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31 Oct

Perspectives on Ireland and the Reformation

Luther stands in front of the church doors as his theses are nailed to it. A watching crowd has mixed reactions: friars leave angrily, one well-dressed man cheers, most look on in curiosity.

Luther sent his ninety-five theses to the Archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Brandenburg, on 31 October 1517. He may also have fixed them to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on that day, but there is no contemporary evidence of it. The first reference to the supposed nailing of the theses is in 1558 (twelve years after Luther’s death) from Philip Melanchthon, an ally of Luther who was not in Wittenberg in 1517. If the theses was fixed to the church door, a practice at the time, one would have expected in line with that practice that they would have been fixed by wax1

Very early in the history of Protestantism, history became important. Confronted with the question of “where was your church before Luther” a succession of scholars set out to establish that their church was not new, starting with Magdeburg Centuries (1559-1574) 2 Luther was not the first to call for reform in the Church, and forebears could be traced: Jan Hus and John Wycliffe. And before Wycliffe, at least according to John Foxe (born in 1517), an Irishman: Richard FitzRalph.
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19 Oct

Test of toleration: Abernathy and Swift

Mural of two Celtic warriors in battle

John Abernathy was born on 19th October, 1680. Jonathan Swift sailed into his rest on 19th October, 1745. In the 1730s they locked horns over the issue of religious toleration.

In 1719, the Toleration Act was passed in the Irish Parliament. This confirmed that Irish Dissenters (protestants who were not members of the Established Church, the Church of Ireland) were free to practice their religion and to have their own schools. This act allowed Francis Hutcheson to run an academy in Dublin, for example. But there were still restrictions on dissenters in other spheres. A clause in the Act to prevent the further growth of popery (1704) laid down a requirement that all crown and municipal office holders should qualify themselves by taking communion in the established church. This was not altered by the 1719 Act. Since most dissenters refused to take communion as required the result had been the ousting of dissenters from civil and military office.

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30 Nov

In Our Time: Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the most brilliant and shocking satires ever written in English – Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. Masquerading as an attempt to end poverty in Ireland once and for all, a Modest Proposal is a short pamphlet that draws the reader into a scheme for economic and industrial horror.

Published anonymously but written by Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal lays bare the cruel presumptions, unchecked prejudice, the politics and the poverty of the 18th century, but it also reveals, perhaps more than anything else, the character and the mind of Swift himself.

With John Mullan, Professor of English at University College London; Judith Hawley, Professor of 18th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London and Ian McBride, Senior Lecturer in the History Department at King’s College London

The programme explains the background of the Proposal, including the confiscation of land, the growth of mathematical problem solving (referencing William Petty, surveyor of Ireland) and the conditions at the time.

17 Aug

Swift’s Crater

A diagram showing the orbits of Mars' moons, Deimos and Phobos.

From Giberne’s “The story of the sun, moon, and stars” (1898) – Public Domain

On the 17th of August 1877, the search of American astronomer Asaph Hall was finally successful. He had doubted the conventional wisdom that Mars had no moon. Using the giant 26-inch refractor of the U. S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., he searched close to the planet and discovered not one but two moons, travelling so close to the surface of Mars that until now they were lost in the planet’s glare. These were named Phobos and Deimos (see more about the moons on the NASA website).

This discovery had been anticipated by a fictional research organisation. In 1726, Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels, describing Gulliver’s visit to Balnibarbi and to Lagado, the island that floats above it where its rulers live. The intelligentsia of Lagado, though unhealthily engrossed in their studies, are advanced in astronomy: Read More

12 Jan

“Censorship and deception in the printing of Swift’s works 1690-1758” , National Print Museum, 15th Jan 2015.

From ECIS: There will be a public lecture at the National Print Museum entitled ‘Censorship and deception in the printing of Swift’s works 1690-1758’, on Thursday, 15 January 2015, at 6.30pm. The lecture will be given by Professor Andrew Carpenter as part of the National Print Museum’s ‘Censored’ lecture series and is free of charge

Please visit the National Print Museum website, or call 01 6603770 for further details.

03 Dec

Reciprocal Referencing: Hutcheson and Swift

At the end of a downpour on a Dublin street

“Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down,
Threatening with deluge this devoted town.”
Downpour in Dublin (c) Phil Burns/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I came across an article, An image from Francis Hutcheson in Gulliver’s Travels, book IV, chapter 5 by Arnd Bohm, in which he points out the similarity between a passage by Swift and a passage by Hutcheson.

