Swift's "A Modest Proposal": A Protest Against Penal Laws

Updated on December 20, 2019

Ireland during 1729, as described by the Irish writer Jonathan Swift in his essay “A Modest Proposal,” epitomized poverty in both its cities and in the country. Ireland at this time was in the middle of the Penal Law era, which started in 1691 and would continue until 1760. The Penal Laws were discriminatory laws passed by the ruling British Parliament in an effort to make it increasingly difficult to practice Catholicism in the hope that the Catholics in Ireland would give up on their faith and convert to Anglicanism, the official state religion of England. Several provisions of the Penal Laws specifically aimed to severely restrict Irish Catholics’ access to wealth, as the laws prohibited important assets such as land and healthy horses from being owned by Catholics.

Swift's Proposal

As such, Swift’s outlook on the Irish economic situation, consisting of mostly an Irish Catholic population, views it as deplorable. Swift is particularly concerned with the many Catholic parents at this time living as beggars in an attempt to support their young children, which typically numbered irresponsibly high. Swift points specifically to infants that are just past the age of weaning as being too young to beg themselves, yet also too old to depend solely upon their mother for sustenance. In this way, Swift views these infants as a net drain on already scarce resources such as food, contributing to the overall economic struggle faced by Ireland.

The economic situation, Swift reasons, could be improved if these infants are better utilized by their society. As to solve these problems afflicting the Irish population, Swift reflects upon what an American friend told him about the human infant being both highly nutritious and a delicacy. Because of this advice and Ireland’s abysmal Catholic poverty caused by the Penal Laws, Swift’s “Modest Proposal” recommends that Irish infants from poor families ought to be murdered and used for food and clothing.

Irish Catholic Poverty

Swift’s satirical essay serves to demonstrate how Ireland’s poverty under England’s Penal Law system has forced many of the Irish people to accept and commit otherwise repulsive feats in order to survive. The Irish poor has growth with such familiarity with extreme poverty without any alternative that they lose their human dignity. Although Swift’s proposal is intentionally too radical to be taken seriously, his descriptions of Irish poverty, using statistical data, estimates and calculations to convey the shortage of resources, are contrarily not hyperbolic. Rather, Swift attempts to show that the economic situation in Ireland is so poor that the Irish people are beginning to acclimate themselves to immoral stances, as to provoke reform and relief from Parliament, as well as outrage from the public.

In the essay, Swift fittingly takes the perspective of a Protestant who looks down upon the Catholics, listing several benefits to Ireland’s landowning Protestant population upon his proposal’s acceptance. The list, however, ignores the effects of the proposal on the general Irish population. In doing so, Swift attempts to prompt Ireland’s landowning Protestant population to reflect upon the morality of their own actions toward the Irish poor and how they may be mistreated.

Swift's Satirical Reasoning

The first “advantage” of the proposal, according to Swift, is that by murdering the poor’s infants, there will be fewer Catholics in Ireland. The Penal Laws clearly demonstrate that Catholics were not appreciated by Anglo-Irish Protestants and England’s lawmakers, Swift’s intended audience. Swift even appeals to a primarily Protestant audience by his claim of Catholics as the “most dangerous enemies.” Writing during the middle of the Penal Law period, Swift knew well that the murdered infants would come primarily from Catholic families, which would be seen as a positive consequence of the acceptance of such a proposal. Swift also elaborates upon how the number of carcasses available to consume would increase nine months after Lent when he believes there is an increase in the number of Catholic babies born, and thus an increase in the number of babies turning one year old.

Swift points secondly that Catholic tenants can sell their infant carcasses to their landlords, who would accept them as forms of payment for living accommodations. The Irish Catholics, stripped of their property and wealth upon the passage of the Penal Laws, are presupposed to own nothing of value to pay their landlords. Swift’s proposal, therefore, is very much an economic solution in that the poor would now gain another means to increase their wealth and pay their landlords.

Swift’s first and second benefits for his proposal serve as the best articulation of the religious struggle in Ireland. It is clear in that they draw out a nearly genocidal attitude held by Protestants toward Catholics. Swift demonstrates that most Anglo-Irish Protestants and English lawmakers want, either consciously or subconsciously, a collapse of Ireland’s Catholic community. Swift’s point serves as a prime example of how consequentialism and discrimination are deeply rooted in the Protestant mindset. They are willing to use otherwise illicit tactics to achieve their end in salvaging the Irish economic situation. While Swift largely exaggerates the extent to which this consequentialist mindset is taken by introducing murder as the means to achieve the end, it does adequately serve the purpose of demonstrating that Protestants ought to consider the morality of their actions and the Penal Law system.

While the Penal Laws would remain in effect for another 31 years following the publishing of “A Modest Proposal,” it does serve as a successful protest of the system. The essay is effective in articulating the suffering of the Catholics while also highlighting how the Protestants are the true root of the Catholics’ troubles. By satirically suggesting that the Catholics ought to give more and more to their landlords, Swift cleverly demonstrates that the Catholics actually have nothing else to give and that the Protestants should be shameful in their demands.

The articulation of Swift’s argument could possibly be improved by not solely addressing the Anglo-Irish aristocrats and Englishmen, but also Ireland’s own poverty. While many of these people were illiterate, had this proposal been read aloud in the towns throughout the island, it seems that Swift’s actual intention of ending discriminatory laws would be undertaken more hastily. The general population of Ireland would be outraged by such a proposal, turning to violence as a means of fighting social injustice, akin to the attitude of “White Boys.” While the White Boys were not decisively successful in their pursuit of social justice, they did lay a crucial foundation upon which an independent Ireland mindset could be built. Therefore, had Swift’s proposal been used as propaganda to outrage the general public, who subsequently committed acts of White Boyism, the progression toward Penal Law repeals may have been prompted sooner than had actually happened.

“A Modest Proposal,” while being a staple of Irish literature, has also served a very intentional purpose. By examining the backdrop upon which this essay was written, Swift’s genius can more greatly be appreciated. In this way, Swift has successfully used his talents to the overall benefit of the Irish people. The last paragraph, which states that Swift’s motives are not for personal gain, but rather only to promote the common good of the country, does not necessarily need to be read in a satirical context. Rather, Swift truly believes that his purpose in writing is not to benefit himself, but to “relieve the poor” and “provide for infants” amid a struggle with a harsh ruling party.

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