The Project Gutenberg Etext of The Aran Islands, by John M. Synge
#8 in our series by John M. Synge



Part IV

No two journeys to these islands are alike. This morning I sailed
with the steamer a little after five o'clock in a cold night air,
with the stars shining on the bay. A number of Claddagh fishermen
had been out all night fishing not far from the harbour, and without
thinking, or perhaps caring to think, of the steamer, they had put
out their nets in the channel where she was to pass. Just before we
started the mate sounded the steam whistle repeatedly to give them
warning, saying as he did so--

'If you were out now in the bay, gentlemen, you'd hear some fine
prayers being said.'

When we had gone a little way we began to see the light from the
turf fires carried by the fishermen flickering on the water, and to
hear a faint noise of angry voices. Then the outline of a large
fishing-boat came in sight through the darkness, with the forms of
three men who stood on the course. The captain feared to turn aside,
as there are sandbanks near the channel, so the engines were stopped
and we glided over the nets without doing them harm. As we passed
close to the boat the crew could be seen plainly on the deck, one of
them holding the bucket of red turf, and their abuse could be
distinctly heard. It changed continually, from profuse Gaelic
maledictions to the simpler curses they know in English. As they
spoke they could be seen writhing and twisting themselves with
passion against the light which was beginning to turn on the ripple
of the sea. Soon afterwards another set of voices began in front of
us, breaking out in strange contrast with the dwindling stars and
the silence of the dawn.

Further on we passed many boats that let us go by without a word, as
their nets were not in the channel. Then day came on rapidly with
cold showers that turned golden in the first rays from the sun,
filling the troughs of the sea with curious transparencies and

This year I have brought my fiddle with me so that I may have
something new to keep up the interest of the people. I have played
for them several tunes, but as far as I can judge they do not feel
modern music, though they listen eagerly from curiosity. Irish airs
like 'Eileen Aroon' please them better, but it is only when I play
some jig like the 'Black Rogue'--which is known on the island--that
they seem to respond to the full meaning of the notes. Last night I
played for a large crowd, which had come together for another
purpose from all parts of the island.

About six o'clock I was going into the schoolmaster's house, and I
heard a fierce wrangle going on between a man and a woman near the
cottages to the west, that lie below the road. While I was listening
to them several women came down to listen also from behind the wall,
and told me that the people who were fighting were near relations
who lived side by side and often quarrelled about trifles, though
they were as good friends as ever the next day. The voices sounded
so enraged that I thought mischief would come of it, but the women
laughed at the idea. Then a lull came, and I said that they seemed
to have finished at last.

'Finished!' said one of the women; 'sure they haven't rightly begun.
It's only playing they are yet.'

It was just after sunset and the evening was bitterly cold, so I
went into the house and left them.

An hour later the old man came down from my cottage to say that some
of the lads and the 'fear lionta' ('the man of the nets'--a young
man from Aranmor who is teaching net-mending to the boys) were up at
the house, and had sent him down to tell me they would like to
dance, if I would come up and play for them.

I went out at once, and as soon as I came into the air I heard the
dispute going on still to the west more violently than ever. The
news of it had gone about the island, and little bands of girls and
boys were running along the lanes towards the scene of the quarrel
as eagerly as if they were going to a racecourse. I stopped for a
few minutes at the door of our cottage to listen to the volume of
abuse that was rising across the stillness of the island. Then I
went into the kitchen and began tuning the fiddle, as the boys were
impatient for my music. At first I tried to play standing, but on
the upward stroke my bow came in contact with the salt-fish and
oil-skins that hung from the rafters, so I settled myself at last on
a table in the corner, where I was out of the way, and got one of
the people to hold up my music before me, as I had no stand. I
played a French melody first, to get myself used to the people and
the qualities of the room, which has little resonance between the
earth floor and the thatch overhead. Then I struck up the 'Black
Rogue,' and in a moment a tall man bounded out from his stool under
the chimney and began flying round the kitchen with peculiarly sure
and graceful bravado.

The lightness of the pampooties seems to make the dancing on this
island lighter and swifter than anything I have seen on the
mainland, and the simplicity of the men enables them to throw a
naive extravagance into their steps that is impossible in places
where the people are self-conscious.

The speed, however, was so violent that I had some difficulty in
keeping up, as my fingers were not in practice, and I could not take
off more than a small part of my attention to watch what was going
on. When I finished I heard a commotion at the door, and the whole
body of people who had gone down to watch the quarrel filed into the
kitchen and arranged themselves around the walls, the women and
girls, as is usual, forming themselves in one compact mass crouching
on their heels near the door.

I struck up another dance--'Paddy get up'--and the 'fear lionta' and
the first dancer went through it together, with additional rapidity
and grace, as they were excited by the presence of the people who
had come in. Then word went round that an old man, known as Little
Roger, was outside, and they told me he was once the best dancer on
the island.

For a long time he refused to come in, for he said he was too old to
dance, but at last he was persuaded, and the people brought him in
and gave him a stool opposite me. It was some time longer before he
would take his turn, and when he did so, though he was met with
great clapping of hands, he only danced for a few moments. He did
not know the dances in my book, he said, and did not care to dance
to music he was not familiar with. When the people pressed him again
he looked across to me.

'John,' he said, in shaking English, 'have you got "Larry Grogan,"
for it is an agreeable air?'

I had not, so some of the young men danced again to the 'Black
Rogue,' and then the party broke up. The altercation was still going
on at the cottage below us, and the people were anxious to see what
was coming of it.

About ten o'clock a young man came in and told us that the fight was

'They have been at it for four hours,' he said, 'and now they're

Indeed it is time they were, for you'd rather be listening to a man
killing a pig than to the noise they were letting out of them.'

After the dancing and excitement we were too stirred up to be
sleepy, so we sat for a long time round the embers of the turf,
talking and smoking by the light of the candle.

From ordinary music we came to talk of the music of the fairies, and
they told me this story, when I had told them some stories of my

A man who lives in the other end of the village got his gun one day
and went out to look for rabbits in a thicket near the small Dun. He
saw a rabbit sitting up under a tree, and he lifted his gun to take
aim at it, but just as he had it covered he heard a kind of music
over his head, and he looked up into the sky. When he looked back
for the rabbit, not a bit of it was to be seen.

He went on after that, and he heard the music again.

