Writings of Seaumus MacManus

The following transcriptions are reproduced here with the kind permission of Cathy Joynt Labath, The Irish in Iowa, and form part of Donegal Genealogy Resources

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Daily Times
Davenport, Scott, Iowa
Saturday, June 2, 1900

Life in The County Donegal, Hardy Peasantry
Irish Lads Go Early to School as a Result of General Respect
For Learning, But All Must Help Earn the Family Bread

A pleasant life and a wholesome one is that of the rising youth in our mountains. His feet are strangers to shoes till he is "a brave lump of a garsien"- thirteen or fourteen years old. He would not tolerate such incumbrances. He can skip over moor and mountain and hop over gravelly ground and strong slope in his hardy bare feet with the ease of the mountain sheep which he follows. At home and abroad , at school, at market and at mass alike his feet know not brogues. He is as fleet as a goat upon the hills, and can scour the lowlands like a moor fire.

Till a generation ago he got his first fitting of brogues from the brogue seller in the fair. The brogue maker then made a pile of single brogues of all sizes and filling a creed with a collection of them, carried them into the fair. The buyer had the whole stock to choose from and fitted each foot in turn and at his pleasure.


As our people have the highest regard for learning, the youngsters are at an early aged turned out and off, their two, three, four and five miles to the district school - a chunk of oat bread, or Indian bread, or soda bread, in their pockets. This they usually contrive to eat and be done with before they have reached the school, notwithstanding that they will not eat again till four o'clock or five in the afternoon. But that gives them little concern - a light pocket and a long fast is easy as kiss your hand. Every child is nowadays kept at school till he is well able to figure, read, write and fight - although the latter is an accomplishment not formally provided for in the school program, and not paid for by the parents. Nevertheless, at every Donegal school it is one of the first branches mastered.

They All Have to Work
Properly speaking, there are two school terms in each year, viz., from May 1, till August 22, and from the middle of November till the middle of March. Outside of these dates, very few, except the mere infants, attend, or can afford to attend school- because at the ware (spring) work and the harvest, all of their help is very much required at home. After school hours, in the summer, too, they must work by the father's side till night - or herd cattle or sheep upon the hill. The wrestle with the soil in their efforts to force a subsistence from it is so continuous that the head of every little household must impress the aid of all his children. The smallest of them can manure the potato ridges, plant seed, break the soil, weed the crops, make hay and gather the potatoes, whilst the more fully grown can sped foot for foot with himself, carry loads, mow the grass and shear the corn. 

The flock of sheep upon the hills must be gone after once a day, seen, counted and turned back from neighboring marches. This task generally falls to the well grown boy. Lest he should happen upon a patch of hungry grass, his mother puts in his pocket a wedge of stout oat bread before his setting out. Where some greedy person sat and ate, and did not leave a portion for some poor person who should come that way, or for the fairies, the latter cast spells upon the spot, so that any one who walks on afterwards is suddenly overcome with hunger weakness ("feur gortach," we call it) and sinks exhausted. Such spots are not uncommon in the Donegal mountains. I know well, from experience, that it is very risky to walk them without carrying something eatable. Often have I known people to be overcome by the feur gortach, although one minute before they felt no hunger. As the cause of this I have advanced our theory. I leave wiser heads to find another.

Shepherd on Mountain Top.
On the hills the boy has often to tramp many miles and climb many mountains in search of a strayed sheep, he meets on the mountain tops the young man who came from distant valleys, each on his own quest - and he swaps with them information about strays; and his lungs are so good and the silence of the hills so great, and the air so rare, that he can hail a friend upon another mountain top some miles away, putting his hands to his mouth and crying "A hoy! Mike Doherty, A hoy! A hoy! A hulla hulla hoy! And hear Mike's reply, from his mountain, "A hoy! Brian Carrahin, A hoy! A hulla hulla hoy! 

This mountaineering is not entirely without its risks, for in some states the weather, when the clouds come down on the mountains, they often have caught him, even thought he is fleet of foot. Then it is best to sit down resignedly and suffer the penetrating mist, and perhaps, the drenching rain for if he attempts to travel off the mountain he may hazard a step where when it is too late, he find the mountain is not, and his body may be picked up at the foot of a spink. Or if he escapes a bad fall, he is most likely to lose his bearings in a few minutes and wander deeper into the hills, till the mist rises and discloses to him and unknown country. People have been by the mist kept wandering the hills for days together - crawling the hills rather.

