arrived; we were sitting at breakfast when the letter was delivered. My
heart swelled with joyous expectation. Now I would show my skeptical
relations how wrong-headed they, had been in thwarting my legitimate
ambitions towards making a start in life; now I was about to taste the
sweets of independence.
The missive was bulky. As my trembling fingers tore open the envelope,
a number of closely printed slips fell out. I read these, one by one,
with a reeling brain. Then I laid my head on the table and burst into
bitter tears. My stately castle of hope had tumbled to pieces, and I
was buried beneath its ruins.
The circulars were signed by one "Harper Twelvetree"; the printed slips
outlined a scheme for establishing a burial agency. I had to open an
office at the nearest village and, when I heard of a death, direct the
attention of the bereaved to one or other of the undertakers in the
vicinity. For thus obtaining custom I was to claim a commission on the
funeral expenses. This ghoulish suggestion was the sole outcome of my
It is hardly too much to say that this matter caused me deeper and more
long-drawn-out misery than any other episode of a somewhat chequered
career. I have dwelt on it at length because I think the relation
reveals a moral. At that breakfast-table began a course of torture
which lasted for several years. To say I was chaffed by everyone, from
my father and mother down to old Larry Frane, an ex-soldier who
occupied the lodge at our big gate, gives no idea of the true state of
things. The ridicule was continuous, searching, and universal. I was
the laughing-stock of the neighborhood. Anonymous letters from supposed
persons in a moribund condition, offering to guarantee the delivery of
their prospective remains in consideration of a small immediate
advance, reached me from various quarters. If I went into a hayfield,
one laborer would speak to another, somewhat in this fashion
"Jerry, have ye heerd that ould Biddy McGrath was prayed for on
This would be accompanied by a meaning look at me. I would stalk off
with apparent unconcern, seeking some place where I could fall unseen
to the ground and weep. I was afraid to go to Mass at the little upland
chapel at Glencullen. It is usual in Roman Catholic churches to pray
for the welfare of departed souls and for the recovery of those people
afflicted with sickness who are thought to be in danger. I used to
imagine that the priest glanced meaningly at me when he made
announcements on these subjects. This, of course, was nonsense, but
several times I noticed members of the congregation looking at me and
I became solitary in my habits, for I dreaded meeting a human being.
For a time my health suffered to a serious degree. My tribulations
increased to such an extent that I seriously contemplated suicide. I am
convinced that this period left an indelible mark, and that not an
improving one, on my character. Where sensitive children are concerned,
chaff may be useful in hardening them, but it should not be carried
beyond a certain point.
Improved health - Jimmy Kinsella - Veld food - I abscond - Father Healy on
conversion - Father O'Dwyer and his whip - Confession - Construction of a
volcano - The Fenian outbreak - Departure for South Africa - The tuneful
soldier - Chess at sea - Madeira A gale - The Asia
My health having improved in my eleventh year, I was able to extend the
range of my walks abroad. The surrounding country was full of interest;
the scenery was lovely. The region through which the boundary common to
Wicklow and Dublin runs is full of beauty spots, and the deeper one
penetrates into Wicklow, the more delightful is the landscape. The
Dargle, Powerscourt Waterfall, Bray Head, and the Sugarloaf Mountains
were all within rambling distance of Springfield. A few miles away,
on the Dublin side, were various ruins full of rusting machinery.
These had been the sites of paper and flax mills, shut down owing
to England's fiscal policy of the early nineteenth century days.
Lead-smelting and shot-making was carried on at a spot a few miles to
the eastward. It was a great delight to see the melted metal poured
through a sieve at the top of a tower and raining down into an
excavation with water at the bottom. I remember the manager of the
works once showing me an immense ingot of silver. It was lying on a
table in his office between two flannel shirts, the edges of which
were just able to meet over its sides. There was a small lake and a
trout stream close to the works; of these I had the run.
Many spots in the neighborhood of Springfield had legends attached to
them. I remember one large rock in the Scalp which was known as the
"Soggarth's Stone." It was said that a priest had been killed there in
"ninety-eight." At a spot where two roads crossed, on the way to
Enniskerry, could still be traced the outlines of the graves of several
suicides; one of these had the remains of a very old oaken stake
sticking diagonally from it. Every storied spot fascinated me, but
although many of my friends among the peasantry tried hard to make me
believe in the fairies or, as they called them, "the good people," I
never placed the slightest credence in what was said on the subject.
