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Short Study of a Transplanted Family in the Seventeenth Century
by Edward MacLysaght
 

Life in Clare c1680

I believe it is a good deal easier to get a vivid mental picture of the scenes and customs which were familiar to our ancestors in, say, the year 1680 than one would think probable at first sight. At least that it so in the case of any man or woman now forty years of age or more, that is to say the people who knew well the remote parts of Ireland before the days of motor cars. Now the ’bus, the talkie film and the wireless have in a few years demolished the structure of old-fashioned rural life which still persisted in my boyhood, and have made distant places such as north and west Clare little better than suburbs of Limerick or Dublin, or I might rather say of London and New York. Thirty years ago scarely anyone in such places, except an odd returned American, had ever seen a motor car or even a steam thresher or a train, to say nothing of course of a telephone or an aeroplane. There was dancing on Sunday evenings at the cross, “coording” occupied the people’s evenings, Irish in such places was still a living language[115] not a fostered school subject, drink was cheap and drunkenness common, meat a luxury and the wearing of shoes except on Sundays almost an innovation, girls wore shawls over their heads and did not count themselves demeaned thereby, the old-fashioned sawpit was in regular use, and customs and beliefs now condemned by the Church as superstitious were as common as the practice of raising the hat passing a chapel is to-day. Even wakes[116] retained much of their older character, now almost entirely lost though the keening women were but a pale shadow of the professional caointeoirí of the seventeenth century and mumming rites no longer diverted sorrowing relations and interested neighbours. I am speaking as a historian not as a sociologist: the change brought about by mechanical progress and precipitated by the Great War and our own revolution have undoubtedly in many ways been changes for the better: material and, in some respects, moral standards too have improved, not to mention political status, while the gulf between the classes, between landlord and tenant, brought about by the English conquest completed by Cromwell, and constituting perhaps, the most sinister indictment against that nation in two centuries of unique maladministration, is already showing definite signs of disappearance with their departure.

I am fortunate in this respect inasmuch as my youth was largely spent in what was then a particularly inaccessible part of Co. Clare, and in the very early days of the present century I often went among the people of north-west Clare-the very district in which our clan was located nearly one thousand years ago[117] – and absorbed the atmosphere in which they lived in a way hardly possible except to a boy or very young man. I seldom if ever heard the fishermen of Liscannor speak English in those days; I visited at the houses of hard drinking squireens who might have walked straight out of the pages of Arthur Young; I ate - and drank - a Christmas dinner at the house of the principal landlord in north Clare: convivial and lavishly hospitable but aloof from its neighbours and surroundings; I spent many hours listening to old Andrew Lysaght, a small farmer of Kilshanny, who for some reason or other took a liking to me and whose interminable harangues were a mixture of family traditions and Rabelaisian anecdotes; I remember Garland Sunday as it was then, but I must say that I did not see much of the excesses and “orgies” which my Protestant acquaintances were fond of alleging to be still associated with this relic of a bygone festival.

I mention these things at some length as I want to create in my own mind - even if I cannot succeed in doing so in the mind of others who may read these pages - the atmosphere of a time which, though recent, is now utterly past and gone, in order to conjure up more easily a picture of the MacLysaghts of 1680 and their neighbours. It has been said, and I think truly, that the world has changed more in the last forty years than it did in any previous period of four centuries in history. It is, however, of little help to recall the Dublin of thirty or forty years ago or even most places in the country. My father, who can clearly remember the Co. Cork of the [eighteen] sixties, saw nothing in his boyhood so nearly approximating to the life of the seventeenth century as I did more than thirty years later in Clare, except on the occasions when he went up into the mountainy parts between Newmarket and Abbeyfeale, where my grandfather had some property, and stayed the night in a farmer’s house there, surrounded by friendly but respectful and silent people - respectful because the visitors were counted of the landlord class (though having little land they did not farm themselves) and silent because these other people could speak little or no English. If he had lived there at Mintinna he would, no doubt, have found for himself the relics of the “Hidden Ireland” still lingering on, but in the parish of Doneraile the effect of more than two centuries of English domination, aided by the influence of the regiments of the British garrison at Fermoy and Buttevant[118] had before 1870 almost completely obliterated all traces of the old order and any flavour of the past left there was that of the eighteenth century. One survival, however, he has reminded me of, which, no doubt, was a commonplace of life in the time of William the Improvident: the itinerant tailor. My father’s uncle, William, then head of the family at Hazelwood, near Mallow, would order down so many rolls of cloth from Mullingar and “Old Gough” would stay in the house for a week or so, seated crosslegged in the back parlour from morning till night, making suits of clothes for all the family.

