Fr Kevin Hegarty
Westport celebrates the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of its foundation this year. The town needs an historical survey worthy of its experience. Any writer undertaking the task will have ample sources of information. Along with official and estate records many observers wrote of their visits to the town in the nineteenth century. English writers, especially, had a peculiar fascination with Irish ways.
Among them was the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. He had Irish connections. His wife was from an Anglo-Irish family in Doneraile, County Cork while his uncle was a Church of Ireland rector in Dundalk.
He spent four months in Ireland in 1842. The resultant book ‘An Irish Sketchbook’ is a vivid account of society on the cusp of the ‘Great Famine’. He was disturbed by the squalid living conditions, the unemployment and the hunger he witnessed. He highlighted examples of both Catholic and Protestant sectarianism.
In the book he describes travelling from Clifden to Westport, a journey that took 12 hours. He was not impressed by the scenery along the tortuous route. He found it “too wild and dismal for eyes accustomed to admiring a hop-garden in Kent or a view of rich meadows in Surrey, with a clump of trees and a comfortable village spire.”
His mood lightened on the outskirts of Westport. He caught sight of “the most beautiful view I ever saw in the world”. It sent him into a kind of ecstasy: “The sun was just about to set, and the country round about and to the east was almost in twilight. Trees, cornfields and cottages made the scene indescribably cheerful. Nearby was a large Gothic building - it is but a poor house, but it looked like a grand castle in the grey evening. The Bay and the Reek which sweeps down to the sea, and a thousand islands in it were dressed up in gold and purple and crimson, with the whole cloudy west in a flame.”
He praises the natural setting of Westport but also commends Lord Sligo for making it a ‘pretty town’.
Thackeray was fond of his comforts and often wrote sharply of his grim experiences in Irish provincial hotels. Not so in Westport where he lodged in one of ‘the most comfortablest inns in Ireland’, well furnished and stocked with good wines. He was less impressed with the Quay where the port was in economic decline. The empty warehouses reminded him of ‘dismal mausoleums as vast as pyramids.’
He attended a service in the Church of Ireland where ‘the clerk and a choir of schoolchildren sang hymns sweetly’. Less palatable was the lengthy sermon of the preacher. He offers the advice, still relevant today: “Beware of too much talk, parsons.”
He found the Catholic Church large and gloomy, with one or two attempts at ornament by way of pictures at the altars. He makes the telling social observation that most of the Catholic congregation were barefoot.
His visit coincided with the annual Croagh Patrick pilgrimage. He travelled to the foot of the mountain but did not venture the climb. The religious devotions on the mountain, as reported to him, were incomprehensible to his austere Protestant mind. He casts a somewhat jaundiced eye on the convivial festivities that followed the climb. Yet he left Westport glad to have seen the place and enthusing about its beauty, ‘so unlike all other beauties I know of.’