Wednesday 6 May 2015

The Roads of Ireland in Regency Times

Today I welcome Beppie Harrison to the salon; Beppie will be your guide to the Regency roads of Ireland!


When I was writing The Abiding Heart, I spent a lot of time researching and thinking about the Irish roads at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the course of the book, Diarmaid MacGuinness, a red-headed and dedicated Irish rebel, and Muirne Coyle, the equally red-headed and rebellious girl who’s been forced into self-sufficiency for most of her life, walk from distant Donegal to Galway, about 300 miles.

Obviously, it’s more of a walk than most people would take, but the fascinating truth for me was that they would seldom have been alone as walkers along the roads. Back then, unless you had the means for keeping a horse or a carriage—or enough to be able to take a coach—if you needed to get somewhere, you walked. In our books placed in the Regency period, most often our characters have the means.

But in actual fact, particularly in rural Ireland, and even more particularly if you were Irish, Catholic, and landless, which most of the population was, you did not. The great majority of the people of northwestern Donegal were all three. The complicated history of Ulster, and of Ireland itself, virtually guaranteed that the people who scratched a living from the rocky hills and bogs of the coastal land of Donegal would remain, as they did, desperately poor.

And so it was that if my fictional Diarmaid and Muirne were to travel to the south, they would do so on foot. I found a wonderful source on life in Donegal in a slim book called The Last of the Name, the story of the life of Charles McGlinchey, a man of Donegal who gave the story of his life to a local schoolteacher in the 40s, when he was in his late 80s and 90s. In fact, he had lived through momentous times (the rise and fall of Parnell, two world wars, the Rising of 1916, the atomic bomb) but none of that is in his recollections. He remembers the life of the community in which he lived as well as what he was told about the lives of his father and grandfather—and very little changed over the generations.

A scrap from his story: “It was a common thing to walk to Derry in times ago and people thought nothing of it. I heard of a Clonmany woman heading for Derry up over Pinch one morning and she fell in with a group of men cutting turf about Langsalach. She told them her errand was to get a pair of wool shears. One of them said he’d lend her a pair, but she said when she was that far she’d go on. She was a mile from home that time and had the best part of thirty in front of her. She was back with the shears before the men stopped cutting that evening.”

I like to think of those Irish roads back then, with the occasional horseman or cart or even coach, but mainly the people walking, steadily and briskly walking, because that was how you got to places you needed to be. Often they walked barefoot, their shoes hung around their neck to be put on when they came close to their destination.

But always they walked.

About the Author
Beppie Harrison lives in southeastern Michigan with her husband and two slightly addled cats, their four children having grown up and flown the coop. They live a somewhat cross-Atlantic lifestyle. Her husband is an English architect and they began their marriage living in London, only moving to the States when they had young children. In many ways, England still feels like home. For Beppie, the pull from across the Atlantic comes not only from old friends and familiar places in England, but from Ireland. Did it start with its literature, its history, or its wonderfully garrulous people? However it happened, she is addicted now and her greatest satisfaction is weaving the Ireland she knows into her tales of the hearts and ambitions of her characters.

The Abiding Heart
The Abiding Heart will be released on 10th May 2015 and will be available from Amazon.

County Donegal, Ireland. 1812.

They were about as sorry a bunch as he’d seen.

Diarmaid MacGuinness ran a hardened hand through his hair, hair that was still as bright a red as it had been when he’d been a lad. He’d not spoken a word to them yet; perhaps he was being a mite unfair. He glanced back at them. There were—what? Eight of them? No, ten. A couple must have crept in when his mind was elsewhere. ‘Twasn’t one of them sitting straight up as if ready for business. They might have been so many heaps o’ dirty laundry, the lot of them, slumped on their stools, peering at him sort of sideways like, more like sulky schoolboys than the warriors he needed.

Donegal was as far north and west as you could go and still be in Ireland. Worse, it was too close to Ulster and all those damned Protestant Scots the even more damned English had planted among them. That’s even what they called it: plantation. Tossed out the Irish who’d owned the land for generations, and given it to stubborn Scots and more English, as if there were not too many in Ireland already. There were some of the plantations even in County Donegal itself, taking up the best of the land, of course, and the good Lord and ‘is saints knew Donegal had hardly any good land to begin with. Peat bogs, yes, they had those, crowded between mountains and rocky spurs leading down to the sea. Made it logical to suppose that the Donegal folk would be as eager as the rest of the Irish to overthrow the English and take back their own land.

