A Frenchman’s Walk Through Ireland, 1796-97

Translated from the French of De Latocnaye by John Stevenson. Publisher: Dublin ; Belfast : Hodges, Figgis : McCaw, Stevenson & Orr, [1918].


The approaches to Londonderry are charming, and indicate the wealth of a great city. The borders of the pretty river Derg are cultivated and cared for like a garden, and dotted with country houses. The city itself, situated on an eminence, is seen from afar, and has a fine appearance, which is increased by the tall spire which Lord Bristol (Bishop of Derry) has had built by subscription.

The city enclosure, proper, is not very much, but the suburbs are very fine. The old walls exist and are used as an agreeable promenade, disfigured very little by an ‘arc de triomphe’ which has only the look of a large door or gate ; on the keystone is cut the date, 1689, in large figures, being the year in which this city was besieged by King James. There should, at least, be a stairway made to allow of communication between the two ends of the promenade. As these ramparts are of no present utility, it seems to me that if they were put out of existence and used as material to extend the hill platform on which the city is situated, it would be infinitely better for the place, and would allow the air to circulate in the streets. However, the inhabitants are jealous of attempts on their walls, and still recall the memorable siege the city sustained against King James. Certainly the walls would be of no use now in resisting an attack.

I went to visit the place of James’ camp, as well as the different French posts. These latter seem to me to be cleverly chosen, but what astonished me was, how it was possible for the English frigate to force a passage in spite of the chain which barred the river, and the batteries which were on the banks. It was known that the city was almost on the point of surrendering, and that the English fleet had been obliged to retire to Lough Swilly, where it had waited nearly six weeks, without finding means of conveying succour to the besieged. Knowing, however, the extremity to which the inhabitants of the city were reduced, it was resolved to take the risk of forcing the passage by a frigate, accompanied by two or three transport vessels.

As the surrender of the place depended on the success or non-success of the enterprise, it can be imagined what interest this excited for both parties. The frigate, carried by a good breeze and by the tide current, struck the boom with violence, and by the rebound was thrown so far out of the channel as to be stranded ; but, happily, the captain, profiting by the rising tide, freed his ship by the expedient of firing the whole of the cannons on the side on which the vessel had touched ground, and the tide carried the ship through the boom, which had been broken by the first shock. When the frigate had passed through, the captain and crew cried ‘ Huzza, huzza! ‘ (called here ‘ three cheers ‘), and had the misfortune in commencing the third ‘ huzza ‘ to have his head carried off by a cannon ball.

Londonderry has not the air of an Irish town. There is there an activity and an industry which are not generally to be found in other parts of the country. The principal trade consists in linens, of which there is a market once or twice a week. It is surprising to note the speed with which the linen merchants examine the cloth. They stand on a sort of platform with a little desk before them, while the peasants carry their webs past and stop for just a moment. The merchant looks, and immediately mentions a price ; if it is accepted, he marks it on the cloth, and the peasant goes to the office for payment. There is one merchant who on every market day, buys in a single hour cloth to the value of three or four hundred pounds sterling.

It is very strange that, although the flax from which this linen is made grows in the country; they have never been able to save seed, and are obliged to bring it from America. The first manufactures of linen were established in Ireland by the Protestants who quitted France under the reign of Louis XIV, and carried their industry to another country. The exportation of this linen is a source of immense profit to Ireland. According to the researches I have been able to make into the subject of the exportation of linen, salted beef, and grain, it would appear that in the last ten years (in spite of the great number of absentee rich who draw away enormous sums) Ireland has received annually about two hundred thousand pounds sterling more than she has paid out of the country. If such a state of affairs can be continued for some time, this country will soon reach a pitch of prosperity which few nations can hope to equal.(see note 1 at end of page)

When I was at Londonderry there was there, exhibiting himself, a Polish dwarf who called himself Count Boralosky. He may have been two and a half feet high. This is a most extraordinary little being. He speaks four or five languages, and has been very well brought up. His age is put down as between fifty and sixty years, and he has travelled much in Great Britain, where there are few towns which have not made his acquaintance. It is said that his wife, who , is of ordinary stature, in a matrimonial quarrel, one day lifted him and set him on the mantelpiece. There was also in the same town a certain learned man, whose opposition to femininity was such that I have seen him throw his glass into the fire because, without his knowledge, it had been filled in order that he might drink to the health of the ladies.

