Enduring History: A Memoir of Social Life in Nineteenth-Century Donegal

By Robert CreminsDecember 7, 2013

The Outer Edge of Ulster by Hugh Dorian

DONEGAL IS DIFFERENT[1]. One of the largest of Ireland's 32 counties, far-flung from Dublin, on a map it looks like the island’s scraggy forehead. Though the province of Ulster is often used as a byword for Northern Ireland (that part of the island still part of the United Kingdom), Donegal is one of three Ulster counties that are actually in the Republic of Ireland. Cavan and Monaghan, the other two Ulster anomalies, are on the southern side of the border, but from many points in Donegal — notably the Fánaid Peninsula, the focus of this essay — you would have to drive south and east to reach your paradoxical destination in Northern Ireland.

As an Irishman transplanted to Texas, I am tempted to think of Donegal as the Lone Star county, for its geographical singularity plays into Donegal’s reputation for having something of a maverick spirit. What is remarkable about Fánaid is that it is Donegal’s own Donegal — historically regarded as “a place apart,” as Breandán Mac Suibhne and David Dickson comment in their absorbing and scholarly introduction to The Outer Edge of Ulster: A Memoir of Social Life in Nineteenth-Century Donegal. The book was originally published in 2000 (a digital edition is now available), more than a century after Hugh Dorian set down his “true historical narrative.”

Fánaid’s local reputation for wildness was probably at its height around the time Dorian was born, in the 1830s. Mac Suibhne and Dickson quote a contemporary letter that gives a vivid sense of that frontier mentality: “The natives of [neighboring] parishes […] who consider themselves civilized, deny that they themselves are of the ‘men of Fánaid.’” Even at the turn of the 21st century, the editors report, the phrase “out of this world and into Fánaid” was still current. The peninsula, it appears, is almost as much a state of mind as a physical place.

In the 1870s, Dorian left the physical Fánaid (in murky circumstances I will detail below) and moved to Derry. That small, historically contested city (even its name is a source of conflict, as Unionists call it Londonderry) is just some 20 miles away, but if Dorian were to make that journey today he would have to cross an international border.

Then again, today he’d hardly notice. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Northern Ireland has been relatively stable. British Unionists and Irish Republicans have spent much of the last 15 years in a power-sharing government. Another dividend of the peace process has been the significant demilitarization of the “province.” Like many Southerners, I spent most of the “Troubles” keeping the North at an uneasy distance. Belfast was less than a hundred miles from Dublin, but it could have been a thousand. I didn’t actually cross the border until the summer I was 21 (ironically, “guiding” a group of Spanish and Italian students). I remember being jolted by the reality of soldiers and heavily armed police, though they were a ubiquitous sight on television.

Now the checkpoints and watchtowers are gone. A few summers ago, I traveled from Dublin to Belfast by train, and realized I was in the North only when my phone service sent me a text that read “Welcome to the UK.” There is a more immediate clue, a relative has told me, if you travel by road. It’s one that the bilingual Dorian would pick up on: once you drive into Northern Ireland the road signs are in English only. In the Republic, the signage is in both English and Irish (or Gaelic, as it more commonly known as in the United States). It says a great deal about the precarious position of Irish — the Republic's “formal first” language — that even though the Gaelic versions of place-names occupy the superior position, your eye is drawn to the bolder, all-caps lettering of the English name, while the Irish floats above in italics, an elegant typographical phantom.

I'm sure this would disturb the gaelgoir (Irish-speaker) in Dorian, but not surprise him. After all, at the dark heart of his memoir, a vital document of Irish social history, is a firsthand account of the event that delivered a body blow to the language: the Great Famine of the 1840s. Before the Great Hunger (or an Gorta Mór, as most of its victims would have called it, had they not died or emigrated) there were still over four million Irish speakers[2], which was almost half the population. By 1871, around the time Dorian scuttled his teaching career and quit Fánaid, there were less than one million, or about a fifth of the diminished post-Famine population.

Today, about a third of the people in the Republic can speak Irish (or think they can speak Irish), though few people outside the Gaeltacht use it as their vernacular language. Gaeltacht is the collective noun for the areas, almost all of them on the western fringes of the country, where Irish is still predominantly the mother tongue.

