Friday, 28 May 2010

The original Yahoos at Kilroot

The 'Round House' in Kilroot, just a stone's throw east of Eden in county Antrim, was where Jonathan Swift is supposed to have lived when he was appointed by the established Church of Ireland to the Prebendary of Kilroot from 1695-1696.

From here he drafted his first satirical tirade against Scots and Presbyterians in his A Tale of a Tub, and where he gathered most of his ideas for Gulliver's Travels.

The problem for the young Anglo-Irishman was that when he was given his first charge after taking Holy Orders in Dublin, this Prebendary of Kilroot had only one 'working' church in the 3 parishes under his care. The parishes in question covered most of south-east Antrim, and were Kilroot, Islandmagee and Templecorran. The Templecorran church (now a ruin at Ballycarry) is the only one he is known to have attempted to hold services in. The story is told of how he found nobody at church on his first Sunday at Ballycarry, so went to the far end of the Main Street and stood like a statue until a crowd of curious inhabitants gathered round him. The he took ten giant strides forward, stopped and picked up a pebble from the street to put it in a bag, and then another ten, and so on - Pied Piper of Hamlyn style - until the crowd followed him up the churchyard and into the church. Then he bolted the door behind them and delivered his sermon. But brilliant story-teller as he was, a year later he still only had three or four Episcopalian families in as many parishes, with the remainder being almost entirely 'Scotch Dissenters' (Presbyterians).

Thus began Swift's obsession that religious and political conformity was divinely ordained - and that it was a principle more important than any detail of doctrine. A Tale of a Tub was a straight-forward satire against non-conformity. The survival of the ship of state (the state church - regardless of theology) was so important that when attacked by a whale (the devil), a tar-covered tub (non-conformist churches), had to be thrown overboard so that the whale would be diverted to play with the tub instead (and both Church and State saved). Swift wrote numerous pamphlets in support of the Religious Test Acts when they were first introduced in Ireland in 1703. These Test Acts denied Presbyterians the right to hold any public office without first taking the 'Sacramental Test' of receiving communion in the Established Church. Indeed, these Test Acts were to prove a significant stimulus for the massive migrations of Scotch-Irish to America in the early 1700s.

If A Tale of a Tub was fixated on the dissenter versus conformist debate in political and religious life, Gulliver's Travels gave vent to his other Anglo-Irish fixation: his feelings of superiority as an English 'giant' in Ireland, contrasting with his feelings of inferiority as an 'Irishman' in England. But in Gulliver's Travels, he still couldn't resist a poke at the terrible uncultured barbarians that were the bane of his life at Kilroot. 'Blefescu' that barbarian northern land was understood to be Belfast, for Wolfe Tone (leader of the United Irishmen in the 1798 rebellion) wrote "Thomas Paine's Right's of Man is now all the rage in Blefescu". Those strange people were the 'big-endians' who believed that a boiled egg should only be opened at the big end, and were blindly intolerant of those who believed otherwise. In the story, they were only to be outdone as uncouth Philistines by the Yahoos. The good folk of Kilroot knew exactly who Swift was labelling 'Yahoos'.

Now as a junior Yahoo in the 1950s, I, along with other Boney-boys, used to walk along the shore - or to be more accurate, the railway line - to Kilroot and explore the derelict 'Swift's Cottage'. No other house had rounded corners, and we were told that Dean Swift had built it like that so neither the devil nor Presbyterians could hide in the corners. I remember that the thatch was almost gone, for I could stick my head up through and gulder out at my mates in the garden - much to their shock, for they couldn't see where the noise was coming from.

The Round House was gutted by fire in 1959, and it (along with the adjacent Kilroot Railway Station) was knocked down shortly after to make way for the gigantic Kilroot Power Station. So what neither the devil nor the Presbyterians could shift, Ulster's biggest carbon-emitter could.