There are some writers – not many – whose work is so distinctive that their names have been turned into adjectives: for example, “Homeric” and “Kafkaesque.” From the biting and ironic satires of Jonathan Swift comes the word “Swiftian,” implying not just satiric anger, but also deep grief at the cruelty with which human beings treat each other.
Over the years numerous gifted illustrators have offered graphic interpretations of Swift’s longest satire, the immortal Gulliver’s Travels. That pseudo-novel is full of characters and incidents that can easily be given visual form. Less obviously suited to illustration is Swift’s shortest satire, the likewise immortal Modest Proposal. David O’Kane has succeeded brilliantly in evoking its imaginative power and its profound moral indignation.
O’Kane’s manière noire lithographs were commissioned by Jamie Murphy of the Salvage Press for a special limited edition large-scale letterpress book to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Swift’s birth in 1667. This elaborate reprinting of A Modest Proposal and newly commissioned poems by Jessica Traynor, which are also inspired by Swift's text, form a temporal dialogue with O’Kane’s imagery. The close collaboration between designer and artist is evinced through the depiction of Murphy’s own children, Olivia and Joshua Murphy, in four of the ten compositions. “A Child, Just Dropt” is drawn from the first photograph of the newborn Olivia. “Butchers… Will Not Be Wanting” depicts a baby hanging in a butcher shop and was created through a combination drawings of Joshua and Achilles, after a late 18th century sculpture by Thomas Banks. “Stewed, Roasted, Baked or Boyled, Food... Proper for Landlords” depicts three babies on silver platters, which are also based on images of Olivia. And finally, “A Melancholy Object” was inspired by hospital X-rays of Joshua. Murphy has described the book as “a comment on the condition of Ireland today and the fact that my children are the new custodians of a previous generation's accumulated national debts.”
Unlike Scotland, which became a full member of the United Kingdom in 1707, Ireland was still treated as a mere colony, convenient for exploitation by the British government and by grasping absentee landlords. The situation became especially critical in the 1720s, when a series of bad harvests caused widespread famine. Swift, the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, was deeply admired for his role as a spokesman for the Irish people, and during that decade he published a series of pamphlets suggesting ways in which Ireland might resist exploitation by England. These had so little effect that he became disgusted with his countrymen’s failure to stand up against oppression. A Modest Proposal, published in 1729, is a parodic treatise in economics, proposing that the best possible solution would be to cook and eat Irish infants. The implication is that landlords were already devouring the Irish metaphorically, and might as well do so literally.
What makes this satire great is its stunningly deadpan impersonation of a well-meaning economic thinker. It was published as a cheap anonymous pamphlet, much like scores of others at the time, and for the first page or so a reader would assume it was entirely rational and straightforward. Only then does Swift spring his trap, presenting horrifying cruelty and cannibalism as sensible measures to alleviate Irish poverty. The author of that argument, if he literally meant what he said, would be completely insane. But as quickly becomes clear, he is only a mouthpiece for the moral outrage of the real author, Jonathan Swift.
A Child, Just Dropt
Using the language of animal husbandry, the author of the Modest Proposal, posing as an objective economist, says that a newborn infant can be supported entirely on its mother’s milk until it is one year old, at which time it will be ready for the table.
Learning to Love Our Country
Swift suggests that the Irish are virtually unique in failing to exhibit true love of their country, which they ought to show by standing up for their rights. One way of doing that would be to boycott English goods and become self-sufficient, instead of a source of raw materials for England and wealth for English landlords. The names highlighted on the map are all places where Swift lived for extended periods of time: he was born in Dublin and educated at a school in Kilkenny before returning to Dublin for Trinity College; his first parish after ordination was the little village of Kilroot near Belfast; and his favorite country retreat was in the small town of Laracor. The symbols in the corners of the border are taken from the floor tiles near Swift’s tomb in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.
Beggars of the Female Sex The opening words of the Modest Proposal are: “It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for alms.” That was literally true. Starving women with their ragged children did fill the streets of Dublin and the roads in the countryside.
The Deanry Stairwell
The hands of beseeching beggars are seen emerging from the banisters of the stairwell in Swift’s official deanery (he himself spelled it “deanry”). He always carried coins of various denominations in his pockets, and never failed to give something to every beggar he met in the streets. Incidentally, he was an early proponent of regular exercise, and often ran up and down the stairs for the sake of his health (though the stairs of his day were replaced when the deanery was rebuilt after a later fire).
The Constant Breeders
Mothers of children destined to be sold and eaten are described as useful “breeders,” as cows or sheep might be. To keep up the supply in the future, some children will need to be spared. The author calculates that one-sixth of them should be allowed to grow up and become breeders in their turn – in a proportion of three girls to every boy.
Butchers… Will Not Be Wanting
Special butcher shops for slaughtering babies will be set up, “and butchers, we may be assured, will not be wanting; although I rather recommend buying the children alive, and dressing them hot from the knife as we do roasting pigs.”
Stewed, Roasted, Baked or Boyled, Food… Proper for Landlords
Various ways of cooking children are surveyed. “A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.” Since this product will be expensive, it will be “very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.” This composition is derived from O’Kane’s photographs of Swift’s dining room at the Deanery. At the end of the table in the Deanery there is a huge painting of Swift and a cherub in a magnificently carved wooden frame. The painting is by Francis Bindon and John Houghton carved the frame. Both the painting and the frame were created during Swift’s lifetime, probably in 1739, not long before he succumbed to incapacitating dementia. As in ‘The Deanry Stairwell’ the painting has been turned into a kind of black mirror.
Gloves for Ladies and Summer Boots for Fine Gentlemen
As a further economic advantage, the delicate skins of infants will be well suited for making expensive gloves and boots. Swift has in mind the consumption of English luxury goods by the Irish upper classes, who were thereby complicit in their own exploitation.
A Melancholy Object
A reprise of the opening words of A Modest Proposal. Again, the elaborate frame surrounding the x-ray of the child depicts the slightly altered frame in Swift’s dining room at the Deanery, which can also be seen in the background of ‘Stewed, Roasted, Baked or Boyled, Food… Proper for Landlords’ without an x-ray image in the frame.
Splendide Mendax – Verba Volant, Scripta Manent
From the Roman poet Horace, “splendide mendax” means “noble liar” or, in effect, untruthfulness in a good cause. In the 1735 edition of Gulliver’s Travels, Swift had this phrase inscribed beneath a portrait of Captain Gulliver. The travels are presented as if they really happened, and although they are pure fantasy, they do tell the truth about the political and social world of the time. “Verba volant, scripta manent” is a Latin proverb: “Spoken words fly away, written words remain.” And so they do, since Swift’s satires are as powerful today as they ever were.