Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 108

Town of Newport — The Usk — Note of Recognition — An Old Acquaintance — Connamara Quean — The Wake — The Wild Irish — The Tramping Life — Business and Prayer — Methodists — Good Counsel.

NEWPORT is a large town in Monmouthshire, and had once walls and a castle. It is called in Welsh Cas Newydd ar Wysg, or the New Castle upon the Usk. It stands some miles below Caerlleon ar Wysg, and was probably built when that place, at one time one of the most considerable towns in Britain, began to fall into decay. The Wysg or Usk has its source among some wild hills in the south-west of Breconshire, and, after absorbing several smaller streams, amongst which is the Hondu, at the mouth of which Brecon stands, which on that account is called in Welsh Aber Hondu, and traversing the whole of Monmouthshire, enters the Bristol Channel near Newport, to which place vessels of considerable burden can ascend. Wysg or Usk is an ancient British word, signifying water, and is the same as the Irish word uisge or whiskey, for whiskey, though generally serving to denote a spirituous liquor, in great vogue amongst the Irish, means simply water. The proper term for the spirit is uisquebaugh, literally acqua vitae, but the compound being abbreviated by the English, who have always been notorious for their habit of clipping words, one of the strongest of spirits is now generally denominated by a word which is properly expressive of the simple element water.

Monmouthshire is at present considered an English county, though certainly with little reason, for it not only stands on the western side of the Wye, but the names of almost all its parishes are Welsh, and many thousands of its population still speak the Welsh language. It is called in Welsh Sir, or Shire, Fynwy, and takes its name from the town Mynwy or Monmouth, which receives its own appellation from the river Mynwy or Minno, on which it stands. There is a river of much the same name, not in Macedon but in the Peninsula, namely the Minho, which probably got its denomination from that race cognate to the Cumry, the Gael, who were the first colonisers of the Peninsula, and whose generic name yet stares us in the face and salutes our ears in the words Galicia and Portugal.

I left Newport at about ten o’clock on the 16th; the roads were very wet, there having been a deluge of rain during the night. The morning was a regular November one, dull and gloomy. Desirous of knowing whereabouts in these parts the Welsh language ceased, I interrogated several people whom I met. First spoke to Esther Williams. She told me she came from Pennow, some miles farther on, that she could speak Welsh, and that indeed all the people could for at least eight miles to the east of Newport. This latter assertion of hers was, however, anything but corroborated by a young woman, with a pitcher on her head, whom I shortly afterwards met, for she informed me that she could speak no Welsh, and that for one who could speak it, from where I was to the place where it ceased altogether, there were ten who could not. I believe the real fact is that about half the people for seven or eight miles to the east of Newport speak Welsh, more or less, as about half those whom I met and addressed in Welsh, answered me in that tongue.

Passed through Pennow or Penhow, a small village. The scenery in the neighbourhood of this place is highly interesting. To the north-west at some distance is Mynydd Turvey, a sharp pointed blue mountain. To the south-east, on the right, much nearer, are two beautiful green hills, the lowest prettily wooded, and having its top a fair white mansion called Penhow Castle, which belongs to a family of the name of Cave. Thence to Llanvaches, a pretty little village. When I was about the middle of this place I heard an odd sound, something like a note of recognition, which attracted my attention to an object very near to me, from which it seemed to proceed, and which was coming from the direction in which I was going. It was the figure seemingly of a female, wrapped in a coarse blue cloak, the feet bare and the legs bare also nearly up to the knee, both terribly splashed with the slush of the road. The head was surmounted by a kind of hood, which just permitted me to see coarse red hair, a broad face, grey eyes, a snubbed nose, blubber lips and great white teeth — the eyes were staring intently at me. I stopped and stared too, and at last thought I recognised the features of the uncouth girl I had seen on the green near Chester with the Irish tinker Tourlough and his wife.

“Dear me!” said I, “did I not see you near Chester last summer?”

“To be sure ye did; and ye were going to pass me without a word of notice or kindness had I not given ye a bit of a hail.”

“Well,” said I, “I beg your pardon. How is it all wid ye?”

