In England today, there are no fewer than three theme parks celebrating the stories of Gulliver’s Travels — Gulliver’s Land in Milton Keynes, Gulliver’s World near Warrington and Gulliver’s Kingdom Theme Park at Matlock Bath. Yet how many of the visitors to those parks know anything about the creator of Gulliver’s Travels, the Anglo- Irish writer and wit, Jonathan Swift? This year, on 30th November, the 350th anniversary of his birth in 1667, we should rightly celebrate the life and work of this talented and complex man.
Swift’s start in life was neither auspicious nor joyous. Born in Dublin to Anglo- Irish parents, his father died shortly before he was born and his mother, Abigail ( née Eriche), returned to England not long after his birth, leaving him and his sister, Jane, under the guardianship of his Uncle Godwin.
During the 1660s it was not uncommon for the English to move to Ireland, hoping for better opportunities, and his Uncle Godwin was successful in both law and business. He was able therefore to send his nephew to one of the best schools in Dublin, Kilkenny Grammar School, still a thriving school today. But Swift’s unconventional and parentless start in life left him with some underlying bitterness, likening himself to a dog, “fed and watered with somewhere to sleep but often
ignored, given orders and beaten when he disobeyed”.
In 1682, at the age of 14, he moved on to Trinity College, gaining a BA in 1686. He had hoped to study further for a Master’s Degree, but with the exile of King James in 1689 in favour of William and Mary of Orange, it was a troubling time for Protestants and he was forced to leave Ireland. Back in England at the age of 22, Swift was finally reunited in Leicestershire with the mother he hardly knew.
Abigail Eriche came from a family of both artisans and clergy. Her father, James Eriche, was the vicar of Thornton in Leicestershire from 1627 to 1634 and Uncle Thomas, the vicar of Frisby on the Wreake nearby. But how come the Irish connection?
Digging deeper, it seems that Abigail’s father, after being accused of “not taking good care of the parish”, emigrated to Ireland with the family. Though Abigail was not a mother to Jonathan as we would expect today, it seems he never reproached or criticised her. But this early rejection and lack of maternal love was possibly why Swift found it difficult in later life to give full commitment to relationships.
Once back in England, Swift obtained a job as secretary to Sir William Temple, the diplomat. A classicist by training, Sir William expounded many new ideas, particularly those for a healthier lifestyle, some of which had a lasting
effect on Swift. These included the benefits of fresh air, exercise and a diet of vegetables and fruit.
But it was during his years with Sir William that Swift first experienced the symptoms of the disease that was to hang over him for the rest of his life — Ménière’s Disease, which causes frequent spells of dizziness, deafness and nausea. It was partially because of this disability that Swift began a lifetime of vigorous exercise, walking and running whenever he had the opportunity. It was at this time too that he met one of his life- long lady friends, Esther Johnson, known as “Stella”.
Possibly because Swift could see no future at Moor Park, he returned to Ireland where he was ordained as a priest in 1695 in the Anglican Church, obtaining a position as the vicar of Kilroot in Northern Ireland. However, feeling both disillusioned and unhappy there, he returned to Moor Park, where he was appointed as a clergyman in 1696. Though his duties were not arduous — grace at mealtimes, spiritual and literary guidance to the children and secretarial- type duties for Sir William, it was a lowly position and the father/ son relationship became strained.
Temple died in 1699, leaving Swift £ 100 as well as nominating him as his literary executive.
For the next 10 years, Swift divided his time between England and Ireland still unsure about a career in the Church. Disappointed that he had not obtain a “deanery”, in 1700 he accepted a position in the parish of Laracor where there was a small Protestant population.
His health continued to make life difficult but his literary output continued unabated with a piece of satirical prose, A Tale of a Tub
( 1704), an essay on religious excess. Later, writing a weekly article in the periodical, The Examiner, he sided with the Tories, criticising the allies in the War of the Spanish Succession. His pamphlet The Conduct of the Allies ( 1711), an antiwar, anti- Whig rhetoric was a great success and sold 11,000 copies.