Cutting the Winter's Fire.
In the early days of May, Brian shoulders his turf spade and with a "meachal" of men (helping neighbors) goes to the peat bog to cut his winter's firing. The turf is dug (though we call it cut) twelve inches deep, by four and by four, out of the black soft peat. Layer after layer is cut off the turf bank as far as eight, twelve or in good bogs, even twenty feet deep. Each succeeding layer is blacker and denser and makes a better turf than the previous layer. With one thrust of the double bladed spade (the blades are set at right angles) he cuts a clean turf and throws it over his shoulder onto the bank above. There is a man with a turf barrow adds it to his load, and wheels the fresh turfs off to free ground where they are laid singly to dry - for at least two-thirds of the weight of the new turf is water. 

In the middle of the day, when all hands stop work, they untie the wrappers in which they carried with them their buttered bread and bottles of milk, and, sitting around in a circle, they make a merry meal. A couple of days after being cut and spread, the turf are "footed", that is, placed on end; three or four leant together. A week later, being fairly dry, they are built into turf clamps- long little stacks - and in another week or so they are perfect dried and are built into one great stack in which they are kept till ready to be carted home and built in a stack by the side of the house.


Deep down in the bog, oak and fir some centuries or a thousand years old are found. The fir is full of resin, and burns with a beautiful blaze. The old tree trunks are cut with a very heavy long handled axe made specially for the purpose, "win" in the sun and bought home to help the winter's fire.

Off to Seek His Fortune.
As the boys grow up the little farm is unable to support all. So one morning the eldest and strongest ties a few sorry belongings in a red handkerchief , takes with him his little bundle and his father's and mother's blessing, strikes out upon the road that leads over the mountains, and is gone to push his fortune.


For those whose fathers cannot give them the twenty-five dollars necessary to pay their way to America, two other doors are open to fortune - though narrow doors enough. Such a boy may walk forty miles to the port of Derry and get conveyed to Glasgow at a cost of a dollar and a quarter, and in that big city (where are thousands of our Donegal boys always) may get employment in iron works at a wage of four dollars a week; or, oftener, he may walk thirty miles to the borders of County Tyrone, hire for seventy dollars a year and his support in the farmer's house.

These big Scotch farmers occupy the rich alluvial lands of the Northern Irish counties - lands from which their hired boys' forefather a century and a half ago were driven- driven into the mountain wilderness. So, for a paltry wage, this poor boy tills for a stranger a soil that should be his. Life here is not the pleasure it was in his mountain home. To the Scotch-Irish farmer existence is a very serious matter. He has his boys astir at four o'clock in the morning, and with the exception of a very short rest for meals, works them till just before retiring at night. Except for attending the cattle and the horses, watering and feeding them, the boy has Sunday for a free day - but during the remainder of the week he has not one free half hour from four o'clock in the morning till bedtime, which, in these Scotch districts is from eight o'clock till nine o'clock in the evening. At home the boy went to bed at eleven or twelve o'clock. His mistress allows him plenty of food- of the commonest quality. He eats at the table with his master, who sometimes lives on as poor fare as the poorest of the boy's poor mountain neighbor at home.

Particular as to Food.
Another thing that jars upon the Irish lad is that there is sometimes want of a cleanliness - what he calls "a roughness"- about the serving of food to which he was unused at home. "This bowl is tin ower clane o' the outside," said one of these mistresses to the mountain boy, as they hand him a bowl of tea, "but ah make my own o' you." "Troth me then, ma'am," said he, as he reached for a dish clout and wiped it. "I'd thank ye to make a stranger of me." As it generally pays better to give the buttermilk to the calves and the pigs that to "kitchen" one's meal with it, the hired boy sometimes finds himself set down to a fine table of potatoes without any drink or condiment. On one such occasion the sarcastic boy said: "Master, I don't have any wee 'tattles here,- let me have some." "For why do ye want wee pratles, boy!" "Because me mother used to tell me that in the hard times they found it a gran thing entirely to kitchen the wee wan to the big wan."

