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

Letter 31


Nov. 7, 1775.

From Athlone, I took the stage-coach to Dublin, as well to gratify my curiosity in seeing the manners of the Irish in this vehicle, as from the apprehension of an approaching change of weather. I must remark, by the bye, that our weather has turned out more favourable than I expected; the roads were dusty all the last week of October, and except on the 19th, that day so fatal to thousands at sea, my expedition was not once incommoded by rain.

I never enjoyed a frolic more than my passage in the stage. Our company consisted of an elderly lady of some fashion and her maid, the son of a nobleman, a young buxom lass from Roscommon, and a country squire from Galway. Well-bred people are the same everywhere. So that variety was only to be found in the two last mentioned of my fellow-travellers.


The girl could not be above eighteen. She was dressed in a plain riding-habit, with a hat and feather. You would rather praise the neatness than the richness of her dress. But for her person, that indeed was rich in all the gifts of nature; it was of the middle size, but of shape the most correct. Her face had the rosy virgin tint of innocence and health. It was that florid bloom which the painted Dolls, who haunt our scenes, affect, but never can acquire: or rather, it was that young and purple light of love, which Reynolds may conceive, but cannot paint. Her features were all turned to the softest harmony. And though embarrassed, she was never awkward. If a mauvaise honte sometimes suffused her cheeks, her sensibility added grace to her blushes.

Our squire, you may suppose, was not without feelings, but he was devoid of sentiment. He was that very Hibernian I had so often heard of, but never noticed before. They were utter strangers to each other; and her loveliness excited his curiosity to know her connections. He asked her a thousand questions to extract the secret; I


suppose, Madam, says he, you know such and such people, &c. &c. At length, he happened to hit on some of their common friends. This naturally led our hero to display all his talents to captivate this innocent girl. And his manners, conformable to her own, gave him an unrivalled preference.

What most evidently prevailed, absit invidiam and what betrayed her into all the Chesterfieldian indecorums of laughter, was his addressing her in Irish. And when he had a mind to be tender, beyond expression in plain prose, he would accost her with an Irish song; which he sang with great softness. The gentleman was perfectly good-humoured, and had a high flow of animal spirits. You could not have been displeased with the display of this native character. I was delighted with it, for it was original, and I had hitherto seen only the copy. It gave me also an opportunity of observing, that the Irish language spoken by this pair was far from being disagreeable; it was very different from that which I had heard from the vulgar in the streets; and nothing could be more melodious than it was when sung.


The country from Athlone to Dublin gradually improves in cultivation through Westmeath, Meath, and Kildare, notwithstanding the two former are principally grazing counties. We lay a night on the road, at a good inn in a small town called Kinnigad, where several stages put up as well as ours. We passed through several villages, not one of which indicated the exercise of any manufacture except Kilcock, which has a thriving aspect: and here, I was told, that the women spin their own flax, and that the men were chiefly employed in day-labour, for the neighbouring farmers, who are here the most skilful and wealthy in the kingdom. But the towns on this road were happily diverted of that distressing appearance of sordid penury, which the Munster villages of the same size generally wore; and the inns were universally good.

And now having finished my little tour through two provinces of Ireland, and ruminating upon what I have seen, I must say, and I cannot say it in words so authoritative as those of Sir John Davies, ‘I have observed the good temperature of the air,


the fruitfulness of the soil, the pleasant and commodious seats for habitation, the safe and large ports and havens, lying open for traffic into all the western parts of the world, the long inlets of many navigable rivers, and so many great lakes and fresh ponds within the land, as the like are not to be seen in any part of Europe; and lastly, the bodies and minds of the people endued with extraordinary abilities of nature.’

After considering all this, yet seeing at the same time that the greater, and certainly the best part of what I have seen, instead of being in a progressive state of improvement, is verging to depopulation; that the inhabitants are either moping under the sullen gloom of inactive indigence, or blindly asserting the rights of nature in nocturnal insurrections attended with circumstances of ruinous devastation and savage cruelty, must we not conclude that there are political errors somewhere?

