20 March 2016

A second look at Samuel Johnson’s
opinion of Irish writers and literature

Samuel Johnson’s statue at Saint Clement Dane’s in The Strand, London … the work of the Irish sculptor Percy Fitzgerald (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

But as the Saint Patrick’s Festival comes to an end in Ireland I found myself this weekend taking another look at Dr Johnson’s Irish connections, and the interesting Irish figures in his circle of friends.

The great literary theorist Terry Eagleton has described Johnson as being “virulently anti-Gaelic.” Yet Johnson had a wide circle of Irish friends in London, had positive opinions about Irish writers and Irish literature, and was known forever as Doctor Johnson because of the honorary degree he received from Trinity College Dublin.

Johnson had failed to secure a position as a schoolmaster because he did not have a university degree. After his school at Edial near Lichfield turned into a financial disaster, Johnson moved to London. Soon after, while he was living in London and working as journalist, his skills as a writer were recognised with the publication in May 1738 of his poem London, which attracted the praise of Alexander Pope.

Knowing Johnson feared being drawn into the hack journalism of ‘Grub Street’ and still harboured hope of becoming a grammar school teacher, Pope wrote to the Earl Gower asking him to intervene on Johnson’s behalf.

On 1 August 1738, Gower wrote to a friend of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, asking him to intervene on his behalf so that Johnson might receive the degree MA from Trinity College Dublin. Either Gower’s pleas fell on deaf ears or Swift refused to act; Johnson never received the degree, never worked as a teacher again, and continued to work as a journalist and writer.

Trinity College Dublin ... Samuel Johnson received an honorary doctorate in 1765 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Eventually, with the publication of his Dictionary, Trinity College Dublin bestowed an honorary Doctor of Laws degree on Johnson 250 years ago in 1765, and for ever after he was known as Dr Johnson.

Later, Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell, recalled that Johnson “seemed to me to have an unaccountable prejudice against Swift.” Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s father, Thomas Sheridan (1721-1788) from Co Cavan, was a godson of Swift and once worked in the theatre with David Garrick. According to Boswell, Sheridan imputed Johnson’s views of Swift because the dean “had not been sufficiently active in obtaining for him an Irish degree when it was solicited.”

However, Boswell decided to ask Johnson whether Swift had personally offended him, and “he told me he had not.” Johnson went on to tell Boswell: “Swift is clear, but shallow. In coarse humour he is inferior to Arbuthnot; in delicate humour he is inferior to Addison. So he is inferior to his contemporaries; without putting him against the whole world. I doubt the Tale of a Tub was his: it has so much more thinking, more knowledge, more power, more colour, than any of the works which are indisputably his. If it was his, I shall only say, he was ‘impar sibi’.”

Johnson’s Life of Swift reveals that Johnson actually liked Dean Swift, and commenting on Wood’s Halfpence, he says Swift “delivered Ireland from plunder and oppression, and shewed that wit, confederated with truth, had such force as authority was unable to resist.”

With notes from a collaborator who attended the debates, Johnson evoked Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in his series of ‘Parliamentary Reports’ disguised as from ‘The Senate of Lilliput.’ The debates were kept secret from the public at the time and it was illegal to reproduce them in print, making it a true test of Johnson’s ability to write imaginative and satiric works.

Another Irish Anglican clergyman who crossed Johnson’s path was the eccentric and erratic Revd Charles Stewart Eccles (1747-1777). Eccles was talented in many ways, and today he is appreciated as a minor artist who exhibited acclaimed paintings and works in crayon.

Eccles was the youngest son of Charles Eccles (1709-1763) of Ecclesville and Fintona, High Sheriff of Co Tyrone, and his wife Rebecca Anne Stewart. He was a student at TCD, but never received a degree. He was involved with the early Methodists, and his doctrine and style of preaching was condemned by his cousin, William Newcome (1729-1800), Bishop of Dromore and later Archbishop of Armagh, and the Rector of Fintona, the Revd Philip Skelton, refused to allow him to preach in what was once his home parish.

