THERE are few things more pleasant to those who are doomed to pass the greater part of their lives in the dust and din and, smoke of a city than to get on the top of a stage-coach early some fine summer morning, and whirl along through the yet unpeopled streets, echoing from their emptiness to the rattle of the welcome wheels that are bearing you away from your metropolitan prison, to the
"Free blue streams and the laughing sky"
of the sweet country. How gladly you pass the last bridge over one of the canals I and then, deeming yourself fairly out of town, you look back once only on its receding "groves of chimneys," and settling yourself comfortably in your seat, you cast away care, and look forward in gleeful anticipation of your three or four weeks in the 'tranquility and freedom of a country ramble.
Such have my sensations often been - not a little increased, by-the-by, as I hugged closer to my side my portfolio, well stored with paper, and heard the rattle of my pencils and colours in the tin sketching box in my pocket. Such were they when last I started one fresh and lovely summer's morning, on the Ballinasloe coach, and promised myself a rich treat In a visit to Clonmacnoise, or "the Churches," as the place is familiarly called by the peasantry. Gladly I descended from my lofty station on our dusty conveyance, when it arrived at Shannonbridge, and engaging a boat, embarked on the noble river whence the village takes its name, and proceded up the wide and winding stream to the still sacred and once celebrated Clonmacnoise, the second monastic foundation established in Ireland, once tenanted by the learned and the powerful, now scarcely known but to the mendicant pilgrim, the learned antiquary, or the vagrant lover of the picturesque.
Here, for days together, have I lingered, watching its noble, "ivy-mantled" tower, reposing in shadow, or sparkling in sunshine, as it spired upward in bold relief against the sky; or admiring the graceful involutions of the ample Shannon that wound beneath the gentle acclivity on which I stood, through the plashy meadows and the wide waste of bog, whose rich brown tones of colour faded into blue on the horizon; or in noting the red-tanned sail of some passing turf-boat, as it broke the monotony of the quiet river, or in recording with my pencil the noble stone cross, or the tracery of some mouldering ruin,
"Where ivied arch, or pillar Ione,
Plead haughtily for glories gone,"
though I should not say "haughtily," for poor old Clonmacnoise pleads with as much humility as the religion which reared her now does; and which, like her, interesting in the attitude of decay, teaches and appeals to our sympathies and our imagination, instead of taking the strongholds of our reason by storm, and forcing our assent by overwhelming batteries of irrefragable proof, before it seeks to win our will by tender and impassioned appeals to the heart. But I wander from Clonmacnoise. It is a truly solemn and lonely spot; I love it almost to a folly, and have wandered day after day through its quiet cemetery, till I have almost made acquaintance with its ancient grave-stones.
One day l was accosted by a peasant who had watched for a long time, in silent wonder, the draft of the stone cross, as it grew into being beneath my pencil; and finding the man "apt," as the ghost says to Hamlet, I entered Into conversation with him. To some remark of mine touching the antiquity of the place, he assured me "it was a fine ould place, In the ould ancient times." In noticing the difference between the two round towers - for there are two very fine ones at Clonnmacnoise, one on the top of the hill, and one close beside the plashy bank of the river - he accounted for the difference by a piece of legendary information with which he favoured me, and which may, perhaps, prove of sufficient importance to interest the reader.
"You see, sir," said he, "the one down there beyant, at the river side, was built the first, and finished complate entirely, for the roof is an it, you see; but when that was built, the bishop thought that another id look very purty on the hill beyant, and so he bid the masons set to work, and build up another tower there.
"Well, away they went to work, as busy as nailers; troth it was jist like a bee-hive, every, man with his hammer in his hand, and sure the tower was completed in due time. Well, when the last stone was laid on the roof; the bishop axes the masons how much be was to pay them, and they ups and towld him their price; but the bishop, they say, was a neygar [niggard]--God forgi' me for saying the word of so holy a man!--and he said they axed too much, and he wouldn't pay them. With that, my jew'l, the masons said they would take no less; and what would you think, but the bishop had the cunnin' to take away the ladthers that was reared up agin the tower.
"'And now,' says he, 'my gay fellows,' says be, 'the divil a down out o' that you'll come antil you larn manners, and take what's offered to yees,' says he; ' and when yees come down in your price you may come down yourselves into the bargain.'
