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At Loch Key

ISSUE:  Spring 1940

Boscommon is in Connaught; and almost any frequenter of the literary salons of Dublin—a city where they have literary salons—can tell you that it is a “dull county.” Dull, perhaps, in comparison to Mayo or Kerry or Donegal, which I have not yet seen. Its pastures and villages do not usually offer those effects of violent contrast or savage romanticism which we are told to consider peculiarly “Irish.” And yet, since it was my first glimpse of the Ireland that lies behind Dublin’s eager and self-conscious Irishry, it made its maximum impression on me, and, it will be long before I forget the way the rushes grow to the edge of the water in Loch Key, the blaze of the gorse there, or the fierce white beauty of the wild swans quarreling among themselves for riparian rights along the silver shore. They are Irish swans.

You have to drive for three good hours before you get from Dublin to the town of Boyle. The drive takes you through the northern part of the county Dublin, through the counties Meath, Kildare, Westmeath, and Leitrim, all noble names. (Except, that is, Westmeath—I really cannot work up much Hibernian enthusiasm about the name Westmeath.) Part of it is hunting country; all of it—all of Ireland—is farming and grazing country. The celebrated green assails your eyes with a thousand variations of the same color; the road winds, the cows meditate, the children scurry, flaxen-haired and apple-cheeked, along the village street; it is all infinitely familiar, so that you see it for the first time with the identifying and recognizing eye of the returned traveler, but with no trace of his boredom, none of his regret for landmarks that are there no more. This is one of the curiosities of travel, of organized motion for the purpose of seeing things, in a life which strives to make the whole world familiar to its inhabitants: we go to the most celebrated monuments, the most photographed scenes (like the film-fed Connemara boy entering the harbor of New York) with a vision already inured against surprise, so that nothing can be wholly new or strange to us; and yet reality shocks us every time with its sharp confirmation. How tall are the houses in New York, we say naively; how green are the Irish fields! Let us gape; let us be astonished; for if the moment ever arrives when experience can no longer astonish us— when sight, sound, smell, touch have lost their power to supply a constant series of small shocks to the nervous system—we may as well lie down and call it a day.

Loch Key is a dream lake, with a dream’s lovely stillness and fragility, shimmering empty and dreamlike among wooded hills where the birds have it all to themselves until August, and the shooting season, are upon them. This condition—as of life beautifully suspended—is due to the wicked landlords. Most things in Ireland are to be derived, one way or another, from the country’s social and economic history, its long subjection to landownership and lawmaking by aliens; Loch Key’s solitude is one of the good things in that kind. The landlords of Rockingham own the whole lake, and (even now) most of the land around it; the fishing rights are theirs; no boat can go upon the lake without their permission; even the wild swans assert their ascendancy and admit no intruders. Long ago the English family that was planted at Rockingham came under the spell of the lake, and although their great estates have been divided, although the tenant farmer has ceased to exist, and all men are equal under the King-Pope de Valera, the descendants of the conqueror cling to enough land to make the lake theirs and to wrap it in a green proprietary quiet which neither industry nor curiosity has yet disturbed. By the compensatory operation—a kind of give-and-take in the historic process—which we loosely call “irony,” it is the English landlord who has preserved for us, in this one spot at least, some suggestion of unravaged Ireland as it must have stood a thousand years ago in the Christian dawn.

It is a suggestion only. We get it here and there: upon the lake’s quiet surface when the sun is low; at a high point where the green and silver lines lie out before us without detail; or actually (best of all) from the windows of the great house. The house—Rockingham itself—is a Regency structure with no special Irish character; it is a work of Nash, with his fingerprints all over it; it is an English house; but from its broad windows we contemplate an Ireland older than the modern races of men that have embittered its history by their contentions. With no trouble at all we can see the bright warriors emerge from the woods down there at the water’s edge and climb into their high-prowed boat; their long red hair gleams in the cold Irish sun; they are out in all their pagan savagery for the triumph of the spear, of the bow and arrow, sung on by the wild harp (that dirty old man with the grey beard is the harper) and encouraged by blood sacrifice upon their altars in the forest. They are on their way to assault the silver-girt island in the lake that is defended by MacDermot’s Castle.

