A rather unusual story from the history of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral involves the remains of Jonathan Swift and his companion Esther Johnson, popularly known as Stella. Today, a visitor to the cathedral will see the epitaph Swift himself wrote. While it is in Latin, it has been translated into English as follows:
Here is laid the Body
of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Sacred Theology,
Dean of this Cathedral Church,
where fierce Indignation
can no longer
injure the Heart.
Go forth, Voyager,
and copy, if you can,
this vigorous (to the best of his ability)
Champion of Liberty.
He died on the 19th Day of the Month of October,
A.D. 1745, in the 78th Year of his Age.
Among the exhibited items in the Cathedral today is a cast of the skull of Swift, but incredibly this cast dates to 1835, ninety years after the passing of the Dean. William Wilde, the father of none other than Oscar Wilde, would later detail the examinations upon the skull. Wilde was a prominent medical figure in Dublin, a leading eye and ear surgeon as well as author of several works on medicine. In his work The Closing Years of the Life of Dean Swift he described the exhuming of the body in 1835 in some detail.
By 1835, the magnificent Cathedral found itself in dire need of restoration and renovation owing to water damage, and Wilde notes in his study that the frequency of flooding in the River Poddle led to much injury to the cherished cathedral. Repairs to the Vaults led to the exposure of the coffins of Swift and Stella, and Wilde stresses in his study that the repairs were “the sole cause of these sacred relics being again exposed.”
Incredibly, these coffins were not alone moved but actually opened, and among those present was the anatomist Dr. John Houston, who described the remains of Swift by writing of how “the bones were all clean, and in a singularly perfect state of preservation. When first removed, they were nearly black, but on being dried they assumed a brownish colour.”
Not alone were the coffins of the dead opened, but the skulls of both Stella and Swift were removed from the Cathedral, for examination by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. As Wilde notes:
The British Association were, at that very time,meeting in Dublin, and the skulls of Swift and Stella were then removed, for the purpose of being phrenologicaly examined by the corps of phrenologists that used to follow in the wake of that learned body…
For those unfamiliar with the term, Phrenology can be described as “a pseudoscience primarily focused on measurements of the human skull, based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localized, specific functions or module.”
Casts and drawings of the skulls survive from 1835, and a number of these drawings were used as illustrations in the work of William Wilde:
The observations made by one examiner of the skull seem quite humourous today, given the status of Swift as one of the greatest wits in Irish history:
On looking at Swift’s skull, the first thing that struck me was the extreme lowness of the forehead, those parts which the phrenologists have marked out as the organs of wit, casualty and comparison, being scarcely developed at all.
It has been noted that the skulls were ‘going the rounds’ at the time, becoming objects of great curiosity to Dubliners and visitors alike, and while the main examination of the skull was said to have occurred at the home of Sir Henry Marsh, Wilde notes in his study that “during the week or ten days which elapsed before they were returned….they were carried to most of the learned, as well as all the fashionable societies of Dublin.”
The manner in which the skulls were examined angered many at the time, and brought considerable criticism upon the then Dean of the Cathedral. Swift and Stella’s skulls were thankfully brought back to the cathedral. William Wilde’s study of the Dean is a very readable work available to read in full here, and particularly interesting is Wilde’s observation that a loose bone in Swift’s inner ear (Ménière’s disease) was responsible for much of his behaviour that was sometimes presented as insanity.
Wilde noted that:
… neither in his expression, nor the tone of his writing, nor from an examination of any of his acts, have we been able to discover a single symptom of insanity, nor aught but the effects of physical disease, and the natural wearing and decay of a mind such as Swift’s.
Today, a cast of Stella’s skull can be seen in Marsh’s Library, next to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, while Swift’s can be viewed at the cathedral.