Ennis and the town of Roscrea, and fair-haired boys wandering and departing from the streets of Kilkenny to Bantry Bay. But the cards will turn, and we'll have a good hand: the trump shall stand on the board we play at.... Let ye have courage. It is a fine story I have. Ye shall gain the day in every quarter from the Sassanach. Strike ye the board, and the cards will be coming to you. Drink out of hand now a health to Raftery: it is he would put success for you on the Cuis da ple.'
This is part of another song:—
'I have a hope in Christ that a gap will be opened again for us.... The day is not far off, the Gall will be stretched without anyone to cry after them; but with us there will be a bonfire lighted up on high.... The music of the world entirely, and Orpheus playing along with it. I'd sooner than all that, the Sassanach to be cut down.'
But with all this, he had plenty of common sense, and an old man at Ballylee tells me:—'One time there were a sort of nightwalkers—Moonlighters as we'd call them now, Ribbonmen they were then—making some plan against the Government; and they asked Raftery to come to their meeting. And he went; but what he said was this, in a verse, that they should look at the English Government, and think of all the soldiers it had, and all the police—no, there were no police in those days, but gaugers and such like—and they should think how full up England was of guns and arms, so that it could put down Buonaparty; and that it had conquered Spain, and took Gibraltar from it; and the same in America, fighting for twenty-one years. And he asked them what they had to fight with against all those guns and arms?—nothing but a stump of a stick that they might cut down below in the wood. So he bid them give up their nightwalking, and come out and agitate in the daylight.'
I have been told—but I do not know if it is true—that he was once sent to Galway Gaol for three months for a song he made against the Protestant Church, 'saying it was like a wall slipping, where it wasn't built solid.'
When at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the poets O'Lewy and O'Clery and their supporters held a 'Contention,' the results were written down in a volume containing 7,000 lines. I think the greater number of the 'Contentions' between Raftery and his fellow-poets were never written down; but the country people still discuss them with all the eagerness of partisans. On old man from Athenry says: 'Raftery travelled Ireland, challenging all the poets of that time. There were hundreds of country poets in those days, and a welcome for them all. Raftery had enough to do to beat them, but he was the best; his poetry was the gift of God, and his poems are sung as far away as Limerick and Dublin.' There is a story of his knocking at a door one night, when he was looking for the house of a poet he had heard of and wanted to challenge, and saying: 'I am a poet seeing shelter'; and a girl answered him from within with a verse, saying he must be a blind man to be out so late looking for shelter; and then he knew it was the house he was looking for. And it is said that the daughter of another poet was on his way to see in Clare, gave him such a sharp answer when he met her outside the house that he turned back and would not contend with her father at all. And he is said to have 'hunted another poet Daly—hunted him all through Ireland.' But these other poets do not seem to have left a great name. There was a Connemara poet, Sweeny, that was put under a curse by the priests 'because he used to make so much fun at the wakes'; and in one of Raftery's poems he thanks Sweeny for having come to his help in some dispute; and there was 'one John Burke, who was a good poet, too; he and Raftery would meet at fairs and weddings, and be trying which would put down the other.' I am told of an 'attack' they made on each other one day on the fair green of Cappaghtagle. Burke said: 'After all your walk of land and callows, Burke is before you at the fair of Cappagh.' And Raftery said: 'You are not Burke but a breed of scatties, That's all over the country gathering praties; When I'm at the table filling glasses, You are in the corner with your feet in the ashes.' Then Burke said: 'Raftery a poet, and he with bracked (speckled) shins, And he playing music with catgut; Raftery the poet, and his back to the wall, And he playing music for empty pockets. There's no one cares for his music at all, but he does be always craving money.' For he was sometimes accused of love of money; 'he wouldn't play for empty pockets, and he'd make the plate rattle at the end of a dance.'
But his most serious rival in his own part of the country was Callinan, the well-to-do farmer who lived near Craughwell, of whom the old women in the workhouse spoke. I have heard some of Callinan's poems and songs; but I do not find the imaginative power of Raftery in them. He seems, in distinction to him, to be the poet of the domestic affections, of the settled classes. His songs have melody and good sentiments; and they are often accompanied by a rhymed English version, made by his brother, a lesser poet. The favourite among them is a song on a wooden beetle, lost by his wife when washing clothes at the river. She is made to lament the loss of 'so good a servant' in a sort of allegory; and then its journey is traced from the river to the sea. An old man gives me a little memory of him: 'I saw Callinan one time when we went to dig potatoes for him at his own place, the other side of Craughwell. We went into the house for dinner; and we were in a hurry, and he was sitting by the hearth talking all the time; for he was a great talker, so that the veins of his neck swelled up. And he was telling us about the song he made about his own Missus when she was out washing by the river. He was up to eighty years at that time.' And there are accounts of the making of some of his songs that show his kindly disposition and amiability. 'One time there was a baby in the house, and there was a dance going on near, and Mrs. Callinan was a young woman; and she said she'd go for a bit to the dance-house; and she bid Callinan rock the cradle till she'd come back. But she never came back till morning, and there he was rocking the cradle still; and he had a song composed while she was away about the time of a man's life, and the hours of the day, and the seasons of the year; how when a man is young he is strong, and then he grows old and passes away, and goes to the feast of the Saviour; and about the day, how bright the morning is, and the birds singing; and a man goes out to work, and he comes in tired out, and sits by the fire to talk with his neighbour; and the night comes on, and he says his prayers, and thinks of the feast of the Saviour; and about the seasons, the spring so nice, and the summer for work; and autumn brings the harvest, and winter brings Christmas, the feast of the Saviour. In Irish and English he made that.' And this is another story: 'A carpenter made a plough for Callinan one time, and when it came, it was the worst ever made; and he said to his brother: "I'll make a song that will cut him down altogether." But his brother said: "Do not, for if you cut him down, it will take his means of living from him, but make a song in his praise." And he did so, for he wouldn't like to do him any harm.' I have asked if he made any love-songs, and was told of one he had made 'about a girl he met going to a bog. He praised herself first, and then he said he had information as well that she had fifty gold guineas saved up.'
His having been well off seems to make his poetic merit the greater in the eyes of farmers; for one says: 'He was as good a poet, for he had a plough and horses and a good way of living, and never sang in any public-house; but Raftery had no way of living but to go round and to mark some house to go to, and then all the neighbours would gather in to hear him.' Another says: 'Raftery was the best poet, for he had nothing else to do, and laid his mind to it; but Callinan was a strong farmer, and had other things to think of;' and another says: 'Callinan was very apt: it was all Raftery could do to beat him;' and another sums up by saying: 'The both of them was great.' But a supporter of Raftery says: 'He was the best; he put his words so strong and stiff, following one another.'
