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A Frenchman's Walk in Ireland by the Chevalier De Latocnaye

A Frenchman's Walk in Ireland - CHAPTER VII


La Conacie or Connaught.—The Road of The Dishes—Galway—Eyre Connaught

            When I crossed the stream separating Conacie from Momonie or Munster from Connaught, it really seemed to me that I was no longer in the same country! The features of the people were not the same, their dwellings were not arranged in the same manner. Here were long villages with fields through them, on the other side they were compactly ordered. Following a road carried along the crest of a long hill which seemed artificially to be set in the middle of a plain, I reached Pallas, the residence of Lord Riverston.

            The tithes here are not nearly so onerous as in Munster, being collected only on grain and sheep, while in Munster the milk of the cows, the hens and their eggs, and the vegetables of the garden are liable, if the minister likes to exact his dues.

            At Portumna they have begun to build a bridge over the Shannon. The type is that of Wexford, Ross, and Waterford, a type beginning to be common, but losing nothing of its beauty thereby. Here, where the Shannon flows into Lough Derg, there is an old and fine castle, the property of the Marquis of Clanrickard.

            Twelve miles to the west there is a charming sheet of water called Lough Rea. It gives its name to a pretty little town situated on its banks, which seems even more prosperous than Galway, although the latter is a seaport. It is a pity that the inhabitants do not pay some attention to the shore of the lake; a quay should be constructed, which, leaving improvement aside, would make a very agreeable promenade.

            I heard of a proposal to effect a junction of this lake, on the one side with the bay of Galway, on the other with the Shannon. The work should not offer any great difficulty, the country not being very mountainous, and the lake situated at the highest level.

            I had two letters of recommendation for places at nearly equal distance from the town, and I had to determine which should be presented. Meeting a wayfarer, I asked him if he knew Mr. So-and-so, mentioning the name on one of my introductions. 'Oh yes,' he replied, 'he is a very rich man.' 'And what sort of a man is he? 'I asked, but asked in vain, for all the countryman would say was that he was 'a very fine gentleman.' 'Well, do you know Mr. So-and-so?' said I, mentioning the name of my second letter. And immediately I had the response that he was 'a good, honest, hospitable, well-informed man.' This settled the doubt for me, and I made my way to Castle Taylor.

            On the way I fell in with several Irish-speaking peasants who wished to hold conversation with me, but my very small acquaintance with their language made exchange of ideas difficult. They managed to make me understand, however, that they wished to relieve me of the trouble of carrying my packet, and they really did carry it for me until I reached Castle Taylor, where I met with one of those flattering receptions which banish all thoughts of sorrow and fatigue.

            There are more curious things to be seen on this estate than are to be found in many a province, and Mr. Taylor was good enough to show them to me. At a little distance is a great round fort, called the palace of Dondorlass, once the seat of Guaire, King of Connaught. Unlike similar forts elsewhere, there is not on this the smallest vestige of vegetation. This palace was close to a once-famous town called Ardrahan. This is at present only a village, but tradition rather than history affirms it to have been, at one time, immense, and from traces along the road leading to it now, it really does appear that it, the road, had formerly double the width it has at present. Unless the space included a planting on each side, it is difficult to say what was the need for such a broad highway. This road is called in Irish Bóthar lean de na mias—"the road over which they followed the dishes," and this curious name is accounted for by the following story:

            A certain Saint Macduagh, brother of the king, had retired with a monk to a lonely mountain, there to offer up prayers. After two days the monk, who was not sufficiently interested in devotions to neglect the calls of his interior, commenced to grumble, and said to the saint, 'Saving your holiness, you have brought me to this desert mountain to die of hunger. I know that, to-day, your brother Guaire gives a great feast to his nobles, I would rather be at it than here.' 'O man of little faith,' said the saint, 'do you really think that I have brought you here to die of hunger?' And, forthwith, he began to pray with greater ardour than ever. All at once the delighted monk saw an excellent dinner arrive, and its various dishes range themselves round him.

