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    Part III

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    Chapter 4
    Previous Chapter
    A LETTER HAS come from Michael while I am in Paris. It is in

    MY DEAR FRIEND,--I hope that you are in good health since I have
    heard from you before, its many a time I do think of you since and
    it was not forgetting you I was for the future.

    I was at home in the beginning of March for a fortnight and was very
    bad with the Influence, but I took good care of myself.

    I am getting good wages from the first of this year, and I am afraid
    I won't be able to stand with it, although it is not hard, I am
    working in a saw-mills and getting the money for the wood and
    keeping an account of it.

    I am getting a letter and some news from home two or three times a
    week, and they are all well in health, and your friends in the
    island as well as if I mentioned them.

    Did you see any of my friends in Dublin Mr.--or any of those
    gentlemen or gentlewomen.

    I think I soon try America but not until next year if I am alive.

    I hope we might meet again in good and pleasant health.

    It is now time to come to a conclusion, good-bye and not for ever,
    write soon--I am your friend in Galway.

    Write soon dear friend.

    Another letter in a more rhetorical mood.

    MY DEAR MR. S.,--I am for a long time trying to spare a little time
    for to write a few words to you.

    Hoping that you are still considering good and pleasant health since
    I got a letter from you before.

    I see now that your time is coming round to come to this place to
    learn your native language. There was a great Feis in this island
    two weeks ago, and there was a very large attendance from the South
    island, and not very many from the North.

    Two cousins of my own have been in this house for three weeks or
    beyond it, but now they are gone, and there is a place for you if
    you wish to come, and you can write before you and we'll try and
    manage you as well as we can.

    I am at home now for about two months, for the mill was burnt where
    I was at work. After that I was in Dublin, but I did not get my
    health in that city.--Mise le mor mheas ort a chara.

    Soon after I received this letter I wrote to Michael to say that I
    was going back to them. This time I chose a day when the steamer
    went direct to the middle island, and as we came up between the two
    lines of curaghs that were waiting outside the slip, I saw Michael,
    dressed once more in his island clothes, rowing in one of them.

    He made no sign of recognition, but as soon as they could get
    alongside he clambered on board and came straight up on the bridge
    to where I was.

    'Bhfuil tu go maith?' ('Are you well?') he said. 'Where is your

    His curagh had got a bad place near the bow of the steamer, so I was
    slung down from a considerable height on top of some sacks of flour
    and my own bag, while the curagh swayed and battered itself against
    the side.

    When we were clear I asked Michael if he had got my letter.

    'Ah no,' he said, 'not a sight of it, but maybe it will come next

    Part of the slip had been washed away during the winter, so we had
    to land to the left of it, among the rocks, taking our turn with the
    other curaghs that were coming in.

    As soon as I was on shore the men crowded round me to bid me
    welcome, asking me as they shook hands if I had travelled far in the
    winter, and seen many wonders, ending, as usual, with the inquiry if
    there was much war at present in the world.

    It gave me a thrill of delight to hear their Gaelic blessings, and
    to see the steamer moving away, leaving me quite alone among them.
    The day was fine with a clear sky, and the sea was glittering beyond
    the limestone. Further off a light haze on the cliffs of the larger
    island, and on the Connaught hills, gave me the illusion that it was
    still summer.

    A little boy was sent off to tell the old woman that I was coming,
    and we followed slowly, talking and carrying the baggage.

    When I had exhausted my news they told me theirs. A power of
    strangers--four or five--a French priest among them, had been on the
    island in the summer; the potatoes were bad, but the rye had begun
    well, till a dry week came and then it had turned into oats.

    'If you didn't know us so well,' said the man who was talking,
    'you'd think it was a lie we were telling, but the sorrow a lie is
    in it. It grew straight and well till it was high as your knee, then
    it turned into oats. Did ever you see the like of that in County

    In the cottage everything was as usual, but Michael's presence has
    brought back the old woman's humour and contentment. As I sat down
    on my stool and lit my pipe with the corner of a sod, I could have
    cried out with the feeling of festivity that this return procured

    This year Michael is busy in the daytime, but at present there is a
    harvest moon, and we spend most of the evening wandering about the
    island, looking out over the bay where the shadows of the clouds
    throw strange patterns of gold and black. As we were returning
    through the village this evening a tumult of revelry broke out from
    one of the smaller cottages, and Michael said it was the young boys
    and girls who have sport at this time of the year. I would have
    liked to join them, but feared to embarrass their amusement. When we
    passed on again the groups of scattered cottages on each side of the
    way reminded me of places I have sometimes passed when travelling at
    night in France or Bavaria, places that seemed so enshrined in the
    blue silence of night one could not believe they would reawaken.

    Afterwards we went up on the Dun, where Michael said he had never
    been before after nightfall, though he lives within a stone's-throw.
    The place gains unexpected grandeur in this light, standing out like
    a corona of prehistoric stone upon the summit of the island. We
    walked round the top of the wall for some time looking down on the
    faint yellow roofs, with the rocks glittering beyond them, and the
    silence of the bay. Though Michael is sensible of the beauty of the
    nature round him, he never speaks of it directly, and many of our
    evening walks are occupied with long Gaelic discourses about the
    movements of the stars and moon.

