Jonathan Swift as the ‘Patriot Dean

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 1995), Volume 3

Jonathan Swift as the ‘Patriot Dean 1When Jonathan Swift died 250 years ago, his publisher George Faulkner eulogised him as ‘a great and eminent Patriot’, whose ‘Genius, Works, Learning and Charity’ evoked universal admiration (Dublin Journal 19-22 October 1745). The sequence of Faulkner’s phrasing deserves notice, since even as Swift’s ‘Genius, Works [and] Learning’, represented by A Tale of a Tub, a host of irreverent verse and, especially, Gulliver’s Travels, had gained him an international reputation as a satirist on a par with the ancients, his patriotic efforts had earned him still greater respect and affection from the Irish people. Advocating economic self-sufficiency in his Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufactures (1720), promoting self-respect and political autonomy in the face of the London government’s imperiousness with The Drapier’s Letters (1724-25), exposing the scandalous condition of the Irish poor in his Short View of the State of Ireland (1728), and bequeathing most of his fortune to found Ireland’s first mental hospital, Swift had certainly become ‘The Hibernian Patriot’—the title used by Faulkner on his 1725 edition of The Drapier’s Letters. Swift’s popularity as an author has continued undiminished in the centuries since, and literary critics (not always joined by moralists) have consistently maintained his eminence. Yet in Ireland, after his death and for nearly 200 years, Swift’s patriotism came under severe and diverse questioning. Only in recent times, in fact, has he become accepted as a patriot without serious challenge.

Jonathan Swift by Charles Jervas.(Courtesy of The National Gallery of Ireland)

Jonathan Swift by Charles Jervas.
(Courtesy of The National Gallery of Ireland)

Anomolous patriot

For Swift was an anomolous patriot, a figure of contradictions. Native to Dublin, educated at Kilkenny College and Trinity, he considered himself not Irish but an ‘Englishman born in Ireland’. The attitude so implied was in many ways typical of those of planter stock—it included a general indifference or hostility to the culture and language of the Gaelic Catholic majority—but Swift’s personal orientation to England was uncommonly strong. His parents were English, he lived and worked in England for years as a young man and, as an adviser and propagandist for Queen Anne’s Tory ministers, again in middle age. He cultivated there the friendships he most valued, sought there a permanent position, and regarded the one he received in Ireland instead as tantamount to exile. In religion Swift was not simply a Protestant, and thus a member of a minority in Ireland privileged over the Catholic majority, but a prominent clergyman of the Church of Ireland, stalwart in promoting its rights and privileges as the established church against the interests of an only slightly smaller Presbyterian community. Presbyterianism, in fact, he despised, while also never disputing the Penal Laws that curbed the civil and religious rights of Catholics. Hence, though generally considered an ancestor of Irish nationalism for his resistance to British encroachments upon Irish rights, his Ireland was a Protestant kingdom and mainly an Anglican polity.

Jonathan Swift as the ‘Patriot Dean 3In practical terms, moreover, except for his campaign as the Drapier against the London government’s imposition of Wood’s halfpence upon Ireland, his patriotic writings were ineffectual in gaining their stated purpose. He proposed Irish self-sufficiency, deplored the absenteeism of landlords and suggested improvements in agriculture and social conditions, but his arguments were unavailing with the Irish governing class. Despite his efforts, the economic position of the Church of Ireland eroded slightly in his day, and some restrictions upon Presbyterians were eased. A statute of the London parliament in 1720 declared Ireland a depending kingdom, clarifying the subordinate status of the Irish to the English parliament defined by Poynings’s Law in the fifteenth century; though as the Drapier Swift voiced Irish resentment against the arrogance of imposing Wood’s coinage as an effect of that subordination, his victory was limited to the withdrawal of Wood’s patent. The subordination of Ireland continued. It was in fact Swift’s stance as a patriot, more than the success or even the substance of his arguments, that drew political admiration for him in his lifetime. The patriotic effect of his Irish Manufactures pamphlet in 1720, for instance, issued less from what it promoted than from the government prosecution it provoked. In the hope of flushing out its anonymous author, its printer was taken to court, though Swift was widely known to have written it, the reward posted for revealing its authorship went unclaimed, and the jury refused to find printer or pamphlet seditious. The attempt at censorship failed, then, but the cause of self-sufficiency was not forwarded.

