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As Gaeilge
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Travels in County Clare 1534 - 1911
(extracts from The Strangers Gaze, edited by Brían Ó Dálaigh)

Bernard Becker, Disturbed Clare, 1880

By 1880 County Clare was again in turmoil as the land war and the demand for the abolition of landlordism entered a dynamic phase. The new out-break of disturbances aroused interest in England and Bernard Becker, a London journalist with the Daily News, was sent to report on the distressed conditions in Ireland. Becker claimed to be an ‘intelligent foreigner’ with no Irish politics or connections so that his comments could be accepted as fair and impartial. In a series of letters to his newspaper he described conditions in the west of Ireland. He confined his inquiries to counties Kerry, Clare, Galway and Mayo. The letters are claimed to be plain, descriptive accounts of ‘a strange phase in national life.’ In reality Becker was strongly sympathetic towards landlords. He lodged at Edenvale with Richard Stacpoole, one of the largest and most unyielding landlords in the county. He was critical of tenants and largely unsympathetic to their demands. He paints an insulting and degrading pen picture of Michael Considine, secretary of the Ennis Tradesmen Association and the man responsible for the erection of the O’Connell Monument in the town. His account of the reclamation of lands in the Fergus estuary is informative and, interestingly, records one of the earliest uses of electricity in County Clare. When published, Disturbed Ireland made a considerable impact: it gave rise to debates on the ‘Irish Question’ in the House of Commons. In essence the book is a republication in collected form of his letters from Ireland. Nearly forty pages are devoted to describing conditions in Clare, edited extracts from which are printed below. Disturbed Ireland was Becker’s only book to achieve public notoriety. In 1884 he published the less controversial Holiday Haunts by Cliffside and Riverside. He died in London, January 1900.

Ennis, Co. Clare. Nov. 21st. 1880. The condition of affairs at Edenvale is in many respects even more curious than that at Lough Mask House. There is none of the pomp and circumstance of open war. There is not a soldier or a policeman on the premises. All is calm and pastoral. From a lodge so neat and trim that it is a pleasure to look upon it, a well-kept road winds through a well-wooded and beautiful park, in the centre of which, on the brink of a lake, stands a large and handsome country house. All is ship-shape, from the gravel on the path to the knocker on the door, which is promptly opened, without grating of bolt or rattle of chain, by a clean, well-dressed, civil servitor.

Mr Stacpoole, whose appearance and manner are as frank as his welcome is hearty, is by no means reticent as to the matters in debate between him and the tenants holding from him and other members of his family for whom he acts as agent. To the question whether he goes in fear of his life, he replies, ‘Not at all; I take care of that,’ and out of the pocket of his lounging jacket he takes a revolver of very large bore. It is a curious picture, this drawing-room at Edenvale. On his own hearth-rug, in his own house, with a silky white Maltese lapdog and a beautiful terrier nestling at his feet, stands no English or Scotch interloper, agent, middleman, or ‘land-grabber,’ but the representative of one of the oldest, most honourable, and, I may add, till recently most honoured families in the county, with his hand on the pistol which is never out of his reach by day or night. There was once no more popular man in Clare. His steeplechasers win glory for Ireland at Liverpool, whether they return a profit to the owner or not. He keeps up, with slight assistance from members of the Hunt, a pack of harriers, and hunts them himself. His cousin, the late Captain Stacpoole, of Ballyalla, was the well-known ‘silent member’ who for twenty years represented Ennis in parliament. Finally, he is spending at least 3,000l. a year in household expenses alone; but he never leaves his revolver; and he is in the right, for not two hours ago a local leader declared to me with pale face and flaming eyes that he would ‘gladly go to the gallows for 'um.’

