Understanding Ireland through Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal”

When I was in high school studying Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay, A Modest Proposal, it never occurred to me that I would ever find myself in Ireland. That was in 2008, a distant 12 years ago. I was doing a funny arts subject combination, History, Economics, Literature in English, and Art. Of course, I didn’t like Economics that much, but I passed it very well. The Literature that I loved with all my existence, disappointed me. I only managed a subsidiary pass (hahaha). However, it has not removed my passion for literature and written word.

Back to Jonathan Swift. The essay was very depressing to read, and it laid bare the injustices that Ireland went through under the British rule. I liked the essay because it was very short, but packed with themes, and literary devices. Themes like injustices, hunger, misrule are very easy to point out. And because it was small, it was quite easy to guess where questions come from.

In the essay, Jonathan writes about “the children of professed beggars” and “the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms.” You may think that did not happen in Europe.

The British since the 1500s colonized many territories across the world. But the island of Ireland and India witnessed the longest and most exploitative rule. The British ruled Ireland for 800 years and India for 200 years. It is even hard to imagine that.

While the British were busy with World War 1, the Irish rebelled, subdued the British and declared a Republic in 1918. After a lot is political struggles, they were officially granted independence in 1949 (after World War II).

Back to Jonathan. What Swift wrote about is true. Although the book was written much earlier in 1729, what he describes is very similar to what happened 100 years later in Ireland. The neglect and misrule that resulted in the infamous Irish Great Famine from 1845 to 1849. Stories are told of how the British controlled & owned almost all the land. This situation, combined with crop pests & disease, caused the great famine, that killed many people and resulted in mass emigration.  The agricultural produce got from the land were sent to London, leaving the Irish with nothing. During that time, it is said that about 2 million Irish people left the country and went to other places, mostly the U.S. And the U.S is an easy destination because it is just a matter of crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

What I now know is that Cork county, also known as Rebel county, has been at the forefront of both political struggles in Ireland and also as a point of departure for Irish people who choose to emigrate to other parts of the world. This is because of the Port of Cork, where even the Titanic docked and picked hundreds of people on its maiden ill-fated journey to the U.S.

The second thing I have learned is that Ireland has about 6 million people inside their country, but there are over 70 million with Irish ancestry scattered all over the world. Most of them are in the U.S, Australia, and New Zealand (English speaking countries). With population growth of only 1 percent, there is no doubt it is the immigrants who are adding to this growth. Most young Irish students dream of leaving Ireland.

Thirdly, the name Irish potatoes is not a good word here. It has reference to the infamous famine, with the British simply saying the Irish potatoes crop failed. Potato is just potato, and there is no need to add Irish to it.

Due to their long rule and influence, everything in Ireland looks similar to what is in the UK. The laws, policies, education, fashion trends, TV shows, almost everything. The works of famous Irish people such as Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, C.S Lewis, Samuel Beckett, and other also tell the stories of Irish struggle, famine, and self-determination.

Europe is rich with tribalism (as PLO Lumumba says), but what only makes it different from Africa is that each tribe has a state (country) of its own. Even in Ireland, the Irish language is overly emphasized, even then most of the people prefer the English language. The problem is that the English language reminds them of the British. But Irish language is taught from primary to university (it is only compulsory in primary school).

Literature has a way of making you travel of faraway places and awakening the conscience of people. It is not surprising that some written books end up being banned by governments, justifying the well-known saying that “the pen is mightier than the gun.” The works of Okot P’Bitek – The Song of Lawino and The Song of Ocol captures the beautiful culture of the Acoli people.  Also, Henry Barlow’s classic poem, Building the Nation, epitomizes the corruption and how governments in Uganda work.

But overall, the Irish people are nice, straightforward and it is a quiet, peaceful country. I would choose again to come back, given any opportunity.


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