The official from the dark house moved over to me. He spoke in whispers, holding the hat an official inch of respect for the dead above the narrow white shred of his skull.
“Martin Quirke they are burying,” he said.
“Who was he?”
“Didn’t you ever hear tell of Martin Quirke?”
“A big man he was one time, with his acres around him and his splendid place. Very proud people they were—he and his brother—and very hot, too. The Quirkes of Ballinadee.”
I did not finish the sentence. The priest was spraying the coffin in the grave with the golden earth.
“Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” It fell briskly on the shallow deal timber.
“’Twas the land agitation, the fight for the land, that brought Martin Quirke down,” said the official as the earth sprayed the pauper’s coffin. “He was one of the first to go out under the Plan of Campaign—the time of the evictions. They never got back their place. When the settlement came the Quirkes were broken. Martin lost his spirit and his heart. Drink it was that got him in the end, and now—”
“Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine: et lux perpetua luceat eis,” the priest’s voice said.
“All the same,” said the official, “It was men like Martin Quirke who broke the back of landlordism. He was strong and he was weak. God rest him!”
I walked away over the uneven ground, the memory of the land agitation, its bitterness and its passion, oppressing me. Stories of things such as this stalked the country like ghosts.
The priest overtook me, and we turned to leave. Down the narrow strip of the lord’s demesne were the little pauper mounds, like narrow boxes wrapped in the long grey grass. Their pathos was almost vibrant in the dim November light. And away beyond them were a series of great heaps, looking like broad billows out to sea. The priest stood for a moment.
“You see the great mounds at the end?” he asked. “They are the Famine Pits.”
“The Famine Pits?”
“Yes; the place where the people were buried in heaps and hundreds, in thousands, during the Famine of ’46 and ’47. They died like flies by the roadside. You see such places in almost every part of Ireland. I hope the people will never again die like that—die gnawing the gravel on the roadside.”
The rusty iron gate in the demesne wall swung open and we passed out.
“I can see every colour in the water except gray,” said the lady who was something of a sceptic.
“That,” said the humorist, tilting back his straw hat, “is the very reason they call it the Gray Lake. The world bristles with misnomers.”
“Which explains,” said the lady sceptic, “why they call Eamonn a seannachie.”
“Hi!” called out the humorist. “Do you hear that, Eamonn?”