Despite his views, Eccles was appointed Rector of Birtsmorton, Worcestershire, in 1771, a living under the patronage of the Co Cavan peer, Charles Coote (1738-1800), Earl of Bellomont. However, Eccles soon left the parish and in 1773 he went to Georgia as a missionary, associated with the George Whitefield and the Countess of Huntingdon. He is said to have become the head of a college in Savannah, but returned to England in 1774.

Back in England, Eccles became entangled in a bizarre controversy when he claimed to have written a popular but anonymous The Man of Feeling (1771), which purported to have been published from a dead man’s papers. Eccles had supported his claim by transcribing the whole novel, adding “an appropriate allowance of what Boswell described as “blottings, interlineations and corrections, that it might be shewn to several people as an original.”

Boswell later pointed out that the true author was Henry Mackenzie, an attorney in the Exchequer in Edinburgh. The publishers were forced to place advertisements in newspapers denying the claims made by Eccles.

As the controversy continued, either by an extraordinary coincidence or as some have suggested by an act of suicide, Eccles died attempting to save a boy drowning in the River Avon near Bath.

Boswell recalls: “Johnson, indeed, from the peculiar features of his literary offspring, might bid defiance to any attempt to appropriate them to others:

But Shakespeare’s magick could not copied be,
Within that circle none durst walk but he.

Two Church of Ireland bishops who were part of Johnsons inner circle were Thomas Percy of Dromore and Thomas Barnard of Killaloe.

Thomas Percy, Bishop of Dromore (1782-1811), was once described by Archbishop Stuart as “inactive and useless,” but was an important literary figure in his day had a reputation for piety, hospitality and benevolence. He was a member of Johnson’s Literary Club, a friend of Johnson, Goldsmith and Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the editor of the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which fired the imagination of Walter Scott.

Bishop Thomas Barnard ... a portrait hanging in the the vestry in Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Thomas Barnard (ca 1727-1806) was part of Johnson’s circle of friends in London while he was Bishop of Killaloe (1780–1794). Barnard, who later became Bishop of Limerick, Ardfert and Aghadoe (1794-1806), was a member of the Literary Club, and his other friends in London included Boswell, Garrick, Goldsmith, Percy, Reynolds and Edmund Burke.

In conversation with Boswell, Dr Johnson once said of Bishop Barnard:

No man ever paid more attention to another than he has done to me … Always, sir, set a high value on spontaneous kindness. He whose inclination prompts him to cultivate his friendship of his own accord, will love you more than one whom you have been at pains to attach to you.

Barnard, for his part, wrote some verses about Johnson that conclude:

Johnson shall teach me how to place
In fairest light each borrow’d grace;
From him I’ll learn to write:
Copy his clear familiar style,
And by the roughness of his file
Grow, like himself, polite.

In 1783, Johnson wrote a charade as a tribute to Barnard:

My first shuts out thieves from your house or your room,
My second expresses a Syrian perfume,
My whole is a man in whose converse is shar’d
The strength of a Bar and the sweetness of Nard.

Oliver Goldsmith’s statue outside Trinity College Dublin, facing College Green and the former Parliament House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Johnson was particularly high in his praise of Oliver Goldsmith. In his Latin epitaph for Goldsmith, Johnson wrote:

Oliver Goldsmith: A Poet, Naturalist, and Historian,
Who left scarcely any style of writing untouched,
And touched nothing that he did not adorn;
Of all passions, whether smiles were to be moved or tears,
A powerful yet gentle master;
In genius, sublime, vivid, versatile,
In style, clear, elevated, elegant -
The love of companions,
The fidelity of friends,
And the veneration of readers,
Have by this monument honoured the memory.

Johnson contributed lines to both The Deserted Village and The Traveller, and he said of Goldsmith’s Traveller: “There has not been so fine a poem since Pope’s time.”

Praising She Stoops To Conquer, Johnson said: “I know of no comedy for many years that has so much exhilarated an audience, that has answered so much the great end of comedy – making an audience merry.”

Edmund Burke’s statue outside Trinity College Dublin, facing College Green and the former Parliament House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The many Irish politicians among Johnson’s friends included Edmund Burke, the brothers Thomas Fitzmaurice and William Fitzmaurice (Lord Lansdowne).

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was born in Dublin and educated at Trinity College Dublin, although he spent most of his political career in England and as an MP in Westminster. Johnson admired Burke for having a brilliant mind, and at one point of illness asked that Burke be kept away from him, because arguing with Burke would take too much of his energy and might kill him.

