A Swedish view of Ireland 1893

Near by the ruins of Menlo Castle, built by the Blake family in 1569, is the village of Menlo, a small attractive cluster of houses, that appear to have grown near each other by accident, as it zigzags down to the river bank. There is no village centre as such, but its very irregularity has made it a desirable place to live. Today it is a prosperous suburb of Galway city.

In the summer of 1893, a Swedish journalist, Hugo Vallentin, on special assignment for his newspaper Aftonbladet, toured Ireland to assess public reaction to the second attempt made by William E Gladstone, prime minister of the United Kingdom, to enact a system of Home Rule in Ireland.* Vallentin saw a different Menlo than what we see today.**

Visiting 20 to 30 cabins in Menlo village Vallentin wrote, in a series of perceptive letters published by his newspaper in Stockholm, that they were generally ‘all alike’. ‘Dung heaps and cesspools outside, turf smoke and rags inside, a lonely little pipe-smoking wifey in front of the fire, guarding a loaf of bread, baking in the ash.’ ‘Five or six women of various ages, sitting silently on the small, low, chairs, big eyes, brown-haired children and sometimes a bed-ridden invalid.’ Valentin observes the marked absence of men. This he assumes is due to the almost total absence of work, and mass emigration to America.

Yet in Menlo, among the miserable housing, and the dung heaps, was one cabin, where through ‘tremendous energy and great housekeeping’ it stood out neat and tidy as a ‘doll’s house’. Clearly there was prosperity here. It turns out that the husband was a coachman at Menlo Castle, and thereby earning a wage. In addition their two daughters were in America ‘where they had excellent positions’. No doubt they were sending part of their wages home.

A ‘hidden Ireland’

Hugo Vallentin’s reporting from Ireland shows that there was a growing interest in Europe in the plight of the Irish, who had suffered a devastating famine in the mid 19th century. One million people died of starvation and disease, while at least one million emigrated in despair to America, Canada, Australia, or Britain. People continued to leave Ireland in great numbers well into the last century.

Vallentin’s letters displayed astute journalistic judgement. Much of the actual reporting on Ireland was mediated through the London press. International newspapers were usually content to accept reports often syndicated from The Times. Yet Vallentin came here in person and saw, with his own eyes, a hidden Ireland struggling to escape wretched poverty.

Vallentin thought that the plight of the Irish was an anomaly. He believed that Britain was a liberal political force in Europe. He could not understand the poverty he was witnessing with his own eyes. In an observation, that has modern day echoes, he said that the English ‘have an astonishing ignorance of Ireland’.

‘One finds landowners who have only ever seen their Irish possessions on a map. They travel around the globe, but not over the Irish Sea’.

‘The Sunday man’

The little prosperity that working as a coachman with the Blakes, brought to the ‘doll’s house’ in Menlo village was not, however, reflected in the owner of the castle at the time Sir Thomas Blake. The castle was in serious disrepair, and the Sir Thomas had fallen on hard times.

Vallentin’s guide in Galway was an ‘indefatigable Cicero’ namely the local doctor Patrick McGuinness Rice (more of whom I will relate next week ). Even though Rice was the most charitable of men he had little time for Sir Thomas, whom he described as a ‘colossal waster’ who ‘got into debt right up over his ears’. When no further credit was available locally, Sir Thomas ordered his food, wine, furniture etc from businesses in England, who at first were delighted to supply the owner of so fine a home as Menlo Castle. Eventually ‘the fun stopped, and debt-collectors began to lay siege to the castle’.

Sir Thomas bolted the doors, and remained safe from arrest inside. There was a delightful peculiarity in the law at the time that prohibited debt enforcement on Sundays. Sir Thomas remained safely indoors during the week, but on Sundays, unconcerned about the bailiffs, no doubt lurking at the gate, he walked out, and enjoyed the fresh air, a free man. Local people laughed at the spectacle, and referred to Sir Thomas as ‘The Sunday Man’. No doubt the bailiffs soon tired of their quest, and left poor Sir Thomas at peace.

Sadly, however, Menlo Castle had only 17 years of life left. On July 26 1910 it was destroyed in a fire that only left its walls standing. Sir Valentine, who succeeded his father Sir Thomas (and buried him as a Protestant which caused much controversy ), and Lady Blake were away. The fire broke out in the room of their disabled daughter Eleanor. Her body was never found. Two maids, Anne Browne and Delia Earley, were trapped in their attic rooms. Local people and firefighters piled hay on the ground and urged the girls to jump. Delia was instantly killed when she hit the ground. Anne, severely burnt, also jumped but survived her injuries. She was gently carried into Galway hospital on a door.

Next week: Hugo Vallentin in the ‘Spanish City’.

NOTES: *The Home Rule debate was followed throughout Europe with some sympathy for the hopes of the Irish. The measure passed through the Commons by a majority of 301 against 267, but rejected by the House of Lords. It was a victory of sorts: the representative chamber had given its approval to Home Rule.

**I am leaning heavily on Andrew G Newby’s excellent essay A Swedish View Of Galway 1893, published in Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society (Volume 70 2018 ), edited by Dr Jackie Uí Chionna.

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