Literary Lions on Tour

John Gray on what the nineteenth century literati thought of the north

‘I am told the lion hunters are already preparing stake and net,’ wrote Sir Walter Scott, then at the height of his fame, in advance of his Irish visit of 1825.

He arrived in Belfast with his carriage strapped to the deck of the ship, and almost buried in rags, the cast-offs of Scotland being sent to clothe Ireland.

Belfast – ‘built like a second rate English town’ – did not detain him and he hurried on to Dublin where, ‘the mob and boys huzza’d as at the chariot wheels of a conqueror’.

Not all the ‘literary lions’ who visited Ireland in the nineteenth century had yet achieved such fame. Perhaps the shortest and most unsuccessful visit was that of John Keats in 1818. He and a friend, travelling via Donaghadee, planned to visit the Giant’s Causeway. They confused Irish miles with English ones. They thought that it was a mere 48 miles from Donaghadee to the Causeway, but 48 Irish miles converted into 70 of their familiar English miles. They got no further than Ballymacarrett:

‘We heard on passing into Belfast through a most wretched suburb that most disgusting of noises worse than the bag pipe, the laugh of a monkey, the chatter of women, the scream of a macaw – I mean the sound of the shuttle. What a tremendous difficulty is the improvement of the condition of such people – with me it is absolute despair.’

Wordsworth toured Ireland in the 1820s. Like Scott he hoped that all was improving, but showed a new hostility to the rise of the Catholic Church and of O’Connell.

‘How long is the reign of this monster over the British Isles to endure?’

He visited the Giant’s Causeway, but no account survives of the experience.

By the 1840s, the Giant’s Causeway, once principally a theological experience – an example of the unfinished creation, was increasingly a tourist trap. Thackeray, in his Irish Sketch Book (1843), gives a fine account of being kidnapped by boatmen, and not allowed ashore until he has bought all their souvenirs.

The Irish Sketch Book was written under the pseudonym M.A.Titmarsh, a cockney persona, implying a confident and popularising approach with a fair lacing of English chauvinism. Thackeray couldn’t altogether disguise the altogether contrasting and awful realities of his own position.

The book should have been written two years earlier, but on the voyage from London to Cork, his Cork born wife, attempted suicide by throwing herself overboard. As the Irish novelist Charles Lever said of Thackeray, ‘he was like a man struggling to keep his head above water, and who offers to teach his friend to swim’.

Thackeray was the first of these visitors to mark out the distinction of the north from the south, and to prefer it. He remarked: ‘A sort of weight is lifted from the Englishman’s mind on entering the province when he finds himself once more looking upon comfort, activity and resolution.’

Thomas Carlyle, visiting at the height of the famine, felt the same relief, the same sense of a superior civilisation, when he left the far west and reached Londonderry en route for Scotland.

Thackeray found Belfast ‘hearty, thriving and prosperous, as if it had money in its pockets, and roast beef for dinner: it has no pretensions to fashion – the fine arts do not appear as yet to flourish’.

At much the same time, a then little known resident of Belfast, Anthony Trollope, took a very different view finding the city:

‘A filthy, disagreeable, unwholesome, uninteresting town, with bad water and worse inhabitants and nothing on earth to recommend it unless a man knows how to make linen: I don’t.’

By John Gray