But the local leader does not, or at least has not yet shot at Mr Stacpoole because he ‘can't get at 'um’- a phrase which requires some explanation. I had, with an eye becoming practised in such matters, scanned the house and its approaches as I drove up to the door, and had discussed with the friend who introduced me to its master the chances of ‘stalking’ that gentleman on his own ground. Trees and brushwood grew more closely to the house than a military engineer would have permitted, and I hazarded the opinion that it would be easy to ‘do him over,’ as it is called. But on talking to Mr Stacpoole I quickly discover that the real reason why he is now alive is that ninety-nine out of a hundred of his enemies are as afraid of him as the Glenveagh folk up in Donegal are of Mr J. G. Adair. Brave and resolute to a fault, he has openly declared his dislike for what is called ‘protection.’ ‘But,’ he observes, quietly and simply, ‘I always carry my large-bore revolver, and I never walk alone, even across the path to look down at the lake. Whenever I go out, and wherever I go, I have a trustworthy man with me carrying a double-barrelled gun. His orders are distinct. If anybody fires at me he is not to look at me, but let me lie, and kill the man who fired the shot. And I am not sure that if he saw an armed man near me in a suspicious attitude that he wouldn’t shoot first. I most certainly will myself. If I catch any of them armed and lurking about near my house, I will kill them, and they know it.’

There was no appearance of emotion in the speaker, whose collection of threatening letters is large and curious. His position was clearly defined. There was no longer any law in Clare. It was everybody for himself, and he would take care of himself in his own way. Mr Stacpoole's situation is certainly extraordinary. He is not an ‘exterminator,’ but perhaps he is a ‘tyrant,’ for everybody is considered one who tries to exact obedience from any created being in the west of Ireland. He has incurred the ill-will of the popular party, mainly through his debate with one Welsh, or Walsh, a small farmer.

So far as it is possible to understand the matter, this Welsh and two other persons held a farm of about fifty acres among them as co-tenants, paying each one-third of the rent. Whether Welsh had reclaimed bog and increased his store is not clear, but it is certain that when the lease fell in he had about half of the farm and the other two tenants the other half between them.

Moreover, the land was not ‘striped’ in blocks, but remained in awkward patches, so that each man was obliged to cross the other's land, and perpetual squabbling occurred. So when the question of a new lease arose, Mr Stacpoole sent a surveyor to divide the holding into three equal shares as justly and conveniently as might be with reference to the tenants’ houses. This was done, the land was re-valued at 12s. 6d. per acre, the tenants preferring to hold it without a lease. Thus two were pleased and one displeased by the new arrangement, and the displeased one, Welsh, or Walsh, was finally evicted a short while since, and his house pulled down. Only the other day a mob assembled, rebuilt Welsh's house, and reinstated his wife and family, who occupy it at this moment. Welsh himself is not with them for the reason that Mr Stacpoole has an attachment out against him. However, the family remains, and no process-server would show his face at the rebuilt house for fifty pounds. Mr Stacpoole could, of course, go and turn the people out as trespassers, but does not think it worth while until he joins issue with all the recalcitrant tenants under his control. Some forty of these will neither pay up nor surrender their holdings, and Mr Stacpoole declares that he will get Dublin writs against the whole of them, and that if they do not yield he will evict them all and compel the authorities to support him. There is no concealment about all this, and it is quite certain that if Mr Adair's action in the Derryveagh matter is imitated it will only be by aid of the military. The landlord declares he will ‘have his own,’ and the tenants talk ominously of the ‘short days and long nights’ between this and spring. . . .

Ennis, Co. Clare. Nov. 22nd. [1880]. Ennis, on deliberate inspection, proves to be by far the most interesting western town I have yet visited. To paraphrase a familiar saying, its politics and its liquor are as strong as they are abundant. Ennis is famous for its electioneering fights, for its three bridges, for its public square ‘forenint’ O'Connell's statue, said to have held thirty thousand people on a space which would not contain a fifth of that number, for its numerous banks, for its fine salmon river, the Fergus, for its police barrack, once the mansion of the Crowe family, and for its long since closed Turkish bath, the ruined proprietor whereof is now in the lunatic asylum on the road to Ballyalla. Ennis is also proud of its County Club, of its handsome drapery stores, of its brand-new waterworks, of its hundred and odd whiskey-shops, and of its patriots. Of the latter by far the most eminent is a certain man named in newspaper reports M. G. Considine, Esq., but better known to his fellow-citizens as ‘Dirty Mick.’ Mr Considine is a fine specimen of the good old crusted Irish patriot. He has pursued patriotism ever since the day of Daniel O'Connell, and it redounds greatly to his honour that he is now as poor as when he started in that profession.