Up until quite recently, Fánaid was one such area, and even today you would stand a good chance of meeting a fluent Irish speaker there. It is, however, a very different community from the one Hugh Dorian left in the 1870s. (And his departure was, as I have hinted above, merely physical. The intensity of his memoir, which he sat down to write some 20 years later, makes it clear that emotionally and imaginatively he remained on the peninsula, his exile in Derry bringing to mind Joyce’s arch response to the suggestion that, as a means of sheltering from the breaking storm of WWII, he return to Dublin: “Have I ever left?”) Long vanished is the “district” of Dorian’s childhood where there “was nearly the total want of knowledge of the English language.”

Today less than a thousand people, excluding summer visitors, live in Fánaid, whereas when Dorian was born in 1834 it was some 10,000 and rising. During the boom years of the Celtic Tiger, the scourge of emigration seemed to have been broken for good (tens of thousands of people were moving to Ireland in the early 2000s). But during the economic crisis of the last five years, I have seen the return in the Irish media of a story that I remember being told all too often during the last slump, that of the 1980s: the inability of a certain rural community to field a Gaelic football or hurling team (Gaelic games being to small-town Ireland what football is to Texas). Dorian’s report on the decline of the “hurly-game” in his time is even more devastating: “For years all these sports have been at an end and the green grass has got leave to grow over the greater part of the plain; only the breadth of a road in the middle is still beaten up by travellers.”

This image keeps blurring in my mind with another picture of green grass, from a documentary I saw recently entitled Remember Skibbereen, about the Famine experience of a town at the opposite end of Ireland to Fánaid. That lush grass is growing from the turf that covers the mass grave of the victims.

Mac Suibhne and Dickson provide a statistic that puts the post-Famine demographic disaster up in the northwest in the starkest light: “In 1961, Donegal’s nuptiality rate was the lowest in Europe.” In other words, many of the adults who didn’t take the emigration boat or plane “marr[ied] later or not at all” because of slender means. One thinks of the silent despair of old men and women who, like essayist Charles Lamb “quietly seated in [his] bachelor armchair,” could conjure only dream-children.

That reference to a British classic is not out of place when dealing with Dorian. He is a liminal figure, as many 19th-century schoolteachers were (and not just in Ireland), “their writings reveal[ing],” as Mac Suibhne and Dickson put it, “their Janus-like position between the oral world of their clients and the printed world of national discourse.” And so Dorian’s narrative is flavored not just with Irish words and references to Irish mythology, but also with allusions to Othello and Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” one of the landmarks of English lyric poetry.

That double debt — to both the Gaelic inheritance and to what the current president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, has astutely termed “the great unsolicited gift of the English language” — brings to mind two other ex-schoolteacher Ulster writers: Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel. Their names are infinitely better known to American readers than Hugh Dorian’s, and their bodies of work — especially Heaney’s bogland poems and Friel’s masterful play Translations — serve as an excellent set of double doors into his world. And while I have no evidence that either Heaney or Friel read Dorian’s narrative, the sense that they are drawing from the same cultural well (or wells) is only reinforced when you consider that the manuscript of the memoir was deposited in the library of the storied Derry school they both attended, St. Columb’s College.

In a sense, all Irish people, not just the likes of Dorian, Heaney, and Friel, are liminal figures. The famous internal riff of Stephen Dedalus, from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist, after college student Stephen has talked, rather at cross-purposes, with the Dean of Studies, an English Jesuit, could serve as the national epigraph:

The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.

This past August a small word, an Irish ale, sparked my interest in reading Dorian’s account of life (and death) in Fánaid. That interest had been primed earlier in the summer by hearing an excellent discussion about the book on a podcast of The History Show, hosted by Myles Dungan on RTÉ radio, Ireland’s equivalent of NPR.

But it was a comment made by my brother-in-law that gave me the final nudge. He and my sister had just returned from a vacation in Fánaid. Now, many Dubliners go on their holidays — as we and the British say — to Donegal, drawn by its bounty of beaches and hills, but why, I asked, had they chosen Fánaid in particular? My brother-in-law explained, as he poured me a glass of wine, that good friends of theirs had owned a “tigeen” on the peninsula for years. Tigeen. No one around the dinner table that night, whether their Irish was strong or woeful (like mine), needed a gloss for that word, which is a lightly Anglicized version of the Irish for small house: tigín or teachín. It struck me as a small but telling instance of the half-life of Gaeilge in the lives of most contemporary Irish people. We are happy to visit Fánaid, but not to live there.

