George Petrie

Author of "An Essay on the Round Towers of Ireland."

From The Dublin University Magazine, Volume 14, No.84, December 1839

HERE we have one of the most interesting men of the age, surrounded by an elegant lumber of books, old armour, musical instruments, and drawings, characteristic of his varied accomplishments as a painter, musician, antiquary, and man of letters.George Petrie It is no fictitious arrangement resorted to by the artist, for the purpose of indicating such and such pursuits; for, if our sketch could only be so extended as to embrace the walls of the apartment, these objects in the foreground would appear but a part, and a very insignificant part, of the rare and precious collection which surrounds George Petrie when seated at his study table. Mr. Petrie's collection of Irish antiquities is, in fact, the most curious and interesting, of its kind, in the world; not but that there are some more extensive, and perhaps intrinsically more valuable—but there is none which contains so many pieces of antiquity identified with owners recognised in history. It is this that gives its true value to an antique—to know to whom it has belonged—by whom it has been used, handled, worn—and if, in addition to this, the party to whom we can so refer it should appear to have been a distinguished character in former ages, then, indeed, the value of the relic rises in a ratio which may be almost said to be illimitable. Imagine, if it were possible to identify the sword of Julius Caesar, what an inestimably precious thing it would be!

Other swords as old maybe in existence—indeed we are sure there are some much older in the collection of which we are now speaking—but, to see, to handle, to poise the very weapon that the conqueror of the world wore by his side that day he crossed the Rubicon—it carries us back through time and history more effectually than the reading of all the annals of the middle and Augustan ages—it makes all the eighteen hundred years from thence till now our own—in a word, it makes antiquity tangible, and brings the heroic ages to our doors. And so it is with a greater number of pieces in this, than in any other Irish collection that has ever yet been formed. If the picture could be extended as we have just now suggested, so as to embrace the whole circuit of the walls, those contemplative eyes which now confront the reader would rest directly on an object no way inferior in interest to even Caesar's sword—we mean the very bell whose sounds proclaimed the first advent of Christianity among us—Patrick's, Saint Patrick's own very veritable bell—carried by him, rung by him, bequeathed by him to his successors—handled by the very fingers that wrote the Epistle to Coroticus—heard with dismay by arch-Druid and Pagan high-priest from Tara to Croagh Patrick—listened to, with reverent hearts, in after times, by Columba, by Brigid, and by Colman—and handed down among bishops and coarbs from father to son, with concurrent evidences of its authenticity from the 5th century to the present day.[1] What a host of associations rise upon us as we contemplate such an object—the rites of Baaltine—the sacrifices of Crom Cruaith—the faith and discipline of the early Irish church—her lost independence—her obscured brilliancy—her restoration and reform—and her perilous struggles in our own time. If this bronze-tongued herald could articulate, what a tale it could tell of purity corrupted—of liberty compromised—of popular affections seduced and run to waste. What questions it could solve—what disputes it could settle—what harmony and concord it could produce among eight jarring and antagonist millions!

We know not whether Mr. Petrie takes the same view of Irish ecclesiastical history that we do; but, view it as he may, it is no wonder that with his eyes fixed on such an object, his countenance should have caught that air of contemplative sadness which sits on it in the sketch before us. Or perhaps we err, and the eyes of our amiable friend rest not upon the bell, but upon that beautifully enamelled crozier that hangs immediately above it. And to whom did this belong? To Cormack the son of Cullinan, the king and bishop of the 9th century, the founder of that sacred and magnificent acropolis which still superbly crowns the rock of Cashel, and still attests the excellence and splendour of Irish architecture three centuries before the usurpations of Adrian and Alexander. Or perhaps again we err, and it is not on Cormack's crozier, but on the "staff of Murus," (that other episcopal baton, covered with the coating of copper filigree, once richly gilt, but now tarnished with the rust and corrosion of twelve centuries,) that his gaze is fixed, while his thoughts are busy with the times, when the royal descendants of Con of the Hundred fights, used to ratify their treaties on this very relic, within their Cyclopean citadel of Aileach.

Or, it may be, we are again in error, and it is not on any of these that his looks are resting, but on that battered and corroded mass of silver which lies immediately beside the bell. It is a seal—a great seal—the great seal of a monarch, and that monarch—who was he? Henry the Second, king of England, Duke of Normandy and Acquitain, Earl of Anjou, and Lord and Conqueror of Ireland. It is, in fact, the very matrix in which the wax that portioned out this country among her Anglo-Norman conquerors, received its authenticating form and impression. It is fresh from the hands of the De Laceys and De Courcys. It is the only original great seal of England in existence, with the exception of the two now borne in the bags of the respective chancellors; for it is the practice, in order to prevent forgeries, to destroy the matrix of each royal seal immediately on the decease of the sovereign—yet this one, the most interesting of them all—for from it, as from a parent womb, have the titles to all the great estates in Ireland issued—this one, we say, has escaped the common fate, and now forms, perhaps, the most remarkable piece of antiquity remaining at this time connected with the crown of the first kingdom in the world.

