Dean Jonathan Swift

An anecdote concerning Jonathan Swift as he approaches the end of his life appears in many early biographies. The first instance I have come across is in Volume 3 of A supplement to Dr. Swift’s works, being the fourteenth in the collection: containing miscellanies in prose and verse by the Dean; Dr. Delany, Dr. Sheridan, Mrs. Johnson, and others, his intimate friends.This volume, one of a twenty-seven-volume set, was published in London in 1779by John Nichols, adistinguished printer, antiquarian and editor who was familiar with Swift’s writing.

The anecdote in question appears on page 326 under the heading ‘Epigram’ and goes as follows:

The Dean in his lunacy had some intervals of sense; at which his guardians, or physicians took him out for the air. On one of these days, when they came to the [Phoenix] Park, Swiftremarked a new building, which he had never seen, and asked what it was designed for. To which Dr. Kingsburyanswered, “That, Mr. Dean, is the magazine for arms and powder, for the security of the city.”  “Oh! Oh!” says the Dean, pulling out his pocket-book, “let me take an itemof that. This is worth remarking: – my tablets, as Hamlet says, my tablets – memory, put down that!” Which produced these lines, said to be the last he ever wrote:

Behold! A proof of Irishsense!

Here Irish wit is seen!

When nothing’s left, that’s worth defence,

We build a magazine.

This anecdote is repeated in volume 8 of The Works of the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s, Dublin. Arranged, revised, and corrected, with notes, By Thomas Sheridan, a.m. (1784). It also appears in various volumes of The Works, arranged by Sheridan and corrected and revised by John Nichols F.S.A, all published between 1801 and 1808. There are dozens of further examples. Notable for my purposes is its reproduction on page 376 of Volume 14 of The Works of Jonathan Swift D.D. with a Life of the Author, which was compiled bySir Walter Scott and brought out by Archibald Constable & Co. in Edinburgh in 1814.

Swift’s anecdote became topical after flooding in the crypt of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin led to the exhumation of Swift’s skull in 1835, ninety years after his death. This event gave doctors and phrenologists an opportunity to assess the Dean’s state of health. In 1847, May and August issues of the Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science featured a lengthy essay by Dr. William Wilde, Oscar’s father, titled ‘Some Particulars Respecting Swift and Stella, with Engravings of their Crania; together with some notice of St. Patrick’s Hospital’. Wilde used his considerable medical expertise to interrogate a suggestion, put forward by Dr. William Mackenzie of Glasgow, that the Dean had ended his life ‘furiously insane and ultimately fatuous’.[1]

Wilde countered:

That the poor Dean had not even then lost his powers either of sarcasm or rhyming may be gathered from the following quotation, which we extract from Scott’s edition of his works. The precise date of the circumstance has not been recorded, but it was certainly subsequent to the appointment of guardians to his person.[2]

He then reproduced the Phoenix Park anecdote and beneath it made the statement: ‘How far this proves the insanity or imbecility of its author the reader is to judge’. Dr. Wilde, to quote his own words, regarded this anecdote as evidence that ‘Swift was not, at any period of his life, not even in his last illness, what is usually termed and understood as mad’.[3]

When Hodges and Smith published Wilde’s essay in book form under the amended title: The closing years of Dean Swift’s life: with remarks on Stella, and on some of his writings hitherto unnoticed, Wilde included what he described as ‘many curious and hitherto unnoticed facts’. His intention, he insisted, was to assist future biographers. He also wrote ‘in the hope of rescuing his [Swift’s] character from some of the aspersions which have been cast upon it’. [4]

On 1 July 1849, an analytical review of Wilde’s book was published in The Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathologyunder the title ‘On the Insanity of Dean Swift’. The reviewers declared that Wilde’s conclusion was ‘altogether an erroneous inference,’ since, in their view, ‘incoherence’ was ‘no more a constant symptom of insanity than shouting and violence’. Wilde’s citing of the Phoenix Park anecdote was refuted in the strongest terms as ‘very sorry evidence of sanity’. [5] The suggestion was made that Wilde had championed Swift out of a sense of compatriotism. This may have been the case. Perhaps too he felt a connection with Swift through his enrollment, aged seventeen, as a student in Dr. Steevens’ Hospital, where Swift was once a Governor. By coincidence, Dr. Thomas Kingsbury, the physician mentioned in the anecdote he had cited, was great-grandfather to Jane Elgee, the woman he would marry in November 1851.

