Extract from Hemann Rasche’s article ‘“…A Strange Spectacle…”: German Travellers in the West, 1828-1858’, in the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society.
The year 1860, a dozen years after the Great Famine, saw the publication of Julius Rodenberg’s Insel der Heiligen (Island of Saints: A Pilgrimage through Ireland) in two volumes. Rodenberg was the secong German traveller in that century to spend any considerable amount of time in the west of Ireland and to write a first-hand account of his experiences. It may be regarded as a somewhat romantic travel novel yet it remains a particularly valuable social document.
After spending three more days in Galway, Rodenberg sets off into the ‘Wild West’ with its heather and bogs, its sheer endless moors, its chains of stony hills, its pale loughs and lonesome, empty villages, “ one of the most desolate regions in the world, the last asylum of the Celts. Here you will find the descendants of the old Irish kings and lords as farmers and beggars. Only their once proud names will tell you their sad story.”
The only means of transport in this part of Ireland is provided by Bianconi’s royal carriages. To travel in them means absolute torture for Rodenberg; they do not provide proper footrests so that your feet keep dangling in the air; the wheels are not protected by mud’guards and passengers get splashed all over. Bianconi’s side cars leave long-lasting memories of rain and muck, of running noses and bad tobacco behind. “Yes”, he sighs, “the hearse in Athlone islike a stage coach compared to a Bianconi.”
The day Rodenberg travels through “the wild and desolate moorland” is unfortunately a dismal one. He sits wrapped up in his plaid. Beside him are three men on their way to the horse fair in Clifden. At the slightest incline the passengers have to alight. When a hat gets blown off, “one of the gentlemen had to run over half a mile to retrieve it.” And with a touch of irony and arrogance he remarks: “It was indeed a delectable experience and an affrontery to anything you may call European civilisation.”
The ubiquitous stone walls give him the chance to reflect on what he perceives to be a national pastime:
“It is indeed a highly peculiar trait of the Irish, to build stone walls around anything, and to all accounts without any purpose in mind. Since there is a lack of proper oppurtunity to engage in a more useful occupation, they seem driven by some demonic force to create just anything.”
The arrival of the daily Bianconi seems to be the only form of diversion for the people of Oughterard. “We stopped for a while, the weather was atrocious. A motley group of people congregated around our car.” An old woman offers him a crumpled fruit, and some boys try to sell him pieces of marble which are found here.
The scenery beyond Oughterard becomes even more desolate, the sky darker and darker. Only rarely does he see women in red skirts pass by on their donkeys. “The monotony was finally unbearable”, Rodenberg comments. He describes graphically the extent of misery and poverty in that region: wretched cabins in a wet morass, without windows, withour a chimney; the best of them consist of rough stone walls and a roof of straw or grass sods with stones on top.