Then he looked over a wall, and he saw a rabbit sitting up by the
wall with a sort of flute in its mouth, and it playing on it with
its two fingers!

'What sort of rabbit was that?' said the old woman when they had
finished. 'How could that be a right rabbit? I remember old Pat
Dirane used to be telling us he was once out on the cliffs, and he
saw a big rabbit sitting down in a hole under a flagstone. He called
a man who was with him, and they put a hook on the end of a stick
and ran it down into the hole. Then a voice called up to them--

'"Ah, Phaddrick, don't hurt me with the hook!"

'Pat was a great rogue,' said the old man. 'Maybe you remember the
bits of horns he had like handles on the end of his sticks? Well,
one day there was a priest over and he said to Pat--"Is it the
devil's horns you have on your sticks, Pat?" "I don't rightly know"
said Pat, "but if it is, it's the devil's milk you've been drinking,
since you've been able to drink, and the devil's flesh you've been
eating and the devil's butter you've been putting on your bread, for
I've seen the like of them horns on every old cow through the

The weather has been rough, but early this afternoon the sea was
calm enough for a hooker to come in with turf from Connemara, though
while she was at the pier the roll was so great that the men had to
keep a watch on the waves and loosen the cable whenever a large one
was coming in, so that she might ease up with the water.

There were only two men on board, and when she was empty they had
some trouble in dragging in the cables, hoisting the sails, and
getting out of the harbour before they could be blown on the rocks.

A heavy shower came on soon afterwards, and I lay down under a stack
of turf with some people who were standing about, to wait for
another hooker that was coming in with horses. They began talking
and laughing about the dispute last night and the noise made at it.

'The worst fights do be made here over nothing,' said an old man
next me. 'Did Mourteen or any of them on the big island ever tell
you of the fight they had there threescore years ago when they were
killing each other with knives out on the strand?'

'They never told me,' I said.

'Well,' said he, 'they were going down to cut weed, and a man was
sharpening his knife on a stone before he went. A young boy came
into the kitchen, and he said to the man--"What are you sharpening
that knife for?"'

'"To kill your father with," said the man, and they the best of
friends all the time. The young boy went back to his house and told
his father there was a man sharpening a knife to kill him.

'"Bedad," said the father, "if he has a knife I'll have one, too."

'He sharpened his knife after that, and they went down to the
strand. Then the two men began making fun about their knives, and
from that they began raising their voices, and it wasn't long before
there were ten men fighting with their knives, and they never
stopped till there were five of them dead.

'They buried them the day after, and when they were coming home,
what did they see but the boy who began the work playing about with
the son of the other man, and their two fathers down in their

When he stopped, a gust of wind came and blew up a bundle of dry
seaweed that was near us, right over our heads.

Another old man began to talk.

'That was a great wind,' he said. 'I remember one time there was a
man in the south island who had a lot of wool up in shelter against
the corner of a wall. He was after washing it, and drying it, and
turning it, and he had it all nice and clean the way they could card
it. Then a wind came down and the wool began blowing all over the
wall. The man was throwing out his arms on it and trying to stop it,
and another man saw him.

'"The devil mend your head!" says he, "the like of that wind is too
strong for you."

'"If the devil himself is in it," said the other man, "I'll hold on
to it while I can."

'Then whether it was because of the word or not I don't know, but
the whole of the wool went up over his head and blew all over the
island, yet, when his wife came to spin afterwards she had all they
expected, as if that lot was not lost on them at all.'

'There was more than that in it,' said another man, 'for the night
before a woman had a great sight out to the west in this island, and
saw all the people that were dead a while back in this island and
the south island, and they all talking with each other. There was a
man over from the other island that night, and he heard the woman
talking of what she had seen. The next day he went back to the south
island, and I think he was alone in the curagh. As soon as he came
near the other island he saw a man fishing from the cliffs, and this
man called out to him--

'"Make haste now and go up and tell your mother to hide the
poteen"--his mother used to sell poteen--"for I'm after seeing the
biggest party of peelers and yeomanry passing by on the rocks was
ever seen on the island." It was at that time the wool was taken
with the other man above, under the hill, and no peelers in the
island at all.'

A little after that the old men went away, and I was left with some
young men between twenty and thirty, who talked to me of different
things. One of them asked me if ever I was drunk, and another told
me I would be right to marry a girl out of this island, for they
were nice women in it, fine fat girls, who would be strong, and have
plenty of children, and not be wasting my money on me.

When the horses were coming ashore a curagh that was far out after
lobster-pots came hurrying in, and a man out of her ran up the
sandhills to meet a little girl who was coming down with a bundle of
Sunday clothes. He changed them on the sand and then went out to the
hooker, and went off to Connemara to bring back his horses.

A young married woman I used often to talk with is dying of a
fever--typhus I am told--and her husband and brothers have gone off
in a curagh to get the doctor and the priest from the north island,
though the sea is rough.

I watched them from the Dun for a long time after they had started.
Wind and rain were driving through the sound, and I could see no
boats or people anywhere except this one black curagh splashing and
struggling through the waves. When the wind fell a little I could
hear people hammering below me to the east. The body of a young man
who was drowned a few weeks ago came ashore this morning, and his
friends have been busy all day making a coffin in the yard of the
house where he lived.

After a while the curagh went out of sight into the mist, and I came
down to the cottage shuddering with cold and misery.

The old woman was keening by the fire.

'I have been to the house where the young man is,' she said, 'but I
couldn't go to the door with the air was coming out of it. They say
his head isn't on him at all, and indeed it isn't any wonder and he
three weeks in the sea. Isn't it great danger and sorrow is over
every one on this island?'

I asked her if the curagh would soon be coming back with the priest.
'It will not be coming soon or at all to-night,' she said. 'The wind
has gone up now, and there will come no curagh to this island for
maybe two days or three. And wasn't it a cruel thing to see the
haste was on them, and they in danger all the time to be drowned

Then I asked her how the woman was doing.

'She's nearly lost,' said the old woman; 'she won't be alive at all
tomorrow morning. They have no boards to make her a coffin, and
they'll want to borrow the boards that a man below has had this two
years to bury his mother, and she alive still. I heard them saying
there are two more women with the fever, and a child that's not
three. The Lord have mercy on us all!'

