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

Letter 26


What is it that makes one nation more antient than another? Is it any thing more than this, that the present race of inhabitants have been longer in possession of their country, than the others have been of theirs? And it cannot be argued that any nation is more antient than that which has so long occupied its present territory, that no time can be pointed out in which it was not in possession. In this predicament stands Ireland. No man can point out the period when the present race was not in possession.

The zealous champions of Ireland may perhaps think, that I pay her but an ill compliment in proving her antiquity, from her adherence to certain heathenish customs. Antiquities, however, of whatever sort, ought carefully to be gleaned up, especially where they are the chief materials for the history of the most early periods. There


can be no other, except tradition, before the use of letters.

The authority of tradition, according to Sir Isaac Newton, is not to be depended upon for above 100 years. At what time letters were first introduced here, cannot, I conceive, be ascertained. The learned Mr. O'Connor admits, that the writing upon vellum was not in use till the time of St. Patrick. All antecedent transactions were inscribed, in very aukward characters, upon tables of wood, called taible filea.

It does not add to the credit of the antient history of Ireland, that it dwells so circumstantially upon the migrations of the Gadelians, from Scythia, through Egypt, Greece, Spain, &c. and yet touches so lightly upon the events of the subsequent periods. The accounts of the times preceding the Irish apostle, are but copious genealogies, or, at best, meagre annals. They tell you, indeed, that a battle was fought in such a spot, and thousands slain; that such a prince, slew such a king, and reigned in his stead; and this is all the information


they give. There is no variety of events, no consecutive series of action, no motives to war, or inducements to peace, but the adultery of some queen, the rape of some virgin, or the murder of some chief. In fine, there is no exemplary morality, no colour of just history.

However, therefore, the indigenal antiquarians of Ireland may declaim on the refinement, politeness, and civilization of their ancestors, candour must make great abatements, upon the review of facts. When we read of the castles of their kings, and the number of Nobles and Knights they entertained in their halls, with their long suite of Bards, Genealogists, and Musicians, we are astonished with an idea of magnificence; but on a nearer approach, these castles — raised like those in romance — shrink into occasional structures of hurdles and scrolls.

It is true, that antiquity and stone buildings are not necessarily connected. Yet it is hard to conceive how written monuments could have been well preserved without them. The several Psalters, as they call them, which contain the most early


and authentic documents of Irish story, were all denominated from the houses in which they were preserved. Scotland would at this day be without a written monument of antiquity, antecedent to the ravages of Edward I., if some remnant had not been saved in the Abbey of Hy Columbcill.

It is no disgrace to any country, that the early periods of its history are involved in obscurity; nor are the Irish singular in having discoloured theirs with fable. The French have forged their Francus, as the founder of their name and nation; the Danes their Danus, the Saxons their Saxo, and the Britons their Brutus. Olaus the father wrote two whole folios to prove that Scandinavia was the original globe, where the first men, and the golden apples of the Hesperian gardens grew, with guardian dragons26. Olaus the son has employed a good quarto, in shewing that the Lappish tongue may be traced up to the Hebrew; and that the country is, at this day, the most comfortable portion of the globe to live in, as producing honester men, and better strawberries, than the finest parts of Italy.


The historians of this country should follow the example of Livy, who fairly owns, that he can say nothing with certainty, of the origin of the Romans. By magnifying their antiquities, and by dwelling chiefly upon a millennium, at least, before the vulgar aera, they bring in question, narrations of a more modern date, with such as have neither time nor patience to discriminate truth from falsehood.

On the other hand, the readers of Irish history should not rashly involve it all under the same censure. There is truth in the histories of Arcadia and Attica, though the people of one country boasted of being earth-born, and of the other, that they were prior to the moon. We must not disbelieve that Calisthenes sent agronomical observations from Babylon of above nineteen hundred years standing, because the Chaldeans vaunted of having observed the stars for 47,300 years. Nor must we doubt that the Chinese are a very antient people, because they vainly reckon many thousand years before the Mosaic aera of creation. The degree of credit due to the traditional songs of the Bards, may be measured from the following story, told by Gibson, bishop of London, who translated Camden's


Britannia. A blind harper sung to his instrument an Irish song, which the bishop of Derry, curious to learn the meaning; of, got translated into English. It announced, that in a certain place was buried the body of a prodigious giant, on whose breast was a broad plate of pure gold, and rings on each finger of the same metal. The bishop had resolution enough to try if there was any truth in the narration, when, lo! upon opening the ground described, the body of a man of common size was found, reduced to ashes, with a small plate of gold which had been on his breast, but there were no rings to be seen.’’

It is pretty remarkable that the body of our Arthur was found almost in the same manner.

