Harvest dance in an Irish home taken
The Illustrated London News, 1849. )

Bessy Conway; or, The Irish Girl in America



Before "the Lammas Foods" rolled that year over the sunparched holms of Tipperary Denim Conway's house had assumed more than its former appearance of comfort and neatness, and when the family sat down to their Hallow Eve supper on the last night of October the barn had grain, and the byer had cows, and a fine young colt was munching his hay through the rack of the well.covered stable, perhaps enjoying the sense of comfort as well as his owners. The big ark was packed full of new meal, and the flitches of bacon v ere again pendant from the snowwhite rafters. There was a fire blazing on the wellswept hearth that suggested the idea of a grand pyramidal turfstack somewhere in the immediate vicinity.

There was no other light in the kitchen but what the fire gave, but that was so bright that every object was plainly discernible, and it needed only a glance to establish the fact that everything there was "like a new pin." The antique pewter on the dresser, and the tins on the wall hard by, were reflecting the warm firebeam like so many mirrors, and the wooden ware beneath was as white as any one had ever seen it in the best days of the Conways.

The supper was ready, and every one seemed as ready for it. Ellen, now a site recovered, was bustling around giving the last touch to the preparations, whilst Nancy and Bessy were hurrying to put the last stitch in a new stuff dress for their mother. One brother was reading aloud a passage in Columbkille's Prophecies for the special entertainment of his father who was listening with great attention; the other was teasing the girls " on the sly" about their skill in dress making which Owen affected to rate very low. The mother sat looking at them all with her calm, sober smile of happiness, pondering in her mind how God had brought them out from such a sea of misery.


"Well! I think it's all along of the faith that Denis had," she said within herself, "like Job, that the priest tells us about so often, that got to be better off after all his troubles than he ever was before, and all on account of his patience. That's just the way with Denis—he bore everything that came — ay! things that fretted the life and out in me, and now see how the Lord sent Bessy home to us with plenty of money just when we were at the lowest! It's a wonderful thing to think of, anyhow!"

Drop, drop came down the rain on the rough stones outside the door.

"Well! sure enough," said Owen with a gay laugh," it's a hard night for the fairies!"

"Hush! Owen, hush!" whispered his mother all in a tremor; "let them alone, and they'll let you alone! — they're the best of neighbors, but it isn't safe to be namin' them at all."

"Lord save us, what's that?" cried Ellen, stopping short in her work, and standing pale as death in a listening attitude; "what's that, at all?"

"Maybe it's the fairies," put in the incorrigible Owen. He was silenced by a warning gesture from his father, and they all held in their breath to listen.

Drop, drop on the stones still went the rain, splash, splash in the puddles, but another sound was plainly heard, a small voice muttering words, the tenor of which was lost to the ear.

"I think Owen is about right," whispered Nancy.

"It's some creature —- some child, maybe, that's out in the rain," said Bessy in the same low whisper. "I'll bet my life it's Bid McGuigan," cried Tommy aloud; "I'm sure that's her voice." (286)

He rushed to the door, but Ellen was as quick as himself, and placed her hand on the latch. "Don't, don't till we know what it is!"

"Come away, Ellen!" said her father gently, "let him open the door. Whoever's in it, we can't leave them outside such a night as this."

The door was opened, and in stumped Bid McGuigan, as doleful an object as could well be imagined. The heavy drops were dripping from her elfin locks, and everything on her was drenched with rain, yet the placid expression of her big gabby face was no whit disturbed.

The young men laughed and Owen said: "There she is now for you — the queen of the fairies, I declare!"

The other members of the family were too much occupied with Bid's pitiful state to pay much attention to Owen's dry jokes. Many questions were put to her, as to why she was abroad at such a time and in such weather, but Bid only shook her head, and smiled and said, "Bid's cold."

"It was God sent her," said Denis looking at the poor idiot with tears in his eyes, "it was God sent her, for a share of our Hol'eve supper. It's an honor she's doin' us, blessed be His name ! so hurry and put dry clothes on her an' we'll fix her here nest the fire."

