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

Letter 38


Your news-papers have thrown us all into a panick: They would make us believe that a sort of plague is raging in London, as well as in Paris. The good people here expect that it will be their turn next; for, they say, they feel every malady which affects England; flattering themselves at the same time, that it loses


much of its virulence in crossing the channel.

But let them say what they will about the malignity of infection degenerating before it reaches them, I am persuaded that this influenza, which they call the tail of an eastern plague, has already plumed many a hearse in this western isle.

A book put into my hand, shews that the return of this disorder, if not periodical, is at least frequent; for it appeared no less than four times during the forty years preceding that publication. The faculty are much indebted to the labours of the industrious author, whose name is Rutty. He was the first who methodized a history of the mineral waters of Ireland; and who gave histories of the weather, seasons, and diseases of Dublin; with a comparative view of the climate of Ireland, England, and other countries.

His observations are made on the forty years immediately preceding 1770, and he grafts them upon an estimate of the numbers which died in Dublin, of each disorder, during the antecedent period of forty


years, which he took from Dr. Brian Robinson, a name, like that of Helsham, celebrated in this country for physical and mathematical knowledge.

From the facts laid down in his comparative view, he infers that the general state of the climate, and diseases of Ireland, are pretty much the same as that of England, — with this difference, that neither heat nor cold are in such extremes here as there; which he accounts for from the situation of Ireland being farther out in the ocean, and from its nearer approach to the vapours wafted upon the wings of the W. and S. W. especially the former, which he shews, from the diaries, are more frequent here than in England.

From hence he deduces the salubrity of the climate of Ireland, — he shews also from the fact, that the inhabitants are as healthy, and extend the term of life as long as any other people. He confesses that this country has not unjustly acquired the appellation of Matula Jovis, from its redundant moisture; yet he holds it to be an error, that a humid atmosphere is inimical


to longevity. Though, says he, ‘we live in a constant balneum vaporis, yet the moisture and temperate quality of the air is a great advantage to us. For it not only secures us from the pernicious effects of heat and drought, but it likewise defends us from the ill effects of excessive cold and dryness; all which are productive of more acute, and violent inflammatory disorders than are found here; as appears from repeated observations. The watery vapours serve in some measure to correct the crisping and drying quality of E. N. and N. E. winds, and at the same time yield a constant fomentation to the fibres, and being imbibed by the cutaneous pores, dilute the blood.’

In confirmation of this theory, he observes, that the malignity of all epidemic diseases, which originate eastward, is mitigated here; there being something in the state of the air which resists the propagation of diseases, as well as of poisonous animals; and that the plague, which did so often and so cruelly infest England, was wonderfully rare in Ireland.


He shews that the weather is more variable, and the changes more sudden, than in ether countries; yet he argues, that these changes are not so considerable, nor so prejudicial to health, as the daily changes in warmer climates. Fahrenheit's thermometer never varies in the year more than from twenty-seven to seventy-five degrees; whereas, in South Carolina, a difference of 30 degrees in twenty-four hours, has sometimes been observed; the range of variation there being 83 degrees.

He lays down a table of the comparative heat of the seasons in London and Dublin, estimated by that curious observer Dr. B. Robinson.

Winter, 1.001.45
Spring, 3.002.14
Summer, 5.004.68
Autumn, 3.003.80

From this greater warmth of air than is common in so northern a situation, he accounts for the perspiration of the human body being greater in Ireland than in England,


and nearly as great in Cork as in Italy; as it appears to be from the following medium estimate for the years 1721, and 1744:

Dublin, 0.980
Cork, 1.472
England, 0.817
Italy, 1.480

From a review of the bills of mortality for forty years in Dublin, he shews that the number of persons buried was remarkably greatest in dry years. All which, he says, is agreeable to Wintringham's observations of the moist seasons being more natural and healthful in England. From the concurring testimonies of the late English writers, compared with similar observations made here, it appears, that the seasons, wherein the hygrometer was most sensibly shortened, were remarkably free from all epidemic diseases; and that storms, the usual concomitants of rain, are also found, in both places, to be attended with more health, and less sickness, than calm weather; as dissipating the vapours, which by stagnation might prove dangerous.


He does not deny but that excessive and long continued rains, and moisture, are also unwholsome; and he admits that three out of four, in a long series of such years, turn out epidemick and mortal; but then he argues, that they have this effect, not primarily, but consequentially, as they corrupt and spoil the fruits of the earth.

