CHILDREN OF THE DEAD END ***
Produced by MWS, Martin Pettit and the Online Distributed
Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net (This file was
produced from images generously made available by The
Internet Archive/American Libraries.)
CHILDREN OF THE DEAD END
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN IRISH NAVVY
E. P. DUTTON & COMPANY
681 Fifth Avenue
THE ANCHOR PRESS, LTD., TIPTREE, ESSEX, ENGLAND.
"I wish the Kinlochleven navvies had been thrown into the loch. They
would fain turn the Highlands into a cinderheap," said the late Andrew
Lang, writing to me a few months before his death.
In the following pages I have endeavoured to tell of the navvy; the life
he leads, the dangers he dares, and the death he often dies. Most of my
story is autobiographical. Moleskin Joe and Carroty Dan are true to
life; they live now, and for all I know to the contrary may be met with
on some precarious job, in some evil-smelling model lodging-house, or,
as suits these gipsies of labour, on the open road. Norah Ryan's painful
story shows the dangers to which an innocent girl is exposed through
ignorance of the fundamental facts of existence; Gourock Ellen and Annie
are types of women whom I have often met. While asking a little
allowance for the pen of the novelist it must be said that nearly all
the incidents of the book have come under the observation of the writer:
that such incidents should take place makes the tragedy of the story.
The Garden House,
I. A NIGHT IN MY FATHER'S HOUSE 1
II. OLD CUSTOMS 8
III. A CORSICAN OUTRAGE 15
IV. THE GREAT SILENCE 18
V. THE SLAVE MARKET 25
VI. BOYNE WATER AND HOLY WATER 34
VII. A MAN OF TWELVE 41
VIII. OLD MARY SORLEY 48
IX. A GOOD TIME 56
X. THE LEADING ROAD TO STRABANE 62
XI. THE 'DERRY BOAT 67
XII. THE WOMAN WHO WAS NOT ASHAMED 74
XIII. THE MAN WITH THE DEVIL'S PRAYER BOOK 84
XIV. PADDING IT 92
XV. MOLESKIN JOE 99
XVI. MOLESKIN JOE AS MY FATHER 105
XVII. ON THE DEAD END 111
XVIII. THE DRAINER 127
XIX. A DEAD MAN'S SHOES 129
XX. BOOKS 136
XXI. A FISTIC ARGUMENT 146
XXII. THE OPEN ROAD 151
XXIII. THE COCK OF THE NORTH 168
XXIV. MECCA 175
XXV. THE MAN WHO THRASHED CARROTY DAN 182
XXVI. A GREAT FIGHT 197
XXVII. DE PROFUNDIS 213
XXVIII. A LITTLE TRAGEDY 217
XXIX. I WRITE FOR THE PAPERS 225
XXX. WINTER 230
XXXI. THE GREAT EXODUS 243
XXXII. A NEW JOB 254
XXXIII. A SWEETHEART OF MINE 263
XXXIV. UNSKILLED LABOUR OF A NEW KIND 274
XXXV. THE SEARCH 287
XXXVI. THE END OF THE STORY 298
CHILDREN OF THE DEAD END
A NIGHT IN MY FATHER'S HOUSE
"The wee red-headed man is a knowing sort of fellow,
His coat is cat's-eye green and his pantaloons are yellow,
His brogues be made of glass and his hose be red as cherry,
He's the lad for devilment if you only make him merry,
He drives a flock of goats, has another flock behind him.
The little children fear him but the old folk never mind him.
To the frogs' house and the goats' house and the hilly land and
He will carry naughty children where the parents dare not follow.
Oh! little ones, beware. If the red-haired man should catch you,
You'll have only goats to play with and croaking frogs to watch
A bed between two rocks and not a fire to warm you! -
Then, little ones, be good and the red-haired man can't harm you."
- From _The Song of the Red-haired Man_.
It was night in the dead of winter, and we sat around the fire that
burned in red and blue flames on the wide open hearth. The blue flames
were a sign of storm.
