Vol. 7 No. 3 - 1999
former Curator, Armagh Museum
Rabbits hot, rabbits cold,
Rabbits young, rabbits old,
Rabbits rare, rabbits rough,
Of these Dear Lord we've had enough."
(Grace locally attributed to Dean Swift)
Johnathan Swift was born in Dublin in 1667 but little is known of his early years. He was educated at Kilkenny College and graduated from Trinity College in 1685. By 1689 he was in England as secretary to Sir William Temple at Moor Park in Surrey.1 Temple was a Whig statesman, a classical scholar and a former ambassador for Charles II. While there, Swift also acted as tutor to Esther Johnson whose position in the household was interesting as she was reputed to be Sir William's illegitimate daughter.
After Temple's death, Swift returned to Ireland and, having been ordained during this period, was appointed a curate in Kilroot in County Antrim.2 He now entered the literary and Political scene with two books both published in 1704. "The Battle of the Books" was a defence of the classics while "A Tale of A Tub" set out to support the Anglican Church but contained such scathing criticism of the establishments of both Church and State that it aroused great enmity in high places.
Swift then became Vicar of Laracor in County Meath, a Chaplain in Dublin Castle and a Prebendary of St. Patrick's Cathedral. In 1710 he went to England again apparently to try to get assistance for the Church of Ireland. He entered into the literary life of the capital and became the friend of such men as Steele, Pope, Gay and Addison.
Although he had been a supporter of the Whigs at Moor Park, as he progressed as a political satirist he became a Tory and as a pamphleteer exerted effective pressure for many feared his barbed pen. In 1711 the Whig government fell, in no small measure due to Swift's attacks especially on The Duke of Marlborough. Under the succeeding Tory government Swift was an important figure but after Queen Anne's death in 1714 and with the Whigs back in power in support of the Hanovarian succession his influence was over.
Even before her demise his enemies, still smarting under his attacks in "A Tale of A Tub", had persuaded the Queen not to make him an English bishop and all he got was the position of Dean of St. Patrick's in Dublin.2 That he was aware of these adversaries is shown in his poem "The Author upon Himself" written in 1713:
"By an old red-Pate murd'ring Hag pusu'd
A Crazy Prelate, and a Royal Prude, 3
By dull Divines, who look with envious Eyes,
On ev'ry Genius that attempts to rise;
And pausing o'er a Pipe, with doubtful Nod
Give Hints, that Poets ne'er believe in God.
So Clowns, on Scholars as on Wizards look,
And take a Folio for a conj'ring Book.
Swift had the Sin of Wit, no venial Crime;
Nay, 'twas affirm'd, he sometimes dealt in Rhime;
Humour, and Mirth, had Place in all he writ:
He reconcil'd Divinity and Wit.
He mov'd and bow'd and talk'd with too much Grace;
Nor shew'd the Parson in his Gait or Face..
Despis'd luxurious Wines, and costly Meat;
Yet still was at the Tables of the Great;
Frequented Lords; saw those who saw the Queen;
At Child's or Truby's 4 never once had been;
Where Town and Country Vicars flock in Tribes,
Secur'd by Numbers from the Lay-men's Gibes;
And deal in Vices of the graver Sort,
Tobacco, Censure, Coffee, Pride and Port."5
The Dean was one of those regarded by the English as Irish and by the Irish as English and he certainly considered living in Ireland as being in a place of exile. This sentiment is expressed in the poem "Ireland":
"Remove me from this land of slaves
Where all are fools, and all are knaves
Where very knave & fool is bought
Yet kindly sells himself for nought...."
He was received in Dublin clerical circles with anything but goodwill as is revealed in another sad poem "In Sickness -- written soon after the author's coming to live in Ireland upon the queen's death, Oct.1714.":
"'Tis true, -- then why should I repine,
Too see my Life so fast decline?
But, why obscurely here alone,
Where I am neither lov'd nor known?
My State of Health none care to learn;
My Life is here no Soul's Concern:
And those with whom I now converse,
Without a Tear will tend my Herse."
This hostility was exemplified by a verse posted on his door on the day of his installation as dean:
"Today this Temple gets a Dean
Of Darts and fame uncommon
Used both to pray and to profane,
To serve both God and Mammon ....
