Commemorating Jonathan Swift

Marble bust of Swift by L-F Roubiliac in the Long Room (TCD Art Collection)

To celebrate the sesquarcentennial – that’s 350th – anniversary of Jonathan Swift’s birth Trinity College has organised something completely different: a collaborative online exhibition reuniting original Swift artifacts from all over Dublin.

Trinity College Dublin has a very important place in the history of satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). Not only was he a student here but the first record of his existence known to scholarship is his name inscribed in the student admissions book and the record of one of his examinations in the College. Swift’s time as a student in Trinity was not his finest moment. In his memoir he complains that he was awarded his degree by special grace (that is, he almost didn’t graduate) even though he claims to have followed all the rules. The archives don’t lie, however, and the future Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral appears to have been fined several times for misdemeanours such as insolence and ‘haunting the town’.

Trinity College in the late seventeenth century. From the National Library of Ireland (NLI MS 392)

Trinity is marking the 350th anniversary of Jonathan Swift’s birth this year with a number of activities. There is an exhibition from the Library’s world-renowned collection of Swift-related books and manuscripts in the Long room. This collection was developed partly through gift and bequest and the exhibition showcases particularly the generous bequest of American Swiftian A. C. Elias. Also planned is an international conference on 7-9 June at which experts will speak on themes such as Swift and politics, travel, family and friends.

To re-imagine Swift’s Dublin, the Library has embarked on a new departure. For the first time, a collaborative online exhibition has been curated which brings together Swift-related artifacts which still survive in places outside the College: these include St Patrick’s Cathedral, where Swift was Dean; Marsh’s Library, much frequented by Swift; and St Patrick’s Hospital which was built as a result of the bequest left by Swift for a hospital to care for individuals with mental illness. Included in the exhibition are a snuff box (from the Cathedral), a wine bottle (from the National Museum), and the writing desk upon which Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels (from St Patrick’s Mental Health Services).

An nineteenth-century illustrated edition of Gulliver’s Travels for children (Dublin City Library)

Commenting on the continued relevance of Swift in the 21st century writing, Dr Aileen Douglas of the School of English remarked that ‘for a long time eighteenth-century Protestant writers like Swift were seen as not Irish, but in works like the Drapier’s Letters Swift can be seen beginning to speak for the Irish nation.’ A great part of Swift’s legacy lies in the work Gulliver’s Travels, which has never been out of print since it was published in 1726 and which belongs, not just to Irish literature, but to world literature. Dr Douglas remarks that ‘its relevance only increases over time. Gulliver is always on a voyage, never quite belongs and is in the end totally alienated. In today’s world of movement and dispossession there is a great deal of resonance there.’

The Library thanks all its collaborators in the making of this exhibition.

Dr Jane Maxwell