Memoirs of Captain Rock

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

1Memoirs of Captain Rock
Thomas Moore (edited and introduced by Emer Nolan, with annotations by Seamus Deane)
(Field Day, €25.)
ISBN 9781844881437

Bard of Erin: the life of Thomas Moore
Ronan Kelly
(Penguin Ireland, €32.)
ISBN 978946755363

Famous as the writer of melancholic ‘Irish melodies’ such as ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ and ‘The Meeting of the Waters’, Thomas Moore was born the son of a Dublin grocer in 1779, and after leaving Trinity College moved to England, where his poems and songs soon made him the toast of high society. Over the following four decades his songs and romanticised biographies of Irish heroes won him huge popular success in Ireland and Britain and, as Emer Nolan says, made him the first Irish Catholic writer to achieve an international reputation. This success, however, did not make him popular with radical intellectuals and proponents of ‘higher’ art: Hazlitt denounced him for converting the ‘wild harp of Erin into a musical snuff box’; Yeats ridiculed him as ‘merely incarnate social ambition’; and he is still criticised for promulgating sentimental ‘Irishness’ and sanitising a militant grass-roots culture on behalf of O’Connell’s essentially middle-class movement.

2Both of these worthy and welcome works challenge some of these criticisms. Ronan Kelly’s biography is the most extensive and enjoyable study of Moore to date, and, together with this re-publishing of Moore’s most influential political work, Memoirs of Captain Rock (1824), with an introduction by Emer Nolan and 113 pages of annotations by Seamus Deane, adds to the project to give Catholic authors a greater role in the ‘invention’ of the Irish novel and Irish political and literary culture. Captain Rock was Moore’s best-selling biographical personification of Irish Catholic resistance, with Rock narrating a history of English oppression and ‘Irish misdeeds’ to an English visitor, yet, as Nolan argues, it has been neglected because ‘neither Moore nor the Catholic middle classes that idolised him held much interest for the writers of the Irish Literary Revival’. It had an ‘obvious strategic and formative importance in the history and literature of Irish Catholic’ as well as a European Roman Catholic revival, challenging a ‘long history of Protestant alarmist and sectarian folk history’ in the manner of Andrews, Butler, Milner and ‘Newman’s later defining and sardonic work on anti-Catholicism’. Even James Joyce, despite his modernist’s scorn for Moore’s ‘Irishness’ (‘they did right to put Moore’s statue over a urinal: meeting of the waters’), absorbed Moore’s melodies, ‘alluding to every one of them in Finnegan’s Wake’. Nolan makes intelligent arguments in a fluent and refreshingly jargon-free style, but she might be a little ambitious in concluding that ‘perhaps the Wake was the last phase of an experiment that began in Ireland, when, in the Memoirs of Captain Rock, in satiric vein, the Captain tells us that Irish history is the selfsame story of subordination and insubordination repeated over and over again’. Captain Rock may not appear so foundational to those familiar with the vernacular penumbra of chap-book histories of rebels and rapparees, and what might equally be called the Catholic ‘alarmist and sectarian folk history’ of ballads and ‘prophecies’ that Moore clearly adapted for romantic drawing-room sensibilities.
Ronan Kelly reflects that the first part of Captain Rock promotes a less religious form of ‘pre-Reformation rebelliousness’, whereas in the second part ‘the muscular Catholicism of Captain Rock comes to the fore’ and the ‘sectarian element is particularly noticeable [as] Catholic grievances seem to revolve around tithes’. Kelly’s longer study allows him to examine some of Moore’s complex political affiliations in greater detail, but both books might be improved, and Moore’s fluctuating motives better understood, by a deeper examination of British political history.
