Linnaeus University, Sweden | Published: 18 December, 2023
ISSUE 18.2 | Pages: 11-27 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2023-12110

Creative Commons 4.0 2023 by EOIN Ó CUINNEAGÁIN | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

This article reads A Modest Proposal from the darker side of the westernised/anglicised Enlightenment. Firstly, it critically engages with the proclivity within the Anglocentric academy to celebrate English language literary figures associated with “The Enlightenment” in Ireland without a questioning of their role in the colonial project and in shaping its discourses of racism and sexism. Secondly, it focuses on how, from an Irish decolonial perspective, Jonathan Swift can be understood as a manager of the colonial racial/patriarchal matrix of power. Thirdly, it argues that the satire written by Jonathan Swift should be understood as an Anglocentric geo-cultural category and may be understood as westernised/anglicised Enlightenment satire. Finally, A Modest Proposal is analysed in terms of the exceptionality principle of irony, Swift’s project of improvement and salvation of the colonised, and modernity/coloniality’s rhetorical promise yet inability to solve the problems it produces.

Este artículo propone una lectura de A Modest Proposal desde la perspectiva más oscura de una Ilustración occidentalizada y anglicista. En primer lugar, aborda desde un prisma crítico la proclividad de la academia anglocéntrica a celebrar figuras literarias en lengua inglesa asociadas con “la Ilustración” en Irlanda sin cuestionar su papel en el proyecto colonial y en la configuración de discursos raciales y sexistas. En segundo lugar, el artículo se centra en demostrar cómo, desde una perspectiva decolonial irlandesa, Jonathan Swift puede entenderse como un gestor de una matriz de poder colonial racial/patriarcal. En tercer lugar, el ensayo propone que la sátira escrita por Jonathan Swift debe abordarse como una categoría geocultural anglocéntrica y que puede entenderse como una sátira ilustrada occidentalizada/anglicanizada. Por último, se analiza A Modest Proposal en términos del principio de excepcionalidad de la ironía, el proyecto swiftiano de mejora y salvación de los colonizados, y la promesa retórica de la modernidad/colonialidad, aunque incapaz de resolver los problemas que produce.

Decolonial; Jonathan Swift; A Modest Proposal; Ilustración; modernidad/colonialidad; irlandés; colonialidad del ser


This article meditates on how Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (hereafter AMP) can be approached through decolonial thought and the analytics of (de)coloniality – see Quijano (2000: 201-242); Mignolo, (2011a: 1-24); Tlostanova and Mignolo (2012: 31-59); Ndlovu-Gatsheni, (2013: 1-42); Mignolo and Walsh (2018: 1-12). Jonathan Swift’s pamphlet (1729) recommends as a solution to Ireland’s poverty the breeding of one-to-three-year-old Irish children for sale to the rich as food. The pamphlet is divided into three parts, the first being Swift’s reporting on the current situation as “deplorable” (Swift 1973a: 503; original emphasis), where he describes the destitution that the Irish poor are facing. In the second part, he begins to outline the plan to breed Irish children for the food market, explaining that it would reduce the Catholic population. To justify his plan, he distances the practice from the colonial narrator, outsourcing knowledge of cannibalism to a “very knowing” Native American, from whom he learns that child meat would go well “Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled” and “will equally serve in a Fricasie or Ragoust” (Swift 1973a: 504; original emphasis). Finally, in the third part, he lambastes and discredits the methods of reducing poverty in Ireland via rent reductions.

While the ironic character of AMP is celebrated as a product of modern individual literary excellence, this article interrogates the construction of the genre of westernised/anglicised satire as a colonial, social practice. I argue that AMP’s ironic suggestion for the mass killing of children functioned as a tool of Anglocentric moral superiority and ethical exceptionality, which helped construct the colonising, benevolent, male ego of Anglomodernity. Converting the pain and real experiences of colonised people into ironic content and “satirically” recommending their early death were not exceptional but essential exercises in the formulation of anti-Irish racist discourse, which furnished the justification for mass expropriation of Native lands, further colonial settlements, and extraction of nature and labour in Ireland across the long sixteenth and eighteenth centuries (for more on these epochs, see DuPlessis (1997: 51-52) and O’Gorman (1997: 1-7)). On a wider level, this article calls for more accurate readings of figures associated with the westernised/anglicised Enlightenment. Such readings bring into sharper view the enactment of Euromodern “theodicy”, which can be understood as the strategic ignoring of the thefts upon which “the Enlightenment” is based and the widespread circumvention of the dehumanising practices enacted and the anti-Black ideas expressed by its figureheads, who believed in the intrinsic malevolence of the colonised (Gordon 2021: 84-92; Fanon 1967: 190).