    These people make no distinction between the natural and the

    This afternoon--it was Sunday, when there is usually some
    interesting talk among the islanders--it rained, so I went into the
    schoolmaster's kitchen, which is a good deal frequented by the more
    advanced among the people. I know so little of their ways of fishing
    and farming that I do not find it easy to keep up our talk without
    reaching matters where they cannot follow me, and since the novelty
    of my photographs has passed off I have some difficulty in giving
    them the entertainment they seem to expect from my company. To-day I
    showed them some simple gymnastic feats and conjurer's tricks, which
    gave them great amusement.

    'Tell us now,' said an old woman when I had finished, 'didn't you
    learn those things from the witches that do be out in the country?'

    In one of the tricks I seemed to join a piece of string which was
    cut by the people, and the illusion was so complete that I saw one
    man going off with it into a corner and pulling at the apparent
    joining till he sank red furrows round his hands.

    Then he brought it back to me.

    'Bedad,' he said, 'this is the greatest wonder ever I seen. The cord
    is a taste thinner where you joined it but as strong as ever it

    A few of the younger men looked doubtful, but the older people, who
    have watched the rye turning into oats, seemed to accept the magic
    frankly, and did not show any surprise that 'a duine uasal' (a noble
    person) should be able to do like the witches.

    My intercourse with these people has made me realise that miracles
    must abound wherever the new conception of law is not understood. On
    these islands alone miracles enough happen every year to equip a
    divine emissary Rye is turned into oats, storms are raised to keep
    evictors from the shore, cows that are isolated on lonely rocks
    bring forth calves, and other things of the same kind are common.

    The wonder is a rare expected event, like the thunderstorm or the
    rainbow, except that it is a little rarer and a little more
    wonderful. Often, when I am walking and get into conversation with
    some of the people, and tell them that I have received a paper from
    Dublin, they ask me--'And is there any great wonder in the world at
    this time?'

    When I had finished my feats of dexterity, I was surprised to find
    that none of the islanders, even the youngest and most agile, could
    do what I did. As I pulled their limbs about in my effort to teach
    them, I felt that the ease and beauty of their movements has made me
    think them lighter than they really are. Seen in their curaghs
    between these cliffs and the Atlantic, they appear lithe and small,
    but if they were dressed as we are and seen in an ordinary room,
    many of them would seem heavily and powerfully made.

    One man, however, the champion dancer of the island, got up after a
    while and displayed the salmon leap--lying flat on his face and then
    springing up, horizontally, high in the air--and some other feats of
    extraordinary agility, but he is not young and we could not get him
    to dance.

    In the evening I had to repeat my tricks here in the kitchen, for
    the fame of them had spread over the island.

    No doubt these feats will be remembered here for generations. The
    people have so few images for description that they seize on
    anything that is remarkable in their visitors and use it afterwards
    in their talk.

    For the last few years when they are speaking of any one with fine
    rings they say: 'She had beautiful rings on her fingers like
    Lady--,' a visitor to the island.

    I have been down sitting on the pier till it was quite dark. I am
    only beginning to understand the nights of Inishmaan and the
    influence they have had in giving distinction to these men who do
    most of their work after nightfall.

    I could hear nothing but a few curlews and other wild-fowl whistling
    and shrieking in the seaweed, and the low rustling of the waves. It
    was one of the dark sultry nights peculiar to September, with no
    light anywhere except the phosphorescence of the sea, and an
    occasional rift in the clouds that showed the stars behind them.

    The sense of solitude was immense. I could not see or realise my own
    body, and I seemed to exist merely in my perception of the waves and
    of the crying birds, and of the smell of seaweed.

    When I tried to come home I lost myself among the sandhills, and the
    night seemed to grow unutterably cold and dejected, as I groped
    among slimy masses of seaweed and wet crumbling walls.

    After a while I heard a movement in the sand, and two grey shadows
    appeared beside me. They were two men who were going home from
    fishing. I spoke to them and knew their voices, and we went home

    In the autumn season the threshing of the rye is one of the many
    tasks that fall to the men and boys. The sheaves are collected on a
    bare rock, and then each is beaten separately on a couple of stones
    placed on end one against the other. The land is so poor that a
    field hardly produces more grain than is needed for seed the
    following year, so the rye-growing is carried on merely for the
    straw, which is used for thatching.

    The stooks are carried to and from the threshing fields, piled on
    donkeys that one meets everywhere at this season, with their black,
    unbridled heads just visible beneath a pinnacle of golden straw.

    While the threshing is going on sons and daughters keep turning up
    with one thing and another till there is a little crowd on the
    rocks, and any one who is passing stops for an hour or two to talk
    on his way to the sea, so that, like the kelp-burning in the
    summer-time, this work is full of sociability.

    When the threshing is over the straw is taken up to the cottages and
    piled up in an outhouse, or more often in a corner of the kitchen,
    where it brings a new liveliness of colour.

    A few days ago when I was visiting a cottage where there are the
    most beautiful children on the island, the eldest daughter, a girl
    of about fourteen, went and sat down on a heap of straw by the
    doorway. A ray of sunlight fell on her and on a portion of the rye,
    giving her figure and red dress with the straw under it a curious
    relief against the nets and oilskins, and forming a natural picture
    of exquisite harmony and colour.

    In our own cottage the thatching--it is done every year--has just
    been carried out. The rope-twisting was done partly in the lane,
    partly in the kitchen when the weather was uncertain. Two men
    usually sit together at this work, one of them hammering the straw
    with a heavy block of wood, the other forming the rope, the main
    body of which is twisted by a boy or girl with a bent stick
    specially formed for this employment.

