One morning, when I was going through the woods, on one of the trees I noticed two hearts intertwined, carved with initials in the centres. So that evening I asked mother about it. She said my Aunt Nora had had two sweethearts: one was St. George Lambert and the other John Usher, and both were desperately in love with her. Unfortunately, she was taken ill and died, and the two lovesick swains shed bitter tears over her grave. But the most remarkable thing about it was the discovery of a beautiful white rabbit lying dead under the very tree that had the two hearts carved on it. It was found to be Aunt Nora’s pet rabbit and how it got there in the woods is still a mystery. One of the lovers, St. George Lambert, never married. I think he joined the Knights of Windsor, a corps of bachelor gentlemen attached to the Royal family at Windsor Castle. My relations heard from him every Christmas for several years afterwards.
That reminds me of a game we used to play, which we considered very serious indeed: it was to find out who our future partner in life was to be. If it were a moonlight night, a group of us youngsters would go out to pick a plant called yarrow. This had to be done before midnight. One of the maids would go with us and would make us kneel down and look up at the moon, at the same time saying a little prayer. Then we would take the leaves of the weed and before going to bed, place them in our right stockings and fasten them up with our left garters, being sure not to speak a word before going to sleep in order not to interfere with the dream disclosing our sweethearts. This was very hard on me as I was and, still am, considered a terrible chatterbox.
As a rule, some of our brothers or cousins would try to make us speak and this, of course, was supposed to break the spell. It was horrifying what some of the servants would do. They would try to swallow eggs whole or eat raw herring, bones and all, and not speak for the rest of the night. But unfortunately, someone would ring the bell to call one of them and, of course, the spell would be broken and the whole performance spoiled.
This reminds me of a little episode which I must tell before I forget it. I was attending a funeral of my uncle, Andrew Browne of Arkskea (Ardskeagh?) House in County Galway one November evening. After having service in the church we went to Knockmoy Abbey, where he was laid to rest. In this curious old place the way to the abbey proper was through and up a winding passage which was so dark men held lighted torches to show the way. Nearly in the centre of the building was the Browne’s vault or receiving room, where there was a deep opening through which the coffin was lowered into a room 20 feet below. Quite a number of people, including the clergyman who conducted the service, went down by a ladder. By the time the remaining obsequies were over, it was nearly dark when we got out into the fresh air again. But there was still light enough for Uncle Tom Lambert to take me over to see what was called the “dream grave,” a short distance away.
The story attached to it is as follows: Several years ago a family living near the abbey gave a Halloween party and went through some of the ceremonies mentioned above. The next morning after breakfast, the young people related their dreams, but the eldest daughter of the hostess could not be persuaded to divulge her dream. After being joked about it all day, she decided to joke about it herself and, after dinner that evening, she told them about her dream. She dreamt she was strolling through some country place and before long she came to the old abbey burial ground. Going in among the graves she came to her family’s plot and, to her surprise, she saw a new headstone with her own name engraved on it. She woke up in a fright with a cold chill running down her back but, try as she would she could not go to sleep again. Her parents did not like hearing about such a peculiar dream but after a while everyone thought there was nothing to worry about and promptly forgot it. Well, she became engaged all right and everything went on beautifully until one evening she was taken suddenly ill and died a few days later. In fact, it was Just a week before her wedding day when she passed away.
There was another game that my sister Tillie and I used to play when our elders were not at home. It was a vicarious amusement in which we imagined what we were not. I would get out some of the old ballroom dresses belonging to my mother and dress myself up in them and look at myself in a mirror to try to imagine I looked like an opera singer or even a prima donna. I would quietly go downstairs to the drawing room and play the piano and then start singing some old opera and pretend it was in Italian or German. I would be so taken up in what I was going to be in a few years’ time that I was simply forgetful of everything. After changing to several gowns and evening wraps in which to depict the various scenes in which to depict the various scenes I was astonished when I looked around and saw all the servants silent listening and looking in awe at my wonderful display. I could not persuade them that I was only amusing myself because they would not believe it.
At other intervals I would encourage Tillie to promenade on the old belfry road dressed out in the loveliest evening gowns and make believe we were our aunts and guests leaving the drawing room to go into the dining room for late supper But alas, our escapades were ended when it came to our mother’s knowledge that we had simply ruined some of the beautiful gowns, particularly the ones that had such long trains. I suppose I was then about eight or nine years old, but I happened to have such long legs that I looked much older. It was just awful when our pranks were found out. Although I saw to it that the gowns were placed in the same chests and that tissues were on top to cover them, I never for a moment thought of the state they were in with the dust and dead leaves that were found sticking to them. I often look back on those happy days when I had such pleasure wearing mother’s evening dresses and never dreamt of the damage I was doing to them. Oh well we can only be dear little innocent children once in our lives and I suppose it is only natural that we should make the most of it. Don’t you think so?
