Johann George Kohl (1808 – 1878) was a German travel writer in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1841 he wrote “Travels in Ireland” about his tour around the country, this book was translated to English in 1844. The following is an extract of his time in Limerick.
Limerick, the third city of Ireland, now contains nearly 75,000 inhabitants. Dublin is the first, with 270,000; and Cork the second, with 110,000 inhabitants. The trade of Limerick, like that of all Irish cities, has increased astonishingly during the last twenty years. The export trade is said to have trebled since 1820. In the year 1822 the exports amounted to 479,000l., in 1830 to 720,000l., in 1832 to 1,005,000l.; and in 1841, according to the official returns, the duties alone, paid on imported commodities, amounted to 246,000l., or about 1,700,000 Prussian thalers.
The inhabitants are therefore full of hope that they will soon see their port, hitherto a third-class one, raised to the second rank. In the more modern part of the city the effect of these millions is extremely visible; for it is beautifully built, has fine, nay, one may say, with regard to their breadth, and the size of the houses, imposing streets, which are not equalled in the capital itself. St. George’s-street may be compared with Sackville-street in Dublin. St. George is an English saint, and the whole of this modern part of the town is called ‘The English Town,’ and forms a most agreeable contrast with that portion which is known as ‘The Irish Town.’ Galway and other Irish cities are similarly divided into English and Irish towns. The Irish portions are full of dirt, disorder, and ruin; the English, on the contrary, are built entirely after the models of the best parts of London. The population of these two divisions live in a kind of opposition to each other.
As the English have furnished all Irish cities with a clean and comfortable quarter, so the Irish, (who number 60,000 in Manchester, 50,000 in Glasgow, 40,000 in Liverpool, 25,000 in Birmingham, and 12,000 in Leeds, and of whom there are probably more than 100,000 in London,) have furnished most English towns with an appendix of a filthy and disorderly Helot-quarter. Such an Irish quarter as St. Giles’s, in London, is to be found in every large English town. It is, therefore, no wonder that the English often complain of the Irish.
The Irish, on the other hand, in all their complaints against the English, ought to remember the numerous advantages in which, through their agency, they participate. Are they not Englishmen who speculate on rendering the Shannon, and other Irish rivers, navigable? Are they not Englishmen who plan the draining and cultivation of the Irish bogs? Are they not Englishmen who drive the Irish fairies and witches into the sea? Have they not furnished Ireland with handsome towns and country seats? Is it not the English, again, in whom lies the soul and marrow of British power, and through whom the Irish participate in the trade of the British with the whole world, and in all the thousand advantages which stand open to British subjects? It is the strong, speculative, persevering Anglo-Saxons, who drag on (sometimes, it is true, by the hair,) the indolent Celts, in the race of fame and national greatness!
The fairest thing in Limerick, however, is the fair sex. ‘The Limerick lasses’ are as famous in Ireland as the ‘Lancashire witches’ and the Welch women are in England. It is worthy of remark that both these places so renowned for the beauty of their women, are situated in the west, and, indeed, in the more Celtic wests of both islands. Can it be that the greater mixture of the Saxon with the Celtic race has here produced this greater degree of beauty?
In western and southern Ireland, Spanish blood, too, has been mixed with that of the people; and perhaps it is this admixture of southern fire with northern tenderness which has produced so beneficial a result. Or is it the neighbourhood of the ocean, breathing fresh breezes from the west, that is the cause of this phenomenon? Yet who can fathom all the mysteries which are to be found in the formation and rearing of beautiful women!
Leaning on the arm of an O’Rourke, the descendant of a royal race, I surveyed the town. It is well known that an O’Rourke was one of the most renowned of the Irish princes who at first favoured the conquest of Ireland by the English, and was afterwards deprived of his life by them. The family subsequently fell into decay, and there are now but very few of the name. It was Saturday evening; and therefore the shops of the pawnbrokers, which are always numerous in Irish towns, were full of life. We saw many of them as crowded as market-places on market-days.
All this throng of people were redeeming their best clothes, in order to be well dressed on the Sunday; to this purpose a portion of their weekly wages was devoted, and the remainder of their earnings would probably be spent this very evening or the following day; so that on Monday the Sunday dress would without doubt be obliged to return to the pawnbroker. Thousands of poor people live in this way in Ireland,—during the week, in rags, hunger, and misery; on Sunday, in finery. Of course this is a very costly mode of living, as all the pawnbrokers and their assistants must subsist at their expense.
Saturday is, in all Irish towns, nay, generally throughout the entire of the United Kingdom, a day of the greatest noise and bustle. As it precedes the quiet and joyless Sunday, the labours of the week being now ended, and money plentiful, half of the population may be seen in the streets, busy, talking, joking, buying, and drinking. Shops and markets are open till midnight, particularly those of the provision-dealers and hucksters, who then do most business, as the poorest buy something better than usual for their Sunday’s dinner, and at the same time supply other little domestic wants. Even the beggars make most on that day, as was lately admitted by one of them, when examined before a court of justice in Dublin; for it is on Saturday that the labouring classes, who are fond of giving to beggars, have most to spare.
