If Ireland should still appear deficient in mere scholarship, a review of those impediments I have pointed out may, perhaps, contribute to vindicate her genius, however it may have been aspersed of late: and it must be confessed, that some of our countrymen are too apt to sling national reproaches.
Swift, shrunk from a court-favourite into the head of a chapter, became easily irritated against the ruling men and manners here, and led the way in abusing the place. Pope, seeing the Dean's humour, took up, in his Dunciad, what
p.429fell from him, and complimented the man at the expence of his country:
He has been followed by all the witlings since. Smart, whose greatest praise, you know, arose from a prize or two he obtained at Cambridge, for his verses on the attributes, paid a visit to Ireland, against which, from a domestic cause, he conceived such a resentment, that his vengeance dictated a poem called, The Temple of Dulness, wherein he graphically lays down the College of Dublin.
Yet it has been remarked to me, that in another poem, where he is painting the terrors of the British fleet, and its Captains as Demi-Gods, he unfortunately selects Warren, a native of the county of Meath, as the glory of the English Admirals. The gentleman who mentioned this to me, pointing at a countryman of ours54 who is here at present, could not help using these words, though he has a very high respect for our nation. No
p.430sooner (says he) do some Englishmen set foot on Irish ground, than they assume a self-created importance, very unsuitable to their real consequence at home. Fraught with plebeian prejudices, they look at every thing through a false medium, make faults where they do not find them, and then applaud their own sagacity. Not without reason biaised towards their own country, some think themselves as much superior to any individual Irishman, as England is superior to Ireland. A man of this cast puts the whole nation into his own person, and so gives the matter out.
But let us turn into the field of imagination, which is certainly the walk of Irish genius. Poetry, as we have seen, had an early establishment here. But the same causes, which have been inauspicious to learning in general, have prevented the songs of the Bards from being collected. It were to be wished that these, as well as the antient Irish manuscripts in T. C. D. and elsewhere, were printed and translated, while there yet remains a scholar to undertake and superintend the work. For in
p.431another century the Irish language, like that of Cornwall, will probably be extinct. Leibnitz55 was of opinion, that the knowledge of it was a necessary introduction to Celtic literature.
This country is certainly indebted to Mr Macpherson for his animated exhibition of the spirit of Ossian, one of the oldest bards of Ireland, in his Fingal and Temora; and for that honourable testimony he has given in favour of their genius, however he may depreciate the Fiona, or poems which treat of the exploits of Finn, the son of Comhal. On other subjects, says he, the Bards of Ireland have displayed a genius worthy of any age or nation. It was alone in matters of antiquity that they were monstrous in their fables. Their love sonnets, and their elegies, on the death of persons worthy and renowned, abound with such a beautiful simplicity of sentiment, and wild harmony of numbers, that they make an atonement
p.432for their errors in every other species of poetry.
Spencer, after describing the abuses to which their poetry was turned by their bards, in dignifying vice, instead of adorning virtue, puts this question in his dialogue: Have they any art in their compositions? or be they any thing witty or well favoured, as poems ought to be? And he answers. Yea, truly. I have caused divers of them to be translated unto me, that I might understand them: and surely they savoured of sweet wit and good invention, but skilled not of the goodly ornaments of poetry; yet, were they sprinkled with some pretty flowers of their natural device, which gave good grace and comeliness to them.
Mr Macpherson was, however, much better qualified to decide on this subject, as he not only understood the originals, but as he had seen the poems of Ireland written in its best times. Those which Spencer describes were, I suppose, like one I have seen, written in latter times by O'Gnive the poet of O'Nial a specimen
p.433of which may not prove unworthy your perusal.