“Quite well. How is it wid yere hanner?’

“Tolerably. Where do you come from?”

“From Chepstow, yere hanner.”

“And where are you going to?”

“To Newport, yere hanner.”

“And I come from Newport, and am going to Chepstow. Where’s Tourlough and his wife?”

“At Cardiff, yere hanner; I shall join them again tomorrow.”

“Have you been long away from them?”

“About a week, yere hanner.”

“And what have you been doing?”

“Selling my needles, yere hanner.”

“Oh! you sell needles. Well, I am glad to have met you. Let me see. There’s a nice little inn on the right: won’t you come in and have some refreshment?”

“Thank yere hanner; I have no objection to take a glass wid an old friend.”

“Well, then, come in; you must be tired, and I shall be glad to have some conversation with you.”

We went into the inn — a little tidy place. On my calling, a respectable-looking old man made his appearance behind a bar. After serving my companion with a glass of peppermint, which she said she preferred to anything else, and me with a glass of ale, both of which I paid for, he retired, and we sat down on two old chairs beneath a window in front of the bar.

“Well,” said I, “I suppose you have Irish: here’s slainte — ”

“Slainte yuit a shaoi,” said the girl, tasting her peppermint.

“Well: how do you like it?’

“It’s very nice indeed.”

“That’s more than I can say of the ale, which, like all the ale in these parts, is bitter. Well, what part of Ireland do you come from?”

“From no part at all. I never was in Ireland in my life. I am from Scotland Road, Manchester.”

“Why, I thought you were Irish?”

“And so I am; and all the more from being born where I was. There’s not such a place for Irish in all the world as Scotland Road.”

“Were your father and mother from Ireland?”

“My mother was from Ireland: my father was Irish of Scotland Road, where they met and married.”

“And what did they do after they married?”

“Why, they worked hard, and did their best to get a livelihood for themselves and children, of which they had several besides myself, who was the eldest. My father was a bricklayer, and my mother sold apples and oranges and other fruits, according to the season, and also whiskey, which she made herself, as she well knew how; for my mother was not only a Connacht woman, but an out-and-out Connamara quean, and when only thirteen had wrought with the lads who used to make the raal cratur on the islands between Ochterard and Bally na hinch. As soon as I was able, I helped my mother in making and disposing of the whiskey and in selling the fruit. As for the other children, they all died when young, of favers, of which there is always plenty in Scotland Road. About four years ago — that is, when I was just fifteen — there was a great quarrel among the workmen about wages. Some wanted more than their masters were willing to give; others were willing to take what was offered them. Those who were dissatisfied were called bricks; those who were not were called dungs. My father was a brick; and, being a good man with his fists, was looked upon as a very proper person to fight a principal man amongst the dungs. They fought in the fields near Salford for a pound a side. My father had it all his own way for the first three rounds, but in the fourth, receiving a blow under the ear from the dung, he dropped, and never got up again, dying suddenly. A grand wake my father had, for which my mother furnished usquebaugh galore; and comfortably and dacently it passed over till about three o’clock in the morning, when, a dispute happening to arise — not on the matter of wages, for there was not a dung amongst the Irish of Scotland Road — but as to whether the O’Keefs or O’Kellys were kings of Ireland a thousand years ago, a general fight took place, which brought in the police, who, being soon dreadfully baten, as we all turned upon them, went and fetched the military, with whose help they took and locked up several of the party, amongst whom were my mother and myself, till the next morning, when we were taken before the magistrates, who, after a slight scolding, set us at liberty, one of them saying that such disturbances formed part of the Irish funeral service; whereupon we returned to the house, and the rest of the party joining us, we carried my father’s body to the churchyard, where we buried it very dacently, with many tears and groanings.”

“And how did your mother and you get on after your father was buried?”

