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

Letter 16


September 20, 1775

Since my last, I have spent some days most agreeably at Mr. Macarty's of Springhill; where hospitality was displayed in its best manner, divested of those qualities, which of old tarnished the lustre of that virtue in Ireland. There was no constraint in the article of wine, nor indeed in


any other. There was as much ease as in the house of an English Duke.

However, lest from the little I have seen, so repugnant to what I have heard on this subject, I might lead to a misconception of the ruling manners at present, I must observe, that this ancient family have seen much of the world. The eldest daughter is married to a colonel in the Imperial service, who is also an officer of state at court; the eldest son, whom I met at the assembly, is an officer in the same service, and Miss Macarty is but lately returned from visiting her sister. You will not be displeased to hear, she preferred England to every other country she had seen; which to me still more endeared her,
who had every grace, and every charm
To win the wisest, and the coldest warm.

Here we were at meals, even on Sunday, regaled with the bag-pipe, which, to my uncultivated ear, is not an instrument so unpleasant as the lovers of Italian music represent it. After supper, I for the first


time drank whisky punch, the taste of which is harsh and austere, and the smell worse than the taste. The drinkers of it say it becomes so palatable, that they can relish no other; which may very possibly be the case, for I suppose that claret is not relished by any palate at first.

The spirit was very fierce and wild, requiring not less than seven times its own quantity of water to tame and subdue it. They told me there was a sort much stronger, distilled with aromatic substances, at a guinea a bottle, called usque-bagh, which is literally eau-de-vie; as whisky or uisge is emphatically the water.

This was the liqueur, which the Czar Peter the Great was so fond of, that he used to say, ‘of all wines, Irish wine was the best.’

Here I met with Mr. Baker, a clergyman, and a man of letters, who gave me a cordial invitation to his house, promising to introduce me to Mr. Armstrong, minister of Tipperary; a gentleman curious in the antiquities of his country, and furnished with one of the best libraries in the kingdom. I had no difficulty in accepting this


invitation, but that it separated me from the agreeable family at Spring-hill.

In Mr. Baker, I found a young-looking man, but of ancient plainness, and simplicity of manners. His words were few, but those were correct, and all his sentiments shewed that he thought for himself. His wife, of an elegant person, was rather under the common size, but the stature of her mind was of the first magnitude. She is sister to Mr. Jephson, author of Braganza, which had such a run the last winter. If this lady writes as well as she speaks, she would certainly figure in the Belles-Lettres. She has such a purity of diction, such elegance of sentiment, and such warmth of imagination as would amaze you. Yet these shining qualities serve only to shed a lustre upon the goodness of her heart; those make her an admirable, this renders her an amiable, woman.

Tipperary is a small, but thriving village, with little or no manufacture. An effort has been made to establish the linen manufacture, and for this purpose a colony of northern weavers was settled there about forty years ago. But this proved ineffectual;


for the children of those weavers, like the other natives, neither weave nor spin; and in every thing but religion, are undistinguishable from the general mass. Such is the resiliency of all nature to its original state.

General and inveterate habits of sloth, must be removed upon systematic principles, before a way can be made for the introduction of the arts of industry; a few examples are not sufficient to excite an imitation of better things. We are all by nature abhorrent of labour, for labour gives pain. Sloth must prevail, till the incentives to diligence overpower the propensity to idleness: which can never be the case, till artificial wants become, at least, as numerous as those which are really natural. If an Irishman feels no inconvenience from walking barefoot, he will hardly be induced to work for the price of brogues.

The manner in which the poor of this country live, I cannot help calling beastly. For upon the same floor, and frequently without any partition, are lodged the husband and wife, the multitudinous brood of children, all huddled together upon straw


or rushes, with the cow, the calf, the pig, and the horse, if they are rich enough to have one.

Their houses are of several sorts; but the most common is the sod-wall, as they call it. By sods you are to understand the grassy surface of the earth, or the cespes of the Latins. Some build their houses of mud, as we do: others use stone without mortar, for two or three feet from the ground, and sod or mud for two or three on the top of that; their side-walls being seldom above five or six feet high.

Sometimes you may see an ingenious builder avail himself of the side of a ditch, which serves for a sidewall, and parallel thereto, he rears a wall in one or other of the modes I have described, as his own fancy, the facility of the method, or abundance of materials may lead him.

