There were three or four hillocks in the field near the schoolhouse, that grew nothing but bushes and briars, and in these hillocks linnets and goldfinches would build their nests. I never robbed any of these nests, and the birds seemed to understand that I would not hurt or harm them. The mother would sit there hatching, she looking at me and I looking at her, and would not fly away unless I stretched out my hand to catch her. I was great at finding birds’ nests, and occasionally of a Sunday I’d go into the neighboring woods looking for them. One Sunday I went to Starkey’s wood at Cregane, about a mile outside the town. I entered it, there near where the Jackey-boys lived. I went through the line of trees that run into Ownaheencha cross, till I came to another ditch. Then I leaped into a meadow, and as I leaped, a big blackbird began to screech and run fluttering, clattering and crying “chuc-chuc-chuc chuc-chuc.” I must have leaped on the bird’s wing; I must have wounded her some way, when she could not fly; so I thought, and so I ran after her to catch her. But the rogue could fly, though she never went more than a few yards ahead of me. At the end of the field I thought I had her cornered, but she rose up and flew over the ditch into the next field. I retraced my steps to the place where I leaped into the field. I looked to see if I would find any feathers or any sign of my having leaped upon the bird, and on looking I found in the side of the ditch a nest with five young ones in it, with their mouths wide open to receive the food they thought their father or mother was going to give them. I did a very cruel thing that day: I robbed that nest; I took it away with me. On my way home Captain Wat. Starkey met me; Corley Garraviagh was wheeling him in a hand carriage; I had the nest on my head. “Those are my birds you have,” he said. “Where did you get them?” I didn’t mind him, but walked on.
I suppose they were his birds, for those English land-robbers of Ireland claim dominion of “all the birds in the air, and all the fishes in the sea.”
That bird whose nest I robbed has often reminded me of Gladstone, the Prime Minister of England, and the prime hypocrite Governor of Ireland. Or, more correctly speaking, I should say this Gladstone, Prime Minister of England, in his government of Ireland, has often reminded me of that blackbird. The ruse she played to get me away from her nest is the ruse he has played to get Irishmen away from the work that would rob him of Ireland. Irishmen in the hands of English jailers are snatched away from them in the heart of England; English castles are blown down; English governors of Ireland are slain; there is terror in England—terror in the hearts of Englishmen. Gladstone chuckles “chuc-chuc-chuc-chuc, I’ll give you Home Rule for Ireland.” Irishmen listen to him; they follow him; he flies away from them; his eyesight gets bad, and he is blind to all his promises of Home Rule for Ireland. Irishmen are divided; the work that struck terror into the heart of the Englishman is abandoned by them; his eyesight is restored to him, and he is now writing Bible history. His “chuc chuc-chuc” is so much akin to my blackbird’s “chuc-chuc-chuc” that I christen her the “Gladstone blackbird.”
But the resemblance holds good only as regards the use of the cry. The objects and purposes of its use are different. The poor bird cried “chuc, chuc,” to save her children from destruction. Gladstone cried “chuc, chuc,” to keep the children of Ireland in the hands of their destroyer.
And how many are the storied memories that possess me now in connection with that road I traveled the day I robbed the blackbird’s nest! It was on that road I shook hands with Daniel O’Connell; it was on that road Cliona, the fairy queen, used to enlist lovers; that was the road I traveled going to the fair of Newmill, and the road I traveled the day I went to Lord Carberry’s funeral. I have spoken of the Jackey-boys living on that roadside. Who were they? They were boys of the name of O’Mahony, “rough and ready roving boys, like Rory of the Hill.” They had a farm of land; they had a fishing boat, and they had the name of, one way or another, getting the better of any of the English garrison party that would do them a wrong. Two of them were out on the seacliffs one day, robbing an eagle’s nest. A rope was tied to a pannier; one of them went into the pannier; the other let the pannier slide down till it was at the nest. The young ones were put into the pannier, and on the way up the mother eagle attacked the robber. The pannier got some jostling; the rope got jagged against the crags, and one of its strands got broken. The brother in the basket below cried out to the brother on the cliff above, “Dar fia! Shawn, ’ta ceann do na stroundee bristeh” (By this and by that, Jack, one of the strands is broken). “Coimead thu fein go socair,” said the other. “Ni’l aon bao’al ort, chun go brisig an tarna strounda.” (Keep quiet; there is no fear of you till the second strand breaks.)
