Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Petrie, George
PETRIE, GEORGE (1789–1866), Irish antiquary, only child of James Petrie, a portrait-painter, was born in Dublin in 1789. His grandfather, also named James, was a native of Aberdeen who had settled in Ireland, and his mother was daughter of Sacheverel Simpson of Edinburgh. In 1799 he was sent to the school in Dublin of Samuel White, who was the schoolmaster of Richard Brinsley Sheridan [q. v.] and of Thomas Moore [q. v.] He attended the art school of the Dublin Society, and before he was fourteen was awarded the silver medal of the society for drawing a group of figures. He early became devoted to the study of Irish antiquities, and in 1808 travelled in Wicklow, and made notes of Irish music, of ecclesiastical architecture, and of ancient earthworks and pillar-stones. He visited Wales, making landscape sketches, in 1810, and in 1813 came to London and was kindly treated by Benjamin West, to whom he had an introduction.
After his return to Ireland he painted landscapes, chiefly in Dublin, Wicklow, Kildare, the King's County, and Kerry, and in 1816 he exhibited at Somerset House pictures of Glendalough and Glenmalure, both in Wicklow. Lord Whitworth bought them. In 1820 Petrie contributed ninety-six illustrations to Cromwell's ‘Excursions in Ireland,’ and afterwards many others to Brewer's ‘Beauties of Ireland,’ to G. N. Wright's ‘Historical Guide to Dublin,’ to Wright's ‘Tours,’ and to the ‘Guide to Wicklow and Killarney.’ Nearly all these illustrations deserve careful study, and have much artistic merit as well as absolute antiquarian fidelity. At the first exhibition of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1826, Petrie exhibited a large picture of Ardfinane, a picturesque castle standing above a many-arched bridge on the north bank of the Suir. He exhibited the next year ‘The Round Tower of Kilbannon,’ co. Galway, and ‘Dun Aengus,’ a great cashel in Aranmor, co. Galway. He was elected an academician in 1828, and exhibited ‘The Twelve Pins in Connemara,’ a group of sharp-pointed mountains, and ‘The Last Round of the Pilgrims at Clonmacnoise.’ In 1829 he painted ‘The Knight and the Lady’ and ‘Culdean Abbey,’ a ruin in the dried-up marsh known as ‘Inis na mbéo,’ to the right of the road from Thurles to Roscrea. He was appointed librarian to the Hibernian Academy in 1830, and exhibited six pictures, and in 1831 nine. In the course of his studies for these pictures he made many tours throughout Ireland, travelled along the whole course of the Shannon, thoroughly studied Clonmacnoise, Cong, Kilfenora, the Aran islands, and many other ecclesiastical ruins.
When Cæsar Otway [q. v.] began the ‘Dublin Penny Journal,’ of which the first number appeared on 30 June 1832, Petrie joined him, and wrote many antiquarian articles in the fifty-six weekly numbers which appeared. He was the sole editor of the ‘Irish Penny Journal,’ which appeared for a year in 1842. Both contain much original information on Irish history never before printed, and the best articles are those of Petrie and John O'Donovan [q. v.] Petrie joined the Royal Irish Academy in 1828, was elected on its council in 1829, and worked hard to improve its museum and library. At the sale of the library of Austin Cooper in 1831 he discovered and purchased the autograph copy of the second part of the ‘Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland,’ called by Colgan the ‘Annals of the Four Masters.’ For the museum his exertions procured the reliquary known as the cross of Cong, the shrine called ‘Domhnach airgid,’ and the Dawson collection of Irish antiquities.
From 1833 to 1846 he was attached to the ordnance survey of Ireland, and, next to John O'Donovan, was the member of the staff who did most to preserve local history and historical topography. His studies on Tara, written in November 1837, were published by the Royal Irish Academy as an ‘Essay on the Antiquities of Tara,’ a work which contains all that is known on the topography of the ancient seat of the chief kings of Ireland. More may probably be learnt by careful excavations, and certainly by a fuller consideration of Irish literature than Petrie, who was ignorant of Irish, could give; but every one who has visited the locality can testify to the accuracy of Petrie and to the scholar-like character of his method of investigation. The first memoir of the survey appeared in 1839, but the government of the day soon after decided to stop this invaluable public work on the ground of expense. A commission was appointed in 1843, which recommended the continuance of the work, after examining Petrie and other witnesses, but, nevertheless, it was never resumed. The Royal Irish Academy awarded Petrie a gold medal for his essay on Tara; but Sir William Betham [q. v.], whose theories on Irish antiquities had been demolished by Petrie, was so much opposed to this well-deserved honour that he resigned his seat on the council. In 1833 Petrie was awarded a gold medal for an ‘Essay on the Origin and Uses of the Round Towers of Ireland,’ and this was published, with many additions, under the title of ‘The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland,’ in 1845, with a dedication to his two warmest supporters in his studies, Dr. William Stokes [q. v.] and Viscount Adare, afterwards third earl of Dunraven [see Quin, Edwin Richard Windham]. Many books had been written on the subject before this essay, and maintained one or other of the views that these towers, of which there are still remains of more than a hundred in Ireland, were Phœnician fire-temples, towers of sorcerers, astronomical observatories, centres for religious dances, temples of Vesta, minarets for proclaiming anniversaries, watch-towers of the Danes, tombs, gnomons, homes of Persian magi, and phallic emblems. Petrie demolished all these hypotheses, showed that the towers were Christian ecclesiastical buildings of various dates, and that in some cases the actual year of building was ascertainable from the chronicles. His evidence is abundant, admirably arranged, and conclusive; but the great advance in knowledge which it represents can only be appreciated by looking at the previous writings on the subject. An ‘Essay on the Military Architecture of Ireland’ was never printed.
Besides these, he wrote numerous papers on Irish art in description of various antiquities, and all of these contain careful and original investigations. He also made a collection of Irish inscriptions, which has since his death been edited, with additions, by Miss Margaret Stokes, with the title of ‘Christian Inscriptions in the Irish Language.’ In 1816 he had written an ‘Essay on Music’ in the ‘Dublin Examiner,’ and he was devoted throughout life to Irish music, collecting airs wherever he travelled, and playing them admirably on the violin. In 1855 he published ‘The Ancient Music of Ireland,’ a collection of songs and airs made in all parts of Ireland, on which many musicians and musical writers have since levied contributions. A second volume was projected, but never appeared. He received the honorary degree of LL.D. from the university of Dublin in 1847, and in 1849 a pension on the civil list. To his last years he travelled in Ireland, in 1857 again visited the isles of Aran, and in autumn 1864 made his last journey to the one region he had never seen, the Old Glen in the parish of Glencolumkille in Donegal, a region containing many curious antiquities and numerous primitive descendants of Conall Gulban. He died at his house in Charles Street, Dublin, on 17 Jan. 1866, and was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, near Dublin. He was throughout life a disinterested student of Irish architecture, decorative art, music, and topography, and to all these subjects made permanent and important contributions. He seemed devoid of any ambition but that of making his subject clear, gave generous help to many other workers, and was beloved by a large circle of friends. His life has been admirably written by his friend Dr. William Stokes, and contains a list of his papers read before the Royal Irish Academy, of his contributions to the ‘Dublin Penny Journal’ and the ‘Irish Penny Journal,’ and of his illustrations to books.[Stokes's Life and Labours in Art and Archæology of George Petrie, London, 1868; Graves's Eloge on the late George Petrie, Dublin, 1866; Works.]