Hester Thrale (Mrs Piozzi) quotes Johnson as once saying of Burke: “You could not stand five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever yet seen.”

While Burke was a member of the Literary Club and they often saw each other, Johnson strongly disagreed with Burke’s politics, which Johnson condemned in his pamphlet The Patriot. Perhaps Johnson had Burke in mind when he made his famous remark about patriotism and scoundrels.

According to Boswell, Johnson said of Burke: “In private life he is a very honest gentleman; but I will not allow him to be so in publick life. People may be honest, though they are doing wrong; that is between their Maker and them. But we, who are suffering by their pernicious conduct, are to destroy them. We are sure that [Burke] acts from interest. We know what his genuine principles were. They who allow their passions to confound the distinctions between right and wrong, are criminal. They may be convinced; but they have not come honestly by their conviction.”

The FitzMaurice arms decorate the Lansdowne Strand Hotel in Calne, Wiltshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Hon Thomas Fitzmaurice (1742-1793) was the second son of John Fitzmaurice, Earl of Shelburne. His wife, Lady Mary O’Brien, was a daughter of Murrough O’Brien, 5th Earl of Inchiquin, and in 1790 she inherited the title of Countess of Orkney from her mother.

Thomas Fitzmaurice was a friend of Johnson, Garrick, and the Thrales. Johnson wrote to Fitzmaurice on 7 December 1778, congratulating him on the birth of his son, John Fitzmaurice (1778-1820), styled Viscount Kirkwall, and complimenting his wife and his mother.

Fitzmaurice, who was MP for Calne (1762-1774) and Chipping Wycombe (1774-1780), died at Hampstead on 14 November 1793. After his death, the Gentleman’s Magazine wrote: ‘He formerly lived on the most intimate terms with Johnson, Hawkesworth, and Garrick ... He was the gentleman who from his extensive concerns in the linen manufactory, was called the Royal Merchant.”

His brother, William Fitzmaurice (1737-1805), became 2nd Earl of Shelburne and a prominent statesman. He was British Prime Minister from 1782 to 1783 and Marquess of Lansdowne.

Shelburne has been described as “one of the suppressed characters of English history.” He was highly intelligent, and Johnson praised him as “a man of abilities and information,” open to ideas, and said he “acted like himself, that is, unlike anybody else.”

Other members of Johnson’s Club included Lord Charlemont, the Irish politician, Agmondesham Vesey (1708-1785) of Lucan, Accountant-General of Ireland, and Sir Thomas Charles Bunbury, first husband of Lady Sarah Lennox, later wife of Colonel George Napier of Celbridge, Co Kildare – she was an aunt of Lord Edward FitzGerald.

Johnson was a High Church Anglican, and in his personal piety he was strongly influenced by the piety and the writings of the Caroline Divine Jeremy Taylor, who had been Bishop of Down, Dromore and Connor in the previous century.

In The Life of Samuel Johnson, Sir John Hawkins notes that Johnson constantly read his Greek New Testament, and was well read in Patristics or the writings of the Early Fathers of the Church, and was conversant with the works of the great Anglican writers, including Richard Hooker and the Caroline Divines, as well as The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.

At times when Johnson “was most distressed,” Hawkins recommended him to read Rules and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying by Jeremy Taylor and his Ductor Dubitantium.

Johnson regarded Jeremy Taylor as the best of “all the divines that have succeeded the fathers.” Johnson was a personal friend of one of Taylor’s successors, Bishop Thomas Percy of Dromore, and in his will left him some of his books. Some years ago [12 August 2009], I was invited to speak about Jeremy Taylor in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield.

Johnson once adapted these words by Taylor on preparation for receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion:

It is no great matter to live lovingly and good-natured, with humble and meek persons; but he that can do so with the froward, with the wilful, and the ignorant, with the peevish and perverse, he only hath true charity. Always remembering, that our true solid peace, the peace of God, consists rather in compliance with others, than in being complied with; in suffering and forbearing, rather than in contention and victory.

