Those who are afraid of dying without the supreme unction should arrange to pass the rest of their days in Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, that is, if Lisdoonvarna has not changed since I was there with my mother and brother and shared the town with two or three hundred Catholic priests. As far as I know there was nothing official in this gathering of clergy. The priests just came there because they liked to, and maybe their well supplied tables had taxed their digestive organs and given them maladies that never bothered their poor parishonerstyping error in original. whose daily fare seldom varied from potatoes and tea. There were magnesia wells at Lisdoonvarna for purging priests. There were iron wells for fortifying them. There were sulphur wells to cure their rheumatism and make their breath smell like rotten eggs. There were other wells of which I have forgotten the names, but I know they were for rejuvenating the guts and bowels of priests who had been eating too much for twelve months or more.
In the mornings I went to the spa with my mother and the bathrooms were always full of priests and she had to wait around a long time before she could get her turn. When we got back to the hotel there were priests at all the tables in the diningroom, in all the chairs in the lobby and in the reception room. If you wanted to relieve yourself you had to go out in the backyard behind the cow sheds because the w.c. always had a priest in it.There were priests in the postoffice and in the shop where you bought souvenirs carved in bog oak, or Connemara marble brooches in the form of harps and Celtic crosses and shamrocks, and Tara brooches, and Claddagh wedding rings from Galway with two clasped hands on them. And all the priests seemed to be enjoying themselves, and I said "Good morra, father," and shook hands dozens of times a day, and dozens of times a day heard priests say, "A fine boy, but a Prodistant, God help him."
And then our cousin, Harry Lambert, who was a great one on a horse, came over from Kilquaine in Galway on an outsidecar and spent a couple of days with us and slept at a friend's house. I always thought he was in love with my mother and I did not blame him, because everyone loved her. And I was sure he did from the way he sat and looked at her saying nothing and his eyes very sad. And my mother liked him and was happy when he was there and loved him too, only not the same way as he loved her.
At noon we would take a basket of sandwiches and a bottle of Burgundy, which my mother had to drink for her health, and Harry drank too. And Mrs. O'Meara, who owned the hotel, would pour milk into an empty sodawater bottle for me and my brother, which I always let him drink because Mrs. O'Meara fed her cows with turnips and that is what the milk tasted like. And then we would drive through the priests and out two or three miles where there were none and find a place with a stream and maidenhair ferns and daisies in the grass and stop there. I always led the mare out of the car while Harry held up the shafts, and I tied knots in the traces so they would not trail. And while he took the bit out of the mare's mouth and let her drink I would get the oats out of the well of the car for her. After lunch we used to sit around all the afternoon. Harry was unhappy on account of his father who had a violent temper and sometimes hit his sons and daughters with a riding crop even when they were grown up, and vaccinated them himself instead of letting the doctor do it, and gave them bloodpoisoning. And now he had cut off Harry's allowance and Harry had been obliged to sell his hunter and could not follow the hounds any more, for the only thing he had was the harness mare and she was sixteen and had spavins and a tube in. And Harry used to sigh on account of the mare and his father and because he was in love; and my mother used to put her hand on his and say: "Poor Harry. Everything will work out all right in the end," thinking of the hunter and his father, and Harry used to shake his head and say: Maybe...all but one thing," thinking of her, and look away from her.
Once we got up at seven and drove by way of Ennistymon to Lehinch to visit some other cousins, the Costellos, who were Catholics and gave you guineahens' eggs for lunch, which I liked better than hens' eggs. Mary Costello was a fine girl with freckles and she managed the farm. Their house was big but only one story high and had rabbit hutches outside the dining-room windows. She used to look at Harry the way Harry looked at my mother and I could see she would have liked to be married to him, which would have been a good thing because at twentyone she was to come into money of her own. But her father said no child of his would marry a bloody Protestant, and Harry's father said he would sooner see all his children dead—which they came near being, anyway, when he vaccinated them—than married to bloody Papists.
Mary and Harry used to go out in the sandhills where you found the bones of Irish elks when the dunes shifted before a high wind. I went along with them once and Mary showed me the new Golf Hotel faced with zinc, and built on top of a silver four penny piece for luck, she said. She said, too, that Lehinch was a wonderful place and she loved it and wanted to live there all her life, but was very lonesome, and she looked at Harry. I said I thought Ballybunion, where we went the year before, was a better place to live in because it had pirates' caves and the Lartique railway which ran on a single track four feet high with the train hanging down on each side of the track and supported in the middle like the creels of turf on an ass's back. There had to be the same number of passengers on both sides of the train or it would not run, and if the number was odd they balanced up with sandbags. And then at Ballybunion they had merry-go-rounds and swinging boats and a calliope that played Sweet Rosy O'Grady and Come Back to Erin.