As these conclusions are all drawn from experience, that great baffler of speculation, they seem very satisfactory. And what wonderfully corroborates them is, that from the observations made on the watermen of London and Holland, it appears, that this class of men, though perpetually inhaling aqueous humours, are as remarkable for health and longevity as any other people in the countries to which they belong.

Those bogs wherewith Ireland is in some places overgrown, are not injurious to health, as is commonly imagined: the watery exhalations from them are neither so abundant, nor so noxious, as those from marshes; which become prejudicial from the various animal and vegetable substances


which are left to putrify as soon as the waters are exhaled by the sun. During the overflowing of the Nile, Egypt is comparatively healthy; when the waters subside, putrefaction takes place, and the plague returns. Bogs are not, as one might suppose from their blackness, masses of putrefaction; but on the contrary, they are of such a texture, as to resist putrefaction above any other substance we know of. I have seen a shoe, all of one piece of leather, very neatly stitched, taken out of a bog some years ago, yet entirely fresh; — from the very fashion of which there is scarce room to doubt that it had lain there some centuries. I have seen butter called rouskin, — which had been hid in hollowed trunks of trees so long, that it was become hard, and almost friable, yet not devoid of unctuosity. That the length of time it had been buried was very great, we learn from the depth of the bog, which was ten feet, that had grown over it. But the common phaenomenon of timber trees dug out of these bogs, not only found, but also so embalmed as afterwards to defy the injuries of time, demonstrates the antiseptic quality of them.


That pair of horns of the moose deer, which you see in the British Museum, and by the way, I have here seen a pair much larger, — must have lain many centuries in a bog; for the Irish histories do not recognize the exigence of the animal whereon they grew.

They tell me that human bodies have, in many places, been dug up, incrusted some feet high with this substance, and yet entire. A case in point is reported in the Philosophical Transactions, No. 434., which is briefly this. — ‘Two persons lost in a great snow on the Moor of Derbyshire, January 14th, 1674, and not being found until the 3d of May following, they then smelt so strong, that the coroner ordered them to be buried on the spot. — They lay in the peat-moss twenty-eight years nine months, — when some countrymen having observed the extraordinary quality of this kind of soil, in preserving dead bodies from corruption, were curious enough to open the ground, to see if these persons had been so preserved, and found them no way altered; the colour of their skin being fair, and natural, and their flesh soft as that of


persons newly dead. They were afterwards exposed to sight twenty years, though they were much changed in that time, by being so often uncovered. In the year 1716, Dr. Bourne of Chesterfield was there, who gave this account of the state they were then in, viz. the man perfect, his beard strong, and about one-fourth of an inch long, the hair of his head short, his skin hard, and of a tanned leather colour; he had on a broad cloth coat, which he tried to tear a skirt off, but could not. Dr. Balguy, who communicated this account, after enumerating other particulars, concludes by saying, — the thing is very remarkable, as there are no means, I believe, of preserving dead bodies so well.’

I have, in the above accounts, always alluded to the growth of these bogs, as a known thing. Their growth, however, is variable in different places, from the variety of conditions in the situation, soil, humidity, and quantity of vegetable food; in some places it is very rapid, in others very slow; and therefore their altitudes cannot afford any certain measure of time. I have been at some pains to learn their theory, and


I flatter myself I am in possession of it. But, as I fancy you have got enough of them, I shall not attempt to explain it; all I shall venture to pronounce of them is, that they are vegetable accretions. If those who argue from definition should ask me, Are they organized bodies? I should answer, that they are as much so, as many fungous substances we see growing on trees, and elsewhere. But be this as it may, the state of the atmosphere is so far from being injured, that it seems to be meliorated by such masses of vegetation. Since, according to Dr. Priestley's theory, the vegetable creation, instead of vitiating the air, reverses the effects of breathing and of animal and vegetable putrefaction, restoring to putrid air its original and vital purity. It seems a most rational system, that as putrid matter yields food for the roots of plants, so putrid air should afford nourishment for their leaves; which inhale the tainted particles, and keep the remainder of the air sweet and wholesome.

In the manufacturing counties of the north, I am told peat fuel is become so scarce that turbary lets from five to eight


guineas an acre. In some places they are so eradicated, that there does not remain a trace of them; the ground being now converted into rich meadows, or sweet pastures. This explains what history delivers of our own country, that it was once over-run with bogs: Herodian reports that one half of England was full of them, and that the Romans employed their armies in draining them.

