Monday, 14 May 2018

Ireland is still her old-fashioned self in places


I am sitting in a bar watching Eurovision in Cobh, pronounced Cove. Cobh, formerly Queenstown and before that Cove, is a little port for big cruise ships in the very large and very deep natural harbour of Cork. Cobh is very Irish, not yet EU-ised. Even the waitresses are still Irish, not East European. It's a little like a Cornish port but Irish, meaning beery, peasant, articulate, funny, incredibly friendly.

I am thinking to myself that it’s strange being in a country similar to England which has no class system and some religious belief. Though much less religion than forty years ago.

The woman next to me on the Ryan Air cheapo flight from Stansted to Cork comes back to her native town each weekend from London where she raises finance for companies.

She turned out to have been married thirty years though she looked much younger. I told her so and she thanked me, but there are women in the British Isles who are displeased by old fashioned gallantry.

She said that her parents’ generation had huge respect for priests and even when they did things wrong forgave them. Her generation has no interest in the church and her children’s generation’s respect is less than zero. What people care about now is shopping, she said.

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Cork, St Finbarr's Cathedral. 19th century, he sniffed.
Cork on a cloudy May afternoon was a bit of a disappointment. Are Irish towns always? 

Another modern town, with pedestrianised streets. Some Georgian buildings and a lot of carbuncles from that horrible decade the 1970s. The melancholy that all Irish towns I ever visited have, though the Irish themselves are happy.

Instead of waiting for a bus I took a cab. The middle aged are much more self-indulgent and lazy than the young and our opinions should therefore be suspect, but we have had time to see things, to think about them and to suffer.

My cab driver was a Nigerian who decided to see the world and saw first Italy and then Cork, a place he likes because it is quiet. Wikipedia told me that Cork is 80% ethnic Irish, 10% other whites, a lot of miscellaneous others and people who refuse to answer the question and is home to a few thousand Nigerians.

He encounters no racism he said and added that when he did he ignored it because racists were ignorant people.

He took me to a good restaurant called Market Lane, very well run, with pretty good food and excellent staff. A lesson in how business can be a very moral activity. The waiters take their work very seriously indeed and almost try too hard. I recommend the smoked haddock risotto and the neck of bacon. I didn't know bacon had a neck.

I picked up a copy of the Irish Independent and it seemed like a very slow news day. The big story was a pair of seminarians found in bed together in the Irish College in Rome after a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. In case you didn't know, it created shock waves by restating the Church’s condemnation of artificial birth control.

Was it a slow news days or is there not much exciting news or exciting politics in Southern Ireland? After another couple of days here I knew the latter was the case.

Which is good. In Northern Ireland there is much too much of both.

Fifty years on from Humanae Vitae Europe is dying. Paul VI was a prophet but without honour. 

You could, if you are British, draw a parallel with Enoch Powell’s uncannily accurate demographic predictions around the same time as the encyclical in that momentous year 1968.

I have to add that the story of homosexual seminarians turned out to be completely false – the boys were guilty of no more than drinking too much.

The hotels in Cork were mostly sold out five days before I came. They are also pricier than central London. I was lucky to find a room that became vacant in Cobh on the waterfront. So down I went.

The train journey takes 25 minutes and is said to be the most scenic in Ireland. It is worth doing and the line runs through the waters of Cork harbour that link Cork to the cold waters of the Atlantic. 

And took me to a charming peaceful piece of Victorian Ireland with a wrought iron bandstand, a fine Catholic cathedral by EW Pugin with a soaring spire, steep streets and Irish shopfronts. 

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St. Colman's Cathedral, Cobh.

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I wondered why the statues with which the cathedral is lavishly adorned were not painted. What would Pugin the elder have said? 

The statue of Queen Victoria which no doubt stood on the waterfront is gone and the streets are named after Irishmen whom the British wanted to hang for treason.

Treason ne’er doth prosper. What’s the reason? 
If it doth prosper none dare call it treason.

My hotel the Commodore is a gem. Built in 1854 but with a classical portico that makes it look thirty years older it breathes the spirit of 19th century Ireland, when Ireland was a junior partner in the British Empire. The kind of hotel I love: mid Victorian tiled fireplaces, a glass case exhibiting plaster casts of fish caught long ago and a heavy mahogany sideboard from the time when Lord Palmerston was Prime Minister.

A wedding is taking place in the hotel. The bars are busy. Men in cheap suits and women in garish dresses. Happy children running free. The occasional four letter word.

Cobh has a remarkably deep harbour which is why it exists. It is not an old place but houses began to be built here around 1750.

When I arrived an ocean liner with hundreds of cabins on six stories reared itself above the little town. This is where the Titanic made its last stop. The pubs held wakes – funeral parties – at which families and friends bad goodbye to emigrants whom they expected never to see again in this life. Many of them were indeed wakes shortly in advance. A lucky few came home soon.

Three years later, the Lusitania docked here before it was blown up by a German submarine. The corpses of many of the dead were brought ashore here and laid in makeshift morgues.

The Eurovision Song Contest is taken seriously here in Ireland and everywhere except in the UK, where it’s a joke. I failed to listen to any of the songs, preferring to read a book, but the scoring was riveting. All a long way from Katie Boyle and Norvege nul points

The English girl who announced to which act we gave our points was funny and ironic and easily the most impressive of the representatives of the various nations. We are a great race.

