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Lady Augusta Gregory

Irish Writer

1852-1932

A selection from the book
VISIONS AND BELIEFS IN THE WEST OF IRELAND

Narrated by Laural Merlington

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"The Celtic Twilight" was the first book of Mr. Yeats's that I read, and even before I met him, a little time later, I had begun looking for news of the invisible world; for his stories were of Sligo and I felt jealous for Galway. This beginning of knowledge was a great excitement to me, for though I had heard all my life some talk of the faeries and the banshee (have indeed reason to believe in this last), I had never thought of giving heed to what I, in common with my class, looked on as fancy or superstition. It was certainly because of this unbelief that I had been told so little about them. Even when I began to gather these stories, I eared less for the evidence given in them than for the beautiful rhythmic sentences in which they were told. I had no theories, no case to prove, I but "held up a clean mirror to tradition."

It is hard to tell sometimes what has been a real vision and what is tradition, a legend hanging in the air, a "vanity" as our people call it, made use of by a story-teller here and there, or impressing itself as a real experience on some sensitive and imaginative mind. For tradition has a large place in "the Rook of the People" showing a sowing and re-sowing, a continuity and rebirth as in nature. "Those," "The Others," "The Fallen Angels" have some of the attributes of the gods of ancient Ireland; we may even go back yet farther to the early days of the world when the Sons of God mated with the Daughters of Men. I believe that if Christianity could be blotted out and forgotten tomorrow, our people would not be moved at all from the belief in a spiritual world and an unending life; it has been with them since the Druids taught what Lucan called "the happy error of the immortality of the soul" I think we found nothing so trivial in our search but it may have been worth the lifting; a clue, a thread, leading through the maze to that mountain top where things visible and invisible meet.

To gather folk-lore one needs, I think, leisure, patience, reverence, and a good memory. I tried not to change or alter anything, but to write down the very words in which the story had been told. Sometimes Mr. Yeats was with me at the telling; or I would take him to hear for himself something I had been told, that he might be sure I had missed or added nothing. I filled many copybooks, and came to have a very faithful memory for all sides of folk-lore, stories of saints, of heroes, of giants and enchanters, as well as for these visions. For this I have had to "pay the penalty" by losing in some measure that useful and practical side of memory that is concerned with names and dates and the multiplication table, and the numbers on friends' houses in a street.

SEERS AND HEALERS

In talking to the people I often heard the name of Biddy Early, and I began to gather many stories of her, some calling her a healer and some a witch. Some said she had died a long time ago, and some that she was still living. I was sure after a while that she was dead, but was told that her house was still standing, and was on the other side of Slieve Echtge, between Feakie and Tulla. So one day I set out and drove Shamrock, my pony, to a shooting lodge built by my grandfather in a fold of the mountains, and where I had sometimes, when a young girl, stayed with my brothers when they were shooting the wild deer that came and sheltered in the woods. It had like other places on our estate a border name brought over from Northumberland, but though we called it Chevy Chase the people spoke of its woods and outskirts as Daire-caol, the Narrow Oak Wood, and Daroda, the Two Roads, and Druim-da-Rod, their Ridge. I stayed tile night in the low thatched house, setting out next day for Feakle "eight strong miles over the mountain." It was a wild road, and the pony had to splash his way through two unbridged rivers, swollen with the summer rains. The red mud of the road, the purple heather and foxglove, the brown bogs were a contrast to the grey rocks and walls of Burren and Aidline, and there were many low hills, brown when near, misty blue in the distance; then the Golden Mountain, Slieve nan-Or, "where the last great battle will be fought before the end of the world." Then I was out of Connacht into Clare, the brown turning to green pasture as I drove by Raftery's Lough Greine.

I put up my pony at a little inn. There were portraits of John Dillon and Michael Davitt hanging in the parlour, and the landlady told me Parnell's likeness had been with them, until the priest had told her he didn't think well of her hanging it there. There was also on the wall, in a frame, a warrant for the arrest of one of her sons, signed by, I think, Lord Cowper, in the days of the Land War. "He got half a year in gaol the same year Parnell did. He got sick there, and though he lived for some years the doctor said when he died the illness he got in gaol had to do with his death."

