The colonial other

The Tourist's Gaze: travellers to Ireland, 1800-2000

Edited by Glenn Hooper <em>Cork University Pr

Less than a year after Conor Cruise O'Brien became editor-in-chief of the Observer in 1979, the newspaper's magazine supplement commissioned a piece from its Irish correspondent of the time, Mary Holland, to mark the tenth anniversary of the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. The article was about a Derry woman, Mary Nellis. Holland had known her since arriving in Ireland from London as a correspondent in 1968, and she was seen as an emblematic figure of the Troubles. (Two of Nellis's seven sons were taking part in the "dirty protest" by IRA inmates of the Maze prison, refusing to wear ordinary prison clothes in support of their demand to be treated as political prisoners.) Holland's article was an attempt to show how a working-class woman with no Republican views had become embroiled, through her family, in a decade of violence.

Praised on submission, the article outraged Conor Cruise O'Brien because of its pro-IRA bias; he and Holland later embarked on an acrimonious exchange of letters which eventually led to the termination of Holland's contract. "I know your own motives in writing this piece, as in all you have written, were honourable, professional and free from propagandist intent," O'Brien said in one letter. "I also think, however, that it is a serious weakness in your coverage of Irish affairs that you are a very poor judge of Irish Catholics. That gifted and talkative community includes some of the most expert conmen and conwomen in the world and in this case I believe you have been conned."

The notion of the naive English traveller wandering the roads of Ireland and being beguiled and enchanted along the way has a long pedigree, and informs several pieces in Glenn Hooper's collection of travel writings, most of which are by English travellers. The "facetious attendant" who accompanies one Gilpin Gorst on his excursion, in 1825, is never too far away. Loquacity, cunning, charm and propagandist ingenuity are shown to be recurring character traits of the Irish.

Ireland emerges as at once terribly familiar and yet exotic. Part of this allure can be explained by the 19th-century anglicisation of Ireland, to a degree that horrified revolutionary nationalists. Desmond Fitzgerald, head of publicity for the IRA during the war of independence, described his shock at seeing members of a volunteer militia that he hoped would turn into a separatist army marching off to fight in the First World War. "The Irish people had recognised themselves as part of England."

But most of the British travellers in this collection have difficulty in deciding whether Ireland is part of a united kingdom, or a distant colony, accidentally fetched up on the shores of the mother country. Outside Dublin, or the cosy homesteads of the Wicklow gentry, the extremes of poverty and plenty are baffling. George Cooper, a barrister touring in 1799, compared the contrasting landscapes to Egypt, where "the eye reverts . . . from the pyramid to the mud cottage".

Hooper has excavated some fascinating and obscure reflections. Although some are by well-known writers - Thackeray, G K Chesterton, Paul Theroux - most are by those whom Hooper describes as members of the literary underclass, including barristers, clergy and Quaker philanthropists. Most of the pieces from the past 30 years are by non-Britons, mostly Americans. Theroux, riding a train out of Belfast in 1982, captures the dinginess of the Troubles: "It was one of those cities which was so demented and sick some aliens mistook its desperate frenzy for a sign of health . . . It looked like the past in an old picture."

Hooper suggests that the Troubles were responsible for a drop in travel writing during the 1960s and 1970s. But insecurity was part of the attraction for earlier travellers. In one delightful account, William Whittaker Barry describes how, during a walking tour in 1865, when the Fenians were active, he heard one woman say: "'There's a gentleman going on; I wonder he's not afraid of being killed!' This was pleasant, certainly."

But a recurring theme is how the locals confounded the outsiders' assumptions. John Gibbons, touring Ireland in 1930, met an old man in a pub in the north-west who apologised before singing songs in which English soldiers were portrayed as tyrants, despots and demons. After one verse about how England was hated, Gibbons remarked that the old man was singing as if he really meant it. "'But I do mean it,' he said. 'And so does everybody else in this room.' It made me jump a bit, for after all, though a joke is a joke, there is a limit. I am English and I must not for very decency listen to everything . . . I was fumbling uneasily for my hat when the atmosphere cleared again. 'But', the man went on, 'my hating England does not mean I hate the English.' "

At the end of the night, they sang "The Soldiers' Song", an anthem to the new Free State, and then out of courtesy asked their English visitor to lead them in "God Save the King". When Gibbons could not remember the words beyond the first line, the old man who had been singing the anti-English ballads helped out.

Maurice Walsh is writing a history of foreign correspondents and the Irish war of independence