This blog concerns the accounts of travellers as a background source in understanding how our ancestors lived. While biographical data may establish that an ancestor lived in a certain place at a certain time, it is usually hard to imagine what life
While overseas travel is nowadays commonplace, it was not always so. Travel to other countries during the 17th to 19th centuries was unusual other than by emigrants, soldiers, missionaries and some types of public officials. Perhaps because of this lack of direct experience of other countries, there was significant public interest in knowing about other lands. Many travellers or short-term visitors therefore published their findings in the form of books, or as articles in journals or newspapers. Other accounts were written as private letters or diaries which were later published in historical or local journals. There are up to 2,000 of these accounts available for Ireland for the period from 1635 to about 1930, and almost certainly others will become available in the future. The main period covered is from about 1770 to 1890 and most parts of Ireland were visited by some traveller or other at some time. They travelled on foot, on horseback, by carriage or in various other forms of vehicles. These included the peculiarly Irish jaunting car which came in for regular and appreciative comment by many travellers. Other accounts are by those who lived in Ireland for periods of months or years. Some travellers or visitors had a particular purpose to their writings and concentrated on specific subjects such agricultural or religious practices, archaeological or historical sites, or military or security issues. Whereas some of the latter are limited in their description of people’s lives, others provide a rich picture of the life of the majority at various times and in various parts of the country; and also useful information on domestic and local customs and practices which adds to a picture of our ancestor’s lives.
Some authors travelled for leisure, others for business or to promote religious or political causes. John Wesley, for instance, visited Ireland 21 times between 1747 and 1789 to promote the Methodist cause. Others travelled as part of their work as soldiers, estate managers, canal engineers or agriculturalists. In the early 1800s it was very common for landlords to hire agricultural ‘experts’ to advise on how to improve the productivity of their lands. Some of these left accounts of their visits. Other travellers were well-to-do individuals with the resources to fund long periods of leisure travel. A few of these were motivated (particularly in the early and mid-1800s) by earlier reports of the destitution affecting the country. An example is Jonathan Binns (Reference 7 at the end of this article) who was involved in an ‘Agricultural Inquiry’ and whose motivation in publishing his extensive work was ‘a desire to promote ….a more familiar acquaintance with the real situation and dispositions of the Irish people and to encourage a more practical sympathy for their sufferings‘. He reports in detail on the circumstances of labourers and farming people all over Ireland. As might be expected, the accounts are written in tones ranging from sympathetic to judgemental to racially or morally superior. George Cooper (1) for instance, notes that ‘The natives of that country, the descendants, as it seems probable, of its aborigines, still remain the same rude barbarians’.
Common themes are the poor treatment of tenants and labourers by their landlords; the apparent idleness of the men; the splendour of many of the estates and ‘Big Houses’ seen or visited; the friendliness, courtesy and eloquence of the people; the generally poor state of roads and inns; the use of the Irish language in most areas; and the prevalence of beggars in all towns. However, the major and pervasive theme is the wretchedness of many of the people and their ‘cabins’. The blame for this situation is variously attributed to the laziness of the people; to the evils of ‘Popery’ and priests, to the Land League and other popular or rebel causes; to the lack of civil rights, to landlord practices and to various others local issues. Some writers criticise the practice of early marriage among Catholics who clearly cannot afford to marry.
Particular criticism in many accounts is applied to the ‘absentee landlords’, i.e. the landowners who resided (usually) in England and gave over the management of their estates to local agents. John Curwen, who toured Ireland in 1813 (see reference 2) states “many are the miseries in Ireland which spring from the owners … absenting themselves from their property. The blame which is generally, and often so unjustly, imputed to agents, ought however, to attach to the landlords, whose inexcusable ignorance of their estates, and total neglect, not only of their own interests, but of the comfort and happiness of the tenantry, occasion and perpetuate numerous evils.” Other visitors noted the almost total absence of a ‘middle class’ and observed the huge economic divide between the poor and the wealthy. To quote George Cooper (1) on a visit to Dublin in 1799 “The streets… are crowded with craving wretches, whose distresses are shocking to humanity and whose nakedness is hurtful to the eye of decency. With this misery of the lower classes… is contrasted the condition of the wealthy. Their public edifices, their palaces, .. and their equipages, are magnificent beyond measure”, and in the same book “There is neither balanced power, nor a middle class of people. The country is divided between the disproportionately rich and the miserably poor. It is ruled by an aristocracy with a rod of iron… there is scarce any intermediate station between the sultan and the slave”.
