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Travels in County Clare 1534 - 1911
(extracts from The Strangers Gaze, edited by Brían Ó Dálaigh)

Spencer Hall, Life and Death in County Clare, 1849

Spencer Timothy Hall, bookseller, author and homeopath, was one of several English writers to visit the county following the catastrophe of the Great Famine and the numerous reports appearing in English newspapers on conditions in County Clare. Hall was a compassionate man of humble origins; his farther, a Quaker, was a cobbler by trade. Growing up in Nottingham-shire, Hall received little education. He was apprenticed to a printer in 1829 and on the completion of his apprenticeship established himself as a printer and bookseller at Sutton in Ashfield. Appointed postmaster there he printed a monthly publication called the Sherwood Magazine. He developed an abiding interest in alternative medicine and spoke and wrote widely on phrenology, the study of the human brain where function was thought to be determined by the shape and size of the skull. This led him to experiment with hypnosis. He allegedly wrought many cures, his most famous patient being Harriet Martineau (a lady who also wrote extensively on post-Famine conditions in County Clare), whom he cured of a hopeless illness in 1844. The results of his labours were published in Mesmeric Experiences (1845). Following his visit to Ireland in 1849 he published Life and Death in Ireland, a factual account of the famine scenes he witnessed in the west of Ireland, often considered his best book. In later years he became interested in homeopathy. He practised as a homeopath doctor and published Homeopathy a Testimony in 1852. Although Hall held a Ph.D. from Tubigen University, Germany, he was not a legally qualified medical doctor and made little from his practice. His later life was spent in poverty; he died in Blackpool, 1885.

It was a very fine morning on which we started upon this excursion, and very busy too for many miles was the road, on account of a great fair at Ennis. Without dwelling on scenes already mentioned, or staying to describe the dejected-looking little town of Newmarket, or the elegant castle of Dromoland, the seat of Sir Lucius O’Brien, with its well-wooded grounds and gleaming lakelet, I may say in general terms that the trip, as far out as Clare, opened up to observation an average variety of Irish extremes. The road, like every turnpike I had travelled on in the country, was excellent; - and, surrounded by undulating green landscapes, lit here and there with refreshing water-glimpses, might be seen buildings of every degree, from the old castle and modern castelet, down to the temporary dwellings of out-driven tenantry in the bye-lanes - the latter (as I examined them on a more leisurely occasion) partaking somewhat in their style of the united orders of the Indian wigwam and the Hottentot kraal.

The town of Clare, with its water-facilities and twenty other great natural advantages, has for some reason been sacrificed to its close neighbour, Ennis, which has altogether superseded it as the capital of the county. It is, in fact, little more at present than a mere village, though not without one or two commercial features. In its castle or barrack, at the time we passed, were quartered some Highland soldiers, who were just being called out by the bagpipes to parade. But what I thought seemed much more in keeping with the country around were the grey ruins of its fine old abbey, in the fields on the right side of our road, as we went on to Ennis.

The latter town was on this day, of course, a scene of bustle if not of gaiety; and although we had very little time, I managed to get a glance at the fair. Irish fairs, like every thing else Irish, have so often been caricatured, and turned into subjects of fun, as possibly to make a homelier description the more agreeable. At this there was a considerable supply of stock, consisting of horses, mules, asses, cows, goats, pigs, and poultry, - which might have been had almost at any price, but there were scarcely any buyers. I have been at many fairs in various parts of England and Scotland; not because of having business at them, but owing to the idea that there one may learn very much in a short time of the character of the district in which they are held; but I never saw one so melancholy as this. And yet somehow the people all looked as if they had been or could be sprightly. The few bargains I observed were made with much clamour, in the Irish language, and in the presence of two witnesses, who confirmed them by uniting their hands over or with those of the buyer and seller - thus forming a cross.

The features, manners, and costume of the majority of the country people, some of whom had come from the wilds of Galway, added to the language they spoke, and (to an Englishman) curious stock of goats, mules, and asses in which they dealt, made me almost start to think that, instead of being in some far-off, primitive land, I was in reality within a twenty-four hours’ ride of home and among citizens of the same nation! . . .

Passing by a shattered tower, and turning from the road at the little town of Ballinacally, we struck by an old ruined church, and were soon afterwards met by a number of people, amongst the foremost of whom were the two deputies from the suspended works we were going to see. The works in question were mines of culm, a sort of bastard coal, having a sulphurous smell and casting no flame, but very useful in lime-burning, and for other similar purposes. The manager and the workmen were most anxious to resume operations; and for their interest as well as his own the chieftain stated he was desirous that they should. It is therefore needless to say that his visit was a very acceptable one - since many of them had no other employment to depend upon, and nothing to eat without it. To me the manager and his neighbours seemed on as kindly terms as if they were all one family, and he their father.

Leaving the mines, we visited some drainage works yet higher up the country - the people, old and young, of both sexes, still thronging after and hailing us with blessings and all kinds of pleasantries. At one point where they all gathered round the car, I got into conversation with those who were foremost.

Well boys (said I) of what religion are you here?
‘Catholic - all true Catholic, to be sure!’
What! is there not a single Protestant on the estate?
‘Not one, then, your honour!’
But does no Protestant minister ever come among you and try to teach you?
‘Not at all, then! and what is the need for him to come, when there are no Protestants to come to?’
But what is the distance to your nearest school?
‘Between two and three miles.’
And (addressing myself to the best informed of them) do you mean to tell me seriously that no Protestant clergyman ever comes amongst you for any purpose whatever?
‘Never!’ responded several voices at once. . . .

