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

Letter 29


Athlone, or the Ford of Luan, which, from its central situation, has been called the Nave of Ireland, is the great pass between Connaught and Leinster. The parts of the town on each side the river, are in different parishes; with but one church, and that on the Leinster side; built, as I learn from an inscription in it, by a grant of parliament; whence you may judge of the poverty of the place. Yet here they print a news-paper twice a week.

On the Connaught side is the old castle, a barrack for a regiment of dragoons, and a charter school for twenty boys, and as many girls. I was surprised to hear, from the master and mistress of this school, that none but the children of Protestant parents are admitted into it. I had conceived, that as the original object of these schools was the conversion of Papists, none would be received but the children of Papists.


The institution of these schools has all the aspect of benevolence, and zeal for the interests of religion. Yet, with the utmost deference to the national opinion, it may be questioned whether they are calculated to answer the well-meant purpose of converting the Catholics of Ireland; even granting that the children of Papists only were admitted into them.

From the state of the fact, placed in its most favourable light, there have been at a medium, four from each county in the kingdom placed out apprentices each year, since the commencement of the scheme in 1733. And it is argued that those, who are thus apprenticed, have been reclaimed from Popery. But if the children of Protestants, even from Wales and England, be received upon this foundation, is it not probable that the above is too high an estimate?

The children of Protestants are, I presume, received for want of other candidates; for I am assured, that a Papist would suffer any loss, except that of his child, rather than send it to one of these schools. Such is the bigotry of these deluded people, that nothing but absolute want could prevail


on them to suffer their children to receive an education, which, as they conceive, endangers their salvation.

It cannot be supposed that any system of religion taught in any school, especially in one, which pride might think a reproach, can be as firmly rooted, as under the shelter of a parent's wing. Can we then imagine that principles imbibed in these charter schools, will be proof against the seductions of Popery, which environ them in this popish country? As the eyes of the vigilant priests are never off these seminaries, are not relapses, and even conversions to Popery to be apprehended?

But far be it from me to arraign the wisdom of this institution upon the whole. All I would insinuate is, that these schools are very insufficient engines for the reformation of Irish popery. This is an evil that must be eradicated by more powerful instruments.

If we look upon these schools as seminaries of arts and industry, where the children of the poor receive useful instruction, which they could not otherwise obtain, they are institutions highly commendable,


and reflect great honour upon their patronizers; who conduct them as free of abuses, as the nature of human things is capable of.

I cannot, however, help remarking, that in this school, I saw the girls working lace, an employment not more easy than spinning, and certainly not so useful to themselves, or the community. Is it necessary to instruct the lower orders of society in arts, which are rather ornamental than useful? Ought they not rather to be taught the rudiments of the linen or woollen manufactures? Ought those, who subsist entirely on alms, to be initiated into any arts, but such as may, in future, enable them to earn an honest and laborious livelihood?

I have observed here, as well as in the other parts of Ireland, that the people seem extremely affectionate to each other; for even the men salute one another with kisses: and the girls shew nothing loth to give hearty embraces in the streets. Curious to learn their sentiments, as well as manners, I have entered into conversation with them as often as possible; and I could not find them so much attached to the house of Stuart as I apprehended. They have frequently spoke of James II. with indignation.


He called the Irish cowards, and said that all was lost through their fault at the battle of the Boyne32. This they have not forgot, and do not fail to recriminate; they brand him with a name the most opprobrious in their language, and expressive of the most dastardly cowardice. Some of them have said to me, ‘We expert little good from any of the race of Sheemas-a-caccagh, i. e. Sh——n James.’

The Irish troops I find lie under the imputation of generally behaving ill at home. And therefore Voltaire classes Ireland among those nations which seem formed for subjection, while he admits that ‘her troops behave well abroad.’ This lively, but inaccurate writer, could not have forgot, that, at the battle of Blenheim, Lord Clare's dragoons alone were victorious on the side of the French, having cut to pieces a German regiment, commanded by Colonel Goore,—that like glory attended them at Ramillies,—-and that the Irish regiments


of Dillon and Burke saved, not only Cremona, but the whole French army in Italy.

This action was of such eclat, that it was said in the British House of Commons, that the Irish abroad had done more mischief to the allies than they could have done at home, by being repossessed of their estates. They tell you it was Ligonier's horse, to a man Irish, which preserved the king's person, and thereby gained the battle of Dettingen. Many other cases are adduced to the same purpose33. It was, probably,


reflections of this nature which produced the following lines of Swift:
    1. Her matchless sons, whole valour still remains,
      On French records, for twenty long campaigns
      Yet from an Empress, now a captive grown,
      She saved Britannia's rights, and lost her own.
After all, what is meant by behaving ill at home? Is it any thing more than to say, that the frequent insurrections of a divided people, whose war was undisciplined, as their peace was uncivilized, were always suppressed, by the regular forces of a great and powerful nation? If the Irish had tamely acquiesced under that submissive paction struck between some of their chiefs and Henry II. there might have been some grounds for the censure of Voltaire.

