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Jonathan Swift 1667—1745 The first great Irish writer to work in English, Jonathan Swift was born and died a Dubliner. He never knew his father, who died before he was born. Separated from his mother as a baby, he was supported by a stingy uncle who paid his fees at Trinity College, where he reacted against what he considered the pedantry of the curriculum and a foolishly authoritarian discipline. Known as a rebel, he earned his degree "by special grace." For the next twenty-five years, he went back and forth between Ireland and England, playing a variety of roles: antiwar journalist, participant in Whig and Tory political intrigues, advocate for the Church of Ireland (the Irish branch of the Anglican Church, in which he'd been ordained in 1694), London wit and writer who hoped to rise into a bishopric in the Church of England. Instead, he was made the dean of Saint Patrick's Cathedral in his native Dublin. The appointment horrified him. As he wrote to his friend Alexander Pope, he'd been sentenced to exile, "to die like a poisoned rat in a hole." But as the following writings show, the Irish exile had a change of heart. Disappointment and despair were overcome by the dean's passionate commitment to justice on behalf of the Irish people and the Dublin poor in particular. Later on he wrote again to Pope, inviting him to take up residence with him in his deanery where daily life offered contentment (as well as an outlet for his sense of humor). By this time, Swift himself (he failed to mention) had become a popular hero in Dublin city.
Dublin is a walker's city and Swift on foot was a famous Dublin sight. "I walk the streets in peace . . . and am reputed the best walker in this Town and 5 miles around. . . . I seldom walk less than 4 miles, sometimes 6 or 8 or 10 or more, never beyond my own limits." Hearty literary travelers, equipped with a few of his writ- ings as well as a street map, will find Swift's Dublin. (And Joyce and Beckett's, too, who also walked the length and breadth of it, at all hours, in any weather.) from the legion club* As I stroll the city, oft I Spy a building large and lofty, Not a bow-shot from the College, Half the globe from sense and knowledge. By the prudent architect Placed against the church direct; Making good my grandam's jest, Near the church—you know the rest. Tell us what this pile contains? Many a head that holds no brains. These demoniacs let me dub With the name of 'Legion Club. Such assemblies, you might swear, Meet when butchers bait a bear; Such a noise, and such haranguing, When a brother thief is hanging. Such a rout and such a rabble Run to hear jack-pudding gabble; Such a crowd their ordure throws On a far less villain's nose. . . . * The title of this savage attack on the Irish Parliament as a pack of politicians from hell comes from the Bible: "And Jesus asked him, What is thy name? And he said, Legion, because many devils were entered into him" (Luke 8:30). Could I from the building's top Hear the rattling thunder drop, While the Devil upon the roof, If the Devil be thunder-proof, Should with poker fiery red Crack the stones, and melt the lead; Drive them down on every skull, While the den of thieves is full; Quite destroy that harpies' nest, How might then our isle be blessed? . . . Yet should Swift endow the schools For his lunatics and fools, With a rood or two of land, I allow the pile may stand. You perhaps will ask me, why so? But it is with this proviso, Since the House is like to last, Let a royal grant be passed, That the club have right to dwell Each within his proper cell; With a passage left to creep in, And a hole above for peeping. Let them, when they once get in, Sell the nation for a pin; While they sit a-picking straws, Let them rave of making laws; While they never hold their tongue, Let them dabble in their dung; Let them form a grand committee, How to plague and starve the city; Let them stare, and storm, and frown, When they see a clergy-gown. Let them, 'ere they crack a louse, Call for the orders of the House; Let them with their gosling quills, Scribble senseless heads of bills; We may, while they strain their throats, Wipe our arses with their votes. . . . For the Literary Traveler "The College" in "The Legion Club" refers to tRINITY COLLEGE DUBLIN, on the south side of the River Liffey and the east flank of College Green. This was the original hub of the city: the tenth-century Viking thingmote, or public assembly mound, and the burial mounds of the kings. Founded by Queen Elizabeth in 1591 "for the reformation of the barbarism of this rude people," whose university education on the continent had contaminated them with popery, the college includes among its alumni the brightest stars of the Protestant Anglo-Irish cultural firmament: Swift (who cut classes and missed evening roll call, and whose bust by Roubiliac stands in the majestic LONG ROOM of the OLD LIBRARY), Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith (whose statues stand on the lawn outside the entrance), George Farquhar, William Congreve, Bishop Berkeley, Bram Stoker, Thomas Moore, Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Thomas Davis, Isaac Butt, Oscar Wilde, John Millington Synge, Elizabeth Bowen (Trinity admitted women in 1903, long before Oxford and Cambridge), Samuel Beckett, William Trevor, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Mary Robinson, and Eavan Boland.
