This chapter that I have to write now is a very hard chapter to write. I have to say something that will hurt my pride and will make my friends think the less of me. But I’ll say it all the same, because the very thing that hurts my pride and humbles me in my own estimation, may be the very thing that has strengthened me to fight Ireland’s battle against the common enemy as I have fought it. If the operation of English rule in Ireland abases the nature of the Irishman—and it does abase it—the Irishman ought to fight the harder and fight the longer, and fight every way and every time, and fight all the time to destroy that rule. So, stand I to-day in that spirit. Not alone in spirit but in deed—if I could do any deed—but action is out of the question in a situation where the parade and show and color of patriotism is regarded as patriotism itself.
I said my father died in March, 1847. I was then fifteen years of age. I said, that the year before he died, the potato crop failed entirely, and the landlord seized the grain crop for the rent. About that time, I heard a conversation between my father and mother that made a very indelible impression upon my mind. I have often thought, that if things are dark around you, and that you want a friend to assist you out of the darkness, it is not good policy at all to cry out to him that you are stricken totally blind, that you are so helpless for yourself that there is never any hope of recovery from that helplessness. My mother was after returning from a visit she made to a sister of my father’s, who lived some twelve miles away, and who was pretty well off in the world. The object of the visit was for assistance over our difficulties. My aunt had a son-in-law, a very wise man; she sent for him; he came to the house, and there was a family consultation on the matter. My mother was asked to candidly tell the full situation of affairs, and to tell how much money would get us over all the difficulties, and put us on our legs again. She did tell. Then there was a consultation, aside from my mother—the pith of which my mother heard, and which was this: the son-in-law said that we were so far in debt, and the children so young and helpless, that anything given us, or spent on us to get us over the present difficulty would only be lost, lost forever; and that then we would not be over the difficulty.
All along the fifty years of my life since that year of 1847, I have often wanted help, and often got it. I get it to-day, and maybe want it to-day; get it from people who want no return for it; but that does not remove the impression made on my mind, that when you are in difficulties it is not good policy at all to make such a poor mouth as will show any one inclined to help you that the help given you will only be lost on you.
One thing my father said to me one time I will tell here for the benefit of the little children who live in the house where this book will be read. It is this: I stayed away from school one day; I went mootching. My mother was coming from Jude Shanahan’s of Dooneen, and she found me playing marbles at the courthouse cross. She caught hold of me by the collar, and she did not let go the hold until she brought me in home. I was crying of course; roaring and bawling at the thrashing I was to get from my father. “Stop your crying,” said he, “stop your crying; I am not going to beat you; but, remember what I say to you; when I am dead and rotten in my grave, it is then you will be sorry that you did not attend to your schooling.” It was true for him.
When my father died, the hill field had been planted for a potato crop, and the strand field had been planted for wheat.
After he died, some of the creditors looked for their money, and there was no money there. Bill Ned obtained a decree against us, and executed the decree; and I saw everything that was in the house taken into the street and canted. That must be about the month of May, 1847. One Sunday after that—a fine sunny day, I was out in the Abbey field playing with the boys; about six o’clock I came home to my dinner; there was no dinner for me, and my mother began to cry. Uncle Mickey did not come to town yesterday. He used to come to the house every Saturday with a load of turf, and a bag of meal or flour straddled on top of the turf. He did not come yesterday, and there was nothing in the house for dinner.
Some years ago, in Troy, New York, I was a guest at the hotel of Tom Curley of Ballinasloe. Talking of “the bad times” in Ireland, he told me of his own recollection of them in Galway, and asked me if I ever felt the hunger. I told him I did not, but that I felt something that was worse than the hunger; that I felt it still; and that was—the degradation into which want and hunger will reduce human nature. I told him of that Sunday evening in Ross when I went home to my dinner, and my mother had no dinner for me; I told him I had one penny-piece in my pocket; I told him how I went out and bought for it a penny bun, and how I stole to the back of the house and thievishly ate that penny bun without sharing it with my mother and my sister and my brothers. I am proud of my life, one way or another; but that penny bun is a thorn in my side; a thorn in the pride of my life; it was only four ounces of bread—for bread was fourpence (eight cents) a pound at the time—but if ever I feel any pride in myself, that little loaf comes before me to humble me; it also comes before me to strengthen me in the determination to destroy that tyranny that reduces my people to poverty and degradation, and makes them what is not natural for them to be. I know it is not in my nature to be niggardly and selfish. I know that if I have money above my wants, I find more happiness and satisfaction in giving it to friends who want it than in keeping it. But that penny-bun affair clashes altogether against my own measurement of myself, and stands before me like a ghost whenever I would think of raising myself in my own estimation.
