16 March 2023

A ‘virtual tour’ of a dozen
churches and cathedrals to
celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day

Saint Patrick depicted in a window in Saint Patrick’s Church, Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Tomorrow is Saint Patrick’s Day [17 March], and I am allowing my mind’s eye to travel back to Ireland this evening for a ‘virtual tour’ and to revisit a dozen cathedrals and churches dedicated to Saint Patrick.

1, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin:

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, is the largest cathedral in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, is the largest cathedral and one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Ireland. Saint Patrick’s has been at the heart of Dublin’s history and culture for over 800 years, and the cathedral claims that its ‘story is a microcosm of the story of Ireland.’

The cathedral was founded in 1191 and is the national cathedral of the Church of Ireland, while Christ Church Cathedral is the diocesan cathedral for Dublin and Glendalough.

The chapter members of Saint Patrick’s represent from each of the dioceses in the Church of Ireland. The dean is the ordinary of the cathedral, and the most famous dean was Jonathan Swift.

Inside Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The cathedral hosts a number of public national ceremonies and services, and the funerals of two Presidents, Douglas Hyde and Erskine Childers, were held there in 1949 and 1974. The Service of Nine Lessons and Carols takes place twice in December.

The present Dean of Saint Patrick’s is the Very Revd William Morton.

2, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral (Church of Ireland), Armagh:

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, stands on the hill that gives Armagh its name (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh stands on the hill that gives Armagh its name – Ard Mhacha, the ‘Hill of Macha’. On the neighbouring hill stands Saint Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral.

Macha was a legendary pre-Christian tribal princess associated with nearby Eamhain Mhacha, or Navan Fort, a major ritual site occupied from the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, and thought to have been the centre of Iron Age Ulster. Eamhain Mhacha is associated with the epic Ulster cycle, the Táin Bó Cúailnge (‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’) and its doomed hero, Cú Chulainn, the ‘Hound of Ulster.’

Saint Patrick is said to have acquired this hilltop enclosure and in the year 445 he built his first ‘Great Stone Church,’ the Church of the Relics, on the Druim Saileach (Sallow Ridge) Hill, a site close to Scotch Street, below the Hill of Armagh.

The monastic community that developed around Saint Patrick’s Church produced the Book of Armagh, a ninth century Irish manuscript now in the Library in Trinity College Dublin, and containing some of the earliest surviving examples of Old Irish.

The Vikings raised the monastery in Armagh on at least two occasions in the ninth century – in 839 and in 869. The church was also damaged in a lightning strike in 995. Brian Boru, who defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf on Good Friday 1014 – only to be executed as he prayed in his tent that evening – is said to be buried beside the north wall of the cathedral.

However, the church remained in ruins until 1125 when it was repaired and re-roofed by Bishop Cellach or Celsus. After his death, the see remained vacant for five years until he was succeeded by Saint Malachy in 1134. The most far-reaching work of restoration was carried out by Archbishop Patrick O’Scanlon (1261-1270). Further damage required major rebuilding by Archbishop Milo Sweetman in the 1360s and by Archbishop John Swayne in the 1420s.

In the 1560s, the Earl of Sussex fortified the cathedral against Shane O’Neill, but in 1566 O’Neill ‘utterly destroyed the cathedral by fire, lest the English should again lodge in it.’ A century later, in 1641, Sir Phelim O’Neill burned down the cathedral.

Archbishop James Margetson carried out repair work in the 1660s, and further restorations were undertaken in 1727, 1765, 1802, 1834, 1888, 1903, 1950, 1970, and most recently in 2004 under Dean Herbert Cassidy.

Inside Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The extensive restoration carried out between 1834 and 1837 was commissioned and largely paid for by Archbishop John George Beresford. The architect Lewis Nockalls Cottingham (1787-1847) addressed the structural vulnerability of the cathedral by restoring the nave walls to the perpendicular and removing the short wooden spire that can be seen on the cathedral seal. He also reopened the clerestory windows that had been blocked by Archbishop Margetson and restyled them in decorated Gothic, enlarged the choir windows and overlaid the timber vaulting with plasterwork.

