A Frenchman’s Walk Through Ireland

Cork City in the eighteenth century (represented above and below in Cork’s Nano Nagle Centre) had an unhealthy reputation, according to one commentator – Frenchman Jacques-Louis of Bougrenet de La Tocnaye – who travelled through Ireland in the 1790s and happily left us with some written descriptions of his journey.

Born into an ancient noble family in Nantes in 1767, de La Tocnaye fled the French Revolution in 1792 and self-exiled himself to idle London (his words). Then – armed with a sheaf of letters of introduction to people who might be useful along the way – he set out on a walking journey which lasted for ten years, through England, Scotland, Ireland and Scandinavia. Remarkably, he was able to get his writings published as he went along and we are fortunate to have some of them preserved, after a fashion, through a translation into English by John Stevenson in 1917 of Promenade d’un Français dans l’Irlande 1796 – 1797.

It is necessary to quote from the preamble set down by this translator before we embark on the writing itself. Apologies if you feel – as I do – we might be missing out on a few of the more colourful observations from de La Tocnaye on Ireland because of Stevenson’s reservations. The end result is of great interest to us nevertheless.

. . . A word about the author’s style. He has none. A well-educated man, at home in the highest circles of society, and doubtless a brilliant conversationalist, he is evidently unaccustomed to writing . . . Therefore, in the rendering, it has been necessary, at times, to convey what he intended to say rather than what is actually set down . . . 

. . . He has a weakness for using the swear words of the country of his sojourn, and uses them unnecessarily and unwarrantably. Second-hand matter, in the form of stories ‘ lifted ‘ from Irish authors, or antiquarian information inserted out of compliment to his friends, has been omitted as of no interest to the reader of to-day; and certain little sallies in the French manner, innocent enough, but which in English print might wear the air of indecencies, have been modified or suppressed. For the rest, the translation is as literal as a care for readability in English will allow . . .

. . . Travelling on foot over the island, east, south, west, north, his whole baggage in his pockets, in two silk stockings from which he had cut the feet, or in a handkerchief slung en sautoir on the end of a combined sword-stick and umbrella, which he said ‘made the girls laugh’ he got to the very heart of Irish life . . .

Sackville Street and Gardiner’s Mall, Dublin c1750. Attributed to Joseph Tudor 1695–1759. (courtesy National Gallery of Ireland)

De La Tocnaye’s writings on his travels in Ireland alone amount to 90,000 words! Today I am taking just a few extracts to give you a flavour of what life was like here in the late eighteenth century – seen through the eyes of one observer. I have no doubt that more of this journal will follow on these pages in time.

Leaving Dublin, de La Tocnaye made a stop in County Wicklow:

. . . Following the course of the stream which flows from the lake, I came to Glendalough, a word which means ‘the valley of the two lakes’. It is remarkable that there is not a single ancient name in this country which has not its special signification. The appropriateness here is evident, for there are really two lakes, which join at the portion of the valley called ‘The Seven Churches.’ It is here in this desert place that are to be found the most ancient remains of the devotion of past centuries, remains whose antiquity reaches back to the early ages of Christianity. St Kevin here founded a monastery in the third or fourth century of the Christian era, probably on the ruins of a temple of the Druids, who sought always the wildest places for the practice of their cult. This was for long a bishopric, but now it is united to that of Dublin. Here are still to be seen the ruins of seven churches, and one of those round towers of unknown origin which are so common in Ireland . . . 

High Cross at Glendalough

De La Tocnaye goes on to pronounce, at length, on round towers (and Irish pishogues):

. . . They are all alike, having a door fifteen or twenty feet from the ground, generally opening eastward, some narrow windows, and inside not the slightest remains of a staircase, unless this may be found in a few projecting stones which may have served to support floors in which there must have been trap doors to allow of passing from one to another by means of ladders. These towers are always found at some distance from a church, and entirely isolated . . . Whatever these ancient buildings may have been, the Irish have now for them the greatest possible veneration. They come here from afar for pilgrimages and penitences, and on the day of the Saint, which is June 3, they dance afterwards and amuse themselves until nightfall. In this sacred enclosure are to be found remedies for many ills. Have you a pain in your arm ? — it suffices to pass the limb through a hole worked in a stone, and you are free from your trouble. There is another stone on which for another ailment you shall rub your back, and another one against which you shall rub your head. And there is a pillar in the middle of the cemetery which, if you can embrace, will make you sure of your wife. The Saint’s Bed is a hole about six feet long, hollowed in the rock — a very special virtue belongs to it. It is only to be reached after much trouble in scaling a steep slope of the mountain above the lake, but whoever has enough strength and resolution to climb to it, and will lie down in it, is sure never to die in childbirth. Belief in this virtue makes a great number of wives, and of girls who hope to become wives, come here to pay their devotions . . . All this seemed to come in very fitly at the beginning of my travels. I pushed my arm through the hole in the stone. I rubbed my back against the rock which cures the troubles of the back, and my head against another, thus ensuring my health for the remainder of my journey. I even tried to embrace the pillar, but I cannot tell with what result. As to the Saint’s Bed, I thought there was little danger of my dying from the malady against which it insures, and therefore I did not climb . . .