The snow was white on the ground that stretched away from the door of my
father's house, down the dip of the brae and over the hill that rose on
the other side of the glen. I had just been standing out by the little
hillock that rose near the corner of the home gable-end, watching the
glen people place their lamps in the window corners. I loved to see the
lights come out one by one until every house was lighted up. Nothing
looks so cheerful as a lamp seen through the darkness.
On the other side of the valley a mountain stream tumbled down to the
river. It was always crying out at night and the wail in its voice could
be heard ever so far away. It seemed to be lamenting over something
which it had lost. I always thought of women dreeing over a dead body
when I listened to it. It seemed so strange to me, too, that it should
keep coming down and down for ever.
The hills surrounding the glen were very high; the old people said that
there were higher hills beyond them, but this I found very hard to
These were the thoughts in my mind as I entered my home and closed the
door behind me. From the inside I could see the half-moon, twisted like
a cow's horn, shining through the window.
"It will be a wet month this," said my father. "There are blue flames in
the fire, and a hanging moon never keeps in rain."
The wind was moaning over the chimney. By staying very quiet one could
hear the wail in its voice, and it was like that of the stream on the
far side of the glen. A pot of potatoes hung over the fire, and as the
water bubbled and sang the potatoes could be seen bursting their jackets
beneath the lid. The dog lay beside the hearthstone, his nose thrust
well over his forepaws, threaping to be asleep, but ready to open his
eyes at the least little sound. Maybe he was listening to the song of
the pot, for most dogs like to hear it. An oil lamp swung by a string
from the roof-tree backwards and forwards like a willow branch when the
wind of October is high. As it swung the shadows chased each other in
the silence of the farther corners of the house. My mother said that if
we were bad children the shadows would run away with us, but they never
did, and indeed we were often full of all sorts of mischief. We felt
afraid of the shadows, they even frightened mother. But father was
afraid of nothing. Once he came from Ardara fair on the Night of the
Dead and passed the graveyard at midnight.
Sometimes my mother would tell a story, and it was always about the wee
red-headed man who had a herd of goats before him and a herd of goats
behind him, and a salmon tied to the laces of his brogues for supper. I
have now forgotten all the great things which he went through, but in
those days I always thought the story of the wee red-headed man the most
wonderful one in all the world. At that time I had never heard another.
For supper we had potatoes and buttermilk. The potatoes were emptied
into a large wicker basket round which we children sat with a large bowl
of buttermilk between us, and out of this bowl we drank in turn. Usually
the milk was consumed quickly, and afterwards we ate the potatoes dry.
Nearly every second year the potatoes went bad; then we were always
hungry, although Farley McKeown, a rich merchant in the neighbouring
village, let my father have a great many bags of Indian meal on credit.
A bag contained sixteen stone of meal and cost a shilling a stone. On
the bag of meal Farley McKeown charged sixpence a month interest; and
fourpence a month on a sack of flour which cost twelve shillings. All
the people round about were very honest, and paid up their debts
whenever they were able. Usually when the young went off to Scotland or
England they sent home money to their fathers and mothers, and with this
money the parents paid for the meal to Farley McKeown. "What doesn't go
to the landlord goes to Farley McKeown," was a Glenmornan saying.
The merchant was a great friend of the parish priest, who always told
the people if they did not pay their debts they would burn for ever and
ever in hell. "The fires of eternity will make you sorry for the debts
that you did not pay," said the priest. "What is eternity?" he would
ask in a solemn voice from the altar steps. "If a man tried to count the
sands on the sea-shore and took a million years to count every single
grain, how long would it take him to count them all? A long time, you'll
say. But that time is nothing to eternity. Just think of it! Burning in
hell while a man, taking a million years to count a grain of sand,
counts all the sand on the sea-shore. And this because you did not pay
Farley McKeown his lawful debts, his lawful debts within the letter of
the law." That concluding phrase "within the letter of the law" struck
terror into all who listened, and no one, maybe not even the priest
himself, knew what it meant.
Farley McKeown would give no meal to those who had no children. "That
kind of people, who have no children to earn for them, never pay debts,"
he said. "If _they_ get meal and don't pay for it they'll go
down - down," said the priest. "'Tis God Himself that would be angry with
Farley McKeown if he gave meal to people like that."