When first I arrived in an English town on a Saturday, I imagined that a riot had either lately taken place, or was on the point of breaking out; for the people in the streets, mostly the lower classes, are then crowded together in such dense masses, that one would suppose it required only a spark to fall among such inflammable matter to produce a general conflagration.
Yet not only sparks, but even large torches, are seen lying quite harmlessly beside this inflammable material. Thus, at Limerick, on that very Saturday evening, I saw posted up on every gate, and beneath the lamps of the city, a proclamation by the friends of O’Connell to the Irish people, in the name of this great agitator, who was in a few days to make his appearance there, hold a meeting, and harangue them. Over it was printed, in large letters—
‘REPEAL! REPEAL! REPEAL!’
‘Up, citizens and people of Limerick, and all Irishmen! Up for a separation from England! Up for your birthright of a separate parliament!
The immortal (sic!) O’Connell will appear among you. He calls upon you. He requires your aid in Erin’s cause. Be firm and united, and, like him, cease not to watch over the welfare of your native land, and to be ever active in our common, great, and patriotic cause!’
In this and still stronger language, the people were exhorted to unite, and, on the day of O’Connell’s appearance, which was fixed beforehand, to assemble in numbers, provided with warm patriotism, and especially not to be sparing in their contributions to the tribute. The people stood around, reading this proclamation by the lamp-light, and having probably considered how many pence or shillings they could contribute, then went quietly home.
Some of them, however, followed an Irish piper, who, surrounded by hundreds of listeners, went through the streets, stopping now and then at the door of some respectable-looking house, and playing his old Celtic melodies. In general, notwithstanding the melancholy sadness that breathed through his minstrelsy, the doors remained closed against him. At length, however, one opened; a liveried servant made his appearance, the piper was called in, and the gaping multitude dispersed.
The Irish pipers appear to me to be the most skilful in the world; and though, like my travelling acquaintance, they have not all learned their music from fairies, yet they know how to put as much sweetness as possible into this disagreeable instrument, and I believe they are often engaged to play at evening parties in the houses of the wealthy, especially those of the south of Ireland, who are celebrated for their skill.
The city of Limerick possesses many handsome buildings and elegant public institutions. Yet they are all, as well as the entire importance of the place, of modern origin, and resemble those which are to be seen in all Irish and English towns of the same class. Much more peculiar is its neighbour and sister, Galway, the capital of the wild Irish west, and a colony from Hesperia.
This town has a look of remarkable antiquity, not elsewhere to be found in Ireland. A traveller who had been in Spain, describes it as entirely Spanish in its style of architecture. He found there the wide entrance-doors, (it is the English fashion to build them very small,) the broad steps, the arched door-ways of Cadiz and Malaga; whilst the grotesque architecture and ornamented window-piers (things strikingly wanting in most Irish and English private houses), carried back his imagination to the Moorish towns of Grenada and Valencia. The town has also quite a catholic and ecclesiastical air, with its monks, numerous churches, and convents, which are visited by believers every hour of the day. The population of the neighbourhood, too, which collects in the marketplace of the town, wears a very picturesque costume, (a thing of which there is no trace any where else in Ireland or England,) and appears in bright-coloured jackets and gowns.
The political constitution of Galway displays as many antique singularities as its outward appearances. For ages the inhabitants have been divided into thirteen separate tribes, each having its peculiar privileges and name, such as Butkins, Burkes, Kirdeens, Blakes, &c. The antiquity, the interesting history, and the peculiarities of this town, some years ago induced a gentleman to devote himself to the study of these matters, and the result has been an excellent and circumstantial history of the community, and of the thirteen remarkable tribes into which it is divided.9 The name of Galway, too, is remarkable, for the word Gal seems to have some connexion with the Celts, (Gaels,) and must be placed in the same category with Gallia, Wales, Walles, and Gallicia.
Unfortunately I was unable to behold all these things with my own eyes; and I was also obliged to deny myself the pleasure of examining the condition of a colony of German peasants, established in the county of Limerick. An Irish lady informed me that they were driven out of the Palatinate in the beginning of the last century, and founded a few colonies here. They are still distinguished from the rest of the population by the name of ‘Palatinates.’ They possess the character of good husbandmen and honest people. ‘They are most respectable people,’ said a man with whom I conversed respecting them; ‘and besides, they are better off and more comfortable than their Irish neighbours.’ Hence it would appear that the Irish themselves, with more assiduity, industry, and energy, could also much improve their condition.
It is an everlasting subject of controversy in Ireland, between the friends of the Irish and the adherents of the English, between the Celtomanes and the Anglomanes, whether the misery and the poverty of Ireland is attributable to the English and their tyranny alone, or in a still greater measure to the indolence and torpidity of the Irish character. These Germans, flourishing on the same soil, and under the same political relations, seem to decide this question not much in favour of the friends of the Celts. The Germans are not numerous in Ireland. In the southern cities, even in Dublin, there are very few. The greatest number ever in Ireland was probably in 1798, on the suppression of the rebellion; at which period some regiments of Hanoverian troops were in the country, and these I believe did not find much favour with the people, since they served as tools in the hands of the English.