Three Irish Generations:The Third Generation:The Storyteller Abroad…
The light was moving westward over the surface of the plain, the headlong darkness flowing rapidly behind it, when I jumped into the boat at its moorings; it was not long till I had bidden farewell to the harbour and I was inside.
The noise began and the whine of the engines for’ard; I felt the swell as the rolling of the waves quickened; we lost contact with the bay and we headed out into the open sea by the light of the moon.
Then the sea turned into a wrathful swarthy mass of wind–blown spray! It drained me of my strength and emptied my stomach of its food. Day was dawning and daylight was on the way when we sighted land on the western heel of Britain.
The sight that greeted my eyes was none too inviting: the storm was closing in and the cliffs around the harbour were covered in mist; the clouds looked threatening and the sky was sullen before us. To those who did not even glance at me my grief was not very evident.
The engines were turned down and we floated in to the quay. There was a crowd waiting who were making a lot of noise, cackling and shouting. I did not understand their speech — I did not take to their thin dialect, but I understand them now, that they love their own little language.
Now here we are at a gallop in the train as it picks up speed; we heard cattle and it hastened out on its journey. It gathered its strength, the engines bellowed mightily and away it headed into the thick of the storm like some wild beast.
As I gazed out at stunted, sapless fields everything seemed wonderful to me: the land, the heights, the wooded and the treeless places. And so my inexperienced eyes were beguiled: every man seemed to be a lord and every roofed heap a mansion.
We passed by hills and valleys on our way; houses whizzed past and the plain slipped behind to the west. Then I heard the echoing whistle blow and I saw the town that had been the object of my sleepless gallop.
My eyes opened wide, my energy was kindled and increased as I saw a sight that stirred my heart: noise without ceasing and masses of people working flat out, running and thrusting and clamouring from earth to sky.
For someone like me who had moved from mountainy fields, it was not easy to understand that all the action, all the cut and thrust, was an illness that comes along and extinguishes every belief and credo, it does not take to instruction, but hankers for the wealth of the world.
I continued my trek until I found lodgings and hospitality with an intelligent Welshman who was bustling, inquisitive, talkative. I told him why I had come so far, and I understood his kindly words, which concealed nothing from me:
“I do not wish to deceive you, nor to hinder you on your way; this district is widely industrialised and there is work accordingly. However, the disadvantage and the trouble in your case is that there is no place for your sort, it would be difficult to find any door ready to open to you just yet.
“Don’t think from what you see that its all easy money, chimneys on the go, firing and burning without pause. There’s not a gate within shouting distance as you walk down towards the city without its crowd of men longing for the foreman’s signal.
“Here’s how the great man makes his fortune: he has a group at work and the remainder are watching for a chance to start. To those under the yoke the dangers that they face are clear: the fear of getting the sack at any time of the day, and that their wages will be withheld.
“I think it’s strange how so many Irish people come to us as immigrants; don’t they have any house or support that they should run away! I hear that they are a race who don’t care for land or household; but don’t take my observation as being any more than that, because, my friend, it may not be true.
“Sleep here tonight, and get up early in the morning. Then go on your way and go around the country for a while; keep a sharp look–out and observe what you will see as you walk — there’s instruction in travel for those who keeps their eyes open.”
The morning beckoned and I set out from my retreat, my bundle under my arm and my friend’s advice in my ear. I went in search of fortune, heading north, looking for my share and learning lessons as I went along.
It was not long before I saw that this was a country I did not understand; that I was aware that its skyline and its shape did not appeal to my eye. My mind was pleading with me, my thoughts were returning over the sea, and I would have gone away home but for the smallness and emptiness of my purse.
Completely strange was the valley as it spread out before me with the swaths of smoke above every cluster of houses in sight. There were tall, solitary chimneys belching their stuff, engines were going mad and the air was in a frenzy with noise.
There were furnaces boiling and spewing steam into the wind, fires in torrents along with showers of hot embers, flames like swords darting with noise and power, and ruby–red streams poured from blazing wells.
I stopped to watch the slaves as they worked and strained, pressing and pulling under the spell of the pennies, blinded with sweat and masked from the mouth to the eyes — that was a lesson I did not forget, though I, too, was to be swallowed up by the machine.
