ANCIENT CURES, CHARMS, AND USAGES OF IRELAND.
CONTRIBUTIONS TO IRISH LORE.
There is a curious ancient game called "The Game of the Rope," which is still very popular, even at the present day, amongst the young people when assembled at a wake or a festival. The account of it may be best given in the words of a peasant artisan, who in his youth was often present at these wake ceremonies, and thus describes the game:
"I am the son of a peasant, and was reared in the wildest part of Mayo, on the line of the mountains of Partry. There I learned the trade of a tailor, and had always plenty of work to do at home, besides being asked to all the villages round, whenever there was a wake, or wedding, or any other diversion going on. For the young men always wanted me at such times to make them smart and nice for the dances and fun.
"Slapping hands is the first game played at a wake, just while the company is coming in and sitting down. Then more regular games begin, when the handsomest girls are led out first, and the best partners are chosen for them. But 'The Game of the Rope' is the prime favourite after all.
"Two short ropes, made of hay and twisted as hard as they can be made, are held by two men, standing at each side of a chair placed at some little distance from the corpse lying in the coffin.
Then a young man is led forward, who takes his seat on the chair, and they ask him who is his sweetheart. If he objects to tell, they beat him till he names one of the girls present. Then he is asked would he like to kiss her, and they beat him till he answers yes.
"The girl is then led over and seated on the chair, while the lover kisses her; but as he is beaten all the time with the rope, he makes the ceremony as brief as possible.
"The girl is then asked if she is content, and sometimes, for fun, she tells them that the lover they gave her had no idea of a proper kiss at all, on which the young man is beaten again with the ropes, till he cries out that he will try again.
But the girl won't have him; and so the game goes on, till every young man in the room has been seated on the chair in succession, and every girl has been kissed. And so ends, with much laughter, 'The Game of the Rope.' "
There are also many other wake games still in use amongst the people. A peasant who was familiar with these "wake tricks," as he called them, thus describes some of them:
"In the game of 'Shuffle the Brogue' twenty or thirty of the young people sit round on bundles of straw, forming a circle, all close together, the knees drawn up to the chin, and the feet pointing to the centre. A young man then takes his place within the circle — generally a fine, active young fellow — and his office is to find the brogue and capture it as it is shuffled rapidly round the circle.
Often during the search he gets many a blow on the back, and tries, unsuccessfully, to seize the assailant. But at length he is lncky enough to capture the brogue; and then he is asked to name his sweetheart, and permission is given to kiss her as his reward. But no girl is allowed to be kissed twice in the evening; it is enough to have been kissed once by her lover."
Another game is called "The Horse Fair." The leader or chief man, holding a brogue in his hand, ties a string of puny young men together as horses, and drives them round the circle, while another man goes in front and drags them on by the rope, striking any who are restive with the brogue.
Then a blacksmith and a horse-dealer appear, and they examine the horses and put them through their paces. A short, stout young fellow is named the "Cob," another with long legs is the "Race Horse," a jolly young man is the "Pony;" and after they are all tried, the horse-dealer declares he must see them jump before lie bids for them. So a great circle is made, a man being in the centre, bent as in leap-frog, for them to leap over, while the young girls sit round, and the best jumper is allowed the privilege of choosing the maiden he likes best, and giving her a salute. The young horses generally succeed in the jump, the reward is so attractive, though two men are never allowed to kiss the same girl. Should one man fail in the jump, he is derided and beaten with brogues, and ordered to be sent for further training, and the smith is desired to see to his shoes. So he is laid flat on the ground, while the smith examines his shoes, and beats the sole of the foot with a big stick to see if a nail is loose and wants to be fastened; but then his sweetheart intervenes, and so is let off, and even allowed to salute her as a recompense for all he has gone through.
Another game is called "The Mock Marriage."
Two clever young wake-men dress themselves fantastically as priest and clerk, the latter carrying a linen bag filled with turf ashes, which he swings about to keep order, giving a good hit now and then, while the dust promotes a good deal of coughing amongst the crowd. But nothing irreverent is meant; for it is considered that whatever keeps up the spirits at a wake is allowable, and harmless in the sight of God.