As far as I am concerned, and for my reader too if he can visualize some such place as Tuamgraney or Kilfenora at the end of the last century, the way to get at the picture we want to depict is to consider, not what elements of daily life were similar two hundred years or so earlier, but rather what were different. I am convinced that the main current of life did not flow so very differently.

I cannot do better at this point to illustrate a striking point of difference than to quote a page from Very Rev. P. White’s book on Clare.

“Even at this period, A.D. 1771, so long after the Williamite subjugation, the country had scarcely yet begun to recover from the prostrate condition into which it had been flung. This means of communication between the people were of the worst kind. Roads were few and bad and badly kept. They were run invariably against the hill-tops for the purpose of securing at little cost a solid foundation. Produce was carried to fairs and markets on the backs of horses, or dragged on rude sleighs over the ill-constructed narrow roads. Eugene O’Curry mentions at p. 369, Ordnance Survey, that his grandfather Melaghlan O’Curry, a large farmer, employed his men, horses and sledges in burying the victims of the famine of 1741. The almost equally rude and inconvenient block-wheeled carts began to be used first about this time. The wealthiest of the gentry owned heavy four-wheeled carriages, but seldom used them, because of the difficulty of drawing them up and down the steep and dangerous roads. Spring cars were totally unknown. Pillions, upon which the gentleman’s or farmer’s wife sat behind her husband on horseback took their place, and were much used far into the present [the 19th] century”.[119]

From this it would appear that the roads were even worse in 1771 than they were at the time we are considering, a hundred years earlier. Stevens, who travelled over a considerable part of East Clare in his marches from Limerick to Loughrea and Athlone often refers to roads, some of which he decribes as “extraordinarily rough and stony” and “uncouth”; but on the other hand others were quite passable for carts especially in fine weather.[120]

The introduction of an organized system of State education, which makes the sight of groups of children trudging to and from the National Schools a commonplace of modern times, had far deeper reactions than the mere reduction of illiteracy. The National Schools, with their timid colourless curriculum, put the finishing touches to the decline of the Irish language, if they were not the principal cause of it, and this in turn, deeply affected the religious life of the people. “In my youth,” says Father Walter Conway, “there was no house in which the Rosary used not to be said every night throughout the year. When I came to this parish (Glenamaddy) eight or nine years ago this custom had been given up by the majority of the people. I frequently enquired the cause and always got the same answer from everyone. “We cannot say it in English and the young people will not repeat it with us in Irish.” It is not the Rosary alone that has been given up on the introduction of the English language. The prayers and the religious poems which our pious ancestors composed and used to repeat have been given up also: pieces which came from the heart of him who composed them and which went straight from the heart of him who said them to the ear of God.”[121]

The clothes worn by the men and women of the time probably constitute the most obvious dissimilarity. The fashions of the day tend to erect what is really a quite artificial barrier between us and them, just as the costume of an Arizona cowboy or a Corsican chieftain might have done a few years ago, before the modern demand for speed reduced the size of the globe to less than that of a continent, and in the process standardized the clothes of the whole civilized world. Even in this respect the difference was confined more to the wealthier people, with whom the change to English manners and dress had become fashionable, mainly through the influence of the Duke of Ormonde.[122] It was less noticeable in the working classes, for by 1680 the characteristic mantle was almost discarded: the peasantry made all their own clothes from the wool of their own sheep (and even brogues from raw hide), and, no doubt, the men in the fields were already wearing something like the báinin which the older generation of small farmers in Co. Clare have not yet given up.