The merchant established a great knitting industry in West Donegal. My
mother used to knit socks for him, and he paid her at the rate of one
and threepence a dozen pairs, and it was said that he made a shilling of
profit on a pair of these in England. My mother usually made a pair of
socks daily; but to do this she had to work sixteen hours at the task.
Along with this she had her household duties to look after. "A penny
farthing a day is not much to make," I once said to her. "No, indeed, if
you look at it in that way," she answered. "But it is nearly two pounds
a year and that is half the rent of our farm of land."
Every Christmas Farley McKeown paid two hundred and fifty pounds to the
church. When the priest announced this from the altar he would say,
"That's the man for you!" and all the members of the congregation would
bow their heads, feeling very much ashamed of themselves because none of
them could give more than a sixpence or a shilling to the silver
collection which always took place at the chapel of Greenanore on
When the night grew later my mother put her bright knitting-needles by
in a bowl over the fireplace, and we all went down on our knees, praying
together. Then mother said: "See and leave the door on the latch; maybe
a poor man will need shelter on a night like this." With these words she
turned the ashes over on the live peat while we got into our beds, one
There were six children in our family, three brothers and three sisters.
Of these, five slept in one room, two girls in the little bed, while
Fergus and Dan slept along with me in the other, which was much larger.
Father and mother and Kate, the smallest of us all, slept in the
When the light was out, we prayed to Mary, Brigid, and Patrick to shield
us from danger until the morning. Then we listened to the winds outside.
We could hear them gather in the dip of the valley and come sweeping
over the bend of the hill, singing great lonely songs in the darkness.
One wind whistled through the keyhole, another tapped on the window with
an ivy leaf, while a third swept under the half-door and rustled across
the hearthstone. Then the breezes died away and there was silence.
"They're only putting their heads together now," said Dan, "making up a
plan to do some other tricks."
"I see the moon through the window," said Norah.
"Who made the moon?" asked Fergus.
"It was never made," answered Dan. "It was there always."
"There is a man in the moon," I said. "He was very bad and a priest put
him up there for his sins."
"He has a pot of porridge in his hand."
"And a spoon."
"A wooden spoon."
"How could it shine at night if it's only a wooden spoon? It's made of
"Like a shillin'."
"Like a big shillin' with a handle to it."
"What would we do if we had a shillin'?" asked Ellen.
"I'd buy a pocket-knife," said Dan.
"Would you cut me a stick to drive bullocks to the harvest fair of
Greenanore?" asked Fergus.
"And what good would be in havin' a knife if you cut sticks for other
"I'd buy a prayer-book for the shillin'," said Norah.
"A prayer-book is no good, once you get it," I said. "A knife is far and
"I would buy a sheep for a shillin'," said Fergus.
"You couldn't get a sheep for a shillin'."
"Well, I could buy a young one."
"There never was a young sheep. A young one is only a lamb."
"A lamb turns into a sheep at midsummer moon."
"Why has a lamb no horns?" asked Norah.
"Because it's young," we explained.
"We'll sing a holy song," said Ellen.
"We'll sing _Holy Mary_," we all cried together, and began to sing in
"Oh! Holy Mary, mother mild.
Look down on me, a little child.
And when I sleep put near my bed
The good Saint Joseph at my head,
My guardian Angel at my right
To keep me good through all the night;
Saint Brigid give me blessings sweet;
Saint Patrick watch beside my feet.
Be good to me O! mother mild,
Because I am a little child."
"Get a sleep on you," mother called from the next room. "The wee
red-headed man is comin' down the chimley and he is goin' to take ye
away if ye aren't quiet."
We fell asleep, and that was how the night passed by in my father's
house years ago.
 The evening of All Souls' Day.
"Put a green cross beneath the roof on the eve of good Saint Bride
And you'll have luck within the house for long past Lammastide;
Put a green cross above the door - 'tis hard to keep it green,
But 'twill bring good luck and happiness for long past Hallow E'en
The green cross holds Saint Brigid's spell, and long the spell
And 'twill bring blessings on the head of you and all that's
- From _The Song of Simple People_.
