IT is recounted of the late Mr. Darwin that, on finding a lump of earth adhering to the leg of a wounded pheasant, he placed it beneath the glass of a forcing-house, and from the seeds it contained raised no less than eighty-two separate plants of five distinct species. Similarly, the author of these sketches,1 in studying the life that goes on in a handful of cabins among the boglands of Connaught, discovers a vast amount of human experience summed up in the histories of the scanty population ; human experience, we may say, bereft of its glitter, of its visible halo, and fined down to its elementary needs, to the capacity for happiness, passion, and heartbreak which are its essence.
The test of a new writer must always be the new light which he is able to throw on the familiar; his creative and dexterous handling of themes otherwise outworn by time and use, making them appear fresh as untouched sculptor’s clay. Miss Barlow stands this test well. Her Ireland is not the rollicking Ireland of Charles O’Malley, and in the widest reach of her orbit she hardly more than intersects the world-wide sweep of Miss Laffan’s Hogan, M. P., and The Honorable Miss Ferrard. Miss Lawless, in Hurrish and Grania, has taken a background not wholly unlike that of these Idylls, with something of the same suggestion and interpretation of motive and feeling; but her characters are chosen with a view to the development of a central imaginative theme which leads up to strange situations and powerful dramatic climaxes.
Miss Barlow, on the other hand, might say, with De Musset, “ Mon verre n’est pas grand, mais je bois dans mon verre ; ” and just as the Greek pediment represented to Greek minds the law of fate confining human actions within limits not to be passed beyond, she works within the narrowest possible circle. Her distinct gift is shown in the way she takes any chance material that comes first to hand, and constructs out of it a drama not only full of significance, but giving to each character, no matter how insignificant, some moment of relief which lifts, individualizes, and often glorifies it. The personages, too, accomplish their functions without apparent analysis or description on the author’s part, and our understanding of them seems to be a matter of pure perception and sympathy, as if they lived, breathed, moved, and had their being before our eyes. Her effort appears to be merely to show, as in a magic mirror, a clear image of the little Connaught village and its daily life. She enforces no dogma ; she proclaims no theory; she suggests no remedy. The Irish Question does not seem to reach the matter. Home Rule is a fallacy to smile at in this forlorn, makeshift, casual little settlement of Lisconnel, with its three habitations on one side of the road, a couple opposite, not exactly facing the others on account of a swampy patch, two more a little farther on, and then “ Ody Rafferty’s ” and “ the Widow M’Gurk’s ” “ a trifle back o’ the road up the slope,” and nothing else save bog and sky.
To make clear the conditions of life in Lisconnel, let us go on to state that these cabins are built of rough stones without mortar, and with not even sufficient mud to close the chinks thoroughly. The roofs are thatched with rushes, not straw, for straw costs money at Lisconnel. They are held down by stones, for stones are plentiful. Indeed, the cottage is apt to be built on some more or less flat rock, not only in order to secure a ready-made flooring, but that the rare patches of soil may not be diverted from the “craps.” The frequent and otherwise superfluous boulders, too, are rendered useful in backing up the walls, thus keeping off the wind, which blows as generously as the rain falls in this country. One of the cabins rejoices in a “ rale window,” — that is, a pane of glass nine inches square; but, as a rule, openings for light are filled in with some more opaque substance. A stack of turf (turf is the only fuel) stands near the door of each domicile, and — perhaps as an emblem of hospitality — a big black pot is apt to sit continuously on the threshold, peered into, with a triumph of hope over experience, all day long by the “ childer ” and the “live stock ; ” said live stock consisting, when times are at their best, of about a dozen goats, pigs, and “ chuckens,” liable in a bad season — and what season was ever good at Lisconnel? — to be prematurely carried off to market “ down beyant.”
Notwithstanding this bareness, the inhabitants of Lisconnel possess the happy knack of finding their lives extremely interesting and very precious in spite of their limitations. In fact, may we not say because of their limitations, when we consider how, amid the superfluities of wealth and civilization, the cleverest among us set about Hamlet-like ponderings as to whether life is worth living, while in Connaught a good year for “ pitaties ” makes everybody contented, and how, on the occasion of the Widow M’Gurk’s receiving a legacy from America of fifteen shillings, she is able to exercise a munificence which leaves that of princes poor? Indeed, pessimism dies a natural death in contact with these humble destinies which show that the actual compensations of existence are appointed to those who possess little.
Dim intimations of wealth, plenty, and ease keep alive imagination and hope. Old Mrs. Kilfoyle, for example, is able to tell how, in her youth, she lived on a countryside where grass grew as tall as rushes, and potato and barley fields were that sizable you could hardly see to the end of them. Such statements beguiled the ears of her listeners, but were hardly considered credible when she went on to allude to cows, calves, firkins of butter, let alone “ lashins and lavins ” of skim milk and whey, as if such luxuries rained down from the skies; big potfuls, too, of oatmeal stirabout for breakfast every morning, and often as not a bit of bacon for Sunday; then houses with three rooms, and one of them with a boarded floor! In corroboration of which “quare old romancin’” about the days before she was married and came to Lisconnel, Mrs. Kilfoyle, “a little old woman with white hair like carded bog-cotton, and a sweet, piping, high voice like a small chicken’s,” would point to abattered pewter mug, the unique relic of this bygone grandeur.