I had been told how to find Biddy Early's house "beyond the little humpy bridge," and I walked on till I came to it, a poor cottage enough, high up on a mass of rock by the roadside. There was only a little girl in the house, but her mother came in afterwards and told me that Biddy Early had died about twenty years before, and that after they had come to live in the house they had been "annoyed for a while" by people coming to look for her. She had sent them away, telling them Biddy Early was dead, though a friendly priest had said to her, "Why didn't you let on you were her and make something out of them?" She told me some of the stories I give below, and showed me the shed where the healer had consulted with her invisible friends. I had already been given by an old patient of hers a "bottle" prepared for the cure, but which she had been afraid to use. It lies still unopened on a shelf in my storeroom. When I got back at nightfall to the lodge in the woods I found many of the neighbours gathered there, wanting to hear news of "the Tulla Woman" and to know for certain if she was dead. I think as time goes on her fame will grow and some of the myths that always hang in the air will gather round her, for I think the first thing I was told of her was, "There used surely to be enchanters in the old time, magicians and freemasons. Old Biddy Early's power came from the same thing."

THE UNQUIET DEAD

A good many years ago when I was but beginning my study of the folk-lore of belief, I wrote somewhere that if by an impossible miracle every trace and memory of Christianity could be swept out of the world, it would not shake or destroy at all the belief of the people of Ireland in the invisible world, the cloud of witnesses, in immortality and the life to come. For them the veil between things seen and unseen has hardly thickened since those early days of the world when the sons of God mated with the daughters of men; when angels spoke with Abraham in Hebron or with Columcille in the oakwoods of Derry, or when as an old man at my own gate told me they came and visited the Fianna, the old heroes of Ireland, "because they were so nice and so respectable." Ireland has through the centuries kept continuity of vision, the vision it is likely all nations possessed in the early days of faith. Here in Connacht there is no doubt as to the continuance of life after death. The spirit wanders for a while in that intermediate region to which mystics and theologians have given various names, and should it return and become visible those who loved it will not be afraid, but will, as I have already told, put a light in the window to guide the mother home to her child, or go out into the barley gardens in the hope of meeting a son. And if the message brought seems hardly worth the hearing, we may call to mind what Frederic Myers wrote of more instructed ghosts:

"If it was absurd to listen to Kepler because he bade the planets move in no perfect circles but in undignified ellipses, because he hastened and slackened from hour to hour what ought to be a heavenly body's ideal and unwavering speed; is it not absurder still to refuse to listen to these voices from afar, because they come stammering and wandering as in a dream confusedly instead of with a trumpet's call? Because spirits that bending to earth may undergo perhaps an earthly bewilderment and suffer unknown limitations, and half remember and hall forget?"

And should they give the message more clearly who knows if it would be welcome? For the old Scotch story goes that when S. Columcille's brother Dobhran rose up from his grave and said, "Hell is not so bad as people say," the Saint cried out, "Clay, clay on Dobhran!" before he could tell any more.

MONSTERS AND SHEOGUEY BEASTS

The Dragon that was the monster of the early world now appears only in the traditional folktales, where the hero, a new Perseus, fights for the life of the Princess who looks on crying at the brink of the sea, bound to a silver chair, while the Dragon is "put in a way he will eat no more kings' daughters." in the stories of today he has shrunk to eel or worm, for the persons and properties of the folklore of all countries keep being transformed or remade in the imagination, so that once in New England on the eve of George Washington's birthday, the decorated shop windows set me wondering whether the cherry tree itself might not be a remaking of the red-berried dragon guarded rowan of the Celtic tales, or it may be of a yet more ancient apple. I ventured to hint at this in a lecture at Philadelphia, and next day one of the audience wrote me that he had looked through all the early biographies of Washington, and either the first three or the first three editions of the earliest I have mislaid the letter never mention the cherry tree at all. The monstrous beasts told of today recall the visions of Maeldune on his strange dream-voyage, where he saw the beast that was like a horse and that had "legs of a hound with rough sharp nails," and the fiery pigs that fed on golden fruit, and the cat that with one flaming leap turned a thief to a heap of ashes; for the folk-tales of the world have long roots, and there is nothing new save their reblossoming.

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