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07 Oct

His Native Potatoes

NPG D12313; Edmund Burke ('Cincinnatus in retirement') by James Gillray, published by  Elizabeth d'Achery

by James Gillray, published by Elizabeth d’Achery, hand-coloured etching, published 23 August 1782
© National Portrait Gallery, London

For National Potato Day, a satirical portrait of Edmund Burke eating potatoes. The caption reads “Cincinnatus in retirement falsely supposed to represent Jesuit Padre driven back to his native potatoes. See Romanish Commonwealth.”

At the time this was printed, Burke had retired from government after the Prime Minister Lord Rockingham had died. Edmund Burke was the private secretary, political ally and friend of Lord Rockingham, who led the Whigs and achieved two terms in office. After his death in 1782 and the appointment of (Irish born) Lord Shelburne Burke resigned in protest. One factor was Lord Shelburne’s position on the US colonies. He was reluctant to accept the total independence of America and proposed a form of Dominion status.

The print portrays Burke as an Irish Jesuit eating potatoes from a chamber pot (labelled as a relic of St Peter). Irish poverty and Catholicism are alluded to by the crucifix and the pictures of saints on the wall, and the imps which symbolise the superstition of Catholicism.

Burke was satirised in this way because of his support for the 1778 Relief Act, which allowed Catholics to join the army and purchase land if they took an oath of allegiance. Despite its limited provisions, the Act was very unpopular.

The title of the print makes an ironic reference to the Roman dictator who returned to his plough after saving his country.

More on the Catholic Relief Acts in
Thomas Bartlett (1993) “The Catholic Question in the Eighteenth Century” History Ireland Vol. 1, Issue 1 (online).

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