I went out again to look over the sea, but night had fallen and the
hurricane was howling over the Dun. I walked down the lane and heard
the keening in the house where the young man was. Further on I could
see a stir about the door of the cottage that had been last struck
by typhus. Then I turned back again in the teeth of the rain, and
sat over the fire with the old man and woman talking of the sorrows
of the people till it was late in the night.

This evening the old man told me a story he had heard long ago on
the mainland:--

There was a young woman, he said, and she had a child. In a little
time the woman died and they buried her the day after. That night
another woman--a woman of the family--was sitting by the fire with
the child on her lap, giving milk to it out of a cup. Then the woman
they were after burying opened the door, and came into the house.
She went over to the fire, and she took a stool and sat down before
the other woman. Then she put out her hand and took the child on her
lap, and gave it her breast. After that she put the child in the
cradle and went over to the dresser and took milk and potatoes off
it, and ate them. Then she went out. The other woman was frightened,
and she told the man of the house when he came back, and two young
men. They said they would be there the next night, and if she came
back they would catch hold of her. She came the next night and gave
the child her breast, and when she got up to go to the dresser, the
man of the house caught hold of her, but he fell down on the floor.
Then the two young men caught hold of her and they held her. She
told them she was away with the fairies, and they could not keep her
that night, though she was eating no food with the fairies, the way
she might be able to come back to her child. Then she told them they
would all be leaving that part of the country on the Oidhche
Shamhna, and that there would be four or five hundred of them riding
on horses, and herself would be on a grey horse, riding behind a
young man. And she told them to go down to a bridge they would be
crossing that night, and to wait at the head of it, and when she
would be coming up she would slow the horse and they would be able
to throw something on her and on the young man, and they would fall
over on the ground and be saved.

She went away then, and on the Oidhche Shamhna the men went down and
got her back. She had four children after that, and in the end she

It was not herself they buried at all the first time, but some old
thing the fairies put in her place.

'There are people who say they don't believe in these things,' said
the old woman, 'but there are strange things, let them say what they
will. There was a woman went to bed at the lower village a while
ago, and her child along with her. For a time they did not sleep,
and then something came to the window, and they heard a voice and
this is what it said--

'"It is time to sleep from this out."

'In the morning the child was dead, and indeed it is many get their
death that way on the island.'

The young man has been buried, and his funeral was one of the
strangest scenes I have met with. People could be seen going down to
his house from early in the day, yet when I went there with the old
man about the middle of the afternoon, the coffin was still lying in
front of the door, with the men and women of the family standing
round beating it, and keening over it, in a great crowd of people. A
little later every one knelt down and a last prayer was said. Then
the cousins of the dead man got ready two oars and some pieces of
rope--the men of his own family seemed too broken with grief to know
what they were doing--the coffin was tied up, and the procession
began. The old woman walked close behind the coffin, and I happened
to take a place just after them, among the first of the men. The
rough lane to the graveyard slopes away towards the east, and the
crowd of women going down before me in their red dresses, cloaked
with red pethcoats, with the waistband that is held round the head
just seen from behind, had a strange effect, to which the white
coffin and the unity of colour gave a nearly cloistral quietness.

This time the graveyard was filled with withered grass and bracken
instead of the early ferns that were to be seen everywhere at the
other funeral I have spoken of, and the grief of the people was of a
different kind, as they had come to bury a young man who had died in
his first manhood, instead of an old woman of eighty. For this
reason the keen lost a part of its formal nature, and was recited as
the expression of intense personal grief by the young men and women
of the man's own family.

When the coffin had been laid down, near the grave that was to be
opened, two long switches were cut out from the brambles among the
rocks, and the length and breadth of the coffin were marked on them.
Then the men began their work, clearing off stones and thin layers
of earth, and breaking up an old coffin that was in the place into
which the new one had to be lowered. When a number of blackened
boards and pieces of bone had been thrown up with the clay, a skull
was lifted out, and placed upon a gravestone. Immediately the old
woman, the mother of the dead man, took it up in her hands, and
carried it away by herself. Then she sat down and put it in her
lap--it was the skull of her own mother--and began keening and
shrieking over it with the wildest lamentation.

As the pile of mouldering clay got higher beside the grave a heavy
smell began to rise from it, and the men hurried with their work,
measuring the hole repeatedly with the two rods of bramble. When it
was nearly deep enough the old woman got up and came back to the
coffin, and began to beat on it, holding the skull in her left hand.
This last moment of grief was the most terrible of all. The young
women were nearly lying among the stones, worn out with their
passion of grief, yet raising themselves every few moments to beat
with magnificent gestures on the boards of the coffin. The young men
were worn out also, and their voices cracked continually in the wail
of the keen.

When everything was ready the sheet was unpinned from the coffin,
and it was lowered into its place. Then an old man took a wooden
vessel with holy water in it, and a wisp of bracken, and the people
crowded round him while he splashed the water over them. They seemed
eager to get as much of it as possible, more than one old woman
crying out with a humorous voice--

'Tabhair dham braon eile, a Mhourteen.' ('Give me another drop,

When the grave was half filled in, I wandered round towards the
north watching two seals that were chasing each other near the surf.
I reached the Sandy Head as the light began to fail, and found some
of the men I knew best fishing there with a sort of dragnet. It is a
tedious process, and I sat for a long time on the sand watching the
net being put out, and then drawn in again by eight men working
together with a slow rhythmical movement.

As they talked to me and gave me a little poteen and a little bread
when they thought I was hungry, I could not help feeling that I was
talking with men who were under a judgment of death. I knew that
every one of them would be drowned in the sea in a few years and
battered naked on the rocks, or would die in his own cottage and be
buried with another fearful scene in the graveyard I had come from.

When I got up this morning I found that the people had gone to Mass
and latched the kitchen door from the outside, so that I could not
open it to give myself light.

I sat for nearly an hour beside the fire with a curious feeling that
I should be quite alone in this little cottage. I am so used to
sitting here with the people that I have never felt the room before
as a place where any man might live and work by himself. After a
while as I waited, with just light enough from the chimney to let me
see the rafters and the greyness of the walls, I became
indescribably mournful, for I felt that this little corner on the
face of the world, and the people who live in it, have a peace and
dignity from which we are shut for ever.

While I was dreaming, the old woman came in in a great hurry and
made tea for me and the young priest, who followed her a little
later drenched with rain and spray.

