Isaac Weld

Topographer and Artist

Issac Weld
With thanks to the RDS

Isaac was named after the scientist Newton

Anyone who picks up the volume of Isaac Weld’s famous work “Statistical Survey of Co. Roscommon” will indeed marvel at the breadth and beauty of this book of more than seven hundred pages published by the Royal Dublin Society in 1832. Our knowledge of Co. Roscommon would be the poorer if this book of facts and figures had not come on the scene fifteen years before the calamity of the famine hit our shores. A visitor coming to Roscommon at the time with this book in his hand would have all he needed to gain an insightful knowledge of enterprise, towns, villages, monuments and landscape in the county.

Isaac was born in Fleet St. Dublin in 1774 to Elizabeth and Isaac Weld. His great,great grandfather Rev. Edmund Weld of Blarney Castle lived in the time of Cromwell. Isaac’s grandfather, also Isaac was named after the scientist Newton. His great grandfather Nathaniel and grandfather Isaac were distinguished in the ministry in New Row in the city. Young Isaac, the third of the name,was sent to the school of  Samuel Whyte of Grafton St. and then to a private school Barbauld at Palgrove near the town of Diss in Norfolk. From Diss he proceeded to Norwich as a private pupil of Dr Enfield. He married Alexandra Hope in Edinburgh in 1802. He had no children. His brother-in-law was George Ensor, a well known author and lawyer of the time. George Ensor’s father George and uncle John, both notable architects had an involvement in the reshaping of Roscommon town’s Market and Session House in the 1760s. This is the building that holds the Bank of Ireland today. In later life Weld spent a lot of time in Italy and Rome where he had friendship with the famous sculptor Antonio Canova.

Weld travels to the USA and Canada

He left Norwich in 1793 and two years later while only twenty-one he explored the USA and Canada. He arrived in Sept. 1795 having undertaken a voyage of sixty days and spent two years in the country. While having only a faithful servant by his side he made his way on horseback, by boat and by foot through the vast forests and great rivers. Isaac had a shade of the character of Lewis and Clark or Daniel Boone finding his way to the Great Lakes, Detroit, Richmond , Chappahannick in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and Niagara Falls. His book on his American travels was published in 1799 in a number of editions , the fourth at London in 1807. Its title was “Travels through the States of North America , and the Provinces of Upperand Lower Canada, During the years !795, 1796 and 1797”. The book enjoyed great popularity in the USA , Canada  and further afield and was translated into several languages. His determination was to find if “any part of those territories might be looked forward to as an eligible and agreeable place of abode”. This was obviously in relation to emigration from Ireland. He returned to his native Ireland after writing two volumes of letters that he later published, remarking that “ I shall leave it without a sigh, and without the slightest wish to revisit it”.

He found many Americans to be obsessed with material things and preferred Canada. He wrote on slavery “there will be an end to slavery in the United States as negroes will not remain deaf to the inviting call of liberty forever”, and of Americans in general he said “civility cannot be purchased from them on any terms; they seem to think it is incompatible with freedom, and that there is no other way of convincing a stranger that he really is in a land of liberty, but by being surly and ill-mannered in his presence.” Other topics that he goes into are the spirit of dissatisfaction which Americans have in their public affairs, the manufacture of rifled barrel guns at Lancaster in Pennsylvania which were prized by marksmen all over the country, the carrying of pistols and swords by people on horseback and the need to travel in groups of five or six for security. Isaac was seldom without a brace of pistols himself, though he never put them to use against his fellow man. While travelling west to Tennessee and Kentucky he comments “Of all the uncouth human beings I met with in America, these people from the western country were the most so; their curiousity was boundless. Frequently have I been stopped abruptly by one of them in a solitary part of the road, and in such a manner, that had it been in another country, I should have imagined it was a highwayman that was going to demand my purse, and without any further preface, asked where I came from and if I was acquainted with any news? Where bound to, and finally, my name?”

Few persons find themselves for the first time in the presence of General Washington

Another occasion brings him into a bear hunting escapade “ At day break the next morning I took the boat , and went on shore near Point Abineau, about ten miles west of Fort Erie on the Canadian shore , to join a party that, as I had been informed the previous evening, was going bear-hunting. On landing, I found the men and dogs ready, and having loaded our guns we advanced into the woods.” Isaac also extols the virtues of game management where grouse ,deer and beaver are protected  and culled in such a way that numbers are not wiped out completely. He appears to have met George Washington and Thomas Jefferson at Mount Vernon. On Washington he says: “Few persons find themselves for the first time in the presence of General Washington, a man so renowned in the present day for his wisdom and moderation, and whose name will be transmitted with such honour to posterity, without being impressed with a certain degree of veneration and awe; nor do these emotions subside on a closer acquaintance; on the contrary, his person and deportment are such rather as tend to augment them”. Weld goes on to say about Washington that “Strangers, with whom he wishes to have some conversation about agriculture, or any such subject, are sometimes invited to tea”.

