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I'll never tire of Johnson

LONDON in the middle of the 18th century was a small town strung along on both sides of the Thames between the Mile End Road and where Hyde Park is now.

But it was growing as England was becoming an empire. All kinds of adventurers were drawn towards London.

David Garrick and Samuel Johnson set out from their home town in the Midlands to walk to London with, as Johnson said, "Only the shirts on their back."

Garrick had some local reputation as an actor. Johnson had left university without taking a degree and academically he was unqualified. And both were confident that they could make a living in the capital.

Garrick soon established himself in the theatre but Johnson had a long way to go.

Something new and strange was happening in London. Literacy was spreading and the people took great pride in their ability to read. This was before the age of radio and television and the tabloids.



Wages

There were hardly any newspapers in London in that era but there was a great demand for the printed word and publishers met this demand by turning out all kinds of books.

Johnson was commissioned to write a book on anatomy, a subject about which he knew nothing.

Oliver Goldsmith, who arrived at the same time was asked to write a book on Theaker Wilder's life.

He had seen plenty of it in Trinity, but the publisher needed something else. He went ahead. There were many others supplying this need -- for very small wages.

They lived mostly in and around Fleet Street and it became known as Grub Street because the writers were barely able to exist.

While all this was going on, Goldsmith was writing essays for literary magazines. Johnson was toiling away, subsidised by various institutions, on the dictionary that was to make him famous.

The two became part of a group that met some nights in the Cheshire Cheese, a pub that is still going strong.



Famous

Now others of the company were Joshua Reynolds and James Boswell. Reynolds was already established as a portrait painter. Boswell was a Scot and a lawyer.

He worked hard at this profession and became more or less Johnson's biographer.

He picked up some of Johnson's most famous statements: "Being on board a ship is like being in prison with the chance of being drowned thrown in for good measure."

Once when Johnson was asked what was the happiest hour in his life, he said: "The hours I spent in the morning when I should have been up and working."

He also said: "The best thing about Scotland is the high road to England."

They were a strange company: there was Reynolds the painter and Garrick the actor and Johnson the scholar and Goldsmith the essayist and in time a playwright and then there was Boswell.

One is tempted to say that some kinds of wine, like water, find their own level.

Goldsmith pretended that he was a doctor but he wasn't.

Johnson used to say "I pray thee to prescribe only for thine enemies."

And yet this little Irish lad with a pockmarked face and a stammer was loved by them all because they could see that he was a genius.

He is Ireland's greatest writer as an essayist, a playwright and a novelist.

Whenever he had money he lived extravagantly. He made Johnson an executor of his will. As the bills flowed in mainly for expensive clothes and expensive wine, Johnson said: " Was ever a poet so trusted?".

Here lies Nolly Goldsmith,

For shortness called Noll.

Who wrote like an angel,

And talk'd like poor Poll.

Goldsmith came back with this:

Here lies David Garrick.

On the stage he was natural, simple, affecting.

'Twas only when he was off, he was acting.

It is doubtful if any company in the world was so talented and went on to become so famous. The New York elite, led by Dorothy Parker, used to have lunch in the Algonquin near Greenwich Village in New York and no doubt fancied themselves the wittiest people in the world.

One day Maeve Brennan, the Irish writer, invited one of her sisters to lunch with the famous elite and she said that she had never spent a more boring few hours in her life.

Most of that famous elite are half forgotten today but all of the company who were in the Cheshire Cheese are remembered -- Johnson as a scholar, Goldsmith as a writer, Reynolds as a painter and Garrick unfortunately by word of mouth. Boswell, in his own strange way, achieved immortality.

The five who met in the Cheshire Cheese were proud to be citizens of the growing capital. It is always good to be present at the birth of what was to become the greatest city in the world.

Johnson was a very honest man. When he was on his death bed, he was asked was he at peace and he said: "Before God I am not." His most famous one-liner is known to almost everyone: "When you are tired of London, you are tired of life."

A great many people from all nationalities would agree. After Castle Island, it is my favourite town. From the first day I knew it, I was happy there and the more I knew it the more I loved it.



Haunts

It was a regret, of course, that I hadn't been there in the 18th century, but then even if the Famous Five had been known to me, I would have been in awe of them.

I probably would have got on with Goldsmith because he was a crazy Irishman like myself. He failed to graduate from Trinity, and from Edinburgh, but his genius saw him through life.

London is still very much an Irish town. The old haunts are being deserted as people get better off. They have moved to the suburbs away from Hammersmith and Camden Town and out to Willesden and Neasden. The most Irish part is and has always been Shepherd's Bush.

You cannot go very far there without meeting one of your own. And this I can say just as Johnson did: "When you are tired of London, you are tired of life."

Fogra: Delighted to congratulate Feidhlim Kelly on winning bronze, Siobhan Eviston on successfully defending her 800 metres title and Colin Costello for winning gold in the 1500 metres at the National Track and Field Championships last weekend.