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in County Clare 1534 - 1911
Johann Kohl, A Tour of Pre-Famine Clare, 1842
The German travel writer Johann Georg Kohl came to Ireland in September of 1842 ‘without’, as he said himself, ‘any object in view other than to become acquainted with the country, and to see everything that was interesting and remarkable in it’. A native of Bremen, Kohl had studied at the universities of Gottingen, Heidelberg and Munich, before settling in Dresden in 1838. From there he visited many European countries - including Russia, Hungary, Holland, Denmark, France, Dalmatia and England. He published most of his travel books between 1843 and 1851. He travelled to America in 1854, where he spent four years and prepared a series of maps for his government. In later life he became the city librarian of Bremen and died there in 1878. Kohl was an experienced observer with excellent judgement and his widespread travels allowed him to compare Irish conditions with the general European experience; his book on Ireland therefore is free of the prejudices that retard many writers and provides a most valuable insight into Irish living conditions on the eve of the Great Famine.
Landing in Dublin, he found the houses and buildings there much the same as those of English cities. Proceeding on to Athlone, he arrived at Shannon Harbour, where the Grand Canal intersected with the river Shannon. Steamboats brought canal passengers down river to Limerick. Above Killaloe rocks and rapids compelled travellers to transfer to horse-drawn canal boats, which brought them around the obstacles in the river. The passengers of quality sat on seats in the stern, while in front, sprawled on long benches, the poorer and dirtier sort were assembled. Presently they re-entered the river and in the evening landed at the quay of Limerick. Kohl proceeded to Ennis and Edenvale but, having heard that Father Mathew, the apostle of temperance, was to speak at Kilrush, he set out for west Clare.
Kohl, unlike most visitors, did not travel by steamer down the Shannon, but took instead the mail car from Ennis to Kilrush. He complained that the road, the principal one for the western part of the county, passed through the bleakest and most barren countryside imaginable. Not a single village or hut fit for human habitation was to be seen. What he apparently did not realise was that the road had recently been built and that it would be some years before substantial dwellings would appear along its frontage. The road, in fact, followed the most direct route from Ennis to Kilrush and deliberately avoided existing villages such as Kilmihill and Cooraclare. The stop at the ‘mean inn’ where the horses were changed was Fanny O’Dea’s, the traditional halfway house between Ennis and Kilrush.
Kohl provides a superb description of Father Mathew and the scene in the temperance hall at Kilrush. Although Father Mathew kept aloof from politics, Kohl could sense that the temperance movement, which was then influencing millions of people, had political overtones and duly notes the cabinet-makers’ banner with the motto ‘Sobriety, Domestic Comfort and National Independence’! Before crossing the estuary to County Kerry, Kohl visited Scattery Island where he declared round towers to be the most interesting of Irish antiquities. Kohl’s book is written with typical German thoroughness; it is an outstanding example of the travel writer’s craft and provides the best description by far of County Clare in the nineteenth century.
In company with an Irishman, who joined me in the hire of a car, I started on the following day, a fine Sunday morning, to pay a visit to a friend of mine, a landholder in the neighbourhood of Ennis, the capital of the county of Clare. The road lay at first along the Shannon, and then over a plain, said to be of the most fertile soil in Ireland. The appearance of the country was beautiful, and wherever the ground was slightly elevated, a fine view was obtained of the surrounding landscape, including the beautiful Shannon and its numerous islands. By the side of the river, and partly surrounded by it, lay the rock Carrigogunal, celebrated for its fairies, who take delight in surprising a mortal upon the rock, and making him partake of their hospitality. . .
I was grieved as I passed on the Sunday through several towns to see so many poor fellows loitering about, and on the look out for work. They were most of them in their Sunday attire, but with their spades in their hands, and stood grouped about the churches and market-places waiting to be hired to dig potatoes. I was shocked at the sight of such sad and serious multitudes, and all unemployed.