"Well, sure enough, he kep his word, and wouldn't let man nor mortyel go nigh them to help them; and faiks the masons didn't like the notion of losing, their honest airnins, and small blame to them; but sure they wor starvin' all the time, and didn't know what in the wide world to do, when there was a fool chanc'd to pass by, and seen them.
"'Musha! but you look well there,' says the innocent, 'an' how are you?' says he.
"'Not much the better av your axin,' says they.
"'Maybe you're out there,' says he. So he questioned them, and they tould him how it was with them, and how the bishop tuk away the ladthers, and they couldn't come down.
"Tut, you fools!' says he; 'sure isn't it aisier to take down two stones nor to put up one?'
"Wasn't that mighty cute o' the fool, sir? And wid that, my dear sowl, no sooner said than done. Faiks, the masons began to pull down their work, and whin they went an for some time, the bishop bid them stop, and he'd let them down; but faiks, before he gev in to them they had taken the roof clane off; and that's the raison that one tower has a roof, sir, and the other has none."
But before I had seen Clonmacnoise and its towers, I was intimate with the most striking of its legends by favour of the sinewy boatman,who rowed me to it, We had not long left Shannonbridge, when, doubling an angle of the shore, and stretching up a reach of the river where it widens, the principal round tower of Clonmacnoise became visible.
"What tower is that?" said I to my Charon.
"That's the big tower of Clonmacnoise, sir," he answered; "an' if your honour, looks sharp, a little to the right of it, lower down, you'll see the ruins of the ould palace."
On a somewhat closer inspection, I did perceive the remains he spoke of; dimly discernible in the distance; and it was not without his indication of their relative situation to the tower that I could have distinguished them from the sober grey of the horizon behind them, for the evening was closing fast, and we were moving eastward.
"Does your honour see it yit?" said my boatman.
"I do," said I.
"God spare you your eye-sight," responded he, "for troth it's few gintlemen could see the ould palace this far off, and the sun so low, barrin' they were used to sportin', and had a sharp eye for the birds over a bog, or the like o' that. Oh, then, it's Clonmacnoise, your honour, that's the holy place," continued he, "mighty holy in the ould ancient times, and mighty great too, wid the sivin churches, let alone the two towers, and the bishop, and plinty o' priests, and all to that."
"Two towers?" said l; "then l suppose one has fallen?"
"Not at all, sir," said he; "but the other one that you can't see is beyant in the hollow by the river-side."
"And it was a great place, you say, in the ould ancient times?"
"Troth it was, sir, and is still, for to this day it bates the world in regard o' pilgrims."
"Pilgrims!" I ejaculated.
"Yes, sir," said the boatman, with his own quiet manner, although it was evident to a quick observer that my surprise at the mention of pilgrims had not escaped him.
I mused a moment. Pilgrims, thought I, in the British dominions, in the nineteenth century--strange enough!
"And so," continued I aloud, "you have pilgrims at Clonmacnoise?"
"Troth we have, your honour, from the top of the north and the farthest corner of Kerry; and you may see them any day in the week, let alone the pathern [patron] day, when all the world, you'd think, was there."
"And the palace," said I, "I suppose belonged to the bishop of Clonmacnoise?"
"Some says 'twas the bishop, your honour, and indeed it is them that has larnin' says so; but more says 'twas a king had it long ago, afore the Churches was there at all, at all; and sure enough It looks far oulder nor the Churches, though them is ould enough, God knows. All the knowledgable people I ever heerd talk of it says that; and now, sir," said he, in an expostulatory tone, "wouldn't it be far more nath'ral that the bishop id live in the Churches? And sure," continued, he, evidently leaning to the popular belief, "id stands to raisnon that a king id live in a palace, and why shud it be called a palace if a king didn't live there?"
