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

Letter 9


It is an opinion pretty general, on our side the water, that the Irish had not any buildings of stone and mortar, before they were raised by the English; but I will enclose you the sketch of one, above 130 feet high, which was certainly built antecedent to that period; for Gyraldus Cambrensis, secretary to Henry II. and afterwards bishop of St. David's, describes those round towers, among the wonderful things of Ireland, and calls them turres ecclesiasticas, quae more patrio arctae sunt necnon & rotundae.’’


This writer was by no means partial in favour of the Irish nation; when therefore he says, that those towers were built after the fashion of the country, we cannot agree with those who suppose them to have been erected by the Danes. There are no such structures now in Denmark, nor in any other part of Europe, that I hear of, except in Scotland; where there are two of a small size, one at Abernethy in Perthshire, the other at Brechin in Angus. Which, by the bye, among other circumstances, tends to decide the descent of the Scots from Ireland, for we may easily conceive, that those Scottish towers were built by the posterity of the Irish, who went over with Fergus, in the manner of those of their own country, where they are so numerous.

The learned, however, are not agreed about the particular use, to which these edifices were applied. Some say they were places of penance; others, that they were belfries, the very name of them in Irish Cloghahd importing a steeple with a bell; but the prevailing opinion now seems to be, that they were anchorite pillars, such as Simon Stylites used to sanctify himself upon.




upon. They tell you, that in order to preserve the appearance of piety in the Abbey, and augment the fame of the monks, one of them, most celebrated for his austerity, used to watch and pray, in an extraordinary manner; thus removed from the earth, and its low cares, and, as it were, holding nearer converse with the Deity.

I shall not presume to decide upon a question of such moment; yet I cannot help inclining to the second opinion, not only from the name given them by the indigenal natives, but from the following considerations: Over great part of the east, they have tall round steeples, called minarets, with balconies at top, whence a person calls the people to public worship at stated hours. As the Irish had their arts from Phoenicia, we may fairly suppose, that from thence also came the model of these towers, which served as the minarets of the east do at present, till bells came into use; for narrow as they are, (about ten feet in the clear, at the base) they might hold a bell large enough to summon the auditory, as effectually as the shouts of a man.


Not far from the tower, they shew the ruins of a convent, of the nuns of St. Brigid; who, according to Gyraldus, makes Kildare illustrious by her unextinguishable fires, the ashes of which have never increased. The very oak under which she delighted to pray, has given a name to the place. Brigid, you must know, was the Virgin Saint of the land, and, after the Blessed Virgin and St. Patrick, held in the highest adoration by the Irish catholics. She was worshipped like Vesta, with unextinguished fires, kept burning by the nuns in their convent; which was therefore called the fire-house.

    1. Ignis inexctincti Dariae, quis crescere novit
      Ævis tot lapsis, Brigida virgo, cinis?

The ladies of Ireland are too wise to imitate this patroness of virginity in making the vow; celibacy being, perhaps, more uncommon here than in any other country. Yet, the chastity of the women, and the bravery of the men, are traits of the national character, on which these people, not without justice, pique themselves.


Among the higher ranks, the indiscretions of the fair sex are, probably, as uncommon as any where else, and certainly more so than in many other places. In a circle so small, that not to know every body is to be unknown, trespasses in this way can never escape observation, and therefore ceasure must be armed with double terrors.

But whatever strictness guards decorum in the polite world, they tell you that infamy does not long attend female frailty, in the lower walk of life. There a young woman may make the young squire a father, and marry her sweet-heart the very next year, who values his bride the more, as such a connection is supposed to enhance her dowry.

As it is doubted whether courage is natural or artificial, so it has been disputed, whether chastity originates from constitution or education. But is there not a firmness of nerves? Is there not a happy temperament? Poeta nascitur non fit, is not a true proposition, but it is more true than poeta fit non nascitur. Away then with the mighty examples from Hawkesworth's Voyages, which have been adduced to shew, that chastity is not an instinctive virtue.


Let it not be argued that the ages of chivalry and romance over-rated female virtue, and that the present age, of polish and refinement, is bringing it back to its original value: nor let it be prophesied, that in this untainted isle, the morality of some future age will, like the religion of the present, unkalendar St. Brigid.