An Irishman's Diary


ENGLISH-BORN but later a Bishop of both Ossory and Meath, Richard Pococke (1704-1765) was once described as “the dullest man that ever travelled”, a verdict that dogged his reputation ever after.

It’s a bit harsh on someone who did indeed travel widely, from Ireland to the Middle East, and who published his findings. But it was an opinion – by the outspoken writer and diarist Mrs Delany – based less on his writings than on a meeting with him in person. Also, their meeting was late in his life, before he died (excitingly enough) from “apoplexy”.

In any case, I’m assured by Dr Rachel Finnegan of Waterford Institute of Technology that Pococke was an interesting and amusing man, at least in his letters. And she should know. Later this month she will publish a collection of the “Grand Tour Correspondence” of Pococke and his fellow-traveller cousin, Jeremiah Milles, to their relatives at home.

Recipients included their uncle, the Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, with whom Milles was clearly anxious to keep in (it worked – the bishop helped fund his travels and, while he was abroad, fixed him with a cushy job as diocesan treasurer), and Pococke’s mother.

Including the reconstruction of passages the author himself deleted – a tactic justifiable in the cause of proving that he wasn’t dull – Pococke’s letters range from discussing financial problems, (overseen by a well-named Clonmel banker, John Bagwell) to instructing Mrs Pococke “regarding the purchase of his wigs and the management of his wardrobe”.

He also takes trouble occasionally to scandalise his mother, as when describing women’s fashions in Paris: “. . .they commonly wear slippers, mind not the showing their under petticoats up to their wasts [sic] when they seat themselves in Coaches or otherwise; the house wives wear no hoops at home in an undress have commonly a gown on that comes not ¾ down.” The book will continue a latter-day revival of interest in Pococke, a volume of whose Irish travel writings – unpublished in his lifetime – came out in 1995.

HIS WRITINGS ASIDE,Pococke’s legacy may also include being a pioneer who led the way for later generations of travel authors. Even by his time, the “Grand Tour” – in which the upper-classes embarked on a circuit of western Europe, typically including Paris, Venice, and Rome – was well-established. But Pococke was unusual in venturing east, to such places as Beirut, Baalbek and Damascus.

Followers in his footsteps – and, in fairness, well beyond them – would include Sir Richard Burton, who in 1853, went to Mecca posing as a pilgrim, after first taking such precautions as having himself circumcised, learning fluent Arabic, dressing as an Afghan dervish, and adopting the cover name of Mirza Abdullah.

Another orientalist, later again but just as intrepid, was John Wavell, a British army veteran, who also developed a fascination with Islam. He too visited Mecca, disguised as a Swahili-speaking Zanzibari, and wrote about it in a 1912 book. Since when, nobody we know of has seen fit to repeat the experiment.

Burton and many others – although not, alas, Pococke – feature in the latest work by modern-day travel writer, Paul Theroux, which has just been published. The Tao of Travelis a collection of his and other writers’ observations, culled from an epic study of some 300 different travelogues.

And that marathon may have left Theroux even more than usually feisty. Responding recently to the popular argument that the internet has made travel writing redundant, he suggested that reprising Wavell’s adventure, a century on, might still be a worthwhile challenge for any “technologically smug couch potato”.

Among the writers who feature in his collection is Dervla Murphy, who, far from being a couch potato is a traveller as restless and fearless as any of her male counterparts. Her thrilling 1963 debut, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, set the tone for a career which is still going strong, although she turns 80 later this year.

Then as now, the overland route to India included countries in which any westerner, never mind an unaccompanied female, might have been nervous. So she took the precaution of acquiring a hand gun and some shooting lessons in advance. Which came in useful twice: first when fighting off wild dogs on a mountain pass in Yugoslavia, and later when repelling a nocturnal advance in the unisex sleeping area of an Asian hostel. Luckily for the advancer, she fired at the ceiling.

So even if the Rev Pococke didn’t make Theroux’s selection, the diocese of his travel-funding uncle is well represented. Waterford is where Dervla Murphy went to school (for a while). Lismore is where she lives and where, slightly too early for Rachel Finnegan’s book launch, the Lismore Festival of Travel Writing took place last weekend.

Rachel Finnegan’s website is