Drogheda is an old Irish place, but is almost entirely in the style of English towns. It is the only town in the north of Ireland the population of which is on the decrease. In 1821 it had 18,118, and in 1831, only 17,365 inhabitants. It is situated on the Boyne, which has become famous, less for its slightly dark-coloured bog-water,one of its chief tributaries is called the Blackwater, a name borne and deserved by many rivers of Irelandthan for the blood that was once poured into it. The famousfor the English, the glorious, by the Irish, the deploredBattle of the Boyne, in which William III. conquered James II., and drove him from the country, was fought here. This battle was to the Irish what the battle of the White Mountain was to the Bohemians, and the battle of Culloden to the Scots. The battle-field lies up the river, a few miles from Drogheda; and as the valley is distinguished as well by its natural charms, as, in particular, by its Druidical remains, and, above all, by the celebrated sepulchral monument of New Grange, I made a little journey up along the river on the following day, in company with a well-informed and kind patriot of Drogheda.
In a narrow part of the valley, where the struggle that decided the battle took place, there has been erected an obelisk, on a little block of stone, or rock, close by the river. My friend, who had
p.298grown up in the neighbourhood, informed me, that, at the present moment, all the details of the battle live in the memories of the people who dwell around, and are handed down from generation to generation; and not these particulars alone, but all the high relationships and entire genealogies of the distinguished personages who were engaged in it. The Irish traditions still possess the peculiar precise character of the traditions of nations who have no books, and whose memory is therefore the stronger. In them every thing is described with the greatest accuracy,the localities, the physiognomies, the speeches,just as if the people had seen every thing themselves. Among those who fell at the battle of the Boyne were several Germans, who accompanied William from Holland, one of whom, the Duke Schomberg, commanded a part of William's troops. The people here say that the German troops had offered violence to an Irish country girl, for which her lover swore he would take revenge: but being unable to discover the actual miscreants, he selected their general, and slew him.
James II. behaved with no great bravery in this memorable battle, which was fought on the 1st of July, 1690. Seized by a panic, even while the battle was yet undecided, he sought safety in flight, and rode through the entire length of the island, at a pace that has never been equalled. In a few hours he had left behind him the entire way from the battle-field to Dublin Castle; and on the next evening he rode to Waterford, a distance of more than one hundred English miles. The Irish therefore justly call him Shamus a' cacach, that is, cowardly, or dirty James. On his part, James threw all the blame on the Irish; for when, in his flight, he reached the Castle of Dublin, and Lady Tyrconnell, a woman of ready wit, came out to meet him, he said to her, Your countrymen, the Irish, madam, can run very quick; her reply was, Your majesty excels them in this, as in every thing else, for you have won the race. At Waterford, James embarked for France. As he was in the act of ascending the side of the ship, the wind blew off his hat; and as it was evening, and the hat could not be recovered immediately, his attendant, General O'Farrell, an Irishman, put his own hat on him, that he might not take cold. James was pleased, and remarked, as he ascended the vessel, that if, through the fault of the Irish, he had lost a crown, he had gained a hat from them in its place. James's accusations of the swift-footedness of the Irish are now forgotten; but the Irish still blame him, and have not ceased to call him a' cacach. By this battle William III. confirmed, for the last time, Henry II.'s conquest, the subjection of Ireland,a subjection which before this had to be confirmed once or twice every century by an
p.299English army. In the centre of Ireland two new counties were formed, and were called, in honour of William and his consort, the King's County and the Queen's County.
The entire valley of the Boyne, from Drogheda as far as Navan, contains traces of Druidical monuments. Thus, on our way, we inspected the remains of a cromlech or Druidical circular temple, which is situated on a height. It now consists of only four large stones, disposed in the form of a segment of a circle. As a part of the height had been dug away for agricultural purposes, two other stories had sunk down. Farther up the valley are several large tumuli, one of which is the celebrated hill of New Grange. This hill, which is composed of an enormous mass of flint-stones, is about 50 or 60 feet high, and 200 paces in circumference. The multitude of stones of which it is formed is therefore immensely great, especially as most of them, at least those on the summit, are not much larger than common paving-stones. Round about the hill, at the edge of its base, is a circle of large blocks of stone, the heads of which are all stuck into the ground. Some of these stones have already fallen; others have completely disappeared. As the hill is surrounded by arable land, the peasants may have removed many of the stones to make way for the plough, so that the circle is no longer complete. The outside of the hill is now entirely overgrown with grass, bushes, and trees, the stones having, in the course of years, become covered with dust, mould, and clay, on which vegetation then sprang up. Here and there, however, particularly upon the summit, this green covering of grass has been removed, probably to satisfy the curiosity of man; and there the stones may be plainly seen, as well as every where else, by any one who takes the trouble to dig away the soil.
In size and outward shape, this tumulus closely resembles those which have been raised at Cracow, in honour of Kosciuzko, Wanda, and Krak. It also reminds one of the tumulus of Elpenor, and of that of Achilles, on the Sigaean promontory, as described by travellers, and by Homer in the twelfth book of his Odyssey. The mound of Patroclus, and that of Halyattes in Asia Minor, according to Camden's testimony, must be very like it. The larger of the Tartaric tumuli in the Crimea, which were probably erected in honour of Scythian or Bosphoran kings, exactly resemble it in figure, with this difference, that, in that stoneless country, they are composed, not of stones, but of earth. In the south of Russia, on the top of these mounds a figure, rudely chiselled out of stone, is sometimes placed, or even a common stone. On the tumulus of Achilles, too, traces of a pillar are said to be still
p.300visible; and in Ireland it is affirmed that, in like manner, great blocks of stone stood on them, as final or top stones. On the summit of these mounds there is generally found a little hollow, in which the stone stood, and out of which it may have been washed away by the rain. The English call these mounds barrows when built of earth, and cairns when built of stones.
It is not, however, in its exterior appearance, but in its internal structure, that the hill of New Grange is most interesting. An opening has been discovered at the base of the hill, through which the hollow interior may be reached, and this was the principal object of our journey. For this purpose we had provided ourselves with lights, the entrance being extremely narrow and rather long. Before the entrance there is a little space protected from the wind, a kind of cave in the earth heaped up at the foot of the mound, and which was probably formed by the explorers and excavators of the entrance. Here we took off our clothes, lighted our candles, and commenced our operations. The passage, which is about fifty feet long, is somewhat obstructed with stones, so that one can only work his way in by lying on his back, while he feels his way with his feet, and pushes himself forward with his hands. As the ground is covered with sharp-cornered flint-stones, this slide-path is not the most agreeable in the world. The sidewalls of the passage are formed of large, tolerably flat stones, set up perpendicularly, with equally large stones laid across them on the top. We soon reached the convenient interior of the tumulus, where one can not only stand upright, but can also walk about freely, as it is neither more nor less than a little chapel, to which three side-chapels are appended. Having brought with us a whole bundle of candles, we hung one of them in the centre of the large chapel, another in each of the three small ones, and the remainder we attached round about to the rocks, wherever we could; and now, in this illumination, my eyes beheld the most remarkable and most interesting specimen of primitive Cyclopean architecture I ever saw. Rude and simple as every thing was, it would yet be difficult for me to convey to my readers a correct idea of the appearance and structure of these chapels.
