By George A. Birmingham, 1906


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In the year 1850 or thereabouts religious and charitable society in England was seized with a desire to convert Irish Roman Catholics to the Protestant faith. It is clear to everyone with any experience of missionary societies that, the more remote the field of actual work, the easier it is to keep alive the interest of subscribers. The mission to Roman Catholics, therefore, commenced in that western portion of Galway which the modern tourist knows as Connemara, and the enthusiasm was immense. Elderly ladies, often with titles, were energetic in the cause of the new reformation. Young ladies, some of them very attractive, collected money from their brothers and admirers. States-men and Bishops headed the subscription-lists, and influential committees earnestly debated plans for spending the money which poured in. Faith in the efficacy of money handled by influential committees is one of the characteristics of the English people, and in this particular case it seemed as if their faith were to be justified by results. Most encouraging reports were sent to headquarters from Gonnemara. It appeared that converts were flocking in, and that the schools of the missionaries were filled to overflowing. In the matter of education circumstances favoured the new reformation. The leonine John McHale, the Papal Archbishop of Tuam, pursued a policy which drove the children of his flock into the mission schools. The only other kind of education available was that which some humorous English statesman had called 'national,' and it did not seem to the Archbishop desirable that an Irish boy should be beaten for speaking his own language, or rewarded for calling himself 'a happy English child.' He refused to allow the building of national schools in his diocese, and thus left the cleverer boys to drift into the mission schools, where they learnt carefully selected texts of Scripture along with the multiplication-table. The best of them were pushed on through Dublin University, and crowned the hopes of their teachers by taking Holy Orders in the Church of England. There are still to be met with in Galway and Mayo ancient peasants and broken-down inhabitants of workhouses who speak with a certain pride of 'my brother the minister.' There are also here and there in English rectories elderly gentlemen who have almost forgotten the thatched cottages where they ate their earliest potatoes.

Among these cleverer boys was one Æneas Conneally, who was something more than clever. He was also religious in an intense and enthusiastic manner, which puzzled his teachers while it pleased them. His ancestors had lived for generations on a seaboard farm, watered by salt rain, swept by misty storms. The famine and the fever that followed it left him fatherless and brotherless. The emigration schemes robbed him and his mother of their surviving relations. The mission school and the missionary's charity effected the half conversion of the mother and a whole-hearted acceptance of the new faith on the part of Æneas. Unlike most of his fellows in the college classrooms, he refused to regard an English curacy as the goal of his ambition. It seemed to him that his conversion ought not to end in his parading the streets of Liverpool in a black coat and a white tie. He wanted to return to his people and tell them in their own tongue the Gospel which he had found so beautiful.

The London committee meditated on his request, and before they arrived at a conclusion his mother died, having at the last moment made a tardy submission to the Church she had denied. Her apostasy—so the missionaries called it—confirmed the resolution of her son, and the committee at length agreed to allow him to return to his native village as the first Rector of the newly-created parish of Carrowkeel. He was provided with all that seemed necessary to insure the success of his work. They built him a gray house, low and strong, for it had to withstand the gales which swept in from the Atlantic. They bought him a field where a cow could graze, and an acre of bog to cut turf from. A church was built for him, gray and strong, like his house. It was fitted with comfortable pews, a pulpit, a reading-desk, and a movable table of wood decently covered with a crimson cloth. Beyond the church stood the school he had attended as a boy, whitewashed without and draped inside with maps and illuminated texts. A salary, not princely but sufficient, was voted to Mr. Conneally, and he was given authority over a Scripture-reader and a schoolmaster. The whole group of mission buildings—the rectory, the church, and the school—stood, like types of the uncompromising spirit of Protestantism, upon the bare hillside, swept by every storm, battered by the Atlantic spray. Below them Carrowkeel, the village, cowered in such shelter as the sandhills afforded. Eastward lonely cottages, faintly smoking dots in the landscape, straggled away to the rugged bases of the mountains. The Rev. Æneas Conneally entered upon his mission enthusiastically, and the London committee awaited results. There were scarcely any results, certainly none that could be considered satisfactory. The day for making conversions was past, and the tide had set decisively against the new reformation. A national school, started by a clearsighted priest, in spite of his Archbishop, left the mission school almost without pupils. The Scripture-reader lost heart, and took to seeking encouragement in the public-house. He found it, and once when exalted—he said, spiritually—paraded the streets cursing the Virgin Mary. Worse followed, and the committee in London dismissed the man. A diminishing income forced on them the necessity of economy, and no successor was appointed. For a few years Mr. Conneally laboured on. Then a sharp-eyed inspector from London discovered that the schoolmaster took very little trouble about teaching, but displayed great talent in prompting his children at examinations. He, too, was dismissed, and the committee, still bent on economy, appointed a mistress in his place. She was a pretty girl, and after she had shivered through the stormy nights of two winters in the lonely school-house, Mr. Conneally married her. Afterwards the office of school-teacher was also left vacant. The whitewashed school fell gradually into decay, and the committee effected a further saving.

