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  • Colonial Sublimities and Sublimations:Swift, Burke, and Ireland
  • Carole Fabricant

To say that certain striking affinities between Jonathan Swift and Edmund Burke can be attributed to their common ties to an Anglo-Irish tradition is a useful if problematic way of beginning my discussion: useful, in that it spotlights the single most important element shaping these affinities, i.e., Ireland; problematic, in that Burke was not in fact Anglo-Irish but Old English, i.e., from an old settler family with deep Irish Catholic roots, whose mother and other close relatives remained practicing Catholics throughout their lives. Hence Burke was from another world entirely from Swift, with his English Protestant background and his (albeit distant) connections with prominent Anglo-Irish families like the Temples. But if Burke was therefore more "Irish" than Swift in terms of cultural and religious background, he was also less so to the extent that he spent the greater part of his life and career as a self-invented Englishman in London, far from the quotidian of Swift's Dublin existence.

The ironies and paradoxes ensuing from this difference abound. For example, Burke's writings, while strongly supportive of the Catholic cause in Ireland, in many ways come across as more staunchly unionist than Swift's in that they speak from the center of what one of his letters terms "the greatest empire existing, (and perhaps, all things considered, that ever did exist)" rather than from its margins, the Liberties of St. Patrick's, where Dean Swift ruled as "King of the Mob" and where his most famous political persona, the Drapier, produced inflammatory tracts calling for an end to Ireland's enslavement to England.1 It is thus not surprising that it was the Irish Burke and not the Anglo-Irish Swift who insisted that if "the several bodies, which make up this complicated mass, are to be preserved as one Empire, an authority sufficient to preserve that unity . . . must reside somewhere: that somewhere can only be in England" (WS, 9:488). The London-based Burke's concomitant assumption that "a great proportion of the money of every subordinate country will flow towards the metropolis" (WS, 9:493) helped shape his tolerant attitude toward Irish absentee landlords, in sharp contrast to the Dublin-based Swift's condemnation [End Page 309] of them as a "Mongril Breed, / Who, from [Ireland] sprung, / Yet on [her] Vitals feed," as devourers of "almost one half of [Ireland's] Revenues."2 Yet for all the often paradoxical differences between them, Swift and Burke share much in common as savage critics of a colonial system they simultaneously contested and were complicit in, and it is these similarities I want to explore here.


Swift and Burke had a number of common formative experiences as students at Trinity College, Dublin (where Swift matriculated in 1682; Burke, in 1744), perhaps none so important for their future careers as a shared sense of alienation soon thereafter to assume political expression. Burke's early education—first, in a Catholic "hedge school" in Co. Cork and later, in a Quaker school in Ballitore, Co. Kildare—would have done little to prepare him for life at the bastion of Anglo-Irish privilege and learning in Dublin. The Anglo-Irishman Swift, educated at Kilkenny School, an institution of Protestant privilege, did not of course have to face the same kind of disorienting rupture when he entered Trinity College. Nevertheless, as a fatherless child without independent resources, forced to depend on the charity of relatives and having little in common with his more affluent classmates, Swift experienced his own form of estrangement, as evident in the rather bitter reflections he made in later years on his tenure at college, "where by the ill Treatment of his nearest Relations, he was so discouraged and sunk in his Spirits, that he too much neglected his Academical Studyes," eventually graduating "in a manner little to his Credit" with a Batchelor's degree Speciali gratia, a designation indicating substandard performance (PW, 5:192). He would later claim he had been so well treated at Oxford, where he obtained his M.A. degree, that "I am ashamed to have been more obliged in a...


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