It is manifest that they were not hollowed out of the mound of stones subsequent to its erection, for this its structure would not permit; but they existed before the hill itself, and the great pyramid of flint-stones, was raised over the roof of the chapels. As children build houses of cards, so were these chapels built of blocks of stones. A few large flat stones were placed beside one another, on their edges, to form the back and side walls, and over them a few more were placed to make a ceiling. In this way were
p.301the three little side-chapels constructed. They of course remained open on the side where they were to communicate with the centre larger chapel. One of these chapels faces the east, one the west, and one the north; on the south is the entrance to the passage out. This opening is a door, with gigantic stone door-posts and stone architraves. The principal difficulty the old Cyclopean architects had to surmount must have been in the construction of the vaulted roof of the high middle chapel; and this difficulty has been solved by supposing that, upon the four firm bases or points of support afforded by the roofs of the little chapels and the mighty architraves of the door-way of the centre one, they laid other large flat pieces of rock, which projected inwards a little. On these again they placed similar stones, which projected inwards a little more than those beneath them, and thus gradually narrowed the space more and more. This operation was repeated three or four times, so that at last only a small hole remained open in the top of the centre chapel, which was then closed by one gigantic stone, and in this way the whole was completed. When the chapel was afterwards covered outside with a mass of flint-stones, their weight gave increased firmness to the over-lapping stones that formed the roof, and in this way the entire building must remain there, firm and indestructible, through eternity. The immense mass of stones which now lies, like a great hill, upon this chapel and its side-chapels, and upon the roof of the entrance-passage, was probably formed gradually, and in the course of time. It was and is the custom, not only in Arabia, some countries of Africa, and many others of the world, but also in Ireland and in Scotland, to heap up stones on holy places, and particularly over graves. In Arabia, in northern Africa, in some of the Baltic Provinces, as in Esthonia, and also in some parts of Scotland, usage requires every one who passes by to throw a stone upon the holy place, while he probably at the same time makes some pious wish, or repeats a short prayer. In this way great heaps of stones have been raised, in various places, in all these countries. It is probable that, immediately on the consecration of the holy place, a great portion of the stones were thrown upon it by the assembled multitude; and afterwards, in the course of centuries the original heap became a hill, a result of the pious labours of the believing.
I have said that in this way the entire Cyclopean work will endure for eternity; for, excepting the wasting away of the stones by the action of the air and weather, which, from the hardness of their nature, cannot happen in any conceivable period of time, no cause can be imagined capable of destroying these monuments. The thousands of years which have passed over these stones have
p.302not left on them a single trace of injury. A gnawing moss-plant has not even once fixed itself inside. An earthquake, opening the mouth of the earth, and swallowing up the entire monument, is the only conceivable natural event that could destroy this chapel. But Ireland has not yet suffered this calamity, and probably never will. In all probability, it has as little to fear from man as from nature; for none of the motives which have led to the destruction of ancient buildings can exist with regard to New Grange. Many of our architectural remains have disappeared beneath the destroying hand of man, because they became obnoxious to succeeding generations. Thus were destroyed the Bastile at Paris, and many an old German castle and town. Many were demolished because their materials could be applied by succeeding generations to other purposes. Others were destroyed to satisfy avarice and curiosity, because their destroyers hoped to find either treasures or other matters concealed in them. Thus several pyramids in Egypt, several royal sepulchres in the Crimea, and in other places, have been rummaged and destroyed. Then, again, passion for art and science has all but ruined other monuments, as witness many beautiful temples in Greece. Of all these motives, however, not one can arm the inhabitants of Erin against such monuments as New Grange. Great blocks of stone, such as these, can be of no use to the present or future generations; unless the human race again returns to its old barbarism, and our architectural arts descend to the level of this Cyclopean architecture. And, even then, blocks of stone, more easily obtainable, would be found in the neighbourhood.
These chapels can no longer in any way be offensive; for the differences of opinion, and the party contentions, of which they were perhaps once the object, in the time of the Druids, just as many heathen and not-heathen temples afterwards became, and still are, have all long since passed away, and their revival is altogether inconceivable. Mere wantonness would have far too much to do in the destruction of these vast masses of stone, so that we need not entertain any fears from that cause. The art-enthusiasts, who have plundered the temples of Greece and of other countries, can scarcely find any thing here worth robbing; for these structures are only remarkable in their present entirety, and would lose their interest as soon as the individual pieces were taken asunder. Perhaps an exception must be made to this in a few respects, as I will immediately show. Curiosity and avarice can derive little or nothing from the destruction of this edifice; for here there is nothing hidden from the sight, and every one can immediately convince himself that it contains nothing more than the rude
p.303masses of stone before his eyes. From all this it follows, that New Grange, like other similar monuments of a remote antiquity, will most probably last longer than the tower of Babylon, the obelisks of Egypt, the temples of Greece, the castles of the middle ages, and all the buildings of our own day. This reflection at once forces itself on the spectator; and, while it fills him with respect for these witnesses of a long-departed age, convinces him that they will continue to speak into as far distant a future.
We then examined the details of the three little chapels, and found them no less interesting than the structure of the whole. In each of them we saw a large stone basin, and, in one of them, two such basins, one within the other. These basins, which bear some resemblance to the baptismal fonts of our Christian churches, are the most remarkable specimens of Druidical or Cyclopean stone-cutting I ever beheld. They are great caldron-round stones, about twenty or twenty-four feet in circumference, hollowed out into a shallow cavity, like the saucer of a tea-cup. The manner in which they were hollowed out, and the entire workmanship of them, is so rude, and the circular form of the basin is so irregular, that, although it is quite evident they have been thus fashioned, not by nature but by art, it is yet impossible to conceive in what way this form has been given then. Chisel, circle, and measuring-rod seem not to have been used in their formation. It looks just as if the hollows were produced by rubbing one great stone upon another for a long time. These basins rest upon another immense stone, which serves them as a pedestal; and in the eastern chapel there is, as I have said, two such basins, a smaller within a larger. Perhaps in the other two chapels there were also similar little basins, which may have been removed for some museum of antiquities; for I remember having seen a Druidical basin of this kind in an English museum. The northern chapel, which is exactly opposite the entrance-passage, is constructed of the largest stones. One of the basins was half-full of water which had trickled from the roof of the cavern. My companion told me that he always saw this water here, whenever he visited the chapel.