The priest then takes his place in the circle, the clerk at his elbow, and pours forth a volley of gibberish Latin, after which he calls out the names of those who are to be married, the selection being" always most incongruous; and the clerk seizes them and hurries them forward, the bag of ashes enforcing obedience to the call.
As the names are called out, each man takes his place by the bride named for him, and the priest begins the ceremony in Irish, adding a homily, describing the horrid life probably reserved for the bride and bridegroom, owing to their vile temper and other bad qualities. Bat this is all pure fun, as nothing private or personal would be permitted.
Then the clerk whirls his bag of ashes, and threatens to strike any man who grumbles at the wife he has got, and he demands his fee. Something must be given to him, a penny, or even a button, and the bride must give an article of her own property; but this is returned to her, and she is told they only wanted to test her obedience. After the ceremony is over, whisky is served round, and priest and clerk and the bridegroom drink a glass for good luck, while the bride sips a little from her husband's glass.
No widow or widower, or married man or woman, is allowed to take part in this game, and nothing is said that could offend or lead to quarrelling and fighting.
Meantime, the corner of the room where the corpse lies in a coffin is kept sacred from the games and the players. Here the nearest relatives are seated, some weeping, or some crooning a lament for the dead, and reciting the virtues of the deceased, but taking no part or interest in the games.
Yet much reverence is shown by the people on these occasions. On first entering the cabin, each person kneels down on the threshold and prays for the repose of the soul of the departed, and several times during the evening, the whole company will kneel down and recite a prayer together, especially when one of the wake tricks is over. Then an old man will rise, take off his hat, and say in a loud voice: "Let us pray for the soul of the dead."
At once the laughter is stilled, and all present join in the prayer with the most grave and solemn demeanour.
After this the funeral wail will be raised by the relatives round the corpse, and when it is over, there is a solemn silence for some minutes, which has a most impressive effect. After this the games go on again with renewed vigour, and the laughter and fun is kept up through the night. Then the party breaks up, the young men seeing the girls home, while the mourners are left alone with the dead.
These are the customs of a true country wake; but in towns the fun often degenerates into license and drinking, and many games have been therefore forbidden by the priesthood, particularly the one called "The Mock Marriage," which often gave occasion to much scandal, and tumult, and fighting amongst the young men, whereas, in the country wake, it would be deemed a disgrace for a man to create a disturbance, or even lose his temper, and the women and young girls were treated with the utmost respect. No persons of doubtful character were admitted, and the women knew they were safe and protected. The fathers of the village considered it their duty to send their sons to do honour to a dead neighbour, and the mothers sent their girls without fear to the house of death, where they took their places with quiet decorum and joined in the prayers, though quite ready afterwards for the fun, and the laughter, and the curious dramatic games that had been preserved traditionally amongst the people from the most ancient times.
There is always a plate full of tobacco and another of snuff placed on a table by the side of the corpse, and each man, as he enters, is expected to fill his pipe, and pray in silence for a few moments.
While the married people and elders are present, the wake is very solemn; there are no games, but ancient poems are often recited in Irish by the professional story-teller. Then, when the elders leave, about ten o'clock, the fun begins, and all sorts of tricks and jokes are practised. But at one country wake held not very long ago, and still well remembered by the people, there was no sign of merriment. A beautiful young girl was one day struck dead by lightning while walking in the- hay-field with her two young sisters, who were untouched. The children ran home to tell the sad tale, and the greatest consternation prevailed through the country. At the crowded wake held afterwards in her honour, not a laugh was heard, not a trick was played. There was nothing save prayer and weeping, or the deep silence of sorrow, after which the wail of the women would rise up again to almost a shriek of despair. And so passed the whole long night of gloom in tears and lamentations, and bitter cries of the mourning kindred over the fair young form of the dead.
Wake ceremonies are still held in the Irish cabins, where the meu drink and smoke, and tell ancient stories; though the highly dramatic games of former times have almost entirely died out; "for," as the peasant narrator added, when concluding his account of the scenes he had witnessed in his early youth, "there is no mirth or laughter to be heard any more in the country; the spirit has gone from our people, and all the old fun is frozen, and the music is dumb in poor Ireland now."