            Meanwhile King Guaire and his nobles, returning famished from the chase and various combats, had the misfortune to see the dishes prepared for them leave the table and fly off. In the surprising circumstances they did at once what was eminently reasonable, for, seeing their dinner in flight, the cook with his spit, domestics and grooms, dogs and cats fell in behind the king and his court; and the whole party, on foot or on horse, joined at full speed in the hunt of the flying dishes.

            The dinner arrived a full quarter-hour earlier than the court; and the monk, who had commenced to do himself well with the delicacies, saw approach, with horror, a crowd which threatened to take the food from his mouth. He made a new complaint to the saint, protesting that it had been better not to bring the food than to bring it and with it the hungry court of Guaire to kill and perhaps devour him. 'O man of little faith,' said the saint, 'let them all come.'

            They did come, and when they were within thirty feet of the provisions, the saint placed them in a situation as disagreeable as can be conceived. He fastened their feet to the rock, and obliged them to be unwilling witnesses of the monk's junketing with their dinner. There can be seen yet, in the rock, the marks of the feet of men and horses and dogs, and even of the ends of the lances, which were secured lest their owners should have taken the notion to throw them at the monk. As must be admitted, this is proof positive of the truth of the story, and justification of the name of the road.

            O great Saint Macduagh! how thankful should I be if only you would repeat this little miracle from time to time in favour of your humble servant!

            The good saint is still much respected in these parts;—there was a very considerable abbey which bore his name, and, indeed, a bishopric which is at present united to that of Killaloe. I have seen the ruins of it, very fine they are and very extensive,—seven or eight little churches, and a cathedral which must have been rather imposing. Near it is a round tower which is very high and in perfect state of preservation. Cromwell's soldiers, passing through the country, were base enough to attempt its destruction, firing at it cannon balls, the marks of which are still visible. Here are also the ruins of several colleges and seminaries for the education of priests.

            The penitences round these churches are very rigorous. First the circle is made on bare feet, and afterwards on the knees, and, as the course is rather long, the penitent is allowed the comfort and support of two bones of the dead. There is a tree in the cemetery specially dedicated to the saint—the devout wear scraps of it as protection against fire. I have seen Protestants who, half mocking, half believing, carried these scraps about with them, and there are tales told of the virtue of the wood proving effective in the extinguishing of fires on several occasions. What a pity that I neglected to secure a supply! It would have been of value to a London Fire Insurance Company.

            Mr. Taylor conducted me to one of his estates called Capavarna, where he showed me several large hollows which were full of water when I passed five hours earlier and were now dry; also he showed me a little lake which in the morning had a circumference measuring a mile, and which later in the day had shrunk to the dimensions of a cattle drinking-pond.

            This country appears to be supported on vaults in limestone; there is no running water on the surface, but I have seen subterranean rivers in caverns. Sometimes the roof of the vault has fallen in, and in the hollows thus produced is seen the phenomenon of the disappearing ponds and lake; the rising tide drives or holds back the subterranean river water, which falls or disappears from sight at low tide. In winter, when the rivers are full, wide lakes are formed where in summer was meadowland.

            It would seem that this country has been swept by the ocean in some great convulsion of the globe, and that the covering earth has been in this way removed. Here are to be seen plains of seven or eight miles long without the least vestige of soil, and without verdure other than that of a few hazel-nut bushes which grow in odd corners among the stones. Such wild and desolate places were commonly chosen by the Druids for the practice of their rites. Two of their altars are here, enormous stones twenty to thirty feet long, and nearly as wide, supported on three stones seven or eight feet in height. I climbed on both; it is really inconceivable how these ancient people were able to place such rocks so high, and so solidly set that I imagine it impossible to dislodge them unless by breaking the supporting stones.

