Distorted views of the Claddagh in the 19th century

English travellers came to Ireland in great numbers during the 19th century, and Galway formed an important stop on the typical tour. The stopover invariably involved token visits to Lynch's Castle, St Nicholas' Collegiate Church, and Queen's College. A visit to the Claddagh was part of the complement of must-see places, and it eventually became one of the most written about sites in Ireland. Many of these commentators travelled the same routes, stayed in the same country houses or hotels and the resulting texts are frequently similar in both content and perspective. The sameness of description permeates many travel accounts and over the century, new information is rare.

The houses are invariably referred to as cabins or hovels or huts, or, in one exceptional case as wigwams. The people were often called wild Irish, uncivilised, or savage; their clothes described as 'rags'; the 'village' full of filth and squalour, misery, and pigs. This example was penned by Samuel Reynolds Hole in 1859, "These Claddagh people... I should imagine them to be one-third Irish, one-third Arabian and the other Zingaro, or Spanish Gypsy.... I thought I recognised in one old lady an Ojibbeway chief. They live in a village of small and miserable huts, the walls of mud and stone and for the most part windowless, “the floors damp and dirty, the roofs a mass of rotten straw and weeds. The poultry mania must be at its height for the cocks and hens roost in the parlour. But the 'swells' of the Claddagh are its pigs. They really have not only a 'landed expression' as if the place belonged to them but a supercilious gait and mien; and with an autocratic air, as though repeating to themselves the spirited verses of Mr A. Selkirk, they go in and out, whenever and wherever they please."

The local newspaper The Galway Vindicator and Connaught Advertiser responded by calling these commentators "Malevolent Writers....cold and venomous slanderers ....malignant defamers.... liars and infidels". Not all the descriptions were bad, the following is an extract from an article published in 1854. "The appearance of the village is dirty but the houses are clean enough inside; and, be it known, that before the Famine, their houses were models of cleanliness: and we must recollect that those manure-heaps which frequently offend the eye in Irish villages have no offensive odour, on account of the de-odourising power of the peat which forms a large part of the compost." In other words, the manure heaps which were often found near Irish houses were little more than inoffensive compost heaps and not necessarily a sign of poor hygiene practices.

In the 1880s, Margaret Dixon McDougall from The Montreal Witness wrote "I saw no extreme poverty there. Most of the houses were neatly whitewashed....the people were very busy, very comfortably clothed, and, in a way, well-to-do looking. Some of the houses were small and windowless, something the shape of a beehive, but not at all forlornly squalid. They make celebrated fleecy flannel here. They make and mend nets. They fish. The testimony of all here is that the Claddagh people are a quiet, industrious, temperate and honest race of people".

Our photograph shows some of those Claddagh houses. It was taken by Robert Welch c1894 and we publish it courtesy of the Ulster Museum.

The above information is made up of extracts taken from a fascinating article written by Fidelma Mullane in the latest edition (Volume 61 ) of the Galway Archeological and Historical Society's Journal. The journal is worth buying for this article alone, but it contains a good number of other significant offerings such as "A description of Gort in 1752", "An Ghaeilge agus The Connacht Tribune", "The Catholics of Galway, 1708-1713", "The Dominican Priory of Saints Peter and Paul, Athenry", etc.

Another excellent production and terrific value at 30 euro from good bookshops. If you join the society, the journal is only 20 euro, so, if you are interested, contact Maura O'Riordan at 091 524811

The Galway Branch of An Taisce are hosting a lecture on Wednesday next the 21st at 8pm in Galway Bridge Centre. It will be given by Martin Byrnes under the title ‘Do you remember’, and all are welcome.


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