A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

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History of the Text

Reception and Publication History: The satirical essay “A Modest Proposal” was published anonymously in 1729 England in response to Irish economic troubles and what Dublin-born Jonathan Swift viewed as troublesome attitudes toward poor. It garnered a massive response; Swift was already a big name from the success of his novel Gulliver’s Travels, and many soon guessed that Swift was the essay’s author. It was reprinted several times in Swift’s lifetime—though he was frustrated that little resultant change was enacted in British and Irish policies—and has had an enduring influence on satire for centuries. 

England and Ireland’s Relationship: At the time of publication in 1729, Ireland had been under English control for centuries and was experiencing extreme poverty, which Swift believed was exacerbated by landowners’ exploitation of the poor who worked their farms. Swift, though born in Ireland, spent much of his life in England as an Anglican clergyman and had a deep knowledge of both sides of the conflict. 

  • Because of the economic disparities and English rule, which favored English interests more than Irish advancement, more and more Irish peasants were living in vastly deplorable conditions (the famous, deadly potato famine would occur only about a decade later). Also, the English established a Protestant governance over the overwhelmingly Catholic Irish, which further increased Irish resentment toward the British government.