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in County Clare 1534 - 1911
Marie Anne de Bovet, Three Months in Clare, 1891
Marie Anne de Bovet, later Marie Anne Marchioness Deschamps de Bois Hebert, French author and travel writer, is credited with some twenty five publications between the years 1888 and 1910. Some of her books were novels such as Confessions d’une Fille de Trente Ans, (Paris 1895) and L’amour Triompha, (Paris 1908), but she also published more specialised volumes like her book on the life and works of the French composer Charles Gounod in 1891. Bovet travelled in Ireland on at least two occasions. Her first journey in 1888 resulted in the publication of Lettres d’Irland, (Paris 1889). She made a second visit in 1890 when she spent three months touring the country. Arriving in Dublin, she completed a circuit of the island visiting fifteen of the thirty two counties. Her tour is valuable for the author’s comments on food and the standard of hotel accommodation. Because she was writing in French she perhaps felt less inhibited than writers in English. In Clare she provides a most interesting account of the beleaguered Mrs Burdett Moroney of the Atlantic Hotel, Miltown Malbay, who was boycotted by her tenants because of her demand for excessive rents. The book Trois Mois en Irlande was an immediate success; it was quickly translated into English and a second edition appeared in 1908. An illustrator accompanied Bovet to Ireland and her book also contains many excellent illustrations of contemporary scenes.
We landed at Kilrush, on the Clare shore, a small fishing and trading port, whence one sees the Shannon, broad, majestic, peaceful and deserted, lose itself in the ocean. A car was in waiting to take us to our halting-place, nine miles across a marshy country, marked with turf cuttings, peopled by crows, herons and frogs, with a few smoky hovels at long intervals. The vegetation consisted of tufts of rushes, furze-bushes, and an abundance of those violet and yellow wild flowers which here give a little cheerfulness to barren and uncultivated parts. Soon the sight of ruins, with which this melancholy desert is strewn, shows us that once more we are in the presence of ‘the Irish difficulty,’ as it is called in English politics: we are on the Vandeleur property, whence people have recently been ‘evicted’ en masse. By the roadside is a house turned inside out, the thatched roof all staved in, which has undergone one of those regular sieges which I have already described. In an outhouse, in a state of indifferent repair, a whole family live, in company with the pigs and the geese. These are the evicted tenants who have been allowed to go in as ‘caretakers,’ not only because the others are tired of war, but also because, even with the law on their side, human beings cannot be allowed to rot in a ditch. Caretakers of what? As long as no arrangement can be come to with regard to the rent they have nothing to cultivate but two acres of potatoes - except the rushes that, twisted, dried or cut up, are used for roofing, litter and food for the cows. The traveller in Ireland must harden his heart, or else he would suffer too much at these spectacles of misery and desolation. . . .
The population of Kilkee exists a little by fishing and a great deal by the bathers. Like every other place, it is given up to pleasant indolence: at seven in the morning there is no trace of life in the one street, which follows the scarped side of the rock; donkey boys, astride on their donkeys, move about leisurely, groups of boatmen on the beach wait for a customer while smoking their pipes and talking to the drivers, who, with their whips round their necks, lean idly against the wall of the terrace; tall and well-made women, with bare legs under their short frayed-out petticoats, baskets on their heads, which they cover with a corner of their black shawl, sell their wares from door to door - gooseberries and plums so green it sets one's teeth on edge merely to look at them, little white mushrooms, big crabs, and chickens like pigeons. There are a few machines drawn up on the beach for the use of bathers. Men are forbidden to bathe after an hour so early that most prefer to go out some way along the coast, where they can enjoy themselves without infringing the regulations.
The inhabitants of Kilkee try hard to make tourists row along by the cliffs, saying that they cannot know what the celebrated coast of Clare is like if they only see it from the land. The boats they offer for these excursions are not calculated to inspire one with much confidence. They are the primitive coracles, of plaited willow-work covered with tarpaulin, which has taken the place of the cow-hide used by the ancient Celts; long, narrow, turned up in front like a gondola; they are so light that a man can easily carry them on his back, and when pulled up on shore and overturned, like large shell-fish, they have to be held down by stones lest the wind should carry them away. They behave well at sea, and are easy to manage, scudding over the waves like nut-shells, - but they are of use only to those who have a brave heart and a sailor's stomach. . . .
