Visitors to a country in ruins
HISTORY:German travellers to Ireland in the 19th century were shaken by the poverty and degradation they witnessed
Poor Green Erin: German Travel Writers’ Narratives on Ireland from Before the 1798 Rising to After the Great Famine,
Edited and translated by Eoin Bourke, Peter Lang, 773pp. €89
EOIN BOURKE’S Poor Green Erin, though published by an academic publisher in Germany and priced at nearly €90, has drawn an Irish following since its appearance in February this year, and for good reason. The emeritus professor of German from NUI Galway has, by means of translation, recovered a lost library of (mostly) 19th-century reportage on Ireland that few in this country had seen before. A knowledgeable guide can do a lot to make a tour worth taking, and Bourke is the best of hosts.
Enjoying a trip to Ireland in the 19th century, however, was another matter. “I, a stranger, have to call these days of sojourn in the most painful of my life,” the Prussian historian Friedrich von Raumer concluded.
A number of the German visitors included in this volume were writing letters home. They tried to entertain friends and family, but what they saw around them was just too painful. The sister of the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, after a year as a governess at Dungannon Castle, confessed that “every travel account of this country has to taper off into a sigh and a tear”.
In the early 19th century there were many Germans but no Germany. Instead there were 39 principalities, Protestant conservatives in Prussia, Catholics in the Rhineland. What would a unified Germany be like? Many hoped it would be another England, with freedom of the press, a wide franchise, a degree of religious toleration and limits to the power of the nobility. Having visited England, they liked what they had seen, and expected more of the same across the Irish Sea. It was all one kingdom, wasn’t it?
The first visitor in the book is Karl Gottlob Küttner, a parson’s son who had accepted a post as tutor for Lord Waterford. His boat from Holyhead was becalmed in the harbour for two hours, then hit a storm. The rite of passage between states had begun. For the next 23 hours the passengers in the top bunks, groaning, vomited on those below, while a steward raced in with empty basins of the best English porcelain and out with the full ones.
Once in Waterford, how was Herr Küttner to describe the skin of the locals? “A brown closer to yellow or even a worse shade.” Poverty had imprinted on their features “lethargy, weariness, debasement, and carnality”.
The German visitors seem to have almost exhausted their fund of adjectives for the degradation of the inhabitants. Here is Caspar Voght, linen merchant: “Everyone is dirty, careless, witty, inconsistent, caustic, cruel, miserable, and merry . . . everyone has great ambitions but fawns.”
A soldier of the German legion, after quartering his horse in a ruined Kilbeggan brewery, headed west: this is described as like travelling “through Siberia” (and the soldier had been to Siberia). The Irish situation was like that of the French before the revolution, observed another: “The religion, the light diet, the insolence of the nobility, the impossibility of obtaining justice . . . Every pair of ragged trousers makes a sans-culotte.”
But really, as the professional geographer Johann Kohl said, there was no place like it: “Who has seen Ireland would never again consider any other Europeans pitiable.”
Occasionally, some of the anglophile Protestant visitors made the case that Irish people were poor because they were Irish, or because they were Catholic. Only ethnic cleansing, these reasoned, could make national revival possible. Yet even the Prussians usually admitted, as Knut Clement did, that England and popery had combined to ruin Ireland, and make the people what they were not naturally – “filthy, stupid, and ignorant, without joy of life”.
What is an Irish girl like, Friedrich von Raumer was asked. It is impossible to say, he replied. Take the prettiest English maiden from the duke of Devonshire’s drawing room, and put her for one season in an Irish cabin, feed her water and potatoes, dress her in rags too torn to cover her breasts, expose her complexion to sun and rain, make her wade through bogs and sleep with the family pig, take from her any hope that the future will be different, and when she crawls out of her hovel, and comes to your carriage, stretching out a scrawny hand for a penny, how much will she look like that English maiden?
Actually, the colleens were often very pretty, Moritz Hartmann noted – pale and delicate. It was regrettable, he added, that “hunger and nothing else”gave them that look.
It was true, a Protestant monarchist noted, that the Irish said “upon my honour”, “upon my soul” and “upon my word” a thousand times a day, but a thousand times neither honour, nor soul, nor word meant anything to them. Those were blessings that could arise only from “the complete security of property owning”. Few German visitors failed to see that the landlord-tenant system was to blame for those troubles not caused by sectarian legislation.
Some of the most interesting observations were due not just to the awful horror of conditions before, during and after the Famine, but also to the shock of two cultures in conflict: German and Irish. Kohl was appalled by the ruins left standing: Neolithic ruins, Celtic ruins, Druid ruins, Christian ruins, Danish ruins, Gaelic ruins and ruins of cottages emptied the previous week. Every year left its ruins, and the people left the ruins where they lay. An orderly country, Kohl wrote, would not allow ruins: the stone would be reused, the land would be planted and the past would give way to the future. But Ireland was haunted. When he asked why, he was told, “It’s better not to talk about it” or “The story is very sad”.
The national costume of the starving Irish also struck German travellers as weird. In other countries, those that worked the land wore smocks. In Ireland, they went about in crushed top hats and swallow-tail coats, with an open breast in front. They looked like “dancing masters that have been treated cruelly by fate”. Herr Kohl’s informant explained that originally Irishmen had nothing to wear but second-hand, surplus dress coats shipped from England; those then established the fashion, and were reproduced in frieze by Irish manufacturers.
Inexplicable, monstrous, awful, heartbreaking, ridiculous – so said these 29 educated German visitors, all former admirers of England, about England’s first colony.
Adrian Frazier is professor of English at NUI Galway. His most recent book is Hollywood Irish: John Ford and Abbey Actors in the Movies