Foolish Legends connected with this locality

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter IV (7) | Start of Chapter

It is unnecessary to describe every object of interest that we saw among the ruined churches, of which enough remains to keep alive the legends of the superstitious, and the curiosity of the stranger. The very name and the romance connected with the mountains, the lakes and St. Kevin's bed, will continue to attract the traveller. The stone where the orphan boy stood daily, and was fed by a deer, which St. Kevin called from the mountains to shed her milk into a hole in the stone for the child, still remains, and you are shown the marks of the child's fingers. The round rock, flat upon the top, under which a fire was made, which St. Kevin ordered to be kept hot to bake the cakes of King O'Toole, is also pointed out. Among the good deeds ascribed to the saint is the building of the churches. Being poor, he had no land to build upon; King O'Toole owned that country, and St. Kevin had fled into a cavern which overlooks the larger lake, to avoid the snares of the beautiful Kathleen. Feeling a most holy desire to establish the worship of God in these mountains, he applied to the king for land. The king had a pet goose, which had stood at his door seven years without either flying or walking; and he told the saint if he would make his goose walk, he would give him as much land as she would fly over. The saint took the goose in his hand, and threw her up in the air, and she flew down the glen upon one side of the lakes, and up the other. Thus the whole glen became the saint's, and next comes the building of the churches. "You must know," said my guide, "that no lark flies over this glen, nor no lamb ever lies down in it." When these churches were building, the laborers complained that they were obliged to work from lark-rising till the lying down of the lamb at night, for a penny a day. St. Kevin told them that the lark should never fly over the glen, nor the lamb lie down on it again, which promise has been kept sacred, and these lines from Moore are repeated with much pathos:

"By that lake, whose gloomy shore

Sky-lark never warbled o'er."

The two lofty mountains which overhang these lakes and glens were once visited by King O'Toole and a Scottish giant, who shook hands across the lake; and the king, after having drunk the health of the giant, handed him the tumbler. All this you must believe if you are not a downright heretic, and this is but a beginning of the marvels. There are a few realities which might be worth the notice of the traveller, if they could be reached beneath the rubbish that covers them.

Seven churches once stood here, whether all built at the same period is not certainly known; if so, the spot must have been thickly peopled; but when these people lived, and how they subsisted in this narrow glen, is a mystery. Two majestic mountains overlook these lakes sleeping at their base, leaving little room for cabins, though a few are sprinkled upon the border of the lakes on one side. By the side of a moss-covered pile of stones, which was one of the churches, was an open grave, said to be King O'Toole's. The head of his coffin, which was stone, lay upon the ground, the grave having been opened to ascertain whether his coffin were there. A stone cross stood upright, bearing marks of ancient workmanship. At the bottom of this monument lay a moss-covered stone, with carvings of serpents and hieroglyphics.

The stranger cannot but pause and reflect, in the midst of these legends and foolish superstitions; there must have been here, in years long gone by, a peculiar people, a people if not literary yet religious, who selected this deep dell for the purpose of adding solitude to their devotions. The remains of seven churches without any vestiges of dwelling-houses, give to the whole a deeper mystery. Though a hot July sun was shining with unusual fervor, a subduing stillness reigned around the lake; and one green spot of trees, wild flowers, and grass, through which ran a clear, soft murmuring stream, added a romantic beauty to the scene. I had stolen a moment from my gabbing interpreter, to enjoy by the side of this stream a little rest and reflection, when a shrill shout, followed by a hideous echo, burst upon my ear. It was the old barefooted Kathleen, who has acted for twenty years as a guide to St. Kevin's bed, and who carries presumptuous visitors on her back up the steep and dangerous cliff, in the face of which is the cave where the saint had lived. Into this cave she assured us she had carried Walter Scott, Thomas Moore, and many other great personages, and it only wanted myself to complete the list. Assuring her that I had not the least ambition to immortalize my name by a ride upon her back, and a tumble into the lake beneath, from which a rescue would be impossible, I left the honor to such as might better deserve it. As she still insisted, and the guide added, "it would be a great loss not to see where the good saint lay," I ventured a little way up the steep, and was glad to find a place for my sliding feet to rest, whilst one of our party, an adventurous young woman, went on. She reached the precipice, and placed her hand on the shelving-stone that covered the cave. The yawning, black, and deep gulf was beneath her, and the slightest jostle might have plunged her headlong. Her husband, seeing her presumption, had seated himself at a distance, waiting the fearful event in silence; and for myself, I turned not a look in that direction, fully expecting to hear a shriek and sudden splash into the lake beneath. In a few minutes she was near us; perspiration, she said, started from every pore, and tears streamed from her eyes, as she found herself actually hanging by the rock over the precipice; and she was glad to be again by the side of her husband.

Kathleen returned, redoubling her assurances of my safety, if I would trust to her "sure fut;" but she was forced to content herself with giving specimens of the strength of her lungs, while the mountains returned the screams in faithful echoes. My guide determined not to be out-done, and he screamed out exclamations to the giants and fairies, who all answered by repeating the same distinctly. We saw a line of stones cross a bog of eighty or a hundred yards, arranged in the shape of crosses, where pilgrims in more holy times went over upon their knees doing penance. " You must know, lady, that this was a place of saints," remarked our guide solemnly. Our walk was now interrupted by a line made across our path, of sweet-briar, and held at each end by two little girls. Supposing they were at play, I said, "You are jumping the rope." "No, ma'am, it's a turnpike." "And must we pay toll?" "If you plase, lady." We had three of these turnpikes to pass within a few rods, and toll was required at each. This was a contrivance of their mothers to draw money.

