Gulliver and IrelandAs I mentioned earlier, before my latest reading of Gulliver's Travels I was under the presumption that at least some of the book's satire must have specifically pertained to the age-old conflict between England and Ireland. However, at first I was reading an older, unannotated edition of the book and thus couldn't readily identify most of Swift's satirical targets. However, that edition (a family heirloom which hasn't been read for decades) began to deteriorate as I read it, which compelled me to safely reshelve it and prompt me to switch over to an annotated paperback edition of Swift's writings that was left over from my freshman English literature class from college. The paperback, edited by Miriam Kosh Starkman, did provide some very informative insight to the English-Irish question I had wondered about.
As I had suspected, the conflict - very petty in its origins - between the Big Endians and the Little Endians in the Lilliput section, which revolved around whether it was proper to break open an egg at the big end of it or the little end, represented the endless tension between Catholics and Protestants. This, while not exclusively Irish in nature, was partially a commentary on the situation in Ireland. What surprised me, though, was that it was the Laputa section which commented the most on Ireland. The Laputans are abstract, distacted philosophers and scientists who are so divorced from reality that they require servants to tap them on the eyes, ears and mouth when they need to see, hear or speak. This corrective is necessary for actions as basic as everyday conversation, but also to prevent them from stepping off a cliff or otherwise coming to physical harm while lost deep in thought. I immediately recognized that with the Laputans, Swift primarily satirized the theoretical side of scientific inquiry, which he must have seen as being pursued at the expense of practical research which could actually have a tangible impact on society.
But a smaller portion of the Laputa narrative also described the "Flying or Floating Island", which the rulers of the country traveled around in and which clearly represented the whimsy of abstract thought. Besides being a means of distancing the ruling class from the common rabble that lived on the mainland of the kingdom, the island was also a source of military power for quelling domestic disturbances. The rulers, as rulers tend to do, regularly exacted onerous taxes and levies on the commoners, which caused great dissension and unease amongst the latter. If the commoners became unruly and threatened to rebel, the island could be positioned over the recalcitrant city, blocking sun and rain and bringing on drought, famine and disease which would thus quell any rebellion. In extreme cases of domestic unease, there was even the threat of the island being forcefully brought down on the city, thus destroying it. But Swift also mentions that the rulers were hesitant to do so, since various spires, towers and rock outcroppings in the city might do permanent damage to the foundation ("adamantine bottom") of the island. Here are editor Starkman's pertinent annotated comments:
The satire turns to political channels as Swift satirizes English domination of Ireland; he implies economic exploitation like Wood's half-pence, punitive legislative action, and military violence.Interesting to see Swift imply that the English recognized a potential Irish revolution as a bad thing, but that quelling an uprising might destroy England itself, which was seen as being even worse.
The spires, rocks and stones which deter the flying island from landing have been interpreted as the Church, the nobility, and the citizenry which support Ireland; the fear of breaking the adamantine bottom is the fear of revolution.
The tower (constructed at the center of a major city, presumed to represent Dublin) has been interpreted as the Church in Ireland (St. Patrick's Cathedral), the four towers as the chief agencies of the Irish government, and the combustible fuel as the incendiary pamphlets against the English, among them Swift's Drapier's Letters.