With the exception of these basins, few traces of art are to be seen, and these consist of some marks here and there on the stones. On one, for example, several parallel zigzag lines have been cut. On the surface of another are some spiral lines, winding round in six or seven circles, within one another, like a helix. Then there are some little round figures with radii, which resemble stars, and, finally, a figure which seems to be meant for an imitation of flowers or fruits. Those star-like figures were perhaps meant for stars, which the old star-worshipping
p.304Druids used to engrave upon the tombs of their heroes. All these things are very awkwardly, rudely, and by no means deeply cut. The spiral lines are the most numerous, and reminded me of the many spirals of metal wire which have been found in very old tombs, and which are supposed to have been intended for ornaments. An inscription, too, is shown in one of the chapels, on the foot of one of its side-stones. It consists of various undecipherable characters, which, as Irish antiquarians assert, belong neither to the Feadha, the common old Irish alphabet, nor to the Ogham, the secret writing of the ancient Irish; but is, in all probability, an apocryphal addition of modern date. The most remarkable evidence of human labour, however, is on a stone which forms the inner door-post of the chapel. The projecting edge of this stone is marked, from top to bottom, with slight grooves or furrows. It appears precisely as if several ropes had been for a long time drawn backwards and forwards across it, and worn in it one furrow over another. When we consider the size of the stone, this marking must have cost no slight trouble, and it is quite impossible to conjecture its object. Were these furrows intended for numerical records? The entire structure and its details, is, in fact, one of the most interesting sights one can behold. It is to be regretted that this temple is so concealed, and that, by reason of its inconvenient entrance, it is almost inaccessible to half the human racethe fair sex. Were the managers of the opera of Norma acquainted with this subterranean Druid-temple, they would certainly have represented it on the stage, and it could scarcely fail to make a great impression on the spectators.
As we were going out again, and I once more threw the light on some stones, I observed, on those which formed the inner-door of the entrance, a countless multitude of little gnats. These animals are now the only, and perhaps the most ancient, inhabitants of this colossal work. Year after year they retire here in the autumn to pass the winter, and fly out again in the spring.
When at last we regained the open air, we met two Irish peasants, and asked them by whom they believed these caverns were formed. They replied the Danes, which is the usual answer given by the Irish to questions respecting the origin of any ancient structure in their country. It is the Danes who have piled up their moats, the Danes to whom the oldest of their ruined castles are attributed, the Danes have erected the ancient barrows and cairns. Even the Round Towers, the ignorant common people sometimes ascribe to the Danes; and, in fact, to the annoyance of the inquisitive tourist and the friend of antiquity, there are even many among the well-educated, who, without further
p.305reflection, repeat this opinion of the people. The Danes were in Ireland in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries; while many of the monuments attributed to them manifestly derive their origin from a far earlier period. Besides, they properly occupied only the eastern part of the island; while the monuments ascribed to them are, on the contrary, found in all parts of it, and are so extremely numerous, and of such variety, that one cannot avoid concluding that the people are in error. But, on the other hand, the Irish are not deficient in boldness of imagination, as they often date their traditions from a far more remote period than that of the Danes. Nay, they are even inclined, wherever possible, to ascend centuries back, before their time; and therefore it would seem that they are entitled to some belief in relation to their Danish monuments, when they content themselves with claiming for them a date comparatively modern.
All these various considerations combined have led me to an hypothesis which I have met with in no Irish writer, namely, that the Irish people may have confounded the Danes with the much more ancient nation, of nearly the same name, the Danaans, who are said to have lived in Ireland long before the birth of Christ. These Danaans, or Tuatha-de-Danaans, were, according to Irish tradition, the third race who colonised Ireland. Of these Danaans, Moore, who repeats the popular tradition, says:They were a people famed for necromancy, who, after sojourning for some time in Greece, where they had learned this mysterious art, proceeded from thence to Denmark and Norway, and became possessors, while in those countries, of certain marvellous treasures, among which were the Stone of Destiny, the Sorcerer's Spear, and the Magic Caldron. Armed with these wonderful gifts, the tribe of the Danaans next found their way to Scotland; and, after a rest there of some years, set sail, under the auspices of their chieftain, Nuad of the Silver Hand,24 for Ireland. Here, landing secretly, under cover of a mist which their enchantments had raised, these sorcerers penetrated into the country, and conquered the inhabitants in the battle of Moytura, which is also called the Battle of the Field of the Tower.
As so much art, and even magic, is attributed to the Danaans,
p.306they may have easily covered Ireland with many monuments of their skill; and as their name has nearly the same sound as that of the Danes, the generations which dwelt in Ireland after the Danes may have given the latter credit for much that properly belonged to that more ancient people. Moreover, most of the remains of the Danes, or Danaans, are, even at the present moment, objects of superstition, and the scenes of goblins and enchantment! So much is certain, that Cyclopean structures, like this of New Grange, must date their origin from the most remote antiquity. It is likewise highly probable, and now the generally-received opinion among the learned, that these barrows and cairns served for some religious purpose. Some believe that they were the sepulchral monuments of celebrated heroes or kings. Others imagine that they were temples. Perhaps they may have served both purposes at the same time. In Africa, there are tribes who have no other temples, or places for prayer, than the graves of their Marabouts. In these subterraneous chapels, perhaps, not only were sacrifices offered up to the memory and the manes of the revered departed, a king or a high-priest, but also the well-being of all was implored in prayer, while on the summit of the hill a fire was kindled in honour of the Sun-god, or god of light. In Cornwall there is a cairn called Karn Leskyg, or Karn of Burnings. Perhaps the summit was sacred to the celestial Sun-god, or god of light, and the hollow subterranean chapels, on the contrary, to the infernal powers. The stone basins may then have served for altars, or sacrificial vessels.
There are, as I have said, many other tumuli along the banks of the Boyne, yet they are all, with one exception, far lower and smaller than that of New Grange. The people say that ancient chieftains are buried beneath these little hills. The exception is that called Dowth, or the Moat of Dowth, which exactly resembles New Grange; but it seems to me to be a little larger and higher, and outside it is not covered with bushes, but quite bare. At one spot, where the turf has been removed, one can plainly see that, like New Grange, it is composed of an immense mass of flint stones. On one side of the hill there is also an entrance, a couple of large stones, laid on one another, forming just such a door as that of New Grange. It is extremely probable that this entrance leads to a similar hollow passage, and again to a chapel, perhaps larger, perhaps somewhat varied, and at all events interesting for the sake of comparison. But, oh! disgrace to all those inhabitants of the surrounding country, with their ten thousands a year!the entrance has not been opened any farther, and nothing is yet known of the interior. I remember
p.307well how I abused the barbarism of the country, when I beheld, in southern Russia and among the Tartars, the many yet untouched and unopened tumuli. But should I go there again I will beg pardon of the people for this injustice, since, in a state like Great Britain, such extremely interesting and remarkable monuments stand unexamined, yes, unvalued, silent, and shut up, like the Pyramids in the desert. Would not one imagine that here, in this English country, every thing worth examining would be explored and rummaged, over and over again, by antiquarians, and lovers of science and art? But I must add, that the cairn or temple of Dowth is not the only instance of this kind.
From the summit of this hill we enjoyed one of the most beautiful prospects of the valley of the Boyne, down upon all the tumuli lying around, upon the river winding between them, and then away towards the west upon the town of Slane, where, in former times, a famous college existed, and which still lies there, as Cromwell left itin ruins. To these old Catholic colleges, now lying in rubbish, the Irish patriots point with sadness. They once had many of them; but since the times of Cromwell and of William III. they have none. Their young people, intended for the priesthood, were all forced to complete their clerical education in foreign lands, in Spain, Italy, or France. Not till a recent period did the Roman Catholics obtain a college of their own for the education of their clergythe College of Maynooth in the vicinity of Dublin, which now represents the university of Roman Catholic Ireland.