All Irish Eyes Turn to America
When the boys come home many and droll are the tales they tell of their late masters' households. And after they have earned enough money to help their father and to put a few pounds over and above in their own pockets, they leave the big farmers for good and prepare to set out for America, that land to which all Irish eyes turn. There are parts of our county- the very poorest - from which every able bodied boy and man imigrates early in June, to win the harvest in the Scottish townslands with his little red bundle and his sickle, each joins a band bound for the ports of Derry. They travel on foot the thirty or forty Irish miles- almost always accomplishing the journey in one day. After some months they tramp back again into their own valleys, brown, hale, happy and wealthy with the wealth of twenty, thirty and even sometimes forty dollars - more than enough to pay the rent, and quite early enough to begin the late harvest of their own. Though the winter is the time of Brian's case and amusements - when he attends the nightly dance or raffle, wedding, christening or spree, or joins the story telling circle by a neighbor's fireside - he does not neglect his sports around the summer - his football, his "caman,"- shinny- and hunting- all of which he enjoys to the fullest. In the glorious long and sunny Sunday evenings that seem to fall with God's benison of our valleys and on our moors and to irradiate them, bare enough they be with God's own smile.

Copyright, 1900 by Seumus MacManus


The Fair Maidens of Donegal
Seumas MacManus Paints an Alluring Picture of the Winsome Colleen of the Irish Mountains and Reveals Her in Hours of Ease as Well as in Her Time of Toil.

Sprigging (for embroidering on fine muslin and linen) and knitting are characteristic home industries in which our girls employ their nimble fingers. The sprigging is done for the big Belfast houses which export the work all over the world. Since America began imposing a heavy tariff on manufactured imports this industry has fallen off 50 per cent, and the remuneration has fallen at least 33 and one-third per cent. Formerly a skillful girl who sprigged for a living and sat at her work all day (which means till 10 o'clock at night) could earn from 25 to 30 cents and occasionally even 35 cents, but 18 to 20 cents a day is considered a big earning now.


Only a small percentage of our women follow sprigging for a living in present conditions, only those who have no land and no other way of earning, and even they keep half a score of laying hens to help them. Most of our girls (for they all sprig) take it up in the interims between household duties and after the day's work is over. The few shillings a week they earn keep them in dress, and furnish the household with tea and sugar. A skilled sprigger may often be recognized at the fair, and at mass by a good dress and tasteful turnout. The sprigger travels everywhere from three to seven Irish miles to the village to get 50 cents worth of work, and the same distance to return the finished pieces. The greater portion of the embroidery consists of handkerchiefs, but children's robes, bedroom linens, table cloths, cushion covers, etc. are also wrought.

Sprigging Camps.
Throughout the winter sprigging camps are the order as night falls and the day's work has concluded, all the spriggers of one hillside, or one little volley, bringing with them each her work and her stool, gather at the house of one, and night after night they visit the houses of one another in rotation. The girl in whose house the camp gathers supplies the light. In the middle of the floor the spriggers form a circle, with the light (which used to be a candle but is oftener now oil) in the center. The boys of the district follow the camp from house to house. They sit around the walls and pass the time merrily for themselves and the girls, in jest and joke and in telling funny stories.


The fun is always great in the camp house, and the greater part of it consists in witty badinage - "sconcing", we call it. As they rapidly ply their fingers and keep their eyes steadfastly on their work, the girls can cast over their shoulders a Roland for every Oliver given them by the boys.


And woe betide the boy who having had the temerity to cross weapons with one of the noted wits in the feminine circles, comes off second best. The boy's wit in these cases is (necessarily) playful yet gets home some effective little thrusts; but the girl's (the noted wits in particular) has always a rasping edge that is certain to tell. At about 11 o'clock the camp breaks up, and the boys, shouldering the stools, convey the girls home.


The other industry, knitting - hosiery, gloves and underwear - has grown in importance as sprigging declined. It is not nearly so trying an occupation as sprigging and girls can make rather less money at it. The knitting is done for the local agents of English houses chiefly. A girl will knit two pairs of socks or two pairs of gloves in a day.


Spinning is now very far from being the great home industry it was a generation ago, when every girl had her "task of flax" to do daily over and above her household duties, and after completing her task had for her own benefit all the spun beyond. Those were the days when the linen trade flourished - before the introduction of free trade ruined the Irish linen industry. The girls had then their spinning camps and carried their wheels (rather their boys carried them) to the camp house nightly. 


In the busy times of Ware (the shrinetime) the girls do their share in the planting of the crops-being always asked to perform the tasks that are not laborious. At the hay harvest the girls do everything except mow. Many of them are expert with the hook (sickle) and shear their corn, "hint for hint" with their father and grown brothers.


In those parts of our country from which the men migrate to win the Scotch harvest, a great share of field work falls to the women. And there are a few parts of the western couny of Mayo, from which, alas the women (through force of circumstances) must take their sickles and their little bundles and tramp off to do their share in winning the Yorkshire (England) harvest. And these brave women never dream that they are heroines.

