Stewed, roasted, baked or boiled

Claude Rawson

The Intelligencer was a periodical mainly but not exclusively of Irish interest. It ran to 19 more or less weekly numbers between May and December 1728, with a longish interruption in the summer, and a single further number in May 1729. It was written by Jonathan Swift and his friend Thomas Sheridan, a clergyman, schoolteacher and man of letters, and grandfather of the playwright. It includes at least two of Swift’s important works, his critique of the Beggar’s Opera in No 3, and a reprint of the ‘Short View of the State of Ireland’ in No 15, perhaps the single most eloquent of his Irish writings, and close in time and subject-matter to A Modest Proposal, a more famous work (though not for its eloquence, or not in the same sense).

It belongs to the period of Swift’s most intensive involvement in Irish affairs, three years after his pamphleteering in the Drapier’s Letters defeated the project of ‘Wood’s halfpence’, two years after Gulliver’s Travels (which has an important Irish dimension), and a year before Swift’s famous cannibal allegory, A Modest Proposal. Swift probably contributed about ten numbers and Sheridan nine, with one number of uncertain authorship. Most of Swift’s contributions are included in the standard edition of his prose writings, but we now have the full run in a distinguished edition by James Woolley. It is now possible, without visiting rare book libraries, to read the essays of both men in their original context, with their relation to one another in clear view. Sheridan’s (hopelessly inferior) essays help to throw light on Swift’s writings on Irish and other themes, to illustrate English or Anglo-Irish ways of speaking about Ireland, and to draw attention to some wider features of the discourse of colonial subjection. One in particular has large implications.

It has been recognised for some time that No 18 by Sheridan (late November 1728) ‘foreshadows the Modest Proposal by quoting ominously from Fynes Moryson’s 17th-century account of the English oppression of Ireland: it led to the eating of babies.’ Moryson was an English official who helped to suppress Tyrone’s rebellion and whose Itinerary (1617) was an account of his life and travels, which Swift may or may not have read. But he would certainly have read his own collaborator’s account, and the particular issue in which it occurs, moreover, opens with a proposal for public celebration of Swift’s birthday on 30 November, in gratitude for his services to Ireland. (According to newspapers, ‘the Birthday of that memorable Patriot M.B. Drapier, the great Deliverer of this Kingdom’, was indeed marked with bells from St Patrick’s Cathedral, where Swift was dean, and with illuminations, bonfires and ‘Healths ... drunk by the Populace’.)

Sheridan then launches into his cannibal story, as one ‘untoucht upon before’ – not strictly true – ‘by those who Writ against Wood’s Half-pence, which I have read in an English Historian of great probity, and Truth’. ‘Fines Morrison ... was Secretary of State to the Lord Monjoy, our chief Governour, in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth,’ says Sheridan, so he ‘had the best oportunity, of knowing the State of this Nation at that time’. An Irish rebellion led by ringleaders of English extraction, a pattern which seems to have remained consistent in Irish history to the time of Parnell and of Yeats (or at least a perceived pattern, since Sheridan, following Spenser, was wrong about the English origin of some of the leaders), had to be quelled. It was resolved in England to flood Ireland with base coin, subduing the rebels by ruining the economy – a trial run, Sheridan implies, for the more recent project of Wood’s halfpence, which Swift, writing as the Drapier, had defeated. The kingdom was ‘reduced to Famine, in so much, that all the publick Roads were strowed with Dead Carcases of miserable Wretches, whose Mouths were Green (as the Author expresses it) with their last meal of Grass’.

Sheridan’s idea is to maximise the pathos, and he simplifies the situation, both in respect to Fynes Moryson and by comparison with any use Swift came to make of the cannibal story. For this passage, which precedes the cannibal revelation, insinuates an impression of the Irish as cattle, who eat grass. It is not innocent. Even those English writers who wrote compassionately about the Irish had a strong tendency to think of them as subhuman or bestial. Moryson’s own text gives a harshly specific account of outlandish consumptions which goes some way beyond Sheridan’s suggestion of vaguely bovine victims passively grazing to death: ‘no spectacle was more frequent in the Ditches of Townes, and especiallie in wasted Countries, then to see multitudes of these poore people dead with their mouthes all coloured greene by eating nettles, docks, and all things they could rend up above ground’. The feverish energies seem a lot more like the Yahoos eating roots and tearing their food with their teeth than like crushed defenceless paupers, their mouths green ‘with their last meal of Grass’. Sheridan’s pastoralised version also omits the non-vegetarian elements in the diet of the starving Irish – ‘unsavourie birds of prey ... Horseflesh, and other things unfit for mans feeding’, to which the Yahoos feeding on the ‘corrupted Flesh of Animals’ are closer in general tendency than anything Sheridan is willing to quote. Moryson was expressing not only pity but a form of disgust. His words are well within the traditional territory of ethnic slurs based on savage eating habits and outlandish foods: territory as old as ethnic divisions, whose memorable fictional manifestations include the Yahoos and, over a century later, the Unclean Eaters (mangeurs de choses immondes) of Flaubert’s historical novel of the Punic Mercenary War, Salammbo.

Flaubert’s example is of interest, because this pathetic and disgusting tribe, one of the few invented details in the closely researched local colour which Flaubert used for his North African setting, is both a named people among others, though not like the others historically attested, and through its unusual and unlocalised name, a vaguely universal type of humanoid untouchable, in something like the way in which the Yahoos both evoke the Irish (the resemblances between them and the Irish as portrayed in Swift’s non-fictional writings at the time are a commonplace of Swift studies) and stood officially for the detritus of a human race stripped of polite or rational accretions. The ethnic slur of unclean eating is, in both cases, at once tribe-specific and an expression of distaste for the whole human species, an outlook Swift and Flaubert had in common in ways and to a degree probably not matched by other writers.

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