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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 conflict between the English Government and the people of Ireland in the early 1720s about a patent for coining copper money was a watershed in eighteenth-century Irish history which impressively highlighted the tensions and ambiguities inherent in the relationship between Britain and Ireland. Originating in a scheme of private profit-making, the affair fermented into a fierce dispute between two kingdoms about economic, constitutional, and moral principle, a dispute Ireland had hardly ever experienced in that form and on that scale before.

The controversy about Wood's Halfpence has hitherto aroused interest chiefly because of the involvement of Jonathan Swift as the Dublin Drapier, who vigorously fired his "pen, ink, and paper" in defence of Ireland's economy and constitution. However, a focus on Swift's contributions alone tends to leave the picture of the dispute incomplete, because apart from the Dean's seven Drapier's Letters and several poems that have been convincingly attributed to him, there appeared more than a hundred pamphlets and broadsides in prose and verse written by other authors. These not only constitute the largest body of ephemeral literature ever published until that time over a single issue, but also impressively illustrate that the protest against the coinage scheme in Ireland was universal: Their authors and personae suggested that all ranks of society were involved, ranging from parliamentarians, gentlemen, ladies, clergymen, merchants, tradesmen, craftsmen, and soldiers, down to members of the social fringe like beggars and tinkers. The intended audiences, too, were not confined to the...

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