Satisfying himself with this most logical conclusion, he pulled his oar with evident self-complacency; and as I have always found, I derived more legendary information by yielding somewhat to the prejudice of the narrator, and by abstaining from inflicting any wound on his pride (so Irish a failing) by laughing at or endeavouring to, combat his credulity, I seemed to favour his conclusions, and admitted that a king must have been the ci-devant occupant of the palace. So much being settled, he proceeded to tell me that "there was a mighty quare story" about the last king that ruled Clonmacnoise; and having expressed an eager desire to hear the quare story, he seemed quite happy at being called on to fulfil the office of chronicler; and pulling his oar with an easier sweep, lest he might disturb the quiet hearing of his legend by the rude splash of the water, he prepared to tell his tale, and I to devour up his discourse.
"Well, sir, they say there was a king wanst lived in the palace beyant, and a sportin' fellow he was, and Cead mile failte was the word in the palace; no one kem but was welkim, and I go bail the sorra one left it without the deoch an' doris. Well, to be sure, the king, av coorse, had the best' of eatin' and drinkin', and there was bed and boord for the stranger, let alone the welkim for the neighbours--and a good neighbour he was by all accounts, until, as bad luck would have it, a crass ould bishop (the saints forgi' me for saying the word!) kem to rule over the Churches. Now, you must know, the king was a likely man, and as I said already, he was a sportin' fellow, and by coorse a great favourite with the women; he had a smile and a wink for the crathers at every hand's turn, and the soft word, and the--The short and the long of it is, he was the divil among the girls.
"Well, sir, it was all mighty well, antil the ould bishop I mintioned arrived at the Churches; but whin he kem, he tuk great scandal at the goings-an of the king, and he determined to cut him short in his coorses all at wanst; so with that whin the king wint to his duty, the bishop ups and he tells him that he must mend his manners, and all to that; and when the king said that the likes o' that was never tould him afore by the best priest o' them all, 'More shame for them that wor before me,' says the bishop.
"But to make a long, story short, the king looked mighty black at the bishop, and the bishop looked twice, blacker at him again, and so on, from bad to worse, till they parted the bittherest of inimies: and the king, that was the best o' friends to the Churches afore, swore be this and be that he'd vex them for it, and that he'd be even with the bishop alore long.
"Now, sir, the bishop might jist as well have kept never mindin' the king's little kimmeens with the girls, for the story goes that he had a little fallin' of his own in regard of a dhrop, and that he knew the differ betune wine and wather, for, poor ignorant crathurs, it's little they knew about whisky in them days. 'Well, the king used often to send lashins o' wine to the Churches, by the way, as he said, that they should have plinty of it for celebrating the mass--although he knew well that it was a little of it went far that-a-way, and that their Riverinces was fond of a hearty glass as well as himself - and why not, sir, if they'd let him alone - for, says the king, as many a one said afore, and will again, I'll make a child's bargain with you, says he: do you let me alone, and I'll let you alone; manin' by that, sir, that if they'd say nothin' about the girls, he would give them plinty of wine.
"And so it fell out a little before he had the scrimmage with the bishop, the king promised them a fine store of wine that was comin' up the Shannon in boats, sir, and big boats they'wor, I'll go bail--not all as one as the little drolleen, [wren] of a thing we're in now, but nigh-hand as big as a ship; and there was three of these fine boats-full comin'--two for himself, and one for the Churches; and so says the king to himself, 'The divil receave the dhrop of that wine they shall get,' says he, 'the dirty beggarly neygars; bad cess to the dbrop,' says he, 'my big-bellied bishop, to nourish your jolly red nose. I said I'd be even with you,' says he, 'and so I will; and if you spoil my divarshin, I'll spoil yours, and turn about is fair play, as the divil said to the smoke-jack.' So with that, sir, the king goes and he gives ordhers to his servants how it wid be when the boats kem up the river with the wine--and more especial to one in partic'lar they called Corny, his own man, by raison he was mighty stout, and didn't love priests much more nor himself.
"Now, Corny, sir, let alone bein' stout, was mighty dark, and if he wanst said the word, you might as well sthrive to move the rock of Dunamaise as Corny, though without a big word at all, at all, but as quite [quiet] as a child. Well, in good time, up kem the boats, and down runs the monks, all as one as a flock o' crows over a cornfield, to pick up whatever they could for themselves; but troth the king was afore them, for all his men was there, and Corny at their head.
"'Dominus vobiscum!' (which manes, God save you, sir!) says one of the monks to Corny, 'we kem down to save you the throuble' of unloading the wine which the king, God bless him! gives to the Church.'