Apropos of playing grownups, I think now would be a suitable time to say something about fortune-telling. Now, Grandma, who was so lovely to us while we were staying with her, had a great dislike for fortune-tellers, especially gypsies. So, we were careful not to vex her. But we heard of a gypsy being in the village, nearby, who was remarkably proficient in the art of fortune-telling. So, my bothers smuggled her into the wine cellar (it was underground and parts of it had never seen the light of day). We had a large crowd of visitors staying with Grandma at the time, so we let them all into the secret and each, in turn, had their fortunes told. She was wonderful and what she could tell by reading the palms of our hands and the soles of our feet was beyond our expectations. At the time I thought it was only a joke, but as the years went by, I realized that all she said was true. First, she mentioned that I would be the first to get married and that I would be married a second time and have two sons, and that I would go very far away and never come back again. I was very young then, about 12 or I3 years old. The people who served us always used to say laughingly “Miss Bess, don’t you trouble about your future because, if a man wants you, he would come down the chimney to get you.”
0ne day I was enjoying myself so much sitting beside a. gooseberry bush eating the fruit as I picked them from the bush, when out of the sky came a flash of lightning and such a tremendous crash of thunder. I suddenly thought of the danger of wearing a small steel bustle under my dress, my brothers having told me that steel always attracts lightning. I suppose they were only laughing at me for being so nervous. Anyhow, the first thing I did was to drop my skirt and pull off that wretched bustle. Fearing another flash, I forgot to put my skirt on again and ran from the garden up the belfry road just as I was, much to the amusement of two maids who were coming to my rescue, and other people who happened to be on the belfry road at the time. They thought, perhaps, that I had been stung by bees or else I was clean out of my mind. It was not until I arrived at the hall door that I realized how foolish I looked, especially when I heard the renewed laughter at my appearance by other people standing inside.
Now, I was very fond of boating so one rather windy evening my youngest brother, James, insisted that my sister Tillie and myself take a few boating lessons from him. We did not particularly want to go because the rowboat was rather small for such a sea. Anyway, he said he would be very careful and told me to take out my mother’s paisley shawl, which I did, not dreaming what he wanted to do with it. To my surprise and dismay, he fixed up a sort of mast and made a sail of the shawl. I knew it was too large for the boat and the thought of it turning over in such a heavy wind gave me quite a fright. I implored him to turn back but he would not give in to what he called my silly fear. My sister, being of a much calmer disposition, said nothing, but I knew she was just as afraid as Iwas. With as large a sail as the shawl, the boat kept dipping dangerously to one side, so my brother tried to hug the shore and get out of the wind somewhat. Now I thought is my chance, so without thinking of the risk I was taking, I jumped overboard. It was until then that my brother realized how frightened I was. He shouted to me to hold on to the boat and he would get me ashore, but as soon as I felt my feet touching the ground, I ran for my life to safety. Not being a spoil-sport, I did not want him to get into trouble at home, so I made straight for the laundry building and, knowing where to find the key to the door, I got in. You see it was nearly dark and the women were not there, but I found the fire under the boiler was still bright so I kept toasting myself in front of it unwas almost steamed to death but still not dry. Then, knowing that my people would be anxious about me, I hurried home. Of course, I was blamed for this, too, and was ordered off to bed at once when I tried to explain how I dried my dress.
What a lot of happiness I used to get out of my rambles through the woods! I found that nearly every sort of tree had its own variety of snails crawling on it and their shells were of such lovely colours – a heavenly blue on some trees, yellow and black on the branches of others, and beautiful purple and white striped snails on still others. I was a great climber and on some days I would spend hours collecting snails off the branches. I would have dozens of them and try to keep them all on one tree, but I found out that each variety of snail would find its way back to its own tree. I have never seen so many different types of snails since I left home; in other woods, the snails seem to be more of the common grey variety we see so often in flower gardens.
Feature Photo: Autograph Tree, Coole Park, Gort, County Galway
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Written by Elizabeth La Hiff Lambert
Published here 25 Aug 2022 and originally published 1979
Page 0089 of Athenry History