After his marriage Mr. Conneally's missionary enthusiasm began to flag. His contact with womanhood humanized him. The sternness of the reformer died in him, and his neighbours, who never could comprehend his religion, came to understand the man. They learned to look upon him as a friend, to seek his sympathy and help. In time they learnt to love him.

Two years passed, and a son was born. The village people crowded upon him with congratulations, and mothers of wide experience praised the boy till Mrs. Conneally's heart swelled in her with pride. He was christened Hyacinth, after a great pioneer and leader of the mission work. The naming was Mr. Conneally's act of contrition for the forsaking of his enthusiasm, his recognition of the value of a zeal which had not flagged. Failing the attainment of greatness, the next best thing is to dedicate a new life to a patron saint who has won the reward of those who endure to the end. For two years more life in the glebe house was rapturously happy. Such bliss has in it, no doubt, an element of sin, and it is not good that it should endure. This was to be seen afterwards in calmer times, though hardly at the moment when the break came. There was a hope of a second child, a delightful time of expectation; then an accident, the blighting of the hope, and in a few days the death of Mrs. Conneally. Her husband buried her, digging the first grave in the rocky ground that lay around the little church.

For a time Mr. Conneally was stunned by his sorrow. He stopped working altogether, ceased to think, even to feel. Men avoided him with instinctive reverence at first, and afterwards with fear, as he wandered, muttering to himself, among the sandhills and along the beach. After a while the power of thought and a sense of the outward things of life returned to him. He found that an aged crone from the village had established herself in his house, and was caring for Hyacinth. He let her stay, and according to her abilities she cooked and washed for him and the boy, neither asking wages nor taking orders from him, until she died.

Hyacinth grew and throve amazingly. From morning till evening he was in the village, among the boats beside the little pier, or in the fields, when the men worked there. Everyone petted and loved him, from Father Moran, the priest who had started the national school, down to old Shamus, the crippled singer of interminable Irish songs and teller of heroic legends of the past. It was when he heard the boy repeat a story of Finn MacCool to the old crone in the kitchen that Mr. Conneally awoke to the idea that he must educate his son. He began, naturally enough, with Irish, for it was Irish, and not English, that Hyacinth spoke fluently.

Afterwards the English alphabet followed, though not for the sake of reading books, for except the Bible and the Prayer-Book Hyacinth was taught to read no English books. He learned Latin after a fashion, not with nice attention to complexities of syntax, but as a language meant to be used, read, and even spoken now and then to Father Moran.

Meanwhile the passage of the years brought changes to Carrowkeel. The Admiralty established a coastguard station near the village, and arranged, for the greater security of the Empire, that men in blue-serge clothes should take it in turns to look at the Atlantic through a telescope. Then the unquiet spirit of the Congested Districts Board possessed the place for a while. A young engineer designed a new pier to shelter fishing-boats. He galvanized the people into unwonted activity, and, though sceptical of good results, they earned a weekly wage by building it. Boats came, great able boats, which fought the Atlantic, and the old curraghs were left to blister in the sun far up on the beach. Instructors from the Isle of Man taught new ways of catching mackerel. Green patches between the cottages and the sea, once the playground of pigs and children, or the marine parade of solemn lines of geese, were spread with brown nets. On May mornings, if the take was good, long lines of carts rattled down the road carrying the fish to the railway at Clifden, and the place bore for a while the appearance of vitality. A vagrant Englishman discovered that lobsters could be had almost for the asking in Carrowkeel. The commercial instincts of his race were aroused in him.

