Swift Seminar 2007

Jonathan Swift and Poetry, Theatre, Politics in Ireland

Swift Address, St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, 21 October 2007

Professor Elizabeth Malcolm

Higgins Chair of Irish Studies, University of Melbourne, Australia

Swift as Philanthropist: a 'House for Fools and Mad'

I have given many lectures and talks over the years in various places, but never I confess from a pulpit before. It's a little daunting, and especially when I remember what Swift had to say about pulpits at the beginning of A Tale of a Tub. He identified 'three wooden machines' by which people sought to elevate themselves above their fellows: the pulpit, the ladder and the stage. The stage he associated with travelling 'mountebacks' or conmen, who were likely to end up on a ladder - that is hanged on a public scaffold - or in a pulpit - that is in a public pillory. I hope you will not take his cue and treat this pulpit as a pillory.

We are familiar with Swift in many roles. Most famously we know him as a writer, and especially a satirist in works like A Tale of a Tub; he was a churchman who administered this cathedral for over 30 years; and he played a significant part in the political affairs of his time, in both Ireland and England.

Yet there are other aspects of his life that I must say I find even more intriguing. What other Protestant cleric and writer of sophisticated tracts became a folk hero in Ireland? Who else had bonfires lit around his home, the Deanery, by working-class Dubliners to celebrate his birthday? Who had pubs named after him? Whose life attracted such a plethora of popular stories, poems and folklore? Indeed, what churchman was lauded even by the feuding urban gangs of his day? The fearsome Kevin Bail of the 1720s, based in the Kevin Street area, which specialised in rescuing its members from custody, viewed Swift as a hero, as did its successor of the 1730s the notorious Liberty Boys, composed largely of weavers from the Coombe.

Of course if he was very popular with some people, he was equally very unpopular with others. Many of his peers, for instance, deplored what they characterised as his pandering to the 'rabble' or the 'mob'.

Swift's remarkable popularity among the ordinary people of Dublin certainly came from a variety of sources. What I want to do briefly today is to concentrate on one, and in doing that, I'm going to use a word that Swift probably wouldn't have used, but which we've heard a good deal of in Ireland - and elsewhere - lately.

That is the word 'philanthropy'.

The 18th century preferred the word 'charity'; charity being of course one of the cardinal Christian virtues. But the 19th century gave charity a rather bad name and thus it's a word that's somewhat out of fashion these days. Instead we have philanthropy, which is perceived to have a more 'user friendly' feel to it. Popularised in the USA, it's a democratic word, while charity tends to be associated with Victorian values of class and condescension.

Recent books, speeches and newspaper articles have been discussing philanthropy, and some have suggested that it's in rather short supply in Ireland these days, despite the country's economic successes since 1990. Some have argued that Ireland's new rich are far behind their American counterparts, many of whom have long followed Andrew Carnegie's famous dictum that: 'He who dies rich, dies in disgrace'.

This discussion has made me think of Swift, who was noted in Dublin for his charity. In our terms, he was a leading philanthropist. Actually, he was not especially rich - he was certainly no Bill Gates or even Chuck Feeney of his time. Indeed, having studied his financial affairs, it seems to me that, in terms of his haphazard management of them, it's probably more Bertie Ahern who comes to mind. Thus, I'm not surprised that in folklore, he is sometimes celebrated humorously for his gullibility and impracticality regarding mundane matters.

Long before his death in 1745 Swift was giving away his money, lending it out, sometimes without interest, and making plans to rid himself of it entirely. He certainly did not intend to die rich.

Some of his forms of giving would perhaps be frowned upon today by a professional charity worker, but others seem altogether more modern. He did give money to beggars in the street, yet he also supported schemes to license beggars so that only deserving, local beggars, rather than vagrants from outside Dublin, would benefit from such largesse.

But he also invested significantly in small business, lending sums of about £5 to at least 100 local traders and artisans to help them set up businesses or to tide them over periods of recession, of which there were a number during the 1720s and 1730s. This he termed his 'industry money': it was intended to promote local industry and industriousness.

But Swift's greatest act of philanthropy was his decision, made about 1730, or 15 years before his death, to build and endow a hospital for, in the terminology of the time, 'ideots and lunaticks'.

Like so much else that Swift did, this final benefaction deeply divided people: some lauded his generosity, others questioned his sanity. Of course he only added to the controversy himself with his reference in one of his poems to Ireland badly wanting a 'house for fools and mad'. And yet he was right, such an institution was sorely needed.

Various schemes had been put forward since at least the 1690s for the erection of a hospital for the mentally ill in Dublin to serve the whole country. By the 1730s when Swift was planning his hospital, many thought such a venture long overdue.

In reading newspapers articles last month complaining about the lack of philanthropy in Ireland, I noted one which argued that the Irish people often questioned the motives of those involved in philanthropy: they suspected people who raised money by means of celebrity events, who had buildings and institutions named after them or who accepted awards for their activities. It all rather reeked of self-promotion and, beyond that, self-justification.

I think one can find hints that 18th-century Dubliners too questioned the motives of those who offered them charity, even someone as popular as Swift. He named his hospital St Patrick's, but for decades it was always called Swift's Hospital. In part this reflects the fact that for many years it was believed that Swift had actually built the hospital for himself and that he was its first inmate. Indeed, the idea of Swift living, not in the Deanery, but in a mental hospital has been remarkably persistent. I was amused to come across folklore associated with Portrane Asylum, near Donabate in north Co. Dublin, which was built in the 1890s. Apparently there were local stories that Swift, with Stella, had once lived at the back gate of the hospital.

Well, why not? I have a suspicion that Swift might actually have relished some of the popular fables associated with his life, and also with his philanthropy.

Why did he give virtually all his money to establish a 'house for fools and mad'? Were his motives noble or ignoble; altruistic or selfish? Was he inspired by the less attractive aspects of charity or by the more humanitarian aspects of philanthropy? We don't really know for sure. But does it matter anyway, in the long term? I wonder if it's worth questioning the motives behind philanthropic gestures - something about 'not looking a gift horse in the mouth' comes to mind.

Swift's hospital opened 250 years ago this year: in 1757. It's now the oldest psychiatric hospital in the British Isles still situated in its original building, and almost certainly it's among a handful of the oldest psychiatric hospitals in the world. For a quarter of a millennium now staff and patients have wrestled in that place with the terrible suffering of mental illness.

Swift's legacy to the world has primarily been his writings, but his legacy to Ireland has, importantly, included his hospital. His enemies, and even some of his supporters, questioned his motives at the time, suggesting he'd built it for himself, to cater for his own needs. But he hadn't. He left his estate to build an institution to care for groups of the most deprived and marginalised people in 18th-century Irish society.

Whether you want to call his act charity or philanthropy, it has undoubtedly proved a valuable and enduring gift. For, nearly 3 centuries after Swift made his decision, the people of Ireland are still benefiting from his 'house for fools and mad'.

ELM, Belfast, Oct 2007

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