Not far from the Moat of Dowth, upon the estate of the Netterville family, are the ruins of an old church. They are, as usual, ornamented with ivy; and within the roofless circuit of its walls are, as is also usual, the monuments of those who, as the Irish say, were brought home to their own people. Among others was the white marble monument of a Netterville, which stood so extremely pleasing and picturesque between the gray church-walls and the green ivy, that I cannot understand why the English travel to Père la Chaise at Paris, and to Frankfort, to see the prosaic monuments there, while, by making a tour of the old churchyards of Ireland, they might enjoy the greatest abundance of picturesque, beautiful, and in every respect interesting sights. We have many complete collections of all distinguished English mansions: why have not a few English painters and writers joined, and given to the world an illustrated work under the title of The Old Churchyards of Ireland? The painter indeed must be a Ruysdael, whose unequalled Churchyard, in the Royal Gallery at Dresden, comes near in effect and poetry to an Irish churchyard;
p.308while the writer must be a Moore or a Byron, for the aesthetic as well as the historical department should be illumined with liveliness and imagination. These churchyards, in which, amid ruins and beneath venerable trees, often in the midst of the greatest wildness and desolation, the noble and the poor are buried, are unquestionably the most significant symbols of the condition and mode of thinking of the Irish people. The Irish are much attached to every thing that is old, and imagine that they can find their last long rest only among the dust of their own people, and in that place with which so many old traditions and legends are associated, although these witnesses of the days of their ancient glory now lie in ruin and decay. Full of love for their old churches, for their old traditions, for their old recollections, generations after generations lay themselves down here amid these shattered walls, and seem to hope that Ireland too, as well as themselves, will one day arise from her ruins to a new and glorious life.
I visited this church, however, not on account of the old monuments, but for something else,namely, Shilagh na Gigh, that is, in English, Cicely of the Branch, whose name relates to an extremely remarkable old Irish custom, which again reminded me of the Eastthis time the old East of Herodotus. The Irish are no less superstitious than the Romans of old, and, like them, ill luck and good luck is the principal object of their thoughts and cares. A hundred thousand things and events are signs of ill luck: meetings, looks, words, sounds, natural phenomena, feelings of various kinds, become signs of ill luck under certain circumstances. The look of a sorceress is especially dreaded. She overlooked my child, and it now fades in his bloom, is the expression used on such occasions.
As in nature every poison has its antidote, so likewise, in the world of Irish superstition, there are as many things that bring good luck as there are that bring bad luck. For good luck they spit upon the penny they receive, lest it may be enchanted and infected with ill luck. For good luck they dip their children in holy wells, or have recourse to various charms, when the ill luck of a look or of a mere word is upon them. Even adults, even men, have sometimes a dark and melancholy feeling that a spell of ill luck has been thrown around them by some person or other; and, among the various remedies they adopt to counteract it for good luck, is this:Persuadent nempe mulierem, ut exhibeat iis quod mulieres secretissimum habent.
There once wereand whatever was once in Ireland, one may be almost certain that it is still therewomen, who made a profession
p.309of this, and who, whenever a young or old man was tormented by the idea of ill luck, permitted him to try this means for good luck. These women were, and are still, called Shilagh na Gigh: the origin of this name I have not been able to learn. It may be, however, that the belief gained ground that the mere image would be sufficient; and the priests, so thought an Irishman whom I questioned on this subject, did all in their power to increase this belief, in order to diminish the use of the original remedy itself. Female images were therefore made to answer the purpose of living women, and were also called Shilagh na Gigh. They were built into the side-walls of the chapels, probably in order that thus they might be the more potent. My companion, who was intimately acquainted with Irish customs and antiquities, assured me that he knew of ten or eleven old chapels with these figures, and that one of them was still to be seen in the southern wall of the above-mentioned chapel of the Nettervilles. To convince myself of this, I went there, and after some search I found a little female figure in the place described. It was chiselled out of one of the stones of the wall, in low relief, nuda erat, nec non exhibuit, quod juvenes for good luck's sake spectare optarent. My companion remarked, they call it also a female exhibition. I thought of the women whom Herodotus says frequented the temple at Babylon, partly perhaps also for good luck.
Here is another proof that this western island is full of peculiarities to be met with in no other country of Europe. Look whatever way one will, he will find some in Ireland. Thus, on our return to Drogheda, we met a funeral, and it struck me that the bier was very rudely constructed. On inquiry, the people told me that little art was here employed on the bier, because it was never used more than once, but immediately after the burial it was broken to pieces, and thrown into the grave. I afterwards found that this custom was pretty general in the north of Ireland. They destroy it in the churchyard, either by hewing it with a hatchet, or placing it between the forked limbs of a tree, and thus breaking it to pieces.
I had scarcely entered Drogheda at one side, before I had again to quit it on the other, in consequence of the resolution of some enthusiastic friends of antiquity, with whom I had the good luck to become acquainted in that place, and who would not suffer me to depart until I enjoyed a sight of their celebrated Monasterboice. These (in Ireland) famous monastic ruins lie a few miles to the north of Drogheda, and I set out for them the next day. They consisted of the remains of some churches, and a Round Tower, and are some distance from the high road, so that we had
p.310to reach the lonely and deserted pile by narrow by-ways. Monasterboice, or, as it is called in the Irish language, Mainistir-Buite, i. e. the Monastery of Buite or Boetius, owes its origin to a celebrated abbot or bishop of that name, who lived towards the close of the fifth century, and was a disciple of St. Patrick. Many abbots and professors of this monastery distinguished themselves, and are all famous in Irish annals. The most celebrated of them was Flann, who died in the year 1056. He was the last great original authority of the old Irish language, in history, poetry, and eloquence, says his biographer Adamnán; and of him it is also said
There is said to be still extant a multitude of historical poems written by him. But the work for which he is most celebrated in Ireland, is his Synchronisms of the Irish kings, and of the Oriental and Roman emperors, and the head monarchs of all Ireland, as well as its Christian provincial rulers, and, finally, the kings of Scotland of Irish descent.25
- Flann, of the great church of sweet Buite,
The last professor the country of the three Finns was Flann.
Monasterboice, in remote times so long the seat of piety, art, science, and learning, lost its importance and fell into ruins after the English took possession of the kingdom of Meath, to which it belonged.
Not far from the ruins, on a bleak height, lay a few huts of Irish labourers; and then the road led down into the plain, in which nothing was to be seen but these ruins in the centre. They lie together, lonely and melancholy, in a picturesque group; and while all around was bare, they were overshadowed by some old trees, which found support and protection between their walls. At the side of the high Round Tower, around whose lofty broken summit ravens and rooks were fluttering, and between the low ivy-mantled church-walls, a couple of lofty stone crosses showed themselves, erect and uninjured, while the intermediate spaces, as usual, were filled with old and falling, and new and upright, gravestones. The dusky hue of the turfy soil around, the bright-yellow foliage of the trees amid the ruins, and the green sward at the base of the buildings, all these various colours gave an extremely picturesque appearance to the interesting group of little crosses, churches, tower, and gravestones. Then there was no one to be seen, except myself and the guide whom I had chosen at the huts; and the entire sky, as is usual in Ireland, was full of cloud-mountains of the vastest and most grotesque shapes.
