A German sees Galway through rose-coloured glasses?

Week III

Julius Rodenberg: Humour and whiskey were his best allies on his journey through mid 19th century Ireland.

Julius Rodenberg: Humour and whiskey were his best allies on his journey through mid 19th century Ireland.

On a wet winter’s day in 1858 Julius Rodenberg stood inside the Royal Hotel in Limerick waiting for the Bianconi ‘Royal Coach’ to Galway. It is the same Julius that I mentioned last week, who was so miserable on a Bianconi coach to Clifden. Between the years 1855 and 1862 he travelled extensively throughout Europe, and wrote numerous travel books. Despite some misgivings at the beginning of his visit to Ireland, he ended up thoroughly enjoying the hardship and its people, writing a successful book: The Island of saints - a Pilgrimage through Ireland, which was immediately translated into English*.

He learned, however, that humour and the whiskey bottle were his best allies on his Irish travels, and these probably helped him endure the dreadful transport service of the time. That morning in Limerick it was lashing down with rain. Despite the fact that the Bianconi coaches offered no comfort whatsoever, it was the only public transport system in pre-railway Ireland. There must be something about the Irish ability to endure punishment, because the Bianconi service continued for a few decades even after the coming of the railways.

Julius saw the coach pull up outside his hotel door.**‘ It was a long open cart on four wheels drawn by two half-lame nags. The middle of the vehicle was taken up by herring barrels, large boxes and poles. On both sides along the full length of the cart were benches which the unfortunate creatures, referred to as passengers, were clinging to for dear life, rather than sitting on...’

The driver came in and said that as soon as the rain eased off a bit ‘we’ll get on our way’. Sure enough the rain eventually eased. The driver motioned Julius to mount up. Julius waved his first class ticket more in hope than in confidence of a ‘first class’ service.

‘ First class’? Said the driver, ‘ here!’ and he pointed to the seat beside him, and off they went. Julius was not surprised at his ‘first class’ seat, which was only a cushion with a woollen cover, ‘now steaming with dampness.’

The second-class passengers were seated on the benches, and the driver kept a sharp eye on them to see that they didn’t use the privileges of the first-class passengers by leaning on the boxes. The unfortunate third-class passengers remained standing on the running board. Among them Julius observed a red-haired girl without shoes, and a man with a frock coat ‘on which the detached tails were tied to the jacket with a thread.’ There was also a 15 -year -old lad who made declarations of love to the red-haired girl; and an old wench who could not speak English but could curse in Irish all the more. The driver with the whip, ‘lofty, magnificent and extolled by all sat enthroned above us all.’

The coach stopped every quarter of an hour, and with copious changes of horses, and a lot of whipping, and God knows how many days, they eventually arrived into Galway.

‘Cottage aristocrats’

I am afraid there is some evidence to justify the criticism of his book which accuses Julius of looking around Galway and the Claddagh with rose-coloured glasses. He certainly exaggerates the Spanish Arch, describing it as being a ‘proud Gothic archway with defiant battlements.’ As he wanders through the fish market he is enchanted by the young women. ‘The market in front of it was full of women in blue capes squatting behind barrels and selling lobsters, while girls in red petticoats walked in between. The younger ones with their mantillas draped around their heads often looked charming. Their faces sometimes had the sweetest expression of passion, and their mouths were full-lipped and voluptuous. The old fisherwomen, on the other hand, who sat beside the barrels and smoked tobacco through short clay pipes, had something witch-like and uncanny about them.’ More realistically he notes that the Claddagh men go out to sea to fish, and when they come back from the sea after their fishing, they loaf about as the lazzaroni of the west on the other side of the harbour. ‘They do not bother themselves with the selling, these cottage aristocrats. The Claddagh and the coastal waters are their world; beyond that there exists nothing for them.’

Embers of love

Julius was equally delighted by the Claddagh. Whether he was told about courting rituals for a laugh (what an obvious target for a rouse that an interested foreigner in the mid 19th century must have been! ), he records the following as the method used by a Claddagh lad to express his intentions to a girl. Apparently making sure that the coast is clear and that the girl is alone in the cottage, he comes in. Without speaking a word, he flicks the smouldering remains of the fire at her. She brushes them off her clothes. If, however, she rejects the suitor, she stand motionless, does not move to protect herself, and the poor lad turns and leaves her alone.

‘But if she wants to respond positively, she throws some embers back at the loving enemy. Only then do the verbal negotiations begin. The suitor finally goes to her father and asks: Do you want to give me your daughter?” The father is supposed to reply: “ May I be stabbed and drowned if I marry my daughter before she marries herself!”

And that is it. The ceremony is complete, and the lovers are intended for each other. I am not sure what a girl would do today if a young man came into her house and threw hot ashes at her, but Julius observes: ‘The guiding principle, as with all reminders of nature - bound peoples of the Occident, is that it falls to the girl herself to decide on what her heart wants and what her future holds.’

Next week: How some German travellers saw Daniel O’Connell

NOTES: * Rodenberg was a particularly sympathetic German visitor. Indeed too much so according to this review in The British The New Monthly Magazine: ‘ In reading this book we often laid it down in amazement, and thought we could not be in Ireland with him, so idyllic were the pictures he drew.’ This is an Ireland, the reviewer wrote, ‘ seen through a poet’s rose-coloured glasses, sans dirt, sans pigs, sans rain, sans everything which offend the least fastidious man.’

** I am taking this from Eoin Bourke’s entertaining and scholarly Poor Green Ireland - German Travel Writers’ Narratives on Ireland from before the 1798 Rising to after the Great Famine, recently published by Peter Lang, Switzerland.


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