Sunday 21 January 2018

The good die young: the wild times of Oliver Goldsmith

Untamed and feckless Goldsmith was an unlikely candidate for literary immortality on the Trinity campus

Oliver Goldsmith
Oliver Goldsmith

Colin Murphy

Like most people remembered with statues, Oliver Goldsmith is largely forgotten. Who recalls much about the life of this 18th-Century Irishman, other than the titles of some works?

With a new production of his play, She Stoops To Conquer, opening at the Everyman in Cork on Tuesday (see the trailer on www.everymancork.com), I turned for illumination to the biography of him by a near contemporary, Washington Irving. It's readily available online.

Goldsmith's statue, by JH Foley, stands in front of Trinity on College Green. His contemporaries would have thought him the least likely graduate ever to be so commemorated.

Born in 1728 in Pallas, Co Longford, and reared in Lissoy, Co Westmeath, he was the second son of a Protestant pastor of limited means. He was lazy and distractible, but showed a flair for story-telling and repartee.

After an undistinguished schooling, he was sent to boarding school in Edgeworthstown to prepare him for Trinity.

Returning home at the age of 16, he borrowed a horse and a guinea to make the 25-mile journey. This was his first taste of the freedom of the road, and he decided to indulge. In the village of Ardagh, he asked a passerby for the best accommodation. The passerby was a local character, and directed him to what was literally the best accommodation – the private, family mansion of a Mr Featherstone.

Goldsmith rode up to the door and ordered his horse to be stabled, then walked into the parlour, put his feet up by the fire, and asked for the menu. Featherstone recognised Goldsmith as the son of an old acquaintance: instead of disabusing him of his notions, he decided to play along.

Goldsmith patronisingly insisted Featherstone, his wife and daughter should join him for the meal, and ordered a good bottle of wine to show his generosity. On the way to bed, he ordered hot cakes for the morning.

We know Goldsmith never forgot the embarrassment he felt when the truth was revealed the next morning: three decades later, he made this the central comic blunder in She Stoops to Conquer. At Trinity, Goldsmith was a poor student, in both senses of the word: he didn't have the money for full fees and therefore had to carry out various menial duties in front of other students. He hated it, and was lucky not to be expelled after playing a role in one of the most infamous events in Trinity's history, the Black Dog riot.

This was provoked by the arrest of a student. A group of fellow students, led by one Gallows Walsh, set the student free and captured the bailiff who had arrested him, dunking him in the college trough. They then decided to storm Newgate Prison (which was known as the Black Dog), and were joined in the process by a city mob. The prison guards fired on them and two of the mob were killed. For their troubles, four of the ringleaders were expelled from Trinity; Goldsmith was lucky merely to be disciplined.

He barely graduated, and then tried the church, and failed, and then medicine, and failed. He went wandering in Europe and came back to work in London. Eventually, he became a journalist of sorts. Gradually, his reputation as a writer grew, though he was reckless with money, and perennially in debt.

He wrote She Stoops to Conquer in order to pay off a debt. He was so desperate to have it staged that he wrote to one producer: "For God's sake take the play, and let us make the best of it, and let me have the same measure, at least, which you have given as bad plays as mine." It was a huge success, but Goldsmith benefited little – he had assigned the copyright to his creditor. Other debts hung over him. He fell ill, and meantime complained of stress. According to Irving, the last words he spoke were to tell his doctor "his mind was ill at ease". He died at just 43 – the first in a litany of great Irish writers who would die too young.

COLINMURPHY@INDEPENDENT.IE

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