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Mearing stones : leaves from my note-book on tramp in Donegal online

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Leaves from my Note-Book on Tramp
in Donegal, by JOSEPH CAMPBELL
(Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil), with Sixteen
Pencil Drawings by the Author.


Printed by Maunsel & Co., Ltd., Dublin.



In the Mountains 1

The Wander-Lust 2

The Dark Woman 2

By Lochros Beag 3

Coaching by the Stars 3

A Rainbow 3

Change 4

Prophet's Food 4

The Transient 5

Women and Hares 5

The Smell of the Town 5

Glengesh 5

Clog-Seed 6

Herbs and Flowers 6

A Young Girl 7

The General Light and Dark 7

Soul and Body 8

A Man on Shelty-Back 9

The Fairies 9

Stranorlar Station 9

Stones 10

The Strand-Bird 10

Space 10

Rabbits and Cats 11

The Glas Gaibhlinn 11

A House in the Road's Mouth 11

The Quest 12

Muckish 12

The May-Fire 12

Bloody Foreland 13

Twilight and Silence 13

The Poor Herd 14

A Mountain Tramp 14

The Festival of Death 19

In Glen-Columcille 19

The Brink of Water 20

A Dark Morning 21

The Swallow-Mark 21

Women Beetling Clothes 21

The Sea 22

A Ballad-Singer 22

Sunlight 24

Turf-Cutting 24

His Old Mother 25

A Day of Wind and Light, Blown Rain 25

Lying and Walking 26

Glen-Columcille to Carrick 26

Ora et Labora 29

Two Things that won't go Grey 29

Rundal 29

Púca-Piles 30

The Rosses 30

A Country Funeral 30

Youth and Age 31

Summer Dusk 32

A Note 32

The Peasant in Literature 32

An Insleep 33

Water and Slán-Lus 33

By Lochros Mór 33

Rival Fiddlers 34

Nature 35

Sunday under Slieve League 35

The Night he was Born 36

The Lusmór 37

Derry People 37

A Clock 38

Carrick Glen 38

A Shuiler 39

Turkeys in the Trees 39

A Party of Tinkers 39

Teelin, Bunglass, and Slieve League 40

The Shooting Star 45

Sunday on the Road between Carrick and Glengesh 45

A Roany Bush 46

August Evening 46

Near Inver 47

All Subtle, Secret Things 47

A Madman 47

Laguna 48

Near Letterkenny 48

Shan Mac Ananty 48

A Poor Cabin 51

The Flax-Stone 51

After Sunset 52

The Darkness and the Tide 53

Errigal 54

The Sore Foot 54

Asherancally 54

Orange Gallases 55

The Human Voice 55

Loch Aluinn 56

The Open Road 56


The Wall of Slieve League Frontispiece

Clady River, near Gweedore Facing Page 2

Pass of Glengesh " 6

Lochros Beag " 8

Muckish, with a 'Cap' on " 12

On the Road to Doon Well " 16

Near Alton Loch " 20

A Street in Ardara " 22

Falling Water " 26

Bog and Sky " 30

Mountainy Folk " 34

A Wayfarer " 38

The Horn " 42

A Clachan of Houses " 48

A Gap between the Hills " 50

Loch Nacung - Moonrise " 54



"In the mountains," says Nietzsche, "the shortest way is from summit to
summit." That is the way I covered Donegal. Instead of descending into
the valleys (a tedious and destroying process at all times), I crossed,
like the king of the fairies, on a bridge of wonder:

With a bridge of white mist
Columcille he crosses,
On his stately journeys
From Slieve League to Rosses.

What seems in places in this book a fathomless _madhm_ is in reality
bridged over with wonder - dark to the senses here and there, I grant
you, but steady and treadable in proportion to the amount of vision
one brings to the passage of it. All, I know, will not follow me (the
fairies withhold knowledge from the many and bestow it on the few),
but if blame is to be given let the fairies get it, and not me. And
I may as well warn the reader here that it is unlucky to curse the
fairies. Rosses is but a storm's cry, and - the curse always comes home
to roost!

With regard to the pictures illustrating the book, several people
who have seen them in the original have criticised their darkness,
as if they were all drawn "in twilight and eclipse." But the darkness
of Donegal was the first thing that struck me when I crossed the
frontier at Lifford, and the forty miles' journey through the hills
to Ardara bit the impression still more deeply into me. And if I were
asked now after a year's exile what I remember most vividly of the
county, I should say its gloom. I can see nothing now but a wilderness
of black hills, with black shadows chasing one another over them,
a gleam of water here and there, and just the tiniest little patch
of sunlight - extraordinarily brilliant by contrast with the general
darkness - on half a field, say, with its mearing-stones, to relieve the
sense of tragedy that one feels on looking at the landscape.


