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

Letter 24


October 20, 1775.

Leaving Buttevant, I thought the ne plus ultra of human wretchedness was then passed, but Kilmallock was before me. Had such scenes presented themselves on leaving Dublin, curiosity might have proved too weak an incentive to proceed;


I should have turned back again, to avoid the sight of misery, which I could not but feel, without being able to remove.

I had been told at Charleville, that the next stage was Bruff, and there I purposed to breakfast; but after riding a few miles, and staring at a sight so unusual as a well planted park, I unexpectedly turned through an arch, under an old castle, into a spacious street, composed of houses, which, though magnificent, were windowless and roofless.

An inn was a found unknown here; I got, however, a stable for my horses, and a room for myself, where, I suppose, a fire had not been kindled since the last election; for these ruins send two members to parliament. Sheds were raised, within these noble structures, too nasty for the habitation of English pigs. Happy would it be for Ireland, if her corporate towns were divested of the privilege of returning representatives to the great council of the nation; for it becomes the selfish policy of the lord of the soil to impoverish the voters into compliance.


Kilmallock must be a place of high antiquity. It is reported to have been a walled town before the English got footing here. Sir James Ware relates, that an Abbey of Dominicans, or Black Friars, was built there in the thirteenth century by the sovereign, brethren, and commonalty. It formerly gave title to an Earl, and preserves a greater share of magnificence, even in its ruins, than any thing I had yet seen in Ireland. I call it the Irish Balbeck.

There was something so picturesque in the perspective of this place, that I could not help attempting to delineate it. I send you my essay done, as you see it, in less than an hour; I must, however, remark to you that I began upon a scale too large for my paper, and was not able to take in the whole town.

There is but one street now standing entire; but from some scattered piles, and from the foundation of others, there is reason to suppose that there have been more. The walls round the town, which in many places still remain, are of an oblong square. At each angle has been a castle, like those under which the traveller passes, at the ends


of the remaining street, and which you may trace in my sketch. One of these is the jail of the city. What must you think of the jail of Kilmallock, which is itself the most dreary of all prisons? The religious houses which you may remark in the foreground have been stately,
    1. Where my high steeples whilom used to stand.
      On which the lordly Faulcon wont to towre,
      There now is but an heap of lime and land.
      For the screech-owl to build her baleful bowre.

This town was abandoned by the Irish, during the last siege of Limerick, and fitted up by the English as a magazine for stores. It is conjectured, that Kil-malech was the original name. Bochart speaking of the Tyrian Hercules, or Melcartus, says, that Malech-cartha, signifies the king of the city, and O'Connor says, that Mal-Kathrach is of the same import in Irish.

As you approach Limerick, the grounds grow rich, and exquisitely beautiful. Several thorn-hedges, and some plantations of forest trees, were a greater luxury to my eye, than any other part of Munster: yet the lands were mostly occupied by black cattle, as Tipperary was by sheep.


Within a century, Limerick was reckoned the second city in Ireland. At present it does not seem to be half as large as Cork. It has lost its rank, not because it thrives less, but because Cork thrives more for it is in so flourishing a state, that it has taken the lead of Galway and Waterford.

Boate, who wrote about a hundred years since, arranges the Irish cities in the following order: Dublin, Galway, Waterford, Limerick, Cork, and Londonderry. As to the other towns, he says, the best of them, which are Drogheda, Kilkenny, Belfast, &c. are hardly comparable to those market-towns which are to be found in all parts of England. But how greatly must this order be now deranged, when it is universally believed, that the third town, in trade and consequence, is Belfast. In extent also, it comes next to Cork, for it has 5295 houses, Limerick but 3859, and Waterford 2628. It is remarkable, that Newry, a town not so much as named by Boate, has now more trade, houses, and people, than Galway.

Limerick is composed of what is called the Irish and the English town. The latter


stands upon a piece of ground called the King's Island, formed by the Shannon, which divides itself a little above the city. Both towns, in their ancient state, consisted of one long wide street, well built, cut at right angles by many narrow lanes, in form of a comb with a double row of teeth. I wish it less resembled the comb unbrushed.

The English and Irish town seem pretty much alike in their buildings, and are united together by an old bridge, called Baal's. On the same arm of the river, communicating with the quays and the new streets, is an elegant bridge, lately built, of three arches; the middle one, of a span of forty feet, admits boats under sail. The third bridge, thrown over the greater arm of the river, is called Thomond's, and, though consisting of fourteen arches, is said to have been built for thirty pounds. Thomond's and Baal s together are not as wide as the fourteen arches of Westminster-bridge. It must therefore be far below Limerick that this rapid river can answer the description given of it by Spencer

    1. The spacious Shannon spreading like a sea.


The narrowness of the streets must, I suppose, be attributed to its being an old fortress; and that it was a strong one, the repulse which King William met with there in 1690, and the honourable capitulation it made the year following, incline me to believe. Notwithstanding, Lausun, to whom King James intrusted the conduct of his army in Ireland, to the great prejudice of his own interests in the court of France, declared, upon viewing the fortifications, that his master would take it with roasted apples; and accordingly withdrew his men from it, as untenable: yet Sarsfield, the Irish general, undertook its defence, and held it out against the victorious army of the Prince of Orange.

