The bear from Waterford

Privileged young graduates of sixteenth-century Europe pioneered a trend wherein they travelled across the continent in search of art and cultural experiences upon their graduation. This practice, which grew to be wildly popular, became known as the Grand Tour.” – Matt Rosenberg

The Grand Tour was essentially a rite of passage for the very wealthy youth of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Usually after finishing university the young man or woman would travel all over Europe and beyond. The idea was that they would get to see the things that people at the time read about in books. Sometimes it can be difficult for us to appreciate the different viewpoint people at this time had, because everything we could ever want to know, can be answered by the phone in our hand. Nowadays, if we read about a picture or a piece of music that we have never heard of, we can simply ‘Google’ it or type in into YouTube. At this time, if you read about the Pyramids, the ruins of Pompeii, Venice or any specific piece of art, you had to imagine it in your mind’s eye – unless, you came from nobility or a very wealthy family.

If you had the means, then you could travel to see these places and things in person. This allowed the person travelling, the joy of seeing the things they had previously read about in books, in person. But as well as this, when you are so wealthy sometimes you need things that money cannot buy, in order to posture to your peers. This is what the Grand Tour afforded the very wealthy. It allowed them to buy ‘Culture’ – after returning from the Grand Tour, imagine the stories you would have to tell. This is how Roman architecture found its way into the living rooms of Irish homes. It is how we have Chinese, Japanese, French and Italian items in our homes today. We have them because they were brought home first by teenagers from their Grand Tour. This is also true of plants and flowers that have worked brilliantly in some cases but have been a disaster elsewhere as many invasive species of plants were brought back to Ireland by very well-meaning but ignorant teenage botanists. Similarly, at this time, people that were not wealthy had to find alternative ways to travel. If you were inquisitive in nature, or intellectual, the priesthood was often the answer. The priesthood would allow you to travel as a missionary and see the World.

Arthur O’ Leary was born in 1729 in Dunmanway. Meaning he was born in the middle of the Penal Laws in Ireland. The Penal Laws were an indescribably difficult period in Irish History and many people, if they survived to teenage years or adulthood, would look for a way out of Ireland by any means necessary. For Arthur O’ Leary, this was the priesthood. He decided to move to France. He practiced as a priest, as well as becoming a writer and a political commentator. Over the course of time he became particularly well known for the aforementioned but mostly for the fact that he travelled everywhere on foot. Below is a quote from the book ‘Irish Footprints over Europe’ in which Fr. O’ Leary features heavily:

“Fr. O’ Leary during his twenty-five years sojourn in France used to spend his holidays exploring the country on foot. He used to walk from the convent of St. Mallow to the feet of the Pyrenees or promenade all the way to the gates of Paris to the banks of the Rhine backwards and forwards within a month.”

 As he was walking along the Quays one evening in Boulogne-Sur-Mer, he noticed a huge crowd gathered in a semi-circle. When he walked over to investigate, he saw that the crowd was being entertained by an incredibly well-trained brown bear. The bear was on a large leash and was performing several tricks for the crowd in return for money. Everyone was fixated. Fr. O’Leary had planned to stay in Boulogne-Sur-Mer for a few days and he noticed over his stay there how popular the bear had become.

O’ Leary went down to the Quays everyday during his stay. Every time he went to the Quays, the bear was there performing with his owner by his side. Over the course of a few days, Fr. O’ Leary noticed that both the owner and the bear were on the quays entertaining huge crowds for very long periods of time. He noted in his diary that the bear was exceptionally well trained and was performing tricks that were enormously impressive. The bear had learned to nod back to you when you waved at it. When given a clock the bear was able to point to the hour of the day that it was at that time. O’ Leary noted in his diary that the bear was now so popular that it was bringing crowds from neighbouring towns and villages.

On the fourth and final day of his visit, Fr. O’ Leary again went down to the quay to see the show and the bear and trainer were enclosed in a giant circle of spectators that were tossing money into the trainer’s basket in return for ever more elaborate tricks. By now the bear was very obviously tired. It began to lie down between tricks. Whenever it did, O’ Leary noted the trainer would poke it with a sharp stick and get it to stand up on two feet. On one occasion, instead of rising to its feet, upon being prodded by the stick, the bear roared. It roared in what seemed to be a language. A language that no one understood. Except for Father O’ Leary. The Bear had just shouted something as Gaeilge!

The Bear was now screaming at its trainer in what appeared to be the Irish language. Fr. O’Leary, not believing his eyes or ears, shouted at the bear “Conas atá tu, a chara?” Upon hearing this, the bear stopped and turned towards Fr. O’ Leary. Still standing on two feet he replied, “Maith, go raibh maith agat”, O’ Leary in disbelief, leaves the promenade and requests to see the Mayor of Boulogne-Sur-Mer. The Mayor and Fr. O’Leary return and O’Leary strikes up a conversation with the bear to demonstrate to the Mayor. Upon hearing this, the bear’s trainer drops the lead and runs away. It turns out that the ‘Bear’ was a monolingual Irish speaker from Waterford.

He was from a famine-stricken area in Waterford and had gotten work on a boat as a labourer. The boat was travelling from the port in Waterford to Spain when it got into difficulty in the ocean. When the boat capsized, he was able to keep himself afloat at sea by holding onto the boxes that the ship’s cargo was being transported in. Eventually, he was found by fishermen and taken advantage of when they got to land. He was sewn into a life-like bear costume and made to perform on the Quays of Boulogne-Sur-Mer; they paid him in food. Fr. O’Leary asked him why did he allow this to continue. His reply was that he didn’t mind because he had enough to eat.

Admittedly, as far-fetched and bizarre as this story sounds, it becomes much more believable when you look at it through the eyes of a 17th century poor French villager. Unlike the wealthy and the nobility previously mentioned, that might have seen a bear on their Grand Tour, the villagers of Boulogne-Sur-Mer simply would not have. They would have taken what they were seeing at face value. This true story is documented in the 18th century book ‘Irish Footprints over Europe’ written by Eugene Davis. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Shane Daly

Shane Daly is a History Graduate from University College Cork, with a BAM in History and an MA in Irish History.

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