Instead they sat there, great lumps that they were—though some of the bulk had to be their badly fitting clothes to keep the cold from their bodies, because when you looked in their faces too many of them were gaunt and thin.

And more than half of them had filthy bare feet.

Diarmaid lifted his eyes to study the inside of the roof. Pity had no place in his heart. Pity would keep these feeble excuses for Irishmen where they were. He needed men, and he would make these useless clods into men if he died in the process.

He allowed his eyes to sweep over them again until his gaze stopped abruptly on one of the smallish ones. Sweet Mother of God, that was no man at all. It was a woman—no, a girl. What the hell was a girl doing here in this falling-down shed, hidden, he hoped, from the eyes of the constabulary behind two or three sod houses on the point of falling down?

He reached out swiftly and, grabbing the cloth around her shoulders, lifted her to her feet.

This post copyright © Beppie Harrison, 2015.


Sarah said...

I'm fascinated by the idea of walking 30 miles and back in a day. When I studied population in geography we were set the task of looking at maps and marking on them market sized towns in one colour and villages in another - this was England - to let us find out for ourselves that the market towns made up a grid at approximately 12 miles distance to each other, and the villages encircled them, such that nobody had more than 12 miles, 6 miles there and 6 miles back, for market. The Irish, and I presume the Scots who also have less settled terrain, were indeed a hardy people. I make that about 12 hours walking... 10 minutes to the mile, if she could keep that up, based on what I used to manage when I was hiking a lot. Impressive.

Beppie Harrison said...

According to McGlinchey, that's what she did, and he gives two or three other examples of women walking to Derry to sell their lint. What intrigued me was that they walked there barefoot, with their shoes hung around their neck, and only put on the shoes as they approached their destination. In The Abiding Heart, my heroine does walk barefoot for a bit (her shoes fall apart on her) but not for long.

Sarah said...

If you are used to going barefoot it hurts to walk in shoes which are only there to show you are 'respectable'. Breaking them back in for the autumn term after the long holiday is bad enough as I well recall, being inclined to lose my shoes all summer! . And mud tracks aren't as hard on the feet as tarmacaddamed roads, nor were there worries about broken coca-cola bottles and discarded hypodermic needles at the wayside as there are these days. I have no surprise over the walking being barefoot. Just her fortitude and the speed she must have walked!

Barbara Monajem said...

Fascinating. I never imagined the roads as being so busy with pedestrians.

Ashley York said...

Lovely blog, Beppie. Walking was just the way it was done if you wanted to get anywhere - near or far. This story sounds wonderful.

Catherine Curzon said...

She must have gone at a heck of a lick!

Catherine Curzon said...

I know, I didn't either!

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you for dropping by!

Beppie Harrison said...

I'm sure that's true. Interestingly enough, all of these extraordinary walkers Charles McGlinchey mentions were women! It is only further research that made me realize how populated the roads were, particularly in a place as poor (except for the landlords) as Donegal has been historically.

Beppie Harrison said...

That is one of the parts of or history that we tend to be ignorant about. And of course, the fact that most of our romance novels of the Georgian or Regency period are generally about the titled and wealthy, the fact that it was only a tiny percentage of the population who could afford horses and carriages, it is easily overlooked. I doubt that many made trips as long as the one in The Abiding Heart, but if there was a reason to travel to a distant place, and you were not of the class that possessed horses or carts or grander vehicles, you walked!

Beppie Harrison said...

One of the fascinating parts of writing this book was learning how very poor the great majority of people were. The diet was largely made up of potatoes and buttermilk--a monotonous combination, certainly, but actually quite nutritious. That and oat porridge. Oats grew better than wheat did in that far northern and coastal climate. As people emigrated to America (and on occasion Australia!) they would take oat cakes that had been pounded and dried until they were the texture of boards, which would last for the length of the voyage. It was that they ate on the ships taking them west and south: soaked in whatever liquid was available (usually plain water) the cakes would soften and become edible.

Barbara Bettis said...

Remarkable when we think of it, walking like that. But it makes sense, when one hasn't money to purchase or for upkeep of an animal. Lovely excerpt! I can't wait to read the whole thing!

Catherine Curzon said...

Not long to wait!

Unknown said...

Much stouter stuff than we are made of today.

Catherine Curzon said...