The Little Nurse: A Sketch From the Wicklow Hills (published 1835)

Typical peasant hovel in Ireland early 1800's
Courtesy of P. Reid
An Irish Cabbin by A,. Young
Courtesy of P. Reid
Squalor in an Irish Cottage
Courtesy of P. Reid
The Widow Connor and her Dying Child - London Illustrated News c.1850
Courtesy of P. Reid
The Last Household Treasure
Courtesy of Mayo Library Service
A pre-Famine Hovel
Courtesy of Clare Library Service

Shall we not seize the time and ride
By Avon’s stream, by Lara’s side,
To yon lone vale where, hid from day,
The miner works his venturous way,
Wresting from earth her glittering hoard,
Beneath primeval ruin stored;
Heap piled on heap, as wave on wave,
Of worlds succeeding worlds the grave.

Such were the concluding lines of an invitation once sent me, to join a few scientific friends on a tour through the Wicklow hills.

An amateur in geology was the Laureate of the party. The events of this little excursion are among the pleasantest recollections of my life; but in the following sketch of our first day’s progress, I have omitted much, especially in details of scenery, rendered familiar by the pens of more professed tourists; and indeed my chief inducement to arrange these notes for perusal is, that they include an affecting and somewhat novel incident in the history of domestic life.

The object of our excursion – the great lead mine of Luggenure

The first object of our excursion was the great lead mine of Luggenure, opening, as our geologist informed us on the side of a lofty hill, and driven downwards to a great depth through the solid rock. To reach this point we started with the earliest dawn, and ere sunrise were upon a road which, winding at the base of Sugarloaf mountain, leads by a very gradual ascent to the plain of Calory, on its south-western side. Here our botanist, Mr. Neville, who has preserved beyond the close of his half century, all the freshness of spirit and much of the activity of youth, insisted on climbing the mountain in quest of some of the rarer species of Fern which he expected to find among the rocks near the summit.

The geologist, hammer in hand, backed this proposal: our painter anticipated a glorious view from the peak; and Dr. James and myself; having no hobbies of our own, were content to enjoy it with him.

Accordingly, where the road wound through the valley of Glencormac, we quitted our vehicle, and, sending it forward to meet us at the opposite side, began to climb the shoulder of the hill, although the loose rocks upon its steep and shattered side, seen through the grey twilight, appeared doubly grotesque in form and threatening in position. Before we had reached the top, the east began to redden, and a light breeze arose: the clouds broke up suddenly, like the ice in a northern spring, and the blue sky, bright and distant, became visible through the openings. A wreath of white mist still rested on the low range of hills stretching to our right, from the waterfall and wooded heights of Powerscourt to the eastern boundary of Lake Dan, concealing their outline, and waving like a curtain along their sides : the monarch Djouce alone heaved his broad summit into the clear blue sky, and, cut off by the mist from the adjoining hills and the plain below him, seemed a portion of some brighter world.

Figures could be seen moving through the fields

One by one the cabins scattered over the lower grounds began to send up their thin columns of smoke, and figures could be seen moving through the fields as we descended slowly towards a dark speck on the road below, which we hailed as our vehicle. Mr. Neville had found his fern, but the geologist had been less successful as to certain sandstones, and the mist had interfered with our draughtsman’s view. Not the less cheerily did we resume our way.

We had started as philosophers

We had started as philosophers, and were determined to support that character in all its senses. The sun was up, and the world awake and stirring, as we passed the bridge over the Avonmore, and entered the romantic valley of the Seven Churches. The bare and rocky glen of Luggenure now lay open to our right; but instead of proceeding at once to the mine, we advanced into Glendalough, and again crossing the river nearer to where it issues from the lake, wandered for some time among those ancient ecclesiastical buildings now in ruin, the number of which within so small a space, renders it probable, independent of local tradition, that here was one of those seats of learning and religion which gave celebrity to this island in the earlier ages of Christianity. We then rowed across the lake to gain a nearer view of the rock from which St. Kevin saw the waters close over his Kathleen, and also of the cave or “bed” which he is said to have made his home.

Our painter was so delighted with the land view from the lake, that on our return he spread forth his drawing materials upon a rock, and commenced a sketch. As I stood beside him watching the progress of his work, I could not but reflect how nearly to a state of nature this once thronged and cultivated valley had returned; and, except in the vague traditions of the place, how entirely the memory of those who once taught and worshipped here had perished.

The ruined walls remain, and traces of ancient husbandry can still be discerned on the steep sides of the surrounding hills: but of the sage or the saint – those lights of a barbarous time – no authentic memorial has survived : they have bequeathed to us no living work – no monument of their intellectual strength or beauty – no pillar of the mind to lift its head above the flood of time, and point to the vale of Glendalough.

I was awakened from this dream of the past

I was awakened from this dream of the past, by the near approach of an old woman who had been for some time making slowly towards us. She stopped for a moment before the painter, then made a low courtesy, and said in a hesitating manner, ” Maybe your honour’s not the gintleman ? They tould me at the inn that there was a strange doctor gone to the Bed.”

