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

Letter 19


October 4th, 1775.

After parting with my agreeable and learned friends at Tipperary, I soon ascended the Gaultees, and then descended into a valley, called the Glin of Agherlow, whence the opposite ridge seemed stupendous. That which I passed, not without fatigue, was comparatively as the cock-boat to a first-rate man of war. The ridge just crossed, was for some miles to the right hand, skirted with oak woods, which at best were of small growth, but they became gradually stunted more and


more, as they climbed the steep, till at length they dwindled into mere shrubs; and left the summit bare.

This is the universal order of nature, and I wish gentlemen, who are so fond of circular clumps on the tops of hills, in hilly countries, would attend to it. Sitting now, after a very good dinner, and having nothing to observe of the place, but that coming in late, I with difficulty got a bed in any of the inns, and that I must soon retire to an ordinary bed, and a dirty chamber, I shall employ the interval, in setting down my reflections upon this subject, confirmed by what I observed to-day.

It will not, I believe, be controverted, that the most beautiful countries are those which are gently varied with hill and dale; equally removed from the roughness of the mountain, or the deadness of the flat. If mountains are introduced to embellish the scenery, they must be placed at a due distance, else their ruggedness is deformity. It should then be the planter's object to reduce the landskip to the happy medium of being neither too hilly nor too level. And


in this picturesque mixture of hill and dale, few countries are, I suppose, more happy than Ireland; it wants nothing but plantation, and cultivation.

If a country is generally level, and if a spot should swell above the rest, then you are by all means to encourage the undulation. You are by planting it with the loftiest forest trees, to give it boldness and variety, for in so doing, you relieve it from that tiresome uniformity which creeps along a dead flat.

On the other hand, if the country is too hilly, you are, as far as in you lies, to reduce it nearer to a plain; not by that expensive, artless, and generally ineffectual mode of removing earth, but by planting the valley, or along the feet of the hills: for, by this means, you deduct the height of the plantation from the height of the hill, and, as it were, level the hill by apparently raising the valley; and thus approach nature's varied medium, the very essence of beauty.

By planting on great eminences, instead of correcting, you exaggerate the deformity of your grounds. Trees are in themselves


so beautiful, that I am always glad to see them wherever they are, especially in this naked country, but the summits of her hills are not the place for them. Sed nunc non erat his locus. There is one case, and only one, where they are not, there, misplaced, and that is in regions uncultivated, to shew that they are not quite deserted by the human species.

I have put this case, yet it is one barely possible; for the tops of hills are generally so barren, and universally so exposed, that trees are with difficulty reared, and never thrive upon them. Let us then attend to the workings of nature, and we shall find her disclaiming trees on the tops of hills, by denying them vegetation; let us consult the feelings of taste, and we shall find them displeasing to our sense of beauty.

Even the circular figure of these clumps, is of all others the most artless, for of isoperimetrals the circle is the most capacious. Consequently, instead of displaying your trees to the best advantage, you in effect hide a great proportion of them; whilst you make an ostentation of art, both in the choice of the figure and of the situation.


But let us naturalize art, instead of artilizing nature. Plantations upon exposed elevations, are the utmost solecisms in improvement, both in respect of beauty and utility.

There is between Cashel and Tipperary, a park the largest and bed planted in this kingdom; containing, it is said, above 1500 Irish acres, or near 2000 English; and abounding with droves of red, and other deer, proportioned to its extent. The Gaultees are set at such a due distance, that they are the finest termination for the prospect a painter could desire; the lands are rich, and the trees the best grown I have seen in Ireland. Here are all the capabilities for a terrestrial paradise; and yet one thing is wanting that mars the whole. Every violence, that she is capable of suffering, has been done to Nature.

Behind the house is a square parterre of flowers, with terraces thickly studded with busts and statues; before it, a long and blind avenue, planted with treble rows of well-grown trees, extends its awkward length. In the centre of this, and on the acclivity of the hill, terminating the vista, are little


fish ponds, pond above pond. The whole park is thrown into squares and parallelograms, with numerous avenues fenced and planted; where if a hillock dared to interpose its little head, it was cut off as an excrescence, or at least cut through; that the roads might be every where as level, as they are straight. Thus was this delightful spot, treated by some Procrustes of the last age.

I own to you I felt more pain than pleasure in this demesne. I could not help wishing, that instead of torturing the place to the plan, they had accommodated the plan to the place. Indeed, all predisposed plans for laying out grounds are dangerous; for every place has within itself a plan, from which true taste can never deviate. Nature may be improved, but never changed to advantage. Levelling hills and raising mounds, at a vast expence of money, is like the custom of the Indians, who, at the expence of their blood, slit their ears, and gash their faces, to improve their beauty.

I breakfasted at Mitchelstown, a very poor village in the county of Cork, fourteen Irish, but near eighteen English miles from


Tipperary. And here, for the first time, I felt enough of that wretchedness I had so often heard of in Irish inns. But, it was not to be expected that such good accommodations should be met with, in a cross road, as in the direct ones from the capital.

In all this way, though the grounds were generally fertile and pleasant, I saw but one gentleman's seat. This one was well wooded, and situated on the brow of a hill, overhanging a little stream which meandered through the valley, near which were several old ruins of religious houses, at a place called Gaul-Bally, i. e. the town of the Gauls or Celts. I then doubled the southern ridge of the Gaultees, which was terminated by what at a distance seemed a sugar loaf, but at its base a promontory.

This long chain of hills, which fences in the Glin of Agherlow on one side, disputes with Mangerton, in the county of Kerry pre-eminence of altitude. 15 Yet, in this


respect they are not to be compared to Snowdon, or even others of the Welch mountains. But they are of forms the most beautiful, fantastic, and picturesque, that can be imagined. First they rise from little hills, till at length they swell into mountains, acclivity above acclivity, shade above shade; some piercing the clouds in spiral lines, some conically acuminated, and some overhanging the rest, in horrible magnificence.

Between two cliffs, I saw what at first I took for smoke; but at a height too great, and in a spot too craggy for human approach, I soon perceived that it did not rise from fire, but from its opposite element: It proceeded from a small stream, which falling perpendicularly, was checked by a brisk gale, then blowing in a contrary direction, and raised up with such force, that it was rarefied into vapour as subtile as smoke.


From Mitchelstown, the country becomes unspeakably dreary for seven or eight miles. The greatest part of it was an unvaried waste, without either hill or dale, bog or mountain, arable or pasture; for though it was high, it was level; and though black, it was hard; too stony for the plough, and too barren for grass. The jaded eyes felt some refreshment at sight of the plantations round Kilworth; which, though a poor village, looked opulent after Mitchelstown.

From Kilworth hither, the cottages grow more frequent, and less wretched than those in the fruitful vales of Tipperary. The country is, however, generally naked, except sweet little spot called Fermoy, on the Black-water. Here I was delighted at seeing a good large nursery of trees; for I promised myself, from this phaenomenon, better things on my approach to Cork. But I was sorely disappointed, for except at Rathcormac, a poor borough, near which is a pleasant residence, the whole country is almost treeless. The sorry inclosures being planted with furze or goss, and the inclosed grounds being very much overrun


with them also, adds double darkness to this gloomy region. Yet the land from Kilworth is rich enough, and with proper cultivation would produce excellent crops.

But I must bid you good night. Tomorrow I purpose to spend in reconnoitring the city and its environs; of which, as my arrival was late, after a ride of above fifty miles, I have not yet got even the perspective.