It is a tribal lake. You can see at once that wild men have fought for its fish and trees, its loamy farms and springing bogs. But before the wild men were organized into tribes— before there were enough of them to kill each other in any comfort—there must have been a moment in time (a moment lasting centuries) when the swans alone possessed the water and the soft rain fell upon the solitude; and the first fisherman, when at last he put out in his flimsy boat of bark or hide, pushed his way fearfully, beset by unknown terrors, into a world that was all beauty and mystery, with not a fish, not a flower in it, that could be called by an old familiar name.

The lake is set with small green islands, their green rising firm and erect from the water’s edge, so that each one is given a gemlike solidity and definition which no evening mist can quite take away. On one of these islands, not the largest and not the smallest, but well placed for defense from attack on all sides, the clan MacDermot kept their castle for many centuries. One of the oldest books of Irish history is the “Annals of Loch Key,” in which the MacDermots recorded their exploits, and this enchanted lake was the scene of their feuds and forays, their incessant warfare and their final eclipse. MacDermot’s Castle, the grey ruin down there to the right, occupying all but a few spare inches of the little island on which it was built, is a rather bogus structure: some of its stones, in the outer wall at least, are really old, but the castle itself is a pseudo-ruin built in romantic mood by the Rockingham landlord of Regency days; and yet from here, from the broad windows of the great house, it looks as if the Eleventh Century had raised it to withstand the onslaught of the Sixteenth—Gaelic Ireland to resist the captains of Elizabeth.

And how right that Rockingham landlord of the Regency was! Such a place as this needs a ruin, and if no ruin exists there is great good sense in building one. The thing is only academically false; for in the spirit it is right and true, at least from the shores of the lake, to see the fortress rise compactly out of the cold, deep water. The swans that float over these depths would float less proudly if they had no grey castle walls behind them. They are Irish swans.


Inside the house the servants come and go, silent, almost invisible, putting the plates down, filling the glasses, bringing the food and whisking it away again; carpets are cleaned, windows washed, floors swept, all as if by magic, the labors that go into them unseen, unheard; it is the life of an English country house, an institution, a sort of civil service, and if you do not look through the broad windows at the lake you can very easily forget that you are in the heart of Ireland.

Generations have lived like this in Ireland in the great country houses, going to London for the “season,” sending their sons into English schools, universities, regiments, and using their Irish estates as a place of resort, a villeggiatura, for the hunting and the shooting and for the collection of rents. Inside the house there are decorum, good manners, and the speech of the English privileged class. Outside are the green hills in the rain, the silver lake in the sun, the peasant and the poacher, the homeless and landless Gael. He is landless no longer; the great estates are broken up, and the “landlord,” that traditional bogeyman, collects no more rent; but in the occasional survival of a great house like Rockingham there is the reminder of what Ireland was from the Renaissance until our own day—a land owned and governed by the foreigner who remained, century after century, invincibly foreign.

No exact parallel to this state of affairs exists in the history of other countries. In the American Southern states a landowning class of white people maintained its ascendancy over a slave population of Negroes for a century and a half, but in that case both the Negroes and the white people were newcomers; neither had an ancient claim to the land. In Russia great landowners possessed the state, but they were of exactly the same race as their dependents and lived on terms of free familiarity with them. In the Orient something like the sharp separation of English and Irish exists between the Western planter or business man and the native, but there it has never been accompanied by absolute ownership of the land or full control of the social and economic body. Ireland alone exhibited the spectacle of a nation conquered and exploited in this precise way—the English, a handful of English, inside the house, owning the house and all the land between it and the next English house, while the native millions were dispossessed. It is not surprising that hatred of England appears to be almost an instinct with the Irish, like hunger or fear or the sexual impulse. How many generations of Irish must have looked at this house, and at houses like this, with the black despair of poverty upon them! They, the natives of the country, could hold neither land nor office; they were barred from the universities; for generations they received only such instruction as they could contrive for themselves with the help of their native religion; they were peasants and poachers, tenants or outlaws upon the land of their unnumbered ancestors.

