The cliffs of Moher in Co. Clare, on the western coast of Ireland, are not as well known to tourists as they should be. It may be doubted whether Lady Mary Quin was right when she called them the highest cliffs in the world, but they are undoubtedly very respectable cliffs, and run up some six hundred feet from the sea as nearly perpendicular as cliffs should be. They are beautifully coloured, streaked with yellow veins, and with great masses of dark red rock; and beneath them lies the broad and blue Atlantic. Lady Mary’s exaggeration as to the comparative height is here acknowledged, but had she said that below them rolls the brightest bluest clearest water in the world she would not have been far wrong. To the south of these cliffs there runs inland a broad bay — Liscannor bay, on the sides of which are two little villages, Liscannor and Lahinch. At the latter, Fred Neville, since he had been quartered at Ennis, had kept a boat for the sake of shooting seals and exploring the coast — and generally carrying out his spirit of adventure. Not far from Liscannor was Castle Quin, the seat of the Earl of Kilfenora; and some way up from Liscannor towards the cliffs, about two miles from the village, there is a cottage called Ardkill. Here lived Mrs. and Miss O’Hara.
It was the nearest house to the rocks, from which it was distant less than half a mile. The cottage, so called, was a low rambling long house, but one storey high — very unlike an English cottage. It stood in two narrow lengths, the one running at right angles to the other; and contained a large kitchen, two sitting rooms — of which one was never used — and four or five bed-rooms of which only three were furnished. The servant girl occupied one, and the two ladies the others. It was a blank place enough — and most unlike that sort of cottage which English ladies are supposed to inhabit, when they take to cottage life. There was no garden to it, beyond a small patch in which a few potatoes were planted. It was so near to the ocean, so exposed to winds from the Atlantic, that no shrubs would live there. Everything round it, even the herbage, was impregnated with salt, and told tales of the neighbouring waves. When the wind was from the west the air would be so laden with spray that one could not walk there without being wet. And yet the place was very healthy, and noted for the fineness of its air. Rising from the cottage, which itself stood high, was a steep hill running up to the top of the cliff, covered with that peculiar moss which the salt spray of the ocean produces. On this side the land was altogether open, but a few sheep were always grazing there when the wind was not so high as to drive them to some shelter. Behind the cottage there was an enclosed paddock which belonged to it, and in which Mrs. O’Hara kept her cow. Roaming free around the house, and sometimes in it, were a dozen hens and a noisy old cock which, with the cow, made up the total of the widow’s live stock. About a half a mile from the cottage on the way to Liscannor there were half a dozen mud cabins which contained Mrs. O’Hara’s nearest neighbours — and an old burying ground. Half a mile further on again was the priest’s house, and then on to Liscannor there were a few other straggling cabins here and there along the road.
Up to the cottage indeed there could hardly be said to be more than a track, and beyond the cottage no more than a sheep path. The road coming out from Liscannor was a real road as far as the burying ground, but from thence onward it had degenerated. A car, or carriage if needed, might be brought up to the cottage door, for the ground was hard and the way was open. But no wheels ever travelled there now. The priest, when he would come, came on horseback, and there was a shed in which he could tie up his nag. He himself from time to time would send up a truss of hay for his nag’s use, and would think himself cruelly used because the cow would find her way in and eat it. No other horse ever called at the widow’s door. What slender stores were needed for her use, were all brought on the girls’ backs from Liscannor. To the north of the cottage, along the cliff, there was no road for miles, nor was there house or habitation. Castle Quin, in which the noble but somewhat impoverished Quin family lived nearly throughout the year, was distant, inland, about three miles from the cottage. Lady Mary had said in her letter to her friend that Mrs. O’Hara was a lady; — and as Mrs. O’Hara had no other neighbour, ranking with herself in that respect, so near her, and none other but the Protestant clergyman’s wife within six miles of her, charity, one would have thought, might have induced some of the Quin family to notice her. But the Quins were Protestant, and Mrs. O’Hara was not only a Roman Catholic, but a Roman Catholic who had been brought into the parish by the priest. No evil certainly was known of her, but then nothing was known of her; and the Quins were a very cautious people where religion was called in question. In the days of the famine Father Marty and the Earl and the Protestant vicar had worked together in the good cause; — but those days were now gone by, and the strange intimacy had soon died away. The Earl when he met the priest would bow to him, and the two clergymen would bow to each other; — but beyond such dumb salutation there was no intercourse between them. It had been held therefore to be impossible to take any notice of the priest’s friends.
