Legends and Stories of Ireland, by Samuel Lover, [1831, 1834], at sacred-texts.com
I was sitting alone in the desolate churchyard of--, intent upon my "silent art," lifting up my eyes from my portfolio only to direct them to the interesting ruin I was sketching, when the deathlike stillness that prevailed was broken by a faint and wild sound, unlike anything I had ever heard in my life. I confess I was startled. I paused in my occupation, and listened in breathless expectation. Again this seemingly unearthly sound vibrated through the still air of evening, more audibly than at first, and partaking of the vibratory quality of' tone I have noticed in so great a degree as to resemble the remote sound of the ringing of many glasses crowded together.
I arose and looked around. No being was near me, and again this heart-chilling sound struck upon my ear, its wild and wailing intonation reminding me of the Aeolian harp. Another burst was wafted up the bill; and then It became discernible that the sound proceeded from many voices raised in lamentation.
It waa the ulican. I had hitherto known it only by report. For the first time now, its wild and appalling cadence had ever been heard, and it will not be wondered at by those acquainted with it that I was startled on hearing it under such circumstances.
I could now perceive a crowd of peasants of both sexes winding along a hollow way that led to the churchyard where I was standing, bearing amongst them the coffin of the departed; and ever and anon a wild burst of the ulican would arise from the throng, and ring in wild and startling unison up the hill, until, by a gradual and plaintive descent through an octave, it dropped into a subdued wail; and they bore the body onward the while, not in the measured and solemn step that custom (at least our custom) deems decent, but in a rapid and irregular manner, as if the violence of their grief hurried them on and disdained all form.
The effect was certainly more impressive than that of any other funeral I bad ever witnessed, however much the "pride, pomp, and circumstance" of such arrays had been called upon to produce a studied solemnity; for no hearse with sable plumes, nor chief mourners, nor pallbearers, ever equalled in poetry or picturesque these poor people, bearing along on their shoulders in the stillness of evening the body of their departed friend to its "long home "--the women raising their arms above their heads in the untaught action of grief their dark and ample cloaks, waving wildly about, agitated by the varied motions of their wearers, and their wild cry raised in lament
"Most musical, most melancholy."
At length they reached the cemetery, and the coffin was borne into the interior of the ruin, where the women still continued to wail for the dead, while half-a-dozen athletic young men immediately proceeded to prepare a grave. And seldom have I seen finer fellows, or men more full of activity; their action, indeed, bespoke so much life and vigour as to induce an involuntary and melancholy contrast with the object on which that action was bestowed.
Scarcely had the spade upturned the green sod of the burial-ground, when the wild peal of the ulican again was heard at a distance. The young men paused in their work, and turned their heads, as did all the bystanders, towards the point-whence the sound proceeded.
We soon perceived another funeral procession wind round the foot of the hill, and immediately the grave-makers renewed their work with redoubled activity, while exclamations of anxiety on their part for the completion of their work, and of encouragement from the lookers-on, resounded on all sides; and such ejaculations as "Hurry, boys, hurry I"--" Stir yourself, Paddy!"--"That's your sort, Mike! "--"Rouse your sowl!" etc., etc., resounded on all sides. At the same time, the second funeral party that was advancing no sooner perceived the churchyard already occupied, than they directly quickened their pace, as the wail rose more loudly and wildly from the train; and a detachment bearing pick and spade forthwith sallied from the main body, and dashed with headlong speed up the hill. In the meantime, an old woman, with streaming eyes and dishevelled hair, rushed wildly from the ruin where the first party had borne their coffin, towards the young athletes I have already described as working with "might and main," and addressing them with all the passionate intensity of her country, she exclaimed: "Sure you wouldn't let them have the advantage of us, that-a-way, and lave my darlin' boy wanderhin' about, dark an' 'lone in the long nights. Work, 'boys! work! for the bare life, and the mother's blessin' be an you, and let my poor Paudeen have rest."
I thought the poor woman was crazed, as indeed her appearance and vehemence of manner, as well as the (to me) unintelligible address she had uttered, might well induce me to believe, and I questioned one of the bystanders accordingly.
"An' is it why she's goin' wild about it, you're axin'? " said the person I addressed, in evident wonder at my question. "Sure then I thought all the world knew that, let alone a gintleman like you, that ought to be knowledgable. And sure she doesn't want the poor boy to be walkin', as of coorse he must, barrin' they're smart."
"What do you mean?" said I. "I don't understand you."
