The county of Clare extends to the west of Limerick. Between the wide, long mouth of the Shannon and the Atlantic Ocean it
p.77stretches out in a long tongue of land, at first very broad, then gradually narrowing to a point, and at last ending in a small peninsula, and the rugged promontory of Loop Head. The river Fergus, and the broad bay at its mouth, which joins the Shannon, divides this county into two parts, a western and an eastern: the former is fertile and level; the latter, which is next the sea, is mountainous, desolate, and barren.10
Accompanied by an Irishman whom I joined in the hire of a car, I drove, on the following day, a beautiful Sunday morning, through the fertile part of the county, to visit a friend of mine who possesses an estate in the vicinity of Ennis. Our road led us at first along the Shannon, and then through the middle of a plain which is said to be the most fertile in Ireland. The aspect of the country is pleasing, and wherever there is a rising ground the traveller gets a view of the beautiful landscape, and a great part of the splendid Shannon and its islands. On the shore of the Shannon, and partly surrounded by water, is the rock Carrigogunal, celebrated for its fairies, who take pleasure in surprising mortals on the rock, and making them partake of their hospitality.
At no great distance from this spot the road passes Bunratty Castle, almost half of which stands on the road itself. It is covered with the most charming mantle of ivy, and we saw whole flocks of ravens take their flight from its walls. Farther on, we saw the celebrated Quin Abbey in the distance. In short, said my companion, you see that we do not want for ruins here in Ireland. The country was once divided among a multitude of petty chieftains, who dwelt in these castles, and were continually making war on one another. In fact, it was at that time here just as, I believe, it is now in your own country: it was the very prototype of your country. (This expression pleased him much, and he repeated it twice.) Murder and assassination were then still more the order of the day than at present, and for the life of a nobleman forty shillings were paid, but for that of a peasant only six. This also is, I believe, an old German law. But you have no Milesian families in Germany? Is not that true? This is a descent on which we Irish alone may pride ourselves. It is something quite peculiar to belong to such a family, the members of which can live forty days without once taking food. This is the general belief of the people in Ireland. Look! there is a person who, though she is not of a royal race, can yet fast even longer than forty days. It is Norisheen, driver, is it not? No doubt, your worship, who else should it be but Norisheen? exclaimed the driver in a cheerful tone.
See, sir, this Norisheen is a legislator: we might consult her
p.78how to better the condition of our country. She knows still more than a legislator; she knows the future.
I beheld an old woman covered with rags, clinging to a wall beside a ruined cabin. She was busy repairing her turf-wall, for the Irish usually surround their cabins with high and thick walls of turf, which thus warms them twice, first, by protecting them from the wintry blasts, and, secondly, by burning on the hearth. If a wall happens to surround their yard, the turf is piled up on it, and thus a higher wall is raised. To such a turf-wall Norisheen clung, with a foot in one cleft and holding on by her hand in anotherthe luxury of a ladder, her establishment doubtless could not boast ofand was employed in arranging the pieces of turf on the wall. My companion and the driver called to her as we passed: Norisheen! Norisheen! She turned round, and, still clinging to the wall, waved her right arm, as she replied with the same cry, Norisheen! Norisheen!
There's a woman that's learned for you! said the driver; she knows the history of every family in Ireland, and even what passed here before the birth of Christ. And what's more, she'll prophesy the future for you, just as easily as the past. She knows every person in the country far and wide, and is herself well known to all the world here. They say she knows a great deal of Carrigogunal, and what takes place at times on that lonely rock.
My companions then related to me, half in jest and half in earnest, so much that is wonderful of this woman, that I was afterwards sorry I had not made her acquaintance. I asked my companions whether they believed O'Connell knew Norisheen. It was probable enough, they replied, that O'Connell had heard of her; but that she of course knew O'Connell before his birth, because in the last century she had prophesied that such an O'Connell would come; and even now she daily speaks and prophesies about him. She is without doubt, even though she does not contribute to the rent, and receives no pay from him, one of his greatest helpers, for she plays many a trick for him; and I assure you it is of no small importance to O'Connell that the witches and fairies should think well of him. Ireland is full of old women of this description.
If, as I have said, the people wander about the streets on Saturday evening, after having received their week's wages, they are also again to be seen there in crowds on Sunday, but with an altered appearance, being now attired in their Sunday clothes, although on the look-out for employment. In every place through which we passed numbers of men stood in the market-places and near the churches, usually with their spades in their hands, waiting
p.79to be hired. It was now the time of the greatest and most important harvest of Ireland, the potato-digging; and I was astonished and alarmed by the multitudes of serious and melancholy-looking men, who must all have been out of employment, since they so anxiously sought for work. With the uncommon predilection of the Irish for potatoes, this harvest must be one of their most agreeable labours. It is not severe, and does not require very great exertion; and what joy must Paddy feel at every red, thick lump of a potato which he digs up out of the boggy clay!
The poor and ruinous aspect of Clare reminded me of the Lithuanian and Polish cities. Though it bears the name of the county, and lies at the mouth of the river Fergus, which is here navigable, it is not the chief town. The principal town is Ennis, some miles further up, which presents a much more orderly and thriving appearance. This town is chiefly remarkable for the extraordinary excitement which occurred there in 1828, on O'Connell's election, and which has almost made it famous in history. At that period the Irish dared not to elect Catholics as members of parliament. Nevertheless, O'Connell became a candidate for the county of Clare, and carried his election in spite of the extraordinary exertions of his adversaries. Being a Catholic, he was rejected by the parliament, but was, notwithstanding, three times re-chosen by the county. This produced a violent encounter between the opposing parties. The Irish people, instead of wishing to send Roman Catholics to parliament, DID so, and taught the English nation that the Catholics had plenty of adherents in Ireland. Thus the ice was broken on both sides; and the Clare election, which preceded the Emancipation Bill, and mainly contributed to its passing into a law, was therefore, in its consequences, the most important election in the history of Ireland. Ever since this event, Clare has been O'Connell's favourite county. It is also the favourite seat of a very celebrated Irish family, the O'Briens; for although O'Briens are to be met with all over Ireland, this is their proper home, and here there are hundreds of the name, and the old seats of all the most distinguished branches of this family. Here also is the beautiful pile, Drummolent Castle, which belongs to one of the most wealthy of the O'Briens; and here, too, once stood Kincora, the castle of the most celebrated of all the O'Briens, the great king Brian Boru, the pride not only of his race, but of his country. He lived about the year 1000, (1014,) and fought no fewer than fifty battles with the Danes, which are celebrated at the present day in the poems and traditions of the people. After him many O'Briens were kings of Munster. Now they are only members of parliament. As Clare has its O'Briens, so almost every other county has its great family, whose
p.80influence is predominant, and whose name is found in every place, great and small. We shall have frequent opportunities of describing such districts and families.