Ireland, the Emerald Isle, may be noted for its land rich in vegetation, but I know it better for its production of some of the most reputed writers in history. Ireland possesses the third oldest language in Europe and has the most significant body of written literature (both written and recent) of any Celtic language. Well-known for their literature’s wit, humor, and wordplay, several of my favorites come to mind: Oscar Wilde, whom I cannot read without a grin, George Bernard Shaw, who taught everyone that the rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain, and James Joyce, who is liable to spin you round in confusing, convoluted circles, but his works make for the best reads. This tradition of hilarious yet intelligent writers continues to the present day, as demonstrated by Sarah Rees Brennan whose words never fail to captivate me as they simultaneously cause me to laugh. The oldest vernacular poetry belongs to Ireland as well. Other names you’ll probably recognize are: Bram Stoker, W.B. Yeats, Samuell Beckett, and Mary Edgeworth.
These writers were shaped by Ireland. Cultivated by a past Celtic mythology, challenged by colonialism under England, and trialed by religious turmoil, their words in turn guide their country. They educate and advise, preserve and elaborate, and mockingly, lovingly have a little fun.
Bartlett encounters these writers in his Ireland: A History and sets them within their country’s history. For instance, did you know that in 1902, a group of British Iraelites began illegal excavations at Tara in search of the Ark of the Covenant, and where stopped in part by through the efforts of several Irishmen, including Y.B. Yeats? According to Bartlett, a common belief is that a literary revival that occurred in the 19th century headed by Yeats and his circle, was “an attempt to fill the void left by politics” after the disgrace of Parnell. (Charles Stewart Parnell nearly freed Ireland from England several decades earlier but word got out that he was having an affair with another man’s wife, and the Catholic politicians turned against him.) This monumental event in Ireland’s political and religious history certainly influenced James Joyce and is constantly featured in his works as he considers Irish identity.
Who hasn’t had the opportunity to read Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal? (All those who raised their hands, I direct you to the Gutenberg Project, which had made it available to the World Wide Web here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1080/1080-h/1080-h.htm .)
Jonathan Swift (30 November 1667 – 19 October 1745) was an Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer, poet and cleric who became Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, and is a prime example of Ireland’s grand literary tradition. His works include Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and The Battle of the Books (1697).
“A Modest Proposal” is a satirical essay written in 1729 in which Swift attempts to solve the issues of the improvised Irish who have too many children and too little money, by suggesting that they sell their demanding offspring as delicacies to the gentry (affluent?). Beginning with an analysis of how little the young have to offer, Swift explains how they bring about economic hardness of their parents, only to grow up to be “thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.” He establishes himself through facts and numbers as he determines how many Irish “breeders” are actively producing children, draining away the wealth of the nation and leaving the mothers suffering. Infants are at first content to live off breast milk, but they reach their first year, they simply become burdens.
The elements of humor run nearly under the current at first. They are present, but displayed in such as a manner that at the first read-through, you find them absolutely believable. For instance, when discussing what children may do to earn their keep, Swift mentions that “they can very seldom pick up a livelihood by stealing till they arrive at six years old; except where they are of towardly parts, although I confess they learn the rudiments much earlier.” Yes, the issues Swift discusses are dire and something to be concerned about, but he twists his tone just enough that they are transfigured.
Then Jonathan Swift reaches his shocking decision about what will solve Ireland’s problems in a mind-boggling, extraordinary line:
“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 a fricasie, or a ragoust.”
The astonished reader needs a double-take at the abrupt, unexpected solution. By maintaining a completely serious tone throughout the piece even while his reasoning grows more absurd, Swift has convinced more than one reader that he sincerely recommends the eating of infants, resulting in provoking public outrage. The narrator proceeds to describe the benefits of cannibalism and infanticide, noting how much Ireland stands to profit. He concludes on the final claim that he has no personal interest in convincing the public to follow his advice, stating “I have no children, by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.”
Ultimately, Swift aims at emphasizing the callous British treatment of the Irish by mocking their authority while simultaneously highlighting how the Catholics are aiding the Pretender by abiding their decrees and paying tithes (and procreating greatly so that they will outnumber the “good Protestants, who have chosen rather to leave their country, than stay at home and pay tithes against their conscience to an episcopal curate.” Full of irony, “A Modest Proposal” ultimately tackles Swift’s present-day Ireland’s problems while remaining a brilliant example of Irish literature.
Thomas Bartlett’s Ireland: A History features Swift several times as he takes up his pen to protest threats against Ireland as well as the many other vital Irish writers who did likewise throughout Ireland’s past.