I had been often told, by supporters of either side, that there was one contest between the two, at which Callinan 'made Raftery cry tears down;' and I wondered how it was that his wit had so far betrayed him. It has been explained to me lately. Raftery had made a long poem, 'The Hunt,' in which he puts 'a Writer' in the place of the fox, and calls on all the gentlemen of Galway and Mayo, and even on 'Sarsfield from Limerick,' to come and hunt him through their respective neighbourhoods with a pack of hounds. It contains many verses; and he seems to have improvised others in the different places where he sang it. In the written copy I have seen, Burke is the 'Writer' who is thus hunted. But he probably put in the name of any other rival from time to time. This is the story: 'He and the Callinans were sometimes vexed with one another, but they'd make friends after; but there was one day he was put down by them. There was a funeral going on at Killeenan, and Raftery was there; and he was asked into the corpse-house afterwards, and the people asked him for the song about Callinan, and he began hunting him all through the country, and the people were laughing and making him go on; but Callinan's brother had come in, and was listening to him, and Raftery didn't see him, being blind; and he brought him to Killeenan at last, and he said: "Where can the rogue go now, unless he'll swim the turlough?" And at that Callinan's brother stood up and said, "Who is it you are calling a rogue?" And Raftery tried to laugh it off, and he said, "You mustn't expect poetry and truth to go together." But Callinan said: "I'll give you poetry that's truth as well;" and he began to say off some verses his brother had made on Raftery; and Raftery was choked up that time, and hadn't a word.' This story is corroborated by an eye-witness who said to me: 'It was in this house he was on the night Callinan made him cry. My father was away at the time; if he had been there, he never would have let Callinan come into the house unknown to Raftery.' I have not heard all of Callinan's poem, but this is part of it:—
'He left the County Mayo; he was hunted up from the country of the brothons' (thick bed-coverings, then made in Mayo) 'without any for the night, nor any shift for bedding, but with an old yellow blanket with a thousand patches; he had a black trouser down to the ground with two hundred holes and forty pieces; he had long legs like the shank of a pipe, and a long great coat, for it is many the dab he put in his pocket. His coat was greasy, and it was no wonder, and an old grey hat as grey as snuff as it was many the day it was in the dunghill.'
It is said that 'Raftery could have answered that song better, but he had no back here; and Callinan was well-to-do, and had so many of his family and so many friends.' But others say there were some allusions in it to the poverty of his home, that had become known through a servant girl from Raftery's birth-place. But I think even Callinan's friends are sorry now that Raftery was ever made to 'cry tears down.'
A man near Oranmore says: 'There used to be great talk of the Fianna; and everyone had the poems about them till Raftery came, and he put them out. For when the people got Raftery's songs in their heads, they could think of nothing else: his songs put out everything else. I remember when I was a boy of ten, I was so taken up with his rhymes and songs, I had them all off. And I heard he was coming one night to a stage he had below there where he used to come now and again. And I begged my father to bring me with him that night, and he did; but whatever happened, Raftery didn't come that time, and the next year he died.'
But it is hard to judge of the quality of Raftery's poems. Some of them have probably been lost altogether. There are already different versions of those written out in manuscript books, and of these books many have disappeared or been destroyed, and some have been taken to America by emigrants. It is said that when he was on his deathbed, he was very sorry that his songs had not all been taken down; and that he dictated one he composed there to a young man who wrote it down in Irish, but could not read his own writing when he had done, and that vexed Raftery; and then a man came in, and he asked him to take down all his songs, and he could have them for himself; but he said, 'If I did, I'd always be called Raftery,' and he went out again.
I hear the people say now and then: 'If he had had education, he would have been the greatest poet in the world.' I cannot but be sorry that his education went so far as it did, for 'he used to carry a book about with him—a Pantheon—about the heathen gods and goddesses; and whoever he'd get that was able to read, he'd get him to read it to him, and then he'd keep them in his mind, and use them as he wanted them.' If he had been born a few decades later, he would have been caught, like other poets of the time, in the formulas of English verse. As it was, both his love poems and his religious poems were caught in the formulas imported from Greece and from Rome; and any formula must make a veil between the prophet who has been on the mountain top, and the people who are waiting at its foot for his message. The dreams of beauty that formed themselves in the mind of the blind poet become flat and vapid when he embodies them in the well-worn names of Helen and Venus. The truths of God that he strove in his last years, as he says, 'to have written in the book of the people,' left those unkindled whose ears were already wearied with the well-known words 'the keys of Heaven,' 'penance, fasts, and alms,' to whom it was an old tale to hear of hell as a furnace, and the grave as a dish for worms. When he gets away from the formulas, he has often a fine line on death or on judgment; the cheeks of the dead are 'cold as the snow that is at the back of the sun;' the careless—those who 'go out looking at their sheep on Sunday instead of going to Mass'—are warned that 'on the side of the hill of the tears there will be Ochone!'
His love songs are many; and they were not always thought to bring ill luck; for I am told of a girl 'that was not handsome at all, but ugly, that he made a song about her for civility; for she used to be in a house where he used to lodge, and the song got her a husband; and there is a son of hers living now down in Clare-Galway.' And an old woman tells me, with a sigh of regret for what might have been, that she saw Raftery one time at a dance, and he spoke to her and said: 'Well planed you are; the carpenter that planed you knew his trade.' 'And I said: "Better than you know yours;" for there were two or three of the strings of his fiddle broke. And then he said something about O'Meara, that lived near us; and my father got vexed at what he said, and would let him speak no more with me. And if it wasn't for him speaking about O'Meara, and my father getting vexed, he might have made words about me like he did for Mary Hynes and for Mary Brown.'
'Bridget Vesach,' which I have heard in many cottages, as well as from the old woman in Gort Workhouse, begins: 'I would wed courteous Bridget without coat, shoe, or shirt. Treasure of my heart, if it were possible for me, I would fast for you nine meals, without food, without drink, without any share of anything, on an island of Lough Erne, with desire for you and me to be together till we should settle our case.... My heart started with trouble, and I was frightened nine times that morning that I heard you were not to be found.... I would sooner be stretched by you with nothing under us but heather and rushes, than be listening to the cuckoos that are stirring at the break of day.... I am in grief and in sorrow since you slipped from me across the mearings.'
Another love poem, 'Mairin Stanton,' shows his habit of mixing comparisons drawn from the classics with those drawn from nature:—
'There's a bright flower by the side of the road, and she beats Deirdre in the beauty of her voice; or I might say Helen, Queen of the Greeks, she for whose sake hundreds died at Troy.
'There is light and brightness in her as in those others; her little mouth is as sweet as the cuckoo on the branch. You would not find a mind like hers in any woman since the pearl died that was in Ballylee.
'To see under the sky a woman settled like her walking on the road on a fine sunny day, the light flashing from the whiteness of her breast would give sight to a man without eyes.
'There is the love of hundreds in her face, and there is the promise of the evening star. If she had been living in the time of the gods, it is not Venus that would have had the apple.
'Her hair falls down below her knees, waving and winding to the mouth of her shoes; her locks spread out wide and pale like dew, they leave a brightness on the road behind her.
'She is the girl that has been taught the nicest of all whose eyes still open to the sun; and if the estate of Lord Lucan belonged to me, on the strength of my cause this jewel would be mine.