The clothes changed and Bid established in the old man's arm.chair by the comfortable hearth, the table was drawn up nearer the fire and the family took their seats welldisposed to do justice to the pile of buttered potatocake, with its vis-a-vis of the nicest oaten bread, not forgetting the traditional dish of " caulcannon" steaming right in front of Denis with a well of melted butter in the centre. And to be sure that was the supper that was well relished. No royal family in Europe was as happy that night as Denis Conway's, for their cup of bliss was made sweeter than nectar by the recollection of sorrow and misery past. (281)

If Bid McGuigan wasn't in clover just then nobody ever was, but Bid never gave any sign of satisfaction no matter how well she fared. There she sat in the big straw chair eating with keen relish whatever was placed before her, and watching with unmeaning eyes the faces of those around her, not a muscle moving in her own. Oftener than any other her eye wandered to Bessy, and as though some faint glimmer of an idea crossed her darkened mind in connection with her she would mutter some incoherent words. Once after looking at her a long time she said in a voice unusually loud for her:

"Purty gentleman!"

The young people all laughed at the strange, parrot.like voice and the unmeaning words.

"Who's the purty gentleman?" asked Bessy still laughing.

"A purty thing!" said Bid again, laying her fat little hand on her chest.

"What in the world does she mean?" cried Nancy much amused.

"The means nothing, Nancy ! nothing at all," said Denis in a tone of commiseration; "Poor Bid!"

"Bessy Conway!" murmured Bid, "Bessy Conway's letters! — ould Denis Conway's letters!"

"Well! now isn't that queer, father!" said Bessy very seriously; "see how long she has them words in her mouth though you'd think she had no memory at all?"

"But that's true, father!" said Tommy, "you never got Master Leary to write that letter to the Lord Lieutenant about Georgy Brown."

"It isn't to the Lord Lieutenant, Tommy, but the Postmaster General that we're to write. I was askin' Father Ryan about that."

"Well! whichever of them it is — and I don't know why it wouldn't do as well to write to one as the other — the letter was never wrote anyhow, and I tell you it could be a mortal sin to let that fellow go without punishment." (288 )

"Now, don't you know, Tommy!" said the Father mildly, "that the fault was Mrs. Herbert's more than his? You see she tried to put him out of his situation, and make him pay up all he owed her. What could the man dot sure he couldn't see his large family of young children turned out on the street?"

"Now, father! it's a wonder you'd talk that way!" said the son so angrily that it was easy to see the object of the old man's wellmeant equivocation. "You know in your heart that you'd starve and die yourself before you'd do such a thing, and what makes you try to excuse that villains If Mrs. Herbert wanted our letters for her own bad ends, was that any reason he'd give them to her, an' him on his oath to take care of every letter that comes, and give it safe to the right owner?"

"Well, but, Tommy! if you're a Christian."

"If I'm a Christian it doesn't prevent me from seeing justice done," said Tommy, with a most determined air, "and if God spares me life and health I'll expose Georgy Brown and the Madam too"—his face was crimson with anger, and he struck the table with his clenched hand. "If the law affords us satisfaction, we must halve it, and that's all about it."

Bessy, too, was of opinion that the treacherous postmaster should be prosecuted. "If Mrs. Herbert comes in for a share of the disgrace," said she, "I think, father, she's well deserving of it. See how she served you and Tommy when you went to ask her for the letters—if you were dogs, she couldn't treat you any worse—and then she didn't even give them to you."

"How could she give them, you foolish girl ! if she burned them, or tore them up, or something that way ?"

"Well, dear bless you, an' say no more about it !" said Mrs. Conway, " there's time enough for all such things, an' let them alone for this night. Go on with your supper, children t an' if you meant to talk, talk of something that's pleasing." (289)

"Your mother's in the right, children dear!" said the old man, "it's joyful our hearts ought to be, an' over flowin' with gratitude, when we think of the thousands an' thousands that hasn't bit or sup this night—the blessin' o' God an' my blessin' on them that brought back peace and plenty to us al !"

"The good people will have a fine place of it here the night," said Owen, "besides what they had this night twelve month."

"Didn't I tell you to let them alone!" said his mother in a tone of alarm. "Is there any use in talkie' to you, Owen!"

