Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

Page: 91

dun, as Irish legends name it), with its earth mounds and wooden palisades. Holy psalms and chants replaced the boastful songs of the old bards, whilst warriors accustomed to regard fighting and hunting as the only occupations worthy of a free-born man, now peacefully illuminated manuscripts or wrought at useful handicrafts. Yet still in secret they dreaded and tried to appease the wrath of the Dagda, Brigit of the Holy Fire, Ængus the Ever-Young, and the awful Washers of the Ford, the Choosers of the Slain; and to this dread was now joined the new fear of the cruel demons who obeyed Satan, the Prince of Evil.

The Young Countess

At this time there dwelt in Ireland the Countess Cathleen, young, good, and beautiful. Her eyes were as deep, as changeful, and as pure as the ocean that washed Erin’s shores; her yellow hair, braided in two long tresses, was as bright as the golden circlet on her brow or the yellow corn in her garners; and her step was as light and proud and free as that of the deer in her wide domains. She lived in a stately castle in the midst of great forests, with the cottages of her tribesmen around her gates, and day by day and year by [Pg 159] year she watched the changing glories of the mighty woods, as the seasons brought new beauties, till her soul was as lovely as the green woods and purple hills around. The Countess Cathleen loved the dim, mysterious forest, she loved the tales of the ancient gods, and of

“Old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago;”


but more than all she loved her clansmen and vassals: she prayed for them at all the holy hours, and taught and tended them with loving care, so that in no place in Ireland could be found a happier tribe than that which obeyed her gentle rule.

Dearth and Famine

One year there fell upon Ireland, erewhile so happy, a great desolation—“For Scripture saith, an ending to all good things must be”[15]—and the happiness of the Countess Cathleen’s tribe came to an end in this wise: A terrible famine fell on the land; the seed-corn rotted in the ground, for rain and never-lifting mists filled the heavy air and lay on the sodden earth; then when spring came barren fields lay brown where the shooting corn should be; the cattle died in the stall or fell from weakness at the plough, and the sheep died of hunger in the fold; as the year passed through summer towards autumn the berries failed in the sun-parched woods, and the withered leaves, fallen long before the time, lay rotting on the dank earth; the timid wild things of the forest, hares, rabbits, squirrels, died in their holes or fell easy victims to the birds and beasts of prey; and these, in their turn, died of hunger in the famine-stricken forests.

[Pg 160] “I searched all day: the mice and rats and hedgehogs
Seemed to be dead, and I could hardly hear
A wing moving in all the famished woods.”[16]

Distress of the Peasants

A cry of bitter agony and lamentation rose from the starving Isle of Saints to the gates of Heaven, and fell back unheard; the sky was hard as brass above and the earth was barren beneath, and men and women died in despair, their shrivelled lips still stained green by the dried grass and twigs they had striven to eat.

“I passed by Margaret Nolan’s: for nine days
Her mouth was green with dock and dandelion;
And now they wake her.”