In this blog, my primary target has been the fake etymology of Daniel Cassidy but I have touched on a number of other phoney memes about Ireland and Irish such as the silly claim that Swift was inspired to write Gulliver’s travels by the appearance of Belfast’s Cave Hill, which looks like a sleeping giant. Extensions of this myth say that Swift also took the name Lilliput from a farm in North Belfast as the name for his nation of tiny people and that Lilliput Street commemorates this farm. According to many sources, the name Lilliput in Belfast goes back to before the time when Swift lived in the area.
The truth is quite different, as I have said before. Swift did live in Kilroot near Carrickfergus for about two years between 1694 and 1696, and had a relationship with a girl called Jane Waring from Waring Street in Belfast, so he undoubtedly travelled into the town through the area around Lilliput Street, and Cave Hill does look a little like a sleeping giant. However, he did not write Gulliver’s Travels until the 1720s (it was published in 1726) and there is absolutely no evidence that Swift had Cave Hill in mind when he wrote about his giants.
In fact, the idea that Swift was inspired by Cave Hill is very recent. The earliest reference to it that I can find is from an article in the Scotsman in 2004. Experts on Swift and his work tend to make the point that Swift was influenced by the French writer Rabelais, whose satirical works about the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel are much more obvious as inspirations. For example, Oxford Quick Reference says about Rabelais that he had a widespread influence on English literature, particularly on S. Butler, Swift, Sterne, Peacock, and Joyce. Whole articles have been written on the subject, such as Eddy’s 1922 essay, Rabelais, a Source for Gulliver’s Travels. And then there is Marion Graz Carr’s 1924 work, A Comparison of the “Gargantua” and “Pantagruel” of Rabelais with Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.” Just Google Swift and Rabelais and you will find hundreds of references.
As for the idea that Lilliput Farm in Belfast was the inspiration for the name Lilliput in Gulliver’s Travels, this is only possible if Lilliput Farm was called that in the 1690s. This is often claimed on the internet and by self-appointed local historians in Belfast but if we look for evidence, there is none. The earliest reference to Lilliput as a place in the Belfast area seems to be (it’s not absolutely certain that it’s the one in the Belfast area but seems likely) a reference in the Belfast Newsletter to an auction of furniture at the house of Hercules Heyland in Lilliput in 1786. There are quite a few references to Lilliput House and its garden in the early 19th century too, and this is definitely in the right area of the city. It seems to have been a nursery or garden and seed suppliers at that time.
However, 1786 is sixty years after Gulliver’s Travels was published. It seems likely to me that someone chose to build a house and call it Lilliput because they were a fan of Swift or because they were small or the house was small – for some whimsical reason which hasn’t been recorded. If that’s the case, it wasn’t the only one. There was a Lilliput Lodge in Limerick in the early 19th century. There is also a Lilliput House at Nure in County Westmeath which was named after Swift’s creation in the 18th century. There are probably many other Lilliputs named after Gulliver’s Travels rather than the other way round.
There is also the question that Lilliput doesn’t sound like an Irish placename. There aren’t any places anywhere in Ireland (apart from the occasional Lilliput) with the element Put in them, to the best of my knowledge, and the same goes for Lilli. They aren’t common elements like kill or maghera or bally or knock…
So, if Swift didn’t get the name of Lilliput from a place in Belfast, where did he get it? Well, experts on Swift have speculated about that one. The answer seems to be that the Lilli- is a childish rendering of little, which makes perfect sense. As for the put, this word was a common slang term meaning a stupid fellow or a blockhead in Swift’s day. Swift was an opponent of slang and actually mentioned the word put as one of the words people shouldn’t use in an article he wrote in the Tatler in 1710! In other words, Lilliput would be the kingdom of the little fools.
And, just as the Irish language doesn’t need a Cassidy to make it interesting or important, the Belfast Hills have more than enough going for them without a fake association with Swift. They are stunningly beautiful and they are full of genuine history. So let’s just ditch all this newly-manufactured fakery and stick to the facts!