“I’m a strange fellow, no doubt,” said the artist, without raising his head, “but not exactly the one you want. There, old woman” looking up, and pointing with his pencil, “there stands your man of physic – that laughing gentleman in black.”
Dr. James, who was standing at a little distance, with Mr. Neville, jesting on the geologist and his pre-adamite worlds, turned on hearing this. “Well, granny, what’s
the matter with you – don’t mind that daubing fellow.”
” Och, its not with me that the matter is, your reverence, (your honor I mane, if I could spake); I’m ould, acushla, and there’s no cure for that. But it’s a poor little child that’s anexpicted – the crathur’s in the scales since morning, and it ‘ud be the hoight of a charity to cast your opinion on it; and the poor sister— “.
” Can you tell me the child’s complaint ?”
” Och, God help it, it can’t complain, and it not nine months ould ; and I’m only a neighbour, and the little sister’s not a jidge.”
To a further question, however, she explained that the infant had “an impression on it heart,” to remedy which they had “baided it in potato water,” and put “black wool on it chist,” and given it a drop of punch “to rise it little heart ;” but “in spite of all,” last night it was “smothered entirely.”

A sort of broken rambling soliloquy

James now expressed his readiness to visit the child, and the old woman moved off, followed by our whole party. She directed her steps towards a point at some distance, where smoke seemed to issue from the side of a sloping bank; keeping up, as she hobbled before us, a sort
of broken rambling soliloquy, of which, from time to time, I could catch, ” the greatest of Christian charities – skilful looking gintlemen, God bless them – the hoight of poverty and exile – the poor little sister, not twelve years ould – this pain in my back—-“.

She was interrupted by a group of little girls, who were dancing, or rather jumping, hand in hand, around one of their companions, chanting some merry but monotonous rhyme. They now suddenly broke up their sport to crowd about her, and enquire eagerly, ” How was ‘Statia’s child ? – would it live? – would it die ?” The old woman held on her way, saying, ” Don’t stop me, jewels; don’t you see the gintlemen – bad enough, bad enough it is.”

We now approached a cabin of very small dimensions, lodged, for the advantage of shelter, in an excavation of the high bank of gravel which rose behind it. The thatch was much decayed, and where attempts to repair it were visible, rushes from the neighbouring lake had supplied
the place of straw. There was no chimney, the smoke issuing through a hole in the roof; and the aperture intended for a window was partly closed by a large slate. Before the door, several young children-plump, rosy, and ragged-were shouting in great glee, and dragging about a goat, which the tallest boy made m any unsuccessful attempts to ride. This urchin wore a trowsers, the legs of which, torn through their entire length, fluttered in streams behind him as he ran. Another little fellow waddled about in a man’s waistcoat, worn as a surtout, and covering him to his heels. A cheque apron thrown on as a cloak, helped out the attire of a third; while two young ones sprawled in the sun, with scarcely any pretensions to apparel. The old woman pushed through them, muttering, ” God help yes for childer! ye’ve no better wit,”
and led the way into the cabin, where a sadder scene presented itself.

A careworn expression on her pretty features

On the floor, in one of those large baskets used here by the peasantry, for straining their boiled potatoes, and now applied to the purpose of a cradle, lay the sick child. Beside it, on a very low stool, sat a little girl, whom I judged to be the sister mentioned by the old woman. She seemed about eleven or twelve years old, and might be considered handsome, even for this region of personal as well as picturesque beauty; but her figure was small and slight, and there sat an anxious and careworn expression on her pretty features, which strangely
contrasted with their extreme youth, and seemed to denote a premature acquaintance with sorrow or suffering. She looked up as we entered, and cast an enquiring glance on our conductress, but did not rise.
“‘Statia, jewel,” said the old woman, “it’s a doctor that’s in it; and I brought him to see the poor brother; and, with God’s help, who knows what he may do ?”
The little girl instantly rose. Her cheek, which before was very pale, became deeply flushed; and as James bent over the cradle, feeling the infant’s pulse, and watching its hurried breathing, she stood opposite to him, her figure leaning forward, her little hands clasped, her bright eyes keenly and eagerly fixed, as if to catch from his first glance some presage of her brother’s fate.

“Sir,” said she,”will it live?”

“Sir,” said she,”will it live?” The doctor seemed unprepared to answer this question, or, willing to evade it, he remained silent for a moment, and then inquired for the mother.
“We have no mother, Sir,” said Anastatia; ” she died the night he was born.”

