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The Database of Ornament

                        ROSSES POINT AND GLENCAR

ROSSES POINT is a village of pilots and fishing people,
stretching out seawards in a long thin single line of thatched
and whitewashed houses along the branch of the sea which
goes from the little harbour of Sligo to broaden out into the
bay beyond the edge of Dorren’s or Coney Island, and the
rocks of Dead Man’s Point. It is a lazy village, where no
one is very rich or very poor, but all are able, without too much exertion, to
make just enough not to need to work any harder. The people are slow,
sturdy, contented people, with a singular dislike of doing anything for money,
except that they let rooms during the summer to the people of Sligo, who
make it their watering-place ; going in and out daily, when needful, on the
little paddle-steamer which plies backward and forward between Sligo and
the Point, or on the long car which takes in their messages and their market-
ing-baskets. Very few people from the outer world ever find their way here ;
and there are peasants living at the far end of the village who have never been
so far as the village of Lower Rosses, on the other side of the green lands. They
know more of the coast of Spain, the River Plate, and the Barbadoes, than
they know of the other side of their own mountains ; for sea-faring men go far.
I have just been talking with a seaman, now a pilot here, who has told me of
Venice, and of the bull-fights he saw at Huelva, and of Antwerp, and the Riga,
and Le Havre ; and of the coast of Cornwall, and Milford Haven, and the
Firth of Forth ; and of America, and the West Indies. Yesterday I saw a
bright green parrot on a child’s hand ; they have been telling me of “the
black girl” who came here from some foreign ship, and lived here, and knew
better than anyone else where to find the plovers’ eggs ; and I have seen the
rim of a foreign ship, rising out of the sand at low tide, which was wrecked
here seventy years ago, and is now turning green under the water.

Men and women, here at the Point, loiter about all day long ; there are
benches outside most of the cabins, and they sit there, or on the low, rough

56                              THE SAVOY

wall which skirts the road, or on the big stones at the edge of the water, or
upon the green lands. Most of the women are bare-headed, none go barefoot,
and only a few of the poorer children. And the children here are very proud.
They will row you about all day for nothing, but they will not bring you a can
of water from the well if you pay them for it. That is a point of view they
have learnt from their parents, and it seems to me a simple and sufficing one.
For these people have attained comfort, a certain dignity (that dignity which
comes from concerning yourself only with what concerns you), and they have
the privilege of living in a beautiful, harmonious place, without any of the
distractions which harass poorer or less contented people in towns, and keep
them from the one thing worth living for, the leisure to know oneself. This
fine laziness of theirs in the open air, with the constant, subduing sense of
the sea’s peril, its hold upon their lives and fortunes, moulds them often into
a self-sufficing manliness, a hardy womanhood ; sometimes it makes them
dreamers, and they see fairies, and hear the fairy piper calling in the caves.

How, indeed, is it possible that they should not see more of the other
world than most folk do, and catch dreams in their nets ? For it is a place of
dreams, a gray, gentle place, where the sand melts into the sea, the sea into
the sky, and the mountains and the clouds drift one into the other. I have
never seen so friendly a sea, nor a sea so full of the ecstasy of sleep. On one
of those luminous gray days, which are the true atmosphere of the place, it is
like being in an eternal morning of twilight to wander over the undulating
green lands, fringed at the shore by a soft rim of bent, a pale honey-coloured
green, and along the delicate gray sands, from Dead Man’s Point to the point
of the Third Rosses. The sea comes in softly, rippling against the sand with
a low plashing, which even on very warm days has a cool sound, and a certain
gentleness even on days of rough weather. The headland of Roughley
O’Byrne runs on, a wavering line of faint green, from the dark and cloudy
masses of the Lissadell woods into the hesitating line of the gray waters. On
the other side of the bay Dorren’s Island curves around, almost like part of
the semicircle of the mainland, its sickle-point leaning out towards the white
lighthouse, which rises up out of the water like a phantom, or the stone image
of a wave that has risen up out of the sea on a day of storm. Faint mountains
glimmer out to sea, many-coloured mountains close in upon the land, shutting
it off from the world of strange cities. And if you go a little in from the sea-
edge, over the green lands, you will come to a great pool, where the waters
are never troubled, nor the reeds still ; but there is always a sighing of wind
in the reeds, as of a very gentle and melancholy peace.

                          IN SLIGO                                    57

Go on a little further still, and you come to the fighting village of
Magherow, where the men are red-bearded, fierce, great shouters, and not
readier to row than to do battle with their oars. They come into Rosses
Point, generally, at the regatta ; and at that time the Point is at its liveliest,
there is much whiskey drunk, and many quarrels flame up. There is a great
dance, too, most years, at the time of the regatta. It is known as the cake
dance, and not so long ago a cake and a bottle of whiskey were hung out of
a window by green ribbons, the cake for the best woman dancer, and the
bottle of whiskey for the best man dancer. Now there is no cake at all, and
if there is much whiskey, it is handed over the counter in big glasses, and not
hung out of the window by green ribbons. The prize now is money, and so
the people of the Point, with their fine, independent objection to doing any-
thing for money, are less ready to show off their notable powers of dancing ;
and the women, who, besides, are getting to prefer the waltzes and quadrilles
of the towns, will not take part in the dance at all.

