From A Description of the . . . Peasantry of Ireland

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FromA Description of the . . . Peasantry of Ireland


Robert Bell

Most of Bell's work appeared in journal form before being published as a book. He argues that legislation for Ireland requires a truer knowledge of the country than had previously been found among English writers or officials. He rightfully notes that most accounts have been hostile, as is usual when conquerors write about the conquered.

SEE ALSO English Writing on Ireland before 1800

It must be recollected that the writers who speak of the Irish in terms of reproach, were natives of Britain, and that the hostility of mind which always existed between a conquered people and the conquerors, (and which to this hour has never been effaced in Ireland), must have thrown no weak tint of prejudice on the picture which they drew. The accounts which men give of a people whom they either fear or despise, are not to be received as authentic: and still less are they to be relied on, if it be considered that the authors, from the very nature of their situation, are unable to acquire a knowledge of those whose manners they attempt to describe. Can it be supposed that English governors or English officers going to Ireland in the character of enemies, unacquainted with the language of the country, and having no intercourse with the people except the ceremonial visits of perfidious Chieftains who pretended to enter into their views, were capable of giving a true description of Irish manners? Among the fragments of Irish literature which still remain, there is sufficient evidence to prove that many of the accounts of Giraldus Cambrensis are false or exaggerated. Yet this author is quoted by modern historians as an unquestionable authority.

It was not until the present enlightened era that men of liberal and philosophic minds came forward to assert the antiquity of Ireland, to examine the few records that had escaped the ravages of her invaders, and to vindicate her character from unmerited obloquy.

But whatever grounds the English historians might have had for representing the native Irish as savage and ferocious, it has been clearly ascertained that they were not so previously to the invasion of Henry II. The cause of their degeneracy must therefore be obvious to every person who has read the history of conquered countries where the dominion of the victor was only to be retained by force: and still more to those who will take the trouble of reading Dr. Leland's History of Ireland. It is a fact as well authenticated as most parts of ancient history, that there were many seminaries of learning in this island for four or five centuries before it was conquered by England; that numbers of persons from other countries resorted thither for instruction (the greater part of Europe being at that time in a state of deplorable ignorance); that there were Princes in the country who displayed the talents of great statesmen and generals; that the Irish were often as successful as their English neighbours in repelling Danish invasions; and that in the reign of William the Conqueror they had made a generous though unsuccessful struggle to restore the exiled family of Harold to the throne of England.

Reprinted in Strangers to That Land: British Perceptions of Ireland from the Reformation to the Famine, edited by Andrew Hadfield and John McVeagh (1994), pp. 151–152.

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