Sir John Davies, among the many causes assigned why Ireland was not brought under obedience to the crown of England, before the reign of James I. every where commends the prowess, and other natural endowments of the people. A struggle, though unsuccessful for liberty, almost uninterrupted for above 400 years, is certainly no symptom of a country formed for subjection.


But this struggle lasted much longer, and had Sir John come later into life, he would have seen, that Ireland was at that time far from being subdued. The being subdued does not argue the being formed for subjection. The Britons were completely subdued by the Romans, and if Britain had been formed for subjection, we could not, at this day, boast of being the most free people in Europe. In the history of this country, I do not find any period in which it discovered such despondence, as our ancestors did in that humiliating letter, The groans of the Britons to the Consul Aetius.34

But be this as it may, the behaviour of the Irish at home; even in the last war, was far from contemptible. They were routed, it is true, at the Boyne, in their first general engagement, by the best generals, and the best troops then in Europe; their king, in whose cause they bled, standing at a distance, and shewing himself thereby unworthy of wearing any longer that crown, for which he contended.

At the conclusion of the war, ‘during the treaty of Limerick, a saying of Sarsfield deserves to be remembered, for it was much talked of, all Europe over. He asked


some of the English officers if they had not come to a better opinion of the Irish, by their behaviour during this war? And whereas they said that it was much the same that it had always been, Sarsfield answered,— Though low as we are now, change but kings, and we will fight it over again with you35.’

This was that brave Irish general, who undertook the defence of Limerick, when despaired of by the French general, and who gave the Prince of Orange, flushed with victory at the Boyne, such a repulse, that he was obliged to raise the siege.

But this very neighbourhood furnishes a scene, where the Irish displayed a steadiness worthy a better cause. The field of Aghrim is but a few miles hence, where king James's army, under the conduct of St. Ruth, was upon the point of gaining a complete victory, through the dint of good behaviour, when the fall of their general turned the scale, and established king William on the throne of England.

The historiographer of these wars, relates several instances of the superstition of the Irish, in regard to prophesies. And from


his own attestation of the completion of one of them, he seems to have had some faith in them. I shall set them down only as they mark the manners of the place and time.

‘I have heard,’ says this writer,—who was chaplain of an English regiment —‘some of the Irish tell us, before we got thither, that we should not succeed in the first siege of Limerick. And they had no other grounds for it, but because one of their prophesies said so.’ —He adds, that Colonel Gordon O'Nial, and several other officers, who were taken prisoners at Aghrim, made mention of a dubious prophesy, pronouncing that a great battle was to be fought there, and that in climbing up the hills, the English should find their coats too heavy for them.

He alludes to two other prophesies mentioned by the historians of the periods to which they point. One of them is vouched by Lord Broghill, who defeated the Irish, when Ireton lay before Limerick, in the very spot predicted. The fact is circumstantially related by Cox: ‘Lord Broghill passed the river early in the morning, and met with some Irish gentlemen, under his


protection; who told him, they came thither out of curiosity, because of a prophesy amongst them, that the last battle in Ireland should be at Knocknaclashy. Whereupon the Lord Broghill asked them who was to have the victory by their prophesy? They shook their heads and said, the English. It is, however, to be remarked, that the Irish maintained the field long with undaunted bravery, and though disordered by a finesse of Lord Broghill, they rallied, and bid fair to recover the day.’

The other prophesy alluded to, the same writer says, pointed out the spot near Kinsale, where the Spaniards landed in the Elizabethian war, and also the ground where the great O'Nial was defeated; it having been shewn to Lord Montjoy, several days before. But Moryson, who was secretary to that lord, and who wrote the history of that war, tells the story somewhat differently. He says, ‘that an old written book was shewed to the Lord Deputy, wherein was a prophesy naming the ford and the hill, where this battle was given, and foretelling a great overthrow to befal the Irish in that place.’


I do not find that witches have ever engaged the superstition of this country; on the contrary, I have heard it boasted, that an Irish Witch was never heard of. But the Fairy Mythology is swallowed with the wide throat of credulity. Every parish has its green, and its thorn, where these little people are believed to hold their merry meetings, and dance their frolic rounds. Those forts and mounts I have described to you, are all regarded as fairy land, where the pigmy grandees keep their moon-shine courts, and star-light assemblies.

It would be difficult to tempt any common labourer, and some could not be tempted, to apply their spade to these sacred remains; for they would be certain that some evil must befal either themselves, or their family, or their cattle, before the expiration of a year. I have seen one of those elf-stones— like a thin triangular flint, not half an inch diameter,—with which they suppose the fairies destroy their cows. And when these animals are seized with a certain disorder, to which they are very incident, they say they are elf-shot.

But I have given you more than enough of this trash.