The Darker Side of Jonathan Swift

To explicate what it means to sense modernity from its darker side, as investigated further in James Ward’s article in this issue, let us first consider a world-defining piece of legislation reflected on by Jonathan Swift, the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), which is also discussed in Conrad Brunström’s contribution to this special issue. To sense, perceive and (dis)believe from the darker side of modernity is to be led by the perspectives of colonised people. “Sensing” is a key concept within decolonial thought which calls into question the temporal and geographic limitations of Eurocentric “reading” practices which pass themselves off as universal and spatially omnipresent. Sensing entails approaching modern/colonial texts from the diverse sensibilities of the colonised, encompassing a broader range of perceptions that operate in spite of and external to modern/colonial detection, which centre “aesthesis”, the forms of taste of the colonised, functioning as what Albán-Achinte called (2007: 380) “zones of resistance and re-existence” (see Albán-Achinte (2009: 89-94); Albán-Achinte (2012: 292); Tlostanova (2012: 57-63; 2017: 27; 2018: 25-27); Gómez and Mignolo (2012: 9-16); Mignolo and Vázquez (2013: 4-8); Periáñez Bolaño (2016: 34-36); Vázquez (2020: 13-15)). The decolonial move is also orientated towards a centring of the knowledge systems of the colonised appearing in the bodies of the colonised themselves-and-their-descendants in spaces that have otherwise devalued and excluded such systems (Maldonado-Torres 2016: 24-25). This is part and parcel of a decentring of modernity/coloniality, and its self-articulations, such as “the Enlightenment”, while exposing its “darker side” (Mignolo 1995: vii-xxii; 2011a: 1-3).

The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) intensified the English conquest of Turtle Island, what the coloniser called North America. Operating from understandings that are outside of the perception of the colonising signatory of the Treaty, for instance the Spanish, Germanic, French or English subject, the Natives of the territories of Seneca, Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, or Oneida understood or “sensed” these lands through terms different from those represented in the Treaty. The colonial narrative within the Treaty of Utrecht foregrounds the demand from coloniser-to-coloniser to view land originally stolen by the French as an English possession. Exteriorised are the accounts and experiences of the Natives who saw their ancestral lands transferred from one foreign invader to another. Another such narrative is that The Treaty of Utrecht meant that the English received asiento from the Spanish, meaning a monopoly on triangular “trade” routes previously dominated by the Spanish colonisers. Its darker side is the testimony of the kidnapped African man, about to be enslaved on stolen land in Turtle Island, as he hears the enslaver speaking a strange tongue: English. For the enslaved, the Treaty of Utrecht meant the recognition of different languages being used by the people who were kidnapping them, but no interruption or deviation from the European project of kidnapping, enslaving and enforcing them to work in bondage at the threat of death. The hegemonic, Eurocentric narrative of the Treaty of Utrecht is that it was a response to war in which the balance of power shifted in Europe from South to North, but if we choose to view it through the analytics of the coloniality of power (Quijano 2000: 218-225), the picture arises that it was an agreement on a part of colonial powers in Europe to aim their weapons not at themselves but at those they indigenised, racialised and enslaved. The Native Irish population of Ireland, namely the Gaels (na Gaeil) and Mincéirs (Mincéirí), “sensed” this shift in the global balance of power on their own terms and from their lived experiences of modernity/coloniality. As subjects who suffered dispossession, coerced famine and genocide during the period of time referred to as “the Enlightenment”, they too sense it from its darker side (see Morley (2017) and Ó Tuama and Kinsella (1981)). Through an interrogation of Swift, a view from the Gaelic perspective is provided here. The view presented here underlines the need for a deeper investigation into Gaelic and Mincéir decolonial perspectives on modernity/coloniality (Ó Cuinneagáin Forthcoming).

One of Swift’s most praised political interventions was The Conduct of the Allies (1711) where he sought “to dismiss objections particularly from Whig writers, to the peace treaty designed to end the long continental war, then being negotiated in Utrecht” (Griffin 2010: 27; my emphasis). The Whigs were demanding even more stolen land and more human cargo from the French, the Spanish and the Portuguese. As I shall point out, Swift was at the helm of making life more peaceful for some Europeans and making life intolerably less peaceful for the colonised. Soon after the Treaty of Utrecht, Swift lost his position of “governmental largesse” and was relocated to Ireland in “a lesser position in the church than he wanted” (Griffin 2010: 31). He was consecrated as the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on June 13th, 1713. One reason he saw it as a lesser position was because he wanted to attain a position within the Anglican Church in England (Fabricant and Mahony 2010: xxi). Inculcated in him was a belief that Ireland was inferior to England. For him, “London was at the center of things”, while “Dublin was on the periphery” (Karian 2010: 15). It is clear to us that upon his return to Ireland, it was his impression that the country was a backwater; he even preferred to publish in London because of his “disdain” at “being published in so obscure and wretched a Country” (Karian 2010: 15).

The dominant, imperial narrative of Swift within international English language scholarship views his satire through a celebratory, pseudo-critical, universalising prism. This perspective views Swift as an omnivorous voice that critiques “modernity in general” and equally erases the contemporaneity of Othered modernities through to “our postmodern age” (Budakov et al. 2020: xx, xviii). This imperial gaze views dominant-English language literary figures in Ireland, such as Swift, as productive sites for Eurocentric/Anglocentric modern/colonial epistemic agendas through the mobilisation of English literary genres as “innocent” social practices, imposed within zones peripheralised from the European/Anglo metropole. Although imbued with white supremacy, satire acts as a vehicle for ignoring epistemic racism/sexism on the land upon which this scholarship stands. At the core of its whitewashing of Irish (de)colonial history is an ethnocentric and de-relational view of “The Enlightenment” exemplified by the possessive insistence on stating that it is “our” “post”-modernity, discounting various other modernities. This ontological and “epistemic extractivism” from the colonised enabled “The Enlightenment” (Chatterjee 1998: 263-65; Mignolo 2011a: 138; Grosfoguel 2022: 256-57). Coloniality of being, as first formulated by Wynter (2003: 260), encompasses this imperial view which is based on the “overrepresentation” of the “western bourgeois” Man in the concept of the human. Furthermore, the coloniality of being is a project of Euromodernity which rationalises the non-being of the damné (Maldonado-Torres 2007: 251-53). From the Irish perspective, those who have lost their lands, languages, identities, dignities, existence and humanity under colonialism could be referred to as the cosmhuintir, an Irish word which means “the downtrodden” or “ordinary folk”. As Cedric Robinson (1983: 9-12) shows, the deconstitution of the Irish cosmhuintir was key to the co-constructivity of global racial capitalism.

