Sunday, 17 March 2019 12:05

Considering Ireland and the writings of Swift

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I was shocked when, on visiting Ireland at Easter 1981, I discovered that St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin is Anglican (“Church of Ireland”), not Roman Catholic!

I did, however, find some consolation at this cathedral.

I had written my first high school term paper on a portion of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (born at Dublin, 1667; died at Dublin, 1745). When I wrote the term paper, I consulted a number of commentaries on the book; what I did not do was read a biography of Swift. I kept wondering why the commentaries referred to him as “Dean Swift.”

I was shocked when, on visiting Ireland at Easter 1981, I discovered that St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin is Anglican (“Church of Ireland”), not Roman Catholic!

I did, however, find some consolation at this cathedral.

I had written my first high school term paper on a portion of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (born at Dublin, 1667; died at Dublin, 1745). When I wrote the term paper, I consulted a number of commentaries on the book; what I did not do was read a biography of Swift. I kept wondering why the commentaries referred to him as “Dean Swift.”

My visit to Dublin made it clear for me. Swift was an Anglican priest who was in the position of dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral from 1713 to his death. Swift is buried there.

Only more recently — with thanks to Wikipedia! — have I learned that, from pre-Reformation times, Dublin had two cathedrals, a most unusual situation. Christ Church Cathedral is the seat of the (Anglican) Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough, while St. Patrick’s, although called a cathedral, has no diocese or bishop. The dean is the top cleric there. The Roman Catholic cathedral of Dublin is St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral. You may ask: What is a pro-cathedral? This is too complicated to get into here; I refer you to Wikipedia.

To get back to my consolation: I deeply enjoyed the satire of Gulliver’s Travels, which Swift published in 1726, and was pleased to find myself at the tomb of its author. The Travels of Lemuel Gulliver have an inadequate reputation as being about a visit to a land where people are 6 inches tall. Some suppose it to be a children’s book, which it most emphatically is not.

The Travels are in four parts. In the first part, Gulliver is in Lilliput, with the 6-inch inhabitants; the second part is his visit to Brobdingnag, where dimensions are reversed, and Gulliver seems to be a miniature human being. The third part concerns the flying island of Laputa and such places as Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, and Luggnagg, all of which are populated by eccentrics; and the fourth part is about the land shared by noble, intelligent horses called Houyhnhnms and savage humanoids called Yahoos.

To give just a few examples of the satire:

The Lilliputians were at war when Gulliver visited them. The basis of the war was a controversy about whether one should break an egg at the “big end” or the “small end.”

Swift was deeply concerned about England’s economic oppression of Ireland. His flying island of Laputa at times descends upon villages of Balnibarbi to crush them physically. Swift brings us to understand economic oppression as being equivalent to homicide.

Gulliver, conversing with the Houyhnhnms, scandalizes them as he describes for them his native England and tells them that many people engage in lying. The Houyhnhnms have no word for lying and must work around this lack with the expression “to say the thing that is not.” One cannot help but be moved by the horses’ sadness that Gulliver’s people — that is, we ourselves — are victims of delusion and agents of self-delusion.

As we mark St. Patrick’s Day, we lament the identification of the austere Apostle of Ireland (possible dates 387-493) with red-bearded leprechauns who are fond of alcohol. We who trace our faith to Ireland gain from considering genuine struggles over the centuries, and genuine strugglers, such as Jonathan Swift, who felt (according to his self-written epitaph) a “fierce indignation” which moved him to write on behalf of justice.