This place he got by wit and rhyme
And many ways most odd
And might a Bishop be in time
Did he believe in God.....
Look down, St. Patrick, look, we pray,
On thine own Church and Steeple;
Convert, thy Dean on this great Day,
Or else, God save the People."
At first Swift stayed aloof from Irish affairs but soon he saw the conditions of the poor in Dublin, especially the Huguenot weavers whose work was so adversely affected by English restrictions on Irish woollen manufacturers. Once involved, the Dean used his pen with devastating effect to attack the ills of Irish society. In "The Drapier Letters" he so successfully poured scorn on Wood's debased halfpence that the scheme was a failure and a disaster for the promoters. It was he who first wrote of "burning everything that came from England except their coals" a phrase reiterated by many nationalists ever since. Yet Swift was no republican but advocated the control of Irish affairs by a Dublin based parliament under the British crown.
The generations since Swift's time have been intrigued by his relations with the fair sex.6 Having been tutor and then guardian of Esther Johnson, and she having been left property in Wicklow by Temple, Swift persuaded her and a companion, Rebecca Dingley, to settle in Ireland, first at Laracor and then at the Deanery. It would appear that he was keen to marry Esther, to whom he wrote his "Journal to Stella", but it would seem that he did not do so although she remained a faithful and frustrated admirer.
While curate in Kilroot he had very seriously wooed an heiress, Jane Waring, the daughter of the Archdeacon of Dromore, 7 using the pet name of Varina, but in the end she firmly rejected him. While in London, and with Stella in Dublin, Swift met another Esther - Esther Van Homrigh - who was intelligent, attractive and wealthy. Vanessa was the name Swift coined for her but again the relationship was of an impermanent nature and the failure to become an English bishop required Swift to return to Dublin, a Deanery and the loyal friendship of Stella.
The friends Swift had made in London during his years there included a number of Irish gentlemen then living in the capital. One of these was Robert Cope of Loughgall in Armagh County so on his return to Ireland Swift kept up the acquaintance and in 1717 came to stay at Drumilly and again in 1722 but fell out with Cope who had become a Whig. This was logical for in Ireland the Tories were looked on as Jacobites and against the established order of things. The Copes had come into the county in 1611 obtaining estates to the north east of Armagh city from the original Plantation grantee, Lord Saye and Seal. 8 They established the two manors of Drumilly and Derycreevy and although driven off during the 1641 rebellion returned again and remained in possession until after the Second World War.
While at Cope's Swift received a letter from a disgruntled Vanessa in June, 1722 in which she upbraids him:
"---, ----, ----, Cad, I thought you had quite forgot both me, and your promise, of writing to me was it not very unkind to be five weeks absent without sending me one line to let me know you were well and remembered me besides you have had such bad weather that you could have no divertion abroad what then could you do but write and read ...".
To this missive Swift replied on 13th.July from "Lough-gall. County of Armagh." in a not very conciliatory vein:
"I received yrs, and have changed places so often since, that I could not assign a place where I might expect an answer from ... The worst thing in you and me is that we are too hard to please, and whether we have not made our selves so, is the Question; At least I believe we have the same Reason. One thing I differ from you in; that I do not quarrell with my best Friends; I believe you have ten angry passages in you Letter, and every one of them enough to spoyl two days a piece of riding and walking. We differ prodigiously in one Point, I fly from the Spleen to the worlds end, You run out of your way to meet it ..." 9
In another letter headed "Lough-Gall.July.22nd. 1722" to Charles Ford of Wooodford, Co. Meath, Swift paints an amusing picture of his host:"
"I have been here three Weeks with your Old Friend Mr Cope, who is the most domestick man you ever saw, with a Wife whom he is so silly as to love, and who deserves it as well as a Wife can; and with nine Children, with whom he troubles himself as much and his Friends as little as possible. I have had little Benefit of Summer since I left Dublin, the continuall Rains have deprived me of riding and walking, and I believe the Clymate has not got much Credit with you. My Comfort is, that the People, the Churches and the Plantations made me think I am in England. I mean only the Scene of a few miles about me, for I passed through miserable Regions to get to it .... As little as you think of us, one of your Acquaintance was here t'other day; it was Archdeacon Morrice, 10 who is a great Builder and Planter, a very honest Gentleman, poor and generous, keeps excellent Wine, has buried his wife, has 2 Children and the Sciatica. What is more Tisdal11 lives but 7 miles off, we meet him once a week at a Club. He is fifty times less agreeable than ever, but a great Poet, Writer and Divine, and we fall out every time we meet ... I have been thro the longest Lake in Ireland, 12 and the first fair Weather am to go through the broadest, that turns wood into Stone, and fools into Lyars."13
It is to the period of his stay at Drumilly that two of the local Swift anecdotes relate. The first concerns a Sunday when he went to preach at Kilmore Church.
