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

Letter 40


Having somewhat prepared the way, I come at length to hazard those conjectures I promised, by way of answer to Spencer's question; how comes it then that they are so unlearned still, being so old scholars?

The fond advocates for the honour of Ireland would persuade us, that she has enjoyed a degree of illumination equal to any other country on the face of the earth while David Hume says, that ‘the Irish,


from the beginning of time, had been buried in the most profound ignorance, — and that the incursions of the Danes and Normans, which had spread barbarism in other parts of Europe, tended rather to improve them.’

Neither of these representations are just; that is panegyrick, this invective. The monkish illumination of Ireland is not of a kind to be compared with that of countries, whose antient brightness is still reflected in their august remains of the fine arts; yet it is sufficient to prove that Mr. Hume's caricature is like the illusions of perspective, which vanish on the spectator's nearer approach.

Learning, which dawned in the remotest east, has hitherto moved westward, like the great luminary of day; we may still mark its progress from the Indies, through Chaldea, Egypt, Phoenicia, Greece, Sicily, Italy, Gaul, and Britain. It would be anticipating the ordinary course of human knowledge, to suppose that Ireland has passed her zenith; it should rather encourage her sons, that she has not yet come to her meridian.


We have not data to prove that Ireland, when most famed for learning, was a very civilized nation. Her scholars, being shut up in cloisters, and sequestered from the world, were not the fittest instruments to soften manners, and refine the arts of civil life. It is the genius of monastic, and indeed of every other superstition, to narrow, instead of enlarging, the mind, and to leave large spaces of terra incognita in the map of human knowledge. But the influence of the political constitution was even worse than that of the ecclesiastical, as may be seen from the slightest sketch of it.

Each province of Ireland had an elective king, under whom were several tributary kinglings, and over all ruled the monarch, eligible only from the four provincial kings. At the election of any monarch, king, or chief, it was customary to appoint a chieftain, next in dignity, as his successor, without much respect to primogeniture. Him they called Thanist, and the custom Thanistry. In the choice of a Thanist, the brother was commonly preferred to the son of the deceased, and even the next cousin was chosen rather than either, if


thought more worthy. The only fixed rule was, that the election should be confined to the same kindred or sept. The spirit and intention of which was plainly this, — to preclude from the succession, persons insufficient to lead them to battle; and to prevent the alienation of inheritance to strangers, who might have stepped in, during a minority, or an adult imbecillity, and wrested it from the lineal heir. But however well calculated it might have been to curb despotism, and preserve the martial dignity of family, it was very defective in all the attributes of an equal government and peaceful establishment: it breathed nothing but intrigue and cabal, discord and turbulence, violence and blood. The fact justifies this account, for the history of Ireland presents little else than scenes of civil war, or the sanguinary concussions of domestic faction. The following Laconick epistles display the true spirit of those times:

O'Nial to O'Donnel. —
Pay me your tribute, or if you don't —

O'Donnel to O'Nial.—
I owe you no tribute, and if I did —


The government of Scotland was originally formed upon the model of that of Ireland. And however it may have been improved latterly, by ceasing to be elective, we find that Harrington, whose purport was to render monarchy odious, selects that of Scotland as a specimen of the worst form of kingly government that ever exited; scarcely one out of three of its kings dying a natural death.

Under such turbulent systems, it is evident that the arts of peace could make but little progress. Some, however, they did make in Ireland, before the ravages of the Danes, and the invasion of the English; but none, that I can hear of, in Scotland, at the same period. Nay, if the Irish were disposed to recriminate, they might challenge Mr. Hume to produce a writer of modern Scotland, i. e. Scotia minor before the fifteenth century, equal to the writers of Ireland in the sixth and seventh.

I am aware that some of my hospitable friends in Ireland may not be satisfied with this mode of defence. They are not pleased with Spencer for asking the question, and they may be still less so with me for my


answer. I shall, however, say with him, I stand not in fear of any undeserved dislikes. But it should plead some indulgence, for him at least, that if he exposes evil customs, it is but in order to reform them; and that he spares neither the men nor manners of his own country, ‘which, he admits, was what Ireland is now, rude and barbarous, every corner having a Robin-Hood in it, for it is even the other day since England grew civil.’

