Danny Nowlan’s Experiment in Goats
by Gerald Brenan

Perhaps it was through some of the varied cross-strains which go to make up Irish ancestry, that Danny Nowlan inherited vague leanings toward the doctrine of the transmigration of souls. Maybe he had found intimations of the doctrine in sundry stray volumes of his schoolboy past, and the seeds of thought thus generated, left quite unguarded, had become a warped and weird growth. Perhaps he had scoured up his strange theory from the depths of his inner life, in the fashion of the proverbial German. At any rate, Danny Nowlan had this theory: and he not only professed but practiced it.

This famous theory is best described as Danny himself described it to me, years ago, in Ballycarney churchyard.

I had strolled into the churchyard, partly because of its quaint old gravestones, and partly to peep at the lichened church through which Noll Cromwell's cannon-balls had whistled their Puritanic war-hymns. To my disgust, I found the paths in every direction infested by goats! Goats browsed among the tombs, clanking their hobbling-chains over the graves of the departed. There were goats in the ruined chancel where those stanch old chieftains, the O'Carneys of Ballycarney, rested shoulder to shoulder. There were goats in the bleak, nettle-grown inclosure to the north—Ballycarney's potter's field. one could scarcely stir for goats, of every size, age and color, from the ill-tempered patriarch of his tribe to the bleating kid of yesterday's weaning.

It was not strange, under these circumstances, that I should anathematize goats; I did it and with emphasis. The words were barely out of my mouth {to use an Irish idiom) when from the old church stepped forth a gray and wizened hunchback. It was Danny Nowlan, the parish sexton, tutelary genius of the place.

"Take shame to yourself!" cried the gravedigger, " for spakin' words the like o' them. Little ye know, I'll go bail, that my goats are no common ones. Little ye think, that comes among 'em wid a gibe on your lips, that the soul of a man dwells under the hairy hide of every goat in Ballycarney churchyard."

I have "fads" of my own; and lunacy is but an exaggeration of "fads." So I did not smile at this queer hunchback, lunatic though he might be. Instead, I craved his indulgence and the pardon of his goats, pleading ignorance in excuse for my hasty language.

Danny Nowlan was mollified. "Sure an' if you didn't know," he said, "you couldn't be expected to understand. Sit down on the tombstone there—'tis ould Sir Geoffrey O'Carney's, by the same token—an' I'll tell ye all about myself an' my goats."

I took my seat, accordingly, on Sir Geoffrey's sepulcher, while Danny Nowlan expounded to me his theory. "As sexton of the churchyard," quoth the hunchback, " I have the rights o' the grass—meanin' that I can graze any bastes belongin' to me on the graves. An' 'tis good grass an' rich, your honor, that grows in a churchyard. But the stuff that's in the grass, sure it differs wid every grave—an' that's where my thayory begins.

"I started wid one solitary goat, because I was poor then, an' hadn't got wisdom. That single goat, combined wid a naatural gift of observation, taught me all I know. To-day I have a neat house beyant, au' fifty-five pound in Kilmore Bank. All along o' the goats— an' the grass o' the graves!

"You see I didn't like to put my one goat on the graves of the dacint people, because I thought their childher an' them that belonged to them mightn't like it. So I just hobbled my first goat over there beyant, on the north side, where the potther's field is, an' all the tramps an' niver-do-wells are laid. Would ye believe, your honor? After three months' feedin' in potther's field, chains couldn't hould that goat. He became the worst blackguard an' the worst wanderer—savin' your presence, for 'tis a wanderer you are yourself— in the barony of Kilcarney. Divil a morning’ but I had to go stravaglin' afther him—a mighty hard thing for a poor boy wid a back like mine, avic.

“Well, one day while I was leadin" Oliver Crummle—I called the goat Oliver Crummle because I could get no good of him—as I was leadin' of him home to his ould quarters in potther's field, word came to me of a buryin'. So I just tied Oliver to the nearest grave, an' left him there. I never noticed at the time that the grave belonged to Father Roger Walsh (God rest his sowl!), the best priest an' the best man that ever lived in the parish of Ballycarney. You can tell what a saint Father Roger was by readin' his cynotaph — though sorra' guide that is, for there's many a dirty blackguard that has the fine tombstone. But Father Roger's raal tomb is in the hearts o' the people; an' 'tis the good, honest man he was, entirely.

"Anyhow, I left my goat overnight on the priest's grave. Next day, when I got out o' bed, I remembered him; an' I says—I'll go bail that my bould Crummle is half-way to Carney Hall back gate by this time!” So out I goes; an' there, if you'll believe me, was' Oliver Crummle, squattin' quietly on his hunkers, eatin' away at the grass on Father Roger's grave.

Arrah. Oliver, ma bouchal,' says I; ‘if your new quarters suit you so well, you may as well stick to them.' So I left him tied to the priest's tomb.

Your honor, that goat got so good, that at last I took the chain off his leg altogether. You couldn't coax him away the baste; an' wid the money I bought two young goats instead o' one. But I larned a lesson from Dan O'Connell, late Oliver Crummle. No more goats went to graze on potther's field. I kept 'em tied to the pillars of Father Roger's gravestone; an' the result was that the fame o' my goats spread from Ballycarney to Kilmore city, an' I made money hand over fist. Every pound I got went back into goats; until I had so many that divil another goat could find room over Father Roger Walsh. So I took a quiet rayson wid myself—an' it was then that I laid down my thayory.

