|Clare County Library||
in County Clare 1534 - 1911
William Reed, Rambles in Clare, 1810
William Reed from Thornbury, Gloucestershire, was a cobbler by trade. Born in 1770, his education was limited to reading, writing and arithmetic. With little interest in shoemaking, he spent a wandering life touring England and Scotland. He was disappointed in love, when the father of his intended bride refused her permission to marry. His lady love, however, dying young, left him an annuity, which made him financially secure. Reed settled in Bristol and indulged his passion for books, music and poetry. He had a number of essays and poems published in The Ponderer. In September of 1810 he came to Ireland; landing at Cork, he proceeded through Millstreet and Macroom to Killarney. ‘Irish towns’ he wrote ‘invariably commence with a row of cabins; all of which smoke like so many bacon houses, and would disgrace a village of Hottentots’. Although a member of the Baptist congregation, he had a fascination with Catholic ritual and attended several masses at a nunnery in Killarney. Proceeding northwards, he crossed the Shannon and landed in Kilrush. Reed provides a very valuable account of a Mass and funeral he attended in the chapel at Kilrush. Agricultural matters also interested him. ‘The Irish farmer’ he declared ‘is less to be envied than the common beggar, to make his payments good and keep himself from gaol, he is obliged to work as a slave and half starve himself and his family’. Leaving Clare, Reed travelled to Limerick and eventually embarked at Dublin for England. He visited Guernsey in 1813 and shortly after his return died at Bristol. His Irish tour, a rare and valuable work, was published posthumously in 1815; only fifty copies were printed.
It was my intention to proceed to Ballylongford, for the purpose of getting a conveyance to Limerick in one of the turf-boats, but was persuaded to cross the river to Kilrush, by a young man who overtook me on the road, telling me that I should more readily succeed at the latter place. At Carrick we found a small group of labourers just ready to embark in a crazy fishing skiff; and as it stood about one hundred yards from the shore, we were all huddled into a machine exactly like a baker’s dough-tub, exposing ourselves to no inconsiderable danger in this prefatory voyage to gain the vessel. It blew a heavy gale, and the water, which is here three leagues wide, became so extremely agitated as to strike terror into the hearts of the passengers, one of whom cried and prayed, but to which of the saints I have now forgotten, believing his last hour was come. For myself, though among the most courageous on board, I expected in cutting the channel we should be overset. In a better vessel I should have very much enjoyed the scene. It was extremely wild and picturesque. The billows, which were of a light and almost transparent green colour, rose into mountains, and were also variegated with broken patches of thin white foam, that with every motion of the water assumed some new and strange configuration. It bore some resemblance to a Scottish landscape at the close of winter, where hills rise behind hills, as far as the eye can reach, and the last vestiges of snow are melting and vanishing from the sight.
In this excursion we passed under the shores of Scattery, a small but celebrated island. In ancient times it was much resorted to for religious purposes. Saint Seanus, who I believe was the immediate successor of St Patrick, chose this sequestered spot for the asylum of his old age. There are on this island a few farm-houses, and a round tower, rising to the height of one hundred and twenty feet, which is said to have been a species of ecclesiastical architecture peculiar to this country. I have seen many of them in the western parts of Ireland, but they appear to me more like places of military observation than religious temples. Although this place does not, I should think, contain more than one hundred and twenty acres of land, there are still to be seen the ruins of seven churches, which are said to have grown up spontaneously in one night, like mushrooms, not at the sound of a magician’s flute, but through the powerful intercession of the saint. The present inhabitants of the country believe these tales of superstition, and there are no tales too absurd for them to believe.
Kilrush is a neat little and greatly improving seaport-town on the shores of the Shannon, in the county of Clare; and resting there the whole of the following day, it being the sabbath, I had an opportunity of witnessing a circumstance or two which, to a stranger, had some novelty in them.
I went to mass, but found the chapel so crowded as not to be able to proceed farther than the door. The court was also full of people; some of whom were brought, on account of their age or infirmities, in little dog-carts and wheel-barrows, counting and conning their bead-strings with all the care and punctuality of a school-boy casting up his pounds, shillings and pence. There was also among this grotesque assembly a blind woman, singing ballads in the Irish language, and who to all appearance had the power of exciting more attention than charity. The holy water was contained in a common washing-tub on the outside of the door. I, though a Protestant, was rather shocked at this apparent vulgarity. Between the hours of mass, and after it is finally over, every trace of the sabbath is completely expunged. The people have then recourse to a variety of games and sports, among which, dancing to the bagpipe is a common amusement. This sudden transition from the solemnities of devotion to the frivolities of an Irish jig, to say nothing of its immorality, appeared to me a very gross violation of good taste and common sense, and more closely resembled the manners of monkeys than of men. The very same mortals who at twelve o’clock most devoutly sprinkle themselves with holy water on the outside, will, before it strikes one, as devoutly bathe their inside with whiskey. Harnessed with external forms and ceremonies, they toil by fits and starts, like a horse in a mill, dreaming that they go onward, when, alas! they are only going round. The priesthood, in the country at least, take no pains to dissolve this fatal enchantment, being either too lazy or too ignorant for its accomplishment. . . .
At Kilrush, I had another opportunity of being a spectator of the extravagances of an Irish funeral. The deceased was a medical man, young and skilful in his profession, and alike distinguished for the elegance of his person and the courtesy of his manners. Only a week previously he was in full health; but he was now fallen to the dust, and the subject of the most poignant and general regret. When the corpse was about to be removed from the house, his wife, children and friends, amidst the howlings of the women who attended, detained it so long, that the undertakers were at last obliged to seize their charge by actual violence. Every thing being now adjusted for departure, the sash was thrown up, and the females of the family, with looks of agony, sent forth such a wild and piercing scream, that if Stoicism had heard it, she must have stood still and wept.
As the funeral procession is generally composed of a large and motley group of persons, it not infrequently happens, on account of some trifling circumstance, that a quarrel ensues on the road, and the passive solemnities of death are converted into a lively field of battle. When the place of interment has been the subject of dispute, the coffin has sometimes been demolished in the scuffle, and the corpse carried away in triumph by the victorious party, to their favourite place of burial. Some difference arose on the present occasion; but for once the mourners had the good manners, whilst on their sorrowful journey, to suppress the ardour of their resentment. This apparent sense of decorum was however of short duration, for when they returned to town in the evening, the flame broke out with the greater violence for having been pent up, and a general engagement took place, with sticks and with stones, in which many of the combatants were felled to the ground, and carried home to their friends dreadfully wounded. The person at whose house I lodged, had his head laid open in several places, and a relative of mine host was said to be dying through loss of blood. I went to see this unhappy man, and found him weltering in his gore and raving with delirium. His temporal artery had been opened by the stroke of a poker. The neighbouring surgeon was sent for to close the wound; but he was found sprawling before the fire on the carpet, in a most helpless state of intoxication. Another of the profession was now applied to, who resided at the other end of the town; but this son of Æsculapius was imitating the example of his fallen brother with all possible haste, in company with an old friar, and could not on any account be prevailed upon to leave his cheerful companion of the battle.
On the following morning I sailed round the Island of the Seven Churches. The Shannon is a river of great beauty and grandeur, and maintains its noble character from the ocean to Limerick. There are a variety of fine islands in its course, richly cultivated; and its shores are every where adorned with villages and elegant villas, situated at the foot of mountains covered with herds and flocks, and sheltered by groves of the richest verdure.
Taken from Remains of William Reed late of Thornbury;
including Rambles in Ireland with other composition in prose, ed.,
by Rev John Evans (London 1815), pp 36-42.