A 19th-Century Perspective on Ireland – following in the footsteps of John (Fiott) Lee

The Hakluyt Society have recently published their latest edition, A Scientific, Antiquarian and Picturesque Tour: John (Fiott) Lee in Ireland, England and Wales, 1806–07, edited by Dr Angela Byrne. The editor, Dr Byrne, gives us an insight into John (Fiott) Lee, his background, his ideas and the challenges of editing his work.

˜˜˜˜˜˜˜˜˜˜

In July 1806, John Lee set out from London to Holyhead where, four weeks later, he boarded the packet to Dublin. Over the following six months, he walked hundreds of miles, filling five notebooks and three sketchbooks with on-the-spot observations and illustrations.

John Fiott Lee image 1
‘Curious holly at 7 Churches [Glendalough]’. By John Lee, 11 September 1806 (SJC, MS U.30 (6), f. 62r). By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge.
Born John Fiott in 1783, the son of John Fiott, a merchant, and Harriet Lee of Hartwell, Buckinghamshire, from 1815 he assumed the surname Lee to fulfil the requirements of an inheritance. I refer to him by that name, as it is the one by which he was more commonly known. When he embarked on this tour in 1806, he was a little-known Cambridge mathematics graduate, but later became a well-known man of science, active in over 20 scholarly societies and for a time president of the Royal Astronomical Society.

I was just beginning a study of scientific accounts of sub-Arctic regions when a colleague told me about Lee’s diaries, which the librarian at St John’s College had shown to her. I travelled to Cambridge to assess their potential and was instantly captured by their immediacy, frankness, and detail. I was delighted to learn that, after his Irish tour, Lee spent two years in Sweden as a Worts Travelling Bachelor – having access to his prior experiences in Ireland was of great value in understanding his time in Scandinavia.

I was fortunate to be awarded a three-month Overseas Visiting Scholarship at St John’s in late 2010, enabling me to transcribe Lee’s diaries in their entirety and consult Lee’s extensive archives in Cambridge, the British Library and the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies in Aylesbury.

Transcribing the diaries was painstaking work and took almost every day of my three-month fellowship. The diaries are partly written in pencil, which in places is badly faded or smudged. I photographed the entire collection at the outset, and often sat long into the night using digital editing software to try to decipher faded sections. Unfortunately, parts remain undeciphered, despite my efforts.

As challenging as the diaries are – Lee wrote in pencil, in incomplete sentences, used abbreviations, and employed a code in places – they reward close reading and contain delightful surprises. I remember the thrilling moment when Lee addressed me as his “gentle reader”. I enjoy the snippets of conversation and Hiberno-English turns of phrase Lee jotted down, and interactions like the evenings he spent at the fireside of the notorious Sir Thomas Judkin Fitzgerald, known as ‘Flogging Fitzgerald’ for the severity of punishments he meted out to suspected rebels – some of whom were innocent of any wrongdoing – during the 1798 rebellion. Lee savoured Fitzgerald’s brutal tales, but recorded with almost equal care the experiences of those whose poor cabins were burnt to the ground during the conflict. I enjoy the fact that Lee took Irish language lessons from a Cork grocer, and that he jotted down an Irish phrase so that he would to be able to quiz Irish speakers about their locality.

The diaries can be read as a record of a man of science in the making, with their lists of plants, geological observations, and visits to mines. But, equally, the diaries also record Lee’s personality and his sense of humour, enriching the picture of the pious and stern Victorian man of science that emerges from other accounts of his life.

John Fiott Lee image 2 tower
‘Tower at Roscrea’. By John Lee (SJC, MS U.30 (8), f. 33r). By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge.

The diaries also demonstrate Lee’s social position as the son of a merchant, dependent on a scholarship for his university education. He kept accounts of his spending on food, drink, accommodation and incidentals, clearly motivated by the letters of his uncle and guardian, William Lee Antonie who demanded to know ‘the great advantage you have deriv’d, of either [improvement or economy], from your present residence in Ireland’ and insisting that his nephew reflect seriously on his expenditure.1 Lee also found that his decision to make the most of his journey on foot attracted the opprobrium of Ireland’s innkeepers, who viewed with suspicion any person arriving without a carriage. Lacking the outward marks of respectability, he was, on more than one occasion, refused accommodation.

My introduction to the edition provides some context for Lee’s interpretation of the landscapes he walked through – particularly his engagement with the picturesque and his understanding of Irish history – as well as his particular perspective as a scientific traveller. The critical apparatus includes explanatory notes on people and places mentioned by Lee, but these should not be considered exhaustive.

I have enjoyed living with Lee for the past eight years, and I hope that this first edition of his diaries will not only prove a useful resource for students of travel writing, local history and folk traditions, but may, in time, prompt renewed interest in Lee’s life and pursuits.

Dr Angela Byrne

 

Dr Angela Byrne is Research Associate at Ulster University and in 2018-19 is Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Historian-in-Residence at EPIC, The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin. She has previously held positions at the University of Greenwich, National University of Ireland Maynooth, University of Toronto, and the Royal Irish Academy. She is author of Geographies of the Romantic North: Science, Antiquarianism, and Travel, 1790–1830 (Palgrave, 2013) and is co-editor (with Sebastian Sobecki) of Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations of the English Nation(1598–1600), vol. II (Oxford University Press, in preparation). She is currently preparing a monograph on Irish–Russian contacts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.