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Friedrich Engels: a Tourist In Ireland

In May 1856 Friedrich Engels made his maiden trip to Ireland. Engels interest in Ireland lay within his relationship with sisters Mary and Lydia Burns. Mary would become Engels unofficial wife until her sudden death in 1863 at the age of 41.  Lydia would become Engels official wife when they were married in 1878 while Lydia was in her death bed.

The Burns sisters were not born in Ireland, their parents had immigrated to Manchester from Tipperary but the siblings proudly considered themselves Irish. The Burns family were plagued by poverty and the patriarch of the family worked as a cloth dyer but subsequently ended his days in a workhouse.

Growing up in destitution riled the Burns sisters radical political outlook and their rebellious attitude served to endear Engels to them. The Burns sisters met the German philosopher in 1840s Manchester and he instantly became enthralled by Ireland and all things Irish. He even tried to learn the Irish language!

The Burns sisters introduced Engels to the impoverished working class life of Manchester where many living under such conditions were immigrants. Through this he was able to piece together one of his finest works: “The Condition of the Working Class in England.”

Without the insider knowledge of the Burns sisters, Engels only knew of working class conditions as an outsider looking in. He was far removed from the type of poverty that inflicted the working class of Britain in the 19th century. Engels was born into a well off family in Germany in 1820 and was sent to Manchester as a young gentleman to run a cotton mill. Engels was a man of means whose hobbies included horse riding, fox hunting and sipping fine wine at soirees. Yet for all his fine dinning and country pursuits, Engels also found time to financially support Karl Marx and his family as well as the Burns sisters.

For his maiden voyage to Ireland, Engels took Mary Burns and they traveled from Dublin to Galway. It was May 1856 and Engels wrote a letter to Marx describing how his journey started from the capital city and went west to Galway. From there they travelled along the River Shannon to Limerick and into North Kerry before arriving at the tourist town of Killarney and back up to Dublin to finish the trip. Engels described to Marx how the city of Dublin was “built in an exclusively English style” while the towns outside the pale “look like France or Northern Italy.”

While in Ireland Engels was not blind to the role British imperialism played  in Irish life. He wrote to Marx how “The government meddles in everything, there is no trace of the so called self government. It can be clearly seen that Ireland is the first English colony and one which is still ruled directly in the old way on account of its proximity.”

Engels was also alarmed by the British militarisation of the small island and was ungracious regarding this:

In no land have I seen so many police and the drink sodden type of the Prussian gendarmes has here been developed to perfection into a constabulary armed with carbines bayonets and handcuffs.

Engels informed Marx how “the country has been completely ruined by the pillaging wars of the English.” Engels even stated that “the Irish can no longer feel at home in their own country. Ireland for the Saxon! That is now being achieved.” Engels wrote more scathing lines to Marx about the situation in Ireland: “The manner in which England rules this country is through repression and corruption.'”

Engels letter to Marx from Ireland also mentioned the impact of emigration and it’s direct link to imperial oppression. Engels identified the main factor behind the social and political blight in Ireland when he wrote to Marx how Ireland “has been deprived of her social development and thrown back centuries.”

While in County Galway, Engels traveled through Oughterard and in his letter to Marx he painted a bleak picture of the area which he described as an area “covered with ruins of peasant cottages, most of which have been abandoned only since 1846.”

Engels also described to Marx how the landscape has been shaped by famine and emigration when he wrote how “there are not even cattle to be seen in the fields. The land is an utter desert which nobody wants.”

Engels also mentioned the other side of Irish life, the well off landlords. Engels informed  Marx how “a demorlaised character persists in the aristocracy…..their houses are surrounded by enormous and wonderful demesnes but outside these the country is a desert and where their money comes from is nowhere to be seen.”

Engels suggested that the landed gentry in Ireland exuded all the airs and graces but the hidden reality was that they owned nothing more than a pile of debt and Engels wrote how “they live in fear of the landed estates court.”

For Engels, the Ireland he visited in 1856 was a country of great economic and social inequalities. He wrote to Marx “whole villages are deserted and there amongst them lie the splendid parks of the lesser landlords.”

Mary Burns would not return to Ireland, she would die in 1863 but, Engels would head back over the Irish sea in September 1869, this time in the company of Lizzy Burns and Eleanor Marx, Karl’s daughter. The trio travelled around the garden of Ireland, Wicklow, before heading south to Killarney and Cork. Unlike his first trip, his second journey around Ireland was much shorter and more of a vacation rather than an anthropologists soujorn.

In 1869 physical force nationalism was charging the social thought of the Irish. It resulted in British authorities building a heavier military presence across the land. Engels was aware of this change but so too was he aware of a rising Catholic bourgeoise class.

Engels wrote in his notes how the Irish “become corruptable​ as soon as they stop being peasants and fall into bourgeoise ways.” These views can be considered condescending but, they are views that could well have been applied to the Celtic tiger Ireland of the noughties!

During his trips to Ireland, Engels filled 15 notebooks with the aim of publishing a history of the country but, such an aim never materialised. In his notes Engels wrote

Irish history shows one what a misfortune it is for a nation to be subjected by another nation to all the abominations the English have in their origins in the Irish pales.

The poverty that wracked the majority of the Irish population was keenly noted by Engels even the type of garment the peasant wore caught the eye of Engels –  “their clothing causes them little trouble so long as it holds together by a single thread, and shoes they do not know.”

The plight of the peasant Irish was of great interest to Engels but for all his sympathetic views he also managed to draw the impoverished Irish in a stereotypical light with statements regarding the diet of the poor Irish – “food that consists of potatoes and potatoes only” and even suggests “whatever they earn beyond their needs they spend upon drink.”

Besides the condemnation of British imperialism in Ireland and questionable views on the Irish peasant class, no travelogue would be complete without mention of the climate and for Engels, the climate in Ireland proved to have as much character as it’s people – “the weather, like it’s inhabitants, has a more acute character, it moves in sharper more sudden contrasts, the sky is like an Irish woman’s face and rain and sunshine succeed each other suddenly and unexpectedly and there is none of the grey English boredom.”

More articles by:

Pauline Murphy is a freelance writer from Ireland. 

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