This Milesian Diogenes is in many respects the most remarkable man in County Clare, after, if not before, The O'Gorman Mahon himself. He is also the dirtiest. But the grime on Mr Considine has a romantic origin. It is the fakir's robe of filth. When he was only a budding patriot the great Liberator once kissed him. Mr Considine determined that the cheek sanctified by the embrace of O'Connell should never again be profaned by water, that the kiss should never be washed off. Without speculating as to the degree of cleanliness previously favoured by Mr Considine, it must be conceded that it is very difficult to wash day by day, or week by week, as the case may be, round a certain spot on one cheek which, moreover, would soon get out of harmony with the remainder of the countenance. It is easier, ‘wiser, better far,’ to bring the whole face into harmony with the sacred sunny side of it.

This has been done; and the result is a picture worthy of Murillo or Zurbaran. From the grimy but handsome well-cut face gleam a pair of bright, marvellously bright blue eyes, and the voice which bids welcome to the stranger is curiously sweet and sonorous. Mr Considine is quite the best speaker here, and his summons will always bring an audience to Ennis. One enthusiast said to me, ‘Whin he dies, may the heaven be his bed, and his statue should be beside O’Connell’s in Ennis.’ Now this model patriot, whom every one must perforce respect for his perfect honesty and disinterestedness, keeps a wretched little shop in a trumpery cabin. His stock-in-trade consists of a few newspapers, his pantry holds but potatoes. Yet he is a great power in Ennis, and the candidate for that borough who neglected him would fare badly. I am not insinuating that any charge of venality can attach to him. Quite the contrary. He is admitted to be a perfectly disinterested citizen by those most opposed to him socially and politically. He is not only one of those who have kept the sacred fire of agitation burning since the days of O’Connell, but he is possessor of relics of ‘98. He owns and dons upon the occasion the Vinegar Hill uniform, and has ‘98 flags by him to air on great days. By dint of sheer honesty and truthfulness this poor grimy old man has become actually one of the chiefs of County Clare. . . .

Ennis, Co. Clare. Friday, Nov. 26th. [1880]. It is noteworthy that the only two persons who are doing much reclamation work in the West of Ireland are Manchester men. Mr Mitchell Henry has awakened Connemara, and Mr Drinkwater has performed a similar operation upon County Clare. Nothing in connection with the Kylemore and Fergus reclamation works, which have brought to and distributed a large sum of money in their respective districts, is more remarkable than the apathy of the surrounding proprietors in one case and their hostility in the other. . .

In 1843 The O’Gorman Mahon himself, as a county member, talked about the grand lands to be reclaimed from the Fergus, and the county talked about it; but nothing was done. This is the pleasant way of the West. All take an interest in any possible or impossible enterprise; but when it comes to finding some money and doing something, the scheme is relegated to the limbo of things undone.

The principal riparian [riverside] proprietors were Lords Inchiquin, Leconfield, and Conyngham, mostly absentees. Lord Conyngham was naturally indifferent, for his estate in Clare was to be sold in Dublin on Tuesday, and his interest in the county thus had ceased. Lord Leconfield is also an absentee, without even an address in the county. Perhaps, as the three noblemen mentioned own between them 85,226 acres in County Clare alone, without counting their other possessions, they thought that at any rate there was land enough, such as it is, in the county. Judging by the government valuation the land held by them is not of the best quality, for it is set down at 38,188l., and probably is not let at very much more than that sum; but at the most moderate estimate they draw, or rather drew, more than 40,000l. a year from County Clare. When they were invited to share in reclaiming the rich mud-banks of the Fergus, and thus add 10,000 acres of virgin soil to the rateable value of the county, they declined with perfect unanimity. They did more than this. When Mr Drinkwater had bought out the concessionees of 1860 and 1873 - who had not struck a single stroke of work - and was endeavouring to get the necessary bills through parliament, he found himself confronted by the seignorial and other vested rights of these great landowners, who appeared determined, not only to do nothing themselves, but to prevent anybody else from doing anything - unless he paid hand-somely for their permission. . . .