The curate who has charge of the middle and south islands has a
wearisome and dangerous task. He comes to this island or Inishere on
Saturday night--whenever the sea is calm enough--and has Mass the
first thing on Sunday morning. Then he goes down fasting and is
rowed across to the other island and has Mass again, so that it is
about midday when he gets a hurried breakfast before he sets off
again for Aranmore, meeting often on both passages a rough and
perilous sea.

A couple of Sundays ago I was lying outside the cottage in the
sunshine smoking my pipe, when the curate, a man of the greatest
kindliness and humour, came up, wet and worn out, to have his first
meal. He looked at me for a moment and then shook his head.

'Tell me,' he said, 'did you read your Bible this morning?'

I answered that I had not done so.

'Well, begod, Mr. Synge,' he went on, 'if you ever go to Heaven,
you'll have a great laugh at us.'

Although these people are kindly towards each other and to their
children, they have no feeling for the sufferings of animals, and
little sympathy for pain when the person who feels it is not in
danger. I have sometimes seen a girl writhing and howling with
toothache while her mother sat at the other side of the fireplace
pointing at her and laughing at her as if amused by the sight.

A few days ago, when we had been talking of the death of President
McKinley, I explained the American way of killing murderers, and a
man asked me how long the man who killed the President would be

'While you'd be snapping your fingers,' I said.

'Well,' said the man, 'they might as well hang him so, and not be
bothering themselves with all them wires. A man who would kill a
King or a President knows he has to die for it, and it's only giving
him the thing he bargained for if he dies easy. It would be right he
should be three weeks dying, and there'd be fewer of those things
done in the world.'

If two dogs fight at the slip when we are waiting for the steamer,
the men are delighted and do all they can to keep up the fury of the

They tie down donkeys' heads to their hoofs to keep them from
straying, in a way that must cause horrible pain, and sometimes when
I go into a cottage I find all the women of the place down on their
knees plucking the feathers from live ducks and geese.

When the people are in pain themselves they make no attempt to hide
or control their feelings. An old man who was ill in the winter took
me out the other day to show me how far down the road they could
hear him yelling 'the time he had a pain in his head.'

There was a great storm this morning, and I went up on the cliff to
sit in the shanty they have made there for the men who watch for
wrack. Soon afterwards a boy, who was out minding sheep, came up
from the west, and we had a long talk.

He began by giving me the first connected account I have had of the
accident that happened some time ago, when the young man was drowned
on his way to the south island.

'Some men from the south island,' he said, 'came over and bought
some horses on this island, and they put them in a hooker to take
across. They wanted a curagh to go with them to tow the horses on to
the strand, and a young man said he would go, and they could give
him a rope and tow him behind the hooker. When they were out in the
sound a wind came down on them, and the man in the curagh couldn't
turn her to meet the waves, because the hooker was pulling her and
she began filling up with water.

'When the men in the hooker saw it they began crying out one thing
and another thing without knowing what to do. One man called out to
the man who was holding the rope: "Let go the rope now, or you'll
swamp her."

'And the man with the rope threw it out on the water, and the curagh
half-filled already, and I think only one oar in her. A wave came
into her then, and she went down before them, and the young man
began swimming about; then they let fall the sails in the hooker the
way they could pick him up. And when they had them down they were
too far off, and they pulled the sails up again the way they could
tack back to him. He was there in the water swimming round, and
swimming round, and before they got up with him again he sank the
third time, and they didn't see any more of him.'

I asked if anyone had seen him on the island since he was dead.

'They have not,' he said, 'but there were queer things in it. Before
he went out on the sea that day his dog came up and sat beside him
on the rocks, and began crying. When the horses were coming down to
the slip an old woman saw her son, that was drowned a while ago,
riding on one of them, She didn't say what she was after seeing, and
this man caught the horse, he caught his own horse first, and then
he caught this one, and after that he went out and was drowned. Two
days after I dreamed they found him on the Ceann gaine (the Sandy
Head) and carried him up to the house on the plain, and took his
pampooties off him and hung them up on a nail to dry. It was there
they found him afterwards as you'll have heard them say.'

'Are you always afraid when you hear a dog crying?' I said.

'We don't like it,' he answered; 'you will often see them on the top
of the rocks looking up into the heavens, and they crying. We don't
like it at all, and we don't like a cock or hen to break anything in
the house, for we know then some one will be going away. A while
before the man who used to live in that cottage below died in the
winter, the cock belonging to his wife began to fight with another
cock. The two of them flew up on the dresser and knocked the glass
of the lamp off it, and it fell on the floor and was broken. The
woman caught her cock after that and killed it, but she could not
kill the other cock, for it was belonging to the man who lived in
the next house. Then himself got a sickness and died after that.'

I asked him if he ever heard the fairy music on the island.

'I heard some of the boys talking in the school a while ago,' he
said, 'and they were saying that their brothers and another man went
out fishing a morning, two weeks ago, before the cock crew. When
they were down near the Sandy Head they heard music near them, and
it was the fairies were in it. I've heard of other things too. One
time three men were out at night in a curagh, and they saw a big
ship coming down on them. They were frightened at it, and they tried
to get away, but it came on nearer them, till one of the men turned
round and made the sign of the cross, and then they didn't see it
any more.'

Then he went on in answer to another question:

'We do often see the people who do be away with them. There was a
young man died a year ago, and he used to come to the window of the
house where his brothers slept, and be talking to them in the night.
He was married a while before that, and he used to be saying in the
night he was sorry he had not promised the land to his son, and that
it was to him it should go. Another time he was saying something
about a mare, about her hoofs, or the shoes they should put on her.
A little while ago Patch Ruadh saw him going down the road with
brogaarda (leather boots) on him and a new suit. Then two men saw
him in another place.

'Do you see that straight wall of cliff?' he went on a few minutes
later, pointing to a place below us. 'It is there the fairies do be
playing ball in the night, and you can see the marks of their heels
when you come in the morning, and three stones they have to mark the
line, and another big stone they hop the ball on. It's often the
boys have put away the three stones, and they will always be back
again in the morning, and a while since the man who owns the land
took the big stone itself and rolled it down and threw it over the
cliff, yet in the morning it was back in its place before him.'

I am in the south island again, and I have come upon some old men
with a wonderful variety of stories and songs, the last, fairly
often, both in English and Irish, I went round to the house of one
of them to-day, with a native scholar who can write Irish, and we
took down a certain number, and heard others. Here is one of the
tales the old man told us at first before he had warmed to his
subject. I did not take it down, but it ran in this way:--

There was a man of the name of Charley Lambert, and every horse he
would ride in a race he would come in the first.