Whatever admiration and wonder are stirred by these suggestions of a better state of things, there is little envy, or even restlessness, in the minds of her hearers, who hate strange places where they feel lost and helpless, like a leaf in a storm, while in the worst privations of their own surroundings they can perceive clear “sinse and raison.” Creatures wholly of the affections and of the senses, the solid, tangible facts of life for each of them are his “bit o’ land,” the familiar landscape about it and the familiar beings upon it. As the author says: " Should a sequence of calamity such as Job’s overtake him, sweeping away his flocks and herds and children, no eventual doubling of his live stock could console him as it did the more philosophic sheikh. His last days would still be made darker by many a regret for the ‘ ould white heifer,’ or ‘the little rid cow,’ or ‘ the bit of a skewbald pony, the crathur.’ And as for the ten new sons and daughters, Molly and Biddy and Katty, they would be a failure indeed.”
Too far from chapel to go often, and too poor to contribute to the triumphs of ecclesiasticism, religion becomes a simple matter to the people at Lisconnel. Good old Father Rooney, when called from “ down beyant ” to ease the dying, answers the request when he is able to do so. As he said to Mrs. M’Gurk when her husband lay ill, “ Send for me, of course, me good woman, and if by any chance I can come up to you, well and good; but if I’m prevented, you’ve no call to be supposing you ’ll be left without any sort of assistance for that reason. Likely enough I may be riding off Drumesk ways as fast as I can contrive ; but I’m not taking the blessed saints and the Mother of Mercy and the rest following along with me, same as if I was, so to speak, showing them the road. They know where they ‘re wanted as well as you or I, you may depend, and won’t be asking either of our leaves to get there.” Mrs. M’Gurk, even if slightly shocked, was relieved by this statement. Nevertheless, such equanimity of mind may have been of detriment to her orthodoxy ; for, after poor M’Gurk had died without benefit of clergy, with only a “ Glory be ” on his lips, we find his widow, on one occasion, bestowing some rather free criticism on the higher powers when the continual rain was blighting the potatoes, and the “ win’ and wet ” together “ devastatin’ all before them,” particularly Hughey Quigley’s “ dacintist little strip of oats.”
“ I’m sure I dunno what plisure Anybody,” observed Mrs. M’Gurk, secretly attaching a definite idea to her indefinite pronoun, “ can take in ruinatin’ a poor person’s bit o’ property. If I was one, now, that had the mindin’ of such things, and took notice of a little green field sittin’ in the black of the bog, it’s apter I ’d be to let it have its chanst, at any rate, to ripen itself the best way it could, than go for to sliver the great dowses of rain on top of if, and lave it all battered and bet into flittherjigs like yon.” And when Mrs. Kilfoyle, always an apologist and a peacemaker, tried to argue that it was probably, on the part of the powers above, a mere promiscuous spilling over, an accident like, with no clear intention of “ ruinatin’ anything,” Mrs. M’Gurk answered ruefully, “ It maybe might be an accident, but, bedad, ’t would be a great differ to the likes of us if they ’d be a thrifle more exact.”
Naturally, the irresistible logic of the Widow M’Gurk’s windfall of fifteen shillings, to which we have alluded, — incorruptibly laid up in heaven by her good deeds to her neighbors, — was to make everybody desire to have a legacy from the other side of the world. The people of Lisconnel, however, regard emigration in much the spirit of Artemus Ward’s burst of patriotism when he consented that all his wife’s relations should go to the war. Those who were free to emigrate were apt to hold back, arguing that dollars seemed to be scarce even in America, since Terence Driscoll wrote to his mother that “ the dareness of some things is intense.” But in proffering advice to others, it was safe to quote another emigrant who sent word home that “ the States was not too quare to live in.”
Every reader who has watched the stream of steerage passengers boarding a Cunarder at Queenstown, with their sticks of blackthorn and their little pots of shamrock, will have thought of the heartbreak which lies back of this wrench away from the old life, and which is pathetically described in the two stories entitled One Too Many and Herself. “ The poor children,” to quote from the latter, “ protested that they would be writing home continual, — ay, and sending over the money for the rint; if it was n’t on’y for the sake of helping out that-a-way, sorra the thing else would take them out of the old place. But suppose, now, the pitaties took and failed agin this summer, how could herself and father get on at all? Not that they themselves could do a hand’s turn if they sted, except to be aiting all before them.”
But the reader must go to the Idylls themselves to appreciate not only the pathos, the vital and mobile characterization, but the author’s delicate and penetrative touch. Her first book, Bogland Studies, written in a flowing, many-syllabled rhymed measure, showed a happy dexterity in fitting her story to verse, and in using the dialect she knows so well with force and picturesqueness. But in these prose sketches she has appointed to herself a higher standard. Her equipment is more original; her passionate belief in her subject better concealed by her art, and more interfused with lmmor, — humor half inherent in the author’s own mind, and half caught from the transfiguring play of fancy over every personage and every incident, and with rare grace and delicacy of touch maintained as the very essence of the life she describes.
- Irish Idylls. By JANE BARLOW. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 1893.↩