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  • Cockney Tourists, Irish Guides, and the Invention of the Emerald Isle
  • Susan Kroeg (bio)

In the closing decades of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth, British domestic tourism increased sharply, driven by war and political unrest on the continent; by a growing British middle class eager to demonstrate its cultural and economic capital; and ultimately by a metropolitan desire to explore and to “tame” the previously colonized, ever-expanding margins of the United Kingdom. Travel and travel writing in particular provided a space and a language for ongoing cultural negotiations between Great Britain and Ireland. Thanks to the sustained efforts of scholars, we now know a great deal about British travel to and perceptions of Ireland in this period.1 Nevertheless, we have yet to [End Page 200] understand fully the ways in which those experiences and perceptions were shaped by the structures and ideologies of tourism.2

The desire of Britons to define themselves in opposition to their Irish neighbors demanded a certain difference, a certain distance between the two islands; at the same time, however, Ireland’s close physical proximity, coupled with the 1800 Act of Union, meant that any distance had to be carefully modulated. Tourism, predicated on the real or imagined distance between “home” and “abroad,” allowed British travelers to moderate the degree of distance, to exploit Irish otherness in the service of imperial self-definition. Earlier travelers to Ireland had styled themselves as gatherers and purveyors of information, willing to brave hardship and danger, or at least discomfort, to travel through Ireland and to publish their findings on the “manners” of the people (including their religious and political behaviors) and on the potential of the country for economic development. At what point, however, did the activities required in this epistemological quest become “tourism”?3 At Killarney, when one was escorted around the lakes by hired boatmen who related Irish legends? At the Giant’s Causeway, when one purchased a mineral specimen from one of the assemblage of rag-tag guides? Or in the course of journeying through the countryside, when one observed peasant life as William Thackeray saw it, “at the rate of nine miles an hour . . . from a coach window, starred with ice and mud”?4

The connotative and value-laden distinction between the knowledge-seeking traveler and the pleasure-seeking tourist arose in the late eighteenth century, soon after the word “tourist” made its [End Page 201] appearance in the English language.5 In practice, the term “tourist” reflected an important socioeconomic distinction and cultural transition. Consider Daniel Boorstin’s insistence that the democratization of travel in the nineteenth century denigrated its value: “The traveler, then, was working at something; the tourist was a pleasure seeker. The traveler was active. . . . The tourist is passive.”6 In this formula travelers, presumed to be elite and wealthy, had the freedom and the financial means to go where they would, but tourists, members of the rising middle classes, required a structure and apparatus tailored specifically to the needs of people who “were in neither the position nor the humour to squander their resources.”7 But if tourists were (or are) “passive” recipients of the structures of tourism, then it follows that others were active participants in the creation of those structures. Too little attention has been paid to the reciprocal—if unequal—nature of tourism. Tourism can and does provide an economic and even a cultural benefit to the community being “toured,” and it affords a unique opportunity to craft and manipulate an image of the self as it is consumed and propagated by the other.

The growing distinction between traveler and tourist in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries overlaps suggestively with the changing relationship between Britain and Ireland in the same period—a shift precipitated by and reflected in the 1800 Act of Union. Historian C.J. Woods has labeled the period 1775–1850 “the golden age of Irish travel writing”—that is, travel writing about Ireland, written predominantly by and for the British.8 As Ireland increasingly became the object of touristic desire (frequently in the shape of “green Erin” or “the Emerald Isle”), it simultaneously became a...


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