Clare is a poor and ruinous place, that reminded me of the Polish and Lithuanian cities. Though it bears the name of the county, it is not the chief town, that honour being enjoyed by Ennis, a much more orderly and prosperous-looking place, and celebrated in the history of Ireland, on account of the extraordinary excitement that accompanied the election of O’Connell for the county of Clare, in 1828 - an election that immediately preceded, and in a great measure contributed to bring about, Catholic Emancipation. . . .
Edenvale is one of the prettiest country-seats in the county of Clare, and I had every reason to congratulate myself on having accepted an invitation to spend a few days with the owner, an influential Protestant landholder. The Britons, including the Irish, certainly understand better than any other people the art of selecting an appropriate site for a country-seat, and then converting it into a kind of paradise. . . .
On my arrival, I found my worthy host busy with his trees and flowers, and we immediately undertook a little tour round the lovely glen on the margin of which his house is situated. One of the most remarkable spectacles that presented itself during my visit, was a complete eclipse of the sun, caused by an immense flight of rooks. Never in my life had I seen so many birds collected together. It was as if all the feathered tenants of the hundred thousand ruined castles, abbeys, and towers of Ireland had assembled to hold a monster meeting. The silent glen was at once filled by their loud and discordant cries, and their droppings poured down like a shower of hail; and yet the inhabitants of Edenvale assured me the spectacle was no uncommon one, the rooks having long made the glen one of their favourite haunts. It was at least an hour before the wild concert was at an end, and the air clear of the ungainly vocalists, and when the swarm had passed, I felt as if a thunder storm had rolled away. . . .
In England, where servants are kept at a proper distance, it is seldom that they venture on the familiar impertinence of which I saw frequent instances in Ireland. My worthy friend’s coachman, a well-fed, merry-looking fellow, accompanied us through the stables and farm buildings, and pointed out every remarkable object to my attention, with a constant flow of eloquence, while his master followed modestly behind us.
‘This stable you see, sir,’ proceeded the coachman, ‘we finished last year. And a deal of trouble it cost us, for we had to begin by blowing away the whole of the rock there. But we shall have a beautiful prospect for our pains when the trees yonder have been cut down. And look down there, your honour, all them is his dominions (pointing to his master), and in two months he’ll have finished the new building he has begun.’ Now no English servant would have made equally free with his master, and yet the Irish servants are taken from a far more dependant class than the English peasants.
At Edenvale I heard of another old woman to whom popular belief ascribed supernatural powers. Her name was Consideen, and I met with her in a neighbouring cabin, into which I entered in the course of one of my excursions. Leaning on a stick the old octogenarian prophetess sat by the turf fire of her friend. She told me she had often seen death, leaning on two crutches, and standing at the end of the meadow, when any of her family was about to die. Old as she was, she said, she knew she should not die yet awhile, for death would be sure to come and give her warning when her time drew near. . . .
During that same walk I visited the stately mansions of some of my host’s neighbours. These houses looked to me much more suited for spectral visitation than the fairy meadow I had just left. Scarcely a soul dwelt in them, and the rooms were silent like so many graves. The owners were absentees, who spent their Irish revenues in England or on the continent. These spectral palaces, I am sorry to say, are almost as abundant in Ireland, as fairy grounds and ruined castles. The rich Protestant landowners feel themselves uncomfortable on many accounts among the Catholic tenants. The wildness of the country is not easily remedied, the barbarism of the people leads them often to murderous acts of vengeance against their landlords; greater attractions are unquestionably to be found in English society; the peasantry are often divided into hostile factions, and perhaps many a Protestant may not be insensible to the injustice of which the wealthier class are guilty towards their poorer countrymen. All these causes, combining to keep so many wealthy Irish proprietors out of their country, may have given rise to the universally lamented evil of absenteeism. There are families, also, that have estates in England as well as in Ireland, and who naturally prefer residing in the former country. Those gentlemen, however, all are the most deserving of our esteem, who remain at home, where it is hardly possible that they should not in some measure ameliorate the lot of their poor tenants. There are, after all, many of these voluntary martyrs, and my hospitable host of Edenvale being one of them, I returned from my walk with feelings of increased esteem for him, nor was it without some regret that I took leave of him on the following morning.