“As well as we could, yere hanner; we sold fruit, and now and then a drop of whiskey, which we made; but this state of things did not last long, for one day my mother seeing the dung who had killed my father, she flung a large flint stone and knocked out his right eye, for doing which she was taken up and tried, and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, chiefly it was thought because she had been heard to say that she would do the dung a mischief the first time she met him. She, however, did not suffer all her sentence, for before she had been in prison three months she caught a disorder which carried her off. I went on selling fruit by myself whilst she was in trouble, and for some time after her death, but very lonely and melancholy. At last my uncle Tourlough, or, as the English would call him, Charles, chancing to come to Scotland Road along with his family, I was glad to accept an invitation to join them which he gave me, and with them I have been ever since, travelling about England and Wales and Scotland, helping my aunt with the children, and driving much the same trade which she has driven for twenty years past, which is not an unprofitable one.”

“Would you have any objection to tell me all you do?”

“Why I sells needles, as I said before, and sometimes I buys things of servants, and sometimes I tells fortunes.”

“Do you ever do anything in the way of striopachas?”

“Oh no! I never do anything in that line; I would be burnt first. I wonder you should dream of such a thing.”

“Why surely it is not worse than buying things of servants, who no doubt steal them from their employers, or telling fortunes, which is dealing with the devil.”

“Not worse? Yes, a thousand times worse; there is nothing so very particular in doing them things, but striopachas — Oh dear!”

“It’s a dreadful thing I admit, but the other things are quite as bad; you should do none of them.”

“I’ll take good care that I never do one, and that is striopachas; them other things I know are not quite right, and I hope soon to have done wid them; any day I can shake them off and look people in the face, but were I once to do striopachas I could never hold up my head”

“How comes it that you have such a horror of striopachas?”

“I got it from my mother, and she got it from hers. All Irish women have a dread of striopachas. It’s the only thing that frights them; I manes the wild Irish, for as for the quality women I have heard they are no bit better than the English. Come, yere hanner, let’s talk of something else.”

“You were saying now that you were thinking of leaving off fortune-telling and buying things of servants. Do you mean to depend upon your needles alone?”

“No; I am thinking of leaving off tramping altogether and going to the Tir na Siar.”

“Isn’t that America?”

“It is, yere hanner; the land of the west is America.”

“A long way for a lone girl.”

“I should not be alone, yere hanner; I should be wid my uncle Tourlough and his wife.”

“Are they going to America?”

“They are, yere hanner; they intends leaving off business and going to America next spring.”

“It will cost money.”

“It will, yere hanner; but they have got money, and so have I.”

“Is it because business is slack that you are thinking of going to America?”

“Oh no, yere hanner; we wish to go there in order to get rid of old ways and habits, amongst which are fortune-telling and buying things of sarvants, which yere hanner was jist now checking me wid.”

“And can’t you get rid of them here?”

“We cannot, yere hanner. If we stay here we must go on tramping, and it is well known that doing them things is part of tramping.”

“And what would you do in America?”

“Oh, we could do plenty of things in America — most likely we should buy a piece of land and settle down.”

“How came you to see the wickedness of the tramping life?”

“By hearing a great many sarmons and preachings and having often had the Bible read to us by holy women who came to our tent.”

“Of what religion do you call yourselves now?”

“I don’t know, yere hanner; we are clane unsettled about religion. We were once Catholics and carried Saint Colman of Cloyne about wid us in a box; but after hearing a sermon at a church about images, we went home, took the saint out of his box and cast him into a river.”

“Oh it will never do to belong to the Popish religion, a religion which upholds idol-worship and persecutes the Bible — you should belong to the Church of England.”

“Well, perhaps we should, yere hanner, if its ministers were not such proud violent men. Oh, you little know how they look down upon all poor people, especially on us tramps. Once my poor aunt, Tourlough’s wife, who has always had stronger conviction than any of us, followed one of them home after he had been preaching, and begged him to give her God, and was told by him that she was a thief, and if she didn’t take herself out of the house he would kick her out.”

“Perhaps, after all,” said I; “you had better join the Methodists — I should say that their ways would suit you better than those of any other denomination of Christians.”

