Memoirs of Captain Rock

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2009), Letters, Volume 17

Sir,

—In his response to my review of Tom Moore’s Memoirs of CaptainRock (HI 17.2, March/April 2009), Seamus Deane argues that I was ‘wrongto say that John MacHale’s “A Brief Reply to the Charge of WilliamMagee . . . (1822) . . .” first appeared in the Dublin Journal in1820’. As ‘should be obvious from the title alone [it] could not haveappeared on this dispute in 1820’. This, of course, is obvious, but mypoint was that the ‘Hierophilos’ letters were published from January toApril 1820 by Father John MacHale, the rising young ‘Catholic star’ ofMaynooth, and represented an earlier ultra-Catholic equivalent of a‘declaration of religious and sectarian warfare’ that Professor Deaneascribes to the ultra-Protestant Anglican Bishop Magee’s sermon ofOctober 1822.
The main tenet of my criticisms was to emphasise the importance ofplacing Moore’s work within this sort of broader political context andtreating the partisan polemics of ‘both sides’ with academic cautionuntil qualified with wider primary evidence. As Professor Deane saidwith regard to his admirable Field Day Anthology, everything must bere-read, and given that both the ‘Hierophilos’ letters and Magee’ssermon are easily available, I am confident that any interested readerof both will discover that, although superficially ‘letters oneducational matters’, MacHale’s articles were at least as sectarian andpolitically proactive as Magee’s sermon. A little more research willplace them in their more significant context by revealing that MacHalewas unanimously elected lecturer in dogmatic theology in July 1820,thereby consolidating his influence over the young seminarians andmaking it reasonable to assume that his work had the warm approval ofthe Roman Catholic establishment.
As I illustrated, Moore had belonged to a ‘conciliatory’ circlepromoting an alternative to what were clearly proactive‘ultra-Catholic’ as well as ‘ultra-Protestant’ elements, to whichProfessor Deane responded that there was ‘simply nothing on theCatholic side to match the venom of those who had a vested interest inpreserving the British state’. Yet few scholars familiar with the hugebody of sectarian ballads, prophecies and other ‘ultra-Catholic’vernacular works in circulation by the early 1820s would think them anyless ‘venomous’.
Many of Moore’s old circle resolutely criticised him for what theybelieved was the romanticisation and legitimisation of such materialswithin Captain Rock, but also for diverting attention from practicalrent reforms onto the much lesser burden of Anglican Church tithes onbehalf of the parliamentary campaign of his aristocratic Whig patrons.A notable critic was the Galwegian John Wilson Croker, a leading Tory‘conciliationist’, and in correcting Professor Deane’s description ofhim as a ‘consistently bitter opponent of the Catholic claims’ whoshared Peel’s ‘acrid partisan views’, I pointed out that, as any studyof his writing or Hansard’s (e.g. 3 May 1819) will show, Croker was infact a leading campaigner for Emancipation. The evidence for this isirrefutable, but it is rather begrudgingly acknowledged by quotingMoore’s reference to Croker’s State of Ireland (1808), that he only sawEmancipation as an ‘expedient’, and in Croker’s own words that hesupported it on ‘good no-popery grounds’ in order to ‘protect theprevailing system’.
These remarks must also be placed in their proper context. The State ofIreland was one of the most significant ‘conciliationist’ pamphlets,and one of the few modern scholars who appears to have read it, JosephSpence, describes how it sought to ‘demolish the sectarian mythscherished by various parties’ and promote national unity ‘as clearly asTone or Emmet had done in the common name of Irishman’. It wasre-published in 1822, and Moore was as keen to disparage his old alliesas they were he for promulgating what they considered ‘sectarianmyths’. Croker did describe Emancipation as an ‘expedient’, but it wasin the context of advocating immediate practical reforms such as relieffrom the ‘rack rents’ charged by ‘nobility and affluent gentry’ because‘the peasant and the land are alike neglected, impoverished andstarved’.
Croker made his remark on ‘popery’ to his election agent at TCD inMarch 1827, but, like the younger Moore, he equated ‘popery’ with theultra-Catholic elements rather than Roman Catholicism as a whole,something commonly acknowledged. For example, two months later theCatholic Freeman’s Journal warmly campaigned for him as the ‘Catholic’candidate and ‘staunch supporter of civil and religious liberty’against the ‘flag of Orange bigotry’ and the ‘indecent abuse pouredupon [him] by the Orange party’ of Peel’s ally, the ultra-Protestantcandidate Thomas Lefroy (14, 15 and 16 May 1827). In 1829 Croker didsay that, despite his lifelong support, he was ‘ready to vote against’Emancipation, but on the Burkeian grounds that it was now a ‘concessionto intimidation’ that he feared would empower the ultras, undermine themoderates and further polarise Ireland on politico/religious lines, aprediction that many readers with an interest in current Irish affairsas well as political history may consider rather astute and prescient.
Professor Deane argues that, given that the ‘proprietary advantage andpower’ was on one side, it ‘would thus be impossible, inane indeed, toattempt to disentangle . . . “the religiously proactive” reasons forCatholic militancy from the reaction to the renewed Protestantaggression of the 1820s’. But nineteenth-century Irish Catholic societywas no more homogeneous than any other, and power was exercised andexperienced on different levels. I am sure Professor Deane agrees thatall history is a tangle of competing narratives, and if we are toimprove our understanding, the only alternative to surrenderingwillingly to the prejudices of our favoured subjects is to attempt to‘re-read’ everything that we can and disentangle it all as objectivelyas possible. Readers who would like an extended essay on Crokercontaining qualifications for these arguments are welcome to contact me.
ROBERT PORTSMOUTH
robert.portsmouth@nuigalway.ie

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