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Birth of Oliver Goldsmith, Novelist, Playwright & Poet

Oliver Goldsmith, novelist, playwright and poet, is born on November 10, 1728. He is best known for his novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), his pastoral poem The Deserted Village (1770), and his plays The Good-Natur’d Man (1768) and She Stoops to Conquer (1771, first performed in 1773). He is thought to have written the classic children’s tale The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765).

The location of Goldsmith’s birth is uncertain. He is born either in the townland of Pallas, near Ballymahon, County Longford, where his father is the Anglican curate of the parish of Forgney, or at the residence of his maternal grandparents, at the Smith Hill house near Elphin, County Roscommon. When Goldsmith is two years old, his father is appointed the rector of the parish of Kilkenny West in County Westmeath. The family moves to the parsonage at Lissoy, between Athlone and Ballymahon, and continues to live there until his father’s death in 1747.

In 1744 Goldsmith enters Trinity College, Dublin. Neglecting his studies in theology and law, he falls to the bottom of his class. In 1747, along with four other undergraduates, he is expelled for a riot in which they attempt to storm the Marshalsea Prison. He graduates in 1749 as a Bachelor of Arts, but without the discipline or distinction necessary to gain entry into a profession in the church or the law. He lives for a short time with his mother, tries various professions without success, studies medicine desultorily at the University of Edinburgh from 1752 to 1755, and sets out on a walking tour of Flanders, France, Switzerland and Northern Italy, living by his wits.

Goldsmith settles in London in 1756, where he briefly holds various jobs, including an apothecary‘s assistant and an usher of a school. Perennially in debt and addicted to gambling, Goldsmith produces a massive output as a hack writer on Grub Street for the publishers of London, but his few painstaking works earn him the company of Samuel Johnson, with whom he is a founding member of “The Club.” There, through fellow Club member Edmund Burke, he makes the acquaintance of Sir George Savile, who later arranges a job for him at Thornhill Grammar School. During this period he uses the pseudonym “James Willington” to publish his 1758 translation of the autobiography of the Huguenot Jean Marteilhe.

In character Goldsmith has a lively sense of fun, is totally guileless, and never happier than when in the light-hearted company of children. The money that he sporadically earns is often frittered away or happily given away to the next good cause that presents itself so that any financial security tends to be fleeting and short-lived. His talents are unreservedly recognised by Samuel Johnson whose patronage aids his eventual recognition in the literary world and the world of drama.

Goldsmith is described by contemporaries as prone to envy, a congenial but impetuous and disorganised personality who once planned to emigrate to America but failed because he missed his ship. At some point around this time he works at Thornhill Grammar School, later basing the character Squire Thornhill in The Vicar of Wakefield on his benefactor Sir George Savile and certainly spending time with eminent scientist Rev. John Mitchell, whom he probably knows from London. Mitchell sorely misses good company, which Goldsmith naturally provides in spades.

Oliver Goldsmith’s premature death in 1774 may have been partly due to his own misdiagnosis of his kidney infection. He is buried in Temple Church in London. There is a monument to him in the centre of Ballymahon, also in Westminster Abbey with an epitaph written by Samuel Johnson.

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