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Swift: The Brexit Letters

Wednesday, 29 November, 2017

Tomorrow, we’ll celebrate the 350th anniversary of the birth of the extraordinary satirist Jonathan Swift and the same day marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the great poet Patrick Kavanagh. That’s why our posts this week commemorate these two significant figures in global and Anglo-Irish letters. On Monday, we had a joke by Swift; yesterday, a poem by Kavanagh and today we’re back to Swift with political writing that’s still relevant. We’re talking Drapier’s Letters, the first of which was titled To the Shop-Keepers, Tradesmen, Farmers, and Common-People of Ireland.

Background: Drapier’s Letters is the title of seven pamphlets written between 1724 and 1725 by Jonathan Swift, the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. His aim was to provoke public opinion in Ireland against the imposition of privately minted copper coinage he believed to be of sub-standard quality. William Wood was granted letters patent to mint the coins, but Swift knew that the licensing was secured by a bribe of £10,000 to the Duchess of Kendal, mistress of King George I. Since this was a very politically sensitive subject, Swift wrote under the pseudonym M. B. Drapier, to protect himself from royal retribution.

Although the letters were condemned by the Irish government of the day, they inspired popular sentiment against Wood and this led to a nationwide boycott, which forced the patent to be withdrawn. Swift was treated as a hero for his defiance of British control over the Irish nation and many historians regard Drapier as a key figure in the creation of a “more universal Irish community”. Along with Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal, Drapier’s Letters are an essential component of Swift’s political writings.

If the Dean were with us today, what would he write about Brexit? And how would he represent Ireland in the negotiations that are so critical for the future of the islands he loved? Certainly, he would be much more eloquent than Phil Hogan, the Irish apparatchik in Brussels, and he would have choice words for the Lilliputians now governing Ireland with a dysfunctional coalition government. More than likely, however, Swift would have been roundly attacked by these Yahoos because, as he once said, “When a true genius appears in this world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”


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