Rossnageeragh will mind till death the night the Dublin Man gave us the feast in the schoolhouse of Turlagh Beg. We had no name or surname for that same man ever but the ‘Dublin Man.’ Peatin Pharaig would say to us that he was a man who wrote for the newspapers. Peatin would read the Gaelic paper the mistress got every week, and it’s a small thing he hadn’t knowledge of, for there was discourse in that paper on the doings of the Western World and on the goings-on of the Eastern World, and there would be no bounds to the information Peatin would have to give us every Sunday at the chapel gate. He would say to us that the Dublin Man had a stack of money, for two hundred pounds in the year were coming to him out of the heart of the paper he wrote for every week.
The Dublin Man would pay a fortnight’s or a month’s visit to Turlagh every year. This very year he sent out word calling poor and naked to a feast he was gathering for us in the schoolhouse. He announced that there would be music and dancing and Gaelic speeches in it; that there would be a piper there from Carrowroe; that Brigid Ní Mhainin would be there to give Conntae Mhuigheó; that Martin the Fisherman would tell a Fenian story; that old Una Ní Greelis would recite a poem if the creature wouldn’t have the asthma; and that Marcuseen Mhichil Ruaidh would do a bout of dancing unless the rheumatic pains would be too bad on him. Nobody ever knew Marcuseen to have the rheumatics but when he’d be asked to dance. ‘Bedam, but I’m dead with the pains for a week,’ he’d always say when a dance would be hinted. But no sooner would the piper start on ‘Tatter Jack Walsh,’ than Marcuseen would throw his old hat in the air, ‘hup!’, he’d say, and take the floor.
The family of Col Labhras were drinking tea the evening of the feast.
‘Will we go to the schoolhouse to-night, daddy?’, says Cuimin Col to his father.
‘We will. Father Ronan said he’d like all the people to go.’
‘Won’t we have the spree!’, says Cuimin.
‘You’ll stay at home, Nora,’ says the mother, ‘to mind the child.’
Nora put a lip on herself, but she didn’t speak.
After tea Col and his wife went into the room to ready themselves for the road.
‘My sorrow that it’s not a boy God made me,’ says Nora to her brother.
‘Muise, why?’, says Cuimin.
‘For one reason better than another,’ says Nora. With that she gave a little slap to the child that was half-asleep and half-awake in the cradle. The child let a howl out of him.
‘Ara, listen to the child,’ says Cuimin. ‘If my mother hears him crying, she’ll take the ear off you.’
‘I don’t care if she takes the two ears off me,’ says Nora.
‘What’s up with you?’, Cuimin was washing himself, and he stopped to look over his shoulder at his sister, and the water streaming from his face.
‘Tired of being made a little ass of by my mother and by everybody, I am,’ says Nora. ‘I working from morning till night, and ye at your ease. Ye going to the spree to-night, and I sitting here nursing this child. ‘You’ll stay at home, Nora, to mind the child,’ says my mother. That’s always the way. It’s a pity it’s not a boy God made me.’
Cuimin was drying his face meanwhile, and ‘s-s-s-s-s’ coming out of him like a person would be grooming a horse.
‘It’s a pity, right enough,’ says he, when he was able to speak.
He threw the towel from him, he put his head to one side, and looked complacently at himself in the glass was hanging on the wall.
‘A parting in my hair now,’ says he, ‘and I’ll be first-class.’
‘Are you ready, Cuimin?’, says his father, coming out of the room.
‘We’ll be stirring on then.’
The mother came out.
‘If he there is crying, Nora,’ says she, ‘give him a drink of milk out of the bottle.’
Nora didn’t say a word. She remained sitting on the stool beside the cradle, and her chin laid in her two hands and her two elbows stuck on her knees. She heard her father and her mother and Cuimin going out the door and across the street; she knew by their voices that they were going down the bohereen. The voices died away, and she understood that they were after taking the road.
