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

Letter 25


The morning after I came here I called on Mr. O'Halloran, who, to an established reputation for his writings on Amputation, adds a commendable zeal for the honour of his native country. Upon the antiquities of which he has published a quarto, and is now engaged in something farther upon the same subject.

Ireland has a very just claim to the most remote antiquity, which is sometimes called in question by being stretched too far. People are apt to reject even truth, when they see it so intermixed with falsehood, that it requires labour to separate them. The polite and hospitable reception, I met with from this learned gentleman, interests me in the success of his work; and therefore I cannot help expressing a wish, that he may make a nice discrimination between the unknown, the fabulous, the obscure, the enlightened, and the historical times.


Though Mr. O'Halloran and I could not perfectly agree in all points, his conversation was of advantage to me, and his books were of great use in my disquisitions upon certain remains of antiquity, which had fallen in my way. My first object of research was a Druid temple, on this side of Bruff, on the road hither, of which fort there are many still remaining in Ireland.

Druidism was the religion here before St. Patrick, who is said to have burned near two hundred books of it in one fire. The Druid temples were circles of unhewn stones, set on end, varying in their size and number according to the diameters of the circles. That which I saw had but twelve, and the stones were from five to eight feet high, in a circle of twenty feet diameter. But we are not to infer any extraordinary want of civilization from the uncouthness of the idol. The origin of all idolatry is almost the same. The old Greek Mercury was not that winged herald now represented, but a square stone: nor was Bacchus more shapely. Before Dedalus, unhewn stones were worshipped by all Greece. He it was


who first divided the block into members and limbs; and, because he formed statues with legs, it was feigned that he imparted to them life and motion.

Long after carved images were common among other nations, the Persians adhered to their old mode of worship, and ridiculed the Greeks, for supposing the Gods to be of human shape. Maximus Tyrius says, that the Arabians worshipped he knew not what God, for all the statue he saw of him, was a square stone; and, according to him, the Paphian Venus was represented by a whitish pyramid. If then the transcendent beauty of the Medicean Venus, and the more than human of the Belvidere Apollo, do somewhat dignify the modern idolatries of Greece, this should rather be ascribed to the perfection of art, than to the refinement of worship.

The same may be said of Rome, the original idols of which must have been unchiseled stones, for it was an oath there, Per Jovem lapidem. When a plague raged in the consular army, and when the more dreaded Hannibal spread a panic to the very heart of the Imperial city, it was found, in


the books of the Sybils, that a plague might be stayed and a foreign enemy expelled Italy, if the Idean Mother were brought from Pessinus. The Pythian Apollo confirmed the Sybilline oracles. A pompous embassy is dispatched to Asia, and, as the Romans had no social cities there, the intercession of Attalus, King of Pergamus, is, by the advice of the Tripod, requested and obtained. This great King goes to Pessinus, succeeds in his suit, and delivers the mighty boon; — a rude stone, which the natives called the Mother of the Gods: Lapis erat quem matrem Deorum incolae dicebant, accepit Scipio Nasica, vir optimus a Senatu judicatus.

The destruction of Corinth, to be sure, brought into disrepute these stony symbols of Divinity; for, after that event, we hear the Roman patriots wishing, that their fine new Gods may prove as propitious as their old ill-shapen ones. It is not however to be doubted, but that they had some clumsy statues before that aera; which only serves to shew the progression of idolatry, from rough to hewn stones, and from hewn stones to images, formed ad unguem. But it is more to our purpose to remark, that Pessinus, being a city of Galatia, derived this


superstition from the Celtae. Druidism seems to have been co-extended, if not with all the Gaulish race, at least with all who retained the dialect.

But the worship of rude stones was not confined to the Celts, or their descendants; for Pausanias relates, that round the idol of Mercury, ‘there were thirty stones, each of which the Pharii worshipped and called Gods.’21 Pliny supposes, that the Druids were masters of the Persian Magi; and magic in the Irish language is called Druidion. Herodian, describing the worship of Heliogabalus, at Emesa in Phoenicia, says, ‘that he saw no kind of image fashioned by man's hands, but a great stone, roundish at bottom, and diminishing towards the top in a conic form.’ In my rides through this country, I have seen two of those stones, in form of a truncated cone, answering in all respects to this description. Thus it should seem, that the Irish had Druidism handed down to them both by their Celtic and Phoenician ancestors. And from Hector Boetius we may learn, that the Scots had it, in like manner, from the Irish: for he relates, ‘that the son of Fergus set up


great stones for temples, and one in the midst for an altar.’22

Those concentrical circles of stupendous rough stones in Salisbury Plain, are nothing more than a Druid temple, upon a great scale. It is curious enough to hear Inigo Jones labouring to prove Stonehenge to be a Roman structure; and it is equally so, to hear Geoffrey of Monmouth report, that the Stonehenge obelisks were transported there from Ireland. Yet on this tradition does Alexander Necham, a poet of the middle age, ground the following lines.