Yere hanner knows nothing about them, otherwise ye wouldn’t talk in that manner. Their ways would never do for people who want to have done with lying and staring, and have always kept themselves clane from striopachas. Their word is not worth a rotten straw, yere hanner, and in every transaction which they have with people they try to cheat and overreach — ask my uncle Tourlough, who has had many dealings with them. But what is far worse, they do that which the wildest calleen t’other side of Ougteraarde would be burnt rather than do. Who can tell ye more on that point than I, yere hanner? I have been at their chapels at nights, and have listened to their screaming prayers, and have seen what’s been going on outside the chapels after their services, as they call them, were over — I never saw the like going on outside Father Toban’s chapel, yere hanner! Yere hanner’s hanner asked me if I ever did anything in the way of striopachas — now I tell ye that I was never asked to do anything in that line but by one of them folks — a great man amongst them he was, both in the way of business and prayer, for he was a commercial traveller during six days of the week and a preacher on the seventh — and such a preacher. Well, one Sunday night after he had preached a sermon an hour-and-a-half long, which had put half a dozen women into what they call static fits, he overtook me in a dark street and wanted me to do striopachas with him — he didn’t say striopachas, yer hanner, for he had no Irish — but he said something in English which was the same thing.”

“And what did you do?”

“Why, I asked him what he meant by making fun of a poor ugly girl — for no one knows better than myself, yere hanner, that I am very ugly — whereupon he told me that he was not making fun of me, for it had long been the chief wish of his heart to commit striopachas with a wild Irish Papist, and that he believed if he searched the world he should find none wilder than myself.”

“And what did you reply?”

“Why, I said to him, yere hanner, that I would tell the congregation, at which he laughed and said that he wished I would, for that the congregation would say they didn’t believe me, though at heart they would, and would like him all the better for it.”

“Well, and what did you say then?”

“Nothing, at all, yere hanner; but I spat in his face and went home and told my uncle Tourlough, who forthwith took out a knife and began to sharp it on a whetstone, and I make no doubt would have gone and stuck the fellow like a pig, had not my poor aunt begged him not on her knees. After that we had nothing more to do with the Methodists as far as religion went.”

“Did this affair occur in England or Wales?”

“In the heart of England, yere hanner; we have never been to the Welsh chapels, for we know little of the language.”

“Well, I am glad it didn’t happen in Wales: I have rather a high opinion of the Welsh Methodist. The worthiest creature I ever knew was a Welsh Methodist. And now I must leave you and make the best of my way to Chepstow.”

“Can’t yere hanner give me God before ye go?”

“I can give you half-a-crown to help you on your way to America.”

“I want no half-crowns, yere hanner; but if ye would give me God I’d bless ye.”

“What do you mean by giving you God?”

“Putting Him in my heart by some good counsel which will guide me through life.”

“The only good counsel I can give you is to keep the commandments; one of them it seems you have always kept. Follow the rest and you can’t go very wrong.”

“I wish I knew them better than I do, yere hanner.”

“Can’t you read?”

“Oh no, yere hanner, I can’t read, neither can Tourlough nor his wife.”

“Well, learn to read as soon as possible. When you have got to America and settled down you will have time enough to learn to read.”

“Shall we be better, yere hanner, after we have learnt to read?”

“Let’s hope you will.”

“One of the things, yere hanner, that have made us stumble is that some of the holy women, who have come to our tent and read the Bible to us, have afterwards asked my aunt and me to tell them their fortunes.”

“If they have, the more shame for them, for they can have no excuse. Well, whether you learn to read or not, still eschew striopachas, don’t steal, don’t deceive, and worship God in spirit, not in image. That’s the best counsel I can give you.”

“And very good counsel it is, yere hanner, and I will try to follow it, and now, yere hanner, let us go our two ways.”

We placed our glasses upon the bar and went out. In the middle of the road we shook hands and parted, she going towards Newport and I towards Chepstow. After walking a few yards I turned round and looked after her. There she was in the damp lowering afternoon wending her way slowly through mud and puddle, her upper form huddled in the rough frieze mantle, and her coarse legs bare to the top of the calves. “Surely,” said I to myself, “there never was an object less promising in appearance. Who would think that there could be all the good sense and proper feeling in that uncouth girl which there really is?”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 14:50