From the Appendix of Jail Journal
In June, 1847, Mitchel sat down to write for the Nation a review of “Irish Guide Books” and out of the memories they awakened was begotten by the existent horror of the Famine – this, the most beautiful and terrible article that has ever come from the pen of an Irish journalist. In it the John Mitchel of 1848 has his birth.
Again, the great sun stands high at noon above the greenest island that lies within its ken on all the broad zodiac road he travels, and his glory, “like God’s own head,” will soon blaze forth from the solstitial tower. Once more, also – even in this June month of the rueful year – the trees have clothed themselves in their wonted pomp of leafy umbrage, and the warm air is trembling with the music of ten thousand singing-birds, and the great all-nourishing earth has arrayed herself in robes of glorious green – the greener for all the dead she has laid to rest within her bosom.
What! Alive and so bold, O Earth!
Art thou not over bold?
What! Leapest thou forth as of old,
In the light of thy morning mirth?
Why, we thought that the end of the world was at hand; we never looked to see a bright, genial summer, a bright, rigorous winter again. To one who has been pent up for months, labouring with brain and heart in the panic-stricken city, haunted by the shadow of death, and has heard from afar the low, wailing moan of his patient, perishing brothers borne in upon every gale, black visions of the night well come swarming; to his dulled eye a pall might visibly spread itself over the empyrean, to his weary ear the cope of Heaven might ring from pole to pole with a muffled peal of Doom. Can such swinkt labourer believe that days will ever be wholesome any more, or nights ambrosial as they were wont to be? – for is not the sun in sick eclipse and like to die, and hangs there not upon the corner of the moon a vaporous drop profound, shedding plague and blight and the blackness of darkness over all the world?
Not so, heavy-laden labourer in the seed-field of time. Sow diligently what grain thou hast to sow, nothing doubting; for indeed, there shall be hereafter, as of old, genial showers and ripening suns, and harvests shall whiten, and there shall verily be living men to reap them, be it with sword or sickle. The sun is not yet turned into darkness, nor the moon into blood; neither is the abomination of desolation spoken of by Jeremy the Prophet yet altogether come to pass. Heaven and earth grow not old, as thou and thy plans and projects and speculations all will most assuredly do. Here have you been gnawing your heart all winter about the “state of the country,” about a Railway Bill, about small rating districts, or about large; casting about for means to maintain your own paltry position; or else, perhaps, devising schemes, poor devil! for the regeneration of your country, and dreaming that in your own peculiar committee, clique, confederacy, caucus, council, conclave, or cabal, lay Ireland’s last and only hope! – until you are nearly past hope yourself – until foul shadows are creeping over your light of life, and insanity is knocking at your parietal bone. Apparently you will be driven to this alternative – to commit suicide, or else, with a desperate rush, to fly into the country, leaving the spirits of evil and the whole rout of hell at the first running stream.
We advise the latter course; all the powers of nature enforce and conjure to it; every blushing evening woos thee westward; every blue morning sends its Favonian airs to search thee out in thy study and fan thy cheek, and tell thee over what soft, whispering woods; what bank of breathing field flowers; what heathery hills fragrant with bog myrtle and all the flora of the moors: what tracks of corn and waving meadows they have wandered before they came to mix with the foul city atmosphere, dim with coal smoke and the breath of multitudinous scoundreldom. On such blue morning, to us, lying wistfully dreaming with eyes wide open, rises many a vision of scenes that we know to be at this moment enacting themselves in far-off lonely glens we wot of. Ah! there is a green nook, high up amidst the foldings of certain granite mountains, forty leagues off and more, and there is gurgling through it, murmuring and flashing in the sun, a little stream clear as crystal — the mystic song of it, the gushing freshness of it, are even now streaming cool through our adust and too cineritious brain; and, clearly as if present in the body, we seek the grey rock that hangs over one of its shallow pools, where the sun rays are broken by the dancing water into a network of tremulous golden light upon the pure sand that forms its basin; and close by, with quivering leaves and slender stem of silver, waves a solitary birch-tree; and the mountains stand solemn around, and by the heather-bells that are breaking from their sheaths everywhere under your steps, you know that soon a mantle of richest imperial purple will be spread over their mighty shoulders and envelop them to the very feet. Lie down upon the emerald sward