    In wet weather, when the work must be done indoors, the person who
    is twisting recedes gradually out of the door, across the lane, and
    sometimes across a field or two beyond it. A great length is needed
    to form the close network which is spread over the thatch, as each
    piece measures about fifty yards. When this work is in progress in
    half the cottages of the village, the road has a curious look, and
    one has to pick one's steps through a maze of twisting ropes that
    pass from the dark doorways on either side into the fields.

    When four or five immense balls of rope have been completed, a
    thatching party is arranged, and before dawn some morning they come
    down to the house, and the work is taken in hand with such energy
    that it is usually ended within the day.

    Like all work that is done in common on the island, the thatching is
    regarded as a sort of festival. From the moment a roof is taken in
    hand there is a whirl of laughter and talk till it is ended, and, as
    the man whose house is being covered is a host instead of an
    employer, he lays himself out to please the men who work with him.

    The day our own house was thatched the large table was taken into
    the kitchen from my room, and high teas were given every few hours.
    Most of the people who came along the road turned down into the
    kitchen for a few minutes, and the talking was incessant. Once when
    I went into the window I heard Michael retailing my astronomical
    lectures from the apex of the gable, but usually their topics have
    to do with the affairs of the island.

    It is likely that much of the intelligence and charm of these people
    is due to the absence of any division of labour, and to the
    correspondingly wide development of each individual, whose varied
    knowledge and skill necessitates a considerable activity of mind.
    Each man can speak two languages. He is a skilled fisherman, and can
    manage a curagh with extraordinary nerve and dexterity He can farm
    simply, burn kelp, cut out pampooties, mend nets, build and thatch a
    house, and make a cradle or a coffin. His work changes with the
    seasons in a way that keeps him free from the dullness that comes to
    people who have always the same occupation. The danger of his life
    on the sea gives him the alertness of the primitive hunter, and the
    long nights he spends fishing in his curagh bring him some of the
    emotions that are thought peculiar to men who have lived with the

    As Michael is busy in the daytime, I have got a boy to come up and
    read Irish to me every afternoon. He is about fifteen, and is
    singularly intelligent, with a real sympathy for the language and
    the stories we read.

    One evening when he had been reading to me for two hours, I asked
    him if he was tired.

    'Tired?' he said, 'sure you wouldn't ever be tired reading!'

    A few years ago this predisposition for intellectual things would
    have made him sit with old people and learn their stories, but now
    boys like him turn to books and to papers in Irish that are sent
    them from Dublin.

    In most of the stories we read, where the English and Irish are
    printed side by side, I see him looking across to the English in
    passages that are a little obscure, though he is indignant if I say
    that he knows English better than Irish. Probably he knows the local
    Irish better than English, and printed English better than printed
    Irish, as the latter has frequent dialectic forms he does not know.

    A few days ago when he was reading a folk-tale from Douglas Hyde's
    Beside the Fire, something caught his eye in the translation.

    'There's a mistake in the English,' he said, after a moment's
    hesitation, 'he's put "gold chair" instead of "golden chair."'

    I pointed out that we speak of gold watches and gold pins.

    'And why wouldn't we?' he said; 'but "golden chair" would be much

    It is curious to see how his rudimentary culture has given him the
    beginning of a critical spirit that occupies itself with the form of
    language as well as with ideas.

    One day I alluded to my trick of joining string.

    'You can't join a string, don't be saying it,' he said; 'I don't
    know what way you're after fooling us, but you didn't join that
    string, not a bit of you.'

    Another day when he was with me the fire burned low and I held up a
    newspaper before it to make a draught. It did not answer very well,
    and though the boy said nothing I saw he thought me a fool.

    The next day he ran up in great excitement.

    'I'm after trying the paper over the fire,' he said, 'and it burned
    grand. Didn't I think, when I seen you doing it there was no good in
    it at all, but I put a paper over the master's (the school-master's)
    fire and it flamed up. Then I pulled back the corner of the paper
    and I ran my head in, and believe me, there was a big cold wind
    blowing up the chimney that would sweep the head from you.'

    We nearly quarrelled because he wanted me to take his photograph in
    his Sunday clothes from Galway, instead of his native homespuns that
    become him far better, though he does not like them as they seem to
    connect him with the primitive life of the island. With his keen
    temperament, he may go far if he can ever step out into the world.

    He is constantly thinking.

    One day he asked me if there was great wonder on their names out in
    the country.

    I said there was no wonder on them at all.

    'Well,' he said, 'there is great wonder on your name in the island,
    and I was thinking maybe there would be great wonder on our names
    out in the country.'

    In a sense he is right. Though the names here are ordinary enough,
    they are used in a way that differs altogether from the modern
    system of surnames.

    When a child begins to wander about the island, the neighbours speak
    of it by its Christian name, followed by the Christian name of its
    father. If this is not enough to identify it, the father's epithet--
    whether it is a nickname or the name of his own father--is added.

    Sometimes when the father's name does not lend itself, the mother's
    Christian name is adopted as epithet for the children.

    An old woman near this cottage is called 'Peggeen,' and her sons are
    'Patch Pheggeen,' 'Seaghan Pheggeen,' etc.

    Occasionally the surname is employed in its Irish form, but I have
    not heard them using the 'Mac' prefix when speaking Irish among
    themselves; perhaps the idea of a surname which it gives is too
    modern for them, perhaps they do use it at times that I have not

    Sometimes a man is named from the colour of his hair. There is thus
    a Seaghan Ruadh (Red John), and his children are 'Mourteen Seaghan
    Ruadh,' etc.