To challenge these dominant perspectives is also to take on ideas of Swift as an Irish Patriot or proto-nationalist. Indeed, when I was in secondary school in Ireland, we studied Swift as a national hero. Mahony (2010: 272-73) underscores that there is a tendency to present “Swift as a precursor of Irish nationalism, a notion that rests securely in the Irish popular imagination”. However, he correctly points out that “Swift never actually advocated breaking the link with England” (Mahony 2010: 272-73). In Ireland, Colonialism and the Unfinished Revolution, a seminal race-critical, anti-colonial analysis of Irish history, McVeigh and Rolston (2021: 18) characterise Swift as a “complex character”, arguing that he could be seen as a “sometime proto-Irish anti-imperialist, sometime arch-English Tory”. They situate him through an application of mestizaje, a Latin American concept that underpinned the movement for independence from Spanish rule through the creation of a new identity constructed around the idea of racial “mixing”, yet continued coloniality of being through a reformulated, though discursively invisibilised, continuation of anti-Black colourism, originally imposed through Spanish colonisation and enslavement. McVeigh and Rolston relate the Irish context of colonialism back to the construction of race during the Spanish colonisation of “Abya Yala” – a Kuna language term now widely invoked by decolonial and indigenous scholars to refer to the lands which European militant, sea raiders mistakenly called “India” in 1492. This is because the racial logic that continues to organise global coloniality was formed during the Spanish Crown’s genocidal colonisation of Abya Yala and assault on the people of the west African coast. Although mestizaje is specific to the colonisation of the Abya Yala, McVeigh and Rolston’s application of the concept in the Irish context assisted them in situating Ireland within the modern/colonial world-system and relating colonialism in Ireland to the global racial logics formed after the 1492 invasion of Turtle Island. This has been a significant step in the shifting of the class-centric discourses of orthodox Irish anti-colonial thinking. In this process, McVeigh and Rolston recentred racism as the local and global organising principle of colonialism in Ireland, and, making a Fanonian move, provided a nuanced perspective which sees whiteness as a learned and reproduced practice (Fanon 1967: 193). In the Irish context they show how forms of Anglocentric whiteness were reproduced through violent coercion to locate within proximity to Protestantism, Englishness and English language, which endowed property rights, civil rights and the “concealed license” of white privilege (Gordon 2021: 19-20). As elaborated on below, during the eighteenth century, Swift’s discourse was central to the imposition of these colonial forms of coercion, compelling the Native Irish subject to imbibe Anglocentrism with respect to language and ontological practice. When understood against these technologies of colonial racism, the hegemonic view of Swift as a great agitator of colonialism in Ireland begins to fade. This point is further strengthened by positioning Swift in relation to the decolonial concept of the colonial/imperial difference, which is crucial in understanding the perspective from the lived experience of the darker side of modernity (Tlostanova and Mignolo 2012: 3). Through the colonial difference, we visualise the Irish-speaking, landless “peasant” perceiving Swift – a landed, Anglican cleric, whose family had been closely connected to two architects of settler-colonialism in Ireland, John Temple (1600-1677) and Walter Raleigh (1552-1618). Another decolonial idea that helps us in this regard is the “colonial matrix of power”, which can be described as a “global racial/patriarchal power structure” beginning in the long sixteenth century conquest of the Americas (Grosfoguel 2013: 86). The colonial matrix of power is global in its design from the sixteenth century, but local in how it invokes entities such as religion, language, accent, dress and appearance at specific geographical points in order to create a matrix of power that ensures the organisation of the economy, authority, gender, knowledge and being in the service of the European metropole. In the context of Ireland, Swift is not only at its apex, but, as will be shown below, is a key designer and proponent of anti-Irish racism. As such, Swift’s “complex character” comes into sharper scrutiny when analysed via these decolonial concepts. His complexity or apparent “liminality” can be demystified when “sensed” from subalternised locations. The colonial difference is a decolonial tool which is ultimately rooted in the situated vision of the colonised, and accordingly, Swift is seen from modernity’s darker side by those who experienced “Enlightenment” as conquest, exclusion and devaluation.

By contrast, the domineering Protestant view of Swift is that he embodied the religion’s ideals as a “sober moralist when he chose to be; a strong defender of the Church of England; and the most powerful political writer of the day, deeply engaged with the ministry” (Griffin 2010: 29). He discouraged mediocrity, arguing for “a bountiful Ireland” in which the Natives could see the error of their ways and convert to Protestantism to “vindicate the colonial project” (Mahony 2010: 272-73). This discourse of salvation is also evident in Swift’s non-satirical other work. For example, in 1727, some years after Swift returned to Ireland, he wrote an essay entitled A Short View of the State of Ireland. In this text he firmly establishes a discourse of salvation over the Irish poor who “live worse than English beggars” and pay “extravagant rates for land (which they must take or go a-begging)” (Swift 1973b: 501). He makes the case that England should not purge its colony too much, saying that “one thing I know, that when the Hen is starved to Death, there will be no more Golden Eggs” (Swift 1973b: 502; original emphasis). He depicts Ireland as a resource and implies that England’s relationship should be instrumental; they must keep the population healthy in order to exploit it fully, reflective of the master/slave relationship.

