Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition
The Natural History of Ireland (Author: Gerard Boate)

chapter 10

Of the Nature and Condition of the Land, both for the outward Shape, and for the internal Qualities and Fruitfulness.

Distinction of Ireland into champain Lands, Hills, and Mountains

THE lands of this island, as of most all other countries, are of a various kind and fashion: for some parts are goodly plain champain, others are hilly, some mountainous, and others are composed of two of these sorts, or of all three together, and that with great variety, the which also is very great, in those three uncompounded sorts.

A necessary Observation about the Use of the Words Hill and Mountain.

TO avoid all ambiguity, and make our selves clearly understood in what we have said, and are further to say upon this subject, we think it necessary to forewarn our reader, that we do use the word hill in a narrower signification, than what is given to it in the ordinary use of speech. For whereas all, or most other languages, both those which are now in vulgar use, and those which are only preserved in books, have two several words for to signify those observable heights which appear above the ground, calling the bigger sort by one name, and the lesser sort by another, the English language useth one and the same word for both, calling hills as well the one as the other, without any other distinction, but that sometimes the word small or great is added. Now because this word so indifferently used would cause some confusion in the matter we treat of, that hath made us restrain it to one of the forts, and to call hills only the lesser sort, called in Latin collis, in French colline, In Dutch heuvel, and in Irish knock. As for the other and bigger sort, whose name in the aforesaid four languages is mons, mountain, berg, slew, we call them mountains: which word mountains, although it be good English, yet in common speech it is seldom


made use of in that sense whereunto we apply it, but only to signify a country wholly consisting of those great hills, especially when the soil thereof is lean and unfruitful.

Of the Mountains of Ireland, and first of the lower sort.

THE difference betwixt hills and mountains consisting in bigness, is of two sorts, for in the number of mountains are counted not only those which lift up themselves very high into the air, so as they may be seen many miles off, but also those, the which take up the more in length and breadth, what is wanting to them in height, ascending slopingly by degrees. The mountainous parts of Ireland do for the most part consist of this second part of mountains, most of them in one quarter being muchwhat of the same height, so as sometimes one shall ride some hours together, through the mountainous country, without meeting with any one mountain that greatly excelleth in height above the rest the which in particular may be observ'd in the mountainous country of the Fewes, betwixt Dundalk and Ardmagh, in that of Mourne, betwixt the Newry and Dundrum (each of these two being above twelve miles long) in all that space which is betwixt Kells, a wall'd town in the county of Eastmeath, and Kilacolly, alias Bailieborrough, in the county of Cavan, which being ten miles long, is almost nothing else but a continuance of hills of no great bigness, all very fruitful land both pasture and arable. In the county of Westmeath, from Lough Crew to Lough Silline, and beyond it, as far as Ballaneach, where Mr. William Fleming had built a fair house and farm ten years before the late detestable massacre and bloody rebellion of the Irish. These hills are for the most part low and small, yet some of a good height and bigness, the ground lean, in many places very stony, in some rocky, not of any one continual rock, but by piecemeals here and there rising and appearing. Yet are these hills in several places wet and moorish, as well in the rocky as other parts. These hills serve only for pasture of sheep. In the major part of the mountainous country of Wicklow, the which beginning five miles to the south of Dublin, doth extend it self above fifty miles in length, and in several other parts.

It hath been observed in many parts of Ireland, but chiefly in the county of Meath, and further northward that upon the top of the great hills and mountains, not only at the side and foot of them, to this day the ground is uneven as if it had been plowed in former times. The inhabitants do affirm, that their forefathers being much given to tillage, contrary to what they are now, used to turn all to plow land. Others say that it was done for want of arable, because the champain was most everywhere beset and overspread with woods, which by degrees are destroyed by the wars. They say further, that in those times, in places where nothing now is to be seen, but great logs of a vast extent, there were thick woods, which they collect from hence, that now and then trees are digged out there being for the most part some yards long, and some of a very great bigness and length.


Of the higher sort of Mountains in Ireland.

