Leaning there, idly scanning the grey masses overhead, with floating, carrotty beard, loose-lipped mouth, indeterminate other features, and eternal frieze coat dangling by a single button, this big, good-tempered-looking Con O'Malley of Inishmaan might have passed, in the eyes of an observer on the look-out for types, as the very picture and ideal of the typical Connaught peasant—if there are such things as typical peasants or, indeed, any other varieties of human beings, a point that might he debated. As a matter of fact, he was not in the least, however, what we mean when we talk of a typical man, for he had at least one strongly-marked trait which is even proverbially rare amongst men of his race and class—so rare, indeed, that it has been said to be undiscoverable amongst them. His first marriage—an event which took place thirty years back, while he was still barely twenty—had been of the usual mariage de convenance variety, settled between his own parents and the parent of his bride, with a careful, nay, punctilious, heed to the relative number of cows, turkeys, feather-beds, boneens, black pots and the like, producible upon either side, but as regards the probable liking or compatibility of the youthful couple absolutely no heed whatsoever. Con O'Malley and Honor O'Shea (as in western fashion she was called to the hour of her death) had, all the same, been a fairly affectionate couple, judged by the current standard, and she, at any rate, had never dreamt of anything being lacking in this respect. Sundry children had been born to them, of whom only one, a daughter, at the present time survived. Then, after some eighteen years of married life, Honor O'Shea had died, and Con O'Malley had mourned her with a commendable show of woe and, no doubt, a fair share of its inner reality also. He was by that time close upon forty, so that the fires of love, if they were ever going to he kindled, might have been fairly supposed to have shown some signs of their presence. Not at all. It was not until several years later that they suddenly sprang into furious existence. An accident set them alight, as, but for such an accident, they would in all probability have slumbered on in his breast, unsuspected and unguessed at, even by himself, till the day of his death.
It was a girl from the 'Continent,' as the islanders call the mainland, who set the spark to that long-slumbering tinder—a girl from Maam in the Joyce country, high up in the mountains of Connemara—a Joyce herself by name, a tall, wild-eyed, magnificently handsome creature, with an unmistakable dash of Spanish blood in her veins. Con had seen her for the first time at old Malachy O'Flaherty's wake, a festivity at which—Malachy having been the last of the real, original O'Flaherties of Aranmore—nearly every man in thethreee islands had mustered, as well as a considerable sprinkling of more or less remotely connected Joyces and O'Flaherties from the opposite coast. Whole barrels of whisky had been broached, and the drinking, dancing, and doings generally had been quite in accordance with the best of the old traditions.
Amongst the women gathered together on this celebrated occasion, Delia Joyce, of Maam in Connemara, had borne away the palm, as a Queen's yacht might have borne it away amongst an assembly of hookers and canal barges. Not a young man present on the spot—little as most of them were apt to be troubled with such perturbations—but felt a dim, unexplained trouble awake in his breast as the young woman from Maam swept past him, or danced with measured, stately steps down the centre of the stone floor; her red petticoat slightly kilted above her ankles, her head thrown back, her great, dark, slumberous eyes sweeping round the room, as she looked demurely from one strange face to another. Upon Con O'Malley—not amongst the category of young men—the effect was the most marked, most instantaneous, most overwhelming of all! Delia Joyce, as everyone in the room discovered in ten minutes, had no fortune, and, therefore, obviously, was no match. She was the orphan niece of a man who had seven living children of his own. She had not a cow, a gridiron, a penny-piece, an inch of land, not a possession of any sort in the world.
Regardless of this utterly damning fact, regardless of his own age, regardless of the outrage inflicted upon public opinion, regardless of everything and everybody, Con O'Malley fell hopelessly in love with her; clung to her skirts like a leech the whole evening; followed her the next day as she was about to step on board her curragh for the mainland; carried her, in short, bodily off her feet by the sheer vehemence of his love-making. He was still a good-looking man at the time; not bent or slouching, but well set up; a 'warm' man, 'well come' and 'well-to-do;' a man whose pleadings no woman—short, that is, of a bailiff's or a farmer's daughter—would disdain to listen to.
Delia Joyce coyly but gladly consented to respond to his ardour. It was a genuine love-match on both sides—that rarest of rare phenomena in peasant Ireland. That it would, as a matter of course, and for that very reason, turn out disastrously was the opinion, loudly expressed, of every experienced matron, not in Inishmaan alone, but for forty miles around that melancholy island. A 'Black stranger,' a 'Foreigner,' a girl ' from the Continent,' not related to anyone or belonging to the place! worse than all, a girl without a penny-piece, without a stool or a feather-bed to add to the establishment! There was not a woman, young or old, living on the three islands but felt a sense of intense personal degradation whenever the miserable affair was so much as alluded to before her!
Marriages, however, are queer things, and the less we prophesy about them the less likely we are perhaps to prove conspicuously wrong. So it was in this case. A happier, more admittedly successful marriage there never was or could be, save, indeed, in one important and lamentable respect, and that was that it came to an end only too soon. About a year after the marriage little Grania was born, two years after it a boy; then, within a few days of one another, the mother and the baby both died. From that day Con O'Malley was a changed man. He displayed no overwhelming or picturesque grief. He left the weeping and howling at the funeral, as was proper, to the professional mourners hired upon that occasion. He did not wear crape on his hat—the last for the excellent reason that Denny O'Shaughnessy made none, and Denny O'Shaughnessy was much the most fashionable of the weavers upon Inishmaan. He did not mope, he did not mourn, he did not do anything in particular. But from the day of his wife's death he went to the dogs steadily and relentlessly—to the dogs, that is, so far as it is going to the dogs to take no further interest in anything, including your own concerns. He did not even do this in any very eminent or extravagant fashion: simply became on a par with the most shiftless and thriftless of his neighbours, instead of being rather noticeably a contrast to them in these respects. Bit by bit, too, the 'Cruskeen Beg,' which had hitherto regarded him as only a very distant and unsatisfactory acquaintance, began to know him better. He still managed to keep the hooker afloat, but what it and his farm brought him in nearly all found its way across the counter of it or some kindred shebeen, and how Honor O'Malley contrived to keep herself and the small Grania, not to speak of a tribe of pensioners and hangers-on, upon the margin left was a marvel to all who were acquainted with the family. Nine years this process had been going on, and it was going on still, and, as the nature of things is, more and more rapidly of late. Poor Con O'Malley! He was not in the least a bad man; nay, he was distinctly a good man: kindly, religious, faithful, affectionate, generous—a goodly list surely of the virtues? But he had set his foot upon a very bad road, one which, all over the world, but especially in Ireland, there is rarely, or never, any turning back upon.