He arrived to find that the bell was silent although the hour of the service was near. On enquiring he was told that the sexton was waiting for the sight of Mr. Richardson's coach coming from Richhill. "If", quoth the Dean, "the bell of Kilmore hangs on the wheels of Mr. Richardson's carriage he can take the service himself" and off he rode.
The second tale recalls that in 1722 the Dean was going up to the Cathedral in Armagh when he saw masons at work building the new Presbyterian meeting house in Abbey Street and noted that they were re-using the carved stones from the ruined Abbey of SS.Peter and Paul and that "these lunatic Puritans are chiselling very Popery out of the stones".14 During work on the building in 1966 the original window opes were revealed and from one on the East side two carved pilaster heads of fourteenth century date were recovered. One is ornamented with a pair of dolphins and the other with two birds but they had been damaged when they had been reworked.
These were presented by the Mall Presbyterian Church Committee to Armagh County Museum 15 and verify the Dean's account of the matter. Indeed stone from all the suppressed religious houses in the city was utilised by builders. Another tale about this incident recounts that the Dean quizzed the masons about their pay. On being told that it was a shilling a day he commented that a good mason could be had in Dublin for nine pence, only to receive the riposte that in Armagh "we get a good Dean for £200 a year".
It was at this time that Swift is reputed to have been admitted as a freeman of the Borough but as the Armagh Role of Freemen before 1732 is now lost this cannot be verified. He was so honoured in Charlemont, then also a borough, in 1728.16 By October, 1722 he was back in Dublin and writing to Robert Cope discussing ecclesiastical, social and political affairs and concluded by presenting "My most humble service to Mrs.Cope, who entertained that covetous lampooning Dean much better than he deserved".
After falling out with Robert Cope, Swift came to stay with the Achesons of Markethill who were another plantation family. In 1610 Henry Acheson was granted 1, 000 acres and then bought 2, 000 acres more to make up the manor of Coolmelish. His brother Archibald, who had acquired 1, 000 acres in Cavan, got possession of the Armagh estates as well for Henry never settled in Ireland. A Bawn was built, settlers brought in and Markethill founded as a market town.
The property was laid waste in 1641 but after the restoration of Charles II the settlement was revived. It was in the manor house which replaced the bawn destroyed in 1641 that Swift stayed with Sir Arthur Acheson and his wife Anne, a daughter of Hon. Phillip Savage, Chancellor of the Exchequer. That house has of course been replaced by the present Castle built by Archibald, 2nd Earl of Gosford, the family having been raised to the peerage in 1806. The Earl who was the great grandson of Swift's host employed Thomas Hooper as architect and between 1820 & 1840 the Castle was completed on an estate of 8, 000 acres.
Although there is a drawing of the earlier house by Cornelius Varley in the Armagh County Museum collection entitled "Gosford Manor, Markethill." and dated 1808, little is known about it. 17 It was approached by an entrance from the old County road through a double gate lodge between the ponds or basins as they were then called. This feature was retained as part of the nineteenth century landscaping of the demesne even though the county road was moved westward to its pre-bypass line. Swift first came to Markethill in June 1728 and stayed until February 1729. He was back in June that year for a three or four month sojourn leaving in September but reappeared in June 1730 and again remained until September. By then he had probably outstayed his welcome for he was a self-centred, rude and difficult guest, as he unrepentantly recognised in the poem "Lady Acheson Weary of the Dean":
"The Dean wou'd visit Market-hill,
Our Invitation was but slight
I said - Why - Let him if he will,
And so I bid Sir Arthur write.
His manners would not let him wait,
Least we should think ourselves neglected,
And so we saw him at our Gate
Three Days before he was expected.