The country westward of Ennis and Edenvale is the dark side of the county of Clare, - the wildest, poorest, and most barren part of it. I had, nevertheless, two inducements for visiting these wild regions. Firstly, I had heard that the celebrated Father Mathew was on his way to Kilrush, the most easterly town on the Shannon; and secondly, in the vicinity of this town lies the island of Scattery, on which stands one of the finest of the Irish ‘Round Towers,’ and, again, the ruins of ‘Seven Churches.’
From Edenvale to Kilrush the distance is about sixteen English miles, and along the whole way, though this was the main road for the eastern [recte western] part of the county, I passed not a single village, nor a single hut fit for a human habitation. The landscape was everywhere naked and treeless; the colour of the soil was the most melancholy that can be imagined, - black or a dirty brown, - for one great bog seemed to cover all things, even the rocks. If it made me sad, however, how much sadder must such a country make a poor glebœ adscriptus, the vassal of a hard landlord, the father of a group of starving ragged children! . . .
A wooden house, with moss to stop up its crevices, would be a palace in the wild regions of Ireland. Paddy’s cabin is built of earth; one shovelful over the other, with a few stones mingled here and there, till the wall is high enough. But perhaps you will say, the roof is thatched or covered with bark? Ay, indeed! A few sods of grass cut from a neighbouring bog are his only thatch. Well, but a window or two at least, if it be only a pane of glass fixed in the wall? or the bladder of some animal, or a piece of talc, as may often be seen in a Walachian hut? What idle luxury were this! There are thousands of cabins in which not a trace of a window is to be seen; nothing but a little square hole in front, which doubles the duty of door, window, and chimney; light, smoke, pigs, and children, all must pass in and out of the same aperture! . . .
The Indians in America live wretchedly enough at times, but they have no knowledge of a better condition, and, as they are hunters, they have every now and then a productive chase, and are able to make a number of feast-days in the year. Many Irishmen have but one day on which they eat flesh, namely, - on Christmas day. Every other day they feed on potatoes and nothing but potatoes. Now this is inhuman; for the appetite and stomach of man claim variety in food, and 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.
There are nations of slaves, but they have by long custom been made unconscious of the yoke of slavery. This is not the case with the Irish, who have a strong feeling of liberty within them, and are fully sensible of the weight of the yoke they have to bear. They are intelligent enough to know the injustice done them by the distorted laws of their country; and while they are themselves enduring the extreme of poverty, they have frequently before them, in the manner of life of their English landlords, a spectacle of the most refined luxury that human ingenuity ever invented. . . .
At times we stopped at a mean inn to change horses. The walls were generally tapestried with proclamations offering rewards for the apprehension of criminals. Fifty pounds were promised for the apprehension of those who had murdered farmer so-and-so; thirty pounds for information that would lead to the conviction of those who had burned a mill, and ill-treated the inmates to such a degree, that two of them had since died; and many others of the same kind. I had not time to read all these placards, instructive as they were respecting the condition of the country. . . .
We carried with us the letter bags intended for the several villages and country seats lying away from the road. At every stage we saw one of these living scarecrows waiting to take charge of the bags intended for the adjoining localities. These postmen tried to arrange their rags in a way to protect the correspondence of the country from the effects of the weather. As I looked on these ragged starved beings, I could not help thinking of the comfortable looking fellows to whom, in Prussia and Saxony, is entrusted the not unimportant duty of forwarding the public correspondence from village to village.
Not one in a hundred of those who look like beggars really beg, still the professional mendicants are numerous enough in all conscience. Most of them are decorated with Father Mathew’s temperance medal, often as a matter of speculation, inasmuch as many are disposed to give more liberally to those who, having pledged themselves to abstain from intoxicating liquors, are thought less likely to make a bad use of any gift that may be bestowed upon them. Many people in Ireland now make a point of never giving any alms to a beggar who cannot show his temperance medal. . . .