The stone screen separating the nave from the choir shows how Cottingham was influenced by the ideas of AWN Pugin and the early Gothic Revival. These influences can be seen too in his restoration of the High Altar from the west end, where it had been relegated by Archbishop William Stewart at the beginning of the 19th century, to its proper eastward position in the form of a stone altar backed by a reredos of canopied niches.

According to William Makepeace Thackeray, Cottingham’s cathedral was ‘too complete … not the least venerable. It is as neat and trim as a lady’s drawing-room.’

Although the rood screen was removed in 1888, much of Cottingham’s work remains, although the basic shape of the cathedral is still as it was conceived by Archbishop O’Scanlon in the 13th century.

3, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral (Roman Catholic), Armagh:

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, has a spectacular mixing of styles by two clashing architects (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Armagh which is an important architectural essay in Gothic Revival, and a spectacular mixing of styles by two clashing architects, with ‘fourteenth-century’ works standing on top of ‘sixteenth-century’ works.

The cathedral is fascinating – for while it was being built the architects changed, and the change of architects resulted in a decision to change the architectural style, just as the walls were half-way up.

The bottom half of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was designed in 1838 in the English Perpendicular Gothic style by Thomas Duff of Newry, who also designed Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dundalk, and Saint Colman’s Cathedral, Newry.

Archbishop William Crolly (1835-1839) acquired the site from Richard Dawson (1817-1897), 1st Earl of Dartrey, a Liberal Unionist whose family gave their name to Dawson Street in Dublin.

In Dundalk, Duff had modelled his cathedral on the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. In Armagh, he drew on York Minster for his plans for Saint Patrick’s, which he wanted to build in the Perpendicular Gothic style.

The foundation stone was laid and blessed on Saint Patrick’s Day, 17 March 1840. But by the time work had begun on Duff’s cathedral, an architectural renaissance had taken place under the influence of Pugin. In 1853 a new building committee appointed JJ McCarthy as architect and he drew up was a continuation design in the 14th century, French Decorated Gothic style.

McCarthy began working in 1854, and Archbishop Joseph Dixon (1852-1866) declared Easter Monday 1854 ‘Resumption Monday.’

The architectural historian Jeanne Sheehy points out that McCarthy ‘completely changed the appearance of Duff’s design by getting rid of the pinnacles on the buttresses, the battlemented parapets on the nave and aisles, and by making the pitch of the roof steeper.’ However, Maurice Craig concludes that ‘in most ways it is a very successful building.’

Archbishop Dixon organised a great bazaar in 1865 that raised over £7,000 for the building project, and items for sale were donated by Pope Pius IX, the Emperor of Austria and Napoleon III. The cathedral was completed under Archbishop Daniel McGettigan (1870-1887) and was dedicated on 24 August 1873. The sacristy, synod hall, grand entrance, gates and sacristan’s lodge were built later to designs by William Hague, who was working on designs for a great rood screen when he died in March 1899. The solemn consecration of the cathedral took place in 1904.

The interior of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, was originally decorated by Ashlin and Coleman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The interior decoration of the cathedral is also the work of different teams. The 1904 designs were the work of Ashlin and Coleman of Dublin, who were the heirs to Pugin’s style of work, but a great deal of this work has been removed in the wake of the liturgical reforms introduced by the Second Vatican Council.

An exquisite example of artistic workmanship – a magnificent, marble Gothic altar with a replica of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper carved by the Roman sculptor, Cesare Aureli, was moved to Saint Patrick’s Church, Stonebridge.

What was a fine late Gothic revival chancel has been replaced in with chunks of granite, brass screens were removed and then welded together to form a screen in front of the reredos of McCarthy’s Lady Chapel, modern tiling was laid on the floor of the entire sanctuary area and a new tabernacle was placed in the Sacred Heart Chapel which had been designed by Ashlin and Coleman. Nevertheless, Saint Patrick’s retains much of the majesty – and eccentricity – of Duff’s and McCarthy’s designs.

4, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Trim, Co Meath:

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Loman Street, Trim, is the Church of Ireland cathedral for the Diocese of Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Loman Street, on the north side of Trim, is the Church of Ireland cathedral for the Diocese of Meath. It claims to be the oldest Anglican church in Ireland – although this claim is disputed by a church in Armagh that says it is 20 years older than the cathedral in Trim.

The tower is part of the remains of the mediaeval parish church of Trim, and further ruins of this earlier church lie behind the cathedral.

Although the Diocese of Meath was without a cathedral after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, the Bishops of Meath have been enthroned in Saint Patrick’s since 1536. However, Saint Patrick’s did not become a cathedral until Saint Patrick’s Day 1955, and the deans continue to called Dean of Clonmacnoise. The tower clock at Saint Patrick’s commemorates Dean Richard Butler, the historian of Trim, who is buried on the south side of the cathedral.

The Dean of Saint Patrick’s is the Very Revd Paul Bogle.

5, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Cavan:

The Cathedral of Saint Patrick and Saint Felim stands on a hill at the end of Farnham Street in Cavan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saint Patrick and Saint Felim is the tallest and most prominent building in Cavan Town and stands at the end of Farnham Street, across the street from the older Church of Ireland parish church, which was completed in 1815.

Cavan Cathedral is a relatively modern cathedral, designed by the architect Ralph Henry Byrne (1877-1946) and built in neo-classical style between 1938 and 1947. However, the story of Cavan Cathedral dates back to the mid-18th century, when a small thatched chapel, without seating, was built in the town, on a site donated by the Maxwell family of Farnham Estate.

The small chapel continued in use until 1823, when it was replaced by a new church built on the same site in Farnham Street. At the time, the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kilmore was in Cootehill. But 20 years later, in 1843, Bishop James Brown of Kilmore (1829-1865) moved the seat of the diocese of Kilmore from Cootehill to Cavan.

The church was renovated in 1862 and Bishop Browne raised it to the status of a cathedral, dedicated to Saint Patrick. A decision was made in 1919 to build a larger cathedral on the site behind the old cathedral. Building work began in 1938, but was interrupted by World War II. Although the cathedral was completed in 1942 it was not consecrated until 1947.

Cavan Cathedral was designed in the style of a Roman basilica by Ralph Byrne (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

For a short time, the old Gothic cathedral and the new Classical cathedral stood side-by-side. Then old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was taken down, stone-by-stone, and was rebuilt, without its transepts, in Ballyhaise. There it stood for only a short time, and was demolished around 1952, when its stones were used to build a new church in Castletara.

The new cathedral was designed by Byrne along the lines of a Roman basilica with a Corinthian portico. His choice of the classical style was a deliberate rejection of the Gothic style popularised in Ireland by AWN Pugin and JJ McCarthy in the previous century, and a return to a style that had long been forgotten. No Roman Catholic cathedral had been built in the classical style since Saint Mel’s Cathedral was built in Longford in 1840.

Cavan Cathedral is oriented West-East rather than East-West. It is built of Wicklow granite and some limestone, with Portland stone details. The West Front (at the east) was inspired by Francis Johnston’s design for Saint George’s Church (Church of Ireland) in Hardwicke Street, Dublin (1802-1813).

The cathedral is cruciform in shape, designed like a Roman basilica, with a narthex, aisled nave, clerestory and apse. The portico has four Corinthian columns, and the dome over the crossing is supported by four marble columns. The cathedral also has six stained-glass windows in the nave and one in the south transept that come from the studios of Harry Clarke (1889-1931 and that were added in 1994.

6, Saint Patrick’s Church (Roman Catholic), Donabate, Co Dublin:

Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate … George Luke O’Connor was inspired by Pugin’s cathedral in Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

My grandparents, Stephen Comerford (1867-1921) of Rathmines and Bridget Lynders (1875-1948) of Portrane, were married in Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate, on 7 February 1905. The witnesses at their wedding were her cousin Lawrence McMahon and her younger sister Mary Anne Lynders (1879-1956), who later married John Sheehan.

Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate, was designed by the Dublin architect George Luke O’Connor, for the Very Revd W Magill, PP, and was consecrated by Archbishop Walsh of Dublin on 9 August 1903.

O’Connor designed many churches, schools and cinemas, and it always strikes me that his church in Donabate is strongly influenced by Pugin’s designs for Birmingham Cathedral.

Inside Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This is a Gothic, gable-fronted cruciform church with an apse and tower. The family tradition is that much of the work in the church interior is my grandfather’s work. The high altar, erected in 1906, is the work of Patrick Tomlin & Sons of Grantham Place. The canted apse has a painted ceiling.

This red brick church is built in English garden wall bond. The features include decorative buttressing, limestone dressing and string courses, terracotta details in the eaves, pointed arched doors with limestone surrounds, the exposed timber truss, barrel vaulted ceiling, tongue and grooved timber doors with elaborate cast-iron hinges, cast-iron pillars, marble columns, encaustic tiles, the ornate rose west window, lancet windows and the Harry Clarke stained glass.

7, Saint Patrick’s Church (Church of Ireland), Donabate, Co Dublin:

The sundial above the porch of Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Patrick’s Church, on The Square, Church Road, Donabate, is centuries-old and stands on an ecclesiastical site that is even more ancient. The first stone church was built there in the 13th century on a foundation that was even older. The only remnant of that first stone church is the square tower, which served as the monastic watch tower and belfry.

The present church was built in the late 17th century and extended in the 18th century. An unusual feature is the sundial above the church door. The church has ornate plasterwork ceilings, and fine brass and stone monuments. The newest part of the church is the East end, where the sanctuary is lit by a fine stained glass window.

The Cobbe family of nearby Newbridge House were the principal benefactors of the church. The Cobbe family used the tower attached to the north-east end of the church as their private crypt.

When the church was extended in the 18th century, the Cobbes had their own private pew built in the gallery at the west end and had the gallery's ceiling lavishly decorated in stucco plasterwork by the same Italian stuccodores who designed the elaborate ceilings of Newbridge House. The Cobbe gallery had its own fireplace and seating.

Inside Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The chancel was added in 1874, and the stained glass window behind the altar commemorates James Henry Edward Arcedeckne-Butler (1838-1871) – a grandson of the 23rd Lord Dunboyne – who lived at Portrane House and farmed the former Evans estate. His widow erected the Butler vault and was responsible for the East Window (1874) depicting the Raising of Lazarus.

The window and the new chancel were dedicated in 1874 by Archbishop Beresford of Armagh. The four ornamental angels in gilt gold on the chancel ceiling are said to have been found during ploughing on Lancelot Smith’s farm. The oak communion rails, which came from the Lady Chapel in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, were a gift of the Cobbe family.

8, Saint Patrick’s Church (Church of Ireland), Dalkey, Co Dublin:

Saint Patrick’s Church, Dalkey, was designed by Jacob Owen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Patrick’s Church is the Church of Ireland parish church in the heritage town of Dalkey, in South County Dublin and dominates the granite outcrop above Bulloch Harbour.

The old church in Dalkey was in ruins by the 17th century, and Dalkey was part of Monkstown parish until the 19th century. With the increased travel opportunities and mobility offered by the railways and buses, large villas were built in Dalkey for summer accommodation, and new houses were built along the coast at Coliemore Road and part of the north end of Vico Road.

Saint Patrick’s Church, Dalkey, looks out across Bulloch Harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The needs for a church in Dalkey led to formation of trustees to build a new church first known as Dalkey Episcopal Chapel of Ease, within the Parish of Monkstown. The site was offered free by the Ballast Board of Dublin Port, later Dublin Port Company.

The church was designed by the Welsh-born architect Jacob Owen (1778-1856) and was consecrated by Archbishop Richard Whately of Dublin on Sunday 5 March 1843.

The Revd Ruth Elmes became the Rector of Dalkey earlier this year.

