I FIRST OPENED MY EYES IN DONEGAL,IRELAND'S
NORTH WEST corner stone. It is the wildest, most remote, most
rugged and mountainous, the most barren and the most beautiful,
as well as the most Irish territory in Ireland.
I am of the mountain people.
As a buachaill of a boy I herded on the hills, spaded on the
farm, dallied to the mountain school where I got the daub of
schooling that is mine. At night I moved from cottage to cottage,
squatted in the groups that always surrounded the big, blazing
turf-fires, hearkening to the women telling their fairy stories
and the old men reciting ancient folk tales, singing the old
songs, or chanting some thousand-year-old poem.
Ere I crept out of childhood
I was myself a shanachie- carried in mind and could tell a sheaf
of the old tales, as I had learned them by a hundred firesides.
I told the tales to the lads who companied me to the herding,
the lads who with me scudded three miles over the hills to Mass
on Sunday, to the lads who loitered with me to the little school.
Many of my tales I gathered in that little school _for oftentimes
when the master looked pleasedly on five or six small students
with heads together, puzzling (as he thought) over a mathematical
problem or posed on some other noxious subject, we, the boys
from five to six mountain glens, were, each in turn, telling
the best story he had heard the night before. Or we were communing
over the latest fairy escapade-for the Donegal hills are, perhaps
more than any other part of Ireland, favored of the Gentle Folk.
During my boyhood, I devoured
every book that was to be found within a six-mile radius, altogether
as many as thirteen or fourteen or fifteen.
At the age of sixteen I began
verse-making-made songs while I herded or plied the spade on
my father's hillside- chiefly, songs that dealt with Ireland's
struggle for freedom, and with the heroes who had fought and
died for love of Shiels Ni Gara. Within a year I was publishing
prose and verse in the Tir-Conaill Vindicator, the little weekly
paper of our county, published in Belashanny. I filled the columns
of this paper every week-songs, sketches, stories, news-reports-written
in school copybooks, on my knee, at the fireside after my day's
work was finished. At the end of three years' contributing I
got my first pay from good John MacAidan-a check for ten shillings,
almost two and a half dollars. And I was indeed a proud man as
well as a rich one. Then he printed for me my first book of poems,
with the Irish title Shuilers, meaning Vagrants. Twelve hundred
copies of it were bought at a shilling each -making me a millionaire.
But to wealth I had now become
no stranger, for I had been appointed master of our mountain
school, teaching sixty to seventy boys in a room that was nearly
thirty feet long by fifteen feet wide-for a great salary of three
pounds, or fourteen dollars, a month, as well as a school penny
which every scholar brought me each Monday morning.
Now also The Shamrock, a penny
weekly story paper in Dublin, ordered from me a series of nine
stories at two and a half dollars each-which I did in nine days
in school copybooks, on my knee, at my father's kitchen fireside
Hearing that American story
papers would pay more than two and a half dollars a story, I
wrote a bagful of them and, closing my school, with the bursting
bag sailed for America in the steerage of a big liner. Arrived
in New York I asked the names of magazines that would pay well
for stories, and was told that Harper's and The Century were
the wealthiest. I brought to Harper's seven of the copybooks,
and kind old Mr. Alden, the editor, deeply interested in the
mountain boy dressed in homespun, read the stories himself, and
kept six of them. And to my dumfounding, gave me one hundred
dollars and upward for each of them.
I went to The Century with
ten stories, and they bought eight. With other stories, then,
I tried the other seven or eight magazines that America knew
at that time-and every one of them bought stories.
I arrived in America in September,
and sailed back to Donegal the following May, with a fortune-wherewith
I bought a fairy hill of which I had always been enamored.
I returned to America the next
Fall, with a new bag of stories, and carried home in the following
Spring three times as big a fortune as that of twelve months
before. My Donegal neighbors, knowing that anyone who wished
could shovel up bags full of such stories among our hills, could
hardly credit the gullibility of the American people!
American publishers began putting
out my books, not only folk-tale books, like Donegal Fairy Stories
(Doubleday, 1900), In Chimney-Corners (id., 1899), The Donegal
Wonder-Book (Stokes, 1926), and The Well o' the World'sEnd (Macmillan,
1939), but also novels like A Lad of the O'Friels (Irish Pub.
Co., 1903), and original stories of Irish life, as well as Irish
history, The Story of the Irish Race (Devin-Adair, 4th ed., 1944).
And I, who had never seen a
college before I came to America, found a fruitful field lecturing
and telling folktales to the big American universities, as well
as to the big Clubs. This I have been doing for many, many winters.
But for my summers I always go back to my own Donegal hills and
my own Donegal people and my own Donegal fairies.
Under the ocean, off the coast
of Donegal, lies a fairy paradise, Tir na'n Og, the Land of Perpetual
Youth, which, on beautiful summer eves, is often seen by our
fishermen, rising over the waters, afar off. It is a special
province of heaven set apart by the good Lord for His favorites,
the Irish, whose bliss He desires and safeguards from the intrusion
of Americans and other common peoples of earth- and there I hope
to go when I die.
That is, if I die.