Swift’s footnotes, sinister slush funds, suspect patronage and the peculiar horrors of Holyhead

The following post was first published on Conrad Brunstrom’s blog on 19 October 2014. He has kindly given us permission to re-blog it here…


Yesterday morning was devoted to an Eighteenth-Century Ireland Society committee meeting in South William Street in Dublin.  There, in elegant stuccoed surroundings, we convened one of our regular meetings devoted to remaking the world in eighteenth-century Irish terms.

Having fine-tuned our dark purposes to everybody’s satisfaction, some of us then sauntered across to the Deanery of St Patrick’s Cathedral on Kevin St, there to join the 13th Annual  Dublin Symposium on Jonathan Swift  On arrival, we were mustered into a suitable huddle and then marched round the corner to Marsh’s Library where various treasures had been prepared for us.

We were shown Swift’s own copy of Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion – replete with annotations.  This book offers a unique insight into Swift’s views of the politics of the 1640s and, in particular, the role of the Scots in these conflicts.  Or rather, the role of the “abominable hellish everlasting traitors the Scots etc. etc.” as he was pleased to remark in the margin.  We were also treated to some minute books from eighteenth-century library committee meetings, and learned that theft was a major problem in the 1720s and 30s.  Gratifyingly, since the stolen books were carefully listed, there are now hopes that volumes may be recovered.  If any of your ancestors stole a book from Marsh’s Library 300 years ago, you should expect booted gendarmes to be kicking your front door down right about now.

Returning to the Deanery, all the familiar rituals of the seminar unfolded.  These include the stroking of Swift’s snuffbox in an attempt to commune more intimately with the Dean.  I’ve already copped a good feel of this relic, but there are aways a few newbies who stand to benefit.  And then the papers followed.  We learned from Sean Moore about the Guild of St Luke and a lively discussion was provoked about the level of secrecy that may or may not have involved payments that may or may not have been made for intelligence within the social world of Dublin booksellers.  We learned about Mary Barber from Christine Gerrard  who argued that Barber’s poetry was rather more sophisticated and intelligent than has casually been assumed and her relationship with Swift was rather more adult, formative, and reciprocal than has lazily been dismissed.  A wonderful paper by Jenny Davidson took us into the deliciously murky and layered world of Swift’s footnotes, and his ‘anticipatory’ satire on the nature of commentary itself.  Various editions of Tale of a Tub put in doubt the whole concept of extracting a “key” to the meaning of the main text through some infelicitous short cut yet celebrate the plenitude of attempts to try.  And Claire Connolly spoke about Swift’s Holyhead Journal and the strains of both getting to and waiting in Holyhead while trying to get on a packet boat to Dublin all the while distraught by Stella’s fatal illness.

I left thinking a deal about Holyhead and its continuing strangeness.  Holyhead is not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.  In Swift’s day, getting to Holyhead was desperately difficult and when there, you felt (as you sadly still feel now) not so much in a place as in a place between places, a wood between the worlds if you like.  Holyhead is part of the hyphen in the middle of “Anglo-Irish”, which is itself a highly inefficient hyphen.

There should be a Swift conference in Holyhead some time.  It should do wonders for the place.  And if it doesn’t do wonders for the place, if the conference is a failure, then the very failure of the conference will have a characteristic and resonant sense of appropriate melancholy to it.

by Conrad Brunstrom