THOMAS M. M. HEMY (1852-1937) - PAGE 57
ILLUSTRATED ARTICLE BY THOMAS M. HEMY
IN TWO PARTS
ENTITLED 'IN THE ISLES OF ROMANCE.' (1914?)
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Boy’s Own Paper Annual #37 re 1914/15 & particularly issue #10 within it re Aug. 1915 had at page 599, an article entitled 'In the Isles of Romance.' It was the first of two articles, the second appearing later in the same volume - in issue #11 re Sep. 1915 at page 690. Both had illustrations by Thomas M. Hemy. The articles were an account of his visit to the Aran Isles, located in Galway Bay off the west coast of Ireland.
On this page I will record the second part of the transcribed total article. (The first part is on page 56). The total article comprises 7 3/4 pages & eleven illustrations by Thomas Hemy. This second part has five illustrations.
I do not have the skill set to insert the images within the text exactly as they were placed in the articles in 1915, but will place the images as close as I can to where they appeared in the original. Nor can I include any decorated text that the articles contained.
The numbers in brackets in the text below are the webmaster's notations and indicate the start of a page of that number.
In the Isles of Romance.
An Artist's Visit to Inishmaan and Aranmore.
Written and Illustrated by THOMAS M. HEMY.
One fine day we went to the chapel to see a wedding. The priest from Aranmore was officiating. The chapel had a hard cement floor, and there were no seats. The people were packed in like herrings, the men on one side and the women on the other, and on such an event as a wedding the children were also present.
There followed the usual ceremony - in Gaelic, of course. This over, there was a wild rush for the door to see the procession file out. The colours were brilliant and dazzling, and the united ones - a handsome couple - looked supremely happy. Later on, about ten o'clock, my friend suggested a visit to the wedding reception, as he knew the bridegroom and was sure we would be welcome. We joined several straggling parties who were wending their way through the darkness, down a terrible path between the usual loose stone walls, cracks and boulders, to the house of the happy couple.
In due course we arrived. The people are sensitive and dignified, so my friend, although very popular on the island, when we presented ourselves, made profuse apologies for coming without an invitation. We were heartily welcomed, and treated as honoured guests.
On entering the cottage we saw a most picturesque sight, and had quite a novel experience. The ordinary cottage is divided into three rooms : the centre one is the largest and has two doors opening alternatively, according to the wind. There is a large open fire-place and sometimes a few pigs and fowls ; but on this occasion they were absent, of course, or else this was one of the houses where they were kept outside. At the ends of the big room were the sleeping-rooms, one of which is always known as the "women's room."
The middle room was packed with some forty or fifty men and boys sitting on forms, three legged stools, or squatting piled up on the floor. On one of the forms sat as old white-haired, clean-shaven man who was chanting some Gaelic traditional songs and sending the others into fits of laughter. The room was lit up with a roaring turf-fire, on which were boiling several cauldrons of water to supply a tremendous demand for mugs of tea.
The air was stifling, but nothing to what we experienced when shown into the " women's room " in order to congratulate the handsome, well-set-up bridegroom and buxom laughing bride, who, attired in their smart array, were holding a reception. They were seated on the bridal couch, which was already groaning under the weight of about a (691) dozen bridesmaids with a few little girls filling in the corners ; in fact, that side of the room was a fair pyramid of feminine beauty, with the stolid and patient husband in the centre.
On entering the room we were conducted to chairs at the head of the table, and the best cups were filled with tea and set before us. Beside us were other men and also boys sitting on forms and drinking pannikins and mugs of the same beverage, which was liberally dispensed. The other refreshments consisted of a huge pile of freshly broken bread, which filled up the centre of the table, and I was amazed to see the bright and happy faces of those enjoying this simple fare. I mentally compared it with the often dreary performance of similar functions in London where the cost had run into hundreds of pounds.
As the heat had now become stifling we refused a pressing invitation to enter the men's room and left early. We heard after that the reception ended about 3 A.M. The happy couple must have sat there enduring the heat and close atmosphere for six or seven hours !
EMBARKING THE CATTLE.
