Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

Page: 92

The Misery Increases

In vain the High King of Ireland proclaimed a universal peace, and wars between quarrelling tribes stopped and foreign pirates ceased to molest the land, and chief met chief in the common bond of misery; in vain the rich gave freely of their wealth—soon there was no distinction between rich and poor, high and low, chief and vassal, for all alike felt the grip of famine, all died by the same terrible hunger. Soon many of the great monasteries lay desolate, their stores exhausted, their portals open, while the brethren, dead within, had none to bury them; the lonely hermits died in their little beehive-shaped cells, or fled from the dreadful solitude to gather in some wealthy abbey which could still feed its monks; and isle and vale which had echoed their holy chants knew the sounds no more. Over all, unlifting, unchanging, brooded the deadly vapour, bearing the plague in its heavy folds, and filling the air with a sultry lurid haze.

[Pg 161] “There is no sign of change—day copies day,
Green things are dead—the cattle too are dead
Or dying—and on all the vapour hangs
And fattens with disease, and glows with heat.”

Cathleen Heartbroken for her People

Round the castle of the Countess Cathleen there was great stir and bustle, for her tender heart was wrung with the misery of her people, and her prayers for them ascended to God unceasingly. So thin she grew and so worn that the physicians bade her servants bring harp and song to charm away the sadness that weighed upon her spirit; but all in vain! Neither the well-loved legends of the ancient gods, nor her harp, nor the voice of her bards could bring her relief—nothing but the attempt to save her people. From the earliest days of the famine her house and her stores were ever ready to supply the wants of the homeless, the poor, the suffering; her wealth was freely spent for food for the starving while supplies could yet be bought either near or in distant baronies; and when known supplies failed her lavish offers tempted the churlish farmers, who still hoarded grain that they might enrich themselves in the great dearth, to sell some of their garnered stores. When she could no longer induce them to part with their grain, her own winter provisions, wine and corn, were distributed generously to all who asked for relief, and none ever left her castle without succour.

Her Wide Charity

Thus passed the early months of bitter starvation, and the Countess Cathleen’s name was borne far and wide through Ireland, accompanied with the blessings of all the rescued; and round her castle, from every district, gathered a mighty throng of poor—not only her own clansmen—who all looked to her for a daily dole of [Pg 162] food and drink to keep some life in them until the pestilential mists should pass away. The wholesome cold of winter would purify the air and bring new hope and promise of new life in the coming year. Alas! the winter drew on apace and still the poisonous yellow vapours hung heavily over the land, and still the deadly famine clutched each feeble heart and weakened the very springs of life, and the winter frosts slew more than the summer heats, so feeble were the people and so weakened.