A particular text, written a century earlier, sets up the logics for Swift’s portrayal of this relationship. Edmund Spenser’s A Veue of the Present State of Ireland (1596) is crucial for understanding the way in which the coloniality of being enters into Swift’s parlance. Spenser was an English settler who, along with Walter Raleigh, held colonial positions in the plantation of Munster. Raleigh led English colonial invasions and plantations in Turtle Island and the Caribbean; he was also responsible for suppressing rebellions in Limerick, Ireland and was a landlord on stolen land in Munster. Spenser, also an occupier of stolen land, was in addition a writer and a poet, famous in England for eulogising and affirming the Tudor dynasty and the reign of Elizabeth Tudor. He wrote extensively about the Irish whom he believed were evil and inferior and, thus, his writings were often cited as justification for their murder and ethnic cleansing. Described by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (2009: 18) as a “manual” for colonisation, A Veue of the Present State of Ireland declares “the Irish” to be “most savage and bestiall”, suffering from “licentious barbarism”, committed to “evill customes”, primary of which being “the custome of language” (Spenser 1809: 66, 17, 113). Spenser endorsed the widespread dispossession and suppression of the Irish through scorched earth policy, namely the deliberate and coordinated use of famine as a tool of conquest. Subsequent to the Tudor conquest of Ireland, the same networks known to Spenser utilised his violent methods as part of the blueprint for the colonisation of the Natives of Turtle Island, dehumanising techniques which were later used for the British colonisation of the African subject (see Canny (1973) and wa Thiong’o (2009: 18-25)). While Irish postcolonial studies scholarship has tended to focus on the linearity of the narrative of Ireland as England’s “first colony”, orthodox decolonial scholarship turns our attention to what Quijano (2000: 215) called a heterogenous, “structural-historical” node of coloniality. This view understood the logics of westernising colonialism as emerging out of the dual Castilian conquest of al-Andalus and the invasion of Turtle Island (Grosfoguel 2022: 224-38). This double headed conquest occurred within the same decade as the anti-Roma laws introduced in 1499 by Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, signalling the beginning of the expropriation from and persecution of the Roma/Gitanos; without the extraction of the Roma/Gitanos’ dress, songs and ways of being/sensing, the Castilian ethnostate would not have been able to invent itself as a monocultural entity (see Periáñez Bolaño 2023). Whether practiced on the Roma/Gitanos, Natives of Turtle Island or the Native Irish, what Quijano pointed out was that the logic of coloniality had both local and global dimensions. In addition, it was continually and simultaneously being redesigned, repackaged and tested on several colonised peoples. Despite there being heterogenous histories of colonialism across the modern/colonial world-system, the methods of coloniality were constantly being co-devised and shared amongst all of the European colonising nation-States. This perspective can assist us in moving away from a linear view, making it possible to relate the Irish context to different local instances of coloniality outside of Ireland. Furthermore, coloniality of being analytics allow us to trace the technologies of coloniality deployed against the Native Irish across empires and create linkages and parallels that might otherwise be overlooked or taken for granted.

Echoing Spenser’s view, when addressing colonial policy in Ireland, Swift (1963: 89) believed that “it would be a noble achievement to abolish the Irish language in this kingdom” and “oblige all the natives to speak only English on every occasion of business”. For Swift, this “would, in a great measure civilize the most barbarous of them, reconcile them to our customs, and reduce great numbers to the national religion”, namely Protestantism. Swift (1963: 258-59) viewed “Popery” as “offensive” and considered Papists to be lacking in “courage” as well as “inclinations to rebel”. Furthermore, he characterised them as being plagued by “sloth”, and “ignorance”. Ward (2011: 48) argues that the style of Swift’s satire differed in relation to his non-satirical work in terms of his employment of “decorum-breaching shock tactics”. Respectively, my thesis here is that when Swift used these dehumanising, “decorum-breaching” narratives in AMP, they were not clear departures from his other political writing, particularly when it came to characterisations of the Irish. Swift’s writings are a testament to the various organising principles of the colonial racial/patriarchal matrix of power in Ireland, including religion, language, culture, and sexism. When Swift compared Irish women to breeders, the motif he invoked is consistent with Lugones’ thesis (2008: 13) that coloniality of gender looked on colonised women as animals, “without gender”. Lugones explains that this view is rooted in the Spanish conquest of the Americas and its dehumanising racist/sexist colonial gaze that saw colonised women as producers of non-human property. Likewise, Swift depicts the female subjects of AMP as being characterised by their sexual organs and represented in an animalistic light:

I calculate there may be about Two hundred Thousand Couple whose Wives are Breeders, from which Number I subtract thirty thousand Couples, who are able to maintain their own Children […] but this being granted, there will remain an Hundred and Seventy Thousand Breeders. (Swift 1973a: 503)

As well as these patriarchal logics, throughout AMP we find the prevalence of the genocidal logic of modernity/coloniality in its recommendations for “lessening the Number of Papists among us” (Swift 1973: 505; my emphasis). Reducing the colonised Irish woman’s body to its sexual organ as it dovetails with the genocidal view of the majority Irish-speaking Catholic population speaks to Maldonado-Torres’ argument (2008: 221) that modern/colonial “death ethics of war” naturalise the “killability” and “rapeability” of colonised people. However, through the irony of satire “the moral racist” subject’s desires are clouded behind notions of the “hypothetical” and the moral reprehensibility of the prescribed action, as he projects onto the body of the cosmhuintir both what the coloniser has actually already done to the colonised and the urge to commit what is always on the table when the coloniser discusses solving the problem of the colonised, extermination and rape (Maldonado-Torres 2008: 306).

