His was a remarkable life and a profound journey.


The year 1667 was a historic one in medicine; French Doctor Jean-Baptiste Denys performed the first ever blood transfusion, in June of that year.

1667 was also a historic year in Ireland, with a transfusion of a different kind, i.e. new life, in the person of one Jonathan Swift, born in Dublin, on 30th November.

Swift was the second child and only son of Sir Jonathan Swift, Attorney, and Abagail Erik. Both Swift’s parents were of English descent, his father came from a place called Goodrich and his mother from Frisby. Swift therefore, could be described as Anglo-Irish.

Sadly, Swift’s father died a couple of months before Swift’s birth. However, Swift was subsequently to be cared for by his uncle, Goodwin Swift.

Swift had arrived from a lofty blood line, with lineage to several personages of note, one of which was none other than the exalted writer, poet, soldier, politician, courtier, spy and explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh.

From the outset, Swift did not enjoy perfect health. By all accounts he was a sickly child who was afflicted by an inner ear condition known as Meniere disease. Meniere disease causes hearing impairment, with accompanying nauseousness. He was to be burdened with this condition, for much of his life.

From an educational standpoint, Swift was well looked after by his uncle, Goodwin Swift. From 1674 until 1682, Swift attended Kilkenny Grammar School and in 1686, he obtained a BA degree, from Trinity College Dublin.

Following his qualification, Swift, who was a member of the Church of Ireland, moved to England for a period and took up employment as a “Statesman’s Assistant”. For at least ten years, Swift worked with Sir William Temple, an English politician, statesman and essayist. Theirs was to develop into such a close working relationship, that William Temple actually became Swifts mentor.

Swift’s growing interest in politics was no doubt augmented by the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. This bloodless revolution and war of English Succession, was to see King James 2nd unseated from the throne and replaced by King William (then Prince of Orange) and his wife Queen Mary. These were unsettling times.

In 1690 Swift returned to Ireland and in 1695 he became an Anglican Priest. It was around this time that Swift began writing. Swift was ultimately to become a foremost prose satirist and under pseudonyms, was to publish many pamphlets, essays, poetry and a couple of books.

However, Swift was also to become a tireless worker and advocate for the poor of Dublin. In 1700 for example, he started The Irish Loan Fund, which provided loans to low-income families.

Given Swift’s keen interest in politics and his developing literary prowess, when the Tories came to power in 1710, Swift, who had an affinity with Toryism, was asked to become Editor of the Tory Examiner.

The next move in Swift’s career in the Church of Ireland was to come in 1713, when he was invested as Dean of Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

It is commonly believed that in 1716 Swift married a lady named Esther Johnston. Esther was fifteen years his junior. While no records actually exist to confirm their marriage, it is none the less believed that Swift and Esther remained lovers, for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps what Jonathan (Dean) Swift is best remembered for, are his writings; chief among which has to be his much beloved book of 1726 i.e. Gulliver’s Travels. In this book Swift introduces readers to one Lemuel Gulliver, an erudite gentleman whose academic achievements include Mathematics, Physics, Medicine and Navigation. Lemuel’s travels include such exotic places as Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, Japan and Land of Houyhmhnms (go check with your travel agent now).

Jonathan Swift seems to have been a man of considerable perception and indeed, a man before his time. Upon arriving to the Land of Houyhnhnms, (phonetics Ho-e-nums), Lemuel Gulliver encountered beings he called Yahoos “who were said to govern the herd”. By all accounts, these beings were a thoroughly dislikeable species. The following brief abstracts from Gulliver’s Travels, will give you some insight into Lemuel’s feelings in relation to the Yahoos:

“The Yahoos were a species of animals utterly incapable of amendment by percept or example”

“The Yahoos were the only governing animals in my country, which my master said was altogether past his conception.”

“A soldier is a Yahoo hired to kill, in cold blood, as many of his own species, who have never offended him, as possibly he can.”

“Choosing rather to trust myself among these barbarians than live with European Yahoos.”

“And getting to the side of the ship; was going to leap into the sea, and swim for my life, rather than continue among Yahoos.”

“I would suffer the greatest hardships, rather than return to living among Yahoos.”

Pretty conclusive then; Lemuel Gulliver, emphatically could not abide Yahoos.

Jonathan Swift wrote in two modes of satire Horatian and Juvenalian. Gulliver’s Travels is an example of Horatian satire while Swift’s later book A Modest Proposal is an example of Juvenalian satire. Because of his strong support of Irish causes Swift wrote A Modest Proposal, which was published anonymously, in 1726. The full (somewhat lengthy) title of that book reads as follows: A Modest Proposal for preventing the Children of Poor People from being a burden to Their Parents or Country and for making them Beneficial to the Publick. In A Modest Proposal, Swift suggests that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles, by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies. He was of course mocking the heartless attitudes to the poor which prevailed at the time, and striking at British policy towards the Irish, in general.

So potent was Swift’s sharp satiric writing, that it found very little favour with the British establishment and remarkably, eventually led to his printer, being convicted of sedition.

Writing as M.B.Drapier, Swift helped to prevent a debased currency from being imposed by the government, on the Irish people. In gratitude for his remarkable work for the poor, in 1729 Dean Swift was granted the lofty honour, of the freedom of the City of Dublin.

Sadly, in 1742 the great Dean suffered a stroke. The affliction was to see him deprived of speech. He also developed a swelling in his left eye, which rose to the size of an egg and which inflicted upon him the most excruciating discomfort. To the observance of close friends and perhaps directly related to the impact of the stroke, Swift’s behaviour became such, that a friend of his observed there to exist “such definite appearance of madness”. Swift was eventually declared of unsound mind by his closest companions and guardians had to be appointed, to take care of his affairs.

And so, on the 19th of October 1745, in the 78th year of his life, Dean Swift died. His remains were interred, together with those of his beloved Esther Johnston, within the precincts of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Patrick’s Close, Dublin 8.

Ninety years after his death, his body was exhumed by Sir William Wilde, a prominent physician in the city, and Oscar Wilde’s father. Sir William discovered that Swift had a loose bone in his inner ear, and that ‘Menire’s disease’ was at the root of many of Swift’s problems.

Apart from the lasting legacy of Swift’s influential body of literature, we also benefit today from another very significant legacy of his i.e. the existence of St Patrick’s University Hospital, located at James Street, Dublin 8. Swift left the not inconsiderable sum of £12,000.00 in his will, explicitly for the purpose of founding a hospital, for the mentally ill. As a consequence, in 1757, “St. Patrick’s Hospital for Imbeciles”, first opened its doors to the public.

The great man’s obituary reads as follows:

“Here is laid the Body of Swift, Doctor of Sacred Theology, Dean of this Cathedral Church, where fierce Indignation can no longer injure the Heart. Go forth, Voyager, and copy, if you can, this vigorous (to the best of his ability) Champion of Liberty.”

The year of this writing 2017, marks the 350th anniversary of the birth of Dean Swift. The transfusion of new life in 1667 delivered to us this great man. We shall live long in his literary shadow, and shall be eternally grateful for his continuing support, of our mental wellbeing.

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About dubmantalks

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