Almost every account of the country from 1800 up to the 1860s is filled with poignant accounts of the appalling poverty to be seen in most parts of the country. Some overseas readers with Irish roots may wonder about the motivation of their ancestors to emigrate. These accounts, particularly those of Trotter, Binns and Inglis (see below), will provide it in detail. Alexander Somerville (3) toured Ireland in the 1830s and summed up his views as follows “All that can be said of the peasantry of the west is comprised in the words hovels, hunger, rags, rheumatics, weakness, sickness, death. All that can be said of the gentry of the west is comprised in the word; castles, pride, idleness, improvidence, poverty, debt. There is hardly a middle condition or middle class.“
Those travellers who met with local people generally recorded their views with sympathy, and often validated their grievances by observation of local practices. These accounts occasionally include names and conversations in great detail. John Trotter (15) and Henry Inglis (4) quoted below, are but two examples of writers who travelled all over the country and met all kinds of people on their way. Canadian writer Margaret McDougall (6) provides a particularly vivid and detailed account of tenant grievances and associated Land League activities in Donegal and surroundings in the early 1880s. Other writers viewed the country from the window of a carriage and gained their understanding of local politics and people from the gentry with whom they dined. These writers are more inclined to report the prevailing view of the upper classes that the poverty of the nation was due to the indolence and lawlessness of the people and their disinterest in self-improvement.
The detail and colour to be found in these sources may best be demonstrated by the following extracts on different aspects of life, but note that there were major regional differences within the country so the comments do not necessarily apply to all areas. Poverty was most prevalent on the west coast. References are numbered and the original source for each is listed at the end of the article.
—— (1799) I have generally found the landlords to be extremely ignorant of the real condition of the poor; and how indeed are they to gain their knowledge unless they are to specially seek it. They do not themselves hire labourers; they do not call on the small farmer for rent; they do not themselves eject or drive for rent; – and it is not to the hall but to the farmhouse that the mendicant, and the mendicant’s wife, and the orphan child, and the unemployed labourer, carry their sack and their petition. The landlord has his gatehouse beyond which the vigilant porter allows no unwelcome visitor to pass. (4) (A mendicant is a beggar)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————– (1817) … The landlords do not, as in England, provide cottages for the poor on their estates, each labourer provides his own habitation; …. I have seen troops of healthy-looking children issue forth from these cabins, but I am sure a moral man cannot live in such a way without being exceedingly degraded. (5)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————– (Donegal in the 1880s). The landlord has no duties in the way of repairing a roof or making a house comfortable. Such a thing is utterly unknown here. To fix the rent, to collect the rent, to make office rules as whim or cupidity dictates, to enforce them, in many instances with great brutality, is the sole business of the landlord; and the whole power of the Executive of England is at his back. This is not a good school in which to learn loyalty. Submission to absolute decrees or eviction are the only alternative. (6)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————– In reference to absentee landlords (In Kerry 1812): Draining here, which might be accomplished by a certain advance of capital, would amply repay the proprietor. Lord Eardly, who is of course an absentee, is not likely to further so remote an undertaking, and misery and poverty will continue to distinguish the property. (2)
Jonathan Binns (7) visited the home of Owen Gray in 1837 ……. and made a drawing of his meagre house (see illustration in Figure 2). He notes ‘… Let me beg the reader…. that it is a correct representation of the dwelling of a man and his wife and their seven children. The whole length inside was 20 feet, the width 8 and the mud and sod walls were 3 1/2 feet high. … The whole of the furniture consisted of four old broken stools about a foot in height. … Their stock was a single pig and a miserable cat … I was subsequently told that many in the country were decidedly inferior to Owen Gray’s’. (7)
—————————————————————————————————————————————————– (1815) The Irish cabin is a wretched habitation. It is built with sod cemented with mud and thatched with turf, the stalks of the potato, straw or heath gathered from the mountains. It has generally neither window nor chimney, the door alone being made to answer both these purposes and in this humble shed the man, his wife and children, the hog, cow, goat, poultry .. all eat drink and pig together with the greatest good humour imaginable. It is a model of the most perfect republic the world ever saw. (8)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————-(1836. Co.Clare).. From the fisherman’s wife… I learned many interesting particulars respecting the localities of the place, she being the only one present who could speak English, and acted as my interpreter. It appears they have a very good landlord, and that the tenants are tolerably well off; the poorest hut was not without a feather bed, and many of them had two, which bespeaks