The regatta this year was not too well managed, having passed out of the
hands of the village pilots ; and it was unwisely decided that the dance should
be held the same evening, outside the door of a public-house where the crews
of the losing boats had been drinking at the expense of the captains of the
winning boats. It was very dark, and there was a great crowd, a great
confusion. A somewhat battered door had been laid down for the dancing,
and the press of people kept swaying in upon the narrow limits of the door,
where only a few half-tipsy fellows pounded away, lurching into one another’s
arms. Everybody swayed, and yelled, and encouraged, and expostulated, and
the melodion sounded fitfully ; and presently the door was pulled from under
the feet of the dancers, and the police shouldered into the midst of what would
soon have been a very pretty fight. The dance was postponed to Monday,
when some of the boats were to race again.

On Monday, at about half-past six, I met eight small boys carrying a
large door upon their shoulders. They were coming up through the village
to the green lands, where they laid down the door on the grass. About an
hour afterwards, as it began to get very dark, the people came slowly up from
the village, and a wide ring was made by a rope carried around stakes set in
the earth, and the people gathered about the ring, in the middle of which lay
the door, lit on one side by a ship’s lantern and on the other by the lamp of
a bicycle. A chair was put for the judge, who was a pilot and a publican, and
one of the few Gaelic speakers in the village, and a man of few words, and a
man of weight ; and another chair was put for the musician, who played on

58                              THE SAVOY

the melodion, an instrument which has long since replaced the fiddle as the
national instrument of Ireland. A row of very small children lay along the
grass inside the rope, the girls in one place, the boys in another. It was so dark
that I could only vaguely distinguish, in a curve of very black shadow, the
people opposite to me in the circle ; and presently it began to rain a little ;
and still we waited. At last a man came forward, and the musician began to play
a lively tune on his melodion, keeping time with his feet ; and there was a
great cry of “Gallagher ! Gallagher !” and much shouting and whistling.
It was a shepherd from Lower Rosses, a thin and solemn young man, who
began to dance with great vigour and regularity, tapping heavily on the rough
boards with very rough and heavy boots. He danced several step-dances, and
was much applauded. Then, after a pause, an old man from the Point, Red-
mond Bruen by name, a pilot, who had very cunningly won the duck-hunt at the
regatta, stepped forward unevenly, and began to walk about on the door,
shuffling his feet, bowing to right and left, and waving a stick that he held in
his hand. “When he’s sober, he’s a great dancer,” we were assured. He was
not sober, and at first did no more than shuffle. Then he stopped, seemed to
recollect himself, and the reputation he had to keep up, and with more bowing
to the public, began to sing, with variations, a song popular among the Irish
peasants, “On the Rocky Road to Dublin.” It is a dramatic song, and after
every stanza he acted, in his dance, the fight on the road, the passage from
Holyhead, and the other stirring incidents of the song. The old man swayed
there in the vague light, between the two lanterns, a whimsical and pathetic
figure, with his gray beard, his helpless gestures, and the random gaiety of his
legs ; he danced with a wonderful lightness, and one could but just hear his
boots passing over the boards.

We applauded him with enthusiasm, and he came and sat on the grass
inside the ring, near the children, who were gradually creeping closer in ; and
his place was taken by the serious Gallagher, who was quite sober, and who
pounded away like clockwork, holding his body quite stiff, and rattling his
boots with great agility. The old man watched him keenly, and presently
got up and made for the door again. He began to dance, stopped, flung off
his coat, and set off again with a certain elaboration, variety, and even
delicacy in his dancing, which would have won him the prize, I think, if he
had been sober enough to make the most of his qualities. He at least
thoroughly appreciated his own skill. “That’s a good reel,” he would say,
when he halted for breath and emphasis.

Meanwhile Gallagher was looking for a partner, and one or two young

                          IN SLIGO                                    59

fellows took the boards, and did each a single dance, in pairs or singly. Then
a young man who, like Bruen, was “a grand dancer” when sober, but who was
even less sober than Bruen, reeled across the grass, kicked over one of the
lanterns, and began to dance opposite Gallagher. Then he pushed Gallagher
off the board, and danced by himself. He was in his shirt-sleeves, and without
hat or collar, and much of his dance was merely an unsteady walking. He
stopped frequently, and appeared to think ; and, after much thinking, it
occurred to him that it was the music which would not keep time with his
dancing. So he walked up to the musician, snatched the melodion away from
him, and marched off with it, I suppose to find another player. He passed
into the darkness ; the melodion in his hands squealed out of the darkness.
Then he came back dangling it, and was told to give it back again, which he
did sulkily, with exactly the look and gesture of a naughty child who
has been called to order. And then Gallagher came forward again, and,
taking off his hat, said he would sing a song. He got through a verse
or two, chanting gravely in a kind of sing-song, and then, coming to the
line, “And he said to the landlord,” paused, and said, “I am not able to
do any more.” There was a great laugh, and Gallagher returned to his
dancing, in which he was presently joined by a new rival. Gallagher got
the prize.

