Moving Swiftly on

An Irishman’s Diary: Dublin celebrates the return of a favourite son

‘Bridge or no bridge, Jonathan Swift’s monuments already include St Patrick’s Psychiatric Hospital, funded by his will. And it’s in keeping with Swift’s sense of humour that the same hospital is in part responsible for a very acute bend on the aforemetioned tram’s red line, reducing the Luas to glacial speed as it approaches the city centre.’ Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

‘Bridge or no bridge, Jonathan Swift’s monuments already include St Patrick’s Psychiatric Hospital, funded by his will. And it’s in keeping with Swift’s sense of humour that the same hospital is in part responsible for a very acute bend on the aforemetioned tram’s red line, reducing the Luas to glacial speed as it approaches the city centre.’ Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Fri, Jun 7, 2013, 00:01

We were talking here yesterday about Dublin’s predilection for naming bridges after writers famous, among other things, for abandoning the city. But in fairness, the shortlist of nominations for the latest bridge does include one literary giant who made history by emigrating in reverse.

I refer of course to Swift, who 300 years ago this month returned from England to become Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral. He was not exactly delighted to be back in the city of his birth, it’s true. After all, Dublin was a backwater for an ambitious Anglican clergyman.

Unfortunately, his writings had earned him powerful enemies in London. So St Patrick’s was the best he could get. And he embraced the prospect with a fatalism on which Dublin Tourism would still struggle to put a positive spin. He was going home, in his own words (written years later), “to die . . . like a poisoned rat in a hole.”

As a literary manifesto, that probably outdoes the one from another Irish writer, Peig Sayers, who infamously opened her biography with the line: “I am an old woman now, with one foot in the grave and the other on its edge” (a stance she was to maintain, heroically, for almost a quarter of a century).

But Swift was only 46 when he returned and would live another 32 years, writing all his most famous works here, including Gulliver’s Travels, Drapier’s Letters, and A Modest Proposal. He became something of a national hero in the process, and also a philanthropist. Indeed, as has been said by letter writers on this page, his would be a doubly apt choice of name for a bridge over which the Luas (Irish for “swiftness”) will run.

Bridge or no bridge, however, his monuments already include St Patrick’s Psychiatric Hospital, funded by his will. And it’s in keeping with Swift’s sense of humour that the same hospital is in part responsible for a very acute bend on the aforemetioned tram’s red line, reducing the Luas to glacial speed as it approaches the city centre.

Typically, he even salted his philanthropy with sarcasm, in an explanatory verse: “He gave what little wealth he had/to build a house for fools and mad/And show’d by one satiric touch/No nation wanted it so much.” Which has perhaps dated slightly as a description of mental illness, but as a comment about the state of Ireland in general still holds up well.

Anyway, however reluctantly he came home, the tercentenary of his return is deservedly being celebrated this week and next. The programme of events (full details at www.stpatrickscathedral.ie/Swift-300.aspx) includes an exhibition in Marsh’s Library, walking tours with Pat Liddy, and an evening of Swiftian music and words. But naturally, there will be a religious element too: the celebrations ending, suitably, with a choral evensong in the cathedral on June 16th.

Literary detectives among you will already have identified a possible clash involving this last event, one that has the potential to pitch two of Dublin’s greatest writers into a breach of the peace. The scenario involves Swiftians, emerging soberly from Evensong, and running into Joyceans, many of whom will by then have drink taken, during the advanced stages of Bloomsday

Or perhaps the Joyceans – who with a bridge name, statue, and annual holiday in the bag, may feel they have Dublin sewn up already – will be distracted this year by their increasingly international ambitions. For indeed, Bloomsday 2013 promises to be an empire upon which the sun doesn’t set, thanks to a staggered series of readings in 25 towns and cities, broadcast online, and following daylight in a 27-year-hour journey around the world.

While that epic proceeds, however, it should be business as usual at one of Dublin’s more charming Joycean monuments: Sweny’s Pharmacy in Lincoln Place. Where, in keeping with tradition, the tiny shop – now a miniature museum – will celebrate a book once labelled “dirty” by continually re-enacting the scene wherein the main protagonist buys a bar of lemon soap.

Sadly, the seasonal soap sales only go so far in keeping the place afloat. I’m told that the shop, though staffed by volunteers, is financially precarious. To remedy which, the former pharmacy is prescribing a night of fundraising entertainment scheduled for Friday, June 14th.

Needless to say, it won’t be in Sweny’s: a venue where you could just about swing a cat. Instead, the concert – a double bill comprising “The Songs of Joyce” and a musical adaption of the Dubliners story A Mother – will take place at the United Arts Club. Tickets are €15, and attending Joyceans are advised that there will also be a bar (of the non-soap variety).

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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