As Robert Harborough Sherard, one of Oscar Wilde’s closest friends and an early biographer, puts it:

Her [Lady Jane Wilde’s] mother was a Miss Kingsbury who was the grand-daughter of Dr Kingsbury, who in his day was president of the Irish College of Physicians, and the intimate friend of Dean Swift. [6]

Jane’s mother was Sarah Kingsbury, and Sarah’s father was Thomas Kingsbury, Vicar of Kildare and Commissioner of Bankruptcy. His entry in Alumni Dublinenses confirms that he was the ‘s[on] and h[eir] of Thomas, of Dublin, Doctor of Physic’. [7]

This same Dr. Thomas Kingsbury is includedin Gilbert’s History of Dublin(1861) as:

Thomas Kingsbury, M.D., President of the Irish College of Physicians in 1744, resided in Anglesey-Street. Dr. Kingsbury was one of the medical attendants of Dean Swift, who, while in his company in the Phoenix Park, produced impromptu his last well-known lines on the erection of the Powder Magazine in that locality. [8]

In fact, Kingsbury was twice elected president of what was then known as the King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland:in 1736 and again in 1744. Records held in the archives of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland (RCPI) show that he was admitted as a candidate on 6 November 1721, and elected as a fellow on 29 April 1734. [9]

Genealogical studies of the Kingsbury family tell us that Dr. Kingsbury was ‘son of Thomas Kingsbury, Esq. descended from County Dorset’. [10]The Arms Entry of Dr. Thomas Kingsbury, Fellow of the College of Physicians of Ireland, Aug. 7, 1742, which is held in the National Library of Ireland, confirms this and describes him as ‘Son of ThoKingsbury of an Antient family of Dorsetshire In Great Britain’. [11]

Records in the RCPI archive, along with a family tree set out in Volume Nine of the Swanzy Notebooks, held in the Library of the Representative Church Body in Dublin, suggest that Dr. Kingsbury was born in 1688 ‘near Armagh’. He appears on page 266 of the Entrance Book for Trinity College Dublin as Thomas ‘KINGSBERRY,’ and is recorded as entering the university, aged twenty, on 1 June 1708. [12]

Previously, he had attended school in Armagh in the North of Ireland where his tutor was listed as ‘Mr. Martin;’ this may have been Richard Martin, Schoolmaster of the Free School of Armagh. As to his time in Trinity College Dublin, Alumni Dublinensesinforms us that Kingsbury was granted a scholarship in 1711, attained a B.A. in 1712, an M.B. in 1719, and an M.D. in 1721. [13]

On 21 October 1725, Kingsbury married Esther Punter in St. Andrew’s Church. They had four children: Mary (b.1726), Thomas (b.1730), Elizabeth (b.1733) and Hester (b.1736).[14]The Kingsbury’s were a well-to-do family. Dr. Kingsbury appears in the Dublin Directory of 1738 as ‘Physician, Censor living on Anglesey Street’. Under the terms of his will, his widow assigned‘4 houses in College Green 70ft frontage, great house in Anglesey St backing it as payment of £1,300’ on Edward Croaker, apothecary and ‘Chemist to the University of Dublin’. This property represented the ‘personal fortune’ of his daughter Mary Kingsbury. [15]

In A New Anatomy of Ireland, Toby Barnard records that:

Kingsbury, practising in George II’s Dublin, typified the style and habits of a prosperous practitioner. He assembled a library, ran a spanking new equipage, and adopted the latest in dress, wigs, books and furnishings.

