Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is one of the earliest of that numerous category of distinguished writers that we classify as “Anglo-Irish”. The category is problematic, though it has stuck, for want of a better one perhaps. Used more generally – without specific reference to writers ‑ the term Anglo-Irish has a signification which is more sociological than ethnic, though ethnicity can also be a fairly complex matter in Ireland. The Anglo-Irish were, in the eyes of what we might loosely call the native Irish, the possessing class, living in “Big Houses” on ample lands which had been confiscated from their previous Gaelic or “Old English” (and Catholic) owners. There were of course others of English or “Cromwellian” origin sometimes living in more modest circumstances but they appear to have been not quite so visible. A poor Protestant is no good to anyone and can be largely disregarded if one is engaged in constructing a national ideology. Brendan Behan famously offered the definition of an Anglo-Irishman as “a Protestant with a horse”. The Dublin Behan grew up in had not so long previously been densely inhabited by working class Protestant families whose ultimate ethnic origin was English but whose only equine acquaintance would have been with a carthorse.
“Anglo-Irish” as a literary category seems often to denote nothing more than Irish but writing in the English language. The term can thus cover native Dublin writers like James Joyce and Sean O’Casey, whose Irishness would seem to be obvious and indisputable, though both of them eventually chose to live elsewhere. It also covers persons whom we might consider to be of dual heritage or loyalty, like Swift, Maria Edgeworth or Elizabeth Bowen. The latter said that she felt English in Ireland and Irish in England. No doubt her neighbours in Ireland did not, and with some reason, regard her as being quite one of them, while in England anyone who lived in Ireland was Irish (minor characters in Jane Austen’s novels who have estates in Ireland are referred to as being simply Irish, as indeed was Austen’s own beau, Tom Lefroy, an Irishman of French Huguenot heritage who became lord chief justice).
“The noblest prospect that a Scotchman ever sees,” Dr Johnson observed, “is the high road which leads him to England.” And it was not just Scots who took that high road, witness Sheridan, Goldsmith, Burke, Thomas Moore, Wilde, Yeats (temporarily), O’Casey and Shaw. Emigrating to England may be understood as being, in many cases, an economic decision, for both Scots and Irish. And for a writer of course, London was where it was at: if you could make it there … well, you know. But affection and admiration for Britain’s pomp and majesty may in some cases have come into it too, as well as a feeling that one could be both. Edmund Burke was known to refer to himself as an Englishman, though he did not move to the other island until he was twenty. The English historian JCD Clark points out that this was in a period “before ‘Celtic nationalism’ sought to make Irishness and Englishness incompatible” – which some may feel is an odd formulation.
With Jonathan Swift things were perhaps different. The man generally accepted (there are other theories about his paternity) to have been Swift’s father (also called Jonathan) died before his birth. In a letter to Francis Grant from 1734 Swift wrote: “As to my native country (as you call it), I happened indeed by a perfect accident to be born here, my mother being left here from returning to her house at Leicester, and I was a year old before I was sent to England; and thus I am a Teague, or an Irishman, or what people please, although the best part of my life was in England.”
Jonathan Swift senior and his brothers were recent arrivals in Ireland, part of an influx that washed up after the wars of the 1640s and ’50s to pick up the victors’ spoils. Swift biographer Leo Damrosch writes:
… large numbers of Protestant English and Scots were encouraged to settle in Ireland, where they were awarded land that used to belong to Catholics. An English governor of the time compared the process to “flinging the reward upon the death of a deer among a pack of hounds, where everyone pulls and tears what he can for himself.” The brothers Swift, sons of a clergyman and seeking employment in Dublin as lawyers, arrived to pull and tear.
Anglicans at this time made up at most ten per cent of the population of Ireland, but they were the only ones allowed to vote, hold government office, practise law or attend university: “They also,” writes Damrosch, “owned most of the land, which had been confiscated from Catholics over the years. Another 15 percent were Presbyterian Dissenters. The remaining 75 percent were Catholics, regularly referred to by the Irish Parliament – whose members were all Anglicans, of course – as ‘the common enemy’.”
When Swift wrote to Grant that “the best part” of his life was in England he could not have meant the majority of his time; rather he meant the most enjoyable, the most fulfilling part. Ireland was a disappointment for Swift, the deanship of St Patrick’s a poor compensation for the plump English bishopric he aspired to and Dublin, though better than Kilroot, the Co Antrim parish (and nest of Presbyterians) he had started out in, not as splendid or culturally rich as London, which was also the home of his close writer friends, Pope, Gay, Arbuthnot and Addison.
Certainly Swift continued to miss England and London and to dwell on the kind of life he might have lived there had he been luckier or had his political friends (the Tories) not lost office. But Ireland’s misgovernment and the abject misery of its mostly Catholic poor did sting him into writing some of his most effective satire and so, in spite of his strong wish to be something else, perhaps he can also be counted a notable Irishman. (The Central Bank certainly thought him sufficiently “national” to put on the £10.)
Swift’s best-known literary creation, Lemuel Gulliver, though he is clearly described as an Englishman (from Nottinghamshire), is perhaps not a typical one. When Gulliver (or Swift?) wishes to describe differences or similarities between the customs and manners of Lilliput and those which the reader will find more familiar he does not refer to our English ways but our European ones. In the matter of the long-running enmity between Lilliput and Blefescu (that is between England and France) Swift/Gulliver seems to be rather agnostic, certainly deficient in red-blooded patriotism. Finally, Gulliver, having travelled widely and visited many countries, has taken the pains to learn foreign languages and is adept in many. An Englishman perhaps, but of a kind that now seems to be dying out.
Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin on November 30th, 1667, 350 years ago.
Illustration: Jonathan Swift, a notable Irishman (Series B notes, 1976-82)