Round tower at Glendalough

Returning to de La Tocnaye’s comment about Cork City:

. . . I arrived at Cork, the dullest and dirtiest town which can be imagined. The people met with are yawning, and one is stopped every minute by funerals, or hideous troops of beggars, or pigs which run the streets in hundreds, and yet this town is one of the richest and most commercial of Europe . . .

View of Cork 1760

. . . There is no town where there is so much needful to do to make the place agreeable to a great number of the poor inhabitants. The spirit of commerce and self-interest has laid hold of all branches of the administration. For example, it would be very easy to furnish the town with a public fountain, but the person or company which has the privilege of bringing water in pipes to the houses thinks that by the building of such a fountain there would be lost a number of guinea subscriptions. Therefore, in order that the avidity of an obscure individual should be satisfied, thirty thousand inhabitants must suffer . . . I have seen poor people obliged to collect the water falling from the roofs on a rainy day, or to take it even from the stream in the streets. All the time there is perhaps hardly a place which it would be so easy to supply with water as Cork, by reason of the heights which surround it. There is even a spring or fountain about a mile away, which is called Sunday’s Well, which appears to me to have sufficient water for the supply of a public fountain in the centre of the town . . . The dirt of the streets in the middle of the town is shameful, and as if that were not enough, it would seem as if it were wished to hinder the wind and the sun from drying the filth, for the two ends of the street are terminated by prisons, which close the way entirely and prevent the air from circulating . . .

Cork Prison 1831 – engraving by W J Bartlett

Lest the people of Cork be offended, today, by de La Tocnaye’s descriptions of yesterday, rest assured that he had similar reactions to other places. Take Wexford, for example:

. . . From here I proceeded to Wexford, and without wishing it harm, I may say that it is one of the ugliest and dirtiest towns in the whole of Ireland. The excessive exercise in which I had indulged, and to which I had not been accustomed for a long time, compelled me to remain here eight days with a fever . . .

In spite of the title, this is a representation of Whiteboys from the 1780s. (courtesy National Library of Ireland)

That’s probably quite enough insults for one week! I have avidly ploughed through the writings of de La Tocnaye as he proceeded on his journey through Ireland, and there is much of considerable interest: we get from him a very good picture of life here two hundred years ago. Finola is writing today on the complexity of religious history in Ireland: I’ll close with a view from our French traveller:

. . . In every country of the world the peasant pays tithe with reluctance ; everywhere it is regarded as an onerous impost, prejudicial to the spread of cultivation, for the labourer is obliged to pay on the product of his industry. In Ireland it seems to me a more vexatious tax than elsewhere, for the great mass of the people being Catholic, it seems to them hard that they should be obliged to maintain a minister who is often the only Protestant in the parish, and who exacts his dues with rigour. Beyond the ordinary tithe he has a right, over nearly the whole of Ireland, to one-tenth of the milk of a cow, one-tenth of the eggs, and one-tenth of the vegetables of the gardens. One can easily understand that these conditions may be very severe when the minister exacts his dues in kind, and especially when it is considered that these poor miserable folk have, as well, to supply a subsistence for their own priests. They have often made complaints and claims in connection with this subject, and to these it was hardly possible to give attention without overturning the whole of the laws of the Establishment, as it is called; that is to say, the Established religion. From complaints and claims the peasants came to threats, and from threats to the execution of the things threatened. They assembled at night in great numbers in certain parts of Ireland, and in order that they might recognise each other safely, they wore their shirts outside their clothes, from whence came the name of White Boys. In this garb they overran the country, breaking the doors and gates of ministers’ houses, and if they could catch the cattle they mutilated them by cutting off their tails and ears. All the time they did no other violent act, and a traveller might have gone through the country with perfect security . . .

