The one thing that distressed Prince Hermann von Puckler-Muskau, during his visit to Galway in the summer of 1828, was that ‘the dirt, the poverty, and the tattered clothing of the common man was beyond belief.’ He finds this hard to accept. He has just come from London, which was then possibly the most prosperous city in Europe, with its great shops, merchandise, theatre, and visitors. After Trafalgar (1805 ), British ships could sail the seas, and extend its empire unchecked; and after Waterloo (1815 ), its armies were triumphant and feared.
Yet here, in Britain’s ‘backyard’ (Ireland ), while the Industrial Revolution was creating vast wealth throughout the shires, the Prince was shocked and angry at the lack of industry on the Irish landscape.
Athenry did not hold much comfort for him. ‘’No village in Poland can be said to be a more miserable site. The heap of cabins is located on a completely barren place rising in the turf bog, without a tree or shrub, without an inn or any kind of comfort, inhabited only by the most ragged of beggars. As he walked through the ruins of the old Norman castle, he writes to his former wife Lucie that ‘ I am not exaggerating when I assure you that at least 200 half-naked individuals from the whole area, one third of them children, had from early morning collected idly around my carriage, and surrounded me begging and shouting hurrahs and faithfully accompanying me through the ruins, over rubble and brambles...some even crying: “ Long live the King!”’
There was confusion in the minds of many who saw or met the Prince for the first time. There was a rumour that he had been sent by the King of France to Daniel O’Connell on a secret mission; while others maintained that he was the son of Napoleon. People called out to him: “ Long life to Napoleon and to Your Honour!” The fact that Napoleon had died in 1821 did not make a whit of difference. The Prince obviously made a distinct impression on everyone he met.
When the Prince returned to his carriage, having viewed Athenry Castle as best he could, he threw a few coins into the crowd where ‘ half of them, both young and old, were soon lying in the mud beating each other to a pulp, while others ran quickly to the shebeen to drink away their winnings on the spot.’
‘That is Ireland for you,’ he railed to Lucie, ‘Neglected and oppressed by the government, demeaned by the stupid intolerance of the Anglican clergy, abandoned by its wealthy landed gentry, and branded by squalor and the poison of whiskey as the abode of naked wretches!’
Yet again the Prince is always careful to comment on the spirits of the people. ‘ Despite their glaring poverty one can depend entirely upon their honesty, and no matter how oppressed by squalor, emaciated, and hungry they seem, one notices no melancholy in their open and friendly features. They are the most well-bred and undemanding street urchins in the world!’
A colony in Lusatia?
So upset was our romantic Prince that he proclaimed he would start an Irish colony in his native Lusatia, which today is located within the German states of Saxony and Brandenberg. It was immediately over subscribed. Hundreds clamoured to go. Only when the Prince realised that the cost of transporting so many people, who had not a penny to help themselves, made the plan little more than a pipe dream. He wrote: ‘It is easy to promise a better life than they have here, where a man has to eke out a living from a half-acre of land, and would do additional work but cannot find it. The most prosperous among them live in buildings that our peasants would find too bad to serve as a stable. I visited such a house and found it built of unhewn stones from the fields with the crevices stuffed with moss, and a roof made of staves, covered half by straw and half by sods.’
There was no chimney, and no glass in the windows. The single room was divided by a partition . On one side the entire family slept together, while on the other the pig or the cow. ‘Thus the cabin stood in the middle of a field without garden or comfort of any kind - and this they all called an excellent house.’*
The Prince had a history lesson one evening at Birmingham House, where he was staying with the Blakes. He was dining with the sons of the house, and was delighted when they were joined by a very attractive women and her husband. The elderly husband had been a soldier for some 30 years, and now retired, was an out and out Orangeman, the very opposite to his wife in every way.
In fact the conversation deteriorated to such an extent that the ‘cheerfulness’ of the Prince’s stay in Galway was almost ruined. The Orangeman turned out to be a fanatic; and thinking himself among like-minded people began a diatribe against Catholics. “ I daily beg of God,” he ranted, “ to experience a sound rebellion in Ireland. Then my service shall begin again on that same day, and even if I were to lose my life doing so, I should give it up willingly if, with my blood, that of five million Catholics would flow simultaneously. Rebellion! - that is where I want them, there I shall await them...to get rid of them once and for all, for without total annihilation of their race there will never be peace in Ireland. Only an open rebellion, and an English army to crush it can bring about such a result.”
At first the boys began to argue with the Orangeman, but when they realised they were getting nowhere, one by one they got up and left the table. Finally the Prince, impressed that the boys from this very Anglo-Irish family, were disgusted at this outburst, stood up and bowed to the wife (while wondering how she could live with this ‘malignant fool’ ), and left the room. The two visitors were left sitting on their own.**
Next week: The Prince gives us a picture of Galway town, takes a journey on public transport from Galway to Tuam, and a peasant girl raking hay in a field catches his eye.
NOTES: * Prince Puckler- Muskau’s plan of resettlement was an idea before its time. Emigration, and in some cases forced emigration, was a solution for many of the destitute people facing death during, and in the years following the Great Famine. It is interesting too, to read the Prince’s description of poverty in pre-famine times. Clearly such a fragile peasant life, with little or no means of civic support, faced devastation if and when famine struck.
** The Prince’s observations are gleaned from letters sent to his former wife Lucie, and later published in four volumes Tour of a German Prince, in London 1831. The German scholar Dr Eoin Bourke has published extracts in Poor Green Erin - German Traveller Writers Narratives on Ireland. On sale at Charlie Byrnes.