Analysis: travel reviews and reports from that period provide insights into Irish society, culture and 'people drinking whiskey, porter and punch'
From medieval books and journals to lists of Top 10 places-to-visit and online review sites, the prospective visitor to Ireland, both past and present, has always had a place to research their journey before landing on our shores. Similarly, popular books about travel can take readers around the world without having to leave their own homes and also give us specific insights into the nature of the travel writer.
Travel guides from the late 1700s into the 19th century held in the Russell Library were primary by male, British, well-off and non-Catholic writers. Their opinions were coloured by prevailing narratives at the time, and evolving national identities, where being Irish was intrinsically linked with being Catholic, rebellious, particularly in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion and morally and socially inferior.
In his book "Travels in Ireland, in the year 1822, exhibiting brief sketches of the moral, physical, and political state of the country: with reflection on the best means of improving its condition", Thomas Reid cannot fathom why the Irish live in this poverty despite the being under the wing of the Great British government.
The handsomest peasants in Ireland are the natives of Kilkenny
"In Ireland all the natural advantages adequate to the maintenance of an unbounded population are to be found in an eminent degree; yet still, although under the protection of the most enlightened form of government the world ever knew, the great majority of the inhabitants is involved in misery, lamentable ignorance, and necessarily imputable crime."
He takes to discussing the idea of the fighting nature of the Irish, "the sons of the old inheritors are suspected of being more ready to regain their possessions by their blood, than by their labour….fighting is a pastime, which they seldom assemble without enjoying ; …. with light clubs, which they always carry, and frequently and skilfully use…. they willingly consume whole days in sloth, or as willingly employ them in riot".
During his time in Dublin in 1813, Rev. James Hall, A.M. notes that "I could not help sometimes fancying myself in London", but his opinion of the Irish masses partaking in theatre was less kind. "The players are obsequious to the galleries, and seem more desirous of pleasing these deities, than the less numerous visitors of the pit and boxes. How genteel people in the city put up with this, I know not; for it is notorious that rioting prevails in the galleries; people drinking whiskey, porter, punch &c. &c. there, and getting drunk, as if they were in an ale-house".
While the testimonies above feed into prevailing social views of the time, there were other writers who offered a different view, especially those who travelled with the purpose of showing the Irish in a more positive light. Carr’s tour in 1805 acknowledges that "the principal murders and depredations which are stated to have been committed in Ireland from some time past, have been manufactured by the editors of English Newspapers, to fill up a vacancy in their prints. Upon these occasions, Limerick and its neighbourhood are generally selected for the scene of blood and outrage……This selection is rather an unfortunate one as Limerick, since the year 1798, has been particularly free from any spirt hostile to the repose of society."
During this tour, Carr took the time to examine the character of lower classes of Irish people. This examination is a mixed report depending on which county you hail from! "The lower Irish are remarkable for their ingenuity and docility and a quick conception ; in these properties they are equalled only by the Russians"…."The handsomest peasants in Ireland are the natives of Kilkenny and the neighbourhood……In the county of Roscommon the male and female peasantry and horses are handsome….In the county of Kerry, along the Western shores, the peasants very much resemble the Spaniards in the expression of countenance, and colour of hair."
Written by Baptist Wriothesley Noel,"Notes of a short tour through the midland counties of Ireland, in the summer of 1836, with observations on the condition of the peasantry" viewed Ireland as a strange anomaly. It was united with Great Britain, but the population was a weakness rather than strength to the British cause and religious reformation "its eight millions are our weakness rather than our strength….Notwithstanding the influence of a large Protestant establishment, it remains, 300 years after the Reformation, more Papal than the north of Italy".
He wanted to examine what the truth was of the Irish and their situation. "I wished, therefore, to see for myself the real condition of the people ; whether they are miserable or not, whether they are advancing to civilization and plenty, to order, religion, and happiness, or doomed to still deeper degradation; what may be learned from their virtues, or what can be done to mitigate their sorrows.
"On many accounts Ireland deserves to be visited and known……...its peasantry are often said, not withstanding their privations, to be the finest in the world; and for intellect, vivacity, and warmth of affection, perhaps they are unequalled".
How genteel people in the city put up with this, I know not; people drinking whiskey, porter, punch and getting drunk, as if they were in an ale-house
We may have moved from tour books such as this to an age of influencers, but visitors will share their experiences and opinions of the country and its food, music, scenery and, most importantly, people. When future generations look back over the hospitality of the Ireland of the 21st century, will our "warmth of affection" still be evident or will we have left evidence behind of a different type of Ireland?
We can only hope that those who examine our character in the future will also examine the character of the writer to see and explore why they will have chosen to write about the Irish in a particular tone. Only time will tell what the future opinion will be of the Irish character, but I hope that it will be a positive one.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