Captain Rock: the Irish agrarian rebellion of 1821–1824 James S. Donnelly Jr (The Collins Press, £19.96) ISBN 9781848890107

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2010), Reviews, Volume 18

82_small_1290261953The ‘Captain Rock’ campaign of 1821–4 is one in a series of outbreaks of agrarian unrest that began in the 1760s and continued until the eve of the Famine, when starvation finally made concerted action impossible and the landlords closed in to make the evictions and clearances they had long desired. The Rock years were particularly intense in their misery and violence. The correlation between the anguished state of the peasantry and the violence of their protests is not hard to make, although impossible to chart precisely. The outbreak that began on the Courtenay estate near Newcastle West, Co. Limerick, and continued for over three years is regarded as the most formidable of what are generically known as the Whiteboy movements that for about 70 years were concentrated in the south and west of the country—Munster, in effect, with parts of Leinster, particularly Kilkenny, also being involved. In the 1790s other areas had seen violence on a much larger scale and of much greater intensity, directed by the government, supported by the local yeomanry and gentry; as usual, no forms of agrarian or ‘seditious’ violence matched or came near to matching state violence, the whole point of which was to maintain what John Leslie Foster MP in his testimony to a House of Lords committee of 1825 described as the ‘radically vicious structure of society which prevails in many parts of Ireland’ and which was, in his view, the ‘remote’ (as opposed to the ‘immediate’) cause of the disturbances under investigation. In the transition from the colonial to the imperial system in Ireland, an immense and detailed investigative apparatus looked into the conditions of life created in the more ramshackle colonial one. The official collection and minute recording of evidence on such a scale is one of the signs of the arrival of the modern, bureaucratic state—of which Britain was then the most advanced. The collection of such data began to indicate the possibility of what would later be called sociology. Nothing compares with this information (the historical novel is the only rival) in revealing the time-lag between developments in Britain and those in Ireland. In the new age of modernity, much trumpeted after the defeat of Napoleon (a matter of some desolation to those Irish forever hoping for foreign aid from beyond the seas to relieve them of the plague of British rule) and the triumph of Britain after a quarter-century of war in Europe, Benjamin Constant claimed that ‘l’existence individuelle est moins englobée dans l’existence politique’. But not in Ireland. In fact, the Rockite disturbances seemed to indicate an intensification of the ‘old’ world; everything political was economic and everything economic was political, and both were also religious, as they had to be when so many people were doomed almost to perdition by the savagery of a land system that was of a piece with the notoriously sectarian political system. The startling—and still imperfectly understood—rise in the Irish population, dating from the mid-eighteenth century, and the competition for vanishing resources made terrible conditions worse, and in those areas where the population grew fastest and the various tithes and taxes—for instance on potatoes, the basic food—were heaviest, the consequences were more disastrous for the most deprived. So while there are important local differences, and important differences in the scales of relative poverty and comfort, it seems to be the case—hardly surprising—that the worst violence arose out of the worst conditions.

James Donnelly tells us a good deal about the frightful economic conditions prevailing in Limerick and elsewhere, but argues that ‘economic’ explanations are insufficient. He refines this to consider various accounts of class conflict, as for instance ‘between the organised poor and substantial farmers or graziers’, and the distinctions between rent and tithe grievances (with emphasis on the tithe of potatoes that was ‘generally restricted to the six Munster counties and the adjacent portions of Leinster’); he claims that the Rockite movement was regional rather than purely local, relates this to its origins in the 1790s and then hazards the notion that the Rockite disturbances have a specific political dimension, via Ribbonism, to nationalism, with the inflammation of contemporary millenarian beliefs and propaganda about the impending extinction of Protestantism (in 1825) reducing ‘class conflict between the Catholic poor and the larger Catholic farmers’ and allowing them to concentrate on the common enemy. A slightly puzzling feature of the book is that the tentativeness of the statements in the introduction about what we may call the ‘ideological’ element is surrendered by the time we get to the conclusion, so that by then the millenarian element (specifically Pastorini’s prophecies) has risen to a level of importance equal to class conflict, the threat of ‘complete impoverishment’ and heavy population pressure to explain the extreme nature of the violence, since these prophecies ‘had the effect of stripping members of the Anglican elite and other Protestants of their ordinary human dignity’. This is, I think, nonsense. The mass of the evidence deployed in this book alone would show that ‘ordinary human dignity’ was something never accorded to Catholics, most especially in the wake of the Protestant ‘Second Reformation’—scarcely mentioned here—and its all-out Anglican episcopal attack on Catholicism as a religion, the accompanying Orange fulminations on Emancipation as a conspiracy to overthrow the constitution, the various ‘conversion’ scandals and uproars over burials in ‘Protestant’ graveyards. The millenarian disputes were dominated by pamphlet wars—in which the bishops on both sides were prominent—and by broadsheets not only of Pastorini prophecies but also of warnings and threats by Orange lodges, along with their extremely bloodthirsty songbooks. None of this is given an airing here. If there was some ideological conversion of the Catholic peasantry, which is in itself very doubtful, it has not been demonstrated that it was done by the Pastorini prophecies; but the relative success of the Second Reformation in polarising opinion even more drastically than it had been before the 1820s really needs to be taken fully into account if any balanced account is to be achieved. The links with ‘nationalism’ are frail indeed, both in the conceptual and evidentiary senses.

