Read Letter XXV - Ireland. Dublin of Letters of a Traveller Notes of Things Seen in Europe and America, free online book, by William Cullen Bryant, on

Dublin, July 25, 1845.

We left Glasgow on the morning of the 22d, and taking the railway to Ardrossan were soon at the beach. One of those iron steamers which navigate the British waters, far inferior to our own in commodious and comfortable arrangements, but strong and safe, received us on board, and at ten o’clock we were on our way to Belfast. The coast of Ayr, with the cliff near the birthplace of Burns, continued long in sight; we passed near the mountains of Arran, high and bare steeps swelling out of the sea, which had a look of almost complete solitude; and at length Ailsa Craig began faintly to show itself, high above the horizon, through the thick atmosphere. We passed this lonely rock, about which flocks of sea-birds, the solan goose, and the gannet, on long white wings with jetty tips, were continually wheeling, and with a glass we could discern them sitting by thousands on the shelves of the rock, where they breed. The upper part of Ailsa, above the cliffs, which reach more than half-way to the summit, appears not to be destitute of soil, for it was tinged with a faint verdure.

In about nine hours we were promised by a lying advertisement it should be six we had crossed the channel, over smooth water, and were making our way, between green shores almost without a tree, up the bay, at the bottom of which stands, or rather lies, for its site is low, the town of Belfast. We had yet enough of daylight left to explore a part at least of the city. “It looks like Albany,” said my companion, and really the place bears some resemblance to the streets of Albany which are situated near the river, nor is it without an appearance of commercial activity. The people of Belfast, you know, are of Scotch origin, with some infusion of the original race of Ireland. I heard English spoken with a Scotch accent, but I was obliged to own that the severity of the Scottish physiognomy had been softened by the migration and the mingling of breeds. I presented one of my letters of introduction, and met with so cordial a reception, that I could not but regret the necessity of leaving Belfast the next morning.

At an early hour the next day we were in our seats on the outside of the mail-coach. We passed through a well-cultivated country, interspersed with towns which had an appearance of activity and thrift. The dwellings of the cottagers looked more comfortable than those of the same class in Scotland, and we were struck with the good looks of the people, men and women, whom we passed in great numbers going to their work. At length, having traversed the county of Down, we entered Lowth, when an immediate change was visible. We were among wretched and dirty hovels, squalid-looking men and women, and ragged children the stature of the people seemed dwarfed by the poverty in which they have so long lived, and the jet-black hair and broad faces which I saw around me, instead of the light hair and oval countenances so general a few miles back, showed me that I was among the pure Celtic race.

Shortly after entering the county of Lowth, and close on the confines of Armagh, perhaps partly within it, we traversed, near the village of Jonesborough, a valley full of the habitations of peat-diggers. Its aspect was most remarkable, the barren hills that inclose it were dark with heath and gorse and with ledges of brown rock, and their lower declivities, as well as the level of the valley, black with peat, which had been cut from the ground and laid in rows. The men were at work with spades cutting it from the soil, and the women were pressing the water from the portions thus separated, and exposing it to the air to dry. Their dwellings were of the most wretched kind, low windowless hovels, no higher than the heaps of peat, with swarms of dirty children around them. It is the property of peat earth to absorb a large quantity of water, and to part with it slowly. The springs, therefore, in a region abounding with peat make no brooks; the water passes into the spongy soil and remains there, forming morasses even on the slopes of the hills.

As we passed out of this black valley we entered a kind of glen, and the guard, a man in a laced hat and scarlet coat, pointed to the left, and said, “There is a pretty place.” It was a beautiful park along a hill-side, groves and lawns, a broad domain, jealously inclosed by a thick and high wall, beyond which we had, through the trees, a glimpse of a stately mansion. Our guard was a genuine Irishman, strongly resembling the late actor Power in physiognomy, with the very brogue which Power sometimes gave to his personages. He was a man of pithy speech, communicative, and acquainted apparently with every body, of every class, whom we passed on the road. Besides him we had for fellow-passengers three very intelligent Irishmen, on their way to Dublin. One of them was a tall, handsome gentleman, with dark hair and hazel eyes, and a rich South-Irish brogue. He was fond of his joke, but next to him sat a graver personage, in spectacles, equally tall, with fair hair and light-blue eyes, speaking with a decided Scotch accent. By my side was a square-built, fresh-colored personage, who had travelled in America, and whose accent was almost English. I thought I could not be mistaken in supposing them to be samples of the three different races by which Ireland is peopled.

We now entered a fertile district, meadows heavy with grass, in which the haymakers were at work, and fields of wheat and barley as fine as I had ever seen, but the habitations of the peasantry had the same wretched look, and their inmates the same appearance of poverty. Wherever the coach stopped we were beset with swarms of beggars, the wittiest beggars in the world, and the raggedest, except those of Italy. One or two green mounds stood close to the road, and we saw others at a distance. “They are Danish forts,” said the guard. “Every thing we do not know the history of, we put upon the Danes,” added the South of Ireland man. These grassy mounds, which are from ten to twenty feet in height, are now supposed to have been the burial places of the ancient Celts. The peasantry can with difficulty be persuaded to open any of them, on account of a prevalent superstition that it will bring bad luck. A little before we arrived at Drogheda, I saw a tower to the right, apparently a hundred feet in height, with a doorway at a great distance from the ground, and a summit somewhat dilapidated. “That is one of the round towers of Ireland, concerning which there is so much discussion,” said my English-looking fellow-traveller. These round towers, as the Dublin antiquarians tell me, were probably built by the early Christian missionaries from Italy, about the seventh century, and were used as places of retreat and defense against the pagans.

