In the Summer of 1948, an English travel writer named John Wood went on a backpacking trip around Ireland. Wood walked most of the 1,000 miles with a few unsolicited lifts and bus trips along the way, he managed to visit seventeen counties in one of the wettest summers on record for the time. He later wrote a travel book called ‘With Rucksack round Ireland‘. The book offers a fascinating snapshot of Ireland, from tourist sites, accommodation, transport and general everyday life. Wood was originally from Yorkshire and had served in the army. He had visited Ireland on a few occasions previously and describes himself as pro-Irish. He had an interest in climbing and took on the challenge of climbing mountains along the coast over 2500 foot while on his trip. He uses the name Eire throughout his book as he rightly states the Republic of Ireland was only defined by the 1949 Act after his trip took place.
“I like to think that an appraisal of Ireland and the Irish by a friendly foreign writer like myself may be to some extent more revealing than the work of eminent native authors… My interpretation will at least be complementary to theirs, and perhaps more readily apprehended of British readers, whilst providing for any of the Irish who may seek from it an outsider’s viewpoint an appreciation that is seasoned with the mild relish of candid comment.”
The following is an excerpt from Rucksack round Ireland by John Wood.
That ‘the smell of the Liffey is wan of the sights of Dublin’ is perhaps only a stage Irishman’s gag, but the aspect and effluvia of the river and the canal basin and coal wharves at its mouth make it anything but an auspicious point of entry to the country. My customs examination was merely formal, the official rightly judging that a traveller with no more luggage than he could pack into a rucksack was unlikely to be importing any dutiable goods.. after a few minutes after leaving the ship I was in the street. No taxi to be seen, possibly taken by the saloon-class passengers who had disembarked before me but there was a row of horse-cabs in the last stage of decrepitude with nags nearly as ancient, in charge of the sorry remnant of the once-famed jarvies of Dublin.
Easily avoiding the luggage touts, who were nonplussed by my rucksack, I strode along towards the city and went to a shabby breakfast room, where bacon and egg appeared as a matter of course. Such a dish had been for some years very scare in Britain but was only the first of an almost unbroken series of bacon-and-egg breakfasts in Ireland.
Eire’s neutrality in the conflict was evident from the great quantities of food exposed for sale – but at what prices! Here were tomatoes at 5s per lb. and piles of oranges at 6d. each from the hawkers on O’Connell Street. Oranges were so plentiful… I had queued for them in England. Ice cream was clearly a popular item of diet, and the numerous small shops that sold it not only did business on Sunday but kept open till a late hour.
There was holiday atmosphere, for on a Sunday a Catholic country gives itself up, after attending mass, to sports and pastimes; the largely Protestant North was down here too for the start of its annual holiday week, unmistakable with its near-Scottish accents, and revelling in its escape from a Presbyterian Sabbath.
Taxi-drivers were trying to get rich by offering to take intending passengers from the bus queue to Bray at a rate of 6s per head. As the bus fare was 11d, the only cheap one I met in Ireland, I saved a crown by waiting for a chill half-hour.
Footage of Dublin in 1948
That all meals were dear was an early discovery, a meal in Bray cost me 3s 6d and a meat tea at a fourth-rate eating house in a back street in Dublin was 2d 6d. Certainly, the amount of meat served on each occasion seemed enormous compared to British rations. Thus early I began to fear my budgeted daily cost of 15s might curtail my stay.
Dublin girls used to be noted for their good complexions, and I have heard their comeliness attributed to consumption of many oranges in the days when the fruit was cheap… Now perhaps due to cosmetics which are prodigiously advertised, even in the buses, … they are advertised more than Dublin stout.
But the largest advertisement I saw on the Dublin hoardings was the colossal one of a pawnbroker. Casual labour at the docks and irregular earnings generally are presumably the cause of the pop-shops popularity, as well as a plethora of touts. To some extent, the same causes were probably responsible for many street urchins going barefoot. Of course one hears from comfortable gentlemen in hotels that there is no need for any child to go unshod except to beg, but those I saw were not soliciting alms.
The Irish coinage does not cause much confusion, but the nickel sixpences are larger than ours, and I had an early lesson, for the youth who conducted me to the breakfast-lace sold me a Sunday paper and tried to play upon my presumed ignorance.
Religion and sport were both occupying the minds of Dublin’s citizens on that Sunday, as every other. In the afternoon there was a hurling match, the evening streets were thronged by the supporters of a team from Leix (pron. Leeish, and formerly Queen’s County).
(Note on the 11th July 1948, Dublin bet Laois in the Senior Hurling final by 5-09 to 3-03, this was played in O’Connor Park, Tullamore).
But though Sunday was the day for most big sporting events – football, hurling, regattas, and so on – this did not militate against religious observances. Spectators and players would have been to mass in the morning, and in the evening here were crowds leaving the Catholic chapels as I walked from Phoenix Park down the North Circular Road. Later on, many of the younger worshippers would be going toa Gaelic dance or a ceilidh.
What did astonish me was to see hundreds of young people leaving the evangelistic service in the Y.M.C.A., and massing outside in apparent reluctance to go home. This must give much satisfaction to religious leaders, but it would be relevant to inquire whether the churchgoing produces better results in the way of personal and business ethics than in England.
One thing that was decidedly not obvious in this chief city of a reputedly Gaelic state was the use of the Gaelic language, which in Eire is generally called Irish. In all official notices and signs it takes first place, and for over twenty years it has been compulsorily taught in schools so you would expect to hear it spoken quite a lot in public, but I heard no word of anything but English. Desperately the Gaelic League flyposts the town with assertions that a Gaelic Ireland will be a prosperous Ireland. Either the Irish do not believe it, or they do not want prosperity.
Note (Irish newspapers in 1948 feature stories about the Irish language. Articles mention the numbers of people speaking Irish and whether it should be compulsorily in schools. The government had decided to stop producing advertisement information in Irish. It was also found that only 0.5% of the Ration books were completed in Irish. Irish speakers were encouraged to use their language more to encourage the government to provide services in Irish).
In Phoenix Park, my eye was taken by the Wellington Memorial, the enormous stacks of turf (peat) alongside the road and the Edward VII cipher that has been allowed to remain on the gates. Then I sought my bed. Earlier I had been to a youth hostel but found it already filled with Northern lads and lasses. The warden recommended a place within one minute of the Nelson Pillar, by paying the 6 shillings in advance and agreeing to share a room with two other men, I was able to book a bed. Whilst I was out it had been made with soiled sheets and pillowcase, but I overcame my bourgeois repugnance got into it. Before long a large stout man entered and seemed not well pleased to see a room-mate, but presently surprised me by kneeling at his bedside. In the army and since I have shared rooms with other men by the hundred, including Irish Catholics, Scottish Presbyterians, and Welsh Nonconformists, but this is the first time I had witnessed such an act of devotion at the bedside of an adult. All the same, I was glad that the trousers containing all my money were under my pillow. A third man shortly arrived and soon settled down. Above the opposite roofs arose a full moon, and soon it was watching my slumbers.