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

William Thackeray, Clare Sketch Book, 1842

William Makepeace Thackeray, the celebrated author of such masterpieces as The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), The Book of Snobs (1846) and Vanity Fair (1848), was perhaps, after Charles Dickens, the best known of the English novelists of the Victorian era. A master of irony and satire, he explored in his fiction the moral and social pretensions of the age. Thackeray, born in India of English parents, had a number of Irish connections: he was married to Isabella Creagh Shaw of Doneraile, County Cork, whom he met in Paris in 1836; and a relative, Elias Thackeray, was a long serving vicar of Dundalk. He originally contracted to write a tour book of Ireland for publication in 1840. However, due to his wife’s deteriorating mental health, he was compelled to abandon his original plan and it was not until 1842, under heavy financial pressure, that he began his Irish tour. Although Thackeray undoubtedly needed the money the publication of the tour would bring, the book is nonetheless cleverly written and gives a straightforward account of Ireland as it appeared to the intelligent traveller before the Great Famine. Sharp contrasts are made between the wealth of the landed classes and the grinding poverty he observed on all sides. His fulminations against government, absentee landlords and clerical indifference reveal how deeply he was touched by the condition of the people. His narrative is occasionally enlivened by fictional interludes: at Bunratty he recreates the scenes of centuries past by peopling the empty chambers with characters such as ‘the gallant Lord Hugo’, ‘the fierce Sir Ranulph’ and ‘the blind harper of the race of De Clare’. In Ennis he purchased in ‘a decent little library’ six volumes of fiction which inspired him, while weather-bound in Galway, to devote a chapter of his book to the adventures of one Captain James Freeny. For his Irish tour Thackeray used as a guide book A Journey Through Ireland in 1834 by Henry Inglis and possibly also Fraser's Guide Through Ireland (Dublin 1838). The many subsequent editions of Thackeray's Irish Sketch Book are eloquent testimony to the enduring success of the work.

The way to these wonderful sights [Cratloe Forest and Bunratty Castle] lies through the undulating grounds which border the Shannon, and though the view is by no means a fine one, I know few that are pleasanter than the sight of these rich, golden, peaceful plains, with the full harvest waving on them and just ready for the sickle. The hay harvest was likewise just being concluded, and the air loaded with the rich odour of the hay. Above the trees, to your left, you saw the mast of a ship, perhaps moving along, and every now and then caught a glimpse of the Shannon and the low grounds and plantations of the opposite county of Limerick. Not an unpleasant addition to the landscape too, was a sight which I do not remember to have witnessed often in this country, that of several small and decent farm-houses with their stacks and sheds and stables, giving an air of neatness and plenty that the poor cabin with its potato-patch does not present. Is it on account of the small farms that the land seems richer and better cultivated here, than in most other parts of the country? Some of the houses in the midst of the warm summer landscape had a strange appearance, for it is often the fashion to white-wash the roofs of the houses, leaving the slates of the walls of their natural colour; hence, and in the evening especially, contrasting with the purple sky, the house-tops often looked as if they were covered with snow. . . .

After travelling through a couple of lines of wall with plantations on either side, I at length became impatient as to the forest [of Cratloe], and, much to my disappointment, was told this was it. For the fact is, that though the forest has always been there, the trees have not, the proprietors cutting them regularly when grown to no great height; and the monarchs of the woods which I saw round about, would scarcely have afforded timber for a bed-post. Nor did any robbers make their appearance in this wilderness: with which disappointment, however, I was more willing to put up than with the former one. . . .

A policeman shows you over [Bunratty Castle], halls, chapels, galleries, gibbets, and all. The huge old tower was, until late years, inhabited by the family of the proprietor, who built himself a house in the midst of it: but he has since built another in the part opposite, and half-a-dozen ‘peelers,’ with a commodity of wives and children, now inhabit Bunratty. On the gate where we entered were numerous placards, offering rewards for the apprehension of various country offenders; and a turnpike, a bridge, and a quay, have sprung up from the place which Red Redmond (or anybody else) burned.

On our road to Galway the next day, we were carried once more by the old tower, and for a considerable distance along the fertile banks of the Fergus lake, and a river which pours itself into the Shannon. The first town we come to is Castle Clare, which lies conveniently on the river, with a castle, a good bridge, and many quays and warehouses, near which a small ship or two were lying. The place was once the chief town of the county, but is wretched and ruinous now, being made up for the most part of miserable thatched cots, round which you see the usual dusky population. The drive hence to Ennis lies through a country which is by no means so pleasant as the rich one we have passed through, being succeeded ‘by that craggy, bleak, pastoral district which occupies so large a portion of the limestone district of Clare.’ Ennis, likewise, stands upon the Fergus, a busy, little, narrow-streeted, foreign-looking town, approached by half-a-mile of thatched cots, in which I am not ashamed to confess, that I saw some as pretty faces as over any half-mile of country I ever travelled in my life.

A great light of the Catholic church, who was of late a candlestick in our own communion, was on the coach with us, reading devoutly out of a breviary, on many occasions, along the road. A crowd of black coats and heads, with that indescribable look which belongs to the Catholic clergy, were evidently on the look-out for the coach; and as it stopped, one of them came up to me with a low bow, and asked if I was the Honourable and Reverend Mr S ---? How I wish I had answered him I was! It would have been a grand scene. The respect paid to this gentleman’s descent is quite absurd - the papers bandy his title about with pleased emphasis - the Galway paper calls him the very Reverend. . . .

At Ennis, as well as everywhere else in Ireland, there were of course the regular number of swaggering-looking buckeens, and shabby-genteel idlers, to watch the arrival of the mail-coach. A poor old idiot, with his grey hair tied up in bows, and with a ribbon behind, thrust out a very fair soft hand with taper fingers, and told me, nodding his head very wistfully, that he had no father nor mother: upon which score he got a penny. Nor did the other beggars round the carriage who got none, seem to grudge the poor fellow’s good fortune. I think when one poor wretch has a piece of luck, the others seem glad here: and they promise to pray for you just the same if you give as if you refuse.

The town was swarming with people; the little dark streets, which twist about in all directions, being full of cheap merchandise and its vendors. Whether there are many buyers I can’t say. This is written opposite the Market-place in Galway, and I have watched a stall a hundred times in the course of the last three hours, and seen no money taken: but at every place I come to, I can’t help wondering at the numbers; its seems market-day everywhere - apples, pigs, and potatoes being sold all over the kingdom. There seems to be some good shops in those narrow streets; among others, a decent little library, where I bought, for eighteenpence, six volumes of works strictly Irish, that will serve for a half-hour’s gossip on the next rainy day.

The road hence to Gort carried us at first by some dismal, lonely-looking, reedy lakes, through a melancholy country; an open village standing here and there, with a big chapel in the midst of it, almost always unfinished in some point or other. Crossing at a bridge near a place called Tubbor, the coachman told us we were in the famous county of Galway.

Extracts taken from William Makepeace Thackeray, The Irish Sketch Book 1842 (London 1843, reprinted Belfast 1985), pp 150-56.

Rambles, 1838
Lady Chatterton


A Tour of Pre-Famine Clare, 1842
Johann Kohl