'Her slender lime-white shape, her face like flowers, her neck, her cheek, and her amber hair; Virgil, Cicero, and Homer could tell of nothing like her; she is like the dew in the time of harvest.
'If you could see this plant moving or dancing, you could not but love the flower of the branch. If I cannot get a hundred words with Mairin Stanton, I do not think my life will last long.
'She said "Good morrow" early and pleasantly; she drank my health, and gave me a stool, and it not in the corner. At the time that I am ready to go on my way I will stay talking and talking with her.'
The 'pearl that was at Ballylee' was poor Mary Hynes, of whom I have already spoken. His song on her is very popular; 'a great song, so that her name is sung through the three parishes.' She must have been beautiful, for many who knew her still speak of her beauty, of her long, shining hair, and the 'little blushes in her cheeks.' An old woman says: 'I never can think of her but I'll get a trembling, she was so nice; and if she was to begin talking, she'd keep you laughing till daybreak.' But others say: 'It was the poet that made her so handsome'; or, 'whatever she was, he made twice as much of it.' I give one or two verses of the song:—
'There was no part of Ireland I did not travel: from the rivers to the tops of the mountains, to the edge of Lough Greine, whose mouth is hidden; but I saw no beauty but was behind hers.
'Her hair was shining, and her brows were shining too; her face was like herself, her mouth pleasant and sweet. She is the pride, and I give her the branch. She is the shining flower of Ballylee.'
Even many miles from Ballylee, if the posin glegeal—the 'shining flower'—is spoken of, it is always known that it is Mary Hynes who is meant.
Raftery is said to have spent the last seven years of his life praying and making religious songs, because death had told him in a vision that he had only seven years to live. His own account of the vision was given me by the man at whose house he died. 'I heard him telling my father one time, that he was sick in Galway, and there was a mug beside the bed, and in the night he heard a noise, and he thought it was the cat was on the table, and that she'd upset the mug; and he put his hand out, and what he felt was the bones and the thinness of death. And his sight came to him, and he saw where his wrapper was hanging on the wall. And death said he had come to bring him away, or else one of the neighbours that lived in such a house. And after they had talked a while, he said he would give him a certain time before he'd come for him again, and he went away. And in the morning when his wife came in, he asked where did she hang his wrapper the night before, and she told him it was in such a place, and that was the very place he saw it, so he knew he had had his sight. And then he sent to the house that had been spoken of to know how was the man of it, and word came back that he was dead. I remember when he was dying, a friend of his, one Cooney, came in to see him, and said: "Well, Raftery, the time is not up yet that death gave you to live." And he said: "The Church and myself have it made out that it was not death that was there, but the devil that came to tempt me."
His description of death in his poem on the 'Vision,' is vivid and unconventional:—
'I had a vision in my sleep last night, between sleeping and waking, a figure standing beside me, thin, miserable, sad, and sorrowful; the shadow of night upon his face, the tracks of the tears down his cheeks. His ribs were bending like the bottom of a riddle; his nose thin, that it would go through a cambric needle; his shoulders hard and sharp, that they would cut tobacco; his head dark and bushy like the top of a hill; and there is nothing I can liken his fingers to. His poor bones without any kind of covering; a withered rod in his hand, and he looking in my face. It is not worth my while to be talking about him; I questioned him in the name of God.'
A long conversation follows; Raftery addresses him:—
'Whatever harbour you came from last night, move up to me and speak if you can.' Death answers: "Put away Hebrew, Greek and Latin, French, and the three sorts of English, and I will speak to you sweetly in Irish, the language that you found your verses in. I am death that has hidden hundreds: Hannibal, Pompey, Julius Caesar; I was in the way with Queen Helen. I made Hector fall, that conquered the Greeks, and Conchubar, that was king of Ireland; Cuchulain and Goll, Oscar and Diarmuid, and Oisin, that lived after the Fenians; and the children of Usnach that brought away Deirdre from Conchubar; at a touch from me they all fell." But Raftery answers: "O high Prince, without height, without followers, without dwelling, without strength, without hands, without force, without state: all in the world wouldn't make me believe it, that you'd be able to put down the half of them."'
But death speaks solemnly to him then, and warns him that:—
'Life is not a thing that you get a lease of; there will be stones and a sod over you yet. Your ears that were so quick to hear everything will be closed, deaf, without sound, without hearing; your tongue that was so sweet to make verses will be without a word in the same way.... Whatever store of money or wealth you have, and the great coat up about your ears, death will snap you away from the middle of it.'
And the poem ends at last with the story of the Passion and a prayer for mercy.
He was always ready to confess his sins with the passionate exaggeration of St. Paul or of Bunyan. In his 'Talk with the Bush,' when a flood is threatened, he says:—
'I was thinking, and no blame to me, that my lease of life wouldn't be long, and that it was bad work my hands had left after them; to be committing sins since I was a child, swearing big oaths and blaspheming. I never think to go to Mass. Confession at Christmas I wouldn't ask to go to. I would laugh at my neighbour's downfall, and I'd make nothing of breaking the Ten Commandments. Gambling and drinking and all sorts of pleasures that would come across me, I'd have my hand in them.'
The poem known as his 'Repentance' is in the same strain. It is said to have been composed 'one time he went to confession to Father Bartley Kilkelly, and he refused him absolution because he was too much after women and drink. And that night he made up his "Repentance"; and the next day he went again, and Father Pat Burke, the curate, was with Father Bartley, and he said: "Well, Raftery, what have you composed of late?" and he said: "This is what I composed," and he said the Repentance. And then Father Bartley said to the curate: "You may give him absolution, where he has his repentance made before the world."'
It is one of the finest of his poems. It begins:—
'O King, who art in heaven, ... I scream to Thee again and again aloud, For it is Thy grace I am hoping for.
'I am in age, and my shape is withered; many a day I have been going astray.... When I was young, my deeds were evil; I delighted greatly in quarrels and rows. I liked much better to be playing or drinking on a Sunday morning than to be going to Mass.... I was given to great oaths, and I did not let lust or drunkenness pass me by.... The day has stolen away, and I have not raised the hedge until the crop in which Thou didst take delight is destroyed.... I am a worthless stake in a corner of a hedge, or I am like a boat that has lost its rudder, that would he broken against a rock in the sea, and that would be drowned in the cold waves.'
But in spite of this self-denunciation, people who knew him say 'there was no harm in him'; though it it is added: 'but as to a drop of drink, he was fond of that to the end.' And in another mood, in his 'Argument with Whisky,' he claims, as an excuse for this weakness, the desire for companionship felt by a wanderer. 'And the world knows it's not for love of what I drink, but for love of the people that do be near me.' And he has always a confident belief in final absolution:—"I pray to you to hear me, O Son of God; as you created the moon, the sun, the stars, it is no task or trouble for you to ready me."
There are some fine verses in a poem made at the time of an outbreak of cholera:—
'Look at him who was yesterday swift and strong, who would leap stone wall, ditch and gap, who was in the evening walking the street, and is going under the clay on the morrow.
