Never trust a King to solve your nation’s problems. That’s exactly what happened to Ireland when King Henry II, who was supposed to help the internal issues of Ireland, but instead decided that he would invade the country. The invasion would cause a long battle to ensue between the two nations, one who was power hungry, and the other who only sought independence. King Henry II with the help of Pope Adrian IV (only English Pope), was deemed as the “Lord of Ireland” (“The History of Ireland”). Thus, starting England’s control over the nation and causing Ireland to become poor stricken under the rule of the British Empire.
The overpopulation of poor children in poverty-stricken Ireland is the “issue” in the satirical essay, A Modest Proposal, written by Dr. Jonathan Swift. Ireland, already facing a crisis with the invasion of England, and the devastating famine, also faced a problem with the crippling population of children from the poor people (mostly the women beggars) within the country, Swift states:
“It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in our 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, 1729).
The line that is the most notable is the emphasis of the sex of the beggars, instead of simply stating that there are beggars among the streets, Swift makes the conscious decision to note their gender, as if saying that, that is perhaps the reason behind their unfortunate livelihoods. One can argue that this is a clear insult to women and our “inferior” sex to men. The result of the beggars being women is that of an overpopulation of poor children, which to Swift is a nuisance to their country, and that is the reasoning behind his proposal of how to relieve Ireland of the stress of all those poor beggar children. The solution Swift says was brought about to him by an American acquaintance that he met in London:
“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, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in fricasie, or ragoust” (Swift, 1729 ).
As we had discussed in class the possible reason as to why Swift, clarifies that it was an American that gave and encouraged the idea of eating the children was due to the belief that many of the American colonists resorted to cannibalism due to starvation, and lack of resources. We had also briefly discussed the colony of Roanoke, and cannibalism being a possible reason for the unknown disappearances of the people from the said colony. By using the children as a mean to not only bring food to the people of Ireland but also as a way to bring an end to the country’s poverty. Most of the country’s wealth was swept away by the increase in British rule.
Especially since most Irishmen and women were Catholic, they no longer had any power due to the religious take over of the Protestant. As in an article written by Laura Leddy Turner, The Life of Poor Irish in the 1700s, Protestant English landowners became middle class in the 1700s, while the Irish Catholics delved deeper into poverty. England had claimed Ireland’s land as it’s own, forcing the Irish people into a state is desperation. As the satire draws closer to the end, it becomes evident that Swift is clearly stating a metaphorical f-you to Britain, as the English landowners where economically bleeding the Irish dry, Swift states, “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children” (Swift, 1729).
By saying that Swift is stating that the landlords aka the British have already eaten the parents of the children, so it’s only fitting that they have “the best title to the children” as if the children were a part of their property instead of being human. Which all throughout the essay, Swift compares the Irish to cattle, due to the way the British treated them as such. Swift starts the essay off as if the overpopulation of children is the problem within the country, but in fact, the underlying problem is clearly expressed as the British control over Ireland which causes the country’s poverty.
“I desire those politicians who dislike my overture, and may perhaps be so bold to attempt an answer, that they will first ask the parents of these mortals, whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old, in the manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided such perpetual scene of misfortunes, as they have sincere gone through, by the oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor cloaths to cover them from the inclemencies of the weather, and the most inevitable prospect of intailing the like, or greater miseries, upon their breed for ever” (Swift, 1729).
It is with this paragraph at the end of Swift’s essay, that we are confronted with the meaning behind his modest proposal. He asks the politicians to question the people of Ireland. Inquiring if they would have rather been eaten at the tender age of a year, or to grow and experience the misfortunes that have been forced upon them by the British, and still inevitably be involved in the misery of the Irish people. Nonetheless, the effect of this passage brings the reader to an understanding of what the Irish were put through because of Britain, how they were oppressed because of the British Crown, and treated like that of nothing more than cattle.
Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal”. 1729
Turner, Laura Leddy. “The Life of Poor Irish in the 1700s.” Synonym, classroom.synonym.com/life-poor-irish-1700s-13171.html.
Ireland’s Colonial History