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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)

William Bilton, The Angler in Country Clare, 1833

William Bilton or Belton, was an Englishman, who came to Ireland in the summer of 1833 to explore the countryside and to indulge in his passion for fishing. His ‘rambles’ were confined to Munster and Connacht as in the previous year he had made a short tour of Ulster. He admits to being of a ‘roving disposition’ which had led him to most parts of Europe and every nook of Britain from John O’Groats to Land’s End. Ireland had become a point of great public interest in Britain, yet according to Bilton it was very difficult to obtain correct information concerning parts of the country - a difficulty which he hoped his book would help overcome. Ireland needed to know and be known. He had heard much about the Irish character, he longed to study the habits, mode of living and mode of faith of ‘one of the most peculiar and most interesting people on the face of the earth’. From his writings it is clear Bilton was a committed Protestant and, unlike others, had few inhibitions concerning Irish religious sensitivities; he broadly declares that ‘the greatest obstacle to improvement in Ireland was the Roman Catholic religion’. His habit of fishing led him to explore parts of the country not commonly visited by travellers. In Clare for instance he fished at Broadford and the lakes about Newmarket and Corofin. Although biased in his views, Bilton nonetheless gives a rounded picture of the country as it seemed to the well travelled observer in the 1830s. Bilton’s interest in travel and fishing persisted and in 1840 he published another work Two Summers in Norway.

Leaving this sweet spot [Castle Connell], I passed through an ugly bog country to O'Brien's Bridge, where I crossed the Shannon; and saw little to interest me, until I approached Killaloe, where I procured very tolerable accommodation at the decent inn, kept by Mr Gilmore.

Killaloe is a very small town, prettily situated at the point where the Shannon issues from Lough Derg. The steamboat from Portumna, an inconsiderable town at the northern end of the lake, arrives here about four o'clock every afternoon, and, of course, contributes much to its prosperity. Close to the town is, also, a long bridge, which is a great thoroughfare into the County Tipperary. Above and below this bridge are numerous eel-weirs, which produce a strong current, where very large trout are said to lie. I carefully fished this part twice or thrice, and could only see small ones move: but then I must add that the weather was in general so bright as to spoil all angling, except very early or very late.

Lough Derg is, however, the great attraction of Killaloe: and each of the three days that I spent there, I was for several hours on its broad and lovely waters. My boatman was named Ellice; whom I can highly recommend for his civility, good conduct, and general intelligence.

Lough Derg extends from Portumna to Killaloe; and is, I believe, nearly thirty miles in length. The scenery at its lower end (which alone I have seen) is extremely beautiful: the expanse of water is very considerable, and of ever-varying proportions. The shores are hilly, sometimes almost mountainous, and are ornamented with several castles and mansions, embowered in very luxuriant woods. . . .

I forgot to mention that my boatman, of whose merits I have before spoken, was a Protestant, the only one of my sporting attendants in Ireland that I remember to have been of that faith. The presence of a Protestant bishop has here encouraged and formed a small colony of highly respectable Protestants in the lower ranks. Whether this interesting community will be allowed to subsist, after the nucleus, round which it has collected, be withdrawn, by the operation of the late act, remains to be proved. I trust it may; but I cannot help entertaining great fears, from the vast desert of popery, by which this little oasis of a purer faith is encompassed. . . .

Illicit distillation seems to be still pursued in this remote nook; and one would think is little attended to by the authorities. We observed, on our voyage, two stills in full work, and so openly situated, that no one who passed could avoid seeing them. The evils, which this illegal practice produces among the peasantry, are so incalculable, that every real friend to the country must wish to see it put down, by as mild, but as effectual, means as possible. The late enactments of the legislature, and the increased vigilance of the excise officers, have greatly checked it within these last few years but I understood it had rather revived again this summer, in consequence of the ruinously low price of corn.

It was close to the very spot where one of these stills was working that a dreadful tragedy occurred, which illustrates some of the collateral evils attending this mischievous traffic. My boatman related to me that a party of men and women, pursued by some excisemen, put off in a small boat, with the worm of the still on board. The officers repeatedly threatened to shoot if they did not instantly put back: but the party disregarding their menaces, one of the excisemen most unjustifiably fired his piece and wounded a woman, who bled to death in the boat. The murderer immediately fled the country, and has not, I believe, been heard of since.

At the end of the bay, we ascended with some difficulty, for about a mile up a sluggish, reedy stream, when we left out cot high and dry, and thence walked another mile to Scarriff, which I found to be a very poor, miserable little village. The head inn, also, was unfortunately already engaged by another party: I was, therefore, compelled to take up my quarters at a second-rate shibeen. It may be conceived what this must be in such a place. Indeed, I think it was the very worst house I slept at during the whole of my tour.

In using the terms ‘head inn,’ and ‘shibeen,’ it may be perhaps necessary for me to guard the reader against misunderstanding the first, and not understanding the latter title at all. In summoning before his mind's eye the ‘head inn’ of Scarriff, he must not figure to himself the Plough Inn at Cheltenham, or the York House at Bath, or any of the ‘head inns’ along the North Road. Scarriff's chief hostel consisted, like its worthy second, of a spacious kitchen, with sundry unintelligible cells clustering round it, on the one hand, and of a small parlour, with a still smaller bedroom beyond it, on the other. A ‘shibeen’ signifies an inferior public-house, where whisky is sold; mutatis mutandis, what in the modern attic phrase of England goes by the name of a ‘kidney wink.’