"Why, mother dear!" said the son half seriously, "sure I'm sayin' nothing bad of them ! When I never said or did them ill, I'll go bail they'll do me no harm But I wouldn't be in Mrs. Herbert's shoes the night for a new suit of clothes !"

"And why so, Owen?'' asked Bessy with great earnestness.

"Oh! that's true, you were away in America when it happened Why, you self. the ould madam couldn't let even the fairies alone, good people as they are—she must go and dig up the rath on the hill above?"

"Dig up the rath?" cried Bessy in horror, "why, no! surely she wouldn't do that ?"

"I tell you she did, and she couldn't get a man to do it -- only Bill Morrow and Harry Grimes - by the same token, Bill broke his arm before ever he got home the day they finished the job, and Harry Grimes found the best cow he had Iyin' dead in the byer a week or two after."

"Good for them!" chimed in Nancy. "They might have known what would come of meddlin' with them — fair may they come, and fair may they go!"

"Well! but Mrs. Herbert that was the cause of it all," said Bessy, how well nothing came across her! maybe the good people have a respect for the rich as well as others."

"Bessy! Bessy! take care!" said her mother anxiously, holding up her finger at the same time by way of caution.

Nothing more was said at the time about Mrs. Herbert or of (290) her eviction of the pigmy community of the rath. The merriment which usually characterizes Hallow.eve in Irish households was that night somewhat subdued on account of the miserable state of the country, and the family after saying their usual prayers in common, retired to rest early, a comfortable shake.down being made for Bid McGuigan in the chimney corner.

Next day the whole country was thrown into a state of fearful excitement. Word went out that Mrs. Herbert had been found dead in her bed that morning, and as soon as the awful news had been fully verified, it was set down as an act of fairy vengeance. People crossed themselves and looked at each other, and shook their heads

" She knows the difference now," said one with religion solemnity.

"I'll go bail she does," said another, "and I think she has her own death to answer for — if she had let the forth alone she might be a living woman yet, for sure there wasn't a gray hair in her head, an' she always had the best of care. Ha! ha! herself an' himself are both gone now — ay faith ! where they'll have no poor tenants to harry — I'm thinkin' there's more landlords than tenants there."

Such were the general feelings of the people. Even Denis Conway's family, though shocked to hear of such a death, did not fail to view it as an act of retributive justice on the part of Almighty God. Why was it that Bessy alone felt a softer emotion, and actually dropped a tear for the fate of that cold, harsh woman who had never made a friend or, earth, never had one to love her, unless it might be the kindred spirit who had walked the world with her through the years of her wedded life! — why should Bessy mourn her who had been the worst enemy of those she loved! Mourn she did not—that was certain—yet there was a " deep note of sadness" struck in her heart by the news of that woman's unhallowed death. She saw the terrible judgments of God (291) coming down on the house of the wicked, but why should it grieve her? The Herberts were only beginning to reap the crop of curses and maledictions which they had been sowing ever since they became Irish landlords. What had Bessy Conway to do with that? Nothing, it is true, yet her heart was heavy, as with the undefined fear of coming evil. She tried hard to shake off this feeling, but it could not escape the keen eye of her father.

"Bessy!" said he, " what makes you look so sorrowful the day ? why, I declare, one would think you were breakin' your heart about the old madam, an' I'm sure it's little reason we have to cry her."

"Why, indeed, father, it isn't for her I'm troubled—though, to be sure, it's an awful thing for any creature to be taken off so suddenly—God save every one from an ill end ! I don't know what's come over me, at all, and that's the truth !"

"Well! whatever it is, Bessy ! try an' get over it," said her father very seriously, "for it's very ungrateful to God to be downhearted and sorrowful when He gives us so many blessings. Another thing, I'd wish you to stir up and be cheerful, for fear of people passin' remarks on account of what was said before!"

Bessy's face was scarlet in a moment. "Father!" said she, "I never did anything to be ashamed of — at home or abroad —and I'm not afraid of any remarks that can be passed, but I'll do what you bid me."

"That's my own good girl," said the old man laying his hand on his daughter's head, " God blesses the obedient child."