AS FOR those other mountains, the which with an excessive height rise up towards the skies, they are not very common in lreland, and yet some there be, which although not comparable with the Pyrenaei, lying between France and Spain, with the Alpes, which divide Italy from France and Germany, or with other mountains of the like vast height, nevertheless may justly be counted among the lofty mountains. Of this number are the mountains of Carlingford, betwixt Dundalk and Carlingford, the which in a clear day may easily be seen from the mountains to the south of Dublin, the which are more than forty miles distant from them, the mountains about Lough Swilly, in the north parts of Ulster, the which may be seen many miles off in the sea, the Curlews, that sever the counties of Slego and Rosscommon in Connaught, the twelve mountains in the north quarter of the county of Tipperary in Munster, the which far exceeding the rest of the mountains there, are known by the name of the the twelve hills of Phelim ghe Madona, Knock Patrick, in the west part of the county of Limerick, not far from the bay of Limerick, which mountain can be seen by the ships, which are a huge way from the land yet, the mountains of Brandon hills, in the county of Kerry, to the east of the haven of Smerwick, the which are discovered by the sea-faring men, when they are above fifty miles from the land, in the northwest quarter of the county of Waterford, called Slew Boine; that in the mountainous country of Wicklow, which for its fashion's sake is commonly call'd the Sugar-loaf, and may be seen very many miles off, not only by those that are upon the sea, but even into the land.

Nature of the Ground in Ireland, and of the fruitful Grounds

NEXT to the foregoing division of Ireland taken from the fashion and outward form of the land, cometh to be considered that which consisteth in the nature of the soil or ground, some parts of the country being fruitful, and others barren.

The fertile soil is in some places a blackish earth, in others clay, and in many parts mixt of both together, as likewise there be sundry places, where the ground is mixt of earth and sand, sand and clay, gravel and clay, or earth, but the chalk ground and red earth, which both are very plentiful and common in many parts of England, are no where to be found in lreland.

These grounds differ among themselves in goodness and fatness, not only according to the different nature of the soil whereof they consist, but also according to the depth of the mold or uppermost good crust, and the nature of the ground which lieth next to it underneath for the best and richest soil, if but half a foot or a foot deep, and if lying upon a stiffy clay or hard stone, is not so fertile, as a leaner soil of greater depth, and lying upon sand or gravel, through which the superfluous moisture may descend, and not standing still, as upon


the clay or stone, make cold the roots of the grass, of corn, and so hurt the whole.

There be indeed some countries in Ireland, where the ground underneath being nothing but stone, and the good mold upon it but very thin, it is nevertheless very fruitful in corn, and bringeth sweet grass in great plenty, so as sheep and other cattle do wonderful well thrive there; which kind of land is very common in the county of Galloway, and in some other counties of Connaught, as also in sundry parts of the other provinces. But the reason thereof is in those parts, because the stone whereon the mold doth lye so thinly, is not free-stone, or any such cold material, but lime stone, which doth so warm the ground, and giveth it so much strength, that what it wants in depth, is thereby largely recompensed.

Causes hindring the Fruitfulness of the Ground, where the Soil otherwise is not bad

EXCEPT in the case now by us declared, neither corn nor grass will grow kindly, where the ground, though otherwise good, is not deep enough, as also where it hath a bad crust underneath, from whence it cometh, that in many places, where the grass doth grow very thick and high, the same nevertheless is so unfit for the food of beasts, that cows and sheep will hardly touch it (especially if they have been kept in better pastures first) except that by extreme famine they be compelled thereto, and that by reason of the coarsness and sourness of the grass, caused by the standing still of the water, the which through the unfitness of the nether crust, finding not a free passage downwards, maketh cold the good mold, and the crop and grass degenerate from its natural goodness.

For the same reason the land in many parts, where otherwise the soil in it self would be fit enough to produce good wheat or barley, will hardly bear any thing else but oats, or rye, and that none of the best: as in other parts, the fault is in the soil it self, and by the leanness thereof it cometh, that nothing else but coarse grass, and the worst kinds of grains will grow there. And unto these causes may be joined another yet, the overshadowing of high and steep mountains and hills, whereby the sides thereof, and the lands lying close under them, being deprived of the free and seasonable access of the sun beams, and so wanting convenient warmness, cannot afford to the things growing thereon such good and well concocted nourishment, as unto the producing of the best and richest sorts of grains and grass is requisite.

Ireland a very fruitful country, especially for Grass.

