Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Two nicknames

This is a work-in-progress blog serial about aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and other background material are available at the project landing page#IUCRevisited

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“I found a good car at the railway station, and set off at once for Portumna.”
–William Henry Hurlbert

In late February 1888, Hurlbert traveled from Cork city to Portumna in western County Galway, in the Irish Midlands. He stopped in Parsonstown, noting its ancient (and present) Irish name of Birr, from St. Brendan’s Abbey of Biorra. The American reporter described the town as “a clean prosperous place, carefully looked after by the chief landlord of the region, the Earl of Rosse,” a peerage of the Parsons family, and thus the town’s name in the 19th century.

This historic limestone boulder in Birr is referred to as the ‘Navel of Ireland’ and is often considered to mark the center of Ireland.

Hurlbert also mentioned that Sir William Petty called the place Umbilicus Hiberniae, or the “Navel of Ireland,” in his 1650s Survey of Ireland, since it was believed to be the center of Ireland. Other references to this nickname date to the 12th century.

The true geographic center of Ireland is actually 35 miles to the north, in Carnagh East townland, County Roscommon, near Altlone. The town straddles the River Shannon and also includes portion of County Westmeath.

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Hurlbert made his way to Portmuna Castle on the estate of the Marquis of Clanricarde, where he was the guest of land agent Edward Shaw Tener. As they discussed the agrarian agitation in Ireland, Tener stated that he knew the agent’s job came with personal risk. Hurlbert then referenced an earlier passage of his book:

But he [Tener] takes this part of the contract very coolly, telling me that the only real danger, he thinks, is incurred when he makes a journey of which he has to send a notice by telegraph–a remark which recalled to me the curious advice given me in Dublin to seal my letters, as protection against ‘ the Nationalist clerks in the post offices.’ “

Portumna Castle

Tener said that his precautions were required “not at all against the tenants  … nor the people here at Portumna, but from mischievous and dangerous persons at Loughrea and Woodford,” outside the estate. “Woodford … got the name of the ‘cockpit of Ireland‘, because it was there that Mr. [John] Dillon, in October 1886, opened the ‘war against the landlords’ with the ‘Plan of Campaign’.”

NOTES: From pages 249 to 257, of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American

NEXT: Battling books

Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan

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