A Modest Accusal

Jay Swift

Jonathan Swift by Francis Bindon (Website here).

Our class’ unit on the Restoration period partially focused on the theme of oppression in Ireland. The essay that we read by author and Irish citizen Jonathan Swift, “A modest Proposal”, explained the various ways in which the people in Ireland had been oppressed leading up to the essay’s release date in 1729. At the time, England was a country that was in control of Ireland and King Henry VII had reclaimed the country under its control back in the 1500s’. By the time the 1700’s had come, all of the political and economic control in Ireland had shifted over from the people of Ireland to English politicians and Irish politicians who were only Protestant. One of the leading factors for this change in power was King Henry VII’s break from the Catholic Church back in the 1500s’ as a way of divorcing his wife. With this, many Catholics became oppressed to the incoming Protestant religion that soon dominated. One of England’s main goals began to be to oppress the Catholics in Ireland, and Catholicism was the dominant religion in the country at that time.

As a result, Irish Catholics were no longer able to hold political office, own land, have a political vote, and they were forced out of business. All of these things went directly to the British colonizers and Protestants. The people of Ireland still had pride for their country and wanted to fight these problems that plagued them. The satirical proposal that was written by Jonathan Swift not only critiqued British colonizers for their oppressive activities, but also provided a thorough explanation for Ireland’s exploited government and economy.

The streets of Ireland were filthy, crowded with beggars and thieves; and people both young and old were fighting against simple starvation. Mothers who’d just recently given birth stood in the dirty streets with one hand out begging, while holding a newborn in the other. The opening of the essay depicts the poverty that plagued people in Ireland who’d lost much of what they had to the colonizers, “It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabbin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms” (Swift 141). Many of the children Swift was talking about didn’t end up staying in the country, and usually ended up somewhere where the Catholic religion wasn’t oppressed so they could find work, “helpless infants who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes” (Swift 141). The overcrowding pushed the oppression of Irish people further, making it more difficult to find food and providing a breeding ground for disease.

Swift then jumped into his main argument for the essay, which he began with cannibalism as a solution to the increasing number of infants in Ireland. Of course Swift was joking about this stance and was actually leading readers right into his real proposal. The argument to eat and sell the babies of Ireland was the beginning of Swift’s use of the literary device of satire, in which he tried to actually correct the vices made by the British colonizers, “ I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food” (Swift 142). This becomes the comedic intro to Swift’s real solutions to Ireland’s poverty, but also the intro to his way of explaining why Ireland was facing these issues in the first place.

Swift talks about the real problems that Ireland faced near the end of his proposal when he satirically provides actual solutions for his people. In doing this though, Swift is actually providing an explanation for Ireland’s poverty and why such a proposal would need to be written in the first place. The colonization that occurred was a direct attack on Irish Catholics, and a move to push them out of the country. Many examples included high taxes, the import of goods rather than production within the country and “merciless landlords” who take everything from their tenants. While providing solutions for Ireland, what Swift truly does is explain the implications that led so many Irish to become poor, “Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants” (Swift 146).

So rather than just being a solution for the people of Ireland, this essay pointed a finger at the colonizers. He then ended his argument with more satire, saying that he didn’t want to hear from anyone about these problems again unless they’re ready to fight against them with full enthusiasm, “Therefore I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, ‘till he hath at least some glimpse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice” (Swift 146). Here’s an introduction written by David Cody of Hartwick College on how more than providing just a proposal, Swift calls out the wrongdoings of British colonizers in general!

It wasn’t until the 1790s’ that the people of Ireland were persuaded by the French revolution to act on the oppression of their country. This stand against the British colonizers revealed that one of the leading factors that had kept the country divided for so long was a difference in religion between the Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants. Once the United Irishmen began to take a stand, the unity of religions proved to be a tremendous strength to the country’s push for freedom and rights.

This leads me to critique Swift’s essay in that he should have provided the idea of unity despite a difference of religion, as one of his many solutions to fight the colonizers. This became a very effective tactic for the Irish who were finally rewarded the Catholic relief act in 1793, and eventually started an uprising at the start of the Romantic period.

Sources:

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