by ehistoryadmin on April 12, 2014

Travellers’ accounts as source-material for Irish historians

James Durney

Travellers’ accounts as source-material for Irish historians by Celbridge-based Christopher J. Woods is Book Number 15 in the Maynooth Research Guides for Local History. This book is intended as an aid to Irish historians on the use of travellers’ accounts as source-material. Travel narratives are an important primary source of information – on transport, landscape, the economy, society, religion, etc. – and the book consists of over 200 accounts from 1635 to 1948. The observations consist of bibliographical details, identification of the traveler, the purpose and period of his or her travel, the exact itinerary followed, his or her mode of transport, the traveller’s observations, and persons encountered.

Co. Kildare receives many mentions as travellers’ leaving Dublin, for the west or south of Ireland, would usually have to pass through Maynooth, Naas or Sallins. Most are just passing references, but some contain detailed descriptions of the towns and people.

One of the earliest traveler accounts is from Frenchman M. De La Boullaye le Gouz in 1644. Travelling south he passed through Naas, Kilcullen and Castledermot and swam across the Liffey at Kilcullen carrying his clothes on his head, ‘the Irish having broken the bridge during the religious wars’. Le Gouz also mentioned buttermilk and oaten bread for sale in south Kildare.

London bookseller John Dunton arrived in Ireland in April 1698 and travelled by coach and saddle horses to the west. He passed through Maynooth, which he found ‘a tolerable village with one or two good inns where meate is well dressed and good liquors to be had’.

George F. G. Mathison’s religious tour to Ireland in 1835 took him to Maynooth and Clane, where he met Michael Montague, president of Maynooth, and numerous other clergy. Literary writer William Makepiece Thackeray’s 1842 visit to Ireland brought him to several Kildare towns – Naas, Kilcullen, Ballitore, Castledermot, Maynooth and Leixlip. A perceptive observer of people Thackeray wrote vivid impressions of women pulling nettles for food near Kilcullen, the earnings of women and children on farms in Kildare and the ‘look of lazy squalor’ at Maynooth College.

An Irish journey by Sean O’Faolain, in 1939, took the Cork writer to Sallins, Naas, Newbridge, the Curragh, the Hill of Allen and Robertstown. O’Faolain travelled by train, taxi, gig, boat and foot commenting on the former economic importance of the British army for garrison towns like Newbridge to which he refers ‘the town is gapped like an old man’s mouth’.

This guide is invaluable to local historians as a means of identifying the travellers’ accounts that refer to the places in which they are interested.

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