I had a faithful henchman in Jimmy Kinsella, a lad of about my own age,
who belonged to Springfield. Jimmy was the only one of my circle of
acquaintances who refrained from persecuting me concerning the "burial
agency" episode. Should these lines ever meet his eye, he will know
that I still cherish grateful memories of his chivalrous forbearance.
But I fear poor Jimmy could never have learnt to read; he was one of a
sorely poverty-stricken family of about a dozen children. His ordinary
costume consisted of a very ragged coat and breeches, the latter not
quite reaching to his knees, and usually held at their proper altitude
by a "suggan," or rope of hay. Jimmy was the only well-fleshed member
of his family, and for being thus distinguished he had me to thank.
I must, as a child, have had the forager's instinct very strongly
developed, for I very early noted the amount of more or less appetizing
food lying about ungleaned in what, in South Africa, we would call "the
veld." For instance, there was a large grove of hazel-trees from which
vast stores of nuts could be collected in the season. This nut-grove
was still standing when I visited Springfield a few years ago. These
nuts we used to gather and, like the squirrels, hoard in various
The seasons brought forth other acceptable items of food. Mushrooms
grew plentifully in the grassy hollows near the lake, and wild
strawberries were to be found on almost every southern slope. There was
one small area where the strawberries grew in wonderful profusion. A
few years since I revisited this spot in spring. I found the fruit as
plentiful as ever, but somehow the flavor of the strawberry did not
seem to be so rich as it was five-and-forty years ago. Blackberries
were abundant on the edge of every thicket; on the heights of the
Scalp, over which we poached without restraint, haws and sloes grew
plentifully. It must not be inferred that Jimmy and I did not lay the
garden under levy, for we did. Apples, pears, gooseberries, and such
common fruits, we helped ourselves to freely, but I had given my word
not to touch any of the rare varieties such as plums and greengages.
These were trained, vine-wise, along the walls.
But we seldom lacked animal food, for we could always snare rabbits or,
except in the depths of winter, catch fish. The lake was full of perch,
roach, and eels; every mountain stream contained trout. On rare
occasions we would find Lord Powerscourt's pheasants in our snares. I
am sorry to say that in winter we would eat blackbirds, which we caught
in a crib made of elder-rods. This I always knew to be a disgraceful
thing to do, and it was only when very hungry indeed that such a crime
Tired of the ways of society, Jimmy and I determined to have done
with civilization, so we built, with infinite pains and some measure
of skill, a large hut in the deepest and loneliest part of the
larch-forest. Larch-boughs and bracken were the materials used. To
this hut I surreptitiously conveyed a few utensils such as knives,
mugs, etcetera, as well as a change of clothing and some cast-off
garments as a fresh outfit for Jimmy. We disappeared early one
afternoon, and, after a lordly feast of roast rabbit and mushrooms,
sank to sleep on a fragrant bed of carefully selected fronds of dry
At about midnight I awoke with the glare of a lantern in my eyes. My
father had come with a search party, and I was led, howling with wrath
and disappointment, back to the haunts of conventional men. My absence
had not been thought remarkable until ten o'clock had struck. Then a
messenger was dispatched to make inquiries at the Kinsella cottage.
Patsy, one of Jimmy's numerous brethren, betrayed us. He had, a few
days previously, followed our tracks to the secret lair. Poor Patsy,
subsequently had reason to regret his treachery.
One escapade of Jimmy's and mine nearly had serious consequences. I had
been reading about volcanoes, so was filled with ambition to construct
one. I unearthed a large powder-horn, belonging to my father, which
must have contained nearly a pound of gunpowder. This I poured into a
tin, which I punctured at the side. Into the puncture I inserted a fuse
of rolled brown paper which had been soaked in a solution of saltpeter.
