Jonathan Swift was a brilliant writer and intellectual of Ireland. He is known for his wit and talent with language, though I suspect that many are not aware of the full range of his works (I know I wasn’t, before reading about them all). He wrote in a style that is widely known to be deeply satirical. Swift was a man whose position in the comfortable class was secure, and who was able to write and learn as he wished—studying and living in both England and Ireland. Yet, he still chose to see and bear witness to the calamity that had befallen the less fortunate people in his country. When those in power chose to reduce their adversaries to powerless entities, living in the hostile world that was once their own country, many turned a blind eye. Swift is significant because he drew attention to the suffering and plight of the poor of Ireland with his satirical, ironic works—including his well-known essay, A Modest Proposal. This dark, satirical piece suggests a plan for what the government should do with impoverished Irish children; it was such a ghastly piece of writing that people couldn’t help but take notice.
What interested me about Kilfeather’s section on Jonathan Swift was that it showed the deeply pervasive, ubiquitous impact that the legal system had on those who could do nothing to defend themselves. By forcing people from their land and giving it to those that were colonizing it (as well as enacting many other laws of blatant discrimination), the government systematically stripped the power and autonomy from those that found themselves homeless and bereft—often with nowhere to go but the streets. And though Swift was definitely not Catholic (and was in fact associated with the Anglican Church and Church of Ireland), even he saw the inhuman conditions of those not part of his religious group. Swift was born in 1667—and this was about the time that Catholic ownership of land began to deeply and swiftly decline, according to OpenLearn maps. By the time his piece A Modest Proposal was published in 1729, poverty and discrimination were not only common but widely accepted. The fact that even he, a well-off political and religious individual, was inclined to write about it, perhaps says just as much about the state of poverty in Ireland during that time as it does about him. Swift’s works show us that things such as the widespread loss of land should not be looked at as only that—a loss of land—but also a sign and symptom of the turmoil and suffering of a people who would be overpowered and destitute for many years to come.