In one section, out of several that could be taken as an example, the book betrays its own scholarly and intellectual ambitions by succumbing to a fake kind of journalistic reportage. In the subsection (and there are too many very short subsections, the overall effect of which is not cumulative but dispersive) on ‘Circulating millenarian ideas’, there are several discordances. To make the point that chapmen not only sold but promoted broadsheets containing the dread prophecies, we are told that it was ‘hardly unknown for the chapmen to become lecturers’. Is that evidence? And the prophecy man, whom one would be surprised to find not disseminating prophecies, would have the neighbours ‘crowd round the fireside to listen to his address, or his harangue, as it must have frequently seemed’. ‘Hardly unknown that’, ‘Must have frequently seemed’—this is the lingo of the junk best-seller. Then, commenting on the fact that two men, charged with but not found guilty of disorderly conduct for singing ballads learned twenty years previously, the author says ‘But it would perhaps be too charitable to conclude that what came from the throat did not also come from the heart’; he then adds the instance of a constable having heard five men ‘singing mightily’ one night outside a pub a song with the line ‘we will wade knee-deep in Orange blood’. If he so heard, he was hearing an Orange song, still sung regularly in Northern Ireland and Scotland, but without any prosecution offered, in which the blood is traditionally ‘Fenian’. But this kind of anecdotage, only obliquely supported by evidence from the famously bigoted Mortimer O’Sullivan on the Catholic consumption of free Protestant Bibles for the passages from Revelation, thereby showing (Donnelly here being ironic) that the Roman church was right to warn against individual interpretation of the Bible, it would perhaps be charitable not to examine too closely. They infect the whole work and are all the more surprising coming from a historian of such undoubted repute and achievement.

Like any Irish historian, he should have learned—from Tom Dunne, perhaps?—the dangers of using fiction as evidence or even for support in a historical account. Certainly he seems to have learned it in relation to Tom Moore, Gerald Griffin and the Banim brothers—but not in relation to William Carleton, surely the most obviously partisan of Irish Catholic novelists in his catering to a Protestant readership. He barely mentions Moore’s Captain Rock (1824), the most widely noticed, reprinted and translated book of the decade.

In the end, I went back to the parliamentary committee evidence for the years 1825–32 (via the glorious internet) and to the classic nineteenth-century study by George Cornewall Lewis, On local disturbances in Ireland; and on the Irish church question (1836), briefly mentioned by Donnelly. Lewis is the very model of the British adminstrator, his book a demonstration of the evidence for his recommended solutions—the introduction of the Poor Law to Ireland and a general ‘raising of the Catholic population of Ireland to a level with the inhabitants of Great Britain’. His account remains the best analysis of what he calls the Whiteboy movement in its various  incarnations—Peep-o’-day-boys, Steel Boys, Thrashers, Whiteboys, Righters, Carders, Shanavats, Caravats, Rockites, Black-hens, Riskavallas, Ribbon-men, the Lady Clares, the Terry Alts, Whitefeet and Blackfeet among them.

The original Whiteboy legislation was used more than a century later in the prosecution of Tim Healy. The legal dog regularly returns to its vomit, as none knew better than Daniel O’Connell, to whom Donnelly rightly gives the final emphasis as the man who came to ‘appear to many among the Catholic rural masses as the divine agent who had been sent to overturn Protestant supremacy’. And, to return to Benjamin Constant, in his list of the features of the new modernity, the second was ‘that every century in some sense awaits the arrival of the man who epitomises it; when he arrives, all the energies of the time collect around him’. In that respect, it was with O’Connell that Irish modernity arrived and Captain Rock departed.  HI

Seamus Deane is Keogh Emeritus Professor at the University of Notre Dame.

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