DR. WILDE, the traveller, read a paper to the Dublin College of Physicians on the skulls of the races that had died in Ireland, and this paper he has printed, under the title of “A Lecture on the Ethnology of the Ancient Irish.”
He introduces the subject by a summary of the means by which ancient races are commonly investigated. First, and rightly, he ranks architectural and implemental remains. The palaces, pyramids, and picture-filled tombs of Egypt tell us now the state of their arts, their appearance, government, and manners. How much we would learn of Greece had her writings perished, and her statuary and temples reached us; and how much of the Romans if Pompeii alone remained, and remained without a clue to its manuscripts. So, in Ireland, we have the monuments of different races. We have the Ogham pillar-stone, the rested rock altar, the supported cromleach, the arched stone fort, the trenched rath, with or without stone facings, the clay or rubble pyramid, with a passage and chamber, the flag-made tomb. We have the round tower, the stone circle, the Brehon’s or Druid’s chair, and the stone-roofed crypt – to say nothing of our country castles, our town residences, our churches and monasteries, which one must see if he would know how men lived here in the middle ages.
Monumental and other sculptures tell us dress and arms better than any description in words. We are amply supplied with these to illustrate the middle ages in Ireland. Our old churches are full of such tombs but grievously they are abused and neglected. Who can look upon the shattered monuments of Jerpoint and Mellifont, and not think that a double barbarism (that of the people and that of their oppressors) has been upon Ireland. Nay, within a few miles of Dublin, in the church of Lusk, we, the other day, found a noble monument broken in two, and it and another fine tomb left to the mercies of untaught and irreverent children, for want of a five shilling door to the roofless, but otherwise perfect church. Who is to blame for this, the Rector or the Commissioners? Both, we say. How fine a use may be made of these mediaeval tombs, without wantonly stirring them, is shown, as we remarked before, in St. Canice’s, Kilkenny, disgraced as that cathedral is by whitewash. Curse it for whitewash! ’tis the dirtiest, ugliest thing that ever was put outside a cottage wall or inside a large building for the inside of small rooms ’tis well enough.
Then, again, there are weapons, and ornamental and economical implements to tell us the domestic and military habits, and the state of mechanical arts among a people. We shall have more to say on this head some other time. We pass to the other modes of investigating races.
The second means of Ethnology is language. Having a number of words in common proves communication between races. If these words are of a very simple and radical kind the communication must have been long and ancient. If, in addition, the structure and character of the languages be the same – if their use of articles and tenses, of inflections in the ends of words, as in Greek, Latin, and German, or in the beginning of them, as in Irish or Welsh, be alike, this is evidence that their first language was one, and therefore, the races probably identical.
We say, probably identical, because identity of language does not quite prove identity of race. The negroes of the West Indies will most likely speak English when their islands are in a federal republic. The red men of Brazils will most likely speak Portuguese. But the change of language is wonderfully slow in an independent country. The people of Gascony and Provence do not speak French. They speak Gascon and Provencal. The different English counties have their dialects, showing what branch of Saxons or Danes they descend from. The Welsh language is now as flourishing as it was when Edward outlawed it; and now, after centuries of wrong, when Anglicism has made us serfs, not a people, we have colleges founded for the support of the Irish language.
Identity in the structure of language is, then, a very strong proof of identity, and, as a study, of the highest interest.
The third means classified by Mr. Wilde for Ethnologic research, is by the written history and oral traditions of a country. In this section he indulges in some sneers, which had been better omitted. We doubt the taste and correctness of much of what he says on the topic.
There are other sorts of analogies, worth following out, not noticed by Mr. Wilde. Such is that so ingeniously thought of, and ably illustrated by Mr. Forde, of Cork. He disproves the European origin of our music, and reduces it to either an original construction here, or to an Eastern source. If Eastern, we could have got it from the Oriental Christians, or Pagans. The last seems Mr. Forde’s opinion. We trust he will have further means of following out this subject.