Acclaim among the common people

In life, Swift’s stance as a patriot combined with such humanitarian activities as giving to beggars or lending without interest to poor tradesmen, to gain him unusual acclaim among the common people. After his death this reputation was continued and elaborated in folk memory,

The benign ghost of Stella visiting the distraught Swift -illustration for a biographical account by J.F. Waller in an 1864 edition of Gulliver's Travels.

The benign ghost of Stella visiting the distraught Swift –
illustration for a biographical account by J.F. Waller in an 1864 edition of Gulliver’s Travels.

in jocular, often apocryphal reminiscences and stories that even found their way into Gaelic folklore. But even by then the political nation whose cause he served in The Drapier’s Letters was occupied with different, fresher issues, more immediately relevant than those of his time. In addition, the popular biography of Swift by his sometime friend, Lord Orrery, published in 1752, argued that the Dean’s patriotism was hypocritical: Irish affairs simply provided Swift with a means of irritating or embarrassing the Whig government in London that had displaced his Tory friends when Queen Anne died, and dashed his hopes of a career in England. Irish patriotic hypocrisy seemed of a piece with the misanthropy that Orrery, confirming the suspicions of some contemporary English critics, saw as the basis for literary satires like A Tale of a Tub and Gulliver’s Travels, and with the scatology in these and in Swift’s poems. Swift became an author more popular than respectable, and admired rather for ironic wit than moral guidance well into the nineteenth century; and among Irish politicians and commentators he became rather a figure of abstract, superficial reverence than a source of patriotic inspiration. Even Henry Grattan’s famous invocation of Swift when hailing the dawn of Irish legislative independence in 1782—’Spirit of Swift, spirit of Molyneux, your Genius has prevailed; Ireland is now a nation’—was not, we now know, actually spoken in 1782 but added to an edition of Grattan’s speeches that appeared after his death in 1820.
Underlying the specific difficulties that the Irish political nation had in perceiving the dimensions and potential of Swift’s patriotism in the eighteenth century was a subtle and problematic shift in their own self-perception. At the time of Swift’s birth in 1667, there was a recognisable colonial identity among Protestants, particularly Anglicans, in Ireland, forged from a sense of English political and religious pride or affirmation refined by its contrast to the characteristics of the Irish Catholic majority. Their anti-Catholicism, that is, was exacerbated by the proximity, numbers and rebelliousness of the Catholic Irish, features that English recusants generally lacked. Thus colonial fears about the ‘wild Irish’ whose land they had settled were magnified enormously by the Irish rebellion that began in 1641. The massacres of that year assumed mythological significance as their numbers were exaggerated to reach into the hundreds of thousands, confirming the indigenous Catholic Irish as barbarous and bloodthirsty, and privileging the Protestant colonial remnant as divinely spared to advance and prosper by suppressing the natives. That the Catholic Irish remained intent on exterminating Protestants, in political if not physical terms, was further confirmed by the brief empowerment of Catholics in the Jacobite regime a generation later. Protestants were not massacred, but their hold on the land (and thereby on legislative power) was threatened by the Patriot Parliament’s challenges to property titles. Henceforth, once Irish Jacobites were defeated or exiled, the penal laws were intended to turn the tables decisively by impeding Catholic land ownership and church freedom. So deprived progressively of political-military or pastoral leadership, the Catholic masses, whatever their numbers, would pose no more threat to the reinstated Irish colonial regime than the peasantry did to governments anywhere in pre-democratic Europe. The demise of that threat enabled the emergence of an Irish political nation exclusively Protestant and predominantly Anglican, which began in the eighteenth century to develop a sense of itself as a distinct kingdom with economic interests occasionally diverging from England.

This plaster bust of Swift, now in the Civic Museum, Dublin, long adorned a pub near his birthplace in Hoey's Court.

This plaster bust of Swift, now in the Civic Museum, Dublin, long adorned a pub near his birthplace in Hoey’s Court.