After a Week, a Month, a Quarter,
And Day succeeding after Day,
Says not a Word of his Departure
Tho' not a Soul would have him stay.
I've said enough to make him blush
Methinks, or else the Devil's in't,
But he cares not for it a Rush,
Nor for my Life will take a Hint.
But you, my Life, may let him know,
In civil Language, if he stays
How deep and foul the Roads may grow,
And that he may command the Chaise.
Or you may say - my Wife intends,
Tho' I should be exceeding proud,
This Winter to invite some Friends,
And Sir I know you hate a Crowd.
Or, Mr.Dean - I should with Joy
Beg you would here continue still
But we must go to Aghnacloy;
Or Mr.Moor will take it ill.
The House Accounts are daily rising
So much his Stay do's swell the bills;
My dearest Life it is surprizing,
How much he eats, how much he swills.
His Brace of Puppies how they stuff,
And they must have three Meals a Day,
Yet never think they get enough;
His Horses too eat all our Hay.
Oh! if I could, how I would maul
His Tallow Face and Wainscot Paws,
His Beetle-brows and Eyes of Wall,
And make him soon give up the Cause.
Must I be every Moment chid
With skinny, boney, snip and lean,
Oh! that I could but once be rid
Of that insulting Tyrant Dean."
In 1728 he sent a letter from Dublin to Alexander Pope the poet, a friend from his London days, expressing his satisfaction with his reception at Markethill. He wrote:
I live very easily in the country: Sir Acheson is a man of Sense, and a scholar, has a good voice, and my Lady a better; she is perfectly well bred, and desirous to improve her understanding, which is very good, but cultivated too much like a fine Lady. She was my pupil there, and severely chid when she read wrong; with that, and walking and making twenty little amusing improvements, and writing family verses of mirth by way of libels an my Lady, my time past very well and in great order; infinitely better than here, where I see no creature but my servants and my old Presbyterian house-keeper, denying myself to every body till I shall recover my ears.".17
Before then in a letter to Charles Ford he tells that
"I have been here with Sr Arthur Acheson these three Months, in a various, but some what tolerable State of health, but with a family so agreeable, that joyned to the happyness of being absent from Dublin, I do not much pity myself".
None the less the Achesons must have been relieved when he decided not to build a house on a site still called "Drapier's Hill" after "The Drapier Letters" a book which was one of his most bitter and satirical assaults on the corruption of the time. The Dean's walk and his chair, a stone seat overlooking the old road, and the Dean's Well remain as reminders of Swift's time at Markethill although the late T. G. F. Paterson maintained that the well predated Swift and was more correctly named in honour St. Patrick.
Later verses show altered feelings about his host:
"Here I differ from the knight,
In every point like black and white
For none can say that ever yet
We both in one opinion met
Not even in philosophy or planting kale."
"His guests are few, his visits rare
Nor uses time, nor time can spare;
Nor rides, nor walks, nor hunts, nor fowls,
Nor plays at cards, or dice, or bowls
But seated in an easy chair despises
exercise or air."
"What intercourse of minds can be
Betwixt the knight sublime and me
If when I talk as talk I must
It is like prating to a bust".
Swift could not resist doing whatever caught his fancy as when in 1727 he cut down the ancient thorn tree at the entrance to the demesne as it obstructed his view and his only response to Sir Arthur's annoyance was to write a poem about it which starts:
"At Market-Hill, as well appears
By Chronicle of ancient Date,
There stood for many a hundred Years
A spacious Thorn before the Gate"
and goes on a few verses later to describe its destruction:
"This aged, sickly, sapless thorn,
Which must no longer stand;
Behold the cruel Dean in Scorn
Cuts down with sacrilegious Hand."
then the tree nymph swears to be avenged:
"Thou chief Contriver of my Fall,
Relentless Dean, to Mischief born,
My Kindred oft' thine Hide shall Gall;
Thy Gown and Cassock oft' be torn.
And thy confederate Dame, who brags
That she condemn'd me to the Fire
Shall rent her Petticoats to Rags,
And wound her Legs with ev'ry Bri'r.
Nor thou, Lord Arthur, shall escape:
To thee I often call'd in vain,
Against that Assassin in Crape;
Yet thou could'st tamely see me slain.