Inside, the campus is an oasis of cobblestones, quads, bright green lawns, a graceful campanile, huge beech trees, sculptures, and fine buildings. The OLD LIBRARY (1712), facing the south side of Library Square, is the home of the BOOK OF KELLS, a Latin gospel book made in an Irish monastery about the year 800. One of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts in the world, it is, in the words of James Joyce, "the most purely Irish thing we have." (Mon.—Sat. 9:30—5; Sun., noon—4:30).
Just across the traffic intersection at College Green, "not a bow-shot" from Trinity, is the old PARLIAMENT HOUSE (now the Bank of Ireland), the "building large and lofty" whose governance Swift scorns. Begun in 1728 and completed in 1739, the old Parliament was known to Swift as the seat of the political power of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, a group he considered as self-serving and useless to the Irish people as the English, whose Parliament he called "a den of thieves" infested with "harpies." It was considered one of the most beautiful buildings of the early eighteenth century in Europe, "incomparably the most splendid Parliament House in the Empire, even eclipsing Westminster," according to some. Visitors may visit the elegant interior during banking hours. The LORDS CHAMBER remains as it was in Swift's time, complete with ornate ceilings, chandeliers, and two tapestries celebrating the Protestant victors of the Siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne (guided tours Tues. 10:30, 11:30, 1:45).
On foot and on horseback, Swift moved through the medieval streets of Dublin, talking to his parishioners, noting their accents. Continuing west from College Green along Dame Street, you turn right into the narrow cobbled streets that descend to the Liffey. You've entered the TEMPLE BAR (Dublin's "Left Bank"), in Swift's time a district of brothels, pubs, and the homes of the working poor. It was named for a seventeenth-century diplomat, Sir William Temple, for whom Swift worked as a secretary after graduating from Trinity. (He arranged the marriage of the Dutch Protestant William of Orange—King Billy of the Boyne—and Mary, the daughter of James II, the Catholic Stuart king defeated by Billy.) A man of literary taste, Temple was an important influence on the young Swift (some scholars say Swift was his bastard son) who was left free to read ten hours a day in his large library when he wasn't tutoring young Esther Johnson (Stella), the daughter of Temple's housekeeper, who grew up to be the woman he would always love.
Today Temple's old real estate, after centuries of neglect, is frantic with commerce, tourism, and all-night partying. Through the maze of Temple Bar roams the progeny of the Celtic Tiger, the symbolic name for the strong Irish economy of the 1990s that Swift dared, during a time of Ireland's deepest poverty, to imagine as a possibility. The most impressive destinations within these medieval streets are artistic. PROJ- ECT (in East Essex Street), an artists' cooperative of gallery spaces and a black-box theater, has brought progressive visual and performance art to Ireland. U2, Liam Neeson, and Gabriel Byrne trained here. THE IRISH FILM CENTER (6 Eustace Street) is an enterprise that would have appealed to Swift's practical heart. The clergyman whose proposals were ignored by the "Legion Club" (the Irish Parliament)—he advocated the encouragement of Irish industries and the taxation of absentee landlords—would no doubt admire the center's cluster of screening theaters, as well as a film bookshop, pub, and restaurant, plus film archives, and a thriving cooperative of internationally respected Irish filmmakers who include Neil Jordan, Jim Sheridan, Pat O'Connor, and Terry George.
From the Trade Paperback edition.