The Curse of the Wise Woman (London: William Heinemann 1933), 326pp.

It struck me that it might be as well to write them [memories of Ireland] down, for they are [1] memories of an Ireland that they tell me is quite gone. And it seems to me that if the scenes of those days be allowed to be quite lost, the world will miss a memory of a beautiful and happy country, and be the worse for that. Or was it a sad and oppressed country, as some say? I don’t know. It didn’t seem so to me. [2]

[M]y father always went round every shutter himself to see they were properly fastened, and I used to think it rather unnecessary, for we knew everybody round us; but once when I said something of this to my father he replied: “You never know who might come over the bog”. And certainly on the other side of the bog there were hills of which we knew nothing. [5]

then I knew they had come to shoot my father [p.7]

making conversation about shooting [14]

little things about shooting that are pure gold to a boy [viz., how to shoot a flying goose 14].

And if it ever comes to it, and God knows the world’s full of trouble, aim a foot in front of a man walking, at a hundred yards. [15]

we kept a piece of the true Cross at High Gaut, and had done for ages, ever since it had been granted to us for the help my family gave in a war of one of the popes. [9]

[Of the servant Mary who admits the assassins:] She cared devotedly for our family, and yet I think that in her very blood was a feeling that the people couldn’t be wrong. [17] I believe she would have fought a burglar single-handed if one had entered the house; but this vengeance that came from the hills over the bog was something that I thought she might have strange feelings about, stronger than all her kinder sympathies, something I can only compare with the feeling that the Englishman has for the law. And it’s no use pretending that I do not sympathise with the Irish point of view: an English honours law, and a very convenient thing it is for everyone when he does so; but it’s dull thing when all’s said. [Now] an Irishman will honour a song, if it’s worth honouring, though his doing so is of no convenience to anybody; but he’ll never honour the law, however much it might suit the community, because a law is not sufficiently beautiful in itself to work up any enthusiasm over. [18; cf., only the Irish boys understood’ why he could not call the police, p.195.]

Of all the enemies of man I think that the red bog, as we call in Ireland that wide wilderness of heather, [22] seems the most friendly. It cannot be called a friend; it threatens him with death too often for that, and is against him and all his ways, and is untamed by him and unsubdued; only by utterly destroying it does man gain any victory over the bog, and eke from it a difficult living. But it lulls him and soothes him all his days, it gives him myriads of pieces of sky to look at about his feet, and mosses more brilliant than anything short of jewellery, and the great glow of the heather; and if ever it seize him, luring his step with its mosses, it so tends him and cherishes him, that those that chance upon him and dig him up find one whose face and skin are as of their own contemporaries, yet not the oldest in the district know him, for he may have been dead for ages. Well, I’ve said enough to show you that, though I was only driving four miles, I was going to as strange a land as you might find in a long journey, a land as different from the fields we inhabit as the Sahara or Indian jungles. [23; cf. that strange eternity of the body’, infra, 228]

[...] had I spent a few weeks in a cottage like that at the edge of the bog, watching the ground mist rising as twilight was coming on, and hearing the curlews calling, there is no saying that I might not have seen such things as Marlin saw, or even known something of the lore of his mother: a few more days might have done it. It’s hard to say, and I cannot work it out; I knew the bog, and roughly where it went to - that is to say, I believed in the maps; but Marlin and his mother had some other belief and some other knowledge, and their geography seemed to run so close to mine that I have often feared that almost at any moment theirs might float this way and mine drift out of sight, as easily as mist and clear air may change their places; and if that occurred I knew that one’s chance of salvation was over. And if I did not entirely know this then, I already suspected it, and knew it only a little later that day, when Marlin told me upon what land his hopes were fastened. [42]

Marlin: “Forget Tir-nan-Og?” he exclaimed. “Forget Tir-nan-Og! With the young men walking with the gold low light on their limbs, and the young girls with radiance in their faces, and the young blossom bursting along the apple-boughs, and all that is young there glorying in the morning, and it morning for ever over all the land of youth. Forget Tir-nan-Og! Not the angels in Heaven could forget it, nor all the blessed saints. And I saw them once in a dream, that was sent, maybe, to warn me, but it came too late. I saw the angels in a dream, all talking among themselves, more than you ever saw of ducks over any water, a multitude of them looking north and south and east, but with all their backs to the west or turning their heads away from it. And I prayed to them, and it was the last time I prayed, but they must have seen in my face that I had looked towards Tir-nan-Og, for they rejected my prayer, and I knew that my soul was lost.” [48 ....]

