Ann Tierney (2012)
Many people know of the connection between Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame and Kilkenny, that he attended Kilkenny College until he moved on to Trinity College Dublin at the age of fifteen.
Not so many people, though, will have heard of Constantia Grierson. She was part of Jonathan Swift’s literary circle in Dublin and she hailed from Graiguenamanagh, Co Kilkenny.
Constantia became a poet and a scholar. At the age of eighteen she left Graig for Dublin to train as a midwife.
She was born Constantia Crawley in Graiguenamanagh in 1705. Her parents noticed her intelligence at an early age and did everything in their power to further her desire to learn. Though her family were far from wealthy and had little education themselves, they were able to obtain books for her. Her father is said to have encouraged her reading. No school was involved. When she could spare time from her needlework, to which she was closely kept by her mother, she received some instruction from the minister of the parish who tutored her in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, English and French. Her scholarship extended to history, divinity, philosophy and mathematics.
Whether she actually became a midwife is not known but in Dublin she lived in the household of a doctor and that doctor’s daughter, the poet Laetitia Pilkington, encouraged her classical scholarship and became her friend. Laetitia was to say of her that ‘her learning appeared like the gift poured out of the apostles, of speaking all languages without the pains of study’.
Only a year after her arrival in Dublin, she was editing a book of Virgil for the bookseller and printer George Grierson, who was to become her future husband.
Poetry was her other passion. But only twenty poems and five short prose pieces survive, mainly because, according to a friend, they did not come up to her standard of excellence and she burnt them before her death. It was through poetry that she was introduced to Jonathan Swift, then Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral. He praised her classical learning. He also thought her one of the very few women of taste in Dublin.
Constantia married George Grierson in 1727. He had come from Scotland to set up business in Dublin. Their home and printing house were in Drumcondra, a household that included apprentices and journeymen as well as domestic servants. Together the couple had four children, only one of whom survived infancy.
Constantia played an important role in the business. She was highly regarded by the Dublin literary establishment as an editor as well as a poet, and for her remarkable memory. The Earl of Orrery said that her edition of Tacitus was one of the very best. With her help, George won the position of printer general to the King in Ireland. It was said of them that they had turned printing into an art.
More might well be known of Constantia’s poetry, her printing, her scholarship and her editorial skills were it not for the fact that she died unexpectedly and tragically at a young age. She was just twenty-seven. Her friends said afterwards that she had a persistent cough, but made light of it. Death came to her quickly. The cause was reckoned to have been tuberculosis.
Graiguenamanagh lost one of its most remarkable women.