That Starkey road is the road on which I met Daniel O’Connell. Yes; there were crowds of people on it the day he was coming from the Curragh meeting in Skibbereen, in the year 1843. Through the crowd of people, between the legs of some of them, I made my way to the carriage the liberator was in. I was raised up, and had a hearty shake hands with him.
It was the road Cliona, the fairy queen used to travel. Yes, and her fairy home of Carrig-Cliona is quite convenient to it. But I don’t know whether she is living still. When I was in Ireland a year ago, it looked to me as if the Irish fairies were dead too. In those early days of mine this Cliona used to “show” herself on moonlight nights, robed in sunlight splendor. Every young man she’d meet between the cross of Barnamarrav and the Castle of Rathabharrig would be subjected to examination by her, and if she found him to her liking, he was taken to her cave, or put under an obligation to meet her a certain night in the future. Before that certain night came the young man was dead; and, of course, the pith of this fairy story is, that the fairy queen took him away with her. She hugged to death every one she fell in love with. The Irish poets prayed for deliverance from her fatally bewitching influence. It was of her the poet, in the poem of “O’Donovan’s daughter,” hymned the prayer:“
God grant! ’tis no fay from Cnoc Aoibhin that woos me,
God grant! ’tis not Cleena the queen, that pursues me.”
I said that the road of Cliona’s travels was the road I used to travel going to the fair of Newmill. Is there anything in that recollection that would make any kind of an interesting story? There is, and it is this.
At the fair at Newmill there used to be faction fights, and there used to be companies of policemen under the command of Gore Jones. The policemen would be encamped in a field near by—in the field next to the fair. Their arms would be stacked there. In the evening a fight would commence among the factions. The police would not stir. Gore Jones would not give them any orders to rush in and make peace while the fight was going on. But when the fight was over, he’d rush into the fair field with his men and arrest all who had any signs of blood on them. They were handcuffed and taken to the jail of Ross, and then their families and their friends were kept for days and weeks after, going around to the different landlord magistrates making interest and influence to get them out of jail. That was all a trick of the English government in Ireland, a trick to bring the people whom England had robbed and plundered, more and more under compliment and obligation to those landlord magistrates who were living in possession of the robbery and plunder. They gain their point when they can keep the people always begging and praying to them for some little favor. You now understand why it is that when I am speaking to the Irish people at home and abroad about my recollections, I consider it an interesting thing to them to speak of the fair of Newmill.
What else is that I brought in? Yes, my Blackbird road was the road we traveled the day I went to Lord Carbery’s funeral. I have a purpose, too, in speaking of that. It must be some time about the year 1844. With four or five other boys, I mootched from school that day and went to Rath-a-Bharrig, or Castlefreke, as it is christened in the language of the plundering Frekes. Before the Cromwellian time, it, and the land around it belonged to the Barrys, of the Norman time.
When we got to the wake-house we did not get in; in fact we kept away from it, because as we ran away from school we did not want to let our fathers see us, so I went over to the lake to look at the swans. I found a swan’s nest with three eggs in it—the largest eggs that ever I saw. I had to put my two hands around one of them, taking it up, showing it to my companions. When the bells rang for the funeral service to move, I took my position behind a big tree in view of the avenue the people would pass through. I watched for my father, and when I saw him, with a piece of white calico around his hat, I got mad, for I knew my father was mad at being subjected to such humiliation, and at being obliged to wear such a menial garb of mourning at such a funeral. The word had been sent around by the gentry that all the tenants on the Carbery estate were to attend the lord’s funeral, and though my father was not paying rent directly to the Carbery lord, still, as his holding was looked upon as the Carbery property, he attended. I will give explanation on this subject by and by.
It appears to me in writing these pages that I am very anxious to get out of my childhood, and out of my boyhood days, and as I cannot get back to them once I get out, nor see any use in singing:
“Would I were a boy again,”
I will remain a boy as long as I can.
I was naturally very quiet and gentle when a boy—just as I am to-day—except when I was put to it, and when I was forced to be otherwise. I had five or six boxing bouts with schoolfellows—with Mike Crone, Micky Feen, Stephen Lovejoy, Pat Callanan and Paak Cullinane—but I never struck the first blow. Paak Cullinane and I were among the boys who went up to the Ardagh road bowling. He and I were made markers. On one occasion I thought he marked the throw of one of his friends a foot ahead of where the bowl stopped. I objected, and without his saying a word, the first thing he did was to give me a thump in the face.
