Maurya Na Gleanna, or Revenged at Last

by Edmund Leamy

Or Revenged at Last.

During the year of the ’98 Centennial celebrations, it chanced that I was staying on a short visit with a friend in the county of ——, whose residence was not far from one of the battlefields of the rebellion. Our talk turned one day upon ’98, and I asked him if he knew if any stories of the period were still current in the neighbourhood. He said he was not himself familiar with any. He was not belonging to the county, and had been residing in it only a few years. But he promised to find out if any of the servants or workpeople could give me any information. That evening he informed me there was an old man helping in the garden, now almost past his work, who was at one time a schoolmaster, and had originally come from the county of Antrim, and who had some stories of the rising in the North. The next day I made the old man’s acquaintance, and from him took down the story of Maurya na Gleanna:—

“I wasn’t more nor nine or ten years old when I first saw Maurya na Gleanna, and although I’m over seventy years now I can see her face just as if she was standing there foreninst me. She would have been very tall if it were not for a stoop in her shoulders. Her face was rather long, her cheeks shrunken and almost yellow. Her hair (and there was plenty of it) was tied up in a wisp at the back of her head, and was gray almost to whiteness, while her eyebrows were as dark as the night. Her lips were full and might have once been red, but the colour had left them and they looked dry and blanched. Her eyes were as black as a coal with a red heart that would blaze up for a moment and then become dull.

“She had come into the glen many years before. She had wandered into it of a wild March morning—a Patrick’s morning, too, it was—when the snow lay deep in the glen, and you could hardly see a bit of green for miles around.

“The snow was in a drift against Jack M’Guinness’s door when she knocked at it just after the break of day. There was hardly one astir in the house at the time, but when the knock was repeated the servant-man got up and went to the door and opened it; before he could question the woman he saw standing outside, she had stepped across the threshold.

“Her hair was then, so they afterwards told me, as white as when I first saw her, but there was some colour in her cheeks, nor had it left her lips. A kerchief covered her head, and a shawl thrown over her shoulders was fastened above her breast by a skewer that had been beaten into the semblance of a pike, and which served to keep in its place a bunch of shamrocks. Her head-dress and shoulders were thickly coated with snow, which clung to her dress that stopped short at her ankles. Her feet were bare.

“The man said afterwards that the blaze of her eyes nearly blinded him, and took the word out of his mouth.

“She laid her left hand upon his shoulder, and touching the shamrock with one of the fingers of her right hand, she whispered in a tone suggestive of mystery:

“‘Is there green upon your cape?’

“’Twas then a few years after the troubles, but the servant boy had been one of the United men, and had fought at Ballinahinch. He knew the words of the rebel song, but as he didn’t reply at once, she whispered again:

“‘Is there green upon your cape?’

“For answer he took her hand, while a strange feeling came over him that she was something ‘uncanny,’ and he gave her the ‘grip’ that showed he was a United man. She returned it.

“‘Who is there?’ cried Jack M’Guinness, who came out of his room into the kitchen, having heard the door open.

“He started back a step when he saw the blazing eyes and tall figure (for the stoop had not fallen on her then).

“‘Is there green upon your cape?’ she asked him eagerly, almost feverishly.

“‘Ah, my poor woman, the day is over I’m afeard,’ he said softly, for, with a keener perception than that of the servant boy, he saw the poor creature was demented.

“‘Over! over!’ she cried, almost hysterically, ‘it will never be over until he—he that you know—sure everybody knows him—until he, Red Michil of the Lodge, comes to his own, his own, you know, the three sticks, two standin’ straight and one across. Red Michil, with the brand of Cain and the curse of God on him. An’ isn’t this a purty posy?’ and she took the bunch of shamrocks from her breast and held it up to Jack M’Guinness.

“‘A purty posy it is, my girl,’ said he, falling in with her humour; ‘but shake the snow from yourself and come near the fire. Blow up the turf, Shane,’ and he turned to the servant boy, ‘and let the girl warm herself.’

“‘Ay, sure enough, it’s the purty posy,’ the girl continued, ‘but hadn’t I trouble enough finding it, with the snow here, there and everywhere, every step I took goin’ deeper than the rest; but I didn’t mind the snow, why should I? Sure his face was colder when I saw it last, and his windin’ sheet was as white.’

“‘Sit down, achorra, and the good woman will be up in a few minutes and will give ye something to warm ye.’

“‘Ay, then! ‘tis cowld ye think I am, and maybe I am cowld, too; an’ I gets tired sometimes; but there’s a fire in my heart always—a fire that’ll niver go out—niver go out, I tell ye, until Michil of the Lodge comes to his own.’ And then the poor thing sat down by the hob, and the boy blew up the turf till the blaze lighted the whole kitchen, and the pewter on the dresser flashed back the ruddy rays. And when the heat began to spread about the room, the head of the poor, tired creature dropped on her breast and she fell into a deep sleep.

“This was the first coming of Maurya to the Glen, and that’s the way the story was told to me. For, as I told you, it was before my time. She was treated kindly by Jack M’Guinness and his wife, who took to the poor girl, and would have kept her with her if she could, but Maurya couldn’t be induced to spend more than a few days in any place.

