I was soon to discover the veracity of that last remark of Twisleton's. There would, I was also to discover, need to be some better arrangement for passengers or cargo to travel East from Kilrush were such a port to be established there. From the proprietor of the hotel at which I spent a comfortable night in Limerick I learned that the most convenient means of traveling between the two places was by steamer. I chose to ignore his advice in order that I might observe the condition of the land and the people, something I could not readily do from the confines of a steamer. The experience served also to confirm the unsuitability of the present arrangements for overland travel between the two places.
There being no regular coach service, I had perforce to hire one, a circumstance that suited my needs, if not my purse. With no other passenger to distract me with idle chatter I hoped to be able both to study the papers Twisleton had supplied and to take note of the peculiarities of the landscape.
The route was a tortuous one with many twists and turns providing frequent glimpses of the broad estuary. The road was in a parlous condition, a fact that surprised me given the extent of the public works programme I had witnessed less than a year before. Further thought on the matter brought to mind the condition of the labourers I had observed. With that came an understanding of why any repairs, having been executed by such ill-nourished individuals, had not been adequate to survive for long. It was now that I came to a full understanding of why men preferred the steamer for themselves and their chattels. Being violently shaken and thrown from one side of the conveyance to another I began to regret my own choice in the matter.
Reading was impossible. Fortunately I had already made several studies of the documents Edward Twisleton had supplied. There were two. And what a contrast they presented in their descriptions of my destination. The first, a report produced about ten years previously, had the appearance of having been written with the avowed purpose of encouraging individuals of some substance to establish their enterprises in premises recently constructed for the purpose. It spoke of a prospering town, benefiting from the newly established steamer service which enabled local farmers to increase the prices of their produce. There was also, it was claimed, a thriving herring fishery. Aware that this is a seasonal trade, I knew, too, that any surplus arising from a large catch may be preserved by salting and smoking. This I found reassuring since it demonstrated that the inhabitants of the district must be less dependent on the potato than so many of their fellow countrymen.
Reading the second report, the one compiled most recently and having provided the justification for the designation of the district as distressed, together with the consequent allocation of additional funds from the commission, caused me to modify my opinion. The writer of this report asserted that the streets of Kilrush town were thronged with destitute individuals arriving daily from the hinterland, seeking assistance from the Guardians, which body of men were either unwilling or unable to provide it.
By now I could see with my own eyes that many people were on the move. As we passed they huddled in small groups against the unkempt hedges that lined the road in what most surely was a vain attempt to avoid the stream of muck thrown up by our wheels. Their already filthy garments were thus further despoiled. I noticed many without proper shoes on their feet: mud-caked rags served the purpose. I wondered about their destination. Did they hope to find succour from the Guardians or was it their intention to seek passage on some vessel bound for foreign parts?
Whilst still an officer in Her Majesty's Army I had witnessed large numbers of people of all ages gathering at the ports where unscrupulous merchants had been pleased to charge them for a space on the deck of a vessel bound for Liverpool and already loaded with cattle. The steaming pools of piss and odourous excrement that covered the jetties were all the evidence I needed of the appalling conditions these hapless passengers would be forced to endure for the hours of the voyage.
Whatever the intended destination of the pinch-faced shivering groups on the road from Limerick, they had many miles yet to trudge. I thought to ask the driver to halt and offer a space on the roof for any travelling in our direction. To my shame I did not act on the thought, telling myself that to assist one or two would be to increase the sense of injustice experienced by the rest. It was a dillemma I would encounter many times over the succeeding months.
At last we came to the environs of a settlement of some considerable size. My initial elation upon thinking we might have reached our destination was quickly quelled. I might be unfamiliar with the town of Kilrush, its hinterland and its history, but army service had given me a knowledge of maps and an ability to follow the compass. Despite the overcast sky I had no doubt that we had been traveling in a North-Westerly direction for some time. This could not be Kilrush, which I understood to be in a South-Westerly direction from Limerick. The waters of the Shannon had long since disappeared from view. By the time my conveyance drew to a halt beside the entrance to a hostelry in a broad thoroughfare lined with substantial buildings I had concluded that this was Ennis, the administrative centre of County Clare.
At once the destination of the mendicants we had passed became evident. They were, as I had supposed, bound for the workhouse administered by the Ennis Union. That building was not visible from our position but its location was defined by the press of people attempting to enter one of the lanes crossing the thoroughfare. It was a scene that I would encounter repeatedly in the months to come. I was at once filled with a sense of trepidation at the enormity of the task upon which I was embarked.
The sweet tang of peat smoke caught in my throat as I departed the carriage. Pouring from a hundred chimneys it sank to mingle with the cold and damp of the November day. A groom took our horses. We would be provided with fresh animals for the second part of our journey.
In the lobby of the hostelry a group of redcoats were engaged in a card game. The sounds emitted by the crowd outside, which mass exhibited the resignation commonly found among their kind, did not penetrate the walls. Neither did the cold and damp. A fire blazed in one corner causing me to turn away from its heat which burned my cheeks.
I and my driver took our refreshment in haste. Neither of us had any wish to be on the road after sunset and there was, he was wont to inform me, as far to go as we had already traveled. As we departed the building the noise from the crowd seemed louder. It appeared that some manner of dispute had erupted near the entrance to the lane. A number of individuals were engaged in fisticuffs. It was clear to me that, were...