“worth seeing yes, but not worth going to see”: An article on Samuel Johnson and Ireland, written for the Johnson Tercentenary in 2009

Going through old emails, I came across this. It was written for History Ireland magazine who accepted it… but I don’t think it ever appeared. One for the 310th anniversary I guess



Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, on September 18th 1709. One of the great ironies of literary history is the fact that he is best known to posterity as the subject of James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and perhaps a distant second as the “harmless drudge” of a lexicographer who produced a seminal dictionary. Johnson’s own output was vast and tremendously varied. In the tercentary celebrations in 2009, one would hope that the Irish connection will not be forgotten. It was Trinity College Dublin that put the “Dr” in Dr Johnson – and it could be also argued that it set Johnson on a literary course forever.


In 1728, after his mother received a legacy, Johnson enrolled in Pembroke College, Oxford. Later in life, Johnson described his undergraduate self as “rude and violent, [possessed of] bitterness that they mistook for frolic. I was miserably poor, and I thought to fight my way by my literature and my wit; so I disregarded all power and authority.” Indolent, and refusing to attend lectures or present work, he ended up leaving Oxford without a degree in December 1729. The following decade was one of struggle and poverty. He did occasional translation work, married the much older widow Elizabeth “Tetty” Porter, and opened a school in Edial, Staffordshire, in 1735. This was not a success.


Johnson’s lack of a degree was a major obstacle.  He would require support and recommendations from whatever influential persons he could contact. One such was Lord Gower of Trentham, who was not personally acquainted with Johnson, but knew of his reputation as a scholar. Mutual friends persuaded Lord Gower to write to an unknown Irish friend on August 1st 1739 “to prevail upon you to write to Dean Swift, to persuade the University of Dublin to send a diploma to me, constituting this poor man Master of Arts in their University.”


Swift seems to have made no response. Alexander Pope also generously tried to use his influence to obtain a Trinity MA degree for Johnson, but to no avail.  This was Johnson’s last attempt to enter the world of schoolmastering. Over the coming years he eked out an existence of literary drudgery, working on the Gentleman’s Magazine on articles, brief biographies, occasional verses and translations. He  reported on parliamentary debates, which was banned – so the proceedings were printed as those of the Senate of Lilliput.  Four years later, he published his first major prose work, The Life of Richard Savage. Much difficulty, personal, financial and literary lay ahead – widowerhood, poverty, disease, the epic genesis of his Dictionary, supposedly patronised by Lord Chesterfield, to whom Johnson delivered the magnificent rebuke “is not a patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?” However Johnson’s path from 1739 would be a literary one, thanks perhaps to the silence of Swift and Trinity.


In 1765 the year Johnson published his edition of Shakespeare with its famous Preface, Trinity College Dublin recognised Johnson’s eminence and awarded him the degree of Doctor of Laws.  Johnson never travelled to receive this degree (Lord Gower, in his 1739 letter, wrote that Johnson “is not afraid of the strictest examination, though he is of so long a journey”) and, as he was notoriously averse to travel. Johnson never visited Ireland – he damned Dublin as a “worse capital” and the Giant’s Causeway as “worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see.”



Despite these sentiments there is much to suggest a more positive view of Ireland. He certainly does not seem to held the aversion towards the Irish that he held towards the Scots. Boswell reported him advising an Irish acquaintance “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.” In a similar spirit, he observed “”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 the early Church] , 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.”


He wrote to a correspondent “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.” And who could disagree with Johnson’s view that “the Irish are a fair people; — they never speak well of one another.””


As a coda, one twentieth century Irish dramatist  was a tremendous admirer of Johnson and conceived a trilogy of plays based on his life. His name? Samuel Beckett.

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