    Another man is known as 'an iasgaire' ('the fisher'), and his
    children are 'Maire an iasgaire' ('Mary daughter of the fisher'),
    and so on.

    The schoolmaster tells me that when he reads out the roll in the
    morning the children repeat the local name all together in a whisper
    after each official name, and then the child answers. If he calls,
    for instance, 'Patrick O'Flaharty,' the children murmur, 'Patch
    Seaghan Dearg' or some such name, and the boy answers.

    People who come to the island are treated in much the same way. A
    French Gaelic student was in the islands recently, and he is always
    spoken of as 'An Saggart Ruadh' ('the red priest') or as 'An Saggart
    Francach' ('the French priest'), but never by his name.

    If an islander's name alone is enough to distinguish him it is used
    by itself, and I know one man who is spoken of as Eamonn. There may
    be other Edmunds on the island, but if so they have probably good
    nicknames or epithets of their own.

    In other countries where the names are in a somewhat similar
    condition, as in modern Greece, the man's calling is usually one of
    the most common means of distinguishing him, but in this place,
    where all have the same calling, this means is not available.

    Late this evening I saw a three-oared curagh with two old women in
    her besides the rowers, landing at the slip through a heavy roll.
    They were coming from Inishere, and they rowed up quickly enough
    till they were within a few yards of the surf-line, where they spun
    round and waited with the prow towards the sea, while wave after
    wave passed underneath them and broke on the remains of the slip.
    Five minutes passed; ten minutes; and still they waited with the
    oars just paddling in the water, and their heads turned over their

    I was beginning to think that they would have to give up and row
    round to the lee side of the island, when the curagh seemed suddenly
    to turn into a living thing. The prow was again towards the slip,
    leaping and hurling itself through the spray. Before it touched, the
    man in the bow wheeled round, two white legs came out over the prow
    like the flash of a sword, and before the next wave arrived he had
    dragged the curagh out of danger.

    This sudden and united action in men without discipline shows well
    the education that the waves have given them. When the curagh was in
    safety the two old women were carried up through the surf and
    slippery seaweed on the backs of their sons.

    In this broken weather a curagh cannot go out without danger, yet
    accidents are rare and seem to be nearly always caused by drink,
    Since I was here last year four men have been drowned on their way
    home from the large island. First a curagh belonging to the south
    island which put off with two men in her heavy with drink, came to
    shore here the next evening dry and uninjured, with the sail half
    set, and no one in her.

    More recently a curagh from this island with three men, who were the
    worse for drink, was upset on its way home. The steamer was not far
    off, and saved two of the men, but could not reach the third.

    Now a man has been washed ashore in Donegal with one pampooty on
    him, and a striped shirt with a purse in one of the pockets, and a
    box for tobacco.

    For three days the people have been trying to fix his identity. Some
    think it is the man from this island, others think that the man from
    the south answers the description more exactly. To-night as we were
    returning from the slip we met the mother of the man who was drowned
    from this island, still weeping and looking out over the sea. She
    stopped the people who had come over from the south island to ask
    them with a terrified whisper what is thought over there.

    Later in the evening, when I was sitting in one of the cottages, the
    sister of the dead man came in through the rain with her infant, and
    there was a long talk about the rumours that had come in. She pieced
    together all she could remember about his clothes, and what his
    purse was like, and where he had got it, and the same for his
    tobacco box, and his stockings. In the end there seemed little doubt
    that it was her brother.

    'Ah!' she said, 'It's Mike sure enough, and please God they'll give
    him a decent burial.'

    Then she began to keen slowly to herself. She had loose yellow hair
    plastered round her head with the rain, and as she sat by the door
    sucking her infant, she seemed like a type of the women's life upon
    the islands.

    For a while the people sat silent, and one could hear nothing but
    the lips of the infant, the rain hissing in the yard, and the
    breathing of four pigs that lay sleeping in one corner. Then one of
    the men began to talk about the new boats that have been sent to the
    south island, and the conversation went back to its usual round of

    The loss of one man seems a slight catastrophe to all except the
    immediate relatives. Often when an accident happens a father is lost
    with his two eldest sons, or in some other way all the active men of
    a household die together.

    A few years ago three men of a family that used to make the wooden
    vessels--like tiny barrels--that are still used among the people,
    went to the big island together. They were drowned on their way
    home, and the art of making these little barrels died with them, at
    least on Inishmaan, though it still lingers in the north and south

    Another catastrophe that took place last winter gave a curious zest
    to the observance of holy days. It seems that it is not the custom
    for the men to go out fishing on the evening of a holy day, but one
    night last December some men, who wished to begin fishing early the
    next morning, rowed out to sleep in their hookers.

    Towards morning a terrible storm rose, and several hookers with
    their crews on board were blown from their moorings and wrecked. The
    sea was so high that no attempt at rescue could be made, and the men
    were drowned.

    'Ah!' said the man who told me the story, 'I'm thinking it will be a
    long time before men will go out again on a holy day. That storm was
    the only storm that reached into the harbour the whole winter, and
    I'm thinking there was something in it.'

    Today when I went down to the slip I found a pig-jobber from
    Kilronan with about twenty pigs that were to be shipped for the
    English market.

