In honour of the fifth Swift Satire Festival, Eneclann’s Helen Moss offers her perspective on what Jonathan Swift might have made of genealogy and discusses his own much talked about family history:
Quite what Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) the writer and clergyman would have made of today’s interest in genealogy is difficult to say but we can be certain that he would have had an opinion. The author of Gulliver’s Travels, satirist, political activist, pamphleteer, essayist, poet and Dean of St. Patrick’s, a Cathedral in the heart of Dublin city, was rarely lost for words – designed to provoke, revolt, defend, educate and amuse.
Perhaps mindful of his place in posterity Swift in his latter years wrote an unfinished account of his family’s lineage and his own birth and upbringing, including his removal to Whitehaven by his nurse when he was under a year old where he remained for several years. Even when he was returned to Dublin he was separated from his mother who had moved to Leicester. These extraordinary beginnings and later events in his life have puzzled biographers and historians ever since. Who was Swift’s father – Jonathan Swift a steward in the King’s Inns in Dublin who died before the birth of his son? Or was Swift actually the son of one of the Temple family, possibly Sir John Temple (1600-1677), Master of the Rolls in Ireland and the father of Sir William Temple (1628-1699), the diplomat and man of letters?
To add to the intrigue, William Temple later employed Swift as his secretary at Moor Park in Surrey, and it was here that Swift was to write The Battle of the Books and A Tale of Tub. Moor Park was also where he first met Esther Johnson, his ‘Stella’. Did Swift marry Stella, said to be Sir William’s illegitimate daughter, who together with her companion, Rebecca Dingley, followed Swift to Ireland after the death of her benefactor? What was his exact relationship to Esther Van Homrigh, his ‘Vanessa’ whom Swift met when he was at the centre of political life in London? Swift was at this time disappointed not to receive anything more than the appointment of Dean of St. Patrick’s and as such his social whirl of intrigue and politics in London was over but it did not put a halt to his coruscating wit.
Back in Ireland his later works such as A Modest Proposal and The Drapier’s Letters established him as a supporter of Irish causes. He remains today one of Ireland’s greatest writers – this obdurate, splenetic, witty and brilliant man.