Monday, December 30, 2013

"Ireland's Welcome to the Stranger"

What follows is an extract from the Killarney entries of the diary of Asenath Nicolson. In 1844/1845 Asenath travelled throughout Ireland. She came with a bible in one hand, and a pair of shoes in the other! Her diary has been published many times since it was written. The book really captured my imagination, it opens a small window onto an Ireland that would forever disappear into the black hole of famine. When I wander those same local places she mentions in her book (that I have wandered countless times before), I now can't help but thinking about her and her own wanderings. It brings me into a strange reverie, hopefully she won't blight my memories eternally! In all seriousness though, I really enjoy imagining her climbing up the back of Torc or wandering Killarney's streets (where she was plagued by curious street urchins and assorted wide eyed locals!). I'll post another extract from her Killarney travels soon. I've been reading the book on the computer but really must buy the physical copy and stop the inevitable perusals to which I have resorted to-I'll read the book through if I can put it in my hand, otherwise I jump from digital page to far flung digital page and never follow the book's flowing river!

John Frederick Kensett, Killarney, 1857

Ross Island was the first place in the morning to which I resorted; and, reaching the gate of a beautiful thatched cottage, saw the proprietor in the garden, who invited me through the gate, and accompanied me about the several walks. Though in the month of March; it was blooming with greens and flowers. The different openings upon the lakes were made with a most happy skill, and the parts which were left wild were selected with judgment. The gardeners of Ireland display much taste in adjusting their rough stones, their rustic seats and summer-house; and in fitting up a pleasure-ground, they seem to possess a correct judgment in knowing what to cultivate, and what to leave wild. This spot possesses beauties which to an admirer of nature cannot fail to please. At ten I returned, the hour that the laborers breakfast; and the family at eleven. 
So late are the Irish about rising in the morning, that the best part of the day is often lost. I sauntered through the town, and a mob of boys, women, and girls, with cloaks over head, some in pursuit, and others running before stopping to have a full gaze at me. So much had I heard of the beauties of Killarney that I was quite disappointed with the refinement of the people. A boy accompanied me to the Victoria Hotel on the banks of the middle lake.
March 13th  - I took a walk of four miles to the celebrated Turk mountain to see the cascade, and when I had reached the foot of it I sat down upon a seat to meditate undisturbed on this beautiful sight. Four white sheets of water have for ages been coursing down a rock of eighty feet in height, wearing channels of  considerable depth, and on their way have received some small rivulets issuing from the sides of the mountain pouring together into one basin, at the bottom.
The mountains on either side are lofty, high, and precipitous. I attempted to make my way over the slippery stones to reach the basin, but found it too hazardous being out of hearing to any human being, and should I tumble into the stream and break a bone my fate would be irrecoverable. An hour was gone, and admiration, if possible, was increasing; but looking to my left I saw a path leading up the mountain and followed it. 
In a few yards it opened a small view of the lakes, and as you ascend the view widens and widens, till you see spread out before you lawns, the middle and lower lakes, with their beautiful Islands, and the grand Kerry mountains stretching out beyond. Seats at proper distance are arranged, where the traveller may rest and feast his eyes on the beauties beneath his feet. But when the top is reached the awful precipice overhanging the cascade would endanger the life of any one to overlook, were there not a railing erected for the safety of the visitor. Here I sat, and thanked God that he had given me eyes to see, and a mind to enjoy, a scene like this. More than three thousand miles from my native country, on the top of this awfully wild mountain, where many a stranger’s foot had trod, I was enjoying a good reward for my labor. The sun was shining upon the unruffled lakes,  the birds were hopping from bough to bough, mingling their song with the untiring cascade, the partridge fluttered in the brake at a distance, but I knew no venomous serpent was there. I was unwilling to leave the spot, and had not the promise of returning to witness a funeral at two o’ clock urged me away,  my stay might have been protracted till sunset. I lingered and looked, and like Eve when leaving paradise said – “And must I leave thee!” 
I returned not till I had explored the end of the woodman’s path, over a bridge that passed the chasm beyond, and then took a last look of this coy maiden, standing once more at her feet. Though she cannot boast the awful grandeur of the bold Niagara of my native country, yet she had beauties which can never cease to please. She has an unassuming modesty which compels you to admire, because she seems not to covet your admiration. She is so concealed that the eye never meets her till close upon the white folds of her drapery, and when but a few paces from her feet, I turned to take another look I could not see even “the  hem of her garment.”
On returning to the gate, it was locked, the woman who had kept it had given me the key; I had carelessly left it in the door, without locking it, and she had fastened the gate and taken the key. I could neither make myself heard, nor climb the wall, a sad dilemma! A return to the cascade seemed to be the only alternative; but following the wall, an end was happily found, and the road soon gained.  Stopping at a neat little lodge, bread and honey were brought to me in such a simple patriarchal manner, that the days of Rebecca and Ruth were before me.
The Loud “wail” for the dead soon sounded from the mountain. “She’s a proper woman,” said one, “and her six children are all very sorry for her, the cratur.” I went on to the gate till the multitudinous procession arrived,  bearing the coffin on a couple of sheets, twisted so that four men could take hold one at each end, and carry it along. Women were not only howling, but tears were fast streaming from many an eye. When they reached the abbey, the grave was not dug, and here was a new and louder wail struck up. While the grave was digging, eight women knelt down by the coffin, and putting their hands upon it, and beating with force, set up a most terrific lamentation. The pounding upon the coffin, the howling, and the shoveling of earth from the grave, made together sounds and sights strange, if not unseemly. The body was to be deposited where a brother and a sister had been buried,  and when they reached the first coffin, took it out, and found the second rotten, they took up the mouldered pieces and flung them away. The bones of the legs and arms, with the skull, were put together, and laid by the side of the coffins; the new coffin was put down, and the old one, which was the last of the two former, was placed upon it. When all was finished, they knelt down to offer up a prayer for the dead, which was done in silence, and they walked away with much decency.

Asenath Nicolson, Killarney, 1845.

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