If we were to trust authorities, we must conclude, that Ireland was not originally inferior to England, either in the fertility of the soil, or salubrity of the climate. Tacitus says, there is very little difference, Orosius, that Ireland is less in extent than Britain, but more happy in the temperature of the air and soil. — Isidore and Bede speak to the same purpose. — Cox, an English writer of the last century, whose history discovers violent prejudices against the nation, has these words: ‘that Ireland is healthier than England, may be argued hence, that seldom any pestilential disease rages there, and no part of that kingdom is so unhealthy as the fens of Huntington,


Lincoln, and Cambridgeshires, the hundreds of Essex, and the wilds of Kent.’

I have seen an ecclesiastical constitution of Canterbury, dispensing with the non-residence of the clergy, on account of the unwholesome damps of that diocese. And I have it from a concurrence of testimonies, that the poor, who go over from this country yearly, to work at harvest in England, are generally seized with agues; which are very infrequent in any part of Ireland. The reason of which I conceive to be, there are here no considerable tracts of level marshy ground, the lands being generally diversified with hill and dale, and such of them as are flat are not swampy, but of a gravelly bibulous soil; so that after rain is over, there is scarce a vestige of it to be seen in most places. What we call clay ground is most rare, as far as I have observed. And we have seen that winds purify the air, by keeping it in almost perpetual motion, and by removing those noxious vapours that impregnate a stagnant atmosphere. Winds are infrequent in flat countries, mountains being the source of rivers, and the parent of storms.


Those sudden changes, and frequent winds, which render this climate so disagreeable to our feelings, are nevertheless the agents which purge and refine the air. We make the same complaints of our own climate, but this is still more mutable. The atmosphere is generally clearer in cold weather than in hot, and it is observable, that the dryness of air is sooner effected by the action of the wind, than of the sun; for the sun exhales vapour, but does not dissipate it; whereas, if the winds raise moisture, they also dispel it. Accordingly, fogs are more rare in hilly than level countries. I never saw any thing like a fog, during my tour through the country parts of Ireland.

‘Humida solstitia & hyemes orate serenas,’ was the precept of Virgil. Here he would have found both; where neither the scorching heats of Cancer drive men to the shade, nor the piercing colds of Capricorn compel them to the fire. But had the poet lived in Ireland, he would not have prayed for a wet Summer; for the history of this climate gives almost quotidian showers, for two months after the sun has passed the Summer


tropic. This must retard vegetation, and by combining this cause with that of the greater heat of England in Spring and Summer, may we account for the seasons being so much later here than there. For as to latitude, that can make no great difference, part of the county of Cork being more southward than London, and no part of Ireland being so northerly as some parts of England. But if the Spring does not set in so early, the Autumn tarries proportionably later; if the trees do not bud so soon, the leaves stick on longer; in November, not October, is the fall of the leaf. The reason of all which is evident from the table of the different degrees of heat and cold in the two kingdoms, in the same seasons; the superior heat of Ireland in Autumn and Winter, being more than a counterbalance for the greater heat of England in Spring and Summer.

Upon the whole, from what I have read, heard, and seen, I must join issue with Cambrensis, that ‘Nature has looked with a more favourable eye than usual upon this kingdom of the Zephyrs.’ And if a spirit of industry could be infused into the


people, by a just policy, their country would not be inferior to any other on the globe, under the same parallel. Till within the last century, there being a perpetual warfare between the native and the last comer, it became the barbarous policy of the times to encourage, instead of restraining, the growth of bogs. These stopped the progress of the English, and served as fortresses for their own habitations. And by thus consulting each his private safety, they abandoned that of the public. ‘Dum singuli pugnant universi vincuntur,’ is the remark of Tacitus on the like conduct of the Britons; for they, as well as the Gauls and Germans, betook themselves to their paludes, bogs, or fens, as a refuge to shelter themselves from the conquering Romans.

Similar causes must ever produce similar effects. Wherever a savage people are invaded and worsted, they will retire to their only fastnesses, bogs or mountains, and there prefer barbarism and wretchedness, to civility and abundance. Such is the inborn love of liberty! Bogs are, however, in my eye, a certain badge of slavery. Batavia was the most marshy, and boggy part


of Europe, till she shook off the Spanish yoke; England, after all the Romans had done and taught, continued in many places in her original state, till the alienation laws of Henry VII. These diffused landed property, and created a yeomanry, who soon asserted that charter of equality, and consequent independence, to which Nature had originally entitled them, and wherewith the spirit of their laws had now invested them. When each man could enjoy the fruit of his own labours, and transmit it to his son; when the poor and oppressed vassal became the thriving happy tenant; then, and not till then, England became what her and fancy's darling child describes, ‘another Eden, a demi paradise.’