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

Letter 39


It would, I presume, be difficult to assign any reason, a priori, for that property in the climate of Ireland so baneful to poisonous animals. One might conjecture that the same temperature, which is unfriendly


to the orange and the vine, may be the agent which kills the adder, the toad, and the mole. But this reasoning would not apply to Crete; and Crete, they say, has the same property.
    1. Cui Deus, & melior rerum nascentium origo,
      Jus commune dedit cum Creta, altrice tonantis,
      Noxia ne nostris diffundant sibila in oris.45

It would be equally difficult perhaps to determine, admitting the fact, whether, and how far, climate has any effect in mollifying the muscular system, and producing that pliability of limbs, and activity of body, which has characterized the Irish nation46. It seems, however, not unphilosophical to suppose, that, as the operations of the intellect depend so intimately on the texture of the brain, the same organization which generates agility of body, may conduce to a corresponding vivacity of mind.


But be this theory applicable to the Irish or not, it must be admitted that there was a time, when they possessed a greater share of learning than any other nation in the west. This we must allow, if we give any credit to history; I do not mean that written by the Irish themselves, but that supported by the concurring testimony of foreign writers. Bede speaks of Ireland, as the great mart of literature, to which they resorted from all parts of Europe. Camden says, "it abounded with men of splendid genius in the ages when literature was rejected every where else; that it is frequently related by our writers, in praise of a person's education, Amandatus est ad disciplinam in Hiberniam. Et in Sulgeni vita qui ante sexcentos annos floruit legitur,

    1. Exemplo patrum commotus amore legendi
      Ivit ad Hibernos, sophia mirabili claros.

It was not therefore without sufficient reason that the younger Scaliger says, ‘Du temps de Charlemagne & 200 ans apres omnes fere docti etoient d' Irlande.’

As Ireland got the appellation of Sacra from its ante-venefic property, so it got that


of Sancta, from its being the nursing mother of many learned and pious men. Now they affect to call it Insula sacro-sancta. According to Camden and others, Luxieu Abbey in Burgundy, Roby in Italy, Witzburg in Frankland, St. Gall in Switzerland, Malmsbury and Lindisfern in England, and Jona, or Hy, in Scotland, were founded by Irish Monks. Bede relates, that Oswald, the Anglo-Saxon king, applied to Ireland for learned men to instruct his people in the principles of christianity. And Rapin has this remarkable observation: — ‘It is surprisingly strange that the conversion of the English should be ascribed to Austin; rather than to Aidin; to Finian, to Colman, to Cedd, to Diumna, to Furseus; and other Irish or Scots Monks,47 who undoubtedly laboured much more than he. But here lies the case; these last had not their orders from Rome, and therefore must not be allowed any share in the glory of this work.’


Ireland did not become absolutely popish till after the English got possession of it; and thence may we discern the reason why the Pope was so liberal in his gift of it to Henry II.

John Scotus Erigena48 was the first who wrote against transubstantiation, and the whole spirit of the church of Ireland militated against the encroachments of papal tyranny, till a temporal dominion made them bow the neck to a spiritual yoke. I have seen a folio volume in five books by him, intitled De divisione naturae, written in a style that would not be despised at this day. He must be distinguished from Duns Scotus, who figured in the 13th century; and for the honour of whose birth, these three nations have contended as eagerly as the seven cities did about that of Homer.

If you wish to see specimens of Irish composition in the middle ages, I would refer you to Usher's Sylloge epistolarum Hibernicarum, which will abundantly gratify your curiosity, and perhaps reward your pains. The poems of Columb-cil may


perhaps savour of monkish quaintness, but his prose is replete with found sense, clothed in good Latin. He was of the blood royal of Ireland, the apostle of the Picts, and founder of the Abbey of Hy.

Virgilius, sirnamed Solivagus, a native of Ireland, and bishop of Saltzburg, must have been a man of more than ordinary erudition, for the eighth century; he ventured to assert the heretical doctrine of the Antipodes, ad of other planets besides the earth: which his infallible holiness thus interprets, — if Virgil maintains that there is another world, another sun, another moon, and that this earth is round, so that there is another sky opposite to our sky, and other men with their feet opposite to our feet, Anathema esto. Galileo was not the first philosopher whom the court of Rome threw into darkness, for attempting to enlighten the world.

The first professors in the University of Paris were from Ireland, and they tell you, that our Alfred brought professors to his newly-founded College of Oxford, from the same country. At this day, the patron saints of several nations on the continent, are acknowledged to be Irish. Armagh is


said to have had several thousands of students at the same time; and there were other seats of learning not less famous.
    1. Lismore, long since the muses darling seat.
      Of piety and learning the retreat,
      Her alma mater shone as bright at noon,
      As Oxford, Cambridge, or the great Sorbonne.
      Time shifts the scene, — no longer now she boasts
      Her churches, colleges, and learned hosts;
      Nature, propitious to the favourite soil,
      Restored her losses by the birth of Boyle.
      Centred in him, her antient glory shone,
      Who made all arts and sciences his own.