Reluctant Irishman who became the high priest of satire

When Jonathan Swift was appointed Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral exactly 300 years ago, he wasn’t that impressed. Robert Hume explains why.

THREE hundred years ago this month, Jonathan Swift, later famous for his novel Gulliver’s Travels, was appointed 45th dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, in his native Dublin.

Swift had impressive academic qualifications, including a doctorate in theology, but had never wanted to be a dean. He had only entered the Church in Ireland out of desperation, fed up with his employer in England, William Temple, fobbing him off with promises of a better job.

Swift was almost 27 when he secured his first post, at Kilroot near Carrickfergus. His salary was £100 per annum and he was miserable and isolated. “Growing weary in a few months,” Swift said, and he returned to England and became chaplain to the Earl of Berkeley.

Keeping an eye out for a more prosperous living, he began work on the satire A Tale of a Tub, in which he poured contempt on the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the practice of selling worthless pardons. Swift’s Catholic priest, who expected to be addressed as ‘My Lord Peter,’ had “an abominable faculty of telling huge palpable lies upon all occasions”, sold a magic pickle called ‘pimperlim-pimp’, and claimed he owned a cow whose milk would fill 3,000 churches.

In Swift’s opinion, the Puritans were little better — they destroyed sacred statues, and were “mad with spleen, and spite, and contradiction”.

Many people believed that Swift was attacking Christianity, rather than religious abuses. Either way, this was damaging for a young churchman intent on progressing through the ranks of the Anglican Church.

Swift did not find better-paying employment in England, so returned to Ireland in 1699, to become minister of Laracor in Co Meath. That he was simultaneously given the prebendary of St Patrick’s Cathedral did nothing to console him. He felt he had been sent to a shabby garrison on an unimportant frontier of the Church, and his pride was wounded.

With a congregation of 15 people, Swift had plenty of time to write and to tend to his garden. “His attitude towards his little acre of ground,” wrote his biographer Louis A Landa, “was more that of the gentleman bent on improving his estate than that of a priest concerned with the cure of souls”.

Although Swift now received £250 per annum, he paid a curate to preach sermons, having gone to live 20 miles away in Dublin Castle. There, he enjoyed the life of a bachelor, becoming renowned for his relationships with much younger women — Jane Waring, Esther Johnson and Esther Vanhomrigh.

Even then, frequent returns were made to London, so that he could hobnob with the great and powerful, and enjoy the company of authors such as John Arbuthnot, Alexander Pope and John Gay, who “put a new spirit into one.”

All the while, Swift was keen to acquire a deanery in England — one with a good income, such as Wells, Ely or Lichfield. But he was to be sorely disappointed. Preferment was at the disposal of Queen Anne, who deeply resented his satirical remarks on the Church.

Eventually, in April, 1713, he was offered the deanery of St Patrick’s in Dublin, which was in the gift of his friend, the Duke of Ormonde. Commenting on Swift’s promotion, William King, Archbishop of Dublin, said: “A dean could do less mischief than a bishop.”

For Swift, the deanery was a “safety net”, since his hopes of something better in England had come to nothing. The drawback was that it meant living in exile: “I am condemned to live again in Ireland … I cannot think nor write in this country”. He was “like a rat in a hole”, said his biographer, Leslie Stephen.

Dubliners coldly received Swift on the day of his installation, in June 1713. They shouted abuse in the street and posted notes on the cathedral door, taunting him for his criticism of the Church: “I was horribly melancholy while they were installing me, but it begins to wear off, and change to dullness.”

Swift could not wait to return to London that September, where he restored his contacts with politicians and poets.

Periods of absence by the higher clergy were by no means unusual at this time. Thomas Hackett, the Bishop of Down and Connor, was facetiously known as the ‘Bishop of Hammersmith’, because of his prolonged residence in the metropolis.

Swift visited London for the last time in 1727.

Thereafter he stayed in Ireland, where he seems to have adjusted to his role, heading the chapter of canons and taking charge of the services in St Patrick’s Cathedral, where he is buried.

However, Swift’s fame does not rest on his career in the Church, but on his accomplishments as a writer; not on his being a minister in this world, but on his being creator of fabulous new worlds of tiny people and giants.


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