Dr George Petrie's Last Visit to Clare

An extract from "Life of Petrie" by Dr William Stokes

From The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Volume 4, edited by T. P. O'Connor

In his seventy-third year Petrie, with a small party of friends, visited Cashel, and explored the Lower Shannon and Scattery Island, as well as the coast of Clare. His enjoyment of the cliff scenery, especially that of the coast between Kikee and Loop Head, was seemingly intensified by the feeling that this was the last time he should ever behold it. The weather was fine, and as the party walked on the carpet of sea-pinks which clothes the heights, and looked down on the many picturesque inlets and caverns formed by the sea, everything was glowing in colour. On the strands of the little bays below groups of people, the men in white costumes and the women and children in red, were preparing their curracks for the night fishing, while wreaths of blue smoke arose from their open-air fires. The azure sea was calm, but as far as the eye could reach furrowed by parallel and unbroken undulations, each carrying on its summit a burden of gold from the setting sun, and as it touched the shore throwing a shower of jewels down. Gazing on this scene Petrie exclaimed, "What country is like these western districts of Ireland? Where will the philosophic mind, that knows the history of the people, find such food for reflection? Where is nature seen in such varied beauty?"

From the cliffs of Moher, then showering their finest effects of colour, the party proceeded along the coast to Ballyvaughan, the way being shortened by Petrie's store of historic anecdote. Passing the little harbour of Doolin he pointed out the grave of the Spaniards, a big mound near the sea, where the survivors from the wreck of a vessel of the Armada lie in a common grave. They were all put to death under the orders of the lord-deputy by Clancy, who had been the chief brehon, but had conformed to the state religion, and become sheriff of Clare. Many of the circumstances of this wholesale execution are preserved in the traditions of the people. Among the victims was a young Spanish nobleman, for whom much intercession was made, but in vain, as the concise command to the sheriff of "Hang them!" applied to all. This history was supplemented in a truly national way by the driver. "When peace was made," he said, "the friends of the duke came to the country to get his remains, but how could they make them out among so many? so they went back to Spain, and from that to this the chaplain of the family curses the Clancys on the day the young man was hanged." "Had the Clancys ever any luck?" asked Petrie. "They had not, your honour; anyway none of them ever got to be a clergyman;" then recollecting himself he exclaimed, "There was one, I am told by the old people, but they took the name off him—they gave him his mother's name."

As illustrating the spirit of the times he related how O'Rorke, the prince of Breifne, for saving from massacre and giving temporary shelter and food to the famishing remnant of another Spanish crew, was treated as a rebel who had entertained the enemies of the queen, his lands confiscated, and himself carried to London and there imprisoned.

He was brought into the presence of Elizabeth, but refused to kneel before her, and when demanded scoffingly if he was not accustomed to kneel to a virgin queen, he replied, "To no queen will I kneel but the Queen of Heaven." His execution followed, and when asked had he any dying request to make he said, "None, but that you turn my face to Ireland.''

In the district of Burren—the Arabia Petraea of Ireland—so rich in the remains of pagan and early Christian times, and with its invigorating air and singular rock scenery, his spirits became almost boyish. On leaving Ballyvaughan the party had to meet the train at Oranmore; the day was showery, and he had remained within doors; but even when the last moment for departure had arrived he was found dancing round the room to his own spirit-stirring music, while Irish planxties, Spanish fandangoes and boleros, fell in showers from his violin, and not till the very last moment could he be got to mount the car.

See also A Touching Reminiscence of Dr George Petrie and George Petrie (from The Dublin University Magazine, 1839)