George Moore, The Untilled Field (1903)

[Note: Text digitised by Charles Franks, Robert Rowe et al., at Gutenberg Project in 2011 - online; edited for RICORSO by BS - 20.10.2015; updated 24.03.2023.]

I. In the Clay VIII. The Wedding-gown
II. Some Parishioners IX. The Clerk’s Quest
III. The Exile X. ”Alms-giving”
IV. Home Sickness XI. So On He Fares
V. A Letter To Rome XII. The Wild Goose
VI. Julia Cahill’s Curse XIII. The Way Back
VII. A Playhouse in the Waste
[ Note that the above index is reproduced for each story in this edition - the story in hand being unlinked and printed in bold. Each preceeding and succeeding story can be reached through the index or the links at the bottom of the page. ]

Chapter VI: Julia’s Curse

In ’95 I was an agent of the Irish Industrial Society, and I spent three days with Father O’Hara making arrangements for the establishment of looms, for the weaving of homespuns and for acquiring plots of ground whereon to build schools where the village girls could practice lace-making.
 The priest was one of the chief supporters of our movement. He was a wise and tactful man, who succeeded not only in living on terms of friendship with one of the worst landlords in Ireland, but in obtaining many concessions from him. When he came to live in Culloch the landlord had said to him that what he would like to do would be to run the ploughshare through the town, and to turn “Culloch” into Bullock. But before many years had passed Father O’Hara had persuaded this man to use his influence to get a sufficient capital to start a bacon factory. And the town of Culloch possessed no other advantages except an energetic and foreseeing parish priest. It was not a railway terminus, nor was it a seaport.
 But, perhaps because of his many admirable qualities, Father O’Hara is not the subject of this story. We find stories in the lives of the weak and the foolish, and the improvident, and his name occurs here because he is typical of not a few priests I have met in Ireland.
 I left him early one Sunday morning, and he saying that twenty odd miles lay before me, and my first stopping place would be Ballygliesane. I could hear Mass there at Father Madden’s chapel, and after Mass I could call upon him, and that when I had explained the objects of our Society I could drive to Rathowen, where there was a great gathering of the clergy. All the priests within ten miles round would be there for the consecration of the new church.
 On an outside car one divides one’s time in moralising on the state of the country or in chatting with the driver, and as the driver seemed somewhat taciturn I examined the fields as we passed them. They were scanty fields, drifting from thin grass into bog, and from bog into thin grass again, and in the distance there was a rim of melancholy mountains, and the peasants I saw along the road seemed a counterpart of the landscape. “The land has made them,” I said, “according to its own image and likeness,” and I tried to find words to define the yearning that I read in their eyes as we drove past. But I could find no words that satisfied me.
 “Only music can express their yearning, and they have written it themselves in their folk tunes.”
 My driver’s eyes were the eyes that one meets everywhere in Ireland, pale, wandering eyes that the land seems to create, and I wondered if his character corresponded to his eyes; and with a view to finding if it did I asked him some questions about Father Madden. He seemed unwilling to talk, but I soon began to see that his silence was the result of shyness rather than dislike of conversation. He was a gentle, shy lad, and I told him that Father O’Hara had said I would see the loneliest parish in Ireland.
 “It’s true for him,” he answered, and again there was silence. At the end of a mile I asked him if the land in Father Madden’s parish was poor, and he said no, it was the best land in the country, and then I was certain that there was some mystery attached to Father Madden.
 “The road over there is the mearing.”
 And soon after passing this road I noticed that although the land was certainly better than the land about Culloch, there seemed to be very few people on it; and what was more significant than the untilled fields were the ruins, for they were not the cold ruins of twenty, or thirty, or forty years ago when the people were evicted and their tillage turned into pasture, but the ruins of cabins that had been lately abandoned. Some of the roof trees were still unbroken, and I said that the inhabitants must have left voluntarily.
 “Sure they did. Arn’t we all going to America.”
 “Then it was not the landlord?”
 “Ah, it’s the landlord who’d have them back if he could.”
 “And the priest? How does he get his dues?”
 “Those on the other side are always sending their money to their friends and they pay the priest. Sure why should we be staying? Isn’t the most of us over there already. It’s more like going home than leaving home.”
 I told him we hoped to establish new looms in the country, and that Father O’Hara had promised to help us.
 “Father O’Hara is a great man,” he said.
 “Well, don’t you think that with the revival of industries the people might be induced to stay at home?”
 “Sorra stay,” said he.