He had the name of being the best boxer in the school, and could with impunity strike any one he got vexed with, but when he struck me, I struck back, and the fight had to be stopped, to stop the blood that was running from his nose. The fight with Mike Crone ended by my getting a lump on the forehead that made me give up the contest, and the other three were drawn battles.
But I never had any fight or falling-out with any of the girls of my acquaintance. They were all very fond of me, and when my mother would keep me in, to learn my lessons, I’d hear Mary Hurley and Ellen Fitzpatrick and Menzie Crone and Ponticilia Barrett come as a delegation from the girls outside, asking her to let Jer. come out to play with them.
You never saw any illuminations at the bottom of the sea. I saw them, and I used to take those girls to see them. Bounding our fields, was the strand. This strand was about a half a mile wide, every way; it had a sandy bottom, in which cockles had their home. There was no water in the strand, when the tide was out. But when the tide was coming in, or going out, and when the water would be about twelve inches deep, as pretty a sight as you could see would be to walk through that water, and see “the cockles lighting.” The sun should be shining, and you should walk the strand with your face to the sun, so that your shadow would fall behind you. Then every home of a cockle would be lighted: you’d see through the cockle’s chamber door,—through a little hole that a knitting needle would fill—the light down in the sand, like a little taper burning. ’Twas a pretty picture; I’d go a mile off to-day to see it again. But those days are passed and gone.
Nor, can I ever again, see the sun dancing on an Easter Sunday morning as it used to dance when I was a boy, over the general rejoicing on that day. It was to be seen through burned glass, and on Saturday night I’d have my glass burned, ready to look at the sun next morning, if the morning was fine.
Our Pagan sires, our strifes would shun,
They saw their heaven, through the sun,
Their God smiled down on every one
In Ireland over the water.
Those are lines I wrote when in an English prison years ago. I suppose I was thinking of our Pagan fathers, who, it is said, worshipped the sun. Irish historians—historians of the Catholic church in Ireland tell us, that Saint Patrick, and other Apostles of Christianity, allowed many of the harmless habits and customs of the Irish people to remain with them; that they did not insist on the abolition of some practices that tended to the worship of a Supreme Being, and it is as reasonable as anything else to suppose that our Pagan fathers, in worshipping the sun, was only worshipping the Supreme Power that put that sun in the heavens. It was, and is to-day, the most visible manifestation of the Great God of the Universe.
On the eve of La Sowna, November day—and on the eve of La Bealtheine—May day, there are practices carried on in Ireland that must have come down to our people from times anterior to the time of Saint Patrick. I remember Jemmie Fitzpatrick taking me with him up to his farm in Ardagh one May evening, to bless the growing crops. I carried the little sheaves of straw that he had prepared for the occasion. When he came to the grounds, he took one of the sheaves and lit it. Then, we walked around every field, he, as one sheaf would burn out, taking another from me, and lighting it. This, no doubt, is some relic that comes down to us from those times that poets and historians tell us the Baal-fires were lighted throughout the land.
Speaking of Patrick’s day celebrations, I don’t know that I have the enthusiasm regarding them to-day that I had in my schooldays.
Many and many a time I drew the blood from my fingers to paint the section red part of the crosses that I used to be making for the celebration of the day. The green color I’d get, by gathering pennyleaves in the garden, and bruising out the juice of them, and the yellow color would come to me from the yolk of an egg. If I hadn’t a compass to make my seven circle cross, I’d make a compass out of a little goulogue sprig of a whitethorn tree—fastening a writing pen to one leg of it. John Cushan, the master, would not let the boys make the crosses at school.
And often that school time of mine comes up to me, when I hear friends in New York talking of their schooldays in Ireland—when I hear, as I heard the other night, Pat Egan asking Pat Cody and John O’Connor, if they remembered the time when they were carrying the sods of turf under their arms to school. That was jokingly cast at them, as kind of aspachaun; but I remember that I, myself, often carried the sods of turf under my arm to school; and if there is any fire in anything I write in this book, I suppose that is how it comes.