You’ve probably heard of Jonathan Swift, known famously as the author of “Gulliver’s Travels.” That perennially favorite tale is a hilarious saga as the wayward Lemuel Gulliver finds himself a giant in one realm, a minim in another. Elsewhere, the errant traveler encounters hopelessly self-absorbed intellectuals. And he meets the Houyhnhnms, horses that excel homo sapiens in cerebration. Then there are the Yahoos — a word coined by Swift — depicted as uncivilized savages and all too human.
Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1667. Surrounded by the sea, the Emerald Isle’s inhabitants were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. Swift was an Anglican. The Anglican Church, a Protestant denomination, arose in the wake of King Henry VIII’s break with Rome. At odds with Catholics, Anglicans were also averse to Presbyterians who were doctrinally different. Known as “the Ascendancy,” the Anglicans held much of the wealth and political power in Ireland despite their comparably diminutive numbers. Irish Catholics — the indigenous Celts — were a displaced and impoverished people, having over time endured defeats by English forces. Most had their ancestral lands confiscated. Their lot was a harsh and precarious one.
Swift spent considerable time in England and traveled back and forth between the two islands. He became an ordained priest in his church. In 1713, Queen Anne named him the dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. In the course of the Reformation, the cathedral became a Protestant house of worship. The honor was a recognition of Swift’s talents. However, he would have preferred to perform ecclesiastical duties in bustling London where much of the action was. By contrast, Dublin was a backwater on the outer reaches of Europe. Nonetheless Swift took his position and responsibilities seriously. Except for a few excursions, he would spend the rest of his life in Ireland.
Swift became immersed in pressing issues of the day. From his pulpit, he urged co-religionists to exercise self-discipline and decency. He wrote and discoursed regularly on matters dealing with exploitative policies that kept Ireland and its people economically disadvantaged. England imposed legalities that made it impossible for Ireland to engage in fruitful trade or pursue current methods of manufacture.
England’s relationship with Ireland was blatantly extractive. Wealth flowed one way from the smaller island into the coffers of John Bull. Swift was a prolific pamphleteer and expressed his myriad opinions and recommendations with erudition and wit.
Though he grew increasingly frustrated with England’s arrogance and indifference to the needs of Ireland, he was equally exercised by what he considered the indiscipline and nonfeasance of the Irish themselves at all levels of their society. Whatever the failings of those better-off, Swift must have understood the cruel limitations preventing bedraggled and malnourished multitudes to improve their abysmal situation. Evidently Swift was kind and generous to beggars he encountered. He was deeply unsettled by numerous instances of stark destitution he observed in rural districts. Yet he was a man of his times who saw much societal dysfunction, not as the result of structural economic injustice so much as individual moral failures.
By 1729, Swift was exceedingly concerned with the social maladies he pondered. Recent years had brought bad harvests and widespread starvation to many already in the throes of devastating want. Increasingly furious, feeling ignored and unable to sufficiently alleviate the crisis, Swift took a different tack. In doing so, he composed one of the greatest works of irony and satire in all literature. The title of this extraordinary tract is “A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick.”
It came to 16 pages in its pamphlet form. Published anonymously, it appeared to be a pundit’s essay detailing recommendations for reform. The tone is sober and business-like, which only enhances its disturbing power. The author states he has come upon a perfectly reasonable, profitable and even charitable solution for Erin’s woes; since the progeny of penniless Irish women are often consigned to dreary tatterdemalion lives, there is an efficient way readily at hand to mitigate this sorry state of affairs.
Writes the author, “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 a fricassee or a ragout. … I rather recommend buying the children alive, and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs.” There is another benefit since the purchaser of a child “may also flay the carcass, the skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen.”
Undeniably a win-win scheme. The breeding of babies will bring needed financial remuneration to women in extreme circumstances. Their husbands are likely to treat them with solicitude, wanting to avoid violence upon the pregnant wife so not to cause a miscarriage of precious cargo. Unwed mothers will be less likely to engage in infanticide. An added bonus of this enterprise is that it is sure to “lessen the number of Papists among us.” The projector makes a thinly veiled allusion to England: “I could name a country which would be glad to eat up our whole nation.” By making the children of impoverished Ireland delectable foodstuffs, they will avoid the cruel hardships that otherwise await them.
Swift’s essay still resonates as an electrifying commentary on the inequities the privileged are willing to tolerate while others undergo multifold indignities. Writes Leo Damrosch, a biographer of Swift: “Terse and perfectly paced, A Modest Proposal is so skillfully constructed that it still has the power to startle, even if one has read it many times before. And for anyone who meets it for the first time, it explodes like a land mine.” Damrosch relates how the great Peter O’Toole gave a reading of Swift’s proposal in 1984 at the reopening of Dublin’s Gaiety Theater. Shocked and offended, many walked out before O’Toole finished. Apparently, Swift’s intended irony sometimes misses the mark.
Swift was no rebel who wished for revolution. He was a clergyman who believed in humane reforms. Conservative in his politics, he displayed a liberality in interaction with others. He was acquainted with the legendary blind harper Turlough Carolan. He was a good friend of English poet Alexander Pope, who was a Catholic. In the course of his time as dean of St. Patrick’s, Swift became more Irish, a reluctant patriot. He would win the love and respect of many, not just fellow Anglicans.
In our agitated and uncertain age of distortion and displacement — of teeming refugees and superfluous people — a careful reading of Swift’s proposal can jar the reader into considering the ease with which one’s fellow human beings can be relegated to a category of “other” and therefore more easily expendable. Swift remains a vibrant presence in literature. Said William Butler Yeats, Ireland’s first Nobel Prize winning poet: “Swift haunts me; he is always just around the next corner.”
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Read more in the Mar. 17-23, 2021 issue.