Thursday, January 10, 2013

Jonathan Swift - a Peculiar #Irish #Literary Genuis

Public Domain

January 10

Peculiar People 

"Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others," Johnathan Swift. 

Artists and writers have always had a peculiar way of seeing life. They tend to be the ones who think outside the box, challenging others to view life with a different perspective. Today is a day to honor those who dare to live their life challenging the boundaries of society through their creative and performing arts. Once again I am going to merge my Irish and holiday post together. I couldn't think of a better day to present one of the greatest Irish writers of all times to you. You may even be a fan of his work and not even know about it. Who is the man in the portrait above this paragraph? Johnathan Swift. Published in 1726, the world has enjoyed his novel Gulliver's Travels in books, comics, television, music and film. A modern version of the story and loosely based on the novel was released in 2010 by 20th Century Fox staring Jack Black. 

A Peculiar Parentage
Jonathan Swifts' parents were Jonathan and Abigail Swift of England. Jonathan (the father) was the son the Vicar of Goodrich near Ross, Thomas Swift. Thomas Swift was a doughty member of the church militia. He chose to fight for the wrong side during the English Civil War. As a result, his estate was ruined. Jonathan (the father) married Abigail Erick (or Herrick) via Special Licence issued by the Prerogative Court of the Archbishop of Armagh in 1664. What makes their marriage so peculiar is the fact that they married under such conditions. A special licence was expensive and generally was reserved for couples who did not want to give a public account of their union. In other words, they eloped. Some biographers speculate that Jonathan was already married when he married Abigail. You can read about it at

Jonathan (the father) and his brothers had gone to Ireland in 1758 looking for work. He had struggled for a bit until he landed a job as a steward in Dublin at the King's Inn. Jonathan went back and forth between England and Ireland several times. He brought Abigail to Ireland after they married. In 1666, she gave birth to their daughter, Jane. In the spring of 1667, Jonathan contracted an illness that made him itchy. His son had spoke often of his father's death stating that he had died suddenly from mercury poisoning. He had been taking mercury to cure him of his ailment. Jonathan died in either March or April of 1667 leaving a young daughter and a pregnant wife. Now a desolate widow, Abigail had to depend upon relatives to survive. She had petitioned the King's Inn twice for financial relief and was only given payment once. Seven months after her husband died she gave birth in Dublin to their son on November 30, 1667. She named him Jonathan in honor of her late husband. 

An Unstable Childhood
Abigail Swift tried the best she could to give her children a stable home life yet it was very difficult. The death of her husband left her without an income and she had to depend upon Godwin Swift to sustain them. Godwin was her husband's eldest brother. He had been the first Swift brother to set his feet upon Irish land. Godwin was a lawyer who had risen quickly through his legal dealings and several   marriages to wealthy women. His success had prompted his other brothers to leave England for Ireland.  

Jonathan had been given over to the care of a nurse after he was born. One day, the nurse had left for Whitehaven, England to visit a dying relative. She had taken Jonathan with her and kept him there until he as a little over three years old. His nurse would often read to him and he loved it. She returned him to his mother's care in Dublin. Jonathan stayed with his mother for two more years and then Abigail decided she could no longer raise her children. She abandoned her children into the care of Godwin then moved back to England.

Godwin sent the six year old boy to Kilkenny Grammer School where he stayed until he was 14 years of age.  Kilkenny was considered to be the best school in Ireland during that time. It was here Jonathan became friends with his peers William Congreve (Poet/Playwright) and George Berkeley (Philosopher).  Jonathan entered Trinity College (Dublin University) as a pensioner in 1682 with the financial backing of his uncle. Instead of feeling grateful for his uncle's support, our author began to resent his uncle's charity and his unstable childhood. His childhood issues would remain with him throughout his life. As an adult, he was often insecure and harshly judged other people. Jonathan had a hard time at Trinity and was often in trouble for his rebellious attitude. A copy of the Easter 1685 roll shows Jonathan did `badly' in Physics: `creditably' in Greek and Latin: `carelessly' in his Theme.  Jonathan, like most genius, more than likely struggled not because he couldn't do the work but because he found the ordinary subject matter boring. As an adult, the author often looked back at this time of his life with distaste. He graduated with his BA from Trinity in 1686. After graduation, Jonathan went back to his love of reading until he grew bored with the source of his entertainment. He decided he would pursue his MA at Trinity. He was unable to finish his degree due to the outbreak of the Glorious Revolution.

Moor Park Mansion by Nigel Cox

Moor Park
Jonathan's uncle, Godwin, died the same year the Glorious Revolution broke out. Without employment he depended on his cousin, Godwin's son, to financially back him. Jonathan decided to flee the unstable Ireland. He headed to Leicester, England where he was reunited with his mother. Despite enjoying a relationship with his mother, our young author grew bored with village life. Abigail sought to relieve her son of his boredom and helped her son gain employment as the personal secretary to Sir William Temple. Jonathan moved into Temple's house known as Moor Park. During his brief time at Moor Park he met an eight year old girl by the name of Esther Johnson. Esther's mother was a widower who served as Temple's housekeeper. He had taken to the young girl quite quickly and nicknamed her Stella. Temple had given Jonathan complete access to his library. A lover of the literary arts, Jonathan tutored Stella in writing and reading. 

A year later, Jonathan and Temple got into an argument. Jonathan was too pompous and too self serving to be of any use to Temple. He was dismissed from service. Jonathan returned to Ireland. He stayed in Ireland for a year then returned with a better attitude into Temple's service at Moor Park.  It was during this time that Jonathan began to suffer from Meniere’s disease. Meniere’s disease is a chronic condition that occurs in children or adults between 40-50 years of age. It only affects one ear. It is characterized with spontaneous attacks that lead the sufferer to experience vertigo, hearing loss, ringing in the ear and a felling of the ear being full of something. Vertigo can last anywhere from 2 - 24 hours. Severe vertigo can cause nausea and vomiting. The cause of the condition is unknown. Jonathan suffered from the condition his entire life. 

Despite his ailment, Jonathan excelled at Moor House. He was entrusted to oversea matters of great importance and given opportunities to meet men of prestige and power. He was even introduced to King William III, who had taken to him quite well. Jonathan continued to write his poems and stories. While he was at Moor House, Jonathan wrote many pieces of literary work and burned most of them. The more he read the more he learned about writing. Jonathan had always practiced his writing since youth but this was the period of his life where he could hone in on his writing skills. Temple was a great supporter of Jonathan's writings. He became Jonathan's first patron, providing funds for Jonathan's works to be published. He also funded for Jonathan to receive his MA from Oxford University. Jonathan remained in Temple's service until Temple's death in January 27, 1699.

A Writer Is Born
Jonathan didn't stop writing after his friend and patron died. Instead he focused more on his writings.  He returned to Ireland and received his doctorate from Trinity College in 1702. 

You can read more about his later life at:
Jonathan Swift's Death Mask
Public Domain

In 1742, Jonathan suffered stroke that left him unable to speak. He died three years later on October 19, 1745. He is buried next to his beloved Stella. This picture shows the image of what Jonathan looked like at the time of his death. 

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