Another will improve upon this plan, and make the grip or fosse of the ditch, serve for the area of his habitation, by a little paring to widen the space; he being thus saved the labour of erecting side-walls, and having only the trouble to build his


gables; for the which his prompt invention has a noble succedaneum in the hip roof.

Their mode of roofing is not less ingenious. They take the branches of a tree, the largest of which they use as principals and purlins, and the remainder they lay parallel to the principals, for support of a thin paring of the grassy surface of meadow ground, like the sods, only much broader, tougher, and thinner. These they call scraws, meaning to be sure scrolls, seeing they are rolled up in that form, as they are pared. But they would be better called hides, for they are flayed off the earth. With these, however, they cover the small branches or wattles, and over all, they fasten a coat of straw, or, in default of straw, they cover with rushes or the haum of their beans or potatoes, and in mountainous tracts with heath.

Sometimes they have a hole in the roof to let out the smoke, and sometimes none. For to have a chimney, would be a luxury too great for the generality. The consequence is a house full of smoke, at least in the upper region, where it floats in thick clouds, the lower part being pretty clear


of it. To avoid the acrimony of which you are obliged to stoop down, and the poor man of the house immediately offers you a low stool, that you may be, what he calls, out of the smoke. And this is, probably, the only stool in the house; for the children nestle round the fire almost naked, with their toes in the ashes. Even the women, though not so naked, sit upon their hams in the same way. But in spite of their general adhesion to the ground, the old people are, for the most part, blear-eyed, with pale and sooty faces.

The only solace these miserable mortals have, is in matrimony; accordingly, they all marry young. Most girls are, one way or another, mothers at sixteen; and every house has shoals of children. Not that, I suppose, women are by nature more prolific here than in England, yet their early marriages, and necessary temperance, furnish more frequent instances of foecundity.

Nor is this country without instances of extreme longevity. Mr. Russel of Cloneen died, April 1770, at the age of 145. But such are not found in the sooty9 cabbins, whose wretched owners do not grow


to the size of well-fed men, and consequently cannot extend their lives to the natural term. People may say what they please about the wholesomeness of a mere potatoe diet; but shew me a set of men, with such a rosy hue of health as the butchers of England.

From the promiscuous way these people lie together, a suspicion naturally arises in a stranger's mind, that incest is unavoidable amongst them. Yet upon the strictest inquiry, I find the fact to be otherwise. They are bred up in such an abhorrence of the turpitude of this crime, that I am inclined to think it as infrequent here, as among more civilized nations. The better sort of people seemed rather surprised that I should entertain such an opinion; which only shews, that what we see practised from our infancy, though ever so unnatural, makes no impression.

A little reflection, however, will remove even the grounds of suspicion. Bred up from childhood together, their wonted and innocent familiarity is carried on step by step, without impure emotions being excited. One of these poor souls is no more


inflamed by the nude bosom of a sister, than in a more affluent state he would be on seing it covered with gauze.

There is no indecency in mere nakedness. Would drapery add to the modesty of the Medicean Venus? The chastest eye may gaze upon the naked figures of the Graces; but emotions will arise on seeing the lady stepping over the style; yet nothing is seen that our Madonas do not disclose. It is the imagination too dainty, from mistaken refinements, that annexes modesty or immodesty to dress, or to the want of it.

There are certain adjuncts peculiar, neither to the concealment nor display of beauty, capable of exciting ideas either gross or refined. And as the artist, by availing himself of these associations, may paint modesty naked, and lewdness wrapped up, so the nakedness of savage nations may not tend to immorality, whilst the dress of civilized people may be panders to sensuality. Was there not an ancient legislator, who, in order to lessen the influence of women over the men, exposed them naked?


It was far otherwise in the Hate of innocence and pure love,—
    1. Then was not guilty shame, dishonest shame
      Of Nature's works; honour dishonourable!
      Sin-bred! How have ye troubled all mankind,
      With shews instead, mere shews of seeming pure;
      And banished from man's life, his happiest life.
      Simplicity, and spotless innocence?
      So pass'd they naked on, nor shun'd the sight
      Of God or Angel, for they thought no ill.