William Bulfin - The Man from Pampas

The well known writer, Benedict Kiely penned this profile of Derrinlough's William Bulfrin in The Capuchin Annual in 1948. It is published with kind permission of Offaly Historical and Archaelogical Society.

The woman behind the counter in a pub in Ballintra told the big man who locked like a cavalry officer that it was a pity he could find nothing more useful to do with his strength than to waste it riding round the country on a bicycle. That was nearly fifty years ago, and in Ballintra and in many other places the bicycle had not been accepted as a very familiar and harmless piece of machinery.

The cycling tourist was still something of a wonder, and not even in Donegal, where prophecies are as plentiful as small potatoes or mountain streams, did any prophecy speak of him as the father of a race of young men and women clad in shorts and haversacks, and scouring the roads of the world on shinning sports models.

In Ballintra, and in other Irish villages, they would have known more about the returned American than about the cycling tourist, even when he was returning, not from the comparatively familiar streets of Boston or Philadelphia, but from the remote spaces of the Argentinian pampas. The exile, however, generally returned sitting in state on a jaunting car, not on a strong bicycle solidly made in an Irish factory by Irish hands.

The bicycle was part of the eccentricity of tourism. In Jane Barlow’s stories it was to borrow an adjective from Mr. William Plomer-part of the eccentricity of the stranded gentry. The fact that the bicycle was made in Ireland, and that the returned Argentinian was very proud of his machine’s Irish manufacture, seemed to shut him off with the eccentricities of a young man in Dublin who refused to be content either with the English language or the Irish parliamentary party.

The woman in Ballintra was puzzled but sympathetic. When the tourist had lowered his bottle of stout and said farewell, she said “God speed all bikers, and give them sense. So leaving her puzzlement behind him, and taking with him sympathy and her blessing, William Bulfin cycled on towards the new Ireland.

Sean Ghall wrote an exceedingly appreciative preface of Bulfin’s Rambles in Eirinn. It is at the other end of the see-saw from the pitying sympathy of the woman in Ballintra. It records in glowing language what the men who stayed at home dreaming of a new Ireland thought of the man who returned from the Argentine, where he had remembered always the Ireland of his boyhood and indulged, also, in his own share of dreams.

Among other opinions, that preface includes the opinion of a lady to whom Sean Ghall refers as “one of the most distinguished of Irish gentlewomen, a graft of a long-rooted aristocratic tree.” She wrote “We were seated in the open discoursing of what is nearest all our hearts-Ireland, her rights and wrongs-when Mr. Bulfin arrived in our midst on his bicycle.” Her sentence evokes a half-consciously comic period picture. It hints at, also, the secret of the very interesting book that resulted form the returned exile’s visit to Ireland in the years that preceded the insurrection of 1916, from the purchase of an Irish-made bicycle and his using of that machine to follow his heart along a hundred Irish roads.
He was returning from the Argentine where many of the Irish, and particularly the Midland Irish, had found new homes. He was Midland born, born in 1864, the fourth son in a family of nine boys and one girl, the children of William Bulfin, of Derrinlough, Birr, Co. Offaly. His mother was Ellen Grogan of Rhode, Croghan, also in Offaly, and from her brother, Father Vincent Grogan, then Provincial for the Passionist Fathers of a province that included a monastery in Buenos Aires, young William Bulfin first heard of the Argentine. He emigrated in 1884.

He was twenty years of age, an unusually intelligent, well, educated and well-equipped emigrant.
His father had sent him to the Classical Academy and to the Presentation Schools in Birr, and to the Royal Charter School at Banagher when it was under the Catholic head-mastership of Dr. King Joyce. Afterwards he went to school for a while at Cloghan “where it is believed he was taught by the father of the late Thomas MacDonagh, the 1916 leader.

“He finished his education at Galway Grammer School, gained his father’s consent to go west, “provided he took with him his elder brother, Peter, a wild youth who had severely overtrained the paternal patience. The boy of twenty who could take his elder brother under his wing on a journey from Ireland to the Argentine had apparently already given proof of a steadiness and reliability that not even transplantation to a new life in a new world could shake. The wildness of Peter Bulfin was to appear in William Bulfin as a regimented and directed fighting spirit. They landed in Buenos Aires, turned their back on the city, and moved on out to the pampas.

They were not going into a completely unknown country, for from Longford and Westmeath hundreds of emigrants had already gone to the Argentine. They had with them letters of introduction to the Passionist Fathers in Buenos Aires and to several estancieros, and William Bulfin went first to the estancia (ranch) of one of these, Don Juan Dowling, a man from Longford. There he met for the first time the girl who was to become his wife. She was Anne O’Rourke, and she had come to the Argentine from Ballacurra, Ballymore, in Westmeath.