I suppose it was the general terror and alarm of starvation that was around me at the time that paralyzed my nature, and made me do what I am now ashamed to say I did.
Friday was the day on which my father died. On Sunday he was buried in the family tomb in the Abbey field. There were no people at the wake Friday night and Saturday night, but there were lots of people at the funeral on Sunday.
It was a time that it was thought the disease of which the people were dying was contagious, and would be caught by going into the houses of the dead people, the time alluded to in those lines of “Jillen Andy.”
No mourners come, as ’tis believed the sight
Of any death or sickness now begets the same.
And as these lines come to my mind now, to illustrate what I am saying, I may as well give the whole of the lines I wrote on the burial of Jillen Andy, for this is the year she died—the year 1847 that I am writing about. I dug the grave for her; she was buried without a coffin, and I straightened out her head on a stone, around which Jack McCart, the tailor, of Beulnaglochdubh had rolled his white-spotted red handkerchief.
Andy Hayes had been a workman for my father. He died—leaving four sons—John, Charley, Tead and Andy. The mother was known as Jillen Andy. The eldest son, John, enlisted and was killed in India; Charley got a fairy-puck in one of his legs, and the leg was cut off by Dr. Donovan and Dr. Fitzgibbons; Andy also enlisted, and died in the English service, Tead was a simpleton or “innocent”—no harm in him, and every one kind to him. I was at play in the street one day, my mother was sitting on the door step, Tead came up to her and told her his mother was dead, and asked if she would let me go with him to dig the grave for her. My mother told me to go with him, and I went. Every incident noted in the verses I am going to print, came under my experience that day. I wrote these verses twenty years after, in the convict prison of Chatham, England, thinking of old times. That you may understand some of the lines, I may tell you some of the stories of our people. There were fairies in Ireland in my time; England is rooting them out, too. They were called “the good people,” and it was not safe to say anything bad of them. The places where fairies used to resort were called “eerie” places, and if you whistled at night you would attract them to you, particularly if you whistled while you were in bed. Then, when a person is to be buried, you must not make a prisoner of him or of her in the grave; you must take out every pin, and unloose every string before you put it into the coffin, so that it may be free to come from the other world to see you. And at the “waking” of a friend, it is not at all good to shed tears over the corpse, and let the tears fall on the clothes, because every such tear burns a burned hole in the body of the dead person in the other world.
“Come to the graveyard if you’re not afraid;
I’m going to dig my mother’s grave; she’s dead,
And I want some one that will bring the spade,
For Andy’s out of home, and Charlie’s sick in bed.”
Thade Andy was a simple spoken fool,
With whom in early days I loved to stroll.
He’d often take me on his back to school,
And make the master laugh, himself, he was so droll.
In songs and ballads he took great delight,
And prophecies of Ireland yet being freed,
And singing them by our fireside at night,
I learned songs from Thade before I learned to read,
And I have still by heart his “Colleen Fhune,”
His “Croppy Boy,” his “Phœnix of the Hall,”
And I could “rise” his “Rising of the Moon,”
If I could sing in prison cell—or sing at all.
He’d walk the “eeriest” place a moonlight night,
He’d whistle in the dark—even in bed.
In fairy fort or graveyard, Thade was quite
As fearless of a ghost as any ghost of Thade.
Now in the dark churchyard we work away,
The shovel in his hand, in mine the spade,
And seeing Thade cry, I cried, myself, that day,
For Thade was fond of me, and I was fond of Thade.
But after twenty years, why now will such
A bubbling spring up to my eyelids start?
Ah! there be things that ask no leave to touch
The fountains of the eyes or feelings of the heart,“
This load of clay will break her bones I fear,
For when alive she wasn’t over-strong;
We’ll dig no deeper, I can watch her here
A month or so, sure nobody will do me wrong.”
Four men bear Jillen on a door—’tis light,
They have not much of Jillen but her frame;
No mourners come, as ’tis believed the sight
Of any death or sickness now, begets the same.
And those brave hearts that volunteered to touch
Plague-stricken death, are tender as they’re brave;
They raise poor Jillen from her tainted couch,
And shade their swimming eyes while laying her in the grave.
