Swift In Ulster

The author of Gulliver's Travels spent a year in NI. Martin Mooney investigates

We know little of Jonathan Swift’s time as resident clergyman of Kilroot, Ballynure, and Templecorran, the three parishes in south-east Antrim from which he fled back to England after barely a year in residence.

Yet some strive for tenuous links to the great works, suggesting that A Tale of A Tub may have been drafted at Kilroot, or that the image of a supine Lemuel Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians may have been suggested by the silhouette of Cave Hill.

What do we actually know about Swift’s time in Antrim?

Precious little, but more than his biographers often care to mention. Victoria Glendinning, for example, begins her 1998 biography with a three-page ‘introductory outline’ of the writer’s life.

The Kilroot period (‘a dismal appointment’) is summarised in two short sentences:

"…he took holy orders in Ireland and was ordained priest, with a dead-end parish in Kilroot in the north of Ireland. There, bored and frustrated, he embarked upon a relationship with Jane Waring (Varina)."

Even Glendinning’s full account occupies only three pages in a 300-plus page book, and some of that is taken up by a potted account of King William’s landing in Carrick.

So, if only to flesh out the guidebooks, here is some of what can be known, and a little that can be reasonably guessed.

At twenty-seven, Swift was old for a new ordinand. After a time in the well-connected household of the retired English diplomat and courtier Sir William Temple, Swift himself had high hopes of preferment, and took orders in Ireland very much as a last resort.

That he found a position in the Irish Church at all, however, was probably due to purges that had tried to root out abuses such as absenteeism and pluralism (holding more than one church-living simultaneously).

Swift’s predecessor at Kilroot had been dismissed for intemperance.

Milne had served as a popular Presbyterian minister. At some point though, he had accepted the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican church and, by the sounds of it, succumbed to the lures of alcohol and sex.

There may have been little else to occupy an Anglican vicar of St Colman’s, however: Swift’s neighbour and landlord, Sir Richard Dobbs, wrote that the locals were ‘All Presbyterian and Scots, not one natural Irish in the parish, or a papist.’

The preponderance of Scots settlers would not have pleased Swift, who already had a strong prejudice against:

'…that discontented brood
Who always loudest for religion brawl,
(As those do still wh’ have none at all)'

Swift came north in January 1694 and returned to the Temple household just over a year later, leaving some belongings and debts.

His congregations were tiny; only Dobbs, his immediate family, and a few other English landowners. The living was valued at only £100 a year, which he found difficult to collect.

Of the three churches in his prebend, only that at Templecorran (in present-day Ballycarry) was usable.

Swift was to recall preaching whimsical sermons to an empty church while at Oxford, and at least one biographer (Evelyn Hardy, in The Conjured Spirit) imagines him going to great lengths to fill his Antrim pews:

'The "mad parson", despairing of gathering together a congregation, is said to have gone down to the shore and skipped stones into the sea and when sufficient idlers came to watch him, he swept them up and carried them off to church.'

Such legends abound. Visitors are still sometimes taken to see the ruins of ‘the egg’, a peculiar oval house near the power station at Kilroot that is said to have been occupied by Swift.

It is likely that the new rector spent a good deal of his time at the grander ‘Castle Dobbs’, the family seat of Sir Richard Dobbs.

Here there was a well-stocked library from which Swift is known to have borrowed, among other volumes, Glanville’s Scepsis Scientifica, a pre-Darwin treatise on natural history.

Other characters in the story of Swift's time in Ulster include the Rev Thomas Winder, vicar of Carnmoney and Swift’s successor at Kilroot; Jane Waring, to whom Swift addressed a number of letters; and her brother Westenra, who was his contemporary at Trinity.

The Warings' father was a disgraced archdeacon of Down and Dromore, removed in the same purge that had opened a position for Swift.

What of the romance with Jane Waring? Two letters survive, though the second reads like a much later romanticisation.

Other letters are alluded to, and it is clear that Swift proposed marriage and may even have tried to persuade Waring into bed.

Some writers talk of an ‘assault’, but this seems to be based on rumours of an earlier incident in Leicester that Swift strenuously denied.

Nevertheless the relationship seems to have been fraught, frustrating for both parties, and in the end (at least as Swift’s letters have it) a depressing episode:

'Varina’s life is daily wasting, and though one just and honourable action would furnish health to her, and unspeakable happiness to us both, yet some power that repines at human felicity has that influence to hold her continually doating on her cruelty, and me upon the cause of it.'

We must assume no answer came from Varina, and Swift put his first clerical living behind him.

He would return to the north frequently in later years, visiting friends and family in Loughgall.

The Kilroot year seems to have had no discernible influence on his writing, although the poverty of his prebend and the power of Scots dissent in the surrounding countryside seems to have confirmed him in lifelong prejudices.

But the very lack of reliable evidence, of any real record, is typical of the writer of whom Thomas Sheridan wrote, ‘there never was a man whose character was so little known.’