George Moore, The Untilled Field (1903)


CHAPTER VII: A PLAYHOUSE IN THE WASTE

I HAD ARRANGED to stay with Father MacTurnan till Monday, and I had driven many miles along the road that straggles like a grey thread through the brown bog. On either side there were bog-holes, and great ruts in the road; the horse shied frequently, and once I was preparing to leap from the car, but the driver assured me that the old horse would not leave the road.
 “Only once he was near leaving the road, and the wheel of the car must have gone within an inch of the bog-hole. It was the day before Christmas Day, and I was driving the doctor; he saw something, a small white thing gliding along the road, and he was that scared that the hair rose up and went through his cap.”
 I could not tell from the driver’s face whether he was aware of his extravagant speech. He seemed to have already forgotten what he had said, and we drove on through the bog till the dismal distant mountains and the cry of a plover forced me to speak again.
 “All this parish, then,” I said, “is Father MacTurnan’s.”
 “Every mile of it, sir,” he said, “every mile of it; and we see him riding along the roads on his bicycle going to sick-calls buttoned up in his old coat.”
 “Do you often come this way?”
 “Not very often, sir. No one lives here except the poor people and the priest and the doctor. It is the poorest parish in Ireland, and every third or fourth year there’s a famine; and they would have died long ago if it had not been for Father James.”
 “And how does he help them?”
 “Isn’t he always writing letters to the Government asking for relief works. Do you see those bits of roads? They are the relief works.”
 “Where do those roads lead to?”
 “Nowhere. The road stops in the middle of the bog when the money is out.”
 “But,” I said, “surely it would be better if the money were spent upon permanent improvements, on drainage, for instance.”
 The boy did not answer; he called to his horse, and I had to press him for an answer.
 “There’s no fall, sir.”
 “And the bog is too big,” I added, in hope of encouraging conversation.
 “Faith it is, sir.”
 “But we are not very far from the sea, are we?”
 “About a couple of miles.”
 “Well, then,” I said, “couldn’t a harbour be made?”
 “They were thinking about that, but there’s no depth of water, and the engineer said it would be cheaper to send the people to America. Everyone is against emigration now, but the people can’t live here.”
 “So there is no hope,” I said, “for home industries, weaving, lace-making.”
 “I won’t say that.”
 “But has it been tried?”
 “The candle do be burning in the priest’s window till one in the morning, and he sitting up thinking of plans to keep the people at home. Do you see that house, sir, fornint my whip, at the top of the hill?” I said I did. “Well, that’s the playhouse that he built.”
 “A playhouse,” I said.
 “Yes, sir; Father James hoped that people might come from Dublin to see it. No play like it had ever been acted in Ireland before, sir.”
 “This carman of mine,” I said to myself, “is an extraordinary fellow, — he has got a story about everyone; he is certainly a legitimate descendant of the old bards,” and I leaned across the car and said to him: —
 “And was the play performed?”
 “No, sir. The priest had been learning them all the summer, but the autumn was on them before they had got it by rote, and a wind came and blew down one of the walls.”
 “And couldn’t Father MacTurnan get the money to build it up?”
 “Sure he might have got the money, but where would be the use when there was no luck in it.”
 “And who were to act the play?”
 “The girls and boys in the parish, and the prettiest girl in all the parish was to play Good Deeds.”
 “So it was a miracle play,” I said.
 “Do you see that man there, sir? That’s the priest coming out of James Burke’s cabin.”
 We should overtake Father MacTurnan in a minute or more. There was no time to hear the story, and I was sorry not to have heard the story of the playhouse from the car-driver. Father MacTurnan got up beside me, and told me we were about a mile from his house and that he had dinner for me. He was a tall, thin man, and his pale, wandering eyes reflected the melancholy of the distant mountains.
 “I hope,” said the priest, “that you’re not wet; we have had some showers here.”
 “We were caught in a shower coming out of Rathowen, but nothing to signify.”
 Our talk then turned on the consecration of the cathedral. I told him everything I thought would interest him, but all the while I was thinking what kind of house he lived in; I had only seen mud huts for many a mile; presently he pointed with his umbrella, and I saw a comfortable whitewashed cottage by the roadside. The idea of the playhouse was ringing in my head, and I began to wonder why he did not train a rose-bush against its wall, and a moment after I felt that it was well that he did not — a rose-bush could only seem incongruous facing that waste hill. We passed into the house, and seeing the priest’s study lined with books, I said, “Reading is his distraction,” and I looked forward to a pleasant talk about books when we had finished our business talk; “and he’ll tell me about the playhouse,” I said. After dinner, when we had said all we had to say on the possibilities of establishing local industries, the priest got up suddenly, — I thought he was going to take a book from the shelves to show me, but he had gone to fetch his knitting, and, without a word of explanation, he began to knit. I saw that he was knitting stockings, and from the rapidity that the needles went to and fro I guessed that he knitted every evening. It may have been only my fancy, but it seemed to me that the priest answered the questions I addressed to him about his books perfunctorily; it even seemed to me that he wished to avoid literary conversation. Yielding to his wish, or what I believed to be his wish, I spoke of practical things, saying that the worst feature of the case was that the Irish no longer cared to live in Ireland.
