Tipping our glasses to Jonathan Swift this St. Paddy’s Day

Guest post by Sean D. Moore

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is perhaps the greatest prose satirist in the English language. Famous for such works in the English literary canon as Gulliver’s Travels, it must be noted, in this St. Patrick’s Day season, that he was essentially an Irish writer. As I argue in my recent JHU Press book, Swift, the Book, and the Irish Financial Revolution: Satire and Sovereignty in Colonial Ireland, works such as his Drapier’s Letters and A Modest Proposal speak to the economic condition of Ireland under British imperialism, a problem that he attributed to Ireland lacking both political sovereignty and a national print media, the means by which to cultivate public support for that sovereignty. As Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, named after the patron saint of Ireland, it was appropriate that he be the one to bear the message of the importance of using Dublin’s printers to mobilize the population to oppose the political, economic, and cultural dictates of London.

It has long been known that Swift articulated Ireland’s economic grievances by reference to the impact that British mercantile policies had on Ireland’s woolen trade. Critics have been mistaken, however, in taking this discourse literally, for “textiles” had long had a double meaning of “texts.” Accordingly, when he first advocated, in A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture, that the Irish boycott British textiles and buy Irish ones instead, he was also suggesting that creating a domestic market for domestic publishers would help the economy as much as, if not more than, fashion alone. He was concerned that the Irish Parliament was not receiving as much support from the Irish public as it needed to successfully oppose British inroads into Irish property rights, and knew that public opinion in favor of Irish rights would best be cultivated in a nationalist press. Specifically, he wanted to defend the Irish Parliament’s right to determine and control the country’s tax revenues, which the British increasingly needed to fund their wars for empire. When Swift refers to the eating of Irish babies in A Modest Proposal, in this context, he is suggesting that it is debt that is eating Ireland’s revenues.

Swift therefore might be regarded as Ireland’s first postcolonialist, someone whose name would be used later in the century, and indeed well into the 20th century, to advocate for decolonizing Ireland from Britain. So when you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year, please toast the Dean of St. Patrick’s, one who–like Patrick himself–delivered Ireland from the snakes of imperialism.

Sean D. Moore is an associate professor of English at the University of New Hampshire and the author of the award-winning Swift, the Book, and the Irish Financial Revolution: Satire and Sovereignty in Colonial Ireland. The views expressed in this guest post belong to the author and in no way reflect the official opinion of the Johns Hopkins University Press.