'Death is quicker than the wave of drowning or than any horse, however fast, on the racecourse. He would strike a goal against the crowd; and no sooner is he there than he is on guard before us.
'He is changing, hindering, rushing, starting, unloosed; the day is no better to him than the night; when a person thinks there is no fear of him, there he is on the spot laid low with keening.
'Death is a robber who heaps together kings, high princes, and country lords; he brings with him the great, the young, and the wise, gripping them by the throat before all the people.
'It is a pity for him who is tempted with the temptations of the world; and the store that will go with him is so weak, and his lease of life no better if he were to live for a thousand years, than just as if he had slipped over on a visit and back again.
'When you are going to lie down, don't be dumb. Bare your knee and bruise the ground. Think of all the deeds that you put by you, and that you are travelling towards the meadow of the dead.'
Some of his poems of places, usually places in Mayo, the only ones he had ever looked on—for smallpox took his sight away in his childhood—have much charm. 'Cnocin Saibhir,' 'the Plentiful Little Hill,' must have sounded like a dream of Tir-nan-og to many a poor farmer in a sodden-thatched cottage:—
'After the Christmas, with the help of Christ, I will never stop if I am alive; I will go to the sharp-edged little hill; for it is a fine place, without fog falling; a blessed place that the sun shines on, and the wind doesn't rise there or any thing of the sort.
'And if you were a year there, you would get no rest, only sitting up at night and eternally drinking.
'The lamb and the sheep are there; the cow and the calf are there; fine lands are there without heath and without bog. Ploughing and seed-sowing in the right month, and plough and harrow prepared and ready; the rent that is called for there, they have means to pay it. There is oats and flax and large-eared barley.... There are beautiful valleys with good growth in them, and hay. Rods grow there, and bushes and tufts, white fields are there, and respect for trees; shade and shelter from wind and rain; priests and friars reading their book; spending and getting is there, and nothing scarce.'
In another song in the same manner on 'Cilleaden,' he says:—
'I leave it in my will that my heart rises as the wind rises, or as the fog scatters, when I think upon Carra and the two towns below it, on the two-mile bush, and on the plains of Mayo.... And if I were standing in the middle of my people, age would go from me, and I would be young again.'
He writes of friends that he has made in Galway as well as in Mayo, a weaver, a carpenter, a priest at Kilcolgan who is 'the good Christian, the clean wheat of the Gael, the generous messenger, the standing tree of the clergy.' Some of his eulogies both on persons and places are somewhat spoiled by grotesque exaggeration. Even Cilleaden has not only all sorts of native fishes, 'as plenty as turf,' and all sorts of native trees, but is endowed with 'tortoises,' with 'logwood and mahogany.' His country weaver must not only have frieze and linen in his loom, but satin and cambric. A carpenter near Ardrahan, Seaghan Conroy, is praised with more simplicity for his 'quick, lucky work,' and for the pleasure he takes in it. 'I never met his master; the trade was in his nature'; and he gives a long list of all the things he could make: doors and all that would be wanted for a big house'; mills and ploughs and spinning-wheels 'nicely finished with a clean chisel'; 'all sorts of things for the living, and a coffin for the dead. And with all this 'he cares little for money, but to spend, as he earns, decently. And if he was up for nine nights, you wouldn't see the sign of a drop on him.'
Another of his more simple poems is what Spenser would call an 'elegie or friend's passion' on a player on fiddle or pipes, Thomas O'Daly, that gives him a touch of kinship with the poets who have mourned their Astrophel, their Lycidas, their Adonais, their Thyrsis. This is how I have been helped to put it into English by a young working farmer, sitting by a turf fire one evening, when his day in the fields was over:—
'It was Thomas O'Daly that roused up young people and scattered them, and since death played on him, may God give him grace. The country is all sorrowful, always talking, since their man of sport died that would win the goal in all parts with his music.
'The swans on the water are nine times blacker than a blackberry since the man died from us that had pleasantness on the top of his fingers. His two grey eyes were like the dew of the morning that lies on the grass. And since he was laid in the grave, the cold is getting the upper hand.
'If you travel the five provinces, you would not find his equal for countenance or behaviour, for his equal never walked on land or grass. High King of Nature, you who have all powers in yourself, he that wasn't narrow-hearted, give him shelter in heaven for it.
'He was the beautiful branch. In every quarter that he ever knew he would scatter his fill and not gather. He would spend the estate of the Dalys, their beer and their wine. And that he may be sitting in the chair of grace, in the middle of Paradise.
'A sorrowful story on death, it 's he is the ugly chief that did treachery, that didn't give him credit, O strong God, for a little time.
'There are young women, and not without reason, sorry and heart-broken and withered, since he was left at the church. Their hair thrown down and hanging, turned grey on their head.
'No flower in any garden, and the leaves of the trees have leave to cry, and they falling on the ground. There is no green flower on the tops of the tufts, since there did a boarded coffin go on Daly.
'There is sorrow on the men of mirth, a clouding over the day, and no trout swim in the river. Orpheus on the harp, he lifted up everyone out of their habits; and he that stole what Argus was watching the time he took away Io; Apollo, as we read, gave them teaching, and Daly was better than all these musicians.
'A hundred wouldn't be able to put together his actions and his deeds and his many good works. And Raftery says this much for Daly, because he liked him.'
Though his praises are usually all for the poor, for the people, he has left one beautiful lament for a landowner:—
'There's no dew or grass on Cluan Leathan. The cuckoo is not to be seen on the furze; the leaves are withering and the trees complaining of the cold. There is no sun or moon in the air or in the sky, or no light in the stars coming down, with the stretching of O'Kelly in the grave.
'My grief to tell it! he to be laid low; the man that did not bring grief or trouble on any heart, that would give help to those that were down.
'No light on the day like there was; the fruits not growing; no children on the breast; there's no return in the grain; the plants don't blossom as they used since O'Kelly with the fair hair went away; he that used to forgive us a great share of the rent.
'Since the children of Usnach and Deirdre went to the grave and Cuchulain, who, as the stories tell us, would gain victory in every step he would take; since he died, such a story never came of sorrow or defeat; since the Gael were sold at Aughrim, and since Owen Roe died, the Branch.'