"'Oh, no throuble in life, plaze your Riverince,' says Corny, 'we'll unload it ourselves, your Riverince,' says he.
"So with that they began unloading, first one boat, and then another; but sure enough, every individual cashk of it went up to the palace, and not a one to the Churches; so whin they seen the second boat a'most empty, quare thoughts began to come into their heads; for before this offer the first boat-load was always sent to the bishop, after a dhrop was taken 'to the king, which, you know, was good manners, sir; and the king, by all accounts, was a gentleman, every inch of him. So, with that, says one of the monks:
"'My blessin' an you, Corny, my son,' says he, 'sure it's not forgettin' the bishop you'd be, nor the Churches,' says he, 'that stands betune you and the divil.'
"Well, sir, at the word divil, 'twas as good as a play to see the look Corny gave out o' the corner of his eye at the monk.
"'Forget yez,' says Corny, 'throth it's long afore me or my masther,' says he (nodding his head a bit at the word), 'will forget the bishop of Cloumacnoise. Go an with your work, boys,' says he to the men about him; and away they wint, and soon finished unloadin' the second boat; and with that they began at the third.
"'God bless your work, boys,' says the bishop; for, sure enough, 'twas the bishop himself kem down to the river side, having got the hard word of what was goin' an. 'God bless your work,' says he, as they heaved the first barrel of wine out of the boat. 'Go, help them, my sons,' says he, turning round to half-a-dozen strappin' young priests as was standing by.
"'No occasion in life, plaze your Riverince,' says Corny; 'I'm intirely obleeged to your lordship, but we're able for the work ourselves,' says he. And without sayin' another word, away went the barrel out of the boat, and up on their shoulders, or whatever way they wor takin' it, and up the bill to the palace.
"'Hillo!' says the bishop, 'where are yiz goin' with that wine?' says he.
"'Where I tould them,' says Corny.
"'Is it to the palace?' says his Riverince.
"'Faith, you jist hit it,' says Corny.
"'And what's that for?' says the bishop.
"For fun,' says Corny, no ways frikened at all by the dark look the bishop gave him. And sure it's a wondher the fear of the Church didn't keep him in dread--but Corny was, the divil intirely.
"'Is that the answer you give your clergy, you reprobate?' says the bishop. 'I'll tell you what it is, Corny,' says he, 'as sure as you're standin' there I'll excommunicate you, my fine fellow, if you don't keep a civil tongue in your head.'
"'Sure it wouldn't be worth your Riverince's while,' says Corny, 'to excommunicate the likes o' me,' says he, 'while there's the king my masther to 'the fore, for your holiness to play bell, book, and candle-light with.'
"'Do you mane to say, you scruff of the earth,' says the, bishop, 'that your masther, the king, put you up to what you're doing?'
"'Divil a thing else I mane,' says Corny.
"'You villlian! says the bishop, 'the king never did the like.'
"'Yes, but I did, though,' says the king, puttin' in his word fair an aisy; for he was lookin' out o' his dhrawing-room windy, and run down the hill to the river when he seen the bishop goin', as he thought, to put his comether upon Corny.
"'So,' says. the bishop, turnin' round quite short to the king--'so, my lord,' says he, 'am I to understand this villian has your commands for his purty behavor?'
"'He has my commands for what he done,' says the king, quite stout; 'and more be token, I'd have you to know he's no villian at all,' says he, 'but a thrusty servant, that does his masther's biddin'.'
"'And don't you intind sendin' any of this wine over to my Churches beyant?' says the bishop.
"'The divil receave the dhrop,' says the king.
"' And what for?' says the bishop.
"'Bekase I've changed my mind,' says the king.
"'And won't you give the Church wine for the holy mass?' says the bishop.
"'The mass!' says the king eyin' him mighty sly.
"'Yes, sir--the mass,' says his Riverince, colouring up to the eyes -' the mass.'
"'Oh, baithershin!' says the king.
"'What do you mane?' says' the bishop--and his nose got blue with fair rage.
"'Oh, nothin',' says the king with a toss of his head.
"'Are you a gintleman?' says the bishop.
"'Every inch o' me,' says the king.
"'Then sure no gintleman goes back of his word,' says the other.
