Wednesday 20 March 2019

When Michael Davitt visited Arran in 1888 (Part 2)

This is part two of our recent transcription of a visit to Arran in February 1888, of Michael Davitt, in the company of an American journalist, Blakely Hall. Blakely would appear to have taken some liberties and its even possible that he exaggerated a little and perhaps drifted into invention. 

While Blakely had some fun with the "bad" man of the islands, the "bad" man was having even more fun with Blakely as he instructed him on how to shave. We give it to you more or less as he wrote it and his mixture of comedy and horror makes interesting reading. You can read part one Here ,which is a very disturbing read. M.M.
     When Michael Davitt visited Arran in 1888 
                                (Part 2)
              A transcription of an account written by an American journalist ---------------------------------------------------------

                                                  Pictures from Ireland

Among the hungry Thousands of the Arran Islands

               -A figure of Humor in the midst of Horror-
                              The one bad man of Arran
                  A look at several needy households
                                             The Remedy
Aran Islands, February 4th 1888 by Blakely Hall

Michael Davitt addressing the House of Commons in 1892

I was awakened this morning by a light tapping on the window of the small stone cabin where I had spent the night. I sat up in bed and looked out. On the other side of the window was a man with a mop of yellow hair, a short beard and a pair of rogish blue eyes. He was about three sheets in the wind and proud of that radiant fact.
whist, y'r honor”
he said in a stage whisper, “are ye wake”. I nodded.
Put on yer clo's then, an coom out an see th' gran' preparations phat's goin' on. It's the proudest day Arn's yet known”
What's going on?” I asked
A riciption t' Mr Davitt phat cooms here wid goodness into his heart, an' millyuns av pounds in his pocket. Faith, I've no doubt I'll git a tousand guineas mesel”

He disappeared with such great violence at this point that I went to the window to see what had become of him. He was still in sight, doing a kind of hurdle race over the adjoining garden walls, with the woman whoministered to the curate'swants in sharp pursuit. I was occupying the curate's cabin for the night.

I began to shave half an hour later and as it was a dark day I placed the mirror against the window. After I had got about half way through I heard a voice without say reflectively,
Dem up sthrokes on th' neck twist wan's soul like a deat' bed repintince”
I glanced outside and saw the man who had waked me- and who is the one and only bad man of the islands- sitting comfortably in the mud and watching me with an air of friendly interest. On either side of him sat chunky and big eyed children also watching the shaving with rapt attention. They all sat flat on the ground, and their faces were all turned upwards. The woman of the house was not in sight.

In dese here islands” remarked the ne'er do-well in a half-explanatory way. “dere ai't no shaving-hence the axitement over it”
Where were you born” I asked. “You seem to have a variety of accents”
I was borned here, but I'm a travelled man, havin been to Ameriky, where I imbibed th'e habit of drink, the fell destroyer of man's soul. Th' habit is derlicerous. I prefers bein chuck full t'bein hungry, don't you?”
I didn't think it neccessary to reply to this but went on shaving to the great delight of the spectators.
The beauty of livin here” continued the wicked man of the islands, “is dat it aint no trouble to live. Y' don have t' lift th' windy fur to talk to me fur the simple reason th windys busted out. It's cold but conveaynaint. So it is wild-y' oughter swipe that razor sideways along the left jaw. It ain't quite close enough- so I say, wid all tings. Y' dont have to buysoap, forks, pockethangerchiers, night shirts and collars, fur why? Because dey aint in use at Aran-heavier on de chin dere. As fur havin hard work gittin up in time fur breakfast- tain't known here, bekase dere aint no breakfas' nowadays.”

"You've been a good deal among negroes?” I asked, still wondering at the unusual range of dialects among which he ranged.

Deed I have y'honor. I married wan in Liverpool, an she bate de life half out av me de wedding night, fur th ppurpose, she said , av takin the Oirish oute me- dey's some soap on your left ear- faith she's lukin in vain fur me now dough. I'm here t' stay till I die. Dere's nothin as fine as Aran, sur it's de paradize av de eart, or leastwise” he added more thoughtfully,it wud be if derewusn't s'much starvin to deth”

"That interferes with the enjoyment of life here does it?”