Cruelty is not in the nature of these people more than of other men, for they have many customs among them, which discover uncommon gentleness, kindness and affection. Nor are they singular in their


hatred of labour; Tacitus's character given of the Germans, applies to them, and all mankind in a rude state, mira diversitate naturae, cum iidem homines sic ament inertiam, sic oderint quietem.’’

Tacitus, Germania, ch. 15.

At present their hands are tied up, and they have neither the activity of a savage, nor the industry of a civilized people. There is no necessity for recurring to natural disposition, when the political constitution obtrudes upon us so many obvious and sufficient causes of the fad effects we complain of.

The first is, the suffering avarice to convert the arable lands into pasture. The evils arising from this custom in England, were so grievous, that Lord Bacon tells us, in the reign of Henry VII. a statute was enacted to remedy them. But the mischief still increasing, Henry VIII. revived all the antient statutes, and caused them to be put in execution. Yet, notwithstanding this care, so great was the discontent of the people, from poverty occasioned by decay of tillage and increase of pasturage, that they rose in actual rebellion in the reign of Edward VI., and sharpened by indigence


and oppression, demolished in many counties the greatest part of the inclosures.

Here you see an exact prototype of the present disturbances in Munster, carried on by the rabble, originally called Levellers from their levelling the inclosures of commons, but now White Boys, from their wearing their shirts over their coats, for the sake of distinction in the night. There it was a rebellion, here it is only a star-light insurrection, disavowed by every body; and the impotence of those engaged to do any thing effectual, drives them into wanton and malignant acts of cruelty on individuals. Hopeless of redress, they are provoked to acts of desperation.

The rebellion in England did not remove the evil; it was not, however, altogether fruitless; a commission was appointed to enquire into the cause of it, and from a proclamation thereupon issued, it appears, that government became possessed of the true state of the case. It is so remarkably apposite to the present state of the south of Ireland, that I cannot forbear citing an extract or two from it. It sets forth, ‘that the king, and the rest of the privy council


were put in remembrance by divers pitiful complaints of the poor subjects, as well as by other wise and discreet men, that of late, by enclosing arable ground, many had been driven to extreme poverty, and compelled to leave the places where they were born, and seek their livings in other countries; in so much, as in times past, where ten, twenty, yea in some places, two hundred people have been inhabiting, there is nothing now but sheep and bullocks. All that land which was heretofore tilled and occupied by so many men, is now gotten, by the insatiable greediness of men, into one or two men's hands, and scarcely dwelt upon by one poor shepherd, so that the realm is thereby brought into marvellous desolation, &c.’

Something more was attempted by Queen Elizabeth, but little or nothing was accomplished. And can we wonder that little could be accomplished, when the interests and prejudices of the Great were against tillage; and when so able a man as Sir Walter Raleigh insisted upon the impossibility of making grain a staple commodity in England. But a much greater man than


Raleigh, the immortal Bacon, supported the declining cause of agriculture, upon the principles of sound philosophy, and consistent policy. Yet, so undistinguishing was the ignorance of those times, that his lessons were unheeded, and scarcity prevailed for the two succeeding reigns.

The case of Ireland is now like that of England then. Every man, connected with the interests of graziers, or swayed by their prejudices, will tell you, very dogmatically, that tillage can never succeed in Ireland. It is indeed visible, from the sorry implements of labour still in use, that agriculture never has arrived at any high degree of perfection; yet it is equally visible, from the vestiges of the plough, and from the evidence of history, that Munster was once as well cultivated, and as populous as any part of this kingdom.