However, if the accommodation was wretched, and the cuisine detestable, these serious deficiencies were much atoned for by the greatest attention and civility, and most excellent whisky, the produce, I fear, of some of the neighbouring stills.

There being nothing to tempt us to prolong our stay, we were off early the next morning on our return to Killaloe. In our way we landed at Holy Island, to examine its antiquities, with which, albeit no antiquary, I was much gratified. Its most interesting object is its round tower, which is of considerable height, and in good preservation, of the usual form and dimensions. . . .

Upon this island I also found, as is so often the case in Ireland, the ruins of seven small churches; together with a holy well, whose green margin bore evident marks of having been recently pressed by votive knees. After leisurely examining these curiosities, we resumed our homeward course, and commenced trolling; but hardly moved a single fish until late in the afternoon, when, along the eastern shore, I killed thirteen pike, of from one pound to three pounds in weight, besides losing several others.

The next morning, May 31 [1833], I left Killaloe, loaded with more and warmer blessings from my late daily companions than I had usually been in the habit of receiving. . . .

Affability of manner and liberality of treatment will go far to win poor Pat's heart: and if to these you can occasionally add a good story or good joke, he is yours for ever. . . .

Wishing to vary my route back to Limerick, I took a car from Killaloe to Broadford, a distance of ten miles of a bad mountain road, and not very picturesque. The latter is a very poor village, where I established myself for the day in a moderate country inn. Near it are some celebrated slate quarries; but my chief inducement in visiting it was to inspect two lakes, very celebrated for the enormous pike they contain.

They are situated rather more than a mile from the village, and are connected together by a short deep channel; their entire circuit may be about four miles. The shores are flat, the water dark, with an abundance of rushes and weeds; in fact, it is just the very place for pike, of which there are said to be an abundance of extraordinary size. Wondrous tales are, indeed, told of a monster killed some years ago which weighed ninety-six pounds! And, not long since, a man of the name of Crowe, who constantly fishes the lake, did really kill one forty-five pounds in weight. Crowe and I, however, carefully fished round both the lakes, without succeeding in rousing any of theses Leviathans; I had only two runs of small pike, which both escaped. . .

My success was not such as to induce me to give these lakes any further trial, and I therefore determined, the next morning, to make the best of my way back to Limerick. Such a luxurious invention as a car was not to be had in Broadford; so, hiring a small cart to convey my luggage, I trudged by its side on foot. The distance is about eleven English miles; the road passing for the most part through a barren moorland country, but occasionally affording extensive and fine views over the rich vale of the Shannon. The weather was extremely sultry, and I arrived much heated at Limerick, which made me greatly enjoy a delicious saltwater bath. . . .

On Monday, June 3 [1833], I took the Ennis coach to Newmarket, a rather pretty country village twelve miles from Limerick, where there is a comfortable little inn. The country we passed through was extremely fertile, and occasionally presented pleasing prospects. My object in stopping at Newmarket was again connected with fishing. About two or three miles from the village are two lakes, called Rossroe and Fenloo, which are almost the only ones in the county of Clare that are not infested by pike. These contain nothing but trout, eels, and roach; which last have only lately appeared there, but are increasing so fast as to threaten to starve the trout out of their favourite haunts. The trout of these two lakes are remarkably fine, few being killed less than from one to five pounds in weight; but, occasionally, they are taken as heavy as ten pounds, though seldom with the fly, but by trolling a small roach behind the boat. The flies used are much the same as for Inchiquin Lake, which I shall hereafter have to describe: only they are a full size larger.

Immediately upon my arrival at Newmarket I engaged the services of one Mick Malony, who usually attends strangers, and with him set out for the further lake, Rossroe. We had some difficulty in procuring a boat, but at length succeeded in obtaining a very good one, kept by a plain, honest fellow, named Hicky. They trolled, while I fly-fished; but both without success, although the day seemed favourable for our sport, being cloudy and windy, with occasional showers. I moved three large fish, which would not, however, take the fly. . . .

Finding it mere waste of time to remain here any longer, I took the coach the following morning to Ennis. A couple of miles before reaching it, we passed through the miserable village of Clare, which gives its name to the county. The only remnants of its ancient consequence are an old castle, near the bridge, now used as a barrack; and, a little higher up the river, the venerable ruins of the abbey.

Ennis is the modern capital of the county; and is a rather large town, of the second class, without any apparent commercial activity, or architectural beauty, except the very picturesque remains of an ancient and considerable abbey. The day I arrived, Ennis was in an unusual bustle, occasioned by an election to the surgeonship of the county infirmary; which seemed to excite as much interest as if it had been a contest for the county. This was favourable to me in one respect: for, most of the resident gentry being in the town, I had an opportunity of being introduced to many of them, through the kindness of a well known gentleman of Ennis, whom I had met in Dublin.

