Reflections upon the recent holiday: The first time my wife saw tears in my eyes was in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, at the tomb of Jonathan Swift. The brilliant 18th-century Irish satirist was my first and most enduring literary hero, a towering figure who Yeats thought “slept under the greatest epitaph in history” — composed by Swift himself.
I knew the Latin by heart, but seeing it engraved in stone moved me, although Swift had been dead since 1745. “It is almost finer in English,” Yeats wrote, “than in Latin: ‘He has gone where fierce indignation can lacerate his heart no more.’”
Reading Swift taught me more about Ireland and my Irish-Catholic ancestors than I ever learned at my alcoholic grandfather’s knee, I can tell you that. An Anglo-Irish churchman who considered himself exiled from London to the city of his birth, Swift condemned British misrule of Ireland in the most memorable satires written in English or any other language.
His 1729 pamphlet “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents” retains the capacity to shock after almost 300 years. Impersonating the ever-so-reasonable voice of a public-spirited reformer of the sort who might today issue proposals from the Heritage Foundation, the narrator advocated genteel cannibalism.
“I rather recommend buying the children alive and dressing them hot from the knife,” he suggested, “as we do roasting pigs.”
It’s the laconic “rather” that chills to the marrow, precisely revealing the pamphleteer’s inhumanity.
Swift was certainly no Irish nationalist. A Tory by temperament and conviction, he’d have been appalled by the idea that the island’s Roman Catholic majority could govern itself. Even so, Professor Leo Damrosch’s terrific new biography makes a compelling case that both his voice and his personal example were instrumental to an evolving Irish national consciousness.
I thought of Swift’s “Modest Proposal” the other day, listening to the ever-so-reasonable Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) explain that America’s poor have only themselves to blame. “We have this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular,” Ryan explained, “of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”
Any question who he was talking about? As several commentators have noted, this business about “inner city” men not working isn’t so much Republican “dogwhistle” as GOP air-raid siren.
Ryan has since alibied that he’d been “inarticulate” and wasn’t trying to implicate “the culture of one community.” This came soon after a speech in which he’d told a heartfelt tale of a small boy who didn’t want a “free lunch from a government program,” but a Mommy-made lunch in a brown paper bag that showed somebody cared about him.
Coming from a guy busily trying to cut funding for school lunch programs and food stamps, this was pretty rich. Also apparently, apocryphal. The witness who’d told Ryan the tale in a congressional hearing had not only swiped it from a book called The Invisible Thread, but reversed its meaning. Which wasn’t so much that government assistance, as Ryan warned, threatens to leave children with “a full stomach and an empty soul,” as that sermons mean very little to hungry children.
Delivered just before St. Patrick’s Day, Ryan’s disquisition upon the undeserving poor earned him the scorn of the New York Times’ Timothy Egan. Taking note of Ryan’s great-great grandfather, who emigrated to the United States during the catastrophic Irish famine of the 1840s, Egan pointed out that Ryan’s words echoed the rhetoric of Victorian Englishmen content to let his ancestors die lest they become dependent upon charity.
It’s not always understood in this country that the mass starvation of Irish peasants — more than a million died, and another million emigrated — resulted not from the failure of the potato crop but English government policy. Ireland remained a net exporter of food throughout, with British soldiers guarding shipments of foodstuffs as they were loaded.
Rhetoric, see, has consequences. From Swift’s time onward, the native Irish had been depicted in terms justifying their subjugation. Virtually every negative stereotype applied to our “inner city” brethren today was first applied to Paul Ryan’s (and my own) ancestors. Irish peasants were called shiftless, drunken, sexually promiscuous, donkey strong but mentally deficient. They smelled bad.
Understanding that history is exactly what makes Irish-Americans like Timothy Egan, Charles P. Pierce and me — if I may include myself in their company — so impatient with a tinhorn like Ryan. If he wanted to understand his own ancestry, it’s authors like Swift, Yeats and James Joyce that Ryan ought to be reading, instead of that dismal ideologue Ayn Rand.
Nobody should let ethnic groupthink determine his politics. But if a politician like Paul Ryan hopes to be respected, it would help if he showed some sign of understanding the past.
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr