Famed author Dean Jonathan Swift.

Jonathan Swift’s Skull and the Maguires of Ballyhaise

Jonathan's Smyth's latest historical column looks at the Maguires from Ballyhaise who were caretakers of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin...

I recently discovered Chris Pigott’s interesting blog on ‘The Pigott Family of Queen’s County, Ireland’ which tells the story of the Maguire family from Ballyhaise and their connection to St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. William Maguire, whom we will come to shortly was an inspector of taxes with the Dublin Paving Board and a member of the Primitive Wesleyan Methodist Church and ‘sexton’ of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, who oversaw an excavation of Dean Jonathan Swift’s grave. An account of the history of the Ballyhaise Maguires was posted online in September 26th, 2010.

In the 1780s Thomas Maguire and his wife Lettitia Phayre and their children who originally came from Mullalougher, Ballyhaise, but by then were living in a house in Naboth’s Vineyard, Long Lane, Dublin City. Some sixty years prior to the arrival of the Maguires, Dean Swift’s green-fingers were put into action having ‘constructed’ a landscaped garden which he christened ‘Naboth’s Vineyard’. The garden lay to the southside of Long Lane, in the parish of St Kevin. Thomas and Lettitia’a children were Mary Anne, Martha, Joseph, Thomas, John and finally William (he was born in Dublin). Their home in Naboth’s Vineyard was then under the care of Dean William Craddock.


In 2010, Chris Pigott recalled receiving a transcript of an autobiography, dated 1823, written by William, the youngest Maguire. The original leather-bound volume from which the copy was made, is now held privately, the property of George J. Crawford, Buckinghamshire. The blog surmised that Thomas was likely both gardener and caretaker of the garden created by Swift, until he was made sexton of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

Crookshank’s ‘History of Methodism’ relays the story of how Thomas and Lettitia converted to Methodism while they were still living in Cavan. A preacher, thought to be John Bredin from Tullyvin (he became a Methodist and then a preacher after battling addiction to alcohol for many years), who knew Mrs Maguire, arrived to pray at her Mullalougher home, with plans to return on the following Sunday to say further prayers with the family, but when Sunday came around, the neighbours had given Lettitia’s husband a hard time, calling him a Methodist, and as a result he refused the preacher permission to enter his home. The preacher went to another house, to which Lettitia went and was later joined by her husband who got down on his knees to prevent his neighbours seeing him, but was instead caught-off guard, ‘convicted’ of his sins and by the end of the meeting had ‘turned to God’ and became a follower. The preacher was now welcomed to the Maguire’s homestead on the following Sunday.


On March 21st, 1779, Thomas succeeded Fergus Gibbons as sexton of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin which Chris Pigott suggests may have required the Maguire’s to move to a new house on South Close which was nearer the Cathedral and as part of his new duties, Thomas took note of burials and collected fees for same. The Maguire family remained members of the Methodist church and John Wesley’s notebook listed them as residents at Vineyard Row, and later at Deanery House, Dublin. Having served as Cathedral sexton for sixteen years, Thomas died on February 9th, 1794, and was succeeded by ‘his widow’ on March 31st, 1794, assisted by Thomas jnr. Three years later, Lettitia was appointed to another role as Cathedral ‘robe-keeper’, doing both jobs until her retirement in 1810 at the age of seventy.

Paving Board

William Maguire was then appointed sexton in place of his mother, and his wife Mary Maguire née Vickers became robe-keeper. William and Mary had a family of sixteen children and the extra income was obviously welcome. From 1803, William had worked as a supervisor with the Dublin Paving Board, a forerunner of the Dublin Corporation and in his memoir, recalled the many temptations sent his way by the contractors employed under him. Maguire wrote, ‘I found this place a great temptation for I was placed over contractors, who, to gain the officer placed over them, were in the habit of constantly treating them. The first day I entered on my new employment, I, with other officers, was invited to a tavern to dinner after which drink was freely applied. At the end of the quarter the contractor sent in his bill (for the pub) to the Board for (as part of) the Cleansing of the Streets in his contract’.

Maguire resolved to take the word of a good man, a lamp inspector called Edward Kinsley, who warned that ‘if you accept the invitation of the contractor you put yourself under a compliment to him.’ William called the advice ‘divine aid’ and from then on refused any treat, or present, refusing to give a certificate from his Division until he was satisfied the job was in order. In 1826, William was appointed ‘Inspector of Taxes’, replacing an inspector who was snared for fraudulently using public monies on himself.

Maguire had kept a record of what the inspector collected and told the treasurer how the man omitted certain houses on the list while pocketing the money. An enquiry from the Board might have tried implicating Maguire but for the fact he had already informed the treasurer of the scam. Maguire was rewarded with promotion, getting the other man’s job.

Swift’s skull

A different matter of note in the life of William Maguire, sexton of St Patrick’s, was his supervision of the excavation and opening of Dean Swift’s tomb in 1835, for the purpose of a medical study on the Dean’s skull, as well as a study of the famous Stella’s remains. When the relics were returned, William Maguire placed a bottle inside Swift’s coffin, sealed with wax bearing the ‘Arms of the Maguire Family of Fermanagh’, dated August 13th, 1835, and inside the vessel was a document signed by the sexton which read: ‘Doctor Swift’s grave was opened this day by permission of the Dean, the British Association being holding their meeting in Dublin; his skull was in two as it now appears, having been opened on his death to examine the brain’. An additional note, in the bottle added that, ‘Stella’s skull’ was taken from the adjoining grave for examination and ‘is now deposited with Swift’s’.

Renovations on the Cathedral in 1882 exposed the bottle and its contents were subsequently published in the Church of Ireland Gazette. Having served as sexton for thirty-four years, William Maguire died in 1844 at the age of sixty-two.


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