Hard to Love: Jonathan Swift
The acerbic 18th-century wit Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, was born in Dublin, and except for a decade or so in England, he lived in Ireland most of his life. After trying (and failing) to win a position at the English court, he became a Church of Ireland clergyman. Yet he continued to write and publish essays and poetry—in fact, he wrote his most controversial works while acting as dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral.
Many nations might have banned Swift for his scandalous writing. He certainly could not live in England—his works were considered too shocking. But the Irish always forgave him, and the church protected him, even after he published his most infamous essay, “A Modest Proposal,” in 1729. In that essay, still read in English classes around the world, he advocated (ironically) that the Irish sell their children to be eaten as food, in order to solve the problem of Irish poverty. He assured the reader that Irish babies would be delicious “whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled . . .”
Satire was relatively unknown at the time, and many readers at first believed he was seriously recommending cannibalism. The essay caused public outrage, and calls for him to be punished. But the church stood by him, as did the town, allowing him to continue to push the limits of 18th-century patience.
Swift believed passionately in humane treatment for the mentally ill, which in his time was unheard of. When he died, he bequeathed much of his estate to found St. Patrick’s Hospital for the mentally ill. Typically, though, he couldn’t just leave it at that. He wrote one last caustic verse about himself, and the country he loved:
“He left the little wealth he had
To build a house for fools and mad;
Showing in one satiric touch
No nation needed it so much.”
Local Hero: Sir Alfred Chester Beatty
Beatty became a British citizen in the 1930s and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1954, after he made a generous bequest to the British Museum. However, he left the vast majority of his collection to Ireland—his ancestral home and a place he always loved. In return Beatty was made an honorary Irish citizen in 1957. He died 11 years later in Monaco, but was brought back to Dublin for a state funeral—to date the only civilian to be given this honor.
Despite all this, Beatty is a surprisingly little-known figure in his adoptive home today. Many Dublin tourist guides don’t list the Chester Beatty Museum among the city’s top attractions, and in our experience a good many locals have never even heard of the museum, or the man himself. What an injustice!
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