Thursday 6 August 2015

My Tour in the West – Ireland 1915


I have just returned from a tour in Connemara and in the West and South-West of Ireland. It was most interesting and illuminative. It was a lightning tour, but it was unaccompanied by any thunder except the thunder of eloquence, and occasionally the thunder of the Atlantic. Tt was carried out under the most pleasant auspices. We had as guides, philosophers, and friends two of the leading spirits of the Irish Tourist organisation, Mr. J. Maher Loughnan and Mr. C. Hartnell, with Mr. Moore, of the celebrated Cook Touring Agency, and Mr. Hewitt, of the Lunn and Polytechnic Touring Organisations, and we had as hosts the Midland and Great Western Railway Company, and we had saloon carriages, special trains, and, motors placed at our disposal. But if our programme was interesting it was also exhausting. We were assured there was "no time" in Connemara, but we found if there was none among the natives, our guides and our guardians took good care to keep us up to time – and a good time I admit it was. We were conducted over all the principal spots of interest in the West, from the Corrib to the Shannon, from Achill Point to Kilkee and Limerick. Regarded as pleasure it was delightful; regarded as work the most tolerant trades unionist would have rebelled. There was no eight hours' day. From early morn to dewy eve we were on the run and rush, and on one memorable occasion it was after midnight before we were delivered safe and sound in the City of the Tribes. But we know that the pleasure we delight in physics pain; in this case physicked work -- for there was no pain and no grumbling.

Between sleeping and rushing between dining and driving, between talking and listening, between rest and refreshment, between posing for the camera and watching nature's poses there was little time left for either blessing or cursing, for writing, or even reading. News travelled so slowly compared to us that it hardly overtook us. We were all interested in the fate of Warsaw and the Welsh coal strike, but we could hear nothing about either until any that was bad become stale to the rest of the world. Forced to forget the world, and by the world forgotten, we pursued the even, and occasionally the uneven, tenor of our way. We knew there was day or night, but we had difficulty in remembering the day of the week; in fact, often we had to look up our itinerary to discover what day of the week it was at any time any of us found leisure to inquire.

I set out with the intention of writing up each day's proceedings in the form of a diary, and I made an attempt at the outset, part of which I hope to reproduce. But while I hoped to present my narrative in the form of a diary I assure my readers it will be as great though as pleasant a task on my memory to do so as it was on my energies to keep pace with the young men in a hurry, who dragged me at their heels. Reserving my diary for future day or days, as my pen will provide or my readers endure, I wish, to-day

Reserving my diary for future day or days, as my pen will provide or my readers endure, I wish, to-day to present a brief outline of our tour, and a few general impressions. If I happen to bore my readers by my narrative it will be my fault, for I assure them they would not be bored by travelling over the same ground. But I would advise any who would do so, and I hope many will to hasten more slowly than we did; to tour in a more leisurely fashion, though I would not ask them to do it in a more lordly fashion. We were through all Connaught, and witnessed, or were within easy reach, of all places of scenic interest, from Sligo Bay to Blacksod Bay, and round by Clew Bay to lough Corrib and Galway Bay. Thence we proceeded through Gaffe to Ennis and Kilkee and the Atlantic. Then we sailed for four hours on the Shannon, winding up our tour to Limerick, where among many other cases I was snapshotted beside the Treaty Stone. There was little worth seeing that We were not shown, and little worth telling that we did not hear. The only disability we suffered from that the sun did not shine on us with the brilliancy it did this morning, as I peered out at my temporary home from home, at Whitehead. The clouds and the rain, were too dense for even him to peer through, and too dense to enable us to see the various mountain pinnacles that rose majestically along our route. But the sun gave us an occasional peep and an occasional beam. He seems, however, to have partially sulked while we were in Connemara, but he came out of his tent on the lordly Shannon, and made our journey there so pleasant that we unanimously decided to forgive him for his neglect of us in Connemara. I may say, however, in justice to ourselves and our hosts, that we did not miss him much, for with the combined warmth of our own hearts and theirs quite a summer heat and brightness pervaded us everywhere. I hope to prove this before I conclude.