I thought for a while about a little church sheltered by trees, about a priest who each Sunday described the place of the demons, and I thought that it could be no worse, no matter how hot its fire and its reputation, than this place of smoke and noise where I now was.
I continued my meditation about the distant Isle of Saints, about its green plots and its sheltered wooded valleys, about its whispering streams and the poetic sounds in its breezes, about the buzzing from shrubs and about the sweet song of the birds.
Not like the place to which my journey had brought me: withered hills, without grass, without cover, without growth; a slope ablaze with hot ashes from the scorching fires, and a great black cloak of smoke for ever hanging in the sky.
There was an unkempt oafish pilgrim seeking his call: he had a prominent paunch as he waited for a word from the foreman. I asked this fellow the reason for the big bleak clusters of houses, for the huge sad, ugly hills on which nothing grew.
He answered me haughtily, in a forceful, practised voice: “My friend, do you not yet realise what they are, what they mean? They give you a clear account of our exploits, of our prosperity and of our wealth, of our superiority over all mankind.”
I looked at his clothing and his appearance three times, the impoverished arrogance, the voice of the witless fop, and they threw light on this country of sparks and flames: the pride of profit which ever entices its slaves.
Looking for Work
I set off quickly through the valley of vapours and noise. At midday I fell exhausted at the end of the road, where the mountains, gapped and sullen, beckoned from the north, and I sensed from their look that I was on the edge of the coal country.
I got to my feet again and later I had another quiet spell sitting down. Then I saw a crowd coming quickly along. Their countenances looked strange to me as they filed quietly by: every rough rambler’s face was as black as soot.
They would look like an outlandish troop to those not familiar with their type, and I continued to watch until one of them turned towards me. I sensed from the flash of the eyes that they revealed fellowship, my friend signalled to me and it was in earnest that we shook hands.
A Friend and a Brother
He was a member of that tribe that was highest on the roll of the great, they who had gone away on the tide of dark, black slavery. They had been broken and ruined, and they had been driven by hostility to become the slaves of every race under the sun.
It was not a long acquaintance that brought us our close friendship, but our being cleared out across the sea among boors who had no regard for our country. He gave me comfortable lodgings and something to eat, without hesitation, and, along with that, sincere advice that was to my benefit.
Seated by the fire and with his glowing pipe in his mouth, he correctly divined my confused thoughts:
“My honourable friend, you have no wish to wander the roads, take the advice of one who has some experience of this business.
“You already know — we won’t go into that — the developments you have noticed on your journey so far. However, there are things under the ground that are not visible to the eye, things I understand and that you will understand as they reveal themselves.
“You escaped in anger from dark foreign dispossession, but, believe you me, little as was your prosperity over there, by the end of your hunt here, you will accept the words of the wise — you will have seen nothing but a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
“With boasting and with empty flattery, the cleverness, the uprightness and the wealth of the fat Englishman is expressed. However, it is obvious to everyone that the ordinary people are a class without a soul who are being driven along like stampeding cattle by wealthy clowns.
“At home I used to think that the Irishman was a rootless serf; grubbing among the stones or ploughing in vain in the bog; but he is better off by far than looking here for the prosperity we do not find, caught under the yoke, making money for the English.
“That smart crowd got to the top by deceit: they are thieves who fastened their grip on the inheritance of the people, flaying and betraying thousands in their fiery mills and piling up money while their captives are on the brink of want.
“It is they who watch and tend the red cauldrons of fire, their sweat pouring, and they get neither break nor rest as they push barrows — each with a horse’s load in its belly — and when their strength fails they are out of a job.
“What addled you and what pointless prattle got into your brain and hastened your steps with the idea of the excellence of the rates of pay? For working there has never been anything, no matter where the survey was made, but a bit to eat and some threads to cover the body.
“There is a flood of lying hypocrisy in John Bull’s trumpeting about the cleverness of his race and an ability not given to all, but I have taken their measure: they are a crowd of boasters without brains, every man jack of them is stuck like a tooth in the master’s array.
“But let us not insult them for the breaking of the Gael, for they are a class without soul, without mind, who do not understand even themselves. They are caught in the boors’ coils that blind their minds— there is no worse people under the yoke than the English.
