19th century travel writers provide some of the best accounts of Bundoran‘s history from this period. In 1826, John Scott travelled through the area. His party made Bundoran their base for excursions into the surrounding area. They hunted in the Dartry Mountains, sailed in Donegal Bay, bathed on the beaches and fished in the surrounding rivers and lakes. He wrote that when they went out for an evening stroll their appearance excited ‘no small curiosity’ among the locals. His account indicates that the peasantry’ bathed in a separate area to the gentry‘. Their guide, Reverend Donought, told him that ‘the lower walks of life…those who have been bitten by mad-dogs, or sentenced incurable’ come to Bundoran to recuperate. They packed their carts with sacks of potatoes and a portion of meal and travelled to the ‘mud-walled village near Bundoran’ (Single Street). They stayed in ‘dry lodgings‘, which essentially meant room only.
The increase in the town‘s popularity in the early 19th century led to the construction of hotels. Hazlett Hamilton from Pettigo built one of the first hotels in Bundoran, the Hamilton Hotel (now part of the Holyrood Hotel). James Gallagher opened the Royal Hotel in the West End.
In the ‘Topographical Dictionary of Ireland’ (1837), Samuel Lewis gives this account of Bundoran. Bundoran, a village, in the parish of Inishmacsaint, barony of Tirhugh, county of Donegal, and province of Ulster, 4 miles (S. W.) from Ballyshannon. This village, which consists of one street on the road from Ballyshannon to Sligo. It is a favourite place of resort for sea bathing during the summer; several small but respectable houses have been built for the accommodation of visitors; and extensive hot and cold seawater baths have been fitted up. There is a daily penny post to Ballyshannon and Sligo‘.
James Johnson‘s book, ‘A tour in Ireland; with meditations and reflections ‘, written in 1844, describes Bundoran as one of the most celebrated watering places on the Atlantic Coast of Ireland. The little village is built along a kind of perpendicular wall that hangs over the sea presenting only a scanty beach of sand and even there I did not see a single bathing machine. But the flat black rocks under the cliffs are hollowed out into baths, which the waves and tides at high water wash well out leaving them brim full of the briny Atlantic clear as the bluest sky and forming most magnificent dips for the invalid. The scenery too of Bundoran is very fine the broad and boundless ocean westward while towering cliffs and mountains rise behind‘.
In 1858, a writer for the Dublin University Magazine paints a vivid picture of the town. It is a growing place, as it ought to be, consisting of a long, straggling, tipsy looking street, on the sea-board, full of lodging-houses with white fronts, and green doors, and damp red-tiled halls, smelling strongly of cockles and bathing-caps‘. The writer mentions that Sunday service was ‘thronged with a well-dressed and strikingly attentive congregation‘.
When Henry Coulter visited the town in 1862, he noted that Bundoran had ‘well-kept streets, neat clean cottages, handsome terraces, and a general aspect of comfort and prosperity‘. He accurately predicted that the prospect of railway communication between Enniskillen and Bundoran would encourage development within the town.
When travel writer William Whittaker Barry stayed at the Hamilton Hotel in 1865, he was initially mistaken for a ‘seller of old clothes‘. Despite this, he booked in and remained there for two days recording his experiences. He explored the cliff walks and caves and whilst enjoying dinner in the hotel observed ‘many well-dressed girls, and some rather pretty‘. Later that evening he joined a party of young men, some whom had been in the army and one who was still an officer. The men drank spirits and began to sing when Mrs. Hamilton, the proprietor, informed them that she would not serve them anymore. The men were extremely disgruntled at this and the evening‘s festivities came to an abrupt end. Interestingly Barry noted that one of the men, who had been in the army, ‘seemed to entertain some fear of being attacked’ on his walk home.
In 1868, Robert Russell, another visitor to the area, remarked that ‘this little town has quite an improving aspect, for since the opening of the railway it is greatly resorted to for sea bathing. Numbers of new houses and villas have been built, and the town is already greatly improved by its summer visitors. At the same time, there was great untidiness. Pigs were roaming about the road, and now and then an open door revealed a large pig feeding within the cottage‘. Russell‘s account also provides some insight into the lives of local people during the mid-19th century. He writes; ‘the land is in smallholdings—some of them very small. It was easy to see, as we drove along, that the system of farming is still mainly founded on the cultivation of the potato. The whole strength of man and beast was directed towards its cultivation. Cottages were generally locked up and the fields alive with men, women, and children engaged in the digging or manuring. Numbers of men were carrying seaweed, dripping wet, in baskets on their backs from the sea, a mile distant. Women and children were carefully spreading the seaweed by hand over the beds, and the stronger women were frequently seen handling the shovel. Going into one of the national schools on the roadside, out of seventy pupils on the role, about one-half were absent, owing to the absorbing demands of the potato‘.
A New York Times article published in 1886 provides an interesting account of the changing political and social climate of late 19th century Bundoran. ‘The Irish middle class may be studied better at a little watering place like this. The young fellows wear low hats and tweed suits, and play but few games except lawn tennis, taking life extremely easily; the young women affect straight-brimmed straw hats with broad bright ribbons, dresses of one colour, and shun elaborate toilets. The new spirit of nationalism can hardly fail to alter this somewhat, for tendencies peculiar to the Irish will have full play instead of being suppressed by snubs and ridicule as heretofore. The middle classes now furnish legislators to Westminster and control all the local corporations, for as a rule the titled folk have been too dull or too indifferent to read the political weather signs, and have failed to take the lead while it was yet in their power so to do. The middle class by embracing nationalism makes a pretty clean sweep of all the offices leaving the aristocracy out in the cold‘.
In William Wakeman‘s ‘The tourist‘s picturesque guide to Ireland’ (1887), Bundoran is described as beginning to exhibit a ‘few Brightonian symptoms‘. He notes that the ‘lords and ladies, bourgeois and farmer and the families of hewers of wood and drawers of water‘, frequented the town. The author warns tourists to stay away from the ̳unhallowed surface’ of the Fairy Bridges ‘as troops of fairies are frequently seen‘.
According to an article published in ‘The Leeds Mercury‘ in 1889, Bundoran was making a name for itself as a ‘health-giving resort for invalids and over tasked literary and business men‘.8 The East End, West End divide was still prevalent at the time. In the East End, many locals rented out rooms in their cottages to the large numbers of country people who arrived for the tourist season, which lasted until October. The gentry continued to frequent the West End. The bathing machines on the main beach accommodated four adults at a time at a cost of one penny each. Many people preferred to change on the rocks. In contrast, in the West End, the bathing machines were in constant use. Visitors were often woken to the sound of vendors selling fish caught in the bay. Vegetables and meat were sold all day long from donkey carts and women from the country went door to door selling butter and eggs.
Bundoran‘s environment made it the ideal place for therapeutic bathing. A British health resort magazine, when comparing Bundoran to Barmouth, ambiguously stated that Bundoran was ‘mild without being relaxing fresh’ and that a ‘sojourn‘ might cure a long list of ailments including ‘rheumatic arthritis, gout, renal disease and nasal obstruction‘.
Over the years, there were many sea baths in Bundoran. Hamilton‘s Baths (later Moohan‘s Baths) were located near the Holyrood Hotel. Travers’ Baths (on Bay View Avenue) and Philips’ Baths (opposite the Allingham Hotel) were both popular baths during the 1940s and 50s. After the harvest, many people from rural areas took day-trips to enjoy the therapeutic qualities of Bundoran‘s Sea Baths.