May that fell Dean, by whose command
Was formed this Machi'villian Plot,
Not leave a Thistle on thy Land;
Then who will call thee for a Scot?
And thou, the Wretch ordain'd by fate,
Neal Gagahan, Hibernian Clown,
With Hatchet blunter than thy Pate
To hack my hallow'd Timber down.
When thou, suspended high in Air,
Dy'st on a more ignoble Tree,
(for thou shalt steal thy Landlord's Mare)
Then bloody Caitiff think on me."
Swift also found a pleasing subject for a satiric poem of many verses when the question of the future use of the bawn at Hamiltonsbawn was being considered. Sir Arthur was trying to decide whether it would yield a better return as a malt house for brewing ale or if let to the Government as a barracks. In the poem he seems to favour a malt house but Lady Acheson demands a barracks so that she would have the officers for company and not be dependent on clergymen like the Dean and the Rev. Henry Jenny. Aided by her maid, Hannah, she explains why it should be a barracks while Sir Arthur appears to prefer it as a malt house thus avoiding a troublesome crown tenant.
The poem is entitled "The Grand Question debated." and only selected portions are quoted here:
Abstract 1. Sir Arthur's dilemma:
"Thus spoke to my Lady the Knight full of care;
Let me have your Advice in a weighty Affair.
This Hamilton's bawn, whilst it sticks on my Hand,
I lose by the House what I get by the Land;
But how to dispose of it to the best Bidder,
For a Barracks or Malt-House, we now must consider".
Abstract 2. Lady Acheson's preference:
"Thus ended the Knight: thus began his meek Wife:
It must, and it shall be a Barrack, my Life.
I'm grown a meer Mopus; no Company comes;
But a Rabble of Tenants, and rusty dull Rumms;
With Parsons what Lady can keep herself clean?
I'm all over dawb'd when I sit by the Dean.
But if you will give us a Barrack, my Dear,
The Captain, I'm sure, will always come here;
I then shall not value his Deanship a Straw,
For the Captain, I warrant, will keep him in Awe;"
Abstract 3. Hannah's vision:
"I fancy already a barrack contriv'd
At Hamilton's Bawn, and the Troop is arriv'd;
At last comes the Troop, by Word of Command...,
Drawn up in our Court; when the Captain cries, STAND.
Your Ladyship lifts up the Sash to be seen,
(for sure I had dizen'd you up like a Queen:)
The Captain, to shew he is proud of the Favour,
Looks up to your Window, and cocks up his Beaver,
(His Beaver is cock'd; pray Madam. mark that,
For a Captain of Horse never takes off his hat;
Because he has never a Hand that is idle;
For the Right holds the Sword, and the Left holds the Bridle)...
To shorten my Tale, (for I hate a long Story, )
The Captain at Dinner appears in his Glory;
The Dean and the Doctorl9 have humbled their Pride,
For the Captain's entreated to sit by your Side;
And, because he's their Betters, you carve for him first,
The Parsons, for Envy are ready to burst:..."
It would appear that it did not become a malt house for there is a reference in "The Journal of The Irish House of Commons" in 1760 to a horse barracks at Hamiltonsbawn rented from Sir Arthur Acheson by a lease of 1731.20
As the Dean mixed not only with the local gentry and clergymen but happily with the country people he noted, with an almost benevolent eye, their customs, virtues and hardships. He enjoyed making improvements on the estate working with the labourers as a quotation from one of his poems shows:
"Hail fellow, well met,
All dirty and wet:
Find out if you can,
Who's master, who's man:
Who makes the best figure,
The Dean or the digger;"
"Conforming to th' tattered rabble
He learned the Irish tongue to gabble"
In "A Pastoral Dialogue, Dermot and Sheelah" he portrays a rural romance at Gosford and in it mentions long bullets or road bowls as the game still played in the county is now known:
"A Nymph and Swain, Sheelah and Dermot hight,
Who wont to weed the Court of Gosford Knight,
While each with Stubbed Knife remov'd the Roots
That rais'd between the Stones their Deadly Shoots,
As their Work they sate in counter view,
With mutual Beauty smit their Persons grew.
Sing heavenly Muse in sweetly flowing Strain,
To soft Endearments of the Nymph and Swain."
