George Petrie

Petrie, George, LL.D., a distinguished archaeologist, was born in Dublin in 1789. [His father, a portrait painter, was a man of cultivated mind and an excellent numismatist. He was acquainted with many of the insurrectionary leaders of 1798, and to his portraits and casts we owe the preservation of some of their likenesses.]

When about ten, George was sent to Whyte’s school in Grafton-street, and being delicate, was subsequently allowed to follow his bent, and adopt his father’s profession. He attended the schools of the Dublin Society, and progressed rapidly.

When about nineteen he began to make excursions through the country in search of the picturesque, and to examine and take careful notes of antiquities. His remarks upon them were even then characterized by great acuteness of observation.

He also commenced, thus early, his collection of Irish airs. He would often start on foot at nightfall, after his day’s work was done, so as to reach by daybreak some chosen spot for study in the County of Wicklow. His drawings were then free and broad, but wanting in the delicacy of his after works.

In 1813 he visited his friends Danby and O’Conor in London, and an introduction to Sir Benjamin West opened to him the art treasures of the metropolis.

Three years afterwards he began to exhibit in Dublin; but his most profitable work was furnishing sketches for illustrated books relating to Ireland, as Cromwell’s Excursions, Brewer’s Beauties, and Fisher’s Historical Guide.

He married in 1821, and settled regularly to an art career.

He became an associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy at its opening in 1826, and thenceforward was a constant exhibitor; he was elected a member in 1828, was appointed librarian in 1830, and was subsequently President.

Although so early as 1816 he contributed articles on current literature, antiquities, and archaeology, it was not until the establishment of the Dublin Penny Journal in 1832 that his abilities found scope, and his genius for analysis and research became apparent.

He and Caesar Otway edited the first volume of the magazine, and wrote many notices of objects of antiquity, and historic sketches of the rise, progress, and decadence of the fine arts in Ireland.

Ten years afterwards he became the sole editor of the Irish Penny Journal, during its short existence of twelve months.

In 1829 he was elected on the Council of the Royal Irish Academy. It was Petrie who in 1831 secured for the Academy an autograph copy of the Second Part of the Annals of the Four Masters, which had previously lain unnamed and neglected.

From 1833 to 1846 he was connected with the Ordnance Survey, and visited all parts of Ireland in the course of his duties.

In 1833 his essay on the “Origin and Uses of the Round Towers of Ireland” gained a prize of £50 from the Academy; in 1834 he read his essay on the “Military Architecture of Ireland;” in 1837, on the “History and Antiquities of Tara;” in 1838 on “Cromlechs and Sepulchral Remains.”

The break-up of the Irish Ordnance Topographical Survey placed him in circumstances of some difficulty, and he was obliged to revert to his pencil for a livelihood; but a pension on the Civil List eventually placed him above want, and put him in a position to pursue his investigations with an easy mind; and the honorary degree of LL.D. conferred upon him by Trinity College, testified the estimation in which he was held.

His great work on The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland anterior to the Anglo-Norman Invasion, Comprising an Essay on the Origin and Uses of the Round Towers, was published in 1845. The preface says:

“The work contains not only the original essay on the round towers, very much enlarged, but also distinct essays on our ancient stone churches and other ecclesiastical buildings of contemporaneous age with the round towers.”

Petrie’s conclusions regarding Irish antiquities, arrived at after a life devoted to the subject, are much as follows:

That the great cahirs of the west and south, such as those on Aran, and Staigue Fort, and the tumuli, such as those of New Grange, Dowth, and Knowth, afford ground for the conclusion that they were the work of Greek colonists who settled in Ireland and the southern part of England at a very remote period.

That the cromlechs and many of the stone circles are undoubtedly sepulchral monuments. That the innumerable raths were simply the places of abode of the ancient inhabitants of the country, within which they erected their wooden habitations, and where they kept their flocks and herds in time of danger.

That castles of the Anglo-Norman type seem to have been erected in small numbers shortly before the period of the English occupation. That the caisel was a circular wall or enclosure for the defence of royal residences or of monasteries.

That the rath, lios, or lis, was an earthen mound or fort, enclosed with one or more fosses or ramparts. That the term dun is a generic one, used synonymously with rath, lis, or cahir.

That the round towers (built between the 7th and 10th centuries) were meant to serve as belfries to Christian churches, and were used as keeps or places of strength, in which the sacred utensils, books, relics, and other valuables were deposited, and persons could retire for security in times of danger. He considered very many of the small churches as almost contemporaneous with the introduction of Christianity into the country.

Petrie’s conclusions regarding the Christian origin of the round towers are now accepted by all leading Irish scholars and antiquarians.

Petrie also devoted much attention to the study of ancient Irish art and Irish music. He was a proficient in the latter, and on his violin interpreted the old tunes of the country in an unrivalled manner.

The closing years of his life were devoted to the publication of a portion of his collection of Irish music.

He died at Rathmines, Dublin, 17th January 1866, aged 77, and was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery.

His fine collection of Irish antiquities was purchased from his family by the Government, and deposited in the Royal Irish Academy, and the continuance of a portion of his Civil List pension was ultimately secured for his daughters.

George Petrie was a man of a wonderfully sweet and tender, though some what dilatory, disposition.

His paintings and drawings are highly valued by persons interested in Irish scenery and antiquities.


233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.

284. Petrie, George, Life: William Stokes, M.D. London, 1868.
Petrie, George, see Nos. 225, 298.