Sea-ribbons have I cut, and gathered ling; talked with fairies; heard
Lia Fail moaning in the centre, and seen Tonn Tuaidh white in the
north; slept on hearth-flags odd times, and under bushes other times;
passed the mill with the scoop-wheels and the house with the golden
door; following the roads - the heart always hot in me, the lights on
the hills always beckoning me on!


We were talking together the other morning - the publican and
myself - outside the inn door at Barra, when a dark woman passed. "God
look to that poor creature," says he; "she hasn't as much on her as
would stuff a crutch." "Stuff a what?" says I, for I didn't quite
understand him. "The bolster of a crutch," says he. "And she knows
nobody. Her eye-strings is broke."



A waste of blown sand. The Atlantic breakers white upon its
extremest verge. A patch of sea-bog before, exhaling its own peculiar
fragrance - part fibre, part earth, part salt. Ricks of black turf
stacked over it here and there, ready to be creeled inland against
the winter firing. The dark green bulk of Slieve a-Tooey rising
like a wall behind, a wisp of cloud lying lightly upon its carn. The
village of Maghery, a mere clachan of unmortared stone and rain-beaten
straw, huddling at its foot. A shepherd's whistle, a cry in torrential
Gaelic, or the bleat of a sheep coming from it now and again, only to
accentuate the elemental quiet and wonder of the place. The defile of
Maum opening beyond, scarped and precipitous, barely wide enough to
hold the road and bog-stream that tumble through it to the sea. The
rainbow air of our western seaboard enfolding all, heavy with rain and
the fragrance of salt and peat fires.


Coaching by the stars, night-walking - all my best thoughts, I find,
come to me that way. Poetry, like devilry, loves darkness.


I was watching a rainbow this afternoon - a shimmering ring in the
sky between the fort at the mouth of the Owentocker river and Slieve
a-Tooey beyond. "That's a beautiful sight, now," said a beggar,
stopping on the road to have a word with me - the sort of person one
meets everywhere in Ireland, friendly, garrulous, inquisitive, very
proud of his knowledge of half-secret or hidden things, and anxious
at all times to air it before strangers. "We do have a power of them
this speckled weather." He looked into the sky with a queer look, then
started humming over the names of the colours to himself in Irish. "And
they say, sir, it's unlucky to pass through a rainbow. Did you ever
hear that?"


My heart goes out to the playing and singing folk, the folk who are
forever on the roads. Life is change; and to be seeing new wonders
every day - the thrown sea, the silver rush of the meadow, the lights
in distant towns - is to be living, and not merely existing. I pity the
man who is content to stay always in the place where his mother dropped
him; that is, unless his thoughts wander. For one might sit on a midden
and dream stars!


A man hailed me on the road, and we were talking. . . . "If
one had nothing but fraochans to eat and water to drink, sure one
would have to be satisfied. And remember," says he, "that a prophet
lived on as little." "Who was that?" says I. "John the Baptist," says
he. "You'll read that in the books."


Only the transient is beautiful, said Schiller; and Nature, in the
incessant play of her rising, vanishing forms, is not averse to
beauty. Beauty, said Turgenev, needs not to live for ever to be
eternal - one instant is enough for her.


It's curious in Donegal sometimes, when going along the road, or
crossing a footpath through the fields, to see a shawled woman, a
perch or so off, dropping over the edge of a hill, and then when you
get up to the edge there is no sign of her at all. And, maybe, a pace
further on you will start a hare out of the hollow where you think the
woman should have been, and you begin to wonder is there any truth in
the story about women - that have to do with magic and charms and old
freets, and the like - changing into hares, after all! I have had many
experiences like that in my travels through the county, and in not a
few instances have I been puzzled how a figure - silhouetted sharply
against the skyline, and only a few yards off - could disappear so
quickly out of view.


A woman said to me to-day: "You'll get the smell o' the town blowed off
you in the Donegal hills!"


