Serendipity is a strange thing. Just a couple of days ago, after I had written a post about the tendency to hide crap non-information with the words ‘it has been said’, I happened to be walking through a traffic island near Custom House Square in Belfast. There was a group of tourists there and a guide was pointing to Cave Hill. As I went past, he explained to them that Swift was thought to have got the idea for Gulliver’s Travels from the giant-like outline of the mountain.
I didn’t say anything but I should have done. This is complete shite. There is no evidence that Swift was inspired by Cave Hill. How can I be so sure? Well, I’m not the only one who’s suspicious. I found this blog: https://blarneycrone.com/2012/07/04/dean-swift-napoleons-nose-and-lilliput-street-are-they-by-any-chance-related/
As the blogger says: I thought I knew quite a lot about Dean Swift. I have even read Gulliver’s Travels. In all the stuff about satire, and St Patrick’s Cathedral and so on, I have never been aware of any connection between the great man of letters and the city of my birth. Yet this week in Belfast I have twice heard the same story about Jonathan Swift and his inspiration for Gulliver. Can it possibly be true?
Of course, Swift did live in Carrickfergus for a while and I’m sure he knew Belfast. But Swift never said that Belfast inspired him to write Gulliver. No book on Swift’s life or work or on Belfast’s history mentions this story. Most studies on Swift’s work emphasise that he was influenced by Gargantua and Pantagruel, the giants invented by Rabelais in his satirical writings nearly two hundred years before Gulliver’s Travels was published.
So where did this story of the Belfast origins of Gulliver’s Travels come from? Well, looking on Google, I have not been able to find any reference to this dating back before 2004, when it was mentioned in an article in The Scotsman. Yet, in the years since then, it has appeared in hundreds of websites and blogs and other sources.
Of course, there will be people who will say, what does it matter? It’s a good story, isn’t it? I’ll answer that with a quote from James Harbeck. He was referring to Cassidy’s nonsense but it is equally appropriate to this case.
But why should it matter, if it’s a good story? Well, for one thing, it’s bad history. For another, the real stories are often more interesting. For a third, if you want facts, don’t you want facts? And fourth, sometimes it’s done maliciously, as with the claim that picnic and nitty-gritty are racist terms, in spite of more-than-ample evidence to the contrary.
I don’t think there is anything truly malicious about the claim that Swift was inspired by the Belfast Hills but it’s certainly a cynical exploitation of other people’s gullibility. Those tourists thought they were learning something of value. In reality, they were just being fed a pile of bullshit. They probably went on to Dublin afterwards to learn how Bram Stoker called his vampire after the Irish for bad blood. Let’s hope they didn’t buy Cassidy’s book on the way. That would be a perfect storm of fake Irish nonsense!