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in County Clare 1534 - 1911
A Frenchman’s Tour of East Clare, 1797
Chevalier De Latocnaye, an aristocrat from Brittany, having fled the terrors of the French revolution, came to reside in England. He wrote a book based on a walking tour of Great Britain, another on the French revolution and a third on a walking tour of Ireland, 1796-97. His Irish tour is of value because it describes the country on the eve of the 1798 uprising. De Latocnaye aroused much curiosity walking the roads of Ireland; he dressed in bright breeches and silk stockings and carried all his possessions in a handkerchief tied to the end of an umbrella. His company was in such demand among landowners that he scarcely needed to use a country inn. De Latocnaye walked from Limerick to Castleconnel, to O’Brien’s Bridge and Killaloe before passing on through the county of Galway. He records the digging of short bypass canals around obstructions in the Shannon in order to make the river navigable from Limerick to Lough Derg.
The inhabitants of Castle Connell were assessed with a rate to provide means to build a catholic chapel. I do not know what fault had been committed by the priest of the parish, but the catholic bishop of Killaloe interdicted the work, and the church remained half built, and without a roof. Mass, however, was celebrated in a corner covered by a few planks, and the people continued to come as before, but resolutely resolved not to finish the church unless or until the favourite priest should be recalled.
Crossing the mosses which surrounded this village, I came by O’Brien’s Bridge to Glanamore to Mr Thomas Arthur, with whom I spent several days. His house is at the end of a fertile, little valley, surrounded by mountains covered with peat. I saw with him bones representing almost an entire skeleton of that monstrous animal which is called in this country ‘moss’ or ’moose deer,’ and the name of which I do not know in French. . . .
I returned to O’Brien’s Bridge, and after having taken a plunge into the Shannon in order to put him in a good temper with me, I ascended the river with Mr Waller in a little boat, for which my umbrella served as sail. The river was charming, beautiful, calm, and it seemed to be deep, but soon we came to a waterfall and were obliged to land. They are here digging a little canal of about one hundred paces long, to join the two navigable parts of the river. Returning in the boat we travelled about ten miles and were again obliged to land and even to leave the boat. Here they are making a canal which shall be about a mile long, and which will terminate near the beautiful palace of the bishop of Killaloe. The fall of water here is very considerable, and in a distance of about fifty feet it falls fourteen or fifteen through large, round stones. This is the kind of obstruction in the rivers which forms the lakes. This one makes an immense lake of thirty miles long by twelve or fifteen wide, and although it offers, at different parts, interesting and pleasing views, like the greater part of the lakes of Ireland, it has rather the look of a great inundation, and the islands through it give vraisemblence to the appearance. A company offered to drain nearly the whole of this lake, provided that the riverside proprietors would give them half the new-formed land. Difficulties arose, and the matter has not been carried through. This company had calculated that, in lowering the bed of the river at Killaloe by twelve feet, they would drain fourteen thousand acres. The cost of the works would have amounted to over twenty thousand pounds sterling. It would not have been a great deal to pay for seven thousand acres of land, but it is to be presumed that it would not produce very much in the early years, and perhaps one-third of it would be sandy or unfit for cultivation.
The little town of Killaloe is very ugly; the cathedral is large and appears to be fairly well built. The stone bridge which crosses the Shannon here has eighteen arches, but they are very small, and the bridge will have to be rebuilt - a modern one need not have more than nine or ten arches. I paid a visit to the minister of the parish, who has a superb house at a little distance from the town, on a height dominating Lough Derg. From there is to be had a really magnificent view of this vast sheet of water, whose banks are almost everywhere high, and cultivated with care. There is a bay of seven or eight miles, which cannot be seen without climbing to the summit of a fairly high mountain in the neighbourhood. From this height the Shannon can be seen winding through the plain as far as Limerick, with all the little towns which are on its banks, the principal of these being Nenagh.
It is disappointing that there is nowhere to be seen any appearance of industry. There are no manufactures. Beyond the labouring of the soil there is nothing to do, but patience! - a certain time must be allowed to a nation to come out of its stupor of seven hundred years. It is only fourteen years since its genius made effort to fly, and already thought is being taken to find means to surmount the immense difficulties which the navigation of the Shannon presents. A certain measure of success has followed through the use of communicating canals. The Grand Canal is proceeding very slowly, but it will be finished in a few years, when interior communication will be opened across Ireland from Dublin to Limerick, and industry will grow in proportion as the means are provided for the disposal of its product.
