In the 1570s an Englishman called John Derricke came to Ireland, expecting to make his fortune (he did, later, through getting the right to receive customs duty from the port of Drogheda, but that’s another story). What he found was a country of dangerously alluring women wont to cavort naked in the undergrowth.
He wrote the following poem “The discovery of the Irish Nimphs, their pleasures, pastimes, and accustomable usages, wherein daily they are occupied” as a warning to the unwary:-
“The nimphs of sundry matrons, I
Have heard do there resort,
As time and fit occasion serve
To use for their disport.
Some for to shade them from the heat,
And some an other thing:
According as the rain doth fall,
So do the flowers spring.
One doth rejoice to spend the day
In playing barley-break;
Another doth (I mean no harm)
As great a comfort take.
This nimph doth joy to scud along
The wood and riverside;
But she in snorting in a bush
Receiv’th as great a pride.
These do invite the murmuring brooks,
These dive and rise again,
And bathing in their sweet delights
So long they do remain,
Till Cupid toll’th his sacring-bell
To enter other rites.
Ah, would revive a man half dead
To see those naked sprites! . . .
Oh, nimphs of lasting memory
Your virtuous actions rare:
With Venus for integrity
I freely may compare.
With Venus for agility
(Speak I of venial sin),
In her celestial paradise
Ought you to enter in.
For you are they which store the ground
With fruits of your increase
And make it daily to abound
(Mean I with rest and peace?)
With little nimphs and mountain Gods
Transformed now and then
From boars to bears, and yet sometime
Resembling honest men.
From whence there flows as from a spring
More subtle than the foxes are
In their imagination.
Who as they grow in elder years
And springing rise in strength,
So do they work the realm’s annoy
And hindrance at the length.
So do they work the land’s decay,
Procuring what they can:
The ruin and undoing quite
Of many an honest man. . . .
We know by good experience,
It is a dangerous thing
For one into his naked bed
A poisoning toad to bring;
Or else a deadly crocodile
Whenas he goeth to rest,
To lead with him, and as his mate
To place next to his breast.
The mischief thereof certainly
Is this that doth ensue
Even nothing but sudden death
To careless persons due.
Then since the harm is manifest,
Consent with willing mind,
To rid your hands from such a sort
For cat will after kind,
And be not witched evermore
With their eternal sight—
For why should men of the English Pale
In such a crew delight?”
Why indeed? Poor Mr Derrick and his Gaelic Mata Haris! We was hot, once (see also: Edmund Spenser, Francisco de Cuellar and many more). Nice to think of someone liking us in our natural soft-bellied non-Continental-coloured state. You can read Derrick’s book ‘The Image of Ireland, with a Discovery of Woodkarne’ (1888 edition) here.
Sadly the woodcuts did not include any gambolling Irish nymphs, so I had to borrow this lot from Bouguereau above…