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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)

Robert Lynd, Rambles in Clare, 1911

The phenomenal growth in tourism in the early part of this century spawned a great number of travel books many of quite indifferent quality. One of the better ones was Robert Lynd’s Rambles in Ireland (1912), illustrated by Jack B. Yeats. Lynd, a Belfast-born journalist was educated at Queen’s University, Belfast. He spent most of his life in London working as a journalist for the Daily Mail. He wrote the introduction to James Connolly’s Labour in Irish History (1917). An ardent Gaelic Leaguer, he sometimes wrote under the pen name Riobard Ua Floinn. Daniel Corkery dismissed him as the ‘Belfast sentimentalist’ but he retained his commitment to the ideal of Irish nationhood to the end. His account of Clare is of interest for his description of the entertainments at Lisdoonvarna and the use he made of the transport services. Leaving Galway by steamer he landed at Ballyvaughan and from there travelled by horse drawn car via Lisdoonvarna to Ennistymon (the motor car had yet to make an impact). He travelled on the West Clare Railway from Ennistymon to Kilrush where he boarded the steamer for Limerick.

It was the merest accident that we went to Lisdoonvarna. Our ambition was to get from Spiddle (a little desolate village about ten miles outside Galway, where we had been attending the opening of a summer school of Irish) to Killorglin, which is in County Kerry, in time for Puck Fair. As we left Spiddle on Monday morning and the Fair (according to the railway-guide) began on Wednesday, there would be little time except for jolts on cars and other jolts in railway trains in the interval. If we made the journey by Lisdoonvarna, it was partly because this involved the passage of Galway Bay by steamer to Ballyvaughan - for who can resist these little local steamers on a holiday? - and partly because a clerk in a ticket office had expatiated on the beauties of the Cliffs of Moher, which are the wonder of County Clare as Slieve League is the wonder of county Donegal. . .

And as it involved that sea-journey across Galway Bay, car-journeys across half (or what looked like half) of the County Clare, and made possible another long voyage on a local streamer up the mouth of the Shannon from Kilrush to Limerick, we yielded as a child yields to a bribe of sweets. . . .

On the quay at Ballyvaughan a row of wagonettes and cars was standing; they could have found room for at least thirteen times as many people as the steamer had brought across. Nearly all of them seemed to come from the hotels at Lisdoonvarna, which was ten miles off by the nearest road. We had already picked our hotel at a guess from a list we had seen in a railway-guide, and after some shouting we found the car that was connected with it. Then we got up and drove off till we came to the first public-house. It seems to be a ritual with drivers of cross-country cars to stop at the first public-house, or the one after, even if it be only a few yards away. All the cars and wagonettes pulled up either here or a door or two farther on. Then we started on our journey up into the grey and gloomy hills. One of Cromwell’s generals is said to have declared of this part of the county - the barony of Burren, as it is called - that it didn’t contain wood enough to hang a man, water enough to drown him, or earth enough to bury him, and certainly these introductory rocks reach an extreme pitch of desolation and wildness. Grey as a dead fire, they rise in the imagination as the field of old battles of the Stone Age, when small men rushed from their hiding behind the boulders and swung their little axes with murderous cries above the heads of their enemies. Corkscrew Hill, as the road is called which winds right and left, and left and right, and right and left, till one is finally safe on the great plateau which absorbs so much of the county, is, so far as my experience goes, one of the wonderful roads of Ireland. To go along it in the dark, I imagine, would be to wander among the companies of the disembodied. The majority of people leave the cars to tug along on the round-about way, and themselves take short-cuts across the rough grassy patches that lie between bit and bit of the road up the face of the hill. Here at every step up the terraced slopes we seemed to be getting farther into a world of twilight and hilly mysteries. The greatest of the heights about us lay upon the land like the huge boss of a Titan’s shield, a round of greyness.

Then, on the upper plain, we got on to the car again, and listened to the discourse of the red-whiskered driver on the demerits of the country, and foxes that creep among the unfenced hills, and the ancient stories of the County Clare. ‘Did you ever hear of Maighread Ruadh?’ he asked. ‘She was a terrible woman. She lived - do you see the hill yonder in a line with the white house I’m showing you with the whip? Well it’s near that she had her castle, and there was a cross-roads near it, and they say she kept a gate at it, and, any traveller that came that way, she wouldn’t let him past till he had paid her a toll of all she asked him. And, if he wouldn’t pay, she would string him up: she would give him a terrible doing, anyway. Well, for all she was cruel, there was one was crueller, and that was her husband. However it came about, one man wouldn’t do her, and when the husband was away one time, what did she do but bring her lovers, twelve of them, into the castle, and had them waiting on her at the table dressed up as young girls. That went on till the husband got wind of it, and after that he hurries home and kills the twelve of them, and he takes Maighread Ruadh and - ah, he was a devil - ah, ma’am, begging your pardon, he cuts the breasts off her. Maybe it’s only a story that’s in it, but I always heard it told as a true story. They say it’s hundreds and hundreds of years since that happened. . .’

Sudden lights appeared in the blackness, and with a sense of discovery we rattled down the hill into the settlement of hydropathics and hotels which is Lisdoonvarna, dropped into the twisted hollow of the town, and climbed a last little hill that took us to the hotel we had chosen so casually.