Well y'r h'nor, t' be candid, it does. Fur mesel I aint had nothin fur a day an a half.”

He grinned even as he made the assertion, but there was no doubting the truth for the mans face and figure were living evidence of starvation- a condition that every traveller in Ireland soon learns to recognize, no matter how ignorant he may have been before visiting this unhappy country.

A very small specimen of an Aran Island girl dropped me a beautiful courtsey as I left the cabin, crowded against the gate, looked at me affrightedly with her big grey eyes and then drawing on all the courage of her eight years of experience she piped shrilly
Plaze zur, gaw'n ate his Rivirince fur bwekfuss”

"Thank you” I said “ Have they cooked him well? And which way is Fr O'Donoghue's house, it was dark when I left it last night".

Aff ye'll lave yersel in our han's” said a portentious voice near me “we'll convey you dere”

I turned and found my early acquaintance, the Bad Man of the Aran Isles, motioning me to follow him around the corner of the cabin. I did so and started back in amazement.
Cill Rónáin harbour a few years after Davitt's visit. The cross was erected in memory of Fr O'Donohoe who died in Carnacon, Co Mayo, a few yearsg after hosting Michael Davitt.

I found an escort in full regalia waiting in the road. There were six men mounted on sturdy, long coated little horses. They had no saddles, but greean brances of enormous size were bound on the horses heads, producing an impressive but somewhat groggy effect.Those of the riders who had hats wore them bedecked with green shrubbery, and they all carried green boughs as cavalrymen bear their swords. The long and often naked legs of the riders nearly touched the ground. Four of the horses were ahead of the other two and I was conducted to the space between them.

In front of me walked the Wreck with immense dignity, but with some indecision in the matter of legs. Following him were two little girls carrying an old green banner. Then I stalked along and after me were two little boys, followed in turn by two horsemen riding abreast. In this way we wound our way through the village streets.

It was monstrously droll. A single at the simple islanders showed that they were vastly impressed by the pomp and splendor of the procession and when I glanced back at a turning in the corner, I saw that there were hundreds of the natives marching silently behind. The impressiveness of our arrival at the priest's house was marred by an unfortunate accident to the Wreck, who fell over one of his own feet while wheeling about majestically and plunged madly and involuntarily downhill.

But my escort was nothing to the one that greeted Mr Davitt when he ventured forth on a tour of inspection after breakfast. The horsemen numbered thirty odd and their magnificense carried the day by storm. Some one, carried away by the enthusiasm of the hour, had given the Wreck another drink and the effect was touching.
The P.Ps house in Cill Rónáin where Davitt stayed. It would later become the curate's house when a new house with a flat roof was built for a later Parish Priest, Fr Farragher.  Cross was erected in memory of Fr O'Donohoe.

The only wicked man on the island was hanging like a wet towel out of the window of a neighbour's house delivering stirring addresses about Ireland's wrongs to an audience which consisted of several exceedingly attentive pigs and a yellow dog without a tail.

An effort was made by the parish priest, after we had mounted the jaunting car to prevent the cavalcade from accompanying Mr Davitt but all to no avail.
They followed the car from 9 o'clock in the morning till 6 at night, scores and hundreds of men and boys running a distance of more than twenty miles. The mounted escort went ahead.

The islands” Fr O'Donoghue said as we neared the first village, “are overpopulated but it seems impossible to suggest any remedy. The people won't go away and the crops are so precarious that it is impossible to place and dependence on them. There is a fine bay here before us. If the government would build a pier across the entrance to this little bay it would make it a safe harbor for fishing boats. Now, not a boat can live at it at times so fierce is the sea.
Besides, the building of the pier would give employment and food to all the poor people who are now actually starving here.”

"I heard somewhere about a pier that was being built on one of these three islands not long ago” remarked Mr Davitt.

