Saturday 24 June 2017

Swift: a man at war with the city of his birth

Biography: Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel, John Stubbs, Penguin Viking, hdbk, 752 pages, €30.49

Conflicted-personality: Dublin-born Swift
Conflicted-personality: Dublin-born Swift
Jonathan Swift : The Reluctant Rebel by John Stubbs

Damian Corless

A compelling biography sheds light on the great satirist's love-hate relationship with the Irish people.

Gripping love-hate dramas set in Dublin aren't as new as you might think. For one of the most compelling, historian John Stubbs transports us back 300 years to tell the story of Jonathan Swift's tempestuous affair with the Irish people - and everything else you ever wanted to know about the great satirist.

Stubbs' panoramic biography - Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel - sprawls over 700 pages, but there's little danger of the reader hitting the marathon wall. There's a spring in the author's step right to the finish.

The length of Stubbs' biography is justified by the fact that Swift was a long-lived riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He was a true-born Dubliner who clung to his Englishness, to the point of inventing a story that he'd been "stolen" from England as a child and cast into captivity here. Swift was forever at war with the city of his birth, and one battlefield that resonates vividly today was the capital's housing crisis.

"To Swift the town offered an endless stock of maddening absurdities. He would highlight features of 'this beggarly city' such as the 1,500 houses standing vacant, while builders put up new ones on sites that could serve better purposes," notes Stubbs.

But Dublin came to love this grumpy old man who considered his post as Dean of Saint Patrick's Cathedral on a par with being marooned on a desert island, and not an enchanting one.

"When Swift's ship neared the harbour on 22 August 1726, Dublin welcomed him as a hero. He was 'The Patriot', the first citizen of the city. The bells of St Patrick's rang out in his honour, and other neighbouring churches. Bonfires were lit in the vicinity of the cathedral. Hardly a street in the town lacked his portrait, hung up as a sign over some shop or tavern," Stubbs writes.

The bunting was not out to greet the author of Gulliver's Travels, published that year, but the man who had just punched out the lights of a world superpower. Published between 1724 and 1725, his seven pamphlets known as Drapier's Letters had forced the British state into a humiliating climbdown. In 1722, an English ironmonger named William Wood had used his influence at the Royal Court to secure the rights to mint a new coinage for Ireland. By promising handsome kickbacks to members of the king's circle, Wood himself stood to make a fortune from his debased coins of inferior materials, which would be ultimately paid for by the Irish merchant and ascendancy classes. Penned anonymously, Drapier's Letters launched a furious attack on the scheme, forcing its withdrawal. A state reward was offered for whoever outed Drapier's true identity. The dogs in the street knew it was Swift, and the middle classes turned out in throngs to welcome the conquering hero.

For Swift, this drubbing of the British Establishment was as much to do with revenge as a point of principle. His love-hate relationship with Mother England was another manifestation of his pugnacious personality. The thing he craved above all else was a top job in the British Establishment, yet he devoted much of his time, energy and genius to hacking at the pillars of it.

He took other conflicts and contradictions to the grave with him. He may have been a womaniser, he may even have secretly married the 'Stella' of his letters, or, alternatively, he may have died a virgin. He may have been a bolshy contrarian merely by temperament, or his recurring urges to lash out at polite society may have been a result of Aspergers syndrome.

Like the good historian he is, Stubbs holds up the secret marriage and the autism to the light, decides that the weight of evidence doesn't fall either way, and sets both distractions to the side. There's plenty more in Swift's conflicted personality to be going on with.

Early on, the author tells us: "He tolerated no foul language. He rarely smiled and as he grew older was never heard to laugh. Behind or within this painstakingly orthodox personage, however, was a character who took extraordinary liberties with the conventions of the time. This was Swift's other mercurial self - one with the temperament of an unstoppable practical joker and, in some ways, a rebel." Swift got his greatest kicks from pulling off a good hoax, and told his close lady friends to call him 'Presto'.

Swift had a wicked sense of humour that in many ways we would recognise as fully modern. He combined a joyous appreciation for the absurd, with a killer instinct for nailing the absurdities of life, always keeping a special eye on those professing wisdom while wielding power. That is why he still captivates us 300 years on. But possessing a 21st-century comedy sensibility in a world that still burned witches was a double-edged sword, coupled with his edgy satire that could soar over lesser heads, would cost him dearly.

When A Tale of a Tub was published anonymously in 1704, Swift was riding high in London, moving and shaking with the court glitterati and forging a reputation as a wit and a political wag. This was how he'd imagined his life, and he felt that a top job in the Church of England was very much on the cards. He thought he was playing those cards right with A Tale of a Tub, which he penned as a full-blooded defence of the Established Church, by way of poking fun at heretics, atheists and charlatans.

However, he did such a good job of stitching up these villains through parody, that many lesser minds took him to be acting as a sincere mouthpiece for their views. Convinced that this rising star of the Church was actually a dangerous blasphemer, Queen Anne privately decided that Swift would never be allowed to hit the clerical heights.

And so it was eventually home to Dublin for a man out of time, who's become a man for all times.

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