            It has been concluded that, since these altars are commonly supported by three stones, the Druids held this number in reverence, and associated with it some idea of the Trinity, as do the Brahmins of India. I am inclined to believe that they attached no importance to the number, and that they placed their altars on three stones simply because that number was the best for their purpose. Eight miles from Dublin, in Brennan's Glen, on the road to Bray, I have seen one of these slabs supported on four stones, and General Vallencey figures a representation of one sustained by two stones, and of another supported by six. To give an idea of the size of these great slabs of stone, I may say that, under that which I saw near the village of Cabinteely, a father, a mother, a family, of ten children, with their dog, cat, goat, pig, and fowls lived for years, and only quitted their dwelling when the proprietor, wishing to allow the public to inspect this ancient monument, built for the family a cabin in the neighbourhood.

            The little valley of Capavarna<21> presents a very striking contrast to the desert which surrounds it. The land in it is very fertile, and the view is agreeably diversified by a mixture of wood and cultivated fields through which, by easy paths, the different extraordinary things I have mentioned are reached. I noticed there a large stone commemorative of the restoration of her just rights to Ireland in 1782.

            This corner of the earth, so little known, so seldom visited, seems to me to have more claims on a traveller's curiosity than many of the places made famous by fashion. Returning by way of the Road of the Flying Dishes to the famous town of Ardrahan, I passed near to a cromlech, or great circle of stones. The learned are much exercised in deciding what this is or was, some holding that these circles were formed round the burying-place of a chief, others that the origin is religious. For my part I think the reason for their construction to have been the same as for the raths, that is, defence. On a little eminence, the only one in this plain of stones, in digging in what has the appearance of burnt earth, there has been found a hideous statue which is supposed to be that of Beal.

            Tradition records that Beal (which is a word signifying the sun or a quality of the sun) was worshipped at this spot. A bishop's cross and keys are carved on the stone; but we know that Christianity was obliged to make terms with the ancient cult and to observe some of its practices. In other countries of Europe the traces of the ancient religion are not so marked as they are in this island. What appears to me most markedly Druidic in present day Irish devotions is the attachment to holy wells. Their use is the same all over Ireland, though with variation in the religious sentiment to fit the degree of veneration of the saint who has displaced the god or nymph adored of old time.

            This country is covered with old castles to which the new proprietors have commonly given their names; but if you wish to ask the way to any, it is better to learn what it was called in Irish, for the peasants have not taken the trouble to learn the new names, perhaps do not want to learn them, unless they happen to wish well to the owners. There is not a particle of peat in these parts, and the inhabitants are obliged to bring it from the other side of Galway Bay. For wood there is none but what is found in the valley of Capavarna, and it is not surprising that the proprietor there finds considerable difficulty in preventing the peasants from cutting down his trees.

            The nakedness of the poor near Galway is most unpleasant—is it not possible to organise industries which would enable these people to lead a less painful existence? Their huts are not like the houses of men, and yet out of them troop flocks of children healthy and fresh as roses. Their state can be observed all the easier, since they are often as naked as the hand, and play in front of the cabins with no clothing but what Nature has given them.

            These poor folk, however, reduced to such misery as cannot be imagined by a man of better fortune, are humane, good, patient, and, notwithstanding what avarice may advance, would be industrious and hardworking if they could believe that work would ameliorate their lot. They live on potatoes, and they have for that edible (which is all in all to them) a singular respect, attributing to it all that happens to them. I asked a peasant, who had a dozen pretty children, 'How is it that your countrymen have so many and so healthy children?' 'It's the praties, Sir,' he replied.

            One finds numerous schools in the hedges—always for the reason I have indicated already. It is a mistake to think the peasant of this country so ignorant or so stupid. Misery, it is true, does stupefy him and make him indifferent. Yet, I declare that it is among these people that I find indications of disposition to do everything that could render society happy and prosperous, where it has been possible to inspire them with interest in their country.