Tailpiece: Wexford Town in 1796 (courtesy Laurence Butler)

Vinegar Hill

Recent travels took us to County Wexford, and we immediately immersed ourselves in the locality. For years I have played the tune usually known as Boolavogue, without fully understanding the significance of the piece – and its place – in Irish history. Firstly, here’s a masterful rendering of this most heartrending of airs  by Davy Spillane and Aly Bain (from the Transatlantic Sessions) – enjoy the beauty:

That’s the instrumental but, according to the history books, the tune was originally called Eochaill (Youghal Harbour), used as the melody for a song written in 1898 by Patrick Joseph McCall to commemorate the centenary of the Irish Rebellion: the song was known as Fr Murphy of the County Wexford, and became ‘Boolavogue’ in more recent times. Here is Eochaill beautifully played by Paul Davies who I met on my first visit to Ireland back in the 1970s: he took me on a musical trail around County Clare where I met and heard some of the then ‘greats’ of Irish Traditional Music, including concertina player Paddy Murphy. Sadly, both Paddy and Paul have passed away now, but it’s good to keep their memories alive.

It may not be immediately obvious that Eochaill and what we now know as Boolavogue are the same melody, but comparison of the tunes is a good exercise in the study of evolution in musical traditions. What’s more important to our subject is the words of the song, and the reasons for the writing of it.

At Boolavogue as the sun was setting
O’er the bright May meadows of Shelmalier
A rebel hand set the heather blazing
and brought the neighbours from far and near
Then Father Murphy from old Kilcormack
Spurred up the rock with a warning cry:
“Arm! Arm!” he cried, “For I’ve come to lead you
for Ireland’s freedom we’ll fight or die!”

The header picture is a view from the top of Vinegar Hill, just outside the town of Enniscorthy, Co Wexford. Above is a view of the summit of the hill: it’s peaceful in the wintry sunlight. In 1798, however, it was a scene of carnage, as the United Irishmen, led by Father John Murphy, gathered to meet the British forces. George Cruikshank, the British caricaturist, produced illustrations for a history of the Irish Rebellion written by William Maxwell in 1845: he was not kind to the Irish cause but his drawings are probably accurate in their depiction of mayhem, slaughter and atrocities which were reportedly committed by both sides.

Cruikshank’s first drawing shows the Irish encampment on the summit of Vinegar Hill: women and children are evident. The windmill, which became the rebel command centre, dates from the 1600s and can still be seen on the hill today (shown in the photograph above). Disused probably since the time of the Rebellion, it fell into serious disrepair in the 1960s and a notice was affixed to it:

“Vinegar Hill, scene of glorious battle in 1798 between Insurgents and British Crown Forces. Carefully maintained by British Government from 1803 to 1922. Abandoned by the Irish Office of Public Works when freedom obtained. Only historic monument in the care of Irish Government in Enniscorthy area. Thank God for it.”

In our travels we chanced upon the ruins of another old windmill not too far away from Enniscorthy – in Tagoat. Today it’s in poor shape (but surely worthy of conservation) – we were unable to get close to it, but Finola managed to take this view:

Cruikshank’s imagining of the Battle of Vinegar Hill (above) could be a fair depiction. The engagement took place on Midsummer’s Day in 1798 and saw a rebel army of up to 20,000 – mainly armed with pikes – pitched against military forces of 13,000. Further military forces attacked nearby Enniscorthy.

He lead us on against the coming soldiers
And the cowardly Yeomen we put to flight
‘Twas at the Harrow the boys of Wexford
Showed Bookey’s regiment how men could fight

Look out for hirelings, King George of England
Search every kingdom where breathes a slave
For Father Murphy of County Wexford
Sweeps o’er the land like a mighty wave

Father Murphy is remembered everywhere in Wexford. He has a fine memorial in Ferns (above), and a centre dedicated to him at his former home near Boolavogue. No lives were spared by the British at Vinegar Hill; rebels who escaped marched to the midlands but dissipated after failing to garner enough support to continue the uprising. Father Murphy and a companion were captured but not recognised. Even when mercilessly tortured neither man revealed their identity. Both were hanged in the market square in Tullow. The yeomen cut off Father Murphy’s head, put it on display on a spike and burned his body in a barrel of pitch.

At Vinegar Hill, O’er the pleasant Slaney
Our heroes vainly stood back to back
and the Yeos at Tullow took Father Murphy
and burnt his body upon a rack

God grant you glory, brave Father Murphy
And open Heaven to all your men
the cause that called you may call tomorrow
in another fight for the Green again

There’s a 1798 Centre in Enniscorthy, but it was closed on the day we visited. We also looked for the Father Murphy Centre at Boolavogue, but the fine iron gates leading down to it were locked up for the winter. This Irish Rebellion deserves more exposure in this Journal – something we will address in the not-too-distant future. But I am pleased to have gained a greater insight into one of my favourite Irish airs: Boolavogue. Here’s an interesting rendering of P J McCall’s version, by ‘Flying Column’ dating from 1972: it’s preceded by Seamus Heaney’s sonnet Requiem for the Croppies, inspired by these same events.