A fortnight after Mrs. Herbert's death, Tommy Conway had the satisfaction of seeing Georgy Brown removed from the postoffice in Ardfinnan, and another installed in his place. It was understood that powerful influence had been brought to bear on the authorities in the General Post office to screen him from a prosecution which must have resulted in transportation. The truth was that Master Georgy had the questionable honor of being an Orangeman, and his case being taken into consideration at n special meeting of Lodge No.—, it was duly resolved that Brother Brown must not be exposed to the dangerous ordeal of a public trial. It was not hard to persuade the Dublin officials that a man for whom my lord Marquis of Tumbledown and my lord Viscount Pamperton condescended to interest themselves—not to speak of other notable representatives of "the landed interest" — could not possibly be far in the wrong, and that dismissal from office was a punishment quite severe enough. Nevertheless, Georgy was smuggled off with his family — to a good farm on the Tumbledown estates, and the Conways were quite content that the villain should fall into other hands than theirs. So long as he was removed from the situation of which he had proved himself so unworthy, they had nothing more to wish in his regard.

Ivy Lodge was a drear and lonely spot after the death of its mistress. Strange noises were heard of nights in the halls and chambers, and on the staircases forms which mortal eye might not see were felt brushing past the living Autumn's "melancholy days" were saddening the earth, and the winds were abroad in the long dark nights, and they made a dismal howling through the lofty halls of the Lodge. The few servants left by the executors to take care of the house, having their imaginations full of gloomy fancies on account of the recent disaster, of course set every unusual sight or sound down for something supernatural. They soon got frightened out of their wits, and ran away from the house without waiting for leave or license, wages or anything else. The report spread like wildfire that the Lodge was haunted; all manner of wild stories were told in relation to it, for the inventive faculties of the whole country were at work on a theme so fruitful. Never was poor spirit seen under so many different shapes as that of the late Mrs. Wilson Herbert, nor ever sounds so dismal and so wild awoke the echoes of a haunted house. The place was utterly deserted, save by the venerable rooks who, time out of (293) mind, had their dwelling in the ancient woods, and the bats that flapped their leathern wings at evening's ghostly hour through the silent halls of the deserted manor.house.

Seeing the ruin that was coming on so fine a place, people began to wonder what had come of young Herbert, or whether he was still alive. With all his faults, there was a certain feeling cherished towards him that was very different from what might be expected considering the detestation in which both his parents were held. Now that he was probably dead many fine traits of character were remembered that before had passed unnoticed. People began to say: "Well! to give the Devil his due, Master Henry had a good turn in him after all He was a wild harum-scarum fellow — every one knows that—but sure he done more harm to himself than to anybody else—he never harried the poor, anyhow."

"'Deed, then, he didn't, an' to tell the truth, many a one he relieved unknownst to the world. Don't you mind the time Paddy McGarry's cow was a drivin' for the county cess — well! I know for certain it was Master Henry gave him the money to go an' pay it an' get back poor crummy for the childer—them was his very words, an' sure I had it from Paddy's own lips, God be good to him ! but he bid him for his life say nothing about it, for fear of it comin' to the ears of his father or mother."

"I don't doubt it a bit," would another say, "for I knew him to send Widow Fogarty a load of seed.potatoes one spring, an' him only a gossoon at the time. If it hadn't been for him, Nelly and the children would have been badly off that very season. There's no one can say but what he was a fine promisin' young gentleman if he hadn't taken up with bad company."

Some such conversation took place one evening around Denis Conway's fireside, where some five or six neighbors had dropt in on their caillie. An attentive observer might hare noticed that the several speakers, although very much in ear (295) nest in their remarks, had a secondary motive in view, for many a stealthy glance was cast towards the corner where Bessy sat spinning flax. Bessy's countenance revealed nothing. If she was taking note of what passed no one was the wiser concerning her thoughts. Her eyes were fixed on the filmy thread that her delicate fingers spun so deftly, and her peachy cheek never changed its hue. Once or twice she bent over the wheel when there was no apparent reason for examining hack or spool, and it might be that a tear was trembling in her eye, but if so, no one saw it for Bessy's face was calm as a summer lake.

Seeing this, the visitors were taken quite aback, but some were unwilling " to give it up so," and thought a change of tactics might perhaps effect their object.

