Frank McNally ['on John Dunton], “An Irishman’s Diary”, in The Irish Times (30 May 2009)

[Source: The Irish Times online; 24.06.1009]

Although the son of a long line of clergymen, Englishman John Dunton is probably chief claimant to the title “Father of Journalism”. Born 350 years ago this month, and certainly of religious disposition, he was deemed too volatile to follow in the footsteps of his pious ancestors. So instead he made a career as writer, publisher, and bookseller; and he was a great success for a time, before his fatal weaknesses – women, politics, and commercial ineptitude – ruined him, writes Frank McNally.

His fame rests chiefly on a magazine he founded, The Athenian Gazette (later The Athenian Mercury, which took its name from St Paul’s description of the Athenians as people who loved “to hear or to tell some new thing”.

First published on St Patrick’s Day, 1691, it introduced several journalistic innovations, including the question-and-answer column (and the convention of inventing the questions). It gave Swift his public debut. And its humour-tinged essays, mostly by Dunton himself, pioneered a style that would be perfected by another Irishman, Oliver Goldsmith. The magazine flourished for six years, before falling victim to its own success, as numerous imitators proved more popular.

One commentator summed up Dunton’s career thus: “[He] proved adept at speculating on public tastes, though personal carelessness kept him in a constant state of distress”. His 1698 publication, The Dublin Scuffle illustrates both traits. The title refers to a ridiculous dispute he had with an Irish bookseller; while one of its subtitles, The Billet Doux Sent By a Citizen’s Wife in Dublin Tempting Me to Leudness (sic) hints at his talent for marketing.

Lewdness was a recurring theme. In perhaps the most ambitious project of his life, Dunton aimed to rescue members of London’s oldest profession from their wicked ways, by posing as a customer. A footnote to his biography explains the methodology: “Armed with a constable’s staff, and accompanied by a Clerical companion, he sallied forth in the evening, and followed the wretched Prostitutes home, or to a tavern, where every effort was used to win the erring Fair to the paths of virtue; but these, he observes, were ‘perilous adventures’ as the Cyprians exerted every art to lead him astray, in the height of his spiritual exhortations.” Of course, Dunton published an account of these worthy efforts, entitled: A Night Walker, or Evening Rambles in Search after Lewd Women . And it must have been some consolation to him for the failure of the initiative that at least the book sold well.

Along with blazing a trail in journalism, Dunton was also one of the first travel writers. His books include Teague Land, or A Merry Ramble to the Wild Irish (also 1698), an edited version of which was republished in 2003 by Four Courts Press.

He was often appalled in Ireland, particularly by the lack of hygiene. Irish cabins, he claimed, “are as spacious as our English hogsties, but not so clean”. And Irish morals were almost as bad. “Such things as chastity, wit, and good nature are only heard of here,” he said of Dublin; while, after being robbed in Kilkenny, he commented: “Here is such a den of pick-pockets that I think the thieves of Drogheda are saints to them.”

He also stayed at Rathcoole, in an inn where a previous proprietor had murdered guests for money: “It was not long conceald [sic] and she was burnt for the fact.” And in Naas, he noted the charming local sport whereby, on Shrove Tuesday, locals would meet on horseback in fields and make a wide circle around the first hare they found, before terrorising the animal until it escaped or dropped dead.

But on the whole, despite himself, he could not help feeling some affection for his hosts. “I take the Irish to be a people well humour’d and open hearted,” he wrote generously, “and very capable of good impressions if a prudent care be taken to manage them”.

Dunton needed prudent management himself. This he got from his first wife: an excellent organiser who took care of all his affairs during what were, not by coincidence, his golden years. Then she died, unfortunately. And he was not so lucky with her successor who, together with his mother-in-law, deprived him of whatever resources his own incompetence had spared.

He died in obscurity in 1733. But as early as 1705, writing his memoir The Life and Errors of John Dunton, while hiding from debtors, he already sounds a beaten man. “My [...] income wou’d not support me, did not I stoop so low as to turn Author,” he writes; “but I find ’twas what I was Born to, for I am a Willing and everlasting Drudge to the Quill, and am now writing A Farewell to Trade”.

The 25th Goldsmith International Festival began last night and continues today with events in Longford and Westmeath, including a tour of Goldsmith country (www.goldsmithfestival.ie).

The Trim Swift Festival runs in July. The deadline for its satirical writing competition is next Friday, June 5th. This year’s themes include: Bankers and Banking: a Modest Proposal. Further details at www.trimswiftfestival.com

fmcnally@irishtimes.com


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