“Who she was, or why she came to the glen, or where she came from nobody in the glen knew.

“The women said it was love trouble that drove the poor thing wandering, and that her question about the green upon the cape showed that the lover had fallen a victim on the scaffold, or in the field, in the struggle in ’98.

“There wasn’t a family in the glen that hadn’t sent a man to Ballinahinch, and not a few sent more than one, and there wasn’t a hearth in the glen where poor Maurya didn’t find a welcome.

“But she was always roaming. After a night’s rest she went ‘scouting,’ as she used to say, hoping to catch Red Michil to bring him to his own—‘the three sticks.’

“And so in the first light of the morning she used to go out and ramble over the hills, living any way she might, and coming back and seeking hospitality—now in one house, now in another, in the glen.

“‘I didn’t see any signs of him to-day,’ she used to say, on entering the house which she had come to for her night’s lodging. ‘I didn’t see any signs of him to-day, but, please God, I soon will. Red Michil won’t escape me, never fear.’

“And this mode of life Maurya continued for years. The colour faded from the cheeks and from the lips, and the tall form began to stoop, and they noticed that she didn’t ramble so far as she had been wont to do. She had always been very gentle in her manner, but at times, and when she seemed oblivious to everything passing round her, the flame would flash from her eyes, and she would leave her seat by the fire, and despite remonstrance, no matter what the weather or the hour, would start out on her quest for Red Michil. Over and over again, some of her women friends tried to get her story from her, not so much through curiosity as through a belief that it might lighten the burden on her heart if she would confide her sorrow to some one.

“But they could get nothing from her but a denunciation of Red Michil of the Lodge; but who he was, or what he had done, they could not find out from her.

“There was one house in the glen to which she came oftener than to any other, and that was Shane O’Donnell’s, an uncle of mine. I don’t mind saying it now (said the schoolmaster), but Shane had a little shanty upon the hills, beyond the glen, where he carried on, in a small way, the manufacture of the mountain dew. You’d hardly know the hut from the heather. It was in a little dip on the side of a hill, just deep enough for the walls, and until you were almost atop of it you could hardly distinguish the roof from the heather, and no wonder, for it was thatched with scraws, with the heather roots in them. The only thing that betrayed its existence was the occasional smoke from the hole in the roof that was the excuse for the absence of a chimney. Thither Maurya na Gleanna often went, and there she was always welcome. Although her wits were generally wandering, she was always able to lend a hand in household matters, and in the cabin I’ve mentioned she used to boil the potatoes and cabbage, and do other cooking what was necessary.

“The hut itself was little more than an excuse. It covered the descent into a cave, in which was carried on the manufacture of poteen, and this was reached through an opening which was disclosed when the hearthstone was lifted up.

“The smoke from the operations below came up through an aperture close to the hearthstone, and was carried off with that of the fire in the hut, so that anyone who might drop into the hut would not suspect anything. It was a shepherd’s hut and nothing more.

I was occasionally called on to assist in making the poteen, and at this time Maurya na Gleanna had been regularly employed as cook, that is to say, whenever the men were at work Maurya was sure to come there, and boil the potatoes and make the stirabout, and sometimes, too, a bit of mountain mutton found its way into the pot.

Well, it happened one day Maurya was boiling a bit of mutton, and myself was sitting near the fire, when Maurya said:

“It was a quare dhrame I had last night, Shamey.”

“What was it, Maurya?” I asked, for all of us, young and old, used to humour her.

“Well, then,” said she, “do you see them three legs to the pot that’s boilin’ there before you?”

“I do,” said myself, “why wouldn’t I?”

“Well, then, Shamey, and mind you, I didn’t tell this to anyone but yourself, I dreamt last night them three legs to the pot were the three sticks; and rayson that out for me if you can, for I can’t. I think sometimes my poor head is goin’, Shamey.”

I knew what she meant by “the sticks,” but, of course, I couldn’t guess the meaning of her dream.

“I don’t know, Maurya,” said I. “I don’t know what it means.”

“Ah, then, how could you, Shamey?” said she. “Sure you never supped sorrow, and I hope you never will, avick, and ’tis only them that has supped it year after year that could tell poor Maurya what she wants to know.”

And she swung the crane from which the pot was hanging out from the burning turf.

“Do you see the three legs of it, Shamey?” she asked.

“I do, Maurya,” said I.

“They are red now from the fire,” said she. “And he was red—Red Michil, you know—and I dreamt last night that they were the three sticks. But dhrames are foolish, and there’s no use minding them, Shamey. And how could they be the three sticks? Sure, you couldn’t hang a mouse on them, could you, Shamey, let alone Red Michil?”

Though I was used to Maurya, I was beginning to feel frightened, sitting there alone with her, while as she spoke she became excited in a way that I know would frighten me now as it did then. She hardly raised her voice as she spoke, but you heard something—something that was like ringing through it, and the veins on her arms, that were bare, began to swell, and her eyes flared in a way that would almost burn the very soul out of you.