a degree of comfort seldom to be met within an Irish cabin. In this one I observed a new style of ‘Waggon roof’ bedstead…. The back, roof and foot were covered with nice white deal boards…. (21)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————- (1770s) The landlord of an Irish estate, inhabited by Roman Catholics, is a sort of despot who yields obedience, in whatever concerns the poor, to no law but that of his will. To discover what the liberty of the people is, we must live among them, and not look for it in the statutes of the realm: the language of written law may be that of liberty, but the situation of the poor may speak no language but that of slavery. There is too much of this contradiction in Ireland; a long series of oppressions, aided by many very ill-judged laws, have brought landlords into a habit of exerting a very lofty superiority, and their vassals into that of an almost unlimited submission: speaking a language that is despised, professing a religion that is abhorred and being disarmed, the poor find themselves in many cases slaves even in the bosom of written liberty. Landlords that have resided much abroad are usually humane in their ideas, but the habit of tyranny naturally contracts the mind, so that even in this polished age there are instances of a severe carriage towards the poor, which is quite unknown in England (18)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————- (1842) The love of dancing appears to be inherent amongst the Irish, and constitutes a striking feature in the national character. Even poverty with its attendant evils, which might be supposed sufficient to depress the most elastic spirit, have not been able to extinguish the love of the peasantry for this amusement, that might be said to form an important part of their education. With them it is a natural expression of gaiety and exuberance of animal spirits – indicative of their ardent temperament; and I question whether a more accurate test could be found to judge the character of a people, than by their national dances. …. The skill acquired by the peasantry in this their favourite exercise is regularly exhibited at weddings and other rustic festivals….. The dances of Ireland are the Jigg, reel, hornpipe and cotillon. Of these the jigg is the dance peculiar to the country. The music of the Jigg, and the steps used in dancing to it, being totally different from every other known movement, entitle it to be distinguished as the national Irish dance. (16)
(at a race-meeting in Kerry in 1840) …. you might see (for you could scarcely hear) certain pipers executing their melodies and inviting people to dance. Anything more lugubrious than the drone of the pipe, or the jig danced to it, or the countenances of the dancers and musicians I never saw. Round each set of dancers the people formed a ring, …. The toes went in and the toes went out; then there came certain mystic figures of hands across, and so forth. (17)
(Regarding a visit to Cork City 1840). Although a passion for music is one of the striking characteristics of the Irish people, in no part of the country is the taste for this delightful accomplishment more generally cultivated than in this city. Music almost invariably forms a portion of their entertainments at home; and in their excursions on the river it is rare to find a party without vocal and instrumental performers amongst them. Nothing can be more delightful than to stand on the Glanmire shore on a calm summer evening…. and listen to the voices of the singers from the pleasure boats gliding along the placid river. Sometimes, like the Venetian gondolas, the musicians in one boat join with those in another, and as their voices are generally harmonious and their tastes correct, the effect of the melody is perfectly delicious. (17)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————- (1805) The peasantry are uncommonly attached to their ancient melodies, some of which are exquisitely beautiful. In some parts the harp is yet in use; but the Irish bagpipe is the favourite instrument (19)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————- (1814) … Just then a flute breathed gentle music from the opposite bank of the river; the strain was sweet, and the mournful airs played, recalled the times that were forever gone. The Irish are very fond of music, and many of them are good performers. The flute, the fife, the pipes the harp are much beloved by them. How strange! and what a pity that music, though practiced through time immemorial, and cultivated with success by this nation, does not appear to have softened their disposition as much as might have been expected. (10)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————- (1776) Dancing is very general among the poor people, almost universal in every cabin. Dancing-masters of their own rank travel through the country from cabin to cabin, with a piper or blind fiddler, and the pay is sixpence a quarter. It is an absolute system of education. Weddings are always celebrated with much dancing, and a Sunday rarely passes without a dance. There are very few among them who will not, after a hard day’s work, gladly walk seven miles to have a dance. ……. Dancing is so universal among them, that there are everywhere itinerant dancing-masters, to whom the cottars pay sixpence a quarter for teaching their families. Besides the Irish jig, which they can dance with a most luxuriant expression, minuets and country-dances are taught (18)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————- (1805) A Sunday with the peasantry in Ireland is not unlike the same day in France. After the hours of devotion, a spirit of gaiety shines upon every hour, the bagpipe