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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)

The Strangers Gaze: Travels in County Clare was originally published by Clasp Press as The Strangers Gaze: Travels in County Clare 1534-1950. Owing to copyright restrictions some of the articles included in the original publication are omitted here. The travellers’ accounts have been selected and edited by Brían Ó Dálaigh, who also wrote the introduction and the biographical pieces on each author which precede each account.

Introduction and Editorial Note by Brían Ó Dálaigh

Travel writing is a historical source of high quality. The best writers record their own observations and ignore second hand reports and hearsay. Being strangers their accounts are rarely contaminated by local loyalties or party politics. Travellers bring a fresh eye to the local scene and are able to appreciate differences not immediately apparent to the native inhabitant. It is this ability to compare and contrast that is perhaps their greatest advantage. That is not to say that their accounts are without fault. Obviously travellers are often unfamiliar with the scenes they describe and they are all too often governed by their own prejudices and loyalties. Indeed some writers pretend to give a full account of the country after spending only a few short weeks passing through it. The informed reader, however, can quickly spot such defects and make allowances for them. Traveller accounts attract because people have always been curious to know what others think of them; and because they entertain and provide so many different points of view they are an interesting and pleasurable way of exploring a country’s past.

The accounts in these pages were written by visitors to County Clare over a period of four centuries. The writers journeyed through the county in many different capacities. They were military adventurers seeking land, surveyors attempting to map territory, evangelical clergy seeking converts, newspaper men in search of stories and travel writers in search of the picturesque. What they have in common for our purposes is that they all provide first hand accounts of what they observed and they all write directly out of their own experience. There is a wealth of factual information in their reports - on diet, clothing, places of abode, farming practice, religious customs, political allegiances and so forth. Moreover they provide special insights into the divisions that existed within Clare society: between the colonisers and the colonised, between Protestant and Catholic and between the landed classes and the landless. A persistent feature of the works, even when they are written by Irish people, is the sense that the writers were outsiders, even intruders on the local scene. The interaction between outsider and native was unequal. The local voice is heard only through the mediation of the stranger. This inequality of relationship creates a tension in the accounts which provides a fundamental dynamic of the works collected here.

Historically, Clare was a disadvantaged county on the western sea-board. A county of wet climate and poor soils it had little attraction for strangers. The county was never widely planted with settlers as happened in Ulster or in the rest of Munster. Surrounded on three sides by water, Clare remained isolated and its traditional Gaelic way of life persisted well into the eighteenth century. Indeed so widely was the county’s isolation perceived to be that in 1721 an English writer, Peter Browne, published a volume entitled A letter from Ireland giving an account of the taking of a great number of sea monsters at Monster Creek, in the county of Clare, Ireland. The story concerns a ship’s crew shipwrecked on the coast of Clare where they encounter many monsters. With the development of roads and the improvement of transport, the descriptions that were subsequently to appear, while less spectacular, were certainly better informed.

The first entry in the anthology is the letter of Connor O’Brien to the European Emperor Charles V in 1534. The letter was obviously not written by an outsider. Connor O’Brien was the last ruler of the independent lordship of Thomond. His letter is included here on the basis that it was written for the benefit of outsiders. By describing the military potential of his lordship O’Brien hoped to attract the armed intervention of the European emperor. Indeed almost all sixteenth century accounts were compiled with military intervention in mind.

Edmund Sexton’s description of the Shannon estuary in the 1540s was designed to facilitate the subduing of Thomond by the English. Fr. Wolf’s report in 1574 was written to encourage invasion of the country by the Spanish. Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh’s account in 1599 glorified the plunder of Thomond by the Prince of the North, Hugh O Donnell. An exception is the entry written by the English Jesuit, Fr. Goode, for Camden’s historical survey of Britain and Ireland in 1586 Goode provides a factual account of Thomond, (which had just recently been renamed County Clare) but like all English accounts of the period it is hostile to the native Irish.