When the Scriblerus Club ( an informal meeting of writers) was founded in London in 1714, Swift became an active member of the group, which included Alexander Pope and John Gay. At one of their sessions, with his usual gift for satire, Swift had the idea for a Newgate Prison pastoral set among thieves and whores. Gay took up the theme and it became The Beggar’s Opera. Meanwhile Swift himself continued his satirical prose with A Modest Proposal ( 1729), which was even more inflammatory, suggesting that a way to alleviate extreme poverty in Ireland was for poor parents to sell their children as food for the rich!
Swift’s close relationships with two women gave rise to much conjecture. He first became attached to Esther Johnson ( Stella) at the Temple household, where he was her tutor. When later she followed him to Ireland, there was speculation as to a marriage. However, there was never evidence to prove that she was anything but a good friend.
The other woman in Swift’s life was Esther Vanhomrigh, nicknamed “Vanessa”. Of Irish and Dutch descent, she had met Swift in London and followed him to Ireland
after the death of her mother. Their relationship lasted for 17 years but finished after Swift refused to break off his friendship with Stella. She did find lasting fame, however, as the “Vanessa” in Swift’s poem “Cadenus and Vanessa”.
In April 1713 Swift was appointed Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, with a salary of £ 400 a year. From that time onwards, his life centred on Ireland. Leasing a small field near his house, he created a beautiful garden, Naboth’s Vineyard, planting fruit trees, flowers and laying down gravel walkways. It was to become his place of physical and spiritual renewal.
As Dean, he involved himself in all aspects of cathedral life, not forgetting the conduct of the clergy under his administration. But he also looked beyond the Deanery and was highly critical of the English landlords living in Ireland, maintaining that they showed little concern for the lives of the indigenous population. He was both ashamed and disgusted by the filthy and primitive hovels in which Irish peasants were forced to inhabit.
In the early 1720s Swift wrote his most famous work, Gulliver’s Travels, a satirical tale in which he uses the travels of Gulliver, a modern- day “everyman”, to criticise the anomalies, stupidities and cruelties of his own 18th- century world. Although superficially humorous and imaginative with the strange make- believe creatures and countries, his biting and cruel depictions of both animals and man were Swift’s way of attacking the society and politics of the day. It is written in four parts, with Gulliver travelling to the remote nations of Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa and Glubbdubdrib.
Swift visited England for the last time in 1726 and stayed five months. During that time he met up with old friends and writers — Gay, Pope and Congreve. To the Prime Minister, Sir
Robert Walpole, he complained about the disastrous state of Ireland caused by the mismanagement of the English landlords.
Back in Dublin, he continued to write poetry and subjected himself to a rigorous regime of exercise, daily running up and down the stairs in his house. But as he aged, he was forced to slow down and in doing so, thought long and hard about his future demise. And how best to express himself? In poetry of course. The time is not remote when I Must in the course of nature die; When I foresee my special friends Will try to find their private ends; Which way my death will do them
good: Yet, thus methinks, I hear them
speak: “See how the Dean begins to break; Poor gentleman, he droops apace You see it plainly in his face That old vertigo in his head, Will never leave him, til he’s dead. Besides, his memory decays, He recollects not what he says; He cannot call his friends to mind, Forgets the place where he last dined; Plies you with stories o’er and o’er; He told them fifty times before”. Swift’s last few years at the Deanery were a familiar story of deterioration, of his temper, reason and memory as well as that of his body. Helped for several years by his faithful servant and other friends, he was declared of unsound mind in 1742.
He finally died on 19th October, 1745 at the Deanery. With no close relatives, he willed all his money towards the foundation of St. Patrick’s Hospital for Idiots and Lunatics in Dublin. Today the hospital is Ireland’s leading “not for profit” mental health organisation and there are even wards named after Stella and Vanessa. The spirit of Swift lives on.
The first edition of Swift’s famous satire and an illustration showing Gulliver in conversation with the Houyhnhnms.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin where Swift was appointed Dean in 1713 and ( right) “Vanessa”, an imaginative portrait of Esther Vanhomrigh by Millais.
Situated on the north bank of the River Liffey, Dublin’s neoclassical Custom House.
A painting by Richard Redgrave ( 1804- 1888) entitled “Gulliver exhibited to the Brobdingnag Farmer”.