Not far from Drogheda, I saw at a distance a quiet-looking valley. “That,” said the English-looking passenger, “is the valley of the Boyne, and in that spot was fought the famous battle of the Boyne.” “Which the Irish are fighting about yet, in America,” added the South of Ireland man. They pointed out near the spot, a cluster of trees on an eminence, where James beheld the defeat of his followers. We crossed the Boyne, entered Drogheda, dismounted among a crowd of beggars, took our places in the most elegant railway wagon we had ever seen, and in an hour were set down in Dublin.

I will not weary you with a description of Dublin. Scores of travellers have said that its public buildings are magnificent, and its rows of private houses, in many of the streets, are so many ranges of palaces. Scores of travellers have said that if you pass out of these fine streets, into the ancient lanes of the city, you see mud-houses that scarcely afford a shelter, and are yet inhabited.

“Some of these,” said a Dublin acquaintance to me, “which are now roofless and no longer keep out the weather, yet show by their elaborate cornices and their elegant chimney-pieces, that the time has been, and that not very long since, when they were inhabited by the opulent class.” He led me back of Dublin castle to show me the house in which Swift was born. It stands in a narrow, dirty lane called Holy’s court, close to the well-built part of the town: its windows are broken out, and its shutters falling to pieces, and the houses on each side are in the same condition, yet they are swarming with dirty and ragged inmates.

I have seen no loftier nor more spacious dwellings than those which overlook St. Stephen’s Green, a noble park, planted with trees, under which the showery sky and mild temperature maintain a verdure all the year, even in midwinter. About Merrion square, another park, the houses have scarcely a less stately appearance, and one of these with a strong broad balcony, from which to address the people in the street, is inhabited by O’Connell. The park of the University, in the midst of the city, is of great extent, and the beautiful public grounds called Phenix Park, have a circumference of eight miles. “Do not suppose,” said a friend to me, “that these spacious houses which you see about you, are always furnished with a magnificence corresponding to that of their exterior. It is often the case that a few rooms only of these great ranges of apartments are provided with furniture, and the rest left empty and unoccupied. The Irishman of the higher class, as well as of the humbler, is naturally improvident, generous, fond of enjoying the moment, and does not allow his income to accumulate, either for the purpose of hoarding or the purpose of display.”

I went into Conciliation Hall, which resembles a New York lecture-room, and was shown the chair where the autocrat of Ireland, the Liberator, as they call him, sits near the chairman at the repeal meetings. Conciliation Hall was at that time silent, for O’Connell was making a journey through several of the western counties, I think, of Ireland, for the purpose of addressing and encouraging his followers. I inquired of an intelligent dissenter what was the state of the public feeling in Ireland, with regard to the repeal question, and whether the popularity of O’Connell was still as great as ever.

“As to O’Connell,” he answered, “I do not know whether his influence is increasing, but I am certain that it is not declining. With regard to the question of repealing the Union, there is a very strong leaning among intelligent men in Ireland to the scheme of a federal government, in other words to the creation of an Irish parliament for local legislation, leaving matters which concern Ireland in common with the rest of the empire to be decided by the British Parliament.”

I mentioned an extraordinary declaration which I had heard made by John O’Connell on the floor of Parliament, in answer to a speech of Mr. Wyse, an Irish Catholic member, who supported the new-colleges bill. This younger O’Connell denounced Wyse as no Catholic, as an apostate from his religion, for supporting the bill, and declared that for himself, after the Catholic Bishops of Ireland had expressed their disapproval of the bill, he inquired no further, but felt himself bound as a faithful member of the Catholic Church to oppose it.

“It is that declaration,” said the gentleman, “which has caused a panic among those of the Irish Protestants who were well-affected to the cause of repeal. If the Union should be repealed, they fear that O’Connell, whose devotion to the Catholic Church appears to grow stronger and stronger, and whose influence over the Catholic population is almost without limit, will so direct the legislation of the Irish Parliament as only to change the religious oppression that exists from one party to the other. There is much greater liberality at present among the Catholics than among their adversaries in Ireland, but I can not say how much of it is owing to the oppression they endure. The fact that O’Connell has been backward to assist in any church reforms in Ireland has given occasion to the suspicion that he only desires to see the revenues and the legal authority of the Episcopal Church transferred to the Catholic Church. If that should happen, and if the principle avowed by John O’Connell should be the rule of legislation, scarcely any body but a Catholic will be able to live in Ireland.”

Mr. Wall, to whom our country is indebted for the Hudson River Portfolio, and who resided in the United States for twenty-two years, is here, and is, I should think, quite successful in his profession. Some of his later landscapes are superior to any of his productions that I remember. Among them is a view on Lough Corrib, in which the ruined castle on the island of that lake is a conspicuous object. It is an oil painting, and is a work of great merit. The Dublin Art Union made it their first purchase from the exhibition in which it appeared. Mr. Wall remembers America with much pleasure, and nothing can exceed his kindness to such of the Americans as he meets in Ireland.

He took us to the exhibition of the Royal Hibernian Society. Among its pictures is a portrait of a lady by Burton, in water-colors, most surprising for its perfection of execution and expression, its strength of coloring and absolute nature. Burton is a native of Dublin, and is but twenty-five years old. The Irish connoisseurs claim for him the praise of being the first artist in water-colors in the world. He paints with the left hand. There are several other fine things by him in the exhibition. Maclise, another Irish artist, has a picture in the exhibition, representing a dramatic author offering his piece to an actor. The story is told in Gil Blas. It is a miracle of execution, though it has the fault of hardness and too equal a distribution of light. I have no time to speak more at large of this exhibition, and my letter is already too long.

This afternoon we sail for Liverpool.