The first step in the civilisation of a country is to cut the woods, drain the marshes, lower the beds of rivers, and allow stagnant waters to flow away. The people of this country have succeeded perfectly well in the matter first mentioned, seeing that they have not left wood enough to make a toothpick in many places, but they have hardly yet commenced to think about the remaining works.
Near Killaloe is to be seen one of those round forts which are so numerous in Ireland. This one is called ‘O’Brien’s Palace.’ Tradition reports that Brian Boru, who defeated the Danes at Clontarf, and perished in the battle, lived here. It is well situated for defence at the point where the river leaves the lake. The fort is not as large as several that I have seen, but the parapets seem higher and the fosses deeper. I cannot conceive the sort of palace or, indeed, dwelling of any kind which could be erected inside such an enclosure, unless it were simply an arrangement of plank shelters or tents.
I followed the western course of Lough Derg, and on the way met an honest attorney going gaily to put the surrounding country under contribution. He pointed out to me, at some distance from the shore, a square tower situated on a rock. Some determined contrabandists had there established a distillery, with intention to pay no duties. They barricaded the place, and being provided with firearms, no customs officer dare hazard his life in approaching these friends of the ‘creature.’ To dislodge them, it was necessary to send troops with cannon, but the distance from the bank being considerable, and there being also a wish not to proceed to extremes, they proceeded to starve out the illicit distillers, who did not surrender until the fifteenth day, and then only after having affected an honourable capitulation.
I paid a visit to Mr H. Brady at Tomgrany, which is a rather pretty village situated at the end of the bay of which I have already spoken. From it can be seen many of the islands in the lake, among others one which is called Holy Island, which has a high round tower, and where formerly were seven churches, the inhabitants still going, with great devotion, to make their pilgrimages round the ruins. The Catholics of the country have taken exclusive possession of the cemetery, and will not permit that the bones of a Protestant should there be deposited. A rich man of the parish threatened to send a labourer out of it. ‘All right,’ said the other, ‘but I have more right in the parish than you, for you can’t take me from my six feet of earth in Holy Island, and with all your riches you will never have that.’
Walking through the ruined town of Mount Shannon, I came to Mellick to Mr Thomas Burke. Near his house was formerly an abbey, and its ruins are still regarded with veneration. Near the chapel is a species of cell which is of singular form. There is just room for a person standing in it to turn round - it would seem to have been a confessional. Above a tomb there is a stone, squarely hollowed and full of the water of heaven, which water is said to have the virtue of curing corns. How charming it is to travel in Ireland! I hope by the time my promenade is finished that I shall be cured of every ill.
The borders of the lake in this district were some time ago covered with wood, but this has all been cut down, and the whole country is naked and arid. Near Woodfort the landscape begins to improve, and is rather pretty near a village called Abbey, on the confines of the provinces of Munster and Connaught. Formerly there was a considerable abbey here, with a church dedicated to the Virgin. It was a fête day on which I saw it, and the place was crowded. This ruin is one of the few of which the inhabitants have had the good sense to make use, so as to avoid the trouble and expense of building a new church. Catholics have lately obtained permission to use two of the lateral chapels, of which the vault remained intact; it is hardly possible to exaggerate the miserable look of these chapels and of the poor folk who frequent them. In the cemetery two or three priests were occupied in confessing the penitents. They sat on stones, and each held a little flag, which was used to separate the penitent from the crowd. The priests, as I am told, receive something for their trouble, according to a fixed tariff; this is said to be their principal source of income. After all, they must live, and it is only through the little charges they exact from the faithful that their kitchen can be kept going. I have, however, seen some, to my great surprise, who are by no means badly off, having between one and two hundred pounds sterling per annum of income, besides a passable house, and, according to custom, dinners without end with their parishioners who are in easy circumstances.
The law allows to every Catholic priest who will turn Protestant the sum of forty pounds sterling per annum, to be paid by the county in which he lives; he has also the promise of the first curacy vacant. The insults which the people heap on the few who profit by these advantages are sufficient to disgust those whose conscience would allow them to place their temporal interests before all other considerations. However, the law is on the side of these, and yet I do not believe that there are a dozen of them in the whole of Ireland.
Taken from A
Frenchman’s Walk Through Ireland, 1796-7, translated from
the French of De Latocnaye by John Stevenson (Belfast 1917, reprinted
Belfast 1984), pp 128-135.
Rambles in Clare, 1810