It is difficult, in going through Ireland, to know whether to be disgusted at the whining cant of the beggars to move your pity, or provoked at their deceitful impudent efforts to extort your money. And it must be equally difficult for beggars to demean themselves honorably; if they appear servile and religious, then they are hypocrites; if like men and women transacting other business in life, then they are impudent. It is painful to see the cunning arts of young children, trained from the cradle to beg, when the parents are not honest. But it is well for Ireland that its paupers in general are not a dangerous thieving race; if they were, they are so numerous, that the more favored classes would never be secure. When we had paid toll at the gates, the last marvel of our day was shown by our guide. It was a bush over a round pool of water, the branches tied thickly with rags, which had been used for washing eruptions upon pilgrims. You are informed that St. Kevin blessed this pool, and it cures all who wash in it. A few more fooleries are practised upon the credulous visitor, and the guide dismisses him as having done his own duty well; the stranger has only to believe. When all was finished, I said, "You do this for money, sir." "I get my bread by it, lady, and yesterday [which was the Sabbath] I made eight shillings." "And do you believe one word of all the ridiculous stuff with which you have been cramming us?" "I tell it, lady, as I heard it." "But do you believe it yourself?" He looked confounded, and answered, "No: but I made only one story to fill up the time as we were passing along."

When we returned to the inn, a devout-looking woman met us, and gravely asked, "Have you washed in St. Kevin's pool? Depend upon it, lady, there is the greatest vartue in it; it cures all sorts of evils." I replied by asking her, "And have you ever washed the wicked one himself?" Astonished, she looked at me, "The divil, ma'am, did ye mane? The divil can't come here. This is the place of saints." One of the ladies who accompanied me said, "You have lost your character as a Christian, and they'll want no more of you in this holy place. You have laughed at their money-making lies, and no one ever does that here. They expected you to receive it all in good faith, and to admire when you go away the skilfulness of the guide in entertaining you." A word respecting the innkeeper, a fat good-natured mass, tumbled together in not the most scrupulous manner, but as incredulous respecting the holiness of the spot as his interests would allow him. "I know less of the wonders of the place," he said, "than those that visit here; but as people will come, I will entertain them," which he did in a most comfortable manner, and at a moderate price. As we were going out, he called to me, and gave me a word of advice. "Do you, madam, publish a sketch of these wonders, and give new names which nobody can interpret, and your book will circulate well in Ireland. But be sure you express no doubt on the subject yourself."

Our guide was no novice at story-telling, for he told my friend who had accompanied us, that he would visit his neighborhood, and entertain him any evening with stories, as soon as he could get time to make some good ones; adding, "This is my business, you know, but I will ask you nothing as you brought the lady." He had been twice paid for his bundle of lies to me; my friend feed him in advance, and I paid at the close. This ridiculous farce, practised for a long time, loses little of its interest even in the nineteenth century. And though the invention is attributed to Catholic superstition, it yet meets many a believing heart in Protestantism. The guide called himself a Protestant.

On our return we ascended the serpentine, closely swept road, that conducts the traveller through the woody enclosure to the top of the hill, on which stands the romantic Castle Howard, looking down with her evergreens about her upon the beautiful Vale of Ovoca. Nature and art seem here to have done their utmost to render the spot not only grand but lovely. The lady of the castle was absent on a fashionable tour to England, leaving the house-keeper to show the castle and reap the benefit. The interior is fitted up with all the appendages belonging to high life, dogs, leopards, statues, and ornaments, so varied that nothing seemed left for the mind to supply, but the placing in the library of a few dozen volumes more moral in tendency than the works of Voltaire.

My visit to the county of Wicklow being finished, I am happy to say that both country and people exceeded my sanguine expectations. The natural scenery, the cultivation, but most of all the peasantry, possess a kind of fascination, which every unprejudiced traveller must confess. Many of the peasantry are cleanly, intelligent, and industrious, and an inviting charm hangs about their cottages, which says to the stranger there is peace and comfort within; and when you enter, you feel you are welcome. The Irish greeting cannot be misunderstood; and here the same kindness and the same order prevailed among Catholics as among Protestants. I called one Saturday evening at an humble cottage, where the children, to the number of five, all took their seats unbidden in a corner. Their neatness and good conduct caused me to look about more particularly, and there I saw the signs of a prudent wife and mother. "You see," said the young ladies, as we passed out,"the management of this poor woman; she is always clean, always comfortable, and her children always tidy, though poor." They had been kept to school, and, by the strictest economy, the family had never been obliged to trouble their neighbors in sickness, ever having needful supplies for such exigencies, though possessing not a farthing but the daily labor of the father. They never partake of tea, coffee, or ardent spirits; or meat, except at Christmas.

I must leave Wicklow with a grateful remembrance of underserved kindness, for the last words I heard were, "My house shall be welcome to you whenever you come this way."

Ireland’s Welome to the Stranger is one of the best accounts of Irish social conditions, customs, quirks and habits that you could wish for. The author, Mrs Asenath Nicholson, was an American widow who travelled extensively in Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine and meticulously observed the Irish peasantry at work and play, as well as noting their living conditions and diet. The book is also available from Kindle.