Darkness and austerity - those are the notes I carry away from this
wild glen. Its lines have something of the splendid bareness of early
architecture; its colour suggests time-stained walls, with quiet
aisles and mouldering altars where one might kneel and dream away an
existence. When you meet a stranger going the road that winds through
it, like a coil of incense suspended in mid-air, you expect him to look
at you out of eyes full of wonder, and to speak to you in half-chanted
and serious words, stopping not, turning neither to left nor to right,
but faring on, a symbol of pilgrimage:

_Le solus a chroidhe,_
_Fann agus tuirseach_
_Go deireadh a shlighe._


"What are you sowing?" "Oh, clog-seed, clog-seed. The childer about
here is all running barefoot, and I thought I might help them against
the winter day!"


_Lusmór_, _lus-na-méarachán_, _sian sléibhe_, foxglove, or
fairy-thimble - whatever you like best to call it - it, I think, is the
commonest herb of all. One sees it everywhere with its tall carmine
spray, growing on ditches in the sun, in dark, shady places by the side
of rivers, and under arches. Then the king-fern, the splendid _osmunda
regalis_; the delicate maidenhair and hart's-tongue, rooted in the
crannies of walls; bog-mint and bog-myrtle, deliciously fragrant after
rain, and the white tossing _ceanabhán_; brier-roses and woodbine; the
drooping convolvulus; blue-bough; Fairies' cabbage, or London Pride;
pignuts and anemones; amber water-lilies, curiously scented; orchises,
purple and white; wild daffodils and marigolds, gilding the wet meadows
between hills; crotal, a moss rather than a herb, but beautiful to
look at and most serviceable to the dyer; eyebright and purple mountain
saxifrage; crested ling; tufts of sea-holly, with their green, fleshy,
spiked leaves; and lake-sedge and sand-grass, blown through by soft
winds and murmurous with the hum of bees. Donegal, wild though it be in
other respects, is surely a paradise of herbs and flowers.

[Illustration: PASS OF GLENGESH.]


A young girl, in the purr and swell of youth. Her shawl is thrown
loosely back, showing a neck and breast beautifully modelled. She is
barefooted, and jumps from point to point on the wet road. At a stream
which crosses the road near the _gallán_ she lifts her dress to her
knees and leaps over. She does not see me where I am perched sunning
myself, so I can watch her to my heart's content.


"The words of the maker of poems are the general light and dark." One
feels the truth of this saying of Walt Whitman's in a place like the
Pass of Glengesh, or the White Strand outside Maghery. Chanting a
fragment of the "Leaves" one night in the Pass, when everything was
quiet and the smells were beginning to rise out of the wet meadows
below, I felt how supremely true it was, and how much it belonged to
the time and place - the darkness, the silence, the vibrant stars, the
earth smells, the bat that came out of the shadow of a fuchsia-bush and
fluttered across a white streak in the sky beyond. And I have tried
Wordsworth's sonnet beginning, "The world is too much with us," by a
criterion no less than that of the Atlantic itself, tumbling in foam
on the foreshore of Maghery when daylight was deepening into twilight,
and the moon was low over the hills, touching the rock-pools and the
sand-pools with flakes of carmine light. When I said the sonnet aloud
to myself it seemed to rise out of the landscape and to incorporate
itself with it again as my voice rose and fell in the wandering
cadences of the verse. Nature, after all, is the final touchstone
of art. Tried by it, the counterfeit fails and the unmixed gold is


"It's a strange world," said a tramp to me to-day. I agreed. "And would
you answer me this, gaffer?" said he. "Why is it when a man's soul is
in his body, and he lusty and well, you think nothing of kicking him
about as you would an old cast shoe? And the minute the soul goes,
and the body is stiffening in death, you draw back from him, hardly
daring to touch him for the dread that is on you. Would you answer
me that, gaffer?" I was silent. "It's a strange world, sure enough,"
said the tramp. He rose from the gripe where he lay making rings in
the grass with his stick. "Good-day, gaffer," said he. "God speed your
journey." And he took the road, laughing.

[Illustration: LOCHROS BEAG.]


A man on shelty-back. He has come in from the mountains to the cloth
fair at Ardara. He is about sixty-five, black on the turn, clean
shaven, but for side whiskers. He wears the soft wide-awake favoured by
the older generation of peasants, open shirt, and stock rolled several
times round his throat and knotted loosely in front. His legs dangle
down on either side of his mount, tied at the knees with sugans. His
brogues are brown with bog mud, very thick in the sole, and laced only
half-way up. He has a bundle of homespun stuff under his left arm. A
pipe is in his teeth, and as I approach he withdraws it to bid me the
time of day. "_Lá maith_," he says in a strong, hearty voice. I return
the greeting, and pass on.


