‘The Irishman is no lazzarone’: German travel writers in Ireland 1828-1850

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 1997), Volume 5

When the bankrupt dandy Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau arrived in 1828 more or less by coincidence, his mind was a clean slate with regard to Ireland. He was appalled by the squalor he saw. ‘The dirt, poverty and ragged dress of the common man’, he exclaimed, ‘is beyond belief!’ Of the city of Galway he said that 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, which he said was more poverty-stricken than any Polish village, he was pursued across ruins and brambles by a huge crowd of half-naked beggars who tried every possible flattery on him 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.’

Faction-fighting

Pückler was also the astonished witness of faction-fighting in Galway and Kenmare:

While I lunched in the tavern 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.

At the same time, Pückler, like all of the travel writers after him, pointed out the extraordinary joviality of the Irish, so seemingly misplaced in view of their wretched conditions:

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.

Landlordism

One might have expected the socialite Pückler to remain on this superficial level of bemused observation, but the longer his stay in Ireland lasted, the more political became his commentary, whether in the form of pungent asides such as ascribing the newly-built Military Road in the Wicklow Mountains to the fact that ‘the Government has the watchfulness of a bad conscience about Ireland’, or in the form of indictments of bigotry, which Pückler, though himself of Protestant background, almost consistently directs against the Anglo-Irish Protestant gentry. Although the owner of a large estate in Lusatia who never questioned landlordism as such, he came more and more to criticise its excesses in Ireland, haranguing Lord Powerscourt for being ‘one of those absentees who by the hands of 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’. Pückler was outraged at the system of church taxes whereby Catholic peasants were forced to pay tithes to the Church of Ireland, and he goes into statistical detail to illustrate the machinations of the Anglicans to collect tithes even where there was no Protestant parish:

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!

He was appalled at the race hatred of some Tory members of the landed gentry, quoting one County Galway Orangeman ‘immersed in bile’ who wished 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.
Pückler stood colonialist stereotyping on its head by remarking on the general lack of education of the smaller landlords when compared to the peasantry. Of the former he said, ‘the 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’. In a footnote it is added that ‘all Catholic children in Ireland are carefully instructed and can at least read, whereas the Protestants are often extremely ignorant’.

Habitation and dress

The ethnographer Johann Georg Kohl was also a newcomer to Ireland in 1842 and seemed to have had little idea of what to expect. He, too, was shocked by what he called the endless abnormalities otherwise unknown in Europe. He had never seen so many ruined houses nor, although widely travelled, encountered such desolate living conditions:

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.

Kohl was amazed at the total indifference to dress that is evident even among the better-off farmers. His German sense of practicality was offended by the fact that the peasants, while harvesting or cutting turf, wore a completely inappropriate dress coat with swallow-tails, with one of them usually missing and the other ‘dangling sadly like a widow in free space’. Their head-dress consisted not of a watertight cap, as a German might expect, but rather of a ‘comically collapsed and deformed silk top hat that had, God knows how often, dissolved to pap in the rain and had afterwards dried back into shape’.
Kohl, however, had not set out to reinforce anti-Irish stereotypes but rather, being the thorough person he was, tried to find rational explanations for what he observed. The fact that the peasants, as he put it, ‘climbed their dung-heaps in French-style dancing-costumes’ had to do with the dumping of surplus masses of cut-price frock coats from England. The pig, he said, was of the utmost importance as a financial fall-back in case the rent could not be found. The empty houses and ruins were to be ascribed to the cruel evictions by landlords and middlemen and the enforced emigration of the poor. The dwellings were dilapidated and the fields badly cultivated because the frequently absent landlord gave no support to improving them.

Also the duration of leasing contracts is a very important matter. 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.

Education

Like Pückler, Kohl was struck by the value placed by the peasantry on education. Although he considered a rumour he heard that Kerry was full of shepherds and labourers who could understand Latin to be an example of Irish hyperbole, he did meet 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’. On visiting a hedge school in County Kerry, he wrote:

The schoolhouse was 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.

Irish workers

When Jakob Venedey came to Ireland in 1843, it was already clear where his sympathies lay. An exiled liberal from the Catholic Rhineland, he was an outspoken champion of the Irish Repeal movement, not least because Daniel O’Connell supported Rhenish independence from Prussia. This was undoubtedly the reason why Venedey was followed by British agents the length and breadth of Ireland. Not that his account is entirely uncritical: he, too, was astounded by the dirt of the slum-dwellers of Dublin,—’the children look 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’. To illustrate this national pastime he tells the Irish joke: ‘Pat, what are you doing?’. ‘Nothing, Your Honour!’. ‘And you, Jack?’. ‘I’m helping Pat!’. But like Kohl, Venedey goes beyond stereotyping to seek explanations for seemingly abnormal behaviour. He, too, ascribes the lethargy he observes not to inbred or racially determined sloth but rather to the exploitative labour and tenancy conditions. In Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, he says, 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.