"Whisht! whisht!" said he; "here they come, by the powers, and the Gallaghers at the head of them," as be looked towards the new-comers' advanced-guard, who had now gained the summit of the hill, and, leaping over the boundary-ditch of the cemetery, advanced towards the group that surrounded the grave, with rapid strides and a resolute air.
"Give over there, I bid you," said a tall and ably-built man of the party to those employed in opening the ground, who still plied their implements with energy.
"Give over, or it'll be worse for yon. Didn't you hear me, Rooney?" said he, as he laid his muscular band on the arm of one of the party he addressed, and arrested him in his occupation.
"I did hear you," said Rooney; "but I didn't heed you."
"I'd have you keep a civil tongue in your head," said the former. '
"You're mighty ready to give advice that you want yourself," rejoined the latter, as he again plunged the spade into the earth.
"Lave, off, I tell you!" said our Hercules, in a higher tone, "or, by this and that, I'll make you sorry!"
"Arrah! what brings you here at all," said another of the grave-makers, "breedin' a disturbance?"
"What brings him here but mischief?" said a grey-haired man, who undertook, with national peculiarity, to answer one interrogatory by making another. "There's always a quarrel whenever there's a Gallagher." For it was indeed one of "the Gallaghers" that the peasant I spoke to noticed as being "at the head of them," who was assuming so bold a tone.
"You may thank your grey hair, that I don't make you repent of your words," said Gallagher, and his brow darkened as he spoke.
"Time was," said the old man, "when I had something surer than grey hairs to make such as you respect me;" and he drew himself up with an air of patriarchal dignity, and displayed in his still expansive chest and commanding height the remains of a noble figure, that bore testimony to the truth of what he had just uttered. The old man's, eye kindled as he spoke--but 'twas only for a moment; and the expression of pride and defiance was succeeded by that of coldness and contempt.
"I'd have beat you blind the best day ever you seen," said Gallagher, with an impudent swagger.
"Troth you wouldn't, Gallagher!" said a contemporary of the old man; "but your consait bates the world!"
"That's thrue," said Rooney. "He's a great man intirely, in his own opinion. I'd make a power of money if I could buy Gallagher at my price and sell him at his own."
A low and jeering laugh followed this hit of my friend Rooney; and Gallagher assumed an aspect so lowering that a peasant, standing near me, turned to his companion and said significantly:
"By gor, Ned, there'll be wigs an the green afore long!"
And he was quite right.
The far-off speck on the horizon, whence the prophetic eye of a sailor can foretell the coming storm, is not more nicely discriminated by the mariner than the symptoms of an approaching fray by an Irishman; and scarcely had the foregoing words been uttered, than I saw the men tucking up their long frieze coats in a sort of jacket fashion--thus getting rid of their tails, like game-cocks before a battle. A more menacing grip was taken by the bearer of each stick (a usual appendage of Hibernians); and a general closing-in of the bystanders round the nucleus of dissatisfaction made it perfectly apparent that hostilities must soon commence.
I was not long left in suspense about such a catastrophe, for a general outbreaking soon took place, commencing in the centre with the principals already noticed, and radiating throughout the whole circle, until a general action ensued, and the belligerents were dispersed in various hostile groups over the churchyard.
I was a spectator from the topmost step of a stile leading into the burial-ground, deeming it imprudent to linger within the precincts, of the scene of action, when my attention was attracted by the appearance of a horseman, who galloped up the little stony road, and was no sooner at my side than he dismounted, exclaiming at the top of his voice: "Oh, you reprobates! lave off, I tell you, you heathens! Are you Christians at all?"
I must here pause a moment to describe the person of the horseman in question. He was a tall, thin, pale man, having a hat which, from exposure to bad weather, had its broad, slouching brim crimped into many fantastic involutions, its crown somewhat depressed in the middle, and the edges of 'the same exhibiting a napless paleness, very far removed from its original black; no shirt-collar sheltered his angular jawbone--a narrow white cravat was drawn tightly round his spare neck; a single-breasted coat of rusty black, with standing collar, was tightly buttoned nearly up to his chin, and a nether garment of the same, with large silver knee-buckles, meeting a square-cut and buckram-like pair of black leather boots, with heavy, plated spurs, that had seen the best of their days, completed the picture. His horse was a small, well-built hack, whose long, rough coat would have been white, but that soiled litter had stained it to a dirty yellow; and taking advantage of the liberty which the abandoned rein afforded, he very quietly turned him to the little fringe of grass which bordered each side of the path, to make as much profit of his time as he might, before his rider should resume his seat in the old high-pommelled saddle which be had vacated in uttering the ejaculations I have recorded.
