Tuesday 20 August 2019

From Swift to Fr Ted: the satire that bites

As Dublin celebrates the 350th birthday of legendary satirist Jonathan Swift, let's not forget that satire is part of our national character

Tied down: Although Queen Anne ensured that Swift would never scale the clerical heights, he found success with his writing and scored a massive hit with the satire Gulliver's Travels
Tied down: Although Queen Anne ensured that Swift would never scale the clerical heights, he found success with his writing and scored a massive hit with the satire Gulliver's Travels
Jonathan Swift

Damian Corless

Next Thursday, St Patrick's Cathedral throws a 350th birthday party for its most celebrated Dean, Jonathan Swift. The event closes a festival honouring a man gifted with a comic sensibility centuries ahead of his time.

Today, the Irish Emigration Museum explores the great satirist's greatest work, A Modest Proposal. In 1729, Ireland was ravaged by famine. Dublin's streets teemed with skeletal beggars while a callous colonial administration stood idly by.

Swift's response remains arguably the most macabre, chilling and brilliant satire in the English language. After outlining his case, Swift skewered his well-heeled audience: "I have been assured by a very knowing American in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roast, baked or boiled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout."

Having argued that the benefits to the poor would include that husbands would cease beating their pregnant wives for fear of damaging the merchandise, Swift set out reforms that - if the political will existed - would eliminate the need for the Irish to sell their offspring for food. These included taxing absentee landlords who syphoned off Ireland's wealth, supporting the purchase of Guaranteed Irish goods over squandermania on "foreign luxuries", and "teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants".

Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift

Swift vented repeatedly on Ireland's housing crisis, rack-renting landlords, greedy builders and lax authorities, highlighting how his "beggardly city" had 1,500 houses standing vacant, while builders kept putting up new homes on sites that could serve better purposes. He admitted there wasn't "one glimpse of hope" that the ruling classes would show compassion.

The impact of Swift's Proposal on literature was instant and lasting. The term 'modest proposal' was shoehorned into every new title that would take it. Ultimately though, for all its searing anger, A Modest Proposal was a groan of despair and resignation. It didn't effect the change of his earlier non-satirical Drapier's Letters which forced a British U-turn on plans to inflict a debased currency on Ireland.

Swift's two other great satires had opposite outcomes for him. In 1704, he was riding high in London, a star of the court glitterati. A top Church of England job was on the cards. He thought he was playing those cards right with A Tale of a Tub which poked fun at heretics, atheists and charlatans. But he did such a good job of stitching them up, that many mistook him as an earnest mouthpiece for their views. Deeming him a dangerous blasphemer, Queen Anne decided he'd never hit the clerical heights. Gulliver's Travels in 1726 made amends. A satire on human stupidity and the march of Enlightenment science, it made him enormously rich and famous.

Swift had a 21st century comic mind in an age of witch burnings, and Oscar Wilde shared that gift in an age that punished homosexuality with hard labour.

The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde's sparkling satire on Victorian values, was a huge box office hit, despite gripes by fellow Dubliner George Bernard Shaw that it was "heartless" and lacked a moral mooring.

Having a dig at Victorian morality, of course, was Wilde's purpose and, unmoored from the conventions of its day, the play still has audiences in stitches.

In the decades after independence, satirists of stage and page were given a limited leeway to lampoon our gombeen rulers, but that licence didn't extend to religion. In the 1960s and 1970s, those in multichannel land could take slightly guilty pleasure watching Dubliner Dave Allen on BBC TV, portraying priests as Daleks and the Pope as Chico Marx.

The mockery of Hall's Pictorial Weekly was very gentle, but RTÉ axed its rating-topper in 1980.

A decade later Dermot Morgan's Scrap Saturday met the same fate.

Morgan hit paydirt with Fr Ted, a satire that sits easily up there with Swift and Wilde. Its writer, Arthur Mathews, had already brilliantly satirised our provincial newspapers with 'The Border Fascist'.

(Parish notes: "The local branch of the IRA will hold its AGM behind a bush in St Fintan's wood. Password is "aim for the ribs".) Mathews' pre-Ted gaeilgeoir columnist Eoin O'Ceallaigh denounced TV, young people, foreigners and "beardy intellectuals", insisting that women intellectuals were "beardy on the inside".

Ted co-writer Graham Linehan has given us The IT Crowd which expertly satirises a bewildering world where a tiny elite actually understand how our hi-tech planet works, while the vast majority are a close fit for department head Jen, who warns staff that if they type "google" into Google, they'll bring the internet crashing down. Satire, it's part of what we are.

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