The first four decades of the seventeenth century were relatively peaceful. Peaceful interludes clearly did not inspire traveller accounts and apart from Donough Mooney’s Franciscan Houses of Clare it is not until war starts again in the 1640s that further descriptions of the county are produced. Three accounts of the Cromwellian conquest of Clare are reproduced in this anthology. All were compiled by military personnel, who participated in the war on the English side. The first is a diary kept by Sir William Penn, a sea captain, who foraged up and down the Shannon Estuary in 1646 to keep the Parliamentarian garrison at Bunratty supplied. The second, another diary, kept by an unidentified Parliamentarian officer at Limerick, describes the military incursions into County Clare in 1651. From a historical point of view diaries are particularly valuable, because being a daily record, they give a more accurate account of events. Of less value are the memoirs of General Ludlow. Written some years after his departure from Ireland, they are a selective account of the conflict in County Clare. Unfortunately we have no record of the war from the Irish point of view; it is only through English reports that we hear of the atrocities and appalling suffering inflicted on the population during those awful years. With the completion of the Cromwellian conquest the purely military inspired accounts come to an end. Subsequent descriptions of the county, when written, arose from entirely different motivations.

The Clare Franciscan, Fr. Anthony McBrody, writing from Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1669 was concerned to take to task those English writers, who wrote ‘false histories’ and ‘erred magnificently’ about his native Thomond. McBrody praises the natural resources of Clare, its saints and holy wells and the nobility of the people. A different type of report is provided by the English traveller Thomas Dineley. Dineley came to Clare in 1681 to look over, as it were, the newly acquired territory, to see how best it could be managed and made to produce. He illustrates his travelogue profusely with drawings of the castles and houses of the newly arrived settlers.

Cartographers were to make a substantial contribution to the topographical writings of Clare. The Molyneux survey of 1682 set out to provide a topographical description of the counties of Ireland for a world atlas then in the process of being published in London. While the publishing scheme collapsed, two accounts of the county were compiled, one by Hugh Brigdall, an Ennis attorney, and the other by Robert Downing, a researcher for the project. They are the first ‘scientific’ accounts of Clare in that they attempt to describe the physical and human geography of the county and are generally free of bias. In 1703 another cartographer, Thomas Moland, surveyed the lands of the Thomond estate. The earl of Thomond, then an absentee living in England, ordered the mapping of his estates in Ireland so as to maximise his rental income. Moland produced a beautiful series of maps and in a survey of extraordinary detail provides the first accounts of some of the remotest parts of the county. Two further mapmakers in the eighteenth century contributed to the travel literature of Clare. The first, Col. William Roy, a military surveyor sent to Ireland in 1766 to report on the state of the country’s defences, commented on military installations, the conditions of roads and the diet of the people. The second was the Rev. Augustus Beaufort, Rector of Navan. Beaufort initially set out to compile a detailed map of the diocesan boundaries of Ireland. Entering Clare from Galway in 1788 he travelled the length of the county in a horse drawn vehicle, the first of our travellers to achieve such a feat. Clearly roads and bridges had greatly improved from the days when only the pedestrian or mounted traveller could penetrate the most inaccessible parts. Beaufort’s map of Ireland, the most accurate to appear before the Ordnance Survey maps of the 1840s, was published in 1793.