THESE defects are not peculiar to Ireland, but common to other countries, and no ways general in it, but only here and there in distant parts; and where they are, they may be amended by the means fit and usual for that purpose, where of by-and-by we shall speak particularly therefore they cannot hinder,


that Ireland should not justly be counted among the fruitfullest countries of the world. And although Orosius, who preferreth it even before England in this particular (‘Hibernia solis coelique tempore magis utilis Britannia’ are his words) goeth too far, yet fully true is the saying of Stanyhurst, in the preface of this Irish chronicle, ‘Cum Hibernia, coeli salubritate, agrorum fertilitate, ubertate frugum, pastionis magnitudine, armentorum gregibus, conferre paucas, anteferre nullas valeas’ That is, ‘With Ireland for wholsomness of air, fruitfulness of lands, great store of corn, abundance of pastures, and numerousness of cattle, few countries may be compared, none preferred’ as also that of Giraldus, ‘Gleba praepingui uberique frugum proventu faelix est terra, et foecunda frugibus arva, pecore montes’ That is ‘This country is happy in very rich ground, and plentiful increase of grains, the fields being fertile in corn, and the mountains full of cattle.’ But although Ireland almost in every part, where the industry of the husbandman applieth it self thereto, bringeth good corn plentifully, nevertheless hath it a more natural aptness for grass, the which in most places it produceth very good and plentiful of it self, or with little help the which also hath been well observed by Giraldus, who of this matter writeth thus ‘Pascuis tamen quam frugibus, gramine quam grano foecundior est insula’ ‘This island is fruitfuller in grass and pastures, than in corn and grains.’ And Buchanan in the second book of his history of Scotland calleth the pasture ground of Ireland ‘pascua fere totius Europae uberrima’ ‘the fruitfullest pasture ground of most all Europe.’

More of the Plenty and Goodness of the Irish Pastures

The abundance and greatness of the pastures in Ireland doth appear by the numberless number of all sorts of cattle, especially of kine and sheep, wherewith this country in time of peace doth swarm on all sides, whereof in another place shall be spoken more at large and the goodness of the same is hereby sufficiently witnessed, that all kind of cattle doth thrive here as well in Ireland, and give as good milk, butter, and cheese (with good handling) as in any other country.

It is true, that the Irish kine, sheep, and horses, are of a very small size: but that that doth not come by reason of the nourishment and grass, but through other more hidden causes, may easily be demonstrated by the goodly beasts of the forenamed kind, that are brought thither out of England, the which not only in themselves, but in all their breed, do fully keep their first largeness and goodness, without any the least diminution in any respect, so that before this last bloody rebellion the whole land, in all parts where the English did dwell, or had any thing to do, was filled with as goodly beasts, both cows and sheep, as any in England, Holland, or other the best countries of Europe, the greatest part whereof hath been destroyed by those barbarians, the natural inhabitants of Ireland, who not content to have murthered or expelled their English neighbours (upon whom with an unheard and treacherous cruelty they fell in the midst of a deep peace, without any the least provocation) endeavoured quite to extinguish the memory of them, and of all the civility and good things


by them introduced amongst that wild nation, and consequently in most places they did not only demolish the houses built by the English, the gardens and enclosures made by them, the orchards and hedges by them planted, but destroyed whole droves and stocks at once of English cows and sheep, so as they were not able with all their unsatiable gluttony to devour the tenth part thereof, but let the rest lye rotting and stinking in the fields.

The goodness of the pastures in Ireland doth further appear by this, that both beef and mutton there, as well that of the small Irish, as that of the large English breed, in sweetness and savouriness doth surpass the meat of England it self (as all those, who have tried that must confess) although England in this particular doth surpass almost all the countries of the world.

Nevertheless the saying of Pomponius Mela, that the grass here is so rank and sweet, that the cattle do burst, if they be suffered to feed too long, wherefore they be fain every day to drive them betimes out of the pastures, ‘Juverna adeo luxuriosa herbis, non laetis modo, led etiam dulcibus, ut se exigua parte diei pecora impleant, et nisi pabulo prohibeantur, diutius pasta dissiliant’ the which also hath been repeated by Solinus, ‘Hibernia ita pabulosa, ut pecua ibi, nisi interdum a pascuis arceantur, in periculum agat fatias’ that is, ‘Ireland hath such excellent pastures, that cattle there are brought into danger of their lives by over-feeding, except now and then they be driven out of the fields,’ is a mere fable, no ways agreeable to the truth for all kinds of cattle here, as in other countries, are continually left in the pastures day and night; neither do they through their continual feeding ever burst, or come into any danger of bursting.