All that is changed now. Inside the house, when we sit down to dinner, we are three: our host, urbane, robust, and cultivated at once, an English country gentleman who has been in Ireland for three hundred years without becoming a whit less English; our friend Frank, who descends in the straight line from the MacDermots of the Castle, those who once owned the lake and all the land nearby and have never forgotten it; myself, the American descendant of just such peasants and poachers, I have no doubt, as roamed these hills through the centuries of oppression. It does not seem to matter greatly what the Eighteenth Century did: here we sit and drink port and look through the broad windows at the silent silver lake where the swans alone move in the late-fallen evening. English, Anglo-Irish, Irish, Irish-American, Anglo-American-Irish—what are these barbaric sounds?

I think of Yeats and his nine bean-rows. There are more than nine bean-rows here, but I think I know what he meant.


After dinner on the first night we walked in the bog garden. Here the stillness was protected by the small sounds of the night; rustling, nameless sounds hedged in a core of quiet. The bog was dry and resilient, like springs covered by a quilt; through the half light the azalea ran to its edges; the white rhododendron was half opened. I asked what bog was, and nobody could tell me. Thousands of years of rain, they thought, had made it, and a great part of Ireland was now bog; you could cut it off in strips and burn it, and that was peat; beneath this layer of bog there was water, and beneath that more bog, and beneath that water again; the dead trees and vegetation of thousands of years were in it, too. A great part of Ireland was like this—a layer of bog, a layer of water, a layer of bog and a layer of water. The turf fires were burning in cottages from Donegal to Wexford; you could smell them; you could taste the smoke of the turf in Irish whiskey. The poor could not have heat or light at all if it were not for the bog. How lucky are the poor of Ireland, blessed in their bog!

“The industrialization program,” somebody said, “would be helped along a great deal if the turf could be made into briquettes and used commercially for fuel on a really large scale.”

The industrialization program: a complicated system of bounties, subsidies, and tariffs by which the entrepreneur is encouraged to manufacture in Ireland without regard to quality or price. As Francis Hackett says, Irish soap is unjustly censured for its refusal to lather in water, whereas Irish cheese lathers beautifully; all that is needed is to persuade the captious consumer to use his soap for cheese and his cheese for soap, and there will be satisfaction all round. The capitalist system, which has been such a brilliant success everywhere else, will be installed in all its glory in this country of small farmers, and no matter who starves in the meanwhile, somebody will get rich. Also (and this seems to be the motive power of the “industrialization program”) the British Empire will suffer severely through its inability to sell goods to Ireland. The “economic war with England,” this has been nicknamed. It has to be called that to be popular; you could persuade the Irish people to chop their hands and feet off if they imagined the deed would injure England, as de Valera has so conclusively proved.

The bog, then, is to be cut up into briquettes to use as fuel in factories to which the bog-dwellers will be driven, cajoled, propelled, or persuaded, there to enjoy the blessings of labor in a capitalist paradise. It will be quite safe, because it is under the flag of Ireland, and Kathleen ni Houlihan will have nothing to do in the future but collect her dividends, Ho-hum! The poor old lady!

“Did you meet an old woman and you coming up the road?” “No, but I met a young woman and she had the walk of a queen.”


One of the purposes of our excursion to Roscommon was the delivery of a speech to the populace. That is, my friend Frank, who held down a seat in Dail Eireann with conscientious firmness, had the habit of addressing his constituents at intervals on Sunday mornings as they gathered for mass in the villages. It was a custom they no doubt enjoyed, for the diversions in these lovely, forgotten hamlets are few, and a real political speech delivered in the human voice, brought straight from Dublin, must be almost as much fun as a wedding or a wake.

It was an exquisite day, soft and brilliant at once, as days can be only in Ireland. We drove through a country so sweet that it appealed to all the senses at once, and from time to time, at a rise in the road or a break in the trees, we looked back at Loch Key. Once, at a fork in the road, we asked an old man which way to go for Crosna. “Straight on ahead of you,” he said in his country voice thick with rainwater, “straight as a rush!” He was a lake dweller, and knew nothing straighter than that.

