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  • Speaking for the Irish Nation: The Drapier, the Bishop, and the Problems of Colonial Representation
  • Carole Fabricant

When Swift, as M. B. Drapier, addresses “the Whole People of Ireland” in his famous Fourth Letter, written to bring about defeat of William Wood’s coinage scheme, whom exactly is he speaking to? 1 And, more germane to my concerns here, whom is he speaking for? The general consensus has been that “the Whole People” refers only to the small circle of the Anglo-Irish elite and the established church to which Swift belonged—a position reflected in R. F. Foster’s contention that the “restricted and exclusive views of Swift” typified “Ascendancy attitudes.” 2 I read the Drapier’s Fourth Letter very differently, as a document that articulates the interests of a broad spectrum of Irish society and that invokes a conception of nationhood considerably more comprehensive than these sectarian constructions would indicate. I will be offering evidence for this reading later in my discussion; however, my primary aim here is not to offer an interpretation of a particular text but rather, to examine a number of interrelated theoretical and historical issues that underpin the questions I pose at the outset. In the absence of such examination, it is impossible to adequately address questions of the Drapier’s viewpoint, audience, and representative, or non-representative, status. More broadly, I want to explore the contradictions, and in the process weigh the meaning, of Protestant attempts to speak for the Irish nation in the first half of the eighteenth century. To this end I will be focusing primarily on Swift, but also considering texts by George Berkeley and (more briefly) Thomas Sheridan. 3

I

The example of Swift, one of many instances in which a member of a privileged minority purports to represent an oppressed majority through the figure of “the whole nation,” points up the relevance of current theoretical investigations into the question of who can legitimately speak for whom in situations where a clear power differential exists: in the case of Ireland, where the nationalist spokespersons, on the strength [End Page 337] of their membership in their country’s social and religious elite, can be considered at least partially complicit with the colonizers even if treated by them as subordinates. In such circumstances, do Anglo-Irish acts of speaking as the nation silence the colonized Catholic majority (by subsuming the latter’s voice into their own) or do they, on the contrary, enable the colonized to be heard by giving them a voice they would otherwise lack? One of the assumptions underlying this essay is that there is no simple, or single, answer to this question—that the answer varies according to a number of specific factors while at the same time limited by the political and historical constraints operating on both speaker and spoken for. My aim here is to establish some grounds for distinguishing those circumstances in which such representation can function constructively, to minimize hierarchically-based exclusions and expand the field of expression, from those circumstances in which this mode of representation shows its “violent” side, functioning to suppress differences and to impose a monolithic structure of order.

The whole problematic of “speaking for” has considerable resonance given recent poststructuralist critiques of both identity and representation, which challenge the very grounds upon which one individual or group can speak for another. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s highly influential essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” has helped to crystallize the theoretical and ideological stakes in this line of questioning, as have various recent formulations of a feminist epistemology. 4 Donna Haraway, for example, rejects “a politics of semiotic representation” for a “politics of articulation” in analyzing the speciousness of certain advocacy claims by Western environmentalists “speaking for” endangered species in distant lands and by anti-abortion activists “speaking for” the fetus. 5 Linda Alcoff agrees about the dangers in such acts of representation but nevertheless reminds us that these acts are not in all cases detrimental since there are times when we do need someone “to advocate for our needs.” 6 Bringing this whole question closer to home (that is, Ireland), Vincent Cheng considers this problematic both in terms of the...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 337-372
Launched on MUSE
1999-06-01
Open Access
No
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