Nora began making fancy pictures in her mind. She saw, she thought, the fine, level road and it white under the moonlight. The people were in groups making for the schoolhouse. The Rossnageeragh folk were coming out the road, and the Garumna folk journeying round by the mistress’s house, and the Kilbrickan folk crowding down the hill, and the Turlagh Beg’s crowding likewise; there was a band form Turlagh, and an odd sprinkling from Glencaha, and one or two out of Inver coming in the road. She imagined her own people were at the school gate by now. They were going up the path. They were entering in the door. The schoolhouse was well-nigh full, and still no end to the coming of the people. There were lamps hung on the walls, and the house as bright as it would be in the middle of day. Father Ronan was there, and he going from person to person and bidding welcome to everybody. The Dublin Man was there, and he as nice and friendly-like as ever. The mistress was there, and the master and mistress from Gortmore, and the lace-instructress. The schoolgirls sitting together on the front benches. Weren’t they to sing a song? She saw, she thought, Maire Sean Mor, and Maire Pheatin Johnny, and Babeen Col Marcus, and the Boatman’s Brigid, and her red head on her, and Brigid Caitin Ní Fhiannachta, with her mouth open as usual. The girls were looking round and nudging one another, and asking one another where was Nora Col Labhras. The schoolhouse was packed to the door now. Father Ronan was striking his two hands together. They were stopping from talk and from whispering. Father Ronan was speaking to them. He was speaking comically. Everybody was laughing. He was calling on the schoolgirls to give their song. They were getting up and going to the head of the room and bowing to the people.
‘My sorrow, that I’m not there,’ says poor Nora to herself, and she laid her face in her palms and began crying.
She stopped crying, suddenly. She hung her head, and rubbed a palm to her eyes.
It wasn’t right, says she in her own mind. It wasn’t right, just, or decent. Why should she be kept at home? Why should they always keep her at home? If she was a boy she’d be let out. Since she was only a girl they would keep her at home. She was, as she had said to Cuimin that evening, only a little ass of a girl. She wouldn’t put up with it any longer. She would have her own way. She would be as free as any boy that came or went. It’s often before that she set her mind to the deed. She would do the deed that night.
It’s often Nora thought that it would be a fine life to be going like a flying hawk, independent of everybody. The roads of Ireland before her, and her face on them; the back of her head to home and hardship and the vexation of her people. She going from village to village, and from glen to glen. The fine, level road before her, fields on both sides of her, little, well-sheltered houses on the slopes of the hills. If she’d get tired she could stretch back by the side of a ditch, or she could go into some house and ask the good woman for a drink of milk and a seat by the fire. To make the night’s sleep in some wood under the shadow of trees, and to rise early in the morning and stretch out again under the lovely fresh air. If she wanted food (and it’s likely she would want it), she would do a day’s work here and a day’s work there, and she would be full-satisfied if she got a cup of tea and a crumb of bread in payment for it. Wouldn’t it be a fine life that, besides being a little ass of a girl at home, feeding the hens and minding the child!
It’s not as a girl she’d go, but as a boy. No one in life would know that it’s not a boy was in it. When she’d cut her hair and put on herself a suit of Cuimin’s bawneens, who would know that it’s a girl she was?
It’s often Nora took that counsel to herself, but the fear would never let her put in practice. She never had right leave for it. Her mother would always be in the house, and no sooner would she be gone than she’d feel wanted. But she had leave now. None of them would be back in the house for another hour of the clock, at the least. She’d have a power of time to change her clothes, and to go off unbeknown to the world. She would meet nobody on the road, for all the people were gathered in the schoolhouse. She would have time to go as far as Ellery to-night and to sleep in the wood. She would rise early on the morrow morning, and she would take the road before anybody would be astir.
She jumped from the stool. There were scissors in the drawer of the dresser. It wasn’t long till she had a hold of them, and snip! snap! She cut off her back hair, and the fringe that was on her brow, and each ringleted tress that was on her, in one attack. She looked at herself in the glass. Ainghean O! isn’t it bald and bare she looked. She gathered the curls of hair from the floor, and she hid them in an old box. Over with her then to the place where a clean suit of bawneens belonging to Cuimin was hanging on a nail. Down with her on her knees searching for a shirt of Cuimin’s that was in a lower drawer of the dresser. She threw the clothes on the floor beside the fire.