Among the "Black Strangers."
As our Donegal girls grow up ther is need of doing something more for the family than the sprigging needle can be made to yield. So, when they reach 16 years of age, they like their brothers, have a little red bundle tied up for them with which in their hand they step out from the home of whose roof has protected them every night of their lives previous-they step out from this home on a May morning followed by their poor mother's "God be with you, and God and Mary watch over you!" (in Gaelic) and travel on foot long and lone miles of moor and mountain to attend the hiring market in Strahanoer in Derry or in Donegal village and to engage with the inevitable Scotch-Irish mistress of the Liagan, of Tyrone, or of Pettigo or elsewhere.

The girls range themselves in rows in the hiring market and stand there the day long whilst the big farmers and wives pass along the lines and view each girl at every angle to judge if she is strong for the heavy work the hired girl must do and they question her as to her ability to make "tubs" for cattle, to lift and carry weighty tubs and pots to cook for the family and to feed the pigs and - most important of all- what wages she expects a half a year. According to her size and strength she may ask anything from $16 to $25. Her intending employer ridicules the idea of " a light, wee bit of a cutty like you" asking so much, offers her far less than she is really worth to him, haggles, goes off and comes back, and finally employs her after succeeding in bringing down her price. Before closing the bargain she, in turn, inquires how many mouths are in the household, how many cattle, how many pigs, how far a Catholic chapel is from the place, and (as her employer is generally Presbyterian) insists on being allowed to attend mass every Sunday - or, in some rare cases, every alternate Sunday. All this arranged she mounts the car with a farmer and his wife, stows her little bundle in the "well" of the car, and is driven off to her new home. And in this new home, though she is all alone amongst a strange people of a strange faith, she is strong and self reliant and unfearing. She is taught to lean upon God's aid, and in spirit, night and morning, she joins her prayers with the prayers of the poor mother who, at home, is pleading fervently for her. And the girl knows well that at the end of the rosary every night the whole household join the mother in one Pater and Ave for little Mary, who is amongst the black (i.e. the utter) stranger, that God and the Virgin may watch over, guard, guide and protect her, and fetch her back safe in soul to our hungry hearts.

Amusements of the Irish Girl.
Our girl's amusements are - must be- mostly combined with her work. But occasionally she enjoys pleasure with relaxation from duty. She attends a dance or other spree, in the next townland, and enjoys herself to the heart's content- enjoyment that never has a heartache "next morning" overshadowing it. The dance house is always densely packed, so, even for purposes of economy the revellers sit upon one another's knee, even there a limited space is left vacant in the center of the floor only for dancing often only space for one couple at a time to go through the mazes of the reel, or to hop in the jig - which are two favorite forms of dance.


On bright and sunny Sundays, the boys and girls gather on some beautiful hill top, or in picturesque glen, sit in couples and in groups, gaily chattering, laughing, courting. And on the very summit of one of our most difficult mountains, boys and girls within a radius of ten miles come together on the first Sunday of June in each year; the youth of one glen meet those of a distant one whom they have not seen since that day twelve month before and not infrequent little romances ensue.


Sad to say, the greater portion of our girls have to leave their country in their budding womanhood, for "the states." Some of them return with money, marry and settle down again for life. Many never return although, when they set out, all are firmly bent on coming back in five years. But if they have not earned a little pile of money, two hundred dollars or more, they are ashamed to return.


For those who do not have to leave Ireland, twenty-three, twenty-four and twenty-five are marrying ages. To very many of them their fathers can afford no dowers. In cases where it can be afforded a hundred dollars to two hundred dollars is considered a fair fortune. Sometimes the fortune is paid in kind- cattle and furnishing or a piece of land. Often the girl fortunes herself by the industry of her fingers, investing as she goes along in sheep, a heifer, a cow.


When a young man goes formally to ask a wife he brings with him a friend whose duty it is to bargain for the fortune with father and mother, whilst he courts the daughter. Though a hard enough bargain is driven, it is not always done in the spirit of old Tammas Conaghan who warned his son's friend (when seeing them off to make the match) if she's a very good girl, Conal, an' very respectable an' likely to be well-doin' and wise, "why" - in a spasm of heroic generosity - "don't break off the bargain for a difference of thirty shillins (six dollars) or so!

Copyright, 1900-Seumas MacManus




Lindel Buckley

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