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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)

Henry Inglis, Assizes, 1834

Henry David Inglis, journalist and travel writer, was the son of a Scottish lawyer. Trained for a career in business, Inglis tired of commerce and turned instead to his twin passions - writing and travel. At the age of thirty he travelled on the continent and produced his first book Tales of the Ardennes in 1825. There followed in quick succession a series of travel books on Scandinavia, Switzerland, Spain and the Tyrol. Perhaps his best book was The Tyrol with a Glance at Bavaria which he published in 1833. For two years he edited a newspaper in Jersey and in 1834 published a comprehensive work on the Channel Islands. In the same year he toured Ireland and produced an exhaustive two volume description of the country. With his Irish tour Inglis made his greatest impact; the book received widespread acclaim and reached its fifth edition in 1838. In less than ten years Inglis had established himself as the foremost travel writer of his day but at tremendous personal cost. His prodigious output damaged his health and he died in London in 1835 of disease of the brain, the result of overwork, at the age of forty.

In the summer of 1834 Inglis travelled from Tralee to Tarbert, from where he took the steamer up the estuary to Limerick. He did not delay in Limerick as he wished to be present in Ennis for the opening of the Clare assizes. Inglis provides a wonderful description of the legal proceedings in Ennis courthouse. He uses the cases before the courts to illustrate the ‘moral defects’, as he sees it, of the Irish character. He mocks the spirit of faction among the people and their propensity for fighting; unable to find a rational explanation as to why members of one faction should wish to murder those of another, he resorts to ridicule. Similarly, cases of pretended rape gave no favourable impression of the female character, and were in many instances rouses to gain husbands. The general untruthfulness of witnesses convinced him of the low state of Irish morals. What perhaps he failed to realise was that such cases reflected more on the human condition than on the morals of a downtrodden people. Ultimately, Inglis was well disposed towards the masses and is a sympathetic interpreter of the scenes he witnessed.

The first part of the road to Ennis, embraces nearly the same views as the voyage up the Shannon; for the road runs parallel to, though at a little distance from the river. From several of the eminencies over which I passed, a great part of the course of the lower Shannon is laid open; and the country on either side of the road was green, fertile, and beautiful. Several of the ruins which are seen from the river, -particularly Bunratty Castle, - I passed close by; and several fine domains, - among others, that belonging to Sir Edward O’Brien, lay in our way.

The little town of Clare, which, from its situation ought to be the county town, in place of Ennis, lies between Limerick and Ennis, and only about two miles from the latter. There is a fine navigation up the estuary of the river Fergus, to the bridge of Clare; so that Clare is the export point of the Ennis market. A very trifling expenditure would extend the water communication to Ennis; and there is no doubt, that, in the event, the prosperity of the town would rapidly increase; for Clare is not only a fine corn country, but an extensive cattle-breeding country. The proposal of a canal, however, has met with every opposition from narrow-mindedness and jobbing. The great Ennis proprietor likes nothing that costs any thing; and the proprietor of Clare is not of course anxious to remove the point of export from Clare to Ennis. Notwithstanding the advantages possessed by Clare, the place looks poverty-stricken.

I reached Ennis just as it fell dark; and found the town in all the bustle that in an Irish county town, precedes the holding of assizes: the inns were all choke full; and for lodgings, the most exorbitant prices were demanded. From three to eight guineas, for a few days, were asked for two rooms; and I was glad to find a place to creep into even on these terms. Although the assize was opened on the following day, no business was entered upon, until the day after; and I therefore employed the interval in those perambulations, scrutinies, and inquiries, which occupy a part of my attention in every town.

I had not yet seen, in Ireland, any town with suburbs so extensive, in comparison with the town itself; or, perhaps, it would be more correct to say, that I had not seen any town with so few good streets, in comparison with the bad; for the rows and streets of cabins form, in fact, the greater part of the town, and cannot properly be called suburbs. There is not, indeed, one good street in Ennis; and there are only two streets which rise above the rank of lanes. Ennis, however, is a populous town, containing 12,000 inhabitants; and is susceptible of considerable improvement in many ways, but especially by the construction of some communication with the river navigation of Clare. The retail trade in Ennis is not extensive, excepting in the necessaries of life. Limerick is so near, and the communication with it so frequent and so easy, that it absorbs a great part of the retail trade of the county of Clare.

