There was once civilisation in Ireland. We never were very eminent, to be sure, for manufactures in metal, our houses were simple, our very palaces rude, our furniture scanty, our saffron shirts not often changed, and our foreign trade small. Yet was Ireland civilised. Strange thing! says someone whose ideas of civilisation are identical with carpets and cut-glass, fine masonry, and the steam engine; yet ’tis true. For there was a time when learning was endowed by the rich and honoured by the poor, and taught all over our country. Not only did thousands of natives frequent our schools and colleges, but men of every rank came here from the Continent to study under the professors and system of Ireland, and we need not go beyond the testimonies of English antiquaries, from Bede to Camden, that these schools were regarded as the first in Europe. Ireland was equally remarkable for piety. In the Pagan times it was regarded as a sanctuary of the Magian or Druid creed. From the fifth century it became equally illustrious in Christendom. Without going into the disputed question of whether the Irish church was or was not independent of Rome, it is certain that Italy did not send out more apostles from the fifth to the ninth centuries than Ireland, and we find their names and achievements remembered through the Continent.
Of two names which Hallam thinks worth rescuing from the darkness of the dark ages, one is the Irish metaphysician, John Erigena. In a recent communication to the “Association” we had Bavarians acknowledging the Irish St. Killian as the apostle of their country.
Yet what, beyond a catalogue of names and a few marked events, do even the educated Irish know of the heroic pagans or the holy Christians of Old Ireland? These men have left libraries of biography, religion, philosophy, natural history, topography, history, and romance. They cannot all be worthless; yet, except the few volumes given us by the Archæological Society, which of their works have any of us read?
It is also certain that we possessed written laws with extensive and minute comments and reported decisions. These Brehon laws have been foully misrepresented by Sir John Davies. Their tenures were the gavelkind once prevalent over most of the world. The land belonged to the clan, and on the death of a clansman his share was re-apportioned according to the number and wants of his family. The system of erics or fines for offences has existed amongst every people from the Hebrews downwards, nor can anyone, knowing the multitude of crimes now punishable by fines or damages, think the people of this empire justified in calling the ancient Irish barbarous because they extended the system. There is in these laws, so far as they are known, minuteness and equity; and what is a better test of their goodness we learn from Sir John Davies himself, and from the still abler Baron Finglass, that the people reverenced, obeyed, and clung to these laws, though to decide by or obey them was a high crime by England’s code. Moreover, the Norman and Saxon settlers hastened to adopt these Irish laws, and used them more resolutely, if possible, than the Irish themselves.
Orderliness and hospitality were peculiarly cultivated. Public caravansarais were built for travellers in every district, and we have what would almost be legal evidence of the grant of vast tracts of land for the supply of provisions for these houses of hospitality. The private hospitality of the chiefs was equally marked; nor was it quite rude. Ceremony was united with great freedom of intercourse, age, and learning, and rank, and virtue were respected, and these men, whose cookery was probably as coarse as that of Homer’s heroes, had around their board harpers and bards who sang poetry as gallant and fiery, though not so grand, as the Homeric ballad-singers, and flung off a music which Greece never rivalled.
Shall a people, pious, hospitable, and brave, faithful observers of family ties, cultivators of learning, music, and poetry, be called less than civilised because mechanical arts were rude and “comfort” despised by them?
Scattered through the country in MS. are hundreds of books wherein the laws and achievements, the genealogies and possessions, the creeds and manners and poetry of these our predecessors in Ireland are set down. Their music lives in the traditional airs of every valley.
Yet mechanical civilisation, more cruel than time, is trying to exterminate them, and, therefore, it becomes us all who do not wish to lose the heritage of centuries, nor to feel ourselves living among nameless ruins, when we might have an ancestral home—it becomes all who love learning, poetry, or music, or are curious of human progress, to aid in or originate a series of efforts to save all that remains of the past.
It becomes them to lose no opportunity of instilling into the minds of their neighbours, whether they be corporators or peasants, that it is a brutal, mean, and sacrilegious thing to turn a castle, a church, a tomb, or a mound into a quarry or a gravel pit, or to break the least morsel of sculpture, or to take any old coin or ornament they may find to a jeweller, so long as there is an Irish Academy in Dublin to pay for it or accept it.
Before the year is out we hope to see A Society for The Preservation of Irish Music established in Dublin, under the joint patronage of the leading men of all politics, with branches in the provincial towns for the collection and diffusion of Irish airs.
An effort—a great and decided one—must be made to have the Irish Academy so endowed out of the revenues of Ireland that it may be A National School of Irish History and Literature and a Museum of Irish Antiquities on the largest scale. In fact, the Academy should be a secular Irish College, with professors of our old language, literature, history, antiquities, and topography; with suitable schools, lecture-rooms, and museums.