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

Thomas Carlyle, Reminiscences of East Clare, 1849

The Scottish essayist and social critic Thomas Carlyle was perhaps the most famous visitor to the county in 1849. Carlyle was among the first of the social philosophers. His influence on the shape of Victorian thought, through such works as Sartor Resartus (1833) and Past and Present (1843), was pervasive. His writings were a seminal influence on the Young Ireland movement. By 1848 Carlyle was lapsing into despair over what he perceived to be the corruption and greed of English society. In May of 1849 he wrote in his diary ‘Am thinking of a tour in Ireland, unhappily have no call or desire that way, but am driven as by the points of bayonets at my back. Ireland really is my problem’. Clearly the accounts of famine in Ireland had touched him deeply. On his return from Ireland in November 1849, he again noted in his diary 'Went to Ireland, wandered about there all through July, have half forcibly recalled my remembrances and thrown them down on paper since my return. Ugly spectacle, sad health, sad humour, a thing unjoyable to look back on’. Carlyle stayed at Castleconnel with Sir Richard Bourke, a former governor of New South Wales. Bourke brought him on a tour of Lough Derg, where Carlyle observed the Shannon navigation works and the slate quarries above Killaloe. The tour included a visit to the former residence of John Fitzgibbon, first earl of Clare and Lord Chancellor of Ireland at the time of the Union. Carlyle's notes on his Irish journey are rough and fragmentary, he attributed little importance to them and clearly did not intend them for publication. After his death in 1881, the manuscript was edited and published by J. A. Froude, under the title Reminiscences of my Irish Journey in 1849.

To O'Brien's bridge (by the low road - woody with occasional glimpses of the river); village white, lower end of it pretty in the sunshine, upper part of it squalid, deserted mostly: relief-work road - half breadth cut away, and so left; duckwood ditches, drowned bog, inexpressively ugly for most part, some cleared improved spots, abruptly alternating with the drowned squalor, which produces only bad brown stacks of peat. Sir Richard in mild good humour trots gently along. Two drunk blockheads stagger into a cross roads to be alone; are seen kissing one another as we pass - just heaven, what a kiss with the drowned bog and gaping full ditches on each hand! Long meagre village, hungry single street, Castle Connell. . . .

Scariff; straggling muddy avenues of wood begin to appear; woman in workhouse yard, fever-patient we suppose; had come flat, seemingly without pillow, on the bottom of a stone-cart; was lying now under blue cloaks and tatters, her long black hair streaming out beyond her - motionless, outcast, till they found some place for her in this hospital. Grimmest of sights, with the long tattery cloud of black hair. Procession next of workhouse young girls; healthy, clean in whole coarse clothes; the only well-guided group of children visible to us in these parts, - which indeed is a general fact. Scariff itself, dim, extinct-looking, hungry village (I should guess 1,000 inhabitants) on the top and steep sides of a rocky height. Houses seemed deserted, nothing doing, considerable idle groups on the upper part (hill top) of the street, which after its maximum of elevation spreads out into an irregular wide triangular space, - two main roads going out from it, I suppose, towards Gort and towards Portumna. - Little ferrety shopkeeper, in whole clothes, seemingly chief man of the place, knows Bourke by often passing this way; ‘Well, Mr (O’Flanahan, say, tho’ that was not it), do you think we can get a car to Gort?’ - ‘Not a car here, sir, to be had for love or money; people all gone to adjourned assizes at Tulla, nayther horse nor car left in the place!’ Here was a precious outlook: Bourke however did not seem to lay it much to heart. ‘Well Mr O’Flanahan, then you must try to do someting for us!’ ‘I will!’, cried the little stumpy ferret of a man; and instantly despatched one from the group, to go somewhither and work miracles on our behalf. Miracle-worker returns with notice that a horse and car can (by miracle) be achieved, but horse will require some rest first. Well, well; we go to walk; see a car standing; our own old driver comes to tell us that he has discovered an excellent horse and car waiting for hire just next door to Mr O’Flanahan’s. And so it proved; and so, in five minutes, was the new arrangement made; O’Flanahan acquiescing without any blush or other appearance of emotion. Merely a human ferret, clutching at game, hadn’t caught it. Purchased a thimbleful of bad whisky to mix in water in a very smoky room from him; ‘odd copper, yours.’ ‘Why sir?’ and sent ardently for ‘change,’ - got none, however, nor spoke more of getting. Poor O’Flan, he had got his house new floored; was prospering, I suppose, by workhouse grocery-and-meal trade, by secret pawnbroking, - by eating the slain. Our new car whisked us out of Scariff, where the only human souls I notice at any industry whatever, were two, in a hungry-looking silent back-corner languidly engaged in sawing a butt of extremely hard Scotch fir.

Road hilly but smooth, country bare but not boggy; deepish narrow stream indenting meadows to our left just after starting, - (mountain stream has made ruinous inundation since), - solitary cottages, in dry nooks of the hills: girl dripping at the door of one, a potful of boiled reeking greens, has picked one out as we pass, and is zealously eating it; bad food, great appetite, extremity of hunger, likely, not unknown here! Brisk evening becomes cloudier; top of the country, - wide waste of dim hill country, far and wide, to the left: ‘Mountains of Clare.’

Extracts taken from Thomas Carlyle, Reminiscences of my Irish Journey in 1849, (ed.) J. A. Froude (London 1882), pp 174-83.

Life and Death in County Clare, 1849
Spencer T. Hall


Visit to West Clare, 1849
George Poulett Scrope