I dined the same day, in company with a large and very pleasant party, at his house: when a fishing expedition was most good naturedly arranged for the following morning, to show me Inchiquin the most celebrated lake in this country for trout. It is situated about nine miles from Ennis, near the small village of Corrofin. We drove over in our host's handsome four-in-hand coach: but, as we were a large party, many of whom cared nothing for the fishing, we did not get under way until after twelve o'clock; little, therefore, could be done that day.

The country we passed through, in our way to Corrofin, was particularly ugly. The whole of this part of Clare consists of flat limestone rock, covered in general with little or no herbage, and presenting the most desolate appearance imaginable. Yet not only sheep, but even horses and cattle, contrive to find good browsing among these broken crags. . . .

After travelling this barren and desolate country, it was indeed a great relief for the eye to repose upon the waters of Inchiquin. This is a sweet little lake, about two or three miles in circumference, nestling at the foot of a beautifully wooded range of hills, whose verdure forms the most delicious contrast to the bare limestone rocks, which cover the rest of this tract. On one shore stands an old ruined castle: on the opposite bank is an ancient and spacious mansion belonging to the Burton family, but now converted into a barrack. About a quarter of a mile above the lake, is the very pretty cottage belonging to Mr Fitzgerald, called Adelphi, guarded, as it were, by the picturesque ruins of an old tower that overhangs it.

At the lake's side were several boats and attendants awaiting our arrival. Among the latter was one, whose real name is Darby Fitzpatrick, but who is much better known by his sobriquet of ‘Sport.’ This man's skill and keenness as a fisherman I had afterwards many opportunities of admiring; as well as his intelligence, invariable good humour, and civility. It being late, we lost no time in commencing operations; and had pretty fair sport during the few hours we were able to remain. A gentleman and myself, in our boat, killed eleven trout, the smallest of which was above half a pound, and the largest very nearly two pounds in weight; besides a great number of rises. The other boats were not quite so successful. We dined together on an island, and spent a most agreeable evening. . . .

The trout here are of two kinds, red and white: the latter, in particular, are very strong and active; and, upon being hooked, will often spring a great height out of the water. There are also a few very fine pike, unusually thick, deep, and silvery. One of these, a very handsome fish, ten pounds and a half in weight, was killed during my stay, by a noted and very superior fisherman of Ennis, Mr James O'Gorman: it had almost the shape and colour of a salmon.

The flies generally used here are of the medium size, with red or brown fur bodies, light gold twist, and wings, either of partridge and rail mixed, or else mallard, with a few fibres of the peacock's breast. There is also a very favourite dropper, called the rush fly; which has a reddish brown body, with wings of a small rail's feather, not stripped of the quill. . . .

I was informed that the largest and most pike were in Lough Tadann, close to Corrofin; and I therefore was one day induced to try it: but, having a very bad and unmanageable boat, I was soon obliged to relinquish the attempt. A day or two before, two pike had been killed there, which weighed, the one twenty seven pounds, and the other nineteen pounds and a half. This lake also contains a few very large trout, and an infinity of roach, any number of which may be killed, either with the fly, or worm. There are also several other lakes round Corrofin, which, I believe, would afford considerable amusement to the keen angler: and very tolerable accommodations may be had at the small inn in the same village. . . .

I soon, indeed, discovered that I was in the centre of [a] disturbed district. Within a mile on one side was the house of Mr Blood, who was so barbarously murdered, chiefly through the means of his own servant: and about the same distance on the other side lived the identical Terry Alts, who has given these midnight legislators the name by which they were usually distinguished. He was a quiet, inoffensive man; and the reason why he has supplied a lawless set of marauders so opposite to himself with their distinctive appellation is, that they used, more out of fun than malice, when executing any of their outrages, to cry out, ‘Well done, Terry! well done, Terry Alts!’

These outrages have been put down by a strong extra police force. But there is evidently still a very bad spirit amongst the lower orders, and few parts of Ireland appeared to me in so unsatisfactory a state as this portion of Clare - a blessing for which it is mainly indebted to the excitement produced in order to return Mr O'Connell for this county. I was surprised and shocked to find that the informer, who was himself concerned in all the outrages, but was the chief means of breaking up the system and hanging several of the ringleaders, is still living in the scene of his exploits. He certainly ought not to be allowed to remain in the country. He several times attempted to join me, but I would not suffer him to do so.

On Wednesday morning I gave the lake a farewell trial; when, of course, the trout rose better than ever they had done before. After catching six very fine fish in less than two hours, I bade adieu to my kind and hospitable host, and returned to Ennis. . . .

Leaving Corrofin a few miles to the left, I passed by the miserable village of Crusheen, and through a generally wild, desolate country, in which were only one or two gentlemen's residences and grounds, to relieve a little the monotonous wretchedness of this district. About three miles before reaching Gort, I came to the entrance of Lord Gort's demesne, and obtained permission (neither unsought nor unbought) to drive through the park.

Extracts taken from William Bilton, The Angler in Ireland, 2 vols, (London 1834), i, pp. 39-67.

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