“God help me”, he said, “I had preferred Tir-nan-Og to Heaven.” [49] “God help me”, said Marlin, “I have chosen Tir-nan-Og.” [49]

I seemed for a while to be hovering between two worlds, that both claimed the same area of Ireland. I see, now, that I was wrong, I see now that Tir-nan-Og is contrary to everything we have been taught, and I know that there are no spirits haunting the bog for any other purpose than to mislead us. But in that cottage then, there was something in Mrs. Marlin’s eyes alone, and in Marlin’s thoughtful face, that showed me there were beliefs of the land all round us, held as strongly as any creed, though they were heathen. And the influence of those beliefs, arising from glances, dim lights, and the mere wonder of night, and confirmed, as they seemed to be by every whisper the north wind said to the thatch, so gripped me in that cottage by the bog that the influence abides in my memory to this day, not strong enough, I trust, to imperil my soul. And yet when I look at the bog shining [57] there in my memories I find it hard to remember the map and to say exactly where its boundaries go; rather I seem to see it crossing the sky-line and narrowing where roads and railways confine it, but a strip of it running on, till it comes to the very sand and shells of the ocean, and across that a little way westward, God help me, Tir-nan-Og. / I am afraid as I read what I have written that I have not shown any reason why my heart should have leaned even for a moment towards that heathen land; but it will be known, I trust, in Heaven what power there was in the shadows that stalked from the firelight, and the clear words of the wind, clear though in no known language, and in that strong tea, and in the mystery all round us, made by the night and the bog, a mystery hushed with the silence of one about to whisper, and in old Irish legends that gathered these things together, and in the attitude of the only two that were with me, which clearly accepted more than all I have hinted. They will estimate all these influences and know their weight, and will know that in the end I have turned my back to the West. (pp.57-58.); [Father had] taken his name off the list of members at the Kildare Street Club, for the sake of economy years ago. [60]

“Unknown, unknown to the world,” she said “But when Ireland’s free and their ships go sailing out, they’ll be known the world over.” [...]. “Aye, when?” she said. “And all the cities of the world, waiting to greet their sisters, are asking when. But there’ll be a day when Ireland’s ships putting out from all our rivers, will crowd every sea. And they’ll see no grander ships in all their journeys. And they’ll come to all the cities that have ports on any sea, bringing their merchandise at which the people of all markets will wonder. And the ambassadors from foreign lands, coming to greet us, will pass up our rivers and anchor under the walls of the Irish cities, and see their ships go dark from the shade of our towers and humble from the glow of our cities’ pride. And when they ask of our wealth and the trade that we do with the other great nations of the world, our singers will tell them, coming down to the harbour’s edge with trumpets and gonfalons and telling the men of strange lands of Ireland’s glory. And the ambassadors will go back wistful into their own lands, telling what they have seen in the West, and all the nations will send costly gifts to welcome us, and to win from us treaties with far Indian kings. Aye, kings with crowns of pearl and jade will seek us, travelling from the boundaries of Earth in ships of scented timber.’ And suddenly she burst out wildly laughing and threw her arms up high, and dropped them again as though exhausted by that tumult of laughter, and sat down weeping bitterly. / I stood silent, and all was spent but for her sobs. Then Marlin turned to me quietly: “She’s been looking at the future,’ he said. [p.86-87; cf. da capo, at 148, and her remarks on the light of the moon’, which is for Ireland, Ireland I say.’ p.162]

the old witch [88]

the fox runs through all our lives [100] the Fox (may he live forever) [101]