Being sceptical about the ‘slob,’ I went to see it. . . At last we were on the road to Clare Castle, which might, in the high-flown language of the West, be fitly described as the ‘seaport’ of Ennis. The river Fergus flows through Ennis, but it is broader and deeper at Clare Castle, a village of ordinary Connaught hovels. There is, however, a quay here, a relic of ‘relief-work’ in famine time, and affording ‘convenience’ for vessels of considerable size. Below the bridge and alongside the quay lies a large steam-tug, and lower down the stream is moored a similar vessel. A large number of rafts are being laden with stone to be presently towed down to the reclamation works. As we steam down the Fergus towards its junction with the Shannon at ‘The Beeves’ rock, the stream spreads out to a great width, enclosing several islands, green as emeralds, of which Smith’s Island and Islandavanna are, perhaps, the principal.

There is, however, a marked difference between the area of the Fergus at high and low water. What at one time is an inland sea, is at the other a vast lake of mud rich in the constituents of fertility. As we reach this point of the river a mist arises compelling reduced speed, and as we pass by the upper station of the slob works a low range of corrugated iron shedding shines out suddenly through a break in the vapour, and, as the sun again pierces through, a long, low, dark line is seen stretching from the shore into the water like the extremity of some huge saurian [lizard] of the Silurian period reposing on his native slime and ooze. But the lengthy monster lying in a vast curve is not at peace, for on the jagged ridge of his mighty back a puffing, snorting, smoking plague perpetually runs up and down. The apparent plague, however, is really increasing the size of the saurian. Every day hundreds of tons of stone are carried over his back-ridge and tipped into the water at the end of him, while scores of raftloads are flung into the water on the line staked and flagged out by the officials of the Government. Within a few weeks the growth of the saurian will not cease by day or night, until, as in the case of his kindred ophidian [snakes], his two extremities are brought together. For Mr Drinkwater has contracted with the British Electric Lighting Company to supply him with the electric light. The motive power is all ready, and no sooner is the apparatus fixed than County Clare will be astonished by the sight of work going on perpetually till it is completed, and amazement will reach its highest pitch. The people, gentle and simple, already confess themselves astonished at what can and has been done, and those who at first laughed are now seeking how they may best imitate.

As the tail of the saurian may be said to stretch into the water high above Islandavanna, so may his head be said to project from that pretty patch of verdure. Islandavanna is already a peninsula being connected with the mainland by a massive stone causeway, traversed every half-hour by a locomotive, hauling a train of trucks laden with stone, which, passing over the end of the island, runs out into the water to the ‘tip end’, as it is called.

So the work is carried on, like modern railway tunnelling, from both ends simultaneously, and when head and tail of the saurian meet the first 1,500 acres will be reclaimed. The ‘slob’ will be easy to drain, and it is tolerably certain that within twelve months the first instalment will be ready for cropping. It is a sight to make a Dutchman’s mouth water - a ‘polder’ of surpassing excellence, but it is viewed in a different light by enthusiastic wild duck shooters, who, like the owner of a grouse moor, look upon drainage and reclamation as the visible work of the devil. I do not think they need be alarmed for some time to come, for, without exaggeration, I have seen so many duck on the Fergus and the lower Shannon that I hesitate to speak of figures and incur the fate of Messer Marco Polo, who, when he spoke of the vast population of China, was nick-named by his incredulous countrymen ‘Marco Millione.’ But when I say that I have seen scores of flights a quarter of a mile long, that I have seen reaches of water so full of ducks and other water fowl that they looked like floating islands, I only give a faint idea of the quantity I have beheld between Islandavanna and the abortive ocean steam packet port of Foynes.

Islandavanna is one of three stations of the reclamation works, and is occupied by about a third of the four hundred and fifty men now at work. In the summer seven hundred were employed, but the present season is not so favourable for getting stone and pushing on operations.

The electric light, however, will, it is hoped, help matters greatly, and redress the balance of the ‘long nights and short days.’. . .

It is hardly possible to convey more than the faintest idea of the rancour evolved by the jealousy of the Clare men against the Limerick men, of the hatred of both against a Galway man, and of the aversion of all three counties for Mayo and Donegal people. The citizens of the petty republics of Greece and Italy never abhorred each other more fervently. Now on large works with sub-contractors, gangers, artisans, and labourers, by piece and by day, it is no easy matter to keep matters going smoothly. It is needless to say that skilled artisans, such as engine-men and the like, are not picked up in County Clare; but no especial spite is felt against them. They are Englishmen, and that is sufficient; but if a gang of Clare men be dismissed and one of Limerick men taken on, there are signs of trouble in the air. Justice must be done to County Clare. Are the children of the soil to want bread while strangers eat it? For a Limerick man to the poor untravelled folk of Clare Castle, of Kilrush, and of Kilbaha is a stranger. . . .

