The Drapier's Letters

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXXIV

The Irish Parliament now came into collision with the English on a case of appellate jurisdiction, but they were soon taught their true position, and with becoming submission deferred to their fate. The Irish Parliament had long been such merely in name; and the only power they were allowed to exercise freely, was that of making oppressive and unjust enactments against their Catholic fellow-subjects. It is a poor consolation, but one which is not unfrequently indulged, when those who are oppressed by others become themselves in turn the oppressors of those who are unfortunate enough to be in their power.

A new phase in Irish history was inaugurated by the versatile talents, and strong will in their exercise, which characterized the famous Dr. Jonathan Swift. The quarrels between Whigs and Tories were at their height. Swift is said to have been a Whig in politics and a Tory in religion. He now began to write as a patriot; and in his famous "Drapier's Letters" told the Government of the day some truths which were more plain than palatable.[2]

An Englishman named Wood had obtained a patent under the Broad Seal, in 1723, for the coinage of copper halfpence, Even the servile Parliament was indignant, and protested against a scheme [3] which promised to flood Ireland with bad coin, and thus to add still more to its already impoverished condition. There was reason for anxiety. The South Sea Bubble had lately ruined thousands in England, and France was still suffering from the Mississippi Scheme. Speculations of all kinds were afloat, and a temporary mania seemed to have deprived the soberest people of their ordinary judgment. Dr. Hugh Boulter, an Englishman, was made Archbishop of Armagh, and sent over mainly to attend to the English interests in Ireland. But he was unable to control popular feeling; and Swift's letters accomplished what the Irish Parliament was powerless to effect.

Although it was well known that he was the author of these letters, and though a reward of £300 was offered for the discovery of the secret, he escaped unpunished. In 1725 the patent was withdrawn, and Wood received £3,000 a-year for twelve years as an indemnification—an evidence that he must have given a very large bribe for the original permission, and that he expected to make more by it than could have been made honestly. One of the subjects on which Swift wrote most pointedly and effectively, was that of absentees. He employed both facts and ridicule; but each were equally in vain. He describes the wretched state of the country; but his eloquence was unheeded. He gave ludicrous illustrations of the extreme ignorance of those who governed in regard to those whom they governed. Unfortunately the state of things which he described and denounced has continued, with few modifications, to the present day; but on this subject I have said sufficient elsewhere.


[2] Palatable.—In his fourth letter he says: "Our ancestors reduced this kingdom to the obedience of England, in return for which we have been rewarded with a worse climate, the privilege of being governed by laws to which we do not consent, a ruined trade, a house of peers without jurisdiction, almost an incapacity for all employments, and the dread of Wood's halfpence."

[3] Scheme.—The very bills of some of the companies were so absurd, that it is marvellous how any rational person could have been deceived by them. One was "for an undertaking which shall be in due time revealed." The undertaker was as good as his word. He got £2,000 paid in on shares one morning, and in the afternoon the "undertaking" was revealed, for he had decamped with the money. Some wag advertised a company "for the invention of melting down sawdust and chips, and casting them into clean deal boards, without cracks or knots."