Essay from the Archive

Jonathan Swift graces Tollymore Forest Park - an essay from the Linen Hall Review, 1986

On 19 October 1745 Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s, died at his home in Dublin a few weeks short of his 78th birthday. He had been ill for over five years ‘failing in his memory and understanding’ it was recorded in 1742, ‘and of such unsound mind and memory that he is incapable of transacting any business, or managing, conducting, or taking care of his estate or person’. His body lay in an open coffin where crowds came to see it, some cutting off his hair to have as a souvenir, until his burial three days later in the south side of the cathedral. 

Four months later, on 1 February 1746, the Dublin Journal announced the forth-coming sale of Swift’s library, ‘at the House in William Street, where Mrs Carr lately lived, and next door to Lord Powerscourt’s’. The sale was held two days later, and although not a large collection nor one with many fine books in it, yet because of the high regard in which Swift was held the sale attracted many interested buyers keen to acquire something with such a distinguished association. 

Some eighty books from the 600 or so offered for sale can still be identified, and the story of how at least two of them found their way to a library in County Down will be told here. But before doing so it is necessary to go back to Swift’s early years to see how he formed his library in the first place.

It is not known when Swift first began to buy books, but he is unlikely to have bought many during his years as an undergraduate at Trinity where for the most part he lived in considerable poverty. He did, however, have the beginnings of a collection during the 18 months he spent as incumbent of the parish of Kilroot in County Antrim, a period notable for his unsuccessful wooing of Miss Jane Waring. 

Writing from Moor Park in Surrey to his successor in Kilroot, the Reverend John Winder, in April 1698 Swift gave him very detailed instructions about gathering up the books he had left behind. He instructed him to buy a wooden box for them, to have the new ones ‘put in brown paper’, and to prepare a catalogue or list. Swift also displayed his characteristic generosity in allowing Winder to keep a few of the books for his own use, asking him only to ‘write my name and ex dono before them in large letters’.

The years between 1699 and 1713 were spent mostly in England and this gave Swift many opportunities to indulge his love of book collecting – or rather book buying, for he never followed any particular subject or theme in his purchasing, preferring instead to hunt out bargains wherever he could find them. During these years he wrote a regular series of letters to Esther Johnson in Dublin, usually known as the Journal to Stella from his pet name for her, and these contain many vivid accounts of his visits to the bookshops. 

Chief among the London booksellers of the time was Christopher Bateman and Swift described several visits to his shop. One such was in January 1711 after which he reported to Stella: ‘and then to buy books at Bateman’s; and I laid out one pound five shillings for a Strabo and Aristophanes, and now I have got enough books to make me another shelf, and I will have more’. A few months later he had to restrain himself from more purchases fearing that he was being too extravagant: ‘I was at Bateman’s the booksellers, to see a fine old library he has bought; and my fingers itched, as yours would do in a china shop; but I resisted, and found everything too dear, and I have fooled away too much money that way already’. 

On a subsequent visit, however, he threw caution to the wind and indulged himself to the full, rounding off the spree with dinner: ‘I laid out 4 pounds like a fool, and we dined at a hedge alehouse for 2sh and 2 pence like emperors. Let me see I bought Plutarch 2 volumes for thirty shillings’.

Swift, however, didn’t confine his buying to Bateman’s. While on a visit to his mother in Leicester he took the opportunity to visit the booksellers there carrying off five books at a total cost of two pounds eleven and sixpence, and writing in 1733 he looked back fondly to the days when he used to ‘rummage for old books in Little Britain and Duck Lane’, those two streets being the home of the very cheapest end of the book trade.

Like a true enthusiast Swift enjoyed sharing his passion with others, and in December 1711 he wrote to John Stearne, then Dean of St Patrick’s and later to be Bishop of Clogher, offering to buy on his behalf in London. Stearne was a collector on an altogether larger scale and his fine library of over three thousand volumes was bequeathed to Marsh’s library in Dublin where it remains one of the key collections in that wonderful library. In writing to him Swift could not resist a boast, ‘I have increased my own little library very considerably’, he wrote, ‘I mean as far as fifty pounds, which is very considerable for me’.

In March 1713 Swift wrote to Stella describing his most ambitious scheme so far: ‘I went to look on a library, I am going to buy, if we can agree; I have offered 120 pounds, and will give ten more; Lord Bollingbroke will lend me the money; I was two hours pouring on the books, I will sell some of them and keep the rest’. His plans, however, came to nothing and four days later he reported, ‘I doubt I shall not buy the library, for a roguy bookseller has offered 60 pounds more than I designed to give; so you see I meant to have a good bargain’.

It wasn’t only the bookshops which provided Swift with his books. Book auctions had recently become an important feature of the London book scene, and in 1711 one of the largest was held at the Black Boy Coffee House. It was the library of the recently deceased surgeon to the Queen, Charles Bernard, whom Swift had known. The sale lasted several days and Swift made several visits to it, the first to the preview on 19 March. As he wrote to Stella: ‘I went to see poor Charles Bernard’s books, which are to be sold by auction, and I itch to lay out nine or ten pounds for some fine editions of fine authors. But ‘tis too far, and I shall let it slip, as I usually do all such opportunities’. 