"'I won't go back o' my word, either,' says the king. 'I promised to give wine for the mass,' says he, 'and so I will. Send to my palace every Sunday mornin', and you shall have a bottle of wine, and that's plinty; for I'm thinkin',' says the king, 'that so much wine lyin' beyant there is neither good for your bodies nor your sowls.'
"'What do you mane?' says the bishop, in a great passion, for all the world like a turkey-cock.
"'I mane, that when your wine-cellar is so full,' says the king, 'it only brings the fairies about you, and makes away with the wine too fast,' says he, laughin'; 'and the fairies to be about the Churches isn't good, your Riverince,' says the king; 'for I'm thinkin',' says he, 'that some of the spiteful little divils has given your Riverince a blast, and burnt the ind of your nose.'
"With that, my dear, you couldn't hould the bishop with the rage he was in; and says he," You think to dhrink all that 'wine--but you're mistaken,' says he. 'Fill your cellars as much as you like,' says the bishop, 'but you'll die in drooth yit;' and with that he went down on his knee. and cursed the king (God betune us and harm!) and shakin' his fist at him, he gother [gathered] all his monks about him, and away they whit home to the Churches.
"Well, sir, sure enough, the king fell sick of a suddent, and all the docthors in the country round was sent for; but they could do him no good at all, at all--and day by day he was wastin' and wastin', and pinin', and pinin', till the flesh was worn off his bones, and he was as bare and as yallow as a kite's claw; and then, what would you think, but the drooth came an him sure enough, and be was callin' for dhrink every minit, till you'd think he'd dhrink the sae dhry.
"Well, when the clock struck twelve that night, the drooth was an him worse nor ever, though he dbrunk as much that day--ay, troth, as much as would turn a mill; and he called to his servants for a dhrink of grule [gruel].
"'The grule's all out,' says they.
"'Well, then, give me some whay,' says he.
"'There's none left, my lord,' says they.
"'Then give me a dhrink of wine,' says he.
"'There's none in the room, dear,' says the nurs-tindher.
"'Then go down to the wine-cellar,' says he, 'and get some.'
"'With that, they whit to the wine-cellar--but, jew'l machree, they soon run back into his room, with their faces as white as a sheet, and tould him there was not one dhrop of wine in all the cashks in the cellar.
"'Oh, murther! murther!' says the king, 'I'm dyin' of drooth,' says he.
"And then, God help iz! they bethought themselves of what the bishop said, and the curse he laid an the king.
"'You've no gruel?' says the king.
"'No,' says they.
"'No,' 'says the sarvants.
"'Nor wine?' says the king.
"'Nor wine either, my lord,' says they.
"'Have you no tay?' says he.
"'Not a dhrop,' says the nurse-tindher.
"'Then,' says the king, 'for the tindher marcy of God, gi' me a dhrlnk of wather.'
"And what would you think, sir, but there wasn't a dhrop of wather in the place.
"'Oh, murther! murther!' says the king, 'isn't it a poor case that a king can't get a dhrink of wather in his own house? Go then,' says he, 'and get me a jug of wather out of the ditch.'
"For there was a big ditch, sir, all round the palace. And away they run for wather out of the ditch, while the king was roarin' like mad for the drooth, and his mouth like a coal of fire. And sure, sir, the story goes, they couldn't find any wather in the ditch!
"'Millia murther! millia murther!' cries the king, "will no one take pity an a king that's dyin' for the bare drooth?'
"And they all thrimbled again, with the fair fright, when they heerd this, and thought of the ould bishop's prophecy.
"'Well,' says the poor king, 'run down to the Shannon,' says be, 'and sure, at all event,, you'll get wather there,' says he.
"Well, sir, away they run with pails and noggins down to the Shannon, and (God betune us and harm!) what do you think, sir, but the river Shannon was dhry! So, av coorse, when the king heer the Shannon ass gone dhry, it wint to his heart; and he thought o' the bishop's curse an him--and givin' one murtherin' big screech that split the walls of the palace, as may be seen to this day, he died, sir--makin' the bishop's words good, that 'he would die of drooth yit!
"And now, air," says 'my historian, with a look of lurking humour in his dark grey eye, "isn't that mighty wondherful--iv it's true?"