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

Letter 10


August 30, 1775

My last was from a little town which had its name from St. Brigid's cell of the Oak; this is written from the best inland town in the kingdom, denominated from the cell of St. Kenny. It is sweetly situated on the river Newre, covering two little hills; on one of which stands the cathedral, and on the other the old castle of the Ormond family. Near the cathedral is one of those round towers, I gave you a sketch of from Kildare. There are, besides, three towers of ruinous abbies, which still rear their heads aloft, and give a figure of some consequence to the town.


But before I make you better acquainted with Kilkenny, let me give you some account of the way to it. From Kildare to Castle-Dermot the country is in general pleasant, and in some places adorned with plantations. Castle-Dermot is a very poor town for a borough, not even a ruin remaining of that castle whence it was called. That it was once a place of some note, is however evident from the remains of religious houses. One of its monasteries has been magnificent; two of the ailes, with one of its windows, still preserve the outlines of grandeur and elegance. The town was sacked and plundered by Bruce in 1316, yet a parliament was held there in 1377.

On this side Castle-Dermot the country grows less pleasant, and the road being one extended right line for several miles, becomes more fatiguing to the rider than to the horse. There, for the first time, I saw their sewel, with us called peat, but with them turf; piled up in prismatical heaps, like the mortars at Woolwich, upon the margin of those pits, from whence they are dug. They are cut by an instrument called


a slane, which is nothing more than a spade of about four inches broad, with a steel blade of the same breadth, standing at right angles to the edge of the spade. So that each turf is a parallelepiped, of about ten inches by a square of four. From this instrument, Mr. Read, an ingenious cutler of Dublin, has borrowed the form of a knife, for delving into cheese, which they also call a slane.

As you approach Carlow, the scene alters; the country seeming to be entirely occupied by gentlemen's parks, walled in, and recently planted; which will appear most delightful when the trees are full grown. The town itself is pleasantly situated on the Barrow, and makes a very cheerful appearance, from the number of white houses scattered up and down; nor are you at all disappointed when you enter it, there being a cleanness and neatness in the streets, I had not hitherto seen on this road. There was a good flesh-market, and every thing wore the appearance of a good English village. Such are the happy effects of a little trade! For here they have a manufacture of the coarsest kind of woollen cloths, and are concerned


in supplying the neighbourhood with coals from Kilkenny. They have a horse-barrack; and on an eminence, overhanging the river, stands an old castle, of an oblong square area, with large round towers at each angle; which has a fine effect.

Up the river from Carlow, the landskip is highly picturesque; and downward, for eight miles along its banks, to Leighlin-Bridge, the ride is delightful. At a due distance, the grounds swell gradually into mountains, which, from their feet to their midsides, are covered with woods; and, to enliven the prospect, the interjacent tract is interspersed with several little white villas, neatly planted around. From Leighlin-Bridge hither, the country is naturally cheerful; but let me reconduct you to Kilkenny, in Spencer's poetic barge, down the Newre, one of those three renowned brethren,

    1. Which, that great giant, Blomius, begot
      Of the fair nymph Rheusa, wandring there,
      One day, as she, to shun the season hot,
      Under Slew-Bloome, in shady grove was got;
      This giant found her, and by force deflower'd;
      Whereof conceiving, she in time brought forth
      These three fair sons, which being thenceforth pour'd.
      In three great rivers ran, and many countries scour'd.


      The first the gentle Shure, that making way,
      By sweet Clonmel adorns rich Waterford;
      The next, the stubborn Newre, whose waters grey,
      By fair Kilkenny, and Ross-ponte board,
      The third the goodly Barrow. ——

There are but two churches in this large town, or rather city, consisting of between two and three thousand houses; but there are several mass-houses, each of which has congregations, vastly more numerous than both the churches. The cathedral is a Gothic edifice, so venerable, that whoever sees it must lament, that a spire, at least, had not been added to the stumpy steeple. From the Bishop's palace to the church, is a long and double colonnade, in the modern style. The nave is divided from the ailes, by massy columns of black marble, crusted over with a dirty lime white-wash. It is, however, a consolation, that the scaffolding is now rearing for the purpose of embellishing this ancient pile.

In the ailes are several ancient monuments of armed knights, and mitred bishops, some in horizontal, and some in praying postures, and one modern monument of white marble,


finely executed; the device is Piety, with a book in her hand, leaning in a mournful posture over an urn. These, altogether, would have given a due solemnity to the place, were it not that its slovenly condition rather inspired a painful melancholy;

The hill on which the cathedral stands, is called the Irish Town, as that whereon the castle is, goes by the name of the English Town, and each of them send two members to parliament. The former is mostly composed of sorry houses, and poor huts; the latter is generally well built. The castle was founded by Randolph III. earl of Chester, but built, as it now stands, by the Butlers, ancestors of the dukes of Ormond. In the English town is the church of St. Mary, no contemptible structure, with several old monumental decorations; there also are the town-hall, jail, and market-house.