My contention is that AMP should be understood as bound to the discourse of westernised/anglicised modernity which is based on racial capitalism, on problematising people and a rhetorical impulse to solve (Césaire 2000: 31). To understand its connection to the discourse of modernity/coloniality, it is helpful to relate it to an earlier modern/colonial text. The discourses of dispensability shown in AMP are scripted by Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620). Bacon was a legal advisor to Elizabeth Tudor and widely credited in Eurocentric narratives as being the founder of the empirical (sometimes called “Baconian”) method. In relation to Ireland, he was a key visionary in the design of the colonial plantation systems, particularly the Ulster plantation which coincided with the expulsion of the leaders of the last Gaelic-controlled stronghold. Maley (1995: 1) comments that his Certain Considerations Touching the Plantation in Ireland (1609) was “crucial in laying the groundwork for the Ulster Plantation”. Formulated during the Nine Years’ War (1593-1603), a major rebellion against Tudor rule in Ireland, Novum Organum is a text where modern/colonial rationality is (re)constructed as Bacon positions man at the centre of the universe and identifies nature as the dominion of man (Mignolo 2005: xvi; Montuschi: 2010: 1). This functions as a justification for the exploitation of nature and of indigenous people who are positioned as non-human and thus within the realm of nature (Maldonado-Torres 2007: 245).

Epochally, Swift’s AMP marked a discursive change in the rhetoric of colonial discourse in Ireland. In its continuation of the coloniality of being, AMP mimicked the earlier dehumanising rhetoric of Spenser’s genocidal pamphlet. Yet within this mimicry, key to Swift’s epochal shift of colonial discourse, was a reformulation of Spenser’s euphuistic, condescending vilification of the Irish, which he transformed into an ironic, “morally superior” will to solve “the Irish problem”. Swift writes in a period when the English colonial project in Ireland had progressed towards totalising legal domination, whereas Bacon’s discourses, written a generation before Swift, related to uncompassionate recommendations for the design of plantations and advice on how the English State could finally and fully subdue Ireland after the Tudor conquest. The young Swift entered into an era where the pervasive racial rule of the Anglo-Irish settler-colonial minority was not an aim or desire, but was the order of the day. Consider that by the time AMP is penned around 90% of land in Ireland is in the hands of Protestants compared to 41% in 1641 at the beginning of the Cromwellian conquest and subsequent plantations (Brennan 2003: 251). Landlessness, widespread poverty and hunger were direct results of the Penal Era and Ascendency Rule, in which law enshrined Catholics’ sub-ontological difference as they were legally restricted from owning land, sole-trading, voting, inter-marriage with Protestants, inheriting Protestant land, holding fire-arms, owning a horse above £5, home-schooling, or receiving university education amongst many other legally constructed losses of dignity (Simms 1960: 29-33). To put this into context, one year before the publication of AMP, the “Disenfranchising Act” received royal assent, a law which excluded Catholics from voting and from appearing in parliament. Consequently, Swift writes during a period of change in colonial tactics in Ireland, a time in which a legal campaign continues the “convert or die” logic of coloniality in Ireland (Grosfoguel 2013: 78). After the land has been stolen and Natives have been problematised, modernity/coloniality creates a rhetorical impulse to solve, because, as Lwazi Lushaba (2017) points out, colonial power cannot only rely on physical violence; it must move towards targeting the ethics and language of the colonised, while constructing its own “benevolent” self-image. Once the project of land theft was complete in Ireland, Swift’s AMP played a role in the production of a discourse of salvation. While obscuring the colonial roots of the material circumstances of the Irish poor as arising from land theft, AMP portrayed them as helpless subjects in need of saving, as incapable of coming up with their own solutions, and in need of the “the moral racist” narrator to appeal to the good sensibility of the English/anglicised reading classes. As discussed below, it is through the provision of this “solution” to the Irish Question that AMP constructs the coloniality of being.