Catholic question ignored

Such a national consciousness, however, could not entirely outpace a fundamentally colonial concern that the kingdom maintain its Protestant character. The sense of distinctness from indigenous Catholics essential to that character was so firmly rooted in the fears and compensating superiority induced by seventeenth-century experience that the Irish political nation could not perceive its other interests clearly and consistently in their own terms. In objecting to English restrictions on Irish exports, for example, and arguing that economic self-sufficiency was thus all the more imperative to Irish prosperity, Swift’s Irish Manufactures pamphlet of 1720 was anticipated by Richard Lawrence’s The Interest of Ireland in its Trade and Wealth Stated as early as 1682. But Lawrence blamed the Catholic gentry’s continentally-oriented love of luxury for hindering that prosperity. However unusual these particulars of his attack on Catholics, his general thrust followed the rhetorical conventions of anti-Catholicism. Forty years later Swift avoided such conventions, focusing upon English restrictions and the (by 1720 mainly Protestant) Irish gentry’s addiction to imports; venturing into a new rhetorical field, he implicitly fostered a national consciousness at the expense of a colonial one. This derived from no purity of motive: he ignored the anti-Catholicism fundamental to colonial identity because invoking it would suggest like-mindedness with the Presbyterians he detested, while he regarded the penal laws as sufficient security against any Catholic resurgence. The colonial consciousness, however, needed circumstances as much as rhetoric to develop a national identity, defining its interests against England rather than Catholicism. English interests in the seventeenth century, after all, had included saving and defending the Protestant colony in Ireland, and grievances against England hardly offset the remembered trauma of the Catholic threat. Swift’s patriotic legacy is a rhetoric of resentment and self-improvement informed by such grievances, attempting to transcend that traumatic memory by ignoring it. However he might regard anti-Catholicism as distracting, his not attempting overtly to displace that trauma left his strident rhetoric seeming merely topical passion, often witty, indeed, but tied politically to particulars of no durable significance. Thus when a statue of the Drapier was proposed in 1732, one opponent countered by proposing a statue of William III instead, supplementing the one already standing in College Green, because William was of so much greater importance to Protestant Ireland (A Letter to the Right Honourable Sir Ralph Gore [Dublin 1732]).
For the most part, then, Swift was an acknowledged but rather abstract element in the embryonic, ambivalently national consciousness of Irish Protestants, summed up in the common phrase ‘that great patriot Dr. Swift’. There were exceptions: in a pamphlet of 1782 Leonard MacNally, later infamous for informing on the United Irishmen, traced the success of the Irish Volunteers in expressing popular determination for an independent parliament to the example of Swift; and Wolfe Tone’s journal in the 1790s records the dean as a precursor of his own still more separatist nationalism. These were Protestants whose definition of Ireland’s interests against England had evolved to the point (from which MacNally receded) of integrating Catholics, while the fairly quick acceptance of the Act of Union among the majority of Irish Protestants showed the residual strength of sectarian patterns for self-definition, especially following the 1798 Rising. Their very security in the Union, however, rather like that which the penal laws guaranteed to their forebears, could free some Protestants to assert their identity as Irish within the United Kingdom. For them, Swift was an attractive ancestor, at once defensively anti-English in rhetoric and assuredly British in outlook and culture. His avoidance of overt anti-Catholic rhetoric, moreover, was a bonus. He had avoided it, of course, by hardly referring to Catholics at all, and eighteenth-century Catholic writers had reciprocated with remarkably little mention of him. In 1817, however, the Scottish critic Francis Jeffrey, reviewing Walter Scott’s edition of Swift for the Edinburgh Review, attacked Swift for seeming so oblivious to the sufferings of Catholics in his own day, a charge which gradually become a fixture in British liberal considerations of Swift. Thomas Moore’s Captain Rock (1829) voiced the same concern, but Irish Catholic writers generally continued to ignore Swift’s patriotism, which had little to offer the emerging majoritarian politics of Daniel O’Connell’s emancipation and repeal campaigns. Typically, O’Connell himself hardly mentioned Swift at all. Thus he remained a Protestant patriot, regarded most warmly by Irish Tories, though hailed by the unionist Dublin University Magazine in 1840 as the wellspring of Irish patriotic agitation generally, implicitly including O’Connell’s.

A seventy-foot model of Gulliver,constructed for Dublin Millenium, was eventually beached on Dollymount Strand in July 1988.

A seventy-foot model of Gulliver,constructed for Dublin Millenium, was eventually beached on Dollymount Strand in July 1988.

