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

Letter 23


October 16, 1775.

This is a poor borough, about forty miles from Cork, and said to be midway between that and Limerick. The inn, though very ordinary, is reckoned a good one. It would rather indeed be wonderful if it were good, in a small town, without manufactures, situated in a country without agriculture, and where the resort of travellers cannot be great.

But not to be worst, stands in some rank of praise, compared to one I had just passed through, Charleville had an air of opulence. The village I mean is Buttevant, finely situated in a fine country. Here was a collection


of the vilest cribs, raised of dry stones, not six feet high, interspersed with the antique towers of battered castles, and august remains of ruined monasteries.

My communicative fellow-traveller Spencer tells me, that Buttevant was demolished, in the reign of Edward IV. by Murrough O'Brien, who breaking forth from Thomond, at the head of the discontented Irish, like a sudden tempest, over-ran, and laid waste Connaught, Munster, and Leinster; whilst O'Neil was doing the like in Ulster. He soon created himself king, and was called king of all Ireland, as Bruce of Scotland had done in the reign of Edward II.

From Cork to Mallow there is very little natural or artificial decoration, except in the neighbourhood of a poor village, where the ruins of a spacious Abbey in a valley, and of a proud little castle on the brow of a hill, are still to be seen. There some venerable oaks stretch their long arms across the road, and from thence wind down a romantic glin, in view of a new house of a good appearance.

The situation of Mallow is charming, it lies on this side of the Blackwater, the


other side being mostly occupied by gentlemen's seats, richly planted, and neatly dressed. At the end of the town is an old castle, which, with the town, belongs to a Mr. Jephson, kinsman to my kind hostess at Tipperary. It is a borough-town, the balcony windows of which, betray all the symptoms of decay. Without manufactures, it subsists by the precarious trade of letting lodgings. It has a tepid spring, which is said to be a sovereign restorative; but of late years it has been deserted in favour of Bristol, where if the waters are not better, it must be allowed that the accommodations are.

When at Mallow I was within thirty miles of Killarney, which by all accounts is one of the finest scenes in Europe. Volumes have been written in its praise, but the subject seems to be inexhaustible. I saw at Mr. Baker's, in a manuscript ready for the press, a very poetical description of it, though in prose, and it has lately been celebrated in verse by a Mr. Leslie.

You will say, I am dead to curiosity that could pass it by; but consider, my dear friend, that the season is now far advanced,


that travelling is not here as in England, that roads little frequented, but by curiosity, though said to be much improved, can neither be very good, nor the beds free from dampness, which of all things most sensibly affects a valetudinarian.

I am even unmoved by the consideration, that this is the landskip month; especially in this country, where the leaves stick longer on the trees than more eastward. I shall content myself with Mr. Fisher's views. My object being not so much to see places and things, as men and manners.

On this road I met an Irish funeral, one or two of which I had seen before, but this one might have proved fatal to me, for I met it unexpectedly in turning a corner, and no sooner did the mourners see me, than they set up a yell which frightened my horse not a little. The cry, however, which had been originally raised on my account, ceased at sight of my danger; but the girls, who set it up, could not help laughing at my situation.

It is the custom of this country to conduct their dead to the grave in all the parade they can display; and as they pass


through any town, or meet any remarkable person, they set up their howl. A gentleman and his servant were, it seems, thought to deserve this compliment.

Being now out of danger, I can calmly inquire into the antiquity of this custom. Spencer, so often mentioned, says that it is heathenish, and proceeds from a despair of salvation. But, whether the custom originates from hope or despair, it is certainly very antient, and has been praised by the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans. ‘Call for the mourning women, that they may come,’ — ‘man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets,’ — ‘we have mourned unto you, but ye have not lamented,’ say the inspired writers.

It was formerly usual to have a bard to write the elegy of the deceased, which contained an enumeration of his good qualities, his genealogy, his riches, &c. the burden being, O why did he die? As thus, O, why did he die! who was so worthy to live? He who sprung from the noble blood of Heber, the son of Gallum, that gallant chief! — O why did he die who


was blessed with a wife, fairest of the daughters of Scota, a wife who lives only to deplore his loss! O why did he die before he could see his sons glorious in the field, and his daughters happy in their loves! O why did he die who had every means of life; whose numerous beeves browsed on the lawn, and whose sheep whitened the hills! O why did he die who was lord of the golden vale! O ye, the objects of his bounty, his vassals loving and beloved, why — why did ye not snatch him from death, who so often led you to glory, and brought you home laurelled by the hand of victory! &c. &c. The women then took up the rueful ditty, and sung it with lamentable accents, which, from imitation of the sounds, are sometimes called Oghunano, and Hullaloo, and from the repetition of O why did he die, Ogh-agus (Agus signifying and). It is also called Keenagh, but for what reason I do not know.

As these elegies are now composed by unlettered men, they must appear ridiculous enough. Though the band of criers which I heard, made no very musical dirge of it, it was certainly calculated to inspire


melancholy. That the custom may be ennobled by a more elevated strain, the last book of Homer must evince; where, we see around the corpse of Hector, his wife, his mother, and his sister, who, as the natural mourners, alternately speak his several praises, while the artificial mourners act the second part.

    1. A melancholy choir attend around,
      With plaintive sighs, and music's solemn sound;
      Alternately they sing, alternate flow
      The obedient tears, melodious in their woe.
      While deeper sorrows groan from each full heart,
      And Nature speaks at every pause of art.

The conclamatio among the Romans coincides with the Irish cry. The mulieres praeficae exactly correspond with the women who lead the Irish band, and who make an outcry too outrageous to be the effect of real grief;

    1. Ut qui conducti plorant in funere, dicunt
      Et faciunt prope plura dolentibus ex animo —

That this custom was Phoenician, we may learn from Virgil, who was very correct in the costume of his characters. The over the Phoenician Dido, as


described by him, is similar to the Irish cry.
    1. Lamentis gemituque &: foemineo ululatu
      Tecta fremunt. —

The very word ululates, or hulluloo, and the Greek word of the same import, have all a strong affinity to each other.

The series of ceremonies used on the night, or nights, that the corpse remains unburied, is what they call a wake. At these wakes the Criers, or Keenaghers, sit round the corpse, which is stretched on a bed or board, covered with white linen; a plate of salt being placed over the heart. The salt, I suppose, they consider as the emblem of the incorruptible part, the body itself being the type and subject of corruption.

These wakes are meetings of merriment and festivity, to which they resort from far and near. The old people amuse themselves in smoking tobacco, drinking whiskey, and telling stories in the room with the corpse; whilst the young men, in the barn, or some separate apartment, exhibit feats of activity; or, inspired by their sweethearts, dance away the night to the




melodious pleasing of a bagpipe; — thus enjoying as solid pleasures as their betters at courtly balls or midnight masquerades. I am, however, sorry to add, that such is their passion for carousals, on these occasions, that the survivors have been sometimes beggared by the expence.

I have heard of an old woman, who, having gathered a few guineas, chose to beg rather than break in upon this sum, which she had hoarded up, in order, as she expressed it, to have herself buried decently. This decency for which she was so anxious, was, that the neighbours might be regaled, with plenty of whiskey and tobacco. So much for the Irish cry!