An Englishman in Ireland 1813

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Spring 1997), News, Volume 5

Almost 200 years ago my great-great-great-grandfather spent two months travelling round Ireland. His description of the journey was published in 1818 under the title Observations on the State of Ireland principally directed to its Agriculture and Rural Population; in a series of letters written on a tour through that country. I have just spent a fortnight, with two friends, following in his footsteps, and trying to see Ireland through his eyes. John Christian Curwen (1756-1828) came from a Manx family—he was a first cousin of Fletcher Christian, the mutineer. For the better part of forty years he was MP for Carlisle and Cumberland. Sitting at Westminster with the Whigs he was, until they quarrelled over the French Revolution, a friend of Edmund Burke. He was a pioneering agriculturalist and was awarded the silver medal of the Irish Farming Society. Curwen crossed from Scotland to Donaghadee on 19 August 1813. For company he had Thomas Quaile, a Manx lawyer. They had their own carriage and coachman. Among the places they visited were Belfast, Derry, Galway, Killarney, Cork, Waterford, Kilkenny and Dublin. Sometimes they stayed in grand houses such as Ardbraccan, the seat of the Bishop of Meath and sometimes, at the other extreme, in wretched inns such as one at Dungarvon where
‘after passing a whole day without refreshment [we arrived] at a town with a fine sounding name, which sent two members to the Irish parliament, and yet actually affording nothing on which the demands of hunger and thirst could be satisfied, but indifferent bread and worse tea.’
These were experiences that we could not share. And we were glad not to have had to share in his feelings of shame when he saw the misery suffered by the Irish peasantry. The book contains many graphic descriptions of the ‘cabins’ he visited, showing his deep compassion for those that lived in them. And yet, he says
‘The Irish peasant, however, though poor in what the world calls riches, possesses that in his cabin which the mines of Peru could not furnish, a warmth of heart, an overflowing of the kindest domestic affections and of the purest joys of life.’
The bulk of the book is taken up with detailed accounts of what he saw in the fields, of what farmers told him of crops and yields and rents. He was appalled by the reliance on potatoes:
‘The greatest political alteration that could take place in this distressed country would be a dislike to potatoes, and a general preference in the rising generation to bread and animal food.’
Elsewhere he speaks of the calamity that would follow a failure in the potato crop. Curwen did not set out to write a travel book—although I am sure he could have done so. He writes passionately about the mountains of Kerry; the McGillycuddy’s Reeks were, he claimed, more ‘sublime’ than the much higher ‘Mont Blanc and its fellow Alps’. The lakes of Killarney he compared, somewhat jealously, with his own beloved Windermere. We very much enjoyed sharing these sights—and also a torrential downpour at Mucross. Remarkably Curwen writes that his day here was the only one of unbroken rain in his whole trip. Like all travellers of his day Curwen had to see the Giant’s Causeway. This he described with limited enthusiasm. Although fascinated by the details of the rock formations—and we were able to see the accuracy of his observations—the whole thing was smaller than he expected. He quoted Dr Johnson’s remark ‘that the Giant’s Causeway might be worth seeing, but was not worth going to see’. He was much more impressed by a nearby feature which we could not identify from the guide-book, but of which he wrote:
The works of nature produce nothing, I believe, equal, or to be even compared, with the magic power of vision, baffling all description at Plasket, which is of a perfectly different character to the Giant’s Causeway…I likened it to a huge colossal temple…whose magnificence and splendour should be worthy of the Omniscient Omnipotent Architect of the Universe.
Near the Causeway I was delighted to find a local attraction described by my ancestor—the rope bridge at Carrickarede. The picture of this salmon-fishers’ bridge, swinging precariously sixty or more feet above a narrow chasm of sea, must be familiar to all Irish people, but I was entirely ignorant of its existence. Curwen did not attempt to cross it—he suffered ‘the extreme pain of seeing a man cross it with a child in his arms’. It is only fair to say that there was only one handrail in his day. Perhaps my most illuminating experience was at Lismore. In his letter from that town Curwen, dilates, as often, on the inefficient equipment of the Irish farmer, and the duty of enlightened land-owners (such as himself) to introduce improvements. Hearing that the Duke of Devonshire was about to rebuild Lismore Castle, he makes this characteristic comment:
Would it not be a prouder distinction to have introduced the Scottish cart, and English spade, to the industrious husbandmen of an extensive district than, by the ingenuity and agency of others, to have erected the finest Gothic structure in the empire?
Only the sight itself of this monstrous folly could bring home the enormity—and humour—of the comparison. There is much that I have not mentioned here, for example Curwen’s enlightened views on Catholic Emancipation. In publishing the letters he was no doubt inspired by the more well-known Tour of Ireland written by his friend Arthur Young some thirty years earlier. I would be most grateful if any erudite readers could let me know of any contemporary comments on my ancestor’s book—a better one than Young’s, in the opinion of one Irishman I spoke to.


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