I have started one of Trollope’s five Irish novels, his first novel, The MacDermots of Ballycloren. The first of many of his books that I read was his book on North America and googling I find that it ends with him coming to Cobh on his return to the United Kingdom. Here is what he said.

On our return to Liverpool, we stayed for a few hours at Queenstown,taking in coal, and the passengers landed that they might stretch their legs and look about them.  I also went ashore at the dear old place which I had known well in other days, when the people were not too grand to call it Cove, and were contented to run down from Cork in river steamers, before the Passage railway was built.  I spent a pleasant summer there once in those times: God be with the good old days!  And now I went ashore at Queenstown, happy to feel that I should be again in a British isle, and happy also to know that I was once more in Ireland.  And when the people came around me as they did, I seemed to know every face and to be familiar with every voice.  It has been my fate to have so close an intimacy with Ireland, that when I meet an Irishman abroad I always recognise in him more of a kinsman than I do in your Englishman.  I never ask an Englishman from what county he comes, or what was his town.  To Irishmen I usually put such questions, and I am generally familiar with the old haunts which they name.  I was happy therefore to feel myself again in Ireland, and to walk round, from Queenstown to the river at Passage, by the old way that had once been familiar to my feet. 

Or rather I should have been happy if I had not found myself instantly disgraced by the importunities of my friends.  A legion of women surrounded me, imploring alms, begging my honour to bestow my
charity on them for the love of the Virgin, using the most holy names in their adjurations for half-pence, clinging to me with that half-joking, half-lachrymose air of importunity which an Irish beggar has assumed as peculiarly her own.  There were men, too, who begged as well as women.  And the women were sturdy and fat, and,not knowing me as well as I knew them, seemed resolved that their importunities should be successful.  After all, I had an old world liking for them in their rags.  They were endeared to me by certain memories and associations which I cannot define.  But then what would those Americans think of them--of them and of the country which produced them?  That was the reflection which troubled me.  legion of women in rags clamorous for bread, protesting to heaven that they are starving, importunate with voices and with hands,surrounding the stranger when he puts his foot on the soil, so that he cannot escape, does not afford to the cynical American who then first visits us--and they all are cynical when they visit us--a bad opportunity for his sarcasm.  He can at any rate boast that he sees nothing of that at home.  I myself am fond of Irish beggars.  It is an acquired taste, which comes upon one as does that for smoked whisky or Limerick tobacco.  But I certainly did wish that there were not so many of them at Queenstown.

I tell all this here not to the disgrace of Ireland--not for the triumph of America.  The Irishman or American who thinks rightly on the subject will know that the state of each country has arisen from its opportunities.  Beggary does not prevail in new countries, and but few old countries have managed to exist without it.  As to Ireland, we may rejoice to say that there is less of it now than there was twenty years since.  Things are mending there.  But though such excuses may be truly made--although an Englishman, when he sees this squalor and poverty on the quays at Queenstown, consoles himself with reflecting that the evil has been unavoidable, but will perhaps soon be avoided--nevertheless he cannot but remember that there is no such squalor and no such poverty in the land from which he has returned.  I claim no credit for the new country.  I impute no blame to the old country.  But there is the fact.  The Irishman when he expatriates himself to one of those American States loses much of that affectionate, confiding, master-worshiping nature which makes him so good a fellow when at home.  But he becomes more of a man.  He assumes a dignity which he never has known before.  He learns to regard his labour as his own property.  That which he earns he takes without thanks, but he desires to take no more than he earns.  To me personally, he has, perhaps, become less pleasant than he was;--but to himself!  It seems to me that such a man must feel himself half a god, if he has the power of comparing what he is with what he was.

I see that a dryasdust lecturer called John McCourt, who has written a book that is on the net, finds Trollope’s remarks about beggars grossly offensive. He also didn't like a remark Trollope makes in the same book about Irish emigrants to America.

This deracinated Irishman: loses much of that affectionate, confiding, master-worshipping nature which makes him so good a fellow at home. But he becomes more of man. He assumes a dignity which he never has known before.

Academics, one of the biggest problems in the world.

Is it reasonable to be offended at what people said in 1862? 

Yes, if you are Irish.

The beggars in Ireland these days are mostly Romanian gypsies. This is undoubtedly progress.


  1. Excellent piece. All sounds accurate. Yes, Cork needs sun for its charms to come out. I recommend Thackeray's "Irish Sketch Book" from 1842. Available at The chapter on Cork is wonderful.

  2. A civilized account of the Irish experience.

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  4. In my humble opinion, the Irish cities are moving out of Ireland, much as London has become EU-loving and unEnglish. The Eurovision song contest is a wonderful chance to enrage the French once a year, they get awfully upset about most of the songs being sung in English, remembering that once long ago about half were in French. I'm thinking of entering the competition next year, and this will be my entry...


    1. Charles you are completely right about Dublin and London. I think that is still my favourite song as it was when I was 6.

  5. David in Belgrade15 May 2018 at 12:30

    An excellent piece Paul.

    You add an historical aspect to what is already a very well written, entertaining and informative travel review.

  6. There used to be a free worker's ferry from Cobh to a steelworks on one of the offshore islands - and from that steelworks a bridge would take you to Ringaskiddy whence the Swansea ferries departed.

    The Swansea ferries are no more - I wonder if the steelworks and its little ferry survive? When our Swansea boat was delayed by 12 hours we used it to spend six hours in Cobh, taking in Sunday Mass, a pint, and lunch.

  7. As ever, well-written and entertaining. I continue to think that you missed your calling. There's still time to make amends!