Barnard also confirms that Kingsbury ‘kept a coach and a carriage and was a discerning judge of what was modish in architecture and interior design’. [16] All this was possible because he charged well for his ministering; Barnard tells us he received ‘a fee of £120 and all his expenses for attending Lord Charlemont at Kilkenny over twelve days in 1743’. [17] Reverend Edward Murphy mentions Kingsbury in a letter to Charlemont, dated 4 April 1747. [18] He also attended the Edgeworth family in Edgeworthstown, County Longford, where, many decades later, Isola Wilde, Oscar’s sister, lost her life.

Dr. Kingsbury supplemented his income by acting as an agent for overseas property owners, one of whom wasFrank Price, afriend who lived in Wales but had property interests in Ireland. Letters to Price, copies of which are held in the National Library of Ireland, demonstrate that the Kingsbury family acted as if, as Barnard puts it, ‘they thought they conferred a favour rather than gained an employment by supervising the Prices’ Irish properties’. [19] Kingsbury’s letters to Price provide fascinating insights into Swift’s Dublin. [20]

On 1 March 1739, he writes:

There is great sickness and death among man and beast, wars or rather rumours of wars and invasions engross all conversation. We do not know what to think or expect but it is agreed on all sides that the Spaniard is at war with us and we at peace with them’.

On 31 May 1740:

Everything is scarce and dear the mobs have risen and broken open the bakers and meal shops, and disposed of what they found; the army was obliged to quell them. Several were killed and the city is not yet settled.

He offered medical advice too. On 29 April 1736, he writes: ‘Your spitting of blood gives me great concern’.

On 14 April 1747, Dublin newspaper Pue’s Occurrencesreported the death of Dr. Thomas Kingsbury:

Friday last [10 April 1747] died of the gout in his stomach Thomas KINGSBURY Esq. a very eminent physician whose great compassion for the poor makes his death justly lamented. [21]

Faulkner’s Dublin Journal, published by Swift’s printer George Faulkner, reported:

Yesterday morning died Dr. Kingsbury a very eminent Physician, a gentleman, as eminent for his many great virtues and good qualities as this city hath seen herewith. [22]

Kingsbury had been ill for some time. In February 1741, he informed Price that he had suffered with gout for a fortnight. In November 1743, he admitted to having suffered ‘a severe fit of the gout’. [23] Ironically, it was reported that he refused to take the advice of his own doctors, which was understandable really considering that on one occasion, he was ‘blistered from head to foot’ in an attempt to save his life. [24] After his death, Kingsbury’s impressive library was sold in Dick’s Coffeehouse in Skinner’s-row’ to‘pay pressing expenses’. [25] Shortly afterwards, Esther, his widow, was hit by the Dublin bank failures of the mid-1750s. This made her less forgiving in her financial dealings with the Price family, whose portfolio of business she inherited on her husband’s death. [26]

Biographers of Oscar Wilde and his family have long asserted that Kingsbury was both physician and friend to Swift. Richard Ellmann included this information in the first chapter of his biography,Oscar Wilde; in Mother of Oscar, Joy Melville described Dr. Kingsbury as ‘an intimate friend of Dean Swift;’ while Emer O’Sullivan, in her recently published biography The Fall of the House of Wilde, describes him as ‘a friend of writer Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin for over thirty years’. [27] There are many further examples. So, what evidence is there of this? In his anthology of Swift’s Work, Scott, when introducing Swift’s essay ‘The Present Miserable State of Ireland’, explained:

The following Tract is taken from a little miscellaneous 12mo volume of pamphlets, communicated by Mr Hartstonge, relating chiefly to Irish affairs, the property at one time of Thomas Kingsbury, Esq. son of Dr Kingsbury, who attended Swift in his last illness. [28]

Aside from this, it is difficult to find specific mention of Kingsbury attending Swift. Yet, it is certain that he knew the coterie of doctors who were well known to Swift. Dr. Richard Helsham (1683-1738), who was appointed personal physician to Swift in 1714, was President of the RCPI for nine years from 1716 to 1725. Prominent Dublin obstetricianJohn Van Lewen, who was elected President of the RCPI in 1734,was father of Laetitia Pilkington, a close friend of Swift’s.Henry Cope, twice President of the RCPI (1728 and 1740), State Physician, and Governor and Physician of Dr. Steevens’ Hospital, was well known to both Kingsbury and Swift.

