Afoot In Ireland in 1888
A newspaper extract describes American Travel writer Edgar Wakeman's walk through Moycullen in 1888
Edgar L. Wakeman (1863-1934) was a California-born author, traveler and journalist who wrote dispatches from foreign locales for American newspapers in the 1880s and 1890s. Son of a sea captain who had travelled the world, Wakefield was drawn especially to the British Isles. For Americans at that time Wakeman’s letters evoked both what was to be admired and what had been left behind in the Europe of their ancestors. Though stylistically quite different from writing today, Wakeman’s work was exceedingly popular in its day. As described by the Sacramento Union newspaper in 1891 “his work throughout is poetry in prose; and to read after him is to trail beside him and see and feel the splendor and sadness of the old-world”.
In 1888, Wakeman travelled to Ireland and in December of that year filed from Galway a story in his serial Afoot in Ireland: A Poet’s Wandering in the Emerald Isle. His piece was syndicated and appeared in various newspapers including this version found in the Topeka Capital Commonwealth, the main newspaper of the capital of the prairie state of Kansas.
A Winter’s Day Walk
Wakeman’s dispatch describes a two day tramp from Galway City to Oughterard which inevitably includes a focus on Moycullen and environs. Wakeman had made his way down from Ulster to Galway City and was staying at an inn run by John and Ellie Milligan in Forster Street. Setting out on the Oughterard Road on a winter’s afternoon he finds himself in Moycullen as evening approaches and spends the night camping out at a “snug old ruin”, (a reference no doubt to one of the many abandoned cabins that would have been found around Moycullen at the time).
Waking he describes a bucolic Moycullen winter’s morning, one which is soon interrupted by the singing of a fellow vagabond. Wakeman goes on to print one version of the lyrics of his wakeup song: “Thady O’Brady”, a largely forgotten folk tune that was first performed in Dublin in 1817; versions of the song were documented in the 1930s in a national project to preserve Irish folklore
(Incidentally, it may have been that Wakeman was paid for his work by the word: another of his dispatches from Ireland years later for another newspaper also includes the complete lyrics of the song!)
As it turns out his new acquaintance is an “Irish Harvester” returning to his family near Clifden. Sometimes known as “tattie hawkers” or more commonly around Moycullen as “spailpins” he is one of thousands of migrant farmworkers (primarily from Connemara and County Mayo) who travelled each year to Britain to harvest crops. Seasonal migration had been occurring since before the Famine but was peaking around the time of Wakeman’s visit; 38,000 harvesters had gone to Britain in 1880 but the migration had receded to 27,000 annually by 1896 although it continued through the beginning of the next century. Wakeman’s account of the difficult and harsh life of the harvesters tracks closely with the reports of other observers at the time.
Wakeman’s description of the walk from Moycullen to Oughterard is notable for its portrayal of the depopulation of the countryside. His recounting “500 to 1000 tenantless buildings” in the 20 mile walk might be dismissed as an exaggeration; in fact, according to the decennial censuses, in Moycullen alone there were more than 1100 inhabited homes in 1841 but by 1891 there were fewer than 550.
Encountering a Funeral Procession
Setting out from Moycullen after stopping for provisions at the “small Moycullen post station and shop” (today’s Coach House public house) Wakeman provides two noteworthy vignettes: one, a colorfully described funeral procession down from the “Ballynahinch Mountains”. The author likely confuses his geography here. The funeral was probably that of Joseph Fitzpatrick of Knockbane House who died December 13, 1888 a few days before the date of his dispatch. As the landlord for the Knockbane estate lands Fitzpatrick had married into the O’Flaherty clan and would have had numerous tenants from the mountain areas of Knockaunranny, Knockranny and Oghery: many of them would likely have attended his funeral procession. Stopping along the way for “pious lamentations” would have occurred at funerary cairns or Leachta Cuimhne. These were usually flat stones where the funeral procession came to a halt so that the bier could be set down to allow rest for the pallbearers. One such stop for this procession was probably Bearna na gCorp.
Farther on, along the Oughterard Road Wakeman and the Harvester encounter an elderly stonecutter at a “stone pocket”. These compartments, meant to store stone and repair materials adjacent to the roadway, were once common in the west of Ireland but few remain. Wakeman recounts a fanciful tale of how a nearby “broad arrow” etched into a rock came to be. In fact, these “broad arrows” or “crow’s feet” were common symbols used throughout the British Empire to denote the property of the Crown.
