Paper delivered by Kevin Whelan, Director of the Keough Naughton Centre of the University of Notra Dame, Dublin, at Connemara Before Clifden seminar held in Clifden on 26th May 2012.
In 1756 it was noted of Connemara and the Joyce country that ‘wheeled carriages are not much used in this country’. In 1783, Karl Kuttner, a German visitor, avoided Connemara because he heard that it was ‘inhabited by a kind of savage’. In 1798, Lord Altamont in Westport House urged the government to attend quickly to Erris and Connemara:
Erris is at present inaccessible from the mountain floods and the wretched roads are scarcely fit to be called footpaths. It would be a material object to the peace and security of these parts if Erris and Connemara were opened. They are at present asylums for all the deserters, outlaws, robbers and murderers of the kingdom.
Maria Edgeworth had first experience of the difficult road to Ballynahinch in Connemara; her heavy carriage got stuck in the ‘sloughs’ and she had to be pulled out with the help of the natives, who followed the carriage in the hope of earning more money at the next slough.
These long-standing difficulties eventually encouraged the creation of new roads, whose tentacles began to reach into hitherto inaccessible areas. Engineers like Alexander Nimmo (1783-1832), Richard Griffith (1784-1878) and William Bald (1789-1857) added hundreds of miles to the existing road network, and villages sprang up where the new roads met the coast. The roads from Westport to Leenaun through the Partry mountains, from Oughterard to Clifden by Maam Cross, and the criss-cross routes through the Sliabh Luachra area of west Munster all offer good illustrations of this process. These developments reverberated to the furthest reaches of the west of Ireland – expressed by the establishment of new settlements at western road heads, as the market economy spread along the inviting new roads.
Clifden (1815) is a prime example, and it belongs to a generation of new towns including Kenmare, Knightstown, Cahirsiveen (1822), Belmullet (1825), Binghamstown, Belderg, Roundstone (1822), Letterfrack and Bunbeg. Through facilitating the easier transfer of lime and seaweed, and therefore encouraging reclamation, these new roads allowed settlement to spread quickly from the previously more accessible coast into the mountainous interior of the west of Ireland. In the process, these land-based developments dealt a fatal blow to the older seaborne trade of the west and its multifarious flotilla of small crafts – hookers, púcáns and gleóiteogí. James Darcy of Clifden, was asked in 1844: ‘Is all the corn grown in the district exported at Clifden’? He answered: ‘Yes, mostly: some is sent to Westport from the Ballinakill district. They used to put it into boats formerly, and would up to this time if there were not roads. Every day they are bringing more into Clifden, as the roads are open they are putting it on cars’.
Clifden inspired high hopes: George Petrie said in the 1830s: ‘This is likely to eclipse in importance both Galway and Westport’. Heinrich Brockhaus noted in 1836: ‘It was a strange sight to glimpse this little town, which had only sprung up twenty years ago, and although still insignificant it seems to me to combine everything necessary for later importance. The town lies at Ireland’s most western point on an excellent bay with no further towns and forms the best possible point of exit for commodities that could and certainly soon will, be produced here. I have seen the town in its infancy and may hear some day of its deeds when fully grown’.
By 1873, an American visitor, J. l. Cloud lauded its location but noted the post-Famine downturn:
One does not often find a more beautifully situated town than Clifden. It seems to have been placed by a poet whose sole consideration was setting a picturesque village in a situation where it both adorns and is adorned by mountains and sea. As we approached it I was fascinated by its beauty, and promised myself a repose of some days in this charming spot. This anticipation, however, was doomed to a bitter disappointment. As a reverse to the beautiful picture presented by the town from a distance, I found houses and people, on a near inspection, the most insipid common, and utterly uninteresting I had ever seen. The buildings, comparatively new, for the most part unpainted, had a pitiable look of cheap respectability. Indeed, it had the appearance of a town built by contract, but which the absconding contractor had heartlessly abandoned before completion, so that houses and streets seemed to be hopelessly waiting for their finishing touches.