    When the steamer was getting near, the whole drove was moved down on
    the slip and the curaghs were carried out close to the sea. Then
    each beast was caught in its turn and thrown on its side, while its
    legs were hitched together in a single knot, with a tag of rope
    remaining, by which it could be carried.

    Probably the pain inflicted was not great, yet the animals shut
    their eyes and shrieked with almost human intonations, till the
    suggestion of the noise became so intense that the men and women who
    were merely looking on grew wild with excitement, and the pigs
    waiting their turn foamed at the mouth and tore each other with
    their teeth.

    After a while there was a pause. The whole slip was covered with a
    mass of sobbing animals, with here and there a terrified woman
    crouching among the bodies, and patting some special favourite to
    keep it quiet while the curaghs were being launched.

    Then the screaming began again while the pigs were carried out and
    laid in their places, with a waistcoat tied round their feet to keep
    them from damaging the canvas. They seemed to know where they were
    going, and looked up at me over the gunnel with an ignoble
    desperation that made me shudder to think that I had eaten of this
    whimpering flesh. When the last curagh went out I was left on the
    slip with a band of women and children, and one old boar who sat
    looking out over the sea.

    The women were over-excited, and when I tried to talk to them they
    crowded round me and began jeering and shrieking at me because I am
    not married. A dozen screamed at a time, and so rapidly that I could
    not understand all that they were saying, yet I was able to make out
    that they were taking advantage of the absence of their husbands to
    give me the full volume of their contempt. Some little boys who were
    listening threw themselves down, writhing with laughter among the
    seaweed, and the young girls grew red with embarrassment and stared
    down into the surf.

    For a moment I was in confusion. I tried to speak to them, but I
    could not make myself heard, so I sat down on the slip and drew out
    my wallet of photographs. In an instant I had the whole band
    clambering round me, in their ordinary mood.

    When the curaghs came back--one of them towing a large kitchen table
    that stood itself up on the waves and then turned somersaults in an
    extraordinary manner--word went round that the ceannuighe (pedlar)
    was arriving.

    He opened his wares on the slip as soon as he landed, and sold a
    quantity of cheap knives and jewellery to the girls and the younger
    women. He spoke no Irish, and the bargaining gave immense amusement
    to the crowd that collected round him.

    I was surprised to notice that several women who professed to know
    no English could make themselves understood without difficulty when
    it pleased them.

    'The rings is too dear at you, sir,' said one girl using the Gaelic
    construction; 'let you put less money on them and all the girls will
    be buying.'

    After the jewellery' he displayed some cheap religious
    pictures--abominable oleographs--but I did not see many buyers.

    I am told that most of the pedlars who come here are Germans or
    Poles, but I did not have occasion to speak with this man by

    I have come over for a few days to the south island, and, as usual,
    my voyage was not favourable.

    The morning was fine, and seemed to promise one of the peculiarly
    hushed, pellucid days that occur sometimes before rain in early
    winter. From the first gleam of dawn the sky was covered with white
    cloud, and the tranquillity was so complete that every sound seemed
    to float away by itself across the silence of the bay. Lines of blue
    smoke were going up in spirals over the village, and further off
    heavy fragments of rain-cloud were lying on the horizon. We started
    early in the day, and, although the sea looked calm from a distance,
    we met a considerable roll coming from the south-west when we got
    out from the shore.

    Near the middle of the sound the man who was rowing in the bow broke
    his oar-pin, and the proper management of the canoe became a matter
    of some difficulty. We had only a three-oared curagh, and if the sea
    had gone much higher we should have run a good deal of danger. Our
    progress was so slow that clouds came up with a rise in the wind
    before we reached the shore, and rain began to fall in large single
    drops. The black curagh working slowly through this world of grey,
    and the soft hissing of the rain gave me one of the moods in which
    we realise with immense distress the short moment we have left us to
    experience all the wonder and beauty of the world.

    The approach to the south island is made at a fine sandy beach on
    the north-west. This interval in the rocks is of great service to
    the people, but the tract of wet sand with a few hideous fishermen's
    houses, lately built on it, looks singularly desolate in broken

    The tide was going out when we landed, so we merely stranded the
    curagh and went up to the little hotel. The cess-collector was at
    work in one of the rooms, and there were a number of men and boys
    waiting about, who stared at us while we stood at the door and
    talked to the proprietor.

    When we had had our drink I went down to the sea with my men, who
    were in a hurry to be off. Some time was spent in replacing the
    oar-pin, and then they set out, though the wind was still
    increasing. A good many fishermen came down to see the start, and
    long after the curagh was out of sight I stood and talked with them
    in Irish, as I was anxious to compare their language and temperament
    with what I knew of the other island.

    The language seems to be identical, though some of these men speak
    rather more distinctly than any Irish speakers I have yet heard. In
    physical type, dress, and general character, however, there seems to
    be a considerable difference. The people on this island are more
    advanced than their neighbours, and the families here are gradually
    forming into different ranks, made up of the well-to-do, the
    struggling, and the quite poor and thriftless. These distinctions
    are present in the middle island also, but over there they have had
    no effect on the people, among whom there is still absolute

    A little later the steamer came in sight and lay to in the offing.
    While the curaghs were being put out I noticed in the crowd several
    men of the ragged, humorous type that was once thought to represent
    the real peasant of Ireland. Rain was now falling heavily, and as we
    looked out through the fog there was something nearly appalling in
    the shrieks of laughter kept up by one of these individuals, a man
    of extraordinary ugliness and wit.