The bishopric of Derry is one of the best of Ireland. They say it is worth £12,000 per annum. Oh, what a lovely thing it is to be an Anglican bishop or minister! These are the spoiled children of fortune, rich as bankers, enjoying good wine, good cheer, and pretty women, and all that for their benediction. God bless them! Oh, if I could one day wear the ‘philibeg’ (see note 2 at end of page) of black satin how much better than being exiled that would be! Lord Bristol, besides his bishopric, has a fortune of fifteen to twenty thousand pounds sterling per annum. He is a man of talent, a learned man, but of singular habits. He travels nearly all the time in foreign countries, and spends nearly his whole income in superb houses, which are of use to the country through the money they cost.

It is rather singular to remark how in Ireland there is so little ceremonious politeness in public, while there is a great deal of it in private houses. In the inn at which I stopped there was given a grand ball. When the supper was announced, it was not without interest for are to observe how the whole company ran to table, everybody hurrying for a place without regard to others. It happened one day that Lady xxxxxx, who was queen of the ball, by not hurrying enough, was left without a seat. The same thing happened to me on this occasion, for, while I was philosophically regarding the spectacle, all the places were filled, and it was only with some trouble that I found a seat at the end of a form. I do not cite this as peculiar to Londonderry, it is an amusing moment at the public balls in Ireland when supper is announced.

It was only at Londonderry that I began to observe the spirit of contention then reigning in this northern province. Leaving this pleasant town, and passing through Newton Limavady, I came to the house of Mr. McCausland at Fruithill, and after a sojourn of a day or two there, he conducted me to the house of the Rev. Mr. Sampson, for whom I had a letter. This reverend gentleman is reputed to be a violent anti-ministerialist. Nevertheless, he is still esteemed by many who have political opinions differing from his. I found him a most agreeable and well-educated man. It is strange how I find it so easy to accommodate myself to persons whose opinions are totally different from mine, while it has often happened to me that I have had quarrels with people who were very much of my own way of thinking.

The shore began already to take on some of the character of the famous Giant’s Causeway. The perpendicular rocks under which I passed are basaltic, and cover a stratum of limestone of singular whiteness.

The Bishop of Derry has built a superb palace in an unfrequented spot, or rather a place that was entirely desert before the erection of the building. It is with pleasure that one notices here a large number of houses for the peasants, built by the bishop at his own charges. They seem very fit and comfortable, and the peasants themselves, the tenants, seem to be greatly attached to their bishop, although they have never seen him. The house of Downhill is full of beautiful paintings, which Lord Bristol has brought with him from Italy. He has built a temple of fine architecture on the edge of a precipice, as if to brave the waves and winds. The sea furiously beats against the perpendicular rocks at its base, and rises at times to a height of 150 feet. The temple is, not without reason, dedicated to Eolus.

From here one can distinguish perfectly the coast of Scotland, and I looked at it, not without pleasure, having the intention to pass the winter in that country. Although my travels here, on the whole, have been agreeable, one tires towards the end, and I was now in my sixth month of a rather uncommon pilgrimage.

I was received here by the Rev. Mr. Burrowes, who is Archdeacon of the diocese, and it was just at this point that the public excitement showed itself most particularly. One of the domestics of the house, returning from Coleraine, reported that the house of one Captain O’Hara had been burned, and his family murdered. I thought at the time that it was an imposture of the lackey, in order to see what effect the news would produce on his master. The next day I went to Coleraine and found that nothing of the kind had happened. There had been a fight in the fair, in which blows of sticks had been received and given, but that was all.

I was received with much kindness in this town by Mr. Richardson; with whom I passed three or four days. The country women-folk at Coleraine are, on Sundays, very like the Scotch peasant women in the neighbourhood of Montrose. They are extremely well dressed, their shoulders usually covered by a red mantle. One can hardly believe that this is Ireland.

