Born 1667, Dublin; English ancestry but Irish birth
Forced to leave Ireland in 1688; went to England to work as assistant to William Temple, diplomat.
Became a priest in the Church of Ireland in 1694; returned to Ireland.
Became increasingly political in the early 18 th Century, as well as gaining notice as a writer. Lived in England.
Became influential in the Tory party and in literary circles.
Eventually returned to Ireland (‘like a rat in a hole’) to live in Dublin. Started to take note of specifically Irish issues.
Published the satire Gulliver’s Travels in 1726.
Wrote the more obviously political A Modest Proposal in 1729, earning a reputation as an Irish patriot.
Died in 1745.
Linked to both Ireland and England
Love-hate relationship with both Ireland and England
Profound sense of religious, moral and political justice
Exposed to extreme poverty among the poor
How might his personal life have informed A Modest Proposal ?
The Augustans Swift was part of a group of writers called ‘The Augustans’ who were particularly active in the early eighteenth century. Named for their admiration of the satirical, witty, mannered poetry of the original Augustan era, they were politically engaged public figures. They saw it as a writer’s place to comment on society, rather than to ‘express himself’. Names associated with this movement are Alexander Pope, John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson.
The Augustans In terms of attitudes, ideologies and values, the Augustans are best defined by their faith in the powers of REASON . Just as the eighteenth century is the age of scientific empiricism, so the Augustans sought to apply a rational, reasonable approach. As such, they wrote about society and how it could be improved; they were not afraid to satirise important and influential people; and they saw their writing as an inherent part of a public discourse and a necessarily moral voice. How does A Modest Proposal fit in with these general points?
Political Contexts There are a number of political contexts which inform A Modest Proposal – Swift was very politically engaged and active throughout most of his life. Probably the most important political context for this particular text, however, deals with the relationship between Ireland and England – the so-called ‘Irish Question’.
The Irish Question
In the 12 th century Anglo-Norman (British) groups began to invade Ireland
Needed land for a growing kingdom
Various nobility looked to claim land
The English established their own laws and created a parliament
Countries like Scotland attempted to help remove the English, but the Anglo-Norman numbers continued to grow
The Irish Question
King Henry VII (ruled 1485-1509) established strict laws for Ireland under British rule
No traditional Irish laws
Must follow English laws
No assembly of the Irish military
All laws of the Irish Parliament had to be approved by the King
The Irish Question
Henry VIII (ruled 1509 – 1547) attempted to transform Ireland from a Catholic country to an Anglican country
Queen Mary I
All forced the Anglican religion on the Irish
English statesman in 1649
Invaded Ireland with his army (10,000 men)
Executed 2,000 Irish in Drogheda
Reclaimed lands in Ireland for the English
Banished Catholic landowners
Gave the land to the Protestant army
Penal Laws Several rafts of penal laws (laws explicitly designed to reduce Catholicism’s standing as the dominant religion in Ireland) were introduced by the English over the years. When Swift published A Modest Proposal (1729), the most recent were the laws from 1695. Remember, Swift points out that ‘the number of popish infants is at least three to one in this kingdom’. The penal laws, and oppression of Catholics in general, affected the majority of the population.
Penal Laws, 1695: A Sample
Catholics banned from Public Office or Parliament
Catholics banned from intermarriage with Protestants
Catholics disenfranchised (no vote)
Catholics banned from University entrance
Catholic inheritances could be claimed by Protestants
Catholics banned from owning a horse worth more than 5 pounds
Catholic churches to be built from wood, not stone, and not on main roads
And so on…
A Modest Proposal SO… a long, long history of subjugation, even by the time A Modest Proposal appeared. . At the time of writing, therefore, the Catholic majority population were living in extreme poverty. Note who the extremely poor people Swift is talking about actually are: ‘ I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar's child (in which list I reckon all cottagers, laborers, and four-fifths of the farmers) to be about two shillings per annum, rags included…’ These aren’t ‘beggars’ in the normal sense. Practically ALL of the Catholic population were living in utter poverty.
Translations – Brian Friel The American and European Revolutions of the later eighteenth century (American revolution – 1775: French Revolution – 1789) helped spread a desire for self-determination and democracy throughout Europe. Ireland was no exception, and several (unsuccessful, at least in the short term) uprisings against English rule took place (most notably in 1798). Thus, by the 1830s, when Brian Friel’s Translations is set, there was much more antagonism in the Anglo-Irish relationship. Catholics had recently been granted some limited rights, and (as often happens), they wanted more.
Seamus Heaney Eventually, after the Easter Rising of 1916, Ireland was granted freedom in 1921. Northern Ireland (the six counties in the North-East), which had a Protestant majority, opted to remain as part of the United Kingdom. This led to many decades of ‘Troubles’ (a low-level civil war) in Northern Ireland as Catholics and Protestants (Republicans and Unionists) sought to determine the future of the territory. This is, by and large, the period during which Seamus Heaney produced the bulk of his work (he IS still writing, though, so that may change!) The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, between Britain and Ireland, may finally bring peace to the country.