Ironically, though I am from the tame suburbs of south Dublin, some of my earliest memories are of being on the Fánaid peninsula. They are from a family vacation we took in the early 1970s. The Troubles were at their height, and my father drove the (very) long way around via Sligo, avoiding Northern Ireland entirely. The weather, the beach, the hotel were wonderful. The following summer we went to Spain, never to return to Fánaid as a family. We were not alone in making these kinds of travel plans. In the era of Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, blood every day, Donegal was often too close to the cauldron of the North for comfort.

You get more than a whiff of the sectarian bitterness that fueled the 30 years of the Troubles from Dorian’s memoir. It had been brewing since the early 17th century, with the collapse of the old Gaelic Order and, into that power vacuum, the Plantation (colonization) of Ulster by thousands of settlers loyal to the English crown, most of them hardy lowland Presbyterian Scots. At this time Fánaid was not on the periphery of history but center stage, for, in 1607, it was from one of the few sizeable villages on the peninsula, Rathmullan, that the last resisting Irish chieftains departed for exile in continental Europe, an event known as the Flight of the Earls.

Dorian makes no attempt to hide his anger at the twin legacies of this conquest: discrimination and dispossession. He labels the established (Anglican) Church of Ireland as a “church propped upon bayonets” in districts like Fánaid that remained overwhelmingly Catholic, and lauds its disestablishment, in 1869, by “liberty-loving” British Prime Minister William Gladstone, who was venerated by many 19th-century Irish political moderates.

Land distribution under the old Gaelic aristocracy had hardly been equitable (the radical 20th-century Donegal writer Peadar O’Donnell remarked that the earls’ subjects cheered from the shores of Lough Swilly as the ship carrying their erstwhile lords headed out to sea), and Dorian, thankfully, does not indulge in a utopian view of what Yeats’s biographer Roy Foster has called “prelapsarian” Ireland. Nor does he not see all English landowners as tyrants. In standard Irish histories, absentee landlords (members of the Protestant Ascendancy with land in Ireland but a life in London) are the villains of the piece, but Dorian regards absentee landlordism as a form of benign neglect, allowing Catholic tenants to get on with a form of subsistence farming known as “rundale,” which featured the clustering of dwellings and the subdivision of communal land.

But lack of ownership was, to borrow a phrase from the Irish national anthem, the bearna baoil — the gap of danger — and change marched into that gap at the very worst time: during and immediately after the Famine. This was the age of the active landlord, tired of the inefficiencies of his Irish holdings, determined to modernize. This meant, essentially, converting as many acres as possible from tillage to arable, which in turn meant evicting a large number of the farming families that had tilled those fields for generations. And so, as Dorian puts it, “the rack-rent screw” was applied to those who had somehow survived the Hungry ’40s.

No one turned that screw tighter than Fánaid’s most powerful landlord, William, third earl of Leitrim. The financial burdens he placed on his tenants were almost surreal in their heartlessness; there was even “a tax on seaweed.” Dorian’s animus against Leitrim is as consistent as the pressure this troubled and troubling lord (he was eventually assassinated) put on his tenants, but it is also, judging from Mac Suibhne and Dickson’s introduction, a very curious point of view.

In life, if not on the page, Dorian had a tangled relationship with Lord Leitrim, one that at this historical remove is all but impossible to untangle. Here, though, are some of the tantalizing possibilities that Mac Suibhne and Dickson present us with: a) Dorian may have been part of a conspiracy to murder Leitrim or one of his underlings; b) there may have been an attempt to frame Dorian for conspiracy to murder because he was master of a school Leitrim controlled; c) he became an informer — a real curse word in Irish history — for Leitrim.

Perhaps the truth is some combination of the above; perhaps none of the options quite hit the mark. All we do know for sure is that within a few years Dorian had drunk his way out of a teaching career and moved himself and his family to Derry, where he worked as a writing clerk, and did not prosper.