I here again felt the truth of an Irish writer (Petrie), who, describing the Irish landscape, says,The colours with which nature
p.311has painted the surface of Erin, are quite peculiar to our island. There is not a shade of green which does not adorn her soil, from the brightest yellow-green to the darkest brown-green. In no other land are these colours of equal strength and depth. Even our bogs, with all their variations of colours, with their purple, their red, brown, black, by their violent contrasts add still more beauty to it, and complete the national individuality of our landscape. Nay, even our clouds, too, have in a high degree a quite peculiar character, which is the result of the moisture of our climate. They have a vastness in their forms and shapes, a strength of light and shade, seldom seen in other lands. Irish clouds are one moment sunny and glittering, and in the next moment they are rolling their dark shadows over the landscape, and shrouding it in melancholy gloom. These words of another clearly express what every traveller in Ireland will see, especially what he says respecting the clouds. Ireland is the richest cloud-land in Europe, and every painter should come here to study clouds. This is also partly true of the whole islands of Great Britain, and explains why, in the works of all English landscape painters, such great attention, such detailed execution, and so much trouble is bestowed on the sky; and also why Howard, the first who attempted a classification of clouds, was an Englishman.
What I have remarked respecting the clouds, might be also said symbolically of the political and moral heaven of Erin. As clouds upon clouds rise from the Atlantic Ocean, and envelope her in an ever-varying and ever differently tattered mantle of gloom, with beams of light flowing down through the rents, so clouds upon clouds continually emerge from the sea of events, and shroud in constantly-changing forms the oppressed and straitened spirit of her people, who dream on in sad despair, being but occasionally permitted, in the warm sunshine of prosperity and joy, to resign themselves to a passing ecstasy. One cannot help believing that he perceives the character of a people, and the national history of their country, depicted in the natural scenery and climate of their land. These changing clouds of an Irish sky continually remind us of Moore's poems:
of his shades of sorrow:
- Erin! the tear and the smile in thine eyes,
Blend like the rainbow that hangs in thy skies!
of his sun-gleams of joy:
- Has sorrow thy young days shaded.
- As a beam o'er the face of the waters may glow!
p.312of his weeping stars:
of his lingering and vanishing light:
- At the mid-hour of night, when the stars are weeping.
of his sunbeams amid rain:
- 'Tis gone, and for ever, the light we saw breaking.
- Though dark are our sorrows, to-day we'll forget them,
And smile through our tears, like a sunbeam in showers.
We at length arrived at the ruins themselves; and at the same time there also arrived one of those stormy hail-showers, rolling over the landscape. The hail rattled down between the old shattered walls, and we had to creep for shelter into the Round Tower, the door of which was here fortunately near enough to the ground to allow us to slip in with ease. This tower is of the usual height of 110 feet, but may have been somewhat higher, as its summit is now broken. It has also the usual circumference of 50 feet. Though I was always glad to be able to visit one of these singular buildings, I found nothing in this tower of Monasterboice to distinguish it from others of the same kind. The ruined churches likewise have nothing to distinguish them, beyond the picturesque charms common to all Irish ruins. Here, however, are the three remarkable crosses I have already mentioned, erected in honour of the three celebrated Irish saints, St. Patrick, Boetius, and Columb Kill.
These crosses belong to the most remarkable of the old Christian antiquities of Ireland, being decorated with great art, and better preserved than others of a similar description. They are composed of several large blocks of stone, laid one over another, are from twenty to twenty-four feet high, and are ornamented from top to bottom with graceful sculptures. Their form is quite peculiar, and in no Christian country have I seen any thing like them. On a pillar, about fourteen feet high, which stands on a broad pedestal, is fixed a cross, with four arms of equal length, each of which becomes somewhat wider towards the centre, in the same manner as the cross of the Knights of Malta; the arms of the cross are bound by a large stone ring or circle, the segments of which pass from arm to arm. It looks as if a stone cross and a stone ring were united into one figure. The pillars, crosses, rings, all are covered with sculptures, which afford plenty of subjects for thought to the Irish antiquary. Their whole appearance proves that a very peculiar style of Christian art existed in ancient Ireland; and, by the manner of their lines and drawings, reminded me of the paintings and embellishments of the old Irish manuscripts which I had seen at the college library in Dublin.
The pillars and the arms of the cross are, of course, four-sided; each side is bordered with twisted lines or spirals; and the entire is divided into little squares, in each of which is a scene from the Old or New Testament history; for instance, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Paradise, Hell, the Passion, &c. In Paradise, I remarked a couple of harpers. The Irishman could not conceive a Paradise, in which he could not find his beloved national instrument.
The spiral borders and the ornaments, which serve here and there to fill up, are quite peculiar. Thus, on one cross I saw intertwined snakes, winding round a human head; on another, a woman with a long dog hanging to each ear,perhaps a scene of torture from the Irish hell. Two dogs, of slender forms, twisted into a very peculiar figure, almost like snakes, occurred very often. I could not learn the meaning of these dogs, which appear so frequently on the old Christian monuments of Ireland. At Dublin, I saw a crosier, which was covered all over with these slender little dogs, wrought on the back of its crook. They probably refer to the legend of some Irish saint.
A very peculiar drawing, which I had already noticed on several Irish antiquities, again presented itself to me on Columba's cross, and on that of St. Patrick. It was a perfectly regular circle, in which many twisted, wavy, and spiral lines were intertwined. On one of these circles was a hand, neatly chiselled, in bas-relief, upon the stone.
I began to consider what the monks could have meant by these signs, unquestionably symbolical; and when I could not find any thing better, I conceived that by the circle they perhaps intended to signify the globe of the world; by the twisted and knotted, snaky and spiral lines, the various and stormy eddies and whirlpools of human life and passions, which flow through that globe; while the hand, lying upon it, represented the hand of the Creator and Father of all things, who rules all these confused lines, and will one day reduce them all into harmonious order. When I had finished this solution, I asked my attendant Paddy his opinion respecting the hand, and the circle beneath it? Taking off his hat, he replied: I'll tell your honour. Look! there was a woman who baked a cake one Sunday, and broke the commandment: but when she caught hold of the cake to take it up, it remained hanging to her hand, and she could never get it off again; and the holy St. Patrick therefore had it carved on the stone here, to remind and to warn us for ever to keep holy the holydays and Sundays, as we are commanded. That's it, your honour! added Paddy, and he put on his hat again.
On the foot of one cross various monsters are carved, probably
p.314symbolic of heathenism and the foes of Christianity, in the midst of which the cross has gloriously raised itself, whilst they lie in chains at its feet. These crosses, your honour, were never set up here by the hand of man, said my Paddy, but were brought hither from Rome by angels, and stood up of themselves the moment they were laid in the churchyard, and placed themselves in the hole of the pedestal in which your honour sees them standing. The angels had nothing at all to do with it, your honour. The crosses did it, as I said, of themselves. The cross of the holy Columb Kill only has been set up by men.
