It was a night in November when Sarah Scanlon stood for a moment on the well worn gravelled by-road in the valley of Gort-na-Mor. She had decided to elope. Elopement in Gort-na-Mor was still known as a "clean run away". Behind her back, but never to her face, the neighbours called her Sarah "The Lady"due to the fact that she wore hats with silk bands and coloured feathers. After tonight the same neighbours would call her Sarah "The Hussy" with mock concern for her father, Jamsey and her mother Liza
Gort-na-Mor was that kind of place. If anybody stepped out of line, he or she would immediately merit a nick name. Sarah's father was called Jamesy "The Foal" because he had a mare and he took great pride in each new foal as he always got top price. Her mother was called Liza "The nettle Yank". Liza came from Carraig Mor mountain , where, when growing up, they had eels and nettles for dinner. As a young woman Liza had gone to the States to earn her American dowry which, on her return, would enable her to marry into good land. Sarah's only brother, Paidin, was known as "The young Foal".
The people of Gort-na-Mor were afraid of strangers. They were also afraid of any form of modern civilisation, especially the dispensary in the town as they were vaguely aware that it was founded under a Charity Act. They were nervous of the town itself, in a way not subject to reason, and they saw the town only as a place for buying and selling.
In Gort-na-Mor there was no tap water supply, no creamery or sawmill, just a post office. People, young and old, would walk from a wake long after midnight. Places along the way might be regarded as haunted and explanations of these imagined happenings were given through fairy narrative. All the people, including Liza and Jamsey, loved the land and were intensely interested in the Land Acts, almost to the exclusion of everything else. When it came to marriage, love took a back seat. In Gort-na-Mor they practised match making where land and money were the most important partners.
In those times, Sarah's home would be considered modern and wise. After all her mother had worked in America. Sarah and her brother, Paidin, had eaten toast and scrambled egg in their home and Liza, their mother, had made bilberry pies. Many times Liza had given her husband, Jamsey, sound advice. He was a quiet man, easily managed, a good worker but not over bright. He could neither read nor write but he was able to count.
Liza brought more from America than just money. She brought with her an awareness of life and she knew quite well that she had sacrificed a lot in marrying Jamsey. But he had good land and she accepted that you can't get everything in this world. To justify and reconcile her own life to herself Liza lived through proverbs. Some of these proverbs were direct translations from the old Irish which she had learned on Carraig Mor mountain when she was a child and they stood well to her in America. Liza used the proverbs with such repetition that Jamsey, Sarah and Paidin had them all off by heart. Each time that a foal was for sale she warned Jamsey a few times, knowing that he wasn't too bright, "if you have only got a goat for sale be in the middle of the fair". Many times she warned Sarah "'tis better to be an old man's pet than a young man's slave". And the advice she gave to Paidin had to do with money "mind the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves". Liza had endless proverbs. "A stitch in time saves nine" "Look before you leap" "Many a false step is made by standing still" "A rolling stone gathers no moss" "Love goes out the door when poverty comes in the window". But the proverb which left an impression on her daughter Sarah was '"Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all".
Only an hour had gone by since Sarah had left the warmth of her home and the sweet smell of baking boxty on the pretence of searching the drains for the ten ducks. For weeks she had planned the runaway.
As Liza was taking the mugs from the dresser in preparation for the evening meal, she saw in one mug a neatly folded sheet of paper. She placed the mugs on the table and casually wiped her hand in her apron before opening the note. In disbelief the middle aged woman read the short message: "Dear Mam and Dear Dad, Patsy and I will be man and wife in the morning. Goodbye and Good Luck, Your fond daughter, Sarah". Liza shuffled across the kitchen floor and sat on the settle-bed. Her dream for Sarah, the dream she had shared many times with her husband Jamsey, was turning into a nightmare. Liza wanted Sarah to be married alright but not married to Patsy "The Pauper" who lived on bog land that only a snipe would envy. She wanted Sarah married into green fields stretching out towards the sunrise with no broken fences interrupting the beauty of grazing cows in lush pasture. Fields where a baying horse could canter and kick up the red earth with vigour and vitality. She would have the luxury of carding and weaving pure wool shorn from her own sheep and she would be called the "Queen of the Buttermakers". In Liza's dream Sarah would have sons and daughters too and her man would wear a Sunday suit. She also had a dream for her son Paidin. He would marry a wise woman with a good dowry and Liza would add this dowry to the substantial fortune she had already saved for Sarah through the sale of foals and flocks of geese.
Just then Jamsey and Paidin walked into the warm kitchen. In a bereaved tone Liza said "Sarah has run away". "Well" said Paidin "she is outside now puttin' a stone to the duck house door and she'll be in here in a minute". Liza composed herself quickly by asking "Is there frost out tonight"?
When Sarah walked into the kitchen there was no word spoken for about five minutes. At last Liza said "so you changed your mind". "No" said Sarah "Patsy changed his mind. We had arranged to meet on the edge of the bog, near where the wild duck had her nest last year, and his shadow never appeared and that is the end of the story". "No" said Liza "that is the end of the story for Patsy "The Pauper" but it is not the end of the story for you, it is only the beginning. You will leave this house when arrangements have been made and you'll go into the town and learn the shop business. All the people of Gort-na-Mor are stoking their embers tonight and laughing at our dreams and they'll call you Sarah "The Hussy". But we will have the last laugh because your dowry won't go into any bogs or green fields now. When you have the trade learned you will open up your own shop with your own dowry and instead of cutting nettles for a runaway pauper, you'll be cutting fine cloth and showing off feathered hats on a polished counter within in the town. You'll leave Gort-na-Mor behind you with all its fairy talk, mocking nicknames and haunted places and you'll meet new and nice people" Jamsey, who had been sitting with his head between his knees, now stood up with the confidence of a man selling the best foal on a fair day. "That was great encouragement you gave to Sarah" he said and then turning to Sarah "you will marry a man with a hotel". "And she will surely Jamsey" said Liza "and yourself and myself will stay for a few nights in the hotel when Paidin is married and we will drink coffee made in a percolator, like the coffee I had in America long ago." Paidin, who was now sitting on the settle-bed, rubbed his face and looking directly at his mother he said "it is a nice dream" "Sure everything is a dream Paidin a gra before it happens. Some dreams come true and some turn into nightmares" said Liza. "When I leave the fairy talk, the mocking nicknames and the haunted places after me, will I leave the proverbs too"? asked Sarah. "I can't answer that question" said Liza "all I can say is, that after tonight, I hope your life will never need the proverbs" And what about "'tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all" asked Sarah. Well the answer to that Sarah is "there are more fish in the sea than were ever caught and sometimes when you throw out the sprat you may catch a salmon"