Swift described Dr. James Grattan as ‘a doctor who kills or cures half the city;’ he named Grattan’s brothers, Robert and John, among his executors. [29]He even mentioned James in his will, since he left Robert Grattan his strong box, on condition of his giving the sole use of the said box to his brother Dr. James Grattan, during the life of the said doctor, who hath more occasion for it’. [30]

Grattan too was a Fellow of the RCPI alongside Kingsbury. Dr. William Stephens, who was a Governor of Dr. Steevens’ Hospital andMercer’s Hospital, as was Swift, was President of the RCPI in 1733, 1742 and 1759. In 1734, he was one of four men who presented a plan for the establishment of a hospital in recognition that ‘the city had no public provision to care for lunatics’. He also worked with Kingsbury’s son-in-law-to-be, apothecary Edward Croker, at Dr. Steevens’ Hospital and at the chemical laboratory at Trinity College Dublin. TobyBarnard reports that Kingsbury studied medicine under Dutch physician Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738) at his pioneering teaching hospital in Leiden; it is known that Stephens, Cope, Grattan and Van Lewendid likewise. [31]

Another friend common to Swift and Kingsbury was Dr. Claudius Gilbert, Vice-Provost of Trinity College Dublin from 1716 to 1735. In Ireland and French Enlightenment, 1700-1800, Gilbert is listed as a member of Swift’s intellectual circle. [32] He was also Kingsbury’s tutor at Trinity College Dublin. In 1742, Kingsbury was appointed executor on Gilbert’s estate. Under the terms of his will, he left a bequest for the purchase of busts of men ‘eminent for learning to adorn the library’ of Trinity College; one of these is of Swift. [33]

Kingsbury and Swift were also connected through their charitable works. Kingsbury, who was not indifferent to the plight of the poor of Dublin, was active in several voluntary associations. One was the Incorporated Society in Dublin for Promoting English Protestant Schools in Ireland, responsible for the establishment of Charter Schools. Swift was a Charter member of that organisation at the same time. [34]Swift was also on the board of Governors of the Dublin Workhouse and Foundling Society, a cause the Kingsbury family supported. In 1816, Dr. Kingsbury’s son and his grandson, Rev. Thomas Kingsbury, Archdeacon of Killala in County Mayo, were listed as governors of the Foundling Hospital.

Although her nationalist politics put her at odds with her unionist family, Jane Wilde appears to have been proud of her Kingsbury connection; she named her first son William Charles Kingsbury Wilde. Given her great grandfather’s connection to Swift, it is perhaps significant that she alsotook a deep interest in Swift’s life. In her essay ‘Stella and Vanessa’, she included him among ‘the men of all time, destined to hold permanent rank in the grand federation of human intellect’. Naturally, she was quick to point out that most of these men were Irish. Lady Wilde wrote that she admired the way in which Swift ‘hurled his terrible pamphlets like thunderbolts upon his scared and startled opponents, crushing them as much by the bitterness of his sarcasm as by the remorseless logic of truth, fact and sound sense’. [35]

Lady Wilde too wrote of Swift’s final years:

His health declined, his intellect became clouded, the power of writing went from him, but the bitterest pang of all was his own consciousness that madness was approaching, and that all the fine chords of his brain were jangled and out of tune. For three years he never spoke though he still seemed conscious of passing events, even down to the time of his death, which took place in 1745, just fifteen years after Stella had been laid in her grave. [36]

One wonders if she obtained this information from family lore. Certainly, she must have spoken of it to some extent, since Sherard can only have obtained his information on the connection between Kingsbury and Swift from Oscar or his mother. By coincidence, Oscar died on 30 November 1900, the date of Swift’s birth in 1667.