I walked one day along the river Bann, which flows out of Lough Neagh, a lake of which I shall speak later. Wishing to inform myself of the state of the country, I stopped Mr. Richardson’s servant with the horse, and risked going into a cabin and talking with the family, as I was accustomed to do when moving on foot. I praised the country, and said that it was a cruel thing that any should say that the country people were not ready to defend the Constitution, &c., &c. The good folk were very reserved as long as I remained in the cabin, but as soon as I left, I was followed by a young man who had more confidence in me, and who commenced to retail to me the kind of trifling nonsense on which the people of France fed themselves before the Revolution. I was really surprised to hear all this talk about equality, fraternity, and oppression. After a little I asked him What was the oppression of which he complained. He named taxes on wine and beer, and when I asked him if he ever drank the one or the other, he said it was all the same ; it was very hard on o those who had to pay, with more nonsense of this kind. He spoke also about the reform of Parliament, and complained much of abuses in elections, preached of tolerance, and indulged in philosophical discourse, such as was heard from our foppish talkers before the Revolution. To tell the truth, I returned from my excursion with a poor opinion of the United Irishman.

It is possible that there may be really some cause for complaint, for where is the country which has a government free from abuses? But it is evident here that the murmurings of the peasants have been put into their heads by people of another feather. What difference to the peasants do plurality of votes, parliamentary elections, impediments of commerce, taxes on wine, and other goods, make? He need not trouble himself about any of these things, provided he is allowed peaceably to enjoy the fruit of his labour, and that he is assured of personal liberty. Save in these matters ; what need he care whether it is Peter or James who occupies such and such a place, whether the Government under which he lives is republican or monarchical ; he need think of none of these things. To make him believe that he has cause for complaint, he must be led to believe that his ills come from things which have not the smallest relation to them. Thus it has always been in France, thus it will be always.

The evening before my departure, Mr. Richardson asked me how I liked the horse which he had lent me for riding about the country, and on receiving my answer he said, “The season is far advanced, the weather is bad, he will be a good travelling companion for you.” I refused the gift, but in the end he gave orders to a servant to take the horse to a house which I was going to. It is often agreeable to have a ‘Rosinante’ with whom to speak when travelling a bad road. This is the second time that I had experienced such an act of goodness in my travels, the first offer was made to me by Mr. Peter Latouche. Then it was in the middle of the summer, and the dread of being indiscreet joined to the fear that I should not know what to do with the poor horse made me, at that time, absolutely refuse. Here the circumstances were quite different.

The Giant’s Causeway

I paid my respects to the famous work of the Giants, and stopped for a moment to see an old castle belonging to the Marchioness of Antrim, to which alone the goats have access. The only passage for man is an arch one foot wide, without protection and over a deep precipice. I observed, along the way, several quarries in which the basalt is arranged in pillars of five or six sides like those of the Causeway. The coasts all along here are very high, and everywhere below the basalt there is a thick stratum of limestone, white as snow, and studded with flints. After a long circuit, I arrived at last at the famous Giant’s Causeway. Persons who come here in the hope of seeing something unnatural and extraordinary are commonly disappointed, and find it unlike the idea they had formed of the place from description, The Causeway is not any more astonishing than the quarries through the country, where the basalt is found disposed in the same manner, What is most striking is the perpendicular rock face, four or five hundred feet high, springing from the bosom of the sea. The different strata of which it is composed are easily distinguished. Sometimes there is a reddish tufa-like layer, at other points it is basalt in a confused contorted state, sometimes ranged in regular columns, and in one place having really some resemblance to the pipes of an organ. The Giant’s Causeway, as they call it, is a part of the same matter detached from the mountain, at low tides one can follow it pretty far. The waves break against it with singular fury. Here it forms a species of pavement about thirty or forty feet wide, the ends of the straight columns forming the pavement. There is no space between them, although their conformation is not very regular ; some have six, some seven, some eight, others only four sides, but the greatest number are pentagonal. The Causeway proceeds about two hundred paces by a gentle slope, finally disappearing under the later. The most remarkable thing about these pillars is that they are not of a single piece but composed of detached stones, always convex at the upper end, and adjusting themselves perfectly to the concavity of the next stone above.