The day broke bleak and drizzling with a steely grey mist over everything. Before my eyes was a stretch of sand and shingle and sullen sea. Towards the west side the island arose ghastly and forbidding. There was an ever-present atmosphere of mystery about the surroundings. An aeroplanist, swooping earthward, would wonder into what strange world he had dropped, for the inhabitants of these islands are as much apart from the rest of the world as if they were in mid-Atlantic. They give an impression as of the hand of time put back some hundreds of years.
On this dull morning stretched along the shore were groups of people, strange in costume, wild in aspect, crowded together in groups or huddled up against each other for shelter and warmth. Here and there were men and boys in the crouching attitude of the Arab, holding the reins of some fine-looking steeds. It was an Eastern scene - the women in their brilliant costumes, and the stately walk and dignified manner of all.
Cattle were to be seen in all directions ; and at the water's edge were several groups of curraghs. In one of these boats sat, patiently, with an occasional visit from some sympathetic friend, a poor woman, sick unto death, who was going to the hospital at Galway. These people were waiting for the steamer to take them and the cattle to Galway to another fair two days hence.
Hour after hour passed ; still the dreary mist and cold drizzle continued, and still the groups waited patiently. Suddenly, a message arrived informing them that the steamer was leaving the neighbouring island of Inishmeer, and immediately a transformation occurred. Such scenes of dexterity, feats of strength, and cattle-taming amidst a never-ending exchange of jokes and banter are not often witnessed on Britain's shores.
The people at once prepared for the arrival of the boat. The cattle had to be shipped, and it was a case of first catch your horse or cow - they being in an almost wild state, many of them never previously having had a halter round their necks. Now the children's enjoyment began, for every child on the island joins in the fray.
The ponies were the first to fall victims. They were surrounded by darting figures, and rushed wildly about in vain attempts to escape. Suddenly, one of the animals passed close to a man, who immediately flung himself at (692) it, and grasped hold of its mane with one hand and put the other round its neck, while he struggled to keep his own feet off the ground and to throw all his weight on the animal. Its speed was instantly checked and other men rushed up and hurled themselves on the poor beast, bearing it to the ground, but not before its heels had been flying in all directions. Once downed, it was held firmly whilst slings were passed round it, carefully knotted to prevent their slipping off or tightening. Next a halter was passed round its neck and then it was ready for the journey to the steamer, there to be hauled on board with the aid of the sling. The same thing was going on all around. Horses and cattle were being caught in all directions amidst the shrill screams and laughter of the crowds, and the bellowing of the indignant steers.
Presently the steamer loomed in the distance out of the fog and anchored some little distance from the shore. The crowds of curraghs were quickly launched from the beach. Then began the trouble of shipping the animals, as they had to be floated behind the curraghs. The halter was thrown from one of the animals to one of the four men manning each boat - three at the oars and one at the stern - whose office was looking after the animals.
The men on shore now commenced their arduous task of persuading the fear-stricken animals to commence their journey to Galway by slipping out into Galway Bay. The poor beasts were nearly mad with fear. A tough struggle took place, which finally ended in one of the men on shore wading up to his armpits in water and giving a final push that set the animal afloat. Then came into play the skill and strength of the man in the stern of the boat, chosen on account of his dexterity in this particular feat. Up went the animal's forelegs striking at the water, boat, man, or anything in the way. An exciting moment or two ensued until the boatman caught the steer by its neck, placing the other hand under its jowl, and pulled its head down on the stern-sheets of the curragh with a vigorous twist. Over it went on its side, thus floating comfortably off to the waiting vessel where the tackle was hooked on to the sling and the animal hoisted on board.
The man in the stern's office is one of great danger, and requires much strength and skill to prevent the animal from getting its head away - in which case it would probably be drowned, as they might have to let go the line and chance the horse or steer finding its way ashore.
Some of the horses which are sent away every summer to grass in Connemara get quite use to this rough treatment, and, except for the natural fear of the wild animals, there is no cruelty whatever. The climate of these islands, it should be noted, is such that there is more and better grain to be had in the winter than is the case on the mainland.
