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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Oral testimony of German travellers to Ireland between 1828 and 1850 ( edited version)

Puckler-Muskau in 1828: ‘The dirt, poverty and ragged dress of the common man is beyond belief!’ The outlying districts were of a kind incomparable to anything yet seen. Pigsties are palaces in comparison and I often saw numerous groups of children (for the fertility of the Irish people is equal to their misery) as naked as on the day they were born and wallowing about in the slime of the street with the ducks. In Athenry, they were more poverty-stricken than any Polish village. I was pursued across ruins and brambles by a huge crowd of half-naked beggars who tried every possible flattery on me including the cry ‘Long live the King!’. ‘When I threw a handful of coppers among them, soon half of them, young and old, lay in the mud grappling bloodily while the others rushed off to the shebeen to drink their gains.’
On fighting: ‘Going through Galway and Kenmare I lunched in a tavern where I once more had the opportunity to watch several such set-tos. First a mob forms, screaming and shouting, and becomes more and more dense, then in the batting of an eyelid a hundred shillelaghs are swishing through the air and one hears the thumps, usually applied to the head, banging and cracking away until one party has gained victory. As I found myself at the source, I solicited the help of the inn-keeper to buy one of the most splendid samples of the weapon, still warm from the battle.

On being happy: ‘The people always seem to be in good spirits and sometimes demonstrate in public such fits of gaiety that border on the lunatic. Whiskey is often to blame: I saw one half-naked youth performing the national dance on the market-place with such abandon and for so long that he became fully exhausted and collapsed unconscious like a Mohammedan Dervish to the vociferous cheers of the crowd. 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 crowd of men were working on the road. They had heard the feeble sound from the horn, and all laughed and cheered as the coach went by. "'There you are, that's our people for you,' said my companion. 'Starvation and laughter – that is their lot. Do you suppose that even with the amount of workers and the lack of jobs that any of these earn, have enough to eat his fill? And yet each of them will put aside something to give to his priest, and when anyone enters his cabin, he will share his last potato with them and crack a joke besides.' 

On Landlordism: ‘Lord Powerscourt is one of those absentees landlords, who by the hands of his ravenous and merciless agents strip the people of their last rag and rob them of their last potatoes to enrich the courtesans of London, Paris and Italy’. 

On Religion: ‘In Kilcummin there is not a single parishioner, and the service, which according to law must be performed once a year, is enacted in a ruin with the help of a Catholic clerk…  But not a whit less must the non-attending parishioners pay the uttermost farthing of their tithes and dues; and no claims are so bitterly enforced as those of this Christian Church—there is no pity, at least none for Catholics. A man who cannot pay the rent of the church land he farms, or his tithes to the parson, inevitably sees his cow and his pig sold (furniture, bed, etc. he has long lost), and himself, his wife, and probably a dozen children (for nothing propagates as well as potatoes and misery) thrust out onto the road, where he is left to the mercy of that Providence who feeds the fowls of the air and cloths the lilies of the field. Quelle excellente chose qu’une religion d’état!’

On hatred: There is one County Galway Orangeman so immersed in bile wishes for nothing more than an Irish rebellion so that the blood of five million Catholics would flow, for according to this gentleman only the wholesale extermination of that race would bring peace to the island. These men speak of nothing but hunting and riding and are somewhat ignorant. Today, for instance, a landlord from the vicinity [of Athenry] searched long, patiently and in vain for the United States on the map of Europe’. All Catholic children in Ireland are carefully instructed and can at least read, whereas the Protestants are often extremely ignorant’.

Johann Georg Kohl in 1842: 
‘On poverty: Paddy has enough houses in which there is no sign of a window but only a single square hole in the front which functions as a window, chimney, front-door and stable-door, for light, smoke, people and pigs all saunter in and out of this one hole… It might not sound pleasant to everyone’s ears but it is a simple fact that the Irishman feeds his pig just as well as his children. Without exception it is accepted into the living-room and lives there doing what it likes, or has a little corner for itself just as the children have theirs. The pig is of the utmost importance as a financial fall-back in case the rent could not be found. The empty houses and ruins are ascribed to the cruel evictions by landlords and middlemen and the enforced emigration of the poor. The dwellings are dilapidated and the fields badly cultivated because the frequently absent landlord gave no support to improving them. Very many Irish peasants are only ‘tenants at will’, i.e. they have their lease only as long as it suits the landlord to leave it to them. These people cannot develop any great interest in improving their land because they can never be sure that they will not be driven from it at any moment.
I met a ragged Kerryman who cherishingly carried a manuscript around with him which contained ancient Irish poems as well as a translation into Irish of a scientific treatise by Aristotle. ‘I often found such old manuscripts in the hands of the common people of Ireland’. One day I visited a schoolhouse that was nothing more than a mud cottage covered with grass and without windows or comforts. The small schoolchildren sat wrapped in their tatters at the open low door of the cottage and held their little books in the direction of the door to catch the scanty light that penetrated the darkness…  The teacher, dressed in the Irish national costume described above, sat in their midst. Outside the door lay as many pieces of turf as there were children within. Each boy had brought a piece of turf as tribute and remuneration for the teacher…  He taught the little ones the English alphabet. The boys looked very sprightly, fresh and bright-eyed while engaged in their studies, and when one considers their poverty, their diet and their clothing, then it seems extraordinary that this is the case with all Irish children, at least those in the open countryside.’

Jakob Venedey in 1843:
‘In a slum dwelling the children looked as if they have never been washed, and the old people as if water costs money’—as well as their indolence—one only has to observe the idle in the street corners or on the thresholds to see how they relish doing nothing’. There is little reason for else for there is less hope.  Yet in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, the Irish could work the English into the ground. The Irishman is a clever man and will not work like an animal where he cannot reap. He is a most diligent day labourer when the day’s work yields him a day’s wages, be it ever so little. But the moment he senses that he is working for someone else whom he hates, and that with good reason, then he sits down and looks on’

On drinking: ’Whiskey was to the Irish what “firewater” had been to the American Indians. But the newly awakened sense of national identity among the peasantry makes them conscious that it was one of the sources of their slavery.’ They are on their way towards invalidating the image of the Irishman who was addlebrained from drink and therefore incapable of self-government. I observed a certain unsettling of those who benefited from such stereotyping. This is a quote from the speech of a Protestant anti-Repeal politician in Dublin who obviously felt more at ease with the image of the brawling, chaotic Catholic nature:
“Remember that there are times when the Devil finds it expedient to wear a white cloak. Has Ireland’s time come? A temperance movement is no doubt a very plausible undertaking. And yet it is clear that it has instilled a military regularity into the masses and has lent their behaviour a measure of self-control and order that has turned them into dangerous opponents of English rule. Who, then, can truthfully state that the temperance movement is the good thing it is made out to be?”

On conflict and division:
‘Tolerance in schools will destroy the intolerance outside them. It is impossible for blind hatred to prevail among people who have gone to school together, sat beside one another and grown up together in work and play’. The Catholics are the miserable leftover of the indigenous population once driven from their land and trade, the Protestants the descendants of the English and Scots brought here to anglicise the country. The English character is predominant—the people look more earnest, tidier and unhappier. The inn-keepers in Belfast have faces ‘as surly, severe and grave as a bad conscience. It was not possible to get them talking, while in the rest of Ireland one only had to knock on the door for it to be opened and to breach the surface ever so slightly to tap an eternal spring.
Belfast is England’s watchtower over Ireland. If the English had set out to invent an institution to keep alive forever the Irish people’s memory of the wrong that England had done against them and to perpetuate the idea that the one group were the vanquished, the other the victors, the one the slaves, the other the masters, they could not have invented anything better than those Orange Lodges with their marches. It is part of the British tactic of ‘divide and rule’ to counteract the earlier co-operation between progressive Presbyterians and Catholics—the United Irishmen of 1798—and their common aim of an independent Ireland. Ireland’s future
rests on the reconciliation of the Old and New Irish, and if this does not come about by one means or another, Ireland—the whole of Ireland, North and South—will enter upon an epoch of destruction and barbarity.’

Moritz Hartmann in 1850:
‘One of the saddest monuments in Dublin is the former House of Commons, where once at least a shadow of liberty resided and now England rules with its money. For the House of Commons has been transformed into a bank. On one spot, the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, English soldiers live out their comfortable old age, and right beside it are shanty towns of single-roomed mud cabins without windows, settlements that one would not have considered possible near a large city, inhabited by emaciated, brutish figures no longer capable of happiness: born rachitic, they grow up starving and die from consumption. The Irishman is no lazzarone by nature; he works willingly to earn his daily bread. But he likes to do it while enjoying life and revolts against the brutalising stress and strain that the Englishman demands… Because of the way England and the modern world has arranged production, millions have to vegetate and perish at the plough, the machines and in the mines so that some few can live in wealthy leisure. Nature, wherein lies truth and to which the Irishman is very close, rebels in him against this exploitation and stultification.’

On oppression:
‘The suffering that England had inflicted for centuries on Ireland has become incurable and can no longer be cut out like a tumour; instead it will go on corroding and destroying, perhaps even England itself. The English are still conquerors in Ireland. Everywhere one perceives in Dublin a conquered city: soldiers, a rarity in London, are here innumerable; at every turn one encounters red-coated hordes. Everywhere there are barracks of enormous size, and the castle in the centre of the city is a veritable fortress. Even the streets and the houses show how an English character has been forced upon the conquered city to persuade it that the history of England and the glory of England is also its history and glory. Most of the streets, with the exception of the oldest, bear famous English names. Moore Street is the only one that has an Irish name of more recent times. Otherwise one reads Grafton Street, Cumberland Street etc., the latter being named after the high-born gentleman who led the bloody Orangemen in hunting down Irishmen… In the magnificent Sackville Street stands Nelson upon his column, and from the Phoenix Park a pyramid with the names of Wellington’s battlefields dominates the city. Ireland would have preferred to see both heroes conquered rather than victorious. But what’s the use? England treats Ireland the way a bad parent brings up a child: it is forced to swallow the food it doesn’t like.’

Compiled originally by Eoin Bourke (Professor of German at University College Galway.)