“If you believe what I’m telling you there’s no danger that you’ll go far wrong. Be on your guard from now on and read every page in front of you. Don’t relax on the basis of any old talk, but direct and gather your thoughts—there is no better servant than the wisdom you have acquired yourself.
“A word of advice that will do you no harm: be quiet in the presence of any Irishman and neither praise nor blame him till you know what he’s made of. Some of them are tempered with the qualities of well–tuned gold, but there are others in whose company you’d better be sensible and alert.
“Think it over until morning and go with me on a visit. We will go underground to the dark recesses of coal, to the place of those seams that set wheels in motion, to the place of that class who are enslaved in the womb of caverns.
As I stirred at dawn I heard the sounds of housework. We heard livestock as we set off early, then we saw a crowd with lighted lamps in their hands, and, by my cloak, it wasn’t long till I was with them at the barrier.
Together we went into the cage that was ready to go down. Then the steam jetted and the ropewheel became tense, the catch was released and down went the cage from the light of day: it fell with a rush into the black depths of the ocean.
It was an uncanny sight, torches hanging everywhere, circles that did not illuminate, like the Will o’ the Wisp. Every lamp hastened to its proper place, and I saw no faces but the swarthiness and the darkness of coal.
I saw the heroes lying in their little dug–outs, trapped on their haunches as they tore at their black prey. Clouds of dust choked them from morning to noon where they were laid out in the struggle till their faces blackened and shrivelled.
I had made my journey and had learned my lesson on the way, and with my guide as my surety I made my way back up. I swore by my soul that wherever I would wander I would not go underground again until I heard the blast of the last trumpet.
You charming chaps who lounge in comfort and ease beside the fire as torrents pour through the air, turn the threads of your thoughts to the smelting of wealth and to all the young men who coax the fires from the pits of peril.
No closer to destruction is the lightning that darts from the thunder–clap, no closer to being hit is the ship under fire, no closer to misfortune is the lamb near the wolf, than the band of reapers who pound in the dark caverns below.
The gas that bursts and leaves scores lifeless, the rock on the trail of death that tumbles down, the flood that flits without a sound and kills them all — such are the calamities that happen without warning among the choired trenches of coal.
The Factory of Gases
My money was gone and so I found a job, a place on solid ground for I liked the light of day. There is no new development, no contentment–bringing gadget, no tool yet invented, that does not have its drawbacks.
I won’t mention the hard work of my arms and legs, and as for physical exercise, I should praise the place, but there were things whose negative features were not brought to my attention until I became aware of their harmfulness myself with the passage of time.
Gases of every kind that troubled us were being constantly emitted there, the white gas was there and the red, the green, the blue and the dappled. There was a gas that would burst into flames and scorch everyone, and a gas that would knock you out without making a sound.
There were machines that went like mad, without rest or slumber, and I was one of the team controlling the wheels as they rotated. What I have against machines, and I do not understand their benefits, is that the person becomes a slave to the Knight of Speed.
Time draws a veil over sorrow. My regrets departed and optimism was kindled in my voice. It wasn’t real contentment, but it was the best that happened to me, so I stopped my gallop and remained in that place of machines and gases.
My fears left me and those journeyings slipped away into the past. I became a prisoner of the habits and customs of the others. I received an invitation and I signed up with them: the union that was founded for the freedom and the defence of all.
It was not hard to get me on the side of my downtrodden friends — hadn’t I seen the oppression that had beaten and enslaved the Gaels? I had found that close comradeship which had always beaten treachery, and not the traitorous whispering that English money could buy.
The Trade Union Organiser
I was well informed about things back home but had not troubled myself about local disputes until I went for the first time to a meeting of workers who had a grievance. There I heard a message that ended my blindness and timidity.
He was an organiser of the teaching of that knowledge that leads to commitment, and his talk made sense to all the members present. From the moment I heard him I liked what he had to say; there was sense in his words and clarity in his message.
“Brave lads and blameless members of the union, set up to promote what is right and just, your degradation beneath hot and accursed clouds is tragic and you are enslaved by a cunning, bejewelled usurer.
