Wednesday 18 September 2019

Remembering Dublin's great 'Dane'

Jonathan Swift was raised at the Swiftsheath estate in Kilkenny by his uncle Godwin
Jonathan Swift was raised at the Swiftsheath estate in Kilkenny by his uncle Godwin

Ulick O'Connor

Over 30 years ago I was part of a crowd listening to the Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral, the late Victor Griffin, speaking about the ravages of developers who were destroying the neighbourhood. I noticed an old man come up to congratulate the Dean.

"That was a great speech. It was worthy of the Great Dane himself," he said.

I recognised the Dublin pronunciation immediately of 'Dane' (instead of Dean) and gathered that it was Jonathan Swift he was talking about.

This year is the 350th anniversary of Swift's birth. He was looked on from all over the world as among the first six in the English language, with hundreds of phrases which caught the public mind, and still do. Swift conducted powerful campaigns in Dublin for the city's poor, believing that they had been mistreated by the English. His hundreds of political sayings, such as "burn everything English except their coal", caught the public imagination.

He used surreal images in his attacks, making what he called "a modest proposal" that children should be roasted and eaten to satisfy public greed. His writings and speeches show his sympathy for the revolutionary movement.

The next time you pass St Patrick's Cathedral, drop in there for a few minutes. You can imagine the great oratory echoing from the church eaves a few hundred years ago.

By the way, you needn't worry; it's no longer 'a mortaller' for a Catholic to take part in a Protestant service. The Catholic bishops decently fixed this more than 25 years ago. Here is Swift's poem to his dear friend Stella.


Your innuendoes, when you tell us,

That Stella loves to talk with fellows

But let me warn you to believe

A truth, for which your soul should grieve;

That should you live to see the day,

When Stella's locks must all be gray,

When age must print a furrow'd trace

On every feature of her face;

Though you, and all your senseless tribe,

Could Art, or Time, or Nature bribe,

To make you look like Beauty's Queen,

And hold for ever at fifteen;

No bloom of youth, can ever blind

The cracks and wrinkles of your mind:

All men of sense will seek your door,

And crowd to Stella's at four-score.

Jonathan Swift 1667-1745

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