The people in the country were angry with him at last, and this law
was made, that he should ride no more at races, and if he rode, any
one who saw him would have the right to shoot him. After that there
was a gentleman from that part of the country over in England, and
he was talking one day with the people there, and he said that the
horses of Ireland were the best horses. The English said it was the
English horses were the best, and at last they said there should be
a race, and the English horses would come over and race against the
horses of Ireland, and the gentleman put all his money on that race.

Well, when he came back to Ireland he went to Charley Lambert, and
asked him to ride on his horse. Charley said he would not ride, and
told the gentleman the danger he'd be in. Then the gentleman told
him the way he had put all his property on the horse, and at last
Charley asked where the races were to be, and the hour and the day.
The gentleman told him.

'Let you put a horse with a bridle and saddle on it every seven
miles along the road from here to the racecourse on that day,' said
Lambert, 'and I'll be in it.'

When the gentleman was gone, Charley stripped off his clothes and
got into his bed. Then he sent for the doctor, and when he heard him
coming he began throwing about his arms the way the doctor would
think his pulse was up with the fever.

The doctor felt his pulse and told him to stay quiet till the next
day, when he would see him again.

The next day it was the same thing, and so on till the day of the
races. That morning Charley had his pulse beating so hard the doctor
thought bad of him.

'I'm going to the races now, Charley,' said he, 'but I'll come in
and see you again when I'll be coming back in the evening, and let
you be very careful and quiet till you see me.'

As soon as he had gone Charley leapt up out of bed and got on his
horse, and rode seven miles to where the first horse was waiting for
him. Then he rode that horse seven miles, and another horse seven
miles more, till he came to the racecourse.

He rode on the gentleman's horse and he won the race.

There were great crowds looking on, and when they saw him coming in
they said it was Charley Lambert, or the devil was in it, for there
was no one else could bring in a horse the way he did, for the leg
was after being knocked off of the horse and he came in all the

When the race was over, he got up on the horse was waiting for him,
and away with him for seven miles. Then he rode the other horse
seven miles, and his own horse seven miles, and when he got home he
threw off his clothes and lay down on his bed.

After a while the doctor came back and said it was a great race they
were after having.

The next day the people were saying it was Charley Lambert was the
man who rode the horse. An inquiry was held, and the doctor swore
that Charley was ill in his bed, and he had seen him before the race
and after it, so the gentleman saved his fortune.

After that he told me another story of the same sort about a fairy
rider, who met a gentleman that was after losing all his fortune but
a shilling, and begged the shilling of him. The gentleman gave him
the shilling, and the fairy rider--a little red man--rode a horse
for him in a race, waving a red handkerchief to him as a signal when
he was to double the stakes, and made him a rich man.

Then he gave us an extraordinary English doggerel rhyme which I took
down, though it seems singularly incoherent when written out at
length. These rhymes are repeated by the old men as a sort of chant,
and when a line comes that is more than usually irregular they seem
to take a real delight in forcing it into the mould of the
recitative. All the time he was chanting the old man kept up a kind
of snakelike movement in his body, which seemed to fit the chant and
make it part of him.


  My horse he is white,
  Though at first he was bay,
  And he took great delight
  In travelling by night
    And by day.

  His travels were great
  If I could but half of them tell,
  He was rode in the garden by Adam,
  The day that he fell.

  On Babylon plains
  He ran with speed for the plate,
  He was hunted next day
  By Hannibal the great.

  After that he was hunted
  In the chase of a fox,
  When Nebuchadnezzar ate grass,
  In the shape of an ox.

  We are told in the next verses of his going into the ark with Noah,
  of Moses riding him through the Red Sea; then

  He was with king Pharaoh in Egypt
  When fortune did smile,
  And he rode him stately along
  The gay banks of the Nile.

  He was with king Saul and all
  His troubles went through,
  He was with king David the day
  That Goliath he slew.

  For a few verses he is with Juda and Maccabeus the great, with
  Cyrus, and back again to Babylon. Next we find him as the horse that
  came into Troy.

  When ( ) came to Troy with joy,
  My horse he was found,
  He crossed over the walls and entered
  The city I'm told.

  I come on him again, in Spain,
  And he in full bloom,
  By Hannibal the great he was rode,
  And he crossing the Alps into Rome.

  The horse being tall
  And the Alps very high,
  His rider did fall
  And Hannibal the great lost an eye.

  Afterwards he carries young Sipho (Scipio), and then he is ridden by
  Brian when driving the Danes from Ireland, and by St. Ruth when he
  fell at the battle of Aughrim, and by Sarsfield at the siege of

  He was with king James who sailed
  To the Irish shore,
  But at last he got lame,
  When the Boyne's bloody battle was o'er.

  He was rode by the greatest of men
  At famed Waterloo,
  Brave Daniel O'Connell he sat
  On his back it is true.

  * * * * * * *

  Brave Dan's on his back,
  He's ready once more for the field.
  He never will stop till the Tories,
  He'll make them to yield.

Grotesque as this long rhyme appears, it has, as I said, a sort of
existence when it is crooned by the old man at his fireside, and it
has great fame in the island. The old man himself is hoping that I
will print it, for it would not be fair, he says, that it should die
out of the world, and he is the only man here who knows it, and none
of them have ever heard it on the mainland. He has a couple more
examples of the same kind of doggerel, but I have not taken them

Both in English and in Irish the songs are full of words the people
do not understand themselves, and when they come to say the words
slowly their memory is usually uncertain.

All the morning I have been digging maidenhair ferns with a boy I
met on the rocks, who was in great sorrow because his father died
suddenly a week ago of a pain in his heart.

'We wouldn't have chosen to lose our father for all the gold there
is in the world,' he said, 'and it's great loneliness and sorrow
there is in the house now.'

Then he told me that a brother of his who is a stoker in the Navy
had come home a little while before his father died, and that he had
spent all his money in having a fine funeral, with plenty of drink
at it, and tobacco.

'My brother has been a long way in the world,' he said, 'and seen
great wonders. He does be telling us of the people that do come out
to them from Italy, and Spain, and Portugal, and that it is a sort
of Irish they do be talking--not English at all--though it is only a
word here and there you'd understand.'