During the earlier hours of the afternoon, we had met several parties of the armed police, escorting prisoners down to Ennis; but one we passed on returning was more remarkable than the others. Of the races who have in ancient times settled in the country, is one supposed to be of Spanish origin, not yet entirely fused with the rest; and the prisoners in this instance were of that race, with dark hair, and equally dark yet enkindled eyes. One of them was a powerful-looking man, with a large bloody gash upon his brow. A woman well constituted to match him - it might be his wife or sister - and two other persons, were all with him where he lay, bound on a car; the police, with their mounted firelocks, walking before, on each side, and behind. The features of the whole party displayed a working of the darkest passions of the soul. But all I could learn of their case was no more than that it arose, like so many besides, out of some process of eviction or distraint, which they had determined to oppose and risk the consequences.

On our nearing Ennis again, it was a moving sight - that of the crowds of people returning to the country from the fair, many of them taking back their unsold stock, others sad from having been compelled to part with it at most ruinous prices. Whether it were owing to principle or poverty, or both, I know not; but there was much less drunkenness than I had expected to see on such an occasion; and in the evening all was as quiet and orderly in the town as at any fair of equal consequence I had ever known in England.

At the inn where we stayed, there happened to be a frank and intelligent young Irishman - a civil engineer - whom I had seen before at the chateau; and after dinner, as there was still nearly an hour of daylight, we took advantage of it to glance together at one or two points of local interest. Almost opposite was a neat Anglican church, preserved or recovered from the ruins of an old monastery, another part of the interior of which had been turned into a burial ground. These we made an engagement with the sexton - an obliging man - to explore. Considering how extensive and beautiful were some of the architectural remains, I was surprised at the state in which, on one side of the church, they had been allowed to sink. But worse than all - to say, too, that it was in the best quarter of the town - was the dirty and slovenly state of the burial ground itself. My first impression on entering that part of the ruins was, that the place might have been purposely desecrated from religious animosity towards the sect from whom it had passed. But on seeing how the graves of so many of the Protestant towns-people were half-hidden in loose stones and dirt and nettles, it seemed to be in reality little else than a mark of sheer public neglect. . . .

The morrow rose ‘with breath all incense and with cheek all bloom,’ and at an early hour we were again on our car, accompanied by the young engineer, whose conversation became very interesting to me. . .

Our course this time was north, or north-westward, into a country blending the wild and rugged with the pastoral and beautiful. . . .

In this neighbourhood was a fine natural well, giving the name of ‘Fountain’ to a residence and farm, and pouring forth a volume half as large as that of Holywell, in Flintshire, - the water abounding with large trout from its very source, and winding away through the green meadows to a lough that was gleaming within the horizon, and making the scene altogether as pleasant and refreshing as the morning that shone down upon it.

Leaving this, we came about noon to another genteel farm-house, on a sort of natural terrace, overlooking a great extent of country. Immediately below was spread out to the south a large tract of half-drained caucass, or meadow, bounded on one side by a branch of the Fergus, and on the other by a prettily winding minor tributary; and here were grazing a herd of good-looking cattle. From the back extended some undulating land, consisting chiefly of arable fields, the crops on which seemed in moderate progress; and beyond these again was a scene altogether novel to me. Here was stretched out, as it seemed for miles, one great unbroken superstratum of grey stone - to the eye of fancy like a lake that had been just ruffled by the wind, then suddenly petrified and left to perpetual sterility. On bringing us to the verge of this Hibernia Petrea, where the ruin of an old tower threw its shadow over the head of a lough that flowed away in another direction, the farmer, (who was also a poor-law guardian,) solicited some reduction in his rent, to prevent, as he said, the necessity of his emigrating, and illustrated the destitution which prevailed around him, by informing us that some of the famishing people had come into his field, and taken away the potato seed for food after it had been set!

On hearing the statements of farmers so respectable as this, as to their inability to make their capital and industry answer at the rate they were paying, how mad, thought I, must have been the extortion which, in many places I had seen with natural advantages by no means superior, had set down small holders with large families at proportionably three, four, and even five times the rental these were complaining of, and then depending merely on the potato, the pig, and one small cow, or goat, perhaps, for the means of payment!

We now passed (on the border of the lough or lake) the family residence of the O’Loghlins, and found great numbers of the peasantry cleaned up, in their best attire, and scattered along the road towards Ennis. The reason was this. At the sitting of the board of guardians the day before, Mr O’Loghlin, brother to the late Master of the Rolls of that name, had been suddenly seized with cholera, and was now dead there; and these were the tenantry going to meet the corpse and then to wake it, according to the custom of the country.

Of Ennis town, from the hurry we were in, I was enabled to see little more that would be novel to the reader. In truth, one or two of its streets and public buildings reminded me forcibly of some of our large old English market towns, blended of course with much that was especially Irish. But the awful number of poor, half clad, begging creatures, who surrounded and almost overwhelmed us at every step, rendered it impossible for us to make a single uninterrupted observation. The sudden death, too, of Mr O’Loghlin, had caused a species of consternation in the place, which, added to other occasions of gloom, made us anything but anxious to stay; and in the evening we found ourselves once more at the chateau.

Extracts taken from Spencer T. Hall, Life and Death in Ireland in 1849 (Manchester 1850), pp 58-71.

Quaker reports on
Famine Conditions, 1847


Reminiscences, 1849
Thomas Carlyle