And what notice could have been taken of two ladies who came from nobody knew where, to live in that wild out-of-the-way place, nobody knew why? They called themselves mother and daughter, and they called themselves O’Haras; — but there was no evidence of the truth even of these assertions. They were left therefore in their solitude, and never saw the face of a friend across their door step except that of Father Marty.
In truth Mrs. O’Hara’s life had been of a nature almost to necessitate such solitude. With her story we have nothing to do here. For our purpose there is no need that her tale should be told. Suffice it to say that she had been deserted by her husband, and did not now know whether she was or was not a widow. This was in truth the only mystery attached to her. She herself was an Englishwoman, though a Catholic; but she had been left early an orphan, and had been brought up in a provincial town of France by her grandmother. There she had married a certain Captain O’Hara, she having some small means of her own sufficient to make her valuable in the eyes of an adventurer. At that time she was no more than eighteen, and had given her hand to the Captain in opposition to the wishes of her only guardian. What had been her life from that time to the period at which, under Father Marty’s auspices, she became the inhabitant of Ardkill Cottage, no one knew but herself. She was then utterly dissevered from all friends and relatives, and appeared on the western coast of County Clare with her daughter, a perfect stranger to every one. Father Marty was an old man, now nearly seventy, and had been educated in France. There he had known Mrs. O’Hara’s grandmother, and hence had arisen the friendship which had induced him to bring the lady into his parish. She came there with a daughter, then hardly more than a child. Between two and three years had passed since her coming, and the child was now a grown-up girl, nearly nineteen years old. Of her means little or nothing was known accurately, even to the priest. She had told him that she had saved enough out of the wreck on which to live with her girl after some very humble fashion, and she paid her way. There must have come some sudden crash, or she would hardly have taken her child from an expensive Parisian school to vegetate in such solitude as that she had chosen. And it was a solitude from which there seemed to be no chance of future escape. They had brought with them a piano and a few books, mostly French; — and with these it seemed to have been intended that the two ladies should make their future lives endurable. Other resources except such as the scenery of the cliffs afforded them, they had none.
The author would wish to impress upon his readers, if it may be possible, some idea of the outward appearance and personal character of each of these two ladies, as his story can hardly be told successfully unless he do so. The elder, who was at this time still under forty years of age, would have been a very handsome woman had not troubles, suffering, and the contests of a rugged life, in which she had both endured and dared much, given to her face a look of hard combative resolution which was not feminine. She was rather below than above the average height — or at any rate looked to be so, as she was strongly made, with broad shoulders, and a waist that was perhaps not now as slender as when she first met Captain O’Hara. But her hair was still black — as dark at least as hair can be which is not in truth black at all but only darkly brown. Whatever might be its colour there was no tinge of grey upon it. It was glossy, silken, and long as when she was a girl. I do not think that she took pride in it. How could she take pride in personal beauty, when she was never seen by any man younger than Father Marty or the old peasant who brought turf to her door in creels on a donkey’s back? But she wore it always without any cap, tied in a simple knot behind her head. Whether chignons had been invented then the author does not remember — but they certainly had not become common on the coast of County Clare, and the peasants about Liscannor thought Mrs. O’Hara’s head of hair the finest they had ever seen. Had the ladies Quin of the Castle possessed such hair as that, they would not have been the ladies Quin to this day. Her eyes were lustrous, dark, and very large — beautiful eyes certainly; but they were eyes that you might fear. They had been softer perhaps in youth, before the spirit of the tiger had been roused in the woman’s bosom by neglect and ill-usage. Her face was now bronzed by years and weather. Of her complexion she took no more care than did the neighbouring fishermen of theirs, and the winds and the salt water, and perhaps the working of her own mind, had told upon it, to make it rough and dark. But yet there was a colour in her cheeks, as we often see in those of wandering gipsies, which would make a man stop to regard her who had eyes appreciative of beauty. Her nose was well formed — a heaven-made nose, and not a lump of flesh stuck on to the middle of her face as women’s noses sometimes are; — but it was somewhat short and broad at the nostrils, a nose that could imply much anger, and perhaps tenderness also. Her face below her nose was very short. Her mouth was large, but laden with expression. Her lips were full and her teeth perfect as pearls. Her chin was short and perhaps now verging to that size which we call a double chin, and marked by as broad a dimple as ever Venus made with her finger on the face of a woman.
