Daughters of Destiny – Frank McNally on a forgotten immigrant community, the Irish Palatines

An Irishman’s Diary

Leaving Cert graduates of a certain age will remember The Planter’s Daughter, Austin Clarke’s poem about a woman whose appearance caused the men who had seen her to drink deep and be silent. Less well known, except to some singers and musicians, is The Palatine’s Daughter, although the two had a lot in common.

The latter was also of striking winsomeness, and if not from the big house, also came with land and money. Crucially, unlike the Planter's Daughter, she was not unattainable, at least to the song narrator who meets her one day while roving "through the groves of Ballyseedy". By the final verse, he has won both her and the dowry. This may be why the song is much jauntier than the poem, being set to that lively traditional dance-beat of the Czech Republic and Kerry, the polka.

Readers may remember the last, longing line of The Planter’s Daughter: “And O she was the Sunday in every week.” That’s another thing the two had in common.  Whether we knew it or not at the time, a generation of Irish people used to hear The Palatine’s Daughter played every Sunday evening between 1965 and 1979, as the theme tune of The Riordans.

The Palatines of Ireland had long since blended in with the native population by then. But the originals were Protestant refugees from Germany, so named for the Palatinate, a Rhineland territory governed for centuries by the Holy Roman Empire. Fleeing French persecution in 1709, thousands went first to England and from there to the American colonies or Ireland.


Here, they settled mostly in Limerick, near Adare. Later priced out by rising rents, they moved to other parts of the country, including Kerry, Carlow (which has a village named Palatine) and the Riordans' Kilkenny. Wherever they went, they were known for hard work and innovative farming practices, including use of the wheel plough and the practice of sowing potatoes in drills.

For a time, they still elected burgomeisters, spoke German into the 18th century, and their domestic habits included what one travel writer called sleeping “between two beds”. That seems to have meant they used what we now call duvets, then a continental thing.

Like the Quakers, they stayed out of politics and were considered non-combatants in Ireland’s squabbles, so that “in the troublous times, when the generality of persons were afraid to walk forth, the quiet Palatine pursued his avocations without let or hindrance, being rarely, if ever, molested.”

Eventually, they took to intermarrying with the natives, as in the song. Mind you, there appear to be different versions of the lyric. In one, the heroine tells her admirer he will have to “forsake the mass”, something to which he does not seem to object. In another, he ends by boasting that he “made a Catholic of her”.

Some of the surnames were anglicised gradually, including Krauss, which became Grouse and then Groves. Some, like Hoffman, Fitzelle, and Switzer, retain their original form. Yes – on that last one, it is to the Palatines that those of us old enough to remember The Planter’s Daughter also owe another visual wonder of 20th-century Ireland, Switzer’s Window.

Among Irish Palatines who emigrated to the US was Philip Embury, a carpenter, who left Limerick for New York in 1760 and later founded the Methodist Episcopal Church of America. Along the way, he wrote a Christian emigrant's lament: "Land where the bones of our fathers are sleeping/Land where our dears ones and fond ones are weeping/Land where the light of Jevohah is shining./We leave thee repenting, but not with repining."

Embury married a fellow Irish Palatine, one Mary Switzer. And nearly two centuries later, a woman of that name – it's not clear if they were related – would make the return journey to Ireland on several occasions. This one, Mary Elizabeth Switzer, had been born in Boston in 1900, and even learned "Gaelic" there, as she told the Irishman's Diary in 1959.

She was the first Palatine's daughter the diarist had ever met, although her father left the family early on and her mother died when Mary was only 11. The guiding parental figure was instead an uncle, Mike Moore, a socialist and "friend of James Connolly", who urged her to do something useful in life.

She didn't disappoint. A public administrator and reformer, Mary E Switzer worked to improve the lot of people with disability in particular. By her retirement in 1970, she was the highest-ranking female bureaucrat in US government. Among her many international achievements, she had also been a creator and founding member of something we hear a lot about these days –the World Health Organisation.