[From Mannin, #3, 1914]
N the morning Father Daniel went on his way to sing Mass in Keeill Woirrey, On the way back, he crossed to the head of the boggy land below Cooil ny Feeney, and, picking his steps over the treacherous tufts, reached the sweet water welling up through the green turf to form Chibbyr y Woirrey- a spring dedicated to the blessed Mother and celebrated far and near for its purity and virtue; but, left to bubble over and to flow unrestrained and untouched by art or by any handiwork of man, till lost in the bog below. Filling his leather bottle, he brought it to Clenaige, and, Juan was duly christened. When the mother was getting about again she had him in the open air all day long, and, under her careful nursing, he throve full well.
About the beginning of winter Thorid came, and, for a "tooth-fee" she gave Juan a handsome belt and a knife. Thorid told them that if the babe was to grow up and be hale, they must go down to the sea at high water and walk out to the ninth wave, from under which they must gather white stones. These were to be brought home and boiled, and, with the water the child must be washed.
When Ethne came, Juan did not cease to be lord of the nursery since she was only a girl and seemed strong and healthy; and the three little ones were brought up together. Angus and Heremon were now growing to be young lads, and they made over their toys to the babes,- wooden houses and cattle and horses carved by themselves; in time, Angus, with a little axe which the smith had made for him, cut up small blocks of well-ripened beech into thin slabs on which he taught Juan to use his knife. The little girls were no more backward in learning, and their toy farms increased with horses and with cattle and sheep and a dog. But his mother made Juan's weakness an excuse for keeping him longer in the woman's bower than was wont, and brought him up with his two sisters after their brothers had already been set to work on the farm.
When he was seven years old Juan wanted to sleep with the men in the hall, but she made it a condition that he should let her teach him his letters. It was a pretty sight in the early summer to see the fair young mother with her babes at her knee, seated under the apple-trees while she told them those simple Bible stories which good mothers still repeat to their little ones. But she taught them to say the Credo and the Pater Noster in their own tongue as well as in Latin. She told them stories of the saints of old, of Cecilia, and of Lawrence, of Martin and Patrick and Colum Kill. And, as they prattled there came to her mind faint echoes of old-time legends which she had heard from one and another when she herself was a babe; thus she came to speak of Mananan, son of Lir, with his boat "Ocean-sweeper" that sailed with the wind or against the wind, with neither sail nor rudder nor oar, whithersoever her passenger listed to go ; and, of his steed Aonbarr, which would run over land and water or dive beneath the waves. This would lead to further tales such as that of the fair Finn and the Salmon of Knowledge, and the cruelty of this same Finn when Dermot was wounded to death by the terrible Boar and he would not bring the water from the well, which, if brought in the hands of Finn, would have restored him to life ; or the beautiful tale of Aideen, the swan-maiden, who lost her feathered coat and became a nun and lived to be blessed by Patrick the Saint.
But every story that was told was afterwards acted by the children among themselves. Juan was the blessed Patrick and Ethne was Aideen ; or, he was Cuchulain the ever young and bright one, and his sisters were the witch Skatha or Queen Macha, or other un- pleasant persons. When Etain protested, Juan said it could not be helped for all women were naturally bad "Neil said so." "But," said Ethne, "mother is not bad." "Mother is not a woman," said Juan, mother is Mother!" They had no answer to this. Again, Juan would be David with his sling, and, he would take pebbles from the brook which came' slipping down from the side of the crag, and his two sisters together stood for Goliath of Gath ; but, when they feared they might be really killed, they would all -be David, and an apple-tree had to stand for the giant. This came to be a favourite game and they shaped to become skilful slingers ; but the little girls would only aim at apples while Juan went after birds.
Great was the excitement when they first found a bird's nest. Each had to look at and to feel the little blue eggs of the buntie, and Mother was sent for to tell them all about it. In the little evening when the boys came in they had to be shown the nest and they too must handle the eggs as well as look at them. Next day they were cold and though they watched patiently no bird was ever seen to come again to the nest. After this they were more cautious but hunted around more keenly till, one by one, they found the homes of all their feathered friends. The robin's mossy nest in the bank, with its red-tinted eggs, and the hooded home of the wren were first espied, and then the chaffinch's neatest of nests in the apple-tree; the greenfinch's and the still smaller nest of the goldfinch were only discovered by closely watching the parent birds. The deep cup of the throstle with its black speckled, sea-green eggs, was a joy to see, but the ouzel was in the midst of the holly, and the swallows in the eaves were beyond their reach.
In their hunting they learned to climb like kittens in the low spreading branches of the apple-trees, which surely must have been intended by nature for children to learn how to climb; and, if they sometimes fell, they escaped without much hurt. They learned the songs of the birds by following and watching them while they sang, and re- membered by trying to imitate them while they listened. So they grew to know the birds and their ways and to love them; but what became of so many of them in the winter was a mystery. Juan said they ate each other up, but Ethne thought they must fly to heaven.