 I could see that he was not so convinced about the depopulation of Father O’Hara’s parish as he was about Father Madden’s, and I tried to induce him to speak his mind.
 “Well, your honour, there’s many that think there’s a curse on the parish.”
 “A curse! And who put the curse on the parish?”
 “Isn’t that the bell ringing for Mass, your honour?”
 And listening I could head a doleful pealing in the grey sky.
 “Does Father Madden know of this curse?”
 “Indeed he does; none better.”
 “And does he believe in it?”
 “There’s many who will tell you that he has been saying Masses for the last ten years, that the curse may be taken off the parish.”
 We could now hear the bell tolling quite distinctly, and the driver pointed with his whip, and I could see the cross above the fir-trees.
 “And there,” he said, “is Bridget Coyne,” and I saw a blind woman being led along the road. At the moment I supposed he had pointed the woman out because she was blind, though this did not seem a sufficient reason for the note of wonder in his voice; but we were within a few yards of the chapel and there was no time to ask him who Bridget Coyne was. I had to speak to him about finding stabling for the horse. That, he said, was not necessary, he would let the horse graze in the chapel-yard while he himself knelt by the door, so that he could hear Mass and keep an eye on his horse. “I shall want you half an hour after Mass is over.” Half an hour, I thought, would suffice to explain the general scope of our movement to Father Madden. I had found that the best way was to explain to each priest in turn the general scope of the movement, and then to pay a second visit a few weeks later. The priest would have considered the ideas that I had put into his head, he would have had time to assimilate them in the interval, and I could generally tell in the second visit if I should find in him a friend, an enemy, or an indifferent.
 There was something extraordinary in the appearance of Father Madden’s church, a few peasants crouched here and there, and among them I saw the blind woman that the driver had pointed out on the road. She did not move during Mass; she knelt or crouched with her shawl drawn over her head, and it was not until the acolyte rang the communion bell that she dared to lift herself up. That day she was the only communicant, and the acolyte did not turn the altar cloth over the rails, he gave her a little bit of the cloth to hold, and, holding it firmly in her fingers, she lifted up her blind face, and when the priest placed the Host on her tongue she sank back overcome.
 “This blind woman,” I said to myself, “will be the priest’s last parishioner,” and I saw the priest saying Mass in a waste church for the blind woman, everyone else dead or gone.
 All her days I said are spent by the cabin fire hearing of people going to America, her relations, her brothers and sisters had gone, and every seventh day she is led to hear Mass, to receive the Host, and to sink back. To-day and to-morrow and the next day will be spent brooding over her happiness, and in the middle of the week she will begin to look forward to the seventh day.
 The blind woman seemed strangely symbolical and the parish, the priest too. A short, thick-set man, with a large bald head and a fringe of reddish hair; his hands were fat and short, the nails were bitten, the nose was fleshy and the eyes were small, and when he turned towards the people and said “Pax Vobiscum” there was a note of command in his voice. The religion he preached was one of fear. His sermon was filled with flames and gridirons, and ovens and devils with pitchforks, and his parishioners groaned and shook their heads and beat their breasts.
 I did not like Father Madden or his sermon. I remembered that there were few young people left in his parish, and it seemed waste of time to appeal to him for help in establishing industries; but it was my business to seek the co-operation of every priest, and I could not permit myself such a licence as the passing over of any priest. What reason could I give? that I did not like his sermon or his bald head? And after Mass I went round to see him in the sacristy.
 The sacristy was a narrow passage, and there were two acolytes in it, and the priest was taking off his vestments, and people were knocking constantly at the door, and the priest had to tell the acolyte what answer to give. I had only proposed to myself to sketch the objects of our organisation in a general outline to the priest, but it was impossible even to do this, so numerous were the interruptions. When I came to unfold our system of payments, the priest said: —
 “It is impossible for me to listen to you here. You had better come round with me to my house.”
 The invitation was not quite in accordance with the idea I had formed of the man, and while walking across the fields he asked me if I would have a cup of tea with him, and we spoke of the new church at Rathowen. It seemed legitimate to deplore the building of new churches, and I mentioned that while the churches were increasing the people were decreasing, and I ventured to regret that only two ideas seemed to obtain in Ireland, the idea of the religious vocation and the idea of emigration.
 “I see,” said Father Madden, “you are imbued with all the new ideas.”
 “But,” I said, “you don’t wish the country to disappear.”