"My Love to Sheelah is more firmly fixt
Than strongest Weeds that grow these Stones betwixt:
My Spud these Neetles from the Stones can part,
No Knife so keen to weed thee from my Heart."
"My Love for gentle Dermot faster grows
Than yon tall Dock that rises to thy Nose.
Cut down the Dock, 'twill sprout again: but 0!
Love rooted out, again will never grow."
"When you saw Tady at long bullets play,
You sat and lows'd him all the Sun-shine Day.
How could you, Sheelah, listen to his Tales,
Or Crack such Lice as his between your Nails?"
"When you with Oonah stood behind a Ditch,
I peept, and saw you kiss the dirty Bitch.
Dermot, how could you touch those nasty Sluts!
I almost wisht this Spud were in your Guts?"
The many letters written by the Dean during this period are interesting and deal with incidents in the affairs of the county. Dr. J. G. Simms in his article on Swift in "The Journal of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society" in 1971 wrote "We get a fresh view of eighteenth century life in County Armagh when we look at it through the eyes of Dean Swift".
His correspondence also dealt with church affairs, politics and his health. In 1713 Swift received a letter from Primate Lindsay concerning the appointment of the Bishop of Raphoe in County Donegal. It had been suggested that the Bishop of Killala might be interested in translation to that Northern diocese but the reply was that "it was not worth his while to carry his family so far Northwards for so little advantage as that Bishoprick would bring.....".
In 1728 Swift wrote to the Rev. John Worrall of his intention to return to Dublin and his cathedral despite his ill health which rendered him giddy and deaf. Lady Catherine Jones wrote from Chelsea in June, 1729 about necessary repairs to her Grandfather's monument in St. Patrick's in a letter addressed to "The Reverend Dean Swift at the deanry house Dublin Ireland" and readdressed "At Sr.Arth. Achesons Bart.at Market Hill in the County of Armagh by Newry"
To Alexander Pope he wrote in August, 1729 lamenting his poor health, "I am like a horse which though off his mettle, can trot on tolerably" and then expressed his concern at the state of affairs.
"As to this country, there has been three terrible years dearth of corn, and every place strowed with beggars, but dearths are common in better climes, and our evils here lie much deeper. Imagine a nation the two-thirds of whose revenues are spent out of it, and who are not permitted to trade with the other third, and where the pride of the women will not suffer them to wear their own manufactures even where they excel what comes from abroad: This is the true state of lreland in a few words.
These evils operate more every day, and the kingdom is absolutely undone, as I have been telling it often in print these ten years past."
In his last years Swift continued in Dublin suffering mental and physical deterioration, to die unmarried and to leave his money to establish St. Patrick's Hospital for the treatment of the insane while the ever faithful Stella, already dead, had endowed Steeven's Hospital. Of him it was written:
"He left the little wealth he had
To build a house for fools and mad:
And show'd by one satiric touch
No nation needed it so much...
He died on 19th October 1745 and was buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral where a memorial bears a Latin epitaph composed by himself and which in translation reads:
"Here is laid the body of Jonathan Swift,
Dean of this Cathedral, where fierce
Indignation can lacerate his heart no more.
Go, traveller, and imitate if you can
a strenuous defender of manly virtue."
The tribute written by Alexander Pope his friend of many years was surely well merited:
"Let Ireland tell how Wit upheld her cause,
Her Trade supported and supplied her laws:
And leave on Swift this grateful verse ingrav'd,
The Rights a Court attack'd a Poet sav'd.
Behold the hand that wrought a Nation's cure,
Strech'd to relieve the Idiot and the Poor
Proud Vice to brand, or injur'd Worth adorn,
And stretch the Ray to Ages yet unborn."
I shall close with a further quotation from Pope referring to Swift's claim in the days of great expectations in London to have been wooed by the high and the mighty as powerful men in England learned to fear his satire and biting wit:
"Yes I am proud, I must be proud to see
Men not afraid of God afraid of me
Safe from the Bar, the pulpit and the Throne
Yet touched and shamed by ridicule alone."
I must thank the Curator & Deputy Curator of Armagh County Museum & Ms. M. McVeigh of the Southern Education & Library Board's Irish Section for access to relevant material.