The man who sold Ireland to millions
H V Morton: ‘The two nations are at last free to make friends.’
By Ronnie O'gorman
‘The Claddagh at Galway is one of the most remarkable sights in Europe. I find it almost inconceivable to realise that a man can breakfast in London, and lunch the next day within sight of this Gaelic village....
‘Nothing is more picturesque in the British Isles than this astonishing fishing village of neat, whitewashed, thatched cottages planted at haphazard angles with no regular roads running to them. If you took 300 little toy cottages and jumbled them up on a nursery floor you would have something like the Claddagh. It is a triumph of unconscious beauty’...
So wrote one of the most influential travel writers of all time, HV Morton (the initials stand for Henry Vollam), in his famous series In Search of ... in this case Ireland. He was born in Lancashire on July 26 1892, the son of the editor of the Birmingham Mail. Morton worked in his father’s paper as a young man, served in the Warwickshire Yeomanry during World War I, and afterwards wrote for London’s Evening Standard, and the Daily Express. He caused a world-wide sensation when in 1923 he reported on the discovery of the tomb and treasures of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter. He successfully outmanoeuvred the official Times’ journalist who had been given exclusive rights to the story.
After that HV Morton could have any newspaper job he wanted, but instead he developed a popular column simply describing stories and anecdotes in and around London. From 1925 these entertaining observations eventually grew into 11 books, some of which are still in print today. From London, driving his favourite open-topped Bullnose Morris, he widened his field, writing the immensely successful series: In Search of England, In Search of Scotland, In Search of Wales, and In Search of Ireland. His Irish book was published in December 1930. I have the 23rd edition, reprinted in 1949, and it went on for many more editions selling in the millions throughout the English speaking world. Irish Americans particularly loved this book.
Written shortly after the Treaty of 1922 , Morton writes that now the ‘most unhappy and regrettable chapter in the history of Great Britain has ended, the two nations are at last free to make friends.’ Yes it is kitschy and romantic in places, but its astonishing success was due to the fact that it was clearly written from a genuine curiosity and fondness for the people he met, and the places he saw.
A Claddagh girl
With his guide, Michael John, Morton wanders through the Claddagh as evening light gradually changes into dark. He records what he sees and hears.‘ I saw a sight typical of the modern Claddagh. From a primitive thatched house came a smart young girl in a fashionable felt hat, blue tailor-made costume, and flesh coloured silk stockings. Her mother accompanied her to the door. The older woman belonged to a different generation - almost, it seemed, to a different world. She wore the wide red skirt of a fisherwoman; her feet were bare, and with one hand she held a grey shawl over her shoulders.’
“That’s it, you see,” said Michael John. ‘The girls change from their working clothes and put on their finery to go out at night. Some of the smartest girls you’ll see in Galway go home to a Claddagh cabin...”
Then, as if to illustrate the point, a tall woman, still carrying a round wicker-work basket‘ in which Galway women sell fish,’ came towards him. Morton notices that she wore men’s boots. However,‘ she was a beauty of the dark kind. She was going home to put on stockings, high-heeled shoes, and a tight little black felt hat! It was, I felt, somehow unfortunate that after resisting the world for so long, that Claddagh should have capitulated to Mr Selfridge’ (the popular London store).
An Irish lullaby
‘ At night the Claddagh is most beautiful. There are no street lamps. You find your way through the maze of houses by the light that falls through windows and open doors. The children, who in the daylight played along the earthen pathways,‘ beaten hard by the feet of generations,’ are now in their beds. Small groups of men stand together talking softly in Irish. But when Morton passes a voice quietly calls out, in English, “ Goodnight.”
‘Beyond every little open door you see, sharp as an interior by Peter de Hooch, a woman bent over some task, sometimes with the fine colour of scarlet on her. Now and again an infant cries, and a woman’s tender voice soothes it, singing an Irish lullaby like waves falling on a shore. In these rooms, warm with the peat fires and loud with crickets piping in the ashes, a red light is burning before the Sacred Heart.’
“ In the old days the Claddagh never married outside itself,” said Michael John. “ But now that’s over. A Claddagh girl will marry a Galway boy.”
Next week : Morton is captivated by a Connemara girl.