“The wealthy classes are in power in the people’s land, their minds on possessions and on gold at home and abroad. They have what they want and its fruits, the best of property and of power. But do you know how they got their hands on the tiller?
“As they played the game they took possession of the means, every whirling mill, every well–planned device, the clever brains and the best minds to be had: they had the cunning of foxes and support from the rulers of the state.
“It is not hard to learn that lesson, it is not difficult to understand. It was a trick planned to acquire the production of the masses. By decrees and with avarice they got their claws into everything that our Father has given for the contentment and happiness of all the world.
“You are tired from sweating profusely, tending to machines in places without air. You work without security, and your pay meets no standards, but the boss is at his ease on his sofa with his hands on the profits.
“There is no magazine or newspaper being published in this country that has not been acquired and put in fetters by this crowd. So they praise the boors, their wealth, their lives and their virtues: the words of the gossips about the thoughts of the moneybags.
“When they take up the sword and provoke an unnecessary war, it is you who receive an unscrupulous invitation to go to the slaughter. They cajole the simple–minded to take the plunderer’s road, but, alas and alack, cold is the small grave over there.
“Isn’t the situation in our time harmful and hurtful. We are under ill–mannered supervision and fitted with the bonds of slaves; but aren’t we a listless class, without pride or brains, to allow them to destroy thousands and to harm the world?
“They have earned no reputation for valour or for knowledge, that mob with unlimited skills in the power game, they who have gathered their cunning together into one single course of action through which, using state laws, they have stolen the wealth of the people.
“We have failed to obtain secure possession of our freedoms because the ideas that would have defeated the weapons of the haughty have been concealed. We have not practised supportive fellowship when in the grip of misery but every man gets on his horse himself and goes off to hunt his own prey.
“Get your union organised, make it forceful and strong, so that your competence may be understood and spite and treachery may be set aside. Good fortune and success awaits those who stand their ground and there’s nothing to lose but the threatening chains of sorrow.”
The lessons and the advice of that affable organiser were accepted and we felt strength and power returning after he had gone. The bosses threatened trouble and a ban on the whole process, and it was a long time before they promised to give way to our representative.
It is hard to understand the workings of a closed mind — I don’t recommend being well off for the sake of their ways— wouldn’t it have been easier for them to cultivate confidence that an agreement would be kept rather than depending on boastful, unruly, disorganised busybodies who do not have the respect of the men?
The war began and the masses headed across the sea on the road to misfortune under the control of the Knights of Slaughter. The mongers began to spread their lies, justice was hung up by treachery and envy took root.
It wasn’t long before we saw the signs and the result of the cataclysm, goods that used to come in plenty were now rationed by the Department. So they became dearer and scarcer every day and every bank account swelled and every pay packet shrunk.
We selected a delegation to go to the supervisors with a brief memorandum asking for a change in the rates of pay. Bitter was the answer received from the font of deceit — when the destitute are thrown down they put a foot on their throat.
Rich or poor, people do not usually give in just because every means at their disposal fails or is denied. So the representative decided to intensify the dispute: the matter to be settled without delay or there would be a strike.
As far as strikes go they do harm without need, they cut crudely and they afflict everyone badly, profits end and senseless things are done, but it is those without resources who sink deepest in the mire.
A war without guns that does not comply with the commandments of the King, a war that would not happen if His teachings were put into practice, a war whose role in the life of the people is harsh for they are left poor and helpless against the thieving gangs of the gold.
The merchant decides his prices to suit his purse, the cattleman estimates the price that fits every time. If it is right for the rich to put their price on the board, it is also right for those who sweat to set a price that meets their needs.
When the clouds gather the lightning shakes the air. So it was that I felt the flood bursting in fury when the representatives hurried in on time next morning, and the order was given to them to clear off out of the place.
Every man took the hint with a will and the workers pulled out in order, noisily and with pride. Everyone left quickly, vigorously and truculently, like victors, till nothing remained but supervisors and motionless machinery.
The town gathered together from all directions and let out a cheer, the place resounded to the power of their voices. It drew my mind to the history across the foaming waves: the brave uprising by everyone against the mighty.
Anger reddened to the depths in the office of the bosses and they quickly thought of ways to break the workers. Their leaders assembled a wretched slovenly rabble who would get the machines working for profit again.