It would, of course, be impossible to keep politics and religion out of the minds of any of us, but we never touched it with our tongues, except in chaff, or in sadness for what these had done, or not done, for Connemara. Out hosts differed as much in politics and religion as we did. There were among the twenty odd journalists both Unionists and Nationalists, Roman Catholics and Protestants. There was the "News-Letter" and "Evening Telegraph" and the "Freeman" and the "Independent," and there was "The Witness" and the "Irish Catholic." With such comminglings it would hove been folly to spoil our pleasure by arguing and quarrelling with each other as if we represented rival factions of Nationalists. We agreed to conceal our differences and unite in our points of agreement, which was to enjoy the scenic charms of Connemara, Clare, and the Shannon, and ask others to enjoy them for themselves. Unionism and Nationalism, Protestant and Catholic were only names to us, and only mentioned as matters of fact and not as matters of controversy. And to do the Tourist Organisation Society justice, I am perfectly satisfied that the one feeling that animates them is to do practical good to the country by attracting visitors from one part to another, and to bring plenty in their train to North and South. The one thing needful for this season and for all summer seasons is that people should find rest and change, and how could they find both better than by exploring and exploiting their own country, and making more prosperous those parts of our beautiful island that are most dependent on tourists far their livelihood; and in many of these districts the people have nothing but their scenery to live on and what it can bring in the way of tourists.

I may just say in conclusion that during the week I must have covered between trains and motors and steamers over seven hundred miles – not a bad week's work in itself.

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The best laid schemes of mice and journalists often gang agley. Between the best intentions and their execution there is sometimes a great gulf fixed. I set out on my Western trip with the idea of writing it up in diary form, but as I did not write it up daily, as I meant to do, and I now find days and places so inextricably mingling in any brain that I must content myself with a general rather then a diurnal record. Our tour began on Monday, and continued until Saturday, when the Northern contingents took leave of their colleagues. Having enjoyed the sweet toil of travel far a week we have all resumed the less sweet toil of labour, abandoning high jinks in the drawing room of life for the more simple enjoyments of the kitchen. That we had a good time goes without saying. No one could have been sad in such company and amid such varied scenes.

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According to the original programme, we from the North should have joined the party in Dublin, and left that Capital on Monday morning, paying a visit to Lough Gill on the way. Two Belfast journalists and myself chose the shorter route via Enniskillen. But we missed not only a scene of beauty, but of great joy, for the Mayor and Corporation of Sligo entertained the party in the little vessel with that generous hospitality so characteristic of the West from the days of Charley O'Malley to the present time. Even with the cost and waste of war to face, and with the local rates in the locality running from 12s to 15s in the £, the hearts of the people of the West are given to hospitality. I do not say this in a churlish, but rather in a disappointed way, for I was told by my colleagues that the welcome and the hospitality were alike cordial and characteristic. But if we missed the treat of the Mayor and Corporation in the morning we enjoyed it in the evening, and it was all the heart or home of man could expect anywhere, to say nothing of the West.

Lough Gill, Sligo – Atlas and Cyclopedia of Ireland (1900) Library Ireland
It was four o'clock on Monday afternoon when we reached Sligo by way of Clones and Enniskillen, and the Sligo and Leitrim Railway. At Enniskillen we met Mr. Armstrong, the excellent manager of the latter, who is doing so much to develop the district which he serves. We had half an hour in Enniskillen, where we met an old journalistic colleague, Mr. William Ritchie, who has crowned a life of labour by an age of ease, as the successful proprietor and Editor of the "Fermanagh Times," and who hospitably entertained us. The only thing that troubled Mr. Ritchie, and I may add Mr. Armstrong also, was that Lough Erne, with its picturesque islands and rich woodland surroundings, had hot been included in our tour. But Mr. Ritchie was not the only journalist we met there. Mr. Trimble, a local Editor and proprietor, and the organiser of the Fermanagh Horse, was out travelling companion till the borders of Sligo, and from him we learned all that need be known about the grandeur of Fermanagh.

What we did notice, however, that as soon as we left the County Fermanagh we left something like a cold shiver come over us. While Fermanagh showed abundance of rich lands and fine woods, Leitrim was bare of both. We passed at once from timber to stones, from rich lands to poor lands. The trees were few and far between, and the soil was more like that associated with Connaught than with Ulster, or whose borders it lies. Rain began to fall at the time, which added to the chilling and depressing effect. Sligo brightened us up a little, for we began to see green trees and arable land instead of stones and barrenness. This was not my first visit to Sligo. I spent some days in it nearly forty years ago when the Land League was in its infancy and only in training for an age of crime and outrage. The occasion was the trial of Michael Davitt, the founder of the League; John Daly, of Castlebar; and John B. Killen, then a young Irish barrister with advanced leanings on land and national questions. He, I am told, is still alive. They were summoned for language used in speeches at a meeting somewhere in the county, is regard to which one of the best professional reporters of his day and some police shorthand writers, among whom, if I remember right, was Mr. Jerry Stringer, afterwards a head constable in Belfast, gave evidence.