His life was always the wandering, homeless life of the old bards. After Cromwell's time, as the houses they went to grew poorer, they had added music to their verse-making; and Raftery's little fiddle helped to make him welcome in the Ireland which was, in spite of many sorrows, as merry and light-hearted up to the time of the great famine as England had been up to the time of the Puritans. 'He had no place of his own,' I am told, 'but to be walking the country. He did well to die before the bad years came. He used to play at Kiltartan cross for the dancing of a Sunday evening. And when he'd come to any place, the people would gather and he'd give them a dance; for there was three times as many people in the world then as what there is now. The people would never have let him want; but as to money, what could he do with it, and he with no place of his own?' An old woman near Craughwell says: 'He used to come here often; it was like home to him. He wouldn't have a dance then; my father liked better to be sitting listening to his talk and his stories; only when we'd come in, he'd take the fiddle and say: "Now we must give the youngsters a tune."' And an old man, who is still lamenting the fall in prices after the Battle of Waterloo, remembers having seen him 'one time at a shebeen house that used to be down there in Clonerle. He was playing the fiddle, and there used to be two couples at a time dancing; and they would put two halfpence in the plate, and Raftery would rattle them and say: "It's good for the two sorts to be together," and there would be great laughing.' And it is also said 'there was a welcome before him in every house he'd come to; and wherever he went, they'd think the time too short he would be with them.' There is a story I often hear told about the marriage near Cappaghtagle of a poor servant boy and girl, 'that was only a marriage and not a wedding, till Raftery chanced to come in; and he made it one. There wasn't a bit but bread and herrings in the house; but he made a great song about the grand feast they had, and he put every sort of thing into the song—all the beef that was in Ireland; and went to the Claddagh, and didn't leave a fish in the sea. And there was no one at all at it; but he brought all the bacach and poor men in Ireland, and gave them a pound each. He went to bed after, without them giving him a drop to drink; but he didn't mind that when they hadn't got it to give.'
The wandering, unrestrained life was probably to his mind; and I do not think there is a word of discontent or complaint in any of his verses, though he was always poor, and must often have known hardship. In the 'Talk with the Bush,' he describes in his whimsical, exaggerated way, a wetting, which must have been one of very many.
'It chanced that I was travelling and the rain was heavy; I stepped aside, and not without reason, till I'd get a wall or a bush that would shelter me.
'I didn't meet at the side of a gap only an old, withered, miserable bush by the side of the wall, and it bent with the west wind. I stepped under it, and it was a wet place; torrents of rain coming down from all quarters, east and west and straight downwards; its equal I couldn't see, unless it is seeds winnowed through a riddle. It was sharp, angry, fierce, and stormy, like a deer running and racing past me. The storm was drowning the country, and my case was pitiful, and I suffering without cause.
'An hour and a quarter it was raining; there isn't a drop that fell but would fill a quart and put a heap on it afterwards; there's not a wheat or rape mill in the neighbourhood but it would set going in the middle of a field.'
At last relief comes:—
'It was shortly then the rain grew weak, the sun shone, and the wind rose. I moved on, and I smothered and drowned in wet, till I came to a little house, and there was a welcome before me. Many quarts of water I squeezed from my skirt and my cape. I hung my hat on a nail, and I lying in a sweet flowery bed. But I was up again in a little while. We began sports and pleasures; and it was with pride we spent the night.'
But there is a verse in his 'Argument with Whisky' that seems to have a wistful thought in it, perhaps of the settled home of his rival, Callinan:—
'Cattle is a nice thing for a man to have, and his share of land to reap wheat and barley. Money in the chest, and a fire in the evening time; and to be able to give shelter to a man on his road; a hat and shoes in the fashion—I think, indeed, that would be much better than to be going from place to place drinking uisge beatha.'
And there is a little sadness in the verses he made in some house, when a stranger asked who he was:—
'I am Raftery the poet, full of hope and love; with eyes without light, with gentleness without misery.
'Going west on my journey with the light of my heart; weak and tired to the end of my road.
'I am now, and my back to a wall, playing music to empty pockets.'
'He was a thin man,' I am told by one who knew him, 'not very tall, with a long frieze coat and corduroy trousers. He was very strong; and he told my father there was never any man he wrestled with but he could throw him, and that he could lie on his back and throw up a bag with four hundred of wheat in it, and take it up again. He couldn't see a stim; but he would walk all the roads, and give the right turn, without ever touching the wall. My father was wondering at him one time they were out together; and he said: "Wait till we come to the turn to Athenry, and don't tell me of it, and see if I don't make it out right." And sure enough, when they came to it, he gave the right turn, and just in the middle.' This is explained by what another man tells me:—'There was a blind piper with him one time in Gort, and they set out together to go to Ballylee, and it was late, and they couldn't find the stile that led down there, near Early's house. And they would have stopped there till somebody would come by, but Raftery said he'd go back to Gort and step it again; and so he did, turned back a mile to Gort, and started from there. He counted every step that he stepped out; and when he got to the stile, he stopped straight before it.' And I was told also there used to be a flagstone put beside the bog-holes to leap from, and Raftery would leap as well as any man. He would count his steps back from the flag, and take a run and alight on the other side.
His knowledge and his poetic gift are often supposed to have been given to him by the invisible powers, who grow visible to those who have lost their earthly sight. An old woman who had often danced to his music, said:—'When he went to his rest at night, it's then he'd make the songs in the turn of a hand, and you would wonder in the morning where he got them.' And a man who 'was too much taken up with sport and hurling when he was a boy to think much about him,' says: 'He got the gift. It's said he was asked which would he choose, music or the talk. If he chose music, he would have been the greatest musician in the world; but he chose the talk, and so he was a great poet. Where could he have found all the words he put in his songs if it wasn't for that?' An old woman, who is more orthodox, says:—'I often used to see him when I was a little child, in my father's house at Corker. He'd often come in there, and here to Coole House he used to come as well. He couldn't see a stim, and that is why he had such great knowledge. God gave it to him. And his songs have gone all through the world; and he had a voice that was like the wind.'
Legends are already growing up about his death. It has been said that 'he knew the very day his time would be up; and he went to Galway, and brought a plank to the house he was stopping at, and he put it in the loft; and he told the people of the house his time was come, and bid them make a coffin for him with the plank—and he was dead before morning.' And another story says he died alone in an empty house, and that flames were seen about the house all night; and 'the flames were the angels waking him.' But many told me he had died in the house of a man near Craughwell; and one autumn day I went there to look for it, and the first person I asked was able to tell me that the house where Raftery had died was the other side of Craughwell, a mile and a half away. It was a warm, hazy day; and as I walked along the flat, deserted road that Raftery had often walked, I could see few landmarks—only a few more grey rocks, or a few more stunted hazel bushes in one stone-walled field than in another. At last I came to a thatched cottage; and when I saw an old man sitting outside it, with hat and coat of the old fashion, I felt sure it was he who had been with Raftery at the last. He was ready to talk about him, and told me how he had come there to die. 'I was a young chap at that time. It must have been in the year 1835, for my father died in '36, and I think it was a year before him that Raftery died. What did he die of? Of weakness. He had been bet up in Galway with some fit of sickness he had; and then he came to gather a little money about the country, and when he got here he was bet up again. He wasn't an old man—only about seventy years. He was in the bed for about a fortnight. When he got bad, my father said it was best get a priest for him; but the parish priest was away. But we saw Father Nagle passing the road, and I went out and brought him in, and he gave him absolution, and anointed him. He had no pain; only his feet were cold, and the boys used to be warming a stone in the fire and putting it to them in the bed. My mother wanted to send to Galway, where his wife and his daughter and his son were stopping, so that they would come and care him; but he wouldn't have them. Someway he didn't think they treated him well.'
