Notes on Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”
As dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Ireland, Jonathan Swift saw firsthand the devastating consequences of famine on the poorer segments of the Irish population. Conditions in Ireland reached a crisis point in 1729. Thousands of men, women, and children suffered homelessness and poverty as the result of crop failures, high unemployment, rising prices, and trade restrictions imposed by the British government. Responding to the public outcry for a remedy, Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal” as a satire—a literary work that ridicules a subject through the use of irony and wit and is intended to create amusement, contempt, or anger in the reader. The essay blasted those whom he believed to be responsible for Ireland’s state of affairs—the British government, corrupt landlords and merchants, and “Absentees” (those who fled the country in 1714 when George I took control of the government). He also criticized the “projectors,” people who offered often absurd and simplistic solutions to very complex problems. “A Modest Proposal” provides just such a solution as obvious satire.
Events in History at the Time
Irish Politics in the Early 1700s
The Tory political party came to power in England from 1710 to 1714, employing Swift to write as a political journalist. It was a happy period in his life that ended abruptly with the death of Queen Anne and the downfall of the Tory government. The opposing political party, the Whigs, came to power with King George I, whose reign would last from 1714 to 1727. Prime Minister Robert Walpole became the dominant party and government leader under King George. A strong leader, Walpole believed firmly in the right of the British government to oversee and regulate Irish affairs.
As early as the 1500s, England had exerted power over Ireland and fought to make the country a subordinate kingdom, a colony loyal to the British monarchy. By 1700, however, the Irish, who had their own Parliament and cultural identity, felt they were an independent nation that simply shared a king in common with the English. The British government recognized the Irish Parliament as a legitimate body, but felt that the Irish House of Lords was subordinate to the British House of Lords and passed a law to that effect in 1720. The Act eliminated the rights of the Irish to make their own laws, mint their own currency, or exercise supreme judicial and legislative authority in their country. This enraged many Irish nationalists. These “Patriots,” as they came to be known, initiated an aggressive fight for Irish independence from Great Britain.
The Rise of the Irish Protestants and Patriotism
Among those Patriots calling for Irish independence was Jonathan Swift. Although he had lived much of his life in England, Swift was born and died an Irishman. Appointed dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1713, Swift was a devoted Protestant who supported the so-called “Protestant Ascendancy,” the coming to power of the Protestant landed class in the largely Catholic country of Ireland. These Irish Protestants included Patriots such as Swift who were fiercely anti-English and strongly supported the Church of Ireland—the equivalent of the Church of England in Ireland. Swift spent a considerable amount of effort defending the Church of Ireland from Protestants who dissented or refused to join it.
The English economy prospered in the early 1700s, partly due to the country’s colonies and trade. Ireland, meanwhile, was in a period of decline. In the 1690s the English restricted Irish exports of wool and wool products. They then further restricted Ireland’s agricultural trade with the European continent, at the same time increasing English imports into Ireland. These decrees had a devastating effect on the Irish economy. Because it could not export many of its products, Ireland lost domestic industries, especially in agriculture. As Ireland’s...
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