I may here say that part of the contention of the Crown was that the speakers, or some of them, made suggestive reference to the fate that landlords deserved; but the case of the defendants was that it was landlordism and not landlords the threats were made. Mr. John Rea, I have little doubt on the inspiration of Mr. Killen, was specially engaged to defend the prisoners, which he did with a vigour and thoroughness that surprised not only the local magistrates, but the local public. But, to do his memory justice, he did it in his best style. I cannot remember the results of the trial, but I think a short imprison, but followed. I may here recall that Mr. Davitt stopped at the same hotel as myself, so that I saw a great deal of him. He was a very dark, sinister-looking man, and devoid of the right arm. But at the time he had taken to journalism, and between his writing in the court, and he wrote at a rapid rate with his left hand, and in his hotel must have turned out reams of copy during the trial. As I am writing, the impression comes to me that Davitt conducted his own defence, but I am not quite sure.

Castle Street, Sligo c1910 – National Library of Ireland
There was a difference between my first arrival in Sligo and my second. The first was in the middle of the night, and in very cold weather, so that I was muffled up. Some one had given me the name of the Imperial Hotel to stop at, and at the station I made my way to the hotel 'bus to find myself alone, all my colleagues from Dublin having booked for the Victoria. No sooner had I got seated than I observed a band forming up in front of the 'bus as if to escort some occupant to the hotel. As I did not think such a distinction was intended for me, I questioned the hotel boots as to the meaning or occasion for this unexpected tribute. His reply was that Mr. Parnell had been expected that night, and the members of the band had mistaken me for Mr. Parnell – my beard was more brown than it is to-day, and that was almost all of me they could see, and Mr. Parnell had a brown beard. I hurriedly explained to the man that I was not Mr. Parnell, whereupon the band melted away, and so I had to go to the hotel unhonoured and without a musical escort. It was the only time in my life when I had the chance of a Nationalist ovation, and I sometimes regret that I had not taken advantage of it. Still I dreaded what would have been the consequence when my hour of repose and speech had come.
On my late tour, in common with my two friends, I had been booked for the Victoria Hotel, and we all got into the 'bus, glad of a change from our long journey. But we were no sooner seated than a young man came up and asked if we belonged to the Tourist Organisation party. I am not quite sure if he did say organisation, but we understood him, and we said we did. He told us that he had a motor, and had been told to convey us somewhere or other. We took him on trust. No sooner were we seated in the car than we discovered that there was something distinguishing about it. I have sometimes seen motors engaged in special Unionist or legal work displaying a couple of small "Union Jacks." Our motor sported a couple of flags, too, but they were of a different colour. One was the Irish flag, and the other the Belgium flag. I may just here say that from I entered the gateway of the West till I left it I did not see a Union Jack, except, perhaps, on a recruiting poster. The only sight suggestive of the red, white, and blue was three young and pretty girls at a station in Clare, one of whom wore a red jacket, the second a white jacket, and the third a blue one, and whether from accident or design they walked abreast with the colours in the order, mentioned.

In a few minutes we met nearly half a score of motors containing the members of our expedition from Dublin and several members of the Dublin Corporation, who had been doing the honours of Lough Gill to our colleagues. We then set out on a twenty or thirty mile motor drive, which included the Falls of Glencar and Rosse's Point, a fine watering-place within short distance of Sligo, where we were entertained by the heads of the Golf Club, and where there is an excellent golf course that the members claim to be a champion course. I did not go over it and I cannot say; and, to be candid, I could not have said if I had gone ever it. This was our first motor drive in the West. The scenery was interesting, but the land was not. We saw little tillage and little ground that could be tilled, and we did not see many cattle on the land that appeared suitable for grazing.

On our return to Sligo part of us were housed at the Victoria and part at the Imperial Hotel. I was among those at the Victoria. We found the hotel clean and comfortably, and were hospitably entertained by Mr. Hall the proprietor. I had not sufficient time to see how far Sligo had improved or otherwise since my visit, but did notice some good business houses, especially that of Lyons, as well known and popular in the West. I had hoped to see Mr. Jackson, a Belfast man, who is at the head of a large milling add shipping industry in Sligo, but unfortunately he was not at home, as I hoped to learn from him something of the business and labour conditions of the city. There is here, as in many other places in the West, a magnificent Roman Catholic church; I think, indeed, it must be a Cathedral, it is so grand. I understand Sligo is a good business town, but cannot be nailed a progressive or prosperous one. Yet it seems a fine centre for business, but its local government is none of the best. I am told that the local rates ran from 12s 6d to 14s or 15s in the £. That is a great charge upon the ratepayers, and they do not seem to get very much for it all. As a rule Sligo comes in as the end of Connemara touring, but we made it the beginning, so that Sligo and not Galway was, as the guidebooks say, our gateway to the wonderful West.

– "The Man in the Street," in "The Ulster Echo."

Source: The Witness, 30 July 1915.

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