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.


End Poverty, Eat the Children!


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.

Works Cited

Text Source:

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.



Class Material:

Ireland’s Colonial History