that banks this little pool, and gaze and listen. Through one gorge that breaks the mountain pass to the right hand, you see a vast cultivated plain, with trees and fields and whitened houses, stretching away into the purple distance, studded here and there with lakes that gleam like mirrors of polished silver. Look to the left, through another deep valley, and — lo! the blue Western Sea! And aloft over all, over land and sea, over plain and mountain, rock and river, go slowly floating the broad shadows of clouds, rising slowly from the south, borne in the lap of the soft, south wind, slowly climbing the blue dome by the meridian line, crossing the path of the sun, nimbus after nimbus, cirrus and cumulus, and every other cloud after his cloud, each flinging his mighty shadow on the passes, and then majestically melting off northward. What battalions and broad-winged hosts of clouds are these! Here have we lain but two hours, and there have been continually looming upward from behind the wind, continually sailing downward beyond the northern horizon, such wondrous drifts and piled up mountain of vapour as would shed another Noachian deluge and quench the stars if the floodgates were once let loose and the windows of heaven opened, yet this fragrant, soft-blowing southern gale bears them up bravely on its invisible pinions and softly winnows them on their destined way. They have a mission; they are going to build themselves up, somewhere over the Hebrides, into a huge, many-towered Cumulostratus; and to-morrow or the day after will come down in thunder and storm and hissing sheets of grey rain, sweeping the Sound of Mull with their trailing skirt, and making the billows of Corrievrechan seethe and roar around his cliffs and caves. Ben Cruachan, with his head wrapped in thick night, will send down Awe River in raging spate, in a tumult of tawny foam, and Morven shall echo through all his groaning woods.
But one cannot be everywhere at once. We are not now among the Western Isles, buffeting a summer storm in the Sound of Mull; but here in this green nook, among our own Irish granite mountains, at our feet the clear, poppling water, over our head the birch leaves quivering in the warm June air; and the far-off sea smooth and blue as a burnished sapphire. Let the cloud-hosts go and fulfil their destiny; and let us, with open eye and ear and soul, gaze and listen. Not only are mysterious splendours around us, but mysterious song gushes forth above us and beneath us. In this little brook alone what a scale of notes! from where the first faint tinkle of it is heard far up as it gushes from the heart of the mountain, down through countless cascades and pools and gurgling rapids, swelling and growing till it passes our grassy couch and goes on its murmuring way singing to the sea; but it is only one of the instruments. Hark! the eloquent wind that comes sighing up the valley and whispering with the wavering fern! And at intervals comes from above or beneath, you know not which, the sullen croak of a solitary raven, without whose hoarse bass you never find nature’s mountain symphony complete; and we defy you to say why the obscene fowl sits there and croaks upon his grey stone for half a day, unless it is that nature puts him in requisition to make up her orchestra, as the evil beast ought to be proud to do. And hark again! the loud hum of innumerable insects, first begotten of the Sun, that flit among the green heather stalks and sing all their summer life through — and then, if you listen beyond all that, you hear, faintly at first as the weird murmur in a wreathed shell, but swelling till it almost overwhelms all the other sounds, the mighty voice of the distant sea. For it is a peculiarity ever of this earth-music that you can separate every tone of it, untwist every strand of its linked sweetness, and listen to that and dwell upon it by itself. You may shut your senses to all save that far-off ocean murmur until it fills your ear as with the roar and rush of ten thousand tempests, and you can hear the strong billows charging against every beaked promontory from pole to pole; or you may listen to the multitudinous insect hum till it booms painfully upon your ear-drum, and you know that here is the mighty hymn or spiritual song of life, as it surges ever upward from the abyss; louder, louder, it booms into your brain — oh, heaven! it is the ground-tone of that thunder-song wherein the earth goes singing in her orbit among the stars. Yes, such and so grand are the separate parts of this harmony; but blend them all and consider what a diapason! Cathedral organs of all stops, and instruments of thousand strings, and add extra additional keys to your pianofortes, and sweetest silver flutes, and the voices of men and of angels; all these, look you, all these, and the prima donnas of all sublunary operas, and the thrills of a hundred Swedish Nightingales, have not the compass nor the flexibility, nor the pathos, nor the loudness, nor the sweetness required for the execution of this wondrous symphony among the hills.