Identity in form and substance of scientific knowledge proves little, as one man, or one book could well produce it; but musical characteristics are, perhaps, the most spiritual and safe from confusion of any that can be imagined, and the surest to last in a country, if it be independent, or if it be rude. A country long refined, or enslaved, may lose every thing.
We now come to Mr. Wilde’s peculiar subject, and that to which he (faultily) restricts the term, Ethnography namely, the natural history of man. The study of man’s animal form shows that each simple race has peculiarities in size, in shape of bones and limbs, in play of features, and carriage of body, and in colour.
Many of these peculiarities can be studied from the bones of a race. Of course, the bones, or any of them, show the size of the race. The skull shows not only the shape of the head, but of the features. The skull of a man with an aquiline nose, and open orbits, and massy jaws, is as distinguishable from one with the nose or eyes of a Hun or the jaw of a Bengalee, as from that of a rabbit.
The marks left by the muscles in the bones wherein their extremities worked, show, too, the “play of features” or expression of countenance to some extent.
Taking these principles with him, Mr. Wilde examined a number of skulls in old churchyards, and in barrows and cairns, both here and abroad, and tries from thence to classify the races of the Irish.
His conclusions are not very clearly made out, and his proofs are frequently loose, but his tract is suggestive and serviceable.
His opinion is that the first inhabitants of this, country were what are called Firbolgs men of Teutonic or German blood – small, lively, with aquiline noses, dark complexions, and heads of great length from front to back. This race used the stone and flint hatchets, shell ornaments, bone needles, stone mills, and clay urns. The second race, who came and subdued the Firbolgs, were, he conceives, those called Tuatha da Danaan men of “fair hair and large size,” as Mac Firbis says. They were, thinks Mr. Wilde, Celts, and used bronze in their weapons and implements. He asserts, too, that Norway and Sweden were colonised from Ireland by Firbolgs after they had learned the use of metals from the Tuatha da Danaan. The proof given is that skulls, such as he supposes peculiar to the Firbolgs, are found in Scandinavia associated with metal weapons.
There is evidence, too, that these Tuatha da Danaan were either Phoenicians, or from a Phoenician colony, and so of the next invaders, the Milesians. Mr. Wilde seems to attribute a tine globular head to these Danaans; but he seems elsewhere to say that no metal remains have been found with any heathen skulls, which would contradict his own hypothesis.
We shall conclude with a couple of extracts – the first, showing the uncertainty of the observations likely to be made, and the imprudence of all generalities (Mr. Wilde’s included) now, and the other for illustration sake: –
“This leads me to the last locality in which bones of the ancient Irish people are said to have been found I allude to the round towers, particularly to that lately excavated at Drumbo, in the county Down. Much interest has, as you are aware, been lately excited by this discovery, from the supposition that these human remains would offer some clue as to the origin and uses of these strange monuments, or to assist in determining the probable era of their erection. The enchanted palace of the Irish round tower will shortly be opened for our inspection, and, therefore, any, even a passing opinion as to anything connected with it would be out of place. Here, however, is a very beautiful cast of the skull found within the round tower of Drumbo; and the moment it was presented to me, I felt convinced, that if it is of a contemporaneous age with the structure beneath which it was found, then the Irish round tower is not the ancient building we suppose it to be; for this, compared with the other heads which I have laid before you, is of comparatively modern date. Now, nearly all round towers are in connexion with ancient burial places, and this one, in particular, was so; and I need only dig around and without it to find many similar remains. We read that the skeleton was found at full length, embedded in the clay, within the ancient structure. Now, I respectfully submit it to the antiquarian world that, if the round tower was erected as a monument over the person whose skeleton was found within it, it certainly would not have been buried thus in the simple earth without a vault or stone chamber, such as the enlightened architect who built the tower would be thoroughly acquainted with. Moreover, I do not believe that a skull thus placed loosely in the earth, without any surrounding chamber, would have remained thus perfect for the length of time, which even the most modernising antiquaries assign as the date of the round tower. At Larne, in the county of Antrim, a skeleton was lately discovered, which, from the iron sword and other weapons in connexion with it, appeared to have been that of a templar; and similar remains were, not long since, discovered at Kilmainham. This templar’s skull, found at Larne (which Mr. Wilde here produced), although it has an Irish physiognomy, and a Fir-Bolg form of head, cannot be traced back farther than the eleventh or twelfth century for its date.
