The fourth of Jonathan Swift’s ‘Drapier’s Letters’ was written on 13th October, 1725.
Then the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Ireland, Swift wrote the letters under a pseudonym, M. B., Draper. They are a direct attack on the continued subjugation of the Irish at the hands of the English, standing out like much of Swift’s work as pioneering examples of the power of satire.
At the heart of the controversy which inspired the letters was the patent awarded to the hardware manufacturer William Wood in 1722 to produce copper coins for circulation in Ireland. Although Ireland was suffering from a copper shortage at that time, the quantity and quality of coins produced by Wood seemed an attempt to saturate the Irish economy with low value coinage.
There were a number of objections to the English scheme.
Firstly, there was a strong suspicion that Wood had secured the contract illegitimately through a £10,000 donation to the Duchess of Kendal, one of King George I’s mistresses.
Secondly, Wood’s coins were of inferior quality and below the weight agreed, but were nevertheless passed as fit by the English parliament. This was a decision made without consultation with Ireland’s own parliament, explicitly undermining the institution’s political authority.
The arrival of the coins, around £108,000 worth, would lead to more valuable gold and silver currency leaving the country, weakening it economically. These factors all combined to give the impression that England was making a deliberate attempt to remove Ireland’s economic independence, and reinforce the people’s subjugation to the English crown.
Jonathan Swift had already built a reputation as a formidable satirist and campaigner for Ireland long before he commenced work on Drapier’s Letters. Born in Ireland to English parents, he spent most of his life living and working in Ireland, with only a few years spent working in England. Alongside his career as a writer and commentator he worked extensively as a member of the clergy in Ireland, meaning much of his writing utilises religious models and arguments to criticise seventeenth and eighteenth century politics.
Drapier’s Letters were released over the course of a year, with seven pamphlets being published in total. The first letter describes the background of Wood’s coins, and argues that a move to boycott them would be perfectly valid in Ireland. Throughout, Drapier’s piety is stressed, placing the rebellion against the coins as part of a duty to God.
The subsequent two letters dealt with the political processes behind the decision to introduce Wood’s coins to Ireland, and in particular drew attention to the accusations that Wood had essentially secured the patent through bribery.
Written on 13th October, the fourth letter, entitled ‘To the Whole People of Ireland’, is perhaps the most wide ranging. Debunking accusations that the Irish resistance to the coin was a consequence of the Vatican’s influence over the Irish people, it again reiterates that Wood’s currency would be damaging to the people of Ireland. The pamphlet then expands into broader criticism, not just of Wood but of the English government as a whole, and raises a discussion of Irish political liberty in the face of English oppression. Inevitably, it quickly became highly controversial, coming across as a call to challenge English authority.
Jonathan Swift’s pamphlets ultimately succeeded in inspiring a successful boycott of Wood’s coins, which saw production of the coins halted before the patent had been fulfilled. Swift never admitted to his involvement in the letters, although it was popular knowledge among the Irish, who kept his identity secret despite the £300 bounty placed on ‘Drapier’s head’.
Drapier’s Letters are an example of the powerful influence of one of the greatest satirists, while the complex context in which they were produced revealed the sophisticated methods which could be used by imperial powers to undermine the people they wished to subjugate.
The Works of Dr. Jonathan Swift
Accurately Revised in Twelve Volumes, Adorned With Copper-Plates, With Some Account of the Author’s Life, and Notes Historical and Explanatory
Vol. 10Vol. 10
by Jonathan Swift