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Utopianism in Eighteenth-Century Ireland

Deirdre Ní Chuanacháin
Cork University Press


From Chapter 1

Introduction: The Utopian Propensity

In a satirical pamphlet entitled A Dialogue Between Dean Swift and Thomas Prior, Esq. in the Isles [sic] of St Patrick's Church, Dublin, on That Memorable Day, October 9th, 1753, an imagined conversation between the ghosts of its long-serving dean, the late Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), and the animator of the Dublin Society, Thomas Prior (1681—1751), allegorises the impover­ished and melancholy circumstances of contemporary Ireland.5 While alive, Swift's indignation and satire had savagely exposed moral vices and intellectual pretensions. Meanwhile, Prior and his contemporaries, moulded by a spirit of nationalism, had transformed their tangible and worthwhile efforts into the formation of the Dublin (subsequently Royal Dublin) Society. Swift's ghost in a most satirical mood finds evident enjoyment in ridiculing Prior for his many schemes for improving the lot of the Irish people. The pamphlet's exhor­tations in the final pages reveal both Swift and Prior as disparate characters while foregrounding the sometimes ambiguous representations of Utopia in eighteenth-century Irish Utopian writing in English. Prior's Utopian vision for improving Irish society, his hopeful vision of a better society, is tempered by Swift's baleful pessimism about the state of his country:

Here is a fine Bundle of Hopes for a Man in Despair to live comfort­ably on! But pray now Tom, have you done reckoning up all your mighty Projects to make Ireland another Utopia? I am almost at the End of my Patience, for to say Truth, Tom, the List of the Ships in Homer's Iliad is not more tedious.6

Swift's ghostly nocturnal perambulations through the aisles of the cathedral result from his discomfort about the present state of Ireland. Such discombob-ulation keeps him from his eternal sleep: 'Tis my Country keeps me walking! why who can lie still? I don't believe there are many ghosts now, that have any share of understanding, or any regard for Ireland, that are to be found in their graves at midnight.'7 Swift recounts that he had been 'earthed' for eight years, but worry about the state of Ireland has caused him unease and led to his nightly ramblings. In addition, the ghost of Prior was similarly to be found walking the aisles of St Patrick's; he describes his having slept for months like a dormouse until thoughts of Ireland entered his head; his distress strengthened and caused him to waken. Swift recounts that when he gets into a certain train of thought, or, as he puts it, 'considers the present situation of our Country, it makes me as uneasy in my coffin as a rat shut up in a trap'.8 Swift is as perplexed about the state of Ireland as if he were still alive and living in the deanery.

Moreover, Prior, grieved at the ill circumstances of Ireland, concludes that 'the World seems resolved they shall never mend; and, I think so, by their treating all true Patriots in the most unhandsome manner. This is as mad a measure, as imprisoning the physicians in an epidemical sickness would be.'9 Prior is concerned about the treatment of patriots in Ireland, that their zeal and motives are suspected. He clearly sees himself as having formerly been such a living patriot, and says he could not have ceased to write what he had written because he always maintained the hope of doing good by his pen. This, in turn, sheds light on Prior's work during his lifetime, which coexists with his ghostly concerns in 1753, where he speaks of a life spent in the service of his fellow citizens, the concern for whom has followed him beyond the grave. He observes: 'I profess I writ whatever I publishd, barely for the Joy I had in doing some service to my Country, and with so little a view to reputa­tion, that I would have done it, if there had been no such thing as Fame in the world',10 and he continues: T troubled the world with a deal of Tracts on publick subjects; and, I thank Heaven, my heart is as little asham'd of it, now I am dead, as I was proud of it when I was living.'11 He argues that he saw writing as an absolute necessity, a moral obligation towards the well-being of what he calls the 'most neglected Nation under Heaven'.12 He notes that he had received rebukes from those with whom he had disagreed. Parallel with this, Swift claims that over a hundred pamphlets had been written against him full of both vitriol and scandal - indeed, enough to fill a library.