While the Irish Starved

Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver mural in Germany
A mural on the side of a toy shop in Bremen, Germany, depicts Gulliver in Liliput. Javier Carro.

The rich man enjoyed the fruit of the poor man’s labor, and the latter were a thousand to one in proportion to the former; … the bulk of our people were forced to live miserably, by laboring every day for small wages, to make a few live plentifully.
-- Jonathan Swift on British life, in Gulliver’s Travels

England’s first colony was the island just across the narrow Irish Sea. In the 17th century, when the empire was still in formation in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, the government and landowners in Ireland were English-born or -descended Protestants. Powerless and poverty-stricken (although the terrible Potato Famine was still in the future), the largely Catholic indigenous Irish had been stripped of their land by the invasions known as the “Plantations of Ireland” and of their rights by the occupying English forces. The Church of Ireland was the local branch of the Church of England; St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin was essentially an Anglican church. Catholics were ineligible for public office, in Ireland as in England.

It was into this Ireland that a child of English descent was born in 1667, who would become prominent in that world and that church—and yet a passionate and articulate opponent of those structures. Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) was a political figure in England, Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin, and one of the most incisive and exuberant satirists ever to put pen to paper. His 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels would attack European and specifically English militarism, imperialism, and early capitalism. His far harsher 1729 essay “A Modest Proposal” would unforgettably deconstruct the treatment of the Irish by their English rulers and landlords.

Gulliver: New Worlds, New Words

Gulliver’s Travels is the enormously popular satire in the guise of an adventure tale, the story of the English mariner Lemuel Gulliver, shipwrecked repeatedly on the shores of exotic lands peopled by fantastical creatures more or less resembling humankind. Adapted scores (if not hundreds) of times—in books, comic books, and live-action and animated movies—it has become a staple of Western kidlit and given the English language new words. “Lilliputian,” for instance, refers to the minuscule inhabitants of Gulliver’s first landfall, the isle of Lilliput, where the people are six inches tall and everything else is in proportion. “Yahoos” are the brutal sub-humans of Gulliver’s final port of call, the land of the Houyhnhnm.

Gulliver is shipwrecked four times, landing in four successive exotic civilizations, each of whose inhabitants welcomes him—at least for a time—and in each of which circumstances keep him for several years. In each, he learns the local language and is thus able to get to know the inhabitants, observe their culture, and describe his own to them. The first three adventures— in the miniature and gigantic world, respectively, of Lilliput and Brobdingnag and on the flying island of Laputa— feature Swift’s satiric gifts pointed squarely at British court life. (By 1726, England had formally absorbed Scotland and Wales and become the Kingdom of Great Britain.) Indeed, had Gulliver ended with the traveler’s return from Laputa, it would have remained a rollicking adventure story with an overlay of rather dated satire.

With Gulliver’s fourth shipwreck, however, the novel reveals its true point, and the satire becomes timeless. In the Land of the Houyhnhnm, Gulliver meets a wholly good civilization, opposite in every respect to the worlds of his previous adventures and to the one of his birth. The Houyhnhnm are a race of horses who can speak, have a genuine culture, and count among their domestic animals the savage humanoids called Yahoos. The Houyhnhnm have no words for crime, force, greed, violence, or even lying. When Gulliver describes a soldier’s profession as “the most honorable of all others; because a soldier is…hired to kill, in cold blood, as many of his own species, who have never offended him, as possibly he can,” the Houyhnhnm says, after intense thought, that Gulliver has said a “thing which is not.” He is equally incredulous when Gulliver explains wealth and poverty and empirebuilding: “If a prince sends forces into a nation, where the people are poor and ignorant, he may lawfully put half of them to death, and make slaves of the rest, in order to civilize and reduce them from their barbarous way of living.”

Over the course of his time among the Houyhnhnm, Gulliver comes to love them—and to detest human culture proportionately. When the Houyhnhnm exile him for fear of his sparking rebellion among the Yahoos, he is grieved beyond measure. The England to which he returns repels him, and for the rest of his life, his happiest moments are in his stables, among his horses.

Curiously, in the nearly three centuries since Gulliver was published, the majority of the popular adaptations of it have retold only the first parts of the novel. The tale of the giant man among the tiny Lilliputians is known to children everywhere, albeit usually in an expurgated version. Most omit, for instance, the account of how Gulliver makes an enemy of the Empress of Lilliput while saving her from a raging fire in the palace. (When the firefighters can’t get their water supply to the palace in time, Gulliver provides his own.) But few know of the enviable ethic of the peaceful and generous Houyhnhnm and the dim light it shines on humanity.

The Proposal

Three years after Gulliver, Swift went much further, with the biting (so to speak) “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public.” It is modest only in size, at a mere 18 pages, but hardly modest in scope.

Adopting the voice of a disinterested citizen bent on improving Irish society, he vividly describes the extent of the country’s poverty, the prevalence of beggars, and the inability of great numbers to support themselves and their many children. “Whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound, useful members of the commonwealth,” he muses, “would deserve…to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.”

Then he nominates himself as that preserver, suggesting that the Irish turn their babies into a cash crop, raising them for one year and then selling them as meat. A “young, healthy child, well-nursed,” he declares, “is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled.”

Noting that a newborn can “be supported by [its mother’s] milk for a … year, with little other nourishment,” he insists that this is the most economical thing to do with the babies, in one stroke both relieving the people’s poverty and, as a collateral benefit, reducing the number of Catholics. Still another advantage is that when pregnant wives are a source of profit, men will treat them better. Shrugging off objections that the meat might be expensive, he acknowledges that it will therefore be most “proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.” He closes the proposal by noting that he himself can make no profit from it, having “no children, by which I can…get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.”

“A Modest Proposal” was published during a golden age of satire, and English readers were used to excesses in the service of ridicule. By all accounts, it didn’t make much of a stir at the time. (People have found it more startling since.) The Irish, however, noticed it and appreciated its attack on their oppressors. Ireland has embraced the very English Anglo-Irish clergyman-author as one of its greatest writers; 21st-century opponents of war, empire, and exploitation can embrace him as an early fellow-traveler.

Writer, journalist, and former WIN editor Judith Mahoney Pasternak has written for decades about politics and popular culture. Half her ancestors were Irish.

Judith Mahoney Pasternak

Judith Mahoney Pasternak, Paris-based activist-writer, is a veteran journalist in the alternative media, author of several books on travel and popular culture, and the former editor of WRL’s The Nonviolent Activist, the earlier incarnation of WIN. Her activist training was in the Second Wave of the feminist movement; since then, she has worked for peace, for social and economic justice, and for justice and self-determination for Palestine.