When we got off at the door, it was as though we had landed into the beginnings of a house-party - a house-party in which nearly every guest was a priest. The grey-haired lady in black who received us in the hall seemed more like the hostess of a country-house than the proprietor of a hotel; and, indeed, though there was business intelligence as well as the spirit of welcome marked in her face, it was as a hostess rather than a business woman that she went among her boisterous guests while we were there. We arrived just in time to get the last room in the hotel, and just in time for tea - for the arrangement of the meals here, like everything else, was in the correct Irish fashion, with tea instead of dinner in the evening. Priests were in crowds in the hall and passed one on the stairs, one humming a tune, another talking nonsense to a lot of girls, another aloof and quietly smiling and entering into the high spirits of the place by proxy, like the elderly ladies from Limerick who sat with their knitting in the corners and looked on. The two or three boys who were there were romping about among the priests’ legs, tugging at sticks with them, and playing all sorts of noisy scrimmaging games. Girls in high-necked blouses chattered, not with each other, but with groups of the clergy, in every square yard of the place, and the male laity in the persons of a few young men were thrust into a wallflower loneliness. . . .

It was only weariness that kept us from going down into the village to see a travelling circus that evening. But this hive of gay priests, this black garrison of the clergy on their holidays, was, as it turned out, worth a hundred such conventional pleasures. Personally, I had long known something of the merriments of the clergy of other denominations when they gather in companies round a fire and set their pipes going. But I had never before seen the Catholic clergy disporting themselves en masse, as it were. Here they were like a crowd of boys on holiday. One of them walked up and down the hall flirtatiously with a girl on each arm, a challenge to the laughter of the others, who smoked him for a playboy. Others, no less flirtatious, jested and gesticulated on the crowded sofas to the immense admiration of laughing groups of girls and benign old ladies, who smiled on the fun from their corners. . .

When I got back into the hall again, the priests were still crowding about the drawing-room doors, not dancing themselves, for apparently they are not allowed to do that, but encouraging, nay, compelling, everybody else to dance. Irish priests are pictured by a good many of their modern critics as a saturine company. Perhaps there is something in the air of Lisdoonvarna which turns them jovial.

If you want to get out of Lisdoonvarna, you must do it by car - unless you have an unnatural taste for walking. If you take a direct cross-country road you will fall in with the County Clare railway system - it is far more like a steam-tram system - at Ennistymon, about nine miles away. But if you want to see the Cliffs of Moher which, says the leading guide-book, ‘form some of the most sublime objects of the western coast,’ you will have to go a long roundabout journey and join the train farther on at Lahinch. . . .

Here on the point of the [Moher] cliffs is a broken-down tower where red and white cows shelter in the deserted hall, and many visitors will no doubt feel a quickening of romance at the sight of it till they look at the date-stone and see that it is no older than the nineteenth century. It was built, indeed, by a neighbouring landlord, Cornelius O’Brien, M.P., in 1835, as a hostelry for visitors, and it was he, I believe, who also put up the wall of flagstones along the cliffs and the stables which now lie in ruins near the road. . . .When one has got back to the road again and driven some way down from the heights, one comes on the showiest holy well I have yet seen. It is in a kind of grotto in a garden beside an inn, and outside the grotto-like building stands a little shrine. The walls of the grotto are thick with holy pictures, abominations of colour representing various saints, and each of them is signed with the name of some beneficiary of the blessed properties of the waters. Other visitors had made presents of rosaries, which were hung here and there from nails. If you read the inscriptions on the pictures, you will be surprised to see how many of the donors are Americans. A barefooted woman with a skin tanned like a Red Indian’s and a head of glossy black hair greeted us as we went in, and asked us if we would have a drink from the well. We said we would, and she rinsed out a tin and filled it from the running water and handed it to us. And as, having given her some money, we went out, she called earnest blessings after us. The well is named after St Bridget - ‘the Mary of the Gael,’ as she has been called. . . .

When we drove down into Lahinch later, past the wide stretch of sandy golf-links, on which a rare knickerbockered man, his weapons borne by his page, was marching very importantly in the wake of a ball, we noticed badges of one kind and another in the buttonholes of many of the boys who loafed about the railway station.

It was only by the skin of our teeth that we caught the train. Had we missed it, we could not have reached Limerick - by the Kilrush steamer, at any rate - that night. . .

I hoped when we got on board the steamer there would be nothing to do but loosen a few ropes and speed off up the Shannon towards Limerick, and, as the captain told us there would be no food to be had till the boat started, we were especially anxious to be gone as early as possible. But, alas! we were just feeling sure that we must be on the point of going, when the advance-guard of a regiment of pigs ran grunting on to the quay. Then there was a great scene of penning in and beating with sticks and squealing, and a few pigs would be herded rebelliously into a little truck and shut in, and the pulley would begin rattling as though it were out of breath with effort, and a truck would be hoisted in the air and swung round and lowered into the hold of the steamer, a thing of terror, odour, and disharmony. It was the slowest possible business transferring the pigs from the quayside into the boat, and when one regiment of the poor dirty beasts was finished, another came down with silly ears to take its place. Ultimately, we got tired of pig, and, if it had not been for the growing smell of them, we might have enjoyed the time well enough looking over at rare Scattery Island, which lies a mile or more out in the water with a round tower rising amid its ruined churches. . . .

To steam up the Shannon on a day of wide prospects is, I am sure, a delightful experience, though even on the best of days I would rather make the voyage on a steamer that did not carry pigs. It is not that I do not like pigs: I love the shape of them, and they make a very soothing music except at times of emotional crisis. But the odour of a thousand of them is something never meant to be concentrated in the hold of a single vessel. In the hold? Alas! no, it escaped from the hold and wrapped the boat in a kind of cloud that there was no getting away from.

Extracts taken from Robert Lynd, Rambles in Ireland (London 1912), pp 95-128.

Clare as it is, 1893
Robert Buckley