December 2014        

Cannibalism, concentration camps,
and commodification

Jenny Farrell

Jonathan Swift, Liam O’Flaherty, and Tomás Mac Síomóin, Three Leaves of a Bitter Shamrock (Dublin: Nuascéalta, 2014)

Earlier this year—on St Patrick’s Day, to be exact—Connolly Books in Dublin launched an extraordinary collection of three satirical texts, which could hardly be surpassed in their vision of horror.
     The first of the three, “A Modest Proposal” by Swift, is not new but possibly not as widely read as it deserves to be. The second, “A Cure for Unemployment” by Liam O’Flaherty, had a small edition in 1931 but disappeared into the mists of literary history, for reasons best known to those who decide what people “like to read.” The third text is new. Tomás Mac Síomóin’s “An Immodest Proposal” is a magnificent homage to Swift brought to the reader in 21st-century Ireland.
     Together they create an unparalleled indictment of capitalist society, stripping it of its pretences, showing its bare face of anti-human brutality. All three writers do so by using political satire of blackest irony to present their proposals for the Good of the Nation.
     Irish national literature in English begins with Swift. It opens with a stunning voice against colonialism and images of insurrection in Gulliver’s Travels. One of the most damning images in all literature, of the ruling class as cannibals, follows in “A Modest Proposal.” The reading of this short text is a defining moment in an Irish person’s life, and anybody else’s for that matter who either comes from or can empathise with the oppressed. It is a text that has become immortal. The reason it still shocks today is that essentially nothing has changed in Ireland since 1729, when Swift put quill to paper to express savage rage against the treatment of the oppressed people of Ireland by suggesting that their best use would be to be consumed by the rich. The tongue-in-cheek way in which this proposal is put must have truly shocked readers at the time. It still shocks.
     Just how exactly Swift’s proposal is still applicable is shown by Tomás Mac Síomóin. His “immodest proposal” is a superb tweaking of Swift’s text. He uses a fantastic fusion of modern tone with the tone of Swift, so that reading his text roots the reader in both the present and the past world of early eighteenth-century Dublin, creating a sense of standing on historical quicksand. Mac Síomóin weaves a marvellous new text, using large sections of Swift’s and simply changing words and phrases using modern equivalents. It is amazing how very little some sections had to be changed.
     Of course Mac Síomóin puts forward and argues the logic of a solution that is different from Swift’s but has much in common in its essence. This essence is that human beings are regarded as commodities. Those who are at the disposal of the ruling class are not considered human at all: they are goods, to be bought and sold around the world. Suggestions of a master race unable to reproduce itself bear sinister connotations.
     This idea of the poor as commodity is also at the heart of Liam O’Flaherty’s “Cure for Unemployment.” O’Flaherty makes no explicit reference to Swift’s proposal, and yet it lies at the heart of this text. He also argues for an outrageous proposal for disposing of the poor, the unwanted, the unemployed in a way that will benefit the ruling, idle class. In an extraordinary vision, O’Flaherty in 1931 anticipates concentration camps for finally getting rid of those who cannot be of any use in the manner he proposes.
     While all three authors deal with different aspects of How to Handle the Poor, be it in images of cannibalism, human trafficking or turning people into animals, they are all merely aspects of the same thing. The ruling class has no concept of humanity. Life is of value only if it can be turned into a commodity—a thing of profit or pleasure to them. People who cannot be consumed will be disposed of.

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