    At last he moved off toward the houses, wiping his eyes with the
    tail of his coat and moaning to himself 'Ta me marbh,' ('I'm
    killed'), till some one stopped him and he began again pouring out a
    medley of rude puns and jokes that meant more than they said.

    There is quaint humour, and sometimes wild humour, on the middle
    island, but never this half-sensual ecstasy of laughter. Perhaps a
    man must have a sense of intimate misery, not known there, before he
    can set himself to jeer and mock at the world. These strange men
    with receding foreheads, high cheekbones, and ungovernable eyes seem
    to represent some old type found on these few acres at the extreme
    border of Europe, where it is only in wild jests and laughter that
    they can express their loneliness and desolation.

    The mode of reciting ballads in this island is singularly harsh. I
    fell in with a curious man to-day beyond the east village, and we
    wandered out on the rocks towards the sea. A wintry shower came on
    while we were together, and we crouched down in the bracken, under a
    loose wall. When we had gone through the usual topics he asked me if
    I was fond of songs, and began singing to show what he could do.

    The music was much like what I have heard before on the islands--a
    monotonous chant with pauses on the high and low notes to mark the
    rhythm; but the harsh nasal tone in which he sang was almost
    intolerable. His performance reminded me in general effect of a
    chant I once heard from a party of Orientals I was travelling with
    in a third-class carriage from Paris to Dieppe, but the islander ran
    his voice over a much wider range.

    His pronunciation was lost in the rasping of his throat, and, though
    he shrieked into my ear to make sure that I understood him above the
    howling of the wind, I could only make out that it was an endless
    ballad telling the fortune of a young man who went to sea, and had
    many adventures. The English nautical terms were employed
    continually in describing his life on the ship, but the man seemed
    to feel that they were not in their place, and stopped short when
    one of them occurred to give me a poke with his finger and explain
    gib, topsail, and bowsprit, which were for me the most intelligible
    features of the poem. Again, when the scene changed to Dublin,
    'glass of whiskey,' 'public-house,' and such things were in English.

    When the shower was over he showed me a curious cave hidden among
    the cliffs, a short distance from the sea. On our way back he asked
    me the three questions I am met with on every side--whether I am a
    rich man, whether I am married, and whether I have ever seen a
    poorer place than these islands.

    When he heard that I was not married he urged me to come back in the
    summer so that he might take me over in a curagh to the Spa in
    County Glare, where there is 'spree mor agus go leor ladies' ('a big
    spree and plenty of ladies').

    Something about the man repelled me while I was with him, and though
    I was cordial and liberal he seemed to feel that I abhorred him. We
    arranged to meet again in the evening, but when I dragged myself
    with an inexplicable loathing to the place of meeting, there was no
    trace of him.

    It is characteristic that this man, who is probably a drunkard and
    shebeener and certainly in penury, refused the chance of a shilling
    because he felt that I did not like him. He had a curiously mixed
    expression of hardness and melancholy. Probably his character has
    given him a bad reputation on the island, and he lives here with the
    restlessness of a man who has no sympathy with his companions.

    I have come over again to Inishmaan, and this time I had fine
    weather for my passage. The air was full of luminous sunshine from
    the early morning, and it was almost a summer's day when I set sail
    at noon with Michael and two other men who had come over for me in a

    The wind was in our favour, so the sail was put up and Michael sat
    in the stem to steer with an oar while I rowed with the others.

    We had had a good dinner and drink and were wrought up by this
    sudden revival of summer to a dreamy voluptuous gaiety, that made us
    shout with exultation to hear our voices passing out across the blue
    twinkling of the sea.

    Even after the people of the south island, these men of Inishmaan
    seemed to be moved by strange archaic sympathies with the world.
    Their mood accorded itself with wonderful fineness to the
    suggestions of the day, and their ancient Gaelic seemed so full of
    divine simplicity that I would have liked to turn the prow to the
    west and row with them for ever.

    I told them I was going back to Paris in a few days to sell my books
    and my bed, and that then I was coming back to grow as strong and
    simple as they were among the islands of the west.

    When our excitement sobered down, Michael told me that one of the
    priests had left his gun at our cottage and given me leave to use it
    till he returned to the island. There was another gun and a ferret
    in the house also, and he said that as soon as we got home he was
    going to take me out fowling on rabbits.

    A little later in the day we set off, and I nearly laughed to see
    Michael's eagerness that I should turn out a good shot.

    We put the ferret down in a crevice between two bare sheets of rock,
    and waited. In a few minutes we heard rushing paws underneath us,
    then a rabbit shot up straight into the air from the crevice at our
    feet and set off for a wall that was a few feet away. I threw up the
    gun and fired.

    'Buail tu e,' screamed Michael at my elbow as he ran up the rock. I
    had killed it.

    We shot seven or eight more in the next hour, and Michael was
    immensely pleased. If I had done badly I think I should have had to
    leave the islands. The people would have despised me. A 'duine
    uasal' who cannot shoot seems to these descendants of hunters a
    fallen type who is worse than an apostate.

    The women of this island are before conventionality, and share some
    of the liberal features that are thought peculiar to the women of
    Paris and New York.

    Many of them are too contented and too sturdy to have more than a
    decorative interest, but there are others full of curious

    This year I have got to know a wonderfully humorous girl, who has
    been spinning in the kitchen for the last few days with the old
    woman's spinning-wheel. The morning she began I heard her exquisite
    intonation almost before I awoke, brooding and cooing over every
    syllable she uttered.

