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County Clare: A History and Topography 1837 by Samuel Lewis


Introduction to the 1995 Edition

In 1837, Samuel Lewis issued his A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland. This valuable work was published in two volumes running to over 1400 pages and aimed to "present every fact of importance tending to illustrate the local history, or convey useful information respecting the past and present state, of Ireland (and) to give, in a condensed form, a faithful and impartial description of each place".

Arranged in discrete alphabetical entries - starting, incidentally, with the parish of Abbey, in Clare - we find accounts of cities, towns and villages, particulars of dioceses, parishes and counties, and short references to coastal and other islands. All in all, it presents a wonderful gazetteer of the whole of Ireland, providing much background information to the past and, perhaps more importantly, permitting us to glimpse facets of life as it was prior to the Famine. While making use of official and other publications, it is obvious from the Preface that the publishers were, in no small way, indebted for local information to material supplied by "the most intelligent resident gentlemen in Ireland." A list of subscribers with Clare addresses among the almost two thousand who pre-paid for their copies of the two-volume work, is also included in this publication. No doubt this list contains many of the above "intelligent resident gentlemen".

As might be expected, original copies of the original two-volume edition are now a rarity and command high prices on the antiquarian book market. An American reprint publisher brought out an edition some time ago, but even that is beyond the reach of most buyers. In bringing together in one short volume all the Clare entries it was felt that a service has been rendered to readers in the county and makes available in an accessible form material which might otherwise have been out of reach.

The Clare entries given here are taken as they appear in the original. No attempt has been made to "improve" or correct: Lewis himself refers to the "unsettled orthography of names" and the spelling used in the text has been faithfully followed. The "corrected" forms adopted by the Ordnance Survey have not been imposed as will be readily seen in regard to a number of parishes and several towns. Perhaps it should be pointed out that the parish entries refer to the then parishes of the Established Church and not to the Civil Parishes, which though conterminous with the former will be found, particularly after the Ordnance Survey was completed, to have been somewhat "tidied up". The civil Parish of O'Briensbridge is treated under the entry for Killaloe, while both Inagh and Ruan have been subsumed in Dysert. While many parishes still have detached portions, nestling in adjoining ones, the impression given by Lewis is of many more. An added confusion in Lewis' Dictionary is the occasional assigning to two different neighbouring parishes of gentlemen's seats or houses. There are two parish entries which owe their inclusion more to precedent than to actuality: Innisdadrom may have had a separate existence as a benefice but geographically it forms part of Clondagad: Donamona, stated to be in the barony of Tulla and merged with Killaloe, is, in fact, another "lost" parish on the other side of the Shannon, and not in Clare at all. At the time Lewis' Dictionary was compiled, Inniscaltra was only partly in Clare. However since the 1898 Local Government Act it is now wholly in this county. Additionally, the parish of Clonrush, formerly in Galway, has been added to Clare. The relevant entry and that for Mountshannon have been shown here as addenda.

In, total, Lewis' Dictionary, runs to over 1400 pages. As each page is double-columned and contains 64 lines of type to the column, it hardly comes as a surprise that the entire text exceeds one-and-a-half million words. The Clare entries, which are abstracted here, total over 50,000 words, and fall into the categories previously mentioned. The longest distinct article deals, as one might expect, with the county as a whole: there are 79 entries on parishes, 43 on towns and villages, eight on islands, and several single line entries, either directing one's attention to another entry or giving an alternative name for some location. References to the relevant dioceses are incorporated into the main account of both Killaloe and Kilfenora: though three parishes belong to the Diocese of Limerick (Killeely, St. Munchin's and Kilquane or St. Patrick's).

The Clare County section firstly gives details of the location, area and population, followed by a short historical account. Then comes a fairly comprehensive account of the ecclesiastical and civil divisions, with descriptions of local government, the courts, police and various county establishments, such as the house of industry, the infirmary etc. Thereafter follows a physical description and some information on the climate and soils. The agriculture of the county is next outlined in some detail, after which comes an account of the limited industrial activity. What would now be described as the infrastructural system is then dealt with i.e. roads, navigation and communications. Finally, after considering the remains of antiquity we get an all too short account of the social aspects of life. It is perhaps gratifying that there is a passing reference to the game of hurling.

