Jonathan Swift and Poetry, Theatre, Politics in Ireland

Conducted on 19-20/10/2007 at the Deanery of St. Patrick's, with Dr Robert Mahony in the Chair

Swift, St Patrick's and Sermons

Toby Barnard

Introduction by Andrew Whiteside, Archivist, St Patrick's Hospital:

Dr Toby Barnard, lecturer in Modern History at the University of Oxford, has in the last ten years contributed hugely important publications on the cultural and political relationships that shaped seventeenth and eighteenth century Irish society. In 2000, he produced a substantial account of Cromwellian Ireland, examining English government and reform in Ireland between 1649 and 1660. In 2003, his book A New Anatomy of Ireland provided a follow-up to the impact of the Cromwellian tide with a broad description of the experience of Protestants in Ireland from 1649 to 1770. In the same year Irish Protestant Ascents and Descents revealed a deeper appreciation of the progression of individual Protestants in the same period. In 2004, his Making the Grand Figure explored the material culture of Stuart and Hanoverian Ireland and assessed the factors in the broadening of the gap between the rich elite and the common poor.

His next book Improving Ireland?: Projectors, Prophets and Profiteers, 1641-1777, questions the legacy of prospecting citizens of Ireland. It will give us an appreciation of the spectrum of efforts to improve the country into a land that was characterised by peace and prosperity and one that reflected the best of what influence England could bring to bear. Later this month, he will give a lecture to the Royal Dublin Society on the Society's role in eighteenth century intellectual and cultural life, a theme that is partly explored in his new book.

We are delighted to have such an enthusiastic historian (or 'excavator' as Roy Foster termed him) here to speak to us about Dean Swift as a thinker and a preacher at this cathedral. Few today are better informed to tell us about the relationships and influences that formed Swift as dean than Dr Toby Barnard.

Dr Barnard's paper:

Sermons have come to be regarded as an essential part of the mission of the church and a necessary task for its ministers. This is especially so with the Protestant denominations for whom the exposition of Holy Writ bulked large. Accordingly it is reasonable to assume that Swift as dean of St Patrick's attended to this part of his duty. Cathedrals after all were conceived as power houses, in the Church of Ireland no less than in the Church of England after the sixteenth-century reformations. The dignities, notably the deanery and the residentiary canonries and prebends, were conferred on eloquent and strenuous preachers. In provincial Ireland, the dilapidated structures and wasted revenues militated against this practice. However, in Dublin, with its two cathedrals, the ideal could be realised.

The expectation that Swift as dean would discharge this responsibility seems confirmed. Not only is there other testimony to his concern for his spiritual duties, there are sermons of his extant. Davis's edition of Swift's works prints eleven. Not an enormous haul, but nevertheless a significant tally. Yet, on closer examination problems soon appear. Only three of the sermons were printed first during the dean's life-time, and those in 1744 when he could hardly have authorized their publication (in London). The other sermons all appeared posthumously. Uncertainty surrounds the exact dates at which they were preached. Also, doubts have arisen whether all are indeed by Swift. The one with the firmest date, a sermon on the feast day of Charles, king and martyr, for example, has excited arguments as to whether it was actually delivered on 30 January 1726.

Difficulties crowd in when we introduce two other pieces of contemporary evidence. A rare, indeed probably unique printed list of the religious services available in the Church of Ireland parishes of Dublin 1719 tells what worshippers could expect. Sixteen city churches, including the two cathedrals, provided regular offices. The main element was public prayers, read from the Book of Common Prayer. In all the churches, holy communion was regularly administered, albeit at varying intervals. Only eight parishes, that is half, advertised either sermons or the delivery of lectures.

At Christ Church sermons were restricted to holy days; at St Patrick's, sermons or lectures were billed only for Wednesdays in Lent. This listing obliges us to reconsider an assumption, arising from the insistence of Protestants on the importance of preaching, that sermons were given every Sunday even in the best endowed centres of the Church of Ireland. Instead, we need to face the possibility that they were preached occasionally and exceptionally. Their very rarity may of course have increased their impact. If rarity not regularity was the norm, then the absence of a greater body of sermons by Swift may surprise less.

The second point worth noting is Swift's diffidence over circulating more widely and in permanent form the words that he uttered in St Patrick's. He was not alone in his reticence - some clerics ordered that their papers, including manuscript sermons be burned immediately after their deaths. However, not all shared this diffidence. It was common enough for occasional sermons, with their topical and political messages, to be printed, often with the authority of the Dublin Castle administration or the Irish Parliament before which they had originally been spoken.

Swift's sermon on 30 January 1726 is at first sight the one that belongs to this category of officially sanctioned addresses. Others of the type were printed immediately after delivery, usually to circulate further the acceptable political and social opinions of the preacher. This was not the case with Swift's 30 January sermon: it waited almost forty years to be published. Clearly its belated appearance owed much to Swift's celebrity and little to its precise message.

