PORT IF YOU PLEASE

Richard Twiss’s Irish travelogue contained many criticisms of Dublin and the country in general, which together caused outrage in the late eighteenth century and led to outpourings of hostility from the Dublin press. An unprecedented mood of national unity took root as the scribes of the city rushed to defend the honour of Ireland’s poor, who had been among those targeted by the traveller. One enraged individual with extensive property in Connacht was said to have tracked down Mr Twiss to a London coffee house and publicly beaten him because of his characterisation of that province as “savage” and his allegation that the legs of the peasant women there were on the “thick” side.

Rent extractors rushing to defend their tenants is not an everyday event and it was all the more unusual as, throughout the preceding decades of the eighteenth century, ascendancy commentators had not hesitated to criticise the peasantry in highly unsympathetic language, generally attributing their grinding poverty to their own moral and behavioural shortcomings and arguing that such problems would be quickly overcome if the advice issued by their betters was followed.

Richard Twiss’s error – if error it can be called since he seems to have enjoyed the whole business and benefited from it ‑ was to extend his criticism beyond the poor to an establishment which was growing in its own sense of importance and achievement, reflected in the magnificent buildings with which it was filling the second city of the empire. Visitors generally enthused about these buildings but Twiss did not, adding for good measure that neither of Dublin’s cathedrals “are remarkable for their architecture”. Most visitors admired Dublin Bay and it was frequently compared to the Bay of Naples. The niggardly Mr Twiss commented merely that it was “inferior”.

Twiss saw Dublin as deficient in both culture and commerce. He also attacked the Dublin press, saying it used cheap brown paper, adding that the newspapers were “curiosities by reason of their style and spelling”. It was a cocktail of criticism calculated to irritate and provoke a response.

The Dublin Jewish poet William Preston, who was a founder of the Royal Irish Academy and an early supporter of Catholic Emancipation, wrote a satirical response in verse. Apparently he informed Twiss of his intention; the latter remarked: “The little Jew poet told me lately he intended to write a Heroic Epistle to me, I told him he was very welcome if he thought it might bring him into notice.”

Preston was just one of a large number who were moved to target Twiss, whose criticisms of architecture, landscape, commerce and cultural life often involved a personal note. He found the habits of the property-owning Irish unattractive: they were prone to excessive eating and drinking and had a regrettable attachment to “lavish hospitality”, a practice he attributed to the influence of the “old Irish”, an element he saw as retarding the advance of civilisation in Ireland. He was also generally uncomplimentary towards Irish women of rank. According to Richard and Maria Edgeworth, Twiss remarked that if you looked at an Irish lady she invariably responded “port if you please”. He also found fault with the Protestant elite for having adopted the potato as a staple; it was served as an accompaniment with all meals, he complained.

All in all he was saying there wasn’t much to choose between the colony and the natives and that the ascendancy was letting down the cause of civilisation. It was not calculated to please. The Dublin newspaper, pamphlet and ephemera press reacted with outrage and set about attacking Twiss with passion, venom and wit. As the eighteenth century was nothing if not scatological it was not long before it was noted that Mr T’s name rhymed with piss.

Anne Whaley ‑ later Lady Clare ‑ was one of many who wrote an anti-Twiss squib which made use of the rhyme:

Here you may behold a liar
Well deserving of hell-fire:
Every one who likes may p---
Upon the learned Doctor T----

The future Lady Clare was referring to the many chamber pots manufactured during the anti Twiss fervour and which featured a likeness of him on the inside. One visitor to Ireland some years later wrote that he was frequently presented “with a picture of the late tourist at the bottom of the chamber pots, with his mouth and eyes open ready to receive the libation” and as late as 1811 a dictionary of the “vulgar tongue” gave Twiss as a slang term for chamber pot.

Unsurprisingly, the mood of national unity proved temporary. Lady Clare’s husband, Lord Chancellor John Fitzgibbon, took strong action against those from within the establishment who sided with the popular cause in 1798. Students in Trinity College were individually interrogated by Fitzgibbon and those suspected of sympathy with the rebels were thrown out. Thomas Moore, the Bard of Erin, whose family ran a modest grocery shop on Aungier Street, was one who was questioned. Although he was an active literary supporter of the rebels he managed to evade sanction, to the great relief of his mother, who had devoted much of her life to choreographing her son’s social advancement and who, though nationalist in sentiment herself, preferred her son not to take political risks.

For more about Richard Twiss, read Martyn Powell’s Piss-pots, printers and public opinion in eighteenth-century Dublin.