She swung the pot back over the blazing peat again, and examined its contents, and I took my chance of stealing out of the hut.

I had hardly got outside the door when I saw a number of soldiers making straight for it. I darted back.

“The soldiers are coming!” I cried down through the hole through which I have mentioned the smoke from the still below used to escape.

I shouted twice. Then I heard the words ‘All right,’ and I knew that the men below would be able to manage their escape, and perhaps destroy all evidence of their trade should the soldiers discover their retreat, which to me at this time seemed a most unlikely thing.

“The soldiers are comin’, did ye say?” cried Maurya, when I had finished speaking to the others. “Are ye sure, Shamey, ’tisn’t the yeos?” And her whole frame was quivering with excitement.

“It’s the soldiers, Maurya,” said I, “and I think the gauger is with them, and there is another man along with them, with a cast in his eye. He is sandy complexioned, and has red hair that’s getting grey.”

“Shamey,” she cried, “Shamey!” and she caught me in her arms. “Look at me. Am I tremblin’ like a lafe? I think my dhrame is comin’ true somehow—but how, Shamey? how, tell me?”

I was so frightened I couldn’t reply, and before Maurya could say another word, three or four soldiers entered the hut, and with them two men in civilian dress.

I drew into a corner. Maurya took no notice of them, and seemed to be taken up with her cooking, her back turned to the intruders.

“What have you brought us here for?” asked the officer who was in command of the military, and who was one of the soldiers who had entered the hut.

“This man was my informant,” replied the Excise officer, to whom the question had been addressed.

“That’s not enough for me,” rejoined the officer. “I hope we have not come here on a wild goose chase. We have had too much of that sort of sport lately,” said he, somewhat bitterly.

“Tell that woman to swing the pot from the fire, captain, yer honour,” said the man whom the gauger had described as his informant, and who was the man with the cast in his eye and the sandy complexion.

The captain requested Maurya to do so, but she took no notice.

“Do it yourself,” said the captain, addressing the informer.

The latter approached the fire. As he did so, Maurya slunk back towards the side wall of the big chimney, and in the same direction the informer swung the crane, so that the pot came almost against her.

The informer, without saying a word, kicked the peats from the hearthstone, and I knew then that he was acquainted with our secret. The hearthstone fitted very tight into its casing, and unless one had been previously informed he could never suspect that it was removable. The informer begged the help of the soldiers to lift it, and two of them at different corners having with some difficulty inserted the points of their bayonets succeeded in raising it, and the others coming to their aid, it was quickly removed, and an open space, showing a ladder was disclosed.

“Go before us,” said the officer, addressing the informer.

“I didn’t undertake to do that,” said the wretch, trembling in every limb.

“We’ll go, captain,” said one of the soldiers, and, bayonet in hand, he descended, followed by three of his comrades. Then the informer, plucking up some courage, began to descend. Suddenly the noise of shouting and the report of a musket shot was heard, and the informer, white with fear, was climbing up again.

“Go down and be d——d to you,” cried the officer, “and make way for my men!”

“Oh, captain, darling, save me.”

They were the last words he ever spoke. The crane was flung back from the wall right over the hole. As quick as thought the heavy pot was loosened from it, and it fell with a sickening thud on the informer’s head. A squirt of blood struck the wall just beside my head.

“Seize that woman,” cried the astonished officer.

“Shamey! Shamey!” shouted Maurya to me, her whole face as bright as if all her sorrow had left her. “Shamey, my dhrame came true.”

I never saw Maurya na Gleanna again. I heard that they said (and sure they were right, and they were wrong at the same time), that she didn’t know what she was doing, and they put her in an asylum somewhere.

“But did you,” said I, “ever find out who Red Michil was, and was he the informer?”

“I didn’t then, till years after,” said the old gardener, “and then I learned it by accident like. Maurya na Gleanna, as we called her, was one Mary M’Kenna, and at the time of the troubles, she was, everybody said, one of the most beautiful girls in all Ulster. And it seems she was in love with a boy called Pat Gallagher, who was one of the “United Men,” and he was in love with her, as many another man was also. And sure amongst them was the one she called Red Michil, whose mother, who was a widow woman, kept the lodge at the front gate of Pennington Hall in the County of Antrim. And Red Michil pursued her, but ’twas the back of her hand she gave him, and to take revenge on her and on Pat Gallagher, who took her fancy, he informed on him, and made up a charge against him, and Gallagher was tried by court-martial and hanged, and the poor creature wouldn’t leave until he was at the foot of the gallows, and when she was taken away they saw that her mind was gone.

Her relatives did their best to look after her, but they were poor, and so she rambled off from them till she found her way to our glen. Red Michil, when he had wreaked his vengeance, sank lower and lower. He became a common informer, and then, when the hangings were all over, he secured employment under the Revenue as a scenter-out of illicit stills, and, as he had some experience of the trade himself, he was well up in the expedients which the potheen makers were wont to adopt in order to evade the agents of the law. He was thus an instrument in working out his own fate, and after long, weary years, poor Maurya na Gleanna had her revenge at last.