In the same direction, at ten or twelve leagues distance over the sea, on the coast of Scotland, is the island of Staffa, of which I have already made mention in the volume on Great Britain. It is composed of smaller stones and is not less curious.

Many people have examined this formation, and have formulated ingenious theories accounting for its origin. Some pretend that it is the product of a volcano others that the basalt was at first soft, and according as it contained more or less mineral, its columns are store or less perfect.

I have seen, in many other places, stones of the same character. The city of Edinburgh is situated on a rock of like material. Arthur’s Seat, a mountain near Edinburgh, is entirely of this stone ; on the southern side, the basalt is even formed of pillars of five or six faces. Near the city there is exhibited a singular phenomenon : a line of basalt six or seven feet wide, which extends for an immense distance, and of which the end is really not known. It crosses stones of other species and coal, and it has been remarked that the coal which is, found on its two sides has lost nearly all its quality, and resembles burnt coal. This observation has been the cause of many speculations, and of a theory which is perhaps not ill-founded. This assumes that the basalt is the product of remarkable convulsions, in which the earth has opened and vomited the basalt in a state of fusion. The columns which form at such places depend on the quantity of mineral contained in them. Examples are given of extraordinary effusion of basalt in the Isle of Arran at the mouth of the Clyde. There the principal mountain is of granite, and, in the middle, there is observable a line of basalt ten or twelve feet wide, right up to the summit. These theory-makers assert that this basalt in the interior of the rock at Arran and in the long line appearing at Edinburgh will gigantic cracks, the result of some terrible earth convulsion, the basalt in a state of fusion rushing into openings made in the crust of the earth.

On going to the Causeway, to Mr. Moore, I saw a hill and some fields dotted over by a great number of peasants, or people of the small farmer class. I asked how they came to be there and was told that they were occupied in raising the potatoes of a man for whom they had a friendly feeling ; such action, it appears, is not uncommon. It is always somewhat disagreeable to be caught in a crowd, especially if one is a stranger, and I hesitated whether to advance or take another road. In the end, however, reflecting that I had no potatoes to unearth, and the people seeming to work very peaceably, I went on and passed through the crowd, no person taking any notice of me whatever.

I am told that it is an old custom with the peasantry here to assemble at the end of the autumn and to dig up the potatoes of persons for whom they have any sort of affection. What caused some uneasiness to the Government, on this occasion, was the fact that the potatoes which were raised were those of persons who had been arrested for high treason, or of persons who were known to be disaffected, although; to my knowledge, they had shown the same favour to persons who were attached to the Government. Mr. Moore, for example, whose hospitality I enjoyed that day, found that he could not refuse to allow the favour to be bestowed on him without attracting ill-will.

These gatherings are conducted with the greatest order. A man, with nothing special to distinguish him, enacted obedience and directed affairs by signs with the hand or by certain calls. The whole time the work went on men, women, and children sang, accompanied by one or other kind of instrument. No one is allowed at such gatherings to drink any strong liquor, and this certainly requires a great effort in this part of the country. I can say with truth that the regulation is observed roost literally, for I have never seen a single person under the influence of drink near these potato gatherings. I do not say that there were not a few in the neighbouring villages, it would have been a miracle had it been otherwise. For the occasion the peasantry had put on their best clothes ; the air of gaiety and good-humour which showed itself among them would have made any spectator believe that he had arrived on a ‘fête’ day. The road was covered with horses belonging to the farmers who assisted in the gathering. If a similar gathering took place in France, or even in England I very much doubt if matters would proceed so peacefully. I believe that these gatherings, if allowed to continue, might have become dangerous, when the spirit of discontent which reigned at the time in the country is considered. The Government acted wisely in forbidding them some time afterwards, and it is to be reported in favour of the character of the people of this country, that they did not attempt to act against the wish of the authorities.

