Jonathan Swift: On the Road to Ireland

Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

Clive Probyn: Jonathan Swift on the Anglo-Irish Road, Leiden: Brill/Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2020.

ISBN: 9783770565757 (also in e-book)

RRP: €129.91 (Hard copy and E-book)

To understand Swift as a compulsive traveller is to grasp some of the complexity of his identifications, his political and religious alignments, his sense of his own embodiment and frailties, and much about his world which in the late seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth centuries was so very different from ours.

This book might have been presented very differently, as an elaborately annotated edition of a short diary Swift wrote as he returned to Ireland full of foreboding for the last time. The Holyhead Journal that motivates this book is very short (the footnotes far outweigh the body of the text), and nondescript in content – just day-to-day concerns. It constitutes an appendix of only 12 pages in a moderately lengthy book. The diary covers just a week in late September 1727, while Swift waited in Holyhead to embark for Ireland. It falls between Swift’s annus mirabilis, 1726 (marked by the publication of his master-work Gulliver’s Travels) and his annus horribilis, 1728 (when Stella died). He knew he was returning to the deathbed of Stella (one of two secret loves of his life – Vanessa had also died prematurely only four years earlier), but he could not speak of this clandestine amour, in a diary written with an eye to publication. He was 60, in deteriorating health, and would never again visit England, his soul’s country, though he had another 18 years of active life in Ireland. But what an alchemist Probyn is, transforming this unlikely material into superb social history and it adds to biographical knowledge about Swift.

Probyn’s decision to construct many frameworks for reading this modest diary, which remained unpublished for almost two centuries, was strategic and illuminating. The pleasures of this book, for me, were these varied contextual framings, in particular, being introduced to the physical constraints of the early modern world – its dangerous perils on the road and the sea, exposed to brigands and inn-drapery lice potentially carrying venereal disease, as well as deeper issues like the challenges posed by Swift’s Anglo-Irish cultural hybridity, and his family’s deep imbrication in resistance to Cromwell.

And there’s much more besides: insights into the origins of map-making, and different computations of length; the rigours of travel on badly-made, unpaved or deteriorating roads; the dangers posed by pirates and privateers on the high seas; the costs of such travel and the need to supplement menial workers’ salaries; and the tribulations and necessity of travelling with servants in something approaching military formation and discipline. In addition, Probyn reveals the lived experience of colonial history, told from the point of view of a single family, originally English and subsequently Anglo-Irish, during two very unsettled centuries of life in England and Ireland, and the imperatives driving migration to and from Ireland. It’s a narrative of travel, not just in 1727, but throughout Swift’s long career, that frequently illuminates his imaginative forays in Gulliver’s Travels, and provides some of the impetus for its fantastical journeying. 

Swift was an inveterate traveller, doing 28 circular trips from Dublin to England by the time he was 60. He often walked and rode a horse, partly because he found it helped relieve his chronic affliction, Menière’s disease, and partly out of necessity. Walking was often faster, cheaper, and preferable to wheeled transport and it enabled side projects to engage his mind en route. Probyn makes much of Swift’s sociability within his own class, but there was not much opportunity for that on the road to Holyhead in 1727. 

Probyn reads the Holyhead journal as a pivot point where Swift’s familiar sense of cultural hybridity, normally acute and disabling, was heightened. A third culture interposed (he could not engage with the Welsh language) between his wish to properly belong to his Anglo-Irish class and the literary colleagues in London on the one hand, and the compromise that was his Deanery at St. Patrick’s in Dublin. His defence while killing time in Holyhead was to succumb to the itch to write, if only to distract himself from the frustrations of the extended wait for the boat, and his own fears about Stella, who is the ghost at his writing desk, and never mentioned.

Walking from Chester to Holyhead was not an act of romantic immersion in landscape as it would become for the later Romantics. For Swift, geography was not picturesque or sublime; he turned his back on the natural wonders of north-western Wales. If anything, the landscapes that were his reference points were political and military, and his focus the people who inhabited the landscapes he passed through. If he was traumatised in Ireland (the place of his accidental birth), it was because of his awareness of the colonialist enterprise that was Ireland. To admire England’s higher standards of living was, however, for him to recognise that they had been achieved at the expense of its first colony. His project was to work for a better future for an Ireland whose ‘present dismayed and repelled him’ (p.47) by interrogating colonial policy in such publications as the pamphlets that comprise the Drapier’s Letters (1724-5), pamphlets in which (at great personal risk and winning acclaim from the populace) he adopted the voices of tradesmen and shopkeepers and roundly critiqued government policy in Ireland. 