I have nowhere yet found land let dearer, or its small occupiers in a poorer condition, than in the neighbourhood of Ennis. I found average good land, but by no means first rate land, situated about a mile from the town, let at 4l. and 5l. per acre. This is literally squeezing the uttermost farthing out of the soil; and the proprietor of a large portion of the land in this neighbourhood, a Mr Gore, is one of those short-sighted individuals, whose object is, to keep up a nominal rent roll, and to let his land to the highest bidder. This gentleman takes no warning by the frequency of unpaid rents, and possessions relinquished; and finds no difficulty, in the present state of the country, when the demand for improved land is greater than the supply, of letting his land at whatever price he chooses to put upon it. The miserable suburbs of Ennis afford evidence of the same system. I need scarcely add, that there is great want of employment in and about Ennis; and that nothing is done in the way of providing it.

The country about Ennis offers many beautiful scenes. I would particularly name Eden vale and Eden lake, - spots of great loveliness and repose. But the neighbourhood of such charming scenes as these, too often remind one of Castle Rack-rent - a large neglected looking mansion, and a pack of hounds; and congregations of miserable cabins scattered around. Clare is a backward county; little has been done for it; and in no county, has grand-jury jobbing been more unblushingly carried on.

A small Irish county town, during assizes, presents a spectacle that is never seen in England; for even supposing the calendar to be as long, in an English as in an Irish county, - which it never is, - the difference in the character of the cases to be tried, materially affects the aspect of the town and its population. In England, a case of murder or man-slaughter, brings to the county town only the near relations of the party to be tried, - and perhaps, of the party prosecuting; but in Ireland, things are on a different scale. The English murder is a private act, perpetrated by some ruffian for the sake of gain: the Irish homicide has been committed for no reason at all; and not by one cold-blooded ruffian, but by a crowd of demi-barbarians, who meet for the purpose of fighting; and who have no other reason for fighting, than because one half of the number are called O’Sullivan, and the other O’someting else: so that when a manslaughter is to be prosecuted at an Irish assize, the case does not bring up merely the accused and his one or two witnesses, but it brings half the ‘boys’ in the county who bear the same name as the accused; and as many more, of the same name as the man who was killed, - every one of the former, ready to kiss the book, and swear, that the boy accused of the homicide, never handled a shillelagh, or lifted a stone, or was seen in a ‘scrimmage’ in his days; and every one of the latter as ready to swear, that the boy that was killed, was the most peaceable boy that ever bore his name, and that he was killed for no reason at all. Besides these homicides cases, which are peculiar to an Irish assize, prosecutions of any kind bring together a greater number of persons than in England, - for be it a robbery, or a rape, or any other crime, of which a man is accused, all his relations come forward to swear an alibi. It may be easily conceived what a motley crowd fills the streets of an Irish county town at the time of an assize. . . .