"I says to myself: ' 'Tis not the grass, avic, but the man that's buried underneath, that counts.' Graze a goat over a niver-do-well or a tramp, an' that goat turns out tramp or niver-do-well. But graze your goat over a good, honest man, an' you'll have a good, honest goat. 'Tis mighty easy to see the dayduction I drew from them facts—as Mr. Carney himself admitted to me.

"Anyhow, Father Walsh's grave bein' occupied, I had to look around for a new piece o' good man's grass. ' I'll try the quality next,' says I; and so I tied the goats to the very tomb you're sittin' on— the tomb of ould Sir Geoffrey O'Carney, Mr. Carney's ancestor, that was lord here afore Crummle's time. Well, avic, the goats turned out well enough in point o' dacincy; but they got so mortial proud off that O'Carney grass, that they were no use to sell any more. They turned up their noses at thistles an' prassheoch. Nothing but the best an' tindherest grass, if you please, would suit 'em. Sure the ould O'Carney sap had got into their veins, an' there's no finer an’ no ouldher blood in all the County Kilmore than them same O'Carneys—or 'Carneys' as they call themselves, since every gombeen-man sticks an ' O' to his father's name. Arrah, that's a sample o' their pride; for they'd rather sacrifice the O' they fought for, six hundred years an' more, than share it wid people that have no call to it. Well, anyhow, the goats that grazed on Sir Geoffrey's grass turned out so haughty that I had to give 'em to the priest—because, ye know, 'tis the custom to give anything you can get no good of to the church, in these parts. “My thayory worked so well, an' I made so much money by grazin' goats over good, quiet men, that by an' by I could afford to expayriment—as Mr. Carney calls it. Them expayriments would fill a book!

"I grazed a goat on Marty Bowling the poacher's grave ; an' that goat never cared for his own grass, but loved nothing better than breakin' out an' stealin' from his neighbor. Another goat that fed over Larry Gaffagan (the best hurler, runner an' jumper in the parish was Larry!) ; an' the divil himself couldn't hould that baste. Wid my own two eyes I saw him take the big inthrance gates at Carney Hall, in one bound. He could run faster than the wind; an' Mr. Carney called him the athlete.' You can see for yourself how he came to be an athlete.

"But the last of my expayriments was wid the goat I took outside the wall to where they lay the murdherers an' suicides— mighty few o' the likes is in Ballycarney, thanks be to the Lord! One dark night that poor crayture burst his chain, gored two other goats to death an' was found drowned in the River Feor next mornin'. There he lay—murdherer an' suicide in one; an' 'twas all my fault for grazin' him where I did.

''That brought me remorse o' conscience, an' I followed out the thayory, widout any expayriments at all. The good goats, that could stand a bit o' divilment, I put on the graves o' playboys an" merry fellows; an' the bad goats, that was far gone in wickedness, were hobbled over the bones o' fine, dacint men, like his reverence. But them goats that was too poor o' sperit an' humble beyond rayson, I brought to the O'Carney graves, where the grass is so proud it scorns to grow daisies.

"An' the outcome o' the thayory. your honor, is that my goats keep at the same level all the year round—an' divil a finer breed o' goats you'll find in Kilmore County."

Here Danny paused abruptly—his crooked figure assuming an attitude of the keenest attention. Indeed there was something strongly suggestive of his own goats in the little man, as he listened eagerly—snuffing the air, goat fashion, as though scenting distant trouble. Then clambering upon Sir Geoffrey's tomb, and shading his eyes with one hand, he looked to the eastward with head bent as far back as his deformity would allow and his uncouth nose well cocked up.

For several minutes, it seemed, there was an absolute and almost painful silence, so intent was Danny upon something which I could neither see nor hear. At last a light of comprehension spread over his wrinkled old face as he laboriously hopped down from the tomb.

My duller ear now caught the sound which had doubtless disturbed my mentor —the distant noise of clashing goat-horns.

"Wirrah! wirrah!" cried the little sexton—"'tis the thayory workin', your honor. Last night I shifted a dacint goat from Father Roger's grave to where Lanty Houragan — the swearin', fightin', swaggerin' blackguard— lies, undher the whitethorn beyant; an' the goat that was browsin' over poor Lanty I dhragged wid great throuble an' a power o' persuasion to Father Roger's blessed grass. "Tis me last expayriment, your honor. Faith, I'm thinkin' I'm but the half-witted boy to have done it, for I know me thayory works as sure as the sun and the expayriments bring little but throuble.

"An' what, think you, is the result of the thransfer? There's Lanty Houragan's savage goat, turned as mild as spring water, grazin' peacefully an' forgettin' his evil past, when along comes the very same nice, gentle, dacint goat that I took from the priest’s grave only last night. May I die an Orangeman, if Father Roger’s goat hasn’t been utterly ruinated by one single night o’ Lanty Houragan’s grass; an’ if I don’t make haste, he’ll make goat-flesh o’ my latest convert! For ‘tis the new-born rapscallion is now afther breakin’ loose an’ a spreein’ an’ cavortin’ all over the dacint graves.”

Danny hobbled away with as much haste as he could to put a stop to a too violently practical exhibition of the theory of the “grass o’ the graves.”




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