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

Letter 15


My short stay here has afforded me frequent opportunities of conversing with the common people; who, having observed me measuring one of the monasteries, would sometimes follow me at a distance, and sometimes throw themselves in my way, in order to get or give information.

Their native humour was entertaining, and their remarks upon men and manners shrewd and sagacious; but nothing could be more ridiculous and absurd than their traditional tales. Asking them for the reason of the name of the Hore Abbey, they told me, that one of their queens, who in her youth had been a great whore, founded it for the salvation of her poor soul.

Their curiosity was strong to know whence I came, and where I was going, and what could be my motive for taking the dimensions of such old walls. It contributed not a little to remove their reserve towards me, that I was unknown by every body yet they did not, without an artful


and wily address, discover their sentiments as to the White-boys. They always took care to say, that they were wrong in what they were about, at the very time they were insinuating that others were more in fault than they.

Yesterday there was a horse-race, and at night an assembly. Too busy for the course in the morning, I was glad of an opportunity to change the solitude of an inn, for such gaiety in the evening. And never was I more surprised than at the multitude and politeness of the company. Some nobility, and all the gentry from far and near, were collected together. We had no less than two sets of dancers, and three or four card tables. The ladies were not only well but elegantly dressed, in the ton of a winter or two since in London.

Of what extremes is this country composed? Here every thing wore the face of festivity and pleasure; it looked as if Amalthea had emptied her horn in this spot. I had heard of vivacity, and I had seen it in individuals, but never, till last night, did I see it universally pervade so large a mass.


The women vied with the men in the display of animal powers.

You have seen Stubbs's picture of the Chariot of the Sun; and you may remember how the wheels blaze, and how the horses are maned with flame; every thing seems in the nascent state of conflagration. It was just so here. You would have said they breathed fire. We frog-blooded English dance as if the practice were not congenial to us; but here they moved as if dancing had been the business of their lives. The Rock of Cashel was a tune which seemed to inspire particular animation.

These people have quick and violent spirits, betraying them sometimes into sudden starts of indecorum, which the severity of punctilio would not fail to censure, while candour would only consider them as the venial flashes of mirth and good-humour. I have seen the whole room in a convulsion of laughter at a false step made by one of the dancers. Nor does penury repress these ebullitions among the lower ranks; for though four centinels, with their bayonets


fixed, were stationed at the door, the mob rushed in, and rendered the room very offensive.

How different are the effects of the same sensibility in another line? I had been strolling through the market, in order to see what commodities were sold, and to observe the humours of the people; when I remarked a poor woman, who had lost her purse, containing but two or three shillings. The poor creature wept aloud, and the women, about her, joined in the lamentation which had such an effect, that a general outcry was the consequence, so piteous and so doleful, that the men themselves could not refrain the sympathetic tear.

In this market I observed a great number of little bags, which men carried in upon their shoulders, and set down for sale. Upon examination, I found them filled with wheat; some of them contained ten or twelve pounds, some a stone and a half, some more and some less. It is hardly necessary to review the face of the country, in order to learn the state of its agriculture; this single fact reflects it as a mirror.


Were I to devise an emblematical figure of Ireland, in her present state, it should not be a Minerva-like figure, with her spear and harp; nor should it be a Diana with her wolf dogs coupled, and the moose deer in the thicket of the back ground. For that species of deer has been extinct here longer than the records of Irish history reach; the wolves too being all destroyed, and the dogs therefore useless, it looks as if nature intended that their species should fail also, for I never could see one of them. But my picture of Ireland should be mulier formosa superne, a woman exquisitely beautiful, with her head and neck richly attired, her bosom full, but meanly dressed, her lower parts lean and emaciated, half covered with tattered weeds, her legs and feet bare, with burned shins, and all the squalor of indigent sloth.

But to return to our assembly; where, though unknowing and unknown, I met an instance of that civility to strangers, for which this country is so justly famed. I had indeed hitherto withdrawn myself from all possible occasions of meeting with it, as I had little time to spare for this purpose,


and was rather desirous to learn the true state of the country and people in other respects; their character for hospitality being already sufficiently established. But as this was the first opportunity I ever took, of experimenting in this way, I cannot in justice to true politeness pass it over.

A gentleman, whom I since learn to be a physician, seeing me a stranger, accosted me in a manner which bespoke the liberality of literature and travel; and after offering all his services in conducing me to whatever might gratify my curiosity in his country, he asked me whether I would chuse to dance or play cards, that he might introduce me, &c. I need not tell you which I chose. He got me an agreeable partner for one set, and the next I chose for myself. Their conversation was as spirited as their dancing. One of them had a person that would be gazed at in St. James's. These people were upon the whole so free, so easy, and so engaging, that I cannot help feeling myself interested in their national prosperity.


My new acquaintance the Doctor, whose name is Carrol, made me known, or rather indeed he made several gentlemen known to me; for as yet, he did not know my name. Several polite invitations were the consequence; one of which I accepted from a gentleman, who, as my conductor, the Doctor tells me, is son to a Roman catholic of large property and great influence, descended from the once royal family of the Macarty's. This will be a scene of novelty. I shall not forget to let you know all that shall befal me, among these descendants of Hibernian kings.