Scattering and Sorrow

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"Scattering and Sorrow"


Peig Sayers

Coming from Peig Sayers's famous autobiography, first published in 1936 in Irish, this passage deals with the deaths or emigration to America of most of her remaining loved ones. Her son, Micheál Ó Guithín, leaves her a poem as a souvenir before departing for the United States. He eventually returned to Ireland, the last of the Blasket Island poets.

SEE ALSO Arts: Modern Irish and Anglo-Irish Literature and the Arts since 1800; Blasket Island Writers; Literature: Twentieth-Century Women Writers

Tomás dies accidentally – Pádraig and Cáit go to America – My husband dies – Muiris, Eibhlín and Micheál leave me one after the other – Micheál's poetry

When a person thinks his life is going smoothly then it changes as if he were a cat's-paw of fate; that's true saying for it's exactly what happened to me, alas, in the year 1920.

We had no turf on the Island that year; the fuel we used was heather from the hill, and that was the fuel I bought dearly! On the morning of Friday the 20th day of April, Tomás and myself were up early. We had the tea ready and no one else in the house had as yet risen. While we were eating I told Tomás that Pádraig intended going to America.

"Don't let it bother you!" he said. "Isn't it time he went?"

"It's a pity he won't stay with ye for another year," I said. "Ye're too young to handle a currach and as the proverb has it, 'One year matures a child greatly,'"

He looked at me across the table. A light shone in his grey eyes; then he stretched out his right hand.

"Afraid you'll be hungry, mother?" he asked. "Don't be a bit in dread that this hand won't be able to put a bite of food into your mouth!"

"I know that, but the hand is still soft and young," I said.

By the time we had the breakfast eaten the other members of the family were getting up. Tomás stood in the middle of the floor; he appeared to be pondering on some subject, for he examined every inch of the house carefully. Then he proceeded out the door. "I won't go to the hill today," he said as he stood between the two door-jambs.

"The heather is too wet and we have enough inside for today," I said. "Let it hold over till tomorrow."

He bounced out the door and that was the last time I saw him alive. When next I saw him he was calm and dead, laid out on a bier before me and the gentle bright hand he had stretched out so proudly to me in the morning was broken, bruised and lifeless.

It appears that when he left me that time in the morning he met other lads on their way to the hill to gather heather and he went off with them. The poor fellow was pulling a bush of heather when it gave way with him and he fell over the cliff top. He fell on his back pitching from rock to rock, each rock hundreds of feet above the sea until he crashed down at the bottom of the ravine. And may God save hearers!

I knew nothing whatsoever about his being on the hill that day; I thought he was rambling around the neighbourhood with the other lads—until news of his death reached me. God save us, my life was then completely shattered. Fear and awe seized the heart of everyone for this was something that had never before happened on the Island and this multiplied everyone's terror. As far as I was concerned, no pen can describe what I suffered and endured. My son was dead; for the previous year his father had been keeping to the bed and when he heard the news the terrifying scream of sorrow he uttered will remain branded in my hear forever. The poor man thought that if he could only leave the bed he would be all right but even that much was beyond him.

That was my difficulty—how could I go away and leave my husband there in the pains of death? Tomás was gone to God but my husband was still alive and I realized that it would be flying in the face of the Almighty to leave the house without having someone to look after him. God granted me that much sense, praise be to Him forever, that I remained behind to give him a helping hand.

Two currachs and eight men had to go out to bring back the body. When they came to the place where he was they were amazed to find that instead of his being hundreds of yards out in the broad ocean he was high up on a hollow smooth slippery detached stone barely the length and breadth of his body. There he was laid out as expertly and as calmly as if twelve women had tended him. No one knows how he landed on that table of stone with the blue sea all around him. No one except God alone.

When his body was brought back to the house the rest of the family was terrified except alone Muiris. He was more mature than the others. The neighbours had to take Cáit and Pádraig away from me because they were demented with shock. As for their unfortunate sick father, I didn't know the minute he'd drop dead. Remember, you who read this, that I was in a predicament if ever a poor woman was. The neighbours got such a fright that they were too terrified to approach me, all with the exception of two—Seán Eoghain and Máire Scanlan. Seán himself is dead now, God rest his soul and the souls of all the dead, but that same Seán—aye and God!—came to my relief on that sorrowful afternoon. There was hard work to be done and who would do it? That was the problem! I was only a mother and the job on hands was beyond me. I, who wouldn't like to see a simple cut had to set about the task; I had to wash and clean my fine young boy and lay him out in death. That task was before me and there was no way out of it. I hadn't a friend or relation beside me and I needed a heart of stone to be able to stand it.

I prayed to the Sacred Heart and to the Holy Mother to come and assist me! And indeed, dear reader, when I returned to the place where my son was, it could have been the body of a stranger, I felt my courage so strong and my heart so lightsome! But the task I had undertaken was too much for me; when I found my heart tightening I took the statue of the Virgin and placed it on the floor beside me and from that moment forward I confess that I was but an instrument in the hands of the Virgin and her only Son.

Muiris and his uncle, together with two others had gone off to get what was needed for the wake. When they returned, Muiris was uneasy asking if he could blot out the English inscription and the breastplate of the coffin. This he succeeded in doing for the schoolmaster helped him and wrote it out again in Irish. Muiris was completely satisfied when he had done this. He then said:

"It's a great relief to my mind to know that you're the first corpse for hundreds of years to go into Ventry churchyard under an inscription in Irish."