Jane Wilde was known to place great emphasis on illustrious family connections, no matter how tenuous the evidence. In one of her wilder flights of fancy, she claimed that Elgee, her maiden name, was a corruption of the sixteenth century Italian surname Algiati. By insisting that Algiati was a version of Alighieri, she argued an unconvincing connection to Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy. In her correspondence with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, translator of Dante’s works, she signed herself ‘Francesca Speranza Wilde’, possibly to sustain this illusion of exotic, Italianate origins. [37]

Although she rarely spoke of her childhood, and never of her father, who left for India when she was an infant, Lady Wilde was well informed about her family history and keen to exploit any potentially useful connections. Several of her Elgee relatives were worthy of note. In her book Ancient Cures, Charms, and Usages of Ireland, Lady Wilde recounted the tale of how rebels spared her Elgee grandfather, Archdeacon John Elgee, who was much admired and later elected Mayor of Wexford, during the rising of 1798.[38] She also asserted a tenuous and ultimately unsuccessful claim to a share in the estate of her first cousin on the Elgee side, Sir Robert John le Mesurier McClure, who discovered the Northwest Passage.

On the Kingsbury side, Lady Wilde made much of the fact that her aunt Henrietta Kingsbury was married to cleric, playwright and gothic novelist Charles Maturin. Although she can scarcely have known him, since she was a tiny child when he died in 1824, Jane admired Maturin enormously and displayed a bust of him in her home at 1 Merrion Square. She passed her admiration on to Oscar and traces of Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer are evident in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oscar also adopted the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth towards the end of his life. It seems likely that she would have enjoyed and celebrated her connection, however tenuous, with Dean Swift, a man she admired greatly.

One final quirky fact about the epigram Dr. Kingston’s conversation with Swift is said to have prompted is that it is parodied by another celebrated Irish writer. In his challenging, unorthodox novel Finnegans Wake, James Joyce writes:

Behove this sound of Irish sense. Really?

Here English might be seen. Royally?

One sovereign punned to petery pence. Regally?

The silence speaks the scene. Fake! [39]


[1] Wilde, W.R.The closing years of Dean Swift’s life: with an appendix, containing several of his poems hitherto unpublished, and some remarks on Stella. Dublin: Hodges & Smith, 1849, p.5

[2] Since guardians were appointed to Dean Swift in 1742, and the magazine fort was completed in 1736, this incident must have taken place between 1742 and 1745, when Swift died.

[3] Wilde, W.R.The closing years of Dean Swift’s life, p.8

[4] Wilde, W.R.The closing years of Dean Swift’s life, introduction (page not numbered)

[5] Analytical Reviews (Anonymous). ‘On the Insanity of Dean Swift’ in The Journal of Psychological Medicine & Mental Pathology,Volume 2, July 1, 1849, 366

[6] Sherard, Robert Harborough. The Life of Oscar Wilde. London:T. Werner Laurie, 1911, p.38

[7] Alumni Dublinenses: a register of the students, graduates, professors and provosts of Trinity College in the University of Dublin (1593-1860). Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, Trinity College Dublin, IE TCD. MS 378.415C F8, p.470

[8]Gilbert, Sir John. History of Dublin.Dublin: Joseph Dollard, 1903, pp.266-7

[9]Belcher, T. W.Records of the King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland: including a memoir of Sir P. Dunn, Dr. Stearne and other documents. Dublin: Hodges Smith & Co., 1866, p.116 & p.108

[10]Kingsbury,Frederick John. The genealogy of the descendants of Henry Kingsbury of Ipswich and Haverhill, Massby, Hartford Press, 1905, p.21

[11]Dublin: National Library of Ireland, Genealogical Office: Ms.103, p.50

[12]Admissions Records, 1637-1725, Entrance books, digitized http://digitalcollections.tcd.ieAccessed on 15 June 2017

[13]Alumni Dublinenses: a register of the students, graduates, professors and provosts of Trinity College in the University of Dublin (1593-1860). Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, Trinity College Dublin, IE TCD. MS 378.415C F8, p.470

[14]There is some evidence that Dr. Kingsbury contracted an earlier marriage, in 1719, to a Mary Graffan. Although this marriage is recorded in the Ireland Diocesan and Prerogative Marriage Licence Bonds Indexes 1623-1866, and there appears to be no other Thomas Kingsbury this could relate to, no further trace of Mary can be found.