He is a criminal rogue who secretly takes over a farm, criminals too are the process servers and gamekeepers. But there is no one as blind and as lost in body and in mind as the worm who thieves the food from the hand of a child.
I have often seen just such a hunched swarthy scourge seated stiffly in a corner of the city who would bend skilfully to pick up a coarse penny. If he got the chance he’d soon pick your pocket too.
He had never experienced honest sweat in his life but waited for strikes and served the free market— isn’t it an odd quirk in a system that’s supposed to put the world to rights that those who have property and wealth should find such a gang acceptable?
It failed and it will always fail: the campaign of the people. When it comes to rich and poor it is the purse that wins the day. There is no better means to happiness in the land of the living than accepting God’s commandments and standing up for what is right.
Alone a while now and I think of the breaking of the ranks, of the scattering of friends to far away places when they were betrayed. The good fellowship returns and the conflict goes on, for there is no race which does not have its share of the finest of men.
All the manly and spirited fellows who, on the word of their leaders, stood without fear against the well–fed churls were broken by venom, deceit and wiles and in their place were put the coarse and slavish dregs of society.
Every hearty, steadfast and resolute Irishman who, thinking of the war against the English in his own little place back home, had been to the forefront in the struggle and who had walked with the mass of the people was shown the door and curses followed him.
The Return Home
I put the threads of my troubled memory in order, cursed the evil manacles of the machines and parted without regrets from the place of contention and returned by sea to my kindly friends in the Glen.
The years come and go on the roll of centuries and cut and engrave their mark on the wheel of life. That’s how I saw things when I had journeyed again to the Isle of Emigration and its long era of deprivation.
Where I had seen a cloud of sorrow that had ground people into the dirt I saw a new happiness and the pride of old and young. The traitor was now betrayed, the plunderer plundered and his mansion was a roofless ruin.
But among the people of the Glen was a bleak and sorrowful void: the absence of friends who had left their mark on my mind. Some had taken the easy road to exile and others had fallen to earth and now they slept with the dead.
I gladly give lavish praise to those grand and noble men who opened the way before me and who stood fast, — as long as that generosity prevails in the land of the Gael the country will prosper and there will be no danger of it falling into ruin.
The long history of past generations is behind me, the harsh history of the generation of the grey–haired old man, the heroic history of the generation that put an end to the evictions, and the bitter history of the generation that was sent overseas.
Contentment approaches and freedom returns to the soil, but the game is not yet over. The English sit securely on the land of Ulster and they must be cleared out and their damned oppression as well.
There is a change in the people nowadays and its a painful matter. The old spirit of subjection is again opening its mouth. The perverse traducer has been cut down and his power ended but his wily ways are still in the land and cause a lot of t0rouble.
One hears the result in the music breaking through the air, vices and customs that ruin the foolish are becoming common, the language of every scoundrel that troubled the land for centuries is being stuttered by the kith and kin of the Fianna.
Let us no longer accept a one–legged English way of doing things, nor their tricks played on the scattered peoples of the earth. Let us rather, without delay, plan an untarnished way of doing things, with our own pride, helpfulness, laws and God’s commandments.
Let us throw out foreign notions, let us, none too gently, clear out the English speech of the treacherous churls and, if inspiring the souls of the young means anything to us, let us return to the language and the sturdy ways of the old – time Gaels.
We have long been crippled, tormented, and fallen, so let us now plan laws and systems to suit everyone, let us do what is right and let us not deny fellowship, and then good fortune and the blessing of God’s Son will be the lot of the people of Ireland.
From the book by Pádraig Ó Miléadha, 'Trí Glúine Gaedheal', ('Three Generations of Gaels') published in Dublin in 1953 and
borrowed from Cardiff Central Library.
The book consists of a long poem (70 pages) written in stanzas of four lines. Each of the paragraphs
above represents one such stanza. The poet was working in a literary tradition going back centuries and
uses assonance, alliteration, rhyme, and other literary devices, all of which have been lost in our translation.
We are grateful to the publishers, ‘An Gúm’, Department of Education, Dublin, for permission to translate
and publish part of the poem.