He established a trade between the villagers and the fishmongers of Manchester. The price of lobsters rose to the unprecedented figure of four shillings a dozen, and it was supposed that even so the promoter of the scheme secured a profit.

To Æneas Conneally, growing quietly old, the changes meant very little. The coastguards, being bound by one of the articles of the British Constitution, came to church on Sunday mornings with exemplary regularity, and each man at fixed intervals brought a baby to be christened and a woman to be churched. Otherwise they hardly affected Mr. Conneally's life. The great officials who visited Carrowkeel to survey the benignant activities of the Congested Districts Board were men whose magnificent intellectual powers raised them above any recognised form of Christianity. Neither Father Moran's ministrations nor Mr. Conneally's appealed to them.

The London committee of the mission to Roman Catholics made no inquiry about what was going on at Carrowkeel. They asked for no statistics, expected no results, but signed quarterly cheques for Mr. Conneally, presuming, one may suppose, that if he had ceased to exist they would somehow have heard of it.

By far the most important event for Hyacinth and his father was the death of their old housekeeper. In the changed state of society in Carrowkeel it was found impossible to secure the services of another. Hyacinth, at this time about fifteen years old, took to the housework without feeling that he was doing anything strange or unmanly. He was familiar with the position of 'bachelor boys' who, having grown elderly under the care of a mother, preferred afterwards the toil of their own kitchens to the uncertain issue of marrying a girl to 'do for them.' Life under their altered circumstances was simplified. It seemed unnecessary to carry a meal from the room it was cooked in to another for the purpose of eating it, so the front rooms of the house, with their tattered furniture, were left to moulder quietly in the persistent damp. One door was felt to be sufficient for the ingress and egress of two people from a house. The kitchen door, being at the back of the house, was oftenest the sheltered one, so the front door was bolted, and the grass grew up to it. One by one, as Hyacinth's education required, the Latin and Greek books were removed from the forsaken study, and took their places among the diminishing array of plates and cups on the kitchen dresser. The spreading and removal of a tablecloth for every meal came to be regarded as foolish toil. When room was required on the table for plates, the books and papers were swept on one side. A pile of potatoes, and the pan, with bacon or a fish perhaps still frizzling in it, was set in the place left vacant.

Morning and evening Æneas Conneally expected his son to join with him in prayer. The two knelt together on the earthen floor facing the window, while the old man meditated aloud on Divine things. There were breaks in his speech and long silences, so that sometimes it was hard to tell when his prayer had really ended. These devotions formed a part of his father's life into which Hyacinth never really entered at all. He neither rebelled nor mocked. He simply remained outside. So when his father wandered off to solitary places on the seashore, and sat gazing into the sunset or a gathering storm, Hyacinth neither followed nor questioned him. Sometimes on winter nights when the wind howled more fiercely than usual round the house, the old man would close the book they read together, and repeat aloud long passages from the Apocalypse. His voice, weak and wavering at first, would gather strength as he proceeded, and the young man listened, stirred to vague emotion over the fall of Babylon the Great.

For the most part Hyacinth's time was his own. Even the hours of study were uncertain. He read when he liked, and his father seemed content with long days of idleness followed by others of application. It was, indeed, only owing to his love of what he read that the boy learned at all. Often while he tramped from his home to the village at midday his heart was hot within him with some great thought which had sprung to him from a hastily construed chorus of Euripides. Sometimes he startled the fishermen when he went with them at night by chanting Homer's rolling hexameters through the darkness while the boat lay waiting, borne gunwale down to the black water with the drag of the net that had been shot.

There was a tacit understanding that Hyacinth, like his father, was to take Holy Orders. He matriculated in Trinity College when he was eighteen, and, as is often done by poorer students, remained at home, merely passing the required examinations, until he took his degree, and the time came for his entering the divinity school. Then it became necessary for him to reside in Dublin, and the first great change in his life took place.