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

Letter 28


Oct. 26th, 1775.

It was my purpose, originally, to make my tour by Galway; but I begin to be tired of wretched villages, and uncultivated wastes. A curiosity, too, is growing upon me to hear the speakers in the Irish parliament, which is now sitting. I am, I own, predisposed to think well of the Orators of this country, not only from their general character, and from the specimens of them we have seen in both our houses, but also from my own speculations upon the natural genius of the people, in which there seems to be a fire and imagination, well calculated to animate a popular harangue.

The country on this side Limerick is more disfigured with turf bogs than on the other. But, disagreeable as their appearance is, they are not the least profitable grounds; and, when the canals are finished, they will become still more beneficial, by lowering the price of fuel. The spinning of flax, which is a sedentary business, employing


only one hand and one foot, could not be carried on without them in this kingdom, so destitute of wood and so unable to purchase coals. Whereas the spinning of wool, by giving exercise to the whole body, does not stand so much in need of fires; and therefore seems to be the only manufacture which can succeed, where fuel is not abundant.

A great share of the country I rode through hither was rough, and, in some places, mountainous, yet it afforded greater pleasure than the most fertile parts; for it shewed incomparably more cultivation, and more signs of population. The houses, I remarked, grew more frequent, and less wretched, wherever the grounds were bad. For not being fit for pasturage, they are obliged to till them; tillage requires human creatures, who must share some pittance of their own labours. The bog and the mountain is reclaimed for a scanty subsistence, the rich soils are eat up by sheep and bullocks, and the famished shepherd is made the very scape-goat of human nature.

Nenagh, the last town I passed through in Munster, was a neater village than usual


in that province. Agriculture seemed to revive, and some fallowed fields appeared as I approached Leinster. There stands the ruins of an old castle of the Butlers, called Nenagh Round, which held out against General Ginkell with 1500 men, for twenty-four hours, in the last war of Ireland. The whole county of Tipperary was once a Palatinate, under the separate jurisdiction of the Ormond family.

I intended to have slept at Birr; but finding I could not do so without riding in the night, I stopped at a little house, near a Church, called Modrenny, where I expected but sorry entertainment; but in this I was agreeably disappointed, for I found a good bed, and the utmost decency and cleanliness in every thing that was served up.

Birr, in the King's county, formerly called Leix, where I breakfasted, is a good village, without any thing remarkable, but a statue of the late duke of Cumberland, placed on a very high pillar. Its castle was besieged by Sarsfield, general of the Irish, but relieved by General Kirk. The country all around has a tolerable appearance of cultivation.


From thence to this place, the country is chequered by the Bog of Allen, which crosses several counties, and which would not be offensive to the eye, as it looks like a russet lawn, if the edges of it were not generally indented with turf holes, and heaps of turf piled on the banks. It is, however, a pleasure to see them coming into the custom of sowing rape on these bogs, and other unprofitable grounds. This culture is owing to the Dublin Society, which gives yearly premiums for its encouragement. The great advantage of rape is, that it operates as a manure, and reclaims grounds, originally unable to yield oats, to such a degree, that they will afterwards give crops of barley and wheat.

Athlone is beautifully situated on both sides of the Shannon. The part on the Leinster side is called the English town, as that on the Connaught side is called the Irish town. Both betray equal symptoms of decay; for without any manufacture, but that of woollen hats, they have scarce any trade but for turf; of which commodity I see great plenty in boats, along their quay.


The views of this town, from both sides the Shannon, are excessively picturesque, though the country is almost denuded of trees. The lands are every where sufficiently fertile, but little progress has been made in tillage, till within a few years; and they attribute the advancement of late to the erection of Flour-mills; the want of which, I conceive, must be a great impediment to agriculture. For in many parts of Ireland, very capable of growing wheat, and where the consumption of bread is very considerable, they nevertheless import their flour.

In the war of 1641, the castle of Athlone was blocked up, by the Irish, for near six months; nor were all the Protestant forces of Ireland able to relieve it till supplies came from England. At length four regiments, one of which was commanded by Cromwell, marched with other forces from Dublin, under command of the duke of Ormond, and raised the siege.

After the return of the duke, the Protestants, though delivered from the blockade, were still harassed by the superior


numbers of the Irish. They resolved, therefore, to abandon Athlone, and if possible, march to Dublin. But hic labor hoc opus erat. The wife of the governor of the castle, daughter to the earl of Cork, made her way to Dublin, upon the faith of a safe convoy, and there, having audience of the state, she did so pathetically paint the distressed state of the English at Athlone, that she prevailed to have such succours sent to their relief, that their miscarriage would have hazarded the loss of Dublin, and consequently of the whole kingdom.
‘— quid forma & facundia possit
Tunc patuit.’31

This reinforcement, not being suspected by the Irish, reached Athlone, without molestation. The main body of the Irish was at this time posted at Rath-connal. This pass, of about 100 yards breadth, between two morasses, took its name from the Conal so celebrated in the poems of Ossian, and sirnamed Cearnagh in the Irish histories. But it was rendered still more famous by an old prophecy, that a battle was to be there


fought between the English and the Irish; and that whichever party should win the battle, should also win Ireland.

This prediction, now apparently on the eve of completion, raised the expectations of a great concourse of people, who flocked together to see whose fatal scale was to kick the balance. Preston, the Irish general, had not trusted to the strength of the castle, which stood in the pass, or to the natural advantage of the grounds: he caused redoubts and breastworks to be thrown up quite across the neck, in order to oppose the passage of the English, under Sir Richard Grenville. Numbers and situation were on the side of the Irish, but discipline, and the alternative of life or death, were on the side of the English. The post was long and gallantly maintained. Preston did all a general could: but English steadiness prevailed, and cut itself a bloody passage through this well disputed station, Preston falls. A general rout succeeds. Sad omen to the Irish of their future success!

Good night.