“A Genius for Observation” – More from de La Tocnaye

In a previous post I introduced Frenchman Jacques-Louis of Bougrenet de La Tocnaye, an escapee from his homeland at the time of the Revolution, arriving in London on 29 December 1792. He settled for a time in Britain, where in 1795 he published an account of his perambulations through England and Scotland. This was sufficiently well received to encourage him to obtain letters of introduction and travel to Ireland to undertake a similar exploration, leading to a further volume: Promenade d’un Français dans l’Irlande, published (in French) in Dublin in 1797.

Header – The Market Womens’ March to Versailles  – de La Tocnaye was on the ‘wrong’ side during the upheaval of the Revolution which lasted from 1792 to 1802: for his own safety he exiled himself from France throughout that period, and spent his time exploring the British Isles. Above – The main road going west out of Dublin in 1783, much as it must have been in de La Tocnaye’s time: the ruin of Maynooth Castle, from Alexander Taylor’s map of County Kildare

Jacques-Louis said immodestly of himself that he had . . . a genius for observation . . . and his writings are invaluable to us as an account of down-to-earth aspects of normal life in Ireland in the late eighteenth century, although – as I pointed out in my previous post – the 1917 translator (John Stevenson) has diluted some of the more colourful descriptions which might have been considered indelicate – or even uninteresting – to the readers of his day.

Here is a wonderful composite engraving – by Charles Turner Warren (1762 – 1823) showing the major tourism sites in Ireland which would have been familiar during de La Tocnaye’s lifetime. They include: Rock of Cashel, Swords Round Tower, High Cross at Monasterboice, Giant’s Causeway and the Mountains of Killarney. Grateful thanks for this to the excellent Ireland Illustrated project from NUI Galway

Last time around, we sampled Wicklow, Wexford and Cork City depicted through de La Tocnaye’s eyes. After these experiences our writer moved west and touched the fringes of our own part of Cork County before travelling up country. Today, as a preamble to what I hope will be an enlightening series of posts on de La Tocnaye, I will touch on the day-to-day practicalities of reaching – and journeying through – Ireland in the late 1790s using his own text (via Stevenson), with the briefest interventions from me. It’s fascinating stuff!

More early Irish tourism: this engraving by W H Bartlett – titled Arrivée à Killarney, par la route de Kenmare illustrates today’s very popular Ring of Kerry section of the Wild Atlantic Way, seen through nineteenth century eyes. Another from the Ireland Illustrated project, NUI Galway

Some words on the modes of travel of the day: Jacques-Louis’ adventures in getting from England to Ireland, which included a brief sojourn in Wales –

. . .  at Carmarthen the inhabitants use for salmon fishing a boat, or rather a basket, covered with horse skin. They sit in the middle and preserve equilibrium very cleverly, and, fishing over, they carry the boat home with them, where it serves as a cradle for the children. The cemeteries also attracted my attention. Instead of filling them with an incongruous assortment of tombstones with ridiculous inscriptions, the relations of the lost cultivate on their graves flowers and plants, coming often to care for them, so that the cemeteries are more like gardens than homes of the dead. People practising such a custom must be of gentle manners, and I was very sorry that I could not live for a while among them. But I was on my way to Ireland, and hurried on to Milford Haven, an ugly hole in which the anxious traveller may eat up to his last penny while waiting for a favourable breeze. Three or four times we set sail, and as many times were we forced by the waves to return to port. On the fourth endeavour we stopped at Deal, a little village at the mouth of the bay, and there we stuck for eight long days. In the ordinary course of affairs, how impatiently I should have chafed at the delay, in spite of the sight of the large and beautiful bay and singular country! But chance had settled that I should engage a place in the same boat as that which was to carry an amiable Scotch family, and an Irishman who had served a long time in France, and I found myself in such good company that I began to fear, rather than to desire, a favourable wind. We made the crossing at last, and rather rapidly, for we reached the Irish coast within twenty-four hours . . .

Jacques-Louis described the salmon-fishing boats – or baskets – which he saw in Wales; here is a 1972 photograph of John and Will Davies of Cenarth – the last two legitimate coracle fishermen on the River Teifi. They are both using the single-arm method of propulsion – a means of gliding downstream in a controlled way. They carried their coracles and their fish home on their backs. Photo in the public domain from Wikipedia

One of the delights of de La Tocnaye’s writings is the information he furnishes us with on the incidentals of his journey, such as this on the ‘customs’ of the day;

. . . The customs officers claim tribute on both sides of the water, demanding from the passengers half a crown per head, for the permission to ship or disembark their luggage. One who refused to pay had his bag tumbled and turned over in a cruel manner. The price of the passage is exorbitant — a guinea and a half in the cabin — and the packet was far from being either comfortable or clean. I had chosen the route from motives of economy, and found the charges to mount to double those of the Holyhead route. We entered the river Suir, at the mouth of which is a strong castle seated on a rock jutting out into the sea. Mr Latin, who travelled in the boat, was kind enough to ask me to his house at Drumdouny, and so from the very first day I spent on Irish soil I had the good fortune to enjoy Irish kindness and hospitality . . .