A spark again flashed out from a horse-shoe, a golden glow among dark shapes, shining but for a moment, yet lighting vistas in my memory still. And here’s a theme for the follower of almost any art, a spark in the night [119]. Its huge appearance, its beauty, the mystery of shapes gathered round it and of the darkness beyond; it brevity; and, all things being material for art, its eternity, lingering memories and having its obscure effects through them upon later years, and handing these effects down the generations, at which point perhaps the philosopher takes it over. The scientist too has a little to say about it, trying to destroy the mystery upon which the artist works, but no more able to do so than the artist is able to say the last word about it. We must just leave it glowing. [120]

I am not an Englishman but a representative of the Irish Free State [124] his rather absurd uniform [commissar]

Laura Lanley [of foxhunting]: “Yes, it is our religion.” [131]

And suddenly I thought of Marlin and the way over the bog to the pools that glimmered in sunlight, and thence, as he had so often [133] told me, the bog, narrowed and all hemmed in, and yet wandering free to the ocean; and a little way over the water, the land to which the dreams of so few had gone. Of this I could tell her. And so I began to speak of Tir-nan-Og, the land of the young. As she heard me her eyes darkened, and I saw that no land to which I could have travelled, had I been able to follow wherever youth’s spirit led, would ever have excited that interest that was awakened in her by the mention of Tir-nan-Og, which from its place outside geography exerts through the twilight that curious lure to which Marlin had wholly surrendered. It is strange indeed that talking of Tir-nan-Og seemed to strengthen its frontiers; and, sentence by sentence, as though they were the steps of a traveller walking westwards through twilight, Tir-nan-Og came nearer. Over the shrubs and through the branches of evergreens, now blackening with the approach of night that seemed to come first to them, we both glanced westwards to where the day was sinking: on what shores, we wondered. (pp.133-34);

It is not that I think that Mrs. Marlin could have enchanted it; rather I think that living there all her life on that wild willowy land beneath the frown of the bog, that in this flat country seemed to rise up almost like a mountain, the queer haunt had given her [141] whatever powers she had. (pp.140-41.)

[T]hey both together stared at the moon in silence, while I stood near them, not speaking. And at last Marlin spoke. “It’s glorious upon the apple-blossom”, he said, “in the orchards of Tir-nan-Og.” / “It’s for Ireland it shines,” said his mother. “No other lands have such light from it. Not even Tir-nan-Og. And when Ireland’s free we will build cities with golden spires that will flash back a light at which the moon will wonder.” (pp.161.)

[On the RIC with rifles:] And it has always struck me that one of the readiest ways of estimating a country’s regard for law is to notice what arms the officer of the law are carrying: in England it is little batons, in France swords, in many countries revolvers, and in Russia the police used to have artillery (p.164.)

[One of the assassins:] He disappeared soon after, and years later he was found by some turf-cutters buried at the side of the bog. He kept his oath. (p.177.);

“There’s a power”, she said, “that’s hid in the heart of the bog, that is against all their plans.” [189]

the old oaken block on which expiation is made for error at Eton [192]

[On the Odyssey and its heroes:] at all times they were quite untainted by the dullness and complexity of Greek verbs, so that I almost wondered how these jovial and lawless people came to be permitted in schoolrooms. [193]

avoiding talk in public about religion or politics, and so much in Ireland comes under these two headings [197]

[On rules of tennis:] it did not much [205] matter what the rules were, so long as there were rules: it is from these that a game develops. [206]

cumbered with wheels and rails and machinery, and all the unnatural things that the factory was even then giving to the world, as the cities began to open that terrible box of Pandora. [211]

[his father sold the option to develop the bog, 211-12] compress the turf by machinery and sell it as coal [212]

But [when] I and my memory are gone and all my generation, who will remember those roads? I suppose it will not matter. They will lie sleeping, deep under tarmac, those old white roads, like the stratum of a lost era for which nobody cares. Who cares aught for [213] the past? That pin-point of light called The Present, dancing through endless night, is all that any man cares for. [214]

