|The Book of Irish Writers, Chapter 11 - Jonathan Swift (1667 –1745)
“I count no man truly unfortunate who has not been condemned to live in Ireland.”
So said the great ‘Hibernian Patriot’ - the founder of Irish writing in English – and man of contradictions, Jonathan Swift.
Swift was born in Dublin, but to English parents. He was educated at Trinity College – but he moved to England to have a better chance of fulfilling his ambitions.
At the age of 22 Swift joined the household of Sir William Temple, a retired English diplomat with the necessary connections to help the young Swift advance.
Temple’s household provided more - and less - than Swift might have expected. More in that he met Esther Johnson – the 8 year-old daughter of one of the household servants; Esther became the ‘Stella’ of his later, fond, writings, and the two maintained a close, but mysterious, lifelong relationship. Disappointingly though - Temple could not secure for Swift a suitable position in England.
Returning reluctantly to Dublin, Swift was ordained into the Anglican ministry - he was 27 years old. In the following years he kept his sights on settling in England – but always found himself frustratingly unable to advance there. In 1713, in his mid forties, he was appointed Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin –still, he felt disgruntled to be exiled so far from the centre of power in London.
Swift achieved heroic status in Ireland by writing a series of pamphlets called ‘The Drapier’s Letters’. In the guise of a Dublin linen merchant he protested against the high-handed English imposition of a debased coinage on the Irish. Swift saw this not just as an economic disaster for Ireland, but as a matter of freedom: -
‘Am I a Free-Man in England, and do I become a Slave in six Hours by crossing the Channel?’
Even though ‘the dogs in the street’ knew that Dean Swift was the pamphlets’ author, no-one betrayed him to the English authorities – despite the offer of a reward.
‘Gulliver’s Travels’, was published in 1726.
Swift arranged for the manuscript to be sent to the printer anonymously – and it was delivered under cover of darkness from a curtained, horse-drawn carriage.
The book is supposedly written by Ship’s Captain Lemuel Gulliver and is the account of his ‘Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World’. At this time the world was a mystery - Australia had not yet been discovered - and some readers would have taken as fact Gulliver’s adventures with the tiny Lilliputians, the giant ‘Brobdingnagians’, the mad scientists of ‘Laputa’ and the horse-like ‘Houyhnhnms’ - who are ultra-rational and intelligent.
In each case Gulliver is made aware not only of his own beliefs and values – but how they relate to the foreign cultures in which he finds himself
In writing ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ Swift may have been influenced by early Irish voyage literature, but he has nothing to say about Ireland in the book, except, worryingly, in the final section when we meet the ‘Yahoos’ – savage, filthy creatures, fit only to be the slaves of the superior Houyhnhnms. It’s possible that Swift intends the Yahoos as a far from flattering image of the native Irish …
Gulliver returns home to take up residence not with his family - but with his horses; preferring them to flawed people. Swift here, as elsewhere, questions what it is to be human.
Gulliver’s apparently rational choice to live with horses is misguided - but the potential monstrosity of reason taken too far is fully demonstrated in Swift’s most breathtaking work.
In the year 1729 a new pamphlet appeared on the streets of Dublin –
‘A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Public’.
The anonymous Proposer reminds us that poverty and famine are widespread - the poor suffer from having too many children …
And so we are lulled and drawn into a world in which rationality turns to nightmare.
“I have been assured… that a young healthy child, well nursed, is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food.”
Why, asks the proposer, shouldn’t the Irish poor be allowed to raise their babies for the pot? They could alleviate their hunger and make money from the sale of the meat!
Rational, yes, logical, yes, and, of course, monstrous; but as Swift makes us realise no more monstrous than the original causes of poverty and hunger – the greed and cruelty of the oppressive English landlords.
As a satirist Swift’s greatest legacy is his challenge to the sanity of the world we have made for ourselves. It’s ironic that he himself was declared to be of unsound mind a few years before his death in 1745. He was 78.
The bulk of his fortune he left for the foundation of an insane asylum.