As the Irish had the use of letters, long before they wrote upon vellum, it is not to be doubted, that the reigns of their kings were exactly enough registered, before that improvement in the fifth century. The whole texture of their history shews the utmost attention to their genealogies; the Gavelkind, or Law of inheritance, absolutely requiring an exact knowledge of descents. An order of men, called Senachies were set apart for this study, and had certain lands assigned for their support. Camden enumerates several officers of each chief,


who enjoyed such hereditary demesnes.
Habent enim hi magnates suos Juridicos, quos Brehones vocant; Medicos, Poetas, quos Bardos vocant, & Citharaedos. Et certae & singulae familiae, viz. Brehones unius stirpis & nominis, historici alterius, & sic de caeteris, suos liberos, sive cognatos, in sua qualibet arte, erudiunt, & semper suos successores habent quibus singulis sua praedia assignata sunt.’’

This is no ideal institution, for, long after the English got possession here, it was in full vigour; and several acts have been made, from time to time, to abolish the establishment, and thereby annihilate the influence of the Bards; who, by their songs, were supposed to stir the people up to rebellion. The following translation of an Irish poem, minutely describing the etiquette of the monarch's court at Teamor, may not be unworthy your perusal.

    1. Ten royal officers for use and state,
      Attend the court, and on the monarch wait.
      A nobleman, whose virtuous actions grace
      His blood, and add new glories to his race.
      A judge, to fix the meaning of the laws,
      To save the poor, and right the injur'd cause.
      A grave physician, by his skilful care,
      To ease the sick, and weaken'd health repair
      A poet, to applaud, or boldly blame.
      And justly give, or infamy, or fame,


      For without him, the freshest laurels fade.
      And vice to dark oblivion is betray'd.
      The next attendant, was an holy priest,
      Prophetic fury roll'd within his breast:
      Full of his God, he tells the distant doom,
      Of kings unborn, and nations yet to come;
      Daily he worships at the sacred shrine,
      And pacifies the Gods with rites divine;
      With constant care the sacrifice renews.
      And anxiously the panting entrails views.
      To touch the harp, the skill'd musician bends,
      And o'er the strings his nimble hands extends.
      The sweetest sounds flow from each trembling string,
      Soft as the breezes of the breathing spring.
      'Tis music's lot the passions to controul,
      And tune the harsh discordance of the soul.
      The antiquary, by his skill reveals,
      The race of kings, and all their offspring tolls.
      The spreading branches of the royal line,
      Traced out by him, in lasting records shine.
      Three officers in lower order stand.
      Who, when he dines, attend the king's command.

The very texture of this poem shews it to have been written in the days of Paganism, for the priest therein described is a Druid. They fix the date of it in the reign of Cormic O'Conn, father-in-law to Finn, the son of Comhal, who re-established the Fes of Tarah, in the beginning of the third century.

There is yet another remnant of antient heathenism, which, belonging to the subject


of antiquities, I must not pass over. If a person dies accidentally upon the road side, or in the field, the place is held desecrated, and every passenger throws a stone upon the spot, till they mount into a heap. These heaps they call Carns, as well as those I described to you in my last. Such heaps, we find, were, like the tumuli, used as sepulchral monuments; for the book of Judges relates that they raised a great heap of stones over the body of Achan, who had purloined "the accursed thing." The same is reported to have been done to the robber, whose epitaph is ascribed to Virgil,
Monte sub hoc lapidum tegitur Balista sepultus.
Persons eminent for their virtues, as well as their vices, are represented as having had these heaps raised to their memory. Homer, describing Hector's funeral, tells us, that, over all, they heaped stones for a monument; and we read, that ‘they took Absalom, and cast him into a pit, and laid a very great heap of stones upon him.’27

Both the carns and tumuli were not only raised as Mausoleums, where the ashes of the


dead were actually buried, but they have been also raised as Cenotaphs to their memory, or as obsequies to appease their shade. This we may learn from the present Irish custom, with respect to the carn; and with respect to the tumulus, it will be evident from the following consideration. The souls of those deprived of the honours of burial were obliged, you know, to wander a hundred years before they could cross the Styx. Therefore, we find Palinurus so earnest with Aeneas, to pay him this last tribute,
— tu mihi terram
Injice, namque potes. —
and for the same reason, the Trojan hero raises a Cenotaph to the ghost of Deiphobus,
Tunc egomet tumulum,, Rhaeteo in littore, inanem
Constitui, & magna manes ter voce vocavi.

To the same custom it is, which Horace alludes in his ode to Archytas,

    1. Quanquam festinas, non est mora longa, licebit
      Injecto ter pulvere curras.

I mentioned to you that the tumuli were falsely ascribed to the Danes, and called Danes-mounts. There is another piece of


antiquity, with equal impropriety, attributed to the same people, and called Danes-raths. They are circular intrenchments thrown up on the tops of hills, sometimes with two or three, but more frequently with a single ditch. Rath signifies literally a surety, and therefore these fortresses are generally called Forts. The use of them is so obvious, that Nature herself must have pointed it out to a people always at war among themselves. I can therefore see no reason why they should be attributed solely to the Danes29. On the contrary, there is positive proof, in the Lives of St. Patrick that they were in Ireland some centuries before the Danes set foot in it, for Down-Patrick was originally called Rath Keltair munimentum Keltarii filii Duachi, and it obtained its present name from being the burying-place of the Irish apostle.