The itch proved too strong, however, and when the sale had begun he wrote again: ‘I dined, and then went to the auction of Charles Bernard’s books, but the good ones were so monstrous dear, I could not reach them, so I laid out one pound seven shillings very indifferently, and came away, and will go there no more’. But two days later he was back and reported that he had ‘laid out three pounds three shillings, but I’ll go there no more; and so I said so before, but now I’ll keep to it’. Again his resolution weakened, and in a final visit he spent a further twelve shillings.

By April 1713 Swift reluctantly had to accept the fact that all hope of preferment in the English church had gone and that, as he put it, he was ‘condemned to live again in Ireland’. Planning his return he took great pains to ensure that his books were safely shipped to Dublin. He sent six boxes in all, and although he dismissed them as ‘all old books, and half of them very bad ones bought at auctions only to make a shew as a Dean of St Patrick’s should’, nevertheless soon after he settled in the Deanery he went to considerable trouble to compile a catalogue of them arranged by subject and format. The manuscript of this in Swift’s own hand still survived and shows that at this time his library numbered some 424 books, the majority of which were purchases, but in addition a good number were gifts from friends and admirers.

Over the next 20 years Swift continued to add to his library but with less enthusiasm than before, and as he grew increasingly infirm his friends began to fear for his well-being and the security of his possessions. In 1739 a certain Reverend Francis Wilson threatened the Dean with violence in an attempt to extort a promise of preferment, and it seems that he also removed some books without Swift’s knowledge. 

Following the findings of the Commission of Lunacy that Swift was no longer able to look after himself an inventory of his books was drawn up in 1743 and this too survives as source for the study of his library at that time. Over 100 books from the 1725 catalogue are absent from the inventory (some of which are known to have been given away), and some 180 additional titles are recorded.

This then was the collection of books put up for sale in February 1746. A catalogue of the sale was printed by Swift’s publisher and friend George Faulkner, and the compiler took care to mark with an asterisk those items ‘with remarks or observations on them in the hand of Dr. Swift’. His motives were purely commercial: by drawing attention to those items with a clear association with their former owner he hoped to increase their value. 

Commercial motives might also explain the venue chosen for the sale. Dublin sales, like their London counterparts, were usually held in the coffee houses, but the house chosen ‘in William Street…next door to Lord Powerscourt’s’ was in one of the most fashionable streets in the city and the hope might have been that this would attract the wealthier class of buyer.

The sale realised some £270, and although no list of buyers has survived it is possible to identify from other sources some of those who made purchases. One was the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, Robert Jocelyn. Born in England in 1688 he was called to the Irish Bar in 1719 and by 1730 had risen to the post of Attorney-General. Made Lord Chancellor in 1739 he was for many years Speaker of the Irish House of Lords, and in 1742 he was created Baron Newport of Newport in County Tipperary. In 1755, the year before his death, he was made 1st Viscount Jocelyn. 

In addition to his many public duties he actively encouraged the study of Irish history and antiquities, being for a time President of the Dublin Physico-Historical Society. Swift knew him and on one occasion consulted him on a legal matter. Jocelyn bought a number of books at the sale including an edition of Horace printed at Cambridge in 1699, and the 1530 Paris edition of the comedies of Plautus.

Both books have survived, and examination of the Horace shows it to have been one of the books which Swift had bought at the Bernard sale 1711. A copy of the catalogue of that sale marked up with prices reveals that Swift had in fact bought four Cambridge quartos as a single lot for two pounds and six shillings, the others being Catullus (1702), Virgil (1701) and Terence (1701). A priced copy of the catalogue of Swift’s sale shows that again all four were sold together. The Catullus is now in Trinity College Cambridge and it is known that this too had once belonged to Jocelyn. The whereabouts of the Virgil and Terence are as yet unrecorded.

The Plautus turns out to have an even more interesting pedigree. On the fly-leaf there is an inscription in Swift’s hand which reads: ‘Given me by my most ingenious Friend Mat. Prior Esq 1710-11’. This was Matthew Prior (1664-1721) a poet and diplomat whose verse Swift had long admired. The two men met for the first time in 1710 and seem to have got on well together from the start spending a good deal of time in each other’s company. Swift wrote to Stella in January 1711 telling her that ‘Prior has given me a fine Plautus’ and this turns out to be the self same book. Prior too was an avid book collector but whether this was an item from his own library or one which he had bought expressly to give to Swift isn’t clear.

Following Jocelyn’s death the books passed to his only son, also called Robert (1721-97), who in 1771 became 1st Earl of Roden. His wife was Anne Hamilton, daughter of the 1st Earl of Clanbrassil, and in 1798 on the death of her brother the 2nd Earl (who died without issue) she inherited the estate of Tollymore Park in Newcastle, Co. Down. So it was that Swift’s books were moved from Dublin to Tollymore by her son the 2nd Earl of Roden in the early years of the nineteenth century. 

The house had been begun in the 1750s, was further enlarged in 1777, and reached its final form following extensive additions in the 1850s. The library occupied a large room on the ground floor in the south-west corner of the house. A visitor to the house in the early years of this century described it as being ‘full of fine family portraits, books and old collections of china’. There Swift’s books remained until 1941 when the final part of the estate was acquired by the Ministry of Agriculture and the library sold off. The house itself was demolished in 1952.

Wesley McCann 

Wesley McCann gives a fuller account of Swift and the books from Tollymore in ‘Jonathan Swift’s Library’, The Book Collector, vol.34, no.3 (1985), 323-41.