See that wizened, scarred and cruel old face–how it speaks of a seared and bitter heart! so dull yet so alert, so changeful yet so impassive, so immobile yet so cunning–a paradox in wrinkles, where half-stifled desperation has clawed at the soul until it has fled, and only dead indifference or greedy expectation is left to tell the tragic tale.
“In the name of God, charity, kind gentlemen, charity!” and the old crone stretches forth a long, bony claw. Should you pass on she calls down curses on your head. If you are wise, you go back and fling her a copper to stop the cold streaks that are shooting up your spine. And these old women were the most trying sights I saw in Ireland.
“Pshaw!” said a friend of mine when I told him this; “these old creatures are actors, and if you would sit down and talk to them, as I have done, they will laugh and joke, and tell you of sons in America who are policemen, and then they will fill black ‘dhudeens’ out of your tobacco and ask if you know Mike McGuire who lives in She-ka-gy.”
The last trace of comeliness has long left the faces of these repulsive beggars, but there is a type of feminine beauty that comes with years. It is found only where intellect and affection keep step with spiritual desire; and in Ireland, where it is often a crime to think, where superstition stalks, and avarice rules, and hunger crouches, it is very, very rare.
But I met one woman in the Emerald Isle whose hair was snow-white, and whose face seemed to beam a benediction. It was a countenance refined by sorrow, purified by aspiration, made peaceful by right intellectual employment, strong through self-reliance, and gentle by an earnest faith in things unseen. It proved the possible.
When the nations are disarmed, Ireland will take first place, for in fistiana she is supreme.
James Russell Lowell once said that where the “code duello” exists, men lift their hats to ladies, and say “Excuse me” and “If you please.” And if Lowell was so bold as to say a good word for the gentlemen who hold themselves “personally responsible,” I may venture the remark that men who strike from the shoulder are almost universally polite to strangers.
A woman can do Ireland afoot and alone with perfect safety. Everywhere one finds courtesy, kindness and bubbling good-cheer.
Nineteen-twentieths of all lawlessness in Ireland during the past two hundred years has been directed against the landlord’s agent. This is a very Irish-like proceeding–to punish the agent for the sins of the principal. When the landlord himself comes over from England he affects a fatherly interest in “his people.” He gives out presents and cheap favors, and the people treat him with humble deference. When the landlord’s agent goes to America he gets a place as first mate on a Mississippi River Steamboat; and before the War he was in demand in the South as overseer. He it is who has taught the “byes” the villainy that they execute; and it sometimes goes hard, for they better the instruction.
But there is one other character that the boys occasionally look after in Ireland, and that is the “Squire.” He is a merry wight in tight breeches, red coat, and a number-six hat. He has yellow side-whiskers and ‘unts to ‘ounds, riding over the wheatfields of honest men. The genuine landlord lives in London; the squire would like to but can not afford it. Of course, there are squires and squires, but the kind I have in mind is an Irishman who tries to pass for an Englishman. He is that curious thing–a man without a country.
There is a theory to the effect that the Universal Mother in giving out happiness bestows on each and all an equal portion–that the beggar trudging along the stony road is as happy as the king who rides by in his carriage. This is a very old belief, and it has been held by many learned men. From the time I first heard it, it appealed to me as truth.