seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


Leave a comment

The Birth of John Toland, Philosopher & Freethinker

john-tolandJohn Toland, Irish rationalist philosopher and freethinker, and occasional satirist, is born in Ardagh on the Inishowen peninsula, a predominantly Catholic and Irish-speaking region in northwestern Ireland, on November 30, 1670. He writes numerous books and pamphlets on political philosophy and philosophy of religion which are early expressions of the philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment.

Very little is known of Toland’s early life. His parents are unknown. He later writes that he had been baptised Janus Junius, a play on his name that recalls both the Roman two-faced god Janus and Lucius Junius Brutus, reputed founder of the Roman Republic. According to his biographer, Pierre des Maizeaux, he adopts the name John as a schoolboy with the encouragement of his school teacher.

Having formally converted from Catholicism to Protestantism at the age of 16, Toland gets a scholarship to study theology at the University of Glasgow. In 1690, at age 19, the University of Edinburgh confers a master’s degree on him. He then gets a scholarship to spend two years studying at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and subsequently nearly two years at the University of Oxford in England (1694–95). The Leiden scholarship is provided by wealthy English Dissenters who hope Toland will go on to become a minister for Dissenters.

In Toland’s first and best known book, Christianity not Mysterious (1696), he argues that the divine revelation of the Bible contains no true mysteries. Rather, all the dogmas of the faith can be understood and demonstrated by properly trained reason from natural principles. For this argument he is prosecuted by a grand jury in London. As he is a subject of the Kingdom of Ireland, members of the Parliament of Ireland propose that he should be burned at the stake. In his absence three copies of the book are burned by the public hangman in Dublin as the content is contrary to the core doctrines of the Church of Ireland. Toland bitterly compares the Protestant legislators to “Popish Inquisitors who performed that Execution on the Book, when they could not seize the Author, whom they had destined to the Flames.”

After his departure from Oxford, Toland resides in London for most of the rest of his life, but is also a somewhat frequent visitor to Continental Europe, particularly Germany and the Netherlands. He lives on the Continent from 1707 to 1710.

John Toland dies in Putney on March 10, 1722. Just before he dies, he composes his own epitaph: “He was an assertor of liberty, a lover of all sorts of learning … but no man’s follower or dependent. Nor could frowns or fortune bend him to decline from the ways he had chosen.” The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica says of him that at his death in London at age 51 “he died… as he had lived, in great poverty, in the midst of his books, with his pen in his hand.”

Very shortly after his death a lengthy biography of Toland is written by Pierre des Maizeaux.

(Pictured: The only known image of John Toland)

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Death of Jonathan Swift, Satirist & Essayist

jonathan-swiftJonathan Swift, satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer, poet and cleric who becomes Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, dies in Dublin on October 19, 1745.

Swift is born in Dublin on November 30, 1667. His father, an attorney, also named Jonathan Swift, dies just two months before he is born. Without steady income, his mother struggles to provide for her newborn. Moreover, he is a sickly child. It is later discovered that he suffers from Ménière’s disease, a condition of the inner ear that leaves the afflicted nauseous and hard of hearing. In an effort to give her son the best upbringing possible, Swift’s mother gives him over to Godwin Swift, her late husband’s brother and a member of the respected professional attorney and judges group Gray’s Inn. Godwin Swift enrolls his nephew in the Kilkenny Grammar School (1674–1682), which is perhaps the best school in Ireland at the time. His transition from a life of poverty to a rigorous private school setting proves challenging. He does, however, make a fast friend in William Congreve, the future poet and playwright.

At age 14, Swift commences his undergraduate studies at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1686, he receives a Bachelor of Arts degree and goes on to pursue a master’s degree. Not long into his research, huge unrest breaks out in Ireland. The king of Ireland, England and Scotland is soon to be overthrown. What becomes known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688 spurs him to move to England and start anew. For 10 years, Swift works in Surrey‘s Moor Park and acts as an assistant to Sir William Temple.

During his Moor Park years, Swift met the daughter of Temple’s housekeeper, an 8-year-old named Esther Johnson. They become lovers for the rest of their lives until Johnson’s death. It is rumored that they marry in 1716 and that Swift keeps of lock of Johnson’s hair in his possession at all times.

