When I first heard mention of this book, I knew I had to
read it. It is out of print for many years though, but after scouring second-hand
bookshops it finally appeared to me – beaming through the window of
Primm’s bookshop in Youghal, Co. Cork. The book is writings of returned
Irish immigrant [of Buenos Aires and the Pamas, Argentina], William Bulfin’s
bike tours around Ireland in 1902. Bulfin travelled all around the country
by a bicycle made in Co. Wexford no less, and recounts his tales and experiences
along the way. The stories were originally written for interested “Irish
exiles on the other side of the world”; Bulfin used to publish a paper
in Buenos Aires called The Southern Cross. They were later printed as articles
in the Irish papers of the time The United Irishman and Sinn Féin
[edited by Arthur Griffith] and later published in book form in 1907.
As well as great descriptions of scenery, chance meetings and encounters, Bulfin visits places of historic interest (places of battles, events and legends) and recounts these tales, his observations there; critiques of the history as well as thoughts on the lay of the land of that day (1902). It is a very interesting portrait Bulfin paints that of an Ireland 14 years before the 1916 Rising and the unfolding of Irish independence. Which incidentally Bulfin did not live to see; he died at his home place of Derrinlough, Birr, Co. Offaly in 1910.
Bulfin tells it like he sees it, and to go with this he seems to be well read on Irish culture and history. He holds definite biases such that the denationalisation, Anglicisation of Ireland and a government that is not working for Irish Ireland’s interests; are of great concern. Along the way he delivers blinding criticisms and satires of Irish deforestation, a regatta gathering of the gentry classes west of the Shannon, the English Dept.of Agriculture, the Irish Railway companies and more; one such instance is when he sees a monument to an English Lord on Sarsfield Bridge in Limerick:
“This monument on Sarsfield Bridge was erected to the memory of one Viscount Fitzgibbon, who was probably some local landlord. In any case he was certainly a man who never drew a sword for Ireland, and never was loyal to her. The face, as portrayed by the sculptor, is rather a weak one. But the brazen lips give an insolent message to Limerick all the same, which may be interpreted as follows:
“You called this bridge after a man who won glory for Limerick and for Ireland but I am here to remind you of a man who drew the sword for your masters. You celebrate the military and civic fame of your city in the name you give this bridge stands for Ireland, but I am here to remind you that neither the valour nor the genius of your sires sufficed to prevail against England. The name of this bridge stands for Ireland; I stand for England. I am here to glorify enlistment. I am a tout for the recruiting-sergeant. I am here because ye are partially tamed. I tell ye to be tamer still. Be peaceful through and through, and thank God ye are slaves. Come to heel, you helots. Croppies lie down!””.
It is a shame of course that the traits Bulfin rallied against of the old colonial order in Ireland, was to be replaced by a similar experience ever since independence, under the subsequent Irish governments (most commonly Fianna Fáil) with their cronyism, back-hander deals, inability, ill-planning and looking after one’s own. Nonetheless Bulfin’s sentiments are noble and should give inspiration to us all, that of a tradition to question and critique the dominant orders; to observe, write and take bike tours! Bulfin would almost surely be turning in his grave at the thought of the present plans to build a motorway on the sacred grounds of the Hill of Tara and Skyrne Valley (historical place of governance of Ireland’s High Kings). Tara of the Kings was one of the places Bulfin writes of, along with the Hill of Uisnach, Vinegar Hill (Co. Wexford), battles places of Roscrea, Grianan Hill in Derry and more.
Along with such remarks, Bulfin with great wit and character recounts tales of meeting a man of the beggarman class at a crossroads near Birr, falling from his bike in Leitrim, the rain of Ireland, of jumping a fence to help some farmer’s collecting hay as well as stopping a load of turf cutters in the bogs of Westmeath to fill them in on the lives of their relations emigrated to Argentina.
Bulfin on his travels did not camp, as one might do these days if on such a trip, but rather stays with friends and in the odd guesthouse along the way. He does however seem to make big mileage on his trips with day cycles of about 70 miles (95 kms?). He also seems to have been a fairly stubborn odd ol’ lad which can only be admired. One section that demonstrates this is on one trip which he takes in a jaunting car (horse-drawn cart) with a driver whom he suspects of slavish subservience to officers of the army classes. Bulfin silences the driver, seizes control of the car, stops it and goes on a wander up a mountain so as to see the view; which the driver, left stunned, had not thought of importance.
One beautiful section in the book is where Bulfin becomes overcome with the intoxication of going downhill on his wheel and imagines himself trading places with an old warrior of yore:
“All the tame fibres of your being go to sleep and the other ones wake up, and take charge. Something of that nature happens to most people who are going half-a-mile a minute. It happened to me. As I flew down the third or fourth hill I fell off, as I might say, and another being took my place – a dusty, muddy, perspiring wretch who waved his cap over his dishevelled head, and cheered for the warrior memories of Longford. The pace and history had got into his brain; and he was cycling through other centuries. He recalled, no doubt, that there was little room for quiet folks in those parts during the splendid days gone by when there was battle in the wind. From every ridge and dale and glen which alternated between him and Westmeath, from every slope and moor and wood to his left away to the purple hills that loomed beyond the Shannon, there had swarmed in other days, in defence of home and hearth, and altar, strong fighting men of Ireland, with the bright steel bare.”
William Bulfin’s Rambles in Eirinn is a great and rewarding read. It would be a very interesting prospect to try to repeat his routes now in the modern day, much of which would most likely be unsurpassable with contemporary motor ways, cycle conditions, and obstacles such as housing estates, factories and industry. Perhaps it would be possible by round about routes to some extent. Without a doubt Bulfin has left us with a valuable and significant document.
[Roberts Wholesale Books Ltd., Dublin 2, Ireland. First published 1907].