Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition
A Philosophical Survey of the South of Ireland [...] (Author: Thomas Campbell)

Letter 7


August 21, 1775.

I set out this morning from Dublin, with only half a dozen shirts in my portmanteau, to leave room for such books, relative to Ireland, as seemed the fittest to prepare me for a local inspection. Sir John Davies's Historical Relations and Spencer's View are my pocket companions; enow, I presume, to fill up the vacant intervals at an inn.

I purpose giving you sketches of the country through which I travel, that you


may have some idea of its present state, whether natural or improved. But lest they should seem overcharged with still life, I shall heighten the prospect with human figures as they present themselves; and to vary the scenery, retrospective views of manners, customs, and arts shall be interspersed.

You are not to expect either order or method in the arrangement of my observations; I shall set them down as they occur, without much attention to time, place, or other accident. All I shall promise is, fidelity in reporting facts. And if I should sometimes miss my way in tracing causes from their effects, candour will suggest to you in extenuation, how difficult it is for one who is a stranger, and alone, to come in a short time at the knowledge of many things, which the natives might wonder how any one could be ignorant of. There are indeed certain characteristics in this country, which he that runs may read: yet I do not find that any traveller has been at the pains to point them out. I begin to wish I had set out earlier, for my tour must now be limited by the season, and I must either forego


the sight of some places I would wish to see, or spend too little time in each to get any satisfactory information.

My object is not only to see the face of the country, and learn its present state, but also to compare this state, with what it has been, and what it might be. And in judging of national character, I would be for making a careful discrimination, between physical and moral causes, between the operations of nature and the influence of government.

This is but a poor town, consisting of a few scattered houses; the inn however is a very good one. The country for several miles on this side Dublin is flat, like that round London; but it is not like it either in the multitude or magnitude of the trees, and still less so in the appearance of the houses on the road side. The first village I passed through, about seven miles from Dublin, Rathcool I think they call it, was mostly composed of clay huts, which are sometimes, you know, both warm and neat; but these were so aukwardly built, and so irregularly arranged, that even Wales would have been ashamed of them. It hurt me


to see them so near the capital, where the landskip was so prettily chequered by abundance of little white villas, spangling the country all around, and rendering it upon the whole very delightful.

Naas, fourteen miles from Dublin, is but a shabby looking place for a borough and shire town. But there are some pleasant seats near it, and the grounds begin to swell into gentle undulations, which gives a sweet variety to that rich corn country.

On the road hither is the ruin of a magnificent house, begun, but never finished, by Earl Strafford, when Lord Lieutenant. Near this, about thirty of our miles from Dublin, is the Curragh of Kildare, where all great matches are run. It is the Newmarket of Ireland: and the sportsmen tell you that the turf is equal to any in England, it is a spacious common and sheep-walk. Government gives annually two prizes of one hundred pounds each to be run for here. These were originally given at the suggestion of Sir William Temple; who, among other schemes for the improvement of Ireland, recommended this with a view of mending the breed of horses.


As this ground was famous for horseracing long before kings plates were established here, I vainly flattered myself that it took its name from its being a horsecourse, and that it was called Curragh from the Latin word curro, or rather from some Celtic word of like found and import. Thus you see me delving for the roots of Irish names, though I believe there are few people more thoroughly convinced that etymology is frequently but the excrescence of literature. It degenerates even in the hands of Sir Isaac Newton, for he identifies persons and things, which have nothing in common, but a letter or two of their names.

Certain it is, the most useful things may be abused. But sceptical as I am with respect to etymology, the information I have received inclines me to think that every town and tract of country, nay almost every hill in Ireland, is denominated, either from some history of the place, or some quality of the soil; some virtue of the water, or some property of the air; some accident of the ground without, or from some mineral within; in a word, that each name contains


a brief history, or marks out some curiosity of nature or of art.

