Swift, A Modest Proposal


  • Intro

    I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassée or a ragout.


    Jonathan Swift's attack on the British government's inability to solve the problem of poverty in Ireland is one of the literary canon's most famous examples of satire. It proposes that the most obvious solution to Ireland's economic crisis is for the Irish to sell their children as food: shockingly, it also suggests various ways in which they can be prepared and served. It was first published anonymously, in 1729, and the detached, serious tone of its narrator emphasises the horror of what Swift is actually recommending: only in its final paragraphs, when the essay turns to the realities of the Irish economic system and the problems caused by absentee landlords, does the author's view become clear. Despite its power as a piece of rhetoric, A Modest Proposal did not lead to any lasting changes for Ireland's rural poor; and just over a century later, thousands would perish in the Great Potato Famine.

  • Transcript

    Swift, A Modest Proposal

    Original text [pages 10 and 11]:


    I have been assured by a very knowing American of my Acquaintance in London, that a young healthy Child well nurs'd, is, at a Year old, a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome Food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a Fricassée, or a Ragoust.


    I do therefore humbly offer it to publick Consideration, that of the Hundred and twenty thousand Children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for Breed, whereof only one Fourth part to be Males; which is more than we allow to Sheep, black Cattle, or Swine, and my Reason is, that these Children are seldom the Fruits of Marriage, a Circumstance not much regarded by our Savages, therefore, one Male will be sufficient to serve four Females. That the remaining Hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in Sale to the Persons of Quality and Fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the Mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good Table. 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.


    I have reckoned upon a Medium, that a Child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar Year, if tolerably nursed, encreaseth to Twenty-eight Pounds.


    I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for Landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have the best Title to the Children.


    INFANT's Flesh will be in Season throughout the Year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after; for we are told by a grave Author, an eminent French Physician, that Fish being a prolifick Diet, there are more Children born in Roman Catholick Countries about nine Months after Lent, than at any other Season: therefore, reckoning a Year after Lent, the Markets will be more glutted than usual, because the Number of Popish Infants, is at least three to one in this Kingdom, and therefore it will have one other collateral Advantage by lessening the Number of Papists among us.

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