I was in a house one night late up in the Gap of Maum, a very
lonely place, yarning with two brothers - shepherds - who live there
by themselves. I had sat a long time over the _griosach_, and was
preparing to go, when the elder of them said to me: "Don't stir yet a
bit. Sit the fire out. A body's loath to leave such a purty wee fire to
the fairies."


In a quiet corner, seated, I see a woman come in from the mountainy
country beyond Convoy. She is waiting for the up-train. She is
dark. Her hair and eyes are _very_ dark. Her lips are threads of
scarlet. Her skin is colourless, except for a slight tanning due
to exposure to sun and weather. She has a black shawl about her
shoulders, and a smaller one of lighter colour over her head. She
moves seldom. Her hands are folded on her knees. She looks into space
with an air of quiet ecstasy, like a Madonna in an old picture. Her
beauty is the beauty of one apart from the ruck and commonness of
things. . . . . She spits out now and again. I cannot help
watching her.


"Donegal is a terrible place for stones." "Heth, is it, sir - boulders
as big as a house. And skipping-stones? Man dear, I could give you a
field full, myself!"


I could sit for hours listening to the "bubbling" of the strand-bird;
but that's because I am melancholy. If I weren't melancholy I'd hardly
like it, I think. The tide's at ebb and the bollans and rock-pools
are full of water. Beyond is space - the yellow of the sand and the
grey of the sky - and the pipe-note "bubbling" between. A strange,
yearning sound, like nothing one hears in towns; bringing one into
touch with the Infinite, and deep with the melancholy that is Ireland's
. . . and mine.


In towns the furthest we see is the other side of the street; but
here there is no limit to one's prospect - Perseus is as visible as
Boötes - and one's thought grows as space increases.


Donegal is over-run with rabbits; and sometimes on your journeys
you will see a common house-cat - miles from anywhere - stalking them
up the side of a mountain, creeping stealthily through the heather
and pouncing on them with the savagery of a wild thing. The cats,
a stonebreaker told me, come from the neighbouring farm-houses and
cabins, "but they are devils for strolling," says he, and in addition
to what food they get from their owners "they prog a bit on their own!"


"That's a very green field," I said to a man to-day, pointing to a
field, about two furrow-lengths away, on which the sun seemed to pour
all its light at once. "Is there water near it?" "There's a stream,"
says he. "And the Glas Gaibhlinn sleeps there, anyway." "And what's
that?" "It's a magic cow the old people'll tell you of," says he, "that
could never be milked at one milking, or at seven milkings, for that,"
says he. "Any field that's greener than another field, or any bit of
land that's richer than another bit, they say the Glas Gaibhlinn sleeps
in it," says he. "It's a freet, but it's true!"


A house in the road's mouth - it is no roundabout to visit, but a short
cut. Often I go up there of an evening, when my day's wandering is
done, to meet the people and to hear the old Fenian stories told - or,
maybe, a tune played on the fiddle, if Donal O'Gallagher, the dark
man from Falcarragh, should happen to be present. It is as good as
the sight of day to see the dancers, the boys and the girls out on
the floor, the old people looking on from the shadow of the walls, and
Donal himself, for all his blindness, shaking his head and beating time
with his foot, as proud as a quilt of nine hundred threads!


Where am I going? Looking for the dew-snail? No, but going till I find
the verge of the sky.


"When you see Muckish with a cap on," said a man to me one day, "you
may lay your hand on your heart and say: 'We'll have a wet spell before
long.'" This mountain, like Errigal, has a knack of drawing a hood of
grey vapour round its head when the rest of the landscape is perfectly
cloudless - like the peaks of the Kaatskills in _Rip Van Winkle_.


The May-Fire is still kindled in some parts of Donegal. It is a
survival of a pagan rite of our forefathers.

"And at it (the great national convention at Uisneach in Meath)
they were wont to make a sacrifice to the arch-god, whom they adored,
whose name was Bél. It was likewise their usage to light two fires to
Bél in every district in Ireland at this season, and to drive a pair
of each herd of cattle that the district contained between these two
fires, as a preservative, to guard them against all the diseases of
that year. It is from that fire thus made that the day on which the
noble feast of the apostles Peter and James is held has been called
Bealteine (in Scotch Beltane), _i.e._, Bél's fire."

[Illustration: MUCKISH, WITH A 'CAP' ON.]

The boys and girls of a whole countryside repair to these fires,
which are usually lit upon a high, commanding hill, and they spend

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Online LibraryJoseph CampbellMearing stones : leaves from my note-book on tramp in Donegal → online text (page 1 of 4)