The most numerous class of cases at most Irish assizes, is that which is facetiously denominated fair murders; that is, homicides committed at fairs; and I do not know any means, by which so much insight is to be obtained into the character of the Irish peasantry, and into the condition of the country, and state of things among the lower classes of society, as by listening to these prosecutions for fair murders. There were many of these prosecutions at the Ennis assizes; and, although I had already heard much of the factions, into which the peasantry are divided, I had no conception of the extent of this evil, nor of the bitterness with which this spirit of faction is attended. However these factions may have originated, there is now no distinction among their adherents, excepting that which arises from the possession of a different name. The O’Sullivans are as distinct a people from the O’Neils, as the Dutch from the Belgians. The factions have chiefs, who possess authority. Regular agreements are made to have a battle; the time agreed upon is generally when a fair takes place; and, at these fights, there is regular marshalling, and ‘wheeling;’ and, as for its being a crime to break a ‘boy’s’ head, such an idea never enters the brain of any one. The spirit of faction is brought into court by almost every witness in these prosecutions. I saw a witness, a woman, brought in support of the prosecution for a homicide committed on some cousin, - who on being desired to identify the prisoners, and the court-keeper’s long rod being put into her hand, that she might point them out, struck each of them a smart blow on the head. As for finding out the truth, by the mere evidence of the witnesses, it is generally impossible. Almost all worth knowing, is elicited on the cross-examination: and it is always, by the appearance and manner of the witness, more than by his words, that the truth is to be gathered. All the witnesses, examined for the prosecution, were, by their own account, mere lookers on at the battle; nor stick, nor stone had they. Their party had no mind to fight that day; but, in making this assertion, they always take care to let it be known, that, if they had had a mind to fight, they could have handled their shillelaghs to some purpose. On the other hand, all the witnesses for the prisoner aver just the same of themselves; so that it is more by what witnesses won’t tell, than by what they do tell, that truth is discovered. Half the witnesses called on both sides, have broken heads; and it is not unfrequently by a comparison of the injuries received on both sides, and by the evidence of the doctor, that one is helped to the truth. . . .

The most numerous class of cases (with one exception), and the most important class, as throwing the greatest light on the character and state of the people, were those homicides of which I have spoken. The exception in point of number of cases, is rape: of these cases, I think nearly forty were entered for trial: but only a very few of that number were heard; and all of them terminated in acquittal. In nine cases out of ten, the crime is sworn to, merely for the purpose of getting a husband; and the plan generally succeeds. The parties are married before the cause is called for trial; and I have myself seen an earnest negotiation carried on under the piazzas of the court-house, a little while before a case was called. There was the ‘boy’ indicted for a capital crime, but out on bail, as he generally is; and the girl, about to swear away a man’s life; and the attorneys, and a large circle of relations, all trying to bring about a marriage, before Pat should be called upon to appear, and answer to the indictment that he, ‘not having the fear of God before his eyes, and being instigated by the devil,’ did so and so. In the case to which I was a listener, Pat and the fair one could not agree: the trial went on; and Pat was acquitted. . . .

I saw tried, one of those singular cases of abduction, which very frequently occur in Ireland; and which also throw considerable light on the state of society among the lower ranks. Sham cases of abduction are frequent. The ‘boy’ and the girl are agreed; but the girl’s relations being dissentient, owing to her being an heiress, and entitled to a better match, it is made up between the young people, that the girl shall be carried away by apparent force. The youth makes known the case to his friends, and collects a number of associates: they come during the night to the house of the girl, force open the door, seize upon the maid, who, though ‘nothing loth,’ screams and makes all the opposition in her power, place her on horseback, and, after escorting her a sufficient distance, deliver her over to the ‘boy,’ on whose account the abduction was got up. The charge of abduction which I saw tried at Ennis, was a real abduction however, and a very shameless one, attended with circumstances of great cruelty; and originating, as indeed they always do, in love of money. These abductions are most detrimental to the peace of the country; because a feud is instantly generated, between the relatives of the girl, and those of the aggressor; and many subsequent fights invariably result from these outrages. . . .

I noticed, that great importance is attached to kissing the book; and sometimes, this ceremony is required, for greater security, to be performed two or three times. Without kissing the book, a witness looks upon his oath as very imperfectly taken; and it is necessary that in the act of kissing, the witness be narrowly watched, lest he kiss his own thumb with which he holds the book in place of the book itself. . .

I was much struck at Ennis, as I had been at Tralee, with the acuteness and talent of the Irish attorneys. Their cross-examinations of witnesses were admirable; certainly not surpassed by the very best cross-examinations I ever heard from the mouth of an English barrister.

Extracts taken from Henry D. Inglis, A Journey Throughout Ireland During the Spring, Summer and Autumn of 1834, (London 1836), pp 156-67.

The Angler in County Clare, 1833
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Miseries and Beauties, 1835
Jonathan Binns