Loud as from numbers without number, sweet,
As of blest voices uttering joy.
Loud and high as the hallelujahs of choiring angels — yet, withal, what a trance of Silence? Here in this mountain dell, all the while we lie, breathes around such a solemn overpowering stillness, that the rustle of an unfolding heath-bell, too near breaks it offensively; and if you linger near enough — by heaven! you can hear the throb of your own pulse. For, indeed, the divine silence is also a potent instrument of that eternal harmony, and bears melodious part.
“Such concord is in heaven!” Yea, and on the earth, too, if only we — we who call ourselves the beauty of the world and paragon of animals — did not mar it. Out of a man’s heart proceedeth evil thoughts; out of his mouth come revilings and bitterness and evil-speaking. In us, and not elsewhere, lies the fatal note that jars all the harmonies of the universe, and makes them like sweet bells jangled out of tune. Who will show us a way to escape from ourselves and from one another? Even, you, reader, whom we have invited up into this mountain, we begin to abhor you in our soul; you are transfigured before us; your eyes are become as the eyes of an evil demon, and now we know that this gushing stream of living water could not in a life-time wash away the iniquity from the chambers of thine heart; the arch-chemist sun could not burn it out of thee. For know, reader, thou hast a devil; it were better thy mother had not borne thee; and almost we are impelled to murder thee where thou liest.
“Poor human nature! Poor human nature!” So men are accustomed to cry out when there is talk of any meanness or weakness committed, especially by themselves; and they seem to make no doubt that if we could only get rid of our poor human nature we should get on much more happily. Yet human nature is not the worst element that enters into our composition — there is also a large diabolical ingredient — also, if we would admit it, a vast mixture of the brute, especially the donkey nature — and then, also, on the other hand, some irradiation of the godlike, and by that only is mankind redeemed.
For the sake whereof we forgive thee, comrade, and will forbear to do thee a mischief upon the present occasion. But note well how the very thought of all these discords has silenced, or made inaudible to us, all these choral songs of earth and sky. We listen, but there is silence — mere common silence; it is no use crying Encore! either the performers are dumb or we are stone deaf. Moreover, as evening comes on, the grass and heath grow somewhat damp, and one may get cold in his human nature. Rise, then, and we shall show you the way through the mountain to seaward, where we shall come down upon a little cluster of seven or eight cabins, in one of which cabins, two summers ago, we supped sumptuously on potatoes and salt with the decent man who lives there, and the black-eyed woman of the house and five small children. We had a hearty welcome though the fare was poor; and as we toasted our potatoes in the greeshaugh, our ears drank in the honey-sweet tones of the well-beloved Gaelic. If it were only to hear, though you did not understand, mothers and children talking together in their own blessed Irish, you ought to betake you to the mountains every summer. The sound of it is venerable, majestic, almost sacred. You hear in it the tramp of the clans, the judgment of the Brehons, the song of bards. There is no name for “modern enlightenment ” in Irish, no word corresponding with the “masses,” or with “reproductive labour”; in short, the “nineteenth century” would not know itself, could not express itself in Irish. For the which, let all men bless the brave old tongue, and pray that it may never fall silent by the hills and streams of holy Ireland — never until long after the great nineteenth century of centuries, with its “enlightenment” and its “paupers,” shall be classed in its true category the darkest of all the Dark Ages.