I mentioned to you the towers of three monasteries, these are St. John's, St. Francis's, and the Black Abbey. St. John's has great elegance, and amazing lightness in the


style of the building. The Abbey-church of Bath is, I think, called the lanthorn of England; but this is more windowed still; for about fifty-four feet of the south side of the choir yet entire, the whole seems to be one window. I send you a sketch of it. The east window is sixteen feet wide, and about forty high, as I guess. Belonging to this Abbey are the remains of several old monuments, almost buried in the ruins.

St. Francis's has little remaining except the tower. But the Black Abbey is a magnificent remain; the windows are exquisitely curious; not unlike many you have seen; the architraves in the outside cornice under the parapet, are very expressive of their origin. Of this spacious ruin, two of the steeples are almost entire.

One of the old churches is converted into a mass-house, as the courts of two of the abbies are changed into barracks; St. Francis's for horse, and St. John's for foot. How different are the establishments of different potentates, at different periods! The Pope's barracks in Ireland were once filled with old fellows, with shaven crowns,



and without shirts, but clothed in long sweaty gowns, of black, and white, and grey. The king now fills his convents with young fellows, wearing long hair, linen shirts, and scarlet jackets lined with all the colours of the rainbow.

The castle, whose magnificence was heightened by the sublimity of its situation, has been gradually falling into decay, since the attainder of the late duke of Ormond. It was in his time a spacious square, two sides of which only are now standing: one they are rebuilding, and the other two they are putting into repair; but in a taste too modern for a building of such antiquity, and too frippery for one of such magnitude.

In a gallery of 150 feet in length, but very disproportioned in breadth, they shew you several old portraits; among these, in full length, are the whole Stuart race who reigned in England from Charles I. inclusive, together with William III. who is said to have dined here, on his march to the siege of Limerick, soon after the battle of the Boyne. But the most remarkable piece is a three quarter length of earl Strafford,


said to be taken but a few days before his catastrophe; to which is contrasted, the picture of the same person, taken in the full career of his ambition. The different situations of life are strongly marked in the countenance of each.

In the room called the Presence Chamber, or at least in that next it, for I already forget, are the four elements in tapestry, finely executed, and in high preservation; the gloss of newness seems fresh upon them. In another apartment is a suit of hangings, representing the story of Decius, in the attitudes of taking leave of his friends, receiving the high priest's benediction, &c. &c. and at length devoting himself. These tapestries, though not so glowing in their colours as the seasons, are nevertheless admirable in other respects. Pity that they should be exhibited to so little advantage! They are hung up in a room, the shape of which is so inordinate, that I question whether any two sides of it are parallel, and it is illuminated diagonally from a window, in a segment of one of the round flankers. One of the largest pieces is folded


round the mixed angle at the window, so that the part of it on the concave surface has a glaring light, while that on the plain is almost in darkness. This room affords too many beautiful views of nature from without, to require the sacrifice of so much art within.

The servant, who shewed the house, told me the situation was very like that of Windsor. I cannot say the likeness would have struck me, though there is at both places a town, a castle, and a river. However, let not Windsor fastidiously disdain the comparison. For though the country round Kilkenny is not improved like that round the most princely of the royal palaces, yet the site of this castle is at once bold and beautiful, with almost every advantage that could be wished to decorate the scene.

It stands upon a precipice, overhanging the bend of a deep and rapid river, with two stately bridges full in view: the more distant, and up the stream, is composed of seven arches, that next the castle has but three; but of a very wide span, of hewn


marble, in fine elliptical proportions. The sides of the river are well planted, and the subjacent town looks as if it had been built merely to be looked at; for every thing in it worth seeing, bears upon the castle, whilst every thing dissightly is, somehow or other, screened from the view. The horizon is closed, in one limb, by mountains, placed at a due distance, to give variety without horror; and if any thing is wanting to render the prospect inchanting, it is that the middle distances are destitute of that richness of cultivation, and that embellishment of country-seats, which is the capital beauty of Windsor. But Kilkenny is far more picturesque.

Windsor castle looked at, is august and venerable, but when you look from it, there is nothing to inspire those ideas. Not Eton's spires, not Cooper's classic hill, not Cliveden's gay alcove, nor Glo'ster's gayer lodge, can furnish such a lavish variety to the landskip-painter, as these Hibernian scenes. There Nature has painted with her most correct pencil, here she has dashed with a more careless hand. This is the fanciful


and fiery sketch of a great master, that the touched and finished work of a studious composer. Without either mountain or sea, no landskip can, in my conception, be perfect; it wants the grand attribute of sublimity. Windsor Forest was a theme exactly level to the tame genius of Mr. Pope, whose lines are not more harmonious than the subject; but it was such a rude original as this, which ravished Milton into that brilliant description.
    1. Straight mine eyes hath caught new pleasures,
      Whilst the landskip round it measures,
      Russet lawns, and fallows grey,
      Where the nibling flocks do stray;
      Mountains, on whose barren breast,
      The labouring clouds do rest;
      Meadows trim with daisies pied,
      Shallow brooks, and rivers wide:
      Towers and battlements it sees,
      Bosom'd high in tufted trees.
      Towers and battlements it fees,
      Bosom'd high in tufted trees.