Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

Dean Swift, "The Most Popular Man in Ireland"

Though he was born at Hoey's Court, Dublin, in 1667, Jonathan Swift was not of Irish descent, and always claimed England as his country. When only a year old he was taken to Whitehaven by his nurse, and kept there, through her great affection for him, till he was three. At that age he was able to read any chapter of the Bible, so that the time he spent in England was certainly not wasted! Perhaps he learnt more in those first years of infancy than he learnt at Kilkenny School, where he became a pupil, or at Trinity College, Dublin, with which his connection was not at all creditable.

Swift's father had died before Jonathan was born, and his mother was "rich and happy" on 20 a year. He had therefore to depend on an uncle with many children of his own, and thought himself very badly treated by this relative. He once told a friend that he had been given "the education of a dog." The friend's comment was that Swift certainly had not the gratitude of a dog or he would have refrained from abuse.

Swift was still discontented when he became Secretary to Sir William Temple of Moor Park, Surrey. He said that he was treated like a servant, and had to sit at a different table from his patron, yet, while there, he met King William III., who offered to make him a captain of horse and taught him the Dutch way of cutting asparagus. In later life, Swift used this last accomplishment to the dismay of his guests. When Faulkner, the Dublin printer, was dining at Swift's house, he asked for a second supply of asparagus. The dean told him sharply to finish what he had on his plate. "What sir, eat my stalks?" exclaimed the guest. "Ay, sir," replied Swift, "King William always ate his stalks."

Swift had leisure for reading at Moor Park, which had a fine library. He began to write verses and sent some of them to Dryden, the famous poet and playwright, but he was told bluntly that he would never have any success with his poetry.

In 1694, Swift left Moor Park in a rage with his patron on account of some fancied slight and went to Ireland, where he took orders. He became a clergyman in the hope of obtaining fame and wealth, but he never neglected his duties and tried to raise the standing of the profession. The clergy had little honour in those times and hardly expected to be treated as gentlemen. Swift taught them not to be ashamed of poverty but to respect themselves so that others would respect them. When he was waited upon by all ranks of men, he was particular about wearing his gown and cassock, and never humbled himself to the rich.

In March 1669, Swift was presented with the rectory of Agher and the vicarage of Laracor and Rathbeggan. He also had the prebend of St. Patrick's cathedral bestowed on him and for twenty years was never known to absent himself from morning prayers.

In the reign of Queen Anne, Swift spent much time in London, where he was the friend of Addison and all the wits of the time. He had then written two great satires—"The Battle of the Books" and the "Tale of a Tub." He was so drolly humorous that he convulsed society with laughter yet very rarely was seen to smile. His manners were harsh and overbearing, and betrayed the same contempt for mankind that can be seen in his writings. He sent the Lord Treasurer to summon the principal Secretary of State from the House of Commons. "For I desire," he said, "to inform him with my own lips that if he dines late I shall not dine with him:"

"I treat them like dogs," he wrote to a friend, "because I expect they will treat me so."

Though Swift held no office in the state, he had a power in politics such as a man of letters has never had before or since. He was neither wealthy nor aristocratic, yet all the richest and noblest were at his feet. Statesmen courted him and great ladies were willing to forgive his rudeness if they could only persuade him to dine at their tables. The poor Irish priest had one of the most brilliant intellects of the time, and it gradually received a universal recognition.

In 1719, Swift began to turn his attention to Irish affairs. He issued a pamphlet proposing that the Irish should use their own manufactures instead of importing foreign goods. It was a protest against the injustice of the English government, which had passed a number of laws since 1665, all aiming at the ruin of Irish commerce. Prosperity was now impossible for Ireland. Flourishing villages had become waste places and thousands of poor people had to beg their bread. Famine stalked the land in its grimmest form, internal enmity tore the people. Catholics quarrelled with Protestants, Episcopalians with Nonconformists, Whigs with Tories. "There is. hardly a Whig in Ireland," wrote Swift, "who would allow a potato and buttermilk to a reputed. Tory."

Swift did not love the Irish nation, but the state of Ireland filled him with rage because he loved justice. He determined to appeal to the people themselves to bring about reform, and to place their country on the same political footing as England. The printer of Swift's first pamphlet was arrested, and Whitshed, the Chief Justice of Ireland, tried to compel the jury to bring him in guilty. After a long struggle, the case was dropped by order of the Lord-Lieutenant. This was a sign of the greater victory to be gained by Swift.

In 1722, a patent was granted by the English government to William Wood to coin farthings and halfpence for circulation in Ireland. Wood intended to make a large profit by the transaction, but it was not the idea of loss to themselves, so much as the grievance that nobody in Ireland had been consulted in the matter of the coinage, that caused such general indignation among the Irish. In 1724, Swift began to publish the "Drapier Letters," supposed to be written by a draper, as an appeal to the middle and lower classes against Wood's farthings and halfpence. Why should Wood gain this profit, asked the draper, in defiance of the wishes of the nation? Was it simply because he was an Englishman and had friends of high rank?

The country responded as one man to the appeal of the "Drapier Letters." Anybody who used Wood's coins was marked, and then cut off from all intercourse with his neighbours. Swift wrote further letters and it became clear that Ireland was to be incited to the defence of national liberties. "Were not the people of Ireland born as free as those of England?" Swift asked. "Are they not subjects of the same king? Am I a freeman in England and do I become a slave in six hours by crossing the Channel?" Questions such as these roused the spirit of the nation. Meetings were held and clubs formed to pass resolutions against the receiving or tendering of Wood's coinage. Butchers and brewers met together for this purpose, and the very news-boys of Dublin then known as "flying stationers."

In the fourth letter, Swift threw off all disguise as to his real meaning. He declared that the Royal Family had no more right to ignore the feelings of Irish subjects than they had to impose what they did not want on the citizens of the mother-country. He denounced the custom of giving all the best positions to Englishmen, and said that all government without the consent of the governed was nothing better than slavery. Three hundred pounds was offered for the discovery of the author of the "Drapier Letters," Harding, the printer, was thrown into prison. When he was released without punishment, something had been won for Ireland. When the English put an end to Wood's patent in 1725, the writer of the famous pamphlets stood out as the man who had struck a most decisive blow for Irish independence.

The whole island rang with the praises of Dean Jonathan Swift. Medals were struck in his honour and both men and women wore medallions and handkerchiefs imprinted with his strange sour face. When he appeared in the streets, all heads were uncovered to do him reverence. His birthday was celebrated with loud rejoicing. He became the idol of Ireland and might have known happiness, had he cared greatly for the admiration of his fellow-creatures. But Swift was even then the loneliest and unhappiest of mortals. He wrote one of the most delightful children's books ever written, yet he had years before made a strange resolution "not to be fond of children or let them come near me hardly." Gulliver's Travels  is tinged with a bitter dislike of mankind generally. It pleases children but it was not to give them pleasure that Swift wrote it. He proposed two years later that the children of poor people in Ireland should be eaten. Though he made this suggestion in mockery it was a horrible jest that showed how great a burden he thought a peasant's family must be.

Swift was a man of gloomy nature, but a public-spirited man because he hated to see folly and baseness. "Good-night, I hope I shall never see you again," was his usual leave-taking to one friend. In his last verse he must needs fling a taunt at the country which worshipped him as a national hero. A new magazine had been built in an Irish town for the storing of arms and stores, and Swift wrote—

"Behold a proof of Irish sense:

Here Irish wit is seen,

When nothing's left that's worth defence,

They build a magazine."