The Strangers Gaze:
Travels in County Clare: 1534-1950
Edited by Brian O Dalaigh
The Other Clare
1999 By Pat Flynn
This collection of travellers' accounts
of County Clare deserves a warm welcome. The editor, Brian Ó Daláigh,
and the publisher, Clasp Press, have put together a volume that is not
alone informative and entertaining but is a most handsome production.
Ó Dálaigh draws from a variety of sources: diaries, despatches,
reports and printed accounts give us a wide time-span and many perspectives.
Military accounts and the observations of agriculturists vie with social
comment and tourist-related information. A short illustrated section provides
a visual dimension.
The editor will be well-known to readers
in Clare. A regular contributor to The Other Clare, his main interest,
over the years, has been his native town of Ennis, though that is not
to say he is a one-topic researcher. Not too long ago, he was a co-editor
of a collection of essays on Irish townlands and in other areas of study
he has made worthwhile contributions. In the present volume, he has brought
together some sixty-six disparate accounts covering over four hundred
years and reflecting aspects of the county's past from a range of view-points.
In his introduction he sets out his "menu", as it were, and
explains how his choice was made. That the selection of "dishes"
was a difficult one is obvious, since so many other choices were there,
but, all in all, what has been served up is most satisfying. In his capacity
as editor, Ó Dálaigh provides very well researched introductions
to each entry; these short pieces, in giving background information on
the writer and the context, are themselves a fine addition to the whole.
In any collection one finds that some items give more personal satisfaction
than others: our interests are, naturally, varied and what might appeal
to one person may well leave another cold. Two entries, both dating from
1940's, dealing with Ennis I found captivating, because they were concerned
with an environment into which I had been introduced as a teenager and
a "stranger". Though Seán Ó Faoláin's description
predated my personal "stranger's gaze" by a few years, I was
able to relate with what he observed. In like manner, Charles Graves'
account towards the end of the decade presages the burgeoning of the town
from that time onwards. The black-and-white world of Dorthea Lange is
about to give way to the wonderful Technicolor image of today!
For the enquirer into his or her own locality, this book can serve as
a good compendium. An excellent index will direct the researcher to references
to places, persons and events. As one would expect, the larger town's
are mentioned more frequently; Ennis has, by far, the greatest number
of references, but it is closely followed by Clare Town (Clarecastle).
Chronologically, it is interesting to see the growing relevance of such
locations as Lisdoonvarna while at the same time one can detect the diminishing
importance of erstwhile centres such as Sixmilebridge, which does not
get a mention after 1800.
One of the personages who warrants mention
is the somewhat larger-than-life Michael Considine, of Ennis, described
by Bernard Becker as (in 1880) "in many respects the most remarkable
man in County Clare, after, if not before, The O'Gorman Mahon himself.
He is also the dirtiest". On a more mundane level, Becker gives a
very good account of the reclamation work then being carried out on the
Fergus in the neighbourhood of Islandavanna, something which added several
hundred acres to the county.
Mills, mines, roads and schools are all dealt with in many of the entries,
while mention is made of pubs and hotels, especially in the more recent
pieces. One experience of a guest at a hotel in Kilkee (Marie Anne de
Bovet in 1891) conjures up images of Manuel in the Fawlty Towers television
series. On the other hand, Robert Lynd's account of merry-making clerics
in Lisdoonvarna, during the "season" has resonances of another
TV offering - Father Ted. However, all is not frivolity. Like many of
the extracts selected that of Sydney Godolphin Osborne deals with Clare
in the Famine period and in it he gives a most harrowing account of what
he saw in his travels from Kilrush to Ennis in the year 1849. He visited
the workhouses, describing the dreadful conditions he encountered, though
he did find that, in general, the staff were making do as best they could
with totally inadequate facilities. But his greatest strictures were directed
at the "house levellers" who were evicting occupiers of houses,
which then were "tumbled". "I know not how a country looks",
he writes, "after the passage of an enemy through it, bent on desolating
it's people's homes; but I am quite certain, the work of destruction could
not be done more effectually, though perhaps it would be done less methodically,
by such an army, than is done in western counties of Ireland, by the proprietors
of the land". Here we get a fore-taste of what nightly we see, at
the time of writing this review, on a massive scale in the television
coverage of events in Kosovo.
In this short review it has only been
possible to highlight a few of the features of this book. For the student
of the county's past it is a must and certainly deserves a place on the
growing bookshelf of books of Clare interest, which has been well served
by the publications of the Clasp Press in making available out-of-print
material and compilations drawn from a variety of sources. Ó Daláigh's
selection sits nicely with the last volume in the Clasp library, Ciarán
Ó Murchacha's fine original study of the Famine in the Ennis area,
Sable Wings Over the Land.
to The Strangers Gaze