Here she is now taking off her own share of clothes in a hurry. She threw her dress and her little blouse and her shift into a chest that was under the table. She put Cuimin’s shirt on herself. She stuck her legs into the breeches, and she pulled them up on herself. She minded then that she had neither belt nor gallowses. She’d have to make a belt out of an old piece of cord. She put the jacket on herself. She looked in the glass, and she started. It’s how she thought Cuimin was before her! She looked over her shoulder, but she didn’t see anybody. It’s then she minded that it’s her own self was looking at her, and she laughed. But if she did itself, she was a little scared. If she’d a cap now she’d be ready for the road. Yes, she knew where there was an old cap of Cuimin’s. She got it, and put it on her head. Farewell for ever now to the old life, and a hundred welcomes to the new!
When she was at the door she turned back and she crept over to the cradle. The child was sound asleep. She bent down and she gave a kiss to the baby, a little, little, light kiss in on his forehead. She stole on the tips of her toes to the door, opened it gently, went out on the street, and shut the door quietly after her. Across the street with her, and down the bohereen. It was short till she took the road to herself. She pressed on then towards Turlagh Beg.
It was short till she saw the schoolhouse by the side of the road. There was a fine light burning through the windows. She heard a noise; as if they’d be laughing and clapping hands within. Over across the fence with her, and up the school path. She went round to the back of the house. The windows were high enough, but she raised herself up till she’d a view of what was going on inside. Father Ronan was speaking. He stopped, and O, Lord! – the people began getting up. It was plain that the fun was over, and that they were about to separate to go home. What would she do, if she’d be seen.
She threw a leap from the window. Her foot slipped from her, coming down on the ground, and she got a drop. She very nearly screamed out, but she minded herself in time. Her knee was a little hurt, she thought. The people were out on the school yard by that. She must stay in hiding till they were all gone. She moved into the wall as close as she could. She heard the people talking and laughing, and she knew that they were scattering after one another.
What was that? The voices of people coming towards her; the sound of a footstep on the path beside her! It’s then she minded that there was a short-cut across the back of the house, and that there might be some people going the short-cut. Likely, her own people would be going that way, for it was a little shorter than round by the high road. A little knot came towards her; she recognized by their voices that they were Peatin Johnny’s people. They passed. Another little knot; the Boatman’s family. They drew that close to her that Eamonn trod on her poor, bare, little foot. She almost let a cry out of her the second time, but she didn’t – she only squeezed herself tighter to the wall. Another crowd was coming: O, Great God, her own people! Cuimin was saying, ‘Wasn’t it wonderful, Marcuseen’s dancing!’ Her mother’s dress brushed Nora’s cheek going by; she didn’t draw her breath all that time. A company or two more went past. She listened for a spell. Nobody else was coming. It’s how they were all gone, said she to herself. Out with her from her hiding-place, and she tore across the path. Plimp! She ran against somebody. Two big hands were about her. She heard a man’s voice. She recognized the voice. The priest that was in it.
‘Who have I?’, says Father Ronan.
She told a lie. What else had she to say?
‘Cuimin Col Labhras, Father,’ says she.
He laid a hand on each shoulder of her, and looked down on her. She had her head bent.
‘I thought you went home with your father and mother,’ says he.
‘I did, Father, but I lost my cap and I came back looking for it.’
‘Isn’t your cap on your head?’
‘I found it on the path.’
‘Aren’t your father and mother gone the short-cut?’
‘They are, Father, but I am going the road so that I’ll be with the other boys.’
‘Off with you, then, or the ghosts’ll catch you!’ With that Father Ronan let her go from him.
‘May God give you good-night, Father,’ says she. She didn’t mind to take off her cap, but it’s how she curtseyed to the priest after the manners of girls! If the priest took notice of that much he hadn’t time to say a word, for she was gone in the turning of your hand.