Once a year, on Saint Bride's Eve, my father came home from his day's
work, carrying a load of green rushes on his shoulders. At the door he
would stand for a moment with his feet on the threshold and say these
"Saint Bride sends her blessings to all within. Give her welcome."
Inside my mother would answer, "Welcome she is," and at these words my
father would loosen the shoulder-knot and throw his burden on the floor.
Then he made crosses from the rushes, wonderful crosses they were. It
was said that my father was the best at that kind of work in all the
countryside. When made, they were placed in various parts of the house
and farm. They were hung up in our home, over the lintel of the door,
the picture of the Holy Family, the beds, the potato pile and the
fireplace. One was placed over the spring well, one in the pig-sty, and
one over the roof-tree of the byre. By doing this the blessing of Saint
Bride remained in the house for the whole of the following year. I
liked to watch my father plaiting the crosses, but I could never make
When my mother churned milk she lifted the first butter that formed on
the top of the cream and placed it against the wall outside the door. It
was left there for the fairy folk when they roamed through the country
at midnight. They would not harm those who gave them an offering in that
manner, but the people who forgot them would have illness among their
cattle through all the length of the year.
If my father met a red-haired woman when he was going to the market he
would turn home. To meet a red-haired woman on the high-road is very
It is a bad market where there are more women than men. "Two women and a
goose make a market," is the saying among the Glenmornan folk.
If my mother chanced to overturn the milk which she had drawn from the
cow, she would say these words: "Our loss go with it. Them that it goes
to need it more than we do." One day I asked her who were the people to
whom it went. "The gentle folk," she told me. These were the fairies.
You very seldom hear persons called by their surname in Glenmornan.
Every second person you meet there is either a Boyle or an O'Donnell.
You want to ask a question about Hugh O'Donnell. "Is it Patrick's Hugh
or Mickey's Hugh or Sean's Hugh?" you will be asked. So too in the Glen
you never say _Mrs._ when speaking of a married woman. It is just
"Farley's Brigid" or "Patrick's Norah" or "Cormac's Ellen," as the case
may be. There was one woman in Glenmornan who had a little boy of about
my age, and she seldom spoke to anybody on the road to chapel or market.
Everyone seemed to avoid her, and the old people called her "that
woman," and they often spoke about her doings. She had never a man of
her own, they said. Of course I didn't understand these things, but I
knew there was a great difference in being called somebody's Mary or
Norah instead of "that woman."
On St. Stephen's Day the Glenmornan boys beat the bushes and killed as
many wrens as they could lay their hands on. The wren is a bad bird, for
it betrayed St. Stephen to the Jews when they wanted to put him to
death. The saint hid in a clump of bushes, but the wrens made such a
chatter and clatter that the Jews, when passing, stopped to see what
annoyed the birds, and found the saint hiding in the undergrowth. No
wonder then that the Glenmornan people have a grudge against the wren!
Kissing is almost unknown in the place where I was born and bred. Judas
betrayed the Son of God with a kiss, which proves beyond a doubt that
kissing is of the devil's making. It is no harm to kiss the dead in
Glenmornan, for no one can do any harm to the dead.
Once I got bitten by a dog. The animal snapped a piece of flesh from my
leg and ate it when he got out of the way. When I came into my own house
my father and mother were awfully frightened. If three hairs of the dog
that bit me were not placed against the sore I would go mad before seven
moons had faded. Oiney Dinchy, who owned the dog, would not give me
three hairs because I was unfortunate enough to be stealing apples when
the dog rushed at me. For all that it mattered to Oiney, I might go as
mad as a March hare. The priest, when informed of the trouble, blessed
salt which he told my father to place on the wound. My father did so,
but the salt pained me so much that I rushed screaming from the house.
The next door neighbours ran into their homes and closed their doors
when they heard me scream. Two little girls were coming to our house for
the loan of a half-bottle of holy water for a sick cow, and when they
saw me rush out they fled hurriedly, shrieking that I was already mad
from the bite of Oiney Dinchy's dog. When Oiney heard this he got
frightened and he gave my father three hairs of the dog with a civil
hand. I placed them on my sore, the dog was hung by a rope from the
branch of a tree, and the madness was kept away from me. I hear that
nowadays in Glenmornan the people never apply the holy salt to the bite
of a dog. Thus do old customs change.