I had been told that the priest had refused him absolution when he was dying, until he forgave some enemy; and that he had said afterwards, 'If I forgave him with my mouth, I didn't with my heart'; but this was not true. 'Father Nagle made no delay in anointing him; but there was a carpenter down the road there he said too much to, and annoyed him one time; and the carpenter had a touch of the poet too, and was a great singer, and he came out and beat him, and broke his fiddle; and I remember when he was dying, the priest bringing in the carpenter, and making them forgive one another, and shake hands; and the carpenter said: "If two brothers were to have a falling out, they'd forgive one another—and why wouldn't we?" He was buried in Killeenan; it wasn't a very big funeral, but all the people of the village came to it. He used often to come and stop with us.... It was of a Christmas Eve he died: and he had always said that, if God had a hand in it, it was of a Christmas Day he'd die.'
I went to Killeenan to look for his grave. There is nothing to mark it; but two old men who had been at his funeral pointed it out to me. There is a ruined church in the graveyard, which is crowded; 'there are people killing one another now to get a place in it.' I was asked into a house close by; and its owner said with almost a touch of jealousy: 'I think it was coming in here Raftery was the time he died; but he got bet up, and turned in at the house below. It was of a Christmas Eve he died, and that shows he was blessed; there's a blessing on them that die at Christmas. It was at night he was buried, for Christmas Day no work could be done, but my father and a few others made a little gathering to pay for a coffin, and it was made by a man in the village on St. Stephen's Day; and then he was brought here, and the people from the villages followed him, for they all had a wish for Raftery. But night was coming on when they got here; and in digging the grave there was a big stone in it, and the boys thought they would put him in a barn and take the night out of him. But my mother—the Lord have mercy on her—had a great veneration for Raftery; and she sent out two mould candles lighted; for in those days the women used to have their own mould, and to make their own candles for Christmas. And we held the candles there where the grave is, near the gable end of the church; and my brother went down in the grave and got the stone out, and we buried him. And there was a sharp breeze blowing at the time, but it never quenched the candles or moved the flame of them, and that shows that the Lord had a hand in him.'
He and all the neighbours were glad to hear that there is soon to be a stone over the grave. 'He is worthy of it; he is well worthy of it,' they kept saying. A man who was digging sand by the roadside, took me to his house, and his wife showed me a little book, in which the 'Repentance' and other poems had been put down for her, in phonetic Irish, by a beggar who had once stayed in the house. 'Many who go to America hear Raftery's songs sung out there,' they told me with pride.
As I went back along the silent road, there was suddenly a sound of horses and a rushing and waving about me, and I found myself in the midst of the County Galway Fox Hounds, coming back from cub-hunting. The English M.F.H. and his wife rode by; and I wondered if they had ever heard of the poet whose last road this had been. Most likely not; for it is only among the people that his name has been kept in remembrance.
There is still a peasant poet here and there, making songs in the 'sweet Irish tongue,' in which death spoke to Raftery; and I think these will be held in greater honour as the time of awakening goes on. But the nineteenth century has been a time of swift change in many countries; and in looking back on that century in Ireland, there seem to have been two great landslips—the breaking of the continuity of the social life of the people by the famine, and the breaking of the continuity of their intellectual life by the shoving out of the language. It seems as if there were no place left now for the wandering versemaker, and that Raftery may have closed the long procession that had moved unbroken during so many centuries, on its journey to 'the meadow of the dead.'
* * * * *
It was after I had written this that I went to see Raftery's birthplace, Cilleaden, in the County Mayo.
A cousin of his came to see me, and some other men, but none of them remembered him; but they were very proud of his song on Cilleaden, which 'is all through the world.' An old woman told me she had heard it in a tramcar in America; and an old man said: 'I was coming back from England one time, and there were a lot of Irish-speaking boys from Galway on board. There was one of them sick all through the night, but he was well in the morning; and the others came round him and asked him for a song, and the song he gave was 'Cilleaden.'
They did not seem to know many of his other songs, except the 'Repentance,' which someone remembered having seen sold as a ballad, with the English on one side and the Irish on the other. And one man told me: 'The first song Raftery wrote was about a hat that was stole from a man that was working in that middle field beyond. When the man was digging, he used to put his hat on a stick in the field to frighten away the crows; and Raftery got someone to bring away the hat, to make fun of the man. And then he made a song, making out it was the fairies had taken it; and he made the man follow them to Cruachmaa, and from that to Roscommon, and tell all that happened him there.'
And one of them told me: 'He was six years old when the smallpox took his sight from him; and he was marked very little by the pox, only three or four little marks—it seemed to settle in his eyes. His father was a cottier—there were many here in those times. His mother was a Brennan. There are cousins of his living yet; but in the schools they are Englished into Rochford.'
A young man said he had been told Raftery was born in some place beyond, at the foot of the mountain, but the others were very indignant; one got very angry, and said: 'Don't I know where he was born, and my father was the one age with him, and they sisters' sons; and isn't Michael Conroy there below his cousin? and it's up in that field was the house he was born in, so don't be trying to bring him away to the mountain.'
I went to see the birthplace, a very green field, with two thorn bushes growing close together by a stone. The field is called 'Sean Straid'—the old street—for a few cottages had stood there. A man who lives close by told me he had dug up a blackened stone just there, and a stone into which a bar had been let, to hang a pot on; and that may have been the very hearth where Raftery had sat as a child.
I found one old man who remembered him. 'He used to come to my father's house often, mostly from Easter to Whitsuntide, when the cakes were made, and there would be music and dancing. He used to play the fiddle for Frank Taafe that lived here, when he would be going out riding, and the horse used to prance when he heard it. And he made verses against one Seaghan Bradach, that used to be paid thirteen pence for every head of cattle he found straying in the Jordan's fields, and used to drive them in himself. There was another poet called Devine that praised Seaghan Bradach; and a verse was made against him again by a woman-poet that lived here at the time.'
* * * * *
There is a stone over Raftery's grave now; and the people about Killeenan gather there on a Sunday in August every year to do honour to his memory. This year they established a Feis; and there were prizes given for traditional singing, and for old poems repeated, and old stories told, all in the Irish tongue.
And the Craoibhin Aoibhin is printing week by week all of Raftery's poems that can be found, with translations, and we shall soon have them in a book.
And he has written a little play, having Raftery for its subject; and at a Galway Feis this year he himself acted, and took the blind poet's part; and he will act it many times again, le congnamh De—with the help of God.
WEST IRISH BALLADS.
It was only a few years ago, when Douglas Hyde published his literal translations of Connacht Love Songs, that I realized that, while I had thought poetry was all but dead in Ireland, the people about me had been keeping up the lyrical tradition that existed in Ireland before Chaucer lived. While I had been looking in the columns of Nationalist newspapers for some word of poetic promise, they had been singing songs of love and sorrow in the language that has been pushed nearer and nearer to the western seaboard—the edge of the world. 'Eyes have we, but we see not; ears have we, but we do not understand.' It does not comfort me to think how many besides myself, having spent a lifetime in Ireland, must make this confession.