But are we certain that Spencer would ask the same question still, if he were to revisit the earth? For certain it is that the face of things is much altered since his time; order and government have succeeded anarchy and confusion; schools have been opened; a university has been founded; and many natives of Ireland have adorned the republic of letters.

On the other hand, it must be considered that there have been two civil wars since Spencer's time; — that if schools have been opened, these are but few in number, and so expensive as to be above the common pitch;— that if a university has been endowed, it admits but of a small number of students, compared to the whole


kingdom; —that of the two millions and a half of souls in Ireland, four to one at least are Papists, who, precluded from all constitutional advantages, have no temptation to literature, even if they had access to it; — and that, according to the booksellers of Dublin, 500 copies of any work, except of a novel or political pamphlet, overstocks the market.

From all which it is not necessary to decide, whether Spencer's question might still be asked. It will be more agreeable to my inclination to combine these with other circumstances, in order to vindicate the genius of the nation; and to shew, from the fact, that since his time she has produced literate men, not disproportioned to her numbers and advantages, taken together.

In this whole kingdom, there are but 2293 parishes. In the diocese of Lincoln, there are near 1400, beside perpetual curacies; but there are said to be more clergy in that single diocese than in all Ireland, owing to the union of livings here. In one county where there are seventy-six parishes, it is asserted, there are but fourteen churches.


The disproportion between the numbers in the other two learned professions, I should conceive, must be greater still, in consequence of the general poverty and desolation of this country.

In the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, there are, besides halls, forty colleges, some of which have a number of students, equal to the college of Dublin. In our universities, there are between eight and nine hundred fellows and professors, whereas the sum total of those in T. C. D. is, as we have seen, but twenty-two; fourteen of which have full employment in the instruction of pupils; the whole care of undergraduates devolving upon the junior fellows.

In Scotland there are four universities, each of which have as many professors, as that of Dublin. But it is not so much their numbers, as their different ceconomy, which has produced effects so widely different. Their foundations, originally narrow, they have widened by industry, and what was wanting in royal favour, they have supplied by care and attention; the very subsistence of their professors depending


upon a display of superior excellence in their several lines. Edinburgh has been, for some years, the first seminary in the British dominions, for all the branches of physick. Glasgow has been the first school of ethicks, from the ingenious Hutcheson, to the sagacious Reid. Scarce a year passes that the world is not either amused or instructed by some literary production of Scotland. And if these do not all bear equally the stamp of genius, few of them are without erudition, and none devoid of marks of industry and application.

I am not ignorant that the eminence of Scotch professors may be attributed to another cause, than the constitution of their universities, seeing that their eminence is novel, though their relation to those learned bodies has been always the same. It will be argued, that writing of books is now become a trade, and that a poor nation will use its diligence to supply a wealthy one, become too indolent to stock its own market.

Upon this principle it may be asked, Why does not the same cause operate in Ireland? And it must be answered, that


though the nation is comparatively poor, the literate part of it is rich. After admission, the fellows rise gradually to all offices and emoluments, merely by seniority: and it is scarcely to be expected, that men, who have a certainty of ample preferment, without any toilsome effort, should forego that cheerful society, which a great city so amply furnishes, for the precarious prospect of future fame, and the certain return of present censure,

    — Quod non desit habentem
    Quae poterunt unquam fatis expurgare cicutae,
    Ni melius dormire putem quam scribere?

The primary intention, however, of an university, is not so much to write herself, as to form writers. And for this purpose, the plan of education here, for the first four years, is well calculated; the examination of undergraduates being an admirable institution. But then instruction goes no farther than the rudiments. One teaches logick in the hall this year, Greek the next, astronomy the third, and morality perhaps the fourth. All which must, in the ordinary course of things, be but superficially


known, and imperfectly taught. Such a constitution seems not only unfriendly, but hostile to excellence; and I cannot help thinking, if the Scotch universities were similar in this respect, that their professors would not, at this day, vie with her better endowed neighbours.