Columb Kill, called also Columba, is one of the most celebrated of the Irish saints. He was, as is said of most Irish saints, of royal lineage; for on his father's side he was descended from Nial, who was the father of many kings; while his mother, Aethena, was of the princely house of Leinster. Before she bore her afterwards so celebrated son, she had a dream which I will here narrate, partly in proof of the great celebrity of this saint, partly to give my readers a sample of the fantastic nature of Irish dreams. Adamnan, an Irish author, who wrote so early as the seventh century, relates this dream thus:There appeared to the princess Aethena, as she lay awake one night shortly before her delivery, an angel from heaven, who brought her a veil of wonderful beauty, on which were embroidered and painted the most charming flowers in the entire world. Aethena was astonished at the beauty of the flowers, and wished to catch hold of the veil; but the angel lifted it up, and spread it out; and, when the princess asked him why he so soon deprived her of the present he had displayed to her, he made answer, that this veil was a type of a great and honourable gift she would receive, which likewise she could not retain long for herself, but would be obliged soon to send out into the world. The princess then saw the veil ascend into the air, and spreading itself out wider and wider, slowly depart from her. At last she beheld it, covered with beautiful flowers and glittering stars, spread itself far away over the valleys, mountains, plains, and forests.26
Shortly after she bore Columba, or, as he was at first called, Crimthan, for the name of Columba was afterwards given to him when the dove-like simplicity and innocence of his character became known. Kill, as we have already remarked, means, in ancient Irish, the same as church; so that Columb Kill signifies the dove of the church. Not merely were his labours confined to Ireland, where he founded monasteries and schools, but he was of the greatest importance to Scotland also, whither he emigrated, and whose great apostle he became. The cross which was here raised in his honour, among the ruins of Monasterboice, once fell
p.315down and was broken, but has been again set up in its present mutilated condition. At its foot, which stands in a square hole in the pedestal, some water had collected. My Paddy assured me that this water remained here the whole year, and never dried up, even though rain should not have fallen for a long time. People come from far and wide to wash their diseased limbs with this sweat of Columba's cross. They also scrape and scratch off the moss which grows on the surface of the cross, wrap it carefully in paper, take it home, and, for good luck, mix it in their tea.
Has it ever been the custom, any where else in Christendom, to erect large handsome crosses, near churches, to particular saints, as chapels are built, in order there to pray for them? or is this also a custom peculiar to the Irish Christians alone?
I returned on foot to the little hut on the rising ground, where we had left our car, and, as another heavy shower of hail was pouring down on the ruins and the dark fields, I was compelled, for the sake of shelter, more closely to inspect the interior of the cabin. Here I particularly observed the mode of preparation of these oaten cakes which I had seen carved in stone on the cross of St. Patrick, and which form so conspicuous a feature in the whole domestic economy of the north of Ireland and Scotland. These famous oat-cakes are made of coarsely ground oats, the principal grain of Ireland and Scotland, in the following extremely simple and even rude manner. The meal is formed into a thick paste with water, and spread upon a warm circular plate of iron (called a griddle), which is found in every Irish cabin, and is heated by a few handfuls of lighted straw. The paste is spread out on this like a thin pancake, and in a few moments is fit to eat, and dry like biscuit. As the people call this cake, and as they eat these oat-cakes every day, it might lead one to suppose, that, as cake-eaters, the Irish and Scotch live very luxuriously. These cakes, however, taste not much better than flour mixed with water, and afterwards dried. Nevertheless, many persons are passionately fond of them; and the Irish usually assure the stranger, when they show him their oat-cakes, that they are exceedingly wholesome, strengthening, and nourishing, which can only be true of them when compared with the watery and unnutritious potato. The English, who are generally very inquisitive about our black breadthe word black27 horrifies themand often maliciously remark that such food would not be given even to horses in their country, completely forget that, in Germany, oats are given to horses, and that many
p.316millions of inhabitants of their empire would think themselves fortunate in the extreme if they could only get this black bread, and that the Irish call this dried paste cake, and consider it the most nourishing food they can procure. All through Scotland and Ireland, particularly in the north, as well as in the north of England, oat-cakes are at home, and he who is fond of them may enjoy them even in London.
The Irish harp, too, which I had seen in the picture of Paradise on the stone cross at Monasterboice, I again found during my sojourn at Drogheda. It was at the house of a Roman Catholic priest, who gave us an Irish musical-poetical soirée, which I reckon one of the most agreeable soirées I ever attended. The reception room of this gentleman, like that of many Irish patriots, was adorned with portraits of Father Mathew, of Moore, and of O'Connell. The latter I scarcely recognised, for he was painted in various colours, with a mantle trimmed with fur, and had his lord mayor's golden chain around his neck. He looked like an old Irish king. Besides these, there were pictures of two celebrated Irish landscapes and ruins, and portraits of some Irish saints and apostles. In one picture was Father Mathew in the open air, on a grassy mound. Behind him, in the dark background, stood a Christian cross, and through the cloudy sky a stream of light poured down upon it. Before him kneeled and stood the lame, the blind, and the healthy, to whom he was preaching. This picture was interesting to me, as an illustration of the opinions which the Irish entertain of this remarkable man.
Drogheda is a very Irish townthe last genuine Irish one the traveller meets with on this coast as he advances northwards; for, after it, every thing is more inclined to the Scotch. Nay, Drogheda is perhaps more Irish than many a town in the south or west of the island. The population is almost entirely Roman Catholic, and but very few Protestants are to be found there. Drogheda is therefore one of the greatest strongholds of O'Connell, and was much eulogized by him in the speech I heard at Dublin. The Drogheda Argus, a large paper published here, contains, in almost every number, some out-and-out repeal-articles, the subject of which is the necessity of a renewed organization of the repeal agitation, and the struggle for a national existence. The suburbs of Drogheda are genuinely Irish, miserable, filthy, falling cabins; and many persons are likewise to be found in the neighbourhood, who understand and speak the old Irish language, and say that they cannot speak English with comfort and fluency. Nay, according to what I was told by the inhabitants, I must believe that the Irish language is far more general in and
p.317about Drogheda than at any other point of the eastern coast of Ireland.
As I was now about to take leave of the old Celtic soil, all these matters combined to render me more desirous to be present at such an Irish poetical-musical soirée.
The first person who came forward was an Irish declaimer, a man from among the people,I know not whether a gardener, a carpenter, a ploughman, or a broken farmer,28 but I was told he knew a countless number of old Irish poems and songs. He came in and thus addressed me:Out of friendship for him (meaning the priest) I am come: he told me that there was a foreigner here, who wished to hear some of our old Irish poems, and I will gladly recite to him what I know.
I am much obliged to you, said the priest; but if you were to recite all you know, we would be obliged to listen to you all night, and perhaps many other nights besides.
It is true our forefathers have handed down to us a great number of poems from generation to generation; and very beautiful ones they are too, sir, if you could only understand them. How beautiful is not the song of Tober a Jollish, that is, of the glittering spring, which is but three miles distant from our town; or that of Cuchullin, the Irish champion, who went to Scotland. Shall I begin with the song of Cuchullin, your reverence? Do, my son, and God bless thee!
