Jonathan Swift and Carbery Rocks

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Following the death of Esther Vanhomrigh (‘Vanessa’) in 1723, Jonathan Swift went on a four-month long journey in the southern and western parts of Ireland. Charles Smith’s History of the Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Cork reports that Swift had stayed with a curate friend in Myross, from where:

…he often diverted himself in making little voyages on the coast, from Glandore Harbour towards Baltimore, and these excursions occasioned his Latin poem Carberiae Rupes, which he wrote in June, anno 1722 (Smith I, p. 265).

The poem was translated from the Latin by Dr Dunkin.

Carbery Rocks’ seems to capture the view looking outwards to sea. Smith locates the poem near Castlehaven Bay and describes it thus:

This alludes to a stupendous arch, through which a boat may row. It is located in the parish of Myross, and not far from the place where the dean usually embarked. Near the W. head of Castlehaven, are deep caves, which are low at the entrance, but grow higher within. The swell of the sea raises a boat up to the roof almost, when one is in; which also by turns closes up the entrance, and makes them very dark and gloomy. (Smith I, 265-6n)

The poem’s language gives expression to the extremity of the West Cork coastline and registers the shaping forces of sea, wind and weather. The striking sea stack described by Swift is at once a terrifying spectacle (‘a huge fragment’) and a fragile coastal feature lashed by the Atlantic and prey to erosion (‘the ruin of a future storm’).

A discussion of the poem’s location is found in Daniel Dononvan’s Sketches in Carbery (1876), which suggests that the poem:

…refers to a cave, near Carrigilihy Strand, where Dean Swift used to embark. It forms a natural archway, hollowed out by the rock, and communicating with the sea by two separate orifices, some distance apart. When the tide is favourable a boat can be rowed through from one mouth to the other (Donovan, 1876, p. 173).

Donovan’s description helps us to identify the sea stack as the ‘Stack of Beans’, identified as lying to the east of Rabbit Island on the 6” OS map. The ‘Stack of Beans’ can still be seen from the rocky beach at Carrigilihy.

The perspective voiced in this poem is closely connected to the very edges of the coast, where land meets sea. Perhaps Swift’s sense of the precariousness of coastal life was connected with his own experience of walking along its cliffs and shores. His friend Dr Delany describes a terrifying accident said to have inspired this poem:

[Swift’s] curiosity carried him to the brink of this dreadful precipice, and not content with what information his eyes could give him, as he stood over it, he stretched himself forward at his full length upon the rock, to survey it with more advantage. And attempting to rise up again, when his curiousity was as well gratified as he could; he found, as he told me, (for I had it from his own mouth), that he lost ground, which obliged him to call, in great terror, to his two servants who attended him (for he never travelled, or even rode out, without two attendants) to drag him back by the heels: which they did, with sufficient difficulty, and some hazard (Delany).

Sadly, the views of Swift’s servants on this accident are lost to us. The journey that Swift took around Ireland in 1723 did however give him ‘a visceral understanding of how dreadful the poverty was in regions far from Dublin’ (Damrosch, p. 345). ‘Carbery Rocks’ can be seen to record something of the realities of life in coastal communities, as it imagines the ‘frighted’ fishermen who lie ‘trembling in the harbour’, waiting for an imagined storm to pass. Their predicament is connected to the animal life of the coast, with seals (‘sea calves’) seeking shelter and goats making a precipitous and possibly fated descent from mountain top to shore.

Swift’s poem was sufficiently well known in the nineteenth century for other travellers to remark upon its striking descriptions while visiting the same parts of the coastline. When Ann Plumptre visited West Cork in 1814, travelling along the new causeway built across Rosscarbery Bay, she remarks upon Swift’s ‘little aquatic excursions’ along the coastline and repeats the poem’s description of the sea stack and caves (Plumptre, pp. 253-254).