In 1833 the novelist and educationalist Maria Edgeworth and some friends set out on a horse and open carriage tour of Connemara in considerable style. Happily for us because she was an inveterate letter writer, we have today her amusing and sharply observed picture of her adventure, as travel 175 years ago was pretty rough and ready.
She described her tour in a series of letters to the youngest of her seven brothers, Michael Pakenham Edgeworth who was then in India working for the East India Company. The letters first appeared in an unpublished memoir (1867 ), but were published by Constable and Co Ltd (London ) in 1950. I have used her wonderful intimate description of family life of the Martins of Ballinahinch before, and will probably do so again! But I thought today I would just share a slightly edited version of her arrival in Galway, her impressions of the town, buying a ‘John Dory’ for supper, and then trying to get a room to stay in Oughterard.
‘Next day we went to Galway, and still it was fine weather, bright for the open carriage. Galway, wet or dry, and it was dry when I saw it, is the dirtiest town I ever saw, and the most desolate and idle-looking. But I am told, and indeed saw, that it has a prodigious fine harbour, and that it might be, and has been one of the most prosperous towns in the world, I am assured. As I had heard from Captain Beaufort and Louisa and others of the curious old Spanish houses in Galway, I was determined not to go through the town without seeing these.
‘In an old history of Galway, which Mr Strickland picked up from a stall at Ballinasloe, I found prints of some of the old buildings and names of the old families; and the landlord having presented me with a list as long as an alderman’s bill of fare of the names of the ladies and gentlemen of Galway, I pitched upon the name of a physician, a Dr Vetch, who walked us all over Galway and showed us all that was worth seeing, from the new quay projecting and the new green marble-cutter’s workshop to the old Spanish houses with projecting roofs and piazza walks beneath, more like the rows of Chester than of any houses I recollect.
‘Wading through seas of yellow mud thick as stirabout, we went to see arches that had stood for centuries, and above all to the old mayoralty house of that mayor of Galway who hung his own son, and the black marble marrowbones and death’s head and the inscription with the date 1493 still on the walls.
‘The son had- from jealousy as the tragedy has it, from avarice according to the vulgar version - committed a murder, killed a Spanish friend of whom he became jealous; and the father, a modern Brutus, condemns him to death and then goes to comfort him.
‘This is at any rate better than showing him at the window and passing the rope around the son’s neck himself. Human nature sickens at such extreme justice, truely injustice.’
‘I really felt it worth while to wade through mud to see these awful old relics of other times and manners.
But coming back again, at every turn it was rather disagreeable to have “FISH’ bawled in one’s face. The fish market was fresh supplied, and Galway is famous for John Dorys. “ A John Dory, ma’am, for eighteen pence - a shilling - sixpence.” A John Dory could not be had for guineas in London. Quin, the famous actor, wished he was all throat when he was eating a John Dory. But still it was not pleasant to have ever so fine raw Dorys flapped in one’s face. Sir Culling bought one for sixpence, and it was put into the carriage; and we took leave of Dr Vetch and left.’
Oughterard - where our party have difficulty finding a place to sleep, and Maria tastes her first glass of poteen or anti-Parliamentary whiskey.
‘The next place we were to go to, and where Dr Vetch advised us to sleep, was Oughterard, a small town or village, where there was an inn or an hotel, as even in these out of the world regions they were now called. It was but 15 miles and this with four horses was not two hours drive.
‘Though we left Galway at three, we were not at Oughterard till past seven, despite our fine fresh horses; and excellent horses they really were, and well harnessed too, with well-accoutred postillions in jackets of dark blue frieze and good hats and boots, all proper, and an ugly little dog running joyously along with the horses.
Oughterard, as well as we could see it, was a pretty mountain-scattered village with a pond and trees, and a sort of terrace road, with houses and gardens on one side, and a lower road with pond and houses on the other.
When we came to the hotel, our hearts sank within us. Dusk as it was, there was light enough to guess, at first sight, that it would never do for sleeping - half covered with overgrown ivy, damp, forlorn, windows broken, a shattered look about it.
‘With difficulty we got at the broken gateway into the small and very dirty courtyard, where the four horses could hardly stand with the carriage.
‘Out came such a master and such a maid! and such fumes of whiskey punch and tobacco.
‘Sir Culling got down from his barouche seat to look if the house was practicable, but soon returned, shaking his head, and telling us in French, that it was quite impossible. So the horses were turned round, which was also nearly impossible; and the master of the inn with half-threats, half laughter, assured us we should find no other place in Oughterard.’
(After several hours further searching, and utterly exhausted and tired, Maria and her friends were eventually directed to the house of Mrs O’Flaherty, who did take in paying guests from time to time but only if they were ‘quality’. Taking her lantern and impressed by the splendid carriage, its outriders in blue, and its weary occupants she ordered her sons out of their beds and turned them over to the guests ).
‘And we ate our John Dory we had brought with us, and I thought it not worth all the talking about it I had heard; and for the first time in all my days and nights, I this night tasted a toombler of anti-Parliament whiskey alias potsheen and water; and of all the detestable tastes that ever went into my mouth or smells that ever went under my nose, I think this was the worst - literally fire-spirit and water.’
Maria’s companions drank the poteen with relish comparing it to Scotch whisky. Maria, however, said there was no disputing about taste, but she would rather have ‘drunk a smoking chimney’ than to have another drop.
Next morning, however, with spirits much revived, and after a hearty breakfast and a good night’s sleep, they set out into Connemara...-