            I called at Ardfry, the home of Mr. Blake. From his house can be seen a most beautiful view of the bay of Galway. Inside his house was a view still more interesting, but the gentle A—— was far too pretty to allow of any hope of seeing her again. Nearly all the inhabitants in this district are Catholics, rich as well as poor; only the rich submitted, formerly, to the Anglican form, in order that they might possess their goods in peace, and, now, in order that they may be eligible for election to Parliament. Thirty years ago the proprietor of a very fine estate called Oranmore, fearing that some cousin might turn Protestant in order to filch it away from him, sought the bishop and offered to renounce the superstitions of the Church of Rome. 'What motives, my son,' said the pastor, 'urge you to enter the fold of the faithful, and to abandon the Babylonish Woman?' 'Oranmore,' said the convert, and to all the customary questions he had but the single word—'Oranmore'—for answer. The bishop was not inclined to admit him to communion on such exhibition of worldly motive, but the convert had offered to submit to the law, and nothing more could be demanded.

            Crossing the beautiful bay of Galway I came to the town of same name. It is situated between a great lake and the sea without deriving much advantage from one or other. The river leaving the lake a quarter mile from the sea flows like a torrent, no effort has been made to construct a canal, and the port is outside the town.

            One is surprised, on entering Galway, to see the disposition of the streets, and especially the placing of the houses, which is different from that in other Irish towns. Almost everyone has the gable turned to the street, and has a porte-cochère,<22> such as is found in old towns on the Continent. Galway was built they say, by the Spanish, to whom it belonged.<23> It is still possible to follow the regularity of the plan, although disfigured at present. It is said also that thirteen families,<24> whose names are still common, laid the city's foundations, and tradition avers that, while a good lady of the name of Joyce watched the masons who built Galway Bridge at her expense, an eagle dropped a chain of gold in her lap, and placed a crown on her head. The gold chain is still preserved by the Joyce family—according to the story told to me. The people have always loved fables—had Galway become a Rome this one would certainly have been believed.

            This city had formerly an extensive commerce, but it is much decayed in recent times. Efforts are needed for the encouragement of industry, and it is desirable that some means should be adopted to make beggars work, and prevent lunatics from running about the streets.

            A wine merchant gave me, in good faith, an explanation of the decay of commerce. 'Before France knew how to make wine,' said he, 'we made it here.' 'What,' said I, 'I never heard that you grew grapes at Galway.' 'Oh, we never did,' he replied, 'but in France the wine was simply juice of the grape, and we brought it to Galway to make it drinkable. Unfortunately, the Bordeaux merchants can prepare it now as well as we did, and that has cut the feet from under us.'

23. I report this as it was stated to me. The period during which the Spaniards were masters of a part of Ireland is not well defined in history. All places on the western coast, however, from Galway to Bantry, have the tradition of their occupation, and some placenames are Spanish, such as Valentia, &c.—Note by Author.

            The natives are not accustomed to see much of foreigners, and they paid me the compliment of assuming me to be a Croesus. People were so fond of making me pay the costs of the war that I should have been hard put to for boarding charges had not Mr. Anthony Lynch, to whom I had been recommended, done me the kindness to offer me a bed at his house.

            Lough Corrib, which discharges its waters at Galway, may be thirty miles in length, and I am convinced that, with one or two locks, it would be possible to bring boats from the port into the river. The existence of this lake is due to an accumulation of enormous stones near the mouth of the river, and to the peat mosses where the river begins its course. It appears that, formerly, there was a canal which circled the old walls and discharged into the bay, but it was long ago filled up and built over, and since there is no desire at present to incur the cost of a similar waterway, the Galway people might, at least, utilise the waters of the river above the town to provide a stream in each of the streets. There are few places where such a precaution is more necessary. I would suggest, too, that the old walls, which are ruinous and no longer of any use, should be pulled down, and if they would build quays along the sea and river fronts, these would be a great embellishment to the city.

            The shops here are open on Sunday nearly as on other days—perhaps the whiskey-shops more than others. However, everybody goes to church, one set after another. The merchants have a custom of keeping a few shutters on a shop window, but the door is open just as usual. There are various clubs to which people resort to read the newspapers. To have entry to one—The Amicable Society—one must be a subscriber, but anyone can go to the Mercantile Coffee House.

