The Jonathan Swift Festival by Pat Liddy
Jonathan Swift is best known as the author of Gulliver’s Travels. Thought by many to be just a book for children, this novel has a great deal more to say than describe the adventures of a shipwrecked sailor in various strange and topsy-turvy lands. But more about this later.
Swift was born in 1667, almost under the shadow of Dublin’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, a church he would make famous in his later years. His life began as it would continue, dogged by misfortune and disappointment. His father died while he had six more months to wait in his mother’s womb. Upon his birth he was adopted by his uncle Godwin and soon his mother left Ireland altogether to go back to her own family in Leicester. He would not see her again until he was in his twenties. Educated first in a private school he entered Trinity College Dublin while still only fourteen. Four years later the college authorities reluctantly conferred a Bachelor of Arts degree on a person they considered lazy and dull.
His uncle Godwin had at this stage abandoned all interest in his nephew so Swift in turn abandoned his native land, went to visit his mother in England and shortly afterwards took a post as secretary to a famous retired diplomat, Sir William Temple, in 1689 at Moor Park in Surrey. Treated not much better than a servant with some privileges, Swift’s time at Moor Park did offer some engagement with people of high office and even on one occasion with King William III. This fuelled Swift‘s own ambition for career advancement. He was ordained into the Anglican Church and he set about nurturing political contacts so that he might one day get a bishopric or even archbishopric.
But his careful and, it must be said, often much-appreciated political work on behalf of, first the Whigs and then the Tories, actually led him nowhere and in 1713 he had to content himself with his appointment as Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, He described what he considered a virtual exile from the excitements of life in London as like “living like a rat in a hole” – not very flattering of his native city. But he soon settled in and became an indefatigable champion of the wretched poor of Dublin, especially the multitudes of indigent living in what were recognised as amongst Europe’s worst slums in the cathedral’s immediate catchment area.
His exceptional talents for withering satire were designed to slash at those in Government who had ultimate responsibility for the misery of so many and for their misrule. He wrote under a series of pseudonyms to hide (not always effectively) his identity for if he ascribed his own name to his purposeful documents he might easily have been arrested and even tried for treason.
He became a hero to all the people of Dublin when in 1724/5, as M B Drapier, he wrote a series of pamphlets condemning the proposed introduction of a debased currency into Ireland by its British overlords. He gained the ultimate civic award of the Freedom of Dublin for his successful efforts. Perhaps his most shocking work (he intended to shock), and this time written under his own name, was his Modest Proposal. Observing the unnecessary deaths of the poverty-stricken poor and especially of their vulnerable children he propounded that I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled. People recoiled at the very notion but that was exactly what he wanted.
In Gulliver’s Travels, supposedly written by Lemuel Gulliver, he creates an entertaining South Seas Travel fantasy but uses the escapades of Gulliver to expose the wickedness, as he saw it, of the cynical and cruel rule of the Britain of his time. On the land of giants Gulliver proudly explains how the British are beginning to rule much of the known world. After patiently listening, the King of Brobdingnag indignantly declares I cannot but conclude that the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth. Seditious words indeed!
Swift’s personal life was always complicated and his romantic interludes were no exception. He had several liaisons, his most famous being Ester Johnson (whom he called Stella and who is buried beside him in St Patrick’s Cathedral) and Hester Vanhomerigh (he named her Vanessa). Plagued all his life by illness he finally succumbed after three or four years of misery in 1745 to the merciful embrace of death. He left his considerable fortune to the foundation of a psychiatric hospital which still functions today.
In a short article I can but hint at just a few of Jonathan’s Swift’s attributes. But if you are in Dublin for the Swift Festival (November 21 – 24) you can attend one of the many events which will help to bring Swift, his life, his work, his extraordinary genius and his legacy to life (https://jonathanswiftfestival.ie/calendar-of-events). During the festival this author also has a series of tours to present Swift and the Dublin of his time (www.walkingtours.ie).