She had ever been strong and active, and years in that retreat had told upon her not at all. She would still walk to Liscannor, and thence round, when the tide was low, beneath the cliffs, and up by a path which the boys had made from the foot through the rocks to the summit, though the distance was over ten miles, and the ascent was very steep. She would remain for hours on the rocks, looking down upon the sea, when the weather was almost at its roughest. When the winds were still, and the sun was setting across the ocean, and the tame waves were only just audible as they rippled on the stones below, she would sit there with her child, holding the girl’s hand or just touching her arm, and would be content so to stay almost without a word; but when the winds blew, and the heavy spray came up in blinding volumes, and the white-headed sea-monsters were roaring in their fury against the rocks, she would be there alone with her hat in her hand, and her hair drenched. She would watch the gulls wheeling and floating beneath her, and would listen to their screams and try to read their voices. She would envy the birds as they seemed to be worked into madness by the winds which still were not strong enough to drive them from their purposes. To linger there among the rocks seemed to be the only delight left to her in life — except that intense delight which a mother has in loving her child. She herself read but little, and never put a hand upon the piano. But she had a faculty of sitting and thinking, of brooding over her own past years and dreaming of her daughter’s future life, which never deserted her. With her the days were doubtless very sad, but it cannot truly be said that they were dull or tedious.
And there was a sparkle of humour about her too, which would sometimes shine the brightest when there was no one by her to appreciate it. Her daughter would smile at her mother’s sallies — but she did so simply in kindness. Kate did not share her mother’s sense of humour — did not share it as yet. With the young the love of fun is gratified generally by grotesque movement. It is not till years are running on that the grotesqueness of words and ideas is appreciated. But Mrs. O’Hara would expend her art on the household drudge, or on old Barney Corcoran who came with the turf — though by neither of them was she very clearly understood. Now and again she would have a war of words with the priest, and that, I think, she liked. She was intensely combative, if ground for a combat arose; and would fight on any subject with any human being — except her daughter. And yet with the priest she never quarrelled; and though she was rarely beaten in her contests with him, she submitted to him in much. In matters touching her religion she submitted to him altogether.
Kate O’Hara was in face very like her mother; — strangely like, for in much she was very different. But she had her mother’s eyes — though hers were much softer in their lustre, as became her youth — and she had her mother’s nose, but without that look of scorn which would come upon her mother’s face when the nostrils were inflated. And in that peculiar shortness of the lower face she was the very echo of her mother. But the mouth was smaller, the lips less full, and the dimple less exaggerated. It was a fairer face to look upon — fairer, perhaps, than her mother’s had ever been; but it was less expressive, and in it there was infinitely less capability for anger, and perhaps less capability for the agonising extremes of tenderness. But Kate was taller than her mother, and seemed by her mother’s side to be slender. Nevertheless she was strong and healthy; and though she did not willingly join in those longer walks, or expose herself to the weather as did her mother, there was nothing feeble about her, nor was she averse to action. Life at Ardkill Cottage was dull, and therefore she also was dull. Had she been surrounded by friends, such as she had known in her halcyon school days at Paris, she would have been the gayest of the gay.
Her hair was dark as her mother’s — even darker. Seen by the side of Miss O’Hara’s, the mother’s hair was certainly not black, but one could hardly think that hair could be blacker than the daughter’s. But hers fell in curling clusters round her neck — such clusters as now one never sees. She would shake them in sport, and the room would seem to be full of her locks. But she used to say herself to her mother that there was already to be found a grey hair among them now and again, and she would at times shew one, declaring that she would be an old woman before her mother was middle-aged.
Her life at Ardkill Cottage was certainly very dull. Memory did but little for her, and she hardly knew how to hope. She would read, till she had nearly learned all their books by heart, and would play such tunes as she knew by the hour together, till the poor instrument, subject to the sea air and away from any tuner’s skill, was discordant with its limp strings. But still, with all this, her mind would become vacant and weary. “Mother,” she would say, “is it always to be like this?”
“Not always, Kate,” the mother once answered.
“And when will it be changed?”
“In a few days — in a few hours, Kate.”
“What do you mean, mother?”
“That eternity is coming, with all its glory and happiness. If it were not so, it would, indeed, be very bad.”
It may be doubted whether any human mind has been able to content itself with hopes of eternity, till distress in some shape has embittered life. The preachers preach very well — well enough to leave many convictions on the minds of men; but not well enough to leave that conviction. And godly men live well — but we never see them living as though such were their conviction. And were it so, who would strive and moil in this world? When the heart has been broken, and the spirit ground to the dust by misery, then — such is God’s mercy — eternity suffices to make life bearable. When Mrs. O’Hara spoke to her daughter of eternity, there was but cold comfort in the word. The girl wanted something here — pleasures, companions, work, perhaps a lover. This had happened before Lieutenant Neville of the 20th Hussars had been seen in those parts.