So we drove down the other road, and along the side of the bog; and the little cracks were running among the wheel-tracks as though the bog had often whispered a warning, telling that he was amongst the ancient powers, of which the earthquake was one, and that he suffered road as all these powers suffer the things of man, which is grudgingly and for a while. And half a mile or so from the Marlins’ cottage, at the nearest point to which this road came to them, I got out of the trap. My walk lay over the level land from which the bog had receded, or rather from which it had been pushed back by man: on my left, all the way as I went, the cliff of the bog’s edge stood like a wave of a threatening tide, dark and long and immanent. Square pools of sombre deep water lay here and there under the cliff, with a green slime floating in most of them, and the green slime teeming with tadpoles. I sat down by the brink of one of these pools and looked at it, for the sheer joy of being home again. I looked and saw little beetles navigating the dark water like bright pellets of lead, and rather seeming to be running than swimming. [214] Then an insect with four legs skipped hurriedly over the surface, going from island to island of scarlet grass, and a skylark came by singing. Above me in the mosses beyond the top of the bog’s sheer edge the curlews were nesting, their spring call ringing over the pools and the heather. Beside me a patch of peat was touched with green as though it had gone mouldy, and up from it went a little forest of buds, each on its slender stalk, for spring had come to the moss as well as the curlews. In amongst the soft moss grew what looked like large leaves, but so fungoid was their appearance that it was hard to say whether they belonged to the moss, or were even vegetable at all: rather they seemed to haunt the boundary of the vegetable kingdom as ghosts haunt the boundary of man’s. Strangely illassorted were those gross leaves and the fairylike slenderness of the stalks. I could have sat there long, watching the activity of the two kinds of insect that scurried over that water, or looking at the history of the ages in the coloured layers of the peat, which is always written wherever an edge of Earth is exposed, if only one can read it; and all the while the skylark sang on. I could have sat there idly all day in deep content, only that an anxiety thrilled through my content, and drove me [215] on, urging me to hasten to hear the worst about Marlin. And so I walked on, under the bog’s edge, with peaty soil underfoot, on which sometimes rushes grew, now all in flower and sometimes heather, young and very green and sometimes, almost timidly, the grass; for the grass came mostly along the tracks of the turf carts, and where the earth was most trodden, and by little bridges across tiny streams, as though only in the immediate presence of man could I dare to usurp that land where the bog so recently reigned. And all the way as I went over that quiet land there went beside me a chronicle of the ancient shudders of Earth, old angers that had stirred and troubled the bog; for the long layers, tawny and sable, ochre, umber and orange, that were the ruins of long-decayed heather and bygone moss, went in waves all the way, sometimes heaving up into hills, the mark of some age-old uprising, sometimes cracked by clefts that sundered them twenty feet down, as though they still threatened the levels so lately stolen by man. And even that land that man had won for himself faintly shook as I trod it, making the threat of the bog all the more ominous. I passed innumerable little ditches, dug to run off the water that came down from the bog, so that [216] the things of man might grow there and not the things of the wild. And over all of them were little bridges for the turf-carts to cross with their donkeys, for a man on foot could step over the ditches anywhere; trunks of small trees heaped over with peat and sods; but the trunks were all rotting away, so that only a prophet could tell whether man would hold that land, or whether the damp and the south-west wind and the bog would one day claim their own again. / Presently I came on turf-cutters at their work [...; descriptions of turf cart and turf spade follow; 217]

Mrs Marlin: “I’ll never see him there, having stayed on Earth too long, till my feet are slow with its weeds and my soul with its cress. Though I’ll say nothing harsh against Earth, for the sake of Ireland. And I have one thing more to do upon Earth yet. For I have to speak with the powers of bog and storm and night, and to learn their will with the men that are harming the heather.” [224]

And then I knew that Marlin shared with the Pharoahs that strange eternity of the body that only Egypt and the Irish bog can give. Centuries hence, when we are all mouldered away, some turf-cutter will find Martin there and will look on a face and a figure untouched by all those years, even as though the body had obeyed the dream after all. [228]

Mrs. Marlin: “Where would it be ... but to his mother’s hose, and over the heather that he knew as a child, and on the mosses by pools where he played? Where else would he go when he comes from Tir-nan-Og, and the jack-o-lanterns come riding the storm through the darkness, and go dancing over the bog?” [230]

small houses meanly built [235] he did not know the deeps of an Irish bog [237]