The village of Crosna lies at the top of a hill to which the road climbs straight from two valleys. We drove up to the open space before the church and stopped. Half a dozen houses and a church: that is Crosna. Rut it draws its congregation on Sunday from all the farms and holdings in the neighborhood, and the people were coming now by the valley roads, dressed for the house of worship, a few of them on bicycles, the rest on foot.

There is nothing like a road to lead the eye over distances, to conduct it gently, to give it an idea of space familiar and conquerable. Mantegna found it out a long time ago; he would have enjoyed this scene. The road extended on both sides into the valleys, forked here and there in the distance, and ended where the whole cup of the world ended, in a dark purple line against the sky. The people were coming up towards the church on all the roads, converging—it seems to be the sort of agreement most obtainable among Irishmen— upon the religious mystery. They were of all ages, for the church has lost none of its hold in the country, and the young are as assiduous as the old. As they passed us they gave us good morning, courteously, with a sidelong glance and a nod of the head. “A grand morning,” they would say. As far as my eyes could see they were coming along the roads, the peaceful, sunny roads. These same roads were trod by their ancestors on the same errand when it was dangerous to do so, and there was no peace anywhere; you could see, if you looked hard enough, the throngs of the living and the dead pressing hard upon the roads, coming in from all the counties of Ireland to the mass; for the mass was their strength temporal and spiritual, their refuge, their hope.

“You are strangers here, likely,” an old man said to us. “But I don’t know. Old folks doesn’t know the youth.”

Youth is the most relative of words; to his tired blue eyes, accepting our existence without interest, anything less than fifty years old must have seemed young. I said that I came from America and his face lighted up; I expected a recital of his relationships there. But no—”They say they’re havin’ their troubles in America too, now,” he remarked with relish.

It was a consolation like another. Perhaps in his youth he had wanted to go to America, and had been galled through decades by the boastful prosperity of his luckier emigrant friends; it was good, in the end of all, to know that the miseries of creation were not reserved exclusively for Ireland.

The old man went into the church; the streams converged; all of. Crosna went into the church, and my friend Frank

1 i after them. By eleven o’clock I had the landscape to myself, except for a committee of three men who remained bent over a table at the church door, busily counting money and marking things down in a book. They were collectors of party funds for the Fianna Fail, Mr. de Valera’s organization, and had reaped such harvest as they could from the devout farmers as they came in to mass. Their small deal table was ornamented with a poster enumerating some of the virtues of Fianna Fail and its leader. The placard promised that anybody who subscribed any sum, however small, to Fianna Fail would receive a personal acknowledgment from the party headquarters in the name of de Valera. Such a trophy was valued, apparently, at anything from sixpence to half a crown, for the silver lay in neat little heaps on the table. As the sound of the worshipers rising or kneeling—a clatter of surprising volume—came through the closed door of the church the committee pocketed its takings and made off. I was left to my heathen solitude on the crumbling stone wall that ran along the lane beside the church, with the valley’s sunny silence underneath, and except for a stray goat or a chicken or the blue smoke of the turf fire from a cottage, there was no movement in the whole world.

This was the land of my fathers. Here they had worked their hands to leather, ploughed fields, tended cattle, herded the sheep and the goats, struggled to maintain themselves against the constant, age-long adversity of nature and circumstance, their winters grim and their summers brief, their loves and their sorrows alike encrusted with the silent hopelessness of the very poor. For they must have been very poor; little as I knew about them, I knew that they were Irish Catholics, and the Irish Catholics—which is to say, the whole native population of Ireland—were condemned by law to unrelieved poverty and slavery for generations. In some such fields as these they had toiled and moiled from father to son through the centuries, sustained by loyalties and hatreds that seemed equally strange to me now, so that even their virtues, their heroic obstinacy and their will to live, were to me like the virtues of an alien people. For this was the astonishing thing: that I felt no more akin to these people—half of them, I suppose, my relatives in some remote degree—than if they had been Italians or Chinese. No more, and, indeed, no less, for these, too, are heirs to the human condition, fight the same losing fight.