The parish entries follow a somewhat similar, though necessarily abbreviated, format to that of the county. A general description precedes details on such items as fairs and markets, roads, ruins, schools, and churches, the gentlemen's seats within the parish, and, invariably, details of the status of the Established Church with a brief allusion to the R. C. division. If there are any natural curiosities or if the locality is associated with some famous person, this is often mentioned. Inevitably the quality and extent of the information provided, varies from parish to parish. In some cases what we are told is tantalisingly brief, while in other instances one feels that the local correspondent has engaged in a 'puffing' exercise to give added importance to his chosen place.

With regard to the accounts of towns and villages a suspicion that something similar is afoot suggests itself. We have noticed that in all some forty-three such places are given separate entries for the county as a whole. Surprisingly, over a quarter (twelve, in fact) are located within the barony of Burren. However, it should be pointed out that all of these were given the status of village or hamlet in the 1831 Census and may well have been included for this reason. On the other hand, there are a number of entries which did not attain that status in the Census but which, by 1841, recorded substantial populations: Carrigaholt, Ballynacally and O'Callaghan's Mills have been noticed in Lewis' Dictionary but were seemingly, overlooked by the enumerators in the 1831 Census. Perhaps there is a lesson here - all sources of information bear scrutiny.

Naturally, there are flaws in Lewis' Dictionary, and, here and there, errors can be detected, but these are generally of a minor nature, reflecting the current knowledge of the time. In the area of antiquarian study, for instance, describing the Romanesque doorway at Dysert as a 'richly sculptured Saxon arch' or referring to ring-forts as 'Danish' forts or, for that matter, applying the term 'cromlech' to a variety of megalithic remains is simply using the expressions then in vogue. Assigning the ruins of the church at Kilshanny to the Cistercians ('a cell to the abbey of Corcomroe') rather than to the Augustinians was an error which persisted long after Lewis' time. Under the heading Feacle, we get the information that this parish extends to the 'confines of the county of Limerick', when, of course, it should be the county of Galway. Such obvious mistakes are, thankfully, few and far between. However in the entry for Carrigaholt we are told of '500 Currachs', which seems highly unlikely.

For modern readers, the seemingly disproportionate amount of space given to the nitty-gritty of the Established Church organisation may well seem at odds with that church's minority role among the population at large. However, one must remember that Lewis' readership would be largely drawn from that community and that, effectively, this church was (until disestablishment in 1869) a recognised arm of State. The ecclesiastical details provided do serve an unwitting purpose, in that they reflect the economy of the pre-Reformation Church, which was scrupulously adopted by the new reformed organisation. The retention of appurtenances like the 'parishes' of Donamona and Inisdadrom referred to earlier are cases in point. The convoluted nature of rectories and vicarages reflect an earlier age too as, indeed, does the whole question of patronage and improprietorship, so assiduously dealt with.

One wishes that as much concern had been directed at some of the more mundane developments taking place in the 1830's. Tithes may have been a contentious issue then but there were other matters of moment which are not mentioned. Nevertheless it is possible to discern that upsurge in church building, which was such a feature of Catholic life in the last century. It will be seen from Lewis' Dictionary that this was not so much a phenomenon that followed Emancipation but dates from the relaxation of the Penal Laws at the close of the previous century. Church building at this period was not confined to the Catholics: the Protestant church at Clonlara was added to in 1831, while a new church for Kilmanaheen replaced the old in the same year. Likewise, the provision of glebe-houses in different parishes is noted. The embryonic tourist business is noticed in Kilkee, Lahinch and Spanish Point and it was felt that in the parish of Abbey 'the coast is well adapted for sea bathing'. We also come across a passage in the entry for Kilmoon which proved to be prophetic: Several cottages have, however, been recently built in the vicinity of these waters (the wells of Lisdoonvarna) for the reception of visiters: and if the proprietor continues his improvements, and a facility of access be afforded, this place will probably become one of the most frequented spas in Ireland.

'Facility of access' would appear to have been of much concern to Lewis and there are frequent references to new lines of road. That from 'the newly erected Wellesley bridge at Limerick' to Cratloe is noted, as, indeed are many others such as the road along the shore of Lough Derg, between Killaloe and Scariff.

In a different sense, Lewis' Topographical Dictionary itself permits the present-day reader a degree of 'facility of access' to those times immediately before the Famine. Some of the themes dealt with, have been touched upon here. Obviously there are more: the reader is invited to prise them out for him or herself.

Pat Flynn

CLASP Press: County Clare A History and Topography


Preface to the Original Edition