But to return to White-Boyism; what measures have been taken for laying this spirit? None that I hear of, but that of offering rewards for apprehensions and discoveries. Yet I have heard it remarked, as part of the Irish character, that no reward has been ever found sufficient to tempt the accomplices, in this


or any other misdemeanor, to betray each other. Some of these wretched culprits have, however, been found guilty and executed, but no inquiry has been made into the real cause of the insurgency, no commission has been issued as in England. This evil must, nevertheless, originate from some other cause than mere depravity of nature; for to suppose that a set of people should conspire to run the risque of being hanged and gibbeted, for the mere pleasure of doing mischief to their neighbours, would argue a degree of diabolism, not to be found in the human heart.

Some would insinuate that Popery is at the bottom of what they call this dark affair; and to give their opinion an air of probability, they tell you, that the first rising of these deluded people was in the very year that Thurot made a landing in the north of Ireland, and that Constans was to have attempted the like in the south. But I can find no evidence that the French king employed any agents, at this time, to practise on the discontents of the rabble of Munster. It is indeed more than probable, that some of their wrong-headed priests


might have secretly wished to serve the cause of France, and to co-operate with any Popish invader. Yet even that could only be the thought of some ignorant zealots. The only priest, charged with fomenting these disorders, suffered for his folly, if he were guilty; but from what I have both heard and36 read upon this question, I am inclined to credit his own declarations before death, that he was innocent of the crime for which he was to suffer.

But granting the disaffection of the Roman Catholics of Ireland were as malignant, as it is represented to be by their well-meaning Protestant neighbours, is not that a sufficient reason for altering a conduct towards them, which experience has proved so ineffectual to reclaim them? Can they expect cordial affection in return for legal interdicts? Can partial laws command more than partial obedience? If a yoke be heavy, will it not gall? If chains are iron, will they not sometimes rattle? Loose these


chains, throw off this yoke, and repeal these laws; confer benefits, expect affection, and receive gratitude. Before you hope for the duties of loyal subjection, impart the blessings of an equal dominion. Before you think of reaping the fruits, sow the seeds of true self-interest. Make people happy, and you may make them loyal.

Among the many causes assigned by Sir John Davies, why Ireland was never entirely brought under obedience to the crown of England, until the reign of James I. the capital one seems to be the defect of civil polity. He shews, that, ‘for the space of three centuries and a half at least, after the conquest was first attempted, the benefit of the English laws was never communicated to the Irish, though they earnestly sought the same. For as long as they were out of the protection of the English law, so as every Englishman might oppress, spoil, nay kill them, without controulment, how was it possible they should be other than outlaws, and enemies to the crown of England?—If the king would not admit them to the condition of subjects, how could they learn to acknowledge and obey him as their


sovereign? When they might not converse, or commerce, with any civil men, nor enter into any town or city, without peril of their lives, whither should they fly, but into the woods and mountains, and there live in a wild and barbarous manner? If the Irish be not permitted to purchase estates of freeholds of inheritance, which might descend to their children, according to the course of our common law, must they not continue their own customs, and live in confusion, barbarism, and incivility?’

This excellent reasoning of the Knight, may, mutatis mutandis be extended to the present times. For to this day, the Irish have not the entire benefit of the English laws. They, to be sure, are no longer absolute outlaws, and enemies, but they are in many respects aliens. And Roman Catholics, who are the body of the people, can never be zealous friends of government, whilst they despair of reciprocal acts of friendship and protection.

Some gentlemen seem alarmed at the mode now adopted, of recruiting our army, out of the Catholics of this country. But, as long as the officers are Protestants, I can


apprehend no danger, from mingling even an equal number of both persuasions together; nay, it might contribute to wear off mutual prejudices, and effect that coalition of sentiment, which is so desirable. The case would be very different, if whole regiments, both officers and men, were to consist of Romanists. In their present temper of mind, a French invasion might prove a perilous test of their loyalty.

By being composed entirely of Papists, their habitual discontents might be so fomented, that their internal union might possibly turn them against the state that employs them. Their causes of discontent should be removed, for some time, before they can have acquired new attachments; and, consequently, before arms should be trusted in their hands, as distinct bodies of troops. They must see that it is their interest to support the present constitution, before they will support it upon a principle, in which we can repose sufficient confidence.