 “Even the well-to-do want to go away. The people are weary of the country; they have suffered too much. I think that they wish to lose themselves.”
 “It will be a pity,” the priest said.
 “A sort of natural euthanasia,” I said. “A wish to forget themselves.”
 “It will be a pity,” the priest said again, and he began to speak of the seventh century, when Ireland had a religion of her own, an art of her own, and a literature of her own.
 We drew our chairs closer to the fire, and we spoke of the Cross of Cong and Cormac’s Chapel, and began to mourn the race, as is customary in these times.
 “The Celt is melting like snow; he lingers in little patches in the corners of the field, and hands are stretched from every side, for it is human to stretch hands to fleeting things, but as well might we try to retain the snow.”
 But as I grew despondent the priest grew hopeful, “No fine race has ever been blotted out.” His eyes, I said, are as melancholy as the mountains, but nature has destined him to bring hope to the hopeless, and my delight in his character caused me to forget to ask him about the playhouse. He had started a school for lace-making, but instead of keeping them at home it had helped them to emigrate; I said that this was the worst feature of the case. But the priest found excellent reasons for thinking that the weaving industry would prove more remunerative; he was sure that if the people could only make a slight livelihood in their own country they would not want to leave it. He instanced Ireland in the eighteenth century, — the population had been killed off until only two millions remained, and in the nineteenth century the population stood at eight millions. I listened, letting the priest talk on, delighting in his incurable optimism; and when the servant opened the door and told the priest he was wanted, I saw him put on his old coat, grown green with age; I said to myself, “No man in the world is better at his own job than this one; hope is what they want;” and returning to the study after seeing him off I stopped suddenly, seeing his eyes filled with kindness as he sat by the deathbed and hearing his kind wisdom. That day I had seen a woman digging in a patch of bog under the grey sky. She wore a red petticoat, a handkerchief was tied round her head, and the moment she caught sight of us she flung down the spade and ran to the hovel, and a man appeared with a horn, and he blew the horn, running to the brow of the hill. I asked the driver the reason of their alarm, and he told me that we had been mistaken for the bailiff. This was true, for I saw two little sheep hardly bigger than geese driven away. There was a pool of green water about this hovel, and all the hovels in the district were the same, — one-roomed hovels, full of peat smoke, and on the hearth a black iron pot, with traces of some yellow meal stirabout in it. The dying man or woman would be lying in a corner on some straw, and the priest would speak a little Irish to these outcast Celts, “to those dim people who wander like animals through the waste,” I said.
 The grey sky has blown over these people for so many generations that it has left them bare as the hills. A playhouse for these people! What defiance of nature’s law! And watching the shapely sods of turf melting into white ash I thought of the dim people building the playhouse, obedient to the priest, unsuspicious of a new idea. A playhouse must have seemed to them as useless as a road that leads nowhere. The priest told them that people would come to see the play; but the idea of pleasure did not find a way into their minds. The playhouse had fallen!
 I piled more turf on the fire; the priest did not return, and the moaning of the wind put strange fancies into my head. My driver had spoken of a small white thing gliding along the road, and I regretted I had not asked him more about the apparition, if it were an apparition. A little later I wondered why the priest knitted. “His room is lined with books. He does not read, he knits, — a strange occupation. He never talks about books.”
 I crossed the room to investigate the mystery, and I discovered a heap of woollen stockings. “All these he has knitted. But some strange story hangs about him,” I said; and I lay awake a long while thinking of the people I should met on the morrow.
 And never shall I forget the spectacle. There are degrees in poverty, and I remember two men: their feet were bare, and their shirts were so torn that the curling breast hair was uncovered. They wore brown beards, and their skin was yellow with famine, and one of them cried out: “The white sun of heaven does not shine upon two poorer men than upon this man and myself.” After the meeting they followed us, and the poor people seemed to me strangely anxious to tell of their condition. There were some women among them; they were kept back by the men, and they quarrelled among themselves, disputing who should talk to me; they had seen no one except each other for a long time, and I feared their interest in the looms was a conversational interest — it amused them to talk.