One day I saw a funeral in the island - a ceremony more weird and peculiar even than the wedding I have mentioned. It was the funeral of one of the poorest men on the island ; he had been ailing for some time, and the priest had come from Aranmore and administered the last rites. The coffin came from Inishmeer, as there is no carpenter on the island.
Imagine an old sixth- or seventh-century chapel or oratory - roofless, windowless, and with only one narrow door. Growing in the middle, and with its branches and leaves emerging where the roof should be, is almost the only tree on the island. Around this chapel is the graveyard, rankly overgrown with weeds and surrounded by a wall built quite recently. This cemetery has formed (693) the burying-ground of the people for hundreds of years. The gravestones are nearly all flat, and only the more prosperous families have them. The mould is rich with the dust of generations of islanders, and its depth can be measured in inches. Beneath it is the hard rock.
Wild indeed are the surroundings : to the right the isle of Inishmeer ; farther on, the cliffs of Clare and the Hills of Connemara ; in the foreground naught but rocks and stones.
To see the funeral I was ensconced on a ledge of rock overlooking the burial-ground, so that the presence of a stranger should not obtrude at such a time. Presently, amongst the rocks bordering the sea the funeral procession came into view ; men and women wending their way slowly and solemnly in and out amongst the boulders by the path they themselves some day must travel.
Six men carried the coffin, by the three wooden bars lashed on it for this purpose, from the house of mourning a mile and a half away. When nearing the cemetery, I noticed they they did not come by the direct path, but diverged considerably to the left, doubtless owing to some accident which may have occurred in former times, as the rocks are so slippery and wet on the direct route. Relatives and friends followed the procession in pairs.
On marched the coffin-bearers and laid down their burden within the cemetery gates, and then occurred some of the most extraordinary episodes it has ever been my lot to witness. Most of the people following the procession made their way to the different gravestones and mounds and knelt at their own family graves, praying, " keening," and wailing until all was ready for the interment. It was a most pathetic sight ; sometimes a woman would bend over and touch the grave with her hands as if the departed one were within her reach.
When the preparations were completed, the other people left their own dead and gathered round the open grave ; the coffin was reverently lowered, the displaced bones placed on the lid, and then the scanty soil to cover all. A girl, with what I supposed to be holy water in a tin can, with a bunch of heather sprinkled the grave, the coffin, and the assembled people. The villagers living near the widow's cottage were saddened by her melancholy " keening " for many evenings after.
The sparkling, brilliant sunshine with the beautiful Connemara Mountains and Hills of Clare in the distance, and the ferns and meadowsweet in the near foreground, with the vivid reds of the women's clothes making a blaze of colour, formed a terrible contrast between the Oriental brilliancy of the scene and the awful pathos of it. What a mixture of barbarism and deep religious feeling - and as a contrast there were youths leaning casually against the chapel or lolling on the top of the walls, chatting and smoking as is nothing were taking place, but at the final gathering they too took their place with bared heads.
What a difference to the sombre Breton funeral that we have seen depicted - the falling rain, the sad garments of the spectators, and the priests and choristers with banners and crucifixes ! I Doubt if their ceremony is a tenth part as impressive as that of the poor farmer fisherfolk of the Aran Isles burying their dead.
* * * * * * * * *
My stay in this delightful island was a happy one and one I left with regret. I spent a fortnight before my return to England in Kilronan, the capital of Aranmore. It is not necessary to mention the twelve chapels and the great Fort Dun Angus, and other antiquities of the place, as they are all well known. The island is quite accessible and has a harbour, and the old-world glamour is rapidly disappearing. You can hear last year's music-hall ditties being whistled, and the gramophone is not absent. They have all the usual evidences of civilisation - a police court, county court, hotels, etc. and a few years ago an attempt was made to blow up the house of the parish priest - proof positive that in due course they will be up to date in other ways, and will require a larger prison and other improvements.
As winter was setting in I had to return. I had hoped to spend a fortnight or so on the Atlantic in a trawler, but after wearing rope shoes, the only possible footwear in Inishmaan, and getting continually wet through, the flat, well-kept roads of Kilronan hurt my leg, and I could not get about and so came straight home.
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