    I have heard something similar in the voices of German and Polish
    women, but I do not think men--at least European men--who are always
    further than women from the simple, animal emotions, or any speakers
    who use languages with weak gutturals, like French or English, can
    produce this inarticulate chant in their ordinary talk.

    She plays continual tricks with her Gaelic in the way girls are fond
    of, piling up diminutives and repeating adjectives with a humorous
    scorn of syntax. While she is here the talk never stops in the
    kitchen. To-day she has been asking me many questions about Germany,
    for it seems one of her sisters married a German husband in America
    some years ago, who kept her in great comfort, with a fine 'capull
    glas' ('grey horse') to ride on, and this girl has decided to escape
    in the same way from the drudgery of the island.

    This was my last evening on my stool in the chimney corner, and I
    had a long talk with some neighbours who came in to bid me
    prosperity, and lay about on the floor with their heads on low
    stools and their feet stretched out to the embers of the turf. The
    old woman was at the other side of the fire, and the girl I have
    spoken of was standing at her spinning-wheel, talking and joking
    with every one. She says when I go away now I am to marry a rich
    wife with plenty of money, and if she dies on me I am to come back
    here and marry herself for my second wife.

    I have never heard talk so simple and so attractive as the talk of
    these people. This evening they began disputing about their wives,
    and it appeared that the greatest merit they see in a woman is that
    she should be fruitful and bring them many children. As no money can
    be earned by children on the island this one attitude shows the
    immense difference between these people and the people of Paris.

    The direct sexual instincts are not weak on the island, but they are
    so subordinated to the instincts of the family that they rarely lead
    to irregularity. The life here is still at an almost patriarchal
    stage, and the people are nearly as far from the romantic moods of
    love as they are from the impulsive life of the savage.

    The wind was so high this morning that there was some doubt whether
    the steamer would arrive, and I spent half the day wandering about
    with Michael watching the horizon.

    At last, when we had given her up, she came in sight far away to the
    north, where she had gone to have the wind with her where the sea
    was at its highest.

    I got my baggage from the cottage and set off for the slip with
    Michael and the old man, turning into a cottage here and there to
    say good-bye.

    In spite of the wind outside, the sea at the slip was as calm as a
    pool. The men who were standing about while the steamer was at the
    south island wondered for the last time whether I would be married
    when I came back to see them. Then we pulled out and took our place
    in the line. As the tide was running hard the steamer stopped a
    certain distance from the shore, and gave us a long race for good
    places at her side. In the struggle we did not come off well, so I
    had to clamber across two curaghs, twisting and fumbling with the
    roll, in order to get on board.

    It seemed strange to see the curaghs full of well-known faces
    turning back to the slip without me, but the roll in the sound soon
    took off my attention. Some men were on board whom I had seen on the
    south island, and a good many Kilronan people on their way home from
    Galway, who told me that in one part of their passage in the morning
    they had come in for heavy seas.

    As is usual on Saturday, the steamer had a large cargo of flour and
    porter to discharge at Kilronan, and, as it was nearly four o'clock
    before the tide could float her at the pier, I felt some doubt about
    our passage to Galway.

    The wind increased as the afternoon went on, and when I came down in
    the twilight I found that the cargo was not yet all unladen, and
    that the captain feared to face the gale that was rising. It was
    some time before he came to a final decision, and we walked
    backwards and forwards from the village with heavy clouds flying
    overhead and the wind howling in the walls. At last he telegraphed
    to Galway to know if he was wanted the next day, and we went into a
    public-house to wait for the reply.

    The kitchen was filled with men sitting closely on long forms ranged
    in lines at each side of the fire. A wild-looking but beautiful girl
    was kneeling on the hearth talking loudly to the men, and a few
    natives of Inishmaan were hanging about the door, miserably drunk.
    At the end of the kitchen the bar was arranged, with a sort of
    alcove beside it, where some older men were playing cards. Overhead
    there were the open rafters, filled with turf and tobacco smoke.

    This is the haunt so much dreaded by the women of the other islands,
    where the men linger with their money till they go out at last with
    reeling steps and are lost in the sound. Without this background of
    empty curaghs, and bodies floating naked with the tide, there would
    be something almost absurd about the dissipation of this simple
    place where men sit, evening after evening, drinking bad whisky and
    porter, and talking with endless repetition of fishing, and kelp,
    and of the sorrows of purgatory.

    When we had finished our whiskey word came that the boat might

    With some difficulty I got my bags out of the steamer and carried
    them up through the crowd of women and donkeys that were still
    struggling on the quay in an inconceivable medley of flour-bags and
    cases of petroleum. When I reached the inn the old woman was in
    great good humour, and I spent some time talking by the kitchen
    fire. Then I groped my way back to the harbour, where, I was told,
    the old net-mender, who came to see me on my first visit to the
    islands, was spending the night as watchman.

    It was quite dark on the pier, and a terrible gale was blowing.
    There was no one in the little office where I expected to find him,
    so I groped my way further on towards a figure I saw moving with a

    It was the old man, and he remembered me at once when I hailed him
    and told him who I was. He spent some time arranging one of his
    lanterns, and then he took me back to his office--a mere shed of
    planks and corrugated iron, put up for the contractor of some work
    which is in progress on the pier.

    When we reached the light I saw that his head was rolled up in an
    extraordinary collection of mufflers to keep him from the cold, and
    that his face was much older than when I saw him before, though
    still full of intelligence.