 “I do not wish it to disappear,” he said, “but if it intends to disappear we can do nothing to prevent it from disappearing. Everyone is opposed to emigration now, but I remember when everyone was advocating it. Teach them English and emigrate them was the cure. Now,” he said, “you wish them to learn Irish and to stay at home. And you are quite certain that this time you have found out the true way. I live very quiet down here, but I hear all the new doctrines. Besides teaching Paddy Durkin to feed his pig, I hear you are going to revive the Gothic. Music and literature are to follow, and among these resurrections there is a good deal of talk about pagan Ireland.”
 We entered a comfortable, well-furnished cottage, with a good carpet on the floor, and the walls lined with books, and on either side of the fireplace there were easy chairs, and I thought of the people “on the other side.”
 He took a pot of tea from the hob, and said: —
 “Now let me pour you out a cup of tea, and you shall tell me about the looms.”
 “But,” I said, “Father Madden, you don’t believe much in the future of Ireland, you don’t take very kindly to new ideas.”
 “New ideas! Every ten years there is a new set. If I had said teach them Irish ten years ago I should have been called a fool, and now if I say teach them English and let them go to America I am called a reactionist. You have come from Father O’Hara;” I could see from the way he said the name that the priests were not friends; “and he has told you a great many of my people have gone to America. And perhaps you heard him say that they have not gone to America for the sake of better wages but because my rule is too severe, because I put down cross-road dances. Father O’Hara and I think differently, and I have no doubt he thinks he is quite right.”
 While we breakfasted Father Madden said some severe things about Father O’Hara, about the church he had built, and the debt that was still upon it. I suppose my face told Father Madden of the interest I took in his opinions, for during breakfast he continued to speak his mind very frankly on all the subjects I wished to hear him speak on, and when breakfast was over I offered him a cigar and proposed that we should go for a walk on his lawn.
 “Yes,” he said, “there are people who think I am a reactionist because I put down the ball-alley.”
 “The ball-alley!”
 “There used to be a ball-alley by the church, but the boys wouldn’t stop playing ball during Mass, so I put it down. But you will excuse me a moment.” The priest darted off, and I saw him climb down the wall into the road; he ran a little way along the road calling at the top of his voice, and when I got to the wall I saw him coming back. “Let me help you,” I said. I pulled him up and we continued our walk; and as soon as he had recovered his breath he told me that he had caught sight of a boy and girl loitering.
 “And I hunted them home.”
 I asked him why, knowing well the reason, and he said: —
 “Young people should not loiter along the roads. I don’t want bastards in my parish.”
 It seemed to me that perhaps bastards were better than no children at all, even from a religious point of view — one can’t have religion without life, and bastards may be saints.
 “In every country,” I said, “boys and girls walk together, and the only idealism that comes into the lives of peasants is between the ages of eighteen and twenty, when young people meet in the lanes and linger by the stiles. Afterwards hard work in the fields kills aspiration.”
 “The idealism of the Irish people does not go into sex, it goes into religion.”
 “But religion does not help to continue the race, and we’re anxious to preserve the race, otherwise there will be no religion, or a different religion in Ireland.”
 “That is not certain.”
 Later on I asked him if the people still believed in fairies. He said that traces of such beliefs survived among the mountain folk.
 “There is a great deal of Paganism in the language they wish to revive, though it may be as free from Protestantism as Father O’Hara says it is.”
 For some reason or other I could see that folk-lore was distasteful to him, and he mentioned causally that he had put a stop to the telling of fairy-tales round the fire in the evening, and the conversation came to a pause.
 “Now I won’t detain you much longer, Father Madden. My horse and car are waiting for me. You will think over the establishment of looms. You don’t want the country to disappear.”
 “No, I don’t! And though I do not think the establishment of work-rooms an unmixed blessing I will help you. You must not believe all Father O’Hara says.”
 The horse began to trot, and I to think. He had said that the idealism of the Irish peasant goes into other things than sex.
 “If this be true, the peasant is doomed,” I said to myself, and I remembered that Father Madden would not admit that religion is dependent on life, and I pondered. In this country religion is hunting life to the death. In other countries religion has managed to come to terms with Life. In the South men and women indulge their flesh and turn the key on religious inquiry; in the North men and women find sufficient interest in the interpretation of the Bible and the founding of new religious sects. One can have faith or morals, both together seem impossible. Remembering how the priest had chased the lovers, I turned to the driver and asked if there was no courting in the country.
 “There used to be courting,” he said, “but now it is not the custom of the country any longer.”
 “How do you make up your marriages?”