It was a curious world the foundations laid by imperial Spain, the material for its building coming from Spain and Ireland and England, and everywhere, and meeting with the descendants of men who had roamed those plains before Cortez. Out on the pampas his preference was for the company of either the gauchos or the Irish, and observing both his own fellow-countrymen and the hard-riding Spanish-Indian cowboys he began to write homely sketches and stories about their lives. The natural market was The Southern Cross, a weekly paper in Buenos Aires, owned and edited and run for the Irish community by Michael Dineen from Cork.

Years later, when his connections with journalism and with that one particular paper had widened out to include something much more than stray contribution, he wrote in The Southern Cross about the vanishing gaucho in a way that showed how closely he had observed and been attracted by the vivid pattern of life on the Argentinian grasslands: “There is no use in shutting one’s eyes to facts. The gaucho is going fast. Seventeen years ago he was still well in evidence-aye, even down to ten years ago - in the north and west of Buenos Aires province.

He had his ranch, and his horses and his work at trooping or marking or herding sheep, and he drank his anis or cana, and took his mate under his own fig tree, and gambled with bone or cards or on horseracing at the pulperias of all the camps from the Arroyp Luna to the Medano Blanco, and along the frontier from Gainza to Melincue. The wire fence broke his heart on the inside camps. Alfalfa and the wheat fields are his bane outside. He is moving on. Here and there he is accepting the change and is taking to the plough, the thresher, and the bullock cart. His accent remains in the Spanish of the Criollos, who have taken his place, but the gaucho of other days is a vanishing type.”

The ingredients of that passage are an eye for colour, a remembrance of things past, an ability to see and value the phenomena of social change. In varying degrees they are almost always found among the ingredients of the good journalist, and, since the good journalist lives in cities, the cities claimed William Bulfin when he had spent three or four years on the pampas.

The nearest city was Buenos Aires, and he was called back to its streets by the whistle of a passing train.

That was in 1887 or 1888, and in 1902 he was writing “It was a train brought me back to Buenos Aires from the camp. I mean it was the train which gave me the call.....It happened that I had not seen a train for four years..... I went to a certain railway station one afternoon to send a telegram to Buenos Aires, and while I was there the train came in. I do not know whether it was the engine, or a look at the passengers, or the roar and rattle of the wheels, or all of these things together, that set the wheels of memory revolving. The city life of student days came back, the city began to call. As I galloped home it struck me that the camp was not meant for me, after all. It was telling me to clear out. ‘You are not good enough for me,’ it seemed to be saying. ‘Go away, go back to your cities, and fair weather after you; don’t be afraid that I’II miss you or a thousand like you.’ And what the city said was this’ Come back. For four and twenty years at home and abroad you have been keeping away from me. But it’s no use. You cannot help yourself. You were born in the open country....but you are mine. You must come. I am the hag that men call the spirit of city life-ugly, selfish, corrupt, insincere, but I call you and you must come.

Rejected the camp and invited by the city. he had little choice. He drifted into Buenos Aires, a little perturbed at first to see that the city whose hag of a spirit had invited him didn’t even seem to be aware of his arrival. But Buenos Aires was soon to hear of him, mainly as the vigorous defender of the rights of Catholics and of Irish immigrants. A year after his arrival in the city he was sub-editing on The Southern Cross, and shortly afterwards he was both proprietor and editor of that paper. He wrote in its columns in 1902 “And now I am off for a change, to look for the excitement of a sea-voyage, and a stroll through ‘Banba of the Streams.

The fighting man from the smooth green and brown land of Offaly was returning to refresh his spirit in the places where in spite of gauchos and great grasslands and growing American cities, he had really left his heart. He was to find in those places much that would refresh and much that would vex his spirit. The aristocratic lady and all the other people who were discussing the rights and wrongs of Ireland in relation to the discussions of the Irish parliamentary party received him as one of their own kind. It was fourteen years before a fight in which he, a born fighter, was not to live to take part. But the book that was the ultimate result of his visit was to become a not unimportant part of that fight; and on that account, and also because it reflects perfectly a period and a mentality and a particular man, Rambles in Eirinn has its place among the best travel books written about the island of Ireland.
He had journeyed on horseback across the wide pampas. He had even cycled on the pampas: “I had cycled from Olivos to Tigre in Buenos Aires. I had cycled from the Once of Lujan on the roadless to breathe the fresh air, and he had, as well, a conscientious objection to the methods, manners and ways of Irish railway companies. The most natural thing on earth was that when he wanted to make a journey to see a friend or a relation or a village or a mountain or a fine view, he should buy himself a strong bicycle capable of standing all the bumps of by-roads that could often be rougher than the roadless pampas. The sketches he wrote about those journeys began to appear in The Southern Cross, and later, partly because of his friendship with Arthur Griffith, in The United Irishman and in Sinn Fein, and later still in the New York Daily News. They were read by Irishmen in Ireland and in the Argentine and in the United States, and after the usual encouragement from friends they were published in book form by Gill in 1907.