9, Saint Patrick’s Church, Wicklow:

Saint Patrick’s Church, the Church of Ireland parish church overlooking the town and harbour in Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Wicklow parish traces its origins back to the time of Saint Patrick, and both the Church of Ireland Roman Catholic parish churches in the town are named Saint Patrick’s. The arly name of the area was Kilmantan, or the Church of Mantan, who was a disciple of Saint Patrick. The old church was on the site of the Church of Ireland parish church on Church Hill.

Archdeacon Andrew O’Toole, Parish Priest in 1788-1799, built a Roman Catholic church in 1797, sited opposite the site of the present church. It was rebuilt in the 1950s as a parish hall, and it later became a youth centre.

Saint Patrick’s Roman Catholic parish church in Wicklow … built in 1840-1844 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Archdeacon John Grant, Parish Priest in 1826-1863, set about building a new parish church overlooking the town and bay. The Fitzwilliam family presented the site for the new church to the parish, but the name of the architect and the builders have not survived.

The foundation stone was laid in 1840 and Archbishop Daniel Murray of Dublin celebrated the first Mass in Saint Patrick’s Church on Sunday 13 October 1844. The High Altar of Caen stone is in memory of Archdeacon Grant who is buried in the vault in front of the high altar.

The stained glass windows include a window in the west transept from the Harry Clarke studio depicting the Birth of Christ.

10, Saint Patrick’s Church, Ballysteen, Co Limerick:

Saint Patrick’s Church in Ballysteen, Co Limerick, was built in 1861 on land donated by the Earl of Dunraven (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Patrick’s Church in Ballysteen, Co Limerick, was one of my neighbouring churches while I was priest-in-charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes until last March. The church was built in 1861 on a site donated by Edwin Richard Wyndham-Quin (1812-1871), 3rd Earl of Dunraven, who lived at Adare Manor and who had become a Roman Catholic in 1855.

A few years earlier, in 1859, Lord Dunraven has subscribed £50 towards building a new school in Ballysteen, promising to match £1 for £1 every donation that had been raised by other subscribers.

Saint Patrick’s Church, Ballysteen, seen from the south-west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When the church was built, it replaced an earlier, thatched Mass house, dating back to the 1790s. The date of the church is inscribed on the church bell, and the church was consecrated in 1862.

Since then, it has retained its modest form and size, and its long axis runs parallel with the main road through Ballysteen and the expansive green areas in front.

11, Saint Patrick’s Church, Waterford:

Inside Saint Patrick’s Church, Waterford … said to be the oldest post-Reformation Roman Catholic in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Patrick’s Church in Waterford is said to be the oldest post-Reformation Roman Catholic in Ireland. There are records of Mass being celebrated on the site of Saint Patrick’s Church as early as 1704, and the present building dates from 1750. People in Waterford claim this is the oldest post-Reformation Roman Catholic church in Ireland. It predates Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Cathedral nearby on Barronstrand Street, and it is a rare example in Ireland of a Catholic church that survives from the first half of the 18th century, almost a century before Catholic Emancipation.

From the outside, the building looks like a large storehouse. The interior is a single cell with a horseshoe shaped gallery. Saint Patricks Church has considerable charm and is vividly evocative of the period in which it was built.

The church is in a narrow, closed alley between Great George’s Street and Jenkin’s Lane. The gateway on George’s Street is permanently locked, so it is easy to miss a building that is one of the hidden gems of Waterford.

This is five-bay two-storey Catholic church, built in the mid-18th century. It was renovated and extended around 1840, with the addition of a two-bay double-height chancel at the south-west (liturgical east) end and a round-headed door opening in a fluted pilaster doorcase, with pediment, moulded archivolt with a keystone, and timber panelled double doors with an over-panel.

The church was extended around 1890, with the addition of a two-bay single-storey sacristy at the south-east.

Because it has been comprehensively renovated and extended over the years, the church retains little of its original exterior fabric. But inside, much of the early form of this church remains intact.

12, Saint Patrick’s Church, High Street, Wexford:

Saint Patrick’s Church on Saint Patrick’s Square at the south end of High Street, Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When I was living on High Street, Wexford, in the early 1970s, the street was ‘bookended’ by two churches at one end and church ruins at the other end: Rowe Street Church, or the Church of the Immaculate Conception, and the Methodist Church on Rowe Street at the north or west end, and the ruins of the mediaeval Saint Patrick’s Church fronting onto Saint Patrick’s Square at the south or east end of the street.