    He began to tell how he had gone to see a relative of mine in Dublin
    when he first left the island as a cabin-boy, between forty and
    fifty years ago.

    He told his story with the usual detail:--

    We saw a man walking about on the quay in Dublin, and looking at us
    without saying a word. Then he came down to the yacht. 'Are you the
    men from Aran?' said he.

    'We are,' said we.

    'You're to come with me so,' said he. 'Why?' said we.

    Then he told us it was Mr. Synge had sent him and we went with him.
    Mr. Synge brought us into his kitchen and gave the men a glass of
    whisky all round, and a half-glass to me because I was a boy--though
    at that time and to this day I can drink as much as two men and not
    be the worse of it. We were some time in the kitchen, then one of
    the men said we should be going. I said it would not be right to go
    without saying a word to Mr. Synge. Then the servant-girl went up
    and brought him down, and he gave us another glass of whisky, and he
    gave me a book in Irish because I was going to sea, and I was able
    to read in the Irish.

    I owe it to Mr. Synge and that book that when I came back here,
    after not hearing a word of Irish for thirty years, I had as good
    Irish, or maybe better Irish, than any person on the island.

    I could see all through his talk that the sense of superiority which
    his scholarship in this little-known language gave him above the
    ordinary seaman, had influenced his whole personality and been the
    central interest of his life.

    On one voyage he had a fellow-sailor who often boasted that he had
    been at school and learned Greek, and this incident took place:--

    One night we had a quarrel, and I asked him could he read a Greek
    book with all his talk of it.

    'I can so,' said he.

    'We'll see that,' said I.

    Then I got the Irish book out of my chest, and I gave it into his

    'Read that to me,' said I, 'if you know Greek.'

    He took it, and he looked at it this way, and that way, and not a
    bit of him could make it out.

    'Bedad, I've forgotten my Greek,' said he.

    'You're telling a lie,' said I. 'I'm not,' said he; 'it's the divil
    a bit I can read it.'

    Then I took the book back into my hand, and said to him--'It's the
    sorra a word of Greek you ever knew in your life, for there's not a
    word of Greek in that book, and not a bit of you knew.'

    He told me another story of the only time he had heard Irish spoken
    during his voyages:--

    One night I was in New York, walking in the streets with some other
    men, and we came upon two women quarrelling in Irish at the door of
    a public-house.

    'What's that jargon?' said one of the men.

    'It's no jargon,' said I.

    'What is it?' said he.

    'It's Irish,' said I.

    Then I went up to them, and you know, sir, there is no language like
    the Irish for soothing and quieting. The moment I spoke to them they
    stopped scratching and swearing and stood there as quiet as two

    Then they asked me in Irish if I wouldn't come in and have a drink,
    and I said I couldn't leave my mates.

    'Bring them too,' said they.

    Then we all had a drop together.

    While we were talking another man had slipped in and sat down in the
    corner with his pipe, and the rain had become so heavy we could
    hardly hear our voices over the noise on the iron roof.

    The old man went on telling of his experiences at sea and the places
    he had been to.

    'If I had my life to live over again,' he said, 'there's no other
    way I'd spend it. I went in and out everywhere and saw everything. I
    was never afraid to take my glass, though I was never drunk in my
    life, and I was a great player of cards though I never played for

    'There's no diversion at all in cards if you don't play for money'
    said the man in the corner.

    'There was no use in my playing for money' said the old man, 'for
    I'd always lose, and what's the use in playing if you always lose?'

    Then our conversation branched off to the Irish language and the
    books written in it.

    He began to criticise Archbishop MacHale's version of Moore's Irish
    Melodies with great severity and acuteness, citing whole poems both
    in the English and Irish, and then giving versions that he had made

    'A translation is no translation,' he said, 'unless it will give you
    the music of a poem along with the words of it. In my translation
    you won't find a foot or a syllable that's not in the English, yet
    I've put down all his words mean, and nothing but it. Archbishop
    MacHale's work is a most miserable production.'

    From the verses he cited his judgment seemed perfectly justified,
    and even if he was wrong, it is interesting to note that this poor
    sailor and night-watchman was ready to rise up and criticise an
    eminent dignitary and scholar on rather delicate points of
    versification and the finer distinctions between old words of

    In spite of his singular intelligence and minute observation his
    reasoning was medieval.

    I asked him what he thought about the future of the language on
    these islands.

    'It can never die out,' said he, 'because there's no family in the
    place can live without a bit of a field for potatoes, and they have
    only the Irish words for all that they do in the fields. They sail
    their new boats--their hookers--in English, but they sail a curagh
    oftener in Irish, and in the fields they have the Irish alone. It
    can never die out, and when the people begin to see it fallen very
    low, it will rise up again like the phoenix from its own ashes.'

    'And the Gaelic League?' I asked him.

    'The Gaelic League! Didn't they come down here with their organisers
    and their secretaries, and their meetings and their speechifyings,
    and start a branch of it, and teach a power of Irish for five weeks
    and a half!' [a]

    'What do we want here with their teaching Irish?' said the man in
    the corner; 'haven't we Irish enough?'

    'You have not,' said the old man; 'there's not a soul in Aran can
    count up to nine hundred and ninety-nine without using an English
    word but myself.'

    It was getting late, and the rain had lessened for a moment, so I
    groped my way back to the inn through the intense darkness of a late
    autumn night.

    [a] This was written, it should be remembered, some years ago.
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