I stand within that grave, nor wide nor deep,
The slender-wasted body at my feet;
What wonder is it, if strong men will weep
O’er famine-stricken Jillen in her winding-sheet!
Her head I try to pillow on a stone,
But it will hang one side, as if the breath
Of famine gaunt into the corpse had blown,
And blighted in the nerves the rigid strength of death.
“Hand me that stone, child.” In his ’tis placed,
Down-channeling his cheeks are tears like rain,
The stone within his handkerchief is cased,
And then I pillow on it Jillen’s head again.“
Untie the nightcap string,” “unloose that lace.”
“Take out that pin.” There, now, she’s nicely—rise,
But lay the apron first across her face,
So that the earth won’t touch her lips or blind her eyes.
Don’t grasp the shovel too tightly—there make a heap,
Steal down each shovelful quietly—there, let it creep
Over her poor body lightly; friend, do not weep;
Tears would disturb poor Jillen in her last long sleep.
And Thade was faithful to his watch and ward,
Where’er he’d spend the day, at night he’d haste
With his few sods of turf to that churchyard,
Where he was laid himself, before the month was past.
Then, Andy died a soldiering in Bombay,
And Charlie died in Ross the other day,
Now, no one lives to blush, because I say
That Jillen Andy went uncoffined to the play.
E’en all are gone that buried Jillen, save
One banished man, who dead-alive remains
The little boy who stood within the grave,
Stands for his Country’s cause in England’s prison chains.
How oft in dreams that burial scene appears,
Through death, eviction, prison, exile, home,
Through all the suns and moons of twenty years—
And oh! how short these years, compared with years to come!
Some things are strongly on the mind impressed,
And others faintly imaged there, it seems,
And this is why, when Reason sinks to rest,
Phases of life do show and shadow forth, in dreams.
And this is why in dreams I see the face
Of Jillen Andy looking in my own,
The poet-hearted man; the pillow case—
The spotted handkerchief that softened the hard stone.
Welcome these memories of scenes of youth,
That nursed my hate of tyranny and wrong,
That helmed my manhood in the path of truth,
And help me now to suffer calmly and be strong.
After the burial of Jillen Andy and Tead Andy I was stricken down with the fever that was prevalent at the time. I was nine or ten days in bed. The turning day of the illness came, and those who were at the bedside thought I was dying. My heavy breathing was moving the bedclothes up and down. I had consciousness enough to hear one woman say to my mother “Oh, he is dying now.” But it was only the fever bidding good-bye to me, and I got better day by day after that. Then, when I came to walk abroad, my eyes got sore—with a soreness that some pronounced the “dallakeen”; but others pronounced it to be a kind of fairy-puck called a “blast.” An herb-doctor made some herb medicine for me, and as my mother was giving it to me one day she was talking to our next-door neighbor, Kit Brown, and wondering who it could be in the other world that had a grudge against me, or against the family! She was sure I had never hurted or harmed any one, and she could not remember that she or my father had ever done anything to any one who left this world—had ever done anything that would give them reason to have a grudge against the family.
You, friendly reader, may consider that what I am saying is small talk. So it is. But in writing these “Recollections” of mine I am showing what Irish life was in my day. I am not making caricatures in Irish life to please the English people, as many Irish writers have done, and have been paid for doing; I am telling the truth, with the view of interesting and serving my people. When I was young I got hold of a book called “Parra Sastha; or, Paddy-go-easy.” Looking at the name of the book I did not know what Parra Sastha meant; but as I read through it I learned that it was meant for “Padruig Sasta”—contented, or satisfied Paddy. The whole book is a dirty caricature of the Irish character; but the writer of it is famed as an Irish novelist, and died in receipt of a yearly literary pension from the English government. He earned such a pension by writing that book alone. England pays people for defaming Ireland and the Irish.
And men professing to be Irish patriots, in our own day, write books defamatory of their own people. “When We Were Boys” is the name of a book written nine or ten years ago by one of those Irish patriot parliamentary leaders of to-day. It is a libel on the character of the Fenian movement in Ireland. As I was reading it I said to myself, “This gentleman has his eye on a literary pension from the English.” The whiskey-drinking bouts that he records at the Fenian headquarters in the office of the Fenian newspaper had no existence but in his imagination, and the brutal murder of a landlord by the Fenians is an infamous creation of his too. If it is fated that the chains binding England to Ireland are to remain unbroken during this generation, and that the writer of that book lives to the end of the generation, those who live with him need not be surprised if they see him in receipt of a literary pension. He has earned it.