The six-hand reel is a favourite Glenmornan dance, but in my time a new
parish priest came along who did not approve of dancing. "The six-hand
reel is a circle, the centre of which is the devil," said he, and called
a house in which a dance was held the "Devil's Station." He told the
people to cease dancing, but they would not listen to him. "When we get
a new parish priest we don't want a new God," they said. "The old God
who allowed dancing is good enough for us." The priest put the seven
curses on the people who said these words. I only know three of the
May you have one leg and it to be halting.
May you have one eye and it to be squinting
May you have one tooth and it to be aching.
The second curse fell on one man - old Oiney Dinchy, who had a light foot
on a good floor. When tying a restive cow in the byre, the animal caught
Oiney in the ball of one eye with the point of its horn, and Oiney could
only see through the other eye afterwards. The people when they saw this
feared the new parish priest, but they never took any heed to the new
God, and up to this day there are many good six-hand reelers in
Glenmornan. And the priest is dead.
The parish priest who came in his place was a little pot-bellied man
with white shiny false teeth, who smoked ninepenny cigars and who always
travelled first-class in a railway train. Everybody feared him because
he put curses on most of the people in Glenmornan; and usually on the
people whom I thought best in the world. Those whom I did not like at
all became great friends of the priest. I always left the high-road when
I saw him coming. His name was Father Devaney, and he was eternally
looking for money from the people, who, although very poor, always paid
when the priest commanded them. If they did not they would go to hell as
soon as they died. So Father Devaney said.
A stranger in Glenmornan should never talk about crows. The people of
the Glen are nicknamed the "Crow Chasers," because once in the bad days,
the days of the potato failure, they chased for ten long hours a crow
that had stolen a potato, and took back the potato at night in triumph.
This has been cast up in their teeth ever since, and it is an ill day
for a stranger when he talks about crows to the Glenmornan people.
Courtship is unknown in Glenmornan. When a young man takes it in his
head to marry, he goes out in company with a friend and a bottle of
whisky and looks for a woman. If one refuses, the young man looks for
another and another until the bottle of whisky is consumed. The friend
talks to the girl's father and lays great stress upon the merits of the
would-be husband, who meanwhile pleads his suit with the girl. Sometimes
a young man empties a dozen bottles of whisky before he can persuade a
woman to marry him.
In my own house we had flesh meat to dinner four times each year, on St.
Patrick's Day, Easter Sunday, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day. If the
harvest had been a good one we took bacon with our potatoes at the
ingathering of the hay. Ours was a hay harvest; we grew very little
Of all the seasons of the year I liked the harvest-time best. Looking
from the door of my father's house I had the whole of Glenmornan under
my eyes. Far down the Glen the road wound in and out, now on one side of
the river and now on the other, running away to the end of Ireland, and
for all that I knew, maybe to the end of the world itself.
The river came from the hills, tumbling over rocks in showers of fine
white mist and forming into deep pools beneath, where it rested calmly
after its mad race. Here the trout leaped all day, and turned the placid
surface into millions of petulant ripples which broke like waves under
the hazel bushes that shaded the banks. In the fords further along the
heavy milch cows stood belly-deep in the stream, seeking relief from the
madness that the heat and the gad-flies put into their blood.
The young cattle grazed on the braes, keeping well in the shadow of the
cliffs, while from the hill above the mountain-sheep followed one
another in single file, as is their wont, down to the lower and sweeter
The mowers were winding their scythes in long heavy sweeps through the
meadow in the bottomlands, and rows of mown hay lay behind them. Even
where I stood, far up, I could hear the sharp swish of their scythes as
they cut through the bottom grass.
The young maidens, their legs bare well above their knees, tramped linen
at the brookside and laughed merrily at every joke that passed between
The neighbours spoke to one another across the march ditches, and their
talk was of the weather and the progress of the harvest.
The farmer boy could be seen going to the moor for a load of peat, his