Rosses Point - A Century Ago

By Arthur Symonds

London, 1896

Rosses Point is a village of pilots and fishing people, stretching out seawards in a long thin single line of thatched and white-washed houses along the branch of the sea which grew from the little harbour of Sligo to broaden out into the bay beyond the edge of Dorran's or Coney Island, and the rocks of Dead Man's Point. It is a lazy village, where no one is very rich or very poor, but all are able, without too much exertion, to make just enough not to need to work any harder. The people are slow, sturdy and contented, with a singular dislike of doing anything for money, except that they let rooms during the summer to the people of Sligo, who make it their watering place, going in and out daily, when needful, on the little paddle-steamer which plies backwards and forwards between Sligo and the 'Point', or on the long car which takes in their messages and their marketing -baskets. Very few people from the outer world ever find their way here; and there are peasants living at the far end of the village who have never been so far as the village of Lower Rosses, or the other side of the Greenlands. They know more of the coast of Spain, the River Plate, and the Barbadoes than they know of the other side of their own mountains, for seafaring men go far. I have just been talking with a seaman, who has told me of Venice and of the bull-fights he saw at Heulva, and of Antwerp, and the Riga, and Le Havre; and of the coast of Cornwall, and Milford Haven, and the Firth of Forth; and of America and the West Indies.

Yesterday, I saw a bright green parrot on a child's hand; they have been telling me of 'the black girl' who came here from some foreign ship and lived here, and knew better than anyone else to find plovers' eggs; and I have seen the rim of a foreign ship, rising out of the sand at low tide, which was wrecked here seventy years ago, and is now turning green under the water.

Men and women, here at the 'Point', loiter about all day long; there are benches outside most of the cabins and they sit there, or on the low, rough wall which skirts the road, or on the big stones at the edge of the water, or upon the Greenlands. Most of the women are bare-headed, none go barefoot, and only a few of the poorer children. And the children here are very proud. They will row you about all day for nothing, but they will not bring you a can of water from the well if you pay them for it. That is a point of view they have learnt from their parents, and it seems to me a simple and sufficing one. For these people have attained comfort, a certain dignity (that dignity which comes from concerning yourself only with what concerns you), and they have the privilege of living in a beautiful harmonious place, without any of the distractions which harass poorer or less contented people in towns, and keep them from the one thing worth living for, the leisure to know oneself. This fine laziness of theirs in the open air, with the constant, subduing sense of the sea's peril, its hold upon their lives and fortunes, moulds them often into a self--sufficing manliness, a hardy woman-hood; sometimes it makes them dreamers, and see fairies and hear the fairy piper calling in the caves.

How, indeed, is it possible that they should not see more of the other world than most folk do, and catch dreams in their nets? For it is a place of dreams, a grey gentle place, where the sand melts into the sea, the sea into the sky, and the mountains and the clouds drift one into the other. I have never seen so friendly a sea nor a sea so full of the ecstasy of sleep. On one of those luminous grey days, which are the true atmosphere of the place, it is like being in a eternal morning of twilight to wander over the undulating Greenlands, fringed at the shore by a soft rim of bent, a pale honey-coloured green along the delicate grey sand, from Dead Man's Point to the point of the Third Rosses. The sea comes in softly, rippling against the sand with a low plashing, which even on very warm days has a cool sound and a certain gentleness even on days of rough weather. The headland of Roughly O'Byrne runs on. a wavering line of faint green, from the dark and cloudy masses of Lissadell woods into the hesitating line of the grey water. On the other side of the bay Dorran's Island curves around, almost like part of the semi-circle of the mainland, its sickle-point leaning out towards the white lighthouse, which rises out of the water like a phantom, or the stone image of a wave that has risen up out of the sea on a day of storm. Faint mountains glimmer out to sea, many-coloured mountains close in upon the land, shutting it off from the world of strange cities. And if you go in a little from the sea-edge, over the Greenlands, you will come to a great pool, where the waters are never troubled, nor the reeds still; but there is always a sighing of wind in the reeds, as of a very gentle and melancholy peace.

Go in a little further still and you come to the fighting village of Maugherow, where the men are red-bearded, fierce, great shouters, and not readier to row than to do battle with their oars. They come into Rosses Point, generally at the regatta; and at that time the 'Point' is at its liveliest, there is much whiskey drunk, and many quarrels flame up. There is a great dance, too, most years at the time of the regatta.

It is known as the cake dance, and not so long ago, a cake and a bottle of whiskey were hung out of a window by green ribbons, the cake for the best woman dancer and the bottle of whiskey for the best man dancer. Now, there is no cake at all and if there is whiskey it is handed over the counter in big glasses, and not hung out of the window by green ribbons. The prize now is money, and so the people of the 'Point', with their fine, independent objection to doing anything for money, are less ready to show off their notable powers of dancing; and the women, who besides, are getting to prefer the waltzes and quadrilles of the towns, will not take part in the dance at all.

The regatta this year was not too well managed, having passed out of the hands of the village pilots; and it was unwisely decided that the dance should be held the same evening, outside the door of a public house where the crews of the losing boats had been drinking at the expense of the captains of the winning boats. It was very dark, and there was a great crowd, a great confusion. A somewhat battered door had been laid down for the dancing, and the press of people kept swaying in upon the narrow limits of the door, where only a few half-tipsy fellows pounded away, lurching into one another's arms. Everybody swayed and yelled, and encouraged, and expostulated, and the melodeon sounded fitfully; and presently the door was pulled from under the feet of the dancers and the police shouldered into the midst of what would soon have been a very pretty fight. The dance was postponed to Monday when some of the boats were to race again.

I subsequently learned that dancing at Rosses Point had declined in popularity. The blame for this was laid on new ways and the coming of the waltzes and quadrilles, and the folly of young people who think old things are not enough for them.