In between these three churches was the former Quaker meeting house, which by then had been closed for almost half a century and was being used as a band room.

Saint Patrick’s is one of the best preserved of the ruined mediaeval churches in Wexford, and its walls form one side of Saint Patrick’s, which remains a quiet and quaint corner in the narrow streets of the old town, near the top of Allen Street and Patrick’s Lane and sloe to the top of Keyser’s Lane.

Saint Patrick’s Church was one of the five parishes that existed inside the walls of Norse-Irish town of Wexford. It is said that as a building the church was a miniature reproduction of the abbey church in Selskar, without the tower.

Saint Patrick’s Church stood at the south end of the mediaeval town and part of the town wall also formed the boundary wall of the church and churchyard. This is the largest pre-Cromwellian Church in Wexford town and, alongside Selskar Abbey, it is the best preserved of the old church ruins and sites in Wexford Town.

Saint Patrick’s Churchyard in Wexford is the burial place for many of the dead from the Cromwellian massacres and the 1798 Rising (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At the beginning of the Tudor Reformation in Ireland, the Revd John Heztherne was the Vicar of Saint Patrick’s in 1543, when Francis Canton is named as the chaplain of the Chantry of ‘the Cathedral Church of Saint Patrick’s, Wexford,’ and Nicholas Hay as a Proctor of the Chantry.

Some accounts say the church was in ruins in 1603, but it was certainly standing in 1615. It may closed finally some time after the 1660s and certainly by the 1680s. The sale of Saint Patrick’s Glebe in 1821 was used to fund building a parish school in Saint Patrick’s Square. The parish school moved to new premises on Davitt Road in 1963.

The graveyard contains the mass graves of people killed when Cromwell sacked the town in October 1649, and is also the burial place for many of the dead of both sides in the 1798 Rising.

Saint Patrick’s Churchyard in Wexford is the burial place for many of the dead from the Cromwellian massacres and the 1798 Rising (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (23)

‘There mark what Ills the Scholar’s Life assail, / Toil, Envy, Want, the Patron, and the Jail’ … the former prison cells in the Guildhall in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

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

This morning [16 March 2023], I am continuing to read his poem, ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes,’ which both Walter Scott and TS Eliot considered to be Johnson’s greatest poem.

Johnson wrote ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ in 1749 while he was completing A Dictionary of the English Language, and it was the first published work to include his name on the title page.

In this poem, Johnson draws on his own experiences when, in Lines 151-160, he describes the life of the scholar and the difficulties facing the writer who depends on the generosity of a wealthy patron:

Should Beauty blunt on fops her fatal dart,
Nor claim the triumph of a letter’d heart;
Should no Disease thy torpid veins invade,
Nor Melancholy’s phantoms haunt thy Shade;
Yet hope not Life from Grief or Danger free,
Nor think the doom of Man revrs’d for thee:
Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
And pause awhile from Letters, to be wise;
There mark what ills the Scholar’s life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Patron and the Jayl.

In the original version of the poem, lines 159-160 read:

There mark what ill the Scholar’s life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Garret and the Jayl.

Johnson retains the word ‘garret’ in the first published edition of the poem. However, after the failure of Lord Chesterfield to provide financial support for his Dictionary in 1755, Johnson included a mordant definition of ‘patron’ in his Dictionary:

Patron: Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.’

At the same time, he revised line 160 in this poem to reflect his disillusionment with Chesterfield, so that these two lines would read:

There mark what Ills the Scholar’s Life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Patron, and the Jail.

TS Eliot quoted these and other lines from ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ in 1930 in an Introductory Essay, and said: ‘The precision of such verse gives, I think, an immense satisfaction to the reader; he has said what he wanted to say, with that urbanity which contemporary verse would do well to study; and the satisfaction I get from such lines is what I call the minimal quality of poetry.’

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow