In this passage of his autobiography, the young Maurice O'Sullivan, accompanied by his grandfather, discovers the great Irish Renaissance poet Pierce Ferriter and learns about the history of resistance to English rule in Ireland.
SEE ALSO Arts: Modern Irish and Anglo-Irish Literature and the Arts since 1800; Blasket Island Writers
My grandfather and I were lying on the Castle Summit. It was a fine sunny day in July. The sun was splitting the stones with its heat and the grass burnt to the roots. I could see, far away to the south, Iveragh painted in many colours by the sun. South-west were the Skelligs glistening white and the sea around them dotted with fishing-boats from England.
"Isn't it a fine healthy life those fishermen have, daddo?" said I.
I got no answer. Turning round I saw that the old man was asleep. I looked at him, thinking. You were one day in the flower of youth, said I in my own mind, but, my sorrow, the skin of your brow is wrinkled now and the hair on your head is grey. You are without suppleness in your limbs and without pleasure in the grand view to be seen from this hill. But, alas, if I live, some day I will be as you are now.
The heat was very great, and so I thought of waking him for fear the sun would kill him. I caught him by his grey beard and gave it a pull. He opened his eyes and looked round.
"Oh, Mirrisheen," said he, "I fell asleep. Am I long in it?"
"Not long," said I, "but I thought I had better wake you on account of the sun. Do you see those trawlers out in the horizon? I was just saying that it's a fine healthy life they have."
"Musha, my heart," said my grandfather, "a man of the sea never had a good life and never will, as I know well, having spent my days on it, and I have gone through as many perils on it as there are grey hairs in my head, and I am telling you now, wherever God may guide you, keep away from the sea."
"Musha, it seems to me there is no man on earth so contented as a seaman."
I looked south-east to the Macgillicuddy Reeks. They looked as if they were touching the sky.
"Musha, aren't those high mountains?"
"They are indeed, if you were down at their foot."
At that moment a big bee came around murmuring to itself. My grandfather started to drive it away with his hat. "There is no place under the sun is finer than that," said he, stretching his finger south towards the harbour of Iveragh. "When you would be entering that harbour you would have the Isle of Oaks on your right hand and Beg-Inish out before your face."
"I dare say the water is very still there."
"A dead calm. The creek runs three miles up through the land of Cahirciveen. And do you see, on the east of the creek, there is another harbour? That is Cooan Una. And east again is Cooas Cromha, and east again the place they call the Rodana."
"It seems you know those places well, daddo."
"Ah, my sorrow, it is many a day I spent in them."
He put his hand in his pocket and drew out his pipe. When he had it lighted, he got up. "Come now and I will take you into Pierce Ferriter's Cave."
We moved down through the Furrows of the Garden, up to our ears in fern and dry heather.
"Look now," said he, pointing down, "do you see that ledge of rock? That's the Cave."
"Isn't it a great wonder he went down so far?"
"Sure that's the place he wanted, my boy, where he could cut down the soldiers of England."
"Don't you see the ledge? The entrance is under the overhanging cliff. He used to be inside with a big stick. Then the first soldier would come down to the mouth of the cave, Pierce would just give him a thrust with the stick and send him over the cliff."
"Wasn't he a wonderful man?"
"Oh, he did great destruction on the English at that time."
We were down at the Cave now. My grandfather crept in on all-fours and I behind him, for the entrance was not more than two feet high. Once inside, there was room to stand up for it was above seven feet. I looked around. "Musha, isn't it a comfortable place he had, but I dare say he used never to leave it."
"Indeed he did, whenever the soldiers left the Island."
"And how would he know that?"
"The people here used to be coming to attend upon him whenever they got the chance. Look at that stone. That's where he used to lay his head."
"It was hard pillow."
"No doubt. Did you ever hear the verse he composed here when he was tired of the place, on a wild and stormy night? It is only a couple of words."
He sat down on the stone and, taking off his hat, he recited:
"O God above, dost Thou pity the way I am,
Living alone where it is little I see of the day;
The drop above in the top of the stone on high
Falling in my ears and the roar of the sea at my heels."
As he spoke the last words, the tears fell from the old man.
"Musha, daddo, isn't it a nice lonesome verse? And another thing, it is many the fine learned man the English laid low at that time."
"Ah, Mary, it is true. I tell you, Maurice, Pierce suffered here if ever a man did. Have you the verse now?" said he.
"I think I have, for it went to my heart." And I repeated it to him.
"You have every word of it."
"Isn't it wonderful the way you would keep in your head anything you would take an interest in?"
"That is very true, for when I was young like yourself there is not a word I would hear my father saying, dear God bless his soul, but it would stay in my memory. It is time for us to be making for the house now in the name of God."
I looked up at the cliff and then down where the waves were breaking angrily. "There's no doubt, daddo," said I, "but he had the roar of the waves at his heels."
The sun was fading in the west, yellow as gold, the birds singing in the heather, hundreds of rabbits out on the clumps of thrift, some of them, when they saw us, running off with their white tails cocked in the air, other with their ears up looking hard at us.
"Wait now, till you see them scatter in a moment," said my grandfather, picking up a stone. He threw it but they did not stir. "Upon my word but they are bold," said he and gave a shout, and it seemed five voices answered him with the echo in the coves below. Then I saw the rabbits running, tails up and ears back, and in a moment there was not one to be seen save an old one as grey as a badger.
"Isn't it strange the grey one didn't stir?"
"Ah, my boy, that's an old soldier at the end of his life and he is well used to that shouting."
"I wonder what length of life is appointed for them?"
"Only three years, and I assure you they work those three years for a livelihood as hard as any sinner. But here we are home again," said he as we came in sight of the village.
"You are very good at shortening the road."
"Upon my word, Mirrisheen, I would be better still if I were seated up on a horse-cart for it is hard for an old man to be talking and walking together."
Maurice O'Sullivan, Twenty Years A-Growing, translated by Moya Llewelyn Davies and George Thomson (1933), pp. 76–80.