Rambles in Ireland – and Argentina
An Irishman’s Diary: William Bulfin’s travels
‘The Bulfin brothers carried letters of introduction to the Passionist Fathers in Buenos Aires and to various ranch owners on the Pampas, one of whom, Don Juan Dowling from Longford, employed the Bulfin brothers.’ Above, cowboys, skinning cattle on the Pampas, Argentina in the 1880s. Photograph: Spencer Arnold/Getty Images
‘The woman behind the counter in a pub in Ballintra told the big man who looked like a cavalry officer that it was a pity he could find nothing more useful to do with his strength than to waste it riding round the country on a bicycle.” When the man had his drink and bade farewell, the woman replied: “God speed all bikers and give them sense.”
Benedict Kiely recorded this anecdote in an article he wrote in the Capuchin Annual in 1948 about the man in question, William Bulfin, who was born 150 years ago this year. Bulfin was one of Ireland’s earliest cycle tourists, at least one of the earliest to write about his travels by bike around Ireland. His book, Rambles in Éirinn, published in 1907, was described by Kiely as “among the best travel books written about the island of Ireland” and it was to achieve classic status.
Bulfin had an interesting, varied and much-travelled life. He was born in Derrinlough, Birr, Co Offaly and went to the Classical Academy and the Presentation Schools in Birr and then to the Royal Charter School at Banagher and Galway Grammar School. It was from his maternal uncle, a Provincial of the Passionist Fathers, that he first heard of Argentina and he emigrated there with an older brother when he was 20.
Many young men from the Midlands had gone to Argentina before him. The Bulfin brothers carried letters of introduction to the Passionist Fathers in Buenos Aires and to various ranch owners on the Pampas, one of whom, Don Juan Dowling from Longford, employed the Bulfin brothers. On Dowling’s ranch, William met a young woman, Anne O’Rourke, whom he married.
He began to write short pieces about the Irish living on the Pampas and also about the “gauchos”, the hard-riding, hard-living Spanish-Indian cowboys he came to admire greatly. His articles were published in the Southern Cross, the paper of the Irish-Argentine community owned and edited by Michael Dineen from Cork.
After about four years of cattle and sheep herding, he felt the need for a change and returned to Buenos Aires. There he became a sub-editor on the Southern Cross, eventually rising to become editor and owner of the paper. In that role, he was a generous and enthusiastic supporter of the cultural revival that was happening in Ireland.
He was present at the founding of the Buenos Aires branch of the Gaelic League in May 1899, made frequent donations to the league, publicised its activities extensively in his paper and sponsored prizes at its annual festival, Oireachtas na Gaeilge. When he returned to Ireland in 1902, the league held a meal in his honour at which its leading lights, such as Eoin MacNeill and Patrick Pearse, spoke.
It was on this trip back to Ireland that he bought an Irish-made bike from Pierce’s Ironworks in Wexford and cycled around the country.
Bulfin was also a strong supporter of Arthur Griffith, his newspapers and Sinn Féin organisation. A number of Griffith’s letters to Bulfin are in the National Library, mainly expressing gratitude for articles for his United Irishman newspaper. Each year the two went together to the Gaelic League’s Feis Charman in Wexford. They also enjoyed long walks in Wicklow.
In the late autumn of 1909, Bulfin and The O’Rahilly went to America to raise funds to save Griffith’s Sinn Féin daily paper, but to no avail. The cold weather in the US had a fatal effect on Bulfin’s health, which was not good at the time anyway. He became ill not long after his return to Ireland and died from pneumonia in February 1910 at only 45.
Griffith felt his loss deeply. “It is hard to believe, with the sun high in the sky as we write this, that that great Irishman, whose heart and mind were full of the light of the sun, is parted from us forever.”
On the last page of Rambles in Éirinn, Bulfin describes a winter ride over Midland roads: “Over the sodden roads, homewards from the last ride of a seven months’ holiday that can never die in my memory. The bare branches were dripping and the dead leaves were slippery, and the patches of broken stone were bristling with trouble for long-suffering tyres. The white mists were rising off the valleys. The whistle of the curlew came down the chilly wind. The call of the wild geese came over the hills. It was very lonely, yet there was sadness unutterable in the thought that it was soon to be left behind.”