“N.B. – Since this lecture was delivered, I had the gratification of receiving several communications from different parts of the country on the subject of tumuli and human remains; so that one of the objects for which it was undertaken that of calling attention to the matter – has been attained. Among these communications, I had the honour of receiving one of special interest from A. N. Nugent, Esq., who lately opened a sepulchral mound in the neighbourhood of Portaferry. ‘There was,’ he writes to me, ‘a circle of large stones, containing an area of about a rood. Between each of these stones there was a facing of flat ones, similar to the building af our modern fences. The outer coating was covered with white pebbles averaging the size of a goose-egg, of which there were several cart loads – although it would be difficult to collect even a small quantity at present along the beach.
“‘After this was taken away we came to a confused heap of rubbish, stone, and clay, and then some large flag stones on their ends – the tumulus still preserving a cone shape. In the centre we came to a chamber about six feet long, formed by eight very large upright stones, with a large flag stone at the bottom, on which lay, in one heap of a foot in thickness, a mixture of black mould and bones.’ These bones, some of which were kindly forwarded to me, are all human, and consist of portions of the ribs, vertebrae, and the ends of the long bones, together with pieces of the skull and some joints of the fingers of a full-grown person, and also several bones of a very young child; none of these have been subject to the action of fire; but among the parcel forwarded to me are several fragments of incinerated or calcined bones, also human. Either these latter were portions of the same bodies burned, or they belong to an individual sacrificed to the manes of the person whose grave this was; and I am inclined to think the latter is the more probable, from the circumstances under which similar remains have been discovered in other localities. Evidently this tumulus is of very ancient date long prior to the authentic historic period – and was, I should say, erected over some person or family of note in that day. There were no urns, weapons, or ornaments discovered in connexion with it; but my informant states, that in the field in which this barrow was opened, there have been at various times small stone chambers, or kistvaens, discovered; and in one of these a skull of the long, flat, and narrow character, was some time ago dug up. A farmer in the vicinity, likewise, told Mr. Nugent that many years ago, while ploughing in that same field, he turned up a stone chamber of the same kind, and that it contained a skull with a portion of hair of a deep red colour attached to it.”
The subject is worthy of close study; but careless dabbling with it were worse than neglect. There are some people very curious, but neither reverent nor scientific – who, on reading this, will long to plunge into every cairn or grave that looks a few centuries old, to see whether Wilde is right or Wilde is wrong. We deprecate this. We entreat them to spare, nay, to guard, these as if they were precious caskets entrusted to them. The Irish tombs must not be Grahamed. It is not right for any man, who has not spent years in studying comparative anatomy, to open the meanest tomb. Even had we a scientific commission of the ablest men we should insist upon a sparing and considerate use of such violation of the dead man’s home for the sake of the live man’s curiosity. He who does not respect the remains of his fellow-creature, and their last shelter, is without one of the finest feelings of humanity. Even the hired soldier, who slays for pay, is more human. Some of these mounds can, and will be, opened hereafter by the Irish Academy, when it is made, as it must be, an Irish Antiquarian Institute. In the meantime the subject had best be practically left to Dr. Wilde and the few competent people who are engaged on it. Let these tombs, whether on the mountain, or in the tilled field, or the ruined churchyard, be religiously preserved; and, above all, let the children be brought up with tender reverence for these sanctuaries of the departed. We have room enough without trespassing on the grave.