If one had to choose a theme that pervades the accounts across the centuries it would have to be the extreme poverty of the people. Visitors to Ireland were appalled at the poverty they encountered. In 1689 John Stevens, a Jacobite soldier and a friend of the people commented, ‘the Irish live in hovels no better than pig-sties’. While passing through east Clare he thought the town of Killaloe ‘the meanest I ever saw dignified with that character’. George Whitefield, a clergyman returned from missionary work among the Indians of North America in 1738, was astounded by ‘the meaness of the poor people’s living . . . If my parishioners at Georgia complain to me of hardships, I must tell them how the Irish live; for their habitations are far more despicable’. As the years passed and the population increased the situation worsened. In 1817 the pedestrian, Bernard Trotter, passing between Quin and Spancelhill commented ‘the village near the Abbey is wretched, the cabins very poor . . . There is a great poverty in Clare and the miserable attempt to sell unlicensed spirits in their mud-cottages scarcely excited displeasure’. The German traveller Johann Kohl going from Ennis to Kilrush in 1842 ‘passed not a single village, nor a single hut fit for human habitation . . . nowhere else do we find human beings gnawing, from year’s end to year’s end at the same root, berry or weed. There are animals who do so, but human beings, nowhere except in Ireland’. Perhaps the worst excesses of poverty and deprivation were witnessed in the wake of the Great Famine in west Clare. The Rev. Sydney Osborne, when passing between Kilrush and Kildysart in 1849 observed the ruins of hundreds of houses, tumbled by landlords for non payment of rent. Amid the ruins of one he found a woman and her young children. ‘The place was a mere pig sty, a lad of four feet could hardly have stood in the middle of it . . . here this poor creature had dwelt for weeks, with her three children; her stock of food was at her feet; a large bundle of corn-weed and nettles; she was positively naked to the waist but by hitching up some of her rags she extemporised a bodice’. It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century, following the drastic fall in population levels and the change in land ownership from landlord to tenant that living standards began slowly to rise.

In Ireland, as elsewhere, agriculture was the fundamental generator of wealth. Visitors keenly observed the farming practices of the country. Three individuals, whose primary interest was in agriculture, recorded their observations on the farming practices of County Clare. In 1776, Arthur Young, the foremost agriculturist of his age, gave an indepth account of the county’s agriculture. His insights on farming and on its potential for development have rarely been equalled. In 1813, John Curwen, the Manx M.P., followed in Young’s footsteps. He compared the state of contemporary agriculture with Young’s observations and commented on how farming had developed over the intervening period. He particularly noted the huge increase in rents and farming incomes, brought about mainly through the demand created by the Napoleonic wars. Curwen was one of the few visitors to note the prosperity then being enjoyed by the people, a situation, which unfortunately proved to be short lived. The third agriculturist to visit the county was James Caird. Caird was sent by the British government in 1850 to assess the agricultural potential of the then near deserted farming lands of the county so that they could be advertised to investors in Britain.

If tourism is travel undertaken for pleasure, then the first tourist to leave an account of his travels in Clare was the Rev. Richard Pococke, the Protestant bishop of Ossory. In the eighteenth century only the rich and powerful travelled for pleasure. Pococke was unusual in that he visited the county twice, once in 1749 and again in 1752. Few roads could cope with wheeled traffic and so the bishop journeyed on horseback. There was still little incentive to visit County Clare where roads were poor, inns uncomfortable and transport inconvenient. Most visitors avoided the county altogether. In the two most popular tours of Ireland published in the eighteenth century, Richard Twiss’ A Tour of Ireland in 1775, and Thomas Campbell’s A Philosophical Tour of the South of Ireland (1788), Clare is not even mentioned. Most tourists came as far as Limerick and immediately turned south to savour the delights of the Lakes of Killarney. In 1791, Charles Bowden was the first to mention the county in a contemporarily published tour. Bowden journeyed on horseback up the west coast of Clare and complained ‘the roads in this country are extremely bad and the accommodations they afford are worse’. In the nineteenth century as the wayside inns and the county’s road network improved tourists became more common. Three tours were published in the second decade of the century: the first by William Reed who visited Kilrush in 1810; the second by Rev. James Hall, who toured the east of the county in 1812; and the third by the aptly named John Trotter who completed the first walking tour of Clare in 1817.