Johnson’s other Irish friends in London included Arthur Murphy and Charles O’Conor. However, Boswell, in his Life of Johnson records Johnson as having famously said on one occasion:

The Irish are not in a conspiracy to cheat the world by false representations of the merits of their countrymen. No, Sir; the Irish are a fair people; – they never speak well of one another.

Boswell also records the following conversation with Johnson:

He, I know not why, shewed upon all occasions an aversion to go to Ireland, where I proposed to him that we should make a tour.

Johnson: It is the last place where I should wish to travel.

Boswell: Should you not like to see Dublin, Sir?

Johnson: No, Sir; Dublin is only a worse capital.

Boswell: Is not the Giant’s-Causeway worth seeing?

Johnson: Worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see.

But what did Johnson truly think of Ireland? Boswell recalls Johnson once saying to an Irishman, during a conversation on Ireland’s political state:

Do not make a union with us, Sir. We should unite with you, only to rob you. We should have robbed the Scotch, if they had had any thing of which we could have robbed them.

He also recalls Johnson saying:

The Irish are in a most unnatural state; for we see there the minority prevailing over the majority. There is no instance, even in the ten persecutions, of such severity as that which the Protestants of Ireland have exercised against the Catholicks. Did we tell them we have conquered them, it would be above board: to punish them by confiscation and other penalties, as rebels, was monstrous injustice.

In a letter to the Irish writer and historian Charles O’Conor (1710-1791), Johnson wrote in 1755:

I have long wished that the Irish literature were cultivated. Ireland is known by tradition to have been once the seat of piety and learning; and surely it would be very acceptable to all those who are curious either in the original of nations, or the affinities of languages, to be further informed of the revolution of a people so ancient, and once so illustrious.

Malahide Castle, Co Dublin … James Boswell’s papers were discovered accidentally in the 1920s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

In an accident of history, the private papers of James Boswell, including intimate journals for much of his life, were discovered in Malahide Castle, Co Dublin, in the 1920s and sold to an American collector Ralph H Isham, by James Boswell Talbot (1874-1948), Lord Talbot de Malahide.

Lord Malahide was Boswell’s great-great-grandson – his mother, Emily Harriet, was a daughter of Sir James Boswell. A second cache of Boswell’s papers was discovered soon after and was also bought by Isham. Both sets of papers were sold but until Lady Malahide tried, without success, to censor some of Boswell’s more explicit descriptions of his sexual encounters.

Boswell’s papers have since been acquired by Yale University. They provide revealing insights into his life and thoughts of Johnson’s biographer. They include voluminous notes on his Grand Tour of Europe, his tour of Scotland with Johnson, and meetings and conversations with eminent members of The Club, including Garrick, Burke, Goldsmith and Reynolds.

Boswell’s statue in Lichfield … a gift to the city by the Irish artist Percy Fitzgerald (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Two well-known statues of Johnson and Boswell are the works of the Irish artist Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald (1834-1925): the statue of Johnson at the east end of Saint Clement Dane’s Church in The Strand, London (1910), and the earlier statue of Boswell (1908) in the Market Place, Lichfield.

Both statues were his own gifts. On the Lichfield statue, Fitzgerald describes himself in the inscription as “Biographer of Boswell and editor of Boswell’s Johnson.” The inscription on the rear or south side reads:

The work/ of/ Percy Fitzgerald MA, FSA/ biographer of Boswell/ also editor of Boswell’s Johnson/ presented by him/ to/ the City of Lichfield/ WR Coleridge-Roberts. Mayor/ Herbert Russell Town Clerk/ 1908.

Boswell’s statue in Lichfield was unveiled on 19 September 1908 by the Revd Robertson Nicoll; Fitzgerald unveiled Johnson’s statue in London himself after Edward VII’s death caused the original date for the unveiling to be postponed.

Presidents of the Johnson Society in the past with Irish connections have included: Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins (1931), author of The Prisoner of Zenda and a descendant of the Comerford-Casey family of Cork and Liverpool through his father, the Revd Edwards Comerford Hawkins of Saint Bride’s, Fleet Street, London; Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien (1993), editor of the Observer, whose presidential lecture was on “Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke”; and the Irish journalist, broadcaster and author, Frank Delaney (2001), who spoke on “The Presence of Dr Johnson.”

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