From the comforts of Ballynahinch, such as they were at the time, William Makepeace Thackeray continues his exploration of the surrounding countryside as he gathered information for his successful Irish Sketch Book published some years after his tour in 1842.
One of the great values of Thackeray’s book is his vivid account of a crowded and largely impoverished island which, of course, was in a hopeless position to withstand the ravishes of the Great Famine which devastated rural Ireland from Donegal to Skibbereen just two years after his visit.
He has learned to appreciate the problem of poverty. As he sets out in his carriage to Clifden, on a road which had been built merely 10 years before, he looks at the beauties of Connemara, which he has remarked on at length, but this time he is struck by the lack of development, and the uses that that land could be put to. The new road upon which he rode that morning, did open new means for communication, and he confidently predicts that ‘commerce will doubtless follow’.
The vast green plains, sodden with water from lakes and rivers, ‘which with a little draining could be converted into thousands of acres of rich productive land’; while the energy of the rivers could be harnessed to power mills and factories.
He expands his ideas further by observing that along the coast are ‘some of the finest bays in the world, where ships can deliver and receive foreign and home produce’. And he concludes his fantasy by crying: ‘by the easy and certain progress of time, Ireland will be poor no longer.’
Brilliant Scottish engineer
If only the government of the time cared enough for some of Thackeray’s dreams to come true, there might have been a different outcome to the looming famine just a few short years away. As it happened, some progress was being made to encourage a commercial reality in Connemara by the arrival, some years before, of Alexander Nimmo, a brilliant Scottish engineer, entrusted to build harbours and roads along the west coast in the 1820s.
At Roundstone, which Nimmo founded after taking delight with the view from the hill overlooking his harbour, which sweeps over the stones and bogs and moorland to the Maamturk mountains, and has to be one the most spectacular views in Connemara even today. Nimmo could not resist building a village there which fits snugly around the harbour, and is a Mecca for visitors every summer.
During Thackeray’s visit the village was still being built. It included a Presbyterian chapel big enough, he suggests, to accommodate all the Presbyterians in Ireland; and a small ‘unpretending little dwelling’, which was in fact a Franciscan monastery. But if the building was unpretentious, Thackeray is appalled by the inscription on its foundation stone: ‘Founded with the approbation of ‘His Grace, the most Reverend the Lord Archbishop of Tuam’’. *
Thackeray was annoyed: ‘The most Reverend Doctor MacHale is a clergyman of great learning, talents and honesty, but His Grace the Lord Archbishop of Tuam strikes me as being no better than a mountebank; and some day I hope even his own party will laugh this humbug down. Its bad enough to be awed by big titles at all, but to respect sham ones! O stars and garters, we shall have His grace the Lord Chief Rabbi next, or his Lordship the Arch Imaum’.
A dismal house
‘A few figures at work in the bog-lands, a red petticoat passing here and there, a goat or two browsing among the stones, or a troop of whitey-brown children, who came out to gaze at the ‘car’ form the chief society on the road’, as they watch Thackeray as he rides off to Clifden.
Clifden, founded by the D’Arcy family at the beginning of the 19th century, initially looking down at the harbour built by Nimmo, was then thriving ‘in its small way.’
But the town itself does not impress him. At its entrance ‘is a gigantic poorhouse - tall, large, ugly, it commands the town, and looks almost as big as everyone of the houses therein.’
On his way to Clifden Thackeray could not fail to notice Bunowen Castle at Ballyconneely, once the stronghold of the O’Flahertys, and Grace O’Malley’s first home having married Dónal an Chogaidh (of the combat ). It was a ruin in Thackeray’s time too… ‘Such a dismal house is not to be seen in all England, or perhaps such a dismal situation. The sea lies before and behind, and on each side are rocks and copper-coloured meadows, by which a few trees have made an attempt to grow.’
But within the vast house there is a comfortable parlour inhabited by the local priest. ‘Here were his books and his breviaries, his reading desk with a cross engraved on it and his portrait of Daniel O’Connell the Liberator to grace the walls of his lonely cell.’
He meets a seal hunter and they discuss the desolation of the place. The hunter tells him that the last priest cried for two days because of loneliness, but ‘afterwards he grew to like the place exceedingly, his whole heart being directed towards it, his chapel and his care.’
Thackeray was impressed. ‘Who would not honour such missionaries, the virtues they silently practice, and the doctrines they preach?’
On the road again: ‘There were rocks everywhere, some patches of cultivated land here and there, nor was there any want of inhabitants along this savage coast. There were numerous cottages, if cottages they may be called, and women, and, above all, children in plenty…’
Next week: The tour ends back in Dublin, and Thackeray observes Daniel O’Connell without comment, and offers advice for a prosperous Ireland.
Notes: * Archbishop John MacHale of Tuam was a quarrelsome and vindictive man, a strong nationalist and supporter of the Irish language, whose anger no doubt was fuelled by the injustice of the lingering Penal Laws against Catholics, even though by this time they were rarely prosecuted.
MacHale greatly admired Daniel O’Connell for his success in securing the rights for Catholics to sit in the House of Commons (Catholic Emancipation ). O’Connell christened him ‘The Lion of the West’ which undoubtedly pleased him immensely.
At the time of Thackeray’s tour MacHale was embroiled in a vicious fight with the British government who were gradually reforming the Penal Laws (introduced after the battle of Aughrim, the Siege of Limerick, and the Flight of the Wild Geese in 1691 ), and were replacing Protestant schools with a new national system which in effect gave certain controls to the Irish Catholic bishops. This was a major concession to an evangelising Protestant school regime, which had existed for over 150 years.
MacHale, however, would have none of it. He insisted that there would be no compromise, that Catholic children should have their own schools. He embarked on a ferocious campaign castigating other bishops for accepting the changes, and withholding his support in his own diocese, the largest in the country, to the extent that parents were left with the choice of having their children continue to be educated in Protestant schools, or no school at all. This went on for some 20 years.
He opened his diocese to religious orders inviting them to establish schools, and in this context he acknowledged, with his full magisterial title, the Franciscan monastery at Roundstone. MacHale has also been accused of neglecting his Catholic flock along the western seaboard. When the Great Famine struck in 1845, many more thousands of children would have died but for the support of the Protestant clergy, and the generous Society of Friends, the Quakers.