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The Fourteenth Annual Jonathan Swift Symposium

October 18, 2015


So there we all were again – was it really a year since we’d sat in these same chairs in the St Patrick’s deanery argued about Swift?

Yes.  Roughly.

Following friendly welcomes from the current dean and from longtime organiser Bob Mahony, we launched into a talk from Michael Brown who got us thinking about the “Anglo” aspects of Swift’s Anglo-Irish identity, and the extent to which Swift’s apparent political shifts represent what he saw as fidelity to core principles that others had abandoned.  He did not leave the 1690s Williamite whigs – all the Williamite whigs left him.  The place of Swift within three nations (or four nations) scholarship seemed ever more vexed and ever more necessary.

Mercantilism was then discussed.  I for one, have been guilty of assuming that Swift’s obsession with the integrity of currency meant that his economic thinking was trapped in the seventeenth century.  Thanks to an erudite paper from economic historian Aida Ramos – I was made aware that classic mercantilism is obsessed with questions of national balance of trade whereas Swift’s consumption driven model of self sufficiency tended instead towards a model of autarchy.  Issues of poverty, consumption and a standard of living debate did not absorb classical mercantilists.   But they certainly absorbed Swift.

Ivar McGrath then addressed us on the subject of Swift and the vexed question of the building and siting of Army barracks in Ireland in the eighteenth century.  It turns out the various strange economic benefits of accommodating army barracks lent themselves to suspicions of corruption and cronyism.  (Everything in eighteenth-century Irish politics lends itself to suspicions of corruption and cronyism.)  The siting of barracks in Co, Armagh is, for Swift, played out in the domestic context of the troubled marriage of his friends – the Achesons.

Moyra Haslett then introduced us to a rich collection of broadside ballads dealing with the Wood’s Half Pence affair.  She not only presented and contextualised these songs.  She actually sang some of them too.  She sang them well.  This not only brought these songs properly to life, but put intolerable pressure on anyone else who ever tries to give an academic paper on broadside ballads, myself included.  Discussion of political ballads opens up arguments concerning the uncertain limits of popular political participation.

Finally Then Clíona Ó Gallchoir tied everything together as a respondent, going back and forth between papers illustrating the essential interdependence of all the different Swifts on offer.  By drawing out congruent strands of scholarship from all four panelists, she managed to establish the basis for a wide ranging discussion from the floor.

As usual, by the end of all the good-natured controversy, I felt feeling that I knew less about Swift than when I went in – but I felt more confident about being able to map my own ignorance.  That’s all I look for at such events.

Usually at these events, Swift’s own snuffbox is presented and anyone who wants to can fondle it a bit.  I copped a feel a few years ago, and I’m leery about touching it ever again – just in case the original touch conferred some unbelievably specialised superpowers that have yet to realise themselves and a second caress will suck them all back.

A long-standing symposium organiser and attendee told me that he had in his possession an original Wood’s Half Pence.  A representative example of the very currency that Swift regarded as plot to degrade and further subjugate the Irish economy.  I told him that he should not have said that he forgot to bring it but that he refused to bring it.  If he does bring it next year, we should all make a point of touching Swift’s snuffbox and then pointedly NOT touching the ha’penny.  A ritualised abjuration of nasty money.   I’d drink to that.

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