Weld and the RDS

After returning from the USA he became a member of the Royal Dublin Society about 1800, honorary secretary in 1829 and by 1849 was elected one of its vice-presidents. In 1812 he published Scenery of Killarney which was bountiful with his own illustrations. This work marked a threshold in travel books which were personal accounts. He was now setting out activities for the potential visitor to Killarney and this was a new departure guiding the road for future travel literature. In 1815 he sailed from Dun Laoghaire to London in a steamboat named the Thames, the first such powered vessel to make the passage.

By the 1830s he had a lot of research completed on his great work Statistical Survey of Co Roscommon and it was published in 1832. Even a cursory glance in this book will show Weld’s interest in Irish industry and he was keen to promote it whenever possible. Weld was the first to promote the triennial exhibitions of manufactures, afterwards conducted under the auspices of the Society. During the distressed period of 1847 Weld advertised in newspapers of the intended “Exhibition of Manufactures” at the RDS Hall and advised that “the productions were made under distress “, and to be conscious of “ the cheerless circumstances under which some of the productions were prepared for competition”. He goes on to say that “ those of ample means to give orders for such articles as they may want, provided that they shall be satisfied by this exhibition that they can obtain them in Ireland as good, cheap, and beautiful, as in any other country” ( 1). This echoes the slogan so often heard in recent times of buying Irish providing the product is of good quality. His portrait by Martin Cregan PRHA still hangs in the boardroom of the RDS where he is regarded as a father figure.

Weld and his Roscommon Survey

The Royal Dublin society promoted county surveys from the 1800s. The intention was that over time the full thirty-two counties would be completed. The plan was never realised fully and only a few counties were complete by the 1850s. It appears the task was arduous and not for the faint-hearted.

Since Weld succeeded in writing one of the finest surveys of the county of his time it is worth giving its contents more than a cursory look. The work encompasses much more than tabulations of figures and commercial facts of the period. Just like his earlier book on Killarney, which was one of the first to invite the tourist to the area, his Roscommon book is full of descriptive pieces on the beauties of the natural terrain between the rivers Suck and Shannon.

Weld set his own table of contents

The way he laid out his book left us an easy path to navigate its inner wonders and was a good template for other books of similar vein to follow. Even though the RDS had already suggested as to how the county surveys should be conducted and these included areas such as geographical state and circumstances, agriculture, pasture and breed of animals, farms, and general subjects which included everything from fuel, food and clothing to churches and schools, Weld set his own table of contents and expanded them to great measure. This included terms such as the situation, extent and boundaries of the county, the geological formation and mineral production, collieries and iron works, bogs, land and rivers, more detailed work on the rivers Suck and Shannon, roads, soil and climate, characters of the different baronies and descriptions of the towns and villages therein, statistical tables of churches and schools, and general observations on employment and manufactures. There is also a copious appendix on the Arigna Coal and Iron Company and new insights on the improvement of cultivation of bogs.

Weld’s observations

Some of his thinking on different themes ranging from efficiency of agricultural tools, statistics on the value of a labourer’s wage and his attitude to landlord politics can be gleaned from his observations on meeting people on his county Roscommon journey.

On the manufacture of linen in Ireland which was buoyed up by bounties and artificial supports and on which he disagreed, he said:

“On the same principles of  prohibitions and bounties, the Dublin market might be supplied by lemons of domestic growth; and wine of sound merchantable quality, if not claret and champagne, be produced from the grapes of our hot-houses, – at what cost I pretend not to say. But every tyro in the science of political economy is aware, that national wealth does not accrue from raising a commodity at home at ten-fold the price for which it could be procured abroad; anymore than private wealth will accrue from a man’s persisting to make, within his own family, an article which could be purchased at the next shop for a tenth part of the price which it cost him to produce in his own house.” (p.683)

He describes the efficacy of the loy:

“The spade, in the usual English acceptation of the term, is utterly unknown in Roscommon, excepting it be in the gardens of the upper classes, and even there it is rare. Its place is supplied by an instrument called the loy, common as I am informed, in every part of Connaught. This consists of three distinct pieces; an iron blade, which is made with a socket as broad as itself; a thick and stout wedge or block of wood, which fits into the socket, and serves to receive the foot in the act of digging; thirdly, the handle which is braced to the wooden wedge and the blade by bands of iron. The handle, consisting of a straight rounded pole, varies in length, and the instrument is distinguishable accordingly by the terms of the long and short loy; another distinction arises from the blade, according to it being broad or narrow. The long loy operates as as a sort of hand plough…..for turning up a light soil where rocks abound, and the plough cannot be used, the long loy, in the hands of an able workman, is an implement at once powerful and efficacious, which might be introduced with advantage in other places where it is at present unknown….Another peculiarity of Irish digging implements, such as the spade, loy, shovel &c. is, that for ordinary use, they are invariably provided with longer handles than are customary in England, whereby the labourer is enabled to maintain a more erect position than can possibly be preserved in using the short-handled English spade; and hence, in no part of Ireland is it usual to meet with such bent down bodies and curved backs, as are commonly seen amongst old men in England, who have been long occupied at spade labour.”( p.657)

On uncompassionate petty landlords:

“Now the part of tyrant and taskmaster is not, I venture to say, played by any of the great proprietors in Roscommon. On the contrary, on all the great estates, where the land is, or has lately fallen into the power of the proprietor- in -chief, a totally different system prevails, as the improved cottages and farm houses sufficiently testify. It is by the petty landlords that the chief mischief is done; themselves under-tenants to others, perhaps three or four deep, and in many instances, but little removed from the condition of those whom they oppress and grind. To talk of benevolence and protection to such people is to talk to the winds; for it appears to be a melancholy truth, that those in the lower ranks, who have themselves suffered under others, so far from having their compassion excited when they come to rule are frequently the most pitiless and remorseless of all taskmasters.”(p.694-695)

On bad management of landed property:

It has always been easier to point out defects than to offer remedies. Thus, while the condition of the far greater part of the peasantry is admitted on all sides, to be bad, the inquiries that have been instituted, have done little more than to trace the existing evil to the erroneous systems in the management of landed property which have heretofore obtained in Ireland; which still continue; which it will be extremely difficult to alter; and which, if altered, must of necessity be a work of time. Whatever pains may be taken through the means of education to raise the character of the labourer in his own estimation, as well as that in society, if he still finds himself in the pitiable state of being unable, by his utmost exertions, to earn a fair support for himself and his family, his condition must remain abject”. p.693

On the logistics and cost of bringing home a clamp of turf:

Hire a horse and car or carry it on your back? Weld estimated that the average weight of a cleave of turf could be about ten stone. This was no easy load to carry three miles:

“I found people here passing from the old bridge laden with cleaves of turf on their backs, which they were carrying towards Hughestown, by Ardcarne, on the great mail-coach road; the distance which they were taking it was about three Irish miles: all were barefooted. Men, women and children were busy at the work, differently laden according to their strength. A very intelligent stout man of middle age whom I found amongst the group, gave me the following information, which agreed very nearly with what I derived from other sources. Turf, for sale, at the bogs is heaped up into single and double clamps. The price of a double clamp is 4s.Six double clamps will suffice for one cabin fire for the year; thus, the annual cost of fuel to the cottager amounts to 24s. A double-clamp would afford loading for four one horse cars provided with cribs; but it must be a good horse to draw such a load; it would be a safer course to divide the double clamp into five loads. The hire of a horse and car for the day was estimated at 2s.6d. The hire of a labourer by the day, on casual employment, 8d. To carry home a double clamp of turf, in a cleave, upon his own back, was to take this man three weeks at the very least. Thus, supposing the distance three miles, and two turns in each day, the whole journey to and fro, from his house to the bog, would be twelve Irish miles, somewhat more than fifteen English miles, which might be considered full and rather hard work for the day, and very indifferently paid at 8d. But if this labour be compared with the work of car and horse, it will be found to be of less value than 8d.a day. Thus supposing that the horse and car could take two turns in the day as well as the man, and that the double clamp would afford loading for five horses and cars; it would then require two days and a half work for one horse and car, which at 2s.6d. per day would amount to 6s.3d.; so that here was this man walking fifteen English miles a day, for three weeks, or, Sundays excepted, for eighteen days, to earn equal to 6s.3d. in horse hire. In other words, earning  just  over 4d. per day. I noted down the account in my pocket book as the man gave it; and, having summed it up, and pointed out, that if he could earn 8d. by other labour, he was a loser by not buying a horse; he cooly replied, that he was quite aware of the difference, but the employment at 8d. was rare to be had, whilst by carrying turf, he was certain of earning something every day.”p.257-258

On the preparation of a hut and potato garden:

“Numerous examples of these minor improvements may be seen along the road between Lanesboro Bridge on the Shannon, and the town of Roscommon , commencing usually with  the erection of a hut, for to call it a cabin would bestowing by far too dignified an appellation, humble as everyone knows these habitations to be. The length occasionally does not exceed eight or nine feet, and its breadth is proportionably narrow. The walls are formed of thick sods cut from the bog, placed with the face downwards; the roof of sods, of a broader, thinner, and finer texture, which in process of time, receive a coating of heath, or of potato stalks. When newly raised, these walls are as dark as the bog on which they stand, and occasionally they continue so for a considerable time, indeed within, without and around, it is one continued scene of black mud, through which the naked feet sink more than ankle deep. In other instances, the grasses at the edges of the sods sprout out afresh, and the hut presents a uniform coat of green, scarcely distinguishable from a bank, or mound of earth, covered with sward, except for the thing misnamed a doorway, which I have observed in more than a single instance so low as to admit only of a passage by nearly doubling the body, and almost crawling on the knees.