I foresaw the bog vulgarised by noise and machinery, then cut away altogether, and lastly a litter left of all those bits of iron and old hats, papers, cinders, and medicine-bottles, that together make up rubbish-heaps, where once the bog had wandered wild for the curlews, as once for the Irish elk. And the bog was to me what the desert is to the Arab. [241]

the strata were troubled, as they lay in their sleep, by the violence of old upheavals [241]

It was Father MacGillicud that I should have gone to, but I daren’t, for it is mortal sin to thin of Tir-nan-Og as I was thinking of it.[244]

Dr. Rory: “I used to read old histories years ago. And there was surely talk about that country once. About Tir-nan-Og, I mean. And there’s no doubt the priests made a great fight against it, a terrible great fight. And in the end they won. Well, it’s the same in either world, if you’ll take advice from an older man; and it’s this; always to keep away from the beaten side. There’s no good ever comes from going near them; the folks that are beaten, I mean. They’ve nothing left for themselves, and they’re not going to help you. Heaven or earth it’s just the same. And there’s another thing; besides getting no good out of the beaten side, the other side get to hear of it if you go near them, and they’re against you at once.” / “That’s what Marlin said,” I told him. “He said that he knew that Heaven had turned against him.” / “And why wouldn’t it?” said the doctor. “Sure it’s right that it should. Wasn’t it Marlin that began it? And there’s another thing, speaking of fights in general: if it’s not much of a fight, and one side’s beaten at once, the winner may forget all about it. But if it’s a close thing, as this was, and against a country of that beauty (for could there be anything lovelier than young girls in [245] the pride of their beauty walking through endless orchards in blossom that never grows old?), why, then the winner’s always afraid he may have to fight again; and it’s little mercy you’d get from either side when they found that you had leanings towards the other. And I don’t presume to blame them: it’s the same everywhere.” [?245]

[...]

“I don’t say,” the doctor continued, “that if you’re over in England, or if you ever travel abroad, you mightn’t be thinking of Tir-nan-Og for a bit. It’s hardly known outside Ireland, and the true faith had no trouble with it: they never had to fight it there, so there’s no bitterness, if you know what I mean. But it’s very different here. It’s not much more than a thousand years since they beat it. And what’s a thousand years to Heaven?” [246] / If I did not entirely take Dr. Rory’s advice, it kept me at least from coming too much under the influence of Marlin’s heretical faith and his mother’s witcheries, temptations that have little hold on me now, but I write of days when all temptations were strong whenever they came at all. And let me, so that I may tell an honest story, not brush aside influences now, because they were fanciful, false, or contrary to the known truths of religion or science; for none of these disqualifications has the weight of a feather in keeping any doctrine or influence away from youth. It was a perilous influence, and was near me, and I think it was Dr. Rory that saved my soul. I think it is saved: I find all temptations that come to me now so weak that I think it is surely safe. Yet had it not been for the advice of Dr. Rory to turn from Tir-nan-Og, who can say what would have become of it? It was not the doctor’s job to save my soul, but through some queer aptitude of the Irish people they are always doing other men’s jobs as well as their own. [247]

So hard is it for man to speak with man when separated by no more tan a frontier, that it surprised me the first time that I saw twenty rabbits sent hurrying to safety by no more than a single remark from a passing rook, who has seen me stalking them,, though I was out of sight of the rabbits. And I learned that a rook does not merely say Caw, having, at least, one note of warning that probably means Man, and another than certainly means “Man with a gun”. [256]

Seeing so much more of our own affairs than of the affairs of nations, we get the idea that slaughter and rain are only the methods of such as the fox and the tiger, but undefended land in Europe or in any other continent survives no better than meat that cannot escape in the wood; and wherever a little weak country thrives it is not in spite of this law, but because of the interests of some powerful neighbour, as the mice in a lion’s den are safe from the panther. And lest any that follow a simple tale be irked by a touch of philosophy, I close this chapter. [257]

[learned] to shoot with both eyes open ... seeing the landscape, of which all animals that are ever hunted by anything seem to form a part, and seeing just where the animal emerges from the ground, and seeing which are his ribs and which the larger portion of him that should never be regarded as part of the target at all, because there a bullet only wounds, and a sportsman who is unable to kill should be well content with the next best thing, which is to miss. [263]