Back to Galway on the Long Car
The account ends with Wakeman taking leave of his new friend once they reach Oughterard. Here he makes a final notable reference: his taking of the “roaring long-car” back to Galway City. The “long car” he mentions is the Bianconi coach, an open board horse drawn wagon that could carry up to 20 passengers and the mail. Operating daily between Galway City and Clifden, the “Bian” as it was colloquially known, stopped in Oughterard and Moycullen (at today’s Coach House, the same spot where Wakeman earlier bought his provisions). Until the opening of the Midland Great Western Railway in 1895, the Bianconi Coach was the only local means of public transportation and has been described as the Ryanair of its time.
After his Moycullen adventure Wakeman went on to publish a prolific body of work similar to his “Afoot in Ireland” series. His “Wakeman’s Wanderings” was syndicated to American newspapers in 1891 followed by “Tales of Ten Travelers” in 1895; individual dispatches from the British Isles and the Mediterranean continued to appear in American newspapers until at least 1898.
As for Moycullen and Galway, Wakeman concludes his account by writing that to him “the western Ireland folk are the most unique and characterful people that live”.
Enjoy this contemporaneous account of Moycullen more than 130 years ago. (For ease of reading, I have transcribed the article as it appeared in the Topeka Capital Commonwealth newspaper).
Afoot in Ireland
A Poet’s Wandering in the Emerald Isle
Loitering by Weird and Romantic Places – Echoes of Irish Songs – A Pathetic Picture – A Blow at English Rule – Men treated like Cattle
For the Topeka Sunday Capital-Commonwealth
Galway, Ireland, December 18, 1888
It is wild and eerie down through the Irish counties of Fermanagh, Cavan, Roscommon, Sligo, Mayo and
Galway to the ancient city of Galway by the sea. Between the upper waters of the Shannon and the
ocean are desolate bogs, reaches of hideous, ventureless rock, lakes of silence and mystery, tarns
gloomy and dear, mountains around which ever flit the gray specters of the mist, and here and there
silent old ruins, lordly modern castles almost as lone and lifeless, and hut and cabin with just enough of
the old Irish race left in them to intensify the desolate brooding upon the countless deserted cabins
whose tenantry are evicted and gone. As I came through this land, once known as that portion
geographically west of the law, it so happened in my trampings that I scarcely heard the sound of human voice; for I confess that the dry side of some ruin wall, or the sweet rim of some stack of flax or oats, when wrapped snugly in my blanket and poncho, had more blessed comfort in it of nights than sharing even the glad hospitality of so utterly wretched a people. Tramping and camping as a tramp had other returns. It brought me a chance acquaintance and that happening brought me to the little inn where I am housed and its owners, John and Elie Madigan, are two Irish souls that should not only prosper in Galway but live in literature for altogether in all Ireland and the wide, wide world.
“There’s none like ‘em save their two blessed selves”, as Nell Morris, the Galway fishwife pledged me
over her bottle of stout, charged to my humble reckoning at the cozy bar of this wonderful Madigan Inn.
Loitering by weird and romantic Corrib Lough, I crossed it at Clenmore, and lingering too long in feasting
up on the marvelous scenes upon its western shores, was belated in my walk to Galway Town. Coming
into the ancient walled Oughterard Road where the great rows of sycamore and beech sob and plaint in
gruesome winter threnodies, the night fell in with me on my way: and along at the edge of the moss-
covered Moycullen, I found a snug old ruin where the banked leaves gave a fragrant bed for the night.
When I awoke the sun was shining clear upon a matchless Irish winter day. The starlings swept through
the crisp air joyously. The field-fares were never so busy. Wrens hopped in and out of the hedges in
timid elation. Blackbirds vied with daws and rooks in satisfied, tumultuous chattering. And one tree
robin sang as if to call from all the bird-life haunts to that one spot the tender melodies of outdoor
summer days. And there over the wall not three feet from where I lay, issued another song. It was not
one of even song and came in bits and breaks as if some deeper purpose than song let out the bars and
staves in spite of, rather than on account of, the weightier immediate impulse:
“Ye lasses and buck lave off yer sly looks
While I sing of one Thady O’Brady
And it’s a fine country this, and a fine state I’m in wid nine months a toilin’ and scrapin’
While I sing of one Thady O’Brady
M-m-m Yeogh-h-h-E- ham-m-m O-oh Bra-dy!
And me toes lookin’ for me soles, and me hair aiten by rats, an the old woman consuming’ the poreens
buyin’ masses for me sowl while I’m wanderin’ fur lost, to save the price of the murdering rint-
Who courted Miss Reilly so snug and so slyly-
And it’s so snug and so slyly I’m trampin’, like a goat alt’in trees an’ air, shapen’ agin the law-
Determined to make her his lady:
But before he’d begin to commit that great sin-
And the childer put the dog and me before I can clutch the door and the old woman’ll shame me before
thim with her blithering tongue-
Which the clergy they call matrimony-
The divil tade Ireland and thim that’s holden fur it, when a daycent man finds no labor to kape the roof
His furniture all he would sell at one call
That he’d give to his own darlin’ honey-
And there me fine sundown (Puff! Puff!) ye’ll burn like Cromwell’s blazes now, and the stew ye’ll give me
must carry me legs that’s failin’siven days beyant-
“Howly mother o’ Moses- phat’s that?!”
With my heal I had dislodged some rotting mortar and stones from the crumbling ledge upon this Irish
song and circumstance: and from the exclamation and fearing that some catastrophe had befallen,
vaulted the wall, coming down on my feet within the wretched belongings of a poor, “Irish Harvester”,
the most woe-begone specimen of humanity I had ever found in Ireland, pitifully ragged and foot-sore,
yet who, with a grand and exalted bravery to save a few shillings for his wife and little ones far over
there on the wild Connemara coast had tramped and starved from Dublin: and now, as my unknown
fellow lodger of the night under the old ruin wall, was endeavoring to get a little filthy food heated over
the dead furze fire he had kindled; still with a song and a wail on his hungry lips, just as the curse of Irish
misfortunes blend in every word, thought or impulse from every lowly Irish heart.
My new found friend was not an Irish sui generis. He was one of a host of wretched beings who Irish
landlords have transformed into more than slaves; for slaves as chattels at least know the comforts of
domestic beasts. For a quarter of a century past the great Irish landowners of the west have mercilessly
evicted tenants with a heartlessness and cruelty that no pen can depict. The land is depopulated. In a
twenty mile walk you may see from 500 to 1000 tenantless holdings, the cabin roofs fallen in, the bare
walls alone standing, as if an angry army had swept the face of the earth with fire and sword. A few
sheep or fewer black cattle browse about the spots that once were labor’s, love’s and hope’s. In the
great castles are the retinues and the guarded agents. The owners, titled or untitled, are on the Riviera,
or crowding Parliament corridors in London seeking more rigorous laws for Ireland. And God alone
knows where in all this sad business is such a thing as a human heart. But of my friend and his kind?
Their families are those too terribly poor to do else than huddle in huts and fight for very existence itself. Eviction, depopulation of great estates, transformation of countless comfortable holdings into “grazing lands” as wild as when the barbaric kings had their helots and herds have annihilated labor.
There is no labor in much of the west of Ireland for those too poor to live and stay, and in whom all hope
has fled that they may ever escape the life-long horror of their present existence. The very dens in which
they are permitted to remain by these lords of the land, yield an income greater than that secured by
many an American money king. This rent, which covers the privilege of simply remaining at the agent’s
will as “caretaker”, in horrible discomfort, and the use of a piece of earth the eighth to a half an acre in
area, is the slender hold these unfortunate people have upon the very breath of life in a Christian land.
So out of these generous conditions furnished by the ruling classes, have come from 15000 to 20000
Irish harvesters who leave their wretched homes in early Spring, tramp to Dublin, Belfast or some other
eastern port town, and, after crossing the channel, swoop down upon the English and Scottish rural
districts, and there battle with the native peasantry in savage desperation for a share of the labor rightly
wholly the latter’s, returning as it were curse upon curse for that laws that have made them hopeless
and helpless in their own land. Their belongings consist of the rags on their backs, with usually a pair of
hob-nailed shoes, a sickle, cradle, scythe or fork, either of which is wound with twisted rushes in
marvelous patience with care, perhaps a cup or a can, and always a sort of stew pan made of tin or
sheet iron. It is their habit to go in squads, for company’s sake, for messing purposes and of chiefest
importance, for mutual protection in defense or aggression in the ferocious encounters often waged
with the English and Scottish farm laborers, whose very source of subsistence is thus constantly attacked
by their brethren in misery from Ireland. But their wages are nothing: they live outdoors like swine and
upon the most loathsome food: and when the harvests are done work their way back to the Irish sea
coast, picking up a bit of work here and there like ravenous beasts: finally cross the channel and again
seek their lightless homes. If they have saved enough to pay their rent and with whatever little their
families may have helped during their absence, exist from one year to another in the most horrible
manner known to man, they have truly done an almost superhuman task. I have seen these Irish
harvesters landing in Dublin from the channel ships, or being loaded into cars for the west at Dublin
stations, cursed at, cudgeled and pounded worst as though dumb animals and yet bearing all with the
light of home-saving shining from their gaunt faces and shining eyes in a way that wrung my heart until I
could have shrieked in pain and protest. Where under the sky above us all, where within the civilization
of which we boast, where within the knowledge- and I say it reverently- of the God that is, may be found
such inexpressible suffering, such prolonged and incalculable suffering, such patience illimitable and
“How’s ivery shoveful of yez?” was the laconic greeting I received.
“in regards of nitin’ and drinkin’ an’ the like” continued the harvester, “ye’ll get nuthin’ fur
nuthin’ on the bridge of Kilcock, an’ ye’ll be only lickin’ me pan fur yer intrusion; though, God knows, yer
welcome as the day to that: and will be aitin’ to wonct, fur a bonny bride’s aisy dressed: and it’s as good
a world as iver ‘twas- ye can still buy two farthing candles for a hapenny. Faith, now, I’ll held ye its true
yer feeling a little pickish (hungry) yerself?”
Yes, yes, and ever yes from me as he rattled on. But bidding him wait a little I brought from the tiny
Moycullen post station and shop such stores of good things that never before that gladdened two belated winter tramps: and the warmed blood and a grateful spirit set his tongue to a wondrous
wagging, in which I recall he wished with intense earnestness:
“May the top of yer head never folly yer hair”, that despite, “the ache o’ the gout in the elbow
of his leg” His unexpected happiness compelled him to dance a furious jig upon the rotten stones of the ruin which proved so forlorn a performance that he pleaded, “What be lost in the dance be made up in the whirligig” and called me over and over with trembling pathos in tones, a “suilligh machree” (light of my heart) for the little human kindness he had perhaps for the first time in his life been shown.
Then I got the sore boned, sore footed wanderer upon his way. Far over upon the savage Connemara
coast, away above Clifden, were his waiting ones; and I knew it would brighten his tramp to travel
beside him. So in the bright winter day we walked and talked along the walled road, having no care for
the scornful looks of passing nobility, no fear for the suspicious looks and words of cheer to the ragged
peasantry whose tender hearts ever show responsive interest to even the least indication of effortful
privation and sorrow.
Towards mid-day, a strange cortege passed us we stood with uncovered heads the while. A hundred
petticoated men and women from the Ballynahinch Mountains to the west, starved, gaunt, ragged,
wildly picturesque and strange, bearing a rude unpainted deal box upon their shoulders within which lay
one dead, went by on their way to the Moycullen grave-yard. Now and then the coffin would be set
upon the earth. Then piteous lamentations arose. Pausing, lamenting, progressing, wailing, the weird
living and dead passed from sight: but never from one’s memory could be effaced that awful scene and
At the side of all Irish roads are found every few miles wall compartments, open to the highway, called
“stone pockets”, for storing broken stone required from time to time in road repairs. In one of these we
found an old Irish pensioner breaking stone, as he had done for a quarter century at a shilling a day. It
was warm and sunny in the “stone pocket”. We divided our food with him and the silver-haired old
white slave felt he must make an effort to interest and recompense the stranger. The Royal Irish
Engineers have a surveyor mark or sign, which is chiseled into stone, if such be found at angles of
survey. It is called the “broad arrow” or crow’s foot,” and consists of a tiny circle, from which radiate,
like the sticks of a fan, three arrow like indentations. Bringing us to one of these with dignity, the old
man withdrew his hat and, pointing to the broad arrow, asked with impressive solemnity:
“D’ye mind that?”
“I do”, says I.
“Thim prints?” says he.
“The same”, says I
“Thim, sir”- and here the old man seemed a foot taller for the momentous revelation upon his
“Thim, sir, wot the tread of the aigle before the flood!”
And so we passed the day, we two tramps in Ireland, reaching lovely little Oughterard as the shuddering
winds brought the night and the great swirls of fog from the sea. Here I housed my “harvester” friend,
with an extra bit of silver in his pocket for the dreary way he still had to go. I came back with the roaring
“long-car” into quaint old Galway town: overheard by chance among the stablemen of the post stations
of this marvelous little Madigan Inn where nobody ever came; because of that sought it out among the
ghostly and silent ten-century old streets, hurried into its wondrous warmth and sweetness by the
startling echoes of mu own foot-fails, receiving from John and Ellie, his wife, that sort of a suspicious,
boisterous, wondering, wonderful, tender and awful, Irish welcome which makes one gasp to recall; and
which shall be told, as best I may, for a most unique, characterful incident of these west of Ireland folk,
the most unique and characterful people that live.
Edgar L. Wakeman.