Perceiving A Modest Proposal from Swift’s Darker Side

The decolonial, epistemic turn seeks to interrogate the structure of knowledge and being embodied by managers of the colonial matrix of power, to decolonise knowledge, decentre European fictions and to shift the geo-politics of knowledge (Gordon 2011: 96). Key to this decolonial shifting is the relating of subalternised knowledge to figures eulogised by modernity such as Swift, while centring epistemic liberation struggles today. There are two indigenised Irish languages through which Swift could be “sensed” decolonially. They are an Gheailge and Mincéir Thari. In English, the former is referred to as “Irish”, while the latter can be referred to as “Cant”, “Shelta” or “De Gammon”. These languages can be described as “indigenised” because, due to settler-colonialism, their speakers experienced displacement and land theft, a process which made them indigenous, hence “indigenised” (see Hernández 2018: 18-19). The “sensing” meditated on in this article is limited to an Ghaeilge. With respect to storytelling in an Ghaeilge, referred to as scéalaíocht, Mac Aoidh (2020: 41-44) stresses its centrality in the production of deeply held values and knowledge of community, which connects the vernacular practice to a thousand-year epistemic tradition. An example of a locality from which the Irish colonial subject can provide a decolonial “sensing” of satire is inside the house of a seanchaí, who is in the midst of an oracular story. As he oscillates between subjectivities, he mimics and alters the tone of his voice. He moulds and contorts his face so as to lampoon other known beings. In this manner, his gesticulations and bodily movements speak to the memory of the ancestors with caution, with praise. He plays pasquinade with a sense of wit only apprehended in the vernacular of the co-creators present. He makes light of death. He pokes fun at neighbouring accents. He ridicules the coloniser’s walk and talk. Because the interaction between storyteller and listener is based on shared knowledge, language and expressiveness, it is a practice that is sensed in a particular time and space, harnessing and fastening the spirit of the community towards resistance pedagogies and didactical ends. Like westernised/anglicised Enlightenment satire, lampooning within orality is a geo-cultural manifestation. In decolonial, oral practice, within an Ghaeilge, lampooning involves forms of mockery limited to a vernacular context. In Gaelic worlds, satire was invoked in a multiplicity of arenas such as for the demarcation of land rights, the communication of political agendas and the recital of clan-based, ancestral lineage (see Norris Robinson (1998)). In terms of the representation of otherness and foreignness, Irish satire imitated the language of the coloniser and derided Natives who appropriated and imbibed colonial modes of being (see McLaughlin (2008) and McKibben (2015)). While capable of bearing witness to the colonial difference from the colonised experience of Anglomodernity, lampooning in Irish-language orality is a live mode of being that inhabits another’s mask, fundamentally emphasising the being of the other. Likewise, westernised/anglicised Enlightenment satire can also be understood as a local, geo-cultural practice, yet through English colonialism it was imposed as a global, universalised genre, while its representation of the other went hand in hand with colonial racism/sexism. In contrast, as is evidenced through AMP, the coloniser’s satirical expression produced and affirmed modernity/coloniality’s theodicies and attempted to reduce the humanity of those he colonised, whose lands he continued to occupy.

This scene is not presented to paint an idyllic image of the seanchaí or to create an innocent oppositional relationship of Irish storytelling to English literary satire. Indeed, the storyteller can wield a persuasive power over his listeners, albeit a power that is localised (Sobol 1992: 77, 82). Conversely, what is emphasised here is, on the one hand, the decentering of westernised/anglicised modernity’s epistemic practices, and, on the other, their corrective placement within a “pluriversality” of knowledges. This move deconstructs westernising/anglicising modernity’s imposition of itself as “universal”, instead (re)positioning it as having always been part of a global “pluriverse” of cosmologies (Escobar 2018: 6-7). Decolonial thinking presupposes that westernising/anglicising epistemology derives from one cosmology amongst many, but was transformed into a global phenomenon through colonialism, racial capitalism, and imperialism (Escobar 2018: 6-7). Decoloniality directs itself towards the (re)creation of what the Zapatistas referred to as “a world where many worlds fit” (see Marcos 2018). Returning to the question of how it is that Swift can be “sensed” from the darker side of Anglomodernity, it is useful to think of the boundaries and limits of Swift’s conception of satire with respect to its legibility vis-à-vis pluriversality. Namely, how would the subalternised have accessed his satire and how would Swift have understood the cosmhuintir/damné’s oral, literary practice? To answer this, we need to ask who would have been able to count as a “beholder” of westernised/anglicised Enlightenment satire, a literary production that is embedded in an aesthetic hierarchising of written production over orality (wa Thiong’o 2012: 63-64). Although westernised/anglicised Enlightenment satire presents itself as public, its audience constituted a finite reading class (see Ó Ciosáin (1997), Gillespie and Hadfield (2006) and Lines (2021)). Thus, it is aimed at those who are constructed as “reliable” knowers (Alcoff 2007: 43). Whereas westernised/anglicised Enlightenment satire generates a monolithic relation of sense with its audience, oral expression entails situated knowledge which is the result of “vernacular learning, interpersonal relationships and collective social reproduction” (Periáñez Bolaño 2016: 30). Swift wrote AMP in the decades following the introduction of the Penal Laws and after the most substantial land thefts during the colonisation of Ireland (Brennan 2003: 251). In other words, AMP was published a generation after the introduction of the Penal Laws, and, while their effectiveness was being questioned by certain sections of the reading classes, colonised people in Ireland did not need to be able to read Swift to know that these laws constituted another series of methods designed to legitimate the occupation of their lands and the displacement of their ancestors and themselves. Decolonial, oral practice such as caoineadh/keening, expanded on in Sonja Lawrenson’s excellent contribution to this issue, could attest to how during the colonisation of Ireland a reformulated colonial difference through religion grafted onto latent colonial othering already in place in terms of language and cosmology (see Bourke (1993) and Ní Shíocháin (2018: 18-21)). Put differently, Irish language epistemic practices, though incomprehensible to Swift, were able to bear witness to how the Penal Laws used ontological markers of difference as organising principles for colonial rule and the mass appropriation of lands, enabled through military occupation. The anglicised/westernised mind begins to understand the meaning of “sensing” Swift from his “darker side” when the realisation is made that those whose language, humanity and civility Swift had undermined were able to think on their own terms, chronicle their oppression, envisage their liberation and identify solutions to the problems they faced from within their own patterns of vernacular learning. Within Irish language “aesthesis” found within amhránaíocht (song practices) and scéalaíocht (storytelling), key explanations for the poverty faced by the Native Irish included reflections on famine, dispossession and plantation (Ó Cuinneagáin forthcoming). Memories of such lived experiences, passed down through indigenous knowledge, were central to the Irish decolonial imagination, yet the facts of settler colonialism are airbrushed out of Swift’s salvation narrative. It was only through what Charles Mills (2007: 11) called “white ignorance”, the deliberate circumvention of the colonial causes of landlessness and poverty, that Swift was able to construct AMP’s disingenuously benevolent tone. This deprivation of indigenous languages from modern/colonial domains, a policy which was advocated by Swift himself, follows the logic of what wa Thiong’o called “linguifam” (2009: 8), whereby the Native is stripped of the means to reproduce their own language and forced to remember themselves and retell their history in the coloniser’s tongue and at the expense of their own. Bearing in mind the pluriversal structure of Ireland within the world-system allows a critical refutation of the idea that Swift, as an Anglican Dean, could speak for the landless. His gaze towards the colonised is projected through the eyes of “the literary genius”, a construct of westernised/anglicised modernity, as evidenced in Swift’s own hierarchical views on language, refinement and improvement (see Swift 1712: 5-14). He constructs the colonial difference from inside totality: in stark contrast to “decolonial thinking [which] presupposes, always, the colonial difference [of] exteriority in the precise sense of the outside (barbaric, colonial) that is constructed by the inside (civilized, imperial)” (Mignolo 2011b: 48). This underlines further that Swift should be understood as a manager of the colonial/racial matrix of power.