This person, then, hastily mounting the stile on which I stood, with rustic politeness said:
"By your leave, sir," as he pushed by main haste, and jumping from the top of the wall, proceeded with long and rapid stride, towards the combatants, and brandishing a heavy thong whip which he carried, he began to lay about him with equal vigour and impartiality on each and every of the peace - breakers, both parties sharing in the castigation thus bestowed, with the most even, and, I might add, heavy-handed justice.
My surprise was great on finding that all the blows inflicted by this new belligerent, instead of being resented by the assaulted parties, seemed taken as if resistance against this potent chastiser were vain, and in a short time they all fled before him, like, so many frightened school-boys before an incensed pedagogue, and huddled themselves together in a crowd, which at once became pacified at his presence.
Seeing this result, I descended from my perch and ran, towards the scene that excited my surprise in no ordinary degree. I found this new-comer delivering to the multitude he had quelled a severe reproof of their "unchristian doings," as be termed them and it became evident that he was the pastor of the flock, and it must be acknowledged a very turbulent flock he seemed to have of it.
This admonition was soon ended. It was certainly impressive, and well calculated for the audience to whom it was delivered, as well from the simplicity of its language as the solemnity of its manner, which was much enhanced by the deep and somewhat sepulchral voice of the speaker. "And now," added the pastor, "let me ask you for what you were fighting like so many wild Indians? for surely your conduct is liker to savage creatures than men that have been bred up in the hearing of Gods word."
A pause of a few seconds followed this question; and at length someone ventured to answer from amongst the crowd that it was "in regard of the berrin."
"And is not so solemn a sight," asked the priest, "as the burial of the departed enough to keep down the evil passions of your hearts?"
"Troth then, and plaze your Riverince, it was nothin' ill nathured in life, but only a good-nathured turn we wor doin for poor Paudeen Mooney that's departed; and sure it's to your Riverince we'll be goin' immadiantly for the masses for the poor boy's sowl." Thus making interest in the offended quarter with an address for which the Irish peasant is pre-eminently distinguished.
"Tut! tut!" rapidly answered the priest, anxious, perhaps, to silence this very palpable appeal to his own interest. "Don't talk to me about doing a good-natured turn. Not," added he, in a subdued undertone, "but that prayers for the souls of the departed faithful are enjoined by the Church; but what has that to do with your scandalous and lawless doings that I witnessed this minute, and you yourself," said he, addressing the last speaker, "one of the busiest with your alpeen? I'm afraid you're rather fractious, Rooney. Take care that I don't speak to you from the altar."
"Oh, God forbid that your Riverince id have to do the like!" said the mother of the deceased, already noticed, in an imploring tone, and with the big teardrops chasing each other down her cheeks; "and sure it was only they wanted to put my poor boy in the ground first, and no wondher sure, as your Riverince knows, and not to have my poor Paudeen--"
"Tut, tut! woman!" interrupted the priest, waving his hand rather impatiently, "don't let me hear any folly."
"I ax your Riverince's pardon, and sure it's myself that id be sorry to offind my clergy--God's blessin' be an them night and day! But I was only going to put in a word for Mikee Rooney, and sure it wasn't him at all, nor wouldn't be any of us, only for Shan Gallagher, that wouldn't lave us in peace."
"Gallagher!" said the priest, in a deeply reproachful tone. "Where Is he?"
Gallagher came not forward, but the crowd drew back, and left him revealed to the priest. His aspect was that of sullen indifference, and he seemed to be the only person present totally uninfluenced by the presence of his pastor, who now advanced towards him; and extending his attenuated hand in the attitude of denunciation towards the offender, said very solemnly:
"I have already spoken to you in the house of worship, and now, once more, I warn you to beware. Riot and battle are found wherever you go, and if you do not speedily reform your course of life, I shall expel you from the pale of the Church, and pronounce sentence of excommunication upon you from the altar."
Everyone appeared awed by the solemnity and severity of this address from the onset, but when the word "excommunication" was uttered, a thrill of horror seemed to run through the assembled multitude; and Even Gallagher himself, I thought, betrayed some emotion on hearing the terrible word. Yet he evinced it but for a moment, and turning on his heel, he retired from the ground with something of the swagger with which he entered it. The crowd opened to let him pass, and opened widely, as if they sought to avoid contact with one so fearfully denounced.
"You have two coffins here," said the clergyman; "proceed, therefore, immediately to make two graves, and let the bodies be interred at the same time, and I will read the service for the dead."