In Gulliver’s Travels (book IV, Chapter 5) Gulliver tells the gentle, horse-like Houyhnhnm master about wars among humans, and the death and destruction it involves:

And to set forth the valour of my own dear countrymen, I assured him, “that I had seen them blow up a hundred enemies at once in a siege, and as many in a ship, and beheld the dead bodies drop down in pieces from the clouds, to the great diversion of the spectators.”

The Houyhnhnm is horrified, as we might be well be, at the thought of wholesale death being a “great diversion”. Bohm suggests that the moral indifference shown is emphasised when we realise the likely source of the example Swift is using.
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13 Jun

Yeats on Swift and Liberty

What was this liberty…served through all his life with so much eloquence? ‘I should think,’ he wrote in the Discourse, ‘that the saying, vox populi, vox dei ought to be understood of the universal bent and current of a people, not of the bare majority of a few representatives, which is often procured by little arts, and great industry and application; wherein those who engage in the pursuits of malice and revenge are much more sedulous than such as would prevent them.’ That vox populi or ‘bent and current,’ or what we even more vaguely call national spirit, was the sole theme of his Drapier Letters; its right to express itself as it would through such men as had won or inherited general consent. I doubt if a mind so contemptuous of average men thought…that it found expression also through individual lives, or asked more for those lives than protection from the most obvious evils.

Yeats on Swift (specifically his favourite tract of Swift’s, the Discourse of the Contests and Dissentions…in Athens and Rome) in Wheels and Butterflies (London, 1934), pp. 23-24

The quote was included in W. B. Yeats, Jonathan Swift, and Liberty, which links Swift and Yeats in their fight for a particular vision of liberty, coupled with elitism:
“He knew that the Irish intellect must continue the fight that Swift had led in Ireland against those perpetuations of seventeenth-century materialism–optimism, faith in utopian schemes, trust in democracy–that lay behind the new pious legislation and hedged about modern life. Outside of Ireland he had been accustomed to the extreme opinions of youth, often outrageous and contrary to his own opinions. But not in Ireland. Therefore Yeats felt mightly obliged to be the Swift of his day and outrage youth itself.”

Yeats’ version of Swift’s epitaph pares the original down to liberty and indignation:

Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his Breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-Besotted Traveler; he
Served human liberty.

02 Jun

Swift Satire Festival, July 12-13, 2014

Gulliver meets the King of Broddingnag, in Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" Source: Wikicommons/cc

Gulliver meets the King of Broddingnag, in Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”
Source: Wikicommons/cc

The Swift Satire Festival, held in Trim Co. Meath, celebrates the life, works and legacy of Jonathan Swift. It will take place on July 12-13, 2014. (Trim is the closest large town to Laracor, where Swift was appointed vicar in in 1700.)

More details here.

19 May

Swift Matters

One of the claims Damrosch makes near the beginning of his book to explain the need for a new biography is that “Swift matters”. This is, I think, justifiable. “Burn everything that comes from England except their people and their coal” used to be his most famous (and most misquoted) soundbite but in recent years changed priorities and transformed relationships have pushed another of his statements to the fore, one in which Swift calls for a law to be passed that would make it mandatory to “hang up half a dozen bankers every year”. Swift matters not just because he said some things which, taken out of context, can be readily assimilated to modern populist sentiment. He perfected the art of crafting phrases snappy enough to become slogans but which, on closer inspection, yield disturbing and contradictory meanings. He also (naturally) had an epigrammatic statement for this reading process, likening satire to “a sort of glass” in which beholders are likely to discern everyone’s face but their own. Not all his reflections will appeal. “

From “This life a long disease” by James Ward in The Dublin Review of Books, reviewing a new biography of Swift, Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, by Leo Damrosch

02 May

Swift, satire and censorship

Clip from The First Georgians, which covers an important but often overlooked time in British and Irish history.

What is said about censorship is true. Britain was freer than most after the legal mechanisms for policing print lapsed in 1695. Still, many works were published anonymously, for fear of public reaction. Swift is an excellent example…even though his satire was so entertaining that Gulliver’s Travels is widely read today without any notion of its satirical intent (nicely explained in this video).

Works judged blasphemous or seditious could still get you arrested. Toland, Emyln and Swift himself (not to mention his printer) could all attest to that.

Still, to steal a title from Swift, this was truly a time when a “Battle of the Books” was first allowed to take place. More on the political and philosophical background to Gulliver’s Travels here on Cliffs Notes.