The man began to declaim, and recited for a quarter of an hour without once stopping. The subject of his poem was as follows: Cuchullin was an Irish youth, of princely blood, who went to Scotland to perfect himself in the use of arms. As from all quarters people resorted to Ireland to complete their spiritual, religious, and scientific education, so the Irish youth used to go over to Scotland to practise the arts of arms. In Scotland, Cuchullin fell in love with the daughter of his teacher, Conlear, and swore eternal fidelity to her. But when he returned to Ireland, after completing his studies, and took up his residence at his father's court, occupied in the contentions and battles of his fatherland, he grew up to be a great, mighty, and distinguished man, and forgot his Scottish mistress, who, her love being now turned into hatred and contempt, meditated revenge for the insult offered her. She bore a son, the fruit of the hypocritical love of Cuchullin. This son she had instructed in the use of arms, and all things necessary for a hero: she chose him as the instrument of her revenge, while at the same time, as a memento of Cuchullin, he became an object of her hatred. When Connell,if I
p.318mistake not, this was the name of her son,had grown up to man's estate, she sent him over to Ireland, commanding him to seek out the far-famed Irish hero Cuchullin, (whom she had taught him to envy and to hate,) to challenge him to fight, to humble, to conquer, and to slay him. That he might do this the more surely, she put him under enchantment, so that, even against his will, he would be obliged to deprive his father of his life. Connell landed in Ireland, and at last, after many chances and adventures, met his father, the great champion Cuchullin, on the battle-field. Connell too was a great Scottish hero, and both were long known to each other by fame; besides, it was customary for the Irish and Scottish heroes to envy, to seek each other, and to fight. On account of their nationality, on account of their fame, and on account of the personal and special enmity and declaration of war on the part of Connell, they were both the bitterest foes. They were only ignorant how closely they were connected by blood. Their combat was long and obstinate. Connell, indeed, the moment he saw Cuchullin rushing towards him on his proud steed, felt himself seized with a strange, melancholy, and, to him, inexplicable, feeling. This sadness and this sympathy, by which he felt himself drawn to his enemy, became still greater when they engaged hand to hand. When he came so near him as to be able to look into his eye, he was seized with a strong foreboding that he to whom he stood opposed, with the murderous sword in his hand, was his long-sought, long-lamented father, over whose existence so impenetrable a mystery had prevailed from his earliest childhood,whom he so often, according to his mother's account, had believed to be dead, and of whose existence he again at times used to hear something. He fought against his inclination, he parried the blows of his father, he shunned the fight, he wished to throw away his arms, and to save his body and soul by flight. But then again the enchantment his mother had laid him under, seized him with all its power. He pressed again to the combat; with fury, as if impelled by evil spirits, he attacked his father. His soul struggled and resisted in vain; and while he drove his sword, guided by unseen powers, through his father's breast, his own heart broke in the dreadful struggle. Both fell at the same moment from their horses beside each other: the one slain by the weapon of his son, the other thrown to the ground by the excessive agony of his soul. Connell grasped the hand of his dying father; while the revengeful spirit of the enchantress Aithuna hovered exulting over the scene of blood. All now became clear to Cuchullin, while the night of death darkened around him, and his eye-strings brake.
I, or course, did not understand a single word of all this recitation, but my host was kind enough to relate the story to me afterwards. To understand, however, was not so much my object as to convince myself, by my own ears, that this old Ossianic poetry is still living and extant here in Ireland among the people. The reciter was, as I have said, a simple man, and his recitation was as simple, unadorned, and undeclamatory as himself. Sometimes, however, when carried away by the beauty of the poetry and the ideas, he became animated, and even appeared much affected: he would then look at his hearers, as if he expected their sympathy and admiration for himself and his poem. Sometimes I remarked that the metre of the poem changed; and I was told that this was the case in all their poems, and that the metre always adapted itself to the subject. On the battle-field, the father and the son had a dialogue, which they said was the most beautiful part of the whole poem; but that they could give me no idea of it, for when translated into prose it would lose all its sublimity; and that I, being unacquainted with the language, could form as little idea of it through the medium of any other language as a blind man of the splendour of the sun.
After this he recited a Song of the Fairy Mounts. The subject was a story often and every where repeated in Ireland, of a fairy queen who finds a youth sleeping on a mountain, falls in love with him, and invites him to go with her, while she tells him of her power and greatness, and the splendour of her fairy palace. He is at last persuaded to do so, but on the condition, that, when he dies, he shall be brought home and buried with his own people. The queen grants this, and takes him away with her. This story reminded me of Goethe's Erl-King29, and of many similar Hungarian and Russian legends. I once thought that the story of the Erl-King had sprung from the German mind, but now I would no longer venture to define the circle to which this legend is limited. It seems to me to have gone from the west of Ireland into the very depths of Asia. Even in the legends of the Greeks there is something similar,the abduction of Ganymede by Jupiter's eagle, and the residence of many other mortals with the Gods.
This reciter told me that most of what he knew was very ancient, and was chiefly Ossianic poetry, of which there was a great deal here in Drogheda, among the people. I had already heard this, and I afterwards heard it repeated at other places in the north. The county of Donegal, in particular, was described to me as full of still living Ossianic poetry. From what I have learned in Ireland, I am much inclined to believe, what others have already
p.320asserted, that Macpherson borrowed the materials for his so-called Poems of Ossian from manuscripts and popular traditions in the north of Ireland. So much is certain, that a cursory but observant traveller will perceive more indications of Ossianic poetry in Ireland, than an equally cursory and equally observant traveller in Scotland. The whole Irish people, as well the old Irish in the west as the Saxon-Irish in the east, are far more imbued with a poetic spirit than the people of Scotland, including both the Saxon in the Lowlands, and the Celtic in the Highlands.
Oisin, in pure Celtic Irish pronounced Oshin, wasas is now generally acknowledged, since Macpherson's accounts of him are on all sides declared fictionsno Scot, but an Irishman, as well as his father Fingal, or, as he is properly called, Finn Mac-Cul. Finn Mac-Cul, your honour, was in those days just such another as our Irish Wellington in these, said our old reciter to me. Ossian was, as at least my Irish friends believed, born at Tara, the ancient capital of Ireland, where he spent the greater part of his life. As between the Irish and Scotch every thing becomes a subject of controversy, they have also mutually quarrelled about their heroes, as well as about their missionaries and saints. The more cunning, and, in the field of literature, more active Scotch, have adorned themselves with many a plume stolen from Ireland. Macpherson was not the only, although he may have been the most talented, and most successful, perverter of Irish poetry.
This poetry was followed by musicmusic from that instrument of which the Irish poet, Samuel Lover, sings
- Oh! give me one strain
Of that wild harp again,
In melody proudly its own,
Sweet harp of the days that are flown!
The harp was produced, and a blind young harper prepared to play some old Irish pieces. I was told, that he was one of the most distinguished harp-players in the surrounding country; and, in fact, his music enraptured us all. The first piece he played was Brian Boru's March, at the famous battle of Clontarf, on the bay of Dublin. The Irish king Brian Boru, who had made himself sovereign of all Ireland, overcame the Danes at this great battle, in 1014. He himself, however, was slain, shortly after the battle, by the Danish leader Bruadair; and thus Ireland gained a great victory, and lost her greatest monarch. The music of this march is therefore powerful and wild, and at the same time melancholy. It is at once a song of triumph and of mourning. The rapid changes, and the wild beauty of the air, was so great,
p.321that I believe, if the people had not been in the habit of marching to this music for more than 800 years, it would now place itself by the side of the Marseillaise, the Rakotzy, and other famous marches. While the Irish listen to these old airs, and think of these old deeds, and while their hearts beat at the recollection of their former glory, their present slavery rises up before them; and they perhaps look forward into a free and glorious future, with the same feelings as they look back towards a once glorious past:
So sings Lover.
