Irish Oppression and Modern Parallels in A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

Categories: A Modest Proposal

During the English reign of Ireland, the English imposed a series of continually worsening conditions for the Irish. At the height of the oppression of the Irish, a period called Protestant Ascendancy, the Irish people were treated like slaves (Gascoigne, A History of Ireland, np). The Penal Laws were the result, a series of laws that systematically condemned the Irish to a life of hardship and suffering (Gascoigne, A History of Ireland, np). In Jonathan Swift's, A Modest Proposal, this Irish oppression holds many parallels to the modern day, as exemplified through the modern day discrepancies between other races, especially blacks and Latinos.

Beginning with the Norman Invasion in the late 12th century, Ireland was under the control of England (Gascoigne,4). The development of the oppression of the Irish was due to this longstanding relationship with the English that spanned seven hundred years and comprised many issues.

The Irish were not allowed to practice their religion, serve in politics (all politics was controlled by the English), starved at the slightest failure of a harvest, or even to own property.

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The main difference was religion. In the mid fifteen hundreds, King Henry the VIII changed the state religion of England to Anglican to preserve his bloodline (“History of the Monarchy” np.). However, the Irish refused to convert to the Anglican Church. This created tension between the ruling classes and the lower classes in Ireland while immediately creating a basis for the Irish to be oppressed as they were "infidels". It also created a competition between Catholicism and Anglicanism and was the cause of wars, most importantly of which was the Glorious Revolution.

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The Glorious Revolution was a war over which religion should rule England (and by extension Ireland) and naturally, the Irish supported the Catholic candidate, James II. With the defeat of James II in Ireland at the Battle of Boyne by William of Orange, the English began a period known as “Protestant Ascendancy" (Glorious Revolution np). This period was the period in which A Modest Proposal was written, and was the height of the oppression of the Irish.

The most iconic manifestation of the Protestant Ascendancy was a series of laws called the Penal Laws. These laws banned the Irish from intermarrying (with the English), owning firearms, foreign education, holding property, and spreading their religion. Any opponent of this rule was deported, imprisoned or killed (Laws in Ireland for the Suppression of Popery np.). The oppression of the Irish is important on many different levels. The oppression of an entire way of life lead to poverty and malnutrition, an entire culture was suppressed, and in some cases extinguished. The differences between the ruling class and the masses continually grew and wars were fought over the power struggle. More importantly though, it kept the Irish confined to their status quo and with each following generation, worsened their conditions.

Ireland was viewed by the English as a land of infidels and a place only to be exploited for its human and natural resources. In addition, they attempted to press all of the heritage out of the Irish and make them lower citizens of England. England profited greatly from the territories of Ireland and after the Second Desmond rebellion, thousands of Englishmen were sent to confiscated territories to enforce and further intimidate the Catholic population (Gascoigne, A History of Ireland np). Jonathan Swift's, A Modest Proposal, was written in the height of this atmosphere. Swift, an Anglican Priest sent to Ireland to convert the Catholics, saw the affliction of the Irish and wrote A Modest Proposal as a satirical essay aimed at illuminating the mistreatment of the Irish.

Even this acknowledgement was not expected because of the religious tension in the country, and in order for an Anglican priest to acknowledge the suffering of an inferior religion, the situation must have had some gravity. Swift traces both the suffering and the tension in Ireland by introducing the reader to the fact that all the Irish "...are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants, who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes” (ll 6-9). The ruling class, who are often absentee landlords sap the wealth of Ireland to use in England.

These actions leave little to nothing for the native Irish and Swift affirms that the English "have already devoured most of the Parents anyways"(1 80). Swift uses this comparison to his idea of eating the babies to show that although the Irish are still living, they are living in conditions that are similar to being already dead due to the oppression by the English. Much like the oppression that Swift encountered, similar patterns of oppression, albeit less obvious, can be observed in today's modern day society. Over the course of human history, people have gotten wealthier and standards of living have risen. The patterns that exist are therefore patterns that reflect the same gap in between certain groups of people. Like the English, people of Caucasian descent in the US hold most of the social, economic and political power, especially as we examine their relations to people of Black and Latino descent.

According to Pew Research, Caucasians in the US, much like the ruling class in Ireland, have assets amounting to thirteen times the wealth of the average black household and ten times the wealth of the average Latino household (Wealth Inequality has Widened since the End of the Great Recession, np). These groups tend to live in segregated neighborhoods away from colored people, and their property is much more valuable. They attend better schools, and if they are not satisfied with their education, to a certain degree have the option of sending their children to better schools. At the same time coloured people even lack this access to better education (“Foreign Education”) as they on average, lack the resources to pay for anything other than public schooling.

Nationwide, private school tuition averages around ten thousand dollars (Private School Review, Average Private Tuition Cost np) and would constitute around a third of Black's income and a fourth of Latino's income (Business Insider, American Median Incomes by Race since 1967, np). Much like the incarceration of English Political enemies, Blacks and Latinos are incarcerated at rates much higher than their white counterparts. Blacks are incarcerated at around six times more than whites while Latinos are incarcerated at around three times more than whites (Prison Policy Initiative, US Incarceration Rates by Race). Ultimately, this affects everyone as everyone pays the consequences for an uneducated nation, a nation with unjust incarceration statistics, and a nation in which trust amongst citizens is impaired by race.

The oppression of Blacks and Latinos is therefore as observable as the oppression of the Irish in Swift's era. By tracing the affliction of the Irish in comparison to the English during the period of Protestant Ascendancy, one can see the discrepancies in between people due to religion. Today, the differences are manifested in a different way, but the differences remain as observable as before. These differences are no longer based upon religion, but instead based upon the color of one's skin. Just like Swift wrote his essay in order to present the treatment of the Irish in relation to their ruling upper classes, these discrepancies can be dissected to discover the true oppression of Blacks and Latinos.

Works Cited

  1. "Average Private School Tuition Cost (2014-2015)." Average Private School Tuition Cost (2014-2015). Private School Review, 2015. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.
  2. Gascoigne, Bamber. "History of Ireland” History World. From 2001, ongoing. TextHistories.asp?historyid=ac70
  3. "Glorious Revolution". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 17 Mar. 2015 <>
  4. "History of the Monarchy." The Royal Monarchy of England, 2008. Web. 11 Feb.2015.
  5. Kochhar, Rakesh, and Richard Fry. "Wealth Inequality Has Widened along Racial, Ethnic Lines since End of Great Recession." Pew Research Center RSS. Pew Research Center, 12 Dec. 2014. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
  6. Lambert, Tim. "A TIMELINE OF IRISH HISTORY." Irish History Timeline., n.d. Web. 07 Mar. 2015.
  7. Perlberg, Steven. "American Median Incomes By Race Since 1967 [CHART]." Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 17 Sept. 2013. Web. 09 Mar. 2015.
  8. Schaefer, Patriccia. "Laws in Ireland for the Suppression of Popery."University of Minnesota Law School. University of Minnesota Law School, 2000. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.
  9. Swift, Jonathan. "A Modest Proposal." Holt McDougal Literature. Ed. Janet Allen. Orlando, FL: Holt McDougal/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. 897-907. Print.
  10. " U.S. Incarceration Rates by Race. Ed. Peter Wagner. Prison Policy Initiative, 31 Dec. 2010. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Irish Oppression and Modern Parallels in A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. (2021, Sep 24). Retrieved from

Irish Oppression and Modern Parallels in A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift essay
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