Some of the best travel accounts, however, were written in the years 1830-42. Indeed this period can be termed the golden age of Clare travel writing. In 1834 William Bilton produced his marvellous Angler in Ireland. In pursuit of good fishing Bilton described many areas of the county previously unvisited. In the same year Henry Inglis, foremost travel writer of the day, travelled on the stage coach to Ennis and gave a masterful account of the cases being tried at the Clare assizes. In the winter of 1835 the poor law commissioner Henry Binns journeyed up the west coast and experienced at first hand the tourist accommodation at Kilkee, Miltown Malbay and Lehinch. The novelist William Thackeray devoted a chapter of his Irish Sketch Book to the county in 1842. But perhaps the most outstanding contribution was made by the German travel writer Johann Kohl. Kohl, a perceptive traveller, filled his account with a wealth of descriptive detail. Being a well travelled individual, he could assess Irish conditions in the European context. His observations are excellent, his judgements fair and balanced. In short his description of pre-Famine Clare is unequalled.

Why did so many accounts of the county appear in the 1830s, when in the previous decade not a single tour was published? Improved communications across the Irish sea in the 1820s greatly increased the number of visitors to Ireland. The initiation of a regular stage coach service between Limerick, Ennis and Galway made the county much more accessible. As communication by road improved and as travel came within the means of more people, a demand for travel literature was created, which resulted in many new tours being published. But the event that most propelled the county into prominence was the election of Daniel O’Connell in 1828 and the achievement, subsequently, of Catholic emancipation. After that the county featured in the itinerary of most visitors to Ireland.

The type of visitors that came to Clare during and after the Great Famine were entirely different from those who had gone before. They were not tourists but rather individuals with strong religious or social convictions. Like the Quakers who distributed relief during the Famine or social reformers who advocated fundamental changes in land-ownership. Their accounts are free of the condescension and ridicule that characterise pre-Famine accounts. Men like the Scottish essayist and social critic Thomas Carlyle, who felt compelled to come to Ireland to witness the scenes of mass starvation for himself. Or the M.P. Poulet Scrope, who advocated agrarian reform, or the Rev. Sydney Osborne, whose harrowing accounts of the evictions in west Clare did so much to highlight the plight of the Irish tenant farmer in Britain. Accounts such as these continued up to 1862 when the newspaper columnist Henry Coulter carried out an extensive survey of the social conditions and the state of agriculture in the county. Thereafter with the threat of famine lifted commentators concentrated on the question of land reform. The Scottish activist, Jessie Craigen, reported on the struggle of the tenants in Bodyke against their landlord Col. O’Callaghan in 1880. Three further accounts concentrate on the land issue but from the landlord’s point of view: Bernard Becker (1881), William Hurlbert (1888) and Robert Buckley (1893). Becker’s account is of interest for his extensive report on the land reclamation project in the estuary of the Fergus. Hurlbert, a veteran of the American civil war, describes the predicament of the landlord Richard Stackpoole at Edenvale and Buckley, a journalist from Birmingham, returns to the situation in Bodyke and the heightened expectations of the tenants. By 1893 it was apparent that tenants would soon come into the ownership of their farms and that the focus of politics was about to shift from land reform to the national question.

The era of modern tourism in Clare begins with the opening of the railway line between Limerick and Ennis in 1859. Ironically the coming of the railway did not lead to an increase in travel literature but rather the reverse. By travelling at speed tourists saw less of the countryside so there was less need for tour books. In any event, travel had become so inexpensive, it was more interesting to travel oneself than to read the accounts of others. An exception to the trend was the Wexford author Thomas Lacy, who used the train extensively to collect material for his book Sights and Scenes of our Fatherland. Lacy, who had a penchant for architecture, wrote extraordinarily detailed accounts of the interiors of the newly constructed Catholic churches. As tourist numbers increased a steam ship operated between Galway and Ballyvaughan. The English pedestrian William Barry was among the early passengers to take advantage of the service, which greatly increased the number of visitors taking the spa waters at Lisdoonvarna. Hotel standards, however, still fell well below the expectations of continental visitors and the French author Marie de Bovet in 1890 was deeply critical of the standard of the hotel accommodation she encountered in Kilkee and Miltown Malbay. By 1909 the Irish language revival was in full sway. In his tour as Gaeilge, Peadar Ó hAnnracháin produced a most informative account of the county’s Gaelic poets and the language as it was then spoken in north Clare. Peadar has the distinction also of being the only traveller in this anthology to have toured the county by bicycle.