 “The marriages are made by the parents, and I’ve often seen it that the young couple did not see each other until the evening before the wedding — sometimes not until the very morning of the wedding. Many a marriage I’ve seen broken off for a half a sovereign — well,” he said, “if not for half a sovereign, for a sovereign. One party will give forty-nine pounds and the other party wants fifty, and they haggle over that pound, and then the boy’s father will say, “Well, if you won’t give the pound you can keep the girl.”
 “But do none of you ever want to walk out with a young girl?” I said.
 “We’re like other people, sir. We would like it well enough, but it isn’t the custom of the country, and if we did it we would be talked about.”
 I began to like my young carman, and his answer to my question pleased me as much as any answer he had yet given me, and I told him that Father Madden objected to the looms because they entailed meetings, etc., and if he were not present the boys would talk on subjects they should not talk about.
 “Now, do you think it is right for a priest to prevent men from meeting to discuss their business?” I said, turning to the driver, determined to force him into an expression of opinion.
 “It isn’t because he thinks the men would talk about things they should not talk about that he is against an organization. Didn’t he tell your honour that things would have to take their course. That is why he will do nothing, because he knows well enough that everyone in the parish will have to leave it, that every house will have to fall. Only the chapel will remain standing, and the day will come when Father Tom will say Mass to the blind woman and to no one else. Did you see the blind woman to-day at Mass, sir, in the right-hand corner, with the shawl over her head?”
 “Yes,” I said, “I saw her. If any one is a saint, that woman seems to be one.”
 “Yes, sir, she is a very pious woman, and her piety is so well known that she is the only one who dared to brave Father Madden; she was the only one who dared to take Julia Cahill to live with her. It was Julia who put the curse on the parish.”
 “A curse! But you are joking.”
 “No, your honour, there was no joke in it. I was only telling you what must come. She put her curse on the village twenty years ago, and every year a roof has fallen in and a family has gone away.”
 “And you believe that all this happens on account of Julia’s curse?”
 “To be sure I do,” he said. He flicked his horse pensively with the whip, and my disbelief seemed to disincline him for further conversation.
 “But,” I said, “who is Julia Cahill, and how did she get the power to lay a curse upon the village? Was she a young woman or an old one?”
 “A young one, sir.”
 “How did she get the power?”
 “Didn’t she go every night into the mountains? She was seen one night over yonder, and the mountains are ten miles off, and whom would she have gone to see except the fairies? And who could have given her the power to curse the village?”
 “But who saw her in the mountains? She would never walk so far in one evening.”
 “A shepherd saw her, sir.”
 “But he may have been mistaken.”
 “He saw her speaking to some one, and nobody for the last two years that she was in this village dared to speak to her but the fairies and the old woman you saw at Mass to-day, sir.”
 “Now, tell me about Julia Cahill; what did she do?”
 “It is said, sir, she was the finest girl in these parts. I was only a gossoon at the time, about eight or nine, but I remember that she was tall, sir, nearly as tall as you are, and she was as straight as one of those poplar-trees,” he said, pointing to three trees that stood against the sky. “She walked with a little swing in her walk, so that all the boys, I have heard, who were grown up used to look after her, and she had fine black eyes, sir, and she was nearly always laughing. This was the time when Father Madden came to the parish. There was courting in it then, and every young man and every young woman made their own marriages, and their marriages were made at the cross-road dancing, and in the summer evenings under the hedges. There was no dancer like Julia; they used to gather about to see her dance, and whoever walked with her under the hedges in the summer, could never think about another woman. The village was fairly mad about her, many a fight there was over her, so I suppose the priest was right. He had to get rid of her; but I think he might not have been so hard upon her as he was. It is said that he went down to her house one evening; Julia’s people were well-to-do people; they kept a shop; you might have seen it as we came along the road, just outside of the village it is. And when he came in there was one of the richest farmers in the country who was trying to get Julia for his wife. Instead of going to Julia, he had gone to the father. There are two counters in the shop, and Julia was at the other, and she had made many a good pound for her parents in that shop; and he said to the father: ’Now, what fortune are you going to give with Julia?’ And the father said there was many a man who would take her without any, and Julia was listening quietly all the while at the opposite counter. The man who had come to marry her did not know what a spirited girl she was, and he went on till he got the father to say that he would give L70, and, thinking he had got him so far, he said, ’Julia will never cross my doorway unless you give her L80.’ Julia said never a word, she just sat there listening, and it was then that the priest came in. He listened for awhile, and then he went over to Julia and said, ’Are you not proud to hear that you will have such a fine fortune?’ And he said, ’I shall be glad to see you married. I would marry you for nothing, for I cannot have any more of your goings-on in my parish. You’re the beginning of the dancing and courting here; the ball-alley, too — I am going to put all that down.’ Julia did not answer a single word to him, and he went over to them that were disputing about the L80, and he said, ’Now, why not make it L75,’ and the father agreed to that, since the priest said it, and the three men thought the marriage was settled. And Father Tom thought that he would get not less than L10 for the marrying of her. They did not even think to ask her, and little did they think what she was going to say, and what she said was that she would not marry any one until it pleased herself, and that she would pick a man out of this parish or out of the next that pleased her. Her husband should marry her, and not so many pounds to be paid when they signed the book or when the first baby was born. This is how marriages are settled now. Well, sir, the priest went wild when he heard Julia speak like this; he had only just come to the parish, and did not know how self-minded Julia was. Her father did, though, and he said nothing; he let Julia and the priest fight it out, and he said to the man who had come to marry her, ’My good man, you can go your way; you will never get her, I can tell that.’ And the priest was heard saying, ’Do you think I am going to let you go on turning the head of every boy in the parish? Do you think I am going to see fighting and quarrelling for you? Do you think I am going to see you first with one boy and then with the other? Do you think I am going to hear stories like I heard last week about poor Peter Carey, who they say, has gone out of his mind on account of your treatment? No,’ he said, ’I will have no more of you; I will have you out of my parish, or I will have you married.’ Julia tossed her head, and her father got frightened. He promised the priest that she should walk no more with the young men in the evenings, for he thought he could keep her at home; but he might just as well have promised the priest to tie up the winds. Julia was out the same evening with a young man, and the priest saw her; and next evening she was out with another, and the priest saw her; and not a bit minded was she at the end of the month to marry any of them. It is said that he went down to speak to her a second time, and again a third time; it is said that she laughed at him. After that there was nothing for him to do but to speak against her from the altar. The old people say there were some terrible things in the sermon. I have heard it said that the priest called her the evil spirit that sets men mad. I don’t suppose Father Madden intended to say so much, but once he is started the words come pouring out. The people did not understand half of what he said, but they were very much frightened, and I think more frightened at what they did not understand than at what they did. Soon after that the neighbours began to be afraid to go to buy anything in Cahill’s shop; even the boys who were most mad after Julia were afraid to speak to her, and her own father put her out. No one in the parish would speak to her; they were all afraid of Father Madden. If it had not been for the blind woman you saw in the chapel to-day, sir, she would have had to go to the poor-house. The blind woman has a little cabin at the edge of the bog, and there Julia lived. She remained for nearly two years, and had hardly any clothes on her back, but she was beautiful for all that, and the boys, as they came back, sir, from the market used to look towards the little cabin in the hopes of catching sight of her. They only looked when they thought they were not watched, for the priest still spoke against her. He tried to turn the blind woman against Julia, but he could not do that; the blind woman kept her until money came from America. Some say that she went to America; some say that she joined the fairies. But one morning she surely left the parish. One morning Pat Quinn heard somebody knocking at his window, somebody asking if he would lend his cart to take somebody to the railway station. It was five o’clock in the morning, and Pat was a heavy sleeper, and he would not get up, and it is said that she walked barefooted all the way to the station, and that is a good ten miles.”
 “But you said something about a curse.”
 “Yes, sir, a man who was taking some sheep to the fair saw her: there was a fair that day. He saw her standing at the top of the road. The sun was just above the hill, and looking back she cursed the village, raising both hands, sir, up to the sun, and since that curse was spoken, every year a roof has fallen in.”
 There was no doubt that the boy believed what he had told me; I could see that he liked to believe the story, that it was natural and sympathetic to him to believe in it; and for the moment I, too, believed in a dancing girl becoming the evil spirit of a village that would not accept her delight.
 “He has sent away Life,” I said to myself, “and now they are following Life. It is Life they are seeking.”
 “It is said, your honour, that she’s been seen in America, and I am going there this autumn. You may be sure I will keep a look out for her.”
 “But all this is twenty years ago. You will not know her. A woman changes a good deal in twenty years.”
 “There will be no change in her, your honour. She has been with the fairies. But, sir, we shall be just in time to see the clergy come out of the cathedral after the consecration,” he said, and he pointed to the town.
 It stood in the middle of a flat country, and as we approached it the great wall of the cathedral rose above dirty and broken cottages, and great masses of masonry extended from the cathedral into the town; and these were the nunnery, its schools and laundry; altogether they seemed like one great cloud.
 When, I said, will a ray from the antique sun break forth and light up this country again?

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