As I said, it is very unlikely at this stage, unless some astonishing document turns up, that we will ever untangle Dorian’s relationship with the looming landlord — at least factually. Fiction seems a surer route. The Outer Edge of Ulster has already provided inspiration for a novel, one of those quaintly Irish page-turners by Andrew Greeley, who wove a historical strand based on Donegal’s sectarian tensions into a present-day mystery. With all due respect to the late Fr. Greeley, though, the Dorian-Leitrim axis, with its vexed issues of loyalty and betrayal, seems lifted from a richer fictional world, that of Graham Greene. There’s even a turbulent priest. In the life and times of Hugh Dorian, Fánaid begins to resemble Greeneland.

If Dorian then is a (slightly) unreliable witness when it comes to the third earl, he remains undiminished as a primary source on the Famine (and indeed scholars consulted his manuscript for that testimony decades before the book was published). Here is a heartbreaking account of how a vibrant, all-too-human community was shattered by a natural catastrophe (the potato blight) and a woefully inadequate response by the powers-that-were. (Dorian calls some of the efforts at relief “next to slow murder.”) The fond but forthright vignettes that Dorian creates of life before the Great Hunger present us with people who lived for talk, news, music, and — yes — poteen (moonshine) whiskey. Suddenly, with the blight, the needle is lifted from that spirited, sometimes inharmonious soundtrack:

In a very short time there was nothing but stillness, a mournful silence, in the villages; in the cottages, grim poverty and emaciated faces, showing all the signs of hardships. The tinkers disappeared — fled to the cities; the musicians of all and every description disappeared, and these classes of visitor have never since returned.

In other words, 1607 may have marked the collapse of the Gaelic Order, but 1845 saw the tearing of the Gaelic Fabric.

Reading Dorian’s description of the fallout from Black ’47 and the other Famine years reinforces the suspicion that at this time something broke not only in Irish culture, but also in the Irish spirit — something that has never been fully repaired:

Friendship was forgotten, men lived as if they dreaded each other, every one trying to do the best for himself alone, and a man would rather deny the goods he possessed than make it known that he had such or that he was improving in the world.

Now I may be committing the prelapsarian fallacy myself, but the figure I see lurking in that description is a type that has bedeviled independent Ireland: sometimes he (and it usually is a he) is called a “cute hor” and sometimes the “gombeen man,” but he is defined by his dedication to sly self-advantage. Undoubtedly there were cute hors and gombeen men aplenty before the Famine, but over the next 150 years they came into their own, gravitating toward Dublin, and leaving places like Fánaid behind. They were probably at the height of their influence during the Celtic Tiger, which they rode faster and faster until the legs went out from under it, like an exhausted racehorse.

These last five years in Ireland the gombeen man has been keeping a lower profile, but I’m sure he’ll be back. (Dorian could spot him a Donegal mile away, I’m sure, whatever guise he takes.) That his name derives from the Irish is of little consolation.

Of course, the people whom Dorian is really interested in are not the movers and shakers and manipulators of his age or any other. He probably thought of himself as a failed writer (along with other failures), as his memoir, which the editors say was “clearly intended for publication,” didn’t become a book for the best part of a century after his death in 1914. But, aside from a few (understandable) intemperate moments, Dorian’s “true historical narrative” is a considerable achievement. His testament anticipates a statement Albert Camus would make decades later:

[The writer] cannot put himself in the service of those who make History; instead he serves those who endure it.

Whatever his failings may or may not have been, Hugh Dorian was a servant of his people, the people of the Outer Edge. And his work endures.


[1] This is an allusion to an old advertising slogan for Ireland North West tourism: “Up here it’s different.”

[2] For this and other facts and figures that follow, I am indebted to two fine essays about the Irish language: “Sell the cows, rent out the farm” by Colin Murphy, The Dublin Review 32, Autumn 2008; and “Why I Choose to Write in Irish: The Corpse That Sits Up and Talks Back” by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, The New York Times Book Review, January 8, 1995.


Robert Cremins is the author of the novels A Sort of Homecoming and Send in the Devils.

LARB Contributor

Robert Cremins is the author of the novels A Sort of Homecoming and Send in the Devils. Recent fiction has appeared in The Dublin Review. He teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston.


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