Jonathan Swift: reluctant revolutionary

Peter Berresford Ellis examines of the politics of Gulliver's Travels author Jonathan Swift and assesses his contribution to the struggle for Irish independence

"Better we all were in our graves, Than live in slavery to slaves"

JONATHAN SWIFT, best known on the world stage as the author of Gulliver's Travels, seems to have been someone who achieved things by accident. He became, for a while, the most popular man in Ireland, a hero to the Catholic population, the inveterate enemy of the viceroy, Lord Carteret, and the Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, Hugh Boulter.

He was watched and followed by the Dublin Castle spy network as Boulter claimed that his actions had led to a unity of purpose between Catholic and Protestant "and whenever that happens goodbye to the English interest in Ireland forever".

But was Swift such a dangerous social revolutionary?

It was an acquaintance of mine in Armagh, who happened to descend from the Swift family of Kilkenny, who prompted my thoughts on Swift by reminding me that his birthday anniversary falls on 30 November.

Jonathan Swift was born in 1667 at 7 Hoey's Court, Dublin, after which he was sent to Swift's Heath, Kilkenny, from where, at the age of six years, he went to the Kilkenny Grammar School and then on to Trinity College, Dublin.

Aged twenty-two he was appointed secretary to Sir William Temple at Moor Park in Surrey. Apart from a couple of years in Kilroot, Co. Antrim, Swift remained in Surrey until 1699 during which time his duties included being tutor to the beautiful Hester Johnson (Stella).

He began to write poetry and prose, including A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books, both of which were published anonymously in 1704. In 1700 he had been given the living of Laracor, near Trim, Co. Meath, taking his doctorate in Trinity College Dublin in February, 1701.

He was a regular visitor to London and achieved a reputation as a wit and conversationalist and, above all, a savage satirist.

The Tories sought his support, recognising his talent as a satirist, and he espoused their cause through his pamphlets and lampoons on the Whigs. However, they rewarded Swift shabbily.

Swift had hoped for a bishopric and some patronage. The Tories, thankful that Swift's powerful pen had helped overthrow the government of Marlborough in 1710, now pointed out that Swift's Tale of a Tub was rather outspoken about religious cant. It was a little too 'liberal'.

However, they decided that he had to be given something and the deanery of St Patrick's in Dublin was offered. Swift considered it both as banishment and a punishment.

When the Whigs, led by Townshend and Walpole, returned to government in April, 1713, there was no hope that Swift would ever succeed in retrieving his reputation. His political patronage was gone.

Ten years later saw Swift still in Dublin. His relationships with Stella, and later Vanessa (Esther Vanhomrigh, the daughter of a rich widow with property), which occupied his writing and time, have been copiously written about by generations of biographers and critics.

By now Swift had taken his place in colonial affairs, having given up all thought of progress in the 'mother country' (England) -- the Irish parliament of the 18th century and those who governed Ireland bore the same relationship to the native Irish as the Washington government and its legislators had to the native American people.

Swifts first essay on Irish affairs, published in 1720, advocated a boycott of English fabrics. But, in 1724, came the writings that made him a household name in Ireland.

The London government felt that there was a scarcity of copper coinage in Ireland and William Wood, proprietor of several extensive iron-works in England, was contracted to mint some £108,000 copper halfpennies.

It was clear that Wood had obtained the contract by bribing the London government. Colonial jealousy was inflamed and Swift, using the name M B Drapier and pretending to be a Dublin shopkeeper, attacked the proposal.

The matter did not really touch on of Irish national independence, simply on the independence of the colonial parliament in Dublin. It was argued that the coins being foisted on Ireland would destroy trade and the country would suffer an immediate depreciation of 150 per cent of monetary value.

What made the Drapier Letters significant was that Swift fiercely argued the national right of Ireland (the Dublin colonial parliament) to manage its own affairs. ìI will suffer the most ignominious and torturing death rather than submit to receive this accursed coin, or any other that is liable to the same objections, until they shall be forced upon me by a law of my own country; and if that shall even happen I will transport myself into some foreign land, and eat the bread of poverty among a free people.î Do I hear echoes of 'hear, hear' in Ireland as we start dealing in Euros?

Street ballads about the letters (there were six published in 1724) soon made them known and popular throughout the island. Swift wrote of the sentiments which "have often swelled in my breast" on the absolute right of the Irish nation to govern itself independently of the English parliament. He denounced the 'usurpation' of Ireland by London parliament through the use of its laws.

That Swift, however, meant only the right of the English colonists in Ireland to govern themselves is very clear. But, another interpretation was given by those who looked further into the future.

