A Lay of the Famine

Hush! hear you how the night wind keens around the craggy reek?
Its voice peals high above the waves that thunder in the creek.

“Aroon! aroon! arouse thee, and hie thee o’er the moor!
Ten miles away there’s bread, they say, to feed the starving poor.

“God save thee, Eileen bawn astore, and guide thy naked feet,
And keep the fainting life in us till thou come back with meat.”

She kissed her father’s palsied hand, her mother’s pallid cheek,
And whirled out on the driving storm beyond the craggy reek.

All night she tracks, with bleeding feet, the rugged mountain way,
And townsfolk meet her in the street at flushing of the day.

But God is kinder on the moor than man is in the town,
And Eileen quails before the stranger’s harsh rebuke and frown.

Night’s gloom enwraps the hills once more and hides a slender form
That shudders o’er the moor again before the driving storm.

No bread in her wallet stored, but on the lonesome heath
She lifts her empty hands to God, and prays for speedy death.

Yet struggles onward, faint and blind, and numb to hope or fear,
Unmindful of the rocky dell or of the rushy mere.

But, ululu! what sight is this? — what forms come by the reek:
As white and thin as evening mist upon the mountain’s peak.

Mist-like they glide across the heath — a weird and ghostly band;
The foremost crosses Eileen’s path, and grasps her by the hand.

“Dear daughter, thou hast suffered sore, but we are well and free;
For God has ta’en our life from us, nor wills it long to thee.

“So hie thee to our cabin lone, and dig a grave so deep,
And underneath the golden gorse our corpses lay to sleep —

“Else they will come and smash the walls upon our mould’ring bones,
And screaming mountain birds will tear our flesh from out the stones.

“And, daughter, haste to do thy work, so thou may’st quickly come,
And take with us our grateful rest, and share our peaceful home.”

The sun behind the distant hills, far-sinking down to sleep;
A maiden on the lonesome moor, digging a grave so deep;

The moon above the craggy reek, silvering moor and wave,
And the pale corpse of a maiden young stretched on a new-made grave.


This anonymous, undated ballad was first published in London in 1900.



Reprinted in The Green Dragon No 4, Autumn, 1997.

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