The ballads to be gathered now are a very few out of the great mass of traditional poetry that was swept away during the last century in the merciless sweeping away of the Irish tongue, and of all that was bound up with it, by England's will, by Ireland's need, by official pedantry.
To give an idea of the ballads of to-day, I will not quote from the translations of Douglas Hyde or of Dr. Sigerson already published. I will rather give a few of the more homely ballads, sung and composed by the people, and, as far as I know, not hitherto translated.
Those I have heard since I have begun to look for them in the cottages, are, for the most part, sad; but not long ago I heard a girl sing a merry one, in a mocking tone, about a boy on the mountain, who neglected the girls of his village to run after a strange girl from Galway; and the girls of the village were vexed, and they made a song about him; and he went to Galway after her, and there she laughed at him, and said he had never gone to school or to the priest, and she would have nothing to do with him. So then he went back to the village, and asked the smith's daughter to marry him; but she said she would not, and that he might go back to the strange girl from Galway. Another song I have heard was a lament over a boy and girl who had run away to America, and on the way the ship went down. And when they were going down, they began to be sorry they were not married; and to say that if the priest had been at home when they went away, they would have been married; but they hoped that when they were drowned, it would be the same with them as if they were married. And I heard another lament that had been made for three boys that had lately been drowned in Galway Bay. It is the mother who is making it; and she tells how she lost her husband, the father of her three boys. And then she married again, and they went to sea and were drowned; and she wouldn't mind about the others so much, but it is the eldest boy, Peter, she is grieving for. And I have heard one song that had a great many verses, and was about 'a poet that is dying, and he confessing his sins.'
The first ballad I give deals with sorrow and defeat and death; for sorrow is never far from song in Ireland; and the names best praised and kept in memory are of those—
'Lonely antagonists of destiny That went down scornful under many spears; Who soon as we are born are straight our friends, And live in simple music, country songs, And mournful ballads by the winter fire.'
In this simple lament, the type of a great many, only the first name of the young man it was made for is given: 'Fair-haired Donough.' It is likely the people of his own place know still to what family he belonged; but I have not heard it sung, and only know that he was 'some Connachtman that was hanged in Galway.' And it is clear it was for some political crime he was hanged, by the suggestion that if he had been tried nearer his own home, 'in the place he had a right to be,' the issue would have been different, and by the allusion to the Gall, the English:—
'It was bound fast here you saw him, and you wondered to see him, Our fair-haired Donough, and he after being condemned; There was a little white cap on him in place of a hat, And a hempen rope in the place of a neckcloth.
'I am after walking here all through the night, Like a young lamb in a great flock of sheep; My breast open, my hair loosened out, And how did I find my brother but stretched before me!
'The first place I cried my fill was at the top of the lake; The second place was at the foot of the gallows; The third place was at the head of your dead body Among the Gall, and my own head as if cut in two.
'If you were with me in the place you had a right to be, Down in Sligo or down in Ballinrobe, It is the gallows would be broken, it is the rope would be cut, And fair-haired Donough going home by the path.
'O fair-haired Donough, it is not the gallows was fit for you; But to be going to the barn, to be threshing out the straw; To be turning the plough to the right hand and to the left, To be putting the red side of the soil uppermost.
'O fair-haired Donough, O dear brother, It is well I know who it was took you away from me; Drinking from the cup, putting a light to the pipe, And walking in the dew in the cover of the night.
'O Michael Malley, O scourge of misfortune! My brother was no calf of a vagabond cow; But a well-shaped boy on a height or a hillside, To knock a low pleasant sound out of a hurling-stick.
'And fair-haired Donough, is not that the pity, You that would carry well a spur or a boot; I would put clothes in the fashion on you from cloth that would be lasting; I would send you out like a gentleman's son.
'O Michael Malley, may your sons never be in one another's company; May your daughters never ask a marriage portion of you; The two ends of the table are empty, the house is filled, And fair-haired Donough, my brother, is stretched out.
'There is a marriage portion coming home for Donough, But it is not cattle nor sheep nor horses; But tobacco and pipes and white candles, And it will not be begrudged to them that will use it.'
A very pathetic touch is given by the idea of the 'marriage portion,' the provision for the wake, being brought home for the dead boy.
But it is chiefly in Aran, and on the opposite Connemara coast, that Irish ballads are still being made as well as sung. The little rock islands of Aran are fit strongholds for the threatened language, breakwaters of Europe, taking as they do the first onset of the ocean 'that hath no limits nearer than America.' The fisher-folk go out in their canvas curraghs to win a living from the Atlantic, or painfully carry loads of sand and seaweed to make the likeness of an earth-plot on the bare rock. The Irish coast seems far away; the setting sun very near. When a sea-fog blots out the mainland for a day, a feeling grows that the island may have slipped anchor, and have drifted into unfamiliar seas. The fisher-folk are not the only dwellers upon the islands; they are the home, the chosen resting-place, of 'the Others,' the Fairies, the Fallen Angels, the mighty Sidhe. From here they sweep across the sea, invisible or taking at pleasure the form of a cloud, of a full-rigged ship, of a company of policemen, of a flock of gulls. Sometimes they only play with mortals; sometimes they help them. But often, often, the fatal touch is given to the first-born child, or to the young man in his strength, or the girl in her beauty, or the young mother in her pride; and the call is heard to leave the familiar fireside life for the whirling, vain, unresting life of the irresistible host.
It is, perhaps, because of the very mistiness and dreaminess of their surroundings, the almost unearthly silences, the fantasy of story and of legend that lie about them, that the people of Aran and the Galway coast almost shrink from idealism in their fireside songs, and choose rather to dwell upon the slight incidents of daily life. It is in the songs of the greener plains that the depths of passion and heights of idealism have been reached.
It is at weddings that songs are most in use—even the saddest not being thought out of place; and at the evening gathering in one cottage or another, while the pipe, lighted at the turf-fire, is passed from hand to hand. Here is one that is a great favourite, though very simple, and somewhat rugged in metre; for it touches on the chief events of an islander's life—emigration, loss of life by sea, the land jealousy. It is called 'a sorrowful song that Bridget O'Malley made'; and she tells in it of her troubles at the Boston factory, of her lasting sorrow for her drowned brothers, and her as lasting anger against her sister's husband.
'Do you remember, neighbours, the day I left the white strand? I did not find anyone to give me advice, or to tell me not to go. But with the help of God, as I have my health, and the help of the King of Grace, whichever State I will go to, I will never turn back again.
'Do you remember, girls, that day long ago when I was sick and when the priest said, and the doctor, that with care I would come through? I got up after; I went to work at the factory, until Sullivan wrote a letter that put me down a step.
'And Bab O'Donnell rose up and put a shawl about her. She went to the office till she got work for me to do; there was never a woman I was with that would not shake hands with me; now I am at work again, and no thanks to Sullivan.