            The principal church dignitary here is called 'The Warden,' that is to say 'The Guardian.' He has as much authority as have bishops elsewhere—it is a privilege which the Pope granted at one time to the Chapter, permitting them to make election from among the canons. The Protestants have adopted the same procedure since the Reformation. Here the people are all Catholic, and it is fortunate that there are plenty of Anglican ministers, for, otherwise, there would not be anyone to represent the dominant religion.

            Young Irishmen travel far to seek their fortunes, and have a trick of hooking on to rich old widows, by whom, with great address, they manage to make themselves beloved, in spite of brothers, sisters, children, and even grandchildren. Those who have not the means to travel the world seem to make of Galway general rendezvous. They come here from all parts of the province under pretence of sea-bathing, but I venture to say that the attraction is quite other, and more important. There are few countries which can show prettier brunettes, or such a number of them, and all things here seem to conspire to further their humane projects. The milliners furnish them, on credit, with ribbons and finery to any extent, refraining from any request for payment until after the wedding, when the poor man finds himself in much the same situation as vanquished nations, forced by their conquerors to pay for the bombs and bullets by which they have been brought into subjection.

            There are Assemblies, with very moderate price of entry, nearly every day, sometimes full-dress, sometimes half-dress, sometimes undress, and called as they are one or other—Assembly, Drum, or Promenade. The price of entry varies with the name, but the thing itself is always the same. There is an air of merriment and good-humour about these gatherings, and the Galway belles frequenting them could certainly teach their French sisters something in coquetterie. It is to be expected that such concourses of pretty women should attract a great number of young men, who, for the most part, go at first for simple amusement, but finish, often, by returning to their homes with one rib more. There is in the city a certain clergyman, formerly a Catholic priest, who, having nothing to live on but the £40 sterling per annum which the law allows to Catholic priests embracing the Anglican religion, augments his meagre income by solemnising marriages according to the Scotch manner.

            In the morning the young damsels, packed five or six on a car, legs dangling, go to refresh their charms in the sea about two miles from the city. In the evening—if there is no assembly—they wander from shop to shop, buying, laughing, chatting with the friends they meet. The stay at Galway for three summer months is, for the young folks, a veritable Land of Cockaigne.

            All, however, do not marry. There are maids who grow old in this city without knowing it, and who continue to shop, dance, and bathe until they have reached the mature age of fifty or more years. Sure I am that nowhere else in any country could they pass the ageing years more agreeably or happily.

            The neighbourhood of Galway is the most arid and stony in Ireland, but the rock to the east of the river being limestone, it has been possible to cultivate some patches with success. It is a singular thing that I have often had occasion to note that the uglier the country the prettier are the women—they are charming here. Connemara is said to be the most abominably ugly place in nature, and therefore ought to be inhabited by angels. I had thought of visiting it, and this sweet reflection confirmed me in my resolution.

            It is most extraordinary that this country, forming part of the County of Galway, and not more than fifteen miles from the city of that name, should be less known than the islands of the Pacific Ocean. Of the persons from whom I asked information some replied vaguely, others begged me not to visit such a barbarous country, where I should not find a dry stone to sit down on, and where the few inhabitants were as barbarous as the Iroquois. But the more I was dissuaded the stronger became the desire to see a country so dreadful. The Galway men in former times held it in such dread that, over the city gate leading to it, they engraved the words 'Lord deliver us from the ferocious O'Flahertys,' and they made a law that any man of the name of O'Flaherty who should spend a night in their town should be put to death.

            Arming myself with all my courage I crossed the spot where once stood the gate of prayer, and, after a walk of fourteen or fifteen miles, I came to Lemonfield, the seat of Sir John O'Flaherty, where, so far from meeting with ferocity, I received a most charming welcome. The country between this place and Galway I found to be called Eyre Connaught. I was not yet in Connemara. In many parts it was fairly well cultivated, and although seldom visited, had nothing frightful about it. The view of Lough Corrib had in it something of the majestic, compelling the spectator's admiration. The lake is full of little islands, most of them cultivated. If you should ask the number of them, the answer is certain to be 365, one for every day in the year. I have seen three lakes in Ireland which have exactly the same number; perhaps it would be more correct to say that the peasantry have adopted this number to save themselves the trouble of actual count.

