In 1930, Nobel Prize nominee Helen Keller and her companions, Polly Thompson & Anne Sullivan, toured Ireland. CIAN Manning shares interesting details of Helen’s thoughts on the Emerald Isle of almost 100 years ago


Alabama-native Helen Keller, a disability rights advocate and her ‘miracle worker’ teacher and companion Anne Sullivan (whose parents hailed from Limerick) with Polly Thompson decided to travel to Britain and Ireland in 1930.
Reasons for such a trip encompassed Sullivan’s deteriorating health, a last attempt to discover the story of her parents and ancestors from the Treaty County while Keller, who lost her sight and hearing from the tender age of 19 months, stated she was “eager to see the world before I am gone from it”.

After some unwillingness to travel to the Old World from the United States, Sullivan eventually relented to Helen’s request, setting sail that April on a six-month trip visiting the islands in Keller’s first trip to Europe.
Sullivan even commented that she herself had inherited the Irish melancholy and mysticism with “their waywardness, their fitful temper and erratic desires” in a trip that could lead to more questions and sorrow than closure. It was Keller’s maiden venture that would lead to her visiting 39 countries in her lifetime.


Having kept their plans quiet, Keller, Sullivan & Thompson came to England and fell in love with Cornwall staying at a bungalow in the coastal town of Looe. As they had to vacate the cottage on 13th June and having to wait for Trout Hall in Essex till 1st July, the group made the decision to visit the Emerald Isle.
On 13th June, they travelled from Plymouth aboard the Bally Cotton which would dock at Waterford in the early morning the same day.

As they waited for their car, the party waited on board and listened to, as Keller had written in her letter to Nella Braddy Henney, “great derricks (a lifting device consisting of a guyed mast) as they lifted barrels of Devonshire cider on to the pier and replaced them with barrels of Guinness’s stout and Irish bacon. O how good they both smelt!”
From the Bally Cotton anchored in the River Suir, they viewed the Waterford Quayside populated by “principally jaunting-cars and little donkey-carts” as Keller recorded the 9th century town as “the only place in all Ireland which successfully resisted Oliver Cromwell’s victorious forces, and for that reason the Cavaliers called it ‘Urbs Intacta’.”

Though the motto of the oldest city in Ireland dates much earlier than Cromwell which the tourist Keller has recorded, these notes still demonstrate the interest she took in the history of Ireland which is a common theme in her writings. From the city on the Suir, they made their way for Killarney in the south-west.

‘for the most part depressing’: JOURNEY TO KILLARNEY, 14th JUNE

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own