    1. Hoc opus ascribit Merlino garrula fama,
      Filia figmenti fabula vana refert.
      Illa congerie fertur decorata fuisse
      Tellus quae mittit tot Palamedis aves,
      Hinc tantum munus suscepit Hibernia gaudens.
23 The moral of this fable, if it has any, seems to be, that Druidism was introduced into Ireland from Scythia, and into Britain from Ireland. One of the first colonies which peopled Ireland was called Belgae, and Salisbury Plain is in the country of the Belgae. From hence, one would think, that the Irish Belgae were older than the British.

Near these Druid temples generally stands an odd sort of altar, called Crom-liagh, or


Inclined stone. The height of the cover stone is seven feet, the length of the inclined side ten, and its circumference twenty-eight feet. How this stone could, without the aid of mechanic powers, be raised upon the six pillars that support it, is not easy to be conceived; yet this difficulty vanishes when compared with that of raising the transverse blocks of Stonehenge, or the cover-stone of a Crom-liagh described by Chevreau. La pierre levée de Poitiers a soixante pieds de tour, & elle est posée sur cinque autres pierres, sans qu'on sache non plus, ni pourquoi, ni comment.’’

Chevreau, Mem. a Angl. 380 ap. Toland

Now, supposing them to be similar figures, the Irish is not an eighth of the French; and, which is remarkable, this stone is called by the natives Clogh-togle, that is, pierre levée, the Lifted stone.

A whimsical circumstance relative to these Crom-liaghs I cannot omit. They are called by the ignorant natives Granie's beds. This Granie is fabled to be the mother of Finmacoal, or Fingal; and of her, as well as of her son, they have wonderful traditions. I have heard songs in her praise, and was shewn, in a stone, the mark of her foot, and have heard an huge rock called Finmacoal's finger-stone. The source however of the appellation of Granie's bed, I conceive to


be a corruption of the original Irish name of these altars. Grineus is, we know, a classical name for Apollo. In Camden's Lauden, we meet with an inscription, "Apollini Granno:" and Grian is a common name for the Sun in Irish.

Another sort of Druid remain, which I have heard described, but have never seen, is called the Rocking Stone, and served as an oracle.24 A stone was so placed, on the top of another, that the smallest force would shake it; and it was supposed to be self-moved at the presence of a guilty person. This was one of those delusions by which the Druids kept the people in awe, and acquired that amazing influence which they had over them. They affected to wrap every thing in the veil of mystery, and had their most solemn meetings shrouded from the public eye. The depths of caves were their secret haunts; and the brown horror of oaken groves cast an awful shade on their public exhibitions. The badges of their


profession too, the white linen robe, the straight wand, the long flowing beard, all contributed to inspire a reverence, which their knowledge of calculating eclipses effectually confirmed. They were supposed to have immediate intercourse with the stars, and to be the only interpreters of the will of Heaven. This credit gave them high pretensions. They became not only priests but prophets; and to both was added the judges office.

To keep up their character with the vulgar, ever born to be duped, they used this rocking-stone; which, like other oracles, would not give responses displeasing to the priest — of the Oak — whose wand could give it the seemingly spontaneous motion. Yet we find, that all the address of the order was unable to screen their impostures from the public eye; and there were not then wanting some who appealed from the Arch-Druids infallibility, as now from the Pope's.

The influence of the Druids being founded not on power but authority, not on property but opinion, the preaching of St. Patrick soon demolished their credit; and


therefore the Irish writers boast, that the conversion of this country was not, as elsewhere, sealed with the blood of martyrs.