It was the middle island” said the priest “and it shows how the Government does it's work at times. There was a small pier needing repairs and the Government decided to fix it up with the idea of giving employment to the people. They hired five men at one shilling sixpence a day. Then they sent an engineer down from the city on a salary of four pounds a week to boss the five men. 

A clerk at fifty shillings a week to keep the record of the job and a paymaster at two pounds a week to disburse the money.
They worked a week at this and then they were compelled to leave off as the stone had not arrived. The sea sprang up nasty and strong as it does at short intervals here and for fully a month it was impossible to get any stone over from the mainland to the island.
Inish Meáin, where the lack of a proper pier made life difficult

During the interval, the engineer, foreman and paymaster continued to draw their salaries, but the five workmen who were recieving the magnificent sum of one shilling sixpence a day were laid off.
The whole scheme was organized and carried through with the idea of improving the impoverished condition of the people on the island. You can see how much benefit they derived from it. The officers of the magnificent enterprise were the only ones who got anything out of the scheme during the long wait for the stone.”

We drove around the coast for a distance of perhaps a mile and alighted at a small village that was nestled down near the water. The huts were in the main comfortable looking. They were one-story high and had thatched roofs. There were no windows or chimneys and the streets were exceedingly muddy. Fr O'Donoghue and Mr Davitt alighted at the first hut they came to.
A photo of some Cill Éinne natives taken in the 1890s. (Balfour album N.U.I.G)

These people” said the priest with a comprehensive wave of his hand towards half a hundred miserably clad and apparently half-starving peasants “are so much alike that the lot of the family of one cabin is the lot of all”
He turned haphazard into a cabin on his left. We entered through a doorway and looked about. On the floor, in a dark corner were two children. One of them had a small frock, tied around her frail body by a piece of string; the other wore a sort of jacket that was grotesquely too large for her figure. They sat on a piece of stone with their knees and feet together. They were not unhealthy looking children, although remarkably thin. A fire of peat smouldered on the hearth. Some moss in another corner indicated the bed of the mother of the family. She had been married four years and had three children.
One had died leaving two little ones who sat dismally and silently in the corner. Her husband was a fisherman. He had been unable to do anything since the rough weather had set in. He sat near the embers of the hearth, staring stolidly before him. He said that he had tried every way to get food, that the potato crop again failed and that it was impossible at this season of the year to make any haul of fish with the small boat he had at his command. Although he had laboured for months at his kelp, he had found it impossible to sell it.
He was tall, big boned and muscular- just the sort of man in fact who would make a sturdy laborer in New York. There was nothing for him to do however on the island and he had no means to take his family away.
His story was told in the quaint and simple fashion of all the people here and when he had got through, he pointed to the children and remarked that they would have to have food or they would give way to their privations and misery.

The wife was about to become a mother again and she sat moaning in the corner. I heard a feeble voice piping from the bed of moss and on going closer to the primitive couch, I discovered that an old woman lay there in a condition of great emaciation and sickness. She was the maternal grandmother. She wandered incoherently in her speech. She said she had a son in New York and that he was making a good livelihood but that she had never received anything from him except a $5 greenback the day his sister married. She thought at first that this meant £500 as she believed in her son, as most poor Irish mothers do in this country and was constantly expecting him to send her a fortune. He has never sent her anything since then.

We left that cottage and entered another one. “This” said Fr O'Donoghue “is known as a reliefcabin; that is the inmates are in such an utterly helpless condition that I find it neccessary to administer a little outdoor relief in order to keep them alive.”

The man had three sons and they had all sailed away to Boston four years ago. They were now settled in the house of a man in Cambridge near Harvard college, whose name he could not remember. The sons were employed as gardiner, coachman and butler and they had once sent him a £5 as a Christmas gift. Nothing had ever come after that. The eldest of the three was a widower when he left and had three children.

The door of the cabin had long since been burnt for fuel, as had the window shutters, and as the wind blew in strongly from the sea, the old woman had crawled into a hole in the wall by the side of the fireplace, where she lay curled up like a rabbit, presenting a remarkable specimen of old age and infirmity (she is approaching her eighty-fifth year) and was twisted up in an astonishingly small space. Out of a confused mass of bony arms, shoulders and legs, covered by thin rags, arose the woman's gaunt neck and weazened face, out of which looked a pair of bright little eyes.