Her two cheeks were red-hot with shame, and she giving face on the road. She was after telling four big lies to the priest! She was afraid that those lies were a terrible sin on her soul. She was afraid going that lonesome road in the darkness of the night, and that burthen on her heart. That night was very black. There was a little brightening on her right hand. The lake of Turlagh Beg that was in it. There rose some bird, a curlew or a snipe, from the brink of the lake, letting mournful cries out of it. Nora started when she heard the bird’s voice, that suddenly, and the drumming of its wings. She hurried on, and her heart beating against her breast. She left Turlagh Beg behind her, and faced the long, straight road that leads to the Crosses of Kilbrickan. It’s with trouble she recognized the shape of the houses on the hill when she reached the Crosses. There was a light in the house of Peadar Ó Neachtain, and she heard voices from the side of Snamh-Bo. She followed on, drawing on Turlagh. When she reached the Bog Hill the moon came out, and she saw from her the scar of the hills. There came a great cloud across the face of the moon, and it seemed to her that it’s double dark the night was then. Terror seized her, for she minded that Cnoc-a’-Leachta (the Hill of the Grave) wasn’t far off, and that the graveyard would be on her right hand then. It’s often she heard that was an evil place in the middle of the night. She sharpened her pace; she began running. She thought that she was being followed; that there was a bare-footed woman treading almost on her heels; that there was a thin, black man travelling alongside her; that there was a child, and a white shirt on him, going the road before her. She opened her mouth to let a screech out of her, but there didn’t come a sound from her. She was in a cold sweat. Her legs were bending under her. She nearly fell in a heap on the road. She was at Cnoc-a’-Leachta about that time. It seemed to her that Cill Eoin was full of ghosts. She minded the word the priest said, ‘Have a care, or the ghosts’ll catch you.’ They were on her! She heard, she thought, the ‘plub-plab’ of naked feet on the road. She turned to her left hand and she gave a leap over the ditch. She went near to being drowned in a deal-hole that was between her and the wood, unbeknown to her. She twisted her foot trying to save herself, and she felt pain. On with her, reeling. She was in the fields of Ellery then. She saw the lamp of the lake through the branches. A tree-root took a stumble out of her, and she fell. She lost her senses.
After a very long time she imagined that the place was filled with a sort of half-light, a light that was between the light of the sun and the light of the moon. She saw, very clearly, the feet of the trees, and them dark against a yellowish-green sky. She never saw a sky of that colour before, and it was beautiful to her. She heard a footstep, and she understood that there was someone coming towards her up from the lake. She knew in some manner that a prodigious miracle was about to be shown her, and that someone was to suffer there some awful passion. She hadn’t long to wait till she saw a young man struggling wearily through the tangle of the wood. He had his head bent, and the appearance of great sorrow on him. Nora recognised him. The Son of Mary that was in it, and she knew that He was journeying all alone to His death.
The Man threw himself on His knees, and He began praying. Nora didn’t hear one word from Him, but she understood in her heart what He was saying. He was asking His Eternal Father to send someone to Him who would side with Him against His enemies, and who would bear half of His burthen. Nora wished to rise and to go to Him, but she couldn’t stir out of the place she was in.
She heard a noise, and the place was filled with armed men. She saw dark, devilish faces and grey swords and edged weapons. The gentle Man was seized outrageously, and His share of clothes torn from Him, and He was scourged with scourges there till His body was in a bloody mass and in an everlasting wound from His head to the soles of His feet. A thorny crown was put then on His gentle head, and a cross was laid on His shoulders, and He went before Him, heavy-footed, pitifully, the sorrowful way of His journey to Calvary. The chain that was tying Nora’s tongue and limbs till that broke, and she cried aloud:
‘Let me go with You, Jesus, and carry Your cross for You!’
She felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked up. She saw her father’s face.
‘What’s on my little girl, or why did she go from us?’, says her father’s voice.
He lifted her in his arms and he brought her home. She lay on her bed till the end of a month after that. She was out of her mind for half of that time, and she thought at times that she was going the road, like a lone, wild-goose, and asking knowledge of the way of people; and she thought at other times that she was lying in under a tree in Ellery, and that she was watching again the passion of that gentle Man, and she trying to help Him, but without power to help him. That wandering went out of her mind at long last, and she understood she was at home again. And when she recognised her mother’s face her heart was filled with consolation, and she asked her to put the child into the bed with her, and when he was put into the bed she kissed him lovingly.
‘Oh, mameen,’ says she, ‘I thought I wouldn’t see you or my father or Cuimin or the child ever again. Were ye here all that time?’
‘We were, white lamb,’ says her mother.
‘I’ll stay in the place where ye are,’ says she. ‘Oh, mameen, heart, the roads were very dark… And I’ll never strike the child again,’—and she gave him another little kiss.
The child put his arm about her neck, and he curled himself up in the bed at his full ease.