And the mother herself, in speaking as she had spoken, had, perhaps unintentionally, indulged in a sarcasm on life which the daughter certainly had not been intended to understand. “Yes; — it will always be like this for you, for you, unfortunate one that you are. There is no other further look-out in this life. You are one of the wretched to whom the world offers nothing; and therefore — as, being human, you must hope — build your hopes on eternity.” Had the words been read clearly, that would have been their true meaning. What could she do for her child? Bread and meat, with a roof over her head, and raiment which sufficed for life such as theirs, she could supply. The life would have been well enough had it been their fate, and within their power, to earn the bread and meat, the shelter and the raiment. But to have it, and without work — to have that, and nothing more, in absolute idleness, was such misery that there was no resource left but eternity!
And yet the mother when she looked at her daughter almost persuaded herself that it need not be so. The girl was very lovely — so lovely that, were she but seen, men would quarrel for her as to who should have her in his keeping. Such beauty, such life, such capability for giving and receiving enjoyment could not have been intended to wither on a lone cliff over the Atlantic! There must be fault somewhere. But yet to live had been the first necessity; and life in cities, among the haunts of men, had been impossible with such means as this woman possessed. When she had called her daughter to her, and had sought peace under the roof which her friend the priest had found for her, peace and a roof to shelter her had been the extent of her desires. To be at rest, and independent, with her child within her arms, had been all that the woman asked of the gods. For herself it sufficed. For herself she was able to acknowledge that the rest which she had at least obtained was infinitely preferable to the unrest of her past life. But she soon learned — as she had not expected to learn before she made the experiment — that that which was to her peace, was to her daughter life within a tomb. “Mother, is it always to be like this?”
Had her child not carried the weight of good blood, had some small grocer or country farmer been her father, she might have come down to the neighbouring town of Ennistimon, and found a fitting mate there. Would it not have been better so? From that weight of good blood — or gift, if it please us to call it — what advantage would ever come to her girl? It can not really be that all those who swarm in the world below the bar of gentlehood are less blessed, or intended to be less blessed, than the few who float in the higher air. As to real blessedness, does it not come from fitness to the outer life and a sense of duty that shall produce such fitness? Does any one believe that the Countess has a greater share of happiness than the grocer’s wife, or is less subject to the miseries which flesh inherits? But such matters cannot be changed by the will. This woman could not bid her daughter go and meet the butcher’s son on equal terms, or seek her friends among the milliners of the neighbouring town. The burden had been imposed and must be borne, even though it isolated them from all the world.
“Mother, is it always to be like this?” Of course the mother knew what was needed. It was needed that the girl should go out into the world and pair, that she should find some shoulder on which she might lean, some arm that would be strong to surround her, the heart of some man and the work of some man to which she might devote herself. The girl, when she asked her question, did not know this — but the mother knew it. The mother looked at her child and said that of all living creatures her child was surely the loveliest. Was it not fit that she should go forth and be loved; — that she should at any rate go forth and take her chance with others? But how should such going forth be managed? And then — were there not dangers, terrible dangers — dangers specially terrible to one so friendless as her child? Had not she herself been wrecked among the rocks, trusting herself to one who had been utterly unworthy — loving one who had been utterly unlovely? Men so often are as ravenous wolves, merciless, rapacious, without hearts, full of greed, full of lust, looking on female beauty as prey, regarding the love of woman and her very life as a toy! Were she higher in the world there might be safety. Were she lower there might be safety. But how could she send her girl forth into the world without sending her certainly among the wolves? And yet that piteous question was always sounding in her ears. “Mother, is it always to be like this?”
Then Lieutenant Neville had appeared upon the scene, dressed in a sailor’s jacket and trowsers, with a sailor’s cap upon his head, with a loose handkerchief round his neck and his hair blowing to the wind. In the eyes of Kate O’Hara he was an Apollo. In the eyes of any girl he must have seemed to be as good-looking a fellow as ever tied a sailor’s knot. He had made acquaintance with Father Marty at Liscannor, and the priest had dined with him at Ennis. There had been a return visit, and the priest, perhaps innocently, had taken him up on the cliffs. There he had met the two ladies, and our hero had been introduced to Kate O’Hara.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14