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Jonathan Swift’s Allies

The Wood’s Halfpence Controversy in Ireland, 1724–1725. Second revised and augmented edition


Sabine Baltes-Ellermann

The patent for coining copper money granted by King George I to the English manufacturer William Wood aroused nationwide protest in Ireland. It led to the publication of Jonathan Swift’s «Drapier’s Letters», in which the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, attacked both the patent and England’s Irish policy. But this is not the whole story. This annotated edition contains more than 100 pamphlets, declarations, poems, and songs that were published during the dispute. Most of the reproduced texts are extremely rare and have hitherto lain dormant in various libraries. They illustrate that the protest was in fact carried on by the Irish population at large, who regarded the coinage scheme as a severe intrusion into the nation’s circulating cash which threatened to ruin the country’s economy.

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The occasion for the pamphlets and poems in this collection was the large quantity of copper coins manufactured by the English iron merchant William Wood, which the British Government attempted to circulate in Ireland in the early 1720s. The ensuing nationwide protest against – allegedly debased – copper money became the most disruptive event in Anglo-Irish relations since the Revolution of 1688.2 The long drawn-out dispute was exceptional, not only because it originated in a comparatively trivial incident of private profit-making, but also because the entire Irish population was united in opposing an unpopular economic measure initiated by the British Government. While the country's political élite formed the vanguard, it was supported by the public at large which, led and encouraged by a huge wave of publications in prose and verse, played a major role in the nationwide protest against what was considered a scandalous disregard of both Ireland's economic well-being and the country's constitutional rights.

The halfpence dispute was not the first conflict between Ireland and England about economic and constitutional principle, for such disagreements tended to resurface with some degree of regularity.3 They were facilitated by the fact that Ireland's constitutional status had never been clearly defined; rather, over the centuries, appellations had varied between "kingdom," "lordship," "realm," or simply "land" of Ireland. In this absence of an official definition, a number of differing views had developed on both sides of the Irish Sea. Although the country boasted of its own executive,...

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