It would be out of place here to go into details about the costume of the period, a subject on which there is a great deal of information available; and I will leave over for the present any description of the sort of furniture used by our ancestors; while to consider rates of wages, value of cattle[123] and so forth would be to change this preliminary study of a family and the life they lived into an economic essay.

Rather let me continue to consider in what essentials life in William the Improvident’s day differed from that I can remember as a boy. As may be inferred from what I said above about the clothes of the peasantry, each village or small rural community was practically self-supporting. Money, in the form of coins, did not play an important part in the life of the people.[124] The shopkeeper was not then the figure of local importance he became later and the gombeen man was also a product of the eighteenth century. In 1680 almost the only article the people wanted regularly from him, or more usually from the itinerant pedlar who supplied their few needs, was tobacco. In those days frequent ass carts were not to be seen on the roads, as they are to-day, leaving every country town and village with the inevitable bag of meal, for bread was made of oats produced and ground at home, or in a small local mill; and tea, of course, as a popular beverage was of much later introduction. By 1680 the use of tobacco was universal in Ireland and I can imagine Patrick the Failure, when he was old enough, slipping out of the uncongenial atmosphere of Ballymarkahan and going off to a coord at some neighbouring farmer’s house, his foster parents’ perhaps,[125] where the dudeen would be handed round, all men and women, taking their puff at it in turn. In such a house the talk round the open turf fire[126] would, of course, be all in Irish and, since such is no new or modern trait, we can be sure there was an undercurrent of sadness below the prevailing good humour and sudden fits of quarrelsomeness. It is in a setting such as this that Patrick begins to become a reality to me. I do not pretend that I have any sound historical basis for my conception of this side of his character. I regard it as a duty to my readers to make no statement of fact for which I have not proper and convincing evidence, but I feel that I am at liberty to use my imagination more freely in dealing with the characters of the men and women whose affairs are the foundation of this sketch. Thus there was no Gaelic poet in Clare at this time whose work has been handed down to us - it was still a hundred years before Brian Merriman wrote his “Cúirt an Mheadhon Oidhche” on the shore of Lough Graney nearby - but there are certain to have been several itinerant rhymers whom Patrick would have heard now and then declaiming their tropical verses in some farmer’s house or tavern, if such did not actually visit the castle at Ballymarkahan with odes in praise of the family rooted out by Cromwell and since returned to the country of their origin. I remember two such men in Co. Clare, but their panegyrics were but clumsy ballads, composed in English and inspired as much, perhaps, by hope of reward as by respect for the Dalcassian family they somewhat crudely praised. Even O’Brudair, who flourished at this time in Co. Limerick, and may fairly be regarded as a legitimate successor of the highly honoured professional bards of earlier times, had an eye to the main chance and I feel that there was something in common between his sort and the professional soldiers of the seventeenth century, such as Scott’s Captain Dalgety who, while unashamedly selling their swords to the highest bidder, still had a code of honour of their own and as long as they were in a great man’s service served him and him alone.

The extent to which the Catholic religion was openly practiced during the reign of Charles II varied with the fluctuation of energy in its repression from year to year, and also from district to district, and I have already referred briefly to the state of the church at this time. As a result of the transplantation thirty years previously there was, of course, a much larger proportion of the Catholic gentry in Clare and Connacht than in the other provinces. Nevertheless the neat and well-filled chapels, the remarkable organization of the church and discipline exercised by the clergy, so obvious to the most causal observer of our own times, did not exist in 1680. The church was disorganized, the priests performed their duties more or less surreptitiously, morals inclined to be lax, and the only sacred edifices to be seen throughout the countryside were the few substantial churches which had escaped the destruction caused by wars or mere neglect, formerly Catholic, of course, now seized for services of the legally established but alien church.