As well as official pressure to publicize politically useful addresses, sermons might also be published through the exertions of their authors. Motives for publishing single or collected sermons ranged from vanity, hope of profit - sometimes (improbable as it may now sound) money was to be earned from these compositions - to pastoral concern to help fellow clerics and struggling laypeople towards better lives and deeper understanding of the mysteries of Holy Writ. None of these impulses drove Swift. He upbraided, warned and amused through other literary genres. The printed sermon did not feature in his armoury. There is no reason to suppose he did not take his turn in the pulpit of St Patrick's (but no preachers' books to help us here), but - so far as I know - there is no first-hand account by an auditor. The sermons that have survived are an uncertain and even dangerous guide to how the dean performed in his cathedral.

As I have implied, the reluctance of Swift to put his sermons into print contrasts with the eagerness of others to do so. To set Swift in the context of contemporary and near-contemporary preaching in eighteenth-century Dublin, two rudimentary points can be made. One is that during this period the style and maybe the contents and intentions of the sermons changed. The other is to look briefly at those in high repute as preachers during this period.

In the 1690s, just when Swift was entering upon his ministry, an experienced cleric, Edward Wetenhall, reflected on changes in preaching. Wetenhall had come to Dublin to teach and quickly landed preferment at both Dublin cathedrals. Soon enough he moved upwards: first to the bishopric of Cork, then was translated to Kilmore. Wetenhall decried the changes. The florid and over-elaborate had displaced 'plain and easy truths or practicals'. 'The flaunting and romantic, or the spruce and curious' were supplanting the simple and straightforward. Wetenhall's advice to preachers was to aim at the 'capacity of most, and I am sure is of the unlearned'.(1)

Later, in the 1740s, a second dignitary of the two Dublin cathedrals, commented on the changing modes. This was Patrick Delany, subsequently dean of Down and the foil to the opinionated Mary Delany. Delany spoke with authority: as well as having had a highly successful and lucrative career as a fellow and tutor at TCD, he was esteemed the most popular preacher in the Dublin of the 1720s. Delany looked back to his mentor at Trinity, Peter Browne, as the model of the preacher that he most admired. Browne had followed Wetenhall in time to the bishopric of Cork. Delany valued Browne not for his delivery, which may have been weak, but for his clarity and orthodoxy. Delany, like Wetenhall before him, feared that the intricacies and obscurities of too many young preachers confused their congregations. Others adopted a cold, didactic manner of mathematical reasoning.

In time, Delany warned, these styles would generate irreligion and unbelief. Instead, he emphasized the need for regular, simple and lucid expositions of the fundamentals of doctrine and Protestant practice. True to this brief, Delany collected together two groups of his sermons: one on social virtues and duties that derived from scripture; the other was banally entitled, 'Eighteen discourses and dissertations upon various very important and interesting subjects'. The unkind might contend that the banality of the title was fully matched by what lay within the volume. The more appreciative would perhaps commend Delany's suavity and moderation in handling potentially awkward topics.

Delany frequented Swift's circle and was a fellow versifier. The dean of Down stands in sharp opposition to the dean of St Patrick's solely in Delany's readiness to allow selections of his sermons to be published in two extensive collections. A rather different type of preaching is illustrated by a younger cleric, who first emerged in the 1730s and continued until the 1780s. This is Philip Skelton. Where Delany was bland, Skelton was abrasive. If Delany wished to conciliate, guiding the errant gently back towards truth, Skelton was provocative and hectoring. Skelton, like Delany, happily let his sermons be published. Eventually, during Skelton's own life, they were gathered into six volumes.

Earlier in his literary career, Skelton tried satire and fantasy. One anonymous publication of his was briefly attributed to Swift. But, whereas Swift was deft and imaginative, Skelton lumbered. Unlike the others praised as leading practitioners of pulpit oratory, Skelton was beneficed outside Dublin: all his life in Ulster. Yet such was his fame as a preacher that Skelton was in demand for special occasions - fast days and charity sermons in the capital - because of his ability. He could scare; perhaps more valuably, he could charm the gold from purses and pouches into the collecting box.

At most, this is a perfunctory and superficial sketch of those reckoned as powerful preachers in eighteenth-century Dublin. It is intended as a contrast with Swift's disinclination to assume such a role. That can stand as the difference. At the same time, there is a similarity. Each of those clerics mentioned - Wetenhall, Browne, Delany and Skelton - was not just quirky, but at odds with the prevailing outlook of the Church of Ireland. All were suspected, with justice, of political views unsympathetic to the stifling Whig atmosphere. In addition, each deployed his eloquence and learning to uphold theological orthodoxies and rail against the latitudinarianism that was spreading from England to weaken the Church of Ireland. The cynical may well repeat the truism that the devil always has the best tunes. Devils or merely reactionaries to their Whig detractors, these affecting and effective preachers resembled Swift in their insistence on strict adherence to the fundamentals of Christian belief.

Notes and References

1. Edward Wetenhall, Six sermons preached in Ireland, in difficult times (London, 1695).

The paper (has appeared) (will appear) in (publication) volume, date

[Back to Table of Contents] [Back to Home Page]

(c) Copyright on the electronic versions of papers as published in these Proceedings is with Dr Bob Mahony and Dr Roy Johnston 2005; copyright on contents of papers remains with the authors, and possibly with their publishers if published eleswhere.