In time they ventured beyond the garth, and were shown by the men the nests of the lark and of the meadow-pipit with a young cuckoo, and of the partridge and quail. But, what a delight it was when the meadows were cut and all the women went out to make the hay 1 How long and happy were the days of harvest when they watched the men with their sickles and the binders making up the sheaves; following with the gleaners till they had picked up enough to make little sheaves themselves and carrying home handfuls of the ripe grain to bake into little cakes. And, when the sheaves were gathered into stocks, row leaning against row, they would burrow between them like little animals and play at being bears in their dens, and hunters seeking them with dogs.
At times they would be taken along the Baare-vane past Neil's dwelling at the entrance to the glen, and following the green track under the beech trees to Ballure. Aloe mac Aloe's house was kept by a widowed daughter, Ainee, whose children, Olaf and Fritha, were a year or two older than their cousins and playmates. The house was much like that at Clenaige, only set still closer under the eastern foot of the hill. In front, a green sward spread to the steep bank of boulder-clay, down which winding paths led to the stream. Here they would wander, and, threading their twisted way round the sharp bends up-stream to the mill, would stand and watch the little wheel under the water and the grinding querns and the miller sweeping up the meal from the Laare-vane, or, they would follow the stream down to the shore to bathe in the shallow pool formed by the shingle banked up by the tide. Here they made little boats of pieces of driftwood, with sticks for masts and bits of cloth for sails, and sent them on a Viking cruise across the pond; then they would run round to defend the land from the invaders by driving off or wrecking the ships with stones. But after a week of storm and high tides, lo, the pool was gone and the muddy waters of the stream raced through a newly cut channel to the beach.
Another day they would walk along the northern bank of the stream and across the brooghs to the strong earthwork where men kept watch and ward. Here they made friends with Carnagan, a stout and jovial young man, captain in command of the fort; he had boys of his own, Conall and Finn, for whom he had made little bows and arrows, and, from them Juan and Olaf had their first lessons as bowmen.
When the tide was out, leaving a great stretch of dry sand they would go down to the beach and follow the men to the Granche, a little bay with steep shingle bank rolling down in great steps from the rocks, to the south of Ballure, and watch them shooting with the long- bow, noting their attitudes and the way they handled their weapons; then they would set up targets of their own or go shooting at the gulls settling on the sands, Olaf with the bow and Juan with his sling.
Sometimes there would be horse-racing off Hrafnsey, or, as it was now generally called Rafnsey, and they would wander down and mingle with the excited crowds and learn to note the paces and appearance of the horses and the way they were handled by their riders. But, the Ballure beach they generally had to themselves, with perhaps a fisherman far off at the edge of the tide digging lug-worms for bait or scraping razor-fish out of the sands for food; or, some women over at the rocks looking for the dainty dullish or gathering peri- winkles or limpets for their evening meal; and always upon the waters, rough or calm, there would be boats coming in or going out, fishermen in their currachs spearing flukes with listers, ships of burthen with merchandise from the English coast, sometimes war- ships passing on the horizon or sailing round the Island, their striped sails, glittering prows, and red shields gleaming, their oars with even stroke flashing in the sun. Nor, could one imagine, a finer playground than the dry brown sands stretching northwards to the Point of Ayre, in low, swelling banks, hard and ribbed, or looser mounds with smooth surface, divided by shallow streams of salt water left by the ebbing tide. At the foot of the gravel the stream at Ballure had worn a space scattered over with larger stones, green and slippery with seaweed, making a fine hunting ground for little fish and small crabs and prawns; further on towards the rocks were larger boulders around which the tide had scoured good- sized pools; but in the rocks themselves were channels and narrow basins, with crimson, rose and purple weed, floored with gravel and lilac coralline. Here, they would fish for suckers and bull-kiones, for blennies and gobies and rocklings. Here were limpets and periwinkles of which heaps of shells at the south of Rafnsey and at many a dwelling round the coast showed how they were sought for food; here was the dog-winkle famous for its rich, purple dye : here too were pretty top shells, and, on the wet sands and slimy fronds of leathery tangle, small creatures crept, with round, firm shells of orange and yellow and brown, for which they had no name.
All along the shore were the garey-brecks and dotterels and sand pipers, and always there were flocks of gulls to chase, while in the bay, the gannets plunged unceasingly, dashing up the spray in showers.
