I have not written as much here about Auntie Margaret, about my mother and father, or about my brother Willie, as I shall have to write hereafter about mere acquaintances; people whom I came across, or who came across me, fellow-travellers for some little part of a journey, but nothing to me, or less than nothing, except as portions of a story I am telling.
And the reason is the same as I have given for not writing here the secret names that Auntie Margaret and I had for each other. I have undertaken to record the things done and attempted, the dreams dreamt, during a life that has not been without exterior and interior activity; but I have entered into no bond to tell all the little things that happened between me and the few with whom I have been intimate—to confide to everyone the little and beloved memories that bind me to men and women who are dead. One must not put all one’s secrets in a book!
Of the young mother of my childhood it is sufficient to say that I remember her best by her kind true eyes, and by the softness of her cheek, and by the music of her voice. She had the beautiful voice that all her people had; the voice which in Uncle Christy had a jolly ring—which in my grandfather was mellowed, and deep and grave; which in Auntie Margaret was so low and caressing. All music was in my mother’s voice! All sweetness and strength, as of music which was in her nature! …
My father came up to our room only once or twice in the day, and at evening. He was big, with broad shoulders that were a little round. He was very silent, and spoke only once or twice during the course of a meal; breaking some reverie to say something kind to my mother or something funny to one of us. At times, indeed—but these were very, very seldom—he would, in order to please my mother, rouse himself to exercise the wonderful social gift that he had and then my mother’s face would flush with pleasure, and we would laugh in pure happiness, or join shyly in the conversation.
Occasionally at night, when he was kissing us, or when going away (he sometimes went away to look after some work he was doing) the deep reserve of his nature would break down. Then he would lift one of us, and press our face against his face, and put his arm around us, and draw us very close against his stone-dusty blouse.
Before my half-sister had gone away she had taught my sister Maggie and me our letters. We both learned quickly; so quickly that I have no recollection of any effort on my part, or of any difficulty that beset my path through the Spelling Book. Soon I knew it all; from the alphabet, in which A was the Ass, and K was the King, and Q was the Queen, and X was Xerxes, and Z was the Zebra, down to the Boy and the Wolf—a story which frightened me, and which I disliked because it was in very small print. When my half-sister sent us the great scrapbook, we were able to read the legends under all the pictures with the greatest ease, and then to learn them by name as well as by sight—Prince Greatheart and the Giant Despair, and all their heroic or gigantic kin.
When my sister was eight and I seven, we were sent to school. The school was in Wentworth Place, and its presiding dragon was a Mrs Murphy. We had been only a month or two at school when a great migration took place. We all left the house in Great Brunswick Street and went to live at Sandymount in a house near the sea. It had a large garden behind it, and a field behind the garden, and another field across the road opposite.
Scarcely had we moved into this pleasant place when I became ill with scarlatina. During the first day of my illness, before they knew what I had, Willie came to my bedside and kissed me. The next morning he, too, was ill. Auntie Margaret came out to nurse us: the other children were sent back to Brunswick Street. I was very dangerously ill, Willie less so; I tossed feverishly for several days and nights. The nights would have been dreadful (for I could not sleep) but for my dear nurse, who sat unweariedly beside me. She taught me a hymn for a child awake at night which consoled me in the long watches.
When I was a little better she sang me in her low crooning voice old ballads and snatches of songs in Irish and in English. Her songs were mostly of men dead, or in exile for love of Ireland, or of some Royal Blackbird or Green Linnet that was to come from beyond the sea. She had many songs of Napoleon; chiefly I remember the ‘Old Grey Mare,’ which I long afterwards printed with a stanza that I prefixed to it in order to complete it. I also printed another song of Auntie Margaret’s, in which were the lines:
In a very little while
They took from St Helena’s Isle
The body of Napoleon that lay mouldering in the grave.
These songs were printed in An Macaomh, May, 1913. I never heard the songs from any other, nor ever saw them in print until I printed them.
Auntie Margaret spoke of Wolfe Tone and of Robert Emmet as a woman might speak of the young men—the strong and splendid young men—she had known in her girlhood. The Young Irelanders she did not talk so much of, except Mitchel; but she had herself known the Fenians, and of them she had songs full of endearing expressions, and musical with the names of O’Donovan Rossa and the Hawk of the Hill.
She had long before taught those songs to my mother; perhaps when she was nursing her through some childish illness as she was now nursing me—and my mother had often sung them to us as lullabies. They have always seemed to me the most gallant of all songs; and the names that were in them the most gallant of all names.
That long convalescence is, in the retrospect, the happiest and, at the same time, the most important period in my life. In it, all the strengths and fealties and right desires that have worked in me, and have given to my life such utility as it can claim, have authentically their roots. They were as yet puny and faltering and inarticulate enough; such strengths and fealties and desires as a child is capable of. But they were destined, through effort and suffering, with not a few set-backs and deflections, to grow with my boyhood and youth, and to find at length, in my manhood, some sort of expression …