On the way back to Lisdoonvarna my mother said to Harry: "You know, she's a sweet girl, you ought to marry her, Harry."
"Indeed I ought to," Harry said, "but she's a Catholic."
"Well," my mother said, "you're both Christians. Religion will be the ruin of Ireland yet."
And then my father came to Lisdoonvarna. He and Harry were great friends, though my father was a little jealous of him because Harry was an inch taller than he was. My father always showed his biceps before Harry because his were bigger than Harry's, and that made him feel better at once, though Harry did not seem to mind very much. One day Harry said to my father:
"You know, Frank, it's only the heels of my boots make me taller than you."
"I never thought of that, indeed, you must be right," said my father. We'll measure ourselves against the door."
He measured Harry first, and I could see he was making him as small as he could by tilting down the book on Harry's head before marking the place. While Harry was measuring my father I put my face on the ground and I could see under my father's heels and he was all swelled up fit to burst, holding his breath, thinking that was making him taller. And I said:
"Mumsy, I can see under Daddy's heels." And my father said under his breath:
"Shut up, you little idjit," and glared down at me. And my mother said:
"Now what's the use of getting measured if you don't both stand the same way and put your heels flat on the floor?"
"Well, anyway, you know I'm 45 inches round the chest and Harry's only 39," said my father.
Then we went to Galway on Harry's sidecar to spend a week at Aggart Hall where my great-uncle John Lambert lived. The house was very old and built of stone with the walls very thick, and the fireplace in the big hall, which was the living-room, too, so big that it was like a little room all by itself, and had benches so you could sit down in it, which was a good thing because Aggart had a lot of draughts. Instead of rabbit hutches they had some of the family buried outside the dining-room windows, and when the wind moaned in the chimney at night Uncle John's sister, my great-aunt Anna, used to say the ghosts wanted to come in, so I never went out after dark. My uncle John was eightyfour and wore his hat in the house on account of the draughts. He had a green tablecloth on his table with holes in it, and a white beard with some holes in it too; and there was an Irish wolfhound with him all the time that looked as old as himself. Its name was Brian Boru. He was more unhappy than Harry because he had horses and could not ride any more. Harry said any effort made him wet his pants, like my brother, because his bladder was weak. I was very sorry for him about the tablecloth, and I know how unhappy he was about not being able to ride. He had been a great horseman in his day and was M.F.H., and his pack was called the East Galways. He needed two sticks to walk with, and when he went out my aunt Anna always hung a shawl on him. I used to walk around with him, and he showed me a place in the ten-foot deerpark wall that he had cleared on a runaway fifty years before.
The place was famous and they called it Lambert's Leap. After we had looked at it I turned and saw there were tears in my Uncle John's eyes, and he shook his head and they got in his beard. Even at eightyfour a Galway man is lost without a saddle between his knees. I nearly cried too, and I pulled him down by the beard and kissed him and he patted my head. And I asked if he had been as good a horseman as Harry when he was young, and he thumped his two sticks so hard they got stuck in the ground and said that while Harry had a fine seat, compared with what he had been himself you could not call Harry a horseman at all. Everything was changed now. In his day they were real horsemen, he said. He told me some strange things too. There was a house around there that was haunted by a man rocking a cradle full of money. The man had been a miser and kept his gold in a cradle, and died of starvation. When my uncle John was a boy he had seen him, and years later he saw the ghost and it was he all right.
The day before we left Aggart a swarm of bees got on the roof and stung a workman who got too close to them. His eyes were closed up and his face red like my brother's when he was born. Aunt Anna put washing-blue over the workman's face and the next day he was much better and could see.
In spite of the English there was a king in Ireland in those days. I was curious to see what he looked like and if he wore a crown in the daytime. When I saw him he was mending nets without a crown. But he was a king all the same; King of the Claddagh, which is a fishing colony where the girls are very good-looking with black hair and grey eyes and bare feet. They wear red petticoats and blue shawls over their heads, and I saw more than one I wished we could have taken with us to help Mary and Bridget in the kitchen.
There was a stone there I liked, too, with a skull and crossbones on it, and Harry read what was written on it, how, in the 15th century, Fitzstephen, the mayor of Galway, condemned his own son to death for killing a Spaniard. But nobody would hang his son so the mayor hung him himself.
After we got back to Tipperary, Harry Lambert wrote and told us Uncle John was dead. I wanted to ask Harry if they buried him outside the dining-room window. But Harry went to South Africa after that and I never saw him again.