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Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel

John Stubbs


From the Introduction

One midsummer night in Dublin, 1710, two students made their way from a tavern in the heart of the old city back to the enclosure of Trinity College. They were in breach of the college curfew and, quite 'contrary to the former course of their lives', as they protested later, had taken drink.1 The two undergraduates, Graffon and Vinicome, fell into com­pany with a dubious character they knew called Harvey. For a lark, he suggested they get up on to the statue of the late King, which stood proudly on the wide street in front of the college.

At this hour the hub was quiet if not deserted. The shops on Dame Street and the warehouses in the alleyways had long been shut up for the night. The elegant, modestly Baroque front of Trinity was darkened. Across College Green to the north, also in shadows, stood Chichester House, where the Irish Parliament usually sat. It was an old building in a state of poor repair - much, it might have been said, like the Parlia­ments it hosted. The Irish Lords and Commons had little power, and often little wish, to argue with orders from London. The record does not show whether the three hi-jinksers had an audience. They might have had a spectator or two in a passer-by, from one of the high-gabled houses at the rim of the green, or from a college window in Trinity's wide com­plex. In theory, a porter should have been standing on duty at the gate, looking out for those 'haunting the town'.2 The tipsy students were dressed in the plain, dark, inexpensive coats and britches that formed the basic undergraduate uniform, and must have stashed their academic gowns somewhere before making their ascent. Their target on the spa­cious thoroughfare was in Roman dress: in a skin of cold lead, mounted on his charger, the life-sized statue of William III raised his sword and truncheon towards the sleeping city and the stars. It was quite a climb to join him on his tall pedestal. Ornamental lanterns, as well as a lengthy Latin inscription, offered hand-and-toe-holds; yet from the bottom of the granite base to the laurel wreath that crowned him, William's monu­ment was some thirty feet high.

This expensive tribute had been installed nine years before, and inaugurated with a long procession of the Lord Mayor, aldermen, sher­iffs, masters, wardens and councillors, while the crowds enjoyed cakes and hogsheads of claret set up on scaffolds. Since then it had been van­dalized quite regularly. Trinity students were for the most part to blame. Over the years the royal effigy had been smeared with muck and fes­tooned ironically with green boughs or sometimes with hay. The college was regarded by some in the city as a nest of Jacobites, and no doubt some of the rogue scholars were indeed supporters of Queen Anne's exiled half-brother, James Francis Edward, the 'Pretender'. Many of those who insulted King William's memory, however, may have had no quarrel with his status as the official saviour of the Protestant nations of Great Britain and Ireland; the hero of the 'Glorious Revolution' who had rescued the kingdoms from popery and slavery. Members of Trinity were upset that the King had been offensively set presenting his back to the gates of the college.

It was eight years since King William's death: with an irony that may have pained the city fathers who paid so much for the statue, he had been thrown from his favourite steed. In this latest assault on his mem­orial, the offending trio went further than previous miscreants. Their timing was particularly malicious to those who treasured William's memory. The anniversary of his most famous victory, at the Battle of the Boyne in 1689, would follow in a matter of days. The mud with which the three assailants soaped the King's grey face might be quickly washed away. The sword and truncheon they stole from his hands, though, would be difficult to replace before the annual celebrations on 1 July.3

Predictably, when Dublin's citizens awoke, any sniggers were soon drowned out by the offended uproar. Somewhere, having slept off their wine or their ale, Vinicome, Graffon and Harvey were also coming to -and evidently soon panicking about their sinful trophies. Within days, the Irish Parliament had reacted stormily to this 'great indignity' and demanded retribution. Queen Anne's viceroy, Lord Wharton, offered £100 in reward for information leading to an arrest. The Corporation of the City matched his offer with one of their own. Meanwhile a new truncheon was made and in a solemn ceremony placed in King William's unfeeling yet still princely hand.