Tears began to stream down her face as soon as she spoke and after blackguarding her husband in the conventional Irish fashion for his indolence, she poured out the tale of her woe in her native tongue. She knew but very little English and forgot that when she was excited. Her husband insisted that she had eaten the candle which the priest had sent her the night before and she threw the accusation back in his face and asserted that he had dined off it. The priest gave them a shilling or two and asked after the children. It appeared that one of the neighbours had taken them into her house, which, as it had doors and shutters,was warmer than the hut occupied by the old couple. During the time we were in this poverty stricken hole, the old man sat solemly and pretentiously in the corner, his chin resting on a stick over which his hands were folded and a battered hat of inconcievably antique origin balanced on his bald head.
A great photo from the Balfour Album at N.U.I.G, of a group of Cill Éinne children in the 1890s

His legs were crossed and on his swinging foot was perched a seagull that looked as old as the old woman curled up in the hole in the wall. The gull's wings had been clipped and this seemed to deprive it of the ability to keep an upright carriage. It was as groggy on its swinging perch as a drunken New Year's caller on the front platform of a Third Avenue car. Occasionally, it would look up into the face of the master of the house, wag its tail dolefully, and emit a screech that was afitting accompaniment to the wail of its mistress.

We went from this cottage to the one in which the children were sheltering, a few paces across the dingy street. There was a motherly looking Irishwoman inside the cabin. Besides the children she had taken in, she had five of her own. Two of them had lugged a small tub of water up from the ocean and placed it in the middle of the cabin. The children had scrubbed their faces in the salt water until they shone like the backs of the pans in a pictorial kitchen. This was in honor of the arrival of the priest.

 The last of the children was scrubbing her face as we entered. The woman of the house tossed the tub, water and all hastily out the window and smoothing the front of her frock, presented a smiling exterior as we entered the place. The children, as though by preconcerted movement, ranged themselves on a log that had been placed agagins the west wall. There they sat with folded hands, smiling with the amiability of the scions of millionaires at their visitors.

They may as well be clean, if they got nothingb in their bellies” said the woman of the house.

What do you do for food?” asked Mr Davitt mecanically.

Faith we do without it” said the woman good naturedly “hoping that something will turn up”

The place was meagre and poor like all the other places on the island, but there was an air of cleanliness which indicated the presence of a good housewife on the premises. The woman's appearance did not indicate that she was particularly overburdned with wealth. Her skirt came down to about her knees and she wore red stockings and sandals. There was no trace of linen and the coarse material of which the dress waist was made stopped short some inches short of the neck. She was a well made and hearty looking womanbut her story was as melancholy as most of those of the other villages.
She depended on her husband, and he had kept the family going in tolerable shape while he lived, but he was lost at sea in the bay during one of the storms.
Some Cill Éinne children at the holy well in the 1890s. (Balfour Album N.U.I.G)

The history of all the huts that we visited was the same. The old people had been left by their children to starve, and they were fighting against a certain destiny.

The conditions of the islands are so peculiar” as we climbed on the car and turned back towards the village of Inisheer “that the people are helpless in the face of extraordinary industry. There are 11,000 acres on the three islands and 3,163 souls. Fifty one people are supported by outdoor relief. God knows how the rest manage to live, but they push along, and if they find nothing to eat, they go hungry until food turns up. Despite their misery, there is not a native of the Aran Islands in the workhouse in Galway”

The cross and fine new harbour today. A different world from 1888.

The islands belong to a Miss Digby and Capt St Lawrence. The rent of the whole estate is about £1500 a year but this rent has not been paid or demanded for three years in view of the awful poverty of the islands.
The problem to be solved is not a difficult one. The people are frugal, health and of an industrious nature. They need the implements of fishing and a safe harbor.
Until they have these they will be at the mercy of the seasons and forced to depend more or less on the charity of the outside world.
Blakely Hall Feb 1888