- But, Isle of the West,
Raise thy emerald crest,
Songs of triumph shall yet ring for thee.
After Brian Boru's march followed the air of The Fairy Queen, a very old Irish piece, as I was told. This much I can say, that it was quite a charming composition,so soft, so enchanting, and so wild, sportive, and playful withal, that during its performance I could think of nothing but the dancing of fairies and the singing of elves. I afterwards heard it several times on the piano, but on that instrument the music was far from being so soft and rich as from the harp of this blind young minstrel. Although this second part of our evening's entertainment, which was given in a language universally intelligible, afforded me much more enjoyment than the first, I am less able to describe it; since, of all the arts, music is that of whose beautiful productions the aesthetic critic is least able to convey an adequate idea by description or criticism.
We were perfectly satisfied with our harper, for he was, in fact, a finished artist; there are, however, others still more exquisite and more famed in Ireland. There is, for instance, a very distinguished harper in the county of Londonderry, of the name of Hempson, a blind man; and another, still more celebrated, named Byrne, whom I often heard mentioned, is, if I mistake not, also blind. The latter, I was told, was generally thought superior to all others. When, therefore, Moore mournfully sings
we must not understand him literally. Many harps still thrill all through Ireland; and although the Harper's Society of Belfast was lately dissolved, yet another has been founded at Drogheda, of which the clergyman, whose guest I was for a long time, is the soul and president. His whole room was full of harps, and comprised many new ones which had been made by his directions.
- The harp that once through Tara's halls
The soul of music shed,
Now hangs as mute on Tara's walls,
As if that soul were dead
p.322With this society a harper's school is connected, in which are sixteen pupils. It was in contemplation to give a concert the following week, at which seven harpers, mostly blind, were to play together. Unfortunately it was not in my power to be present at this assembly of bards. The greatest assemblies of bards used to take place in times of old, in those Tara's halls of which Moore sings.
This Tara, which no Irishman can forbear mentioning, and whose name resounds hundreds and thousands of times every day, in the conversation and in the poems of the Irish, is a little town in the county of Meath, a few miles from Drogheda, not far from the Hill of New Grange. It was once the seat of government, or capital, and was almost in Ireland what Scone Abbey was in Scotland. There stood here a hall or palace, in which the heathen Irish kings and chieftains used to meet, probably at very different times and for very different purposes, but yet regularly every three years, to consult on matters of general importance.
Ollam Fodhla is said to have instituted this triennial national assembly two hundred years before Christ. There the bards also attended; and not only the laws enacted there, but also all important events that occurred in the country, were recorded by them in a great national register, called the Psalter of Tara. Besides, on festive occasions, the bards used there to sing, at the banquets, the history of the country and the deeds of the kings. Even the laws were written in verse, and set to music. This place is now universally called Tara; in the old Irish it was called properly Teamar, or, as my friend said, Taimara, that is, the great house.
The last national assembly held at Tara was in the year 554, A.D.30 in the reign of King Diarmid. This was at the time when Christianity and the Christian priesthood had already become powerful in Ireland. The old heathen institutions and monuments, and the heathen order of bards, who, like the Ulemas of Turkey, and like their own priests, the Druids, had formed a powerful and privileged class, declined and were thrust aside. When a criminal was once dragged from a monastery where he had taken refuge, and punished with death in Tara, the monks loudly denounced it as sacrilege, and marching in solemn procession to the palace, pronounced a curse upon its walls. From that day no king sat in Tara; and the monastery which had dared to pronounce a curse upon the most ancient and most celebrated residence of the Irish kings, has since been called the Convent of the Curse.
As the old Druidical palaces and monuments fell into decay
p.323on the introduction of Christianity, so did the oldest Irish Christianity and its monuments on the subsequent introduction of Romanism; and so, likewise, did the Roman Catholic churches and institutions wear away in the presence of Protestantism. Catholicism is now zealously striving again to raise itself. Should it succeed in this, then the independent Irish Christianity may again work itself forth from under the domination of Roman Catholicism, and separate from Italy. Druidism and bardism alone are buried irrestorably beneath the ruins of centuries, and can scarcely be born again.
My Irish friend assured me, that it is a peculiarity of the old Irish language, that it has no jargon or vulgar dialect. Every one, even the lowest and most ignorant, speaks it as purely and grammatically as the best Irish scholar. With the English language this cannot be the case; because this Norman-Saxon mixture has been forced upon a number of subjugated and conquered races. The Irish, the Welsh, the Cornish, the Highlanders of Scotland, all must learn English and speak it with their own peculiar dialect. The English dialects are therefore of quite a different character from our German dialects. They are nothing more than corruptions and perversions of a language in the mouths of foreigners; whilst our German dialects are original offshoots of the same language, each of which had, and still has, its own organic life, its own literature and popular poetry, its own strength and beauty.
One of the company assured me that he possessed hundreds of beautiful old songs and poems in manuscript, which had long been hereditary in his family, and not a single one of which had ever been printed. He, like all Irishmen with whom one speaks on this subject, was of opinion that the specimen of old Irish or Ossianic poetry which Macpherson has given us, is partly a very perverted, and partly a very insufficient one, and that his poems give no correct idea of the great beauty and the extraordinary richness of the national well-springs from which they were drawn. I believe all this quite readily; nay, it is more than probable: but then the question presents itselfwhy does not some genuine, sincere, and truth-loving Irish Macpherson arise, to collect these beautiful emanations of Irish poesy, and translate them into one of the well-known European languages, in order in this way to save at least whatever can be saved of them in another language? The manuscripts, carefully as families preserve them as precious heir-looms, are daily becoming less numerous. The memory of the people, faithful and strong as it may be, without doubt loses every year more and more of the beautiful old verses. And besides,
p.324the number of those who can value these verses, enjoy, and learn them, is visibly growing smaller; for the English language is spreading with strides ever increasing in rapidity, while the Irish is retiring before it into the more remote wilds.
The Irish continually assert that their poems are untranslatable, and that all their beauty would be destroyed by translation,just as a beautiful flower would lose its distinctive character by being painted a different colour. It is, no doubt, difficult to transfer all the fragrance of poetry that lies in verses and words into another language; but Macpherson has shown how the world can be delighted with an imitation, which yet retains much of the original. They should be at least collected and printed in the Irish language.
Social pleasures, such as those with which my Irish friends adorned our evening, are the most delightful which a traveller can enjoy. In by-gone times they were much the custom, but have now long died away. Our pleasures of more recent invention are also here, in this part of the world, on the decrease, partly no doubt to the delight of the friends of intellectual refinement and cultivation. Thus, public balls are everyday becoming more and more out of fashion. The race balls are almost the only ones now known; and a quadrille, to the simple music of the pianoforte, satisfies all. In like manner, cards are getting more and more into disuse. No longer than ten years ago, a card-table was regularly provided for the company; but now cards are almost entirely confined to the common people. These are really remarkable, and, at least as to cards, pretty general phenomena throughout Europe. Conversation is every where taking the place of card-playing, so destructive both to mind and pleasure; and should an historian ever write the history of their extension and decline, they can never be sufficiently chastised by him.