If one is not very particular where he sleeps, travelling in Ireland is easy, for in the smallest hole one is always able to find a lodging; and from my long and often sad experience of Irish hotels I am convinced that one is best off in the inns of remote villages. . . The English bed, whose bad reputation is fully justified, is a paradise by the side of an Irish bed. What the under-mattress is made of I have never been able to make out. One thing is certain - that it contains nothing even approaching to elasticity. On this hard basis are one or two thin mattresses, very tightly stuffed with something that resembles peach stones; over this are two calico sheets, then a huge white woollen blanket, no bolster, a large pillow, hard and flat; lastly, covering the whole, is a cotton or crotchet counterpane, so heavy that it requires the arms of a Hercules to carry it. . . As for cleanliness, one must not look too closely. Here, as in England, polished floors are unknown, and the boards are invariably covered with carpets whose equivocal colour I will leave to the imagination, and not for anything in the world would I walk on one with bare feet. The linen is fairly clean. There are never curtains to the beds, only, occasionally, to the windows; they are of white guipure or embroidered muslin, stiff with starch. The sash-windows, like those in England, rarely have shutters; if by chance there are any, it is better not to risk shutting them, for behind them will be found heaps of dust, plaster, and the dirt of ages, which the servants religiously respect. ‘It is not seen; why touch it. It serves curious people right’; and they will find just as much in the fireplaces, in the drawers, in the cupboards, and in dark corners. . . .
In the second-class hotels, like those of Kilkee, there is no longer any question about cleanliness; they are decidedly dirty, to say nothing of towels in rags, and sheets with holes big enough to put you fist through. One peculiarity of this country is that they obstinately refuse to give you the serviette for dinner that you used at breakfast, which would be in better taste than giving you your neighbour's, or even that of the traveller who left the day before. In the same way, they give you a profusion of knives and forks, but never a clean table-cloth. Their manner of waiting is very pretentious, too. It was at this very place, Kilkee, that I remember a certain waiter, with huge red whiskers, whom we made wretched by our careless behaviour and complete want of dignity. If we helped ourselves to anything to drink he was miserable, and if we stretched out our hand to reach a plate off a table close by he rushed at it with an offended air, and looked on us as if we were not people of much account. Heaven knows the anxiety his bustling about causes us, for the antiquity of his black coat surpassed our most vivid imagination, and as for his trousers, they were rusty, threadbare, and frayed out, and seemed to be on the point of giving way: they curtailed our stay there - we fled before a certain catastrophe. . . .
You are fortunate if you have not to put up at a boycotted hotel, as happened to us at Miltown Malby, another little seaside place, twelve miles north of Kilkee. The establishment belonged to a distressed landlady, that is to say, a landlady ruined by agricultural troubles. As the consequence of disputes with her tenants she was subjected to a strict quarantine, mingled with constant spite and worries, which occasionally degenerated into serious personal violence. She had the greatest trouble in getting servants; and those came from afar, and rarely showed outside the hotel. The few travellers were foreigners, like ourselves; and to fill her house, Mistress Moroni lodged her whole family in it. People from Limerick, rich and of good position, who were living a little distance off for change of air, came to see us at the Atlantic, but they would not leave their horses by the door for fear of compromising themselves. Our table d'hôte was supplied by their kindness with delicacies from Dublin, bread included, for no one in the country would furnish the excommunicated house with the smallest thing. But the day we left we had a personal experience by ricochet of boycotting. There was no driver, and, consequently no omnibus to take us to the station; and our luggage was put on a rickety cart, drawn by a broken-winded mule, harnessed with ropes, and driven by a youth who was almost an idiot. We followed behind, and had to walk like this for two miles, taking short cuts through the mud to avoid the village, and our unhappy conductor, perpetually looking about him as if he was afraid of falling into some ambush; needless to say, we arrived half an hour too late. Nor were we surprised, for, on leaving the hotel, flurried, angry, and breathless, begging them to hurry, lest we should miss the train, they said, with that everlasting and good-humoured smile, ‘Oh! you have already missed it!’ I much doubt if Mme. Moroni, who bravely defies popular dislike, will be able to hold her own for long in this struggle, which is not only severe, but is not without danger to herself. . . .
There are no hours more peaceful than those of twilight after a stormy day. I have an exquisite recollection of a two hours' drive at nightfall from the cliffs of Moher to Lisdoonvarna. We drove over lonely moors, gently undulating and sloping towards the shore, along which our drive extended. There were no houses except a few poor huts of dry stone, sheltered from the spray by a pyramid of turf sods, the thatched roof being held in its place by a net to which huge pebbles were fastened. Thin lines of smoke rose in the now-darkening sky. On the other side of the road cows, donkeys - numerous here -and geese in rows, gravely watched us pass. Presently the moon rose, bathing the quiet sea in its silver light, and the islets in the horizon faded away in a purple mist. It was not sadness, but an infinite sweet melancholy which pervaded all things, together with the caressing warmth of an August night.
Lisdoonvarna is a watering-place - a spa they call it here - much frequented by the country people for its iron and sulphur waters. It is not wildly gay. A ravine, carpeted with short grass, without a bush, and from which one gets glimpses of the sea, only four miles distant, has been formed by a little stream, which flows from the top of a sandy plateau. All around are moors, where occasional cows browse among the heather. For amusements, the hotel sitting-room, and sometimes a company of comedians, bringing from Galway or Limerick a varied répertoire, ‘arranged so as to meet all tastes without offending the most delicate susceptibilities.’ So says the programme, carried about at the end of a pole by a hopelessly drunken youth.