When we had dug out enough of roots from the deep crannies in the
rocks where they are only to be found, I gave my companion a few
pence, and sent him back to his cottage.

The old man who tells me the Irish poems is curiously pleased with
the translations I have made from some of them.

He would never be tired, he says, listening while I would be reading
them, and they are much finer things than his old bits of rhyme.

Here is one of them, as near the Irish as I am able to make it:--


  I put the sorrow of destruction on the bad luck,
  For it would be a pity ever to deny it,
  It is to me it is stuck,
  By loneliness my pain, my complaining.

  It is the fairy-host
  Put me a-wandering
  And took from me my goods of the world.

  At Mannistir na Ruaidthe
  It is on me the shameless deed was done:
  Finn Bheara and his fairy-host
  Took my little horse on me from under the bag.

  If they left me the skin
  It would bring me tobacco for three months,
  But they did not leave anything with me
  But the old minister in its place.

  Am not I to be pitied?
  My bond and my note are on her,
  And the price of her not yet paid,
  My loneliness, my pain, my complaining.

  The devil a hill or a glen, or highest fort
  Ever was built in Ireland,
  Is not searched on me for my mare;
  And I am still at my complaining.

  I got up in the morning,
  I put a red spark in my pipe.
  I went to the Cnoc-Maithe
  To get satisfaction from them.

  I spoke to them,
  If it was in them to do a right thing,
  To get me my little mare,
  Or I would be changing my wits.

  'Do you hear, Rucard Mor?
  It is not here is your mare,
  She is in Cnoc Bally Brishlawn
  With the fairy-men these three months.'

  I ran on in my walking,
  I followed the road straightly,
  I was in Glenasmoil
  Before the moon was ended.

  I spoke to the fairy-man,
  If it was in him to do a right thing,
  To get me my little mare,
  Or I would be changing my wits.

  'Do you hear Rucard Mor?
  It is not here is your mare,
  She is in Cnoc Bally Brishlawn
  With the horseman of the music these three months.'

  I ran off on my walking,
  I followed the road straightly,
  I was in Cnoc Bally Brishlawn
  With the black fall of the night.

  That is a place was a crowd
  As it was seen by me,
  All the weavers of the globe,
  It is there you would have news of them.

  I spoke to the horseman,
  If it was in him to do the right thing,
  To get me my little mare,
  Or I would be changing my wits.

  'Do you hear, Rucard Mor?
  It is not here is your mare,
  She is in Cnoc Cruachan,
  In the back end of the palace.'

  I ran off on my walking,
  I followed the road straightly,
  I made no rest or stop
  Till I was in face of the palace.

  That is the place was a crowd
  As it appeared to me,
  The men and women of the country,
  And they all making merry.

  Arthur Scoil (?) stood up
  And began himself giving the lead,
  It is joyful, light and active,
  I would have danced the course with them.

  They drew up on their feet
  And they began to laugh,--
  'Look at Rucard Mor,
  And he looking for his little mare.'

  I spoke to the man,
  And he ugly and humpy,
  Unless he would get me my mare
  I would break a third of his bones.

  'Do you hear, Rucard Mor?
  It is not here is your mare,
  She is in Alvin of Leinster,
  On a halter with my mother.'

  I ran off on my walking,
  And I came to Alvin of Leinster.
  I met the old woman--
  On my word she was not pleasing.

  I spoke to the old woman,
  And she broke out in English:
  'Get agone, you rascal,
  I don't like your notions.'

  'Do you hear, you old woman?
  Keep away from me with your English,
  But speak to me with the tongue
  I hear from every person.'

  'It is from me you will get word of her,
  Only you come too late--
  I made a hunting cap
  For Conal Cath of her yesterday.'

  I ran off on my walking,
  Through roads that were cold and dirty.
  I fell in with the fairy-man,
  And he lying down in the Ruadthe.

  'I pity a man without a cow,
  I pity a man without a sheep,
  But in the case of a man without a horse
  It is hard for him to be long in the world.'

This morning, when I had been lying for a long time on a rock near
the sea watching some hooded crows that were dropping shellfish on
the rocks to break them, I saw one bird that had a large white
object which it was dropping continually without any result. I got
some stones and tried to drive it off when the thing had fallen, but
several times the bird was too quick for me and made off with it
before I could get down to him. At last, however, I dropped a stone
almost on top of him and he flew away. I clambered down hastily, and
found to my amazement a worn golf-ball! No doubt it had been brought
out in some way or other from the links in County Glare, which are
not far off, and the bird had been trying half the morning to break

Further on I had a long talk with a young man who is inquisitive
about modern life, and I explained to him an elaborate trick or
corner on the Stock Exchange that I heard of lately. When I got him
to understand it fully, he shouted with delight and amusement.

'Well,' he said when he was quiet again, 'isn't it a great wonder to
think that those rich men are as big rogues as ourselves.'

The old story-teller has given me a long rhyme about a man who
fought with an eagle. It is rather irregular and has some obscure
passages, but I have translated it with the scholar.


  On my getting up in the morning
  And I bothered, on a Sunday,
  I put my brogues on me,
  And I going to Tierny
  In the Glen of the Dead People.
  It is there the big eagle fell in with me,
  He like a black stack of turf sitting up stately.

  I called him a lout and a fool,
  The son of a female and a fool,
  Of the race of the Clan Cleopas, the biggest rogues in the land.
  That and my seven curses
  And never a good day to be on you,
  Who stole my little cock from me that could crow the sweetest.

  'Keep your wits right in you
  And don't curse me too greatly,
  By my strength and my oath
  I never took rent of you,
  I didn't grudge what you would have to spare
  In the house of the burnt pigeons,
  It is always useful you were to men of business.

  'But get off home
  And ask Nora
  What name was on the young woman that scalded his head.
  The feathers there were on his ribs
  Are burnt on the hearth,
  And they eat him and they taking and it wasn't much were thankful.'

  'You are a liar, you stealer,
  They did not eat him, and they're taking
  Nor a taste of the sort without being thankful,
  You took him yesterday
  As Nora told me,
  And the harvest quarter will not be spent till I take a tax of you.'

  'Before I lost the Fianna
  It was a fine boy I was,
  It was not about thieving was my knowledge,
  But always putting spells,
  Playing games and matches with the strength of Gol MacMorna,
  And you are making me a rogue
  At the end of my life.'