Moore lived in Britain nearly all his life, and he was closely affiliated with Whig aristocrats, often working as a press writer for them. The most important were Lord Holland, who ran the Whig propaganda centre, and Lord Landsdowne, who owned the huge estates in Munster where Moore was ‘inspired’ to write Captain Rock. By 1822–3, with the atrophy of the Emancipation and British Reform movements and an economic revival in Britain, the Tory ministry seemed unshakeable. The Whigs were in the doldrums, and in order to rally wider support from middle-class non-conformists they began a concerted campaign against church tithes in Ireland and Britain. Rents were, of course, a far greater burden upon the poorer classes than tithes, but secular property-owners like Moore’s Whig patrons and the industrial and rural middle classes they were wooing—including O’Connell and middlemen rentiers in Ireland—had little ambition for reforms in that area.
Moore was never an advocate of popular rebellion; although passionate in his political ambitions for Catholics and for improving the state of Ireland, he had selective and fluctuating political targets, and it is difficult to see him as a militant doctrinal Catholic (all of his children were christened Anglicans). He had been part of an almost forgotten group of Irish patriots of mixed religion who denounced ‘ultra Protestants’ for opposing Emancipation but also, as Brendan Clifford has shown in his excellent yet little-known The Veto controversy (1985), their equally intransigent militant ‘ultra-Catholic’ equivalents who refused conciliatory concessions. With his Letter to the Roman Catholics of Dublin (1810) Moore did not, as Nolan’s and Deane’s chronology states, ‘intervene in the Veto controversy against those Catholic bishops who had agreed to allow the British government a veto over Catholic episcopal appointments in exchange for Catholic Emancipation’, but the opposite. He angrily denounced them and O’Connell’s faction for cynically exploiting ‘anile prejudices’ with objections to the Veto that were ‘groundless and ungenerous’, stating that religious ‘bigots of both sects are equally detestable’. And despite changing his stated views on the Veto a few years later, Moore remained basically loyal to these unitary principles. A more influential member of this neglected conciliatory Irish group and a close friend of Moore was the Galwegian John Wilson Croker, the Tory spin-doctor and ‘inventor’ of the Conservative Party, whom Deane describes as ‘a consistently bitter opponent of Catholic claims’, sharing Peel’s ‘acrid partisan views on these issues’. Croker had, in fact, campaigned for Emancipation since he was a student at Trinity College, Dublin, and, as a study of Hansard’s will show, he seconded Grattan’s last bill of 1819—making a much longer and more passionate argument for it—as well as the multi-party attempt of 1825 in alliance with Plunkett, Canning and O’Connell.
Captain Rock sought to convince British readers that the militancy of Catholics was a response to Protestant aggression and rarely, if ever, for any religiously proactive reasons of their own. While this is partly true, it can be a persistent and rather condescending view of Catholics that obscures better assessments. If the Anglican Bishop Magee’s speech declared ‘sectarian and religious warfare’ in October 1822, as is commonly repeated, and, as Deane continues, thereby inspired the ‘furious response of John MacHale’, then Maynooth’s rising young star got his ‘furious’ anti-Protestant ‘response’ in first: his Hierophilos letters were published in the Dublin Journal in January 1820. Such errors are to be expected in most studies, but, given the passionate polemical contest of the period, they emphasise the importance of corroborating evidence, assessing it with as much empathetic balance as possible, and, perhaps, the propriety of avoiding rather emotive adjectives in academic studies. Deane does identify Pastorini’s Prophecies as a ‘sectarian’ Catholic work, but as he describes old John Curry he is much keener to illustrate the ‘all pervasive bigotry of Protestant society’, the ‘fury and ranting’ of Orangemen, ‘bitterly anti-Catholic prejudices’, ‘fervent’ and ‘violently Evangelical’ Protestant clerics, and ‘bitterly partisan’ Protestant newspapers. These are terms one may sympathise with but (unlike the earlier Moore) they are rarely used to describe their ‘ultra-Catholic’ equivalents.
Whatever the interpretive differences, both works are of indisputable merit, and rightly help to reinstate Thomas Moore, who, more than any icon of Irish literary studies, as de Valera said with a melodic flourish himself, ‘kept the love of country and lamps of hope burning in millions of Irish hearts . . . and made the cause of Ireland known throughout the civilised world’.Robert Portsmouth lectures in history at NUI Galway.

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