It is no easy matter to found such a centre of industry as the works on the Fergus, but it is to be sincerely hoped that many such attempts will be made despite of discouragement. Experience has shown that the neglected and, in many localities, degraded West is abundantly capable of improvement. Mr Drinkwater determined to take the only way possible in these parts, that is, to feed and lodge his little army of workpeople, to establish a club for them, to give them a reading-room, to get porter for them at wholesale price - in short, to afford them every inducement to prefer the new settlements on the Fergus to the wretched huts and groggeries of Clare Castle and the surrounding villages. He insists, moreover, that every man shall have his half-pound of meat, either beef, mutton, or bacon, every day but Friday. . .

There are a store-house and a refectory, a cooking department and dormitories, perfectly ventilated and swept and garnished every day. Tea, beer, and other beverages except whiskey can be obtained, and there is an abundant supply of books and newspapers. Every facility and encouragement is given to the priests to visit their people. In short, the colony on the Fergus Reclamation Works is one of the most extraordinary sights in the West of Ireland. As the entire work will hardly be completed under five or six years, the influence of such a community of people doing their work steadily and thoroughly ought to be very valuable. . . .

The poor people here require to be taught many things; notably to obey orders, to mind their own business, to hold their tongues, and to wash themselves; but it is impossible to expect four such virtues as obedience, industry, silence, and cleanliness to be acquired all at once by people who have been neglected for centuries. But there can be no radical defect in them, for they work hard enough in America, and under strict taskmasters too, for a Yankee farmer is like a Yankee skipper, inclined to pay good wages, but to insist on the money being earned. . .

In no part of Ireland that I have seen are class distinctions more sharply defined. The landholding gentry are with but two or three exceptions Protestants, and, with the exception of Lord Inchiquin, are of English, Scotch, or Dutch descent, as such names as Vandeleur, Crowe, Stacpoole, and Burton indicate. I am not aware of the landed possessions of The O’Gorman Mahon, but I have already stated that his nephew holds only a moderate estate, let by the way at about three times the government valuation - but not, I must add, necessarily, rackrented, for Griffith’s is, for reasons fully explained by a score of writers besides myself, a deceptive guide in grazing counties. The gentry of the county, however, are nearly all Protestant, and it is curious to note on Sunday at Ennis how the masters and their families go to one church and their servants to another. I am not insinuating that there is any sectarian squabbling. There is not, for the simple reason that the two classes of gentry and tradesfolk are too far apart to come into collision. On one side of a broad line stand the lords of the soil, of foreign descent, of Protestant religion, of exclusive social caste; on the other stand the people, the shopkeepers, the greater farmers and the peasants, all of whom are Irish Roman Catholics, and bound to each other by the ties of common religion, common descent, and often of actual kinship. There is, excepting perhaps a dozen professional men, no middle-class at all, through which the cultivation of the superior strata could permeate to the lower.

Probably no more difficult social condition ever presented itself. To show how completely the members of what ought to be a middle-class, I mean the large tenant-farmers, are identified with the peasant class, I may add that many of them, working with a capital of many thousands of pounds, are subscribers to the Land League, and that many are not paying their rent. Lord Inchiquin enjoys a good reputation as a landlord; but his tenants refuse to pay more than Griffith's valuation, and I hear that other great landlords in the county are not much more fortunate. What is most singular of all is that the middlemen, who are subletting and subdividing their holdings at tremendous rack-rents, are among the most prominent in refusing to pay the chief landlord. They see a great immediate advantage to themselves in the present movement, for they give but short credit to their tenants, while they enjoy the full benefit of a ‘hanging gale’,or owing always half a year's rent, according to the custom of this county.

Extracts taken from Bernard H. Becker, special commissioner of the ‘Daily News’, Disturbed Ireland: being the letters written during the winter of 1880-81 (London 1881), pp 153-181.


A Walking Tour, 1864
William Barry


A Visit to Bodyke, 1881
Jessie Craigen