The tin was placed on the floor in the middle of the tool-house; around
it we banked damp clay in the form of a truncated cone, leaving a
hollow for the crater. The latter we filled with dry sand and fragments
of brick. We lit the fuse, and, as might have been expected, a
frightful explosion resulted. The windows were blown completely out of
the tool-house. Jimmy and I were flung against the wall and nearly
blinded. Several fragments of brick had to be dug out of our respective
Father Healy, celebrated as a wit, occasionally visited our house. His
church at Little Bray was noted for the excellence of its choir. The
following story, was told of this priest: He was one night dining with
an Anglican clergyman, with whom he was on intimate terms. Just
previously two Roman Catholic priests, one in England and the other in
Ireland, had joined the Anglican communion. This double event, which
came up as a topic of conversation at the dinner-table, was, naturally
enough, the occasion of some satisfaction to the host. Various views as
to the psychology of conversion or, according to one's point of view,
perversion, were mooted. Various possible motives, spiritual and
temporal, underlying such a change, were discussed. Eventually the host
asked Father Healy for his opinion.
"Faith!" replied the latter, "I don't think there's any mystery about
the thing at all."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, when one of our men goes over to you, it's always due to one of
"What are they?"
"Punch or Judy," replied Father Healy laconically.
Although Glencullen Chapel was the nearest to Springfield, the house
was in the parish of Enniskerry. Here a certain Father O'Dwyer was the
incumbent. Father O'Dwyer was a very irascible man of powerful
physique; he was as much feared by the godly as by the ungodly.
He kept a big whip in the vestry, with which to chastise evil-doers; of
this I had ocular demonstration.
One Sunday, when High Mass was being celebrated by another priest, a
stranger, I was sitting in the carriage, which stood waiting for the
conclusion of the ceremony, in the road outside. I had attended early
Mass, and arranged to drive home with my people. A number of boys were
playing marbles outside the church-yard wall, in a blind alley. The
vestry door opened and Father O'Dwyer came out, clad in his soutane and
carrying the well-known whip. He crouched and crept along the wall, out
through the gate and to the entrance of the alley. The boys were so
intent upon their game that they never noticed his approach until he
was close upon them. Then they sprang up with wild yells, but the lash
descended on them like a well-aimed flail; they rolled over and over in
a writhing heap. After the heap had broken up and its shrieking units
scattered, the irate priest calmly pocketed the marbles and, whip in
hand, stalked back to the vestry.
Confession to Father O'Dwyer was an ordeal much dreaded by the younger
members of our family. As we were his parishioners, he expected us to
attend to our religious duties at his church, but we endeavored by
every possible subterfuge to perform such at Glencullen, where the
priest was more sympathetic.
My father used to tell a story of the confessional which always amused
us. When a boy, he occasionally visited relations in Dublin who were
exact in the matter of regular confession. It was, in fact, the rule of
the household that not alone every member, but the stranger within its
gates, should confess each Saturday night. As it is on Saturday night
that most people confess, a number of penitents were usually sitting in
church awaiting their respective turns. On one occasion my father was
sitting near a cubicle into which a rather disreputable woman had just
entered. He heard the muttering of the voices of the priest and the
penitent alternately; once or twice the former emitted a long, low
whistle, indicative of extreme surprise.
Another story was told me by a relative. The episode is said to have
occurred at Cashel, but I do not guarantee it in any respect. Whether
it is true or not does not much matter.
Part of the ritual of confession is this: The penitent repeats a
formula of three sentences: "Mea culpa mea culpa mea maxima culpa,"
striking the breast with the closed hand as each sentence is uttered.
On this occasion the words of the penitent, an old countrywoman, could
be distinctly heard outside the cubicle. They were: "Mea culpa, mea oh!
dammit I've bruk me poipe."
In 1867 befell the Fenian outbreak. At Glencullen, about a mile from
the back of our house, was a police barrack. This was attacked one
night, but not captured, although the valiant attackers forced some of
their prisoners to stand in the line of fire, between them and the
building. The police had closed the windows with feather beds and
mattresses, and these the Fenian bullets could not penetrate. Within a
few days the fiasco of a rising was at an end. I do not think any of
the people in our neighborhood joined it. When the rebels retreated
along the Wicklow road, they threw several pikes over the wall close to
our lodge gates. The preference on the part of the Irishman of the last
generation for the pike as a fighting implement was remarkable. He
regarded it as quite superior to the rifle.