I was told that so poor a dance had not been seen before at Rosses Point,
and the blame was laid on new ways, and the coming of the waltzes and
quadrilles, and the folly of young people who think old things not good
enough for them. And the old people shook their heads that night over the
turf fires in their cabins.

Seven miles inland from Rosses Point, the mountains open ; and, entering
a great hollow called the Windy Gap, you come upon a small lake with green
fields around it, and mountains full of woods and waterfalls rising up behind
it. This is Glencar, and there is a cabin by the side of the lake where I spent
a few enchanted days of rain and sunshine, wandering over the mountain-
side, and among the wild and delicate woods. .Above the cabin there is a
great mountain, and the woods climb from about the cabin to almost the
summit of the mountain. Fir-trees rise up like marching banners, line upon
line ; between them the foliage is softer, green moss grows on the tree-trunks
and ferns out of the moss ; quicken-berries flame on the heights above the
streams ; the many-coloured green of leaves is starred with bright orange,
shadowed with spectral blue, clouded with the exquisite ashen pallor of

60                              THE SAVOY

decaying heather. Rocky steps lead from height to height along the edge of
chasms veiled with leafy branches, and there is always a sound of many
waters, falling in torrents down black stairways of rock, and rushing swiftly
along narrow passages between grass and ferns. Here and there a bridge of
fallen trunks, set roughly together, and covered with the adventurous soil,
which, in these parts, bears fruit wherever it has an inch to cling to, crosses a
waterfall, just above the actual descent. Winding paths branch off in every
direction, and in the soft earth of these narrow and precipitous ways one can
see little hoof-prints, and occasionally one meets a donkey going slowly up-
hill, with the creels on its back, to fetch turf from the bog. And always there
is the sound of water, like the cool singing voice of the rocks, above the sound
of rustling leaves, and birds piping, and the flapping of great wings, which are
the voices of the many-instrumented orchestra of the woods. Here one is in
the heart of the mountains, and in the heart of the forest ; and, wandering
along a grassy path at evening, one seems to be very close to something very
ancient and secret.

The mountains here are whole regions, and when you have climbed to
their summit through the woods, you find yourself on a vast plain, and this
plain stretches so far that it seems to fill the horizon, and you cannot see any-
thing on the other side of it. Looking down into the valley, which seems
scooped out of the solid mountains, you can see, on the other side of the
Windy Gap, the thin line of Rosses Point going out into the sea, and the sea
stretches out so far before it reaches the horizon, that you can catch a yellow
glimmer of sunlight, lying out beyond the horizon visible from the shore.
The fields, around and beyond the polished mirror of the lake, seem, in their
patchwork of greens and browns, like a little map of the world. The
mountain-top, which you have fancied from below to be such solid ground,
proves, if you try to cross it, to be a great yielding bog, with intervals of rock
or hard soil. To walk over it is to move in short jumps, with an occasional
longer leap across a dried-up water-course. I like the voluptuous softness of
the bog, for one’s feet sink luxuriously into even the pale golden mounds of
moss which rise between the rusty heather and starveling grasses of the sheer
morass. And it has the treachery which is always one of the allurements of
voluptuous things. Nor is it the bog only which is treacherous on these
mountains. The mist comes down on them very suddenly, and in that white
darkness even the natives sometimes lose their way, and are drawn over the
sheer edge of the mountain. My host has just come in to tell me that last
night there was a great brewing of poteen on Ben Bulben, and that many of

                          IN SLIGO                                    61

the drinkers wandered all night, losing their way in the mist, and that one of
them, not having the drunkard’s luck, fell over a rocky place, and is now lying
dead on the mountain.

I had been thinking of such possibilities yesterday, as I climbed, peak
after peak, the mountains on the other side of the lake, Cope’s Mountain,
Lugnagall, Cashlagall, Cragnamoona. They are bare and treeless, crossed by
a few donkey-tracks ; and I sometimes deserted these looped and coiling ways
for the more hazardous directness of the dry water-courses which seam
the mountains from head to foot. Once at the top, you look over almost the
whole county, lying out in a green plain, ridged with hedges, clustered with
woods, glittering with lakes ; here and there a white cabin, a scattered village,
and just below, in the hollow of the land and water, the little curving gray town
of Sligo, with its few ships resting in harbour, and beyond them the long black
line which is Rosses Point, and then the sea, warm with sunlight, and, as
if islanded in the sea, the hills of Mayo. I have never seen anything
resembling the view from these mountains ; I have never seen anything, in its
way, more beautiful. And when, last night, after a tossed and blood-red sun-
set, the white mist curdled about the heads of Ben Bulben and Knocknarea,
and a faint, luminous mist filled the whole hollow of the valley, there seemed
to be a mingling of all the worlds ; and the world in which ships went out from
the harbour of Sligo, and the poteen-makers wandered over the mountain,
was not more real than the world of embodied dreams in which the fairies
dance in their forts, or beat at the cabin doors, or chuckle among the reeds.

                                                                                    ARTHUR SYMONS.

MLA citation:

Symons, Arthur. “In Sligo: Rosses Point and Glencar.” The Savoy vol. 7, November 1896, pp. 55-61. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.