is heard, and every foot is in motion. The cabin on this day is deserted; and families, in order to meet together, and enjoy the luxury of a social chit-chat, even in rain and snow, will walk three or four miles to a given spot. (19)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————- (1790) The diet of the Irish peasantry is chiefly vegetables; his subsistence depending on a small spot of ground, which he generally sows with potatoes. Bread, which constitutes the ordinary and wholesome food of a civilised people, he is almost a stranger to. It can only be obtained by agriculture, which is here at its lowest ebb; the lands being, as I have observed, almost wholly thrown into pasture for cattle. But perhaps it might therefore be reasonably expected that the peasant would often enjoy the nourishment of animal food. But the fact is otherwise: he is almost a stranger to it. His poverty will not allow him to live upon that which is the great trading commodity of the country. If he possessed cattle, he must sell them to make up his heavy rents.. the consequence of this is, that the peasant starves in the midst of plenty (1)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————– (About Limerick City 1819) Female beauty has been much and deservedly celebrated in Limerick. On Sundays there is a great display of it as well as consummate elegance and taste in the dress of the ladies.
(About Galway City 1819). The dress of the women, who are handsome, and have very good expression in their countenance, is peculiar. Scarlet, crimson and purple are their favourite colours. ….. and it consists of a jacket with long sleeves over a bodice, or gown and petticoat all of the same bright colour. …
(Co. Galway) Although the general language is Irish, they speak English at Cong very well and with grammatical propriety…. and there appears the tinge of the scholar very much throughout the province. (10)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————- (1824) In the county Limerick, the men’s dress is invariably of a gray (or pepper and salt colour) produced by a mixture of black and white wool without any process of dying. In the eastern parts of county Cork, dark blue is the predominant colour; whilst in the western parts and in the county Kerry, light or powder blue is almost universally worn. The same peculiarity, but in a lesser degree, extends to female dress. In the eastern baronies of the the county Cork and county Limerick, cloaks of the brightest red are seen. In the west of Cork and Kerry, dark blue and gray prevail. Previous to the rebellion of 1798, the former colour was more commonly worn than it has been since, and about that period red became generally disused (..because of its association with the red uniforms of the British). (11)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————— (1847) ..on Sunday we saw the peasants to the best advantage. All were tidily – nay, well dressed. I observed girls sitting by the way-side in gowns of gaudy patterns, with becomingly braided hair, snowy aprons, and gold earrings; while the men hovered about in good, whole, evidently brushed clothes, and children well clad, all but the feet. The circumstance that most surprised us, was the knowledge that all these holy-day folks lived in those horrid, smoky, dirty hovels and went about in week-days like so many scare-crows swathed in rags… (12)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————— (Donegal 1882) There were not half a dozen bonnets in the whole congregation—snow- white caps covered with a handkerchief for the matrons. They wore cloaks and shawls, and looked comfortable enough. I saw some decent blue cloth cloaks of a fashion that made me think they had served four generations at least. The lasses wore their own shining hair “streeling” down their backs or neatly braided up; abundant locks they had, brown color prevailing. Fresher, rosier, comelier girls than these mountain maidens it would be hard to find. The men’s clothing, though poor, and in some instances patched in an artistic fashion, was scrupulously clean. In the congregation were some young men well dressed, bold and upright, whose bearing, cut of whiskers, and watch chains, showed that they had lived among our trans- Atlantic cousins of the great Republic. (6)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————— (1827) …most of the inns of Ireland were of the same quality – a composition of slovenliness, bad meat, worse cooking and few vegetables save the Irish potato; but plenty of fine eggs, smoked bacon, often excellent chicken … They generally had capital claret, and plenty of civility in all its ramifications. (13)
——————————————————————– (On the potato as food of the people 1837). This (potato) is called the ‘lumper’ which … is the food of the peasant. The lumper is moist and heavy, and said to be difficult to digest, and therefore unwholesome; but here I believe there is some mistake. An article of food which is the only nourishment of millions of people cannot be unwholesome to them…..A little buttermilk is all that is usually aspired to as an accompaniment to the potato; but even this is more frequently dispensed with than otherwise. The pig is sacred to the landlord, to whom he goes in the shape of rent, accompanied by the fowls, chiefly geese which pick up their living on the high road and among the hedges. (14)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————– (re Newtown Barry, Co. Wexford 1819). In the morning a fair enlivened the town; woolens, crockery-ware and cattle were the chief objects of sale. The Irish language is spoken almost generally in the county of Wexford; we heard it everywhere in the fair (15).