My father had never been well off; each passing year had left him more
and more deeply involved. In 1867 a disastrous lawsuit with the Marquis
of Bute over some mining rights in Wales almost brought ruin to our
door. It was decided to emigrate. The advantages of New Zealand, Buenos
Ayres, and South Africa were all considered. But a letter from Cardinal
(then Bishop) Moran, of Grahamstown, decided our fate: the Cape Colony
was to be our destination.
My three sisters were all senior to me. The eldest accompanied us to
the Cape. The second had, the previous year, gone to India. The
youngest, who was in delicate health, remained behind with an aunt. My
brother, who was younger than I, stayed at school in Ireland.
So one lovely day, in early November of 1867 we embarked at Dublin on a
small paddle-steamer called the Lady Eglinton. Our immediate
destination was Falmouth; there we had to join the S.S. Asia, one of
the old "Diamond Line." Memory is a curious thing; although I can
recall minute details of most of my uneventful life between my sixth
and twelfth years, the circumstances of this voyage, the first in my
experience, have passed almost entirely away. The only memory that
remains is connected with a ridiculous episode.
There was a drunken Irish soldier on board. He was a good-natured
creature who made himself most embarrassingly friendly towards all and
sundry of the passengers. Eventually he tried to embrace one of the
ladies. For this misdemeanor, which I am persuaded was based on no evil
intention, he was trussed and tied down on the hatch, close to the
wheel. But the man must have been a philosopher, for his bonds
distressed him not at all. For several hours he lifted up his voice in
continuous song. His repertoire was extensive and varied. To this day I
can clearly recall the words as well as the tune of two of his ditties.
One related to the history of a pair of corduroy breeches, year by
year, since the close of the last decade, each year being treated of in
a couplet. The first verse ran thus:
"In eighteen hundred and sixty-one
Those corduroy breeches were begun."
Eventually, in the then current year, 1867 "Those corduroy breeches
went up to heaven."
But they must have come down again, for it was prophetically, related
that, in 1868 "Those corduroy breeches lost their sate."
Following this came a lyric, having for its theme the pangs of despised
love and the faithlessness of the fair. Its refrain ran:
"Oh, surely the wimmin is worse than the min,
For they go to the Divil and come back agin."
Towards the afternoon the minstrel sank into slumber. To judge by the
expression of his face his dreams must have been happy ones.
The Asia was awaiting us at Falmouth. By the light of subsequent
experience I now know her to have been a very second-class craft even
for the sixties but to me then she was an Argo bound for a Colchis,
where a Golden Fleece awaited every seeker. There were a number of Cape
colonists on board. Among them may be mentioned Mr. and Mrs. "Varsy"
Van der Byl, the Rev. Mr. (now Canon) Woodrooffe and his wife, Mr.
Templar Horne who was afterwards Surveyor-General and Mr. D. Krynauw,
who still enjoys life in his comfortable home just off Wandel Street,
Cape Town. Mr. Krynauw added to the gaiety of the community by making
clever thumb-nail sketches of all and sundry. But Mr. Woodrooffe was
the life and soul of the ship. He seemed to have as many
accomplishments as the celebrated Father O'Flynn, with several more
Among his other acquirements Mr. Woodrooffe had an excellent knowledge
of chess; he was, in fact, by far the best player on board. I often
challenged him to play, but he considered a small boy such as I was to
be beneath his notice, so kept putting me off. However, one day I
happened to be sitting in the saloon, with the chessmen in their places
on the board, waiting for a victim. Mr. Woodrooffe chanced to come out
of his cabin, so I captured him. But no sooner had we begun to play
than two charming young ladies appeared and, one on each side, engaged
my opponent in a conversation which, naturally enough, was more
interesting than chess with me. Accordingly, he paid little or no
attention to the game. I, on the other hand, was in deadly earnest.
I moved out my king's pawn; then the king's bishop; then the queen. My
heart was in my mouth; surely so experienced a player was not going to
walk open-eyed into such a booby-trap. But the sirens had lured his
attention away. Next move I gave him "fool's mate." That moment was one
of the proudest of my life; I had beaten the champion, the Admirable
Crichton of games of skill, the man whose word was law in all matters
relating to sport in our little community.
Unfortunately, however, I was too young and inexperienced to support my
triumph with becoming dignity. I rushed up the companion stair shouting
the news of my victory at the top of my voice. I told it to the
captain, the officers, the passengers, and to such members of the crew
as I was acquainted with. But I was astute enough never again to offer
to play chess with Mr. Woodrooffe, and even to decline when he
suggested our having a return game.
The Biscayan tides were kind; but no sooner had we passed Finisterre
than a gale struck us, and for many woeful days the Asia behaved
like a drunken porpoise. I do not think a single passenger escaped
sea-sickness. The gale continued until the night before we reached
Madeira. I shall never forget the enchanting prospect which Funchal
afforded as we glided to our anchorage in the early morning. The
misery of the previous week was forgotten in the rapture of a moment.
The sky was cloudless and the contours of the lovely island were
bathed in opaline light. What joy the first sight, smell, and taste
of the tropical fruits brought. Cold storage, by bringing all
descriptions of exotic fruit to Europe, has robbed travel towards the
tropics of one of its keenest delights.
We passed to the westward of Teneriffe in perfectly clear weather. The
recent storms encountered by us had extended far to the south;
consequently the great peak was clothed in dazzling snow to an unusual
distance below its summit. The impression left on my memory by that
mountain mass, with the snow-mantle glowing in the rose-red light of
sunset, will never fade. I can well remember being sadly disappointed
at the first view of the Southern Cross. The voyage was uneventful
until we reached the vicinity of the Cape, where we again encountered a
most violent south-west gale. For two days we steamed against a
tremendous sea. Wave after wave swept our decks; all the passengers had
to remain below. I remember the ladies sitting huddled together at
night in the companion, and the ship's doctor (I think his name was
Williamson) regaling them with gruesome tales of shipwreck until the
more nervous of the listeners began to wail aloud. So bad was the
storm, that cooking was almost suspended. The menu consisted solely of
"sea-pie" a comestible apparently composed of lumps of salt-beef stuck
into slabs of very tough dough, and the result boiled in a hurried and
perfunctory manner. Two days after the cessation of the storm, the Asia
steamed into Table Bay.
The Asia, poor old tub, lies at the bottom of the Bay of Bengal, where
she foundered with all hands when engaged in the cattle-trade. Peace to
her iron bones. Most of my fellow Argonauts, long before this, must
have sunk into that sleep from which there is no earthly waking. Few,
if any of us, managed to find the Golden Fleece. Those who, like
myself, are still seeking it, are treading that downhill path which
grows steeper at every pace, and which leads to that valley, filled
with grey shadow, out of which none return. To them I hold out a hand
of greeting in the spirit. Perhaps, when the Great Cycle has been
traversed, we may meet again. Perhaps in another Argo we may voyage
from Sirius to Mazaroth, through seas of golden ether adventurers from
world to world instead of from continent to continent.
Arrival at Cape Town - Port Elizabeth - First encounter with big game
Grahamstown - Severe thunderstorm - King William's Town Natives and their
ponies - Social peculiarities - Farming - The annual trek - Camp-life
Surf-bathing - Self-sacrificing attitude of Larry O'Toole - Capture of
an ant-bear - The coast scenery - A moral shock - School Chief Toise - Rainy
seasons - Flooded rivers
It was about the middle of December when we reached Table Bay. With the
exception of the old Slave Barracks, in which the Supreme Court sits, I
do not think a single one of the present Adderley Street buildings
existed. Bree Street is more or less unchanged, but immediately to the
eastward of it modernization begins. The most interesting building to
me was the old Fruit Market, facing the Parade. I think it stood on the
present site of the Drill Hall. The variety of strange fruits there to
be found, the grotesque dresses of the Malays, and the babel of uncouth
speech exercised a fascination the memory of which has never faded.
The costume of the average Malay woman has remained unchanged; it is
surely the most hideous of the many sumptuary hideosities for which
fashion is responsible. This is the more deplorable for that the Malay
women, when young, are often extremely pretty. The color scheme they
affect is good; these women usually dress in light, flimsy silks of
varied hue. Such materials are used at all events among the well-to-do
for skirt, bodice, kerchief, and coiffure. But under the skirt, which
hangs from just below the arm-pits, there must be at least a dozen
petticoats. The result is a figure resembling a misshapen cone. I
believe this costume is an exaggerated imitation of that of the