Despite the large population just before the Great Famine (estimated to being more than seven million ), the mode of transport from town to town remained primitive. The revolutionary canal system, which provided a highly imaginative way of moving heavy cargo and passengers on storm-free waters, was introduced in the late 17th century. If you wanted to travel from Galway to Dublin you either walked or rode to the nearest canal network (probably on the River Shannon ), and finished your journey calmly on water.
Just when everyone thought transport could not get any better, a totally new system was introduced. Charles Bianconi, an Italian immigrant from the Napoleonic wars, settled in Tipperary in 1802. From 1815 onwards he introduced an integrated system of horse-drawn carriages and selected hotels. This chain of transport and accommodation soon linked towns and villages throughout the country. Public transport now really had come of age, and it was widely patronised and enjoyed by tourists until the advent of the railways at the second half of that century.
Of course, as you can imagine, the standards of service varied greatly from town to town. When in the summer 1828, our friend Prince Hermann von Puckler-Muskau climbed on a small outside two -seater ‘coach’ to travel from Tuam to Galway, note book in hand, we can be sure of a lively account of all that he saw.
When he left Birmingham House earlier that day it was a warm clear morning. But it had become windy and cool. Seeing his discomfort the driver generously offered him his coat but, as the Prince later wrote to his former wife Lucie, the coat was so ‘dreadfully dirty and nauseous’ that he hesitated. Immediately however, his only other passenger took off his coat and insisted the Prince wear it.
A warm friendship blossomed between the two men. Despite the road being ‘ very bumpy, the equipage the worst imaginable, the seat uncomfortable, and the landscape monotonous and bleak,’ the journey passed ‘pleasantly.’
Share their last potato
They passed a group of men and boys working on the side of the road. The ‘coach’ driver obviously had notions that he was in command of a far more salubrious coach that he in fact was. He had a horn at his side to announce his presence, to warn pedestrians to clear the road, and to comfort his passengers that all was well on the journey. As they passed the working party, the driver took up his horn and gave a toot.
Here is what the Prince later wrote: ‘Our driver blew his horn, as in Germany a signal from the mail-coach to get out of its way. However the sound was so distorted and pathetic that everyone burst into laughter. A pretty 12-year-old lad, who looked like joy personified, though almost naked, let out a mischievous cheer and called after the driver in his impotent rage: “Hey you! Your trumpet must have a dose of the sniffles. It’s as hoarse as me auld grandmother. Give it a drop of the craythur or it’ll die of consumption before ye reach Galway!”
A chorus of laughter went up from all the workers.
“ There you are, that’s our people for you,” said my companion.“ Starvation and laughter, that is their lot. Do you suppose that with the amount of workers and the lack of jobs any of these earns enough to eat his fill? And yet each of them will put aside something to give the priest, and when they (a priest ) enter his cabin, he will share his last potato with them and crack a joke besides.”
The countrysde on the way to Galway was otherwise boring, and indeed Galway town itself did not make a favourable impression on the Prince. ‘ Not a hill, not a tree, only an endless network of walls. Every field is bordered in this way, the walls built only of stones found on the spot and without mortar, but in such a way that they hold well unless knocked down with force. Many ruins of old castles were visible also in this area but were unable to conjure up any romantic effect in such a flat and desolate landscape.’
The Prince noted that Galway ‘was developed largely by the Spaniards, and some decendants of those old families still exist as well as several very impressive residences from that epoch.’
He was surprised, however, that despite the population being 40,000, there was ‘not a single bookshop or lending library to be found.’
‘The suburbs, like all the surrounding villages, were of a kind that cannot be compared to anything ever experienced before. Pigsties are palaces by comparison. I often saw numerous groups of children (for the fertility of the Irish seems to be on par with their poverty ), naked as the day they were born, wallowing happily in the street mire with the ducks.’
‘teasing and even witty’
A more pleasing sight, however, greeted the Prince one afternoon as he watched a young woman hay-making. ‘ The natural grace of Irish peasant women,’ he wrote, ‘ who are often true beauties, is just as surprising as their garb, for although it was quite cold on these mountains, the entire clothing of the young woman before me consisted of nothing but a broad, very coarse straw hat, and literally two or three patches of cloth of the crudest hairshirt material that were held together by a string under her breast, and displayed more than half of her exquisite white limbs.’
‘Her conversation, as I have already observed in others, was cheerful, teasing and even witty, and while it was uninhibited and quite frank, it would be quite mistaken to consider it in any way licentious for that reason. On the contrary, this class in Ireland is almost universally virtuous, and above all noticeably disinterested, so that if one occasionally strays from the path of virtue, then hardly ever for reasons of self - interest...’
NOTES: I am going to leave Prince von Puckler-Muskau here. He concludes his Irish tour with a visit to Derrynane to see Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator, whom I am reminded was equally lauded and admired throughout Europe for his achievement of Catholic Emancipation here, and his political and oratorical skills. Visitors to Ireland made their way to Kerry in their droves to try to glimpse the great man.
After his Irish visit, our Prince returned home to Germany and his former wife Lucie (waiting patiently at his schloss in Bad Muskau ), not with the wealthy wife that they had both hoped, but with a new found talent for observation and writing. In the following years he travelled throughout the Middle East, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Africa, writing more than 30 books in his humorous and observant style, which were enormously popular; and which earned him a modest income.
He did, however, find the love of his life, in the most unusual circumstances. I will tell that story next week.
I have been taking his Galway observations from Dr Eoin Bourke’s Poor Green Erin - German Travel Writer’s Narratives on Ireland, from before the 1798 Rising to after the Great Famine (on sale at Charlie Byrne’s ).