No very great time was consumed in making the necessary preparation. The '"narrow beds" were made, and as their tenants were consigned to their last long sleep, the solemn voice of the' priest was raised in the "De Profundis "; and when he had concluded the short and beautiful psalm, the friends of the deceased closed the graves, and covered them neatly with fresh cut sods, which is what Paddy very metaphorically calls
"Putting the daisy quilt over him."
The clergyman retired from the churchyard, and I followed his footsteps for the purpose of introducing myself to "his reverence," and seeking from him an explanation of what was still a most unfathomable mystery to me, namely, the cause of the quarrel, which, from, certain passages in his address to the people, I saw he understood, though so slightly glanced at. Accordingly, I overtook the priest, and as the old Irish song has it,
"To him I obnoxiously made my approaches"
He received me with courtesy, which, though not savouring much of intercourse with polished circles, seemed. to spring whence all true politeness emanates--from a good heart.
I begged to assure him It was not an impertinent curiosity which made me desirous of becoming acquainted with the cause of the fray which I had, witnessed, and he had put a stop to in so summary a manner, and hoped he would not consider it an intrusion if I applied to him for that purpose.
"No intrusion in life, sir," answered the priest very frankly, and with a rich brogue, whose intonation was singularly expressive of good nature. It was the specimen of brogue I have never met but in one class, the Irish gentleman of the last century--an accent which, though it posesses all the characteristic traits of "the brogue," was at the same time divested of the slightest trace of vulgarity. This is not to be met with now, or at least very rarely. An attempt has been made by those who fancy it genteel to graft the English accent, upon, the Broguish stem--and a very bad fruit it has produced. The truth is, the accents of the two countries could never be happily blended; and far from making a pleasing amalgamation, it conveys the Idea that the speaker is endeavouring to escape from his own accent for what he considers a superior one; and it is this attempt to be fine which so particularly allies the idea of vulgarity with the tone of brogue so often heard in the present day.
Such, I have said, was not the brogue of the Rev. Phelim Roach, or Father Roach, as the peasants called him; and his voice, which I have earlier noticed as almost sepulchral, I found derived that character from the feeling of the speaker when engaged in an admonitory address; for when employed on colloquial occasions, it was no more thin what might be called a rich and deep manly voice. So much for Father Roach, who forthwith proceeded to enlighten me on the subject of the funeral, and the quarrel arising therefrom.
"The truth is, sir, these poor people are possessed of many foolish superstitions; and however we may, as men, pardon them, looking upon them as fictions originating in a warm imagination, and finding a ready admission into the minds of an unlettered and susceptible peasantry, we cannot, as pastors of the flock, admit their belief to the poor people committed to our care."
This was quite new to me--to find a clergyman of the religion I had hitherto heard of as being par excellence abounding in superstition denouncing the very article in question. But let me not interrupt Father Roach.
"The superstition I speak of," continued he, "is one of the many these warm-hearted people indulge in, and is certainly very poetical in its texture."
"But, sir," interrupted my newly-made acquaintance, pulling forth a richly chased gold watch of antique workmanship, that at once suggested, ideas of the "bon vieux temps," "I must ask your pardon--I have an engagement to keep at the little hut I call my home, which obliges me to proceed there forthwith. If you have so much time to spare as will enable you to walk with me to the end of this little road, it will suffice to make you acquainted with the nature of the superstition in question."
I gladly assented; and the priest, disturbing the nibbling occupation of his hack, threw the rein over his arm, and the docile little beast, following him on one side as quietly as I did on the other, he gave, me the following account of the cause of all the previous riot, as we wound down the little stony path that led to the main road.
"There is a belief among the peasantry in this particular district that the ghost of the last person interred in the churchyard is obliged to traverse, unceasingly, the road between this earth and purgatory, carrying water to slake the burning thirst of those confined in that 'limbo large'; and that the ghost is thus obliged to walk
'Through the dead waste and middle of the night,'
until some fresh arrival of a tenant to the 'narrow house' supplies a fresh ghost to 'relieve guard,' if I may be allowed so military an expression; and thus the supply of water to the sufferers in purgatory is kept up unceasingly."
Hence it was that the fray had arisen, and the poor mother's invocation, "that her darling boy should not be left to wander about the churchyard dark and lone in the long nights," became at once intelligible. Father Roach gave me some curious illustrations of the different ways in which this superstition influenced his "poor people," as he constantly called them. But I suppose my readers have had quite enough of the subject, and I shall therefore say no more of other "cases in point," contented with having given them one example, and recording the existence of a superstition which, however wild, undoubtedly owes its existence to an affectionate heart and a poetic imagination.