Kilrush is a small seaport town, and, like all seaport towns in Ireland, has fewer ruins and a greater appearance of freshness and comfort than any of the places in the interior. I put up under the roof of an old sailor who had fought, in his time, under Nelson, and now directed the only tolerable hostelry in the place. My first walk was to the ground where Father Mathew was to be received. The temperance societies have their places of meeting in every town in Ireland, and these are called ‘temperance halls.’ The temperance hall of Kilrush lay in a by-street, a small courtyard was in front of it, and a few steps led up to the house door. The hall itself, if I am not mistaken, was used in the daytime as a national school, and in the evening the men of temperance held their meetings there. A shilling was demanded of every-one who entered, for which he was entitled, in the evening, to partake of the soirée that was to be given. A resident of the town, and one of the most distinguished among the temperance men, whose acquaintance I had already made, showed me the decorated hall, which was still empty. Round about the walls hung the banners of the several corporate bodies of the town, surmounted by mottoes all calculated to please the popular taste of the time. That of the cabinet-makers, for instance, was, ‘Sobriety! Domestic Comfort! and National Independence!’ This inscription struck me immediately. ‘What,’ I asked myself, ‘has national independence to do with temperance, which is a purely moral question?’ I believe, however, that, in point of fact, the two causes are more nearly united than is generally supposed. It appeared to me as if all these temperance men were engaged in a conspiracy against English ascendancy. . . .
Garlands and festoons were wound about the hall. A large horse-shoe table stood in the centre of the room, and boards resting on empty casks and blocks of wood were arranged as seats. At the head of the table were two arm-chairs, one for Father Mathew, and one for the principal Catholic priest of the place, who was to act as chairman. Behind these chairs a gigantic cornucopia was represented, with a multitude of shamrocks falling out; another allusion to Irish nationality. On side tables stood a countless host of teapots and teacups, and huge piles of bread-and-butter, for on all solemn occasions tea is the nectar of the temperance men, and bread-and-butter their chief food. . .
Suddenly the cry rose, ‘He comes! he comes!’ and I heard at the other end of the street one of those detestable musical displays with which the temperance men generally open their processions and solemnities. . . .
The great, the famed apostle of temperance, the most prominent man in Ireland, with the exception of O’Connell, entered the room. He advanced slowly through the crowd, for every one wished to shake hands with him, and he had enough to do with his friends to the right and the left. At last he arrived at his place opposite mine, and sat down in his garlanded chair. I was formally introduced to the reverend chairman, who, in his turn, presented me to Father Mathew, with whom I exchanged a few friendly words of welcome. He is decidedly a man of a distinguished appearance, and I was not long in comprehending the influence which it was in his power to exercise over the people. The multitude require a handsome and imposing person in the individual who is to lead them, and Father Mathew is unquestionably handsome. He is not tall, he is about the same height and figure as Napoleon, and is, throughout, well built and well proportioned. He has nothing of the meagre, haggard, Franciscan monk about him; but, on the contrary, without being exactly corpulent, his person is well rounded, and in excellent condition. His countenance is fresh and beaming with health. His movements and address are simple and unaffected, and altogether he has something about him that wins for him the good will of those he addresses. His features are regular, and full of a noble expression of mildness and indomitable firmness. His eyes are large, and he is apt to keep his glance fixed for a long time on the same object. His forehead is straight, high, and commanding, and his nose - a part of the face which in some expresses such intense vulgarity, and in others so much nobleness and delicacy - is particularly handsome, though somewhat too aquiline. His mouth is small and well proportioned, and his chin round, projecting, firm, and large, like Napoleon’s. . . .
A number of young women, and some lovely and wicked-looking ones among them, crowded round the ‘apostle.’ Some were sitting by his side, some at his feet, and some in each other’s laps, merely for the sake of being nearer to the holy man, and now and then touching him. Some beautiful old Irish melodies were sung, for Ireland, though its early history has had little interest for the rest of the world, has received from remote ages some melodies of exquisite beauty. Nor was there any lack of toasts, nor did these fail to call forth speeches of more than moderate length. The toast proposed with the most edifying speech, but by no means received with the greatest enthusiasm, was ‘The Irish clergy.’. . .