It were vain, within the limits at our disposal, to attempt a larger notice of the multitude of objects of historic interest here brought together—seals and rings of princes, abbots, and feudal lords—broaches, bodkins, beads, amulets—the bronze celts, and Punic-shaped swords of the Firvolg—the stone hatchets, and flint arrow heads of the Aborigines, and the inexplicable relics of Druidic, or perhaps, of Dedanite superstition. To enumerate them would require a whole chapter; to speculate on their respective ages, and on the evidences they furnish of the successive epochs of our history, would take many volumes.

The habitual contemplation of such objects, would be sufficient to imbue even the most stolid with some touch of historic enthusiasm; but on the ardent, and at the same time, reflective mind of Petrie, their presence has operated so powerfully, that the elucidation of our national antiquities has now become the main business and occupation of his life. Even when a youth, the historic muse smiled on him when wandering among the ruins of Glendaloch and Clonmacnoise, in the pursuit of his professional avocations as a painter. Here, and in scenes such as these, while transferring the stately forms of ecclesiastical architecture to his portfolio, he first learned to distinguish the styles of successive ages, and to seek in written authorities for the names and actions of the men who had raised these admirable monuments of their art and piety. Here, too, among the tombs of princes and ecclesiastics, he early trained himself to decipher the Irish character, and from the form and disposition of the letters, to estimate the comparative antiquity of the inscriptions. We have heard him say, that the first really difficult inscription he ever mastered—and what a delight it must have been to him!—was that on the tombstone of a cotemporary and friend of the great Alfred, who lies interred near the round tower in the grave-yard at Clonmacnoise. Here, too, he learned to know and love the people, a knowledge not inferior to that of the acts and monuments of their ancestors, and without which no amount of abstract information can ever enable even a man of genius, to give his country the full benefit of his talents.

With a strong musical taste, and a soul alive to romance, he soon began to store his portfolio with native melodies and local traditions, as well as with the representations of scenery and ancient art. Now, too, while the pursuit was as yet little thought of by others, he commenced forming his collection of antiquities, with a success which has ultimately brought so many competitors into the field, that at this time there remain very few pieces of antiquity in the country, outside the cabinets of the curious. And this is as it ought to be, for they are thus safe for the present; and, as such collections must sooner or later come into the market, they are thus also safe for the future NATIONAL MUSEUM, in which we trust we shall yet see the great majority of them deposited.

With a mind stored with lay and story, and already heated to historic labour, Petrie still continued to paint, producing from time to time water-colour drawings of Irish scenery, of a character so pure and true to nature, as at once placed him at the head of the school of landscape painters in this country. With the reputation thus acquired, this probably would have been the most profitable occupation to which he could have devoted his time; but the noble love of letters burned too fervently within him to slacken for such considerations; and about the year 1832, he partially abandoned the pencil, on undertaking the editorship, in conjunction with the Rev. Caesar Otway, of the Dublin Penny Journal. We have often lamented that works of sterling merit should be disfigured by this paltry word on their title-pages; and in no case do we conceive it is more to be regretted than in that of the first, and part of the second, volumes of this admirable publication. Still we must respect the motive which induced the conductors to select a title the most likely, at the time, to recommend their book to the mass of the people, among whom it really did an infinity of good. In the year 1833, Mr Petrie and his friend resigned the editorship; and although Mr. P. D. Hardy, into whose hands it afterwards came, did his best, and deserves every credit for his exertions in conducting the work to a fourth volume, yet the style and matter fell so palpably short of their former character, that the journal gradually declined, and finally expired in 1837.

