An unflattering picture of Galway in the mid 19th century is recorded here by a German teacher Adolf Helfferich. Earlier this year Eoin Bourke, emeritus professor of German at NUIG, published a very interesting collection of German traveller's views of Ireland from before the 1798 Rising to after the Great Famine (Poor Green Eirin published by Peter Lang and Co ).
When teaching in a Frankfurt secondary school, poor old Helfferich had a class of English boarders. He wrote to his mother saying that his most troublesome task was handling them. 'Now I know what makes up the English character. The recipe consists of one-third arrogance, one-third phlegm, one-twelfth brutality, one-sixth madness, one-twelfth spleen. And these chaps are supposed to learn German from me!'
On his travels through Ireland, he was not much impressed by the Irish either.
‘Even though Galway is in the process of an economic upturn, there is very little improvement to be seen among its inhabitants.
The Galwegians, despite their innate indolence, are infamous for being particularly vindictive. However, the fact that they fight more with their tongues than their fists became evident to us in a strange scene in which we ourselves ultimately took an active part. At the harbour turf was being unloaded, involving some dozens of men and women as well as children. But suddenly the work stopped; when we approached we found a boy sitting on the ground weeping bitterly and bleeding from the calf of his leg. The women present were remonstrating with a man whose bad conscience was written all over his face. He had inflicted the wound upon the boy.
He endured not only the barrage of abuse but also a hail of turf sods without moving from the spot. At last some men attacked him. I would have granted the culprit a good thrashing, but my companion threw himself between them and with our canes we easily succeeded in separating the contenders. The assailed person took flight in a boat. In England, the incident would have taken another course: The bleeding leg would certainly have been followed by one or the other bleeding nose. But there was no real seriousness in the way these Irish came to grips with one another - they will certainly squabble, but not beat one another up.
Also in this respect, the famine has diminished the Irish: In previous times the fashion fights were nowhere bloodier and the occasions nowhere so plentiful than in the counties Galway, Mayo, Sligo, and Tipperary. Hardly a fair day passed by without murderous party fights in which one or more lost their lives.
The feud between the Irish Montagues and Capulets extended to whole clans, villages, and districts. If a person was called O’Brien, he had to quarrel with an O’Sullivan, even if they had never in their lives harmed each other. A reason was easily found, and especially if whiskey had already inflamed passions, then it was easy to pick a fight with some insult.
The two clans rallied around and then it started. The combatants smashed one another over the head with shillelaghs, the women joined in with stones, and now and then, when the battle flared up with the unusual heat, knife blades would also flash. But the latter was more an exception rather than a rule and stabbings were rarer than in Italy or Old Bavaria. “Hurrah for the O’Briens! Down with the O’Sullivans!” - “Down with the O’Briens! Hurrah for the O’Sullivans!” - and so the knobbly cudgels whistled through the air. With the same care as a Jena student in the good old days of the fraternities choosing his hard dogwood stick, the Irish lad treats his shillelagh, named after a forest near Arklow with especially strong Whitethorn, smearing it with butter, drying it slowly by the fire and laying it in the dung.’