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The story as handed down in the family


‘A Supposed Relic of Swift’ – thus the Kildare County Archaeological Journal captioned its photographs of this pendant in a brief note published in 1920. The article concluded:

This remarkable relic is said by family tradition to have been made for Swift in memory of Stella, the initials upon it standing for Jonathan Swift and Stella Swift. Be this as it may, it is certainly of considerable antiquity, while its gruesome emblems recall the hideous imagination so typical of Swift.
(Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society, vol.9, 1920, p.303f.)

So put-out by the imputation ‘supposed’ was my Great Uncle Ben (The Revd M.B.A.Byrn) — then custodian of the pendant (known in the family at the time as "the Dean's locket") — that he excised the word ‘supposed’ from his copy of the article and wrote emphatically across the top of the page:

This history of the Dean’s locket was often repeated to me by my mother. There is no doubt whatever of its authenticity. M.B.A.Byrn

And there is no doubt also that the family was flattered by the link and cultivated it. A nephew of M.B.A.Byrn's was christened Jonathan Swift Byrn.
The family also treasured and handed down a portrait said to be of Stella — but the latter's authenticity has never been examined.

The history of the pendant’s ownership, tracing it back to Jonathan Swift’s day, is as follows:

M.B.A.Byrn (d.1960) inherited the pendant from his mother, Marie Wetzlar Byrn, née Swift (d.c.1900), who was given it by her father, the Revd Richard Meade Swift (b.c.1800).
The latter had been given it (perhaps on the occasion of his marriage in 1829) by his cousin, Frances Jones, younger daughter of Alexander Swift (b.1719) of Lynn, County Westmeath (who received it from her father perhaps on the occasion of her marriage in 1771).
This Alexander Swift was Jonathan Swift’s first cousin-once-removed, the only child of Meade Swift of Lynn (of his second marriage). Meade Swift was the eldest son of Jonathan’s uncle Godwin by his fourth wife, Elinor Meade, and was thus a first cousin of Jonathan's.

Our family's assumption is that Swift recovered the pendant from amongst Stella's personal effects after her death in 1728. And after his own death (1745) it would have passed into the family of his cousin Meade, thence to Alexander.

During my father's custodianship the pendant was put on view at the Co. Kildare Archaeological Association's ter-centenary exhibition for Jonathan Swift (1967). Two decades later the Hon.Sec. of that Society, Con Costello, also published a short article plus photograph of one face in "The Leinster Leader" (18th Feb. 1989).

Having myself in due course inherited the pendant, I unhesitatingly accepted the family tradition and set about making my own attempt to authenticate it.

This led to the publication of two articles in Swift Studies. The Annual of the Ehrenpreis Center (ed. Hermann Real; see: Ehrenpreis Center for Swift Studies). Both articles propose that the pendant should be understood as a marriage-token, and thus that it was created well before Stella's death:
Jonathan Swift’s Locket for Stella Swift: a sacramental marriage ‘certificate’?’ (vol. 3, 1988, pp. 2-8); and
Jonathan Swift’s Locket for Stella Swift: further considerations’ (vol. 6, 1991, pp. 38-48).

Much of the substance of the latter article had been aired in a paper delivered to the Second Münster Symposium on Jonathan Swift in May 1989, where the family claims were exposed to critical scrutiny by leading Swift scholars. The outcome of this scrutiny is that I have to say, with much regret, that my faith in the family’s traditional explanation for the pendant is severely challenged. No longer do I refer to it confidently as ‘the Dean’s locket’ but now, more cautiously, as ‘the Swift pendant’. (Not even ‘locket’ because it does not open as lockets generally do.)

One fact, at least, is not under challenge, i.e. whilst there is no way of proving that the second initial ‘S’ (on all three faces) designates the surname Swift, the pendant certainly descended to a family of Byrns from a family of Swifts.

On the other hand, since Swift scholars in general doubt the likelihood of Jonathan's marriage to Esther (Stella) Johnson, they are unwilling to accept that the initials ‘S S’ (on faces one and three) could stand for Stella Swift.

Experts in mourning jewellery, for their part, point out that memorial jewels of this kind were being produced more commonly at the end of the 17th century rather than as late as 1728, the year of Stella’s death. The idea that Swift might have commissioned it after Stella’s death is thus improbable. My own supposition is that it was commissioned much earlier: either around 1716, the year given for the marriage between Swift and Stella by Samuel Johnson in his biography of Swift, or up to 20 years earlier still, when it would have been offered to Stella as a token of love-unto-death.

To the eye of an expert in 17th century mourning jewellery this pendant could be a memorial to three individuals whose deaths would have occurred at the same time, perhaps in an epidemic (I am particularly indebted to Diana Scarisbrick).

Thus, face 1 showing ‘S S’ beneath a coffin bearing the letters "I REST" would relate to an adult. Faces two and three (‘J S’ above a skull, and again ‘S S’ this time beneath a skull-and-cross-bones) might relate to children.

The most serious challenge to a link with Jonathan Swift, however, relates to face two.


Are these letters on face 2 ‘J S’ or ‘T S’ ?


Here the family has traditionally seen the letters ‘J S’.

Sceptics, on the other hand, challenge the identification of the ‘J’, arguing that it is really a ‘T’.

So far I have not been able to get a definitive answer. But if it does turn out to be a ‘T’, then the family's claims about this ‘supposed relic’ of Jonathan Swift are indeed a thoroughly discreditable fabrication.

Be that as it may, however, even without a link to Jonathan Swift the pendant remains a startling piece of mourning jewellery.

Many pieces with similar motifs survive from the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, some single-faced, others double-faced (there are examples in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and in the Victoria & Albert Museum — but none, as it happens, in the National Museum of Ireland). This pendant, though, is unique in my experience because it has as many as three faces.

If anyone can help throw light on it, especially regarding the crucial question as to whether the first letter on face two is a ‘J’ or a ‘T’, I shall be most grateful.