In the mean time, Mr. Petrie's Essay on the Round Towers had obtained the prize offered by the Royal Irish Academy; and, being generally admitted to have set the much vexed question respecting their use and origin at rest, placed him, per saltum, at the head of the Irish antiquarians of the day. Those who had been accustomed to the fanatical scepticism of Ledwich on the one hand, and the superstitious credulity of Vallancey on the other, were delighted to find in this new candidate for historic honours, a great degree of caution united to a due recognition of our native authorities, which were now, we might almost say, for the first time adduced as the proper basis of such inquiries. The publication of O'Conor's Rerum Hibernicarum Scriptores, by the Duke of Buckingham, up to the year 1827, had, doubtless, given a great advantage to inquirers of the new school; but in this and the other essays of Mr. Petrie, which have since obtained similar honours, not only were the Annals of O'Conor brought into requisition, but facts and evidences were largely adduced from the manuscript books of Ballymote, Lecan, Clonmacnoise, the Book of Invasions, the Dinn-seanchas, &c. &c., which had hitherto been almost wholly sealed up and shut out from consultation. The Essay on the Round Towers has not yet been printed, owing, we believe, to the delay attendant on the execution of the numerous wood-cuts necessary for its illustration; but we have heard that these illustrations are themselves so conclusive as to the Christian origin and ecclesiastical uses of the towers, as to have been sufficient alone to satisfy the English Antiquaries who were here at the meeting of the British Association.

But however important the subject of the Round Towers may be, it derives much of its interest from the mere agitation that it has undergone; and its elucidation could hardly, under any circumstances, have afforded results so valuable as those of another essay by Mr. Petrie, on the Military Antiquities of Ireland, which has also obtained the prize of the Academy. Before the production of this most valuable paper, it had never been suspected that works of Cyclopean architecture existed in Ireland; but now, by the labours of Mr. Petrie, that chain of dry-stone monuments, which in Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and Spain, mark the progress of a peculiar race in the most remote ages, has been extended into this island, and promises ere long to arrive at its final and concluding link, uniting a period and a people which have hitherto been out of the pale of authentic history, with known events and ascertained cotemporaries.

Mr. Petrie was now to enter on a more extended and useful field of historic labour. One of the conductors of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland—we allude to Lieutenant Larcom, a man of surprising energy and ability—observing the vast mass of statistical material that had already been accumulated in the course of prosecuting inquiries essential to the map alone, conceived the idea of employing this in the preparation of a comprehensive memoir, which might at once illustrate the map, by describing the natural history of each district, and exhibit the progress and condition of society in all parts of Ireland, by statistical and historical details. The design was favourably received by the government; and in the distribution of the new labour, which it now became necessary to provide for, Mr. Petrie undertook the conduct of the historical and antiquarian sections.

The first volume of the memoir has been published, and the interest excited by it has extended to all parts of Europe; for, from the causes which we are about to mention, Ireland is now more and more regarded by men of learning as the field in which antiquarian investigation promises results the most available towards a settlement of certain controverted questions which still perplex the early history of Europe. This subject is of such importance that we must crave our readers' indulgence while we explain it somewhat more at large. The earliest dawn of history discovers a Cimmerian and Celtic family in occupation of central Europe, from the Black Sea to the Atlantic, pressed on the east by a Scythic, on the south by a Pelasgic and Etruscan, on the south-west by an Iberian, and on the north by a Gothic, race of invaders. Now whether these Cimmerii and Celtae were of the same family, and whether the physical characteristics of the western dark-haired Celtae have been derived from an Iberian source or are radically Celtic, and whether the physical characteristics of the eastern light-haired Cimmerii (the Galatae) have been derived from a Gothic source, or are in like manner those of the original European nation—then again whether these Goths were of original Scandinavian, or of secondary Scandinavian and originally Asiatic origin—whether they were the Scythae of Herodotus, or the Getae of Procopius, and whether the present inhabitants of central Europe be more the descendants of these Goths or of those Celtae and Cimmerii—or whether, after all, these nations be not one and the same — are a few, and but a few, of the questions connected with this subject, on which men of learning, both here and on the Continent, are peculiarly fond of reading and theorizing.

The number, the learning, and the earnestness of the writers who have, from the time of Scaliger and Cluverius to the present day, kept these questions in agitation in all parts of the world, demonstrate the amazing interest which such investigations possess for civilized man, wherever he is found. Now, the only data on which such speculations can be properly instituted are the written testimonies of history and the evidences to be collected from a patient examination of such traces as each particular people can be ascertained to have left behind them in their works of art and architecture, in their language, and the names imposed by them on places which they have inhabited, or in the physical characteristics of their descendants. But throughout all western Europe, where the scent should be expected to lie strongest, the footsteps of Roman dominion have so trampled and confounded every national characteristic, that the search has to be prosecuted on the very slenderest materials, and the conclusions, consequently, are unstable and contradictory. In Great Britain, also, the very richness of the country in Roman remains is only commensurate with its barrenness in Belgic or British or Cymric monuments. Ireland alone, of the whole field, is the only spot in which the traces of pure trans-Alpine antiquity have not been obliterated by the Roman footsteps. Here, within a comparatively small and convenient area, the Iberian, the Cimmerian, the Belgian, and the Goth, have successively left their characteristic traces, as well in topographical nomenclature and monuments on the surface of the country, as in physical characteristics and dialect amongst the people.