It is not strange that many Druid remains should still exist; but it is a little extraordinary that some of their customs should still be practised. They annually renew the sacrifices that used to be offered to Apollo, without knowing it. On Midsummer's eve, every eminence, near which is a habitation, blazes with bonfires; and, round these, they carry numerous torches, shouting and dancing, which affords a beautiful sight, and at the same time confirms the observation of Scaliger, En Irlande, ils sont quasi tous Papistes, mais c'est Papautè meslée de Paganisme, comme partout.’’

Though historians had not given us the mythology of the Pagan Irish, and though they had not told us expressly that they worshipped Beal, or Bealin, and that this Beal was the Sun, and their chief god, it might nevertheless be investigated from this custom, which the lapse of so many centuries has not been able to wear away.


The Sun was propitiated here by sacrifices of fire: One was on the first of May, for a blessing on the seed sown; the next, at Midsummer, for ripening the fruits of the earth; and a third, on the last day of October, as a thanksgiving for harvest home. The first and the last of these are entirely dropped; but that on Midsummer's eve is, as I have said, duly celebrated to this very hour. I have, however, heard it lamented, that the alteration of the style had spoiled these exhibitions; for the Roman Catholics light their fires by the new style, as the correction originated from a Pope; and, for the very same reason, the Protestants adhere to the old.

The first of May is called, in the Irish language, La Beal-tinne; that is, the day of Beal's fire. Vossius says, it is well known, that Apollo was called Belinus; and for this he quotes Herodian, and an inscription at Aquileia, Apollini Belino. The gods of Tyre were Baal, Ashtaroth, and all the Host of Heaven, as we learn from the frequent rebukes given to the back-sliding Jews for following after Sidonian idols: and the Phoenician Baal, or Baalam, like the


Irish Beal or Bealin, denotes the Sun, as Astharoth does the Moon.

Mr. Wood, an ingenious writer of this country, is of opinion that Balbeck in Coelo-Syria, of which he has given the ruins, is the same with Heliopolis. He argues not only from the situation, but the name; Balbeck, according to him, signifying, the temple or city of the Sun. And he thinks, that the Syrian Belus, the Heliopolitan Jupiter, and the Delphic Apollo, are one and the same deity.

From the fire-worship of Beal several places in Ireland have got their names, as Bealtine, Mullaghtine, Bealtinglass, &c. And the highest mountains have generally, on their summits, prodigious conical heaps of stones, called Carns. That these heaps were altars, on which the fires were burned, seems probable from the manner in which the Celts paid their adorations to this god.

  1. Dum pius Arcitenens incensis gaudet acervis.
25 Virgil puts this matter in the clearest light, for he shews us how the Sabines, a people descended from the Celts, worshipped Apollo,


their chief god, upon the mountain Soracte, by fires burned on stone heaps,
  1. Summe Deum, sancti custos Soractis, Apollo
    Quem primi colimus, cui pineus ardor acervo
    Pascitur —
From the close affinity of customs between kindred tribes, there is scarce room to doubt, that the Celts of Ireland made the same use of these Carns as their brethren in Italy. This hypothesis is confirmed by the following considerations.

Kárneios was an epithet of Apollo; but whence he obtained it is not agreed among the critics. It is probable that it was a Celtic, and consequently barbarous, word, introduced into the Greek language, at the same time that the Carnea were introduced into Greece. These Carnea, we know, were Apollo's festivals in May, which month was called Carnius. What makes this argument of moment is, that Berosus, the Chaldean, says, the Greeks borrowed their learning, and their very letters from the Gauls: and Diogenes Laertius, who, in the body of his work, is for making the Greeks inventors of all arts and sciences,


admits, in his proem, that the Druids taught their barbarous theology and philosophy anterior to them.

There is something in the very situation of these Carns which favours the argument of their being altars for sacrifices to Apollo. For the most lofty eminences were originally chosen for the celebration of religious rites, and therefore we find in scripture so many rebukes given to the Idolatries in high places. Homer commends Hector for his many sacrifices on Mount Ida; and Tacitus gives the reason why such situations were fittest, as being nearest to heaven; ‘Montes maxime caelo appropinquari, precesque mortalium a Deo nusquam proprius audiri.’

But you begin to say, whither does this farrago of quotation tend? I want to shew you, that the Irish are still in posession of certain customs utterly relinquished by the other nations of Europe; which peculiarities, being coeval with the earliest written memorials of mankind, confirm the opinion of Spencer, that they are at least among the most ancient people in this end of the world.

Good Night.