Oh! wretched condition of our dear countrymen! Thin remains of a once happy people; wallowing in blood, and drenched in slaughter! vain struggle for liberty! Ye are the hapless crew of a vessel, long tempest-tost, and finally cast away. What! are we not wrecked on our own shore? Are we not the prisoners of the Saxon 56 race? Is not our sentence passed? Is not our very excision fore-doomed? How are we fallen from the antient glories of our native land! Our power is degraded into weakness, our beauty into deformity, our freedom into slavery, our songs of triumph into doleful elegies. Our forefathers would not know or, if they knew, they would disclaim their sons. Turn not thy eyes, immortal Gallum, on thy recreant sons! Nial of the nine hostages, look not down upon us, lest thou blush for thy captive Gadhelians! Conn of the hundred battles,
p.434sleep in thy grass-grown tomb, and upbraid not our defeats with thy victories! Propitious night, shroud us in thy dunnest cloud! let not the sun shed his reproachful light on our ignominy! Whence this fatal transformation? From your tame submission to strangers, from your mean subservience to the Saxon laws. Since you departed from the equity of the Brehons, clouds of evil have burst upon you, deluges of misery have overwhelmed you. The purposes of Heaven are changed, your sporting lawns are paled in, your sun gilt hills are disfigured with ramparts, and frightful with towers. The laws of nature are violated, that land, once the theatre of virtue and honour, is metamorphosed into another Saxony. Slaves! we no longer know our own country, and our country disowns us, we are both equally distorted, we see but two monsters, a Saxon denizen, and an Irish alien. Hapless land! Ye besieged of Troy, without a Hector to defend you! Ye Israelites of Egypt, without a Moses to conduct you! But thy decrees, O Lord! are just. Unless the children of Eber-Scot the Scythian, repose all their trust in thee, New-Saxony
p.435must, like a Phoenix, rise out of the ashes of Old Ireland.
This poem must have been the production of the fifteenth, or beginning of the sixteenth century: and it shews that the many laws made to suppress the Bards had not damped their spirit, however they might have weakened their influence. After the forfeiture of O'Nial, under James I. poetry took another turn; for, even so far back as his reign, we find this country furnishing pieces for the stage. And it must be owned that she has, at every period since, discovered a strong propensity, if not capacity, for the drama. She has not only embellished it with several favourite stock plays, but she has brought forth some of the first-rate actors, Wilks, Quin, Sheridan, Barry, Mossop, Macklin, Havard, O'Brien, Brown, Woffington, Clive, Fitzhenry, &c. and she now produces a catalogue of scenick writers, some of whom sunt clari hodie & qui olim nominabuntur; but as it depends upon futurity to allot them their respective nitches in the temple of Fame, I shall only give an alphabetical list of such as occur to me: Brooke,
p.436Bickerstaff, Dobbs, Griffith, Howard, Jephson, Kelly, Murphy, Macklin, O'Hara, the Sheridans, West, &c.
Of her late Writers in this line are some, whose names are not yet forgotten, and others, whose works shall last as long as the English stage shall hold the mirrour up to nature: Earl of Orrery; N. Tate; Concannen; John Kelly, author of the Married Philosopher, &c.; Dr. Madden, of Themistocles, &c. , Jones, of The Earl of Essex, &c.; Morgan, of Philoclea; Hartson, of The Countess of Salisbury, &c.; A. Phillips; Mrs. Centlivre; Sir R. Steel; Farquhar; and Southerne.
Nor must we, Denham, e'er forget thy strain,
Whilst Cooper's hill commands the neighb'ring plain.
When the Sophy came out, it was said by Waller, of the Author, That he broke out like the Irish rebellion, three-score thousand strong, when nobody in the least expected it. Southerne may, perhaps, be placed immediately after Shakespeare and Otway. A late French writer gives him a very distinguished place among the
p.437English tragic Poets. He selects Oroonoko57 as the most striking example of that truth, in painting pathetic scenes of deep distress, in which, he owns, it is difficult to dispute precedence with the English. The same author says, the Conscious Lovers58 is the best comedy in our language. It may be questioned whether we have any plays, except of Shakespeare, more abounding with true humour than those of Farquhar. I know that his humour has been called low, but time seems adding to his reputation what it is detracting from that of Congreve.
It would perhaps be injurious to the memory of Dr. Goldsmith, to draw his poetical character from his theatrical pieces, though they are replete with the true vis comica. His fame must be founded upon his Traveller, Deserted Village, and Vicar of Wakefield. But his shade may rest in peace; his tomb is to be inscribed by the59 Author of the Rambler,
p.438which is more honourable to the Bard than if his ashes had been deposited in the cemetery of Kings.
Poetae, Physici, Historici,
qui nullum fere scribendi genus
nullum quod tetigit non ornavit;
Sive risus essent movendi,
Affectuum potens, at lenis, dominator;
Ingenio sublimis, vividus, versatilis,
Oratione grandis, nitidus, venustus;
Hoc monumento memoriam coluit
*** in Hibernia natus,
Eblanae litteris institutus,
Londini obiit MDCCLXXIV.