 The priest brought a bundle of clothes out of the house, and when the distribution was finished, I asked him to come for a walk up the hill and show me the playhouse.
 Again he hesitated, and I said, “You must come, Father MacTurnan, for a walk. You must forget the misfortunes of those people for a while.” He yielded, and we spoke of the excellence of the road, and he told me that when he had conceived the idea of a playhouse he had arranged with the inspector that the road should go to the top of the hill.
 “It will not make much difference,” he said, “for if there is ever a harbour made the road can be carried over the hill right down to the sea, and the hill, as you say, is not a very steep one.”
 “There must be a fine view from the hill-top, and no doubt you often go there to read your breviary.”
 “During the building of the playhouse I often used to be up here, and during the rehearsals I was here every day.”
 I noticed that the tone of his voice never altered.
 A grey, shallow sea had slowly eaten away the rotten land, and the embay was formed by two low headlands hardly showing above the water at high tide.
 “I thought once,” said the priest, “that if the play were a great success a line of flat-bottomed steamers might be built.”
 “Pleasant dreams,” I said to myself, “and he sitting here in the quiet evenings, reading his breviary, dreaming of a line of steamships crowded with visitors. He has been reading about the Oberammergau performances.” And I spoke about these performances, agreeing with him that no one would have dared to predict that visitors would come from all sides of Europe to see a few peasants performing a miracle play in the Tyrol.
 “Come,” I said, “into the playhouse. Let me see how you built it.”
 The building was finished! The walls and the roof were finished, and a stage had been erected at the end of the building. But half a wall and some of the roof had fallen upon it, and the rubble had not been cleared away.
 “It would not cost many pounds to repair the damage,” I said. “And having gone so far, you should give the play a chance.”
 I was anxious to hear if he had discovered any aptitude for acting among the girls and the boys who lived in the cabins.
 “I think,” said the priest, “that the play would have been very fairly acted, and I think that, with a little practice we might have done as well as they did at Oberammergau.”
 But he was more willing to discuss the play that he had chosen than the talents of those who were going to perform it, and he told me that it had been written in the fourteenth century in Latin, and that he himself had translated it into Irish.
 “I wonder if it would have been possible to organise an excursion from Dublin. If the performance had been judiciously advertised — ’Oberammergau in the West.’”
 “I used to think,” said he, “it is eight miles from Rathowen, and the road is a bad one, and when they got here there would be no place for them to stay; they would have to go all the way back again, and that would be sixteen miles.”
 “Yet it was as well to build this playhouse as to make a useless road — a road leading nowhere. While they were building this playhouse they thought they were accomplishing something. Never before did the poor people do anything, except for bare life. Do you know, Father MacTurnan, your playhouse touches me to the heart?” and I turned and looked.
 “Once Pleasure hovered over your parish, but the bird did not alight! Let me start a subscription for you in Dublin!”
 “I don’t think,” said the priest, “that it would be possible — ”
 “Not for me to get fifty pounds?”
 “Yes,” he said, “you might get the money, but I don’t think we could ever get up a performance of the play.”
 “And why not?” I said.
 “You see, the wind came and blew down the wall, and I think they look upon that wind as a manifestation of God’s disapproval. The people are very pious, and looking back I think they felt that the time they spent in rehearsing might have been better spent. The idea of amusement shocks those who are not accustomed to the idea. The playhouse disturbed them in their ideas. They hear Mass on Sundays, and there are the Sacraments, and they remember that they have to die. It used to seem to me a very sad thing to see all the people going to America; it seemed to me the saddest thing in the world to see the poor Celt disappear in America, leaving his own country, leaving his language, and very often his religion.”
 “And does it no longer seem to you sad that such a thing should happen?”
 “No, not if it is the will of God. God has specially chosen the Irish race to convert the world, no race has provided so many missionaries, no race has preached the gospel more frequently to the heathen; and once we realise that we have to die, and very soon, and that the Catholic Church is the only true church, our ideas about race and nationality fade from us. They come to seem very trite and foolish. We are here, not to make life successful and triumphant, but to gain heaven. That is the truth, and it is to the honour of the Irish people that they have been selected by God to preach the truth, even though they lose their nationality in preaching it. I do not expect you to accept these opinions. I know that you think very differently, but living here I have learned to acquiesce in the will of God.”
 The priest stopped speaking suddenly, like one ashamed of having expressed himself too openly, and soon after we were met by a number of peasants, and the priest’s attention was engaged; the inspector of the relief works had to speak to him; and I did not see him again until dinner-time.
 “You have given them hope,” he said.
