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A Modest Proposal

I don’t have an immodest proposal of my own that I’m wryly naming “A Modest Proposal” in a knowing nod to the 18th-century work of satire of the same name. It just turns out that Swift’s piece came to mind as I was reading the end notes to my edition of Dracula. I cringe to admit that my knowledge of Irish history is woefully incomplete. As I understand it in a nutshell, England feared invasions from France or Spain across Ireland during the 17th and 18th centuries and thus figured it was pretty important to control Ireland (here’s my source for pretty much all the history herein). At the same time, Henry VIII was excommunicated from the Catholic church and so sought to convert Ireland to Protestantism, resulting presumably in much of what still fuels unrest in Ireland today. Later, Cromwell more or less conquered Ireland, and those loyal to him were rewarded with land. A landlord system emerged, the Irish Catholics relegated to the status of tenants. Much of this happened during Swift’s lifetime (1667 – 1745), and in his famous 1729 essay, he satirically proposed that Ireland’s poor tenants escape poverty by selling their children to the rich for food.

Bram Stoker was born about 100 years after Swift’s death, at just about the time Ireland’s potato crop was destroyed by famine. As the potato was the primary means of life for poor tenants, the famine cast them into even greater poverty (some 750,000 died of starvation or disease), and a question of responsibility for the tenants arose. Were they on their own or did the English landlords bear some responsibility for their fate? Many landlords adopted the former position and profited from the famine by driving their tenants off the land. Over the ensuing decades, factions and organizations arose that ultimately led to the reinstatement of some protection from unfair rents along with rights to repurchase for tenants.

My copy of Dracula has the following note early in chapter one:

Transylvania means “land beyond the forest.” It may be taken as a play on the phrase “beyond the pale,” which originally referred to all areas of Stoker’s homeland, Ireland, not under direct British administrative control, the so-called English Pale. Transylvania was a region of the Balkans that was a part of Hungary at the time Dracula was written. This fact is important for what we might call the Irish allegory of Dracula, Stoker’s use of Transylvania as a shadowy analogue of his own homeland. Hungary had achieved a form of independence from the Austrian Empire that Stoker and many other moderate Irish nationalists advocated for Ireland. The “devolution” of Hungary became an oft-proposed model for Irish “Home Rule.”

A number of other notes attached to the first chapter underscore the idea that Dracula is shadowed by Irish history, and I surely wouldn’t have guessed as much if not for the notes. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that Stoker wrote (I assume for now based on pop cultural references, which may be dangerous) of a sort of cannibalism with respect to the state of affairs in Ireland, as Swift had done 150 years before.

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