Characteristics of a ‘half-civilized’ people
In the late 18th and mid 19th centuries, at least 28 German travel writers wrote extensively about Ireland. I’ll tell some of what a few of them had to say in the weeks ahead, but by far the most colourful was Prince Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Puckler-Muskau. He lived his 86 years to the full. As a dashing cavalry officer he fought against Napoleon until he inherited Muskau Park near Berlin to which he added brilliant landscapes and gardens. He searched for the source of the Nile, and fought off bandits in the deserts of North Africa. He walked through much of Europe, taking notes of his observations all of which were eventually published. In 1814 he visited England and delighted the dandy Prince of Wales by introducing the rectangular monocle. His struggle with the English language caused laughter in high society, and generally he was a source of amusement; but he seemed to have enjoyed himself immensely.*
As well as his reputation as a witty writer, artist, traveller, landscape designer, bon vivant, he was a notorious womaniser. He employed Germany’s fastest sprinter, Ernst Mensen, to bring love messages to society ladies of Berlin. He created a sensation when he arrived at the fashionable Café Kranzler on the Unter den Linden, in a carriage drawn by four stags. He caused gasps when he leapt over the parapet of the Elbe bridge on horseback, the animal and its rider falling eight metres into the water below. All these shenanigans cost a great deal of money. Puckler, no doubt heartened by his reception on his previous visit, returned to England in 1826 seeking a wealthy wife. Having examined all possible candidates in London, and finding none suitable to his tastes, he travelled to Ireland because, as he wrote to his mother, he considered Ireland rather than England to be the country for finding the hoped-for prize.
He arrived in Dublin on August 11 1828 with a sigh of relief after a gruelling 10-hour crossing from Holyhead. His observations of Ireland, its landscape, its people and its customs were written with good natured curiosity, and humour. **
True to form, as he left Donnybrook Fair, he could not resist noticing ‘a highly inebriated couple of lovers’ walking ahead of him, trying to keep each other upright. ‘ It was delightful to observe their behaviour. Both were ugly as sin, but treated each other with great tenderness and courtesy. From his gracious demonstrations and her gay laughter I could gather that he was simultaneously doing his best to amuse her, and despite the exuberant mood she acted with a flirtatiousness and deep intimacy which would have become a prettier woman most favourably.’
She is ‘still alive’
After some time in Dublin, Puckler makes his way west, and receives warm hospitality from Captain Netterville Blake of Birmingham House, County Galway. He comments on the shabbiness of the living conditions of the Protestant gentry in general but enjoys the company of Blake and his family. ‘ He is 72 years of age and still as hale and hearty as a 50-year-old. He must have been of very attractive appearance, his virility being proven by 12 sons and seven daughters, all from the same woman. She is also still alive. A large part of his family is here at the moment, which makes the abode rather noisy. This is increased yet more by the musical talents of the daughters, who perform daily on an instrument that is dreadfully out of tune, a circumstance that does not bother them in the slightest...’
I take it that the Blake girls did not come up to Puckler’s standards.
Good natured hospitality
In Galway Puckler arrives late for the races, but observes how the local people lived which, he says, is ‘comparable to savages’. In fact most of the German travel writers comment on the poverty of the people, often expressing surprise that as England was one of the wealthiest countries in Europe, why was there such destitution in Ireland?
Puckler comments on the Galwegians’ lack ‘of decent clothing even on festive days’. They also have a ‘total incapacity to resist Totenwasser (poiteen), as long as they have a penny in their pocket to procure it. ‘Wild melées break out any minute’ with the shillelagh, ‘a murderous bludgeon that everyone keeps concealed under his rags, in which at any given moment hundreds take part until several of them are left wounded or dead on the battlefield.’ These battles are accompanied by ‘blood-curdling war cries’ and a ‘vindictiveness with which an insult is harboured and passed on for years by whole communities.’
But on the other hand they have an‘ artless merriness that forget all want; the good natured hospitality that has them share their last morsel without a thought; their cordiality with strangers as soon as those approach them, as well as their natural ease of speech - all these things are characteristics of an only half-civilized people.’
‘Hundreds of drunkards accompanied our carriage as we drove from the racecourse to the town, and more than ten times brawls broke out among them. With the amount of guests in the town it was with great trouble that we found a miserable lodging, but also a good and very plentiful meal.’
Next week Puckler and others continue their journey around Ireland on “The mail”, Carlo Bianconi’s famous mode of transport.
* London society was amused by the prince’s clothes sense. He was referred to, in the popular papers, as a ‘finished fop’, ‘Prince Prettyman’, and ‘Pickle Mustard’, but perhaps receiving the best accolade of all, though not necessarily a flattering one, as the inarticulate Count Smorltork in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. His observations on England were later successfully published as Tour of a German Prince (1831-‘32).
** I am taking this from a fascinating and beautifully produced ‘Poor Green Ireland’ - German Travel Writers’ Narratives on Ireland from before the 1798 Rising to After the Great Famine, translated, edited and annotated by Eoin Bourke, emeritus professor of German at NUIG, just published by Peter Lang AG, Frankfurt.
Did Puckler ever find his rich wife?
No. He returned to Germany both brideless and penniless. But he had a number of close women friends including ‘Julie’ who gathered and published his correspondence after his death in 1871. Puckler also found love. At the slave market in Cairo he was enchanted by an Ethiopian girl in her early teens, whom he promptly bought and named Mahbuba (the beloved). They travelled together for years. In Vienna he introduced her to European high society, but poor Mahbuba died of tuberculosis at his Muskau Park estate, in 1840. Later Puckler wrote: She was “ the being I loved most in the world.”