Towards midnight, after a countless succession of speeches, answers, toasts, and countertoasts, Father Mathew retired. The tables and teapots were immediately put aside, and a ball commenced, which must have been kept up till a late hour, for the morning was far advanced when I heard the temperance band returning home, and still playing their favourite melodies as they passed along the street. . . .
At nine o’ clock on the following morning, Father Mathew was again in the field, that is to say, in the church, where he read mass, after which he administered the pledge to a few hundred persons who presented themselves for that purpose. The medal which he bestows on these occasions, and of which mention has so often been made, is a round piece of pewter, of about the size of a five-franc piece. The words of the pledge are inscribed upon it, consisting of a solemn promise to abstain from all intoxicating liquors, and to persuade others as much as possible to do the same. Some wear their medals constantly as a kind of amulet, others place them round the necks of their little children, who are often made to pledge themselves to abstain from a vice, the nature of which they are scarcely able to comprehend. . . .
On leaving Kilrush I entrusted my person and my portmanteau to a small boat which I had engaged to carry me over to Scattery Island, and thence to the coast of Kerry. . . We effected a landing on Scattery Island, called in ancient times Inniscattery, and at present occupied by a few tenants of a Mr M’Kean, who graze their cattle there. ‘It is a very old ancient place,’ said one of the boatmen, as he was carrying me through the water on his shoulders, for we had come to a landing-place where the tide had left one foot of water over a large extent of coast. This pleonasm of ‘old ancient’ might be applied to many parts of Ireland, where old and older ruins are constantly found in close contiguity. In general, where there are seven churches, in Ireland, some ancient saint is named as having lived and died there, and as having belonged to the first preachers of Christianity in the country. At Scattery it is Saint Senanus, whose grave is still shown amid one of the ruins, and whose fame has been extended far beyond his native isle by one of Moore’s melodies. These ancient ruins, however, have many graves of a more modern date; for bodies are still brought over from the mainland to be interred at Scattery. On the occasion of such a funeral, one boat serves generally as a hearse, and the mourners follow in other boats. I saw many tombstones only a few years old, with new inscriptions, from which the gilding had scarcely begun to fade, and their effect upon the solitary and remote island had a peculiar and by no means unpleasing effect. Among them were the tombs of several captains of ships, and it would have been difficult to suggest a more appropriate place of internment for such men than this little island cemetery at the mouth of a great river, with the wide ocean rolling in front. Indeed, there is no other country in Europe where there are such interesting cemeteries, or such picturesque tombs, as in Ireland, partly on account of the abundance of ivy with which they are hung, and partly on account of the practice that still prevails of burying the dead among ruins. Of some of the seven churches on Scattery isle, scarcely a trace remained; but three of them were in tolerable preservation. Their walls, covered with ivy, remained, and into the wall of one of them, that nearest the round tower, a stone strangely sculptured into the form of a human face, had been introduced. Strange to say, it has completely the stiff, masklike features and projecting ears of the Egyptian statues, whence I conclude it must have belonged originally to some other building. On the opposite wall is a stone with evident traces of an ancient inscription.
The round tower stands a little to the side. Although not perfect, it belongs to the most picturesque in Ireland, for it has been struck by lightning, and has received a split on one side from top to bottom. On the south side it is covered completely with mosses and creeping plants; on the north and west side it is bare, the heavy winds, as the sailors told me, making all vegetation impossible there. Lightning and vegetation are the worst enemies the round towers have to contend with, and it is strange that such active foes should not have been able to overturn the whole of them in a space of 2000 years.
All the land upon the little island, except the cemetery, is pasturage. A small battery has been erected here to protect the mouth of the Shannon, the entrance to which river is defended by no less than six batteries and forts, while at the mouth of the Thames there is not one. On leaving Inniscattery, to repair to the kingdom of Kerry, we had work enough before us, for the tide was against us, besides which we had to contend with such a variety of currents, that the boatmen required all their skill and experience to carry their slight skiff in safety to the little port of Tarbert, whither we were bound.
Extracts taken from J. G. Kohl, Travels in Ireland, translated from the German, (London 1844), pp 42-67.