I have granted that the university of Dublin is well calculated for conveying general instruction, and I will add, perhaps better than any other; but I am persuaded that she is by no means framed for supporting, augmenting, or extending the character of national literature. I do not speak thus, because the fact argues for me, but I say so, because the reason of the thing evinces, that, without a miracle, the fact cannot be otherwise. And sure no Irish gentleman can take it amiss that I should labour to wipe off a national reproach, at the expence of statutes drawn up by Archbishop Laud.

But here the national prejudice recoils upon us, that a fellow of T. C. D. must, from the necessary qualifications for admission, be a man of profound erudition, and fully adequate to support the dignity


of literature. I shall most readily grant, that the young men who get fellowships, may be as diligent as industry itself, and that they have read a very general course yet how is it possible, that in a year or two after taking a batchelor's degree (that is at five or fix years standing), they can make themselves masters of the whole circle of arts, sciences, and classicks, viz. Logick, Mathematicks, Astronomy, Physicks, Ethicks, Chronology, History, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. The attention thus distracted by all, if collected on one, would render a boy just come from school, but competently skilled even in that. The memory may be loaded with words, when the understanding is not stored with ideas.

The business of answering for a fellowship, is said to be so mechanical, that some tutors, who have a particular interest at heart, are at the pains to set down the rolls of questions asked by each particular examiner, and that then they prepare their pupils accordingly. A youth of five years standing, thus assisted, may answer better than one of learning and abilities much superior, without that advantage. Newton would appear in a more unfavourable light


here, than he did when examined at Cambridge.

To avoid this evil, from the courses of each examiner becoming known, they sometimes interchange courses, and the Fellow who examined Mathematicks last year, will examine Morality the next. And from this veering of the courses, it is as difficult to conceive, how they can examine with ability, as that they should be answered with judgment. The whole is an unnatural talk imposed on the examiner, and a mere effort of memory in the examined.

But let us recapitulate what we have said. We have shewn that there are more clergy in one diocese of England, than in Ireland; which are not supposed to be 1200, while the numbers in all England are 12,000 at least, — that the disproportion is still greater in the law and physick lines, — that the number of fellows in T. C. D. are but twenty-two, — that the number of fellows and professors in our two universities are between eight and nine hundred, — and that the general numbers in England are three for one in Ireland. From all which it follows, that the advantages of


England over Ireland, in the attainment of learned excellence, is caeteris paribus merely, in point of numbers, in a ratio made up of these several proportions.

There is one disadvantage still behind, under which Ireland labours, which outweighs all the rest, and that is her provincial government, which as effectually represses her literary as commercial efforts. Habet subjectos tanquam suos, viles ut alienos, is not peculiar to any people, or to any time; it is a spirit resulting from certain relations. Here, however, it removes all that might rouse ardor, or excite emulation. If any rise above the common level, it is through mere dint of genius, without the temptation of reward, or the allurement of approbation. Swift was outrageous, that the Irish, — whose loyalty he taxes as a foible, — should be generally set aside, or that their pittance should be,

    1. The leavings of a church distrest,
      A hungry vicarage at best;
      Or some remote inferior post,
      Worth forty pounds a year at most.

Preferment of all sorts runs here in a channel very different from that of merit;


which indeed is becoming pretty much the case in England. But in a country such as ours is, and Rome was, abilities will necessarily emerge, and signalize themselves, till the very instant that blind corruption shall become the Sampson of the constitution.

Many favourable circumstances must concur, before any individual can conspicuously emerge. A genius seldom stands alone. He may be a liar of the first magnitude, but still he is one of a constellation. The collision of different sentiments strikes out the rival sparks of wit. Hence we may remark particular aeras of illumination, from before the Augustan, down to the present age.

It fares with nations as with individuals. There must be some happy tide of events to swell one nation above the level of its neighbours, either in arts or arms, especially in the former. In a great nation, the genius of individuals will participate of the national greatness — it will in some measure be buoyed above itself. Whereas in a subordinate one, it will be depressed to the low level of the national fate. If Edmund Burke


had exerted his talents to the utmost in his native country, he would never have been compared to the orators of antiquity. And if Dr. Johnson had spent his life in the same place, we should not now look up to him, as the Colossus of literature.