During his decade of work for Temple, Swift returns to Ireland twice. On a trip in 1695, he takes all necessary requirements to become an ordained priest in the Anglican tradition. Under Temple’s influence, he also begins to write, first short essays and then a manuscript for a later book. Temple dies in 1699. Swift completes the task of editing and publishing Temple’s memoirs. He then leans on his priestly qualifications and finds work ministering to a pea-sized congregation just 20 miles outside of Dublin. For the next ten years, he gardens, preaches and works on the house provided to him by the church. He also returns to writing. His first political pamphlet is titled A Discourse on the Contests and Dissentions in Athens and Rome.

In 1704, Swift anonymously releases A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books. Tub, although widely popular with the masses, is harshly disapproved of by the Church of England. Ostensibly, it criticizes religion, but Swift means it as a parody of pride. Nonetheless, his writings earn him a reputation in London and when the Tories come into power in 1710, they ask him to become editor of The Examiner, their official paper. After a time, he becomes fully immersed in the political landscape and begins writing some of the most cutting and well-known political pamphlets of the day, including The Conduct of the Allies, an attack on the Whigs. Privy to the inner circle of Tory government, he lays out his private thoughts and feelings in a stream of letters to his beloved Stella. They are later published as The Journal to Stella.

When he sees that the Tories will soon fall from power, Swift returns to Ireland. In 1713, he takes the post of dean at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. While leading his congregation at St. Patrick’s, he begins to write what would become his best-known work. In 1726, at last finished with the manuscript, he travels to London and benefits from the help of several friends, who anonymously publish it as Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships, more simply known as Gulliver’s Travels. The book is an immediate success and has not been out of print since its first run.

Not long after the celebration of this work, Swift’s longtime love, Esther Johnson, falls ill. She dies in January 1728. Her death moves Swift to write The Death of Mrs. Johnson.

In 1742, Swift suffers a stroke and loses the ability to speak. On October 19, 1745, Jonathan Swift dies. He is laid to rest next to Esther Johnson inside Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.


Leave a comment

Birth of Brian O’Nolan, Novelist & Playwright

brian-o-nolanBrian O’Nolan, Irish novelist, playwright and satirist considered a major figure in twentieth century Irish literature, is born in Strabane, County Tyrone on October 5, 1911.

O’Nolan attends Blackrock College where he is taught English by President of the College, and future Archbishop, John Charles McQuaid. He also spends part of his schooling years in Synge Street Christian Brothers School. His novel The Hard Life is a semi autobiographical depiction of his experience with the Christian Brothers.

O’Nolan writes prodigiously during his years as a student at University College, Dublin (UCD), where he is an active, and controversial, member of the well known Literary and Historical Society. He contributes to the student magazine Comhthrom Féinne (Fair Play) under various guises, in particular the pseudonym Brother Barnabas. Significantly, he composes a story during this same period titled “Scenes in a Novel (probably posthumous) by Brother Barnabas”, which anticipates many of the ideas and themes later to be found in his novel At Swim-Two-Birds.

In 1934 O’Nolan and his student friends found a short-lived magazine called Blather. The writing here, though clearly bearing the marks of youthful bravado, again somewhat anticipates O’Nolan’s later work, in this case his Cruiskeen Lawn column as Myles na gCopaleen. Having studied the German language in Dublin, he may have spent at least parts of 1933 and 1934 in Germany, namely in Cologne and Bonn, although details are uncertain and contested.

A key feature of O’Nolan’s personal situation is his status as an Irish government civil servant, who, as a result of his father’s relatively early death, is obliged to support ten siblings, including an elder brother who is an unsuccessful writer. Given the desperate poverty of Ireland in the 1930s to 1960s, a job as a civil servant is considered prestigious, being both secure and pensionable with a reliable cash income in a largely agrarian economy. The Irish civil service is fairly strictly apolitical, prohibiting Civil Servants above the level of clerical officer from publicly expressing political views. This fact alone contributes to his use of pseudonyms, though he had started to create character-authors even in his pre-civil service writings. He rises to be quite senior, serving as private secretary to Seán T. O’Kelly and Seán McEntee.

Although O’Nolan is a well known character in Dublin during his lifetime, relatively little is known about his personal life. On December 2, 1948 he marries Evelyn McDonnell, a typist in the Department of Local Government. On his marriage he moves from his parental home in Blackrock to nearby Merrion Street, living at several further locations in South Dublin before his death. The couple has no children.

O’Nolan is an alcoholic for much of his life and suffers from ill health in his later years. He suffers from throat cancer and dies from a heart attack in Dublin on the morning of April 1, 1966.