'It is a great shame to look down on Ireland, and I think myself it is not right; for the potatoes are growing in the gardens there, and the women milking the cows. That is not the way in Boston, but you may earn it or leave it there; and if the man earns a dollar, the woman will be out drinking it.
'My curse on the curraghs, and my blessings on the boats; my curse on that hooker that did the treachery; for it was she snapped away my four brothers from me; the best they were that ever could be found. But what does Kelly care, so long as he himself is in their place?
'My grief on you, my brothers, that did not come again to land; I would have put a boarded coffin on you out of the hand of the carpenter; the young women of the village would have keened you, and your people and your friends; and is it not Bridget O'Malley you left miserable in the world?
'It is very lonely after Pat and Tom I am, and in great trouble for them, to say nothing of my fair-haired Martin that was drowned long ago; I have no sister, and I have no other brother, no mother; my father weak and bent down; and, O God, what wonder for him!
'My curse on my sister's husband; for it was he made the boat; my own curse again on himself and on his tribe. He married my sister on me, and he sent my brothers to death on me; and he came himself into the farm that belonged to my father and my mother!
A Connemara schoolmaster tells me: 'At Killery Bay one time, I went into a house where there was an old man that had just lost his son by drowning. And he was sitting over the fire with his head in his hands, making a lament. I remember one verse of it that said: "My curse on the man that made the boat, that he did not tell me there was death lurking in it." I asked afterwards what the meaning of that was, and they said there is a certain board in every boat that the maker gives three blows of his hammer on, after he is done making it. And he knows someway by the sound of the blows if anyone will lose his life in that boat.' It is likely Bridget O'Malley had this idea in her mind when she made her lament.
Another little emigration song, very simple and charming, tells of the return of a brother from America. He finds his pretty brown sister, his 'cailin deas donn,' gathering rushes in a field, but she does not know him; and after they have exchanged words of greeting, he asks where her brother is, and she says 'beyond the sea'; then he asks if she would know him again, and she says she she would surely; and he asks by what sign, and she tells of a mark on his white neck. When she finds it is her brother who is there and speaking to her, she cries out, 'Kill me on the moment,' meaning that she is ready to die with joy.
This is the lament of a woman whose bridegroom was drowned as he was rowing the priest home, on the wedding day:—
'I am widow and maid, and I very young; did you hear my great grief, that my treasure was drowned? If I had been in the boat that day, and my hand on the rope, my word to you, O'Reilly, it is I would have saved you sorrow.
'Do you remember the day the street was full of riders, and of priests and brothers, and all talking of the wedding feast? The fiddle was there in the middle, and the harp answering to it; and twelve mannerly women to bring my love to his bed.
'But you were of those three that went across to Kilcomin, ferrying Father Peter, who was three-and-eighty years old; if you came back within a month itself, I would be well content; but is it not a pity I to be lonely, and my first love in the waves?
'I would not begrudge you, O'Reilly, to be kinsman to a king; white bright courts around you, and you lying at your ease; a quiet, well-learned lady to be settling out your pillow; but it is a great thing you to die from me when I had given you my love entirely.
'It is no wonder a broken heart to be with your father and your mother; the white-breasted mother that crooned you, and you a baby; your wedded wife, O thousand treasures, that never set out your bed; and the day you went to Trabawn, how well it failed you to come home.
'Your eyes are with the eels, and your lips with the crabs; and your two white hands under the sharp rule of the salmon. Five pounds I would give to him that would find my true love. Ohone! it is you are a sharp grief to young Mary ni-Curtain!'
Some men and women who were drowned in the river Corrib, on their way to a fair at Galway, in the year 1820, have still their names kept green in a ballad:—
'Mary Ruane, that you would stand in a fair to look at, the best-dressed woman in the place; John Cosgrave, the best a woman ever reared; your mother thought that if a hundred were drowned, your swimming would take the sway; but the boat went down, and when I got up early on Friday, I heard the keening and the clapping of women's hands, with the women that were drowsy and tired after the night there, without doing anything but laying out the dead.'
There are laments for other things besides death. A man taken up 'not for sheep-stealing or any crime, but just for making a drop of poteen,' tells of his hardships in Galway gaol. A lover who has enlisted because he cannot get the girl he loves—'a pity I not to be going to Galway with my heart's love on my arm'—tells of his hardships in the army: 'The first day I enlisted I was well pleased and satisfied; the second day I was vexed and tormented; and the third day I would have given a pound if I had it to get my pardon.' And I have heard a song 'made by a woman out of her wits, that lost her husband and married again, and her three sons enlisted,' who cannot forgive herself for having driven them from home. 'If it was in Ballinakill I had your bones, I would not be half so much tormented after you; but you to be standing in the army of the Gall, and getting nothing after it but the bit in your mouth.'
Here is a song of daily life, in which a girl laments the wandering and covetous appetite of her cow:—
'It is following after the white cow I spent last night; and, indeed, all I got by it was the bones of an old goose. Do you hear me, Michael Taylor? Give word to your uncle John that, unless he can lay his hand on her, Nancy will lose her wits.
'It's what she is wanting, is the three islands of Aran for herself; Brisbeg, that is in Maimen, and the glens of Maam Cross; all round about Oughterard, and the hills that are below it; John Blake's farm where she often does be bellowing; and as far as Ballinamuca, where the long grass is growing; and it's in the wood of Barna she'd want to spend her life.
'And when I was sore with walking through the dark hours of the night, it's the coastguard came crying after her, and he maybe with a bit of her in his mouth.'
The little sarcastic hit at the coastguard, who may himself have stolen the cow he joins in the search for, is characteristic of Aran humour. The comic song, as we know it, is unknown on the islands; the nearest to it I have heard there is about the awkward meeting of two suitors, a carpenter and a country lad, at their sweetheart's house, and of the clever management of her mother, who promised to give her to the one who sang the best song, and how the country lad won her.
Douglas Hyde, who is almost a folk-poet, the people have taken so many of his songs to their heart, has caught this sarcastic touch in this 'love' song:—
'O sweet queen, to whom I gave my love; O dear queen, the flower of fine women; listen to my keening, and look on my case; as you are the woman I desire, free me from death.
'He speaks so humbly, humble entirely. Without mercy or pity she looks on him with contempt. She puts mispleading in her cold answer; there is a drop of poison in every quiet word:—
'"O man, wanting sense, put from you your share of love; it is bold you are entirely to say such a thing as that; you will not get hate from me; you will not get love from me; you will not get anything at all, good or bad, for ever."
'I was myself the same night at the house of drink; and I saw the man, and he under the table. Laid down by the strength of wine, and without a twist in him itself; it was she did that much with the talk of her mouth.'
There is another that I thought was meant to provoke laughter, the lament of a girl for her 'beautiful comb' that had been carried off by her lover, whom she had refused to marry, 'until we take a little more out of our youth,' and invites instead to 'come with me to Eochaill reaping the yellow harvest.' Then he steals the comb, and the mother gives her wise advice how to get it back:—