  'There is a part of my father's books with me,
  Keeping in the bottom of a box,
  And when I read them the tears fall down from me.
  But I found out in history
  That you are a son of the Dearg Mor,
  If it is fighting you want and you won't be thankful.'

  The Eagle dressed his bravery
  With his share of arms and his clothes,
  He had the sword that was the sharpest
  Could be got anywhere.
  I and my scythe with me,
  And nothing on but my shirt,
  We went at each other early in the day.

  We were as two giants
  Ploughing in a valley in a glen of the mountains.
  We did not know for the while which was the better man.
  You could hear the shakes that were on our arms under each other,
  From that till the sunset,
  Till it was forced on him to give up.

  I wrote a 'challenge boxail' to him
  On the morning of the next day,
  To come till we would fight without doubt at the dawn of the day.
  The second fist I drew on him I struck him on the hone of his jaw,
  He fell, and it is no lie there was a cloud in his head.

  The Eagle stood up,
  He took the end of my hand:--
  'You are the finest man I ever saw in my life,
  Go off home, my blessing will be on you for ever,
  You have saved the fame of Eire for yourself till the Day of the Judgment.'

  Ah! neighbors, did you hear
  The goodness and power of Felim?
  The biggest wild beast you could get,
  The second fist he drew on it
  He struck it on the jaw,
  It fell, and it did not rise
  Till the end of two days.

Well as I seem to know these people of the islands, there is hardly
a day that I do not come upon some new primitive feature of their

Yesterday I went into a cottage where the woman was at work and very
carelessly dressed. She waited for a while till I got into
conversation with her husband, and then she slipped into the corner
and put on a clean petticoat and a bright shawl round her neck. Then
she came back and took her place at the fire.

This evening I was in another cottage till very late talking to the
people. When the little boy--the only child of the house--got
sleepy, the old grandmother took him on her lap and began singing to
him. As soon as he was drowsy she worked his clothes off him by
degrees, scratching him softly with her nails as she did so all over
his body. Then she washed his feet with a little water out of a pot
and put him into his bed.

When I was going home the wind was driving the sand into my face so
that I could hardly find my way. I had to hold my hat over my mouth
and nose, and my hand over my eyes while I groped along, with my
feet feeling for rocks and holes in the sand.

I have been sitting all the morning with an old man who was making
sugawn ropes for his house, and telling me stories while he worked.
He was a pilot when he was young, and we had great talk at first
about Germans, and Italians, and Russians, and the ways of seaport
towns. Then he came round to talk of the middle island, and he told
me this story which shows the curious jealousy that is between the

Long ago we used all to be pagans, and the saints used to be coming
to teach us about God and the creation of the world. The people on
the middle island were the last to keep a hold on the
fire-worshipping, or whatever it was they had in those days, but in
the long run a saint got in among them and they began listening to
him, though they would often say in the evening they believed, and
then say the morning after that they did not believe. In the end the
saint gained them over and they began building a church, and the
saint had tools that were in use with them for working with the
stones. When the church was halfway up the people held a kind of
meeting one night among themselves, when the saint was asleep in his
bed, to see if they did really believe and no mistake in it.

The leading man got up, and this is what he said: that they should
go down and throw their tools over the cliff, for if there was such
a man as God, and if the saint was as well known to Him as he said,
then he would be as well able to bring up the tools out of the sea
as they were to throw them in.

They went then and threw their tools over the cliff.

When the saint came down to the church in the morning the workmen
were all sitting on the stones and no work doing.

'For what cause are you idle?' asked the saint.

'We have no tools,' said the men, and then they told him the story
of what they had done.

He kneeled down and prayed God that the tools might come up out of
the sea, and after that he prayed that no other people might ever be
as great fools as the people on the middle island, and that God
might preserve theft dark minds of folly to them fill the end of the
world. And that is why no man out of that island can tell you a
whole story without stammering, or bring any work to end without a
fault in it.

I asked him if he had known old Pat Dirane on the middle island, and
heard the fine stories he used to tell.

'No one knew him better than I did,' he said; 'for I do often be in
that island making curaghs for the people. One day old Pat came down
to me when I was after tarring a new curagh, and he asked me to put
a little tar on the knees of his breeches the way the rain wouldn't
come through on him.

'I took the brush in my hand, and I had him tarred down to his feet
before he knew what I was at. "Turn round the other side now," I
said, "and you'll be able to sit where you like." Then he felt the
tar coming in hot against his skin and he began cursing my soul, and
I was sorry for the trick I'd played on him.'

This old man was the same type as the genial, whimsical old men one
meets all through Ireland, and had none of the local characteristics
that are so marked on lnishmaan.

When we were tired talking I showed some of my tricks and a little
crowd collected. When they were gone another old man who had come up
began telling us about the fairies. One night when he was coming
home from the lighthouse he heard a man riding on the road behind
him, and he stopped to wait for him, but nothing came. Then he heard
as if there was a man trying to catch a horse on the rocks, and in a
little time he went on. The noise behind him got bigger as he went
along as if twenty horses, and then as if a hundred or a thousand,
were galloping after him. When he came to the stile where he had to
leave the road and got out over it, something hit against him and
threw him down on the rock, and a gun he had in his hand fell into
the field beyond him.

'I asked the priest we had at that time what was in it,' he said,
'and the priest told me it was the fallen angels; and I don't know
but it was.'

'Another time,' he went on, 'I was coming down where there is a bit
of a cliff and a little hole under it, and I heard a flute playing
in the hole or beside it, and that was before the dawn began.
Whatever anyone says there are strange things. There was one night
thirty years ago a man came down to get my wife to go up to his
wife, for she was in childbed.

'He was something to do with the lighthouse or the coastguard, one
of them Protestants who don't believe in any of these things and do
be making fun of us. Well, he asked me to go down and get a quart of
spirits while my wife would be getting herself ready, and he said he
would go down along with me if I was afraid.

'I said I was not afraid, and I went by myself.

'When I was coming back there was something on the path, and wasn't
I a foolish fellow, I might have gone to one side or the other over
the sand, but I went on straight till I was near it--till I was too
near it--then I remembered that I had heard them saying none of
those creatures can stand before you and you saying the De
Profundis, so I began saying it, and the thing ran off over the sand
and I got home.

'Some of the people used to say it was only an old jackass that was
on the path before me, but I never heard tell of an old jackass
would run away from a man and he saying the De Profundis.'

