Preface: Hand-Book of Irish Antiquities

From A Hand-book of Irish Antiquities by William F. Wakeman

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Letter M.jpg as are the political jealousies among the Irish, there are few true natives of the soil who would not resent any charge of coldness or indifference to the welfare of their country, or of wilful ignorance upon the subject of her history or antiquities, which might be urged against them. Yet most of our travelled countrymen are better acquainted with the appearance of the Rhine than with that of the Shannon; with the windings of the Thames than with those of the Boyne; their knowledge of these Irish rivers being probably just so much as may be acquired out of a school geography, while they have steamed down the Thames, and visited the chief points upon the Rhine.

We may venture to say that in like manner there are, even among our Tipperary gentry, many better skilled in the fortifications of the Rock of Gibraltar, than in the exquisite monuments of ancient Irish piety and art remaining upon the Rock of Cashel, in their own county; many who, in England, Scotland, Wales, and upon the Continent, have sought mountain air and scenery, while the Galtees, the Reeks, and the sublime range of the Mourne Mountains, had never cost them a thought. It would be at least out of place, in a volume such as we now present, to trace to its source this feeling, or rather want of feeling, by which so many Irishmen are ruled. It must be granted that Ireland,—though generally rich in every point attractive to the tourist, whether the mere pleasure-seeker or artist, antiquary or geologist,—has generally been described by book-makers as a country wherein, if indeed a man might pass in safety, he would still suffer so much from want of accommodation, &c., that, unless he possessed some presence of mind, and a considerable taste for the ridiculous, his time and talents had better be employed elsewhere. These writers were, almost without exception, strangers to the country, men whose knowledge of the Irish, previous to their visit, appears to have been derived from the Stage, whereon it was, and perhaps still is, the fashion to represent us as marvellously fond of fighting, drinking, bulls, blunders, and superstition.

Our neighbours appear to have been greatly amused with these representations, and with ballads and other publications which tended to shew Irish men and manners in the same light; and as the "squireens", who form a numerous class in Ireland, and indeed too many of the gentry, were accustomed to adopt this cant, even when it tended to their own discredit,—because they deemed it more aristocratic, in proportion as it pointed against the "mere Irish,"—a very general disregard of everything Irish arose, and has continued, though in a decreasing degree, even to our own days. Happily there is a sign of better times. The easy and rapid communication which has been established between the two islands, and the spread of information among the Irish,—the former by bringing enlightened strangers to our shores, where they can judge for themselves, and the latter by raising the people in the social scale,—have caused misrepresentation to become more dangerous to an author's reputation, or at least less profitable. The subject of Irish Antiquities has latterly excited considerable attention, not only in Ireland, but even in countries beyond the limits of the British empire. Much has been done already, yet much more remains to be done. It is not sufficient to have shewn that Ireland contains an unbroken series of monuments, many of them historical, which lead us back, step by step, to a period long before the conversion of her people to Christianity,—to have formed museums,—to have translated other annals and manuscripts relating to her history and antiquities;—a feeling should be awakened in the breasts of the people generally, to preserve with scrupulous care the numerous remains of early Irish art with which the country abounds, and which frequently, in local history, form our only records. The anxiety which the various governments of Europe, even the most despotic, evince for the preservation of their antiquities, shows how widely their importance is recognised.

In the following pages the author does not promise his readers any very wonderful discoveries, any startling facts. He has contented himself with describing the various remains as they are to be found, prefixing to each chapter some observations relative to the era, peculiarities, and probable or ascertained uses of the particular class of monument to which it is devoted. The volume, it is hoped, may be useful to the educated antiquary, as well as to the student,—to the former as a guide, directing his attention to many remains of great interest, of most easy access from the metropolis, and hitherto either altogether unnoticed, or described in books of the existence of which he may have no knowledge, or of which he may not with ease be able to procure copies; to the latter, in like manner, as a guide, and also as containing information not merely of the locality wherein he may find studies. To the Council of the Irish Archaeological Society the author is indebted for permission to use the beautiful capital letters which head the chapters, and which were originally engraved for the publications of the Society. The majority of them are from the Book of Kells, an Irish MS. of the sixth century, but some are of a later date. The thanks of the author are also due to Mr. John O'Donovan for many valuable suggestions, by which the book has been materially benefited; to Mr. Robert Gabbett, of Limerick, from whose sketches, made upon the spot, the engravings of the interesting ruins on Bishop's Island have been copied ; to the Warden and Fellows of the College of Saint Columba, and to the Council of the Royal Irish Academy, for the free access which was granted him to many objects of antiquarian interest preserved in their museums; and to Mr. George Hanlon, of Rathgar, an artist of whose excellence as an engraver it is unnecessary here to speak.

December 15, 1847.

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