The great summer treat was fishing for gibbons or sand-eels. Mother and Heremod and Angus would come with the children early in the morning when the spring-tide would be at its lowest. Walking over to the great Howe, or cronk, a conspicuous feature on the sky- line about ten perches due east of the house, they would go down by the Strooan ny curragh and cross the bog to the beach south of the ford at the place still known as the "Old Cross": here they would be met by the children from Ballure, with Ainee and the miller's daughter. Down by the water's edge they would turn over the sands with a fork, while the little ones with shrill screams of delight would seize in their hands the cold and slippery prey, glowing like burnished silver, till they filled their creels with a wriggling mass of glittering coils. But Aud, the miller's daughter once picked one up which stung her hand; it was a colgur armed with a sharp spine on its back, and Ainee had to dress the wound which tools some days to heal; for a time they were very careful in picking up the little fishes, but it was soon for- gotten. When they had taken as many as they could carry they would cast off their garments and leaving them with the two mothers on the warm shingle, run across the sands like a little flock of ducklings making for the ripples of the wavelets, and, playing at being mermen and mer- maids, would splash and duck and roll about in the sparkling waters; then for a scamper and wild games on the sands, singing for very joy and dancing like little pink fairies in the sunbeams. At the evening meal they would have a delicious dish of fresh gibbons, with eggs and milk, and bonags and butter. The rest of the fish would be cleaned and sprinkled with a little salt and set on a board to dry in the sun, then stored in the dollan and seasoned on the smoky rafters.
In time Juan found his way to Rafnsey, being met by Olaf and Conall at the ford. This was a bank of shingle formed by the high-tide meeting the backwater from the river, and was left dry after about an hour's ebb. The isle itself was in fact a great bank of gravel and blown sand thrown up by the tides at the mouth of the river, diverting its course and causing it to flow northwards to escape round that end of the bank. But at each high tide the river was driven back and the in- flowing waters not only reached far inland, but were forced southward to meet the sea again at the ford. The isle measured over a mile in length and a quarter of that at its greatest width, but nowhere did it rise more than three fathoms above the level of the tide. It was over- grown with wiry grass and beset with patches of sea- holly showing blue flowers amid their prickly glaucous foliage, and the dense panicles of weedy bed-straw used both for curdling milk and for dying wool. Here too flourished the strong-smelling rest-harrow, with its rose- coloured flowers, sharp spines and sticky leaves, and its tough, liquorice-flavoured roots which children would scrape out of the sand to enjoy as a sweetmeat; here the storksbill, the sweet smelling thyme and many another inconspicuous little plant,-with tufts of sea-pink show- ing rich, dark, grassy foliage, and, on the higher ground, patches of the dwarf-gorse affording happy homes for the little stone-chat; while the blue muddy slope of the brackish river-bed, was baked and cracked and slippery in the sun when the tides were low, and scattered over with stones and slimy with green weed, above which it was crept over by the curious fleshy-looking stems of the glass-wort and other sea-loving plants.
Redshanks and greenshanks haunted the bank of cockles opposite the middle of the isle; whilst kittiwakes in the summer, and, at all times, herring gulls were screaming around, attending the return of the fishing- boats, alighting on the roofs of the houses, or sitting on the waters and constantly diving under in search of food. Sometimes a seal would come in day after day with the tide, but generally only to be hunted to death and cut up for food and clothing.
Near by the ford, and opposite to the southern end of the isle, were a few rude huts, the dwellings of fisher- men, outside of which were to be seen their nets and creels and ancient boats, with wreckage and all the un- tidy flotsam and jetsam of the backwater. Here dwelt Thorir who peddled his wares throughout the North and had not a very good name; and here a smithy had been set up by Mac Gilleoin, who thought to attract business from the ship-builders on Rafnsey as well as the farmers on the mainland; a long, low dark building was occupied by the Fidder, or weaver, who when not fishing would be working at his primitive handloom.
On the isle itself, most of the buildings were grouped towards the northern end and constructed out of old ship-timber. In another group about the midst of it some wealthy chapmen, or merchants, had their dwell- ings. Mac Liog and Mac Gillechreest and Thorliot the Icelander and others. A little way up from the ford was the southern group, a large building once the house of a merchant, and a cluster of low and untidy huts, where dwelt some very poor people whose friendly behaviour and kindly charity amongst themselves belied their rough and unkempt looks.