Another traveller whose work we might explore in future posts was Arthur Young (1741 – 1820). In 1780 he published A Tour in Ireland, with general observations on the present state of that kingdom: made in the years 1776, 1777, and 1778. This illustration of an Irish cabin is from that volume, and is drawn by Young

Hospitality was not always so straightforward:

. . . I had not taken the trouble to calculate distances very carefully in starting, and now, late in the evening, I found myself still eight miles from my destination — and eight miles Irish count for something. It was past eleven o’clock when I arrived at the house where I expected to be received. The doors were locked, and to my distress I found that the owner, who had invited me to his house, was not at home. Further, that there was no inn nearer than four miles distant, and that on the side of Dublin which I had left. To go back on my way was a hateful idea — I preferred rather to go ten miles forward than four back — and so I went on. At half-past twelve I found myself in a village, its name unknown to me. Everybody seemed to be asleep ; however, at the last, I found a cabin with a light in the window, the dwelling of some poor labourers who had returned late from the city. I entered, asked for hospitality, and had placed before me immediately what was in the house. For rest I passed the night on a three-legged stool, my back leaning against the wall. This for the first day of my travels was not a very agreeable beginning, but I had to take troubles as they came. There was no need to wake me in the morning. At dawn of day all the animals in the cottage, sleeping pell-mell with their masters, acquainted me with the fact that the sun was up, and I rose from my stool and left this unfortunate house of want. How profitable this night would have been to me had I been always the favoured child of fortune! I would advise parents to force their children thus to pass several nights in their youth; it would be more advantageous to them than years at school. Really to have compassion on the poor, and to have a real desire to help them requires that they should be approached; the careless rich, who have never seen the poor near at hand, think of them with disgust and turn away their eyes from the sight of poverty . . .

A superbly atmospheric drawing by Daniel Maclise (1806 – 1870) – an illustration for John Barrow’s A Tour Around Ireland, published in 1836. Barrow wrote: . . . I had often anticipated, but I had now the full experience of, the misery of an Irish car in a storm; and I can, without hesitation, pronounce it to be the most wretched of all possible modes of conveyance; I certainly never was before so exposed to such drenching rain: McIntosh’s cloak, and the water-proof boots, which I purchased last year at Tronyem, totally gave way to the merciless storm with which I was so piteously pelted . . . On entering any of the cottages to take shelter, at times when the wind and rain was so bad as to render it difficult to get the poor animal onwards, the general remark was, ‘Dear, dear, what a day to be out in!’ 

I was delighted to find that de La Tocnaye travelled by canal in their heyday – or rather in the days when the Irish canal network was still being built: the Grand Canal took 47 years to construct, being finally completed in its entirety in 1804. (For more on Irish waterways see my Green & Silver posts here). One particular post includes an extract from a Trollope novel in which passenger travel on the Grand Canal is also described. Here is de La Tocnaye’s experience:

. . . As it was my intention to reach Dublin as quickly as possible, I took place in a coach to convey me to Gorey, where I expected to join the Cork mail. Unfortunately when this arrived every place was occupied, and I was left in this miserable village with no way of proceeding with my luggage except by hiring what they call a car. Their car is a species of low cart on wheels two feet in diameter, made out of one or two pieces of wood, attached to a great axle of wood or iron turning with them. This singular construction seems to be well fitted for carrying heavy loads, but not for the country work in which they are commonly employed. I take it to be a farmer’s invention. Having then made a bargain with a driver to take me six miles at the price of a post-chaise, I mounted beside my luggage. My man stopped at every public- house to drink or talk, leaving me in the middle of the road exposed to the rain. Two or three times I begged him, civilly, to proceed, but as he did not appear to pay the slightest attention to my requests, I commenced to repeat those eloquent compliments which one may learn about the docks and markets of London, and was pleased to see that I had, at last, impressed him, for I heard him say, when quitting some of his friends, ‘By, I’m sure he’s a gentleman for he swears most confoundedly.’ After this little lesson I had not the least trouble with my charioteer, but the rain, and some annoyances due to my position at the horse’s tail, put me in such bad humour that I vowed never again to expose myself to such discomfort. I stopped at Carlow, where there has been established recently a seminary for Catholic priests. This town is situated on the Barrow, which joins with the Grand Canal of Ireland. Wishing to see something of this waterway I went to Athy, from whence every day there is a service of public boats to Dublin. At the entrance to the village I was stopped by four or five persons who asked for charity — they explained that it was to be used to give decent burial to a poor wretch who had died of hunger. I replied that since he was dead he wanted nothing. This answer did not appear to satisfy them, and so I contributed to the funereal pomp, the occasion being, perhaps, the only one in which the poor fellow’s friends were interested in his concerns. The canal boats are very comfortable, being indeed very like those of Holland, but the cost here is nearly double. The one in which I travelled carried a large number of political talkers of the type known in France as mouchards. Seeing that I was a foreigner, one of them spoke to me several times on delicate and difficult matters affecting the Government. Fearing false interpretations I responded in ambiguous terms, and in the end found it politic to feign sleep — a very good way of getting out of such difficulties. The canal is a magnificent piece of work, crossing immense tracts of moor, where ten or twelve feet of peat have had to be removed before reaching earth in which the waterway could be cut. Several aqueducts have been necessary, one of them of really prodigious length and height . . .

Above – I was unable to find any contemporary illustrations of passengers travelling on the Irish canals, but the above is a fine – if fanciful – illustration of a Packet  [passenger] Boat in London in 1801, just after the Grand Junction Canal was opened (courtesy the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Libraries). Tailpiece – Whitworth Aqueduct carrying Ireland’s Royal Canal over the River Inny, Co Longford, photographed in 2016: the aqueduct was built between 1814 and 1817 at a cost of £5,000

Keep watching Roaringwater Journal for more snippets from de La Tocnaye’s travels!

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)