"But that's true, Bessy! weren't you and Master Henry out to America together?"

"We were in the same ship," Bessy answered without raising her eyes.

"An' of course you know all about him after he got there."

"Of course I do not," said Bessy with a very quiet smile; 'I surely you don't suppose I was watching him all the time? Tommy," —to her eldest brother "I thought you were going over to the dyer's tonight with that wool."

To be sure Tommy was going, and Owen with Tommy, and their going was the signal for a general move. Before the visitors retired, however, one of them, an ancient dame who was the mother of a large family of grown.up daughters, took occasion to ask Bessy would she advise any of her girls to go out to America. " There's Jenny and Peggy," said she, "an' they have a great notion of startin' next spring."

"Well! I'm not over fond of giving advice," said Bessy, " but as you asked my opinion I'll give it, and then you can't blame me one way or the other. America is a bad place for young girls to go to, unless they have their father, or brothers, or somebody to look after them."


"Humph! who had you to look after yon?"

" Not one but myself and God's good Providence."

" Well ! an' wouldn't our girls have the same?" asked the dame sharply.

" I'm not speaking of them, at all," said Bessy, " but I tell you, Mrs. O'Hare, there's many a girl that had as good a mother as ever you were—and I'm not saying but you're good enough—that leaves home a simple country girl with the fear of God in her heart, and the blush of modesty on her cheek, that turns out very bad and very indifferent in America. If they keep in the state of grace, and go regularly to their duty they're all right, and sure, thanks be to God ! there's thou.sands of them that do, and signs on them and their friends at home—but there's just as many—perhaps more—that falls in with Protestants and Jews, and everything that way, and in the course of a lithe time forget themselves altogether—at least they forget that they have a soul to be saved, or a God to judge them. Dress and finery, and balls and dances is all the God they have then, and you may guess it's not a good end they make of it either for body or soul."

" Well, now, that's curious," put in another neighbor, " an' we hearin' such a different account of it from every one else. Why, there's Jemmy McBride's daughter from beyond the river that got a great match in New York or Philadelphy or some of them places—they say she doesn't know the end of her ownriches."

Bessy laughed in her own quiet way. " God help your wit, Mrs. Shanaghan ! it's little you know here about those great matches. Now I happen to know something about Ann McBride, for though I never saw her in America, I know them that did, and lived with her, too; she is married to a man in New York that's pretty well off—I think he's in the grocery business—she lives in a fine house and has very nice furniture and all that, and dresses in the very height of the fashion, but (296 ) her husband is a Protestant—a sort of a one—and poor Ann is—nothing at all. Himself goes to church of an odd time, but Ann never troubles church or chapel. I was told by a girl that lived with her that when she caught her one night teaching her children their prayers—Catholic prayers, of course—she was very angry, and told her not to be ' bothering their brains with them old prayers, they'd have time enough to learn then."'

Various exclamations of horror and indignation testified the feelings of the listeners Some of them, however, were a littleskeptical on the subject.

" Why, then, Bessy ! it's hard to think that girls brought up Catholics could ever come to that !"

"Well ! hard or easy, I tell you it's true," said Bessy.

" There's thousands of Irish girls in New York (of course that's the city I know best) that are as good Catholics as any of their people at home, but there's just as many the other way. What would you think of an Irish girl that would tell you she was seven years in America, and had never been to Communion in all that time—maybe once or twice to confession? "

"Lord save us, Bessy!" her mother exclaimed, "you're enough to frighten one !"

" I know that, mother, but I'm only telling the truth, and God knows ! my heart bleeds to tell it. I knew girls myself that were just as I say, some of them that would laugh at you if you spoke to them of saying their prayers morning or night, and would never think of crossing a Church door if somebody didn't make them go. That all comes, as I told you, of their going out alone to America, without any one to advise or direct them, and them falling into bad places at the very first. Take my advice, Mrs. O'Hare, and keep your girls at home—if yon can live here, so can they, and you'll find it better in the long run." (297)

" Well I believe you're about right, Bessy !" replied Mrs. O'Hare; " it's best keep them under our own eyes. Good night, and God be with you all." The visitors then retired, wondering much at what they had heard.

Chapter 22

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