Several instances of this I have been favoured with by Colonel Vallancey, a gentleman whose acquaintance alone is worth a journey to Ireland. And you will not be displeased when I tell you, that he is our countryman, was bred at Eton, and is now engineer-general of Ireland. At an age when words and other materials of knowledge are generally collected, he betook himself to the study of the Irish language, with a diligence so successful that he soon outstripped his teachers. To him we are indebted for the best grammar of this language, indeed the only one which deserves the name. So that the Irish nation may with little variation apply to him what Cicero says of himself, upon finding out the tomb of Archimedes: Ita nobilissima Graeciae civitas, quondam vero etiam docissima, sui civis unius acutissimi monumentum ignorasset, nisi ab homine Arpinate didicisset.’’

Cicero, Tusculan Disputations.

At the end of his grammar he has brought to light some very old Irish manuscripts; among the rest one, intitled, Lessons for a Prince. It was addressed to that celebrated


monarch of Ireland, Brien Boiromhe, who exterminated the Danes at the battle of Clontarf. The style, which is not unlike the Proverbs of Solomon, marks the very high antiquity of it, and the fine moral and political spirit which animates the whole piece, sufficiently evinces that civilization had made a considerable progress here before the invasion of our second Henry.

This learned soldier had before favoured the world with an essay on the antiquity of the Irish language; wherein, from a collation of the Irish with the Punic, he shews it to have a strong admixture of the old Phoenician. His mode of proceeding is very satisfactory: he takes that scene of Plautus, wherein a Carthaginian slave is introduced speaking in his mother-tongue; and comparing it verbum verbo with the Irish, which is now generally acknowledged to be the purest dialect of the Celtic, shews the agreement between the two languages; which is indeed so striking, that even a person who understands neither may perceive it, by a bare inspection of the words.

And from this close affinity of language he furnishes a strong presumptive, if not


decisive proof, that literature was very early introduced here by the Tyrians, either through the medium of that trade which was carried on with all parts of the world then known, or through that colony which migrated hither from Spain; and from which the old natives are so proud of being called Milesians.

It has been the doctrine of the Irish writers, that they derived their learning from the Phoenicians: their bards tell you of one Phenius a-fear-Saidhe, i. e. Phenius the Sidonian man, who taught them letters. The truth, divested of its poetical obscurity, appears to be, that the man who taught them letters was a Phoenician or Sidonian, Tyre being the daughter of Sidon.

O'Connor, who has published some ingenious dissertations upon the history of Ireland, brings a reinforcement of arguments from Newton's Chronology4, which wonderfully corroborate this matter. He gives you a table where, in one view, you may see the coincidence of the Irish accounts with the Newtonian amendment. The parallel is very striking.


Spencer thinks that the Irish had their letters from the nation which migrated from Spain; which, as he proves from Strabo, used the Phoenician letters very early. He is not however decisive on this head, but he says, ‘It is certain that Ireland had the use of letters very anciently, and long before England.’

How comes it then, asks he, that they are so unlearned still, being so old scholars? To which inquiry, as he returns no answer, I shall perhaps in future risk some conjectures respecting it. For without having recourse to any physical incapacities, the dreams of intoxicated speculation, several causes might be specified, which have necessarily obstructed the progress of the arts in this country. In one word, a provincial government has in itself impediments enow, to prevent the attainment of perfection in every department, where the strongest exertion of the human powers is to be called forth. But a full discussion of this question I shall defer till I have more thoroughly digested my thoughts; for the answer is, periculosae plenum opus aleae.


Perhaps you did not know that Spencer spent a great part of his life in Ireland: they tell me the house is still standing wherein he wrote his Fairy Queen; if it comes at all in my line I should be glad to visit it: there is a pleasure which we cannot account for in the sight of such places. I never was in Stratford that I did not feel an unusual emotion, at sight of that little wooden house, which gave our Shakespear birth. By the way, what think you could have inspired Shakespear, with that odd-looking epitaph?

  1. Good friend, for Jesus sake! forbear
    To dig the dust inclosed here;
    Blest be the man that spares these stones,
    And curst be he that moves my bones.

The Old man, you know, spent the last years of his life at Stratford, where it was the custom to gather all the bones, sculls in particular, and pile them in heaps. The largest collection in England is still to be seen in the vaults and steeple of that very church, where Shakespear lies interred. It seems more than probable, that it was this,


to him offensive, practice which suggested the thought in the above lines.

Good night.