For a later edition Sean Ghall wrote the preface already referred to; wrote it with a fervour and a style that makes strange reading to young and non-revolutionary Ireland of the present day. The fault, or rather that strangeness and discrepancy in feeling, is neither with the present nor with the writer of the preface, but with different circumstances that mould men differently and with time that inexorably transfigures. The preface is, though within its narrow limits almost as important as the book, for it tells how the Gaelic League Ireland, that would in a few years be revolutionary Ireland, saw the returned exile who approved of the Gaelic League and who had revolution in the marrow of his hones.

As he strode across the room,” Sean Ghall wrote, “ his magnificent stature and masculine beauty were accentuated by his fret, graceful gait. My first impression was summed up: “A cavalry officer’. But the thoughtfulness of his face and the total absence of the rigidity and swagger of that military unit banished the thought. Withal I was convinced that he spent many a long hour on horseback, for the easy swing of his legs could have come from no other source. There was not the faintest suggestion of that peculiar cast of features, that subtle nuance in speech and in bearing which are comprised in the word ‘horsey.’ As he stood erect to the extent of some six feet and more, with his hands clasped behind his back, the slant of his shoulders, the clean cut figure, brought to your mind the long straight, strong spar of a Norwegian pine. He looked like a lance in rest. As he coursed from subject to subject, in vivid picturesque talk, he brought a breeze of fresh air into the smoke-coloured room. His illustrations were as vivid and as pat, as his vocabulary was choice and copious. It has been my good fortune to have known courtly men and refined gentlewomen, but none possessed a more beautiful urbanity, a more flattering deference, than Willam Bulfin. He was a Chesterfield, with soul and heart added.”

That was how Ireland saw the man who was to make his cycling journeys around the roads of Ireland, stopping to climb a mountain, to row on a lake, to argue with an English commercial traveller, to halt the work on a midland bog with news from the Argentine from the workers’ relatives to approve of every evidence of cultural and social and economic revival, to abuse every evidence of the alien hand preventing the revival, to joke with women in a famous market in the city of Cork, to crush a Tipperary jarvey whose speech betrayed his slavish subservience to officers of the British army. His book will always be valuable because it tells us so much about himself and about the Ireland he saw and spoke to in the early years of a century that was to bring revolution like the chaotic Viconian thunderclap to the whole world.

For him all Ireland was holy ground, but in a particular way his heart was in North Munster and the soft melancholy Midlands, and it was in those places that his book of journey from Dublin to his home in the midlands was for him the first stage of a pilgrimage into the past and into the hearts of his people, into the beautiful places of his own island. Oh, it was beautiful, beautiful!” he wrote. “Every mile of it was a delight. It took us by Lucan, where the sheep and cattle were deep in flower-strewn grass on the meadows that knew the Sarsfields before the Wild. Geese flew from Ireland. Across the Liffey it whirled us, between thick hedges, by some of the Geraldine lands, and under the tree-clad hills where there were rapparees of the O’Dempseys once a upon a time; and on and on, through valleys that had reechoed to the hoof-thunder of the riders of O’Connor of Offaly, in the olden days.”

The olden days “were to keep returning to him on all his journeys, mingling with reasoning and discussions about social and economic about with vivid pictures of beautiful places, with cunning sketches of characters met by the side of the road.

The book switches from the present to the past and from pleasantry to anger as all good travel-books should, for the journey has nothing that has not variety, and the good traveller goes as much through the past as through the present, and as bravely in the rain as in the sunshine. In one paragraph he could be obsorbed with the battle of Roscrea, with Oilfinn, chief of the Danes, who marched his men onto the town to plunder the rich merchants assembled there for the fair held on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. In the next paragraph he could be borrowing a stool in a house at a quiet cross roads, to sit smoking outside the house and to chat with a wandering man who was eating watercress off a cabbage leaf. The man, seen quietly but very clearly, wore “a tall silk hat, bottle green with age and the stress of travel. He showed a frayed and yellow collar and the remnant of a black tie. His frock coat was tightly buttoned across his chest. His trousers were patched at the knees and frayed at the feet. His boots were in the last stages of decay, and were clamouring for the restfulness of the grave. At first I thought he might be a broken-down landlord. But I was mistaken. He was simply a tramp.

The past could lead him forward to the comic present, and observation of and comment on that comedy could bring him up against the economic problems of a country slowly recovering from the misfortunes of the nineteenth century. Beyond the Shannon on the plains of Boyle he saw the low rolling grassy hills still unpeopled because the landlords when in their power had decided that grazing cattle were more profitable tenants than ploughing and digging men: “There are no woodlands, no groves, scarcely any trees at all.