“Well, my dear, whoever nurses the child – any one to take directions,”
“I nurse him, Sir – there’s nobody else.”
As this announcement called forth a general expression of surprise, the old woman explained to us, that the father of this family (having six children besides the new-born infant, when bereft of his wife, had been unable, from extreme poverty, to employ a nurse. The neighbouring women, therefore, had taught little ‘Statia to feed the child, ” And well,” added she, “has she fed him and cared him, day and night, hour and time–sure the half of the crature’s not in it – she’s worn off the face of the earth.”
The child’s appearance, as in his feverish sleep he tossed about his large ruddy limbs, bore testimony that the feeding, at least, had not been neglected.
” And can it be possible,” said I, ” that you have reared this fine boy without assistance ?”
“Yes,” said she, mournfully, as she bent down to arrange the coverings he had thrown aside–“I reared him. He never had a nurse but me, and now he’s going—“
Here the old woman threw in her mite of consolation, “And ‘Statia, dear, if it’s going, sure it’s going to God: and wont it be better done for, than ever you could do for it.”
The poor little nurse turned impatiently away, and burst into tears. She was, no doubt, sufficiently instructed to be aware that the old woman had spoken truth. But this infant, while he claimed from her a mother’s care, had awakened, even thus early, a mother’s love. He was
to her in place of the toys and recreations of her youth : her pet – her plaything – her own! She had watched over him till her young cheek had became pale, and her childish form wasted, and now “he was going—” going to the coffin, and the deep dark grave.

I was so much moved by the poor girl’s distress, that, although quite ignorant in the matter, I tried to cheer her with some hope of her brother’s recovery. But the doctor’s silence had not escaped her. “O Sir,” said she in a whisper, “that gentleman don’t think so – you don’t know how bad he is.”
James now assured her that there was still a chance of recovery, which, however, would depend on his being able to bleed the child; and for this purpose directed the old woman to take him upon her lap: but ‘Statia interposed – “He wouldn’t stay with you, Molly – he’s quiet with no one but me.”
She now seated herself beside him, and I remarked the expert and matronly air with which she lifted her young charge from the cradle, and adjusted him on her lap for the operation – holding out his arm, and hiding his face in her bosom, that he might not see the strangers.
“Now, Sir,” said she, “he’s ready. Children, stand from the gentleman’s light – boys, stay outside, I bid you.”

When the lancet appeared

When the lancet appeared, I observed that she shut her eyes, and turned her head aside: yet, although her whole frame shook, she held him firmly till the operation was over.
The child bled rapidly and became faint; and we had some difficulty in convincing her that he was not dying. After a few minutes, however, the relief he had experienced became manifest. The eldest boy was now directed to follow us to the inn for some medicine which the doctor had in his valise, and we were leaving the cabin, when a gaunt, ragged figure, carrying a spade on his shoulder, appeared coming towards it. On learning from Molly that this man was the father of the family, Dr. James went up to him, and explained what had been done for the child, adding, that although somewhat relieved, he was by no means out of danger. The poor man sighed deeply.
“Welcome,” said he, “be the will of God. But that little crature you saw there, ‘ill break her heart after him; and she’s all the mother I have for six of them, If anything happens her I’m totally defeated.”

Enveloped in the mist of ages

We said what we could to cheer him, and promising to visit the child on our return, set forward for Luggenure. Before us stood the celebrated round tower, rising, like a huge pillar, to the height of 110 feet in the centre of the valley. The history of these singular structures is still enveloped in the mist of ages; and the researches of the antiquarian have tended rather to show what they were not, than to throw light upon their real origin and use.
The most probable opinions connect them with some form of pagan worship-possibly of the Phenician idols – the gods of Canaan brought into this remote island by the scattered remnant of that mighty, but ill-fated race. Their “high places” were certainly buildings, and were not always seated upon hills, for they were at one time to be found in all the cities of Israel ; and there also was one in the valley of Hinnom. They may therefore have been
“high” only with respect to the grove which it was usual to plant around them. As I turned from this monument of human frailty, towards the hovel we had just quitted, I thought how much heavier might have been the burden of its poor inmates, but for that purer faith which had overthrown the idol, and left its high place desolate in the midst of Christian temples. The poor peasant, who in his sorrow yet ” welcomed the will of God,” must have turned for help to the frantic and cruel rites of the heathen: his sweet child might have bent her knee at the profligate shrine of Baal, or her brother have torn from her arms to pass through fire to Moloch.

“A den, Sir – a mere hole – deep, dirty, dark, and dangerous.”

I must not lengthen this paper by a description of Luggenure; especially as I did not enter the mine myself. The painter, who did, (his sublime and beautiful lie above ground, and he is somewhat fastidious in his dress,) after ten minutes disappearance, suddenly scrambled out, denouncing it as ” a den, Sir; a mere hole – deep, dirty, dark, and dangerous.” Our geologist, on the contrary, was enchanted, and saw worlds piled on worlds at every step of his descent.
It was evening when we returned to the sick child, and to our inexpressible satisfaction, found him so much relieved, that the doctor considered his danger nearly over. I may add, that before we left the neighbourhood he had perfectly recovered.

Years have since rolled by

Years have since rolled by, and I have seen little ‘Statia in the bloom of womanhood, surrounded by those children to whom – herself a child – she had been as a mother. The elder boys were then sufficiently groin to be able to assist their father, and add somewhat to the comforts of their cabin. The latter had improved in its furniture, and was enlarged by an additional room. She did not recollect me, till I reminded her of the scene I have described, and enquired for the child. She then blushed and smiled, and beckoned to a rosy boy, who came prancing across the floor, and jumped upon her lap -” Paddy’,” said she, “‘did you ever see that gentleman before?”    J. M.

This account first appeared in the Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 3, Number 134 January 24th, 1835, pp. 234-6

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