Catholic priests, very plentiful in all seaside and watering places, seem to abound here. The table d'hôte is like the refectory of a seminary. It is none the less lively for that. Every one agrees that the Irish priest is irreproachable in his morals and in the performance of his religious duties. His weight is considerable in this country, where the threat of being excluded from the Holy Table would make a peasant pass through the eye of a needle. Independent of all government, the priests have placed themselves with impunity at the head of the Nationalist movement, which they make a matter of Christian Socialism; and it is nearly always the parish priest who presides over the local committee of the League. More often than not a son of the people, he thoroughly understands the character as well as the wants of his flock. Being comparatively well educated, he is their lawyer and doctor, as well as their confessor. He takes the lead in all things temporal as well as spiritual; he is the chief speaker at clubs and meetings, and presides over their athletic sports. Formerly he could get drunk with his parishioners without compromising himself; that day is over, but he still mixes so much with the laity that there is nothing clerical about his manner. Liberally supported by the piety of the faithful in the way of tithes paid in kind, money offerings, and fees for mass, marriage and burial, the priests live well, and are extremely fond of travelling, in which they employ all the leisure moments of their busy life. Everywhere one meets them, cheery and flourishing, genial and sociable, kind and fatherly - objects of the affectionate respect of all.
The plateau on which Lisdoonvarna is built crowns a huge schistose rock, which reaches to Galway Bay. This barony of Burren, which comprises the whole northern part of the county, is one of the most remarkable natural curiosities of Ireland. It is a large amphitheatre, rising by a succession of terraces from the sea, and attaining a height of 1100 feet. One might call them huge Babylonian fortifications, cut out of carboniferous sandstone of a delicate and luminous grey, with purple shadows. The descent over this stone desert by a path of the significant name of Corkscrew would delight the eyes of the impressionist painter. One is literally bathed in an atmosphere of that lilac-tint dear to our young artists, and which one could no longer refuse to believe in after seeing the Burren of Clare. . . .
It is worthy of remark, that in this rough and bare part of the country, of which it is said that, for want of water and trees, no one can be either drowned or hanged, people are less ragged, less dirty, and appear infinitely less poor than in other districts. At first sight it seems as if nothing grew here but stones; but between these stones is a fine and delicious grass, which fattened cows, sheep, and huge black pigs - those poor pigs whose grave is Limerick; and then, every little sheltered ravine, every valley where the winds have deposited the thinnest layer of mould, is cultivated for some purpose or other. Latterly the population of the Burren of Clare has been much reduced by emigration, as a number of deserted villages can testify. Three conclusions can be drawn from this: first, that Paddy would be less poor if he were as industrious in all other parts as he is here; secondly, that Ireland's true profit consists in the breeding and fattening of cattle; and lastly, that the principal reason of her poverty is over-population, which neither Home Rule nor any agricultural reform would be able to keep in check. At the top of the arid valley of Corcomroe are a few miserable trees. They mark the site of a farm, with whose owner I had the pleasure of making an acquaintance. He was walking about the ruins at the same time as myself. He is very proud of them, and considers himself, in a small way, their proprietor. He was delighted, too, at the interest I took in them, and we talked together in a friendly way, whilst his numerous family formed a circle round the artist who was taking a sketch of the abbey. The man had eighty acres of land (they call this land!), for which he paid 1l. sterling the acre. He was well satisfied with his landlord, who was a true Irish man, judging from his very Irish name of Fitzgerald. ‘There are good and bad landlords, and it is unfortunate if one lights on a bad one,’ said he, philosophically; ‘but, anyhow, one cannot expect to get the land for nothing.’ Wise words; which I commend to the notice of certain agitators, who brag a little too much about the advance of Socialism. . . .
The Irish question has so many sides and points that it is impossible to be an impartial judge. All the peasants of Burren are not as content with their fate as the farmer of Corcomroe, for agrarian crimes are not unknown there. There has been a stir in the peaceful village of Ballyvaughan lately, for judgement was given against the murderer of a policeman in a little cottage, which since then has been jokingly named ‘The Court of Justice of Her Majesty the Queen.’
In the western part, and in County Clare especially, the difficulty is heightened by the national idiom, still spoken entirely by the greater part of the old people, without counting those young ones, who pretend not to understand English when they find it convenient. There is a story of a dying woman, who began her confession in Gaelic. The priest, who did not understand the language, told her to speak in English, as she was able to do so. She angrily replied, ‘Does your Reverence think that I will say my last words to Almighty God in the language of the Sacsannachs?’ The story does not say whether she received absolution or not.
Extracts taken from Marie
Anne de Bovet, Three Months’ Tour in Ireland, translated
and condensed by Mrs Arthur Walter (London 1891), pp 184-202.