The boys now walked along to the northern end where they sat and watched Ion y foawr, the noted ship- builder and his men; and could not decide which was the more attractive, the carpenter working with his varied tools, or, Gobhan dhoo, the smith, with his bellows and hammer and tongs. But Juan having learned to use his knife, wanted to see more of the carpenter and his work which be thought seemed easy enough. Mac Tier laughed as he told him it might not be so easy as it looked, and, set him to dress a balk of wood with an adze. Juan had watched his father's men, and knew how they handled an adze, but it was too heavy for him and he could not do much with it. Ion y foawr came up when he saw the boys talking to his men and asked them what they wanted. He was little more than middle height, but very broad in the shoulders and immensely strong, and, that is how he got his name Y Foawr, the giant. He had a red face and great yellow beard and bright blue eyes. He spoke gruffly and looked very fierce so that generally boys ran away from him, but he was a most kind-hearted man. He wanted to know who they were and how they came to be wasting the time of his men; then he recognised Conall, and, when he heard that Olaf was grandson to Mac Aloe, he quickly made friends with them. I-le said they might come as often as they liked, but only if they would do soiree work when there, as he would not allow idleness, and found himself short-handed enough for his büsiness. The boys thought they would like to come and work for him, for they were young and lusty, and eager to learn, but, they said as this was their first visit it must be a holiday. "I expect," he answered "that you have a good many saints in your Calendar and keep more Holy days than is well for you."
When the tide was out, they saw two men from the Inn carrying a cask for water which had to be fetched from the springs at the foot of the brooghs on the further side of the river. Following after them, they waded across the mouth of the river and climbed the brooghs to the earthwork Fort overlooking it. Here Conall found Mac 'Asmund in charge, a friend of his father's, and, they. wanted to know whether his men were as good bowmen as those at Ballure. "It seems to me, Conall," said Mac Asmund, "that you are shaping to be a captain of a fort yourself, or maybe you are wanting to lead an army of your own ; but now we are living in peaceful times and only hope that some one may come to put us to the test "
One day the three boys had gone to the Granche, taking Conall's bow. They were used to bring nine arrows, each in turn having three shots, but they decided that this was too many for Conall and he allowed them four each to his one. Olaf, because he was older than Juan, began. Setting the arrow-points in the ground at his feet as he had seen the men do, he picked them up one by one and shot them at the "clout," or small white target set near the ground. Juan followed with his four, and Conall then sent his single one into the very centre. Then they crossed over to pick up the arrows and shoot back at the other target. But Olaf claimed that the four in the "clout" were his and that he was again entitled to the "cast," or right to begin. Juan would not allow this, pointing out which were Conall's and his own, and they had some words about it. Then, as Olaf set his arrow to the rocking-point, Juan stepped right in front of him and told him to drop the bow. "Fast," cried Olaf, using the archer's call of warning, and Juan had to skip very quickly to one side to avoid the arrow; then he thew himself upon Olaf, getting one hand round his waist and seizing his bow-arm with the other. Olaf dropped the bow to wrestle with him and Conall, smil- ing picked it up and unstrung it. The boys were flushed and very angry, and Conall, who was bigger and stronger, found it not so easy to pull them apart. "If you fall on these stones," he said, "you may be killed; come away to the sands and fight there if you want to." Neither spoke, but they went with him down to the sand, then, throwing off their clothes as they had seen the men do when they were wrestling in earnest, they stooped and circled for position and finally gripped, each striving his utmost to throw the other. They were very evenly matched; Juan though younger and lighter was as tall as Olaf, and had longer limbs; both were lean and hard and exceedingly active, and they strove in deadly earnest till they were completely exhausted without either succeeding in besting the other. At one and the same moment they relaxed their hold and sank panting on the cool sands, feeling rather ashamed of themselves, yet each with an added respect for the other. Then Olaf began to laugh, "I know they were your arrows Juan." "I knew you knew," said Conall. "How did you?" "By the look in your eye ; it reminded me of a horse when it was going to be wicked."
At this they all laughed heartily. "I would not have minded," said Juan, "but I thought you would not believe me."
"It was such fun," said Olaf, "to see you so mad. But, after all, it is Conall's bow; so if you want to try a fall with me, Conall, you may do so now."
Conall smiled but said nothing; he was very fond of both the boys and had a particular admiration for Olaf, of whom he had seen more than of Juan.
Then said Juan, "Now that 1 have learned how to use a bow I shall get one of my own. I have tried to make one, but it is not easy to get it balanced, and it always breaks or doubles up."
"You had better go to Mac Gillechreest," said Olaf, "it is said that he will get anythihg for anybody if only he can make a bargain by it."
"Try Thorir," said Conall. But Juan said he would go at once to the bowyer and see what he could do with him.
"There are to be races to-morrow," said Conall, " we will go together and have some fun."
"What time do they begin! "
"At half-ebb" answered Conall ;-"and now for a bathe."
Then he too stripped and they ran down and threw themselves into the sea. They could not swim, but the water was so shallow that they got a long way out and tried floating on their backs with hands clasped under their heads, and, ducked and splashed about till they were tired. Then they came in, and Conall picking up the bow and arrows, they tucked their garments under their arms, and, returning to the sea, splashed their way along till they came opposite to the mouth of the stream; then, throwing on their tunics, they ran up the glen and away home.