How artificial, trumped-up, and unreasonable are the inventions of nationality! So slimsy that a journey on a boat can reduce them to nothing; so seductive that men will die for them. Here am I perched on a stone wall in the very middle of my race, my ancestral island, the soil that my fathers coveted and into which their dust has gone; but I am unrelieved, unmitigated, indivisible American. I am American simply because I was born in Illinois and grew up there. The fact that the parents of my parents came from this lovely island, were marked by its social and economic history in every detail of their lives, inheriting its political and religious prejudices and the physical character imposed by its climate and anthropology, seems to me to belong to that large class of fascinating but irrelevant information which delights the minds of children—you know: the wives of Henry VIII, the mistresses of the kings of France.


The church doors opened and the congregation came trickling out, dawdling, chattering, saluting, as surprised and pleased at each encounter as if it had not happened just so every Sunday in the year. My friend Frank rolled back the sun top of his car and emerged through the roof. “Voters of Crosna,” he said; and a silence fell over the whole crowd.

I stayed where I was, on the stone wall, and it was a good place, for the villagers assembled there. The lucky ones leaned on the wall; later comers filled the space between the wall, the church and the car. Into this triangle there may have been (at a guess) a hundred men crowded. The women waited inside the church or around the church door, talking quietly among themselves. There was obviously no interest for them in the speeches of politicians. All that, by preference and by tradition, they left to the men.

But the men were interested enough. You could feel them listening, even when the subject of discourse (the budget; the abolition of the Free State Senate) seemed fantastically far from the realities of their lives. Once in a while my nearest neighbor would remove his pipe from his mouth and spit. A handful of boys near the car let out a faint “Hear, Hear!” when something pleased them. But for the most part they listened in attentive silence, or, as it seemed at times, in a stunned silence: for my friend Frank, who makes a point of saying plainly what he means, was assailing the “political murders” and the weakness of the government in dealing with “political murderers.” Such language was not welcomed in the country, for the Irish Republican Army—the I. R. A.—was still regarded, in 1936, with mingled affection and terror by the people.

The I. R. A. has perfected the technique of political murder beyond anything known to other countries, and has developed in that enterprise a tradition complete with heroes, songs, and stories. Few living Irishmen—living, that is, in Ireland—would care to make a public speech attacking that secret society which, even though it is illegal and condemned by de Valera himself, still represents to the Irish people their oldest political peculiarity. This is a country where “gunman” is a word of high esteem, where the stranger is invited to meet “a famous gunman” as in other countries he might be asked to meet a famous singer or a famous politician; where men of official rank are proud of the number of murders they have committed; and where the church itself has not, until very lately, taken up a definite and united position against private murder for political motives. Not only is the gunman a citizen valued in popular esteem, but even those who have never liked the system of “gun work” do not often dare to say so; for the gunman works by night, and it is not healthy to incur his displeasure too often. One of the most unpleasant pieces of “gun work” in recent years took place not far from Crosna—at Edgeworthstown, specifically—and although “gun work” was at this time neither so common nor so well thought of as it was in the Troubled Times, there were plenty of remnants throughout the country of the I. It. A. gunman tradition. And how could it be otherwise? Fourteen years of native government they had had by 1936: few indeed in comparison to the three centuries of alien misrule during which the Irish tradition of lawlessness was summoned into being; and the habit of law is not so quickly acquired by those who have been born and bred outlaws for generations.

So Frank made his courageous attack on the I. R. A., and was listened to in uneasy silence; the crowd slowly began to disperse as he finished; we climbed into the car and drove off through the exquisite green country to Rockingham; and as we got out again at the baronial front door we saw, marked very large and long in the dust on the back of the car, the eloquent initials “I. R. A.” Somebody, in that crowd of silent villagers at the crossroads, had been not only a patriot but a humorist as well.

Rain was falling steadily in the morning when we went back to Dublin—the soft, easy Irish rain, without which the loveliest Irish landscape would lose half its character. The great avenue of beeches at Rockingham was an arch of gloom; the lake seemed to support wearily its weight of mist. The Castle in the lake, bogus though it might be, rose grimmer and solider from the grey waters in this colder air; for the cold and wet were its true habit, and not yesterday’s sun. Against its dark wall and the darker green at the water’s edge there floated, untouched by wind or weather, the proud white birds that will have no intruder upon their chosen lake —the wild swans, the Irish swans.


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