In the early twentieth century, despite a huge increase in the number of books, few tours of any quality were published. There appear to be no accounts associated with the War of Independence, which is strange, or perhaps such accounts were written but await discovery. In any event it was not until professional writers like Seán Ó Faoláin and Frank O’Connor published their travel books in the 1940s that quality accounts of the county again appear.

The coverage the different parts of the county receive in these accounts is uneven. While some areas have several reports devoted to them, other parts are hardly mentioned. There were three basic corridors in the county through which travellers moved. The first is the passage along the Shannon from Limerick to O’Brien’s Bridge, Killaloe and Scarriff. John Stevens used this route on his march to Athlone in 1690, as did the French aristocrat, the Chevalier De Latocnaye, in 1797. With the completion of the Grand Canal to the Shannon in 1804, many travellers entered the county by boat through Lough Derg. This is how Johann Kohl entered Clare in 1842 as did the canal enthusiast, L.T.C. Rolt, in his voyage down the Shannon in 1946. The second corridor through the county was the central roadway connecting Gort with Ennis, Newmarket on Fergus, Sixmilebridge and Limerick. This became a tolled turnpike road as early as 1734. But it was the setting up of the regular stage coach service in the first decade of the nineteenth century that made it particularly attractive to travellers. Joseph Lancaster used it in 1812 as did Henry Inglis in 1834 and William Thackeray in 1842. Today it still remains the principal conduit for traffic through the county. The third corridor was along the west coast. From Kilrush to Kilkee, Miltown Malbay, Lehinch and Ballyvaughan. John Bowden was among the first to use this route in 1791. But it was the opening up of the steam boat service from Galway to Ballyvaughan in the 1860s that really made the route attractive. Travellers could land in north Clare, visit Lisdoonvarna, tour down along the west coast and take the boat at Kilrush for either Limerick or Tarbert.

The intermediate areas of the county are but poorly served. In east Clare, for instance, there is no account of the town of Tulla, or the villages of Kilkishen or O’Callaghan’s Mills. Similarly with west Clare, the tract of territory from Kilmaley and Connolly to Kilmihil and Cooraclare receives not a single mention. Perhaps such areas will feature in future tours.

Although almost seventy accounts of Clare appear in this anthology, the collection is by no means exhaustive. Many more good tours await discovery. Some are still in manuscript form, others hidden in obscure journals or in appendices to larger printed works. In many ways the tours appearing here are the most obvious ones. At some future date, perhaps at the end of the next century, some individual may well undertake a similar project, publishing those tours yet to be discovered and the new ones to be written.

Editorial Note
Generally speaking those descriptions most illustrative of the county’s history and topography, were prepared for publication. Accounts of Clare pre 1800 are relatively rare and thus almost all early accounts were included. However, after 1800 when tours became common, it was possible to be more selective. Only accounts which were written directly from the observation or experience of the writer were included. Thus topographical dictionaries, guide books and books with secondary reports were excluded.

Autobiographies and memoirs were excluded on the basis that the accounts were written many years after the events described. Some reports ran to over seventy pages and it was necessary to reduce them to more manageable proportions. Generally pseudo-historical matter, descriptions of picturesque scenery and information derived from secondary sources was excluded. An ellipse (three dots) indicates in the text where sentences have been deleted; material deleted at the end of paragraphs is indicated by an ellipse and a full stop. Words occurring within square brackets were inserted by the editor. Capitalisation was normalised, ancient spelling modernised and misprints, spelling errors etc. silently corrected. Names of people and places appear as in the original accounts.


Letter to Charles V, 1534
Connor O’Brien