There is no agriculture- the fertile desert is uncultivated from end to end. Away from our feet to the crest of the far-off ridges the public road stretches in a straight line across the valley, between the stone walls, brest high, which separate it from the silent fields on either side. On the broad pastures the flocks and herds are scattered, browsing the rich grass which grows over many a usurped hearth. The thin line you see younder, like the wavy curves of a white ribbon on the grass, is weathers wending their way down the slope, along a path, to the little streamlet in the hollow.

A few crows and seagulls wing their fight high up in the blud over the lonesome tracts. They are bound Leinsterwards, where the worm-strewn furrows open in the track of the ploughman attending to the green crops. There is no break in the empty silence save the whimper of the winds. Not a bird voice is upon the air. There is no heather in all this fertile desolation from which the larks might rise in song. There are no copses for the throstles and robins to wrable in.

Nothing but pasture and sheep and stonewalls and the western wind and loneliness. It was not a particularly original solution for the problem of the depopulation in areas of rural Ireland to suggest that landlordism must go. It has been already suggested in everything from parliamentary language to murder and red riot. And, anyway, landlordism was already on the way out. The problem was still real enough to make matter for much lively dialogue in John Bulls Other Island, and the Shavian comment could generally be exceptionally and prophetically penetrating. William Bulfin and Bernard Shaw had both left Ireland about the age of twenty, both very different types of Irishmen from very different in fact that in the whole gallery of characters in John Bull’s Other Island there is no place for the prosperous and intelligent exile, with revolutionary sympathies.

Larry Doyle would have considered the Bulfin talking about the reform of Irish railways or Irish land or about re-afforestation was trying to make water run up a hill; that Bulfin talking about Gaelic culture, or a notion, free and undivided, was merely suffering from the gnawing Irish imagination. Larry Doyle if he were (as he is) alive today would not have, in any great degree, changed his views or his ways of voicing them. For one of the many fissures that splits the Irish soul from the surface down to its deepest depths keeps separated for ever the bittertongued men tormented by imagination, from the romantic men who in the end are the only men to do practical things.

The big man from South America pushed his strong bicycle over mile after mile of the roads of Ireland, saw much that he approved of and much that he disapproved of, wrote down both his approval and disapproval, remembered the past, hoped for the fight that must come in the future. But, above all, he rested his eyes on quiet green and brown beautiful places, and his descriptions of those places will always make his book valuable to anyone who followed the way he went.

He was by no means the usual tourist, and his greatest enthusiasms were for places where the unusual tourist has not even yet penetrated, for palaces like O’Rourke’s Table above the loveliness of Lough Gill: “The top of the mountain is covered with peat and the peat is covered with a growth of heather in which you stand waist high. Rank, sedgy grass and heaps of moss and huge turfs of mountain fern are along the edge near the wood, and right in the centre, where you can look down on the Atlantic and on hundreds of square miles of Ulster and Connacht, as well as Lough Gill, there is moss in which you sink to your knees, and dry clumps of heath in which you could dream your life away. The sedgy beds of broad grass and packed below with dry and withered leaves which yield to your weight as if they were feathers, and crumple as softly under your tread as if they were velvet pile from the old Genoese looms.

“You are higher than the grey peaks of the nearest ranges; you are on a level with the others. You are up in the blue air where only the eagle soars and the skylark sings. The rooks and daws and seafowl are winging their flight below you over lake and valley and hill. Only the clouds lie here when they are lazy or too full of rain to travel. It is the flower of bogs-the canavaun of the mountain tops of Eire.”

From everything that passage meant to the soul of the man who wrote it, he took himself away in 1904, when he returned to the Argentine. The work that he had done there on behalf of the Irish Catholic community brought him in that same year the papal title of Knight of Saint Gregory. Five years later he returned to Ireland, and in the autumn of 1909 sailed with the O’Rahilly for the United States to attempt to interest some of the more wealthy Irish Americans in the possibility of founding a Sinn Fein daily paper. They were not successful.

On the last page of the his book of rambles he describes a winter ride over midland roads.”Over the sodden roads, homewards from the last ride of a seven months’ holiday that can never die in my memory. The bare branches were dripping and the dead leaves were slippery, and the patches of broken stone were bristling with trouble for longsuffering tyres. The white mists were rising off the valleys.

The whistle of the curlew came down the chilly wind. The call of the wild geese came over the hills. It was very lonely, yet there was sadness unutterable in the thought that it was soon to be left behind. ‘Goodbye, goodbye, and come back again come back again.’ Each landmark that rose to view seemed to have some kind of message like that. From every one of them some pleasant memory and appealing-calling, calling. “Come back again-Come back to us, sometime won’t you? Oh, the heart-cry of the Gael. It is heard so often in Eirinn that the very echoes of the land have learned it. “ He came back again on the first day of the new year, 1910. Exactly a month later he died in his own home in Derrinlough.

Courtesy of the Midland Tribune
April 2005