            Although this mixture of land and water is pleasing to the view, it suggests to the stranger the idea of floods of great rivers, and this association somewhat diminishes the pleasure of the scene. Nothing in the world will make me believe that these lakes exist of necessity, and I am convinced that when industry has progressed, these water spaces will disappear one after the other.

            Certain curiosities are to be seen in the neighbourhood. The rock is of the same character as that near the Abbey of Kilmacduagh, and, as in that place, there are here subterranean rivers which appear and disappear often. Advantage has been taken at one place of a natural vault to carry the road through it; at another place this honeycombed rock has been used, in old times, in the construction of a castle which offered a strong resistance to the soldiers of Cromwell. This resistance was so strong that the besiegers commenced to retreat, but the poor governor, overjoyed at the baffling of his enemies, was imprudent enough to show himself at a window, when a gunshot put an end to his life, and the castle surrendered immediately afterwards. These countries of Connemara and Eyre Connaught are almost quite separated from the rest of Ireland by the two great lakes, Lough Corrib and Lough Mask, between them sixty miles long. A patch of mountainous land and the bridge of Galway are the only means of reaching the territory by land. Armies have never been able to penetrate to the interior of the country, which has been of old time the refuge of deserters and contrabandists. Even at present there are poor peasants who descend from their mountains and hire themselves on the other side of the lakes. Then when they have been clothed and paid, one fine morning they recross the water, and are heard of no more.

            Lough Corrib is about nine or ten miles wide. There is a public boat which crosses to a little town called Cong, where is a deep cavern into which some of the waters of the lake are poured. The only trading which seems to require the use of boats here is not very important. It is that in turf, which is used often to hide hogsheads of brandy and French wines which the boatmen bring from Connemara, where never customs official dare appear.

            Many Irish peers take their titles from these expanses of water, and from rivers; I am told that in Ireland there are Lords Corrib, Neagh, Erne, &c. One of the most respected among those who had received me takes his title from the Shannon, another is named from the bay of Kenmare, a third from the bay of Glandore; sometimes a title has been taken from a high mountain, a striking object in the landscape. I have heard of a man who wished to take the title of Lord Peloponnesus, Earl of Greece. Since great things flatter self-love, why has nobody thought of calling himself Lord Atlantic? The sound of Lady Ocean seems to me to be very delightful.

            I remarked, at several places in the country, great piles of stones, and could not imagine what the use of these could be. I was told later that these were erected as a sort of homage to the dead. When a funeral cortege reaches one of these places, it is stopped, and does not proceed until a pile has been erected to the honour of the deceased. I suppose that this respect is only accorded in the case of those who have been much loved and are greatly regretted.

            The word for one of these piles is, in Irish, carn, and the higher the erection the more honourable or celebrated has been the deceased. 'I shall throw no stone on your cairn' is a phrase used by inhabitants of this country to express anger at, or dissatisfaction with, the person to whom the words are addressed. It is very much as if a wife should tell her husband that she hoped to dance on his grave.

            Here is a holy well of character somewhat different from the ordinary. The water appears at two places. At one the water is used for the ordinary needs of life; at the other only penitents may drink or take of the water to rub on their eyes. It is really a subterranean stream, similar to those I have already described, but much smaller in volume. When the good folk have said their prayers, they hang rags on the surrounding thorns, and for nothing in the world would they allow these to be removed. I do not know what idea attaches to the act; the penitence is not performed on the knees, but simply barefooted. There may have been here, formerly, a chapel in which mass was said, or perhaps it was celebrated in the open, for an altar exists, and I could not see any remains of buildings.

            Oughterard is the last village of Eyre Connaught. It possesses a mineral water spring and a waterfall which attract a good many Galway people. From this point the view of the lake and its numerous islands is very remarkable. There are here large barracks situated on an arm of one of the subterranean rivers of which I have spoken, and serving as hospital for the troops in garrison at Galway.


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