The erection of a potato garden soon follows, indeed sometimes precedes the erection of the hut. The mound or ditch-bank around it, is planted with willows, wherewith to make baskets and kishes. Cultivation extends yearly; patches of oats and sometimes of rye repay for the labour of the improver, and if he can procure enough of bog to work upon, a meadow in its turn is created; a cow, the first symptom of prosperity in a peasant’s family, is purchased, and the original hut gives way to a cabin, more suitable to the wants of human beings. I entered a great many of these tenements and was informed that some of the adjacent bog, after partial improvement, was let as high as two guineas an acre. The advantage of fuel ad libitum is one of the main inducements to take it”. Appendix: lxii

He also had a sense of humour

Was Isaac Weld a man with his finger on the pulse of what could increase the prosperity of Co Roscommon’s people? It can be seen from his book that he could mix with all strata of society and explored the land on horse and foot for his facts and figures like few others up to then. He was able to converse with the people in the mud cabins as well as with the landlords and could see where remedies could be effected if there was the will amongst those who could use them. He also had a sense of humour and this can be exemplified by an encounter while walking with his guide on Mangerton mountain gathering information for his Killarney book and recounts the episode. They lost their way due to heavy fog and his guide changed his own jacket inside out to confound the fairies so they could retrace their steps and find their way back. If we delete the amusing element of this story it shows his rapport with the common people and his interest in folklore.

A monument was erected to his memory

Isaac Weld died at his home, Ravenswell, near Bray, Co Wicklow, in August 1856. On his interment in Mount Jerome , “the Cemetery Committee decided, unsolicited, to allot a portion of the ground reserved for eminent men” (2). The following year the Royal Dublin Society erected a monument there to his memory. Also in that year an auction was held by John F.Jones at his Literary Salerooms, D’Olier St, Dublin, in which Weld’s library of books, paintings, engravings and miscellaneous were bid to the public(3 ). A notice of his death in newspapers of the time is worthy of note.

Death of Isaac Weld

Esq. J.P.-Died, on the 4th instant, at his seat, Ravenswell near Bray, Isaac Weld, Esq. aged eighty-two years. He was favourably known for many years as one of the honorary secretaries of the Royal Dublin society, and latterly as one of its vice-Presidents. To the rare qualifications brought by Mr Weld to the office of secretary, and to the great interest taken by him in the various departments of this institution at an early and active period in his life, particularly in the Drawing and Modelling Schools and of the Botanic Gardens, may be mainly attributed the rapid growth in public favour and usefulness of the only establishment in Ireland bearing an analogy to the British Museum in England. He continued to feel and exhibit to the latest period of an honourable and long life a warm interest in the Society which he had so successfully served, regardless of time and expense. To the Royal Dublin Society will justly belong the duty of some more detailed record of his services, and of some worthy recognition of obligation.. It is enough for us to announce the blank that has taken place in the literary and scientific world of Dublin, and the loss sustained by a large circle of attached and admiring friends. Mr Weld was a member of the Royal Irish Academy, and of many learned and scientific societies, foreign and domestic as well as, at the time of his death, an active magistrate of the counties of Dublin and Wicklow.- Daily Express (4)

1. The Nation, June 19th, 1847

2. Freemans Journal, Aug 7th, 1856

3. Freemans Journal, Jan. 16th, 1857

4. The Nation, Aug 9th, 1856 per Daily Express






Comments about this page

  • Isaac Weld was born into wealth in 1774. He was highly educated in Ireland and England. He rubbed shoulders with the high society for Ireland and England. On reading the article about his adventurous life and travels in Americal, Canada and Ireland. Issac Weld comes across to me as a man of great character, intelligence, and a man who has great empathy for the very poor of this country. I can not help thinking about my own ancestors who came from rural Co Mayo. The details of cost of bringing home the turf is a valuable record of our heritage. His book ‘Statistical Survey of Co Roscommon’ is of great value to our Irish Heritage.

    By Ann Harte OToole (17/01/2024)
  • Fascinating observations & insights by Weld on early 19th century rural Ireland. He is sympathetic towards the hard life of the labourer and tenant farmer and scathing of the Irish petty landlords. He tells how the poorest people, by sheer determination and hard labour, improve a piece of bog transforming it into a productive meadow. As a reward they are then penalised with a higher rent. Well worth the read.

    By Lorna Elms (10/11/2011)

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