9. The Clouds Of Kerry
It is the Gulf Stream, they say, that makes Kerry so wet. All the reservoir of the Atlantic, at any rate, lies to the west and south, and the prevailing winds come laden with its moisture. Kerry lifts its mountains to those impinging winds-mountains that in the sunlight are a living colorful presence on every side, but cruelly denuded by the constant rains. For usually the winds flow slowly from the sea, soft voluminous clouds gathered in their arms, and as they pass they sweep their drooping veils down over the silent and somewhat melancholy land.
In the night-time a light or two may be seen dotted at great intervals on those lonely hillsides, but for the most part the habitations are in the cooms or hollows grooved by nature between the parallel hills. The soil on the mountains is washed away. The vestiture that remains is a watery sedge, and it is only by garnering every handful of earth that the tenants can attain cultivation even in the cooms. Their fields, often held in common, are so small as to be laughable, and deep drainage trenches are dug every few yards. Sometimes in the shifting sunlight between showers a light-green patch will loom magically in the distance, witness to man's indefatigable effort to achieve a holding amid the rocks. An awkward boreen will climb to that holding, and if one goes there one may find a typical tall spare countryman, bright of eye and sharp of feature, housing in his impoverished cottage a large brood of children. To build with his own hands a watertight house is the ambition for which this man is slaving, and the slates and cement may be ready there near the pit which he himself has dug for foundation. A yellowish wife will perhaps be nursing the latest baby in the gloomy one-roomed hovel, and as one talks to the man, respectful but sensible, and admirable in more ways than he can ever dream of, one elf after another will come out, bare-legged, sharp-eyed, shy, inquisitive, to peer from far off at the stranger. He may be illiterate, this grave hillside man, but his starvelings go down the boreen to the bare cold schoolhouse, to be taught whatever the pompous well-meaning teacher can put into their minds of an education designed for civil service clerks. The children may be seen down there if one passes at their playtime, kicking a rag football with their bare feet, as poor and as gay as the birds.
There was a time when the iron was deep in these farmers' souls. Eking the marrow from the bones of the land, they were so poor that they had nothing to live on but potatoes and the milk of their own tiny cattle, the Kerry-Dexter breed of cattle that alone can pick a living from that ground. Until twenty-five years ago, I was told, some of the hillside men had never bought a pound of tea in their lives, or known what it was to spend money for clothes. To this day they wear their light-colored homespun, and one will meet at the fairs many fine sturdy middle-aged farmers with a cut to their homemade clothes that reminds one of the Bretons. It was from these simple and ascetic men, fighting nature for grim life, that landlords took their rackrents-one of them, the Earl of Kenmare, erecting a castle at near-by Killarney that thousands of Americans have admired. The fight against landlordism was bitter in Kerry. I met one countryman who was evicted three times, but finally, despite the remorseless protests of the agent, was allowed to harbor in a lean-to against the wall of the church. There were persecutions and murders, the mailed hand of the law and the stealthy hand of the assassin. Even to-day if that much-evicted tenant had not been sure of me he would not have spoken his mind. But when he was sure, he confided with a winning smile that at last he had something to live for and work for, a strip of land that was an "economic holding," determined by an Estates Commission which has shouldered the landlord to one side and estimated with its own disinterested eyes the large nutritive possibilities of gorse and heather and rock and bog.
Why do they stay? But most of them have not stayed. Kerry has not one-third the people to-day that it had seventy years ago. The storekeeper in a seaside village where I stopped in Kerry, a little father of the people if there ever was one, yet had acted the dubious rôle of emigration agent, and had passed thousands of his countrymen on to America. A few go to England. "For nine years," one hard-working occupier mentioned to me, "I lived in the shadow of London Bridge." But for Kerry, the next country to America, America is the land of golden promise. In a field called Coolnacapogue, "hollow of the dock leaves," I stopped to ask of a bright lad the way to Sneem, and he ended by asking me the way to America. It is west they turn, away from the Empire that "always foul-played us in the past, and I am afeard will foul-play us again."
"The next time you come, please God you'll bring us Home Rule." That is the way they speak to you, if they trust you. They want government where it cannot play so easily the tricks that seared them of old.
I went with a government inspector on one mission in Kerry. At the foot of the forbidding western hills there was a bleak tongue of land cut off by two mountain streams. At times these streams were low enough to ford with ease, but after a heavy rain the water would rise four or five feet in a few hours and the streams would become impassable torrents. For the sake of a widow whose hovel stood on this island the Commission consented to build a little bridge. The concrete piers had been set at either side successfully, but the central pier, five tons in weight, had only just been planted when a rain came, and a torrent, and the unwieldy block of cement had toppled over in the stream. This little catastrophe was the first news conveyed by the paternal storekeeper to the inspector on our arrival in town, and we walked out to see what could be done.
Standing by the stream, we were visible to the expectant woman on the hill. In the soft mournful light of the September afternoon I could see her outlined against the gray sky as she came flying to learn her fate. She came bare of head and bare of foot, a small plaid shawl clasped to her bosom with one hand. Her free hand supported her taut body as she leaned on her own pier and bent her deep eyes on us across the stream. As she told in the slow lilting accent of Kerry the pregnant story of the downfall of the center pier, she would cast those eyes to the inanimate bulk of concrete, half submerged in the water, as if to contemn it for lying there in flat helplessness. But she was not excited or obsequious. A woman of forty, her expression bespoke the sternness and gravity of her fight for existence, yet she was a quiet and valiant fighter. She was, I think, the most dignified suppliant I have ever beheld.
If the pier could not be raised, she foresaw the anxieties of the winter. She seemed to look into them through the grayness of the failing light. She foresaw the sudden risings of the stream, the race for her children to the schoolhouse, the risk of carrying them across on her back. And she clung to her children.
"You have had trouble, my poor woman?" the inspector said, knowing that her husband two years before had been drowned in the torrent.
"Aye, indeed, your honor, 'tis I am the pity of the world. One year ago my child was lost to me. It was in the night-time, he was taken with a hemorrhage, with respects to your honor. I woke the children to have them go for to bring the doctor, but it was too late an they returned. He quenched in my arms, at the dead hour of night."
"The pity of the world" she was in truth. The inspector could do nothing until the ground was firm enough to support horses and tackle in the spring. We walked back through the somber bog, the mountains seeming to creep after us, and we speculated on the bad work of the contractor. To the storekeeper we took our grievance, and there we came on another aspect of that plaintive acquiescence so strong in the woman. Yes, the storekeeper admitted with instant reasonableness, the inspector was right: Foley had failed about the bridge. "I'll haul him over," he said, full of sympathy for the woman. And he would haul him over. And the pier would lie there all winter.
If the people could feel that this solicitude of the Estates Commission were national, it would bind them to the government. But most of the inspectors are of the landlord world, ruling-class appointees, well-meaning, remote, superior, unable to read between the lines. And so Kerry remains with the old tradition of the government, suspicious of its intentions, crediting what genuine services there are to the race of native officials who alone have the intuition of Kerry's kind.
They want army recruits from Kerry, to defend the Empire; that Empire which meant landlords and land agents and rackrents for so many blind and crushing years. They want those straight and stalwart and manly fellows in the trenches. But Kerry knows what the trenches of Empire are already. It has fought starvation in them, dug deep in the bogs between sparse ridges of potatoes, for all the years it can remember. It is no wonder Kerry cannot grasp at once why it should go forth now to die so readily when it has only just grudgingly been granted a lease to live.