Seeing is believing – An Irishman’s Diary on Samuel Johnson and Ireland

'Worth seeing? Yes; but not worth going to see." Dr Samuel Johnson's quip about the Giant's Causeway in Co Antrim still invites a chuckle , even if the tourist boards and Game of Thrones fans think otherwise.

Johnson, who spent most of his life in London, joked that Ireland was the last place to which he wished to travel, but he knew about Irish history and learning, and his closest friends included several Irishmen, notably Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Thomas and Richard Brinsley Sheridan and the Shakespeare scholar Edmond Malone.

“I have long wished that the Irish literature were cultivated”, Johnson wrote to the Sligo-born historian Charles O’Conor in 1757. “Ireland is known by tradition to have been once the seat of piety and learning; and surely it would be very acceptable to all those who are curious either in the original of nations, or the affinities of languages, to be further informed of the revolutions of a people so ancient, and once so illustrious”.

He wrote to O'Conor again 22 years later, urging "the ages which deserve an exact enquiry are those times (for such they were) when Ireland was the school of the west, the quiet habitation of sanctity and literature. If you could give a history, though imperfect, of the Irish nation, from its conversion to Christianity to the invasion from England, you would amplify knowledge with new views and new objects".


Johnson's pre-eminent biographer, James Boswell, quotes him telling an Irish friend in 1779: "Do not make a union with us, Sir. We should unite with you only to rob you. We should have robbed the Scotch, if they had had anything of which we could have robbed them".

Boswell's monumental Life of Johnson, the manuscript of which was found at Malahide Castle, Co Dublin, in 1940, also records Johnson's outburst, at a London dinner in 1773: "The Irish are in a most unnatural state; for we see there the minority prevailing over the majority. There is no instance, even in the ten persecutions, of such severity as that which the Protestants of Ireland have exercised against the Catholics. Did we tell them we have conquered them, it would be above board: to punish them by confiscation and other penalties, as rebels, was monstrous injustice. King William was not their lawful sovereign: he had not been acknowledged by the Parliament of Ireland when they appeared in arms against him".

Edmund Burke, Goldsmith, Malone and Richard Brinsley Sheridan were members of Johnson’s exclusive Literary Club, which met every week near Fleet Street.

Thomas Sheridan, father of Richard Brinsley and manager successively of the Smock Alley and Drury Lane theatres in Dublin and London, helped Johnson to secure a life pension from King George III in 1762.

Johnson at one time considered Goldsmith to be his preferred biographer, saying of him: "No man was more foolish when he had not a pen in his hand, or more wise when he had". He found a publisher for Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield, wrote the prologue for his The Good-Natured Man, furnished the final four lines of The Deserted Village and composed the epitaph for Goldsmith's monument in Westminster Abbey that includes the words: Nullum quod tetigit non ornavit (He touched nothing that he did not adorn).

Goldsmith dedicated She Stoops To Conquer – “this slight performance” – to Johnson, whose verse, in Greek, for Goldsmith’s gravestone says: “Thread not on his hallowed ashes with careless feet; if you have any care for nature, for the beauty of verse, for antiquity, weep for a poet, an historian, a naturalist”.

Trinity College Dublin awarded Johnson a doctorate of laws in 1765, some 10 years before Oxford University, his alma mater, did likewise. The Trinity doctorate, that university's highest academic honour, was "in recognition of the outstanding elegance and usefulness of his writings".

Johnson's jibes about the Giant's Causeway and about Dublin ("a worse capital") were mild compared to his denunciations of Scotland and Scotsmen. His best-known putdown was the definition of oats in his Dictionary of the English Language: "A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."

He was equally mischievous when a young visitor ventured that Scotland had many wild and noble prospects, meaning vistas. Johnson agreed, and said that so too did Norway and Lapland. Then he added: "But, Sir, let me tell you, the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees is the high road that leads him to England."