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On the Road
One evening after heavy rains I set off to walk to a village at the other side of some hills, part of my way lying along a steep heathery track. The valleys that I passed through were filled with the strange splendour that comes after wet weather in Ireland, and on the tops of the mountains masses of fog were lying in white, even banks. Once or twice I went by a lonely cottage with a smell of earthy turf coming from the chimney, weeds or oats sprouting on the thatch, and a broken cart before the door, with many straggling hens going to roost on the shafts. Near these cottages little bands of half-naked children, filled with the excitement of evening, were running and screaming over the bogs, where the heather was purple already, giving me the strained feeling of regret one has so often in these places when there is rain in the air.
Further on, as I was going up a long hill, an old man with a white, pointed face and heavy beard pulled himself up out of the ditch and joined me. We spoke first about the broken weather, and then he began talking in a mournful voice of the famines and
misfortunes that have been in Ireland.
'There have been three cruel plagues,' he said, 'out through the country since I was born in the West. First, there was the big wind in 1839, that tore away the grass and green things from the earth. Then there was the blight that came on the ninth of June in the year 1846. Up to then the potatoes were clean and good; but that morning a mist rose up out of the sea, and you could hear a voice talking near a mile off across the stillness of the earth. It was the same the next day, and the day after, and so on for three days or more; and then you could begin to see the tops of the stalks lying over as if the life was gone out of them. And that was the beginning of the great trouble and famine that destroyed Ireland. Then the people went on, I suppose, in their wickedness and their animosity of one against the other; and the Almighty God sent down the third plague, and that was the sickness called the choler. Then all the people left the town of Sligo it's in Sligo I was reared and you could walk through the streets at the noon of day and not see a person, and you could knock at one door and another door and find no one to answer you. The people were travelling out north and south and east, with the terror that was on them; and the country people were digging ditches across the roads and driving them back where they could, for they had a great dread of the disease.
'It was the law at that time that if there was sickness on any person in the town of Sligo you should notice it to the Governors, or you'd be put up in the gaol. Well, a man's wife took sick, and he went and noticed it. They came down then with bands of men they had, and took her away to the sick-house, and he heard nothing more till he heard she was dead, and was to be buried in the morning. At that time there was such fear and hurry and dread on every person, they were burying people they had no hope of, and they with life within them. My man was uneasy a while thinking on that, and then what did he do, but slip down in the darkness of the night and into the dead-house, where they were after putting his wife. There were beyond two score bodies, and he went feeling from one to the other. Then I suppose his wife heard him coming she wasn't dead at all and Is that Michael? says she. It is then, says he, and, oh, my poor woman, have you your last gasps in you still? I have, Michael, says she, and they're after setting me out here with fifty bodies the way they'll put me down into my grave at the dawn of day. Oh, my poor woman, says he, have you the strength left in you to hold on my back? Oh, Micky, says she, I have surely. He took her up then on his back, and he carried her out by lanes and tracks till he got to his house. Then he never let on a word about it, and at the end of three days she began to pick up, and in a month's time she came out and began walking about like yourself or me. And there were many people were afeard to speak to her, for they thought she was after coming back from the grave.'
Soon afterwards we passed into a little village and he turned down a lane and left me. It was not long, however, till another old man that I could see a few paces ahead stopped and waited for me, as is the custom of the place.
'I've been down in Kilpeddar buying a scythe-stone,' he began, when I came up to him, 'and indeed Kilpeddar is a dear place, for it's threepence they charged me for it; but I suppose there must be a profit from every trade, and we must all live and let live.'
When we had talked a little more I asked him if he had been often in Dublin.
'I was living in Dublin near ten years,' he said, 'and indeed I don't know what way I lived that length in it, for there is no place with smells like the city of Dublin. One time I went up with my wife into those lanes where they sell old clothing, Hanover Lane and Plunket's Lane, and when my wife she's dead now, God forgive her! when my wife smelt the dirty air she put her apron up to her nose and, For the love of God, says she, get me away out of this place. And now may I ask if it's from there you are yourself, for I think by your speaking it wasn't in these parts you were reared?'
I told him I was born in Dublin, but that I had travelled afterwards and been in Paris and Rome, and seen the Pope Leo XIII.
'And will you tell me,' he said, 'is it true that anyone at all can see the Pope?'
I described the festivals in the Vatican, and how I had seen the Pope carried through long halls on a sort of throne. 'Well, now,' he said, 'can you tell me who was the first Pope that sat upon that throne?'
I hesitated for a moment, and he went on:
'I'm only a poor, ignorant man, but I can tell you that myself if you don't know it, with all your travels. Saint Peter was the first Pope, and he was crucified with his head down, and since that time there have been Popes upon the throne of Rome.'
Then he began telling me about himself.
'I was twice a married man,' he said. 'My first wife died at her second child, and then I reared it up till it was as tall as myself a girl it was and she went off and got married and left me. After that I was married a second time to an aged woman, and she lived with me ten years, and then she died herself. There is nothing I can make now but tea, and tea is killing me; and I'm living alone, in a little hut beyond, where four baronies, four parishes and four townlands meet.'
By this time we had reached the village inn, where I was lodging for the night; so I stood him a drink, and he went on to his cottage along a narrow pathway through the bogs.
Copyright © J. M. Synge, 2007