To me it is very strange to see that these Irish with their mutinous dispositions, submit to rule so readily. I have already said, and I repeat with pleasure that guided by capable men who are actuated by motives of public welfare, there is no people I have known so easily led for good. These frequent seditions prove nothing more than the sensibility of the race, and if the Government would only give up at once and absolutely the attempt to Anglicise the Irish at any cost and would lead them through their prejudices add customs it would be possible to do with them anything that could be wished.

Following the coast along the summit of the hill, which is composed of the same materials as the Causeway my attention was called to the different phenomena of the basalt, the different figures it takes, sometimes in the form of pillar, sometimes in matter confused and without order. The weather was magnificent ; the sea beat again the foot of the rocks four or five hundred feet below ; Scotland and the islands of the west showed on the horizon over a calm, blue sea. Even my horse seemed to joy in the beauty of the scene, approaching to the edge of the precipice and letting his eye range the horizon with a look of admiration. This need not be considered astonishing. Who has not read in travels and romances the affecting declarations of fair more stupid beasts on some scene, sometimes only on the beauty of moonlight? I never come across these beautiful descriptions in books without turning over twenty or thirty pages, so as to come to the dawn if the author spoke of the moon, or to the night if he spoke of the sun.

I stopped at a little village where I saw numbers of people assembled, and I had the pleasure of being present at the baptism of an infant. In the north of Scotland in such cases they make the poor little creature swallow a spoonful of whisky, to keep it from crying ; here, for the same reason, they put a little butter into an eggshell, and mix it with bread and sugar, and the nurse on the end of her linger puts a little of the mixture into the infant’s mouth. I do not know if this is the custom in any other country, but I think the result must be very much as if they should put into the child’s throat a little flax tow with cider mixed through it.

Ballycastle & Fair Head

After a long walk I arrived at Ballycastle, where I was received with much kindness by Mr. Ezekiel Boyd. On the day of my arrival the company in garrison in this little town left, and was replaced by one of a Scotch regiment. These were very well received by the inhabitants, who, during the night, may it please you stole the whole of the ammunition and the half of the arms of the soldiers! Just imagine stealing the arms and ammunition of soldiers. I’d rather that they would steal the shirts and breeches off my soldiers if they would leave them their arms and ammunition. All that was done here was to hale a few people before Mr. Boyd who is a Justice of the Peace. They all swore on the Gospel, one after the other, that they had no knowledge whatever of the powder and guns stolen.

In one of my walks I came to Fair Head, a great cape pointing Scotlandwards and the extreme northerly point of Ireland. The rocks rise gradually from near Ballycastle and the most northern portion is also the most elevated above the sea.

The singular disposition of the various strata in this mountain merits attention, especially at the part where the coal mine is worked, almost on the margin of the sea. I have marked the different layers as they appeared from the sea level, and measuring them, by look of eye only, the order and thickness appeared to be as I have marked down here.

Basalt – 18 feet
Mixed coal. – 3 feet
Tufa, reddish stone – 10 feet
Sulphurous coal – 3 feet
Tufa, grey stone – 10 feet
Mixed coal – 6 feet
Tufa, red – 8 feet
Mixed coal. – 1 foot
Tufa red – 8 feet
Coal, the true vein – 7 feet
Tufa, red stone ……

I had the fancy to enter this coal mine, and I went through it to the very end ; it is a little amusement which, like marriage, one may try once, but I shall not indulge in it again. The mine stretches for about half a mile underground, in a horizontal direction, with sufficient elevation in the line to allow of water flowing away. There is another mine above, and the workers in the two sometimes approach near enough to hear each other working. Possibly the two workings will join soon. The proprietors should consider the question of digging a perpendicular shoot, or well, into the mine, in order to allow the air in it to be renewed, for when the wind is in the west the vapour is carried into the interior, and makes it suffocating. If this shaft were made, there would be a current, and no inconvenience would be felt. The coal which they take from this mine is the best I have seen in Ireland. It is exactly like Scotch coal, but does not burn so quickly, and the mine seems inexhaustible. The Irish Parliament, sensible of the immense advantage which may result to the country from the work of this mine, has spent enormous sums in the endeavour to make a port out of Ballycastle, but the tide is so strong and carries so much sand that the port is entirely killed up, so that there is no water in it even at high tide.

