Ex autog: penès J. WEALE, Esq.
From The Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, Number 27, December 29, 1832
We have great pleasure in presenting our readers with the following interesting and important letter of the venerable Charles O'Conor, of Belanagar, to John Pinkerton, the celebrated Scottish historian, which has been given to us by a valued and respected friend. The opinions expressed in it, are those of his most mature age, and we consider it as one of the most curious and valuable critical documents we have met with on the ancient history of our country--a subject which is still open to and well deserves the investigation of the learned.
From Belanagar, near Roscommon, April 4, 1786.
SIR,-- Through the kindness of my Lord Bishop of Dromore, and the conveyance of my learned friend, Mr. Walker, an officer in our Irish Treasury, I this week received your letter of the 13th of March. It gratified me to find a gentleman of your candour and abilities employed on the antiquities of the ancient Scots, a distinct people, among the other various tribes inhabiting our Britannic Isles; and it would add highly to my gratification if I could supply you with any useful document on the subject--a subject of importance, but long under a cloud, thickened by prejudices from your country, as well as from our own. Luckily those prejudices begin to subside here--a circumstance which encouraged me to draw up a Prospectus, on the Origin, Civil Government, and Manners of the ancient Scots in their heathen state. How it will be received in the Committee of Antiquities, belonging to our Royal Irish Academy, I know not. It may fail of giving satisfaction from such hands as mine; but I doubt not of its success when the subject falls into better hereafter. This I am bold to assert, for some materials of authentic information are still preserved among us. I say some materials, for most of our historical details are irrecoverably lost. Our archives, deposited in the monasteries of Ireland, have been consumed in the fires of the heathen barbarians of the North, who, in frequent incursions despoiled France, Britain, and Ireland, in the 8th and 9th centuries. They demolished our nurseries of learning; and it was only on the reduction of their power here, that some Irish patriots have set about collecting as much of our historical wreck as escaped. A collection has been made; but some of the collectors wanted critical skill in their choice, they, however, wanted not the art of flattering the vanity of a declining nation, by following such documents as gave the Scots too high an antiquity in this island. In consequence, they published genealogies, with redundant generations, and gave us a corresponding catalogue of kings, who only obtained their titles by the courtesy of their several factions. They are confounded with the few monarchs who had a legitimate election from the concurrence of the majority of the nation; and these injudicious publishers have put our titular kings in succession to each other, as a son would succeed to a father in modern monarchies. Such was the art employed to gain the Scots a high antiquity, thoroughly inconsistent with the state of affairs in Europe before the commencement of the Persian Empire. This fabric, therefore, of technical genealogies and technical succession of 90 kings before the Christian Era, cannot stand; and your countryman, Mr. Innes (a priest of the Scotch College in Paris) has sufficiently exposed its weak foundation, though in other respects a very mistaken writer. To Giolla Colman, and Flan, of Bute Abbey, we owe the publication of the Regal List I mentioned. They were esteemed as able antiquaries by the majority of their contemporaries, in the eleventh century; and the majority since their time (even our learned O'Flaherty) have adopted a popular error. I have done so in my youth, but, on meeting with better guides, I am not ashamed to retract.
In the Annals of Tigernach, and other ancient documents, I found that our more authentic notices are to be deduced from the building of Eamania, in Ulster, about 200 years before the Christian Era. The seven generations of Ultonian princes mentioned in the interval, prove the calculation to be pretty exact. Of what passed in Ireland before this Eamanian era, little is known, except a few capital facts, such as the expedition of the Scots from Spain to Ireland, about 500 years before the birth of our Saviour; the legislation of Ollamh Fodhla, and his erection of apartments for the College of Fileas at Teamor, where they continued undisturbed under every revolution, and from thence spread with equal immunities through the neighbouring provinces. These were facts which were too big for oblivion in any country where the elements of literature were cultivated. These elements were imported from Spain, where native Scytho-Celtes held intercourse with the Phenicians, and their Carthaginian posterity. It was in memory of these intercourses they took occasionally and ostentatiously the name Phenii. Hence the dialect among them called the Phenian (the language of their jurisprudence, preserved to this day, but not understood by me or any other Irish scholar in this kingdom), and hence the number of Phenician terms discovered by Coll. Vallancey in our old intelligible writings.
Through the lights obtained by the Scots (in a part of the continent where the Phenicians had lasting settlements), they learned the art of sailing on the ocean, and imported into this island the 17 cyphers they used in their writings; and thus insulated on a remote island, and cut off from any intellectual intercourse with the polished people of Greece and Rome, they were left to the improvement of their own stock. In such a situation their improvement must have been slow as well as gradual. It took them time to form their barren Scytho-Celtic dialect (first used in the greater division of Europe) into a nervous and copious language, stripped of its original consonental harshness. It is still preserved in our old books, and discovers to us the corruptions of our common people, who are corrupting it more and more every day, even in places where the English language is not yet used. By the way, how could the language of the third century in your country be preserved pure to this day in the Highlands of Scotland? How could the poems of Ossian be preserved by oral tradition through a period of 1,500 years? In our old written language, we discover that the speakers were a cultivated people, but their cultivation was local; and on that score the discovery of what it was, among this sequestered people, is an object more interesting to us than one offered to investigation from a bare principle of curiosity.
To you, Sir, and to disengaged writers like you, it is left to bring this subject of Scotish antiquity out of the darkness spread over it. The lights which the revolution under our Tuathal (surnamed the Acceptable) afford will be of great use to you. At the close of the first century, the Belgians of Ireland revolted against their Scottish masters--expelled the old royal family, and set up a monarch of their own blood. Tuathal, the presumptive heir of the Heremonian line, was conveyed to your country--his mother, Ethnea, being the daughter of the king of the Picts, he was protected there under his grandfather. Grown to maturity, he returned, and after subduing ail the enemies of his house, he mounted the throne of Teamor. Soon after, in a convention of the states, the crown of Ireland was by a solemn law declared hereditary in his family, and from this epocha, which commenced A.D. 130, to the establishment of Christianity, we have a series of authentic history productive of great men and great actions.
I shall owe much to your indulgence if you pardon all this before I come to the chief subject of your letter. Of all that I could find relating to your country, I shall in my next send you transcripts and literal translations; but I must confess that I have not hitherto met with much that has not been published in the last age by Mr. O'Flaherty. In the book of Balimote, I find our antiquaries concurring with Bede in the establishment of Carbry Riada, as the leader of the first colony of Scots in Britain, supported there partly by the indulgence of the Picts, and partly by the negociating power of the wisest of our monarchs, Cormac Ulfada, Carbry's cousin-german.
The second great colony was established by Carbry's posterity, the Sons of Erk about the year 503. The succession of the Dalraida kings from that period, with the years of reigns down to Malcolm Canmor, has been preserved in the poem quoted by Mr. O'Flaherty, a copy of which I possess and the original, with a translation, shall be remitted to you, as soon as I recover a little from my present languid state, bound by rheumatic pains. That the Tuatha de Danan arrived in Ireland from North Britain, and subdued the Belgians all our documents aver.
Be assured, Sir, of any service I can render you in your present undertaking. The more it is agitated by able writers the more the truth of history will appear. The motto of your arms, Post Nubibus, makes me look up to you as the person who will disperse the cloud cast on our history. I scarcely have room to subscribe myself,
Your very obedient servant,