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Ashe, St Georgelocked

  • Hermann J. Real

Ashe, St George (1658–1718), Church of Ireland bishop of Derry and scholar, was born at Castle Strange, co. Roscommon, on 3 March 1658, the second of the three sons of Thomas Ashe, who belonged to a Wiltshire family that had settled in Ireland. As the family estates were inherited by the eldest son, Thomas, St George (Sainty), like his younger brother, Dillon, opted for an academic and clerical career. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and graduated BA in 1676 and MA in 1679. In the latter year his college elected him fellow and tutor, and in 1685 appointed him Donegal lecturer and professor of mathematics. By this time Ashe had become involved in the ‘New Science’, not only assisting William Molyneux in founding the Dublin Philosophical Society and succeeding his friend as secretary, but also becoming one of its most active members. When the earl of Clarendon, then lord lieutenant of Ireland, attended a meeting in January 1686, St George Ashe, in the address, enunciated what may be the fullest statement of the society's aims and philosophical attitude (Ehrenpreis, 53–4, 275–8).

Simultaneously, Ashe began to pursue a career in the church. He graduated BD in 1687, and, in the troubles preceding the Williamite revolution, left Ireland. In 1689 he obtained employment as chaplain to Lord William Paget, the English ambassador at Vienna. Ashe stayed in Vienna until the end of 1691. While there he persevered in his scientific studies, establishing contact with some of the most noted continental scientists of the day. He also kept in touch with the Royal Society, of which he had been a member since 1686. Ashe was married to a daughter of Sir George St George, MP for co. Leitrim from 1661 to 1692. Another daughter married Ashe's brother, Dillon. Ashe and his wife had a son, St George, and a daughter. In early 1692 Ashe returned to Ireland, and having graduated DD in the summer, was appointed provost of Trinity College, Dublin, in October of that year. He resigned the provostship in July 1695, however, and in February 1696 was consecrated bishop of Cloyne. In 1697 he was translated to Clogher, and from there to Derry, where he was enthroned on 19 June 1717.

Evidence suggests that Ashe laid himself open to criticism in the discharge of his episcopal duties. Examples of prolonged episcopal absenteeism abound in Ireland at this time, yet even so Archbishop King is known to have remonstrated with Ashe, his crony, charging him with 'making his bishoprick only a pompous sinecure' (Mant, 2.282–3). However, Ashe's many public duties frequently required his presence in Dublin. He was a member of the privy council of Ireland for a time and was known for the administrative energy with which he worked for the interests of the church and his diocesan clergy during parochial visitations. Ashe's public-spiritedness is further affirmed by his will, in which he bequeathed his mathematical books and scientific instruments to Trinity College Library.

Ashe was not a distinguished theologian. Seven published sermons constitute the whole of his theological remains. They are remarkable for their lucidity of exposition and style as well as for their moderation and kindness of tone.

Despite his presence in Irish intellectual and political life, Ashe is likely to be remembered above all as Jonathan Swift's teacher at Trinity College. On 24 April 1682 the future dean of St Patrick's was admitted as a pensioner, 'under the tuition of St. George Ashe' (Barrett, 8–9). In due course, the young student and his teacher became friends for life. While Swift clearly admired Ashe, the older man may also have occupied 'a fatherly place' in the feelings of young Jonathan, who had grown up fatherless (Ehrenpreis, 909). Their friendship remained unaffected by the occasional political and theological disagreement the two men had in later years. 'I have got Mr Harley to promise', Swift told Stella in January 1711, 'that whatever changes are made in the council, the [whiggish] bishop of Clogher shall not be removed' (Journal to Stella, 1.165–6).

However, no event associates Ashe more closely with Swift than the account of the marriage ceremony, first circulated by John Evans, an old enemy of Swift's, and subsequently reiterated, with modifications, by all his eighteenth-century biographers. According to this account Swift and Stella were privately married in 1716 'by Dr. Ashe, Bishop of Clogher … in the garden' (Johnson, Poets, 3.30). Whoever is inclined to accept the truth of this story will have to account for two facts: first, that Swift himself never mentioned the marriage, and, second, that Stella, in her will, described herself as spinster (Wilde, 94). Whatever the truth, St George Ashe is now remembered as the friend of Esther Johnson and Jonathan Swift.

Ashe died in Dublin on 27 February 1718 and was buried in Christ Church. On the news of Ashe's death, Addison wrote to Swift: 'I must here condole with you upon the Losse of that Excellent man the Bp of Derry who has scarce left behind him his equal in Humanity, agreeable conversation, and all kinds of Learning' (Addison, 400).


  • R. J. Hayes, ed., Manuscript sources for the history of Irish civilisation, 1 (1965)
  • The account books of Jonathan Swift, ed. P. V. Thompson and D. J. Thompson (1984)
  • The correspondence of Jonathan Swift, ed. F. E. Ball, 6 vols. (1910–14)
  • The correspondence of Jonathan Swift, ed. H. Williams and [D. Woolley], rev. edn, 5 vols. (1965–72)
  • J. Addison, The letters, ed. W. Graham (1941)
  • J. H. Bernard, ‘The relations between Swift and Stella’, in The prose works of Jonathan Swift, ed. T. Scott, 12 (1908), 83–106
  • I. Ehrenpreis, Swift: the man, his works and the age, 3 vols. (1962–83)
  • M. B. Gold, Swift's marriage to Stella, together with unprinted and misprinted letters (1937)
  • D. W. Hayton, ‘The high church party in the Irish convocation, 1703–1713’, Reading Swift: papers from the third Münster symposium on J. Swift, ed. H. J. Real and H. Stöver-Leidig (1998), 117–40
  • K. T. Hoppen, The common scientist in the seventeenth century: a study of the Dublin Philosophical Society, 1683–1708 (1970)
  • M. Hunter, The Royal Society and its fellows, 1660–1700: the morphology of an early scientific institution, 2nd edn (1994)
  • L. A. Landa, Swift and the Church of Ireland (1954)
  • C. Maxwell, A history of Trinity College Dublin, 1591–1892 (1946)
  • W. R. Wilde, The closing years of Dean Swift's life, 2nd edn (1849)
  • J. Barrett, An essay on the earlier part of the life of Swift (1808), 8–9


  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Henry Dodwell
  • RS, letters to Royal Society
  • TCD, corresp. with William King


  • attrib. H. Howard, oils, TCD
G. D. Burtchaell & T. U. Sadleir, eds., (1924); [2nd edn], with suppl., in 2 pts (1935)