As we come down towards the roots of the mountain, you may feel, loading the evening air, the heavy balm of hawthorn blossoms; here are whole thickets of white-mantled hawthorn, every mystic tree (save us all from fairy thrall!) smothered with snow-white and showing like branching coral in the South Pacific. And be it remembered that never in Ireland, since the last of her chiefs sailed away from her, did that fairy tree burst into such luxuriant beauty and fragrance as this very year. The evening, too, is delicious; the golden sun has deepened into crimson, over the sleeping sea, as we draw near the hospitable cottages; almost you might dream that you beheld a vision of the Connacht of the thirteenth century; for that —
The clime, indeed, is a clime to praise,
The clime is Erin’s, the green and bland;
And this is the time – these be the days –
Of Cathal Mor of the Wine-Red Hand –
Cathal Mor, in whose days both land and sea were fruitful, and the yeanlings of the flocks were doubled, and the horses champed yellow wheat in the mangers.
But why do we not see the smoke curling from those lowly chimneys? And surely we ought by this time to scent the well-known aroma of the turf-fires. But what (may Heaven be about us this night) — what reeking breath of hell is this oppressing the air, heavier and more loathsome than the smell of death rising from the fresh carnage of a battlefield. Oh, misery! had we forgotten that this was the Famine Year? And we are here in the midst of those thousand Golgothas that border our island with a ring of death from Cork Harbour all round to Lough Foyle. There is no need of inquiries here — no need of words; the history of this little society is plain before us. Yet we go forward, though with sick hearts and swimming eyes, to examine the Place of Skulls nearer. There is a horrible silence; grass grows before the doors; we fear to look into any door, though they are all open or off the hinges; for we fear to see yellow chapless skeletons grinning there; but our footfalls rouse two lean dogs, that run from us with doleful howling, and we know by the felon-gleam in the wolfish eyes how they have lived after their masters died. We walk amidst the houses of the dead, and out at the other side of the cluster, and there is not one where we dare to enter. We stop before the threshold of our host of two years ago, put our head, with eyes shut, inside the door-jamb, and say, with shaking voice, “God save all here!” — No answer — ghastly silence, and a mouldy stench, as from the mouth of burial-vaults. Ah! they are dead! they are dead! the strong man and the fair, dark-eyed woman and the little ones, with their liquid Gaelic accents that melted into music for us two years ago; they shrunk and withered together until their voices dwindled to a rueful gibbering, and they hardly knew one another’s faces; but their horrid eyes scowled on each other with a cannibal glare. We know the whole story — the father was on a “public work,” and earned the sixth part of what would have maintained his family, which was not always paid him; but still it kept them half alive for three months, and so instead of dying in December they died in March. And the agonies of those three months who can tell? — the poor wife wasting and weeping over her stricken children; the heavy-laden weary man, with black night thickening around him — thickening within him — feeling his own arm shrink and his step totter with the cruel hunger that gnaws away his life, and knowing too surely that all this will soon be over. And he has grown a rogue, too, on those public works; with roguery and lying about him, roguery and lying above him, he has begun to say in his heart that there is no God; from a poor but honest farmer he has sunk down into a swindling, sturdy beggar; for him there is nothing firm or stable; the pillars of the world are rocking around him; “the sun to him is dark and silent, as the moon when she deserts the night.” Even ferocity or thirst for vengeance he can never feel again; for the very blood of him is starved into a thin, chill serum, and if you prick him he will not bleed. Now he can totter forth no longer, and he stays at home to die. But his darling wife is dear to him no longer; alas! and alas! there is a dull, stupid malice in their looks: they forget that they had five children, all dead weeks ago, and flung coffinless into shallow graves — nay, in the frenzy of their despair they would rend one another for the last morsel in that house of doom; and at last, in misty dreams of drivelling idiocy, they die utter strangers.
Oh! Pity and Terror! what a tragedy is here — deeper, darker than any bloody tragedy ever enacted under the sun, with all its dripping daggers and sceptred palls. Who will compare the fate of men burned at the stake, or cut down in battle — men with high hearts and the pride of life in their veins, and an eye to look up to heaven, or to defy the slayer to his face — who will compare it with this?
No shelter here to-night, then: and here we are far on in the night, still gazing on the hideous ruin. O Batho! a man might gaze and think on such a scene, till curses breed about his heart of hearts, and the hysterica passio swells in his throat.
But we have twelve miles to walk along the coast before we reach our inn; so come along with us and we will tell you as we walk together in the shadows of the night.