The congregations in these Protestant churches were small, but at the time we are considering there was a surprisingly large proportion of Protestants in Clare, particularly among the gentry: less probably than in 1900 but certainly more than there are to-day. The Inchiquin family were Protestants from an early date, and the numerous O’Briens of noble descent who were to be counted among the minority, perhaps, aided other families of native descent to stifle their religious conscience and the slowly dawning consciousness of nationality. In addition to such perverts there were also a considerable sprinkling of genuine Protestants i.e. families who were still quite English, such as the Henns, Iverses, Vandaleurs, Hickmans and many others whose names are mentioned by Dineley in his “Observations” and who were still living in the places they had then just acquired, until our latest Revolution caused them to return whence they came. The Catholic Transplanters were supposed not to occupy lands within one mile[127] of the sea or Shannon and this provision, though probably a dead letter on the wild Atlantic coast, was the cause of the number of influential Protestant families who were settled in the fertile district bordering on Shandangan and Ballymarkahan.

The population of Ireland it is true was little more than a quarter of what it is now[128] and only an eight therefore of what it was in 1847; but once the depopulation caused by the Cromwellian War, and the plaque, transportations and voluntary exiles which followed it, was made up in the natural course of events, the great disparity is almost entirely accounted for by the numbers of the inhabitants of the towns. To-day Dublin and Belfast have each approximately half a million inhabitants; Dublin, then one of the largest cities in the Bristish Isles, had a population (in 1672) of less than 65,000[129] and in 1652 Belfast[130] was not even included with such places as Ardee and Carlingford as among the smaller towns of Ulster: Galway is probably the only important urban area in Ireland whose population was anything like as large in 1680 as it is now. So we must not imagine that the countryside around Ballymarkahan was empty and deserted, once the depopulation I referred to on page 34 was made good. [Link to 5 Pat the transplanted.doc. Anchor at: I look forward to giving in my book not only an account of the fate of those MacNamaras…..]

People like the McLysaghts, transplanted Catholic families of some standing, were no doubt on visiting, and even sometimes on intimate terms with, their Protestant neighbours, just as we find in the previous generation Lord Muskerry a frequent guest of the ultra-Protestant Earl of Cork at Youghal and Lismore.[131] But there was as yet little real fusion. Later we find the influences of social position and self-interest gradually weaning the old Catholic families away from their traditional allegiance, so that in my youth the principal props of Protestantism in Clare were men of the old Irish stock; O’Briens, McNamaras, Crowes, Molonys, O’Callaghans and Bradys. But in the days of William the Improvident, and for a long time after him, the memories of 1641 and Cromwell were still fresh. Our people married Catholics: Arthurs, Bourkes, MacNamaras, Whites and Reddans; and if Miss Bagot was a Protestant as seems likely from the name, that would be enough to account for William’s affair with her coming to nothing. Even in the seventeenth century, however, race, as indicated by names, is a most unreliable test of religious beliefs: a Bagot, for example, was among the representatives of Limerick on the Supreme Council of the Catholic Confederation of 1646.

Before my time the fierce Land War was virtually over, but the bitter memory of the Bodyke evictions was fresh in the minds of men who were still young, and if not quite comparable there is even in this respect a certain parallel between the two periods. After the changes of ownership which had occurred since the “Flight of the Earls” no man felt any real sense of security of possession in the years when Charles II was on the English throne; and two hundred years later no resident landlord could feel any certainty that he would be allowed to enjoy peaceably the possession which were his according to the letter of the law. And if at the beginning of the present century we thought we had passed beyond the days of warfare at our own doorsteps - a dread which cannot have been entirely absent from men’s minds in William the Improvident’s time - had we but know it we were but sixteen years from another armed conflict within our own shores.

 
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