The History Show, 26 May – Book Club – ‘The outer edge of Ulster’ by Hugh Dorian


Life in 19th century Donegal could be, to quote Thomas Hobbes, ‘nasty, brutish and short’. And that was at the best of times, in the most convivial places. The Fanaid peninsula was neither. It is situated on the far side of Lough Swilly to the Inishowen peninsula. With much of the land owned by one of the most oppressive landlords in the country, William Sydney, the 3rd earl of Leitrim, the people of Fanaid, to paraphrase the words of Henry David Thoreau, ‘led lives of  quiet desperation and went to the grave with the song still in them.’ Except for Hugh Dorian, clerk, schoolmaster, whose ‘song’ was a fascinating memoir of the area through most of the Victorian period. His portrayal of Fanad from the 1830’s to the 1890s has finally been published, almost a century after his death, by Lilliput press, in an edition edited by Breandan Mac Suibhne of the University of Notre Dame, and Professor David Dickson of Trinity College, Dublin.

Dorian writes about an impoverished but resilient community, tightly knit but exclusive, hospitable but wary. He describes the traditional Irish land-holding system of rundale and the attempts by the unpopular landlord, the 3rd Earl of Leitrim, to sweep the system away in a  series of evictions in the 1850s and 1860s. [He largely glosses over the infamous murder of Lord Leitrim in 1878]. He also writes about the influence of traditional religious practices on the area as well as the importance of smuggling and poitin to the people and the economy.

Dorian was a former schoolmaster who fell foul of the  local parish priest in Fanaid  and migrated to Derry in 1872, where he became a clerk. The brutal murder of an RIC Detective Inspector William Martin in 1889 prompted him to write the memoir, which has only been published a century after his death in 1914.