 This was gratifying to hear, and the priest sat listening while I told him of the looms already established in different parts of the country. We talked about half an hour, and then, like one who suddenly remembers, the priest got up and fetched his knitting.
 “Do you knit every evening?”
 “I have got into the way of knitting lately; it passes the time.”
 “But do you never read?” I asked, and looked towards the book-shelves.
 “I used to read a great deal. But there wasn’t a woman in the parish that could turn a heel properly, so that I had to learn to knit.”
 “Do you like knitting better than reading?” I asked, feeling ashamed of my curiosity.
 “I have constantly to attend sick-calls, and if one is absorbed in a book one experiences a certain reluctance in putting it aside.”
 “The people are very inconsiderate. Now, why did that man put off coming to fetch you till eleven o’clock last night? He knew his wife was ill.”
 “Sometimes one is apt to think them inconsiderate.”
 “The two volumes of miracle plays!”
 “Yes, and that’s another danger, a book puts all kinds of ideas and notions into one’s head. The idea of that playhouse came out of those books.”
 “But,” I said, “you do not think that God sent the storm because He did not wish a play to be performed.”
 “One cannot judge God’s designs. Whether God sent the storm or whether it was accident must remain a matter for conjecture, but it is not a matter of conjecture that one is doing certain good by devoting one’s self to one’s daily task, getting the Government to start new relief works, establishing schools for weaving — the people are entirely dependent upon me, and when I am attending to their wants I know I’m doing right. All the other is conjecture.”
 The priest asked for further information regarding our system of payments, and I answered eagerly. I had begun to feel my curiosity to be disgraceful, and it was unnecessary, — my driver would tell me to-morrow why the playhouse had been abandoned.
 I relied on him to tell me; he was one of those who had the faculty for hearing things: he had heard that I had been up the hill with the priest to see the playhouse; he knew all about my walk with the priest, and was soon telling me that it was the curse of the Widow Sheridan that had brought down the wind that had wrecked the playhouse. For it was her daughter that the priest had chosen to play the part of Good Deeds in the miracle play. And the story the driver told me seemed true to the ideas of the primitive people who lived in the waste, and of the waste itself. The girl had been led astray one evening returning from rehearsal, — in the words of my car-driver, “She had been ’wake’ going home one evening, and when the signs of her ’weakness’ began to show upon her, her mother took the halter off the cow and tied the girl to the wall and kept her there until the child was born. And Mrs. Sheridan put a piece of string round its throat and buried it one night near the playhouse. And it was three nights after that the storm rose, and the child was seen pulling the thatch out of the roof.”
 “But, did she murder the child?”
 “Sorra wan of me knows. She sent for the priest when she was dying, and told him what she had done.”
 “But the priest would not reveal what he heard in the confession?” I said.
 “Mrs. Sheridan didn’t die that night, not till the end of the week; and the neighbours heard her talking about the child that she buried, and then they all knew what the white thing was that had been seen by the roadside. And the night that the priest left her he saw the white thing standing in front of him; and if he hadn’t been a priest he would have dropped down dead. But he knew well enough that it was the unbaptised child, and he took some water from the bog-hole and dashed it over it, saying, “I baptise thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”
 The driver told his story like one saying his prayers, and he seemed to have forgotten that he had a listener.
 “And the ghost hasn’t been seen again?” I said.
 “No, not that I know of.”
 “I don’t like your story,” I said. “I like the story about Julia Cahill better.”
 “Well, they’re both true; one’s as true as the other; and Julia and Margaret are in America. Once a woman is wake she must go to America.”
 “It must have been a great shock to the priest.”
 “Faith it was, sir, to meet an unbaptised child on the roadside, and the child the only bastard that was ever born in the parish, — so Tom Mulhare says, and he’s the oldest man in the county of Mayo.”
 “It was altogether a very queer idea, this playhouse.”
 “It was indeed, sir, a queer idea; but you see he’s a queer man. He has been always thinking of something to do good; and it is said that he thinks too much. Father James is a very queer man, your honour.”
 At the end of a long silence, interrupted now and then by the melancholy cry with which he encouraged his horse, he began another story, how Father James MacTurnan had written to the Pope asking that the priests might marry, “so afeard was he that the Catholics were going to America and the country would become Protestant. And there’s James Murdoch’s cabin, and he is the man that got the five pounds that the bishop gave Father James to buy a pig.” And when I asked him how he knew all these things, he said, “There isn’t many days in the year that the old grey horse and myself don’t do five-and-twenty miles, and I’m often in and out of Rathowen.”
 “There is no doubt,” I said to myself, “that this car-driver is the legitimate descendant of the ancient bards.”

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