It is the fate of all great writers, after their death, that their diaries and letters are often published. The minutiae of their everyday lives becomes a source of great interest to their subsequent biographers and the life they led can sometimes overwhelm and distract us from the great works of literature they leave behind them. However, often times the surviving correspondence gives a unique insight into the world and life of the writer and can assist in putting into context their work in the place of their everyday life.
I was intrigued to come across a reference in the correspondence of the great satirist Jonathan Swift to Marcus Antonius Morgan. The letter is succinct and to the point and is a request from Swift to visit Morgan with a view to seeing his private library. The exact date of the letter is unknown but it is believed to be in or around 1735 and in many ways is an innocuous piece of correspondence. Its interest to me lies in the fact that Marcus Antonius Morgan was the Member of Parliament for Athy from 1727 to 1752. The Borough of Athy was controlled by the Duke of Leinster and therefore Morgan’s election would have owed much to the Duke’s influence. Morgan’s father, for various dates between 1693 and 1714, was the MP for the county of Sligo and latterly county Wexford and like his son Marcus was a graduate of Trinity College Dublin. As a parliamentarian Morgan lived a rather undistinguished life and like many MP’s did not reside in the borough to which he was elected.
Morgan’s principal residence was in Cavan and he retained interest in lands in Meath where he was Sheriff of the county in 1726 and a Governor of the Workhouse from 1736 until his death in 1752. The extent and the length of his friendship with Jonathan Swift are difficult to establish. However, it is clear that not long after their first acquaintance the friendship ended. As the greatest satirist of his age Swift was renowned for his use of humour to attack the politics and social mores of his day. His greatest work, Gulliver’s Travel, published in 1726, a great part of which was written in Woodbrook House in County Laois, is a wonderful satire on life and human nature during Swift’s own lifetime. He was to turn his considerable powers on Marcus Antonius Morgan in 1736 with the publication of ‘The Legion Club’ which is marked by a bitter attack on Morgan and his politics.
In March of 1735 Morgan and Richard Bettesworth had been appointed to a committee of the House of Commons in Ireland to review a petition which had been brought against the tithes of agistment. The tithes were a form of tax on agricultural land payable to the Church of Ireland for the support of its clergy. All landowners were liable for the tax, regardless of their religious persuasion, be they Catholic, Church of Ireland or Dissenter. The tax was deeply unpopular and many of its bitterest opponents were members of the Church of Ireland themselves. At the time Swift was the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin and was deeply concerned as to what he saw as another attack on the Irish Church. The favourable response the petition received from the committee headed by Morgan and Bettesworth was deeply wounding to Swift. It appears that Swift used his familiarity with Morgan’s private library to mock Morgan, given that the library was clearly a source of great pride to him. In part of the poem Swift suggests that Morgan’s own books would take offence at Morgan’s actions in parliament with regard to the tithes of agistment.
‘When you walk among your books,
They reproach you with their looks;
Bind them fast, or from their shelves
They’ll come down to right themselves:
Homer, Plutarch, Virgil, Flaccus,
All in arms, prepare to back us:
Soon repent, or put to slaughter
Every Greek and Roman author.
Will you, in your factious phrase,
Send the clergy all to graze;
And to make your project pass,
Leave them not a blade of grass?
Ultimately Parliament compromised whereby the right to collect the tithe was removed from pastureland, placing the burden on tillage farming. The collection of tithes remained an issue in Ireland until the dis-establishment of the Church of Ireland by the Irish Church Act in 1869 and all laws that required tithes to be paid to the Church were appealed. Morgan remained as Member of Parliament for Athy until his death in 1752 but while his political career did not lend itself to remembrance he has the distinction of being immortalised in Swift’s writings.