Westernising and anglicising universalism tries to conceive of itself outside of temporality and thus separate from nature (Lushaba 2017). Its epistemic practice is seen as a form of “labour” that creates pure, abstract knowledge that is highest to the “exaltation of God’s glory”, claiming to be universal and valid anywhere while in service to the commander in chief of the colonial military (Bacon 1901: 71). It is a process tied to “aesthetic feudalism” which locates the thinking of the indigenous farthest away from God, discounting their knowledge (wa Thiong’o 2012: 63). Believing that his knowledge represents truth, and that his humour represents the standard, the coloniser asserts his mode of being onto the subaltern as colonial epistemology and “improvement” of the colonised. This is perhaps most saliently seen on Spenser’s (1809: 250) terms: “Surely I am of your minde, that nothing will bring them from theire uncivill life soner then learninge and discypline, next after the knowledge and feare of God”. These impositions and hierarchies connect what Castro-Gómez (2005: 60) has called the construction of the “hubris of point-zero”, whereby the coloniser’s language is valid knowledge, while the languages of the colonised are systematically ignored. Westernised/anglicised Enlightenment satire also orientates itself inside a “point zero” epistemology. I suggest that there are three ways this is achieved.

Firstly, in order to maintain the false idea of the superiority of the Anglo, a racial construction of satire is produced. In the Renaissance period Rome and Greece are construed as white civilisations: this genealogy is racial and designed to “whiten” satire (see Frye (1944: 26) and Mukherjee (2000: 1-10)). This allowed westernised/anglicised Enlightenment to avoid the development of popular Islamic satire in Europe’s “Dark Ages” while relegating inferiorised forms of lampooning to exteriority. Secondly, for this racial ordering of satire to locate itself at the zero-point, grand theories such as Dryden’s A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire (1693) need to construct satire’s universal connection to Truth. This construction is one built beside a hubris that is the standard and homogenising form of satirical expression across time and space. An example of this hubris is found in McFarlane’s (2011: 155) description of Frye who: “washes the acid away and reveals for the first time in two thousand years of Western literary theory and praxis, a glimpse of what satire may be”. Frye describes satire as acid, for it is universally measured in terms of its caustic level (Frye 1944: 30). As a literary form, it is compared to a chemical substance that has the potential to burn through any problem. This narrative positions such satire at the zero-point, driving off the scale any othered epistemological form of satirical expression, be it oral or written. Westernised/anglicised Enlightenment satire is universalised in the seventeenth century as the “Mythical Universal solvent” (McFarlane 2011: 156). This is despite it being, as I have shown, a geo-cultural ritual, and, as a result, not universally amusing or interesting across time and space. The presupposition that westernised/anglicised Enlightenment satire could, in any politically adverse situation, be called upon to diagnose, combat or corrode an issue is the primary mechanism of its intellectual hubris and another way Swift’s satire can legitimise dehumanisation of the Irish colonised subject.

