Texts : Gerald of Wales

All texts below are from Gerald of Wales, The historical works of Giraldus Cambrensis (Thomas Forester, trans.; Richard Hoare, trans; Thomas Wright, ed., 1863).

Author's Preface

If I cannot write as well as I would, I will at least write according to the best of my ability. Devoting myself, therefore, to a task requiring long and close application, shall I be esteemed presumptuous or provident, exposing myself to the shafts of envious malice while I live, in the hope of possibly achieving a glorious reputation when my days are ended?

After long musing on this subject, and after anxiously revolving it in my mind, at last it occurred to me that there was one corner of the earth, Ireland, which, from its position on the furthest borders of the globe, had been neglected by others. Not that it had been left altogether untouched, but no writer had hitherto comprehensively treated of it.

But it may be asked, "Can any good come from Ireland?" "Will its mountains drop sweetness, and its valleys flow with milk and honey?" Let us, then, endeavor to suck honey out of the rock, and draw oil from the flint. Let us follow the example of great orators, who, in an admirable manner, most polished the shafts of their eloquence, when the poverty of their subject required it to be elevated by the superiority of their style.

For, as Pliny says, "it is a difficult matter to give novelty to old subjects, authority to new; to embellish what is threadbare, shed grace on what is out of fashion, light on obscurities, give confidence in what is doubtful, and nature to all." Notwithstanding, it will be my endeavor, in the best manner I can, to rouse the reader's attention, by setting before him some new things, either not before related or very briefly noticed; exhibiting to him the topography of Ireland in this little work of mine, as in a clear mirror, so that its features may be open to the inspection of all the world.

I propose, therefore, to take, at least, a distinct view of this most remote island, both as regards its situation and character, explaining its peculiarities, so long hidden under the veil of antiquity, and searching out both the qualities and defects of almost all things which nature has produced there, both for the ornament of the better class and the use of the lower orders. Besides this, I propose to unravel the stupendous wonders of nature herself, to trace the descent of the various tribes from their origin, and to describe from my own knowledge the manners and customs of many men. And since the country of which we treat is backward and feeble, it will be no small satisfaction to studious minds to survey, at least in thought, our better part of the world and its condition, having all things made easy to be understood.

This work is divided into three parts. The first treats of the situation of Ireland, and its locality in reference to the Greater Britain; of the quality of the soil, its inequalities, and its various properties; of the fishes and birds which are distinct from ours in place rather than in origin; of wild beasts and reptiles, the nature as well as defects of the several species; and of the absence of all venomous creatures. It will also contain a comparison of the East and the West, showing that the West is deservedly to be preferred. All which is distinctly noted in the titles prefixed to the several chapters.

The second part tells of the prodigies and wonderful works of sportive nature, not those only which are found in this country, but others also, of whatever kind and wherever existing, which are of the same description. It also sets forth the famous records of Saints celebrated for their virtues, which were manifested by glorious miracles unknown to the world.

The third part treats, in regular order, of the first inhabitants of this country, and the various immigrants of different nations, their arrival and departure; of the habits and customs of the Irish race which inhabits the island to the present day, and of their subjugation by foreign invaders. In short, it gives a history of all that is worthy of notice respecting this nation to our own times.

Badger [chapter 20]: There is also here the badger or melot, an unclean animal, which bites sharply, frequenting the mountains and rocks. It makes holes under ground for its refuge and protection, scratching and digging them out with its feet. Some of them, whose natural instinct it is to serve the rest, have been seen, to the great admiration of the observers, lying on their backs with the earth dug out heaped on their bellies, and held together by their four claws, while others dragged them backward by a stick held in their mouth, fastening their teeth in which, they drew them out of the hole, with their burdens.

Barnacle Goose [chapter 11]: There are likewise here many birds called barnacles (barnacle geese) which nature produces in a wonderful manner, out of her ordinary course. They resemble the marsh-geese, but are smaller. Being at first, gummy excrescenses from pine-beams floating on the waters, and then enclosed in shells to secure their free growth, they hang by their beaks, like seaweeds attached to the timber. Being in progress of time well covered with feathers, they either fall into the water or take their flight in the free air, their nourishment and growth being supplied, while they are bred in this very unaccountable and curious manner, from the juices of the wood in the sea-water. I have often seen with my own eyes more than a thousand minute embryos of birds of this species on the seashore, hanging from one piece of timber, covered with shells, and, already formed. No eggs are laid by these birds after copulation, as is the case with birds in general; the hen never sits on eggs to hatch them; in no corner of the world are they seen either to pair or to build nests.

Martineta [chapter 13]: There are also found in this country the small birds called martinets, which are less than the blackbird, and here, as elsewhere, rare, frequenting the rivers. They are short, like quails, and dive in the water after the small fish on which they feed; and though in other respects they retain their general character, their color varies. For degenerating here, they have the belly white with a dark-colored back, while in other countries the belly is red, with red beak and feet. Like parrots and peacocks, the back and wings are distinguished by their brilliant shade of green, which is very lustrous and beautiful. It is remarkable in these little birds that, if they are preserved in a dry place, when dead, they never decay; and if they are put among clothes and other articles, they preserve them from the moth and give them a pleasant odor. What is still more wonderful, if, when dead, they are hung up by their beaks in a dry situation, they change their plumage every year, as if they were restored to life, as though the vital spark still survived and vegetated through some mysterious remains of its energy. Thus holy men, who are dead to the world, and, as it were, laid up in a dry place, and inflamed with the ardor of charity, purify and perfect themselves and those who are united to them from being vitiated by the corruption of sin, and render them conspicuous by the good odor of their virtues. And while they hang from above by the most intimate union of soul, casting off the old garment of the flesh, and clothed in new virtues, they are changed and renewed for the better from time to time, putting off the old man, and putting on the new. For that is the highest pitch of excellence, when the former acts are surpassed by being followed by those which are better.

Osprey [chapter 13]: There are also many birds here of a twofold nature, which are called ospreys, in size less than eagles, and larger than hawks. By an extraordinary contrivance of sportive nature, one of their feet spreads open, armed with talons and adapted for taking their prey; the other is close, harmless, and only fit for swimming. It is wonderful how these birds - and I have often witnessed it myself - hover in the air over the waves supported by their wings, remaining still, that they may command a better view of the depths below; and when, with a penetrating glance, they discover through the great space of turbulent air and water small fishes lurking in the sand beneath the waves, they pounce upon them from on high with headlong speed, and diving and coming to the surface, use their web-foot in swimming, while with the other armed with talons they seize and carry off their prey.