Young Ireland

This was a harbinger for the considerable broadening of Swift’s patriotic appeal in the same decade. Hoping to gain support from his fellow Protestants for the O’Connellite cause of repeal, the Young Irelander Thomas Davis, co-founder of The Nation newspaper in 1842, often invoked in its pages a line of mostly Protestant seventeenth and eighteenth-century patriots. Constructing them as spiritual ancestors, a patriotic genealogy that demonstrated at once the nationalist heritage of Irish Protestants and a Protestant pedigree for O’Connell’s overwhelmingly Catholic movement, Davis conceded Swift’s religious intolerance as a failing of his time, but insisted that the anti-English thrust of his Irish writings offered enduring inspiration. Indeed, the failure of O’Connell’s ‘repeal year’ in 1843 and the catastrophic famine of the years following Davis’s sudden death in 1845 lent Swift’s rhetoric of resentment bitingly current value. When the repeal movement split in 1846, Swift was actually appropriated as an ancestor by the more advanced nationalists and hailed as a patriotic prophet by the even more militant John Mitchel. What invigorated Swift’s rediscovered relevance for both Davis and Mitchel was the hope that Irish Catholics and Protestants alike could define their common interest against England’s, uniting as nationalists as their forebears had joined together in Swift’s campaign against Wood’s coinage. It was a misplaced hope, but just as political nationalism was generally led by Protestants until the 1890s, Swift was increasingly enhanced as a nationalist founding father by politicised Catholics.


The momentum of that acceptance had no smooth path, however. The complaint that Swift’s patriotism was inadequate, because he offered no support to Catholic claims in his lifetime, was renewed at the end of the 1860s by John Mitchel, who had concluded twenty years after celebrating Swift as a prophet that his aloofness from Catholic issues left his patriotism trivial, and even called his Irishness into question. Father Thomas Burke, OP, a stirring nationalist preacher in Ireland and America in the 1870s, made a similar case. And as Protestant leadership of political nationalism disappeared, after the fall of Parnell, to be transferred to the new cultural nationalist movements, the Irish-Ireland theoretician D.P. Moran excoriated Swift as a particularly accomplished enemy of Gaelic-Catholic civilisation, an ‘Englishman, whom, with characteristic latter-day Irish cringe we claim for ourselves’ (‘The Pale and the Gael’, in New Ireland Review, June 1899). This line of attack continued into the l920s, with vehement protests at Swift’s English or anti-Irish orientation by the editor of the Catholic Bulletin, Fr. Timothy Corcoran, and was promoted most cogently by Daniel Corkery in the pages of Studies in 1934. Allowing for the expressive heat of his predecessors, their criticism and Corkery’s was essentially accurate: Swift certainly lacked any serious appreciation of Gaelic culture or sympathy for the mass of Irish people as Catholics in his day; his sympathies, in fact, inasmuch as they were with the Irish, were humanitarian rather than patriotic, and his anti-English rhetoric was most often employed in defence of the small Protestant colony.
Swift’s patriotic reputation nonetheless survived these repeated blows, has prospered, and by now is rarely questioned. This was possible, perhaps even inevitable, because of the purpose for which Davis and Young Ireland had constructed it. The Irish nationalism they designed became dominant by focusing on national pride and defining it as distinct, even opposed, to British imperial interests. That focus and definition fostered the identity capable of transcending religious divisions that Wolfe Tone had called ‘the common name of Irishman’. The language of that nationalism, however, was English, which in practical terms subordinated a genuine admiration for Gaelic culture. Swift’s anomolies, with slight adjustments of emphasis, could appear sufficiently resolved by this formula to enable his own construction as a nationalist ancestor, such an inspiration to later patriots that his eccentricities, even occasional bigotry, paled by comparison. Rarely at ease with himself, and less so in his native country, Swift yet lent himself to a treatment of its history rather like that Brendan Bradshaw has recommended for our own time (see HI Spring 1993), as guidance for the present and oriented to values, rather than past-centred and value-free. It was an historical programme that impelled the eventual achievement of Irish freedom, and Swift’s part in it, if never so resonant outside Ireland as his literary reputation, certainly deserves Irish remembrance in this anniversary year.

Robert Mahony is Director of the Center for Irish Studies, Catholic University of America, Washington DC.

Further reading:

R. Mahony, Jonathan Swift: The Irish Identity (Yale 1995).

T. Bartlett, The Fall and Rise of the Irish nation (Dublin 1992).

S.J. Connolly, Religion, Law and Power: The making of Protestant Ireland 1660-1760 (Oxford 1992).

J. McMinn, Jonathan Swift: A Literary Life (Dublin 1991).


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