Thirdly, westernised/anglicised Enlightenment satire is co-constructive of the hierarchisation of being through its claim to aesthetic exceptionality, by which it connects wit and civility to white/Anglo superiority. The “genius” of the satirist is then bound to the emergence of “irony” and “wit” as hierarchical concepts which ascribe intellectual status and thinking ability to the subject. As a consequence, the aesthetics of exceptionality permits the coloniser to enact two ignorance practices (see Mills 2007: 13-38). Firstly, by hierarchising wit on its own terms, it ignores the global pluriversality of intelligences, excluding the vast majority of subjects from its audience. Through this it falsely constructs itself as possessing the “yardstick” of humour and casts the cosmhuintir/damné into what Fanon referred to as the zone of non-being; the inability to understand its irony locates indigenous subjects on lower rungs of thinking ability (Fanon 1961; wa Thiong’o 2012). “Sensing” from the zone of non-being and sub-ontological difference is to understand its “ironic tone” as a weapon of colonial moral superiority. The second practice of ignorance is the absolution from taking accountability for modernity’s violences against the colonised. Westernised/anglicised Enlightenment satire’s exceptional permission to make light of anyone, anywhere and at any time, is a core tool of the legitimation of its racism. Today, several groups are accused of using the exceptionality principle to enact racism. One such example is the “alt-right” and its mobilisation of irony for the purposes of racism. Another is the phenomenon of “Hipster racism”, described as when offence or prejudice is miraculously transformed into something clever, funny and socially relevant, by the assertion that said ordinarily offensive thing is ironic or satirical. This exceptionality is also found in artistic practices that intervene in everyday life and which, for example, in the case of yarn bombing, are seen as “safeguarded through the provincial sensibilities of Western, middle-class whiteness” (Hahner and Varda 2014: 302). However, the notion that racism passed off as irony is a “new” phenomenon truncates its relationality with the historically constructed racism of westernised/anglicised Enlightenment satire/irony. “Sensing” AMP decolonially shows how irony has been the primary tool of Western satire’s racism as aesthetic feudalism goes hand in hand with aesthetic exceptionality.


Here, I have argued that Swift, continuing from Spenser and Bacon, should be understood as a manager of the modern/colonial racial/patriarchal matrix of power. Further proposed here is that westernised/anglicised Enlightenment satire be understood as a European art form busy operating according to the logics of the hierarchisation of being, the construction of race and the provision of conscience-easing amusement for the coloniser. “Sensing” Swift’s darker side unmasks him as the head of an Anglican Church in the administrative centre of an English settler colony. Holding deeply racist views on Gaelic ontology, language and culture, his work cannot be divorced from its inferioirising discourses about Native Irish people and complicity in the further mobilisation of the colonial project in Ireland in terms of the legitimisation of land theft and the deconstitution of Native Irish life, language and dignity. “Sensing” Swift decolonially is to bear in mind that he would not have been in a position of power without the colonisation of the Native Irish subject just as England’s “progress” would not have been possible without extractivist colonialism and “racial capitalism” within Ireland and across the world-system (Robinson 1983: xix). From the darker side of Swift, to illuminate the coloniality of being within AMP is to consider that “the inhumanity of the colonized peoples” was a legally legitimated and largely uncontested idea among the managers of the colonial matrix of power (Maldonado-Torres 2007: 252). In the eyes of the coloniser, Native Irish “Papists” were legally constructed as unreliable knowers of reality and incapable of thinking properly. “Sensing” Swift decolonially is to consider that he would not have ranked their forms of articulation on a par with Anglomodern literary production. Thinking with the analytics of the coloniality of being in relation to Swift’s writing is to illuminate and disrupt the Anglomodern view of the dispensability of the Irish colonial subject. Despite claiming to be exceptional, by being tied to the discourse of modernity in its problematisation of people, presenting itself as universal, ironic, morally superior and inside racialised hierarchies of thinking, westernised/anglicised Enlightenment satire, and thus AMP, involves a rationalisation for the dispensability of human life.

(De)coloniality of being analytics situated within pluriversal dialogues allow us to uncover racism/sexism and the dismemberment of the colonised subject in Ireland as co-constructive colonial technologies that reverberate, flow and fracture around the world-system. This empowers us (who reside in colonised zones) to link up with other groups considered cosmhuintir and damné, for whom, the imposition of English literary figures also became part and parcel of the Anglomodern “colonisation of the mind” project (see wa Thiong’o (1981)). The discipline of English literary studies has never made its way into any settler-colony innocently (see Roman-Tamesis and Villaceran 2023). It has always been preceded by invasion, war, genocide and rape. As we learn from our decolonial “sensing” of Swift, and his predecessors Spenser and Bacon, the methods of colonialism appear first as “manuals” and second as “literature”. In other words, the epistemic violence of the settler-colonial system comes after the physical violence of colonisation. From the twentieth century, as Swift then becomes reworked and transplanted into different colonial contexts through the militarised vehicle of English literary studies, the selective omissions of Irish (de)colonial history within the teaching of Swift dovetail into the erasure of other colonised and racialised peoples. From Nairobi to New Delhi and Sofia to Santiago, Eurocentric/Anglocentric figures of the westernised/anglicised Enlightenment, such as Swift, have been transformed into mausoleums to patriarchal colonialism, who are not only invoked to silence the voices of the Irish submerged within their texts but are marshalled further in the Anglocentric drive towards “linguifam” within settler-colonial universities. Put differently, the sanctification of figures such as Swift have become vital for the continued erasure of colonised people and the exteriorisation of their knowledge and languages. English continues to grow in its domination of international academic and governmental communication at the expense of Native languages. With that, Swift’s vision of a “noble achievement” continues to have a hand in the oppression of multiplicities of peoples across the world-system. Decoloniality as a political, epistemic movement can act as a support structure that connects scholars and activists with shared experiences of colonialism who strive for epistemic autonomy inside and outside of the westernised/anglicised university. In relation to the question of the “underside” of Swift and who can “sense” him from the darker side of “The Enlightenment”, perceiving coloniality as a heterogeneous, historical, structural node opens the conversation to an assemblage of experiences of (de)coloniality. Such dialogues can facilitate communication between people with different histories of coloniality, while affirming the value of working from one’s own linguistic and epistemic tradition with the aim of unmasking and decentring glorified figures of “The Enlightenment”.

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| Received: 10-05-2023 | Last Version: 02-08-2023 | Articles, Issue 18.2