[15]Wills relating to Dr. Thomas Kingsbury (listed as ‘Kingsbarry’ – 1747), Esther Kingsbury (1763) and Thomas Kingsbury, their son (1805) recorded in Vickers’ Index to the Prerogative wills of Ireland, 1536-1810.  Dublin: Edward Ponsonby, 1897, p.270   Swift’s will is listed on p.446.

[16]Barnard, Toby Christopher. A New Anatomy of Ireland: The Irish Protestants, 1649-1770. Yale University Press, 2004, p.133

[17]Barnard. A New Anatomy of Ireland. p.133

[18]The Manuscripts and Correspondence of James, First Earl of Charlemont: Lord Charlemont’s memoirs of his political life, 1755-1783. Correspondence, 1745-1783. H.M. Stationery Office, 1891, p.180

[19]Barnard. A New Anatomy of Ireland. p.210

[20]The National Library of Ireland holds a microfilm copy of Kingsbury’s letters to Price (n.3645, p.3263).

[21]From Nick Reddan’s Newspaper Extracts — part 32 (various Irish newspapers from 1720 to 1865) at on 15 June 2017

[22]Faulkner’s Dublin Journal, 11 April 1747, available via19th Century British Library Newspapers Database at the British Library.

[23]The National Library of Ireland microfilm of Kingsbury letters to Price (n.3645, p.3263).

[24]Detail from letters to Price: Pearde to Price, 16 March 1740, 12 July, 30 August 1747 (NLW, Puleston papers, MS 3579 ff 27, 119, 121) reported in Cultures of Care in Irish Medical History, 1750-1970. Cox & Luddy (Eds),AIAA; 2010, p.23 & p.26

[25]Irish Builder & Engineer. Volume 38. Howard MacGarvey & Sons, 1896 p.70

[26]Barnard. A New Anatomy of Ireland. p.235

[27]Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. London: Penguin Books, 1987, p.6; Melville, Joy. Mother of Oscar. London: Allison & Busby Ltd., p.16; O’Sullivan, Emer. The Fall of the House of Wilde. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016, p.6

[28]Swift, Jonathan and Sir Walter Scott.The Drapier’s letters (cont.) Miscellaneous tracts upon Irish affairs: Sermons. Archibald Constable and Company, 1824, p.192 (Matthew Weld Hartstonge (1772-1825) was a well-connected Irish antiquarian who helped to gather materials for Scott’s 19-volume edition of Swift’s Works).

[29]Pilkington, Laetitia. Memoirs of Laetitia Pilkington, Volume 1. University of Georgia Press, 1997, p.698

[30]Scott, Sir Walter. Life of Jonathan Swift. London: Wells and Lilly, 1829, p. 356

[31]Barnard. A New Anatomy of Ireland. p.136

[32] Máire Kennedy (1999) ‘Readership in French: the Irish Experience’ in G. Gargett and G. Sheridan (Eds) Ireland and French Enlightenment, 1700-1800. Basingstoke, Hampshire [England]: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 12

[33]Maxwell, Constantia. A history of Trinity college, Dublin, 1591-1892. Dublin: The University press, Trinity college, 1946, p.92

[34] on 15 June 2017

[35]Wilde, Lady. Men, Women, and Books. London: Ward & Downey, 1891, p.86

[36]Wilde, Lady. Men, Women, and Books. London: Ward & Downey, 1891, p.111

[37]Pearce, Joseph. The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde. Ignatius Press, 2000, p.22

[38]Wilde, Lady. Ancient Cures, Charms, and Usages of Ireland: Contributions to Irish Lore (London, Ward & Downey, 1890) pp.228-9n

[39]Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. London: Wordsworth Classics, 2012, p.12-13


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