I followed the shore from the coal mine to the point of Fair Head, and, climbing the rocks by a goat path, I arrived with much trouble at the top, where the scene which lay before me amply recompensed me for my pains. The Causeway is praised with reason, the regularity of the columns is something surprising ; but here the pillars of basalt are nearly six hundred feet high, and some of them stand out separate from the body of the mountain, at a distance of two, three, or four feet, clear from top to bottom, sustained only by a few stones in the middle. At a little distance from the edge of the precipice there are crevices, and from throwing a stone down any of these, it is made clear that they extend to the foot of the mountain.

From place to place hollows are observable, which seem at one time to have served as river or torrent beds ; the slope is always regular from the sea to two little lakes at some distance in the peninsula. From this I took it that formerly the cape or Head extended much farther out to sea, and that perhaps there was even a country beyond, and considerable mountains which supplied the water which filled these channels. This observation is justified by the frequent fall of these separate pillars, and even by the fall of portions of the principal mass. The young men of Ballycastle have assured me that they have ridden twelve or fifteen feet beyond what is now the face of the precipice. This agrees with say famous Connemara theory. It is so diverting to dream and theorise that I return to the task frequently. If I dare to continue, I would say that in the course of centuries this cape of Fair Head will entirely disappear, and the ocean will open for itself a wider passage into the Irish Sea.

The tidal current here is extremely rapid. It can be seen from the top of Fair Head, running like a torrent, sometimes from the ocean to the Irish Sea, and some-times from the Irish Sea to the ocean. Scotland seems very near, but Fair Head does not exactly point to it. According to my Connemara theory, there must always have been a strait between the two, and afterwards an immense gulf extending westward to Greenland.

After having conceived, written, and even printed all the beautiful reflections, dreams, and theories presented to the reader when I was speaking of Connemara, I had the misfortune to read in the ‘Vindication of the Ancient History of Ireland ‘ by General Vallencey, that others have amused themselves in exactly the same way, and have drawn conclusions almost similar to mine, among others Messrs. Whitehurst and Hamilton. The two are not exactly in agreement as to the rocks near the Giant’s Causeway ; they do agree in saying that an immense territory must have been swallowed up by the sea, with the volcano which supplied the basalt of which the pillars are made.
“Add to this” says General Vallencey, “the tradition of the ancient Irish that a great part of the Island has been swallowed up by the sea. The peasants believe that at times portions of this rise above the waders to the north-west of Ireland. The inhabitants of these parts give to these appearing lands the name of ‘Tir Huddy,’ or the country of Hudd. They say that they contained a city, formerly possessing immense riches, and that the key of this city was buried under a certain altar of the Druids.”
The General, always thinking of his theory of Ireland peopled by tribes from the Levant, adds : “This city is evidently the lost city of the Arabs mentioned in the preface of the Alcoran and visited. by their false prophet Hudd.”
What is still more cruel for a theory-spinner is that, in the comparison which the General makes between the Japanese, the Peruvians, and the Irish, I have found that a certain Varinius said exactly what I have thought out. A certain Bertius also asserts that the Deluge of Deucalion has been wrongly placed in Thessaly, and that it belongs to the coast of Scotland or Caledonia, as it should be called because ‘Dur’ in Irish means water, and ‘Deucalion’ is a corruption of ‘Dur Caledonia’ the Deluge of Caledonia

It is such a terrible thing to find one’s pet theories appropriated in this way that I have determined never more to make any, or, at any rate, never again to read the books of those who have made theories like mine. It is Some satisfaction, however to find that the opinions of these gentlemen give weight to the theories of my invention.

Notes by Author:
1. See Journals of the Chamber of Commerce on Importation and Exportation, the Reports from the Customs, and the calculations of Arthur Young at the end of his book on Ireland.
2. The Anglican Bishops wear as a mark of their dignity, a small petticoat which descends only to the knees, and which is like what is worn by the Higlanders of Scotland, but with this exception, that in the case of the bishops, breeches are worn below – Note by Author