The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift

By Ricardo Quintana | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
THE IRISH PATRIOT

1

SWIFT's career as an agitator in behalf of the Irish interest lends itself to widely differing interpretations. One view, still maintained by modern critics embodying the traditionally hostile attitude towards Swift, is that revenge was the sole cause of his outburst against the English administration. It would be false to deny that such self-interest was a powerful, perhaps the leading, incentive, nor does it seem that Swift himself ever imagined that his motives were purely disinterested.

Yet all who have been qualified to discuss Swift's place in eighteenth-century Ireland have freely admitted his great services as a patriot. Thus, however ignoble his actuating impulses may have been, the ends which he achieved cannot be judged solely in terms of motive. It has been pointed out repeatedly that the immediate results of his endeavours were slight and that even the withdrawal of Wood's coin- age -- open acknowledgment that the Drapier had worsted the government -- brought about no real change on the part of the English administration towards Ireland; his great accomplishment lay rather in rousing Ireland from its lethargy, in proclaiming the principles of rational liberty, and in uniting the patriotic party against a blind, cruel policy. It must be remembered, however, that his point of view was that not merely of an Irish-born Englishman but of an Englishman of the established church and of the governing class: the spoliation of the native Irish he took for granted, catholicism he contemned, presbyterianism he hated and denounced. The injustices against which he made war were those imposed upon the aristocratic English in Ireland. And yet, had Swift never transcended this narrow spirit he would not have been held in reverence by generation after generation of Irishmen, and in A Letter to the Whole People of Ireland (the fourth

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