I told him the story of the fairy ship which had disappeared when
the man made the sign of the cross, as I had heard it on the middle

'There do be strange things on the sea,' he said. 'One night I was
down there where you can see that green point, and I saw a ship
coming in and I wondered what it would be doing coming so close to
the rocks. It came straight on towards the place I was in, and then
I got frightened and I ran up to the houses, and when the captain
saw me running he changed his course and went away.

'Sometimes I used to go out as a pilot at that time--I went a few
times only. Well, one Sunday a man came down and said there was a
big ship coming into the sound. I ran down with two men and we went
out in a curagh; we went round the point where they said the ship
was, and there was no ship in it. As it was a Sunday we had nothing
to do, and it was a fine, calm day, so we rowed out a long way
looking for the ship, till I was further than I ever was before or
after. When I wanted to turn back we saw a great flock of birds on
the water and they all black, without a white bird through them.
They had no fear of us at all, and the men with me wanted to go up
to them, so we went further. When we were quite close they got up,
so many that they blackened the sky, and they lit down again a
hundred or maybe a hundred and twenty yards off. We went after them
again, and one of the men wanted to kill one with a thole-pin, and
the other man wanted to kill one with his rowing stick. I was afraid
they would upset the curagh, but they would go after the birds.

'When we were quite close one man threw the pin and the other man
hit at them with his rowing stick, and the two of them fell over in
the curagh, and she turned on her side and only it was quite calm
the lot of us were drowned.

'I think those black gulls and the ship were the same sort, and
after that I never went out again as a pilot. It is often curaghs go
out to ships and find there is no ship.

'A while ago a curagh went out to a ship from the big island, and
there was no ship; and all the men in the curagh were drowned. A
fine song was made about them after that, though I never heard it

'Another day a curagh was out fishing from this island, and the men
saw a hooker not far from them, and they rowed up to it to get a
light for their pipes--at that time there were no matches--and when
they up to the big boat it was gone out of its place, and they were
in great fear.'

Then he told me a story he had got from the mainland about a man who
was driving one night through the country, and met a woman who came
up to him and asked him to take her into his cart. He thought
something was not right about her, and he went on. When he had gone
a little way he looked back, and it was a pig was on the road and
not a woman at all.

He thought he was a done man, but he went on. When he was going
through a wood further on, two men came out to him, one from each
side of the road, and they took hold of the bridle of the horse and
led it on between them. They were old stale men with frieze clothes
on them, and the old fashions. When they came out of the wood he
found people as if there was a fair on the road, with the people
buying and selling and they not living people at all. The old men
took him through the crowd, and then they left him. When he got home
and told the old people of the two old men and the ways and fashions
they had about them, the old people told him it was his two
grandfathers had taken care of him, for they had had a great love
for him and he a lad growing up.

This evening we had a dance in the inn parlour, where a fire had
been lighted and the tables had been pushed into the corners. There
was no master of the ceremonies, and when I had played two or three
jigs and other tunes on my fiddle, there was a pause, as I did not
know how much of my music the people wanted, or who else could be
got to sing or play. For a moment a deadlock seemed to be coming,
but a young girl I knew fairly well saw my difficulty, and took the
management of our festivities into her hands. At first she asked a
coastguard's daughter to play a reel on the mouth organ, which she
did at once with admirable spirit and rhythm. Then the little girl
asked me to play again, telling me what I should choose, and went on
in the same way managing the evening till she thought it was time to
go home. Then she stood up, thanked me in Irish, and walked out of
the door, without looking at anybody, but followed almost at once by
the whole party.

When they had gone I sat for a while on a barrel in the public-house
talking to some young men who were reading a paper in Irish. Then I
had a long evening with the scholar and two story-tellers--both old
men who had been pilots--taking down stories and poems. We were at
work for nearly six hours, and the more matter we got the more the
old men seemed to remember.

'I was to go out fishing tonight,' said the younger as he came in,
'but I promised you to come, and you're a civil man, so I wouldn't
take five pounds to break my word to you. And now'--taking up his
glass of whisky--'here's to your good health, and may you live till
they make you a coffin out of a gooseberry bush, or till you die in

They drank my health and our work began.

'Have you heard tell of the poet MacSweeny?' said the same man,
sitting down near me.

'I have,' I said, 'in the town of Galway.'

'Well,' he said, 'I'll tell you his piece "The Big Wedding," for
it's a fine piece and there aren't many that know it. There was a
poor servant girl out in the country, and she got married to a poor
servant boy. MacSweeny knew the two of them, and he was away at that
time and it was a month before he came back. When he came back he
went to see Peggy O'Hara--that was the name of the girl--and he
asked her if they had had a great wedding. Peggy said it was only
middling, but they hadn't forgotten him all the same, and she had a
bottle of whisky for him in the cupboard. He sat down by the fire
and began drinking the whisky. When he had a couple of glasses taken
and was warm by the fire, he began making a song, and this was the
song he made about the wedding of Peggy O'Hara.'

He had the poem both in English and Irish, but as it has been found
elsewhere and attributed to another folk-poet, I need not give it.

We had another round of porter and whisky, and then the old man who
had MacSweeny's wedding gave us a bit of a drinking song, which the
scholar took down and I translated with him afterwards:--

'This is what the old woman says at the Beulleaca when she sees a
man without knowledge--

'Were you ever at the house of the Still, did you ever get a drink
from it? Neither wine nor beer is as sweet as it is, but it is well
I was not burnt when I fell down after a drink of it by the fire of
Mr. Sloper.

'I praise Owen O'Hernon over all the doctors of Ireland, it is he
put drugs on the water, and it lying on the barley.

'If you gave but a drop of it to an old woman who does be walking
the world with a stick, she would think for a week that it was a
fine bed was made for her.'

After that I had to get out my fiddle and play some tunes for them
while they finished their whisky. A new stock of porter was brought
in this morning to the little public-house underneath my room, and I
could hear in the intervals of our talk that a number of men had
come in to treat some neighbors from the middle island, and were
singing many songs, some of them in English or of the kind I have
given, but most of them in Irish.

A little later when the party broke up downstairs my old men got
nervous about the fairies--they live some distance away--and set off
across the sandhills.

The next day I left with the steamer.

End of the Project Gutenberg Etext of The Aran Islands, by John M. Synge