Using a variety of gambits, Probyn makes a larger point about travelling. Being immersed bodily in the physical rigours of the streets and countryside, walking, surviving, maintaining high personal standards of hygiene, observing and talking with ordinary people all served to enliven his sense of social justice, and ‘[nourish’] his political conscience [and give] his life its professional focus and purpose’. And if (by modern standards) in his championship of workers, Swift appeared to demean those he sought to raise up (by providing caricaturing names for them, like Ulcerissa or Cancerina), he re-cast their illnesses as ‘stigmata’, as signs of ‘personal and social disaster’ (p.243), and in a practical gesture, paid far more than the asking price for their goods in the hope of restoring many individuals’ dignity through work, on the principle that ‘one English man is allowed to be of equal intrinsick Value with twelve born in Ireland’.

Clive Probyn has a lucid and elegant, and occasionally trenchant, turn of phrase, and this too is a considerable pleasure of his framing narratives. Telling, for instance, of Swift’s need to move lodgings frequently in London because of the cost of apartments, Probyn comments that between 1701 and 1727, when he returned to Dublin permanently, he ‘developed skills of lightweight living geared to the need to move each quarter’(p.232). The habit of movement served him well in Dublin, permitting the ‘acquiring of a detailed knowledge of the world around him, and for anyone with a social conscience the default position of such a concern was the condition of the Dublin poor’. He also demonstrated a ‘characteristic readiness to confront inconvenient truths’ (p.241). 

Probyn makes his case cogently and unsentimentally. He fleshes out the reasons that Swift was so deeply loved by his parishioners and the poor, and how in turn his ambivalence about the state of Ireland fed his anger and satire at the expense of the colonisers. Eloquently and in great detail, Probyn argues that Swift’s relinquishing of a different and preferred life in England, a country he regarded as offering the intellectual and social pleasures he craved, in favour of Ireland and witnessing its colonial exploitation, was nothing short of morally heroic. He found ways, by going among the ordure of Yahoos, to expose himself to what he despised and this immersion in the real world mobilised his anger productively. His witness produced the scorching satire and imaginative fiction we still read. The reluctant ‘accidental’ Irish misanthrope was himself by writing and good works transformed into one of the country’s most unlikely heroes.

This is social history of high order, which casts much light on the early modern period in Ireland and England, and on a complex man and a superb satirist who came to epitomise Empire’s most trenchant and witty critic. 

Postscript: For all my praise of this excellent work, I discovered the cost of the work only after I had written the review and needed to declare the price as part of the editorial scaffolding for a review. I have, however, to castigate the publishers, the very esteemed academic publisher Brill of Leiden, for their pricing policy. Within the ambit of academic works they publish (and I grant many will be niche in terms of their readership), there must be some like this one that could reach a general reader because of the accessibility of its prose and the general interest of its topic, if priced reasonably. This gracefully written book I am confident would find a general reader but its price (€129.91)*, puts it beyond the reach of even the most avid and well-heeled general reader and academic library, and thus, while proposing to disseminate original research and knowledge, the publisher’s pricing policy, in fact, inhibits it. The universities are complicit in this restriction of trade in the way they compute research outputs. I suggest this is a sign of a publishing system and a research culture that is failing authors and the serious general reader.

*The PDF ( by the way a good one) costs the same as the hard copy. How this is justified is beyond me.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances Devlin-Glass is an Honorary Associate Professor in Literary Studies at Deakin and a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.

One thought on “Jonathan Swift: On the Road to Ireland

  1. The emphasis here on Swift’s cultural hybridity is interesting. I find it difficult to see Swift as an Irish writer; I tend to see him as a great writer in a vast territory called the English language, with work coloured more by an English than an Irish provenance., but not completely dependent on either. Must read him again.

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