There was little romantic intrigue and gigolos were as rare as snakes…

Thoughts and dreams of foreign lands are beginning to bubble beneath the surface as another academic year passes from the urgent hues of the present to the harmless sepia tones of the past. Some of us might be thinking of short breaks from the office, whilst others prepare for longer adventures after the lengthy toil of study. Such is the joy of travel and the anticipation of new discoveries, at home or abroad.

It was this same eye-watering longing that inspired the team here at the National Folklore Collection to take a peek this week through the travel section in our specialist library to see what curiosities we could uncover.

Some might be surprised to learn that we even have such a section, and that it holds a large collection of 18th, 19th and 20th century travel guides. To what end, you ask? What do they have to do with folklore? Well, our predecessors in the Irish Folklore Commission (1935-1970) were wise to recognise their value, for within the pages of these volumes we find early travellers, particularly those visiting Ireland, inadvertently observing and recording many of our customs, traditions, beliefs and practices – information that may easily have gone gently into the quiet night, to be lost forever. What should you be looking out for then on your own travels? Let’s take a few examples:

Richard Twiss, an Anglo-Dutchman, travelled to Ireland in 1775 and published his recollections in the succinctly titled A Tour in Ireland in 1775. Not always the most complimentary of writers he is sometimes less than gracious about the deportment of the native population and the living conditions he encounters. However, despite instances of apparent pomposity and chauvinism, he was a conscientious and curious traveller and recorded some valuable observations on local antiquities, particularly the round towers of Monasterboice, and Castledermot. He also mentions the Irish language, roads, bridges, transport, buildings and other vernacular features. As an aside, he found Irish women to be more faithful to their husbands then their counterparts elsewhere, thus resulting in ‘little romantic intrigue and gigolos were as rare as snakes.’ Or so they’d have him believe…

John Gamble, writing in 1812, whilst travelling in the north of Ireland, encounters local men

well and uniformly dressed. They all wore orange lilies. I now recollected that it was the 12th of July (the 30th of June, old style), and of consequence the anniversary of the battle of the Boyne’.

In those few lines he helps us to visualize the communal practices and the material culture of such calendar customs as they existed at the time, and how such occasions were marked in local townlands.

Anne Plumptre, the daughter of a Cambridge University fellow, is thought to be one of the first women to have published a substantial account of her travels in Ireland. Her weighty tome, Narrative of a Residence in Ireland during the Summer of 1814, and that of 1815, offers another enjoyable sojourn through our native towns and villages, from Antrim to Kerry. Plumptre discusses local industries, curious characters, and religious traditions as well as the living conditions and vernacular architecture of the countryside. In this extract below she describes a visit to Kilcullen and offers much in the way of local lore relating to the round tower there, the nearby stone cross, the supposed burial site of St. Caelan, and the fortress of the Mac Kellys, the forgotten chiefs of yesteryear.

Distinct from such lone travellers, the well-known British writing duo, Mr. and Mrs. S.C. Hall, published a popular three-volume series in the 1840s recalling their tour through Ireland in the previous decade, Ireland: its Scenery, Characters etc. With the destruction of language, lore, and humanity that was soon to be wrought by the Famine of 1847, their writing foreshadows this cultural disaster but succeeds in preserving forever that which would soon be sacrificed. Take this example from Leitrim in which the material culture of a domestic kitchen is carefully drawn, describing cups, cooking irons, dressers, three-legged stools, ‘bosses’, screeching-hot tumblers, and plates. And the ‘waiting wench, barefooted and healthy as the heath in spring.’ All soon to change as a cruel destiny approached.

Francis Guy’s Tourists’ Handbook to the South of Ireland (c.1890) is another storehouse of folkloric riches. Traversing the foothills and city streets of Cork and Kerry he records local placenames, local industries, and topographical features of interest, amongst other items. Take this rumination on the townlands of Ballyhooley and Renny in Cork in which he notes the existence of an ancient tree known locally as ‘Spencer’s Oak’. The lore of sacred trees in Ireland, particularly the noble oak, and the role they played in ritual and belief, reaches far into our shared past, and so to have even such a fleeting reference captured in print is particularly precious given how much of this subject has been forgotten.

Travelling now to the West we find the renowned playwright J.M Synge exploring in Connemara, via Wicklow and Kerry. This beautiful volume In Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara (1911) is complemented by unsurprisingly exquisite line drawings by Jack B. Yeats. To have artworks, sketches or photographs was common in these tomes, as was the inclusion of maps where possible, to add further value for the contemporary reader (as well as for the future researcher). From Synge’s contents pages alone, we see that he succeeded in preserving much in the way of local practice from these Gaelic heartlands, from local fairs and kelp-making to boat-building and seasonal harvests.

These travel guides and recollections, only the smallest sample from the hundreds we hold, are an absolute pleasure to read, drawing the researcher into a time of jaunting cars and schooners, and adventures that might easily have demanded days, not hours, of travel. As with all sources, one must of course read them with a critical eye, being mindful of the author’s own social and political prejudices, but that being said however, they still present us with the quietest of whispers of a forgotten past and for that reason alone are worth further investigation.

So as you embark on your own Summer excursions, at home or abroad, be awake to the sights and sounds around you, and the fleeting folklore you are fortunate to encounter.

  • This post was researched and written by Claire Doohan and Jonny Dillon, Assistant Archivist, National Folklore Collection.

Titles cited

A Tour in Ireland in 1775 by Richard Twiss, published in 1776.

A View of Society and Manners in the North of Ireland in the Summer of 1812 by John Gamble, published in 1813.

Narrative of a Residence in Ireland during the Summer of 1814, and that of 1815 by Anna Plumptre, published in 1817.

Ireland: its Scenery, Characters etc. by Mr. and Mrs. S.C. Hall, published 1841-43.

Tourists’ Handbook to the South of Ireland by Francis Guy, published c.1890.

In Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara, by J.M. Synge, published in 1911.

See also

Woods, C.J. Travellers’ Accounts as Source Material for Irish Historians, Four Courts Press, Dublin (2010).

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