But it is a place fortified by nature; for, without the annoyance of circumjacent hills, it is built upon an island, encircled by a strong barrier, the arms of the Shannon. It is now happily dismantled, and scarce a trace of its old walls and seventeen gates are to be seen. The substitution of spacious quays and commodious houses, in place of lofty battlements and massive bastions, has given it a thorough and healthy ventilation. Limerick,


like London, was formerly and frequently visited by the plague; but the effect has here also been removed by the removal of the cause.

They are under great obligations to their present representative Mr. Pery, who has obtained several large sums from parliament, for building quays, and for other improvements of the city; and they are not ungrateful, for he is held in high respect among them, as indeed he is in every other place where I have heard him spoken of, he being esteemed one of the ablest Speakers that ever sat in the chair of the Irish house of commons.

I can easily believe that the women here deserve their celebrated character for beauty; for I have seen great numbers of pretty faces in the streets and public walks, in general, the common people, too, are of a very comely personage. The streets are always crowded with them; having no staple manufacture to employ them, they walk about, like the sluggard, with their hands in their bosom. They once had a manufacture of serges, but that is nearly extinct. They are, however, famous for making


gloves; and some northern soldiers, who have been discharged here, are giving birth to the weaving of linen.

A few years ago the town stood on sixty-four acres of ground; now it covers one hundred, equal to 160 of our measure. The ships in this port trading to London are increased from one to twelve in number and the revenues have been augmented from 16, to 40,000 pounds yearly. By cutting canals opposite to the shallows and rocks in the river, it will be rendered navigable to Carrick, in the county of Leitrim, a space of ninety miles up the river, which will open a conveyance for grain, timber, iron, coals, turf, &c. and must at length turn the channel of trade in those parts hither. The good effect of a very short cut, made near the town, is already sensibly felt; for sea-coal, which was formerly their fuel, is so disused, that its price is much lowered; turf, the material and manufacture of which is all their own, now supplying their hearths.

This navigation of near 200 English miles in length, by communicating with that leading from Dublin, through the Bog


of Allen, must, in time, make Limerick one of the most considerable places for importation in the kingdom. Such large tracts of country on both sides the river, cannot fail of creating a large demand. The same cause may operate upon the exports, by rendering so easy the conveyance of beef, butter, hides, tallow, grain, &c. to the seaport. Though the town is sixty miles from the sea, ships of 500 tons come up to the quays.

You may judge of the state of agriculture, in this neighbourhood, from a prevailing maxim, that their lands are so rich, they are obliged to throw their dung into the Shannon. I wish, however, they would throw it any where out of the streets. The old Milesian manners prevail more here, than in any place I have yet visited. At night, as you pass along, you may hear the bagpipe squeaking in every alehouse. And from the number of backgammon tables to be seen at the coffee-houses, one may conjecture what are the amusements of these good citizens.

Colonel Parr, commander of the garrison here, a very accomplished gentleman, from


whom I have received great civilities, remarked to me, that in Spain, where he spent a considerable time, he observed many customs which put him in mind of his native country; and that now Limerick reminds him of Spain more than any other place.

There are here three churches. The cathedral is a massive Gothic pile, with a good ring of bells, and some monumental decorations. The custom-house is a very elegant modern structure; the pediment is supported by fluted pilasters; the front has but five windows in a row, yet including the colonnades, the whole elevation is near two hundred feet.

Our accomplished and facetious friend, Day, of the Middle Temple, is the son of an eminent physician of this city. I hope he will have obtained, before I return, that fine appointment in the East Indies, which is laid out for him; and which, I am sure, he will fill with much credit to himself and advantage to the company.

This country, though reckoned the dampest part of the kingdom, furnishes as


many instances of longevity as any other. Near Glin is now living one Kelly, aged 120, who is said to be so upright and straight in his limbs, as to walk several miles every day. They mention a woman much older at Shanagoldin, whole eyesight is so good, that she employs herself in knitting; and of an habit so lively, that she danced lately at the wedding of one of her great-grandchildren. They give you the names of women who bear children after the age of three-score. But the truth of these accounts I neither affirm nor deny. May we live happily whilst we live; for
    1. Aetatem Priamique Nestorisque
      Longam qui putat esse, Martiane,
      Multum decipiturque, falliturque.
      Non est vivere, sed valere, vita.