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The Strangers Gaze: Travels in County Clare: 1534-1950 Book Cover
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.

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Other Reviews

The Irish Times,
August 1999

Books Ireland,
February 1999

The Magpie,
February 1999

Clare Champion,
January 1999

The Examiner, January 1999