We found times upsetting and bothersome but God always opens a gap, for Tomás was barely six weeks buried when Father Seoirse Clune came to the Island on his holidays. I admit that it was God himself and Father Clune who gave the first shred of comfort. Father Clune was with me every day for I had fluent Irish to give him; something better than that, he had sound advice and prime teaching to give me in return and that was a great help in healing a wounded heart. Scarcely a day passed that he wasn't with me and however sad I'd be on his arrival it seemed as if a ray of light accompanied him and that all my troubles would vanish. I was sorry when he left the Island, for he certainly helped me in great measure to forget my worldly troubles. This day, I wish him a long life in the service of God!

Six months after this my son Pádraig hoisted his sails and went off to America. There's no need for me to say that I was lonely after him but my hope in God was that I'd see him again some day. "Better hope from a locked door than from a grave." As soon as he had earned the passage-money Pádraig sent for his sister Cáit.

All these events were raining powerful blows on my heart, and barely five months after Cáit had gone, her father died—Lord have mercy on his soul. His heart was broken with sorrow and ill-health. His death was the worst blow I suffered and it left me poor and without anyone near me to offer me much assistance.

But while Muiris remained, I still had a man on my floor. He was an excellent son and one on whom I could depend completely. He was deeply attached to his country and to his native language and he never had any desire to leave Ireland. But that's not the way events turned out for he too had to take to the road like the others, his heart laden with sorrow.

As soon as he had turned the last sod of his father's grave he made ready to go. The day he went will remain forever in my memory because beyond all I had endured, nothing ever dealt me as crushing a blow as that day's parting with Muiris. The morning he left he was standing with his luggage and his papers on the table beside him. I was seated in the corner doing my best to be pleasant, but unknown to him I was watching him because he stood there as stiff as a poker with his two lips clamped together as if he were thinking. He rounded on me.

"Here!" he said handing me something wrapped in paper. I took it and opened it; it was the Irish flag.

"Yes," he said again with a tremor in his voice, "Put that away to keep in a place where neither moths nor flies can harm it! I have no business of it from this out." Then he got a catch of emotion in his voice.

"Son, dear," I said, "this will do me more harm than good for it will only make me lonely."

"No!" he said, and the words that jerked out of his mouth were all mixed up because of his emotion. "You'll have it to welcome the Royal Prince of the Feast yet!"

However badly I felt, I had to laugh at him but this was, as they say, "laughter from the teeth out."

"You poor silly awkward gom," I said. "You'll have to put these ideas out of your head!"

"Before God," he said, "it's true for you. And isn't this a sad day for me!"

"God is mighty and He has a good Mother," I told him. "Gather your gear and have courage for there was never a tide flowed west but flowed east again."

"Maybe in God it could happen," he said and he held my hand in a grip of steel.

I followed him down to the slip; what with all the people making their way to the haven it was like a great funeral that day.

He promised me that if things went well with him I'd never want either by day or by night and that he'd return to me as soon as he had a fair amount of money put together. True, that talk gave me courage but I knew well that in the words of the proverb: "The city has a broad entrance but a narrow exit."

"My dear son," I said "'Twould be a bad place that wouldn't be better for you than this dreadful rock.

Whatever way things go you'll be among your own equals. All around me here I see nothing on which a man can earn a living for here there's neither land nor property. I wouldn't like to make a cormorant of you, my son, and already too many are suffering misfortune. My own blessing and the blessing of God go with you. Follow your own road but heed me now, let nothing cross your path that'll lessen the love of God in your heart. Cherish your faith, avoid evil and always do good. A blessing go with you now and may God take you with him in safety."

I was very uneasy in my mind until I got a letter from him.

Micheál and Eibhlín were the last pair to leave me. Eibhlín was the youngest of all and I thought I'd never allow her to go to America. At this time she was in Dublin in Seán O'Shea's house in Dundrum and I was completely content with that. She had nothing but love and respect for Seán, but alas, her brother Pádraig paid a visit home and nothing would satisfy him but to go up to Dublin and bring her back. He took her away with him when he was returning to America.

Then Micheál was watching out for the chance to be off; he had no great mind to leave home but nevertheless, life was hard and he had nothing better to do. He too thought that if God left him his health he could put a fair share of money together and then come back home to me. A few days before he left the house he said:

"I wouldn't be a bit loath to leave, mother, if you'd promise me not be lonely."

"If I promised you that, son." I told him, "I'd promise you a lie; but I give you my word that I'll do my best not to be troubled."

He was fairly satisfied then, although he was sad and heartbroken. The second day after that, he bade me goodbye, asked God to bless me and said:

"I hope, mother, that we'll be together again."

"Maybe we will, boy," I said, "with God's help."

Then he went out the door and faced down for the landing-slip. I was absolutely desolate when he was gone.

A few days later I was tidying the little odds and ends he had left behind when I came across a scrap of paper on which he had written the following verses:

Mother dear, don't weep for me,
Nor for the lost one intercede;
Lament in the Virgin's shining Son
Your help in time of direst need.
Lament his beauteous royal brow,
His lime-white limbs that once were free;
Lament the pearl was shattered sore
On Calvary's hideous tree.
Herdsman Who gave us clerics fair,
To you we cry, dear Master,
Place hatred in our hearts for sin
The source of your disaster.
Bless thou myself and all my kin
At home or o'er the sea
And by the Holy Spirit's grace
Let me not one stray from Thee.
For mother, Judgement Day shall come
When mocking lie dare not intrude—
You'll view our shining Saviour then,
King of the multitude.
By God's assistance, saint's and choirs',
I'll cross the raging tide,
And pleasant, sheltered, two as one
Together we'll abide.

Peig Sayers, Peig: The Autobiography of Peig Sayers of the Great Blasket Island(1974), pp. 180–187. Copyright © 1973 by Bryan MacMahon. Copyright © 1974 by Syracuse University Press. Reproduced by permission.