Their Last Race by Frank Mathew

From “At the Rising of the Moon.”

I.—The Faction Fight.

In the heart of the Connemara Highlands, Carrala Valley hides in a triangle of mountains. Carrala Village lies in the corner of it towards Loch Ina, and Aughavanna in the corner nearest Kylemore. Aughavanna is a wreck now: if you were to look for it you would see only a cluster of walls grown over by ferns and nettles; but in those remote times, before the Great Famine, when no English was spoken in the Valley, there was no place more renowned for wild fun and fighting; and when its men were to be at a fair, every able-bodied man in the countryside took his kippeen—his cudgel—from its place in the chimney, and went out to do battle with a good heart.

Long Mat Murnane was the king of Aughavanna. There was no grander sight than Mat smashing his way through a forest of kippeens, with his enemies staggering back to the right and left of him; there was no sweeter sound than his voice, clear as a bell, full of triumph and gladness, shouting, “Hurroo! whoop! Aughavanna for ever!” Where his kippeen flickered in the air his followers charged after, and the enemy rushed to meet him, for it was an honour to take a broken head from him.

But Carrala Fair was the black day for him. That day Carrala swarmed with men—fishers from the near coast, dwellers in lonely huts by the black lakes, or in tiny, ragged villages under the shadow of the mountains, or in cabins on the hill-sides—every little  town for miles, by river or sea-shore or mountain built, was emptied. The fame of the Aughavanna men was their ruin, for they were known to fight so well that every one was dying to fight them. The Joyces sided against them; Black Michael Joyce had a farm in the third corner of the valley, just where the road through the bog from Aughavanna (the road with the cross by it) meets the high-road to Leenane, so his kin mustered in force. Now Black Michael, “Meehul Dhu,” was long Mat’s rival; though smaller, he was near as deadly in fight, and in dancing no man could touch him, for it was said he could jump a yard into the air and kick himself behind with his heels in doing it.

The business of the Fair had been hurried so as to leave the more time for pleasure, and by five of the afternoon every man was mad for the battle. Why, you could scarcely have moved in Callanan’s Field out beyond the churchyard at the end of the village, it was so packed with men—more than five hundred were there, and you could not have heard yourself speak, for they were jumping and dancing, tossing their caubeens, and shouting themselves hoarse and deaf—“Hurroo for Carrala!” “Whoop for Aughavanna!”

Around them a mob of women, old men and children, looked on breathlessly. It was dull weather, and the mists had crept half way down the dark mountain walls, as if to have a nearer look at the fight.

As the chapel clock struck five, Long Mat Murnane gave the signal. Down the village he came, rejoicing in his strength, out between the two last houses, past the churchyard and into Callanan’s Field; he looked every inch a king; his kippeen was ready, his frieze coat was off, with his left hand he trailed it behind him holding  it by the sleeve, while with a great voice he shouted—in Irish—“Where’s the Carrala man that dare touch my coat? Where’s the cowardly scoundrel that dare look crooked at it?”

In a moment Black Michael Joyce was trailing his own coat behind him, and rushed forward, with a mighty cry “Where’s the face of a trembling Aughavanna man?” In a moment their kippeens clashed; in another, hundreds of kippeens crashed together, and the grandest fight ever fought in Connemara raged over Callanan’s Field. After the first roar of defiance the men had to keep their breath for the hitting, so the shout of triumph and the groan as one fell were the only sounds that broke the music of the kippeens clashing and clicking on one another, or striking home with a thud.

Never was Long Mat nobler; he rushed ravaging through the enemy, shattering their ranks and their heads; no man could withstand him; Red Callanan of Carrala went down before him; he knocked the five senses out of Dan O’Shaughran, of Earrennamore, that herded many pigs by the sedgy banks of the Owen Erriff; he hollowed the left eye out of Larry Mulcahy, that lived on the Devil’s Mother Mountain—never again did Larry set the two eyes of him on his high mountain-cradle; he killed Black Michael Joyce by a beautiful swooping blow on the side of the head—who would have dreamt that Black Michael had so thin a skull.

For near an hour Mat triumphed, then suddenly he went down under foot. At first he was missed only by those nearest him, and they took it for granted that he was up again and fighting. But when the Aughavanna men found themselves outnumbered and driven back  to the village, a great fear came on them, for they knew that all Ireland could not outnumber them if Mat was to the fore. Then disaster and rout took them, and they were forced backwards up the street, struggling desperately, till hardly a man of them could stand.

And when the victors were shouting themselves dumb, and drinking themselves blind, the beaten men looked for their leader. Long Mat was prone, his forehead was smashed, his face had been trampled into the mud—he had done with fighting. His death was untimely, yet he fell as he would have chosen—in a friendly battle. For when a man falls under the hand of an enemy (as of any one who differs from him in creed or politics) revenge and black blood live after him; but he who takes his death from the kindly hand of a friend leaves behind him no ill-will, but only gentle regret for the mishap.

II. Their Last Race.

When the dead had been duly waked for two days and nights, the burying day came. All the morning long Mat Murnane’s coffin lay on four chairs by his cabin, with a kneeling ring of dishevelled women keening round it. Every soul in Aughavanna and their kith and kin had gathered to do him honour. And when the Angelus bell rang across the valley from the chapel, the mourners fell into ranks, the coffin was lifted on the rough hearse, and the motley funeral—a line of carts with a mob of peasants behind, a few riding, but most of them on foot—moved slowly towards Carrala. The women were crying bitterly, keening like an Atlantic gale; the men looked as sober as if they had never heard of a wake, and spoke sadly of the dead man, and of what a pity it was that he could not see his funeral.

The Joyces, too, had waited, as was the custom, for the Angelus bell, and now Black Michael’s funeral was moving slowly towards Carrala along the other side of the bog. Before long either party could hear the keening of the other, for you know the roads grow nearer as they converge on Carrala. Before long either party began to fear that the other would be there first.

There is no knowing how it happened, but the funerals began to go quicker, keeping abreast; then still quicker, till the women had to break into a trot to keep up; then still quicker, till the donkeys were galloping, and till everyone raced at full speed, and the rival parties broke into a wild shout of “Aughavanna abu!” “Meehul Dhu for ever!”

For the dead men were racing—feet foremost—to the grave; they were rivals even in death. Never did the world see such a race, never was there such whooping and shouting. Where the roads met in Callanan’s Field the horses were abreast; neck and neck they dashed across the trampled fighting-place, while the coffins jogged and jolted as if the two dead men were struggling to get out and lead the rush; neck to neck they reached the churchyard, and the horses jammed in the gate. Behind them the carts crashed into one another, and the mourners shouted as if they were mad.

But the quick wit of the Aughavanna men triumphed, for they seized their long coffin and dragged it in, and Long Mat Murnane won his last race. The shout they gave then deafened the echo up in the mountains, so that it has never been the same since. The victors wrung one another’s hands; they hugged one another.

“Himself would be proud,” they cried, “if he hadn’t been dead!”