"One great merit I am sure we have which those of English birth can have no pretence to -- that our ancestors reduced this kingdom to the obedience of England, for which we have been rewarded with a worse climate, the privilege of being governed by laws to which we do not consent, a ruined trade, a house of peers without jurisdiction, almost an incapacity for all employments, and the dead of Wood's halfpence."

He continues: "In this point we have nothing to do with English ministers, and I should be sorry to leave it in their power to redress this grievance or to enforce it, for the report of the committee has given me a surfeit.

"The remedy is wholly in your own hands; and therefore I have digressed a little in order to refresh and continue that spirit so seasonably raised among you, and to it you see that by the laws of God, of nature, of nations and of your country, you are and ought to be as free a people as your brethren in England."

Swift still had powerful connections and the state could not move against him for what was seen as an insurrectionary tract. However, Harding, the printer of the Drapier Letters, was prosecuted. But when the indictment against Harding was brought before a grand jury in Dublin, another of Swift's biting letters had been circulated to every man of them. It was Seasonable Advice to the Grand Jury. The result of the influence of this essay was that the jury threw out the bill and released the printer. The administration was furious.

The viceroy, John, 2nd Baron Carteret , issued a proclamation from Dublin Castle offering a substantial reward for the discovery of the author 'M B Drapier'. This was something of a face-saving act for everyone knew that Swift was the author. Swift actually attended a levee at the Castle on the same day and rebuked the viceroy for attempting to persecute a poor, honest tradesman. "I suppose your lordship expects a statue in copper for the service you have done to Wood?" he asked.

No one would support the new coins now and the English government was forced to withdraw the patent. They paid Wood compensation in the shape of a pension of £3000 per annum for eight years.

Swift, the most popular man in the country, now became a real thorn in the side of the establishment, especially Archbishop Boulter, who had been appointed Anglican Primate in that year of 1724.

Boulter felt that Swift had single-handed "had a very unhappy influence on the state of this nation, by bringing intimacy between Papists and Jacobites and the Whigs, who had no correspondence with them." Indeed, Boulter went on: "The worst of this is, that it stands to unite Protestant and Papist: and whenever that happens, goodbye to the English interest in Ireland for ever."

Whether Swift had intended or not, he had become a champion of the Irish Catholics although he spoke of them and Catholic priests with disdain and aversion. However, they were prepared to overlook his ascendancy prejudices because of his bold assertion of Ireland's right to independence.

They realised that under the 18th century colonial parliament and the Penal Laws that they were not regarded as citizens of Ireland. But, if the dead weight of the London government were removed, once domination was taken off, they or their children could not fail to assert for themselves a proper place in a new Irish nation.

This is what Swift had stirred up and while he was never openly attacked by either Archbishop Boulter nor the viceroy, he was subjected to harassment and the activities of the spy system.

This was, mainly, the reason why he took refuge in the rural seclusion of his friend Sheridanís house in Co. Cavan, where he wrote his biting satire Gullivers Travels, which like many social satires now translates as a children's adventure.He was, he wrote: 'Far from our debtors, No Dublin letters, Not seen by your betters.'

In 1727 he went to England. His love Stella was to die the following year.

Boulter wrote to Sir Robert Walpole a warning:"Dean Swift designs for England in a little time, and we do not question his endeavours to misrepresent His Majesty's friends here wherever he finds an opportunity. But he is so well-known, as well as the disturbances he has been the fomenter of in this kingdom that we are under no fear of his being able to disserve any of His Majesty's faithful servants by anything that is known to come from him; but we could wish some eye were had to what shall be attempted on your side the water."

The colonial landlord system and iron rule from London were causing famine after famine, an ethnic genocide of the native Irish population, together with the prohibition of exporting woollen cloth which forced dapers, clothiers and weavers into penury.

In 1729 Swift back in Ireland wrote what is argueably the most biting satire ever written in the English language, Modest Proposal, which suggested that the Irish people should be relieved by the sale of their numerous children as food for the rich.

The last decade of Swift's life was not happy. He felt the loss of Stella deeply and his health became affected. He lived in constant terror of a mental decline and even left £8,000 to build a home for the insane in Dublin. In 1742 he sank into a speechless lethargy and had to be cared by a guardian.

He died on October 19, 1745, and was buried in St Patrick's cathedral. The lines in Latin and English on his grave are salutary: "Here lies the body of Jonathan Swift of this Cathedral Church, dean, where savage indignation cannot lacerate his heart anymore. Traveller, go, and imitate, if you can, his strenuous vindication of mans liberty."

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