This year marks the 350th anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Swift and various events have been planned both at home and abroad to commemorate the life and achievements of one of Ireland’s greatest writers. As an illustration, I’ve selected from our archive one of the stamps issued by the Post Office in 1967 on the 300th anniversary of his birth.
Born in Dublin, he was educated at Kilkenny College and Trinity College and was ordained a clergyman. He found his life in rural parishes in Ireland dull and hoped for more advantageous appointments in England where his abilities were put to use by both the Whig and Tory politicians of the time. His appointment as Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin was not what he had in mind but when he began to advance the cause of Ireland through his writings, he established himself as a popular local patriot. His work on debasement of Irish money (Drapier’s Letters) and the grievances of the exploited poor (A Modest Proposal) earned him a reputation as a daring and effective critic of Government policy.
Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is the book everyone knows about, largely because it has long been sold, in a shortened and censored form, as a children’s book. The story of Gulliver in the lands of giants and little people has obvious appeal to children but the book is really an adult one, a witty if rather bleak commentary on human nature. Swift’s own nature was a complex one and mystery still surrounds his own personal relationships, especially his love life. Did he ever marry and what was the nature of his association with “Vanessa”, that is Esther Vanhomrigh, and “Stella”, Esther Johnson, the woman he first met when she was just eight years old and beside whom he was buried in St. Patrick’s? Whose was the lock of hair found carefully wrapped in his desk and bearing the words “Only a woman’s hair”?
Swift’s later years were sad. He is believed to have suffered from Ménière’s disease, which caused dizziness and nausea, and added to this were loss of memory, a stroke and senility which led to his being seen as mad. His friends, for his own protection, had him declared “of unsound mind and memory”. He had long had a horror of losing his wits and an appreciation of the terrible indignities suffered by those who endured mental illness. In his will, he left the bulk of his money for the establishment of a mental hospital, St. Patrick’s, which continues to help people to this day.
Priest, politician and patriot, a man whose character blended personal ambition and practical humanity, Jonathan Swift’s insight and style make him one of the greatest of all satiric writers.