——————————————————————————————————————————————————– In Ballinamallard, Co. Fermanagh 1837. Jonathan Binns describes in minute detail the hut occupied by 85 year old Jane Lee, and also her daily diet and states “. …She had been the mother of three sons, two of whom had perished in the army; the other went to America and she had never heard of him since”. (7) . . . . . . . In the same area Jonathan Binns also met George Waters “a middle-aged man with a wife and four children …. His income arose from breaking stones, labour in the fields, profit on pigs, poultry, potatoes, butter and his wife’s spinning, and amounted to £7.6s 6d a year. His expenditure consisted of rent (on his house, land and bog) fee to the priest of 1s for baptism of a child, candles, soap, tobacco, kitchen etc and amounted to £6.12s.6d.” (7)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————- (1814) We had an opportunity on the road today of observing a very old custom amongst the Irish… We met a funeral attended by a great number of country people. They were orderly, extremely clean and well dressed. All the women wore bright-red cloaks. A select party followed the corpse and sung the Irish lament in a very impressive, and far from unpleasing, manner. Sometimes the tones were very low and then rose as if in excess of grief. The women all followed the mourners and then the old and young men in separate bands, and finally a compact party of horsemen, well dressed and respectably mounted (15).
——————————————————————————————————————————————————- (1819) …. the uniform hilarity and vivacity of the peasantry, in defiance of their apparent distress, indicated contentment and a perfectly easy mind, but could this really be the case, surrounded as they were by cares and destitute as they were of comforts? …… Even among the most retired rustics we observed indications of considerable intelligence, attended by an uniform and almost officious civility, which entitles them to be considered, if not the most estimable, certainly the most pleasing peasantry in Europe. They approach strangers without reserve – converse with great freedom, and with frankness and pleasure communicate their circumscribed knowledge. (10)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————- (Urlingford, Co. Kilkenny 1844) The custom of the peasantry, in this part at least of the country, has been to assemble in hundreds, and reap down a harvest, or dig a farmer’s potatoes, taking their musicians with them, who play through the day and escort them home at night. This they never do but for those whom they respect, and the generous farmer who has paid and fed his labourers well, is sure to meet with a return of this kind (20)
——————————————————————————————————————————————————-(177os) .. it is among the common people one must look for those traits by which we discriminate a national character. The circumstances which struck me most in the common Irish were, vivacity and a great and eloquent volubility of speech; one would think they could take snuff and talk without tiring till doomsday. They are infinitely more cheerful and lively than anything we commonly see in England … Lazy to an excess at work, but so spiritedly active at play, that at hurling, which is the cricket of savages, they shew the greatest feats of agility. Their love of society is as remarkable as their curiosity is insatiable; and their hospitality to all comers, be their own poverty ever so pinching, has too much merit to be forgotten. Pleased to enjoyment with a joke, or witty repartee, they will repeat it with such expression, that the laugh will be universal. Warm friends and revengeful enemies; they are inviolable in their secrecy, and inevitable in their resentment; with such a notion of honour, that neither threat nor reward would induce them to betray the secret or person of a man.. (18)
The writings of these travellers are available in the form of books, articles in journals, or as manuscripts in various archives. Many are available on-line from archive.org; http://books.google.com/ or http://openlibrary.org.
There are several books which are useful in identifying sources for the period and place of interest to you:
The first is ‘Travellers’ accounts as source material for Irish historians’ by C.J. Woods. (Four Courts Press, Dublin 2009: ISBN 978184682131) – see cover at left. This gives a detailed background of these travellers’ accounts, and also provides annotations or extracts of the basic information in about 200 of them, including the itineraries and places visited, and a summary of the major points of interest for each traveller.
Other similar sources include:
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