The unpublished historical aids available in Ireland are, we feel persuaded, sufficient in skilful hands to furnish a clue by which all these indications may at length be referred with certainty to their proper epochs and races. If this were once accomplished, continental inquiry would speed onward with the utmost rapidity and ease; for, though the vestiges which have escaped the obliterating tramp of the Roman legionary in Spain, Gaul, and Britain, be at present quite inadequate to the support of any firm induction, yet, if their prototypes, among the strongly-marked and frequent traces which abound here, outside the theatre of Roman conquest, were once clearly ascertained and identified with their proper eras and authors, the slightest similar indication on the Continent would become a certain datum capable of sustaining as great a weight of inference as the most perfect and undisturbed monument of the same class here. This, we say, is now forcibly felt throughout Europe; the eyes of the learned in Paris, in Vienna, in Berlin, in Copenhagen are eagerly fixed on the progress of the Ordnance Memoir; and it must be allowed to be a great reward, even for such labour as Mr. Petrie has undergone, to know that on the successful prosecution of his department of the work depends in a great measure the settlement of the early history of Europe.[2]

Portions of the Memoir have from time to time been communicated to the Academy, and have been invariably received with that approbation due to important additions to the history of the country. The last of these was an Essay on the Antiquities of Tara Hill, which we hope ere long to have an opportunity of noticing more at large.

In the midst of these grave pursuits, the fine arts have not been forgotten. Next to Edward Bunting, we believe there is no man who has done so much to preserve our native music; for, though his name has never appeared in connection with them, yet we believe we are safe in saying that to him we are indebted for the preservation of many of the finest melodies that have been made familiar to the world by Moore and Lover. Neither has the pencil been altogether abandoned; the easel may still be seen occasionally in his study, and, if we be not deceived, our next exhibition will show that a recent tour into Joyce Country has not been without its proper fruits.

The characteristics of Mr. Petrie's style, both as a painter and a writer, are accuracy and purity. A drawing by him, near one by Turner, would unquestionably look somewhat cold, just as a chapter of his writing, after one of Pinkerton's, would sound quiet and scholastic; but neither would the drawing be less true to nature, nor the argument to sound logic, on that account. It may appear strange that the works of one whom we have described as so intensely enthusiastic should exhibit such a severe adherence to legitimate effects in painting and to strictly admissible conclusions in argument; yet so it is; and it is to this which we conceive a happy combination of caution and ardour, that we look as the surest guarantee of lasting works both from the pencil and the pen of Mr. Petrie.

So far we have seen the subject of our sketch busied in the solitary occupations of the studio, or toiling over the wide wastes of antiquity, where a fact is as rare and as precious as a blade of grass in the sandy desert. It is now our pleasant task to speak of him in the social circle, where, we are sure, as many kind hearts are ready to give him a welcome as ever warmed towards any other member of the community. In spite of all our disadvantages, we still have here in Dublin, much delightful society. Our University, our Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, our Bar and Church, all furnish as large a quota of intellectual and accomplished men, as could be drawn from similar Institutions anywhere else in the world—men, too, full of a warmth of heart, and with a capacity for innocent delights, of which Irish souls alone are susceptible in such a measure. Among these charming re-unions which, in spite of the howling of the political tempest without, still cheer the quiet retreats of intelligence, of taste, and of good-feeling among us, there is none who contributes more to the common enjoyment, or to whom the enjoyment of others affords an honester delight, than George Petrie. Long may the charm of his gentle, enthusiastic countenance, be present among us; and long may those happy circles which have so often glowed with the fervour of his sentiment, and sparkled with the harmless flashes of his wit, continue the undisturbed retreats of elegant and rational enjoyment!


[1] The evidences are collected in a paper read by Mr. Petrie at the Royal Irish Academy, last session, but not yet printed. After the proofs had been given, and the antiquity and genuineness of the bell established, it was placed upon the table. "And now, Mr. President," said the owner, "the Academy have an opportunity of hearing the very sounds which heralded the advent of Christianity to the Isle of Saints." So saying, he struck the bell, which has a peculiarly sweet and silvery tone. The effect was electrical.

[2] There was a rumour, at one time, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was opposed to the prosecution of the Memoir, on account of the paltry sum it costs the government. We trust, for the credit of the country, and for the sake of the republic of letters, that there is no truth in the report.