[Tir-nan-Og:] There is no warrant for it in our religion; it is never mentioned in the Lives of the Saints; not only that, but it is deliberately avoided. It cannot be doubted that there is a mortal danger in it. ... it is easy for men living in temperate climes to mock perils of ice in the Arctic, or lions in African nights; and any whose fancy has once roved westward from Ireland knows, as I knew, the mortal peril threatening his soul. [269]

[School report:] “willfully dreamy”; I could not tell him that what was wringing my heart was that an Irish bog was going to be developed commercially, incidentally paying me rent [273]

English foreman, of Mrs. Marlin: “bloody old kipper” [285]

[on hearing the engineer’s plans] it was then that my Irish heart sorrowfully regretted what my English education had taught me, to interfere with my friend [the man in black] who would have killed these men. [292]

Mrs Marlin: “Is Irish heather and Irish turf any less than the holy things of the Land of the Young? Will I keep my compact with them? Aye, while Ireland lasts. What would I say on nights when they’re drifting over the bog, and what would I say to Tommy, if I could not swear an oath to the queens of the West and abide by the oath that I swore?” [296]

Mrs Marlin [on the bog]: “It’s the heart of Ireland” [297]

For they were the sumach, of which Marlin used to tell me, the great store of the bogs water that kept al the mosses alive and their roots happy, and sustained and nurtured all that loved the bog and made the steps of man unsure when he came, and made him come then as a stranger. And these waters always increased, for only a small stream left the bog; but the rain of the last three months had been unparalleled. [308]

for she was talking a language that seemed older than Irish, which I had once heard her use before, and which certainly was no language that men speak now. [310] .. “Alarathon ahialee tharnee ekbathaton” are some words I remember yet, though what they meant I never knew, or in what language they were. [311]

Mrs Marlin: “the bog is coming” [three times]

The whole bog was moving. With the weight of years of rain and those last three months it was coming on over the lower lands, and rising higher and higher as it came. ... rippling and waving [317]

The roaring was louder than a tide; it was like a waterfall. The bog came grinding on, turning over and over ... It covered the level land, it covered the houses, it rolled the wheel that they had put in the stream to work the machinery for nearly a mile, and still the bog roared on with the weight of all the mass of water in it, and all the new road that had been a bohereen lay eight foot under the bog when at last it rested. And that was the end of the Peat Development (Ireland) Syndicate. [318]

I never married Laura. ... [she] would not give up what is after all is only a heresy [320] She was never asked to give it up herself, but only for possible children. God help me, and all the blessed Saints help me, I believed that in spite of all Laura would go to heaven. And, God help me, I believe it yet. [322]

I was invited to be the Minister of the Irish Free State to the country in whose capital I am now sitting over these memories. I had taken no part in politics, and done nothing of any kind to merit the offer. And the reason for it, that I was told soon afterwards, was as strange as the offer itself: I had been recommended for the post by a very prominent member of the Council of the League of Nations. [322; turns out to be the man in the long black coat’ who has served 20 years in prison before assuming a position in the mission.]

with a view to bringing pressures [322] against the continuance of partition in Ireland [323].

Notes
The novel involves a double sense of the word shooting as referring to the pastime of the gentry and the politics of the masses. At one point, when the four men are actually seeking out the father of the narrator in order to shoot (‘then I knew they had come to shoot my father’, p.7), the boy actually engages them with delaying tactics by making conversation about shooting’, and elicits from one of their number ‘one of those little things about shooting that are pure gold to a boy’ (viz., how to shoot a flying goose) [14]. Note further that The Duke (viz., the narrator’s) is to be killed because he warned the policeman Maguire that he was about to be shot. [28]The two sense are nicely conjoined in the concluding sentence, ‘And if it ever comes to it, and God knows the world’s full of trouble, aim a foot in front of a man walking, at a hundred yards. [15] Deals with events dated about the time of Kharthoum (i.e., Gordon and Gladstone).

[ close ]

[ top ]