Temperance movement

Pückler’s book on Ireland, written fifteen years previously, had led Venedey to expect much street-fighting, but the historic phase of faction-fighting was largely a thing of the past when he arrived. In his six weeks in Ireland he only experienced one brawl. He ascribed the change, probably accurately, to the salutary effect of Father Matthew’s temperance movement. ‘Whiskey was to the Irish what “firewater” had been to the American Indians. But the newly awakened sense of national identity among the peasantry made them conscious that it was one of the sources of their slavery.’ They were on their way towards invalidating the clichéed image of the Irishman who was addlebrained from drink and therefore incapable of self-government. Venedey observed a certain unsettling of those who benefited from such stereotyping. He quotes 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?

Religious conflict

Though sympathetic to the Catholic Irish, Venedey never lost sight of his liberal principles. One would wish that what he had to say about denominational schools would be taken to heart today by those church leaders in Northern Ireland who still insist on segregation: ‘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’. At the same time he was aware that the social confrontations were not only of a religious nature. When he told a Catholic farmer somewhat patronisingly that in Germany there were Catholics and Protestants who lived in harmony with one another, the farmer asked disarmingly whether the Protestants were Anglo-Saxons and the Catholics Irish. The Germans were as incapable as the English, Venedey concluded, of understanding what went on in Ireland because in neither Germany nor England were the two religious groups simultaneously two different ethnic groups. He noticed in the North of Ireland a kind of caste system existed: ‘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’. Among the Protestants of the North he detected a distinct culture: ‘The English character is predominant—the people look more earnest, tidier and unhappier’. He described his inn-keepers in Belfast as having 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’.
In Belfast, ‘England’s watchtower over Ireland’, Venedey felt ill at ease. The Orange marches seemed to him to be particularly provocative:

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.

He saw them as 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:

In the North of Ireland the revolutionary ideas of the enlightened Presbyterians had been replaced by the politics of stagnation based on prejudice whereby on the one hand the immediate interests of the majority call for doing nothing, for political negativity, while on the other the passions of a minority pour oil on the fire…

Ireland’s future, however, wrote Venedey with prophetic insight:

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.

Dublin slums

Probably the most damning eye-witness account of Britain’s role in Ireland came from a Jewish commentator who visited Ireland in 1850: the radical democrat Moritz Hartmann, who himself had felt the brunt of Prussian hegemony by being forced into exile for his part in the 1849 resurgence in Baden. ‘One of the saddest monuments in Dublin’, he wrote, ‘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.’ Among the poor of Dublin Hartmann was witness to conditions which far outstripped even that of the Jewish ghettos of Germany. The contrast between the splendid edifices of the Anglo-Irish ruling class and the slums lying between them was crass: on one spot the Royal Hospital Kilmainham where English soldiers lived out their comfortable old age, and right beside it 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’. Hartmann ascribes these conditions not to the idleness of the Irish but rather the alienating effect of the British laissez-faire  economic system:

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.

Semiotics of oppression

The suffering that England had inflicted for centuries, according to Hartmann, had become incurable and could no longer be cut out like a tumour; instead it would go on corroding and destroying, perhaps even England itself. But meanwhile the English were 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 redcoated hordes. Everywhere there are barracks of enormous size, and the castle in the centre of the city is a veritable fortress.’ Hartmann analyses the semiotics of suppression in describing even the architecture, monuments and street-names as instruments of the imperialist strategy of denying the indigenous culture:

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.

Hartmann predicted that such war memorials would be blown up as soon as the revolution broke out, and that the time would come when the so-called glory of expansionist empire-building would be looked upon with contempt, adding that truly noble peoples were never conquerors. The first prophecy came true, if somewhat delayed, with the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in 1966, the second with the world-wide protests against the Columbus celebrations of 1992.

Eoin Bourke is Professor of German at University College Galway.

Further reading:

H. v. Pückler-Muskau, Briefe eines Verstorbenen. Ein fragmentarisches Tagebuch aus England, Wales, Irland und Frankreich, geschrieben in den Jahren 1829 und 1830 (Munich 1830).

J.G. Kohl, Reisen in Irland (Dresden & Leipzig 1843).

J. Venedey, Irland (Leipzig 1844).

M. Hartmann, ‘Briefe aus Dublin’ [1850], in Moritz Hartmanns gesammelte Werke, vol.3 (Stuttgart 1873).

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